Arts & Culture

Building Community Through Art: Almanac makes history on the Tufts stage

Reporting Contributions by Sabrina Cabarcos and Eden Weissman

Cohen Auditorium buzzes with the energy of dancing, singing, and applause. Music pours into the space, lyrics fly off actors’ lips, and lights shine on brightly colored sets—all ending in a standing ovation. Live theater has returned to Tufts in full force, and it’s different. It’s new. This semester, Almanac made history as the first ever student-written work to be a Tufts Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies mainstage production. The musical, written and composed by seniors Harrison Clark and Ben Mizrach and directed by Professor of Practice Maurice Parent, was performed in Cohen Auditorium November 4 – 6 and 12 – 14. 

The performance included Act One and select musical numbers from Act Two, as the musical is still being written. The show follows the journeys of three young Black artists grappling with identity, music, and artistic expression at a predominately white institution. Clark described Almanac as exploring themes of artistry and agency, including “what it means to exist as an artist in a space, creating heavily contextually racialized music.” As Parent expressed, the show grapples with important questions such as: “What does it mean to make Black art? What is the responsibility to be a Black artist? How do you engage in Black art?”

Almanac’s inspiration was based on Clark’s personal research and interest in the legacy of Black composers at Tufts, namely former Music Department Chair T.J. Anderson. Clark said, “I’m a big believer that all those people’s legacies, you can feel them in the walls. You can feel it in the air. And I think just having an awareness of the people who were in the space before you that were doing the things that you’re interested in is just such a crazy revelation for agency and what it means to be in a space.” 

The writing and composing process started in early 2020 when the pair were sophomores. Clark and Mizrach joined consistent Zoom calls together throughout the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to craft Almanac. At that time, it was just the two of them, but as the TDPS department became involved, the community surrounding Almanac grew substantially. According to Clark and Mizrach, building community was a core part of the project. 

Senior Jenah Gabby described her fellow cast members as family. Speaking about the long hours they spent together during tech week, she said, “That week brought us together the most because we just spent so much time with each other, to the point where we know each other’s lines and we know each other’s cues and we know each other’s songs. It was beautiful. And yes, it was tiring, but I describe it as a labor of love.”

Mizrach expressed a similar sentiment in terms of the connections built through Almanac. He said, “The relationships and bonds that I’ve made with people through using this art as a vehicle really just to connect with other humans has been the most meaningful art experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

Part of this creation of community came from the way the show resonated with many of the cast members. Gabby played the role of Ari Butler, a Black woman who wants to pursue jazz, but feels she must be a part of the rap group Almanac as a means of providing for her family. Gabby expressed that Almanac felt more personal than productions she’d performed in prior to college, especially because it was student-written. Most of her past acting experience has been in white plays written by white playwrights. However, in describing Almanac, Gabby said, “It made it easier for me to play this role because I was portraying something that already goes on in my regular day to day life. It looked like me.”

Freshman Moriah Granger, who played the role of Naomi Hudson, also saw herself in her character to an extent, saying, “I related so much to the struggle that she had in terms of what it meant to be Black and create art.”

She went on to say, “I honestly felt really honored to be telling what felt like a really important story… I could kind of understand myself better throughout that whole process, and throughout the process of performing in the show and just knowing that we were touching people in a way that made them feel heard and seen was really just honestly an honor and so inspiring.”

For many cast members, this was their first time being a part of Tufts theater—or for some, theater in general. Parent said, “​​Hopefully, this is the beginning of more people engaging with theater that maybe previously have felt either not inspired to do so or didn’t think that theater was for them.”

Clark shared a similar thought. “I think one of the issues in the past has been what’s the entry point, like, where do Black-identifying students find their way into the department?” he said. 

Gabby was one such student who did not engage with Tufts theater until now. Despite performing in school theater productions prior to college, Almanac was Gabby’s first production at Tufts. In comparing it to her previous experiences, she said, “It felt like Broadway low-key because it was just so intense and experiencing musical theater at that caliber was very different than what I experienced growing up.” 

Granger also spoke to the experience of being part of a show on such a large, university scale. “It’s not common to talk about Black art in this manner, on such a big platform. And just the fact that it had a predominantly Black cast—that’s so different than anything I’ve ever done before,” she said.

TDPS Department Chair Noe Montez explained that before Almanac was even introduced as an option, “We were committed to creating a season thinking through social justice and making sure that we were giving voice to Black student experiences, especially given how traumatic the 2020 year was for so many students of color across Tufts campus.” This fits into a larger context of calls for equity and anti-racism practices in the professional theater industry in general. 

Tufts is a predominately white institution, which translates to the theatre department being a historically white department. According to Montez, when he began working at Tufts as a faculty member 11 years ago, the TDPS department’s courses had a largely white and Eurocentric focus. However, change is being made. Montez said, “Increasingly, thanks to the work of colleagues [in the TDPS department] like myself, Maurice Parent, Kareem Khubchandani, [and] Lily Mengesha. We’re doing more to center Latinx, South Asian, Indigenous, [and] Black voices in the ways that we teach and theorize about theater and performance.”

“[Almanac] was the type of experience an institution like [Tufts] is built for,” Clark said. “I feel like so long as there are playwrights, then the department should be producing their work.”

Although Almanac was the first student-written work staged by the TDPS department, it will not be the last. The department is adding a new slot to the performance season that will allow for student proposals of new work. Conversations with students and the department’s experience with Almanac inspired the creation of this slot.  

Montez said, “What I’m hoping that we can do is continue to produce shows that resonate [and] let students know, let members of the Tufts community know, that their voices are powerful and have resonance and their stories deserve to be told to the entire student body who serves as our audience.”