The Groundbreaking Efforts Required to Extend An Invitation to the Party

Image: Colombia University Arts Initiative

I recently was talking with a dear friend and colleague, Voza Rivers, who reminded me of the groundbreaking community engagement work we did together in 2005 for the theatrical production “Tierno Bokar.”

The play, which is a true story about the Sufi mystic and the power of tolerance, was written by the multiple Tony- and Emmy-award winning director Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, and based on the book by Amadou Hampâté Bâ.

Mr. Brook is bringing a new work to New York this fall. I thought this would be a great opportunity to share with the readers of Arts and Culture Connections many of the lessons learned during the project.

The Columbia University Arts Initiative was launched by the university’s president Lee Bollinger and was directed by Theatre Arts professor Gregory Mosher. Among the goals of the initiative were to “enliven the arts on campus and to connect the university to the artistic diversity of New York City.” Mr. Brook and his company, the International Center for Theatre Creation (CTIC), spent a month on campus seeking to integrate the work into the life and culture of the large, urban university, as well as the community at-large.

Columbia University is located in Harlem. To facilitate the initiative’s mission of bringing together the campus with the artistic diversity of its neighborhood, the university partnered with Barnard College, and brought in the Harlem Arts Alliance, under the leadership of Voza Rivers, as co-producer.

My team was hired and given the challenge of pulling together a community engagement strategy for “Tierno Bokar,” a play set in the 1930s. The Sufi mystic was embroiled in a dispute between rival religious factions in the West African country of Mali during the time of French colonialism. In addition, the play was going to be performed in French with supertitles—another challenge.

We were given 16 weeks and full authority to create, develop and execute a marketing campaign that would specifically and authentically speak to Harlem’s diverse residents; cultural and religious institutions, as well as to artists, and extend an invitation to them to participate in this monumental event.

New York has always had a substantial community of French-speaking immigrants from West Africa. We began with outreach—meetings with leaders of the local Senegalese community and representatives from the Malian Embassy. We peppered the African restaurants in all the boroughs with flyers promoting the play and offering discounts.

However, the turning point for me and our campaign came while riding in a cab one day in Harlem. I realized that my cab driver was from Africa. I causally asked if he had ever heard of Tierno Bokar. The driver stopped the car and told me Bokar was a great figure. He wanted to know why I was I asking. I told him about the play. The cab driver said, “We will come! We will all come! He (Bokar) is important to us!”

He then offered to share my flyers with all the other African cab drivers in Harlem, and to put the flyers on the backseats of their cabs. And he suggested I plaster the Western Union office with posters because, as he said, “Everyone goes there to send money home.” I would never have thought about these tactics without engaging with someone from the community we were seeking to reach.

Opening night was a glorious and regal affair! Attendees included students, faculty and community residents—scores of representatives from several different African communities sweeping across the theater in traditional dress. Columbia’s partner campus, Barnard College, transformed its LeFrak Gymnasium into a 500-seat theater. When you walked into the space, you were transported to the desert. It was truly amazing! The play had an extraordinary seven-week run and was virtually sold out.

Other events included symposia, lectures, workshops, and class work. All the programs were sponsored by the Columbia University Arts Initiative, in partnership with the Harlem Arts Alliance and Barnard College.

Discussing this project with Voza provided me with golden memories of that community engagement campaign, and I want to share with you the reasons I believe this event was such a great success and some of the tactics we used:

  • We were given full autonomy by the clients, who trusted our expertise and experience.
  • My team targeted several demographics with our flyers and poster distributions: students, the African community; the African-American, faith-based community, and the Muslim community, who were rarely targeted as audience members for a theatrical presentation.
  • We walked the streets in Harlem, talking to business owners and distributing materials.
  • I took to heart what I learned from the cab driver and did a special outreach based on what he shared.
  • We distributed bookmarks to bookstores and book clubs in all five of New York City’s boroughs.
  • We carefully examined price points and created a Harlem discount available to all residents of Harlem and made the tickets available for sale at a major Harlem institution, The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture..
  • We advertised in African and African-American media, as well as theater outlets.
  • We held a welcome party for the cast at a local Harlem restaurant and invited community leaders to meet them.
  • In addition, working with the Harlem Arts Alliance, we created a network of 20 civic and cultural organizations that proactively promoted the event to their members and supporters.

Community engagement requires a well-crafted, strategic plan, goals and tactics. It’s also labor-intensive. However, this investment is invaluable. Fourteen years later, the network built to extend an invitation to prospective audiences still exists and works together on projects to ensure that the Harlem community has access to arts and cultural events.

From a personal perspective, this experience was invaluable for me, as well. I can still see the audience’s expressions of pride and joy and hear their excited conversations in French and English as they exited LeFrak Gymnasium following the opening night performance. The production’s spotlight on the history of an immigrant and religious community that often lives and works in the shadows was an invitation to a monumental experience that likely transformed many lives. As Mr. Brook said in an interview, the theater becomes a “mechanism for transmitting (the) human experience and ideas,” which is another reminder to all of us about why it’s so important to ensure that there is diversity, equity, inclusion and access to all the arts.

9 thoughts on “The Groundbreaking Efforts Required to Extend An Invitation to the Party

  1. Thanks for documenting this important theatrical experience in Harlem.As Harlem residents are constantly changing they should be reminded that Harlem’s historic reputation as the Cultural Capital of Black America still lives.

  2. Donna
    Thank you for sharing this lesson. You are correct it is not easy, but it does work! Importantly the process you developed then is still relevant today…the results are from the engagement of the people.

  3. Thanks for recreating your experience for us Donna. I really miss parts of working for the arts.

  4. An excellent break down of the marketing plan used. The structure and template are transferable and can be utilized for a myriad of productions. I remember attending Tierno Bokar. Thank you for sharing this information Donna,.

    Janice Marie

  5. Donna, this break down of the marketing plan you used will inform all that I am doing in my hometown of Augusta, GA. I can see that the structure and template are transferable and can be utilized for a myriad of productions. Thank you for sharing this information Donna. I look forward to catching up soon. Perhaps over Labir Day weekend.

  6. Ahh, what an excellent breakthrough chatting with the African cab driver. This is true, thoughtful and authentic engagement…for work and for the soul.

    I had a related experience with a NY cab driver; there is so much we can learn from them. My thoughts are shared in the book: Th Practice of Power: Finding Success in a Diverse World by Tom & Janine Fondon.

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