Necessary Viewing: The Thanksgiving Play

In 1990 at the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, the discussion of replacing October 12’s Columbus Day with Native American Day or Indigenous Peoples Day began. This year, three decades later, Michigan and 12 other states do not celebrate Columbus Day. However, our state has not followed in the footsteps of states like South Dakota as far as officially declaring the day a holiday to celebrate Native Americans. 

In the realm of the arts, theatre specifically, we still have a long way to go as well in the fight for Indigenous equity and equality. MacArthur Grant recipient and Lakota playwright Larissa FastHorse wrote Hope College Theatre’s upcoming production, The Thanksgiving Play as a satirical response to the racism and prejudice she has experienced within show business

With its script-required all-white cast (Adam Chamness, Cecelia Casper, Grant McKenzie, and myself) and director Rich Perez, The Thanksgiving Play is set to premiere via live stream on October 30th, four weeks before the holiday itself. 

Video captures the Pilgrim puppet voiced by Cecelia Casper

The Thanksgiving Play follows Logan, an ex-actress and rising high school theatre director as she tries to create the ultimate, politically correct elementary school Thanksgiving play. With a cast consisting of a modern-day hippie, a playwriting-obsessed history teacher, and a ditzy LA actress, Logan has a harder time than she ever imagined. 

A play that addresses topics such as political correctness, misogyny, and racism towards Indigenous people inside and out of the entertainment industry will surely foster many interesting discussions. 

I personally am so honored to be working on a play that feels so necessary today, tomorrow, and in the long, foreseeable future. What better way to make people approach a sensitive topic with an open mind than satire? Comedy pulls our walls down and makes us get comfortable in our seats. FastHorse’s brilliant writing uses humor to engage us and make us receptive to her social critique. 

If the audience views this play as I understand it, it should feel both the joy of laughter and the discomfort of an honest look at Native American representation in theatre and mainstream media. It should grab you and make you confront your own racial biases, as well as entertain you with an hour’s worth of genuinely hilarious comedy. It’s a strange mix of emotions, sure. But it’s also an effective one. 

Comedy comes naturally to me. Things like comedic timing and bringing a joke to life almost feel like a part of my DNA at this point. My favorite part of comedic performance has always been the energy a good joke derives from an audience. 

Grant Mackenzie rehearses, play puppet in hand

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all performances of The Thanksgiving Play will be live-streamed with an empty house. It feels daunting, but also obviously necessary. At first, rehearsals felt totally stunted by the fact that we couldn’t touch or get within six feet of each other. 

The cast is made up of two freshmen (Casper and McKenzie) as well as my fellow Smokefall alumnus (Chamness). I thought it was going to be impossible to create authentic chemistry, since getting to know one another inside of rehearsal and out is so difficult. It wasn’t until four or five weeks into rehearsal that we even realized we’d never seen each other’s entire face. 

However, the rehearsal process has been one of the most fun and rewarding processes I’ve ever experienced. Each one has felt like more fun than work. I find myself totally engaged and ever searching for different ways to make my character, Alicia, come to life. 

So, add The Thanksgiving Play to your list of upcoming events. There are eight shows overall: Oct. 30, Nov. 5 and 6 at 7 p.m. and Oct 31, Nov. 1 and 7 at both 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Have a (COVID-safe) watch party! Or, watch it alone as a break from your busy week. This is how you should rake in the holiday season.

Heather Cornell’s Dance Story Now Housed at NYC Public Library, Continues at Hope College

Heather Cornell is literally and metaphorically a mover and a shaker in the world of dance. She has been an ensemble founder and a sought-after solo artist. She is a choreographer, director and producer. She has learned from and performed with giants of the tap dance genre.

Heather Cornell, assistant professor of dance instruction

In a career that has spanned four decades, Cornell has left an indelible mark on dance stages all over the world. And now, because of it, she has landed in two educational places:

In the New York City Library Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and at Hope College.

New to the Hope dance faculty this year as an assistant professor of dance instruction, Cornell is a world-renowned tap dancer and educator. (Go ahead, Google her and marvel at the volume of videos in which she’s teaching or performing.)

First arriving in New York in the early 1980s as a modern dancer from Ontario, Canada, Cornell gravitated to tap dance quite quickly.  She worked with tap greats like Buster Brown, Cookie Cook, Chuck Green, Eddie Brown and Steve Condos and was mentored by the jazz great, Ray Brown.  She eventually co-founded Manhattan Tap, a leading American tap ensemble which would go on to garner international acclaim. For close to 20 years, Cornell served as the group’s choreographer, director, and, of course, dancer, before striking out on her own for a successful solo career for another 20 years.

