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Posts Tagged Duchess Harris

What’s Missing?

In an interview with Park Square Theatre, feature writer Matt DiCintio asked Christina Ham, the playwright of Nina Simone: Four Women, “Many audience members, especially younger generations, may not be aware of the role musicians like Simone played in the Civil Rights Movement. Why do you feel it’s important that we don’t forget them?”

Regina Marie Williams as Nina Simone (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Regina Marie Williams as Nina Simone
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

As part of her reply, Christina stated, “Until 1970, Ms. Simone’s music was such a substantial part of the movement, but after this she was basically pushed into relative obscurity. Books on the Civil Rights Movement don’t even index her or discuss how critical she was to the movement.”

In conversations with audience members who had seen Nina Simone for the first time either last or this season, I often found some to have come expecting lighter fare–namely, a replica of a nightclub act of favorite standards. Instead, they were surprised by the intensity of a production that digs deep into themes of racism, colorism, feminism and activism. The play ultimately leaves a strong impression and makes a powerful impact on its audiences by transcending the standard narratives and perspectives of mainstream history to create a more nuanced and complete truth.

In her interview with DiCintio, Christina also remarked how “this play shines a light on the black women who were and were not musicians during this movement who were often marginalized and forced into the background–even though we were the backbone of the movement.”

How would we see each other differently if credit were more often given where credit was due? For instance, what if the contributions of these and other women in black history had been made prominent? How would society evolve if more points of view do not get submerged, lost, hidden or erased?

This year alone, we have most starkly needed to rethink history in light of the revelation that brilliant black women working at NASA were also instrumental in launching astronaut John Glenn into space. The old narrative of the Space Race may have stayed intact if not for authors Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote Hidden Figures, and Duchess Harris and Sue Bradford Edwards, who wrote Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA.

Revealing obscured or missing history has the power to create change. It changes how we see each other and how we see ourselves. It can prevent entrenchment in singular points of view and narrow ways of thinking or even cause a change of heart.

One thing is for certain. After seeing Nina Simone, you won’t come out thinking about the Civil Rights Movement in quite the same way as before.

 

Nina Simone: Four Women on the Boss Thrust Stage until March 5

 

A Hope for Peace

The set of Migra, created by 7/8th graders at my daughter's school  (Photo by T. T. Cheng)

The set of Migra, created by 7/8th graders at my daughter’s school
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Yesterday afternoon, I was a proud parent at Mixed Blood Theater, watching the play Migra, written by the 7/8th grade students of my daughter’s school. In the program, the Notes from Artistic Director (the English Language Arts instructor) explained:

This play marks the end of a semester of exploration for the students. We began the semester asking the question, “Who walked this land before me?….We followed that question with, “If my people weren’t Native American, when, how, and why did they arrive here?” Rather than a genealogical study, the exploration looked to literature, art, film, and nonfiction from the countries of students’ ancestral origins and reflected informally in journals and conversations as well as formally in essays. Students considered the past and the present and contemplated the impact of immigration and ancestry on their present day realities. Some students had not thought much about their ancestors, others had vast knowledge, and some had no choice but to constantly be considering their ancestry. While presidential race debates discussed current issues including immigration viewpoints, and our own city experienced the tragic loss of Philando Castille, these topics made their way into the students’ writing, and ultimately into Migra….The views expressed in the play are not intended to represent the ideals of the school as a whole, or for that matter be directive, but they are, like all good theatre, an attempt to encourage the viewer: to question, to discuss, and to feel joy, disgust, fear, and passion. We hope that you take away the beauty of the adolescent mind–and the power of talking about all things sour and sweet, just as these brave individuals show us is possible.

Then in the evening, I attended the second of a three-series talk on the African-American experience by Macalester Professor Duchess Harris, co-author of two books for 6th to 12th graders, Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA (Hidden Heroes) and Black Lives Matter (Special Reports).  These have been in-depth talks followed by audience Q&A, finally shedding light on hidden American history and its overlooked impact on America’s past and present. Notable about these events, which are open and free to the public at Roseville Public Library (final talk is on Thursday, February 2, at 7 pm), is that the room is packed with people hungry for a broadened perspective and an honest start of a dialogue about their and our narratives as Americans.

Hidden Human Computers: Duchess Harris on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/195655453

Recently Park Square Theatre drew a crowd to the commemoration of The Ghostlight Project. This is an effort by theatres throughout the country to, according to Randy Reyes, Mu Performing Arts Director as well as a national steering committee member of the project, declare our theatres as “brave spaces where all are welcome to be who they are and engage in debate and dissent–and leave inspired to take action….Together, we will create light for those who need it most and pledge ourselves to work that honors all and celebrates the unconquerable human spirit.”

Attendees at The Ghostlight Project commemoration event posted their pledges (Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Attendees at The Ghostlight Project commemoration event posted their pledges
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Soon Park Square Theatre will also participate in the Coffee Sleeves Conversation Project with Coffee House Press, an internationally renowned independent publishing company and arts nonprofit in Minneapolis. Through its Books in Action programming, they have designed a unique way to create community discussions on race and the arts at local coffee shops and our theatre.

And as a parent, I am also proud of the fact that Park Square Theatre has a robust Education Program that opens the door to meaningful dialogue amongst our young people, many of whom are first-time theatre attendees. For instance, our on-line study guide for Flower Drum Song, currently on our Proscenium Stage until February 19, offers activities and resources for classrooms to consider “Stereotypes: Real, Perceived, or Debunked?,” “Charting the Immigrant Experience” and much more. For A Raisin in the Sun, which will return by popular demand next season, they did not shirk from topics of redlining and white privilege. Park Square’s study guides are, as our website describes, mindfully “created for teachers by teachers to introduce students to the world of the play” and, by extension, share and broaden their view of the world around them.

Educators met during the summer to create the study guide for Flower Drum Song (Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Educators volunteered their time during the summer to create the study guide for Flower Drum Song
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Today we see arts funding once again coming under attack. But I wonder, as I go to a variety of venues and events featuring writers, actors, dancers, visual arts, students, etc.–often trying to be as financially and publicly accessible as possible for its creators and audiences, do people overall actually support this push? Do they truly not believe in the value of the arts in society? Or, this time, are they grateful for the arts but being fed, once again, the message that adequate arts funding is superfluous to the well-being of our communities? Is it a message that comes from the expansive Heart, or from some place much smaller?

a hope for peace by artist Bob Schmitt of Laughing Waters Studio (Photo by Bob Schmitt)

a hope for peace by artist Bob Schmitt of Laughing Waters Studio, who’d created a logo for Theatre Mu, before it became Mu Performing Arts
(Photo by Bob Schmitt)

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