Earlier this month, Hofstra alumnus Lamar K. Cheston ’09 found himself in familiar territory. On February 6 he took to the stage at The Helene Fortunoff Theater where he reprised his starring role in the off-Broadway play Black Angels Over Tuskegee as part of Hofstra’s Black History Month celebration. Just prior to that, on February 4, he returned to the class that essentially inspired his acting career -“Performing History,” taught by Dr. Lisa Merrill, professor of performance studies in the Department of Rhetoric.
Lamar was initially an accounting major for his first few years at Hofstra. “I was happy with the classes,” he says, “but professionally I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do.” He switched to drama in 2007, immersing himself in all the performance opportunities that became available to him. It was the change in major and heart that eventually brought him to Dr. Merrill’s course. “Performing History” requires students to research and reenact historical moments and events as seen through the eyes and in the voices of prominent individuals of those times.
On October 14, 2008, the day before Hofstra hosted the presidential debate between then-Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain, Dr. Merrill seized a slice of the spotlight to present historical reenactments across campus called “Democracy in Performance.” A mix of student and professional actors recreated vital speeches and moments of public discourse that are considered important milestones in American democracy. Lamar was assigned to take on the persona of Henry “Box” Brown, a man who escaped slavery in the South by literally mailing himself in a box to freedom in the North. Other notable figures brought to life that day included Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, (Mother) Mary Harris Jones, Sojourner Truth and Will Rogers.
When asked about casting Lamar in Democracy in Performance, Dr. Merrill says, “I remember how committed he was and how surprised he was. I remember his reaction to the story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown, because a lot of people don’t know this part of American history.” She was so impressed with Lamar’s work that when Democracy in Performance had another run in 2012 as part of the second presidential debate at Hofstra, she invited him back to campus to reprise his role.
“Dr. Merrill pushes you,” says Lamar. “She makes you work. But she was and she is still so helpful in breaking things down with you, and making you feel comfortable with what you have created. She definitely had an influence on my work and helping me develop my craft,” he says.
It isn’t hard to see that Lamar’s experience in Democracy in Performance has carried over into his current role. At the age of 28, Lamar is the youngest in the cast of Black Angels Over Tuskegee. Written by Layon Gray, it tells the story of six men embarking to become the first aviators in the United States Army Air Forces during a tumultuous era of racial segregation and Jim Crow idealism in 20th century American history. The play performed for a sold-out crowd at Hofstra and has enjoyed a successful six year run off-Broadway at St. Luke’s Theater (308 West 46th Street).
Lamar was initially brought in as an understudy in Black Angels over Tuskegee and officially joined the cast after an actor left the play in February 2014. Even though he is enjoying the steady work, Lamar is mindful that there is more he can do in what he calls an “incredible, yet competitive industry.”
In addition to acting, Lamar is site director for an afterschool program at PS 40 in Gramercy Park, Manhattan, run by the non-profit organization Wingspan Arts. He works with students, grades K-5, who take daily classes in subjects like drama, dance, storytelling and arts and crafts. “I hope using my time to teach them will be like planting seeds to help them grow as people,” he says.
Reported by Hofstra student Jean Pierre (JP) Guzhnay ’17