By Abby Lorch | Sept. 12, 2022
Dr. Gaunt performs her vocal memoir, “Education, Liberation!”
Photo Credit: UAlbany Performing Arts Center Website / albany.edu/pac
It was 3:00 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2022, and the Performing Arts Center was abuzz with excitement and conversation. As the final attendees took their seats, a strong, sure voice echoed around the room in song. Over the next two hours, audience members laughed, cheered, and snapped along with the powerful voice. They reflected, connected, and listened intently to its story - that is, the sung and spoken story of University at Albany professor Kyra Gaunt.
Last week Dr. Kyra Gaunt, an assistant professor in UAlbany’s Departments of Music and Theatre as well as Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, performed her one-woman show, “Education, Liberation!” The performance, described by Dr. Gaunt as “the diary of a Black music professor,” consisted of several connected anecdotes and meditations on her life. Though Gaunt stated that perfectionism had no place in her show, she wove each segment together flawlessly to reveal truths about “musical blackness” and the human condition.
The songs performed ranged in genre from opera to hip hop, and each built upon the last to analyze phenomena like Black musical tradition, childhood and womanhood, pedagogy, and racial aggression. Gaunt’s performance also included interactive and conversational elements, which served its overarching purpose. According to Dr. Gaunt, the show was intended to inspire audiences to take a stand, whether against social injustices or the internal battles of their own minds.
Gaunt’s performance was deeply personal. She expanded upon Maya Angelou’s “caged bird” metaphor to emphasize the necessity of singing through barriers in her own life; she sang an original song about her desire to change the world and confusion as to how she might accomplish that; she detailed the harassment she faced simply because she dared to teach Black culture.
All of this, while impactful on its own, supplemented the show’s participatory element. Audience engagement, a cornerstone of Black music which Dr. Gaunt termed “individuality within collectivity,” was the main instrument through which Gaunt connected her own life with society at large. Dr. Gaunt invited students in the audience to assist her in teaching, a practice that is typical in her classes. As they recited childhood rhymes together, they embodied the communal aspect of Gaunt’s philosophy of musical blackness.
Dr. Gaunt wore her inspirations, her ancestors who escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad, Maya Angelou, and Patricia J. Williams, on her sleeve throughout the show. Perhaps her greatest influence, though, was her own personal growth over the years. She detailed a years-long struggle with stage fright that limited her artistic expression on several occasions. Her eventual triumph over this stage fright was fundamental to the ethos of “Education, Liberation!”
“I wanted to give myself the gift of the thing I had been afraid of for so long: singing, performing, in front of people,” Gaunt explained. “This is my gift to myself and to you.”
The show was indeed a gift. Dr. Gaunt wowed the audience with her vocal range, lyrical profundity, and joie de vivre. Her songs and speeches evidenced talent and expertise; they also revealed insights on society, existence, and identity, and intersections therein. Spectators left the venue with a new understanding of musical blackness and a mission to exercise Gaunt’s passion in their own lives.
“The biggest thing that stood out to me was her emphasis on voice,” said Calista Corson, a UAlbany freshman who attended the performance. “We as a society need to use our own voices to understand and dismantle the systems of oppression that silence marginalized groups.”
Because Dr. Gaunt’s showcase coincided with her birthday, the audience gathered to sing and eat cake after the performance. As she proudly blew out the candles, surrounded by supportive students and colleagues, the music of celebration once again filled the Performing Arts Center.