SMU students bring African American literature off the page and onto the stage

Southern Methodist University master of liberal studies’ program performed Dr. Njoki McElroy’s African American Fiction: Interpretation of African American Literature through spoken word Friday night in Simmons Hall.

“I want to warn you,” Dr. Njoki McElroy said, “that the n-word will be spoken twice and if you hear a gunshot – don’t panic.”

And with that, the performance began.

Dr. McElroy and her class of nine graduate students in the liberal studies’ program performed short stories to entertain and educate the audience about African American literature.

“Our purpose is to promote and celebrate African American life and culture,” Dr. McElroy said.

“If they could take something away they didn’t know before watching this then I’d be proud.”

Each class member sang, recited a monologue or a dialogue, as they completely transformed characters before the audience’s eyes.

“Don’t ever give up on love child!” pleaded Gwen Woodworth, who’s character was an elderly woman advising a younger woman, Tomasina Betoncur, on a park bench what life has taught her about love – and all the men in between.

Madea, or Assistant Director Mary Harris, in the story “Ma’Dear” by Terry McMillian, could relate to Woodworth’s character in the previous story.

Madea, an anything-but-passive widow, walked us through her life and the different men in it. She rocked back and forth in her prop rocking chair, straw hat, apron, and slippers and brought bursts of tear-jerkn’ laughter to the audience.

“I’d rather have a man with no money and something up here,” Mary said as she gestured to her head, “or something at least somewhere….” The crowd then lost it after she delivered the suggestive line in her newfound thick southern accent.

“It’s something to see my sixty-five year old white mom portraying a ninety-five year old black woman,” Harris’ youngest son Dan Harris said.

“I heard she was taking the classes and I was really proud and really impressed with her,” he said.

The unique class of nine graduate students consists of teachers, a preacher, police officer, wives and more. But that didn’t prevent any chemistry from forming. In fact, chemistry was established on day one.

“We told our own stories the first day of class and we all cried and laughed,” Sarah Weatherford, stage manager and cast member, said.

“Dr. McElroy is pretty awesome,” William Searcy, public relations and cast member said. “We became a family from the first day of class.”

Michael Counter, the art director and music designer for the production, sang “Negro Love Song” in beautiful harmony and transformed the still audience into one synchronized clapping assembly.

After the performance, Dr. McElroy was presented with a bouquet of flowers from her grateful and honored students. This performance was in a way, their “final” exam.

“Dr. McElroy expects a lot from us, she wants us to really learn and she really cares,” Searcy said.

Well class, it looks like you passed.

“I’m very pleased and very excited,” McElroy said after the show. “I think they did a beautiful job.”

However, there was another SMU professor to impress, who sat among the audience.

SMU English professor David Haynes’ story “Heathens” was performed. Friday night was his first time seeing his story come to life.

“It was absolutely amazing,” Haynes said grinning, “What’s so terrific is that as a teacher, this is one of the best examples of active learning. They’re learning about characters and living it.”

Haynes also said he thinks the liberal arts program a “wonderful” one and the students seem to agree.

“It’s far beyond my expectations,” Searcy said. “It’s hard of course but that’s what challenges us and how we really learn a lot. I am very impressed.”

According to Searcy it is also the least costly Masters program at SMU, making the entire experience all the more worthwhile.

The audience wasn’t the only ones walking away with new lessons. Cast members shared what they are taking away from a project they have been working on since October.

“As you age you are presented with life, illness death and in a perfectly joyful life there are times where I do find solitude and loneliness,” said Harris who’s character Madea reflected these same feelings.

“But I’ve realized it’s attitude. I want to have the same joy and attitude as Madea did in life.”

Will the class grow their chemistry outside the classroom?

According to Donta Mcgilvery, director and cast member who performed a lengthy and captivating monologue for the opening, said they do have some considerations that extend beyond SMU.

“We want to consider taking this production to other places in Dallas to educate the community, to get them involved,” Mcgilvery said.

“Especially DISD, or Dallas Independent District, schools where no doubt they will feel encouraged and inspired after the performance.” 

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