Student Playwriting Festival Welcomes Compelling New Voices

By Brittany Aufiero

Giselley Munoz as Mabel and Steven Prescod as Bobby in James Egbuta-Bailey’s “Miracle in the Garden.” Photos by James Egbuta-Bailey.

“Miracle in the Garden” by James Egbuta-Bailey and “Numinous” by Faith D’Erasmo and Luke Iovenitti stunned audiences with their attention to detail, compelling dialogue and powerful acting. Directed by Adjunct Lecturer Stephanie Stowe, these two new student productions were showcased by Lehman’s Department of Music, Multimedia, Theatre & Dance in its fifth annual Student Playwriting Festival, which premiered from Feb. 27 to March 2.

“As a playwright with 20 years of experience producing work, it’s exciting to see young playwrights understand and learn the process of bringing a play to an audience,” said Stowe, who has been involved with the festival for three consecutive years. Stowe credits Associate Professor and theatre director Rick DesRochers and Dean of Arts and Humanities James Mahon for “their incredible support.” She said of her directing, “It was a lot of fun! Always a challenge because they’re very different pieces.”  

The festival opened with “Miracle in the Garden,” a moving one-act play that is centered on an African-American family living in 1978 Harlem, NY. Unable to afford the rising prices of city-living, Rose has decided to move her and her children Bobby, Shelley and Miracle back to Montgomery County, TN. However, the children are less than thrilled about the impending move. While Bobby considers his college options in NY, his sister Shelley is hiding a life-changing secret. As she packs, Rose must come to terms with her children’s growing independence and confront secrets of her own past that threaten to change all of their lives.

In the musical “Numinous,” a class revolution has fractured communities and led many to take refuge in the northern wilderness. The portion of the play featured in the festival is only Act I of a full-length production that will premiere in Lehman’s Multimedia Performing Arts Showcase in May. The story follows Flick, Mae, Nox, Cato, Jove and Ada, a group of travelers who meet in the woods and agree to form a “tribe” to better their chances of survival away from the rest of society. Members of the group begin to form closer ties as they bond through song, but tensions rise when Nox’s leadership comes into question following an unexpected storm.  

Steven Prescod as Bobby and Essence Walker as Shelley in James Egbuta-Bailey’s “Miracle in the Garden.”

Just as it allows new playwrights to get a feel for show business, the festival is also a fantastic opportunity for Lehman actors to gain onstage experience. “Miracle” cast member Essence Walker, a 21-year-old junior theater major and dance minor, said “Rehearsals were always fun and, because it was an original play, we really got the chance to dig into the characters and tell their stories.”

While the two plays are dramatically different in plot and production, both Rose and Nox deal with similar internal conflicts, as they try to balance their own wants with those of the people for whom they are responsible. Lehman’s student actors really fulfill their roles and perform admirably. In particular, Alaynia “Fox” La Porte shines as Rose, and one can’t help but sympathize with her character’s desire to keep her family together, even as she pushes everyone further apart.  

A junior pursuing a Media Performing Arts degree with a major in theatre, Alaynia has also held roles at Castillo Theatre, Dempsey Theater, the Baryshnikov Art Center and Lovinger Theatre.  In preparing for her latest role, she said, “Research was my best friend! As ‘Miracle in the Garden’ is a ‘70s play, I wanted to be honest to the world my character was in.”  

Kat Fornier, a 22-year-old junior art major and psychology minor, said “I really enjoyed the use of space in each of the plays.” In “Miracle,” moving boxes litter the stage and the actors are constantly interacting with them, which is enjoyable to watch. Various platforms both onstage and within the audience during “Numinous” serve as stands for the cast to speak from during various moments throughout the play.

The Student Playwriting Festival was a huge success for everyone involved in translating the plays from page-to-stage. “Opening day, my heart was beating so fast because I was so nervous,” Walker recalled. “The adrenaline was high and we had a full house. It was the best thing ever.”

‘Surviving R. Kelly’: Lehman Students Call for Justice

By Brittany Aufiero

The #MeToo movement represented at the Oslo Women’s March in 2018. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement survivors of sexual abuse are stepping forward now more than ever to shed light on their experiences and to advocate for justice against their assailants. Recently, singer R. Kelly, 52, was charged on Feb. 21 with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sex abuse involving four women, three of whom were underage at the time of the alleged abuse. The details surrounding the artist’s illegal sexual exploits have been met with resounding backlash both online and on campus at Lehman.

