Canisius College Performance Troupe
Kevin Koch ’07 admits he used to be painfully shy. That was until Sababu Norris, director of the ALANA Student Center (ASC), invited him to join the Canisius College Performance Troupe.
“Sababu pushed me out of my comfort zone,” says Koch. “Being part of the troupe and performing poetry in front of high school classes helped me to become a confident public speaker. I was able to accomplish things that I never thought I could.”
Sponsored by the ASC, the troupe is an ensemble of undergraduate students who interpret and perform selected works of poetry and prose. The pieces are primarily selected to bring attention to urban issues, particularly those faced by people of color.
“I wanted a way to share messages with high school students that they can relate to,” says Norris, who founded the troupe 20 years ago. “I was also hoping to change students’ views of Canisius, to show them that we are in touch with some of the issues they face.”
Norris teaches troupe members of all majors the art of oral interpretation, how to analyze texts and examine the rhythm and different voices in each piece.
“Troupe members do not simply read poetry, they bring the words to life,” adds Norris, who has an extensive background teaching theatre, playwriting, and directing. “They make the audience feel the imagery.”
Some students move, dance or rap during their performances. In doing so, they are able to connect with students on issues that matter to them, such as bullying or grief and loss.
Troupe alumna Crystal Shaw ’15, MS ’19 says that sometimes high school students open up about their own issues or cry during the presentations because of the subject matter.
“Working with young people via the troupe has helped me find my life's purpose and passion,” says Shaw, who works as a school counselor in the Buffalo Public School District.
“Empathizing with others about their experiences and appreciating their narratives are things I've learned to do as an oral interpreter in the Troupe,” adds Shaw. “These are all fundamental skills for successful counselors. I also use writing and poetry as therapeutic tools in my work.”
A major goal of the troupe is to address the needs and concerns of students who have trouble seeing the value of completing their education, both at the high school and college levels. Norris says that during Q&A sessions, troupe members help students define their future goals.
“Students brainstorm and ask troupe members, ‘How did you get where you are today?’” he says. “We even have had students who were so motivated by the troupe that they ended up attending Canisius College.”
Julie Christiano, retired teacher at Bennett High School, eagerly anticipated the Performance Troupe’s visit to her classroom.
“I felt exhilarated because I knew what was in store for my students,” says Christiano. “Each performer interprets the work individually but all project passion. I especially enjoyed the smiles on my students’ faces, realizing they had been part of something communal, and that they had experienced poetry in a way that they never had before.”
JoAnna Rozier ’07 was also inspired to work with youth because of her experiences with the troupe. She is director of Youth Services and a youth development trainer for the Community Action Organization of Western New York. In addition, she is founder and chief trainer for JoRo Organizing, which specializes in interactive professional and positive youth development training.
“Connecting with our audiences sparked my passion to interact with a crowd and to invite them for a moment of engagement they didn't know they would enjoy,” says Rozier. ”My favorite comments were those of students and adults who said that they read the same literature I performed but missed most of the key concepts until they heard me read and perform it.”
Rozier’s long-time involvement and outstanding presentations as an actor and oral interpreter in the troupe led Norris to create The JoAnna Rozier Johnson Performer Award given annually to one member who brings poetry/prose to life and projects excellence in stage presence.
“The Performer Award recipient is adept at connecting with high school and college audiences by performing a wide range of selections—displaying diverse emotions and kinesics, which JoAnna is known to demonstrate,” says Norris.
In addition to applying the skills they learned to their lives and careers, many alumni continue to write, perform or even publish their own poetry. Among them is Koch, who is now a teacher at Lewiston-Porter High School. He has the unique perspective of being a non-African American interpreting and performing works from their culture.
“I learned the facts and intellectual side of historically oppressed peoples in history class,” says Koch. “With the troupe, however, the literature involved made a much more immediate and personal emotional connection to issues faced by people of color.”
Shaw adds that she hopes to write and publish her own book of poems soon.
“I know this dream is possible to achieve,” says Shaw. “Sababu has a way of challenging you and helping you to become the talent you never knew you were.”
Norris says that ultimately, the troupe strives to bring a greater appreciation of cross-cultural literature to audiences.
“As ambassadors for a Jesuit, Catholic institution, we hope that we use poetry to open the racial dialogue,” he says. “My goal is to augment growth among troupe members, high school students and the college community.”