Blackberry Productions: A Voice for the Voiceless

By Browne, Gloria | Black Masks, July 31, 1992 | Go to article overview

Blackberry Productions: A Voice for the Voiceless


Browne, Gloria, Black Masks


Blackberry Productions: A Voice for the Voiceless

What does the world famous Apollo Theatre, an alternative school for high school drop-outs, New York's Ensemble Studio Theatre and a shelter for the homeless all have in common? Performances by Blackberry Theatrical Productions.

The Harlem-based Blackberry Productions is a unique collection of multi- talented artists who share their craft on the traditional stage and beyond. Founded in 1984 by performing artist/educator Stephanie Berry (hence the name); Rockefeller award-winning playwright and English professor Aishah Rahman; and actor/singer/songwriter John-Martin Green, Blackberry's mission is to provide quality holistic theatre to the community-at-large. They have done so with class, commitment and an impressive repertoire of original work.

"It all started as a dare," recalls Berry. "I was complaining to Aishah [Rahman] that the roles for Black women were limited and their portrayal on the stage and in movies and television were unrealistic and negative. I wanted to make a more honest depiction of woman and Black people as complex human beings with human strengths and weaknesses. Aishah told me 'if you don't like the way it is, start your own.' So, I did."

When Aishah Rahman kindly donated a project-in-progress on the life of Zora Neale Hurston, Berry seized the opportunity to bring a more human version of Zora to the community stage. Blackberry's production of The Tale of Madame Zora is not only mesmerizing, it captures the controversy and contradictions surrounding Hurston as a Harlem Renaissance novelist and anthropologist and as a Black woman. Told in the African oral tradition of chants, song and dance, Zora Neale Hurston's humanity moved audiences at New York's Apollo Theatre from tears to shouts of joy.

Blackberry's spring production marked the first time that the Apollo Theatre has ever hosted three plays in repertory. "With the run at the Apollo Theatre, I tried to plant the seeds for my ultimate dream of a multi-cultural repertory company," recalls Berry. But the successful run at the Apollo did not distract the company from its overriding mission -- the creating of holistic theatre.

"Art is not just extra-curricular or money-based or just entertainment," says Berry. "Art is a means of growth, education and self-awareness. I feel what we do is very political," explains Berry who is a long-time activist and an actress with a Columbia University Masters Degree in Dance Education.

Each project articulates some aspect of the human condition, "says founding member John-Martin Green." We are a voice for the voiceless. "For Blackberry Productions, providing a voice could mean performing Off-Broadway at Ensemble Studio Theatre or at a center for drug addicts or a shelter for the homeless.

Berry is also the initiator of an ongoing arts-in-education project at the Young Adult Learning Academy (YALA), the largest alternative school for high school drop-outs in the country. "They [the students] came with great resistance and fear about learning and growing," Berry recalls. "I was forced to find new ways to make them learn. The only way I know how to do that is through the arts."

Under Berry's guidance, YALA students read and discuss Black literature and stage original classroom productions based on their readings and their own life experience. Last year, Blackberry produced a rap opera, Come Into My World, which was written and acted by YALA students who also composed the music. …

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