Partnership with arts organization provides learning experience for African American kids
by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE – In West Louisville, Westwood Presbyterian Church came up with a creative way to address what generations of African Americans have come to believe—“that life is cheap, and the cheapest of all are black lives.” By hosting a drama camp for African American kids earlier this year, Westwood took them back to a time when African American culture was thriving.
In partnership with R.E.A.L. D.R.A.M.A. (Reality Enters at Levels You Decide Right Actions Matter Always), Westwood hosted a summer theatre camp which culminated with a performance of an original play, “Cotton Comes to Louisville,” that pays tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, in the 1920s and ‘30s.
“I wanted to do this because at a time when the economy was at its worst (the Great Depression), the African American culture was thriving,” says R.E.A.L. D.R.A.M.A. founder Felicia Dixon, who oversaw the production featuring some 20 young people, ranging in ages of 7 to 17.
“We drew upon a period of history that was one of the high points of African history,” adds Westwood’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Brian Wells. “We wanted to put before our kids African Americans that succeeded in spite of the odds.”
Inspired by the famous Cotton Club in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, the play pays tribute to the incredible African American talent that performed there, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole and the great dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
“It was an intellectual movement as well,” says Wells. “Poets performing there began to give expression the plight of the African American, like Langston Hughes.”
Sixteen-year-old Daniel Cork, who played Hughes, says the cast talked about race, the racial problems of today and in the 1920s. “I didn’t know this but in the Cotton Club, African American performers couldn’t go in the front door,” says Cork. “They had to enter in the back door—blacks couldn’t even come in to watch their people perform.”
After that scene in the play, Cork came out to read a poem to the audience called “let America be America again.”
“It was so appropriate for that time,” says Dixon. “Langston Hughes’ poem talked about being black in this country, and being quote, unquote ‘free.’ But are we truly free?”
“Here we are, in the midst of year another, basic horrific time in our lives,” she says. “We’re losing lives, senselessly to murder, police shootings, and excessive incarceration.”
“Yet we had an opportunity to find something good to celebrate, by remember a time of renaissance for our people. It was good for the kids to recognize these great role models, even in the midst of so much adversity.”
Cork says he’d love to do it again, just to gain more knowledge of stuff “you don’t normally think about.”
“There’s one other thing,” adds Cork. “Miss Lucia said to me ‘I want you to be a teacher.’ She saw that in me. If found that out myself, having two major parts in the show. I taught the music for camp, because I was also in charge of the sound for ‘Cotton Comes to Louisville.’”
Dixon and Wells both say they are grateful for the opportunity to come together to create the first theatre camp in Louisville for African American kids.
“In the past, whenever we did anything musical or artistic the community would fill the church,” says Wells, noting that both performances of “Cotton Comes to Louisville” were near sellouts.
“For me, I didn’t think it could happen. I didn’t think there’d be an audience,” says Dixon, holding back tears. “One kid told me we’ve been promised so much, nobody ever delivered. I was grateful to hear that.
“It was a great opportunity to hold it in this community at Westwood, thanks to an arts organization coming together with a Presbyterian Church.”
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Categories: Presbyterian Mission Agency, Presbyterian News Service, Racial Equity
Tags: african-american, black, community, cotton club, cotton comes to louisville, drama, education, experience, presbyterian, theater
Ministries: African American Intercultural Congregational Support, Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, Urban Ministry