It is no secret that impoverished urban communities across America have recently been plagued with crime and violence. A Louisville, Ky performing arts project called Roots & Wings is fighting back by introducing expressive arts into these communities as a form of healthy expression.
Roots & Wings is a project that was established in October 2014, after the current members performed individually and collectively at Louisville’s Smoketown Poetry Opera. That event is an artistic portrayal of the social, cultural and racial experiences of residents from Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood.
SMOKETOWN POETRY OPERA
What makes this project more interesting is that the Smoketown Poetry Opera is based on a film created by independent Louisville filmmaker Lavel White. In 2011, the Sheppard Square housing project, located within the Smoketown community, was torn down as part of the federal HOPE VI project which focuses on neighborhood revitalization.
Before the residents were relocated, White (who is also a former resident) interviewed several longtime members of the Smoketown community. White later transformed those interviews into a film entitled More than Bricks and Mortar: The Sheppard Square Story. The Smoketown Poetry Opera was later developed as an artistic expression based on that film.
The performers used spoken word, poetry, dance and music as a conduit to express the sentiments of the residents from the Smoketown neighborhood. The response from the community was overwhelming and organizers immediately began a conversation about expanding these performances to different communities throughout the city of Louisville.
In October 2014, The Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, IDEAS 40203, Bridge Kids International, The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts and Metro Louisville Government Office of Safe & Healthy Neighborhoods collaborated to create Roots & Wings.
The project is officially described as “a new theatre project integrating art and performance as catalysts for restoration of self and community in Louisville’s “Zones of Hope” neighborhoods.”
According to the LouisvilleKy.gov: Safe & Healthy Neighborhoods website, the “Zones of Hope” are organized, organic, grassroots efforts to reduce violence and provide hope.
Louisville’s five “Zones of Hope” are the Newburg, Russell, Parkland, Shawnee and California Communities. Community leaders and neighbors in each zone come together each month to provide hope and reduce violence in their “zones” neighborhoods.
ROOTS & WINGS
There are ten performing artists of Roots & Wings and three members of its administrative support team. The performing artists are: (poets) Robin ‘G’, Lance G. Newman II, Brandon “B Shatter” Harrison, Hannah Drake, (Dj & scholar) Jerron “Dj Nerdboi Jones, (muscians) Vay Davis & Kiara Antionette Watts (of Nzuri Music), (artist/author/scholar/educator) Tytianna Wells Smith, (dancer) Antonio “Da’ Provic” Burroughs, and (ballerina) Cynthia Brown.
The administrative support team members are: (executive director) Stacy Bailey-Ndiaye who is also the founder of Bridge Kids International and Theo Edmonds & Joshua Miller who are both co-founders of IDEAS.
Roots & Wings recently received a $280,000 National Artplace America Grant to help further integrate arts and culture throughout communities within Louisville. Out of a pool of nearly 1,300, only 38 recipients nationwide were awarded grants from Artplace in 2015. Roots & Wings plans to use these funds to link Appalachian, West African and urban arts in Louisville’s “Zones of Hope”.
“Roots & Wings will be mixing West African and Appalachian culture together. Part of that has sort of created a new narrative about what it is to be Black in Kentucky, especially here in Louisville but we’re really looking at the entire state of Kentucky.” – Stacy Bailey-Ndiaye
The group is already familiar with Appalachian culture in Kentucky. In May 2015, Roots & Wings performed at the West End Poetry Opera which was their first main stage production as a collective group. In preparation for the performance the group participated in a culture exchange program with performance artists from Harlan County (located in Ky’s Appalachian region). The group members quickly discovered that despite racial and cultural differences, many of the social issues that affect impoverished black communities mirror those of impoverished white communities.
Currently Roots & Wings is a 18 month program in which its ten performance artists will split into two members teams and simultaneously work from community centers located within the five “Zones of Hope”. The goal is to work with the residents of these communities and infuse expressive arts as a means to reduce crime and violence while educating at the same time. The target demographic for the program is 15-25 years of age.
“We know that there is a lot of violence in those particular areas and we want to help to eliminate that violence and prevent it from happening so we want to work with young people who are between the ages of 15-25 and provide them an opportunity to talk about their experiences in the neighborhood and really reflect on some of the issues that happen in the neighborhood and how to prevent those issues from happening. So we’re talking about injustices, we’re talking about the police brutality that we see, the homicides, the gun violence that we see, the disrespect… Just the idea of the neighborhood being policed in a way.” – Tytianna Wells Smith
Roots & Wings will hold weekly meetings at community centers located within the five “Zones of Hope”. After six months the two members assigned to each community will assist residents in creating their own performance arts production which will be held in that neighborhood’s community center.
Poet Robin G’ feels as though a healthy outlet for artist expression is essential for the young people in these communities. As a youth, expressive arts weren’t the norm in her neighborhood therefore; she was often reluctant to practice poetry in the presence of her peers for fear of being ridiculed.
“Writing poetry has always been my outlet… Writing poetry has always been my way to be the person that I saw myself as… I’ve been writing since I was 12. I grew up in the projects and nobody wrote poetry… Nobody read books. I used to sit in my closet and write… I was even afraid for my siblings to find out. That’s why this is so important because I want to be the reflective image to a child like me.” – Robin G’
At the end of the 18 month program Roots & Wings will sponsor a huge production at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. The production will essentially reintroduce the neighborhood participants of the program to themselves. The Roots & Wings performers will express the experiences they learned while working with the neighborhood participants through performance art. The most interesting part will be that the community participants will be part of the audience.
For more information about Roots & Wings, access the official website at www.rootsandwingsart.org and “Like” the Roots & Wings Art Facebook page.
Additionally, Roots & Wings will be performing at the African Heritage Festival on September 11, 2015, (7 pm -9 pm). The event will take place at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage located at 1701 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd. This is a FREE event that is open to the public.
The African Heritage Festival is a celebration of unity, culture, art and history across the African Diaspora. It is a two-day event for the whole family with food, music, dance, sports, fashion, cultural demonstrations, children’s activities, resources for healthy living and much more. This event is a celebration of African, African-American, and Caribbean cultures. This is a FREE event that is open to the public. For more information, visit the African Heritage Festival website at http://www.bridge-kids.org/african-heritage-festival.html