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They have been working on the project since volunteering in September, and now 13 students will see their writing and photography used by one of America’s foremost poets. Some also will perform their original poems and dramatic sketches.

Sekou Sundiata returns to Lafayette to present The 51st (Dream) State, the performance component of his latest creative endeavor, The America Project, which combines poetry, monologue, music, theater, and photography, 8 p.m. April 29 and 30 in the Williams Center for the Arts. Tickets, which cost $2 for students and $6 for others, can be purchased by calling the box office at 610-330-5009.

Sundiata presented the preliminary version of The America Project to the Imagining America National Conference at the University of Pennsylvania on Nov. 6. The piece now incorporates the work of students George Armah ’08 (Accra, Ghana), English major Kiira Benzing ’07 (Ridgewood, N.J.), Danielle Bero ’07 (Astoria, N.Y.), Karen Bouldin ’08 (Everett, Wash.), art major Davita Crawford ’05 (West Orange, N.J.), international affairs major Maly Fung ’07 (Fresh Meadows, N.Y.), Dora Johnson ’08 (Yonkers, N.Y.), Al-Amin Kheraj ’08 (Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania), Diana Galperin ’08 (Warminster, Pa.), Jacquelynn Molzon ’08 (Saratoga, Calif.), English and international affairs double major Danielle Pollaci ’06 (Trenton, N.J.), Karen Ruggles ’08 (Easton, Pa.), and Allison Thompson ’08 (Saddle River, N.J.).

The professionals behind the production are Sundiata, artistic director and vocals; Sage Carter, visual designer; Richard Harper, vocal director; Andy Milne, band director and keyboards; Maritri Garrett, vocals and keyboards; LaTanya Hall, vocals; Shaun Kelly, drums; Calvin Jones, bass; Marvin Sewell, guitar; Bill Toles, production manager and recording/mixing engineer; and Katea Stitt, residency manager.

Sundiata was first introduced to the class of 2008 during First Year Orientation, which kicked off his yearlong residency at the College. The residency is cosponsored by Imagining America, a consortium of colleges and universities sharing a commitment to public scholarship. It will serve as a model for similar endeavors by other consortium members.

In TheAmerica Project, the poet, performance artist, and teacher combines art with civic dialogue to present a “contemplation of America’s national identity, of its power in the world, and of its guiding mythologies. It explores how America defines itselfIt is a quest to find a vision of what it means to be both a citizen and an individual in a deeply complex, hyper-kinetic society.”

The students volunteered to work with Sundiata after seeing his Orientation performance, and have provided him with original poems, prose, and photographs. Sundiata met with them a number of times in the fall and spring semesters to stimulate group discussion of topics and give assignments.

Involvement in The America Project has deepened the students’ exploration of the theme of their first-year experience, “Imagining America,” which uses the creative arts as a vehicle for exploring American identity and for knowledge-making and liberal learning.

It has also given them the opportunity to work one-on-one with an accomplished artist.

“These students are working in a very intensive way with one of the leading poets in the country,” says Bill Carpenter, assistant professor of English and faculty liaison to Sundiata. “They’re getting direct feedback from him, they’re seeing how the creative process works, and even more importantly I think, they are getting experience in how art and creative thinking can link to civic dialogue and community participation. And that’s really the whole goal: to get students to see that there are ways of confronting issues and having conversations that go beyond various academic processes.”

“The effectiveness of art is that it enhances critical dialogue because you can portray emotion and feeling through it,” says Ruggles, a photographer and writer for the project. “The dialogue blended with the multimedia [elements] will be more effective, more touching, than just words.”

“The America Project is mixing art with politics, economics, and social theory – the things we learn in class,” adds Kheraj, a writer for the project. “It’s one thing to talk about an issue and another to present it as an art form because in art there is emotion, all sorts of things that can make the idea come alive. Seeing an idea is more effective than just hearing it.”

For the students, contributing to The 51st (Dream) State has been an opportunity for significant examination of their own views of America. They have been writing their ideas about American identity and sending them to Sundiata throughout the year. In Kheraj’s case, that examination came through the eyes of a Tanzanian.

“This project has really changed my views of America,” he says. “I didn’t realize that things like poverty, racism, and discrimination were part of the American identity. And in America there are so many different cultures, so many different circumstances in which people live, that it causes many different views of America by people who live here.

“I can’t even say ‘the typical American view’ anymore without hesitation because this project has made me realize there isn’t just one view. I used to think there was one, but America is so large and diverse that it really is a world of its own.”

Ruggles has been photographing scenes that capture the essence of America, including ones of the former Bethlehem Steel factory and of everyday American life. She values the learning experience of listening to her peers on the project team.

“Sitting around and hearing what people had to say about their dreams and what their views of America were – we had students from other countries and from different backgrounds and locations here in America – was very beneficial,” she says. “Listening to other people talk colors a black and white picture I’d created in my mind of America.”

In addition to discussions among themselves, the students also have interviewed community members to get their views on what America means, which is being incorporated into the performance.

Ruggles’ passion for photography led her initially to focus solely on that aspect, but she was soon drawn to writing as well.

“I started to listen to what people had to say and I felt compelled to contribute to the discussion,” she explains. “The project sets a stage where you’re involved because you want to talk about the themes of it, and you know other people are there because they want to as well. This really feeds the conversation and we go deeper than one normally does.”

Kheraj notes that the project has “increased his awareness of issues of the world in general, not just America. I have found myself thinking about issues that I had taken for granted.”

Sundiata has been a Sundance Institute screenwriting fellow, a Columbia University Revson Fellow, a master artist-in-residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts (Florida), and the first writer-in-residence at the New School University in New York. He was featured in the Bill Moyers PBS series on poetry, “The Language of Life,” and as part of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on HBO.

He has written and performed in the highly acclaimed performance theater works The Circle Unbroken is a Hard Bop, which received three AUDELCO Awards and a Bessie Award; The Mystery of Love, commissioned and produced by New Voices/New Visions at Aaron Davis Hall in New York City and the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia; and Udu, a music theater work produced by 651 ARTS in Brooklyn.

blessing the boats, Sundiata’s recent theatrical piece, brings the story of five tumultuous years of his life into perspective as it relates to his experience with the life-threatening illness and recovery of kidney failure and organ transplant. The work opened in November 2002 at Aaron Davis Hall and has been presented in more than 30 cities and continues to tour nationally. In March 2005 Sundiata produced The Gift of Life Concert, a public awareness event at the Apollo Theater that kicked off a three-week run of blessing the boats at the Apollo Theater SoundStage. These projects were produced in partnership with the Apollo Theater Foundation, the National Kidney Foundation, and the New York Organ Donor Network with support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Sundiata has recorded and performed his poetry with a range of musicians, including Craig Harris, David Murray, Nona Hendryx, and Vernon Reid. His first recording, The Blue Oneness of Dreams, and its successor, longstoryshort, are both rich with the sounds of blues, funk, jazz, and African and Afro-Caribbean percussion.

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