Sunday, April 21, 2013

Who's Missing Out in the Cultural Equity Dilemma?

On Friday, South Dallas Cultural Center premiered a new work by Shontina Vernon, a former Dallasite now residing in New York City. Working under her stage name, Tina Vernon, Shontina brought a fresh, dynamic one woman show to our stage that featured her original music and a story that worked both your heart and mind simultaneously. WANTED was a powerful testament to the notion that life can deal you a bum hand but you don't need to crap out of the game unless you choose to. An autobiographical narrative takes us on a journey from Tina Cato's (Shontina's) tumultuous childhood to her ultimate redemption through music/theater/the arts ending in a non-ending of sorts that reminds us that until your life ends, it has the possibility to change. I and the two nights of audience who witnessed this amazing journey were transfixed by Shontina's poetic script and her beautifully lyrical music not to mention the brilliantly filmed video backdrop created by filmmaker Kate Freer. Thanks to National Performance Network, we were able to have “Tina” in residence for a week in which time she conducted an amazing workshop with young women incarcerated in the Henry Wade Juvenile Detention Center. Now that it's all over, I have settled myself and taken the time to reflect on the experience. I might have simply spent the reflection time mulling over the poignancy of Tina's script or the beauty of her music but for the email I received this morning from a friend. This email contained a congratulatory message regarding the SDCC and me being mentioned in a blog post by Darryl Ratcliff regarding the dearth of Black presence in the arts events of the last several weeks in particular, but the Dallas arts world in general. A next generation arts mover and shaker, Darryl has taken demonstrative steps to forge a presence in Dallas and has made tremendous strides in bringing new energy and vision to our arts scene. Although I haven't had the luxury of attending all of his events, I have been following his trajectory with great interest. So it was with both a heavy heart and a sense of slight despair that I read his posts. I wished what he had to say was surprising but unfortunately, what this young man, this visionary and committed young artist activist has discovered is what I've been ranting about for too many years i.e racism is alive and well in the world of the arts. I won't go into all the revelations he voiced because Lord knows I've voiced them enough in this blog. What the posts made me reflect on is the WANTED experience and how glaringly absent the white theater community was in the audience. It made me sad that such a stellar piece of theater was missed by so many who would have been thrilled by it; missed it only because it happened in Sunny South Dallas at a facility they never venture to. I wondered about the many times I have trekked over to the Dallas Theater Center or Undermain or SMU to see work and seen few if any Blacks in the audience. I also thought about how many times we've had to beg to get reviewers out to see our work and although I am a firm believer that being critiqued doesn't necessarily help your work, particularly if the reviewer has no understanding of it, I make this point because it does speak to the segregated nature of the Dallas arts world. I have committed the South Dallas Cultural Center's small resources to the development of new work by African diaspora artists because I understand the necessity of keeping the art of creating alive. That's what keeps the arts alive and fresh. My commitment to the next generation stems from an understanding that if I don't support them, no one will! So with the help of National Performance Network's Creation Fund/Forth Fund and a program I created called Diaspora Performing Arts Commissioning Program, I am able to give these next generation artists a glimmer of hope in their artistic journey and a platform from which to showcase their work. I hope one day our city will grow to appreciate ALL of its creative resources and proffer support in an environment of cultural equity. I guess I'll just have to wait and see if this hope is in vain...

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Contemplating a Jazz Tradition

I started off D'JAM (Dallas Jazz Appreciation Month) cheating on its purpose a bit! Conceived by a DFW collaborative, the purpose of D'JAM is to celebrate and support local jazz events during April, the official month for celebrating Jazz as per the Smithsonian Institute's mandate. I ventured west to Fort Worth because Scat Lounge was presenting jazz elder statesman Ellis Marsalis with my friend Adonis Rose on drums. Given Mr. Marsalis' age and, I admit, his jazz prowess on piano, I didn't want to pass up an opportunity to hear him play! Needless to say, he didn't disappoint me and the evening's set, which benefited the Adonis Rose Endowment Scholarship for jazz students at UTA, was magnificent. But besides hearing some inspiring music, the evening got me thinking about the way in which jazz takes hold in a city, particularly as we begin this month long celebration in Dallas. There is only one city I've been to where jazz is ingrained in the very fiber of its core and that's New Orleans. Yes the Big Apple is the jazz capitol of America from the standpoint of performance venues but part of the reason New York can claim this designation is that musicians flock to that city from around the world so there's never a shortage of excellent players. But does New York provide a fertile ground for growing it's own jazz talent like you find in New Orleans? I'd have to say no since the streets are not bubbling over with little kids playing jazz (literally in the streets!) like you can find on many street in New Orleans. I can remember one of my first visits to New Orleans in the mid-seventies was so amazing because I experienced so much jazz just roaming the streets of Treme and Uptown. I saw a little "shawty" playing trumpet in The Funky Butt Club on Ramparts Street. He was just a nine year-old kid and the musicians put him on stage to blow for the audience, and boy did he blow. The place went wild and I knew that this was just one of the reasons so many New Orleans kids loved playing jazz; they got such an enthusiastic response from adults! Jazz was a regular part of the school offerings in New Orleans and kids expected to play it not only in the band hall but on the football field for the half-time show, in the streets during an impromptu second line, for parties that their parents threw, and just about every social event. That you have whole families of jazz musicians like the Marsalis Family is not unusual in New Orleans. Jazz legend Kidd Jordan's children Marlon, Kent and Stephanie are all jazz musicians and so is acclaimed saxophonist Donald Harrison's nephew, Christian Scott. The tradition of nurturing young jazz players is deep and historical in New Orleans with the emphasis being placed where it should be, learning the music of the jazz masters. It helps that there was an institution of higher learning, Southern University that provided the formal training in jazz. Both Trumpeter Kidd Jordan and jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste ran jazz institutes and mentored countless musicians at their respective Southern campuses, musicians all jazz fans know like Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Dirty Dozen Brass Band members, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, and Fort Worth saxophone virtuoso Quamon Fowler. So I wasn't the least bit surprised when a mom whose family relocated to Dallas because of Katrina jumped right on our newest offering at the Cultural Center, the Thriving Minds Youth Jazz Orchestra. She told me that her kids were upset because they joined the band at their school and expected to play jazz but were sorely disappointed when they found out jazz was not played at all! Although she lives in Richardson, she drives her kids and a few other New Orleans transplants to SDCC every Saturday so they can play the music they love and that has been a part of their life for as long as they can remember. Jazz is a family tradition in New Orleans which is why I proclaim New Orleans as the Jazz Capitol of America.