by Jennifer Earle Strickland.
The African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave., has held fast and strong since its 1958 founding as the African Cultural Center, by Malcolm Erni.
Out of its deliberate persistence to continually realize the vision of Erni, one of the Center’s jewels was birthed in 1968: The Paul Robeson Theatre. Named after singer, actor, and civilrights activist, Paul Robeson (1898 – 1976), for the last 50 years, the Theatre at the Center, has presented phenomenal productions; some tear-jerking; others thought-provoking; and even some that triggered emotional responses of anger, joy, sadness, or determination, yet opened conversations about controversial topics such as race, class, and economics.
Regardless of each performance’s focus or theme, the PRT is unfailing in its task to enlighten the public about who we are, as people of African descent, who happen to live in America. Under the umbrella of the AACC, and Executive Dire
ctor, Agnes Bain, there is one name that is synonymous to the Paul Robeson Theatre: Paulette Harris.
The PRT’s 50th anniversary season celebration continues with Mikki Grant’s 1970’s musical entertainment production, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, on stage March 2 – 25, 2018. Ms. Harris is confident that, though the demographics of the audience who flocked to performances of the show 40+ years ago, contrasts today’s microwave generations of the ‘90s and ‘millennials’, the show will attract patrons from both audiences. Excitedly, Harris shares that “We already have nights sold out, and we have several groups purchasing bulks of tickets for other nights!”
Without divulging all the details of Don’t Bother Me…, Harris shares that “the choreography is new and exciting, and director and choreographer, Carlos Jones, has incorporated modern moves to help focus on historical conversations throughout the production.”
Originally attracted to the PRT after hearing an artist reading works of Langston Hughes, Paulette’s thirst to learn more about African American artists inspired her to become active with the Theatre. Since joining the PRT in 1988, Harris has served in every production capacity; from lighting and sound operator, to costumer, set designer, and usher.
Today, Harris is the Theatre’s Artistic Director. She is living the extremely ambitious dream she envisioned as a child. “My dream was always to work in film or live entertainment,” the former Channel 2 News Program Director recalls. Reflecting on the little girl who didn’t seek to be at center stage or in front of the camera, she would tell her today that difficult times will come, but “don’t give up; use them to propel you forward. Work that much harder to accomplish your dreams.” Thirty years in the business of live theater at the PRT, including serving the last 21 years as artistic director, have created many memorable experiences for the vibrant, seemingly always energized artist.
Her ongoing friendship with Mamie Till Mobley began when she was a special guest of the Theatre during their presentation of “Mississippi and the Face of Emmitt Till”. The production was supported by both WNY schools and community. “The education (students) received could not compare to sitting in the classroom, and adults who lived through that time period, were in tears;” a bittersweet memory for Harris, who remained friends with Emmitt Till’s mother until she transitioned in 2003. Meeting playwright, August Wilson, was another moment for Harris’ memoirs. The initial encounter with him was exhilarating, but his remembering her a few years later, in another city, was icing on the cake.
Harris believes that the PRT has endured for 50 years because its remained consistent in its goal of educating: teaching that the key to sustainability of the PRT is its remained true to our culture and heritage; supporting: organizations will “go away” without support that offers the opportunity to offer programs and “keep the doors open”; and believing in the generational concept: “We serve 3rd and 4th generations of families…and, as a result, we’ve been able to teach children Profile: Artistic Director Paulette Harris Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope” Celebrates Paul Robeson Theatre’s 50th Anniversary Season and their children about their heritage and culture,” Harris acknowledges with a sense of purpose.
Ms. Harris proclaims that she is a Christian, first, and her faith motivates her “to do great things that make others feel good about their artistry or craft. I can’t explain the feeling of watching a student achieve something he initially felt was difficult, or introducing someone to the theatre; watching someone experience the theater for the first time.” Harris’ list of ‘things accomplished’ includes serving as casting director for the film, The Purge: The Island, to be released by Universal Pictures July 4, 2018; instituting the PRT programs: August Wilson Monologue Competition; Scratch Night at the Robeson, and Performing Arts Training Classes for Children, among others.
Her directing credits include Jar the Floor, Souls of Black Folk, Black Nativity, and Skeleton Crew, and Harris received accolades for writing the play Two Weeks Until the Rest of My Life: The Stage Play, which also graced the stage in Washington, D.C., in 2013. Under her direction, the PRT received the 2017 Theatre Company Longevity Award at the 15th Biennial National Black Theatre Festival. “It is an honor to receive such an award by fellow global artist who practice the same belief of expanding awareness about the African American diaspora.”
To the aspiring actor, director, playwright, producer, stage tech, Harris offers, “Stay focused; don’t let anyone stand in your way. Surround yourself with people who support your journey; start with the end in sight; seeing yourself at the finish line of a long journey, receiving your prize.” Paulette Harris, artistic and casting director, program developer, widely recognized production director extraordinaire, leads in the PRT’s mission to enhance the cultural and artistic awareness of the community by providing productions that illuminate the African American Aesthetic.
Harris’ “Artistic Director Statement” declares that “We have lived it, feel it, and experience it day in and day out. Our productions are built on the true cultural renaissance of the African American experience. We invite you to celebrate with us, this year, as we usher in our 50th Anniversary Season.”
Contact the Paul Robeson Theatre (PRT) Paulette Harris, at 716 884-2013.
Peace and Love!