By Mike Strasser, West Point Public AffairsFebruary 22, 2012
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Feb. 22, 2011) -- West Point celebrated Black History Month Feb. 15 as a talented ensemble of cadets--largely from the Class of 2015--brought an electrifying collection of poem, song and dance onto the stage at Robinson Auditorium.
The theme of the evening's performances was "The Influence of African American Women on Culture, Society and the Military, told through the Arts," and it was only fitting to begin with an homage to the recently departed trailblazer, Whitney Houston.
On screen, she mesmerized with the 1991 singing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XXV, performed just 10 days after the commencement of Operation Desert Storm.
From there, cadets delivered one powerhouse performance after another, taking the audience through three acts titled "The Past," "The Transition" and "Umoja--Unity," which infused interpretive dance with the spoken word.
As impressive as the stagecraft was, it was the collaboration of cadets behind the scenes working tirelessly to assemble this production that was equally noteworthy.
Class of 2015 Cadet Sarah Locke was responsible for all the choreography, and Class of 2015 Cadet Katherine Bullard was tasked as the event producer.
Bullard, a member of the African American Art Forum and the Cadet Gospel Choir, was caught off-guard when she was named producer.
"Those (two clubs) were the sponsoring organizations for the event, and they were asking us for ideas for the show," Bullard said.
She soon became tasked with much more than brainstorming, but was promised plenty of support.
On the heels of winter break, Bullard created the script which went over 20 pages long, as she attempted to capture the strength in African-American women throughout history--no small feat.
For many years, Black History Month observances have been held on installations throughout the world. Rather than drawing on past practices, Bullard wanted to write something original. A poet from Tampa, Fla., she contributed three pieces of her own work to the evening's program, as well as drawing inspiration from poets like Nikki Giovanni (Class of 2012 Cadet Ashley Anthony delivered an exceptional reading of the poet's "Ego Tripping") and Leodis McCray.
The finale, she said, shows how cultures intertwined and co-exist, making African-American history an integral part of American history.
After the show was scripted, rehearsals began early in January.
"We held rehearsals twice a week for the speakers and acts that required little dancing; and three times a week for the dancers and steppers until February," Bullard said.
Then rehearsals intensified, with the entire cast and crew working together three days a week. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes, but it also allowed the group to avoid panic when changes were necessary.
Locke was responsible for choreographing at least five different dances in the show, including the high-energy finale to Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)."
"Just with how much we had to do in those six weeks and how much we wanted to perfect, it got a bit overwhelming at times," she said. "It means a lot to everybody involved in the show in different ways, but in the same way that we put so much work into it. The stress got overridden by the bonding and how much effort we knew we put out on stage."
The dancers, Locke said, were able to add their own creativity into the performances so the bonding, which occurred behind the scenes, was evident on stage.
"Sometimes they didn't even need me to choreograph," Locke said. "It worked out really well where what you see on stage isn't just my choreography--it's me guiding them, but it's them putting their hearts out on stage."
Locke not only choreographed and danced in the show, she had the pleasure to bring her mother onto the stage. Pat Locke graduated from West Point with the first class of women in 1980, one of two African-American female cadets to commission as second lieutenants that year from the academy. She introduced the guest speaker for the evening, Maj. Gen. Marcia Anderson--the first African-American female to earn the rank of major general in the Army.
At the end of the night, the cast and crew may have been exhausted, but they were basking in pride from what they accomplished, as people approached them to tell them as much.
"The cast and crew did an amazing job, their dedication and hard work paid off," Bullard said. "What was witnessed that night was the efforts of a team--whether it be the costumes that they helped acquire, the video that was created, the backstage work, the present for the guest speakers, the technological and theatrical effects or suggestions that made the show more personal--we could not have accomplished what we did without each other. "
For Bullard, it also allowed her an early opportunity to practice leadership skills.
"The process of putting on this production showed me my weaknesses as well as some of my strengths," she said. "I have felt what it's like to be the person in charge and have been exposed to the pressure and stress that goes along with it."
Not only that, it gave her newfound respect for those around her in command positions who face similar challenges in their respective duties.
"I have learned to be more patient, understanding and flexible," Bullard said. "I have also learned the importance of planning ahead and always having a plan B. This production has been the best leadership experience that I have had so far."
Class of 2012 Cadet John Craig-lee said Bullard did an admirable job maintaining her focus throughout the planning and execution of the observation. Craig-lee served as the cadet-in-charge this year, and has been part of the planning and execution of the annual observation all four years at West Point.
"I was definitely impressed with the plebes' dedication and desire to produce a quality program," he said. "They worked hard and long to make sure they were satisfied with their product. It was nice to see that the next three years should be in good hands. When all was said and done, I was happy. Everything went smoothly and according to plan, and I doubt I could have been more pleased."