“Surviving R. Kelly,” a six-part documentary that aired consecutively from Jan. 3 to Jan. 5, portrayed testimonials from survivors and eyewitnesses about the decades-long history of the R&B music artist’s sexual abuses. Celebrities including TV host Wendy Williams and R&B singers Sparkle and John Legend speak about the disturbing actions of the decorated Grammy winner. The documentary highlights the controlling and violent behavior that Kelly exhibited towards women and cites the ways in which he uses his power and influence to groom his female fans, many of whom were underage girls.

Karina Leigh, a 21-year-old Lehman senior and English Honors major minoring in African studies and philosophy, agrees that Kelly’s behavior is a sign of a larger problem. “We live in a society that sexualizes young black girls, especially when they tend not to look their age because they’re taller or may have more noticeable assets, due to the fact that they developed quicker, which is not their fault.”

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), one in four girls are sexually abused before they turn 18. A 2014 national study conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that an estimated 64.1 percent of multiracial women and 38.2 percent of black non-Hispanic women experienced at least one act of sexual violence in their lifetime. At Lehman, 67.4 percent of students are women, and 83.3 percent of all students identify as Hispanic/Latino or Black/African American altogether.    

R. Kelly photographed at his 2008 trial. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

The negative feedback against R. Kelly from social media and the music industry have raised question regarding how his fans should proceed. Can one support the art without supporting the artist by attending concerts or buying his albums or merchandise? Leigh says not in this case.  

“With R. Kelly, I feel like he promotes his sickness through his music. Like his recent song ‘I Admit,’ where he literally confessed everything he’s done in an 18 minute song and still no action has been taken. I’ve never been a fan of his, so I don’t listen regardless, but I do feel that it’s completely unacceptable to still support him or his music.” 

Guevara Torres, a 28-year-old junior and computer science major, agrees with Leigh that Kelly should face consequences for his actions. “I enjoyed his music, but I am no longer a fan. It is not acceptable to attend his events and concerts. Artists can only be separated from the art until the observer decides otherwise.”

“With R. Kelly, I feel like he promotes his sickness through his music.” 

– Karina Leigh, a 21-year-old Lehman senior and English Honors major minoring in African studies and philosophy

On May 10, 2018, Spotify announced that it would stop promoting and recommending music made by the artist.  It stated, “We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behavior, but we want our editorial decisions—what we choose to program—to reflect our values.” Apple Music and Pandora followed suit two days later. This year on Jan. 18, Kelly’s label, RCA Records, announced that it would be dropping the artist.  

Hours after being charged on Feb. 21, Kelly surrendered to the Chicago Police Department. He was released three days later after posting the $100,000 bond necessary for his release.

Janet Luna, a 21-year-old Lehman senior and English major minoring in psychology and middle and high school education, expresses satisfaction with the legal repercussions Kelly is now facing. “He like all abusers will never be able to fully pay for the damages they have caused. However, this might serve as closure to some victims, even if it might never make up for their trauma.”

13 Years Later, ‘Kingdom Hearts III’ Proves the Wait Worth It

By Brittany Aufiero

Kingdom Hearts’ protagonist Sora. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Kingdom Hearts’ protagonist Sora. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Following a 13-year hiatus after the release of “Kingdom Hearts II” in 2005, “Kingdom Hearts III” finally made it into stores worldwide for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One gamers on Jan. 29.

The latest installment of the single-player RPG series follows the story of keyblade-wielder Sora, as he journeys to other Disney and Pixar worlds with his companions, Donald and Goofy.  Following the loss of his magic and abilities in the spin-off game “Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance,” Sora must acquire the Power of Waking in order to fully regain his strength and, along with six other guardians of light, prevent the darkness-obsessed Master Xehanort from assembling the χ-blade, a keyblade powerful enough to open the door to Kingdom Hearts.

“Kingdom Hearts III” features stunning visuals, courtesy of Square Enix’s choice to build the game using Unreal Engine 4. Originally intended for Unreal Engine 3, game development stalled in 2014, following Director Tetsuya Nomura’s choice to recreate the game for the most up-to-date technology. Unreal Engine 4 has been successfully used in games of multiple genres, including the third-person shooter “Gears of War 4” and features real-time rendering that yields seamless action sequences in-game.

Fans of the franchise wholeheartedly agree that the game was worth the wait. Recent Lehman graduate Melissa Ruiz, a 26-year-old English Honors student said, “the worlds feel a lot more lived in than in previous installments. I think you can definitely see why it took as long as it did to make and how much time and effort was put into it.”

 Following tradition with previous installments, the game’s soundtrack features Japanese pop icon Utada Hikaru, who beautifully captures the sentimental importance of the long-awaited game. In particular, “Face My Fears” (made in collaboration with dubstep music artist Skrillex, a long-time fan of the series) evokes strong emotions in all of the young fans who grew up with the franchise and serves as the perfect audio track for the game’s cinematic opening.  

