Actor brings alive Harlem Renaissance for Ogden students

Feb 4 2014 - 4:43pm

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At Two Rivers High School in Ogden on Monday, actor Bob Devin Jones appears in a one-man show as Langston Hughes, a key artist from the Harlem Renaissance. Two Rivers students have studied Harlem Renaissance artists for six weeks. A related show, which is free, will be staged at Weber State University in Ogden today. (NANCY VAN VALKENBURG/Standard-Examiner)
At Two Rivers High School in Ogden on Monday, actor Bob Devin Jones appears in a one-man show as Langston Hughes, a key artist from the Harlem Renaissance. Two Rivers students have studied Harlem Renaissance artists for six weeks. A related show, which is free, will be staged at Weber State University in Ogden today. (NANCY VAN VALKENBURG/Standard-Examiner)
At Two Rivers High School in Ogden on Monday, actor Bob Devin Jones appears in a one-man show as Langston Hughes, a key artist from the Harlem Renaissance. Two Rivers students have studied Harlem Renaissance artists for six weeks. A related show, which is free, will be staged at Weber State University in Ogden today. (NANCY VAN VALKENBURG/Standard-Examiner)
At Two Rivers High School in Ogden on Monday, actor Bob Devin Jones appears in a one-man show as Langston Hughes, a key artist from the Harlem Renaissance. Two Rivers students have studied Harlem Renaissance artists for six weeks. A related show, which is free, will be staged at Weber State University in Ogden today. (NANCY VAN VALKENBURG/Standard-Examiner)

OGDEN -- After six weeks studying the artists Harlem Renaissance, students at Two Rivers High School got a sample of the (almost) real thing.

Langston Hughes, poet and writer, showed up in the person of actor Bob Devin Jones, who did a one-man show that depicted Hughes talking about his life and his works. 

And today, students will go to a free show performed by Jones as Hughes and actress Phyllis McEwen, portraying Zora Neale Hurston. The two will perform a Southern folklore review titled "Florida Folk and the Tales They Do." The public is invited to attend the free show at 10:30 a.m. today in the Wildcat Theater, Shepherd Union Building, Weber State University, 3848 Harrison Blvd., Ogden.

"They were key figures in the Harlem Renaissance," said Two Rivers English teacher Cassie Cox, of Hughes (1902-1967) and Hurston (1891-1960). "It was the birth of black art and culture and music and art."

America had formally abolished slavery in America in 1865, but the country's mind set had not fully changed. The Harlem Renaissance spanned the 1920s.

"Before that time, black writers had not been published," Cox said. "For so long, black people were told they couldn't and they weren't meant to write. With the renaissance, there was a newfound creativity. People began finding their voices and doing what they had been told for so long that they couldn't do."

Cox said learning about the Harlem Renaissance is important for students at her alternative school because many of them have been told they can't be creative, set high goals or achieve in life.

"We try to tell them here that their current situation is not the way it always has to be. They can change. I'm an English teacher, so a huge focus is helping my kids find their own voices and there own ideas, and move forward in life in positive ways. That's exactly what we saw happening during the Harlem Renaissance."

Cox previously has brought in Simeon Wright, the cousin of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old who in 1955 was tortured and killed in Mississippi after a white woman reported he had flirted with her. Cox also brought in Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine. In 1957, Eckford  was pursued by a mob and abused by classmates for being black and enrolling in a previously all-white high school.

James' performance as Hughes was sponsored by the high school and Weber State University, the UEA Child at Risk Foundation, the Utah Humanities Council and the Boeing Foundation. The actor read Hughes' poems, including "A Dream Deferred" and talked about Hughes' being accepted to Columbia University, only to encounter housing problems when the school officials discovered his race. The actor, as Hughes, talked of his passion for Harlem and his delight in discovering other creative masters, such as Hurston.

Cox said she is thrilled that so many have stepped forward to support civil rights speakers and actors who brought history to the classroom.

"The funding schools like mine have for things like this are nonexistent," she said. "Students walked out of the multi-purpose room today hugging me and thanking me for the opportunity. There are so many people who want to be part of this positive change. 

"The students are so much more excited about learning when they know there is a culminating event like this. They really pay attention, and the talks and performances make history come alive for them. They get excited about history and possibilities for their own lives."

Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or nvan@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.

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