Celebrate Black History Month in Memphis
In a city whose prides, prejudices and pangs have historically been so tangled with race, it’s more important – and meaningful – than ever to recognize Black History Month. Treat yourself or a group of friends or family to any of my Black History Month to-dos in Memphis, a patchwork of visual art, musical performances, live theater and storytelling:
1. Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey Romare Bearden was born in 1911 in North Carolina but migrated with his family to Harlem as a young child during the Great Migration of African Americans. You can imagine how such a person could relate to Homer’s epic character, Odysseus, through universal themes like journeying home; reuniting with loved ones; overcoming obstacles. You might not imagine how such a person could make an enduring, public comment on that parallel: In 1977, Bearden created 49 original collages, watercolors and drawings retelling Homer’s poem, “The Odyssey,” casting every character as African American or Afro-Caribbean. The collection was only displayed once in its entirety – for a two-month run in NYC – before private collectors and museums clamored for individual pieces. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service has reunited the works to mount the first full-scale presentation outside of NYC. The exhibit just arrived at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and will remain on view through April 28. The Brooks never disappoints in terms of community programming – don’t miss the Bearden-inspired Family Day on Feb. 16 from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. or the free, guided tour of A Black Odyssey on Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m.
2. Hattiloo Theatre productions This is Memphis’ black repertory theater company, so anytime you support a Hattiloo production, you’re celebrating black history. This month debuts two productions: A Stroll Down Black Broadway by the Hattiloo Drama Club, staged at the company’s Black Box Theatre (Feb. 14-24), and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, staged at its Mainstage Theatre (Feb. 28-Mar. 17). The former spans 1847 to 1992, showcasing scenes from unpublished plays, works by female playwrights and modern favorites like For Colored Girls. The latter, written by Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson, takes viewers behind the music in a Chicago recording studio, circa 1927.
3. A Memphis Gospel Celebration You’ve got two ways to hear this one: Plan a big night out at downtown Memphis’ gorgeous Cannon Center for the Performing Arts (Feb. 16, 7:30 p.m.), or catch the free reprise in Soulsville (Feb. 17, 4-6 p.m.) as part of the Symphony Soul Project I recently raved about. The concerts will unite gospel traditions, community voices and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
4. Jubilee Day Another reason to get to the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts this month: Larry Batchlor’s one-man show, Jubilee Day (Feb. 24). Batchlor, who has written books and songs on black history themes, will tell the story of Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the announcement of the abolition of slavery in 1865.
How will you celebrate Black History Month in Tennessee? If I missed your favorite celebration, please share it with all of our readers in the comments section below.