Mixed Media

It Happened at Buffalo

A new musical finds its place in history

Photos: Douglas Levere

By Sally Jarzab


Electric lighting wasn’t the only spectacle on display at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. In an equally charged way, race was too.

A new musical in development—with aspirations for Broadway in the not-too-distant future— illuminates how blackness was represented at that famed turn-of-the-century event by vivifying the stories behind such exhibits as “Darkest Africa,” “Old Plantation” and “The American Negro.” The show’s characters and plotlines depict people and events as conveyed in historical records. Even the dialogue is drawn virtually verbatim from letters, articles and other actual accounts.

So when the musical’s creative team came to UB recently as part of a Creative Arts Initiative residency, its members seized the opportunity to scour local archives, tour local sites and meet local historians. It was here, after all, that these real stories played out. “Buffalo was a testing ground for so many of the ideas and conflicts that would go on to define the 20th century,” says Joshua Williams, one of the writers. “To me, there’s just something about saying, ‘It happened at Buffalo.’”

Danielle Johnson.

UB theater major Danielle Johnson (left) called the collaborative experience “an inspiration.” Photo: Douglas Levere

The team invited UB students to participate in the work-in-progress, fittingly titled “At Buffalo,” through class presentations and workshops, site-specific rehearsals, and two staged readings in the Katharine Cornell Theatre.

“There’s so much good fruit that came out of this process,” says Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, the founding force behind the show. The core writing team—Williams, Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin and composer/lyricist Khalil Sullivan—was able to refine characters, scenes and dialogue based on the resources found here. They described a new song composed on-site at the Buffalo Museum of Science’s archive, with students bearing witness, as “a love letter to Buffalo.”

The feeling was mutual. Danielle Johnson, one of three UB student actors cast for the staged readings alongside professionals from New York and Buffalo, played the part of Henrietta, half of a husband-and-wife black-vaudeville duo conflicted about their roles and their goals. The theater major says that what she learned through the project—about the African-American experience of that era and about the behind-the-scenes creative process—was immeasurable. She also notes that Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin was a huge inspiration, as were producer Deadria Harrington and director Tamilla Woodard. “Being a person of color in a less-than-diverse program, I was in awe of the wonderful women who headed this project, so much so that upon first meeting them I was brought to tears,” says Johnson. “It’s not often you get to see African-American women doing amazing things like this.”

The musical grew out of research that Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin conducted 15 years ago leading up to her doctoral dissertation at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She experimented with making a 10-minute dramatic scene from archival materials and tested it with actors. “I immediately knew this was meant to be a musical, one at the Broadway-spectacle level,” she says, “and I wrote it down right then: It will be called ‘At Buffalo.’”

In 2012, official work on the musical began, a process that typically takes about seven years. Now, actually having been at Buffalo (Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin also came to UB through a visiting professorship prior to last fall’s residency), the writers are closing in on a finished piece. That progress is a pride point for everyone involved.

“It’s really cool to know that the musical will always have the stamp of me and my cast mates,” says Johnson. “Things were written in the keys that we sing in—and though they could change, at its core this show will reflect our presence.”