Andrew Binger is an educator, actor, director and arts administrator from Newark, NJ. Andrew spent seven years as a history teacher in the City of Newark. Building on his experience working closely with young Black and Brown men he founded Reclaiming Our Crowns to closely work with educators and schools to ideate antiracist culturally responsive strategies in schools.
Andrew is also spearheading the movement to reinvigorate the theatre scene in Newark as the Artistic Director of Yendor Theatre Company (YTC). YTC is dedicated to developing, producing and celebrating plays by Black and Brown writers. Through his work in the arts and education, he strives to amplify the voices of those that have historically been denied opportunity and access, in turn, creating a more equitable, inclusive and vibrant society.
BENEFITS OF DREW
Andrew grew up in NJ and had an opportunity to tour many colleges on the east coast but Drew stood out for him because of the great energy he felt on campus. He said, “It just felt so welcoming.” Also, he was an actor in high school productions and wanted to continue theater in college and knew the theatre department at Drew was highly ranked by The Princeton Review and others. Lastly he wanted to stay close to home, so Drew felt like a perfect fit.
A friend from high school recommended that he take a class with his mother, an English professor at Drew. After taking the course “Literary Analysis” and loving it, he decided to major in English and minor in Theatre Arts. Though he ended up one or two courses shy of a double major. He said, “I always wanted to teach so I felt English was a great pathway to a career in education.” He chose Spanish as an additional minor because he enjoyed the language and had an opportunity to use it on his Drew trips to the Dominican Republic and Honduras for The Honduras Project and the Drew International Seminar to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Theatre Arts Professor Rodney Gilbert was helpful in opening up conversations pertaining to diversity in the department. Andrew said, “Rodney’s goal was to allow our black and brown students to feel more engaged in what we were doing.” In my senior year, Prof. Gilbert directed a production of Raisin in the Sun. It was a great opportunity for the black students on campus. I had a chance to play a lead, Walter Lee Younger. This became the first all-black production for the department. It was a great moment for students of color and we created a family during that production. Rodney had a professional NY actress, Gha’il Rhodes Benjamin, come in to play the grandmother role. Andrew said, “She was so loving and nurturing to all of us. We still keep in touch with her and I am currently directing a play and I cast her in it.”
Andrew feels Drew provided many opportunities for leadership that prepared him for the future. He said, “Drew helped me become a working artist with an ability to wear a lot of hats. I learned how to balance it all between classes, on-campus jobs, productions, eating, sleeping, etc. The liberal arts experience helps you by allowing you to have a wider view on things. I bring that to all I do now to create a more enriching experience.”
One of Andrew’s strongest and most impactful mentors was late Professor Rodney Gilbert. I asked Andrew how he served as a mentor and how his legacy lives on his work and he said the following, “Rodney was the first theatre professor I had at Drew my freshman year. He made an impression on me the minute he walked into the class. He exuded energy, poise, and confidence. He spent a majority of his career working as a professional actor in New York in film and television and he brought that expertise into the classroom. What was really unique and special, is how he picked selected scenes in class that connected those scenes to our racial/ethnic or other identities. He knew these were roles we would be auditioning for. It also showed his work ethic. He found women writers who spoke in an authentic voice for women, or if students were Southeast Asian, he found works that reflected their experiences. After that class, I wasn’t auditioning but Rodney always pushed me to audition. During my junior year, Theatre Professor Dr. Lisa Brenner taught an African American theatre class and she would bring Rodney Gilbert in as a guest, where he expressed that students of color needed to be represented in the works performed. This led to him to directing Raisin in the Sun my senior year. He saw something in me and other students and wanted to let that live on the stage. After I graduated, he stayed connected to me and other students and provided opportunities for us. I recently directed a virtual play, called Welcome to Matteson, at the Passage Theater Company. Rodney directed a play there in 2014 and encouraged us to audition for productions and to get to know the leadership at this theater company because he felt it would lead to opportunities for us to work and he was right. I built my network and connected to various theater people, whether they were writers, producers, and directors, because Rodney allowed us into those spaces. This leads to some of the work I’m doing now. Rodney and I started the Yendor Theater Company in Newark because we both felt Newark was missing good theater. The legacy is fulfilling his vision of building theater in Newark. We continued his work after he passed. A few of us took the reins and three years later there has been significant growth to continue on.”
Some of Andrew’s favorite memories of Drew include doing meaningful work and impacting the community on the Honduras Project trips (he went two years.) He also remembers great moments being a counselor for the Educational Opportunity Scholar/EOF/Francis B. Sellers program for four summers even after he graduated. That experience has a special place in his heart. He said, “I wanted to be able to give back and show my gratitude for that amazing program. “ Lastly, other favorite memories include the two productions he was a part of at Drew, Raisin in the Sun and Antigone, directed by Dan LoPente.
After graduating you worked as a Spanish & Enrichment Teacher then later as a Social Studies Teacher for the Newark Boys Chorus School. You’ve also worked as a Drama instructor at the Children’s Performing Arts Academy. Can you please talk a little about the joys and challenges of working as an educator?
I always wanted to teach ever since I was in elementary school so I was really looking forward to it. I didn’t know what this would be like and it did present some interesting challenges, but for me it was an opportunity, specifically in the Newark Boys Chorus School, to work with an all-male population. It was a great experience and so rewarding to connect to black and brown men from this area. I think sometimes these young men don’t always find people they can connect to. I told them I was born in Newark and had a great sense of pride being there to service them on your journey. I learned a lot about the importance of mentoring in that role. In so many ways that was more important than the curriculum, the idea of character education, imparting what it means to be a good human being, and helping them to process the experiences that are challenging in their lives. I have students, I had 6 or 7 years ago, that I am still connected to. It’s very rewarding. I find that this connection to students is not a part of a lot of educational institutions and I strongly believe it needs to be. This is why I’m doing some of the work I’m doing now. Young people are looking for connection and support. I agree with Rodney Gilbert who said, “I never met a kid who wants to fail.” The reality is there are challenges these students face that make it difficult for them to succeed.
