The Artistic Influence

From her spot at the head of a cavernous classroom, Annique Roberts hit a button to make the music play. Then, she pivoted. Her eyes surveyed a racial rainbow of men and women, young and old, who’d shown up to watch Roberts’ moves, to test their own skill at miming her movements, to learn from her.

“Raise your hand if you’ve ever been to an Evidence performance,” beckoned Roberts (B.F.A. ’04), a premier artist with that trailblazing, globetrotting troupe.

“We blend West African, Afro-Cuban and modern dance together,” she said. “ … to tell stories about the human condition, to tell universal stories.”

Roberts beamed a smile toward the students in that free, 90-minute class for whomever managed to snag one of the limited number of slots.

Roberts assumed a dancer’s stance: Head up. Shoulders back and eased down. Feet, astride just so and firm on the wooden floor of that expansive studio in one of the Big Apple’s most vibrant arts and entertainment districts.

Put your feet together as best you can.

She was steering those rapt, ready students through a warm-up.

Look up … Open your arms and just bend the legs … Again … Bend the legs … Feet together … Look up

From the sidelines, a baby boy in a stroller—his mom, a Roberts devotee, was on the dance floor—started cooing.

“Come on. Sing,” Roberts urged that babbling baby, chuckling, as a Nina Simone song on her instructor’s playlist gave way to one by Anthony Hamilton.

That Roberts gets asked to teach a community class at such a vaunted place as BRIC Arts in downtown Brooklyn— let alone, to dance on world stages—says something about her particular stardom in an arts capitol where hordes of artistic hopefuls never see their names in a Playbill. What also speaks volumes, for her and other Howard alumni succeeding in the arts, is the role their alma mater has played in honing their craft but also stoking their resolve. It takes some savvy to avoid getting stuck in a proverbial day job wholly unrelated to performing.

“Howard—and this is something I carry with me consciously and constantly— taught us to survive and to remember what is our purpose,” said Broadway/Off Broadway actress Amber Iman (B.F.A., ’08). She was speaking from her rental apartment in San Francisco, one of the cities on national tour of the blockbuster musical Hamilton, which won 11 Tony Awards and put Iman in its national cast.

Playing George Washington on that national tour is fellow Bison Isaiah Johnson (B.F.A. TK), who also starred as Mister in The Color Purple and worked on Broadway stages with, among others, mega-star Al Pacino.

In Hamilton, Johnson shines pure and clear, said an adoring Iman, who acted in, among other productions, Soul Doctor and Kiss Me, Kate, and alongside six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald in Shuffle Along.

At one point in Hamilton, Iman explained, Johnson is one of “three chocolate, strong Black men … singing to their children. This is not something you see on Broadway or Off-Broadway. It’s mind-blowing. I can’t tell you the number of people who come up crying after the show, not because of [the play’s depiction of President] Hamilton, but because these men of color are shown to be heroes, loving their children—not the villain.”

Indeed, Howard alumni do thrive as arts professionals. Indeed, some of them have been upending certain notions about artists of color and the roles and spaces they can ably occupy. That list includes such marquee names as sisters Debbie Allen (B.F.A. ’71) and Phylicia Rashad (B.F.A. ’70) of Broadway, Tinseltown and primetime TV fame; Harriet Foy (B.F.A. ’84), who was starring in Broadway’s Amelie in 2017 and has had a steady stream of acting gigs on and Off Broadway; actress Ashley Blaine Featherson (B.F.A. ’09) of the original Netflix series, Dear White People; Susan Kelechi Watson, co-star of This Is Us, the breakout NBC series; actress/writer Marinda Anderson (B.F.A. ’05), who has appeared in the comedic Homegirls and the futuristic Gotham series; and Obie Award-winning playwright/ actress Nikkole Salter (B.F.A. ’01) who was starring in Lady M at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre.

In critical behind-the-scenes gigs are the likes of University of Illinois professor Derrick Saunders, founder of Congo Square Theatre in Chicago and highly regarded director of key plays, including several by August Wilson.

In the pipeline of performance hopefuls are recent graduates Nedra Snipes (B.F.A. ’14), who lands at the lauded Julliard School’s as an M.F.A. candidate on fall 2017, and Lauren Banks (B.F.A. ’13) was slated to walk off with an M.F.A. from Yale School of Drama in May 2017.

And that’s just a sample of Howard’s Who’s Who in the arts.

Also in that rarefied universe is Clayton Craddock (B.S. ’91). He earned a marketing degree from Howard—his father insisted he have a fallback if music didn’t pan out—but has worked full-time as a drummer on Broadway and Off-Broadway for more than 17 years.

“I realized early on that the music business is, first and foremost, a business,” said Craddock, who led the Thunder Machine drum section of Howard’s marching band during his fi rst year on a campus. For a Black boy from a mostly White Connecticut high school, being at Howard was transformative in several ways, he said.

“I was this shy, chunky kid,” said Craddock, who was voted Outstanding Bandsman back then and, as a grown-up drummer, has been on the payroll for such Broadway hits as Rent, The Color Purple, Avenue Q, Tony-winning Memphis, The Musical and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, featuring famed Audra McDonald, and for Radio City’s Rockettes.

He’s contracted to drum for Ain’t Too Proud, a musical about The Temptations debuting in spring 2018.

“I was confident in my ability to keep up,” added Craddock, refl ecting on his college years. “But Howard brought me to a whole other level of confi dence. In the Thunder Machine, you’re playing and dancing around and moving your body around and going crazy and trying to be in sync. They showed me things I never thought I could do.”

Instead of gaining the fabled “freshman 15,” he lost 20 pounds that first year, said Craddock, sitting that day in a Harlem coffee shop. Between the marching band and his business classes, he gained skills leading to his steady employment doing what he loves.

“I’ve made a little money and good money, and I am strictly a drummer these days,” he said. “It takes a long time to get to where I am. And I don’t ever plan to retire.”

For her part, Iman strives for that sense of security. She may look real good, if you will, on paper and in the press. But two of her Broadway shows closed, by theater measures, shortly after opening. She’s fortunate to have parents who back her up financially and smart enough to claim her unemployment benefits when she’s between gigs.

“I’ve gotten this far because of my courage and faith, and because I’ve a great support system. It’s hard for artists. You need to pay your bills. But you don’t want to put your energy where it doesn’t belong,” Iman said. “An HBCU teaches you how to make lemonade out of limes. Howard taught us to take advantage of our resources.”

It also stoked her desire to be a resource for others. Her nonprofi t, the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, launched in July 2016 to support the Black Lives Matter movement. It assembles teams of artists, activists, lawyers and law students to do performance art that informs average citizens on such essential concerns as what to do when stopped by a police offi cer or how to combat hate.

Likewise, Annique Roberts’ annual Atlanta Spring Dance Series connects that city’s up-and-coming dancers with regional and national players in dance and provides scholarships.

That endeavor builds upon hers and upon Howard’s artistic legacy. She does not forget how Howard put her dancing self in front of Garth Fagan when she was a senior on campus; he tapped her for Garth Fagan Dance, a New Yorkbased company. Dr. Sherrill Berryman Johnson, founder of Howard’s dance program, generously created a longdistance learning plan so Roberts could graduate on time.

“I find Howard showing up in a lot of the things I do as an artist,” said Roberts, a candidate for a master’s in arts management and founding member of Friends of Theatre and Dance at Howard University. “I want to stay true to Howard’s mission. It is such a guiding light."

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