Two St. Andrew’s students, Stephanie Tanoh ’20 and Derek Ike ’23, traveled to the Wilmington Public Library last week to listen to talk by Anthony Ray Hinton and perform two dance pieces for Hinton and his audience. Hinton was exonerated from prison in 2015 after spending 30 years on Death Row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit, and in 2018 published a memoir of his wrongful imprisonment, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.
The St. Andrew’s Dance Program dedicated their Parents Weekend performance to Hinton; one piece included in that show was performed by Derek to a spoken-word excerpt of Hinton’s memoir—a passage in which Hinton recalls speaking in prison for the first time in three years. Director of Dance Avi Gold was first inspired to point his dance students in Hinton’s direction during V Form orientation in September, when Head of School Tad Roach read this same excerpt aloud to the junior class.
Derek performed his solo piece at the Wilmington Public Library reading, and Steph and Derek then performed a second piece that “speaks to finding one’s courage in this world,” Mr. Gold said. “Sometimes, as Mr. Brown so eloquently put it in his talk, doing that requires you to go out of your comfort zone.” You can watch Steph and Derek’s performance on YouTube.
“These two artists touched hearts in profound ways, as was evidenced in the audience’s standing ovation and their tear-filled eyes,” Gold said. “Even more powerful than their performance was a brilliant moment, just before the show, when Mr. Hinton put his hand on Derek's shoulder and said that the reason that he was doing all of this was for Derek, and all other young Black men. He explained that they needed to know his story as a warning—and as a message of hope, gratitude and forgiveness.”
“Meeting Anthony Ray Hinton was a great experience,” Derek said after the evening. “Performing was a little nerve-wracking! [He helped me to see] how unforgiveness is like a poison to yourself. When you forgive somebody, this is setting yourself free. As an African-American male, it gives me a sense of responsibility to the world to be the best person you can be, and to prove others wrong. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: ‘Exceed the limits that are set and leave a legacy that can not be met.’”
After the performance, Steph wrote the following reflection:
In the first week of school, Mr. Foehl led a powerful discussion on Anthony Ray Hinton’s book The Sun Does Shine. In the classroom, with both friends and classmates I have never spoken to before, we bonded over the compassion and anger we felt while unpacking Anthony Ray Hinton’s story. Mr. Hinton’s experience, though inspiring, is just one of the many stories we learned about black men unjustly targeted by the criminal justice system. So when Mr. Gold told me about this opportunity to dance for Mr. Hinton, I experienced an unfamiliar feeling—this was the first time I felt nervous to dance. I would not only be dancing in front of strangers, but I would also be aiming to impress a specific person I admire. How was I supposed to embody this leader’s hardships and strengths all at the same time? This inevitably led me to start dancing in odd places such as the Dining Hall and in the van on my way to mentoring. My mind was focused on perfecting this dance that I had very little time to perfect.
When we arrived at the library we were greeted with smiles. People were genuinely interested to see what we had to share. Five minutes before the performance, we all got to meet Mr. Hinton and Mr. Gold enthusiastically shared the story of our recent [Parents Weekend] dance performance, given in honor of Mr. Hinton’s story—a story that represents the strength and love that people have the capacity to possess. Mr. Hinton seemed honored, and spoke to Derek if he were his own son. Mr. Hinton asked Derek to remember that although he would face many challenges as a black man in society, if [Hinton] mwas able to forgive his oppressors and find purpose, Derek should be able to do the same as well.
Dancing for Mr. Hinton and his guest was an amazing experience. I was given the opportunity to share my love for dance, but hearing Mr. Hinton’s talk was most definitely the best part of the trip. One could read his book, one could discuss his book, but this is not the same as hearing him tell his own story in front of your eyes. I couldn't have imagined the humor Mr. Hinton was able to bring to a situation that stole 30 years of his life. At times I wondered if I should be laughing because I could only imagine myself crying when recalling such difficult circumstances. Before I witnessed Mr. Hinton’s speech, his ability to mentally escape his 6x10 cell, and not only forgive, but love his greatest oppressor were achievements I thought only a spiritual being could accomplish—not a human being. I walked away from his talk knowing that although justice is not blind, and instead is quite intentional, love can be our greatest weapon against adversity.