August stevens2
Artist Feature

Thu, Feb 11, 2021

Community Spotlight: Black Excellence with August Stevens

Every year the MAH has the honor to participate at Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march led by NAACP. We facilitate a bookbinding activity with pages filled with speeches by Dr. King and prompts encouraging writers to envision their just future. This year, we reached out to you to contribute a page to fill the Community Justice Journal with your visions of the future in honor of Dr. King's birthday and Black History Month.


Scenes from African American Theater Arts Troupe productions: Crowns by Regina Taylor. Left to right: Student actors Jazmine Logan, Trishana Wilson, August Stevens and Aaliyah Adams. Courtesy of Cultural Arts and Diversity (CADrc) website.

I reached out to August Stevens of the Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center (CADRc) at UC Santa Cruz. You may remember her from our MAHCast episode last year. While connecting about Dr. King and the Justice Journal, August shared about the African American Theatre Arts Troupe (AATAT, pronounced ay-tat), a student-based organization that came together under the leadership and direction of Donald Williams in 1991. As August shared, "AATAT was formed as a vehicle to create unity, higher visibility, and understanding of the African American culture here at UC Santa Cruz and the greater Santa Cruz community." AATAT went from being a small group with no funds and no space to performing throughout California and even raising over $100,000 towards annual scholarships to date.

It was this conversation that led to this blog post, highlighting a vision that was created 30 years ago that has elevated Black and African American stories and voices. This blog highlights AATAT – a vision in action and its impact. There are many individuals and groups in our community continuing the movement of Dr. King that he continued from leaders passed. Who comes to mind for you?

August shares her contribution to the Community Justice Journal and her story of AATAT (which I'd like to note, is an example of the Black excellence she would share with Dr. King). I encourage you to read on, reflect on what visions have reached you, and what visions you hope to act on.

We are accepting entries for the journal through February 19th, and I hope you will consider contributing your unique perspective to this moment. Get all the submission details here.

“If you could, what would you share with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?”

By August Stevens

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I would first show him Obama and then I would take him to see Black Panther, and then I would have him watch Beyonce’s Lemonade. I would want to see his reaction to the amalgamation of Black excellence since his departure. I would then want to have a discussion with him on our current “cancel culture.” I know this touches on the big disagreements him and Malcolm X had at the beginning of their political careers. As both of their platforms were elevated into the public eye, they found a disagreement in their overall doctrines. Both men stood as an almost perfect personification of the “old testament vs new testament” debate. Malcolm, taking the old with his “eye for an eye approach” and MLK representing the new with “love your enemies, turn the other cheek”. However, towards the end of their careers, their dichotomy weakened as they began to see more in common with each other.

I think this is where I would start my conversation with MLK. To what degree do we accept and what degree do we cancel?

A Raisin in the Sun 2018

Scenes from African American Theater Arts Troupe productions: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Courtesy of Cultural Arts and Diversity (CADrc) website.

I fear that with our current cancel culture, there is little room to grow and we actually end up hurting ourselves in the long run. Cancel culture is separate from actual reprimands and atonement. I don’t think it's unique to say that one should pay for the crime, but cancel culture exists more in the court of public opinion. And it has turned into witch hunts to find people at their worst and remove them from public eye, oftentimes without an attempt to understand where they are coming from and then the attempt to educate them. I would want to know if MLK sees any danger in this approach and how to turn it around.

The tensions right now are particularly rising with the political polarization of my generation (millennials/Gen Z). I see it reflected a lot on my campus, where if students aren’t up to date on the most recent POC terms, they are immediately otherized and cast out as the enemy. On the other hand, the emotional burden of Black people and POC having to educate the public about racism and “the Black experience” is an unfair one. It is taxing, it is grueling, and something we have had to do since the beginning of our presence in this country. What would Dr. King say about this? To what extent should we cancel someone, or to what extent should we educate them. Does Dr. King see a way to end this? Does he think we should be taxed with the burden of telling our stories? Is it dangerous to assume white people to educate themselves on our stories, or should we expect that of them?

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Tammi Brown. Lost American Jazzbook studio album headshot. Courtesy of Tammi Brown website.

What AATAT Means to Me

I joined AATAT my second ever quarter at UCSC. I was at the “Welcome Black” festival hosted by the African Resource Center and Mr. Don Williams approached me about a musical he was directing and they were looking for singers. I went to an arts high school for music and at this point had completed my first theater class during my fall quarter. I thought it was time for the next step.

At auditions, there were about 6 people present. 3 of them were friends already and had an established relationship with Mr. Williams. They welcomed me in like I was part of the family, encouraging me to sing with them and cheering me on for my audition. We had alumni, Niketa Calame-Harris coaching us through a song from the musical Dreamgirls.

During the show, we had many rehearsals with Grammy-nominated singer Tammi Brown, with our musical director, with Mr. Williams, and with the cast. We bonded quickly, often goofing around during rehearsals, squeezing the entire cast in the back of Mr. William's truck as he gave each of us a ride back to our dorms. We had a “family dinner” where we invited the entire cast and crew to a potluck dinner where Mr. Williams taught us how to play cards. On our outreach trip, we spoke with high school students about their dreams of college and told them not to give up, sharing our tips for applying to scholarships and where to receive help on campus.

Detroit 67 2017

Scenes from African American Theater Arts Troupe productions: Detroit 67 by Dominique Morissseau. Courtesy of Cultural Arts and Diversity (CADrc) website.

I sang my first solo, Eye of the Sparrow to a spirited crowd dressed in Mrs. Williams’ finest church garments. Me and the other cast members were recognized from the show as we walked around the streets of Santa Cruz after the show. We attended the National Black Theater Festival in North Carolina where we met and mingled with Black actors, playwrights, authors. We were spontaneously cast in a tribute to Ntozake Shange reading never before released poems to a crowd of her friends and colleagues.

All along the way, we faced resistance from the Theater Department, withdrawing support from costumes, trying to limit our ability to do outreach, delaying the promotion of our show, and all the while, creating a separation between us and the greater theater arts community.

This is how I would describe AATAT. A family that was created to address a need on our campus. AATAT was created in this space, a space that denied Black students their excellence. I considered transferring from UCSC many times, and at one point had started to apply. I was exhausted at the end of my first year from how hard it was to simply exist on campus and the greater city of Santa Cruz. I couldn’t exist as an individual in a city that saw me as everything associated with being Black. AATAT gave me a space where I could simply exist, in the spotlight, as myself. Nothing more or nothing less. And this made me stay at Santa Cruz, wanting Black students to be able to know the resource that was available to them. AATAT is a resource, we provide students with emotional, physical, academic, and financial support. We are a growing movement that only seeks to continue to find students and participants - no matter the level of experience or background - to uplift and “put to flight”.

Much much gratitude to August Stevens in sharing her story and response that will be added to the Community Justice Journal. Gratitude to CADrc leadership Kayla Ybarra and Yazlin Juarez for their contributions found below. Learn more about AATAT on their website and upcoming 30 Year Reunion and Gala “Honoring Our Roots, Uplifting Black Voices,” put on by Cultural Arts and Diversity, which will be held virtually on February 20th from 6-8pm. Click HERE TO RSVP and find out more about this banner year celebration!

CADRC Justice Journal Submissions

August stevens2

UC Santa Cruz Student

August Stevens

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Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center

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