“I had to learn very early not to limit myself due to others’ limited imaginations.”
It was that philosophy that served Mae Jemison so well throughout much of her life, which took her from her home town of Decatur, Al. onto the pages of history as the first African American female astronaut in history.
Now, her remarkable story is being told in a play titled simply, “A Tribute to Mae Jemison,” which will play its third engagement in a little over a year when it reopens at the Black Spectrum Theatre in Jamaica on May 15. It will run through the 18th.
The play was commissioned by the theater’s executive producer, Carl Clay, who said he was “looking to do something for a contemporary figure who was a woman.”
He said he and the play’s author, Jacqueline Wade, first worked together in the 1980s, when Black Spectrum became “the first theater company to do theater dealing with the AIDS crisis. Together with the New York City Department of Health, we did plays aimed at middle schoolers.”
After Clay approached Wade about the current project, he said the two of them “talked for over a year. Jacqueline gave us a good script. We went back and added elements to make it a workable experience.”
According to the play’s director, Bette Howard, the play “more or less covers Jemison’s life story from the age of 8 or 9 until whatever age she is now — close to 60.” Jemison, born in 1956, currently resides in Houston, Texas.
In addition to flying into space in 1992 aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, Jemison has also worked as a physician, scientist, chemical engineer and teacher, and even found time for a stint in the Peace Corps. She is also fluent in several languages.
Howard said she was drawn to this play because “it’s very exciting. We staged it so you feel she’s in the ship. We try to give the feeling of the take-off.”
The members of the cast all play “not under three roles each,” she explained. “There is constant changing of costumes and wigs. They have a different delivery for each character.”
Though several of the actors are new to the latest incarnation, Clay said that “not much has changed since last year. The show has maintained its integrity.”
The play was originally aimed at children, but Clay said that “adults walk away with a very strong response.”
He believes this play is a good vehicle to introduce children to live theater. “It can be more fun than sitting in front of a boob tube. We’re very big on children getting new experiences.”
For Howard, one of the goals of the play is to “inspire the children to reach for higher horizons. Jemison had a lot of discouraging things happen to her. There’s nothing you can’t reach for if you have the inspiration and drive.”
The play, which incorporates music and the use of video, runs about one hour, and “is an entertaining piece,” Howard said. “You see her family, the professors she worked under, the challenges she had to go through. We try to give a taste of the world she came from to where she is today.”
Jemison’s accomplishments are not lost on Clay, either.
“She was not the perfect student,” he said. “She came to academic success through struggle and difficult obstacles. She overcame them.”
Neither Clay nor Howard has had the opportunity to meet the play’s subject. “We’ve tried desperately to make contact with her,” Clay said. “We haven’t pulled it off. Everyone tells us she must really see this play. It’s a wonderful tribute to her. It’s about holding on to your dreams.”
The Black Spectrum Theatre is located in Roy Wilkins Park, at 117th Street and Baisley Boulevard in Jamaica. For further information, call (718) 723-1800.