Sekou Sundiata on the fourth floor Skybridge of the Lang building.
By Robert Hartmann & Photographed By Monica Uszerowicz
There is a certain kind of gravity to Sekou Sundiata. Over six feet tall, with a deep, measured voice, Sundiata, a writing professor at Lang, moves and speaks with a challenging presence that quickly attracts attention, especially in the classroom.
Recently, in his America Project class, Sundiata discussed a performance piece that his students could create as a final project, and then asked, “do you want this to just be a show or do you want to shake things up?”
It’s with this active approach that Sundiata has been running The America Project for the past several years. The project, a series of public engagement activities which explore concepts of American identity, culminates this year with a new class at Lang and his latest performance piece, The 51st (Dream) State, which enjoyed a three-night run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in early November.
“The inspiration came from my trying to understand the post-9-11 world,” Sundiata said in an interview with Inprint. “The basic questions are these: What does it mean to be an American at this time of unprecedented American power and influence in the world? What does it mean to be a citizen? Will the exercise of imperial power in the world cost America its soul?”
The America Project, organized by Sundiata and consisting of campus and public events like poetry gatherings and dinners, facilitates community discussions of these questions, he said. He gained inspiration for The 51st (Dream) State while holding events during his year-long residencies at Lafayette College and Stanford University from 2004 to 2006. There, he developed what he calls the “research-to-performance” method.
“It is a method of capturing language and images that may or may not end up in the script, but usually shapes my thinking as I build the work,” he said.
Having returned full-time to Lang this year, Sundiata is continuing The America Project by teaching a class of the same name. Participants in the class discuss the meaning of citizenship in a nation with a complex mixture of races and nationalities, and study a range of writing on American identity, including James Baldwin’s “The Discovery of What It       Means to Be an American” and the Declaration of Independence.
“This class raises my consciousness in regards to the power dynamics that play out in our society between race, religion, class, gender and sexual identity,” said student Rebecca Rosoff. “By gaining more awareness of the injustices and privileges that stem from these divisions, I have a firm foundation on which I can think critically about my role in this country.”
Students in the class studies Sundiata’s research-to-performance method, using his work as a model. They will participate in several group projects, including a performance piece, an anthology of class writings and a study guide for similar classes.
While existing on a much smaller scale than The 51st (Dream) State, an hour and a half long theater piece, class projects are intended to follow its example by opening the discussion of the class up to the larger Lang community, Sundiata hopes.
Deeply concerned with the concept of the writer in the world, Sundiata has been balancing academics and art for decades. An African-American born in Harlem, Sundiata graduated from City College with a BA in writing and then performed poetry with live bands while working as a public school administrator. In 1986, he became The New School’s first writer in residence.
Now 58, he has written poetry for various mediums, including the album longstoryshort for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records and a solo theater piece called blessing the boats, chronicling his battle with kidney failure and his survival through an organ transplant.
The 51st (Dream) State, his latest project, is an ambitious work. Sundiata performs poetry on a stage dominated by a large video screen and surrounded by a live band with multiple vocalists. The piece works as a dreamlike experience, with poetry interspersed by jazzy musical interludes and interview footage of Americans discussing their relationships to multiple national identities, like Japanese, Indian and Palestinian.
Sundiata’s questions about modern America connects the entire work.
“I wanted to work in a way that would include different voices grappling with the same issues because of the public nature of the questions,” Sundiata said about the range of content in the piece and his collaborations with music director Graham Haynes and video editor Sage Carter.
Sundiata said that the goal of The 51st (Dream) State is the same as that of the entire undertaking: to get America to analyze all its voices and perspectives.
“I’d like the audience to feel implicated by the questions the show asks,” Sundiata said. “Implicated enough to ask themselves the same kinds of questions.”