Content warning: This article mentions police violence.
Two Tufts students are the creative masterminds behind the first show of the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ season this fall. “Almanac,” a new musical co-written by Harrison Clark and Ben Mizrach and directed by Professor of the Practice Maurice Emmanuel Parent, explores themes of Black artistry, cultural identity and spirituality. It will have its public preview in the Cohen Auditorium on Thursday, Nov. 4 and its official opening on Saturday, Nov. 6.
“The show is about three young Black artists who attend a [predominantly white institution] and their journey to connect with their cultural identities through their music, through their artistry,” Clark, a senior, said. “The three central questions of the show are: One, what is Black art, how can we define Black art; two, who can create Black art; and three, do artists who identify as Black in America have an obligation to create what we’ve come to know as Black art.”
Parent commented on the central yet open-ended nature of these themes.
“I think the piece does a great job of presenting these questions and presenting characters that embody these core questions that artists are facing today, without giving an answer,” Parent said.
The show was primarily conceived by Clark, who engaged in extensive archival research in the conception process.
“[‘Almanac’] was originally inspired by a show that was put on at Tufts in 1983 called ‘Thomas Jefferson’s Minstrels,’” Clark said. “It was written by T.J. Anderson, who was the chair of the music department at Tufts in the 70s and the 80s. [Anderson is] a prolific Black American composer and artist.”
Clark’s archival research extended beyond works from the Hill as well.
“One of the main numbers in Act 1 is called ‘The Racial Mountain,’ which is based on an essay that Langston Hughes wrote in the 1920s called ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,’ and then the response to it by a scholar named George Schuyler called ‘The Negro Art Hokum.’” Clark said. “Those two essays centered around those questions of ‘What is Black art’ and ‘What should Black artists be doing in America’ … through our music we’re kind of able to take those questions from 1920 and put them in [the current day].”
In bringing these questions to the present, Clark and Mizrach drew on different musical traditions, including hip hop, soul, R&B, big band, jazz and gospel.
“[Clark] and I both avidly consume music from that diaspora,” Mizrach, a senior who is also serving as the music director of “Almanac,” said. “We write a lot in that space, we compose a lot in that space and interact with [these traditions] a lot.”
Mizrach explained that “The Racial Mountain,” the penultimate number of Act 1, features an array of music of the diaspora, and uses the juxtaposition of traditions and styles to emphasize diversity within Black American music and the Black American experience.
“In the beginning of the play, you’ll be introduced to these different subsections of Black American music, and then in [‘The Racial Mountain’], for the first time you actually see them compete musically, physically, theatrically,” Mizrach said. “You’ll see what what it feels like for jazz to butt conceptual heads with R&B and hip hop, or see what laid-back soul’s attitude is about certain issues and where that intersects with hip hop … but also how different ideologies within those subsections of Black American music can disagree on certain things.”
The final number of Act 1, titled “It Takes All of Us,” was described by Clark and Mizrach to be a very important moment in the show, as the campus is responding to an incident of bias.
“We captured a bunch of different perspectives on what that situation … means for Black Americans when there’s a big event in the news and when someone is murdered by the state, or when there’s another incident of police violence … and what it feels like and what it sounds like and what it is like to experience that as a Black student at a [predominantly white institution],” Clark said. “The big climactic moment in the tune is actually when one of the white characters in the show stands up at the end of the song and starts singing about her perspective … we wanted to show what it feels like and what it looks like and what it sounds like when these things actually do happen on campus … all those Black voices on stage while she’s singing, are still, and are silent, and can’t say anything or do anything about what she’s doing.”
Having Clark and Mizrach in rehearsals and for the realization process has been, according to Parent, “harmonious.”
“This is my first time directing a world premiere and it’s an interesting process to have the writers in the room,” Parent said. “It can be a really challenging situation where maybe the directors and the writers aren’t aligned … but this has been amazing.”
Remarkably, neither Clark nor Mizrach had any playwriting experience before “Almanac,” but both expressed deep connections with work they had done.
“One thing I kind of want to be known about this process is how natural it’s felt and how much it’s felt like a calling all the way through,” Clark said. “There have been a lot of times … where it would have been really easy for us to just be like, ‘Why are we doing this, it doesn’t make any sense,’ but to have … so many people believe in what we’re doing … has been such a life-changing experience.”
Mizrach too expressed his gratitude for the support that he and Clark have received.
“While [Clark] and I can sort of take credit for the creation and conception of this, I will say that to put this together takes a big team and foresight that we could personally just never put together,” Mizrach said. “The depth and breadth of personnel that this requires, and their trust in us to see through this vision is miraculous and we’re just honored and humbled by their support.”
Act ! and selections from Act 2 of “Almanac” will be performed in the Cohen Auditorium in the Aidekman Arts Center on Nov. 4–6 and Nov. 12–14. Tickets will be available at the Aidekman box office or online.