What is black art and who has the agency to create it? What does it mean to create? These are some of the questions asked by Almanac, a new musical created by Tufts Seniors Harrison Clark and Ben Mizrach, which runs at the Cohen Auditorium through November 14.
Inspired by the work of composer / conductor TJ Anderson, Austin Fletcher professor emeritus, Clark merged his own experiences as a jazz musician with the research of black academics and artists. For the new musical, Clark and co-creator Mizrach produced a score that is drawn from genres as diverse as hip-hop, soul, R&B, big band and folk. students.
In the middle of the technical week for Almanac, Tufts now talked with Clark about this new job:
Tufts now: What did you have in mind when designing this musical?
Harrison Clark: Several different things led me to say, “I’m going to write a musical. The premiere was in March of the spring semester 2020. Before the pandemic hit and we were all sent home, I was playing drums in the Tufts Jazz Orchestra; I had also played in the band the previous semester. Both semesters, I was the only black student in the group. In the second semester, we were getting ready for a show at Scullers, a top jazz club in Boston. And we were getting ready to do all of those things that I thought were my dreams and goals, that I thought I felt good about. And they just didn’t: they felt really horrible.
And there was one class in particular where we were playing an arrangement that had what I can only describe as a brutally whitewashed edit of a tune that I really liked. And I just lost it, I started screaming in rehearsal and I got up and left. At the time, I couldn’t explain to anyone why I was feeling this way. Ben [Mizrach] was in the group — we were also in a separate group together. I had a conversation with him about it and he just understood.
Ben’s connection to music is very different than your typical Tufts student. He understood what it meant to me to be in a room where I couldn’t exercise my cultural identity, make sense of my darkness, or understand myself in a space that just wasn’t built for it. . This is the heart of our musical.
The second experiment happened around the same time. A few days before I was sent home I went to see a show at Berklee [College of Music] which was titled by Cisco Swank. It was a group of eight musicians, all black… most of the audience was black. In the middle of the show, this white girl takes the stage with a guitar and completely changed my conception of what it was like to be in that room. She sang the most beautiful, transparent and honest music I have ever heard in my life.
It made me wonder what it means to be an artist. I felt like she had entered my soul and extracted things, then sent them back to me. And I had never really been in a setting where it had happened before and for this white woman to do this in this space, which was predominantly black and felt like a cultural celebration. This experience made me question a lot of things about my masculinity, what it means to be an artist, what it means to write music… All of this, combined with my experience of jazz, is what brought me to Almanac.
How does it feel to know that a PWI (predominantly white institution) like Tufts is producing your show?
It’s interesting because the show itself is based on criticism of the institution. And that can be applied to any PWI in general, but I think it was really interesting to watch a show that criticized the establishment to be produced by that establishment. It’s not like someone is trying to haggle or stifle our voices. But just by nature of being in an institution like this, that’s what sometimes happens. It is systemic and structural. You may have the world’s most well-meaning people in the room, but this place has been around since 1852.
It’s cool to be the first student to see your university-produced work like this. I am very touched and honored. But at the same time, I still can’t wait to see what the release looks like and what it means. I would like to see a world in which my worth is not based on the fact that I went to an institution like this, and I don’t need an institution to do a job like this. This is what I want to see. But as to where I am now… I really feel grateful for the university and its resources while simultaneously recognizing that this is not a release.
A show like Almanac who centers a black story that has 15 black students on stage will forever be the exception in a place like this. It will not be something that will happen every year. This is one of my other big goals: to revive a black theater company in Tufts, so that we can get more students to do things like this so that it can be a normal event on campus.
The description of the exhibition refers to black scholars who sacrificed themselves to create and define black art. Can you talk about how Almanac draws on contributions from former black artists and scholars?
The first two that come to mind are Langston Hughes and George Schuyler. In my senior year of high school, one of my mentors introduced me to an essay by Langston Hughes, “The Black Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which was a response to an essay by George Schuyler titled “The Negro-Art Hokum. “.
In his essay, Hughes says that the black man in America was programmed to see high society as a goal… that you should want to be a great classical singer and go to the opera rather than go see your musician. favorite jazz band on a Saturday night. And Hughes responds, “No, it’s our culture, it’s our people, it’s what we do, and you’ve been brainwashed to feel that.”
So one of the AlmanacThe main songs revolve around this argument. I have three characters coming and going, asking me, “What does it mean to create? What is black art? Who can create it and why do we do it?
On top of that, I did a lot of archival research at Tufts. Gerald Gill, professor of history at Tufts who died in 2007, left a huge collection of articles on the history of black student life at Tufts, as well as his own writings and lectures. His work led me to Jester Hairston, graduated from Tufts, class of 1929. He went on to become a renowned composer and choir director. Jester led me to TJ Anderson, who created an issue that, in part, inspired the series.
It’s all about inheritance, isn’t it? I wouldn’t have had the inspiration or the idea or the ideological framework to write a show like this without standing on the shoulders of giants. I think it’s such a beautiful thing because I feel like that’s why I created this beautiful ancestral ritual, almost like it’s in my blood. I am supposed to pass on the traditions of my people.
What is the meaning of the title? How is this work an “almanac”?
Almanac is the name of one of the rap groups in the series. We named the rap group long before we named the series, and all three of the main characters end up in this rap group at some point. When we decided to name the series, we looked at a bunch of options that were all terribly awful. And then Ben said, “Why don’t we call her Almanac? “And I was, like,” What does that even mean? ”
An almanac or the The Farmer’s Almanac, for example, shows you what to prepare for, what you need to do to be ready for what is to come. And he said, “In many ways, I feel like this story is a guide for black artists on how to exist in a PWI.” The Black Artist’s Almanac, if you will.
Do you have plans for Almanac after graduating?
Our immediate goal is to have it produced in a professional manner. We don’t really know what that looks like yet, but that’s our goal. We have a lot of people who really believe in the project. There is a lot of buzz around. Seeing how the cast interacted with him was difficult. It was so spiritually fulfilling to walk into a room and have people that I didn’t know three months ago singing all of my songs.
Tickets for Almanac are available on the Tufts Drama and Dance Department website.