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Monday, September 10, 2018

Never Stop Dreaming: Q&A with JACK &'s Cornell Alston

By Charity Coleman

How can internal life be rebuilt after trauma? This Next Wave Festival, theater artist Kaneza Schaal joins forces with actor Cornell Alston and artist Christopher Myers to consider reentry into society after prison in JACK &. Learn more about Alston's journey to the stage below and be sure to catch him in the BAM Fisher October 17—20.

Photo: Christopher Myers
Cornell Alston has been a theater artist for over 20 years. He is formerly the Coordinator for Community Outreach for Rehabilitation Through the Arts,a nonprofit organization that teaches life skills to men and women both inside and outside state correctional facilities, using the arts as a springboard. Prior to JACK &, he collaborated with Kaneza Schaal on Please, Bury Me at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and GO FORTH during a Performance Space New York RAMP residency. Other highlights of his performing career include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 12 Angry Men, and playing the title role in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. He lives in Queens and works at Country Boy Bakery.

You started performing while in prison, with Rehabilitation Through the Arts. How did that experience affect you?

I had a natural talent for acting. In 1995—96, through RTA, I played Cheswick in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and then got involved in more and more plays. It changed my way of thinking, my attitude, my behavior. Once you change your behavior you can change your circumstances, and that’s what acting did for me. I met Kaneza when she came to see Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and I got released a couple months later.

In JACK &, the social dance is a ceremonial rite of passage: how does the story onstage reflect your dream/reality?

The dance for me is successful reentry—a celebration. It’s my first time wearing a tuxedo and I’ve always wanted to do that. Being able to do those things is liberating. I get up at 3am, I’m at work at the bakery at 4:30am, but I’m doing two things that I love. When I’m dancing I’m living out my dream. I’m performing in front of people, I’m learning, I’m teaching. I’ve arrived, so to speak. I count my blessings.

The US increases spending on policing and prisons while cutting arts funding. What is the significance of the arts for a people, or for an individual?

If you’re talking about a well-rounded society then you have to talk about the arts as well. We don’t pay enough attention to the arts, we don’t pay tribute to them. The arts are a discipline and they teach discipline. They give you a voice, teach self-expression, and give you a venue for creativity; they teach perseverance and conflict resolution skills. Arts education gives you tolerance of different cultures, different people. This is what a well-rounded society looks like.

What’s next for you?

I see not only making pieces that entertain but educate. Information can change lives. There’s a wealth of information inside of me that I want to share with everyone. When your dreaming stops, you are locked into your hope and when your hope stops you are like a zombie. My thing now is, never stop dreaming.

Charity Coleman is a copywriter at BAM.

JACK & comes to the BAM Fisher October 17—20, and great tickets are still available.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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