What is the Commons Crit?

Ayanna Albertson was born into a musical family in Goldsboro, North Carolina, a small town about an hour outside of the Raleigh-Durham area.

From when she was about five years old, her family noticed her star-like qualities. Every year, from kindergarten up until the seventh grade—with the exception of third grade, when she cried her way out of the competition—Albertson competed in Goldsboro’s county fair talent show.

The experience afforded her an opportunity to develop a strong stage presence, a performance quality that today allows Albertson to activate an extroverted mask which pulls audiences up on their feet and filled with emotion. Offstage, the North Carolina native describes herself as reserved and introverted.

“When I am in my element on stage, I definitely give my all and I think that’s why people assume I’m so outgoing,” Albertson says. “It’s because I’m so connected to [the performance], that even for me, it feels personal and real.”

Albertson has honed her talents to become the multi-hyphenate creative that she is today. She is a singer, dancer, actor, writer, and spoken word poet who can even rap. To date, she is a three-time Bull City Grand Slam Champion (she placed second in the 2020 Women of the World Poetry Slam), and a 2020 Game 14 Poetry Battles Winner. Similar to her love for singing, her love for writing began at an early age.

“I specifically remember being in elementary school and I loved creating stories…fiction-based stories, with a little bit of truth,” Albertson says. “The inspiration may have come from something I saw or something I experienced, but I love being able to take the story and then have the creative freedom to make it go wherever I wanted.” 

She attended Durham’s historic Hillside High School, a formerly segregated public school that has serviced Black students since 1887. At Hillside, she was able to immerse herself in performing arts, combining all her talents onstage at once. Whether it was Glee, Grease, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or an independent play, Albertson always landed a lead role.

“I think the thing that will make me the happiest is to be able to sing, dance, and do poetry, all at the same time,” she says. “That’s what the performing arts program at Hillside gave me at that time. I had to remember lines in a way that was poetic. Then there were musicals…so I’m singing and then I’m acting. It gave me this whole full circle artistry. And I realized, okay, this is the element that allows me to utilize all these gifts.”

After graduating from Hillside, Albertson attended Oakwood University, a historically Black Seventh-Day Adventist university in Huntsville, Alabama. The school’s mission aligned with her Christian upbringing and also allowed her to have “the HBCU experience.” At Oakwood, Albertson became more involved in spoken word poetry. She began performing at on-campus open mics, which eventually led to an invitation to join a spoken word club.

“We had shows on the first Thursday of the month and it really grew to be a big thing on campus,” she says. “Each show would be packed out and I remember that was a really good feeling.”

Personal testimonies based on first-hand experiences inspire her content. Her Blackness, her womanhood, and her identity as a Christian are central themes that show up in her work. And when dealing with potentially triggering topics, she doesn’t shy away from packing raw emotions into her performance—this is what allows her to develop close connections with her audience, even if only for three minutes.

“When it comes to pieces that are emotionally ’triggering,’ I’m not just doing it for myself. I’m performing for other people,” Albertson says. “And I get that validation afterward. People come up to me all the time and tell me how the piece may have impacted them, or, you know, how it may have been inspiring to them as a writer. I’m always validated in those moments. It gives me a sense of purpose.”

This performance is part of the 20/21 Commons Festival at Carolina Performing Arts, presented in digital format. The festival takes places Fridays and Saturdays from January 29 through February 20, 2021. The festival is free with registration, which will open online January 15, 2021 at carolinaperformingarts.org.

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