By Emma WestRasmus
Award-winning film and stage actor Roger Guenveur Smith was on campus this week for an extended residency which included visits to Macalester classes, film screenings and a four-day performance workshop with selected students. A solo performance by Guenveur Smith on Thursday night capped off his dynamic week on campus. Guenveur Smith, who has collaborated with Spike Lee and starred in films such as A Huey P. Newton Story, American Gangster, Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X, described his time on the Macalester campus as “a very intense and extraordinary experience,” and hopes his visit and the open-rehearsal student presentation will generate discussion as the new semester begins. The residency serves as Macalester’s opening set of events for Black History Month. “Many of us have joked and complained that Black History Month is the shortest month of the year, and so much programming gets jammed into those four weeks,” said History professor Peter Rachleff, who helped coordinate Guenveur Smith’s visit. “This year’s residency by Mr. Smith is an opportunity for us to break out of that box, make an important point, and share this learning opportunity with the campus community at large.”This is not the first time Guenveur Smith has shared his talents with the Macalester community. Guenveur Smith first came to came to campus 12 years ago to perform A Huey P. Newton Story with a collaborator, and he has returned several times since, including as a fall convocation speaker. He engaged with Mac students in a seminar format following the release of the A Huey P. Newton Story film.”[Guenveur Smith] had been impressed with our students,” Rachleff said.The students who had an opportunity to interact with Guenveur Smith during his residency expressed similar feelings when reflecting on their experiences with the actor. American Studies major Will Gordon ’11 was one of the nine students selected to participate in the performance workshop led by Guenveur Smith, and described him as “very approachable, hilarious, and never one to give advice without thinking.”Gwynn Shanks ’10 also participated in the workshop, and echoed Gordon’s praise of Guenveur Smith’s personal and professional style. “Roger is very much learning along with us. He facilitates and really inspires all of us to have the courage to try and “perform history,” Shanks said. “We all offer suggestions, but, unsurprisingly, his are always right on.”The nine students in the workshop came to the first rehearsal on Sunday evening with an idea for an improvised piece based on historical archival materials, and spent the next two rehearsals working through the emerging solo acts. The workshop culminated in what participant Madeline Marshall described as an “open-rehearsal, meaning that people are welcome to come and watch our performances, which are still improvised and works and progress.””From the first night we have all just gotten up individual on the stage and extemporaneously created a character and movement based upon a historical event of our choosing,” said Shanks. “After each performance-we were each able to perform every night of the workshop-the other participants, and of course Roger, gave feedback of what really worked and what didn’t, and we tried to incorporate those suggestions.”Emma Buechs ’13 found Guenveur Smith’s focus on history particularly helpful, and used the workshop as an opportunity to explore the connection between past and present through an early twentieth century German painting.”Roger opened my eyes to the respect you need to have when dealing with archival documents, but also to the need to forget that for a second to throw yourself out there and create,” Buechs said. The performances were set in a variety of time periods and locations, ranging from the coast of northeast Brazil, to Los Angeles, from post-World War I Germany, to the student protests in Mexico in 1968. The diversity of performances was also reflected in the participants who ranged widely in age, major, and theatrical experience. Marshall is a Theater and Geology double major, and used the performance as an opportunity to combine her interests and share them with the group.”It has been wonderful to have a variety of students in the workshop, mainly a mix of Theatre, History, and American Studies students. It’s interesting how each person brings forth their own interests and history in performance, be it Chicano culture, science, German art, genealogy, or civil rights, or whatever else,” said Marshall. “This workshop has also been an opportunity to get to know some different people in a unique and organic way, more through movement and performance than conversation. We are given a true glimpse into each others thoughts.”Guenveur Smith’s residency at Macalester coincides with his performance of “The Watts Tower Project” Jan. 21-23 at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, and he concluded his time on campus with a solo performance of a work inspired by the life and activism of Frederick Douglas at the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center.