Societal pressures shape the way in which many young people develop into adulthood. In fact, cultural norms are so ubiquitous that there are few examples of people who truly break the mold. Kadahj Bennett ’12, an Emerson Summer Grant recipient, is working with Associate Professor of Theater Mark Cryer to create an interdisciplinary, innovative street theater performance piece, Letters to the Shadows in the Sky, on the male black identity in modern society. Bennett's project, “Reflections in the Dark: An Exploration of the Male Black Identity,” aims to open the viewer’s eyes to various issues surrounding masculinity in modern America.
Letters to the Shadows in the Sky is inspired by Professor Cryer’s When I Used to be Black and by sociology courses that study social identity and stigmas. Bennett explains that the piece “is meant to be a reflection of complexities of assuming the role of a man of color.” He says that too often, sociological studies examine gender-related topic in an attempt to broadly characterize societal roles. Bennett wants Letters to the Shadows in the Sky to take a nuanced approach that includes themes of race and class. The piece incorporates stylized monologues, instrumentals and songs to create a cohesive whole that delves into issues of gender, race and class surrounding black males.
According to Bennett, black males have few role models to follow if they wish to defy public expectations and predetermined racial roles. As a result, many of these men assume an “inauthentic” type of masculinity, contributing to popular stereotypes, which in turn only furthers the severity of the problem. Letters to the Shadows in the Sky intends to reach out to black men, offering an alternative view of masculinity in society, while also shaking widely-held, stereotypic views. The piece is meant to be thought-provoking, yet relatable and entertaining.
Part of the process of collecting research for the project has stemmed organically from everyday life. Bennett has taken many informal interviews that started as usual conversations, since he often finds himself talking about the topic that Letters to the Shadows in the Sky deals with. He records significant quotations and phrases in a notebook. His findings are not only beneficial to creating the performance piece, but Bennett also sees his results as a process of self-learning. “Doing this is not only helping me figure out how to shape the project, but also helps me create an understanding of the man I am becoming.” He hopes that Letters to the Shadows in the Sky will affect other black men who have faced the same struggle for identity as he has and help them in the same way that the project helped him.
Unsurprisingly, the task is no small feat, and this enterprise takes a lot of time and care to be executed properly. Yet Bennett, a theater major with a minor in sociology, is devoted to his efforts, and he is very driven by his passion for creative work. He has always enjoyed creating street theater stories and remarks, “This is basically all I ever do.” Bennett is also part of the band The Downbeat Keys, which originated at Hamilton and is expanding to other venues. The band has two EPs out already and is working on a new album, Summer on Saturn. Bennett teaches at Zumix, a nonprofit music organization in East Boston, and has founded an on-campus organization based on his radio show “Blue Vinyl.”
Letters to the Shadows in the Sky is being presented at the Boston Center for the Arts as well as at Hamilton College. The piece shows a multifaceted view of the male black identity, offering something for all its viewers while helping Bennett in his own personal life.
Kadahj Bennett is a graduate of Boston Arts Academy.