Arts and Entertainment reporter Gabrielle Garcia acts as Pia in the African American Theater Arts Troupe‘s (AATAT) production of “Black Eagles,” a play about black World War II. Read about her experiences rehearsing and working alongside other members of AATAT.

em>February 19, 20, 21, 22 at 7 p.m.
(Doors open at 6:30 p.m.)
ADMISSION FREE for UCSC students with ID
General admission: $12
Non-UCSC students: $7

UCSC Stevenson Event Center
1156 High St
Santa Cruz, CA

During the many nights of rehearsal for the African American Theater Arts Troupe’s (AATAT) upcoming production “Black Eagles,” light designers reached for the imaginary sky and attached colored lights on black rods high above the Stevenson Event Center’s floor. With the ambiance now set, the fully functioning doors placed on stage by set designers became an entrance for the army barracks.

As the cast members stand on stage rehearsing their lines, they almost look like mannequins. Moving slowly while reciting words, the movement speeds up and transforms them into men who actually exist in the 1940s at an army base in Italy. Fourth-year Wisdom Cole, who plays a young soldier in the Tuskegee Airmen Project in the 99th Squadron, explains his process — which is improving like everyone else’s.

“What happens is you get too in your head. You’re thinking about your lines, and making sure you are saying them right, and you can’t think about your movement,” Cole said. “Once you got your lines down, you can move and do anything.”

The struggle to memorize lines and finalize the movement of the characters on stage during these lines, known as “blocking,” is met with dedication by all actors and actresses.

The brain works to process the lines that are being expressed, while the body follows with purposeful movement. This mirrors the efforts of the crew, who work to create an intricate set meant to transport people into another time and place.

The long process of cue-to-cue is like holding a remote control toward a stage, speeding up and slowing down time. As actors struggle to recall their lines, accents and combined movements, a stage manager yells for lights, props and sound. An atmosphere is created in this large collaborative effort. This atmosphere is often put on pause — after a line, a cue is called to signal a light — which results in a very particular vibe suspended for a synchronized moment in time.

Third-year Shawn Heron is another airman who is a part of the 99th squadron. “Black Eagles” is a story that revolves around the experiences of young black men stationed in Italy during the 1940s. It unfolds through the eyes of two elders on stage as they reminisce about their time, and the audience time travels by watching other actors relive these memories. Heron, who plays one of the young airmen contemplates the play during a short break.

“Tonight’s rehearsal isn’t over. I’m not too sure how I feel yet. As of now, we’re learning a lot,” Heron said.

It’s not just about the lines for the actors, or even the acting. It’s a collaboration of movements, voice intonations, facial expressions and emotion. Heron, along with the entire cast, dedicated an hour to movement as they prepared a special method for the airmen to march onto stage — a step. A step is typically a combination of movements that uses different body parts to create a percussionistic and rhythmic musicality. During today’s rehearsal, the fusion of army marching and percussion rhythm culminated into a uniqueness that is common in AATAT.

“The step was fire. It was amazing. I enjoyed it. It’s different, it’s not something I thought we’d be doing,” Heron said.

After bodies being worked and minds tested for patience during the three, sometimes four hour rehearsal, it still rewards everyone with a payoff. Although late on a Tuesday night, everyone has a common goal — the final production. It’s not easy work, and everyone understands that. Joseph Evans, a third-year who plays an elder airman recalling his time in the war explained his outlook on the production process.

“These late night rehearsals are also helping us every day because everyone’s tired, and everyone goes to work to get out of here,” Evans said. “We are learning a lot. Our team is progressing. The chemistry is improving every day.”