Jackson State performing arts students stole the spotlight at the 84th Annual Conference of The National Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts (NADSA). The NADSA conference, founded in 1936, serves as the oldest national educational theatre organization in the United States. The conference was hosted by Coppin State University, April 5- 9 in Baltimore.
In the student competition, four JSU students received superior, excellent, and good marks; while also securing superior and excellent marks in three of the group performance categories.
Prior to the creation of NADSA, African Americans students seeking opportunities to expand their performing arts ability were often denied access to other mainstream theatre organizations.
“This is important because our students were not accepted or even allowed to attend/compete in other theatre organizations,” says Dr. Mark Henderson, associate professor of Speech Communication at JSU.
Eleven JSU theatre and MADDRAMA students were among more than 200+ students in attendance from over 30 HBCUs. The conference provided a three-fold developmental program that allowed students to expand their craft via on-stage performances, interactive workshops, and student competitions.
Theatre major Christian Johnson, a junior, had a life-changing experience securing multiple awards for on-stage performances as well as snagging the unexpected opportunity to serve as national student body president for the organization.
“I came in with the mindset of competition. I came in to win, not necessarily network. But after connecting with other students, I relaxed and just wanted to have fun during this experience,” shares Johnson, who picked up two first-place awards in both the one-act playgroup competition and reader’s theatre competition.
In the years of JSU attending the conference, Henderson touches on how the institution has established a sturdy reputation as a competitive body of theatre practitioners who show up and masterfully show out. This perspective is affirmed by the majority of national student office positions held by JSU performing arts students.
“Our students stood out as they always do because we have been known to take a larger group than other schools, and we are seen as the school to ‘compete’ against…the other schools know that we are always coming with our A-game,” says Henderson.
Johnson, a native of Itta Bena, found himself connecting with students from various institutions as they reflected on the history of NADSA and highlighted the areas in need of improvement. After receiving several nudges of support from his peers, Johnson says he decided that it was his time to lead the organization to higher heights and become a part of the change he envisioned for NADSA.
He attributes his confidence to his mentor, former Miss JSU, Naysa Lynch, who left him with powerful words to live by: “Don’t say what needs to be changed, be a part of the change,” he recalls.
Upon graduating from JSU, Johnson plans to pursue a full-time career as a television actor after attending graduate school in pursuit of a degree in film acting.
First-time NADSA attendee LaMarr White, a junior theatre major, won first place in the oral interpretation of prose competition. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, White says he took a step outside of his comfort zone and into the spotlight, revealing gifts yet to be discovered.
“At first, I was unfamiliar with NADSA, but I really wanted to go. I’m shy, and this was a step outside of my comfort zone, but after working with my professor to prepare myself, I exceeded even my own expectations,” says White, who also secured the treasurer position at the conference.
Upon graduating from JSU, White plans to pursue a career in voice acting and has also expressed interest in obtaining a graduate degree in acting and stage management.
The NASDA conference has solid roots at JSU, with the institution’s participation spanning over several decades. This year’s featured keynote speaker was JSU and MADDRAMA alum Rob Demery. Demery is now a New York Broadway/television and screen actor who won multiple awards throughout his tenure as a student attending NADSA.
Henderson emphasized the diversity of this group of students. With both non-theatre and theatre majors in attendance, he said they possessed an array of talent, from spoken word artists and speakers to playwrights and actors.
It is his hope that as the old guard of theatre practitioners and academicians begin to retire that a new fire will be ignited and passed on to a passionate new generation of students.
“We, the new generation of theatre practitioners and academicians, are dedicated to keeping NADSA’s light burning. So as long as I am at JSU, I will continue to support and attend,” Henderson says.