At 7:30 p.m. on Monday evening, Leon Williams walked out on the stage of Anderson Auditorium shackled in mock chains, portraying the passage of thousands of slaves from West Africa to America during the period of slavery more than 400 years ago.
Several minutes later, Williams re-appeared before the crowd in familiar street clothes of a modern educator, and proceeded to inform the audience over the next 90 minutes how African-Americans have survived in America from the past to the present.
Williams presented his original monologue, "The Only Life I Know," to a large audience of Buena Vista University students, faculty and the public, and took those in attendance on a journey from a time of black enslavement by Europeans to a time where African-Americans of all ages can expect equal opportunity to earn collegiate degrees and to achieve prominent positions in society.
The owner of a bachelor's degree in management from Ohio Northern University and a master's in counseling from the University of Dayton, Williams is now is his second year as the director of intercultural programs at BVU, and said one of his goals for the monologue was to help his Storm Lake audience gain insight on the history of African-Americans and how to better understand different cultures.
"I wanted to teach people why we struggle with race relations today, and that's because of the history," Williams said. "The history has not provided us with a fair start,
so our minds are corrupt, and the less that we know about each other just keeps us segregated. So, the more we teach, the more we know about each other, and the closer we become. If I can help people understand diversity a little bit better and be able to challenge these people while I'm doing that here, then I've been successful."
Williams used the scene of a student doing a presentation during Black History Month as the centerpiece for his monologue, and quoted passages from the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass.
He also sang songs originating from the Harlem Renaissance, a period in the early 20th Century when the uptown Manhattan neighborhood had one of the biggest explosions of music, poetry and dance in American history, and used contemporary music to encourage participation from those in the auditorium's seats.
Williams said one of the biggest reasons he chose to provide the educational material in the framework of a monologue was the freedom the medium allowed for both imagination involving and illustration of the subject matter.
"You're free for creativity, expression and magnitude of that expression," Williams said. "It's critical to remember that it's different from writing a piece, such as something you may see in a newspaper, because a lot of times there's not much in our language that will give the true significance that you might want to bring about. The stage allows you to bring those expressions and emotions to the forefront, whether it be rage, joy, anger, sadness or happiness. The stage really allows you to do that."
Preparations for the details of the Monday night event, such as the music and props, took about two weeks for Williams to complete, but he said the research needed to put together the body of the monologue took much longer, and was very enlightening for him.
One of the biggest surprises Williams said he encountered while compiling research to use in the monologue revolved around the "Stolen Legacy."
First brought to the public's attention in 1954 by Dr. George G.M. James with his book, "Stolen Legacy," James states that after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 331 B.C., the Greeks took many of the advances that the Egyptians had mastered for centuries, such as mathematics, physics, astronomy, philosophy and religion, and claimed them as their own.
Instead of Greeks inventing foundations of understanding such as the Pythagorean Theorem, James said Egyptians are the ones who should be given credit for those breakthrough ideas, and Williams said it was a revelation to discover much of the knowledge humans rely on today originated not in the Aegean Sea but along the River Nile.
"To learn about how Egypt was invaded and to understand that my ancestors were brilliant before slavery was a great thing to learn," Williams said. "Most of my teachings and classroom experiences in terms of history started with the slavery, so the first information to come into my body in regards to black history was of slavery. But, in reality, that wasn't the beginning at all."
While Williams said he wasn't sure how "The Only Life I Live" will fit into his future schedule, he said he wants to continue helping and teaching students and faculty at Buena Vista, and said experiences such as the monologue could help make an impact on the audience members' lives.
"I've always wanted to do things that would provide education and provide entertainment," Williams said. "These are things that are normal practices in more city-life environments, where there's dance and poetry and education and laughter. Those are things that are a part of where I come from, and I've been given an opportunity to teach those things here in Storm Lake. The monologue is just another way to do that."