Earlier this year, I was working in a phenomenon of a Broadway musical called Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, directed by the incomparable George C. Wolfe and choreographed by the great Savion Glover. Despite closing way before its time, this show—which received ten Tony Award nominations, second to Hamilton—left a significant imprint on the hearts of many across the Broadway community. However, as a member of the cast, not only was I impacted; I experienced an awakening.
At the top of the second act of Shuffle Along, I played an African American composer named William Grant Still, telling through song and dance how one of Mr. Still’s melodies was allegedly stolen from him and made famous by one of the biggest American icons in the realm of American musical composition. According to a review by New York Magazine, “the gist is that white artists stole the theatrical ideas pioneered in the 1921 Shuffle Along—the jazz rhythms and dance forms, the use of ensemble, the high-low mishmash—and in doing so got credit for inventing the musical-theater style that dominates to this day. That argument is theatricalized quite stunningly throughout, especially in a segment called “Till Georgie Took ’Em Away,” in which (we are told) George Gershwin steals the melody that became “I Got Rhythm” from the black composer William Grant Still. Phillip Attmore’s tap dance with a clarinet in hand is soul-scalding.”
Now, whether or not the allegation of song theft is entirely true, artistically speaking, I did not have to look very far for research in preparing for the role of William Grant Still. Stepping into this scene night after night left me vulnerable and particularly impassioned because it hit close to home. For on the list of timeless American pop-ballad hits, there exists a grammy nominated, chart-topping, multi-million dollar song—made famous by a most iconic artist that has since become immortalized—that was in fact written by and shamelessly stolen from my own sister. Despite winning a minuscule settlement in court against the giant of a music-producing-perpetrator, after taxes and incidentals, my sister walked away virtually empty-handed, and she never received credit for her work.
Entering into the rehearsal process for Shuffle Along and taking on the role of William Grant Still proved to be an opportunity for personal discovery. Through my work, I soon realized that because of what happened to my sister, somewhere along the line I had started to believe that every creative thought or project would be stolen from me if I even dared to put it out into the world. As a result, I began to stow away all of my dreams for one fantastical day—a day free of darkness and rejection—that would provide the “most perfect” and “least dangerous” environment for me to once again make my mark and thrive. Every fresh idea that popped into my brain, I polished like a trophy and then shelved somewhere “safe” and forever hidden from view, all in the name of “waiting for the right time”. I became a gift hoarder and then I simply forgot what was inside of me.
However, “gift hoarder” was merely my own self-diagnosis. I still needed to face a deeper truth and confront the root of the issue: Essentially, I had allowed myself to become paralyzed by fear, and I needed to be healed. For fear is the enemy of creativity.
I was surprised to learn in my research that William Grant Still was not at all overcome by bitterness. In fact, he was often described as a deeply reverent man who inscribed each of his works to God. He believed that every ounce of creativity within him was a gift from above. Even in the midst of rushing human emotions such as devastation, frustration and rage—which is what I was required to tap into in my work in Shuffle Along—he was a man who took setbacks in stride, for his creative nature made him incredibly steadfast.
Here is what I learned by way of process: If fear is what left me frozen in a Gollum-like posture of “innocently” selfish self-protection, self-pity and suppression—the posture of a classic gift hoarder—then the only way to freedom was to know and follow the adversary of fear: generosity of spirit. I simply needed to acknowledge that there was still creativity exploding within me and then begin to give again, and give my all. Therefore, every time I stepped onstage as William Grant Still—with a clarinet in my mouth and tap shoes on my feet—I made it my mission to do what I believed Mr. Still would do. In a joyous rage, I declared “war” on darkness by using my gifts as instruments of thanksgiving.
We have risked dangerously, we have dared greatly, we have given generously, we have lost tremendously, we have fallen mightily, we have failed miserably, but we have not stopped dreaming entirely. Why? It is because we are human beings—created to create—and as long as we are alive, there is always more to do! We are full of good gifts, and if we use them in the most excellent way—as instruments of thanksgiving—we can very powerfully declare “war” on darkness everywhere we go.
Today, if you feel lost, trapped or unable to move forward—if you feel devastated by disappointed or even exhausted of all purpose—I pray that you hear me as I sing out the truth: Your life, your story, your gifts, your “song” matters. There is greatness in you, and the world is waiting—no, the world is crying out in desperate hunger—for what you have to offer. Now is the time to move from being a gift hoarder to being a gift giver.