In 1976, Negro History Week, which was inaugurated on February 12, 1926 by Historian Carter G. Woodson, officially became Black History Month. President Gerald Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every endeavor throughout our history.” Playwright/Director/Choreographer Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj says it is exactly this motivation that inspired him to dig into that rich history and uncover the stories of not simply pivotal figures in black history, but key female African Americans. Maharaj tells the stories of Dr. Eliza Ann Grier, Dr. Jane Cook Wright, Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville and Dr. Geraldine Pittman Woods in his new play, “Black Footnotes”, which had its world premiere today, the first day of Black History Month, at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the East Village.
Dr. Grier was an emancipated slave who overcame racial discrimination and financial hardship in the pursuit of her dream to practice medicine. Originally set on a path to become a teacher, Grier studied at Fisk University for seven years but wrote to the dean of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1890 to inquire whether “any possible way might be provided to an emancipated slave to receive any help into so lofty a profession.” Grier alternated each year of study picking cotton to earn her tuition. In 1897 she returned to Atlanta to become the first African American to practice medicine in the state of Georgia. Jane Cook Wright, known as the Mother of Chemotherapy, was born in 1919. She was a pioneering cancer researcher and surgeon noted for her contributions to chemotherapy. Wright is credited with developing the technique of using human tissue culture rather than laboratory mice to test the effects of potential drugs on cancer cells. Wright’s research work involved studying the effects of various drugs on tumors, and she was the first to identify methotrexate, one of the fundamental chemotherapy drugs, as an effective tool against cancerous tumors. Wright and her sister, Barbara Wright Pierce, followed in the footsteps of their father and grandfather in becoming physicians. Wright’s father, Louis Tompkins Wright, founded the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Center, where she joined him in 1949 and succeeded him as director when he died in 1952.
Born in 1924, Evelyn Boyd Granville was one of the first African American women to receive a Ph. D. in mathematics, which she earned in 1949 from Yale University. Granville ultimately became a full professor of mathematics at California State University in 1967. In 1999, she was inducted into the United States National Academy of Sciences’ Portrait Collection of African Americans in Science. Dr. Geraldine Pittman Woods was born in 1921 in West Palm Beach, Florida and developed a talent in Science. A professor at Howard University encouraged her to pursue his specialty, embryology, and to study at Harvard. According to her obituary in the Los Angeles Times, as a Southern black woman, Woods was a rarity at the exclusive Eastern college in the 1940’s. She is quoted as saying “I remember walking into a physiology course and seeing all the white students working with various instruments, which I’d never seen before. I said to myself ‘So that’s the name of the game’, and I got up early every morning and stayed late every night.”
Maharaj tells the stories of these pioneering women scientists in his documentary play through music and memory, and their courageous story hurdles from present to past; tragedy to triumph. “Black Footnotes”, at its core, is a tribute to four of the thousands of important black women whom history has forgotten,” said producer Adam Mace. “It’s an honor to tell the world about their courage, love, journey and success.” Indeed, a cast of 29 actors brings the powerful and often dramatic stories to life. There are moments of sublime beauty, and, at times, horror and shame. The women overcame gender and race bias to succeed in professions largely dominated by white males. There are memories of slavery and acts of grotesque discrimination that are revealed in scenes that can be brutal to watch. Maharaj does intersperse a few moments of humor to leaven the intensity, and the end is a joyous celebration of triumph of the human spirit as the actors all dance in groups together onstage to “I’m Every Woman”. As the actor who plays Oprah Winfrey states in the play, “God can dream a bigger dream for your life than you can ever imagine”. The play is a celebration of this idea, and, in the words of Najah Muhammad, the assistant director, “the message is to dream with your eyes open, and to know that we stand on the shoulders of giants.
Maharaj is an Indo-Caribbean American artist, educator, and activist. He was hailed by the New York Times as “one of the most talented directors in New York these days.” He is the founder and Artistic Director of Rebel Theater Company. He also founded the children’s arts group Be.Do.Fly! and River Voices, an African American and Latino playwriting festival in collaboration with Arkansas Repertory Theatre. Maharaj is the former Associate Artistic Director of Syracuse Stage and the Lark Play Development Center, and an alumnus of Lincoln Center Directors Lab and TCG Young Leaders of Color. He is the recipient of grants, fellowships, and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Theater Communications Group, Time Warner Diverse Voices Fund, the Van Lier Directing Fellowship, and the AUDELCOs. He worked as an assistant director on the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival A Raisin in the Sun and on ABC’s All My Children. Maharaj has been featured in American Theatre Magazine, Yale Review, New York Times, The Star Ledger, Chicago Sun Times, Ebony, and Variety.
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe has long nurtured innovative and experimental work by diverse artists from communities that have been traditionally underrepresented in the theatrical, musical and literary fields. Rebel Theater is the Cafe’s first-ever resident theater company, and “Black Footnotes” is the first production of Rebel’s second season at the Cafe. This residency program resonates with the Cafe’s focus on championing exceptional artists of color who exist outside the mainstream. Both the Cafe and Rebel focus on the creation of new work by and about African-American, Latino American and Native American individuals. Rebel and the Cafe also reinterpret many classic works of theater, literature and music from the viewpoint of disenfranchised communities. Rebel Theater Company’s other two productions at the Cafe this season will be R+J in Dixie, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play in which an interracial couple struggles during the American Civil War; and The Trail of Tears, which tells the story of the genocide visited against Native Americans in the American West (co-produced with the Eagle Project, and featuring Native American actors and activists).
“Black Footnotes” was commissioned through the Ensemble Studio Theatre Alfred P. Sloan Project and received a developmental reading at AMAS Musical Theatre.
“Black Footnotes” opens Sunday, February 1st and runs through Saturday, February 14 (12 total performances) at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (236 East 3rd Street, between Avenues B and C in Manhattan). Evening performances start at 7PM; matinee performances start at 3pm. Admission is $20 in advance and $25 at the door. $15 tickets are available for students and seniors at the door. Tickets are available at www.nuyorican.org (or via the shortcuthttp://tinyurl.com/NuyoFootnotes). This production is made possible in part by support from the Alfred P. Sloan project.