On Stage at Juilliard: The Martin Luther King Legacy

by Kerry Warren, 4th-year actor

At Juilliard it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the pressure to give your best performance. As a drama student, I remember looking at the strenuous class schedule every week and wondering how I would save my energy for rehearsal at the end of the day. I was always rehearsing for something in the Drama Division, be it Shakespeare, Chekov, or a Lorraine Hansberry scene. Yet as the weeks went on during my first year I kept having the urge to collaborate with people outside the drama halls. I became curious as I watched a ballet class on my way to Liberal Arts. I would stop on the fourth floor and listen to a musician practice their scales.

This curiosity led me to a dancer who introduced me to the Black Student Union and the Martin Luther King Celebration. I still marvel how first year I performed choreography by a fourth-year dancer and then sang in a choir led by a Jazz Trumpet student. Year after year I find students creating their own work from dance solos, reenactments of speeches, or honoring the black composers who rarely get recognition.

This year I decided to perform a speech by Coretta Scott King. After participating in the celebration for the past three years, I noticed that the woman behind this great man had never been recognized on stage. I was determined to honor her during the celebration in hopes that a curiosity for her story would emerge. I remember going over a certain line in the speech, “My husband arrived somewhere to his strength and inspiration from the love of all people who shared his dream, that I too now come hoping you might strengthen me for the lonely road ahead.” This idea of sharing a dream I related to, and when I read those words, I could not help but apply that metaphor to the meaning of Juilliard’s MLK celebration.

Every student at Juilliard has the dream to be a master at their trade. And I would also say that during their time in school each student has felt lonely in the struggles of conservatory life. This loneliness, I have found to dissipate when I reached out to fellow students. The MLK celebration created an opportunity for me to share and collaborate with different divisions. Which can be refreshing in between hectic semesters at school. It was a chance for me to create as an individual and be a part of a community of different artists. I got to perform pieces that I was passionate about and without the pressure of impressing faculty. Even the Sunday dress rehearsal had its perks. Laurie Carter, VP and General Counsel/Executive Director of Jazz Studies, gets the best fried chicken this side of New York and there are always left overs. Who doesn’t enjoy good food and the company of new people after a dress rehearsal?

Then something special happened after the performance this January. An alumni pulled me aside and thanked me for my work. He was a part of the first Martin Luther King Celebration, and was proud to see it in it’s 25th revival. I felt connected to something bigger at that moment. I was also a part of a tradition and a remembrance, that many before me and after me will continue. I always felt it important to honor my history and to pay homage to those that paved the way, and I believe that’s the main reason why I participate in MLK. However, that alumni reminded me that I also perform to keep that narrative alive. I mean, I chose to be an actor because I want to tell incredible stories, to work with extraordinary artists, and to make an impact with my art. Through MLK I think all the above is possible.