When the NYC Public Library for the Performing Arts sent out a survey in 2017 to ask those in the dance world, “Who has made a big impact in the international world of tap?”, it was Cornell whose name got mentioned most. Nine other living tap dancers joined her on a list that the library would use to expand its digital oral history offerings on tap dance. In a dance field that is large but underrepresented in library settings, it was Cornell who rose to the top of the list for whom to talk to first.

“This is a huge honor for Heather, as it was the Library who approached her for this recording,” said Matt Farmer, associate professor and chairperson of the dance department.

For the oral history series curated by dance oral history archivist Cassie Mey, Cornell sat down with mentee Anthony Morigerato, an acclaimed artist in his own right, as her interviewer. For 30 hours, they conducted preliminary interviews, run-ups to the final recordings when the two sat down for their final eight hours in the Lincoln Center Library recording studio in 2018. 

“Because tap (history) has such an oral history — it’s encapsulated in very few books that are not that comprehensive — this was a really important project,” Cornell says of the oral history series. “There was a small group of us who were considered the women of the Tap Dance Renaissance. That’s because we had companies in the 1980s and 1990s and sort of helped to revive the art form on the concert stage.”

She talks about all that history, and more, in the nine tracks available now through the NYC Public Library catalog.

“Honestly, I love this age, or this moment in a young artist’s life when they are wanting to open up who they are as human beings. It’s just something special to be around.”

Cornell calls herself a physical percussionist — someone whose rhythmic, precise foot movement adds to or creates the musicality of a piece — and she dances using different textures of sound, like wood, leather and sand. And always, she dances only to live music, never music that is “canned.”

“That was a commitment (dancing to live music) that I made to myself early on,” she says. “And what I love about Hope is that that’s not a liability for me here, whereas at other institutions it’s been difficult because there hasn’t been such an integration and an openness between the disciplines.”

“For me, that’s my dream: to be at an institution where there are no boundaries between the departments,” she continues. “Everything that I do in my life and in my career has been collaborative. That’s the most important element of what I do. From my experience here at Hope, just in the first six weeks, I feel like that’s one of the things that’s really nurtured here. And it’s great.”

Now that she has traded frequent-flyer-mile accumulation to teach and create in Holland, Michigan, Cornell feels she has found a fine artistic home away from New York City. At Hope, she plans to give back to young artists as her tap mentors once gave fully to her.

“The fact that Hope considers tap dancing as a very serious art form is huge for me,” she says. “The fact that there’s an openness in this environment that I haven’t experienced in other post-secondary environments is huge for me. And the fact that there’s a willingness here to allow for people to nurture who they are and get bigger in the process is also huge. Honestly, I love this age, or this moment in a young artist’s life when they are wanting to open up who they are as human beings. It’s just something special to be around.”

Personal Reflections on Twelfth Night in a Pandemic

Covid-19 has put a full stop to the arts industry. Actors, musicians, technicians, arts administrators, and so many other people are in a state of limbo. Hope College is among the lucky few places that have implemented safety protocols that allow student and faculty artists to come together in these trying times to put on something magical. One of these spectacles will be the Theatre Department’s outdoor and socially-distant production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Sebastian (Lili Fraser-Shade), left, and Viola (Emi Herman), right

I think it is a common misconception that theatre just happens. One day a group of actors show up to a performance and magically know all their lines and movements. A silver lining to the new Covid-19 restrictions is that we can showcase our work from start to finish to the Hope College community. This means students and faculty passing the entrance of the DeWitt Center have witnessed every stumble and every triumph in the rehearsal process. Yet another silver lining is that this play will be live-streamed! Not only can people watch it safely from their homes, but we can reach an even greater audience than ever before. 

As an actor in this production, it has been a wonderful rollercoaster to get to this point. I started my journey to become Viola last semester under the direction of Johamy Morales and was over the moon about being able to continue into this semester. I was skeptical at first about acting with the restrictions of being outdoors and with masks on, but I soon remembered that both of those are traditions of theatre. I also realized that connection can still happen at a six-foot radius, and being closer to a scene partner now makes me feel like I must kiss or fight the person. What may have seemed like disadvantages have also turned into helpful tools because we had our set on day one and the audience not being able to see our facial expressions makes us actors use our physicality in ways we never have before. 

