Five African-American artists pick up where the Black Arts Movement left off.
On the busy corner of Germantown Avenue and Alder Street, a garden with tile murals stands in juxtaposition to the blighted brown and gray covering the neighborhood’s row homes and storefronts.
Though it may not seem so to the average passerby, there is history here. In a small building adjacent to the garden, the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s thrived through the art of a dancer named Arthur Hall, who developed Ile Ife, or House of Love, a grassroots arts community dedicated to preserving African art forms. Hall took his work into the community, training countless area youth in dance.
These days Ile Ife is called the Village of Arts and Humanities, the only arts-based community center in this area of North Philadelphia.
The future of black arts in Philly starts here, says documentary filmmaker and program coordinator El Sawyer who recently completed a documentary on Hall’s legacy called Renaissance on Sacred Ground.
“While putting the film together, I had a chance to really experience Hall’s vision,” Sawyer explains. “To create art that transformed and inspired a community—that was his goal.”
Philadelphia has always been a hotspot for the creative, a place where artists, innovators and creative types are born and bloom. Marian Anderson, John Coltrane, Teddy Pendergrass and many others set the standard in popular music of their generation. In neighborhoods across Philadelphia some of the most well-known and talented contemporary artists, dancers and musicians took root. Jill Scott proudly hails from 24th and Lehigh; the Roots claim South Philly.
But it’s important to note talented, forward-thinking creators that manage to make a living from creating work that often transcends art for art’s sake. Those who make art to change the way a community thinks or acts, those who work to alter society’s perceptions, are worth celebrating.
“In my opinion, there are plenty of black artists in the world,” says local contemporary artist Rah Crawford. “The more important question is how are these artists engaging society?”
On the following pages, you’ll find five profiles of local black artists changing the way Philly folks experience art. Each one is trying to impact local arts in a different way.
After being denied conducting jobs because of her race, Jeri Lynne Johnson started her own orchestra and consequently, a revolution in classical music. Filmmaker Michael Dennis longs for a cinematic scene similar to Philadelphia's renowned Black Lily and aims to achieve it through his company Reelblack. On the stage, Carl Clemons-Hopkins just wants to be seen as an actor, instead of a black actor. Jacolby Satterwhite, a visual and performance artist studying at the University of Pennsylvania, uses videos to understand the inner workings of his ill mother's mind and Rakia Reynolds is shouting from the rooftops about Philly’s emerging fashion scene.
These five, along with many others (visit philadelphiaweekly.com for more profiles), have slowly, but surely been making positive changes for Philadelphia.
Acting is a tough way to make a living for anyone. For African-American actors in Philadelphia (or any other major American city), it’s nearly impossible. Only a handful of plays are produced each season with African-American characters and it’s rare for a black actor in Philly to make a profitable career in theater.
But when the stage beckons it’s hard to resist. A new thespian on the local scene is Carl Clemons-Hopkins. A 2009 graduate of University of the Arts and a South Philly resident, Clemons-Hopkins made his mark in two shows by the 11th Hour Theatre Company and is currently in the Walnut Street Theatre’s world premiere of The Eclectic Society.
Clemons-Hopkins admits there are more challenges and fewer opportunities for African-American actors in Philadelphia than for their white counterparts. The problem stems in part from the plays selected for production and partly from the casting process, during which Clemons-Hopkins says some directors can be overly-focused on an actor’s race.
“I believe that when it comes to the role of race in casting, one has to ask 'what story am I trying to tell,’” he explains. “Is this artistic performance making a statement about race specifically? If so, then race is very important in the casting. If the statement is about another aspect of humanity independent of skin color, then race has no business being mentioned in the casting process. There are more challenges for black actors for the simple fact that we are too often seen as African-American actors as opposed to just actors.”
To date, Clemons-Hopkins has been cast in a variety of roles, some race-sensitive and others where race had little bearing on the character’s identity. In 11th Hour’s provocative staging of the musical Avenue X , he portrayed a young black musician who crossed strictly enforced racial boundaries in 1963 Brooklyn to forge a friendship with a white singer. Earlier this season, he played the role of a sadistic dentist in 11th Hour and Theatre Horizon’s sparkling co-production of Little Shop of Horrors . Although the dentist’s girlfriend was portrayed by a white actress (and Steve Martin played the dentist in the show’s film version), race has no bearing on the character.
Clemons-Hopkins believes that audiences are never oblivious to an actor’s race. “I don’t believe in the word ‘colorblind’ because other than some impaired individuals and dogs, it does not exist,” he says. “We see colors. We are colors. It is a beautiful thing. I am very honored that I have been able to play roles that were specifically written as black men and roles that don’t necessarily have to be one particular race. This has allowed me to go deeper into an aspect of myself as well as explore what it is to simply be human.”
As for his future as a Philadelphia actor, Clemons-Hopkins remains cautiously optimistic. He says, “One has to go where the work is and for many black actors, that’s not here. I have been very lucky this past year in Philadelphia, but who knows what next season will bring?”
Rakia Reynolds describes her career path as non-linear and it’s easy to see why. Over the last 10 years, Reynolds has self-produced a documentary, worked in the wardrobe department for MTV Networks, produced fashion editorials for Lucky magazine and designed her own line of clothes. In 2007, after a streak of contract jobs in film and television, Reynolds was offered a position with the Philadelphia PR firm Breslow Partners and discovered public relations.
“You date and you date and finally find the man that you marry,” says Reynolds. “I was dating for a job for a long time. I finally married PR and fashion.”
After only a few months, Reynolds left the firm and opened her own public relations business, Skai Blue Media, using the contacts she established while shopping around her clothing line and the skills she honed while working for Breslow Partners. She represents multiple Philadelphia designers, businesses and boutiques like Chinoo Designs, Nikki London Boutique and the South Street Headhouse District.
“Everything that I do, even some of the restaurants that I represent, I try to add fashion into every facet of it,” says Reynolds. “I am always seeking out new ways to highlight fashion or expose Philadelphia to the fashion scene.”
According to Rachel Ferguson, who works in media relations for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, it’s this attitude that led to Reynolds’ newest position as the Philly 360° Fashion Ambassador.
“Rakia has a lot of knowledge of the city and local boutiques,” says Ferguson. “She was really getting out the message about why Philly was such a great place.”
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