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Stover brings black culture, pride to local community

Darrell Darius Stover doesn't like limitations.

"Art doesn't necessarily take place in the confines of an institution or building," Stover explained, his head, topped with an African kinte hat, leaning back in thought. "It goes beyond structure."

It's an unusual sentiment for someone whose job requires him to fill a particular structure-in Stover's case, the almost-restored performance hall of south Durham's Hayti Heritage Center-with arts programming.

But then again, Stover's own life is difficult to confine in any type or classification. He has studied retroviruses in a National Cancer Institute lab, has shouted poetry on the streets of Washington D.C., and has known the drudgery of paperwork that comes with being an arts administrator.

Stover came to the Hayti Heritage Center in 1998. Since his arrival, he has expanded the center's programming, adding a monthly poetry reading and strengthening such staples as the annual Black Diaspora Film Festival, said Dianne Pledger, the center's president. "He's been very good at presenting the African-American performance and enlightening the community on the contributions of African Americans," she said.

The Hayti Heritage center was founded in 1975 in the historic St. Joseph's church to celebrate the once-thriving black community of Hayti. And though Hayti may have received its death knell when the state paved the Durham Freeway through its central business district, Stover has helped to boost the center's visibility, bringing such noted artists as poet Amiri Baraka and blues singer Shamika Copeland.

"North Carolina has a lot to celebrate," said Stover, whose small office is papered in posters and news clippings. "I mean, when you start talking about black music, you talk about the blues and jazz musicians from this state alone-John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack-it's just a fantastic opportunity. My job is very easy because of the richness that exists."

Stover's path to Durham and arts administration was not direct. A native of Washington, D.C., he grew up on science fiction, soccer and soul food, and took his childhood love for science to the University of Maryland at College Park, where he majored in microbiology and became the school's first black student body president.

Foregoing his parent's dream that he become a medical doctor, Stover followed school with a stint at a lab in Bethesda's National Cancer Institute. But Stover was writing poems, too, and making friends within D.C.'s black artist community. In 1988, while working as a science writer for Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, he pulled together seven other poet-friends to celebrate the release of his first book of poetry. The group became The Spoken Word poetry ensemble.

There is an image taken by a Washington Post photographer taped to Stover's wall. Stover is atop a trash can, on the corner of D.C.'s 14th and U Street, speaking to an audience of attentive passers-by.

"The community was challenged-there was a red light district, a heroin shooting gallery," recalled Stover. "My whole thing was to take art, to take poetry, to where people are."

The performance by The Spoken Word was the first in a series of programs called A Poet on Every Corner. The group moved from corner to neighborhood corner, speaking their poetry of black heritage and personal triumph. In a tribute to then-incarcerated Nelson Mandela, the group began speaking at the park across the street from the White House and ended at the South African embassy.

"I look back on those particular experiences, and say that they made me who I am," said Stover. "It contributed to that resolve of the role of an artist as serving one's community."

In addition to the ensemble's volunteer work at mental institutes and women's shelters, Stover took his words and his boombox to the young men in Oak Hill juvenile detention center's maximum security facility.

"There, it wasn't about creative writing, it was about rapping and writing," said Stover, who volunteered at the center six days a week for over a year. Stover played rap and talked with his D.C. students about the lyrics, about rap as poetry, history, culture, and then encouraged them to write their own poetry or perform their own raps.

"My craziness was about a commitment to the real responsibility of the artist," Stover said of that time. "I stand on the shoulders of those who've gone before me and I'm sure there are folks who've gone before me who went to prison who took art to people. I'm honor-bound to hold up that tradition of encouraging others to do the same."

In 1996, Stover followed his wife, who works as vice president of communications and marketing at the Triangle United Way, to the area. After working as a science writer in Research Triangle Park, he planned on moving back to Maryland as head of the infant Black Cultural Center at College Park. But a boss plugged him into the job opening at the Heritage Center.

Soon renovations on the sanctuary at the Hayti Heritage Center will be complete, and Stover's job will be to energize the 450-seat performance hall. But Stover's personal and professional mission is the same-to take black poetry and art off the static confines of the page or the canvas and make it alive and personal to his community.

"I make no bones about being a part of the continuity of the Black Aesthetic," Stover wrote in a collection of poetry he produced with The Spoken Word. "Black Art Moves and shall continue to do so."

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