Plot-wise, the game holds up just about as well as any other in the “Kingdom Hearts” collection- which is to say, it only makes sense if you squint. Of course, this remains a quality of infinite charm, as the characters are the true heart of this series and always have been.  

Nelson Fernandez, a 29-year-old English major, has followed the games since the release of “Kingdom Hearts I” in 2002. For him, the games were a major influence on his choice to pursue English: “The convoluted storytelling actually kept me intrigued throughout the years. The lore of the series is, in fact, one of the biggest inspirations that got me into writing fiction.”

Ruiz added, “Kingdom Hearts” has a convoluted storyline but this game makes a lot of connections between all of the previous games, so it’s fun to see how everything connects.”

“Kingdom Hearts III” has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide, making it the fastest-selling installment in the franchise. It has been nominated by IGN for “Best Game of E3” 2018, “Best PlayStation 4 and Xbox One Game of E3” 2018, and “Best Action Game of E3” 2018. More nominations are sure to come in as the game continues to make waves in gaming communities everywhere.

Michelle Obama’s Inspiring ‘Becoming’ Maps Her Success

By Brittany Aufiero

Obama was photographed by Miller Mobley. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Obama was photographed by Miller Mobley. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

In her poignant, eloquently crafted autobiographical memoir “Becoming,” Michelle Obama writes about how she found her voice and learned to use it effectively to enact real change.  The book has enjoyed widespread success and sold 1.4 million copies within its first week of publication on Nov. 13, 2018. According to Barnes & Noble, it is the best-selling book in the U.S. for 2018.

“Becoming” is divided into three distinct sections: “Becoming Me,” “Becoming Us,” and “Becoming More.”  Each represents different stages of growth for Obama in becoming successful. All speak to the strength, grace, and intelligence of the former First Lady of the United States.  

She traces the formative experiences of her life back in time. It begins with her upbringing in a working-class family on Chicago’s Southside, follows through her years at Princeton and Harvard Law School, to the day she met her husband, became a mother and began using her platform to advocate for children’s health at a national level. 

Any woman who aspires to balance a successful career and personal life simultaneously will find Obama’s words here truly inspiring. For women of color especially, this book sends a powerful message of hope and perseverance in the face of adverse circumstances. At one point, she recalls a time when she was forced to attend a job interview for a managerial position at a hospital with an infant Sasha in her lap. She is candid regarding the discrimination she has experienced and the ways she has managed to use it to her advantage to further her own goals.  

At its heart, “Becoming” is a reflection on the realities of what is possible with the right amount of determination. Remarkably, it manages to uplift without ever reading as condescending.  Obama emphasizes how a child’s access to education and supportive adults are necessary for his or her success.

Her optimistic appeal for the future is a refreshingly cool glass of water in the scorching desert of today’s troubling political climate. The book ends on a note of hope and satisfaction, “A glimmer of the world as it could be. This was our bid for permanence: a rising generation that understood what was possible—and that even more was possible for them.”

‘Widows’ Wows Audiences with Empowering Message for Women

By Brittany Aufiero

Film poster for ‘Widows.’ Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

In a long tradition of Hollywood heist thrillers dominated by male actors, “Widows” holds its own, breaking the mold with its female-led cast directed by Steve McQueen. 

“Widows” earned the box office an impressive $53.6 million worldwide, $33.5 of which were from ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada alone.  Released Nov. 16, the film was co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn. Flynn is best known as the writer of “Gone Girl,” a novel published in 2012, about a woman seeking revenge on her adulterous husband. Flynn’s flair for gritty, female-driven stories is exceptionally portrayed in “Widows.”

Viola Davis stars as the thick-skinned Veronica Rawlings. She plays a woman whose life is left in shambles following the death of her husband, Harry, played by Liam Neeson, after a heist that went wrong. In the midst of her grief, she is visited by Jamal Manning and Daniel Kaluuya, who play a crime lord and politician looking for the $2 million that Harry stole. 

Manning wants his money and expects Veronica to pay up. Veronica enlists the help of the widows of her dead husband’s heist team, Alice Gunner, played by Elizabeth Debicki and Linda Parelli, played by actress Michelle Rodriguez. It is an attempt to pull off one last robbery in order to pay off the debt and start a new life.

“Widows” is an emotionally compelling and violent story of survival.  Through Veronica, the audience can understand the complex role race can play in a marriage.  When their unarmed son is pulled over by police and shot, Harry grows to resent his wife for her black skin.  In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Veronica’s story feels particularly relevant to the racial struggles that many people endure in the modern day justice system.

