By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
At an early age, Priscilla Hancock Cooper recognized the importance of mentors and artists.
“I grew up working for a black weekly newspaper, so I had adult mentors all my life,” she said. “That was embedded in me.”
She was also surrounded by creative people.
“It’s what I knew, and it really helps,” she said. “It really shaped me. I thought every place was like that.”
Those influences can be identified in a number of Cooper’s performances, including “Call Me Black Woman,” a mix of poetry, drama, and music, and “Back to the Dream,” a play she helped write that was showcased at the Red Mountain Theater Company.
“Black theater is a vital part of the American story,” she said. “Much of what is popular in mainstream theater is drawn from the African-American experience. It’s important in and of itself.”
Cooper’s work in “Call Me Black Woman” touched many—“women in particular,” she said, “and not all of them were black women, which I found interesting.”
Cooper teaches creative writing and poetry to incarcerated girls, as well as through the Summer Enrichment Program in the Arts (SEPIA) in her church. She also is an instructor for the Nia Creative Day Camp, which focuses on teaching African-American history and culture.
Sharing the “strength and beauty” of that culture gives young people a foundation to believe in themselves “to make change and strive toward accomplishing whatever their life’s purpose may be,” Cooper said.
In all of Cooper’s teaching efforts, theater is a key part of the educational process.
“Theater is so great for building the confidence of young people because they not only get knowledge and the information but also learn to speak and have confidence for public speaking.
“I still have young people I worked with SEPIA who can walk up to me and quote the poems they learned as part of [the program]—and now they’re in their 30s. Those lessons last,” she said.
Cooper, who retired earlier this year as vice president of institutional programs at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), would often use the museum as a platform to reach youth. From day camps to workshops and projects, many young people were taught confidence, she said, adding that teachers are just as important as students because, “when you reach teachers you’re reaching thousands of young people in return.”
Cooper’s message is plain: strive for excellence.
“I tell writers that every writer needs an editor,” she said. “There has to be a willingness to accept criticism, and that can be difficult. But don’t be deterred by criticism; use it to empower [your] creative work and process.”
As a recent retiree, Cooper wants to support others.
“I’m still trying to figure out what retirement means,” she said. “But I do know that the [arts] are important, they invaluable, and they can be life-changing. I don’t necessarily have to be the person doing [the work], but I do want to be the one who is supportive of others who are.”