Performers at the Ruby Dee and Maya Angelou tribute on Feb. 18 considered it obligatory to have the show go on regardless of no students attending the event, excluding myself. “When you read their stuff, they made you think about what was really going on in the world. It’s like their poetry spoke to you and you could really relate to it,” said Othella Snow, local actress.
Two sets of hands were present to applaud the tribute in the BTC auditorium. Those hands were my own and those of Brenda Hazard, director of the Marvin Library, with only a photographer passing through briefly around the beginning of the show.
“Regardless of who comes out, whether it’s two or 2,000, we got to do what we do and put on a great show. We’d like more, but we do our best to whoever’s here,” said local performer and poet Penny Mecham.
The event, organized by Donald “The Soul Man” Hyman, a professor at the College of Saint Rose and the self-proclaimed “best-dressed man in the world” in a letter published by Esquire Magazine in 2012.
“What Don does is bring history alive for each new generation, and they have something to chew on for the future,” said Mecham. She continued, “Don is such a great gift to the area. I never thought of acting before him.”
Hyman was introduced to Ruby Dee on a 1963 television special titled “Profiles of Courage” while growing up in Brooklyn. “I saw her about 20 years later at a book signing and told her, ‘You taught me about black history!’” he said.
Dee’s most recent role was in “American Gangster” in 2007, but her career stretches back to 1946. Her most notable roles were in the play “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry in 1959-60, Alex Haley’s miniseries “Roots: The Next Generation” in the 1970s, and Spike Lee’s film “Do the Right Thing” in 1989.
The tribute started around 6:05 p.m. with a tribute to late Motown artist Marvin Gaye. Hyman sang “What’s Going On?,” Gaye’s 1971 single and the title of his eleventh studio album. In the wake of the performance, Hyman invited me, and shortly after, Hazard, to the stage to sing the Motown track. Fortunately, I knew some of the words to the song, so I could follow along with the instrumental at times.
The event followed with performers reciting their own poetry, Angelou’s poetry, and a comedy skit by Dee, as well as diving into lesser-known areas of black history, such as The Last Poets’ 1972 song “Jazzoetry,” which Hyman said had elements which later turned into hip-hop: “At this time poetry and jazz had a baby, and that baby was hip-hop.”
Hyman started reciting “Phenomenal Woman” by Angelou, which he said was a fitting name. “I’d like to start out with phenomenal woman because Maya Angelou was, undoubtedly, a phenomenal woman.”
Angelou produced plays, films, and television shows in a career spanning 50 years, receiving 50 honorary degrees in her life. She is most known for her 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Both Angelou and Dee passed away last year from natural causes.
Hyman said his next tribute will be at 7 p.m. at the College of St. Rose on Mar. 14. He said that Maya Angelou’s daughter plans to attend the event.