From left to right: Clown (Madison Meeron), Antonio (Abby Doonan), Olivia (Sofia Muñoz), Malvolio (Riley Wilson), and Orsino (Mackenzie Hester)

However, working outside the DeWitt entrance is definitely more nerve-wracking than any other rehearsal process I’ve been a part of. I feel like I must be performing through every rehearsal as if it were the final product. My peers can see me crash and burn from 5 to 8 pm four days a week with a special matinee on the weekends. Of course, these higher stakes in real life only add to the process because Shakespeare only wrote his characters in high-stakes situations. The public rehearsals have also forced me to trust my choices as an actor more than ever. I want to turn the heads of the people walking to their dorms. If they don’t, am I doing my job? Will I be able to keep our future audience engaged? 

I am so thankful that we are able to continue Twelfth Night in person and that Hope College has been safe during this unprecedented situation. Working on a Shakespeare play is a beast, and I am so fortunate to get the opportunity to play Viola and tackle this beautiful play in a way that very few people get to experience. 

For more information about viewing Twelfth Night in person or online, click here.

Photo credits: Leslie Olivarez

In the top featured photo: From left to right: Sir Andrew (Lisbeth Franzon), Antonio (Abby Doonan), Fabian (Emily Mann), First Officer (Jack Slevin), Viola (Emi Herman)

The Inauguration of the Many Voices Project

The Many Voices Project is a play-reading series that Assistant Professor of Theatre Richard Perez and the Hope College Theatre Department have launched in cooperation with the Center for Diversity and Inclusion.  Over the course of this academic year, four plays representing culturally diverse characters and concerns will be presented as concert readings:  Fade by Tanya Saracho on September 25, Detroit ’67 by Dominique Morisseau on October 16, Smart People by Lydia R. Diamond on March 5, 2021, and Exit Strategy by Ike Holler on April 9, 2021.

Professor Perez answered a number of questions about the project through an email exchange with Dr. Daina Robins, Director of Theatre. 

Dr. Daina Robins, left; Professor Richard Perez, right

What is the Many Voices Project?

It is a concert play-reading series inspired by a need – a need to expand the repertoire of stories told on our American stages. While Hope College’s Theatre Department has always strived to be an inclusive body, we feel the time has come to be even more intentional in our efforts to support underrepresented voices. Those voices include but are not limited to — African American, Latinx, American Indian, Asian American, persons with disabilities, women, and the LGBTQ communities. If we are to become the just and equitable society that so many of us long for, then we feel we must create space for every voice to be heard and honored. 

What led you to initiate this project?

My colleagues have long known of my professional associations with theatres of color and organizations committed to advocacy for underrepresented artists. While having a conversation last semester with Theatre Department Chair Michelle Bombe, she mentioned that I might consider starting a reading series highlighting more diverse playwrights here on campus. Coincidentally, I had already been working with a local theatre company committed to this kind of work, so it seemed like a natural progression to bring more of that work to Hope.

What do you hope to accomplish with it?

  1. Broaden the appeal of the Theatre Department to students who don’t presently feel represented by our season selections. 
  2. Attract more students of color and underrepresented populations on campus to audition for productions at Hope. 
  3. Introduce our community to more diverse stories and world views.

What will be the biggest challenges you anticipate in producing these play readings?

I think initially casting may be a challenge. Traditionally, getting actors of color to audition for Theatre Department productions has been tough. But then again, I have heard from those very students that they are not interested in plays that don’t really represent their experiences. So, it will be important for us to look outside the traditional ways of casting.

The hope is that as we establish a reputation for being more inclusive, the interest in the department will increase. But the onus has to be on us to make sure that we are not only offering this reading series but begin programming fully staged productions with more diverse roles. 

Like any new theatrical venture, I also think finding our audience will take time. Being that these readings will initially be online, adds to the challenge. But I’m confident that once word spreads about the nature of the work and the diversity of the material, our audience will grow exponentially. 

What do you most look forward to regarding these readings?

I’m looking forward to introducing our audience to a new generation of extraordinary playwrights. Their creative voices are as diverse as their cultural backgrounds and the themes they are writing about couldn’t be more relevant. 

I am also excited about making theatre more accessible to a wider audience. I think some people feel theatre is elitist. I want to dismantle that assumption and make this art form accessible to everyone.

The plays you have chosen at times contain quite explicit language, language that we use carefully, sparingly when we produce full theatre productions in the department.  Why is this language necessary, crucial, vital to these plays?

