Black Arts Matter set to close Black History Month with performance, discussion

In order to send off ASU’s celebration of Black History Month, the event Black Arts Matter will continue on until Sunday on the Tempe campus as well as by the Downtown Phoenix campus.

A creation of Herberger School Assistant Professor Nia Witherspoon and produced by the school's Performance at the Borderlands group, the four-day showcase will incorporate elements of theater, music, art and spoken word and discussion, culminating with a post-event panel discussing the need for black arts as a part of a social movement.

Mary Stephens is the producing director for Herberger’s Performance at the Borderlands, the group producing Black Arts Matter. She said that the event came about after Borderlands’ extensive work with the community of black artists.

“When Dr.Witherspoon had the idea to do something around black lives and black arts, we thought that this would be a great way to tap into our already existing partners that are doing this work," Stephen said. "In Phoenix, Arizona, and across the the communities, black artists are very active. But oftentimes in Phoenix they're overlooked. So we don't see as much engagement with black artists."

She also said that the organization is excited to work with Witherspoon in order to really think about how they can support black artists on the ground. 

"They are already doing this work, so we ask 'How can we celebrate black life, black futures in a way that comes together around this creative impulse we call art?'" Stephens said. 

Of the many events happening is a keynote speech from the Black Association for Just Immigration leader and organizer Tia Oso, who will be discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and how art has its hand in political organizing.

Oso is known for her interruption of the Netroots Presidential Town Hall in July of last year in Phoenix. For her, it was an effort to gain attention for the death of Sandra Bland. She did so by disrupting a discussion with former Presidential Candidate Martin O'Malley.

In downtown Phoenix, attendees were treated to a workshop dubbed Solo Performance at the Black Theater Troupe. Opening the presentation was Fatimah Halim, a member of Life Paradigms, a nonprofit organization that is collaborating with ASU Gammage on The Journey Home Project, an arts experience for incarcerated women. 

Halim's presentation focused on her work with the women, giving attendees an idea of what her group does and how it uses the arts to touch another part of themselves that the may not have known existed. 

One of the bigger events happening over the week and weekend is “The America Play,” which is set to perform at Studio 133 on the main campus. Originally created by Suzan-Lori Parks, and premiering in 1994 at Yale University, the two-act show follows a black gravedigger (played by three different actors) whose resemblance to Abraham Lincoln prompts him to make a wage allowing those interested to reenact the president’s assassination through him.

Related: 'The America Play' moves the audience in an attempt to find the Foundling Father

Herberger Associate Dean Tamara Underiner said the play was the central focus of the student involvement with the event. She's a part of Herberger's Performance in the Borderlands community initiative, which is not only assisting with the Black Arts Matter event but it also is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the organization.

Underiner said participating in the event was an opportunity for the group to take part in the discussion surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.

"We wanted to participate in that national conversation, but from a really local perspective," Underiner said. "Just as the Black Lives Matter movement has helped us to see what else is happening that has risen to the surface that needs to be addressed."

Alumna Lisa Daugherty graduated from the Theater and Performance of the Americas program at Herberger. She was visiting from her teaching position at Winthrop College in South Carolina when she gave a talk at the play's opening night last Friday. 

Daugherty discussed not only how it was important to incorporate different actors who don't get to perform on a certain level, but also how important it was to tell the stories of blacks in the country.

"You need to hear stories that you don't know what they are," she said, connecting the play to Black Arts Matter. "And they're going to take a shape to what you're not used to. That's the entire purpose of being present for something that has been marginalized in the past, and needs to be center stage."

Informatics senior Raji Ganesan has been working with Stephens as the project coordinator for the event as a whole. She thought highly of the collaboration between Stephens and Washington to bring everything together.

“For them to mix their minds and their energies, it meant that we could really make something that was comprehensive and whole,” Ganesan said.

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