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Loud and proud: Harvard’s Kuumba Singers celebrate black theater

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO

Harvard University’s Kuumba Singers kicked off their 48th Annual Dean Archie C. Epps Spring Concert on Saturday night with a lively mash-up of “Get Ready” and “Dancing in the Streets” from “Motown the Musical.” Dancing down the Sanders Theatre’s aisles and onto the stage, the performers radiated joy.

Themed “Théâtre Noir,” the concert featured musical selections from famous black theater productions. Kuumba President Marcus Granderson says, “We have used the theater venue to process our pain and deal with our humanity. Kuumba strives to create art in every way possible.”

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“Ku’umba” roughly translates to “to create” in Swahili. Undergraduate students Dennis Wiley and Fred Lucas founded the organization in 1970 as an outlet for spiritual inspiration, political motivation and cultural celebration in Harvard’s black community.

Wide-ranging program

True to those origins, the Kuumba Singers are much more than a choir. Before many musical numbers, actors performed scenes from productions to provide context and commentary. The choir jointly chose works from black theater and musicals from as early as 1848. Productions that didn’t have music in them were paired with songs along the same theme. Granderson says, “We chose plays that show the diversity of black theater.”

Dance routines accompanied several of the musical selections, including the main title from the “For Colored Girls” soundtrack and “Home to Africa.” Ryan Boyland performed a spoken-word piece he wrote about toxic masculinity. Each piece of the evening held unique merit, but all spoke to the agenda of advancing social justice. The wide-ranging program demonstrated the performers’ breadth of talent.

Granderson says Kuumba has been an essential part of his Harvard experience. He stresses the importance of having a safe place in a campus not always historically hospitable to students of color. “Kuumba has been a space where I can engage with my blackness and understand blackness in new ways,” he says.

The spring concert wrapped up Kuumba’s 2017/2018 season and also served as a passing of the baton from present to future leadership. The Singers honored Reverend Hubert E. Walters, the first director of the Kuumba Singers, who was in the audience, as well as current Director Sheldon Reid, who is celebrating his 20th year at the helm.

As much as the performance was a commentary and an activist statement, it was also a celebration of black creativity and black life. As he introduced the choir, Granderson said, “The thing that gets me about black people is that in the midst of all our pain, we’ve never stopped dancing.”

harvard university, kuumba singers, Marcus Granderson, Ryan Boyland, Sheldon Reid, Théâtre Noir