We’re featuring the artists from the Supper Table project throughout the summer. This is the 16th in our series on Supper Table Artists
Althea Gibson is mostly remembered as a tennis player, and for good reason. She was the first black athlete to break racial barriers of international tennis, specifically when she became the first black American to win a Grand Slam title. Beyond this, though, Gibson was a golfer, a singer, and a woman, a human. She was a black woman trying to be a human being that had access to the same rights and activities as everyone around her, not through activism but through existing and doing her work.
The literary artist who captured Gibson’s life for the Supper Table is Kristine Hartvigsen. Former assistant editor of Jasper Magazine as well as a number of publications in the SC Midlands, Hartvigsen is an author who finds beauty in the human condition, using words to express raw stories of love, loss, hurt, anger, lust, envy and more. She currently holds a position at Piedmont Technical College as a public information specialist, but she has done much journalistic work throughout her years. Hartvigsen has had her literary work published in multiple outlets, including State of the Heart, Fall Lines, and more. She authored To the Wren Nesting, a poetry chapbook published by Muddy Ford Press, and she was twice a finalist at the SC Poetry Initiative. She is currently working on her next book, The Soul Mate Poem.
The following is an excerpt of Hartvigsen’s essay on Gibson written for the upcoming book, Setting the Supper Table, which will be launched on Friday night, September 6th at the Supper Table premiere event at Trustus Theatre:
Singles success at Wimbledon in 1956, however, was not meant to be for Althea. She had unwittingly exhausted herself in the tournaments played on the way to the All England Club. U.S. government officials were pleased overall with Althea’s world tour. She had conducted herself according to traditional conventions and represented her country well. She was more consistent and less nervous. Most importantly, she had done nothing to harm America’s equal rights image around the world. The U.S. Supreme Court had just declared bus segregation unconstitutional, so the country was on a race-relations roll.
Fast forward to 1957, arguably the pinnacle year in Althea’s tennis career. She was absolutely focused on Wimbledon above all other tournaments. She wouldn’t make the same mistake twice and made sure to be well trained and well rested before crossing the pond. Before it was all over, Althea was poised in Centre Court facing Darlene Hard in the final. This was the moment. In near triple-digit heat, it took Althea only 50 minutes to overwhelm Hard in two sets and win the singles crown. It seemed almost surreal as officials from the All England Club unfurled the red carpet at courtside, and Queen Elizabeth, who had witnessed it all, approached.
As cameras clicked rapid-fire, Althea executed her perfectly practiced curtsey, and Queen Elizabeth shook her hand before presenting the iconic Venus Rosewater platter. She was the first black Wimbledon champion in the tournament’s history. That evening at the time-honored Wimbledon ball, Althea delivered her acceptance speech, saying: “In the words of your own distinguished Mr. Churchill, this is my finest hour. This is the hour I will remember always as the crowning conclusion to a long a wonderful journey.” At the insistence of guests at the ball, Althea sang “If I Loved You” and “Around the World.” It was like a true-life fairy tale.
Taking this power and putting into a physical performance is LaTrell Brennan. Brennan is a professional stage, film, and voice over actor with over ten years of experience. She is a Trustus Theatre company member and has been seen in productions such as Silence! The Musical (Ardelia), Fun Home (Joan), Barbecue (Marie), and In the Red and Brown Water (Shun). Some of her film credits include Crosswalk, which won the 2013 Second Act Film Festival Audience Award, and Foundation, which won the 2012 University of South Carolina Campus MovieFest Best Drama Silver Tripod Award. For the latter film, she also won the Best Actress Silver Tripod Award and was a Best Actress Golden Tripod finalist at the 2012 Hollywood Campus MovieFest.
Theatre artist LaTrell Brennan has been looking back on the life of Althea Gibson and at the nature of her existence to prepare for her role as Gibson in the upcoming performance of Gathering at the Table, the performative aspect of the Supper Table premiere to be held first at Trustus and then at Harbison Theatre on September 6th and 8th respectively. Gibson never wanted to be an activist; she just wanted to play tennis. She wanted to work at what she loved, wanted to be good at it, for what she could do, not for the color of her skin. Yet, everyone expected Althea to be an activist, to use her experiences of racial discrimination to fight back against a country that only wanted her when she was their winner. However, Althea Gibson chose to use her body to fight her own battles instead of her voice to fight others. Whether this is a weakness or a strength or a culmination of both, this is what Brennan hopes to highlight in her performance.
To read the rest of Hartvigsen’s essay, located in our book Setting the Supper Table, and to see Brennan’s performance of Althea Gibson, come to one of our opening events on either September 6th at Trustus (going fast!) or September 8th at Harbison.