Senior profile: Daveed Diggs

Excelling in track, Diggs '04 breaks the mold in theater and dedicates to hip hop awareness

By
Wednesday, September 22, 2004

It’s Tuesday morning in early April, and most students shuttle to class, heads bowed against the relentless rain. One, however, strolls calmly across the Main Green as though the sun were shining pleasantly. His head moves up and down to the music in his headphones. It takes a lot more than a prolonged winter to dampen Daveed Diggs’ spirit.

On this day, like always, Diggs is sporting his signature fluorescent colors, yellow rubber overalls to fend off the rain and a tangerine orange bandana on his head.

Although his unusual style often attracts outside attention, he says, “I’m not trying to prove anything. Especially on gloomy days like this, I like to brighten up my own scene.”

Whether he’s breaking records for the men’s track team or breaking boundaries with his experimental theater productions, Diggs is always redefining standards. In his first year, he earned the Outstanding Freshman Award for persistent improvement of his personal best time in his event, the 110-meter hurdles. As a sophomore, he went even further, breaking Brown’s record with a time of 14.21 seconds.

According to Head Track Coach Robert Johnson, Diggs has always demonstrated an exceptional drive. When Diggs first joined the team as a freshman recruit, he was a scrawny kid who could barely hold his own in the weight room. Now, his legs pose a formidable challenge.

“It’s almost like night and day from where he was then to where he is now. I wish I had two or three more of him around,” Johnson said.

Although he is deeply motivated to succeed, Diggs never forgets to savor life’s pleasures. He is still one of the most spontaneous, creative people, friends say, they have ever met.

Since his days at Berkeley High School in California, Diggs has been a passionate spoken word poet. In Providence, he has tapped the underground hip-hop circuit, performing for audiences within and outside the University.

Last fall, Diggs focused on making the messages in his songs clearer, simpler and more relevant to all types of people. He would limit himself to only 10 minutes to write an entire song, so that what he wrote was a direct message from his heart rather than his mind. The strategy often proved difficult, leading to more mental blocks than creative epiphanies. But after reading “Cane” by the early 20th century African-American writer Jean Toomer, an idea for a song immediately popped into his head.

Not wasting any time, Diggs put pen to paper, and a few minutes later had a finished product. Soon, another, and then another followed in the same fashion. As his songs grew in number, the characters and events he was describing seemed more and more theatrical. Here began the ideas that led to “Sweeter than…,” his highly acclaimed play that blended the drama of theater with the crowd interaction and rhymed verse of hip hop.

“As a theater arts concentrator … I was getting sick of the same format, where you learn your lines and characters and that’s it,” Diggs said.

Diggs is currently fine-tuning “Sweeter than…” which he first performed at Rites and Reason in November 2003, to make it more portable and address smaller audiences. He hopes to be able to perform it, with minimal production needs, at any location.

As if performing and maintaining his status as a star runner weren’t enough, Diggs has had a leading role in the Central Falls High School Arts Literacy Program. His freshman year, he developed a program with Jody Green ’03 that required students to deconstruct plays and write them in their own terms. Students would then perform the work themselves, using more street-friendly formats to convey the play’s themes. Soon, Diggs and Green were teaching students in the English as a Second Language Program “Romeo and Juliet,” using their hip-hop based format.

Diggs learned the lesson to “prioritize” his commitments the hard way. During his freshman and sophomore years, he was spread too thin, acting in six plays his sophomore year. The commitments hindered his acting and he badly injured his hamstring, forcing him to compete in track with an injury all of sophomore year. After that, Diggs became choosy.

In line with his spur-of-the-moment personality, Diggs has no concrete plans after graduation, aside from traveling to Europe with the track team immediately after commencement. He might then work in New York hip-hop theater or travel and perform his solo work to different audiences.