Gullah Queen of Aunts

Great aunt that don’t care if you like it or not
Great aunt that ain’t too proud to drink a beer…
And ask you if you want one, too
Great aunt that fought the Klan
And kept a gun in the table next to
Her relaxin’ chair
And made sure you knew how to shoot that can
A gun totin’ BEAUTY-by-ANY-beholder
Great aunt that told you ‘bout that Gullah voodoo
Tole you not to take no money from nobody’s hand
Tole you how they like to bury your hair in the yard
Just to drive you crazy cause them don’t like you.
Great aunt that took me to the Piggly Wiggly
I thought she was kidding but she wasn’t. Cause she don’t never kid.
Great aunt that dressed down the best of them, while leaning on her rickety fence
But had no children from her own self, so she raised somebody’s
And talked about us up in New York City
Because we were her own.
And she was ours.
Great aunt that we went south to bury.
Because she had no one else
But she did. Have us.
Rest in peace you Gullah Queen of aunts.
Have a beer up there.

 

Coal Black Woman

The joy in your belly was a contagion…diamonds shining in your eyes
Even though I always screamed bloody murder
You laughed like a queen whose crown had been stolen so long ago,
You forgot the slight

I looked into your dancing eyes, entranced by your goodness
And felt your stomping feet, which caused us to rise and fall—Bouncing!
Each time your colossal feet landed
On the floor

You were pure joy, one who carried a double load
Of lash and blow
Of black-as-night and fire red man
Heavy with the water

Not fine but mighty grand, Black as night, Tall and lanky
Teeny almond eyes, hands that clapped out rhythms for us
So that we could dance, and be joyful
I remember still, your pulses remain in my body, making the African flow

But Western Union came making Mommy cry
And you wore the haint blue dress. I remember your hands…
Nanny to some—maybe even Mammy
But Granny to me, Great and Grand and Mother, Extraordinaire

You were the Lucy I knew, the beginning of us all
We were contented, safe, together while you were here
Bootstraps minus lickings— you gave us ancient dynasties
The likes of Mali and Songhay, which continue to reverberate in us all
Whether we know it or not.

 

Sand and Silt

I used to stand where the earth was planted firmly beneath my feet
Or so I thought…
When I spoke to people who did not answer
I thought they were deaf
But they were not, they did not want to hear or see me
I was bewildered but not crouched or crumpled
Where the terra was rocky, I leapt to a level place
And kept pace, sashaying and looking straight ahead
Not tarrying with those who would not hear or see
I sometimes tripped and fell onto jagged places
I thought that perhaps I stumbled, but I can remember ─── being pushed
I try to suppress those memories
I do not want to believe
In cruelty
I do not blow away like sheaves of grain
I jump onto silt and steady myself, decimating them with my presence
I have been taught to step lively and not to be submerged
Sometimes it is the jig or the two-step or the hustle
I know the man in the moon will try to drown me in the quicksand
Because he wants to stay there, sitting atop his cherry
Filled with the red blood
Of others
But I have lived many lives, some of them on sand and silt
And I know many dances…among them is the Boogaloo

 

Cynthia Stephens is a proud, native New Yorker who lived in each of the city’s five boroughs by the age of seventeen. Early in life, Cynthia self-identified as a dancer and subsequently studied dance and theatre at the 92nd Street Y, and the Cherry Street Arts Program in lower Manhattan.

As an adolescent, she feels fortunate to have studied with dance greats such as Shawneequa Baker-Scott, Baba Chuck Davis, LaRoque Bey, Godfrey Sakifio, Babatunde Olatunji, Youssouf Koumbassa, and at the Clarke Center for the Performing Arts. She performed around the United States with companies such as the Godfrey Sakifio Ghanaian Dance Company, the Louiness Louiness Haitian Dance Company, and the Egbe Obirin Nigerian Dance Company. Cynthia also studied at the esteemed Dance Theatre of Harlem.

When she reached young adulthood, Cynthia was faced with making a decision that would determine the trajectory of her life. Instead of accepting a scholarship from The Dance Theatre of Harlem, she continued her academic education, eventually earning a Doctorate in Deafness Rehabilitation from New York University in exchange with the University of London.

While conducting fieldwork at the Lexington School for the Deaf, Dr. Stephens was inspired to fuse her arts and academic backgrounds and created a non-profit organization called The Hear Me Now Project, Inc., an arts program for young people with impaired hearing and other disabling conditions. In response to community needs, the program was expanded to include all children on the east end of Long Island, without financial or social access.

A career in playwriting developed when, responding to a dearth of suitable material for the children in her program to perform, she wrote The Princess and the Golden Yam, a classic fairy tale based in an imaginary West African country. The play was met with great enthusiasm, and subsequently, professional actors were hired to workshop this play. Cynthia worked with two other women, who are singer/songwriters, to complete an original score for this musical. “The Princess” was professionally performed in 2007, featuring Academy Award-winning actor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Broadway veteran Shannon Antalan. Cynthia Stephens feels a moral imperative to write about African American experiences, and she founded Sacred Ground Productions LLC as a vehicle to present her works.

Cynthia Stephens became entrenched in playwriting and wrote two additional plays, including 19 Secrets (a closer and more personal look at Harriet Tubman’s life, and what she sacrificed as a woman to rescue and assist hundreds of enslaved people). Her last play is titled Painted Red, which chronicles the life of Henrietta Lacks and focuses on the costs of her untimely death to her family and abuse by medical institutions.

Determined to hone her skills for playwriting, Cynthia undertook coursework in acting and directing at the Atlantic Theater Company (NY), The HB Studio (NY), and Larry Singer Acting School (NY).

In 2018, Cynthia joined forces with Broadway great Nathaniel Stampley, to revise the music for The Princess and the Golden Yam. They mounted a cabaret at the Green Room 42, where some of the music was sampled and was met with great enthusiasm and anticipation for the next production.

As a past Dramatists Guild member, Cynthia worked on gender parity initiatives, and in 2010, produced a panel at a symposium on women in theatre, held at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park. She is currently a member of The League of Professional Theatre Women, Theatre Resources Unlimited, and her organization is sponsored by Fractured Atlas.

Dr. Stephens has expanded her authorship to include a trilogy known as The Days Books for children: including, On Days Like These, 133 Daunting Days, and Before Day Clean.

In 2019, Cynthia Stephens entered into discussions with a theater in Hudson, N.Y. to mount a production of “The Princess”, when COVID struck the world. She, therefore, transformed The Princess and the Golden Yam into a storybook, with the hopes that children of color will see themselves reflected on its pages in an elevated light. She also hopes that people of all races and religions will include this book in their children’s libraries; thereby, giving children of privilege a view of children of color, which is different from those often portrayed in the media.

Cynthia Stephens feels most grateful to have worked with theatre greats Nathaniel Stampley, Tiffany Nichole Greene, Tara Taylor, Antoine L. Smith, and Sahirah Z. Johnson. The most important lesson Cynthia has learned throughout her career as a creator of art is: “If you ask someone else for permission, you give them the right to say no.”