As part of a performance project called “Black Voices Boston,” seven Boston-area residents are transforming elements of their personal stories into short dance videos. Most aren’t professional dancers: The performers include a cellular immunologist, a 76-year-old visual artist, and a 17-year-old high school student and rapper. Their videos will be presented along with a livestreamed discussion by the Celebrity Series of Boston on Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. at www.celebrityseries.org.
The project was conceived and guided by Rafael Palacios, director of Sankofa Danzafro, a Colombian dance company scheduled to return to Boston for a Celebrity Series performance this winter before the pandemic canceled the tour. Sankofa means “to return to the root,” and the company’s original works explore Afro-traditional, contemporary, and urban dance styles. Trying to keep his company moving and motivated, Palacios got his dancers to create, perform, and videotape original pieces telling their own stories — their fears and hopes, challenges and triumphs.
Celebrity Series president and executive director Gary Dunning loved the concept and asked if Palacios could adapt it as a community endeavor that would factor in the culture of the moment — not just the social isolation and stress of the pandemic, but racial injustice, economic inequality, and heightened political tension. Dozens of Bostonians applied, submitting letters that recounted a range of experiences, from childhood trauma and poverty to racial profiling and marginalization.
“People poured their souls out in the process and everyone who applied had incredible stories to tell,” recalled Dunning. He says the seven participants chosen reflect a range of ages and backgrounds, and have both distinctive differences and surprising similarities, highlighting commonalities that resonate universally.
“No matter where we are geographically and no matter the language, people of African descent have a lot of the same stories in common,” said Palacios, a native of Colombia, through a translator. His country has Latin America’s second largest population of people of African descent. “There has been some part of every story that I resonated with. I hope viewers see their reflections, too, like looking in a mirror. … It is about our right to dignified humanity.”
In workshops held online, Palacios asked each participant to come up with three words and three poses that distill their story. Noting that some participants are not dancers, and that their physical abilities and ages range widely, he says he wanted the dances to be “seeded by daily movements of regular people [so that] the movement that comes out is intrinsically connected to the story being told. A dancer is not just made from technique but from personal experience. It is important to find the personal movement of each.” The amplification, development, and structuring of those movements would become the choreography.
At 76, Roxbury resident Napoleon Jones-Henderson is the project’s elder statesman. An award-winning artist and retired university professor, he is also one of the longest active members of the renowned, Chicago-based AfriCOBRA artists’ collective, which began in the 1960s. He used his three words — respect, affirmation, and spirituality — to launch a “very improvisational creative journey, on the note of visual music,” he says.
Seventeen-year-old Janaeya Moon, a rising high school senior and rapper from Dorchester, is the project’s youngest participant. Her three words — incarcerated, innocent, and hope — were the springboard for reflections about her wrongfully imprisoned stepfather. “I was drawn to this project because I felt like my story needed to be shared with the world,” she says. “I hope audiences feel encouraged to share out their stories and what they’ve been through, through any type of art.”
For Medford cellular immunologist Cherié Butts, medical director at Biogen, it was an opportunity to step out of the confines of rigorous scientific protocols and get the creative juices flowing to think in different ways. “It could actually turn out being important for the work that I do,” she says.
Experienced in leading clinical trials and high-level collaborations to develop meaningful therapies for people with debilitating conditions, she often finds herself the only Black woman in the room. She’s nicknamed for that rarest of creatures — Unicorn. “As nice as it is to be the first and only, it’s very isolating,” she says. “I want my community to be more open to the idea of a scientist coming from a Black neighborhood. I want to reach the heart of the community in a different way.”
She’s especially excited that the finished project may show that “… we are all connected even though we’re doing different things. We all contribute in different ways, and that whole contribution, that interconnectedness, is what advances humanity,” she says.
Other “Black Voices Boston” participants are Mattapan painter and community activist Marlon Forrester, Dorchester poet/writer/educator Shirley Jones-Luke, South End artist and arts/media producer Nina LaNegra, and Brookline resident Ellice Patterson, founder of Abilities Dance Boston.
Dunning says “Black Voices Boston” has led the Celebrity Series to pursue its community engagement mission in ways they hadn’t imagined six months ago. “I would like the audience to think of what the artists have gone through to get to this particular moment they are now seeing and [hope] it provokes some dialogue, because frankly all of us in Boston and across the country need to continue to have this dialogue about racial equity and the injustice that is all too prevalent.”
He adds, “One of the unintended consequences of a lot of our public performance projects has been the notion of creating community. If we enable it and just get out of the way, sometimes that can lead to wonderful things.”
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.