More than three weeks ago, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officers. With yet another death of an unarmed black citizen, officials at Karamu House, the nation’s oldest African American performing arts institute, knew they needed to react in a way that continues to move toward reaching true equality in the United States.
“With 'Karamu' meaning ‘place of joyful gathering’ in Swahili, we feel that we needed to respond with art,” says Ann Barnett, director of marketing for the Karamu House.
Karamu’s response will take form in an original theater production titled “Freedom on Juneteenth,” airing this Friday, June 19, at 7 p.m. The show features local musicians and vocalists, spoken word artists, and dancers responding through their respective art forms to the recent murders of black Americans.
The performance will take place in Karamu’s Cleveland Foundation Jelliffe Theatre, but because of the coronavirus, the seats will be empty and the performance will stream through YouTube, Facebook, and other social media channels..
Karamu has hosted its annual Juneteenth celebration in the theater for the past five years.
“Freedom on Juneteenth” will feature a collection of 17 local Cleveland artists who come together to deliver a powerful, artistic history—beginning with the slavery and transitioning into modern day civil rights issues.
Karamu’s president and chief executive officer Tony F. Sias serves as executive producer and artistic director.
Sias, Latecia D. Wilson, and Mary E. Weems are the playwrights and the production features local actors Dyrell Barnett, Samantha Cocco, Peter Ribar, and Christina Johnson, as well as Soursop dance company and choreographers Gabrielle Shipley and. Munirah Bomani.
Karamu House music director David M. Thomas will lead musicians Kevin Byous, Wayne A. Deadwiley, Bill Ramson, and Deion Williams in performances throughout the show.
Other ensemble members include Daniel Gray-Kontar, Jacob Johnson, Gerald Skiller, Clairissa Walker, Chris Webb, Kodee Williams, and Latecia Wilson
Initially, this year’s Juneteenth performance was set to celebrate the music of legendary singer-songwriter Bill Withers, who died this past March, while also providing an overall history on what Juneteenth is.
But given the recent incidents of police violence across the country, theater officials felt the need to set a more emotional, empowering tone for the event.
The piece will take viewers through African Americans’ search for equal opportunity and treatment within society, while also diving into critical and historic developments of race relations in the U.S.
The performers have had to adjust to the revised tone of the Juneteenth while also dealing with a global pandemic and the current racial tensions. But Barnett says the rehearsals have been nothing short of amazing.
“Watching these incredibly talented artists staying up late at night and putting in so much work to respond through their art to what is going on, is incredible,” she says. “The dedication to the message they are putting out to society is really special.”
Barnett says the show is designed to accomplish four missions that can perhaps help reduce racial division: Have a celebration of Juneteenth and explain the significance of the date; educate the audience on the plight of slaves; help individuals heal by examining the country’s troubled history; and encourage people to vote and engage in advancing equality.
“Those watching should be able to ultimately look at what freedom means today to be a black American, and really take in and understand that history,” says Barnett. “The viewers will be able to see that, although black individuals are not owned by white slave masters today, they are owned by the system in so many different ways.”
Following the performance, a panel discussion led by community leaders will encourage a conversation.
Juneteenth kicks off Karamu House’s social justice series, which will include monthly educational programming through musical expression or discussion-based groups. The series will address current issues and attempt to create an environment where racial equality truly exists.
“We will no longer be pacified by well-wishes and hopes for justice,” Sias said in a recent statement. “We are the change we have been waiting on. The question is: what will we do differently this time, and how will you activate your power?”