We deliberately chose stories representing a wide range of characters from different socio-economic backgrounds. While some of these characters may at times use explicit language, it is authentic to that community’s experience. If we were to portray only the segments of society that speak in an eloquent and agreeable vernacular, it would undermine the very mission of the Many Voices Project, which is to expand the stories we see on American stages.

“I am also excited about making theatre more accessible to a wider audience. I think some people feel theatre is elitist. I want to dismantle that assumption and make this art form accessible to everyone.”

Who will the readers be — and how might someone interested in participating as a reader join the project?

The readers will be our students, faculty, and actors who are appropriate for the roles. I am absolutely committed to making sure that the characters of every role are filled with an appropriate body.

If someone on campus wants to get involved with the project, I encourage them to contact me at perez@hope.edu. No experience necessary.

How will audiences view these readings?  In person — or via Zoom?  How will they find out how to “attend” the readings?  Will you charge admission or require pre-registration for audience members? 

Because of Covid-19 the initial reading will be online via Zoom.  The readings will be free of charge but pre-registration will be necessary.  A QR link for registration will be included on posters and social media.  Below is the registration link for Fade, the first play-reading in the series. . 

Will you hold post-reading discussions with the audience after these readings?  If so, how will these be structured? 

I will moderate the post-performance discussions. After each reading, we will open up questions to our audience who can post their inquiries in the chat function of the platform. Depending on the number of audience members, we may be able at times to use the “raise your hand” feature on the platform and begin conversations that way as well. Ultimately, I look forward to lively conversations and audience reactions to these compelling plays.

Don’t miss the first reading — Fade by Tanya Saracho, Friday, September 25, 2020, 7 p.m.

The script publisher describes the play’s action:  “When Lucia, a Mexican-born novelist, gets her first TV writing job, she feels a bit out of place on the white male-dominated set.  Lucia quickly becomes friends with the only other Latino around, a janitor named Abel.  As Abel shares his stories with Lucia, similar plots begin to find their way into the TV scripts that Lucia writes.”

Register for the link to Fade

#BLM at the KAM

A new exhibit in the Kruizenga Art Museum, Black Lives Matter, Black Culture Matters, features fifty works of art that address a variety of topics in African American history and culture from the end of the Civil War to the present. The exhibition attempts to provide some historical context for the current Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism in criminal justice, education, jobs, health care and housing. It is additionally a celebration of Black culture and the many ways that Black culture has enriched American life over the past two centuries. The exhibition does not pretend to be comprehensive, but is offered in the hope that it will lead to contemplation, conversation and ultimately change.

Here are just a few highlights from the exhibition.

Emancipation. Thomas Nast (American, 1840-1902), 1863. Electrotype engraving. Purchased with funds donated by Roberta VanGilder ’53 Kaye, 2020.52.1

This print was published in Harper’s Weekly magazine on January 24, 1863, just three weeks after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, outlawing slavery in the ten states of the Confederacy. The left side of the print features three scenes depicting some of the horrors of slavery, including images of slave catchers, a slave auction, and enslaved people being whipped and branded. The right side of the print features scenes depicting the happier conditions that the artist imagines will prevail after slavery is abolished, including images of a free Black farmstead, a free Black mother sending her children to school, and free Black men and women receiving fair wages for their work. The central image in the print portrays the ultimate goal of emancipation: an intact, multi-generational, prosperous Black family enjoying life together in a comfortably furnished home. This image is one of the first in American art to portray African Americans in a positive light without resorting to stereotypes of them as either a brutish or a brutalized people.

Country Road, Missouri. Henry Bannarn (American, 1910-1965), 1941. Watercolor and graphite on paper. Purchased with funds donated by Judith Kingma ‘56 Hazelton, 2019.81.1

Between 1915 and 1970, more than six million African Americans left the rural South and moved to industrial cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West in search of better lives. Known as the Great Migration, this mass exodus created new economic, political and social opportunities for many Black people, but also led to increases in racial tensions and violence as White Americans struggled to adapt to the realities of a more geographically dispersed Black population. African American artist Henry Bannarn experienced the effects of the Great  Migration as a child when his family moved from Oklahoma to Minnesota. He grew up in Minneapolis and studied at the Minneapolis School of Arts before moving to New York City in the 1930s, where he was hired to teach at the Harlem Art Workshop. Known primarily as a sculptor and painter, Bannarn was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance art world. This painting of a modest house along a country road in Missouri reflects the nostalgia felt by many African Americans for the simpler, rustic life they left behind as a result of the Great Migration.

