A Growing Mentor
Through involvement, Dexter learns on and off the stage
Dexter Henderson's eyes scanned the audience as he stood under the dim lights of his high school auditorium's stage. It was his first role, and he was playing Mr. Applegate, a character who’s a salesman disguised as the devil — much to his mother’s horror.
“He steals souls and everything,” Dexter said. “It was funny because I grew up in the church and here I was on stage playing the devil and my mom was gasping in the audience. It was fun, there was such a dynamic feel to it.”
Dexter discovered theater when he was a senior at Compton High School and needed a visual and performing arts class his last semester to graduate. The final season of his competitive swimming career, which dominated most of his extracurricular hours since the time he was five years old, had ended and he made the dive from the pool to the stage.
He continued to find a sense of family and community on the stage, but this time 300 miles up the coast from his hometown of Long Beach, California through UC Santa Cruz’s Rainbow Theater — the only multicultural student-led and student-initiated theater troupe in the University of California system. Rainbow Theater, along with the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT), is housed under the office of Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center (CAD).
“The choice [of what plays we put on] is the choice of the students, and it’s part of the mission that we control,” Dexter said. “It’s not like with my major where a bunch of admin sit in a room deciding what show we do, and students show up to audition.”
This year he will serve as an alternate on the CAD Board of Directors, which is comprised of seven undergraduates who make collective decisions for the CAD resource center and two theater troupes. These students “believe in the heart, the mission and the vision” of their organization, Dexter said, "and commit to countless hours of volunteered time, not because they’re asked to or they have to, but because they want to."
CAD is also an outlet for students to enrich cultural dialogue on campus, and increase student input and awareness of cultural and historical theater productions. “CAD is really unique in that it opened my eyes to world theater,” Dexter said. “I was so well versed in typical western theater — Shakespeare, Ibsen, but who’s writing about me? The first first play I was in through CAD was ‘The Colored Museum,’ and it was snapshots of the black experience.”
He said in a play like “The Colored Museum,” which is drenched in satire by Wolfe, an African American playwright, was a difficult piece to grasp because of the combination of reinforced stereotypes, themes and identities of African-American culture.
“It was just hard to perform, period. It was hard to read, it was hard to be in it,” Dexter said.
Through his role in “The Colored Museum” the first quarter of his freshman year, Dexter met Jessica Jones, the director of the play. Through peer-to-peer collaboration on and off the stage, she developed into one of his closest mentors, and friends.
“To this day I credit Jessica with every experience I've had, everything I have, and everything I will do in the future,” Dexter said, pointing to a larger sense of gratitude he developed through CAD.
He remembers Jessica checking in on him throughout the play’s run, and after the curtain dropped, the calls didn’t stop. The motto Dexter picked up from CAD director Don Williams and uses as a guiding principle is “count it all joy,” and he strives to embody it everyday. It’s about looking for the minute details that can lead to happiness in a seemingly overwhelming situation. It’s something that Dexter says doesn’t come naturally to him, but a quality that his mentors, whether staff members or students, have empowered him with.
“That’s the spirit [my mentors] have about themselves, always happy, always willing to help out, always willing to be a listening ear,” he said.
Don created AATAT out of a need vocalized by students. In collaboration with students, he worked to create a space for students of color to participate in theater that explored their own stories.
Jessica and Don, empowered Dexter to become a mentor himself — something he never imagined would happen four years ago as a freshman.
“They have huge hearts,” Dexter said of Jessica and Don. “Hearts that can hold oceans. As I’ve grown into a leadership role, there are people who have come up to me and told me I’m a good person, a decent person, and they like me for who I am and want to learn from me. The more I connect and mentor, the easier it gets. My heart’s becoming larger, it can probably hold a lake, a small lake, a one-boat lake.”
Along with his work ethic, which earned him a spot on the Dean’s Honor List last year, Dexter’s sense of humor follows him wherever he goes. A biology major, turned theater arts student, Dexter is preparing for a career off the screen with his eyes on a Masters of Fine Arts in Art Leadership.
“When it’s all over, after it’s all said and done, and the curtain has dropped and the smoke is cleared, I want to have been a producer of theater. I don’t like being on stage, I like watching theater happen, and making sure it can happen,” he said, “and I love what it can do.”