‘Love, rhythm and promise’: Drew University remembers theater professor Rodney Gilbert

The late Rodney Gilbert. Photo courtesy of Drew University.
The late Rodney Gilbert. Photo courtesy of Drew University.
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By Anna Gombert

Do the work.

That was Rodney Gilbert’s motto during the nearly 20 years that the actor and director taught at Drew University in Madison.

Rodney Gilbert did the work. And it was remembered lovingly on Sunday, with dramatic scenes, songs, and speeches. Gilbert died in November from a rare brain disease. He was 50.

Drew graduate Andrew Binger recalled how Gilbert told him and three other actors in King Hedley II that they were kings.

“A black man told four men of color that they were kings, and I swear to you I never forgot that. I never forgot that someone believed in me enough to call me a king,” Binger said.

The late Rodney Gilbert. Photo courtesy of Drew University.
The late Rodney Gilbert. Photo courtesy of Drew University.

Gilbert recently had become a full-time professor in Drew’s Department of Theatre and Dance, ranked fifth in the country for B.A. theater programs by the Princeton Review. He taught Speech, Intro to Acting and Directing, and African American Theatre.

He also co-founded Advantage Arts, with the Marion Bolden Center and Professors Lisa Brenner and Chris Ceraso. The program brings Newark high school students to work with Drew mentors to create original works and perform plays.

Sunday’s memorial in the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts included selections from Gilbert productions of King Hedley II, A Raisin in the Sun and New World Disorder, performed by Binger and fellow alumni Billie Krishawn Holmes, Najah Johnson, Ronald Truman Kitts, Christopher Reyes and Shakur Tolliver.

Dance Professor Kimani Fowlin and cast members of Drew’s most recent production, Down Neck, danced to a cappella vocals by Johnson, Kenna Jackson, Olivia Moreira and Tiffany Thompson. Johnson sang His Eye is on the Sparrow to conclude the evening.

Gilbert had introduced Down Neck to Drew, and was scheduled to direct it. Meyung Kim stepped in as director of the Pia Wilson play, which is set in Newark’s Ironbound district during the city’s riots.

A scene from a memorial at Drew University for the late Prof. Rodney Gilbert. Photo by Anna Gombert
A scene from a memorial at Drew University for the late Prof. Rodney Gilbert. Photo by Anna Gombert

Fowlin, Ceraso and Brenner all described Gilbert as a life-saver and a giant, whose legacy will endure.

Drew student Alcides Costa summed up his late professor with three words: Love, rhythm and promise.

“He created legacies, he created communities, he created families with a sentence, with a conversation, with words,” Costa said.

Earlier this month, Drew renamed its annual Educational Opportunity Scholars Salon The Rodney M. Gilbert Memorial Salon: The Fires of Rebellion, in honor of the professor.

Olivia Winters, a Drew junior, said the memorial reminded her of the importance of the Newark program that Gilbert helped start at Drew.

A tribute will honor the late professor and artist mentor Rodney Gilbert at Drew University. Photo: Drew University
The late professor and artist mentor Rodney Gilbert at Drew University. Photo: Drew University

“Theater education is so important, but it’s even more important in communities that don’t have access to it typically,” Winters said.

Tobias Truvillion worked at the Yendor Theater Company with Gilbert, the founder, and called that experience profound.

“I’m a living example of how arts can change your life. I’m a living example of Rodney. When you see me, you see him,” said Truvillion, who echoed Gilbert’s motto.

“We’ve got more work to do,” he said.

Anna Gombert, Drew University Class of ’20, is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Drew Acorn.

Items at Drew University memorial for the late Prof. Rodney Gilbert, Feb. 25, 2018. Photo by Anna Gombert.
Items at Drew University memorial for the late Prof. Rodney Gilbert, Feb. 25, 2018. Photo by Anna Gombert.

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