Missippi. Milton Derr (American, born 1932), 1965. Ink and wash on paper. Hope College Collection, 2018.20.2

Along with desegregation and criminal justice reform, the restoration of voting rights to African Americans was a central goal of the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 60s. This dark, emotive drawing portrays the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three Civil Rights workers who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi while campaigning to register African American voters during the so-called Freedom Summer of 1964. The bodies of the three activists were buried in an earthen dam and remained hidden for two months before their remains were finally discovered. Public outrage over the murders fueled support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When Mississippi state officials refused to prosecute the killers, they were tried in federal court for Civil Rights violations and seven defendants were found guilty. However, because the federal Civil Rights charges carried lighter sentences than state murder charges, none of the convicted killers served more than six years for their crime. The title of the drawing is deliberately misspelled to approximate the vernacular pronunciation of Mississippi in that state.

John Brown Praying. Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000), 1977. Screen print. Purchased with funds donated by Ronald ’62 and Gerri Vander Molen, 2020.63

In 1941, artist Jacob Lawrence created a series of 22 gouache paintings illustrating the exploits of abolitionist John Brown, who in 1859 tried unsuccessfully to start an insurrection that he hoped would bring an end to the institution of slavery in the United States. Unfortunately, the paints Lawrence used for this series were highly unstable and the condition of the works quickly deteriorated. By 1977, the paintings were too fragile to be publicly displayed, so the Detroit Institute of Arts, which owns the paintings, commissioned Lawrence to recreate the images as silkscreen prints. This print is number 21 from the 1977 Legend of John Brown series. It depicts Brown sitting with his head hung down and holding a cross as he awaits execution for the crimes of treason and murder. Although we cannot see Brown’s face, the dynamic forms and bold colors convey his passionate character, while the image of the cross reminds us that Brown was a martyr whose commitment to racial justice was rooted in his strong Christian faith.

Gossip. Elizabeth Catlett (American, 1915-2012), 2005. Photolithograph and giclée. Gift of Arthur and Kristine Rossof, 2016.64.19

After earning an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1940 and struggling for several years to establish herself as a professional artist, Elizabeth Catlett moved to Mexico in 1946 and joined a left-wing artists’ collective called the People’s Graphic Workshop (Taller de Gráfica Popular). Catlett’s participation in that workshop attracted scrutiny from the United States government, which considered the workshop to be a communist organization. When Catlett attempted to return to the United States in 1961 to visit her dying mother, the government refused to let her enter the country and declared her to be an “undesirable alien.” In protest, Catlett renounced her American citizenship in 1962 and became a Mexican citizen. Although Catlett no longer lived in the United States, she remained closely connected to the Civil Rights movement and created numerous artworks that were inspired by African American history and culture. This image of two women talking was created near the end of Catlett’s career and reminds us about the importance of friendship and the crucial role that women in particular play in African American family and community life.    

Black Lives Matter, Black Culture Matters is on display at the Kruizenga Art Museum through November 21, 2020. It is currently open only to visitors with a Hope College ID, Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Beginning on Thursday, September 17, though, it is open to visitors without a Hope ID on Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A Theatre Student’s Last Day of Class

Friday, April 24, 2020, the last day of classes for students here at Hope College. The “here” for most of these students is more varied these days — a handful remain in Holland, Michigan, while the rest of the 3,057 enrolled find themselves back home scattered throughout the country. Some, like myself, are fortunate enough to wake up in the same time zone their virtual classes were now held. Others were getting up one or two hours earlier to be on time. Many international students were staying up until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. — if not later. 

Living in extraordinary times like these, it can be easy slip into anxiety and despair, and motivation can be hard to find, but theatre allows us to see the familiar in the alien and the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Zachary Pickle

On Friday, my alarm woke me up at 8:00am. I promptly shut it off and lay in bed until 8:30, catching up on the news for the day. Mostly I just scroll, letting the words, ads and images fly past my half-open eyes. This has become my daily ritual. Once I feel caught up on the happenings of the previous day — it seems protestors have begun picketing the Michigan capitol, demanding her to ease up restrictions on the stay-at-home order — I get out of bed to dress for my 9:00 a.m. class. 

Though going to class now means dealing with bad connections on my end, poor audio on the other end, and stilted conversation all around, I am grateful to still have classes to attend. 

