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BWW Review: THE WHITNEY PROJECT - A CELEBRATION OF BLACK JOY at Delaware Theatre Company

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BWW Review: THE WHITNEY PROJECT - A CELEBRATION OF BLACK JOY at Delaware Theatre Company

Art is a universal language. According to John M. Eger, Zahn Professor of Creativity and Innovation, "There can be no more distilled expression of a culture than its works of art. In creating art, consciously or not, artists are attempting to communicate at a powerful emotional level to those within their own culture."

The Whitney Project - A Celebration of Black Joy is art communicating on a level that transcends our basic spoken language transmitted through aural senses. A Celebration of Black Joy enters your ears, reaches down into your soul, warms your heart, ignites your passion, makes you yearn for a loved one, but most of all, allows for plain and simple joy to envelope your very being, even if it's just for an hour or two.

While A Celebration of Black Joy is deeply rooted in Black community and culture, the stories and songs can be appreciated by all, to a certain degree, because this piece of art isn't about other communities and cultures; it directly relates to the Black community and culture, and those outside of that realm should sit up, listen and learn. Listen to the stories that are interwoven with songs, and listen hard to the lyrics of the carefully selected popular and original songs. There's no doubt you'll learn a bit of something because A Celebration of Black Joy drops some well needed knowledge for those on the outside. First and foremost, the work sets aside the mistaken belief that Black Artists only create from a place of pain, trauma, and violence. One of the reasons A Celebration of Black Joy was created was to show that Black Artists can (and should more often) create in a space that is healthy and joyful. And, not only is expressing Black joy nurturing and healing, it also serves as a form of protest against systemic racism, directly combating those who work to keep Black community members miserable and oppressed. Artivism is at work - right here, right now.

Songs and stories are deftly interlaced for a cohesive work that moves effortlessly through the cycles of life that illicit the most joy and happiness - from birth, childhood and dating, to marriage, children, and family gatherings. Remember, this is a celebration of joy; therefore, there are no sad love songs or hateful lyrics about those who did you wrong. The set list includes everything from I Don't Feel No Ways Tired made famous by Rev. James Cleveland to We Are Young, Gifted and Black (Common), Best Part (H.E.R.), Better Days (Dianne Reeves), Grandma's Hands, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, Family Reunion, and Optimistic. The songs (some unknown to me and perhaps other White audience members) span multiple decades, all of which effectively reflect upon the work's message and give weight to Blacks absolutely knowing of how to manifest joy and embracing their cultural celebration of joy for hundreds of years while being forced to endure unrelenting suppression of their physical and emotional freedoms in conformance of societal norms prescribed for them.

Storyteller, Kim Graham, is perfection. Some stories are read from a script while others are improvised after Graham leaves stage to engage with the audience asking for favorite memories, only to return to the stage a few songs later taking the audience's responses to create a truly unique story. Or is it? While the story is unique to that one audience with its responses, it isn't unique (in a broader sense) because we are all living beings moving through joyous life events. The undertaking embraces the similarities of cultures and allows the audience to share in each other's life for just a moment. The difficultly with this approach in fleshing out Black joy was that the audience members of fifty or so were mainly White theatergoers. Graham's description of a man that is "chocolate fine" was superb. From now on, whenever I see an attractive Black man my mind will surely recall the phrase, "confection perfection of the ebony kind."

Singers, Nadjah Nicole and Jea Street, Jr., caressed the lyrics to each and every song with their own personal style of smoothness. It was true joy to my ears. Bandleader and creator, Jonathan Whitney, kept the piece moving along, seamlessly shifting from style, tempo and message with aplomb. Whitney, an incredibly talented percussionist, let the audience become the drumbeat for a song or two, not so much as to keep rhythm, but rather to become the motivating sound for slaves working in the fields singing their songs of hope. Band members, Micah Graves (keyboard), Hiruy Tirfe (saxophone), and beloved stalwart, Mike Boone (bass), played with ease, purpose, love and passion. Their individual time to shine solos were stellar. I truly could have listened to the band play for another 2, 4 or more hours.

Some statements from the show resonated with me on different levels - "Joy is universal," "Joy is fellowship," "Black joy takes you back to the dream...you cannot silence the dream," "You can fake happiness, but you can't fake joy; joy comes from a deeper place." The story about an eagle raised by chickens with a moral of don't listen to the naysayers, move away from the foolishness, and do what you were born to do, is a testament to the culture's empowering resilience. Graham succinctly puts it out there, "You're gonna face trials and hard times now and in future, but whatcha gonna do? Be optimistic!"

The Whitney Project - A Celebration of Black Joy shares the joy felt by all colors while diving deeper into the psyche of Blacks with its message of optimism, hope, peace, pride, and a completely unfettered right to experience and live in a space of joy.

The Whitney Project - A Celebration of Black Joy
July 13 through July 17

Delaware Theater Company
200 Water Street
Wilmington, DE 19801
Box Office: 302.594.1100
www.delawaretheatre.org

Photo Credit: Submitted by Jonathan Whitney


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