The federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. should be a day of service. As President Joseph Polisi said during the unveiling of the Cey Adams mural dedicated to King, the Juilliard community made the decision to honor King’s commitment to service by continuing our work inside the building rather than take the day off. Thanks to that decision more than 25 years ago, our community built a tradition of using the various skills of its students, staff, faculty, and alumni to honor and educate others on King’s legacy in an annual performance. Usually held in Paul Hall, it brought together all Juilliard divisions to create a program reflective of the civil, cultural, and personal impact of King and his message of nonviolence, creative maladjustment, equality, faith, and justice.
This January, the performance was cut, and although student leadership groups were informed of the change and participated in developing the new program, the cancellation left some members of the community with a feeling of loss and mistrust of those in power.
I don’t say this to decry the mural itself, the service event of making birthday packages for underserved children, or the Liberal Arts Department and the Office of Student Affairs’ wonderful addition of hosting Melissa Harris-Perry’s lecture. But the unveiling of the mural was sparsely attended (despite Polisi’s same-day email requesting faculty to excuse students) and left some community members feeling icky and full of rage. In contrast to the celebrations of previous years, the unveiling felt hastily put together, and, as a result, seemed more like an apology for the dropping of tradition rather than a replacement of it. I left the event with a profound disappointment and the feeling that my place in the Juilliard community was somehow insignificant. While endemic of the sentiments of the civil rights movement, my hope in this day of rejoicing was to honor how far we have come, rather than find empathy in a battle of my own. However, this led me to write a letter to administration, which turned out to be a catalyst for change.
Upon reading my letter, Ara Guzelimian, the provost and dean; Joan Warren, the vice president for enrollment management and student development; and Jennifer Awe, the dean of student affairs, agreed to a meet and discuss the controversy surrounding the M.L.K. performance and its replacement week of events. They expressed genuine concern when informed of student reaction to the change in tradition, and wanted to ensure that I, and others like me, were not silenced or discouraged from raising our voices about the issues that matter to us. From this honest, open, and forward-thinking conversation, I feel I must share some information about the history of the M.L.K. celebration at Juilliard that I hadn’t known about.
Students founded the M.L.K. performance in 1988, a time when, I was told, minorities felt underrepresented in Juilliard productions. Mainly fueled by these underrepresented students, it started out as a way of educating the community, both within and beyond Juilliard, on the legacy of King, his partners in the civil rights movement, and their history. The performances had educational, political, and emotional importance relevant to the many effects of King’s message on minority and majority life.
However, I learned in my meeting that in recent years it had been difficult for the O.S.A. to recruit students to perform in the event, let alone coordinate time for them to rehearse. Some performances took shape only the week prior, with little rehearsal time at all. (This of course, does not reflect the pieces that clearly showcased thought, dedication, and boundless talent.) In light of this, the administration did what they thought was right and made changes. Now that our channel of communication has cleared, it is evident that they would love to work with us to honor King’s legacy.
If you are passionate about this and would like to be a part of a cross-division team in pursuit of a new, multifaceted celebration, please contact me, Joan Warren, Jennifer Awe, or the O.S.A.
I hope you will lend your voice, whether big or small, to the momentum of this project. Let us be artists and citizens. Let us make change together. You are significant. As King said, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”