Nicholas Smith, a sophomore Law and Society major, has only been in the United States for about eight months, yet this week he’ll take to the stage in a lead role in a new theatrical production at John Jay, “The African Company Presents Richard III.” Smith moved to New York City from the island of Jamaica this past summer and enrolled in John Jay, where he says he had a tough time adjusting to the new pace of life. That no longer seems to be the case — this international student has hit his stride.
“I enjoy singing, performing, whatever gets me on stage. But I also enjoy using my talents for advocacy,” he said.
The new production seems to fit this requirement. The show, which opens for five performances at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater beginning April 6, explores the true story of the first black theater company in New York.
The African Company operated out of a theater called The African Grove, which was located near the whites-only Park Theater. Fearful of the competition (the African Grove welcomed huge crowds of both whites and blacks), the Park Theater’s white owner staged a riot in order to close down The African Grove. But The African Company prevailed, renting a hall next door and staging a performance of “Richard III” on the very same night as their neighbors.
“They were proud of their work, and determined to put it on,” said Smith, who plays William Henry Brown, the owner of the African Company and the first black theater owner in the United States. “I encourage everyone to see the show. It has a great message, a talented cast, talented directors, and a very talented team.”
Smith says working on the production and being involved in theater arts at John Jay has benefited him on a personal level as well. “When I just came to John Jay, I had a hard time adjusting, not only to a new school, but to the U.S. I knew that the best way shake the homesickness was to start getting involved.”
With the encouragement of his best friend Kadeem Robinson, he was elected to the Student Council as a Sophomore Representative. Robinson had attended high school with Smith in Jamaica, and is now Secretary of Student Council. He will also join Smith on stage this week as Papa Shakespeare.
“My interpersonal skills improved, I would engage more with people, I would feel comfortable in strange places,” said Smith. “All of the skills I learned from being in theater helped me with the adjustments to school and New York City. Smith also credits the John Jay Wellness Center as being a “treasure trove of support.”
The upcoming show at John Jay may be Smith’s first production in the U.S., but his acting debut came in 2014, when he performed in “Where Is Melissa,” a play about human trafficking, written by a Jamaican playwright. “Most of the plays I’m involved in have an aspect of advocacy,” he said.
Smith grew up in Spaldings, a rural town in central Jamaica known as one of the first free villages in the country following the abolition of slavery. His father was a police officer and his mother a seamstress who later became an art teacher. “They have always been the ones to encourage me to follow my dreams, and to ensure that whatever I set my mind to, I do it to the absolute best of my abilities,” Smith said.
In addition to performing in plays and serving on the Student Council, Smith is also a Macaulay Honors student and hopes to pursue a career as a lawyer working in international, immigration, or human rights law. “I want a profession that allows me to be of service to my fellow man. That’s a passion for me,” he said.
“The African Company Presents Richard III” will be at the Gerald Lynch Theater April 6 and 7 at 1:45 P.M. and 7:30 P.M., and April 8 at 5:30 P.M.