This Will be Our Reply to Violence
“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” – Leonard Bernstein
With these words, Bernstein crystallized the power of art to answer tragedy, to pull from our deepest reserves of creativity and passion, and to answer a world that we no longer understand. This power was on display across the Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds in the wake of the events of August 11 and 12 in Charlottesville in countless ways and it continues to fuel an ongoing artistic response that will continue for years to come as the UVA community and the larger Charlottesville community continue to heal and grow stronger. It is nearly impossible to quantify inspiration, and the ripples from these tragic events will find their ways into creative minds and hearts in countless ways. Here is a sampling of just some of the responses from across Arts Grounds so far:
During the month of February, the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia partnered with Arts & Sciences Collective Response Moving Forward Fund, the UVA Department of Drama, and the UVA Arts Council to present August in Perspective: Creative Responses to #Charlottesville, a series of weekly events designed to foster creative responses to August 11th and 12th. The series featured theater, dance, music and art workshops that highlighted UVA students and faculty, community organizations, and area high school students.
The series kicked off with Rashida Bumbray & Dance Diaspora Collective’s Dancing While Black’s performance of RUN MARY RUN, followed by a discussion at the Helms Theater, which you will read more about in this issue. The same weekend, Dance Diaspora presented a Praise Traditions Workshop, a master class that explored three well-known spiritual dances including The Baptist Shuffle (from the Deep South, Mississippi, and Alabama, The Ring Shout (from the Sea Islands and Low Country of Georgia and the Carolinas) and the Cordon (from Cuba).
The Paul Robeson Players presented a 12-hour theater project, in which participants wrote, cast, directed, and performed a series of original plays around the theme of How to Live in Charlottesville. A.D. Carson, Assistant Professor of Hip Hop and the Global South, along with PRESENCE Center for Applied Theater Arts, presented Musical Reflections on Life in Charlottesville, a hip hop workshop. The session included a MIMA method workshop on musical improvisation by Mecca Burns of PRESENCE. The event also included a workshop for students from Charlottesville’s Friendship Court on original musical composition.
Three creative forms came together in a special workshop called Crafting Spaces of Solidarity and Resistance, featuring Erasure/Found Poetry with Sara Brickman, a Solidarity Cards demo and composition session with Destinee Wright, and Kintsugi pottery with Ashon Crawley of UVA African American Studies and Religious Studies.
The August in Perspective events ended with a Culminating Showcase at The Haven in downtown Charlottesville that featured a performance of the powerful original play A King’s Story by high school students Joshua St. Hill, Amaya Wallace, and the Monticello High School Drama Department. The showcase also included performances of plays created during the How to Live in Charlottesville, a 12-hour play project, and showcased original musical works, poetry readings, and a display and discussion of Kintsugi pottery and Solidarity Cards.
In January, The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center played host to Healing Through Art & Community with Candy Chang, presented by UVA Sustainability, UVA Dining, IX Art Park, The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative and UVA Parking and Transportation. Chang, a renowned New Orleans artist and speaker known for her Before I Die walls, shared her experiences and insights on the power of participatory art to help overcome personal and community challenges. Joining Chang on the panel was Happy Johnson, the Chief Resilience Officer for Sustain the Nine, a community-based nonprofit from New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, and an acclaimed children’s book author who shared the challenges of rebuilding her community in the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the important role art and community played in helping the healing and rebuilding processes; Destinee Wright returned to share the message of her Solidarity Cards project, and encouraged audience members to voice their thoughts about a variety of social justice issues for an upcoming exhibit at The Bridge; and Michael Mason, Assistant Dean of UVA African American Affairs and the Director of the Luther Porter Jackson Black Cultural Center, led a discussion around the connections between environmental justice and community building.
Prior to the events of August 11 and 12, the Virginia Film Festival was hard at work planning a series entitled Race in America, to be presented in conjunction with James Madison’s Montpelier. Legendary filmmaker Spike Lee, who had already been invited to attend, called VFF Director Jody Kielbasa on the morning of August 14. “He said that he wanted to show his award-winning documentary 4 Little Girls, about the tragic Birmingham church bombings as a response to what had happened here.” Lee would also share his piece I Can’t Breathe with VFF audiences, a piece which deals with the choking death of Eric Garner during an arrest by the New York City Police Department.
