The literary activism of one of America’s most renowned African–American poets will be examined at 8 p.m. on Jan. 24, at the Music Center at Strathmore with Manuel Cinema’s “No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks.”
A multi-media piece using shadow puppetry, silhouetted actors and live music, the work captures the complexities of Brooks’ commentary on the Civil Rights Movement while telling, through a new lens, her own inspirational story. Showcasing both the spirit and struggle of that turbulent era, the work draws from some of Brooks’ most iconic verses. It features an original screenplay by Eve L. Ewing and Nate Marshall of Crescendo Literary. A jazz score composed by Jamila and Ayanna Woods also will be performed live by a quintet.
Founded in 2010, Manuel Cinema is a performance ensemble, design studio and film production company that combines a variety of different art forms and technical abilities to create dynamic, visual stories. Joi Brown, artistic director at Strathmore, noted, “It is a company that I have been following for four years. Their format knocks me off my socks.
“The combination of the visual elements and musical elements in their works is so well executed,” Brown said. “When they told me about this Gwendolyn Brooks piece, I saw it as honoring a voice that is timeless and important and needs to be revisited.”
A poet, writer and teacher whose work garnered great critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950, Brooks was the first African-American to win the award. She also was the first Black woman to hold the position of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. She is known around the world for using poetry to increase knowledge about Black culture in America. Her most notable works include “A Street in Bronzeville,” “Maud Martha” and “Annie Allen,” the work which would earn her the Pulitzer.
Born on June 17, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks moved to Chicago at six weeks old during the Great Migration. As a writer, she focused mostly on the urban poor, specifically Blacks who were discriminated against and oppressed by White people. Framed by the injustices she had endured throughout her own life, her voice and expressions shaped her poetry to reflect the political consciousness of the 1960s, a time that greatly impacted Black America.
An activist and community organizer, Brooks fought valiantly alongside civil rights leaders with her writings to express the voice of her community, particularly the fear that shaped those times. Through her work, she let the voice of struggling black youth be heard. In her poem, “We Real Cool,” she talks about seven young teens who go out at night to have fun, but in the end, they will be killed for merely being themselves.
“We real cool. We
Left school. We /
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We /
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We /
Jazz June. We
Die soon.” (1-8)
Similarly, in her novel, “Maud Martha,” Brooks writes about a teenage Black girl growing up in the 1930s and 40s in Chicago with her mother. They both experience blatant discrimination, including insults to their appearance, economic status and social exclusion. The novel is about bitterness, rage, self-hatred and silence that results from suppressed anger. However, her characters in many other works took pride in who they were and what they believed.
Brooks once said that she wrote about what she saw and heard in the street. She said that she found most of her material by looking out of the window of her apartment house in Chicago. In a tribute to Brooks, the Strathmore show will include a pre-show event that celebrates Washington, D.C.’s own grassroots poetry scene. “We Are Each Other’s Harvest: A Gathering of Poets” will be held from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the music center’s education room.
Scholar and poet Kim Roberts will give a brief pre-show talk, followed by a poetry reading hosted by Dwayne B of Spit Dat and featuring local poets Morgan Butler, Brandon Douglas and Marjan Naderi.
Tickets are free with a show ticket, but registration is recommended as space is limited. A post-show conversation event will immediately follow the main show in the Encore Café. For tickets, visit www.strathmore.org.