by Nkrumah Gatling
Statements that are made over you can stick to you, and sometimes they drive you to make choices. Collegiate theater can be a place of growth and development, but can also be a place of harsh words and realities. You can let these things hold you back or propel you forward.
In 2007, I was finding collegiate theatrical education to be stifling and one full of NO, so I decided not to complete my education. I wanted to find YES. The lens they were looking through seemed narrow to me, without a lot of space for people like me in it. As an African-American male, you hear so much NO in your lifetime, it can truly grind down your soul over time. I knew YES existed for me, because I could hear it in the silence of my spirit. Every time I ran up against that wall, all that I could hear was God speaking in my ear, “This isn’t for you now, this is an obstacle course. Go find it for yourself. Trust in me. I’ll lay the path.”
So I changed my goal.
I began my education at Sam Houston State University in 2003 originally as Music Education major with a concentration on clarinet. After spending my freshmen year as a music major, playing all the top ensembles, I realized that path had run its course. I left my scholarship and decided to pursue Musical Theatre. After being in three musicals and auditioning for the Musical Theatre program more than four times, I was allowed in the program. This experience was one that was filled with growing pains and rejection. I decided to not sit in that pain and do nothing. In my junior year, I began focusing on a professional career in the Houston theatrical community. My senior year, I was offered a internship at Theater Under the Stars, which included performing in two of their productions, as well as assisting in their educational department. The only hitch was I had to stay in school one extra semester during which time I would complete my classes. Only I didn’t want to. I was done with school and (in my opinion at the time) I had proven them wrong. And because I felt I had done it on my own, I didn’t want to give them credit.
Flash forward to 2018. Now having done two Broadway shows, multiple tours and more, I realized school was the only thing in my life I hadn’t completed. And the only reason for that was because I let someone’s words affect me. I wasn’t “raging against the machine.” I was letting the machine win by keeping me only in one place in my life all the years. I decided I wanted to free myself from those painful memories. The past is the past and there is nothing you can do about it. What you can do is shape your future.
I was able to secure financial aid, reapplied, and was accepted the day before the Fall 2018 semester started. My former dean was ecstatic with my decision to finish and was nothing but a helpful, caring guide through the whole process: lending advice and making sure everything was handled properly with classes, transcripts, etc. This time around, I really enjoyed my classes and the work I put into them. I was far more interested and engaged in the subject matter. None of my courses were theater-based (i.e. philosophy, biology, and kinesiology). They all presented challenges in their own right, but I had had ten years of mental rest from school to soak them up.
I received my diploma just a few weeks ago and felt incredible. I had downplayed the value of that sheet of paper for years. It was the major loss that I suffered sadly at my own hands. I didn’t know how to climb that wall at the time and allowed others to win.
Age does funny things to your eyes, you see more clearly with time... what you couldn’t before. You learn how to keep the best and leave the rest. I’m so thankful I challenged myself, because what started as a goal turned out to be a lesson of healing and growth.