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NIEHS Celebrates Culture During Black History Month

By Eddy Ball
March 2010

Joyce Snipe
Poet Joyce Snipe asked the audience members to imagine themselves reliving the collective five-hundred-year history of African Americans living in the Western Hemisphere. (Photo courtesy of
Steve McCaw)

Engram, Holliday, and Mosley
From left to right, ensemble members Engram, Holliday, and Mosley share a final dinner as discoveries about Mister's treachery propel the action toward Celie's climactic speech. (Photo courtesy of
Steve McCaw)

the audience and others
The reception following the performances offered the audience and others a chance to enjoy food and fellowship in the NIEHS cafeteria. (Photo courtesy of
Steve McCaw)

Left to right on the back row are Davis, Wilder, Mosley, and Braithwaite, with Register, right, and Holliday in the foreground
The players posed for a group photo during the reception and food sampling. Shown left to right on the back row are Davis, Wilder, Mosley, and Braithwaite, with Register, right, and Holliday in the foreground. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The NIEHS Diversity Council called on the considerable talent of Institute employees and contractors to celebrate the wealth of African-American culture during a Black History Month (BHM) event Feb. 23. The RTP Chapter of Blacks In Government (BIG) (http://www.bignet.org/)Exit NIEHS co-sponsored the celebration, which was moderated by Diversity Council Vice-Chair and BHM Program Co-Chair Eli Ney.

Following a welcome by BHM Co-Chair Wanda Holliday, the celebration began with the audience singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing." With words from the 1900 poem by James Weldon Johnson set to music in 1905 by his brother John, the hymn is widely recognized as the African-American national anthem.

The program of spoken word, dance, theatre, and literature reflected the themes introduced by "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Like the hymn, the presentations celebrated African-American faith, perseverance, creativity, and triumph over adversity and suffering.

NIEHS Biologist Annette Rice led the audience in reciting the BIG Covenant of mutual respect and love. Biologist Joyce Snipe then read her poem "Imagine," tracing the African-American experience from the initial bondage on the shores of Africa of the first American-bound slaves, through the struggles for freedom and civil rights, to the election of an African-American President in 2008. Closing out the first half of the program, the Millennium Revival Center Mime Group took the stage for a dance performance.

The final half of the program featured a dramatization in five scenes of the novel "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker, the first African-American woman awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Literature. The ensemble cast (see text box) made creative use of minimalist sets and static lighting on the stage in Rodbell Auditorium to keep the audience entertained, amused, and moved by the story of the brutalization and ultimate triumph of the main character, Miss Celie.

At the end of scene five, "Liberation," with her children and self-respect restored, Miss Celie faces the audience and exclaims, "I'm poor and black. I might even be ugly. But, dear God, I'm here!" Moved by the dramatic resolution, the audience, which spent much of the performance laughing at the antics of the cast, stood to give the players a round of enthusiastic applause.

Following the performances, people flocked to the NIEHS cafeteria to sample an impressive array of African-American and Caribbean cuisine. Also on tap at the reception were performances by the vocal ensemble "Ohennema" and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity stompers.

"The Color Purple" Players in Order of Appearance

  • Miss Celie, the physically and sexually abused daughter, wife, and mother of two, speaking soto voce through most of the performance - played affectingly both in the character's utter humiliation and in her ultimate empowerment by NIEHS Occupational Health Nurse Lindia Engram
  • Sophia, the loving, but uncompromising wife of Harpo - portrayed with feminine strength and boisterousness by NIEHS contract employee Lakesia Register
  • Harpo, the would-be abuser whose tables are turned, hen-pecked husband of Sophia, Jut Joint lover of Squeak, and son of Mister - rendered by Tyrone Davis with the same slap stick flair and hilarity he brought to the role of the son in last year's "A Raisin in the Sun" (see story(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2009/march/culture.cfm))
  • Albert, a.k.a. Mister, the brutal husband of Celie and frustrated lover of Shug Avery - acted with gusto by NIEHS Administrative Tech Edward Mosley, the banker in last year's "A Raisin in the Sun"
  • Shug Avery, the seductive performer and entrepreneur who steals the hearts of Mister and Celie, paving the way for Celie's triumph - engagingly and humorously portrayed by "Raisin in the Sun" mother and NIEHS Contract Specialist Wanda Holliday
  • Squeak, the sensuous and sultry Jut Joint beauty who fires Harpo's passion as she tries to wreck his marriage - captured endearingly on stage by NIEHS Staff Scientist Elena Braithwaite, Ph.D.
  • Narrator, the voice offstage contextualizing the five scenes with background from Walker's novel - an essential role filled capably by NIEHS Administrative Specialist Pinkney Wilder


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