Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, Sadler’s Commonwealth Auditorium at the College of William and Mary is buzzing with excitement and anticipation. Audience members are chatting with their friends as upbeat music plays in the background. Suddenly, the clock hits 7:30 p.m, and everything begins to settle down. The lights dim in the auditorium, the music fades away, and the hum emanating from the crowd dissolves into silence. From behind the blue velvet curtains, a witty conversation is overheard by the audience. The hosts of the night, Nelson Soga ‘23 and Victor Adejayan ‘23 begin a skit in which they complain about having to host this event. After “realizing” the audience can hear them, the curtains swing open, and Soga and Adejayan welcome us to the show. The African Cultural Society’s much-awaited Culture Night has begun.
Culture Night is a space for people’s voices to be heard. In the past, Culture Nights consisted of plays that followed a specific theme, but this year the ACS decided to change the format into a talent show competition. The winner would receive an all-expenses-paid meal at the Blue Talon Bistro, located in Merchants Square. In addition to the free meal, the winner would also be professionally photographed upon their arrival at the restaurant.
The show this year consisted of five performances from Black students, inspired by the theme, “Being Black at William & Mary.” Alton Coston ‘23 was the first to take the stage. He recited his deeply personal and emotional poem titled, “How the Hood Loves You Back.” Pelumi Sholagbade ‘24 followed Coston with her two poems, “Named” and “The One in Which I Refuse to Say the Word Immigrant.”
Transitioning the audience’s focus from poetry to music, Tobi Adepoju ‘22 played the guitar as she sang “Strength, Courage & Wisdom” by India Arie and “River” by Leon Bridges. Next up was Dawn Bangi ‘24, with a collection of photography arranged into a visually stunning and thought-provoking slide show. Lastly, Sabrien Abdelrahman ‘22 recited her poem, “Theme for English B: 2021 Edition.”
More important than the chance for a free dinner was the opportunity each performer had to express their perspectives of Blackness at the College . When I spoke to Aklesia Tamrat ‘22, the African Cultural Society’s Co-Vice President, she explained to me why the ACS had chosen “Being Black at William & Mary” for Culture Night’s theme.
“So we were kind of debating between a couple of themes,” Tamrat said. “And then we just had members of the ACA, like African Cultural Society, to decide on the theme and everyone voted “Being Black at William & Mary” because they think that their voice needs to be heard, because everyone feels like their voices are silenced. So yeah, that’s why they picked that.”
Culture Night helped fulfill this need to be heard by providing a platform for Black students to share their unique experiences and expand the definition of what it means to be Black at a predominantly white institution.
After the last performance, the time for voting arrived. A QR code appeared on the screen, and the audience was tasked with choosing a winner. After several minutes of careful deliberation, the audience finished casting their votes and the poll was closed. Before a winner was announced, the crowd was treated to a performance by the College’s Afro-Caribbean dance team, Afrodite. The dance team’s energy filled the room as everyone rocked back and forth to the music and cheered for the dancers on stage. The routine was an excellent way to close Culture Night.
After Afrodite exited the stage, the hosts Soga and Adejayan prepared to announce the winner. The audience’s imitation of a drumroll echoed across the auditorium as the anticipation to hear the winner rose. Finally, the winner was announced as Bangi. The room burst with excitement as everyone clapped, cheered and congratulated Bangi on her hard-earned victory.
In explaining why she decided to participate in ACS Culture Night, Bangi stressed the importance of adding her own experiences to what it means to be a Black student at the College.
“I felt like it would be a platform to have my work interacted with in a different way,” Bangi said. “And I also wanted to, like, contribute my own definition of being Black.”
Bangi’s presentation was a photography exhibit slideshow that was projected onto the auditorium’s big screen. As the slide show progressed through photographs Bangi had taken, she provided commentary on how each picture represented different aspects of what being Black meant to her.
Warmth, comfort, strength and insight were just a few of the many characteristics of Blackness Bangi and her photos revealed to the audience.
“Familiarity connects us especially within the Black experience,” Bangi said. “We are a collective; there is individuality amongst the Black collective and there are different experiences, especially throughout the entire talent show.”
The presentation of these unique perspectives on being Black at the College plays a significant role in what Tamrat hopes people took away from Culture Night.
“I hope people took basically people’s different perspectives, because I feel like something about this school that usually occurs is that people think they’re hidden or only feel a certain type of feeling alone, and they think they’re isolated from everyone,” Tamrat said. “They don’t think that there are other people out there sharing the same feelings that they’re having. So I’m hoping that this show basically showed everyone that there is other people that have similar thoughts that you do. And there’s places and platforms where you could carry that out.”
Following the announcement of Culture Night’s winner and the end of the show, the audience was invited to a reception upstairs in Sadler with pizza, drinks, a photo wall and a poster on which people could write what being Black at the College meant to them.
Amina Seye ‘24 really enjoyed the show but wished more people participated.
“I hope when they do it another time there’ll be more people willing to perform for it or talk about being a Black person at William and Mary,” Seye said. “I didn’t even know there was availability to be able to talk about it so maybe they should broadcast it more. But yeah, other than that I thought it was really good.”
Munachi Udenyi ‘24 also praised the show and was particularly fond of Bangi’s photography.
“I thought Dawn’s photos were really nice,” Udenyi said. “Especially the last one she showed with her brothers. It was really cool to see.”
The ACS’ Culture Night was a truly incredible event. Using the platform this talent show provided, each performer shared their unique and powerful interpretations of what it means to be Black at the College . Hopefully, every audience member left Culture Night positively impacted by the artwork they witnessed and will be inspired to come back with friends to all the ACS’ future events.