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A Report on ‘Black Lives Black Words’ at The Columbia Festival of the Arts
By Susan Brall on February 21, 2016
The Columbia Festival of the Arts stretched its more traditional boundaries to bring Black Lives Black Words on Saturday, February 20, 2016.
This was a dramatic reading of Black playwrights’ works from Chicago and London. Reginald Edmund reached out to Black playwrights in both cities to answer the question, “Do Black Lives Matter?” What he found was that on both sides of the pond felt they were often mistreated and mistrusted by the police, while still dealing with underlying prejudice at home.
Edmund limited each piece to no more than 15 minutes. Tonight, the Festival presented five One-Act plays. The performers were all from the local area, including one from Columbia.
The first Thanks for Coming, by Theresa Ikoko from London, was a monologue powerfully performed by Ayesha Gowie. The piece revolved around an actress auditioning for a role and ended up as anything but calm as she revealed her inner torments.
The second piece, For Colored Stone Gay Bois written in Chicago by Aaron Holand, showed the conflict gay black artists have. Should they fight for their art, their Black roots, or their gay rights? In this case the young man was in a mixed racial relationship, and he and his significant other had to deal with both reactions to their being gay and being an interracial couple. All five actors performed in this piece.
My personal favorite was Father’s Day. which was British, and written by Max K. A brother, played by Christopher Dillard, and sister, Terrie Henry, come to their father’s grave on the anniversary of his burial. The father and son were victims of gang prejudice, and police brutality and indifference. The two actors did a remarkable job dealing with their anger and fears.
The next play, Everybody Loves Big was by Reginald Edmund and also dealt with police brutality here in America. Matthew Boykin ably plays the 15 year-old street vendor who learns very young about the dark side of law enforcement.
The final piece, View of her Own Beauty, was written by Isaac Ssebandeke in London. The playwright here delved into black self-identification and pride when a young man in the park, insightfully portrayed by Eric Brooks, the Colombian of the group, and again, the talented Ayesha, begins talking to the young woman. The woman deals with the man’s rude remarks about her hair and stands up for her rights as a black woman, in a white and male-dominated society.
After the show, there was a talkback led by Managing Producer Reginald Edmund. The audience expressed hope that Edmund would continue to present these productions, and it seemed he plans to continue to do this around the country.
If you are able to go to see this production in another venue, it would be a great opportunity for you to hear these often suppressed voices.
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On 27 October 2015, ten of the most exciting Black playwrights and Black directors showcased their work for Black Lives, Black Words.
The plays were empowering, diverse, unapologetic, forceful, dramatic, poignant, highly entertaining and thought provoking. And all directed by Artistic Directors of the Future (ADF) directors.
Father’s Day: Written by Max K, Directed by Roy Alexander Weise, explored the scourge of race hate crime and a siblings fight for justice.
Black Attack: Written by Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, Directed by Tessa Hart, saw the stage explode with a futuristic dystopian, post-apocalyptic nightmare.
Stripped Black: Written by Firdos Ali, Directed by Rae McKen, took us into the lives of a family impacted by the refugee crisis.
Left Hanging: Written by Trish Cooke, Directed by: Milli Bhatia, sensitively explored deaths in police custody, told through the words of a grieving mother.
Thanks For Coming: Written by Theresa Ikoko, Directed by Nicole Charles, depicted the painful journey of a young Black actress, driven to suicide by artistic rejection.
View of Her Own: Written by Isaac Ssebandeke, Directed by Sandra Thompson-Quartey, explored the ‘vexed’ question of Black hair and notions of beauty.
Patience: Written by Oladipo Agboluaje, Directed by Erica Miller, eloquently opened a window on Black love, dating and relationships.
Here They Come: Written by Gbolahan Obisesan, Directed by Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambaksh, shone a spotlight on the plight of refugees, through the medium of a ‘Question Time-esque’ debate.
The stories were vividly brought to life by a stella cast of actors including Martina Laird, Frances Ashman, Kwame Bentil, Rochelle Rose, Arinda Sadhra , Stanley A. Jackson and Abdoulie Mboob, to name but a very few.
And by Assistant Producers, Elizabeth Alabi, April Brown and Gael Le Cornec; with casting director Cheryl Walker.
Powerful plays by Somalia Seaton and Mojisola Adebayo will be presented at a later date.
The play series is tied in with a shared project initiated by the award -winning American playwright Reginald Edmund, who produced the USA premiere at the Greenhouse Theatre in Chicago in July 2015. Black Lives, Black Words aims to explore the black diaspora experiences in some of the largest multicultural cities in the world, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Baltimore and London to investigate the question ‘Do black lives matter today?’
This project will serve as a comparative study to raise awareness of the shared and different transatlantic experiences in the black community and evaluate the impact it has had on the black community at large.
