“It was Helen Keller who once said the most beautiful things in life cannot be seen or touched; they must be felt in the heart,” said Chancellor Jack Hawkins Jr.
Audience members at the 22nd annual Helen Keller lecture series were exposed to another side of Keller, from the traditional viewpoint of a visionary and an activist, which expressed her humanity, her womanhood and her heart.
“The Helen Keller lecture celebrates the spirit of a great Alabamian—a lady, I think, who is our greatest of Alabamians—who inspired the world by overcoming great odds to become the world’s foremost champion of people with special needs,” Hawkins said at the event.
The lecture took a new art form this year as “Helen Unveiled” debuted through words, dance and music, at Claudia Crosby Theater on Monday, Nov. 14.
Keller was born in Tuscumbia, and at 19 months old, she became deaf and blind presumably due to scarlet fever. Keller is best-known for her literary works, her advocacy for the handicapped and her educational achievements.
“She dedicated her life’s work to changing the world for the better,” said Keller Johnson-Thompson, the great-great niece of Helen Keller, at the event. “Today our society has been shaped by her efforts, and while we still have a great deal of work to do, we have come such a long way.”
The scene opened with monologues given by Tori Lee Averett, chair of the theater and dance department, portraying an older Helen, and Quinton Cockrell, associate professor of theater and dance, as narrator.
“It was incredible to learn something new about someone I thought I already knew so well,” Averett said at a question and answer session after the performance. “It seemed imperative that we share this story in a new way.
“It was an honor to be able to accept the risk of giving voice to Helen Keller on the page, on the stage and then literal voice; it was very moving for me.”
Adria Ferrali, artist in residence and visiting professor at Troy, choreographed and performed with dance students London Brison of Collinwood, Tennessee, and Brooke Whigham of Mobile. Brison depicted Peter Fagan, Keller’s love interest, and Whigham portrayed a young Helen.
“The dance describes when Keller, then 36, fell in love with Fagan, a 29-year-old newspaperman who was her temporary secretary,” according to a university press release.
The dance moved the audience through the initial stages of Keller’s relationship with Anne Sullivan, her tutor played by Ferrali.
As the dance progressed, Fagan was introduced and it was apparent that he and Keller became intimate.
The musical tone shifted and became more eerie, signaling that Fagan had departed from Keller’s life, although it was uncertain why.
“The dance really brought Helen to life and allowed you to see who she really was, including the struggles she faced,” said Hannah Ramsey, a junior rehabilitation major from Pensacola, Florida.
Jenna Holley, a junior social work major from Alabaster, said the dance presented a new outlook on Keller’s life.
“It portrayed Helen Keller as a real person with feelings rather than simply being this woman we all knew as merely an advocate,” Holley said.
The production was inspired by Jeanie Thompson’s poetry collection, “The Myth of Water,” Ferrali’s contemporary ballet “With Tempest on Its Wings,” and Keller’s quote “The love which had come, unseen and unexpected, departed with tempest on its wings.”
“I have worked with the blind and the deaf my entire career, and I thought I knew Helen Keller…, but when I first saw this dance and talked with Jeanie (Thompson) so much about her writing, I realized I really did not know a huge part of who this person was,” said Janice Hawkins, Jack Hawkins’ wife, at the event
“Imagine if we were only known from what we do, our careers, and not as people,” Janice Hawkins said. “I just think it was the most magnificent performance.”