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  • Writer's pictureJordan Egu

Interview With US Ambassador Of Cultural Arts And Playwright Gwen Moten On Upcoming Show

Updated: Apr 26

April 25, 2024


The Echo Press had the privilege of speaking with esteemed educator, United States Ambassador of Cultural Arts, talented opera singer, playwright, and current Music Director of the Count Basie Center Gospel Choir and Music Director and Conductor of the NJ Symphony Chorus, Gwen Moten.


Her one-woman play Birmingham to Botswana is a powerful presentation of her life experiences from growing up in the segregated South to witnessing apartheid-era South Africa and Nazi-controlled East Berlin. Moten expertly executes a captivating story with exceptional storytelling and extraordinary singing. The play is both educational and engaging and important for all ages.

Her next showing is this Sunday, April 28th, and will be held at Monmouth University at 4pm. Tickets are $20 and you can purchase them here


American playwright Gwen Moten with Danny Glover
Gwen Moten with Danny Glover

WHAT INSPIRED HER TO CREATE THIS PIECE

Moten grew up in Birmingham, the most segregated city in the country, during the Jim Crow era, where “you knew the history of what transpired in the South and around you. You knew you couldn’t go into certain stores… in department stores, you couldn’t try on clothes… and of course, everything was separated, including movie houses and playgrounds.”

Now, fast forward many years to Newark, NJ during February’s Black History Month... Moten is a teacher at the Newark Boys Chorus School, a highly regarded 4-8  tuition-free private school, and is playing the award-winning civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize…


“A little boy was watching and said, ‘When did this happen? Was this during Lincoln’s time?’ That made me realize I needed to tell my story… They needed to understand that there is someone who experienced those things and have seen some changes, and now they are with you, and now they can talk about it.” 



WHY ORAL HISTORY IS SO IMPORTANT

There’s a graphic that routinely circulates the internet that shows the length of slavery in comparison to modern times. It also highlights how segregation was not that long ago. 


American Slavery, Segregation, and modern times timeline
Source: https://zerflin.com/item/slavery-long-ago/ 


This is an important point of reflection for Moten. The children, past and present, are often unaware of how close this history is to them. And it’s alarming because if you don’t know the history, you won’t know how the history dictates the systems in place today. 


American playwright Gwen Moten with Angela Davis
Gwen Moten with Angela Davis

One way to combat this lack of understanding is through oral history. With today’s attack on Black History education, it’s clear that communities need to be more vigilant in educating the young people of all ethnicities but especially our own.

“Teach the value of the history... That really comes in part from our African heritage… we valued our grios—our storytellers. We, people of African descent, knew the importance of knowing your history and it was instilled in us.” We’ve got to keep that going.

WHAT MOTEN HOPES PEOPLE WILL TAKE FROM THIS PIECE

“I want people to know the possibilities. Especially when speaking to children. I use this as inspiration. I say, ‘This little black girl came from Birmingham, Alabama, in the deep south, and look what she has experienced! So what can you do?’ So I always have them think about possibilities and challenges.”


Moten also hopes that she’ll begin to be invited to more diverse schools.

“The schools I’m usually invited to are typically elitist or predominately white… They’ll say, ‘The kids haven’t experienced a person like you.’... But after I go to a school, every student has to write me. I’ve got hundreds of these papers. They have to write me whatever they feel. 100% of them, mostly white students, say they’re so thankful, they didn’t know, they’re happy to know the real history.” 


If Moten can have a lasting impact on students who aren’t in particular proximity to Black people, imagine the impact she can have on children who do look like her and whose family members have experienced similar things. Maybe she can get the kids to start asking questions, too. 



“People like me need to talk… The older people don’t talk about those hard times—whether it’s too personal or too hurtful—(but) we have to start to get over that.” 

For the children. For their future. 


Moten’s next showing of Birmingham to Botswana is this Sunday, April 28th, at 4 P.M. at Monmouth University. Get tickets here.



Photos Provided by

UN Ambassador Gwen Morten,

Wix Media, Wix Media Unsplash


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