It is a story of tragedy, struggle and triumph, and it’s worth telling over and over again.
For the past four Februarys, Abeni Cultural Arts has performed “Visions: An Odyssey in Black Dance” in honor of Black History month. This year is no different.
Abeni’s manager Darowe McMillon hopes the company will continue to reprise its hallowed tribute.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you see it, it affects you,” said McMillon during rehearsal at Abeni’s southside studio space earlier this week.
“And the children who grow up with it will one day be able to tell it themselves.”
Organized into four “suites,” the work chronicles the violent capture of Africans forced into slavery and follows their descendants’ battle to achieve freedom and justice on American soil, culminating in the election of the first African–American president of the United States.
McMillon and Abeni founder and artistic director Muriel Miller first developed the story line in 2008 at the behest of then–city theater director DJ Queenan, who implored them to do anything but a straight–up dance recital.
“We took that as a challenge,” recalled Miller as she swept the floor for her dancers. “We took the story and added poetry to make it more theatrical.”
Each year, McMillon and Miller tweak the choreography a bit, as well as adding new material. This year’s show will include “Freedom Day,” an original composition by local musician Gary Swindell. But the main story always stays the same.
“We can’t change the past,” said McMillon with a small smile. “All we can do is keep telling it.”
Set to traditional African and gospel music as well as drawing from jazz great Louis Armstrong, R&B legend Curtis Mayfield and hip–hop pioneers The Sugar Hill Gang and L.L. Cool J, “Visions” also serves as a lesson in African–American music.
But McMillon says “Visions” is meant to be less of an educational experience than an emotional one.
“Instead of dates and facts, we’re transmitting the emotions of what it felt like to be there when these tragic events took place,” he said.
“Everyone seems to learn something new every year.”
Education may not be the play’s explicit intent, but it can be the effect: Bethany Powell, 10, believes it’s inspired her to seek more knowledge about African–American history.
“It’s more interesting to me because I know it’s true,” said Powell, a “Visions” dancer and a third–grader at Marshpoint Elementary.
“After the show last year my grandma bought me a big book on Black history. I read the whole thing.”
The company will once again perform at the Black Box at S.P.A.C.E. After considering a larger venue after all three shows sold out last year, McMillon and Miller chose to stay in the 100–seat theater.
“People like the intimacy of the smaller space,” said McMillon. “The emotions come through much stronger that way.”
Visions: An Odyssey on Black Dance
When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 24 and 25; 3 p.m Sunday, Feb. 26.
Where: Black Box at S.P.A.C.E., 9 W. Henry St.