(pictured above: Willie Carter Longtime Black Rep performer Brian Cager leds performers in the finale.)
As the North Carolina Black Repertory Company opened its 29th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration on Jan 15, host Brian McLaughlin let the audience know that it was okay to have fun while honoring the late Civil Rights leader.
“Let them know that you’ve come to have a good time because this is a celebration!” he declared.
The talent showcase was started by the late Larry Leon Hamlin, who founded the Black Rep, as a way to honor King on the actual day of his birth, Jan. 15. A slate of local performers audition each year for a slot in the showcase. The 17 acts who performed included newcomers and veterans of the showcase.
Singers, dancers, poets and drummers entertained a hearty audience, most of whom donated three canned goods (for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina) to gain free admission.
Black Rep Artistic Director Mabel Robinson, who has coordinated the talent show for the last two decades, said she tries to encourage each performer and remind him or her that they are using their talent to give back to the community and celebrate freedom.
“Anyone can be a part (of the showcase),” she said. “You can express yourself in however you choose to express yourself as long as you’re doing good and giving of yourself and being positive and know that everyone is equal.”
Many of the acts performed gospel songs, apropos because gospel provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement.
TaMaya Arnett, 15, performed in the showcase for the second time. This year, she performed “Break Every Chain” by gospel artist Tasha Cobbs. Tamaya has been singing since she was five and regularly sings at churches, weddings and funerals. She has also performed during the Black Rep’s National Black Theatre Festival’s National Youth Talent Show. The Reynolds High School freshman said she was glad to use her talent to honor Dr. King.
“He was powerful,” she said of the late leader.
Aaliyah Harison, 13, performed a stunning duet with her vocal coach, Elder Ron Wildes, the music minister at Exodus United Baptist Church. With Wildes on the keyboard, they sang “You Are Holy.” Aaliyah, an eighth grader at Northwest Middle School, performs regularly at church and events, but it was her first time taking part in the MLK celebration. She said King’s life inspires her, reminding her that she’s free and can be anything she wants to be. Because of that, she said her performance had special meaning.
“It’s a good way to show how much he means to me in my life and how much he inspired me,” she said.
Jason McKinney, a bass-baritone whose 20 year career has taken him all over the world, and pianist Christopher Bagley gave a special performance. The two star in “Paul Robeson,” a musical play being staged this weekend at the Hanesbrands Theatre. McKinney plays singer and civil rights activist Robeson; Bagley plays Robeson’s longtime collaborator Lawrence Brown.
“It’s to honor Dr. King and to keep our struggle for equality alive so that we don’t forget where we come from and how much work there is still left to do,” said McKinney, a University of North Carolina School of Arts alumnus from Milwaukee, Wis. who now lives in the area.
McKinney opened the show, using his immense vocals to lead the audience in “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
At the end of the showcase, he led the performers in a medley of freedom songs, a fitting grand finale.
McKinney said he was six-years-old when he first performed to honor Dr. King. He was then part of his Jewish day school’s choir. Song is a very appropriate way to remember King and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, he believes.
“So many of the meetings revolved around song,” McKinney said. “They were held at churches. People just started them by singing and finished by singing, they had speeches in the middle … a lot of singing and a lot of praying, that’s just part of our culture.”
For ticket information for “Paul Robeson,” go to http://www.rhodesartscenter.org.