I wake my brother, who is sleeping soundly across the chilly room. This has been an interesting transition for him as well, since he has graciously agreed to stay out of the room when I have classes and meetings. After grabbing a cup of coffee, briefly greeting my siblings, pets and mother, I head back to my room, open my computer and click the link to my last first class of the day. The class goes well even though the guest speaker my professors have invited has a bad wifi connection so his speech keeps breaking up. The story he tells is interesting, and the professors do their best to accommodate — an overall fulfilling end to a fulfilling class. Though going to class now means dealing with bad connections on my end, poor audio on the other end, and stilted conversation all around, I am grateful to still have classes to attend. 

Routine has been grounding, and while the smiling faces of my mentors and peers are pixelated, it is uplifting to see them every day. My next class is bittersweet — it is the last class that Jean Bahle will teach at Hope College, as she is retiring after 26 years of pouring into students. Like every other professor navigating this extraordinary time, she is adapting to new teaching strategies and learning new technologies. Rather than shy away from this challenge, she is open and intentional, actively searching for ways to make the class accessible and engaging — and asking for help when she needs it. She, like the rest of my theatre professors, has also made sure to check in with students, leaving room in her 50 minute time slot for us to express small frustrations and relish small triumphs. This is something that I think observing and creating theatre allows us to do — practice perspective. 

Rather than shy away from this challenge, Prof. Bahle is open and intentional, actively searching for ways to make the class accessible and engaging — and asking for help when she needs it.

Living in extraordinary times like these, it can be easy slip into anxiety and despair, and motivation can be hard to find, but theatre allows us to see the familiar in the alien and the extraordinary in the ordinary. Opportunities made outside of class have done much to energize my spirit. Michelle Bombe and the theatre department has set up a series of virtual play readings for students who were desperate to reconnect, recognizing now more than ever the value of each other’s company. 

On our last day of classes, the stay-at-home order was extended another two weeks in Michigan. While the future is uncertain, our roles as artists remain the same. We continue to practice and present perspective to others, as we have always done.

Musical Showcase Reflections

Last Thursday was a pretty normal afternoon in the Jack H. Miller Center for the Musical Arts lobby.  Students were doing homework, heading to practice, laughing and enjoying conversation. Everyone was a little tired from the busy few days behind and anticipating an even busier next couple. Musical Showcase was coming up, and the vibe of the music community inside the Jack H. Miller Center reflected it. 

Later that day in my biology class, I forgot all about it, though.  As I learned more than you could ever imagine about phylogenetic tree (I major in biology and play the oboe), the Musical Showcase concert was off my mind.  But that didn’t last long. Within a few hours I was preparing, practicing, and waiting excitedly for the lights to go on at 8:00 p.m..  The dress rehearsal was long, but well worth the effort. 

Musical Showcase concert features almost every single area of the music department at Hope.  Some students participate in ensembles, others with solos. Many of us feel a bit nervous, since it’s the biggest concert of the year.  Most of that vanishes, however, when we greet a good friend with a smile.  “Hi!  I can’t wait to hear you tonight!”  “You got this girl, it’s going to be amazing!”  The supportive community here is what motivates me to make the best music possible.  When we’re on stage, each of us brings our best selves, which together creates a spectacle that is great to see and hear.

To me, that is the essence of music: a reflection of the soul through sound.

At Hope, we not only strive for excellent technical musical execution, but also the creation of beautiful, authentic music.  With the help of our professors and peers, the sound that comes from our instrument or voice is a reflection of what’s inside our soul.  To me, that is the essence of music: a reflection of the soul through sound.

Last week at Musical Showcase, when the hall was filled with awaiting audience members, I thought of my musical community, which brought me through every hardship and celebration.  When the spotlight turned to me and others, the audience witnessed just how incredible it is when musicians come together to create something unique.

Photographs by Tom Renner

Sharing the Story: Dr. Damani Phillips’ Hope College Residency

I met Dr. Damani Phillips in the spring of 2018. He came to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where I was a doctoral candidate, to give a lecture and perform at the local jazz club, The Iron Post. During his visit to UIUC, I enjoyed not only hearing his unique voice on the alto saxophone, but also a great conversation on jazz in academia. Shortly after he left to resume his teaching duties as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Iowa, his book What is This Thing Called Soul: Conversations on Black Culture in Jazz Education arrived in my mailbox. I read this book in one sitting, finding myself constantly saying “Yes — this is what we need!” I knew that it would find a place in my teaching, especially considering my passion for creating opportunities for students to explore issues of diversity and inclusion in academia.