Meanwhile, Alice becomes an escort so that she can make ends meet following the death of her abusive husband. She enters into an exclusive sexual arrangement with a wealthy real estate executive, David, but feels uncomfortable with the power imbalance.

While Veronica and Alice easily comply with the demands of the heist, Linda struggles to find a sitter for her children. Veronica begins to doubt her commitment to the heist, but Linda stands her ground and argues that she’ll do it for her children. Ultimately, they prove that women don’t have to be amazing fighters or gun aficionados in order to belong in an action movie.  

Queens resident, Suzie Diep said, “Viola Davis’s performance was amazing.” She added that she felt that the movie did a good job dealing with classism and racism.

Lehman professor of political science, Dr. Jason Schulman, 45, said, “It’s a film with real depth. It transcends genre conventions, and refreshingly, puts female characters at the center of a drama. The men are just there to move the plot along.”

“Widows” is extremely powerful in ways that are both figurative and literal. It is insightful and explores the powerful minds of women who have reached their breaking point. This is definitely a must-see.

Annual Medieval Festival Brings the Met Cloisters to Life

By Brittany Aufiero

Kathleen Finnegan strums a Celtic melody on the harp. Photo by Brittany Aufiero.

Tens of thousands of medieval history enthusiasts from across the five boroughs flocked to Upper Manhattan on Sunday, Sept. 30 to enjoy an afternoon of free festivities at Fort Tryon Park.  The sprawling forest was transformed into a market town straight out of a medieval fantasy world -- complete with crafts, vendors, and foods common to the Middle Ages.  Festival-goers embraced the theme, many of them choosing to dress in peasant robes or knightly armor, immersing themselves fully in the experience.  In the evening, the events concluded with a group of knights jousting on horseback on the tourney field.

Fort Tryon Park is home to The Met Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that specializes in European Gothic and medieval architecture.  The museum occupies four acres of land, and its castles and bridges are visible to all guests at the fair, adding to the authenticity of the event.

This year’s festival was jointly sponsored by the Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corporation (WHIDC) and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.  The WHIDC is a private and publicly supported not-for-profit corporation which has successfully kept the Medieval Festival alive in Upper Manhattan for over 34 years.  According to their website, for the past five years attendance at the event has averaged 60,000 people.  

For many businesses and performers in New York, the festival is an opportunity to advertise their crafts and services, and to bring awareness to the public about different cultural expressions of art in order to enrich communities.  One such business is UrbanGlass, which used their platform at the festival to bring attention to their outreach program, The Bead Project.  According to their flyer, the free program “was created in 1997 to serve economically disadvantaged women living in the New York Area.”

At another booth, Fordham University advertized their Center for Medieval Studies program.  Displaying replicas of manuscripts and handwritten texts from the Middle Ages, the school used the theme of the festival to highlight course offerings most likely to appeal to attendees.

Anatolia Fire Goddess of the Mystical Muses performs an illusion act. Photo by Brittany Aufiero.

One of the festival performers, Purna Shakti, is a member of the Mystical Muses, a belly dance duo which performs internationally and displays different forms of traditional dance from India and Egypt.  Hosting their show right outside the entrance to the Cloisters, the Muses drew inspiration from the folk dances such as tanoura -- which is derived from a spiritual Egyptian dance in which the performer wears a colorful, weighted skirt -- as well as Indian gypsy veil dances, in creating their routine.  Following each performance, they posed for photos and provided hands-on instruction to spectators.

Shakti, describing her experience as a performer at the festival, said, “We love to perform! The crowds are great, and it’s fun to be able to introduce them to new forms of dance that they may not have witnessed before.”  The Mystical Muses have performed at the Fort Tryon Medieval Festival for three years and expressed their wishes of returning next year.

Kathleen Finnegan, a harpist, celebrated her tenth year playing at the Fort Tryon Fair this September.  Though she travels to many different states throughout the U.S. to play, most of her time is spent in Florida and New York.  When asked whether she believes the yearly event makes a difference within the community she said, “I have had patrons of the fair, who didn’t come to the neighborhood in the past, tell me that they come at other times of year now because they see the beauty of the park and how much the [Cloisters] has to offer.” She added, “Of course, they use the businesses in the area several times a year because of that.”  

Through good food, dancing, music, and the arts, Fort Tryon’s Medieval Festival strengthens communities by supporting local businesses and exposing New Yorkers to traditions and practices that are foreign to them.  It is a hub of cultural exchange that looks to continue for many years to come.