The VFF was also instrumental to the creation and presentation of the new documentary Charlottesville: Our Streets, a powerful depiction of the tragic events of August 11 and 12 through the eyes and lenses of local filmmakers and citizens on those days. “Almost immediately after that weekend, the story of what happened to us as a city and as a community became a fixation for national and international news outlets, which lacked a nuanced local knowledge and understanding to capture that moment in a more incisive context,” said VFF Programmer Wesley Harris. “I knew that local filmmaker Brian Wimer had been downtown documenting the events, so I challenged him to work with other locals who did the same over those days, to see if there was a film there. I promised that we’d give the film a platform, provided they could turn it around in what was a ridiculously short time frame.” Wimer teamed with local journalist and author Jackson Landers to meet the challenge, and the VFF screened the film to a sold-out Paramount Theater audience on the Festival’s final day.
This Spring, the Dance Program and the Department of Drama welcomed noted performer and choreographer Nicole Gurgel-Seefeldt for a performance of her work 900 Gallons and a 4-hour performance art workshop. Each residency was funded in part by the Arts & Sciences Collective Response: Moving Forward Fund. Gurgel-Seefeldt’s solo performance is an invitation to look deeply and honestly at the legacies of whiteness. It is a performance that combines ritual and poetry, story and song, and an unappetizing amount of milk drinking, and that looks at the subtle and not-so-subtle ways white supremacy is woven into Gurgel-Seefeldt’s own family. The piece looks backwards and forwards in time, reckoning with the spiritual poison of white superiority, and creates space for the truth telling needed to undermine it.
The UVA School of Engineering used the second year of its Excellence Through Diversity Distinguished Learning Series to share some of the most important voices in America today around issues of diversity. The series is led by Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion John Fitzgerald Gates, who is working with faculty, staff, and students to redefine diversity as excellence, expressing itself through the intersection of all people’s perspective and lived experiences, rather than traditional definitions. This year’s series has included include Dr. Cornel West, who returned to Charlottesville for a September talk only a month after being on the front lines of the August 11 and 12 events. Other highlights included renowned social justice attorney Ronald Sullivan, political strategist and CNN commentator Ana Navarro, poet, performer and international recording artist Saul Williams, civil rights lawyer, advocate and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, activist, scholar and writer Angela Davis, and former NFL player and LGBTQ activist Michael Sam.
Virginia Humanities welcomed civil rights icon and public theologian Ruby Sales in a conversation with Charles Marsh, Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia, which was moderated by Justin Reid, Director of African American programs at Virginia Humanities. The event was held at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center this past November and dealt with a myriad of issues facing us today: How do we make sense of a domestic and global narrative that reinforces a social hierarchy based on race, gender, class, and sexuality? How can we create a more complete and honest narrative that reflects a world that is majority youth, people of color, and women? What movements or countercultures are needed to accomplish this in modern society? What resources do we have to redress historic oppression, confront white supremacy, and imagine a world where every one of us is embraced in our human community?
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove, the Commonwealth Professor of English at UVA, lent her own formidable voice to the response effort in an October event at The Paramount Theater. Dove, who was set to be joined by Mark Doty, National Book Award winner and Kapnick Distinguished Writer in Residence at UVA, explored the way that poems can cross lines of race, gender, class and sexual identity, and what obstacles, whether self or externally imposed, can get in the way. She engaged in a wide-ranging discussion on these topics and more, including what she has and has not been able to write in response to events like these, and why poetry feels so necessary now. Although, Mark Doty was not able to join this event, he expressed many of the same sentiments with students and the community during his time as the Kapnick Distinguished Writer in Residence.
This year’s Community MLK Celebration was home to a variety of creative initiatives inspired by the summer’s events. They included Creative Nonviolence: Arts into Action, an evening integrating spoken word with improvised musical responses and underscoring featuring the trio of John D’earth on trumpet, bass clarinetist Michele Oliva and violist Bonnie Gordon and Alethea Leventhal of Ships in the Night on synth. The program welcomed two-minute poems, songs, or rants, and the musicians responded by offering reflections on the emotional essence of the words. The School of Architecture hosted In the Mindset of Martin – A Celebration of the Legacy of MLK at the School of Architecture, an exhibition including Architecture School alumni, a profile of the UVA Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, and recent design projects of Professor Karen van Lengen’s Design Thinking Fall, 2017 studio for Emancipation Park. The events also included a rare screening of Martin Luther King Jr.: A Personal Portrait, featuring a Q&A with director, George Silano. The film offers a rare personal glimpse into King’s life and home captured in four days of 1955 interviews with legendary television host Arnold Michaels. The program has never been televised and remained unseen for over 40 years before director and cameraman Silano, the only living member of the production team, rediscovered it and shared it with the world.
Here’s to continuing to make art more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.