Lecture by Alumnus Mark H. '18 Featured in the University of Wisconsin - Madison’s ‘Africa at Noon Series’

BY Angeline Dimambro, April 7, 2021

Theatre alumnus Mark H. ‘18 was the latest featured speaker to visit the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Africa at Noon lecture series. The series has been a pillar of the African Studies Program at UW since 1973 and has gone virtual for the 2020-21 academic year.

 

A native of Washington, D.C., Mark H. (a.k.a. The NeoGriot) is a director, performer, and educator with a primary focus on American theater and theatre of the African diaspora. His directing highlights include Julius Caesar, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, King Lear, The Cherry Orchard, The Henry Dumas Project, and Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea. Along with directing, Mark has worked extensively as a professional actor with some of the nation’s leading theater companies. His most recent theater credits include We Are Proud to Present a Presentation… (Artistic Producer) and Ms. Blakk for President (Assistant Director to Tina Landau), both with Steppenwolf Theatre Company, as well as Deep Blue Sea (Dramaturg), a special collaboration with dance legend Bill T. Jones. Mark received his BFA in Acting with high honors from Rutgers University, and is a graduate of the MFA Directing Program at Columbia University School of the Arts, where he was the Dean’s Fellow and studied under the mentorship of Professor and Directing Concentration Head Anne Bogart and Professor and Theatre Program Chair Brian Kulick. He was classically trained at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

 

Mark’s presentation, part personal, part artistic statement, offers a special glimpse into his life and work as he recounted his own empowering journey to uncover and reclaim a lost personal history, and how it led him on a mission to draw on that same history in developing his own unique African American theater, one firmly rooted in and guided by both African and American philosophies and practices.

 

The event marked the first time Mark has had the opportunity to speak at UW as well as the greater African Studies community. His talk, entitled "The Way of the NeoGriot: A Journey Towards a True African American Theater,” served as a thoughtful and robust introduction to Mark not only as an individual, but also his larger work. “As I was preparing this talk, I kept coming back to the title,” he said. “It sounds nice, it sounds provocative...but I kept asking myself, what does this even mean?” Mark took the audience through his process of creating the title as well as how he continues to interrogate its meaning. “Some of the general influences of this title are ‘The Way,’ which comes from Daoism, or Dao.” Mark has been a martial artist his entire life and grew up immersed not only in its practice, but also in its philosophies. East Asian philosophies, and Daoism in particular, have long been an important part of his life. Because of this, the idea of “The Way" found its way into the title of his presentation.

 

Speaking more about the subtitle—“Towards a True African American Theater”—Mark shared that he had been influenced by both Alain Locke, one of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance and also one of the founders of the theatre department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. (where Mark was born and raised), and Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish theatre artist and director who wrote a book called Towards a Poor Theatre, and whom Mark considers one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. “This title holds many meanings,” Mark said. “In it, we have ‘the what’—the subject, the object of the thing we’re trying to go towards, which is a true African American theatre. We have ‘the why,’ which is this idea of ‘towards,’ for me, which symbolizes a direction, a mission, and purpose. And then we have a ‘how,’ which is ‘The Way of The NeoGriot,’ which for me implies steps, practice, and discipline.”

 

For Mark, theatre encompasses more than just drama. Theatre as an artform, as Mark describes it, is more broad and expansive, inclusive of performative arts like dance, ritual, masquerades, and other arts that are not necessarily text-based or narrative, but are theatrical in their own ways. Mark also considers theatre to be an important technology for sight (insight, hindsight, foresight, divine sight), communication, development, and healing. In defining African American, which Mark notes is a fraught question in itself, Mark points to identity, origin, lineage, heritage, and culture, something that’s continuously living and developing.

 

In his presentation, Mark also read the origin story of “The Birth of the NeoGriot.” “This story starts with a quote: ‘If some people forget their past as a way to survive, other people remember it for the same reason.’ That was written by Malidoma Patrice Somé, who is a West African man who wrote the books Of Water and the Spirit and The Healing Wisdom of Africa, two books I adore and find fascinating. The story reads, Lightning struck me in the midst of a perfect storm of newfound social consciousness, creative power, and discontent. I emerged from the calm as The NeoGriot, African man of the Americas. A gatekeeper to other realms, blessed with vision and the power to alter reality.

 

“This work I do, I do it to remind people who they are,” Mark said. “To give them sight. To use the art of theatre to guide, inspire, heal, by helping others locate themselves in society and the world in much the same way theatre did for me. I do this work because I have never felt so challenged, so intrigued, so confident, so creative, so able, and so comfortable doing anything else.”

 

Mark’s upcoming projects and research include staging a production of Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (Djibril Tamsir Niane, 1960), adapting it for the stage, and a production of The Masque of Blackness (Ben Jonson, 1605), in addition to translating a collection of Swahili dramas accompanied by critical analyses. The complete talk is available to view here.