“Project Sankofa,” an In-Person Theatre Production, Premieres at BMCC

November 18, 2021

Broadway is back and so too are live, in-person performances from the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) Theatre Arts program with the original premiere of “Project Sankofa,” now running daily in Theatre 1 at 199 Chambers Street.

Written and directed by BMCC Theatre Arts Deputy Chair Karl O’Brian Williams, the production has brought together more than 40 students working in various capacities of performance, design, tech, costumes, makeup and management. The show is the first fully live and in-person production staged by the Theatre program in more than 20 months.

The play focuses on a young man who reluctantly accepts a challenge from a class project that asks students to create a performance art piece about their family history and to answer the question, “Who are you?”

“The play’s initial inspiration came from wanting to track the family lineage of the main characters Ephraim and Rosa in the play ‘Moon on a Rainbow Shawl’ by the Trinidadian playwright and actor Errol John,” said Williams. “I thought, what would it be like to tell the story of the characters’ great grandchild, who is born in the United States with all this Caribbean heritage but somehow doesn’t feel a connection to it.”

Once Williams started the actual writing process though, he was led to the Adinkra symbol of Sankofa   a word in the Akan Twi and Fante languages of Ghana that translates to “retrieve” — a term he realized he had been exploring in other areas of his own life.

“This idea of getting what you need from the past in order to propel you forward, and centering love and community speaks volumes to me,” said Williams.

Students get past the anxiety to return to campus for production of the new show

As soon as BMCC leadership gave the Theatre program a green light to do a live, in-person show, Williams knew it was time to physically return and begin a very thorough production planning process.

Rehearsals began in August with less than half the cast coming to campus. Williams says there was still a great deal of measurable anxiety about returning to live theatre after spending 18 months behind computer screens.

“For a live, in-person show, it’s absolutely crucial for everyone involved to be in the same space, at the same time,” said Williams. “We had Zoom production meetings initially, and those worked very well; however, everyone knew that we would need to organize our lives to be able to be back in the theatre together.”

Professor Williams said rehearsals were challenging at times. In fact, he was still making script edits up until mid-September. Just as the students were settling on a final production team, the pandemic reared its head, but by mid-October, the crew had found another gear and were moving forward to the production’s fruition.

Students working on “Project Sankofa” have been gaining real-time experience working closely with professional guests including movement director Will Brown, costume designer Cynthia Salandy and the actor Anthony Goss, known for his role in the Netflix film “Africa America” and the recent off-Broadway show “Jesus Hopped on a Train.”

Theatre faculty and staff cultivate a culture of care and opportunity

“I appreciate the culture of care we have cultivated within the Theatre program, and by extension the wider BMCC community,” said Williams. “Theatre faculty go to bat hard for their majors, we keep in touch with them after they graduate. We facilitate opportunities for them to not just acquire experience, but also, an income.”

Theatre faculty work with BMCC support offices like the Career Development Center, ASAP and other support services. Theatre faculty and BMCC staff work with the greater CUNY community to help the college’s theatre majors move on to the next step in their careers or academic journey.

Theatre major Sebastian Jean Louis, who is taking a practicum class in stage makeup, did sketches before creating the look for the actors playing the ancestors as well as warriors in the show.

“Makeup visually transforms the actors into the characters they are playing,” said Jean Louis. “This show gave me a lot of opportunities to try new things and learn. Here at BMCC you get to build a small theatre community. Alumni visit all the time and talk to new students about different opportunities they’ve found in theatre. We have a family here.”

Students benefit from networking and gain career insight

Jean Louis said if prospective students want to pursue careers in makeup, costuming, scene design or acting, BMCC is the perfect place to start. Long term, he sees himself pursuing a career in fashion or makeup in the theatre world.

Theatre major Bianca Vaval, an actress and singer who plays the character Ancestor Abebi in the show, is in her third semester at BMCC.

“Being a theatre major during the pandemic has been challenging, but, it’s been exciting as well,” said Vaval.  “Here we are back on stage doing what we love. The entire process was wonderful, Professor Williams took his time to work with us and help us bring to life the characters he wrote.”

Vaval said the cast and crew of the show bonded during the rehearsal process. Everyone contributed creative input into the production.

“The physical act of showing up for rehearsals was powerful in itself,” Vaval said. “Theatre’s back, it’s not gone, we’re here and it’s live again.”

The Theatre program, she says, “accepts you for who you are. They work with you. They don’t judge you. They accept your flaws, while helping you grow. We have amazing writers, and there is a lot of networking and connections to the theatre world outside BMCC.” 

In 10 years, Bianca Vaval sees herself either on tour singing, doing a film or television show or perhaps on Broadway. “I am closer to those goals, with the experience I’ve had at BMCC,” she says.

Please Note-All patrons (except for BMCC students, faculty and staff who already have access to campus) must provide proof of vaccination to Cleared4. Please upload a CDC vaccination card or an Excelsior Pass Plus. The images must feature your Name, Date of Birth, Vaccine Type, Lot/Batch Number, and the Dates of Vaccination (both doses for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines). Images must be large and clear enough to be legible. Screenshots of Excelsior Pass or Excelsior Pass Plus QR codes alone are not sufficient proof. You can use: https://www.c4wrk.com/ofPfsdxD9SG3PVcG8.

This story details how the BMCC  Theatre Program’s original production of “Project Sankofa” prepares students with performance training as well as practicum experience in New York City’s thriving theater and entertainment industry. It relates to BMCC’s Strategic Plan, including but not limited to Strategic Goal 3: Integrate Career Development Throughout the Student Experience

  • More than 40 students participate in production process
  • Show is written and directed by Theatre Program Deputy Chair Karl O’Brian Williams
  • Show runs through November 21 in Theatre One as well as present

share this story »