In praise of Dr. King
The themes running through any tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – unity, respect for others, the triumph of the human spirit – may be conveyed by words and deeds, but are frequently expressed most eloquently through the arts.
NJPAC’s three-day, campus-filled celebration told of King’s legacy in dance, song and stories throughout performance spaces, while community leaders engaged in discussion and reflection in other rooms.
Beginning on Thursday, Jan. 16, with the arrival of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) for rehearsals, a panel was convened to explore the topic of “Black Ballerinas: Breaking the Boundaries of Classical Ballet.” The next day, DTH performed for sixth- through 12th-graders in a SchoolTime warm-up to its Friday night program for the public in Prudential Hall. The Newark Branch of the NAACP kicked off its centennial as part of an awards ceremony held before Friday’s curtain. And on Saturday, despite wet, snowy weather, children and adults turned out for Embodying the Dream, an energetic family festival in honor of Dr. King.
At the “Black Ballerinas” conversation, Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director and founding prima ballerina of the 45-year-old DTH, was the first to address a question posited by The New York Times some seven years ago: “Where Are All the Black Swans?” She reminded attendees that DTH was co-founded by Arthur Mitchell – the pioneering African-American dancer who achieved superstardom at New York City Ballet in the 1960s – as an artistic response to King’s assassination. Joining her on the panel, moderated by dance journalist Charmaine Warren, were Michelle Gadsden-Williams, Managing Director and Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Credit Suisse AG; DTH dancer Gabrielle Salvatto, and Francesca Harper, a choreographer, consultant and Artistic Director of the Francesca Harper Project.
The absence of African-American women from the stages of leading dance companies was linked to the need and commitment to diversify, from the level of ballet schools and upward. Johnson, who recalled being told she couldn’t be a classical ballerina, knew she could attain her dream when the founding of DTH coincided with the launch of her career. “It’s not about 16 girls looking the same,” she said, adding that success in the highly competitive world of dance is about the elevation of the best – “the human spirit raised to the highest level.”
“It’s ultimately about the work,” agreed Harper, who calls the stage “a social platform for change.” “It’s so thrilling to know your work speaks for itself. That’s really the bottom line. It’s transcendent and it’s real.”
Gadsden-Williams noted the importance of an organization’s leadership to believe in and support diversity, and to stay involved in an individual’s happiness and productivity after placement. Mentorship was identified as crucial to a dancer’s growth, as well as proactive recruitment of dancers of color and a nurturing of new talent.
“Look in front of you,” was Salvatto’s advice for aspiring “black swans.” “Don’t look to either side.”
Friday evening’s pre-performance reception in the Chase Room (“Celebrating the Man and the Message”) was presented in cooperation with the Newark Branch of the NAACP and honored two individuals from different generations but the same pursuit of public service. NJPAC’s Arts Education Department named Sally G. Carroll, former Member of the NAACP National Board of Directors and Past President of Newark’s NAACP branch, as the recipient of the Steward of the Dream Award and Vaughn E. Crowe, Senior Program Director of the MCJ Amelior Foundation, as the Visionary of the Future awardee.
In his welcome speech, NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber acknowledged the late poet and author Amiri Baraka, who met with King in Newark a little more than a week prior to the tragedy in Memphis. (Funeral services for Baraka were held in Newark on Saturday the 18th.) Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. (D-10th Dist.) recalled that King once preached at Newark’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Opening remarks were delivered by Rick Thigpen, Vice President of State Governmental Affairs for PSEG, the event’s corporate sponsor.
“This, to me, is a thank-you,” said Crowe after accepting his award. “But it’s time to get to work.”
Some of the speakers doubled on duties by addressing the audience directly afterward in Prudential Hall, where Virginia Johnson introduced her dance company and the Rev. Dr. DeForest B. Soaries, Jr. (pictured), former New Jersey Secretary of State, delivered a stirring sermon about the respect due and inspired by Dr. King. The tightly numbered but power-packed dancers of DTH performed the spiritual ensemble piece Gloria; Far But Close, a love story built of music, dance and spoken word, and the urban-neoclassic Return, set to buoyant numbers by James Brown, Aretha Franklin and others.
Add kids of all ages to five ongoing sessions in NJPAC’s Center for Arts Education and the result is an ever-busy morning of activity at Embodying the Dream: A Family Festival Celebrating the Life and Work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Circulating from classroom to classroom, attendees sampled – at no cost– liturgical dance, a civil rights sing-in, a drumming circle and storytelling. A limited number of serious-minded and able-bodied young dancers were invited to participate in a master class conducted by DTH.
The accomplished teaching artists included percussionist Kofi Osei Williams, who taught a standing-room-only crowd how to beat out rhythms from Brazil, Ghana and Congo on their drums. Storyteller Wincey Terry, a specialist in early learning, music and theater, led little ones on an interactive journey about King, non-violent boycotts and the equal rights movement – using chairs for bus seats, music for marching and pink and green buttons to identify friends of different races. And liturgical dance instructor Theara Ward matched movement to gospel music lyrics by showing a class of preschoolers and seniors how to hold their arms to “give it all to God,” shake off persecution and trials, and perfect their gestures of thanks.
It was Pastor Chantel Wright’s job to loosen lips for the sing-in by warming up the group with vocal exercises and calling attention to lyrics for intonation. By the end of her visibly exhausting session, the class was cooking on “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Walking Up the King’s Highway” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.”
She concluded with a deep whew and wiped a hand across her brow before asking, “I feel complete! Do you?”
Jan. 23, 2014