This Sunday, for its third annual Black History Month Celebration, the National Museum of Dance features Solomon Northup re-enactor Clifford Oliver Mealy.
Mealy, a Greenwich resident, has been acting the part of Northup for more than 20 years. Buoyed by the Oscar-nominated film “12 Years a Slave,” which chronicles Northup’s kidnaping, enslavement and eventual return to freedom, Mealy’s performances are even more in demand.
His re-enactment will be the centerpiece of the afternoon’s program, complemented by music and dance.
Mealy happened on the opportunity when the local librarian in Greenwich insisted that he do a black history program and gave him Northup’s book “Twelve Years a Slave.”
“I got hooked right on it,” Mealy said. “The good ladies of the library made me clothes, and the next thing I knew, I portrayed Solomon Northup.”
A photographer by profession, Mealy found it different being the center of attention rather than behind the scenes. He studied acting in order to bring the historical character to life.
drawing on story
He doesn’t use a script for his performances, instead preferring to draw on Northup’s story and react as he thinks Northup would. Since the release of the movie, he’s put a new twist on his performances, focusing on Northup’s life before slavery and after he regained his freedom.
Sunday’s presentation will be interactive, with Mealy inviting the audience to ask questions and talk with him in order to initiate a dialogue on the larger issue of slavery and racism.
Black History Month Celebration
WHERE: National Museum of Dance, Swyer Studios, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 2-5 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.dancemuseum.org, 584-2225, extension 3009 to RSVP
“I think for too long, certainly prior to Obama, slavery and racism was like the big elephant in the room,” Mealy said. “Blacks don’t want to talk about being slaves, and whites don’t want to talk about having slaves, propagating slavery.”
“Race is always a touchy issue,” said Johnnie Roberts, who is in charge of programming at the Saratoga Springs Visitors Center. Roberts will be host of the program as well as reading an original poem that she wrote for the event.
“The past is too much of our present,” Mealy said. “My goal is to make people comfortable to talk about race.”
Music and dance
To that end, the museum has incorporated music and dance into the program. Interspersed with Mealy’s performance, some members of the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church Choir in Saratoga Springs will sing gospel songs and spirituals, and the dance group Figures In Flight Released will perform two modern dance pieces.
Figures In Flight Released is made up of former prisoners who began dancing through a program at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Sullivan County.
With Jecoina Vinson, the company’s director, Andre Noel of Queens, will perform a duet to the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” which speaks to slaves being separated from their mothers on one level and God on another.
“A mother is supposed to protect a child from danger and anything else bad that’s happening in the world,” Noel said, noting that Northup had no one to protect him when he was sold into slavery.
The other piece Noel will perform solo is the classic modern dance work “Rainbow Round My Shoulder” by Donald McKayle. It tells the story of a prisoner on a chain gang in the American South and his desire for freedom. “I understand the value of freedom after doing 13 years in prison,” Noel said. One of the goals of Figures in Flight Released is to keep young people from making the choices that lead to incarceration.
While the afternoon is billed as a Black History Month Celebration, Mt. Olivet pastor Rev. Victor Lancaster Collier and Mealy say that this history does not stand alone or apart.
“We’re human,” Mealy said. “This is the American experience. There is no black history; this is American history. My history is your history, and your history is my history.”
Collier shares similar views. “The races are not races at all. We all come from one source,” he said. “We can all appreciate what our tribal transition was, but we are all one, and we can all share in each other’s experiences as a people.”