Fast forward one year. As I began my career at Hope, Dr. Marc Baer, interim chair of the Department of Music, encouraged me to dream of what my first year could be like. I knew immediately that I wanted to bring Damani to campus — as a performer and also to fulfill the mission of Hope College in “embracing and nurturing racial, ethnic, cultural and geographic diversity” through his scholarship. Working collaboratively with Vanessa Greene from the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, we designed a residency that would introduce Phillips to a greater portion of the campus community while remaining an enriching experience for our music students. 

As our 2019-2020 Hurtgen Jazz Artist in Residence, Dr. Phillips will be teaching lessons, visiting classes across campus, meeting with faculty, conducting masterclasses with Hope students, and presenting his keynote lecture. About the lecture Dr. Phillips writes, “During the Civil Rights movement, many musicians joined African-Americans in using their musical voice as a catalyst in demanding change in America. While popular music artists such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and James Brown were more overt in voicing their opposition to the status quo through their music, many overlook the more subtle sonic contributions that jazz musicians made to this righteous cause.” 

So then on Tuesday, February 4 at 5:30 p.m., Dr. Phillips will present the Black History Month Keynote Lecture “Jazz in the Fight for Civil Rights.” This presentation is a one-of-a-kind collaboration which highlights seven examples of how jazz music echoed the cultural sentiments of African-Americans in the years leading up to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Through the combined use of live performance featuring a big band comprised of Hope College students and local professional musicians, spoken remarks (providing context/backstory for the program selections) and a visual display, the program offers a unique synergy of historical narrative and performance demonstration meant to both entertain and educate. The Hope College community Gospel Choir will open the program. The program is free, open to the public, and appropriate for all ages.

It is often said that jazz is the quintessential American art form. Jazz is a language that tells the story of the journey of the African American experience. On behalf of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, the Black Student Union, and the Department of Music, I invite you to join us on Tuesday as Dr. Phillips shares this story with us to celebrate this indispensable part of our nation’s past and present.

For more information on Dr. Damani Phillips, please visit: 

https://music.uiowa.edu/people/damani-phillips

Reacting to (re)collection

Sylvia Rodriguez (‘21) and Maddie Zimmerman (‘20) are art history majors and gallery assistants to Dr. Heidi Kraus, Director of The De Pree Gallery. What follows is a conversation between the two of them regarding the current show, (re)collection by Nate Young, as well as the gallery space itself.

(re)collection is Young’s reflection on the African American experience during the Great Migration of the 20th century, He will deliver an artist’s talk on Thursday, February 6, at 4 p.m. in Cook Auditorium for the DePree Art Center, with a reception following in the gallery from 5 to 6:30 p.m. 

Sylvia Rodriguez: Maddie, what did you think when you first visited the exhibit?

Maddie Zimmerman: I was immediately struck by the relative emptiness of the space. Normally, we have so much work down in the gallery, whether on the walls or on the floor. In (re)collection, however, there are truly very few pieces in immediate view. I think this really makes the viewer focus on the art on display. When we have a show with a lot of art, patrons tend to wander more quickly between pieces. I would say the opposite is true with Nate’s show, where folks are more intentional about spending time with the work. How was your first experience in the immersive installation?

SR: Honestly, it was kind of challenging! I think, especially as an art history student – maybe you can add to this – we’ve been trained to look at a piece rather than experience it. This piece challenged me to do that. And for me, that experience was honestly kind of frightening! I was in a dark place with unexpected moments of light and sound with no apparent pattern. I found myself trying to grab some hint of reality.

MZ: Yes! Certainly very unsettling at first. But the more I’ve entered that space, the more captivating I’ve found it. Art historical tradition can be so removed and distant in terms of viewing work, which is why I think I am so drawn to contemporary art. So many artists are experimenting with ways of literally bringing the viewer into their work.

SR: Yes, I totally agree.

“I think the gallery as a teaching tool is so powerful. This exhibit in particular could be used for a sociology or psychology course, as personally, being in that space was incredibly challenging.”Sylvia Rodriguez

MZ: Something that I think many people forget is how important art is as an educational tool, especially those who aren’t as involved in the art world as we are. How do you see Nate’s exhibit and The De Pree Gallery in general being used as this kind of space?

SR: I think the gallery as a teaching tool is so powerful. This exhibit in particular could be used for a sociology or psychology course, as personally, being in that space was incredibly challenging. The darkness, the sound of the bones. I think it fuels interesting questions about where society is right now and what the exhibit can teach us. I think the De Pree Art Gallery has enticing and thought-provoking exhibits. It really is up to professors to see how they can integrate this tool into their courses. 

