I first met Richarda Abrams a few years ago when we were cast in a play at La MaMa together. I immediately warmed to her strong presence, professional work method and above all her soul. She is one of those performers who puts everything on the stage and truly shares her essence with the audience. I was thrilled beyond measure when she brought the proposal of First By Faith, which is playing in late February and early March as part of our Women’s History Solo Series. She brings the true life story of renowned educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune to the stage. Read below to learn more about Mary and Richarda, and we hope to see you in the 14Y Theater!
For those who are not familiar with Mary McLeod Bethune, what are some highlights our readers should know about her?
Mary McLeod Bethune was the first person in a family of 17 children to be born free, 12 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was passed in this country. She was an American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian, and civil rights activist.
She was quick to learn and was a good study, but was not allowed to go to school because she was colored.
But laws changed and she was given the opportunity to educate herself. She excelled and went on to become a educator and founded her own school, Bethune Cookman University. She was advisor to several U.S. Presidents, most notably President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She was on FDR’s Black Cabinet, an unofficial body of great minds that advised the president on the state of African American affairs in our country.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a close friend of hers, some of the things they were responsible for include the Tuskeegee Airmen being allowed to fly in World War II. They also fought for Marian Anderson to be able able to sing at the Lincoln Memorial after being denied the opportunity to sing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was a Negro.
She also founded the National Council of Negro Women in New York City which has now expanded throughout the U.S.A. and boasts an outreach to over 4 million women.
What drew you to Mary’s story as an inspiration for creating a solo show?
As an actor, I was asked to do a reading of a play by playwright Laurence Holder about Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt, and the more research I did, the more I found the playwright was addressing a certain portion of her life. When I spoke with him about it, he suggested that I write my own play. I felt the magnitude of her legacy that compelled me to write a solo play. I felt she deserved that. She lived such a life and many of the things she fought for mirror things we are re-experiencing today. I felt that I could use my craft to provide a platform for learning and personal growth. As she lived her life First By Faith, I too embarked on this journey in 2012: First By Faith, learning how to write at New Federal Theatre’s Playwrights Workshop, then bringing it into the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Julia’s Reading Room and continuing by workshopping it at The Actors Studio, my artistic home.
Music plays a strong role in this play, tell us about your connection to music and the power of music to heal, disrupt and inspire.
Music is part of the fabric of living. I grew up in an artistic household surrounded by music, art and drama. My dad was Dr. Muhal Richard Abrams, a great pianist/composer/historian/visionary/artist who co-founded The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and several other organizations. My mom Peggy is a musician/composer and my grandmother Bernyce was a composer. I was always around creative people and artists of all different disciplines. There have always been examples for me of using my authentic self in everything that I do. When I wrote this play I called on everything that makes me who I am. Music is simply an extension of who I am.
What is your link to the East Village and what might our community have seen you in around town?
I attended New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, Experimental Theatre Wing where I received my B.F.A. with honors in acting. I went on to receive my M.A. in Educational Theatre from New York University, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development which afforded me the opportunity to travel abroad to study Drama and Theatre in education at the Bretton Hall College, part of the University of Leeds in England. Much of my work on this piece was influenced by my Experimental Theatre training at NYU, using the six viewpoints work that I learned from Anne Bogart and techniques from my Performance Theory class with Richard Schechner.
I also spent a lot of my early years after NYU at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club working with resident theatre company Yara Arts Group, and have traveled to Ukraine to perform. I met many artists at La MaMa and have been friends and working with them throughout the years, and even today.
My recent work includes: Receiving the 2019 AUDELCO VIV Award for Solo Performance of the Year for First By Faith: The Life Of Mary McLeod Bethune; performing my play to SOLDOUT audiences at the National Black Theater Festival in Winston Salem, NC; receiving the 2018 United Solo Theatre Festival’s “Best Educational Show Award” for “First by Faith”; workshopping my play at NYC’s Actors Studio; performances at Theatre 167, United Solo Theatre Festival 2019 as part of the Best of Solo Theater in 10 years and performances at the West End Theatre at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew. Other work includes: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Ivoryton Playhouse), Amina Claudine Myers’ Generation IV, 2019 (NYC Winter Jazz Festival), Last Days of Judas Iscariot directed by Estelle Parsons (La MaMa), Clover (LaMaMa). I also recorded a CD, SONG FOR ALL, with my late father, Dr. Muhal Richard Abrams.
First By Faith: The Life Of Mary McLeod Bethune received a Creative Engagement grant, supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. First By Faith: The Life of Mary McLeod Bethune is a fiscally sponsored project of New York Foundation for the Arts.
Finally, what are you hoping our community walks away with after seeing First By Faith?
I hope that “First By Faith: The Life Of Mary McLeod Bethune” opens up a conversation about her and how we can tap into our own inner Mary McLeod Bethune to make great contributions in the world wherever we presently stand.
I hope that everyone will be inspired to go out and do whatever they set their mind to. If you want to be a doctor, be a doctor. If you want to teach, teach. If you want to be a scientist, astronaut, politician, and whatever your heart desires, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.
We live in a world where someone may try and marginalize you for whatever their reasons may be. That is why it is important to tell this story that is universal in its outreach today.
If Mary McLeod Bethune believed what someone told her that she couldn’t read, then she wouldn’t have had the faith and confidence to try it anyway and to succeed and so much more. Her life is an example of what you can do if you put your mind to it.
We owe her and many like her for being an example of living your life. She left a last will and testament where she expounds on life lessons. One passage that inspires me and hopefully the readers.
“I LEAVE YOU FAITH. Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible. Faith in God is the greatest power, but great, too is faith in oneself.”
Catch First By Faith from February 25 – March 15 at the Theater at the 14Y as part of our Women’s History Solo Show Series, where we’re celebrating girl power through the ages!TICKETS