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a-different-world

I am not talking about the world we currently live in, although it’s different all right. The other night I went to the incredible center for the arts in my town to see “Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey” starring Jasmine Guy, who performs with The Avery Sharpe Trio.

 

Jasmine Guy is the real deal, she sings, she dances, she’s sultry and defiant – a consummate performer.

She has an extensive résumé that reflects a diverse and active career in the performing arts for 35 years. She’s acted and directed for film, television and stage since she was 20. Still, the first time I really noticed her was when she performed as Whitley Gilbert in “A Different World”¹.

 

God, I loved that character!

But, back to “Raisin’ Cane”. This production covers a period of American and Black American history that I had only a passing knowledge of previously – Harlem, New York in the 1920s. After WWI ended and thousands of African American soldiers returned home victorious, a massive outpouring of creativity from Black artists exploded and Harlem was the epicenter – for music, poetry, dance, novels, actors and more. “Raisin’ Cane” is a multi-media presentation of jazz, photographic and visual arts images (including works by Aaron Douglas), and Jasmine Guy’s readings from the works of Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen and many others, interpreted by her through vocals and dance.

raisin-cane-1The Harlem Renaissance ended with the Great Depression as so many things did, but the foundation of artistic expression of African American composers, musicians, actors and writers had been laid and shaped the course of American2 creative arts forever more.

Here’s what the arts do for us. They show us things about ourselves, about our world – about other worlds – that we might never know or may have never thought of in that way, and it’s done in a way that makes the education feel like it’s enriching our souls or entertaining us. I learned a great deal about the artistic legacy that African American artists have established in our culture and society. It’s a “lesson” I thoroughly enjoyed and one that I’ll always appreciate.

aaron-douglas-painting

Sometimes our lives are so caught up in day to day existence that we put the arts on a back burner, or imagine they are expendable to the greater priorities we face. I disagree. In my view, we require the arts to serve as a mirror, as an interpreter and a guide to show us the truth and the way forward – or simply to lighten our spirits when we need it the most.

¹“A Different World” was a sitcom spin-off of “The Cosby Show”. I believe it blazed new ground in television because (1) it depicted African-American college students, and (2) they were living the college life with all its cliques, pressures, social and academic elements. Prior to that, college life depictions in television and film were very white.

² Not just in America, of course. Some Black artists, like Josephine Baker, took their talent to Europe, specifically France, after the war. Jazz has been a tremendous influence on music wherever it’s been exported.

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