All plays were live streamed on the night, as well as filmed. Plays will be available to watch real soon.
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Making Miss Simone Proud: “Black Lives, Black Words” Explores “Do Black Lives Matter Today?
By Loy Webb
“I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” A poignant question raised by the iconic songstress Nina Simone, whose music encapsulated the pain, beauty, brilliance and proud blackness of an entire generation during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.
Simone was a purveyor of truth and hope during those turbulent times and her impact is unparalleled. However, she’s gone now and as times change and more problems plague our nation, new artists must step up to take on the “artist’s duty,” as Miss Simone dubs it, and reflect the current times.
One playwright, Reginald Edmund, has stepped up to that challenge. His writing persona, uncompromising in truth and unapologetic to whom it might offend, is a complete 360 to his quiet, almost shy personality. Writing is his safe place and thus the obvious method of response to the second-wave Civil Rights Movement, as he calls it.
Feeling helpless after seeing the events in Ferguson, yet inspired by the political and social action that resulted across the country from such atrocities, he felt the need to do something and include other artists as well. That effort turned into “Black Lives, Black Words,” a ten-minute-play reading series where some of the most political contemporary black playwrights explore the question “Do black lives matter today?”
Edmund brought on board some of Chicago’s notable theaters, including Black Ensemble Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, eta Creative Arts Foundation, MPAACT and Pegasus Theatre to assist in his efforts.
Yet, what is most unique about “Black Lives, Black Words” is its reach. Edmund not only strived to unite people nationally, but across the Atlantic as well, starting with London. And who better to help in this effort than British play specialist Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway, a woman who carries remarkable knowledge of the entire black British dramatic canon over the last seventy years.
“I was already in the states researching for my collection of monologues books. Knowing all the black plays presented in the UK over the past seventy years and hearing about Reggie’s project was a really great opportunity for writers based in London to be given a platform. Black British writers are almost invisible except for a select few,” says Hodge-Dallaway.
Edmund and Hodge-Dallaway joined forces for “Black Lives, Black Words” and are currently gearing up for the kickoff performance July 28 at the Greenhouse Theater Center.
The project will consist of three phases. Phase one is based in the U.S, including dates in Chicago, Baltimore/D.C. and Minneapolis, all showcasing the talent of local writers. Phase two will be held in London, where Hodge-Dallaway will spearhead in conjunction with Artistic Directors of the Future (ADF), her organization dedicated to supporting and nurturing black, Asian and multi-ethnic directors. Phase three of the project will consist of a fully produced night of special selections from each place.
The phase-one plays will be on a multitude of topics, including the black family, black/white relations, mental illness, classism and domestic violence.
Hodge-Dallaway says the London plays will follow suit, highlighting issues that affect those living in the UK including the gentrification of Brixton and the hot topic of diversity in the arts, which was mandated by the arts council.
Both Hodge-Dallaway and Edmund have extremely high hopes of what this project can achieve.
“I want to awaken new voices,” says Edmund. “Draw attention to the fact that black lives do matter. Empower emerging and veteran writers by invigorating them and letting them know their voices are important. I want audiences to walk out of the theater believing the time to act, believe, stand up and take part in the discussion of the issues plaguing the black community is now.” He pauses. “But most importantly I want this to be a catalyst toward healing.”
Hodge-Dallaway echoes Edmund’s sentiments. “I want to raise awareness of black British writers. Incite more interesting programming in the theater in London and the U.S. and hope this will also encourage theater companies to not see projects like this, that say something about the here and now, as a risk. I would hope people feel some type of relief or release. Some sort of ‘Ahhh…’ feeling,” she says, sighing like she’s floating on clouds.
“That’s what’s needed right now. There’s a lot of tension, fear and people feeling unheard. Hopefully by speaking out that will inspire its own sort of change.”
In the same vein as Simone, Edmund and Hodge-Dallaway end by stating the role of the artist, more specifically the black artist, in these times.
“I use art and myself as a catalyst to bring about change. I have no fear of saying I am a black woman, and I embrace that fully and all of what that is,” Hodge-Dallaway says. “I think for me as an artist it’s important to do the best that I can to show my love for my community through the art. So much harm is being done to our community; we’re subjected to a lot of negativity and abuse. I am only here for a very short time and while I am here, I believe I am here to make a change.”
Edmund explains the role of the artist is multi-faceted. “To serve as a politician, preacher, prophet, up-lifter and just really to speak on things not just happening in the present, but in the past and looking toward the future,” he says. “That’s what the great artists do very well. They’re not just planted in the present, but they look toward the past, planting themselves in the present and have a clear vision of where we can go.”
Miss Simone would be quite proud.
“Black Lives, Black Words” performs July 28 at 7 pm, Greenhouse Theater Center; tinyurl.com/BlackLives-WordsTix. Free (but reservation needed).