Tell me what it means to be a Global Shaper with Global Shapers Community?
Global Shapers Community is an initiative of the world economic forum. It’s dedicated to encouraging young people to be a part of change in their communities. Someone starts a hub and they gather young people from the ages of 20 to 30 to think about challenges their community is facing and figure out ways they can be part of the solution in these communities. Our hub was founded by a Drew alum, Kimberlee Williams. She’s been doing amazing work in social entrepreneurship. We started this hub of 10 to 15 members from Newark or the Newark area. It’s the first area in NJ to get a hub. There are about 400 hubs throughout the world. There are great opportunities to connect to other hubs and you are part of a robust network of like-minded people who want to be part of change. In Newark we are focused on connecting to youth through technology and education. We’ve been around for a few years and the last year or two has been the most productive. The difficult part is that your solutions have to be unique for your cohorts. It’s been a great experience connecting to others in Newark. I had my term as a Vice Curator working with Drew alum Diana Candelejo, who is also doing a great work in Newark working with RWJ Barnabas Health and who is also an artist. I think the best thing about this program is being connected to others that are doing great things. I’m passionate about education so I present to the group on this subject. I also connect on projects related to theater. It’s great to find a hub person who can help me develop my ideas. A lot of things we are focused on is the employment gap with college educated people in their 20’s and 30’s who are not employed in Newark. For instance, we started the Invisible Talent Campaign and reached out to companies like Prudential to get them to hire these people.
YENDOR THEATRE COMPANY
You are currently the Artistic Director at Yendor Theatre Company. Can you discuss what your work entails and some of the highpoints of this work?
Yendor is the vision of Rodney Gilbert. The name is Rodney spelled backwards. He started this nonprofit in 2003 and it was originally responsible for public art in Newark such as murals. There were about 30 to 50 pieces put up around Newark under Yendor. Rodney was not a visual artist, but rather an actor/director, so in 2016, he wanted to connect to what he was doing in visual arts to performing arts. Rodney, I, Drew alum Stephanie Weymouth and Shakor Tulliver, co-founded the Yendor Theater Company. It acted as an ensemble where he had students at Drew be part of this co-hort. We did gigs in Newark and Jersey City. When he passed away we had to figure out what to do with Yendor. It seemed that the best direction was for me to lead what this was going to be. I took Rodney’s vision, of a theater company in Newark that supports and builds up the arts community and highlights writers that don’t get an opportunity to be produced as much, like women, the LGBTQ community, and black and brown writers, and figure out how to expand on that. Also I thought about accessibility because Rodney was concerned about making sure that the people who need theater have access to it. There are many barriers that keep people from accessing art like financial barriers, transportation, and feeling welcomed in a space. Building on all of these things I learned from Rodney. With art, he went into neighborhoods that didn’t get much love. He put murals in the West or South ward. I mirrored this and started the Summer Theater Initiative where the best way to engage people is to go where they are located, producing full productions in their neighborhoods in a park or a space that is repurposed or a mobile stage. Our programming was very grass roots. We handed flyers out and told people what we were doing and said these were free plays that the whole family could enjoy. This included an opportunity to film a reading of a play. We’re still in the post production of the play, Down Neck. We did three shows: In the Clinton Hill neighborhood, we had 120 people show up, in Lincoln Park we had 150 people, and in the Ironbound section we had 75 people. We want to stay connected and impact the community. I learned this all from Rodney.
What do you think is the key to success in your field?
I think one of the things I learned in high school and I enhanced in college was being okay with leveraging the network that you have. Ask questions, ask for support and resources. Be okay with the no’s. There have been so many people I’ve met who have helped me in this journey or provided opportunities. If I didn’t have the ability to ask them for help or guidance, things would be different. It’s so important to navigate that network. I have recently started my own educational consulting business. It’s been an interesting journey and to help myself, I will have to leverage the people that I know. I need to talk to everyone. It’s important to have good relationships with others and to maintain them.
ADVICE FOR STUDENTS
What advice would you give students who are interested in becoming actors but afraid to pursue it?
I had a teacher in high school who gave me this advice and I will give it to students now, “why not go for it, why not ask? Why not do it?” The worst that anyone can do is say no.
Lastly, what advice would you give students who are interested in running their own theater company?
Look at the landscape and think about what you want to do and figure out if this this being done close to where you want to do it. One of the successes for Yendor is that it’s not being done where we are doing it. Figure out who are you serving? Our theater company does not have a space so we have to leverage spaces. For example, we do readings in the Rutgers University black box. Lastly, tell the stories you want to tell especially if no one else is telling them because they need to be heard.
Any fun facts you would like to share?
I’ve been really into photography for the last year. I’ve been buying equipment and learning how to edit. I can add this to my skill set and monetize it.
I started my own educational consulting company called Reclaiming our Crowns. With everything that is happening in our country, especially this past summer, I feel I am filling a gap that is vitally important and missing from education. How do you connect to students in urban areas and relate to populations that are underrepresented? The key thing I talk about is culturally responsive teaching. How do you foster community that is culturally responsive to the students you serve? How do you do that in your curriculum? How do you add elements so the student can see reflections of themselves? Also, I believe in the importance of mentorship and relating to students as people. For me when there were challenges in the classroom it prevented me from seeing the student as a human being. When I looked beyond that and tried to connect with the student that’s when the magic happened. There is space for us to engage with one another. You learn about the challenges the student is facing, and why they have that attitude. You can be part of encouraging and supporting them and changing their day and their future.