This weekend, Duke is invited to celebrate a famous period of African-American culture and dive into the lustrous atmosphere of Manhattan nightclubs saturated with sensual cabaret singers, frisky jazz, gin cocktails and shiny pearls. Starting Friday at 8 p.m., “Ain’t Misbehavin’” will premiere in the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture and run through Sunday. Set during the years of the Harlem Renaissance, the play tells the story of the black musicians who, as the title suggests, are misbehaving – despite racial tensions, discrimination and prohibition, they are still having the time of their lives, loving, singing and dancing to the beat.
First-year Zhuri Bryant, the play’s co-director, explained why “Ain’t Misbehavin’” plays a significant role in the fight for the truthful representation of black people’s lives.
“The U.S. is going through a really rough political climate, especially in terms of race,” Bryant said. “This means that the narratives of the people of color often tend to get pushed out, and for the first time, it’s us not talking about segregation or lynching.”
Instead, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a show about love — love of dance, music and humor, love of African American culture that reflects a passion for joy and liberty. “Ain’t Misbehavin” takes a different approach to the black narrative, treating it not as victimization but as a source of inspiration.
“Ain’t Misbehavin” features five main characters, dressed in classic Harlem Renaissance style. Armelia, Nell, Andre, Ken and Charlaine immerse the audience into the world of jazz and stride piano by singing about their lives filled with love, beauty, hardship, honesty and joy. In their world, love can be as sweet as a rose and just as infectious as dancing; jazz becomes the official hymn of all five New York boroughs and heartache is the canvas that underlines infidelity and cruelty.
During three weeks of rehearsals, a sense of this magical world helped the cast build a community based on mutual support, trust and honesty. As I was speaking with Ahnna Beruk, a Ph.D. student and the show’s leading actress, she could not help but smile while talking about her relationship with the other actors.
“I love the cast and I enjoy the people that I’m [acting] with!” Beruk said. “I’m genuinely having fun when I’m around them, and this is the main reason why I did something like this in the first place.”
According to Beruk, theater and acting in particular helped her develop the confidence that she would later use to pursue a career — which is why Beruk started performing despite her restrictive engineering schedule.
“Confidence is the key to success and in anything you want to accomplish, confidence is 80 percent of the battle,” Beruk said. “If theater or any type of art can help build your confidence, then you should definitely do it.”
As a completely student-run play, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a unique example of how passion and talent can overcome challenges like a heavy engineering workload, late-night rehearsals and limited funding.
I also had the opportunity to speak to junior Onastasia Ebright, the play’s producer and an aspiring Broadway actress who will graduate next year with a major in Theater Studies. Ebright told me why she decided to produce her own show, why she chose “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and what she had to do to make her dreams come true.
According to Ebright, the stepping stone of her theater career happened when she studied away with the Duke In New York program, where she met Charles Randolph-Wright.
“Wright told me, ‘If there are no opportunities, you can either sit still and wish they were there or create your own opportunities. Nothing is stopping you,’” Ebright explained. “He told me to put on my own musical and then I just laughed because it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard in my life.”
In the end, Wright turned out to be right. After speaking to her idol, Ebright realized that she was ready to take a risk and produce her own musical even though she had never done professional writing, producing, composing or casting.
“I get these crazy ideas and I just do them,” Ebright said. “The more I risk, the more I learn. And even when I fail … then I pick myself up, I realize that I learned so much from this failure, so now when I risk, I won’t fail again.”
Ebright put a lot of energy into choosing the right crew and, most importantly, the right show. She chose “Ain’t Misbehavin’” because it had a small cast and a very simple structure that would be easier to produce and would showcase the talent of people of color.
“I wanted to see a story of a person of color told on my campus,” Ebright said. “And I couldn’t just sit and complain – I knew I had to do something about it.”
While producing the musical, Ebright had to fight for every opportunity to make her ideas a reality. The biggest challenge that she faced was securing funding and convincing the Theater Studies department that her show absolutely had to come to existence. Now that Ebright has overcome those struggles, the show is set to premiere in four days, but she still cannot believe that her dream is finally being realized.
“It’s happening – that’s what I keep telling myself,” Ebright said. “And after the show is over, maybe, I will believe it.”
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