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Rickey Powell: God Has Given Me Triumphs and Trials

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 I Thank Him Equally for Both

Birmingham theater and music legend, Rickey Powell, is the only child of Cathryne and Sylvester Powell. Cathryne Powell was a long time Birmingham school teacher, putting in over 37 years in the system, and Sylvester Powell, worked for the railroads for more than 30 years. Rickey grew up in a simple and loving home, where the value of hard work was established, along with a joy for life. Having had the pleasure of sharing meals in this home, I can say the food was great and it was served with love, and Mrs. Powell always made you feel welcome.  I also know that her passing was one of the most painful moments in Rickey’s life.
Rickey grew up singing in the church and performing in school musicals and plays, but he says it wasn’t until 1969 during the time he was attending Talladega College, that he had an experience that told him that maybe he belonged in the theater. He had won a spot as a dancer in a production of Hello Dolly, being produced by James Hatcher, who was the Director of Town and Gown Theater. Rickey didn’t even have a singing part, he was one of the line dancers, but he said that he knew during those rehearsals that the theater was where he belonged, that it was where his heart was at.
Shortly after completing his degree at Talladega College Rickey took off for the bright lights of New York City, joined by his life friend Annie Joe Edwards, whom he roomed with for a while in New York. He worked his way through a number of off Broadway engagements before finally getting his first big break when he was selected to be a member of the cast of the Wiz.
Rickey has worked with the likes of Jenifer Holiday on Broadway but he says his favorite person that he met through the theater was Clarice Taylor, best known as Cliff Huxtable’s mother on the Cosby Show. They worked in the Wiz together on Broadway and at some point also tried doing a little management company together. One of his favorite memories of this friendship is the time when his mom and his grand- mom came to New York for the first time to see him in the Wiz. After the show they went to a reception at Taylor’s home, where they had homemade chicken and waffles and mimosas. Rickey says that was the first time he ever saw his grandmother drink.
Rickey’s national and international performing career was brought to an end when he was diagnosed with kidney failure while traveling with a distinguished choir on a tour of Europe. Rickey says it was hard hearing the diagnosis and it has been hard dealing with dialysis three days a week for more years than he cares to remember. But he says he doesn’t let it get him down. He doesn’t let it make him mad at God. He understands that his trials are as real as his triumphs and he says he thanks God equally for both.
Even since his diagnosis Rickey has remained a staple of the Birmingham theater community. Over the past decades he has lent his voice and his talents to some of Birmingham’s most memorable productions, including my own award winning, 1989 version of the Dream Lives.  He has a calmness about him, when others are going crazy that is one of his great contributions to the theater.
Today he uses that calmness primarily in his work with the children at A.G. Gaston’s after school program. He and Annie Joe Edwards serve as Co-Creative Arts Coordinators for the Program and in that capacity they work with kids every afternoon. According to Rickey, “Not only do we share our own experiences, via music, via the visual arts, via the skits that Annie Joe writes for them to produce, but we also teach them African American History, every month not just in February.” Rickey notes that it also bothers him how of late it seems that African American history gets boiled down to teaching about a few people, “Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth”, and that’s it. He thinks it’s important that the kids also know Louis Latimore, Jonathan Wright, Joseph Winter, Madam C.J. Walker and others. He thinks these other stories help to give our story depth and texture.
As Rickey looks at the world today he feels that there are some who have benefitted from the movement but do not wish to contribute to keep it alive. He feels that there are some who think because they have a job at Alabama Power, or the Gas Company, or one of the big banks, that everything is all good and there is no need to be involved in the struggle. He thinks this type of attitude may be leading us to a time when our children are not getting the resources they need to be successful and that they may increasingly be limited to lower paying jobs.
Rickey Powell is a Birmingham artistic treasure. It is my pleasure to be able to tell just a little of his story. He will also be featured in our February 26, Black History Month Tribute to Cleve Eaton, that will be held at the Alpha House on First Avenue North. The Evening includes: Cleve Eaton and the Alabama Jazz All-Stars, John Paul Taylor and the Real Life Poets, poets Priscilla Hancock Cooper and Washington Booker, singer Logan, Iron Giant Percussion and others.