Photo by Ruth Morgan
Co-Founder/Artistic Director, Faison Firehouse Theatre (2000- )
George Faison remembers that fateful day. He was a student at Howard University in his hometown, Washington, attending a dance concert featuring the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. “By the time they finished dancing Revelations I knew I was out of there. They were doing exactly what I had wanted to do all my life. I said goodbye to my parents, friends and Howard University and was off to New York City.”
It was not too long before George was a principal dancer with the Ailey company. From there he moved on to launch the Universal Dance Experience whose dancers included Debbie Allen and Gary Deloatch.
Besides performing in numerous venues, they danced on the Summer Dancemobile truck throughout the city. George says with a smile, “They used to park that truck at high noon on 125th Street when it was the hottest day of the year. Black people in the audience were appreciative and felt they could say anything they wanted to us on the stage and I would say anything I wanted to them, while still dancing.”
Some of George’s most memorable works include the ever popular Suite Otis and the tornado scene in the Broadway musical, The Wiz. George was the first African American to win a Tony Award for choreography. George has choreographed more than 30 plays and musicals and won an EMMY for his choreography of the HBO Special, The Josephine Baker Story. George’s latest passion, Faison Firehouse Theatre provides a venue for him to teach, develop and produce works for the Harlem community and the rest of the city.
Stephanie Berry, Harlem-born and raised, vaguely remembers the first play she saw. “I just remembered the name was Blood Knot and its characters were one black man and one white man.” Her brother took her to that play.
That same brother, John Berry, five years older than Stephanie, continued to take her to plays throughout her adolescence. “He may have been doing so at the urging of my mother to help keep me out of trouble. At fourteen all I wanted to do was go to blue light parties and drink wine out of the bottle. My mother, a follower of Marcus Garvey, insisted that I read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and attend black studies classes taught by a man named Leroy Baylor. There was no way, no matter how much I resisted the lessons taught by Mr. Baylor, Frantz Fanon and my mother wouldn’t have had an impact on me.”
It was that impact that inspired Stephanie to launch Blackberry Productions Theatre Company in 1984 with her co-artistic director, John-Martin.
Another inspiration was Stephanie’s friendship with noted playwright, Aishah Rahman, who’s now a professor at Brown University. “We were neighbors who used to spend hours talking about theater. We both believed strongly in the importance of black people taking responsibility for representing our own voices in the arts. We at Blackberry Productions have committed ourselves to cultivating new works by black writers that explore new and current struggles in our community.”
Faison Firehouse Theatre, among other activities, has a program that reaches out to aspiring young artists. “There is much blossoming talent in this community. We let them rant and rave with all the MFs they want to say. However, after they have finished I ask ‘Now what?’ You tell me how we can change what you have been going off about.
“Our goal is to teach aspiring young artists how to cope with the stress, how to deal with the new technology, how to express their feelings and beliefs in dance, writing and acting. Most importantly, we listen to them, which is something too few adults do.”