Living Water: a young black woman’s journey to self-discovery
By Elizabeth Wilkinson ’08 M.A.R.
The April 5 performance of Living Water, a play written and directed by Meredith Coleman-Tobias ’09 M.Div., concluded the Middle Passage Conversations Conference. Following Tina, a young woman raised in Garfield, AL and working as a journalist in Harlem, the play traces her journey home after the hospitalization of her father, Milton, and the family’s battle with his HIV. This journey prompts discovery of Tina’s ancestors’ story—Kehinde and Taiwo, twins who made the 1860 journey on the last known illegal slaveship. Tina’s entrance into their story, with the help of her cousin Brenda, provides important self-discovery, lending strength and hope to face her father’s condition, which she is able to relate to the conditions Taiwo encountered.
Coleman-Tobias, who majored in creative writing at Spelman College, began work on the play last fall under a directive of Professor Emilie Townes: “Write a play about the Middle Passage.” Coleman-Tobias developed it with the help of classmates and Professor Beverly Coyle in a playwriting seminar at the Divinity School. Horace Ballard ‘09 M.A.R., who played Milton, was in the course and began working with Coleman-Tobias on the project last October. “I was intrigued by the play's multi-faceted central conceits; one of them being that we never find out how Milton contracted his illness. Meredith's use of language is as fluid as the sound of the bay waters that surround the characters' home,” says Ballard.
|“Because of my past work with persons infected with HIV and AIDS, I felt this was a space about which I should speak.”|
Coleman-Tobias also had advice from Elijah Heyward III ‘07 M.A.R., who encouraged her to enter the challenge from a space she knew. “Because of my past work with persons infected with HIV and AIDS, I felt this was a space about which I should speak,” explained Coleman-Tobias. "I coupled this with my knowledge of some parts of black American family life, culture, Alabama, and a belief in collective memory and the power of love and community. I became confident that HIV and the Middle Passage could interpret each other, artistically.”
The project, which brought together alumni, Divinity, drama, and undergraduate students, drew on the gifts of many. Musicians, including percussionist Justin Haaheim ‘10 M.Div and the Total Praise Gospel Ensemble, as well as dance choreographed by Kathleen Turner ’08 M.Div., formed an essential part of the powerful liturgical performance.
“In writing and directing the play, I really have had to work through some of my only child 'I-can-do-it-by-myself-ness,’ Coleman-Tobias said. “I've been waxing community a long time. This play was a test of my belief in coming together in community, with both its joys and aches.”
Neichelle Guidry ‘10 M.Div., who was also the student coordinator for the conference, played the leading role of Tina. Said Guidry, “One of the most profound aspects of the conference was the integration of the arts at the end of each day. So, while we spent the days working through [issues and questions] with thoughts and words, this play exhibited that we can work through them in equally valuable creative and artistic manners.” For Guidry, the play offered a perfect end to the conference. “I believe that this left each viewer with a sense that our Middle Passage Conversations cannot end because the conference is over; they must be ongoing.”