MZ: Absolutely.

“I particularly enjoy talking to those who proclaim themselves as knowing very little about art because these people often have the most interesting interpretations. They see the work in ways influenced by their own worldview or field of study, which brings so many new meanings to the art!”Maddie Zimmerman

SR: What do you think? I feel like you might have a lot of input since you work down here in the gallery.

MZ: Yes, so because I work as a docent in the gallery, I get to have a lot of interactions with visitors regarding the shows. I love when patrons come up and ask me questions, or offer up their opinions, because it means that people are doing more than just passively viewing. I particularly enjoy talking to those who proclaim themselves as knowing very little about art because these people often have the most interesting interpretations. They see the work in ways influenced by their own worldview or field of study, which brings so many new meanings to the art! This is why the gallery isn’t just for art majors; it’s for everyone, because everyone can take something away from the show. And for us, since we’re both art history majors, the gallery is such a fantastic, tangible resource. How do you see it impacting or influencing your study?

SR: For me, The De Pree Gallery always pushes me. Every semester there is new subject matter, new material, new techniques. It’s easy to look and discuss art that you like, right? Like, I bet you could look at Chinese photography all day and talk about it freely. With exhibits like (re)collection we are forced to look differently, think differently, and infer differently. I think that is the most valuable input the gallery gives me.

MZ: That’s a great way of putting it. Art should challenge us, and that’s what makes The De Pree Gallery so great. Every show, every semester, from internationally-recognized artists to student work, brings something new to the table. As someone who wants to eventually work as a curator, getting this experience in a gallery that has such variety and such challenging work is so critical.

SR: Yes, absolutely! Thanks for talking with me, this was fun.

MZ: It was. Thank you, too!

Two Veteran Musicians Create a New Sound

One of the most exciting aspects of presenting performers to the community is the opportunity to offer an event that connects artists working together for the first time. Artists are constantly creating and reinventing themselves, and when they are in the midst of a new path, they are as excited as the audience. 

Such is the case when Pedrito Martinez and Alfredo Rodriguez come to campus on Jan. 24 for the Great Performance Series. Both artists are highly acclaimed jazz musicians now working together for the first time. Not only will the audience see two leaders in Cuban jazz on stage, but they also get to see them building on each other’s skills and experience.

The Alfredo Rodriguez Trio

What makes this even more interesting is that the two men come from different backgrounds and experiences. Pianist Rodriguez, who is younger than Martinez by more than a decade, was a child prodigy who studied classical piano at the prestigious Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán and Instituto Superior de Arte. In the midst of this classical education, he was playing popular music in his father’s orchestra by night. While performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006 he was discovered by his future mentor and producer, the legendary Quincy Jones.

Pedrito Martinez Group (NPR Tiny Desk Concert)

Martinez, meanwhile, was honing his craft on the streets of Havana,  learning the deeply-rooted percussion and vocal style of Afro-Cuban folkloric and religious music. He brought his voice and percussion skills to the U.S. in 1998 and was soon awarded First Place at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Afro-Latin Hand Drum Competition, and appeared in the documentary film, “Calle 54.” He co-founded and recorded several albums with the Latin fusion group, Yerba Buena, and begin fielding requests from Wynton Marsalis (who calls Pedrito “a genius,”) Eric Clapton, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Angelique Kidjo, Chucho Valdés, and James Taylor. He created his own quartet in 2005 and in 2013 received a Grammy nomination.

Listen to the two artists talk about this collaboration

Although they worked together on Rodriguez’s 2012 album, this new venture lets them work together in a new format. The Wall Street Journal notes that “When Messrs. Rodriguez and Martinez first performed as a duo at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard two years ago, their deep rapport and shared joy was evident. So was their intention to combine the traditions of their native island, Cuba, and their tantalizing technical skills into something accessible yet, beneath the surface, complex. “

Their 2019 album, Duologue, is winning plenty of praise. Jazz Times says “the true beauty of Duologue is the sheer joy that spills forth from every note that Rodríguez and Martinez play together. Their styles blend to create songs with aching lyricism, watercolor soundscapes that are driven by captivating mambo grooves.”

And now, at Hope College, we have the chance to see this great combination play out live on stage. Plus, our students get to participate in a workshop with both artists, something all of our visiting artists do. The concert is Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m. in the Concert Hall at the Jack H. Miller Center. You can purchase your reserved seats online or by calling 616-395-7890.

Still not convinced? Watch this video of one track from Duologue.