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Jazz Sensation Nicole Henry to Perform at NNPA Conference in June

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By Stacy M. Brown (NNPA Newswire Contributor)

For more than 17 years, Nicole Henry has been singing and performing in front of fans, friends, family members and industry leaders.

Now, the jazz sensation will face a much tougher crowd: publishers and journalists.

Henry is scheduled to perform at the National Newspapers Publishers Association’s (NNPA) annual summer conference, on Wednesday, June 21 at the National Harbor in Prince George’s County Md.

The NNPA is a trade group that represents more than 200 Black-owned media companies operating in the United States.

“There’s an opportunity to make an impression on people who are tastemakers and I’m sure they have opinions,” Henry said. “The opportunity to present myself to a new audience is exciting and, hopefully, I’ll be able to maintain relationships with these journalists as I release [new music]. As a touring musician, you always need friends.”

Since her debut in 2000, Henry has established herself as one the jazz world’s most acclaimed vocalists, possessing what her handlers call a potent combination of dynamic vocal abilities, impeccable phrasing, and powerful emotional resonance.

Henry has earned a Soul Train Award for “Best Traditional Jazz Performance,” three Top-10 U.S. Billboard and HMV Japan jazz albums and she has been heralded by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Essence magazine and others for her ability to tell “real stories through repertoire from the American songbook,” classic and contemporary jazz, standards, blues and originals.

A native of Philadelphia, who now splits her downtime between homes in New York City and Miami, Henry has performed in more than 15 countries; headlining venues in New York, Tokyo, Madrid, Moscow, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco.

The NNPA performance, which is sponsored by Macy’s, is one of a few she’ll have in the Washington, D.C.-area in June. She’s also scheduled to perform at Blues Alley on June 22.

“I’ve been singing and acting full-time since 2000 and I’ve been touring the world since 2005 and I never get tired of the road,” said Henry, whose 2004 debut CD, “The Nearness of You,” earned considerable attention from audiences and critics domestically and abroad. She won Best New Jazz Artist of 2004 in Japan and her follow up CD, “Teach Me Tonight,” topped the music charts in Japan a year later, helping her earn HMV Japan’s Best Vocal Jazz Album.

An avid admirer of the legendary Nancy Wilson, Henry has also showcased her ability to perform her own renditions of songs by such iconic hitmakers as Bill Withers, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Gladys Knight.

“I remember in 2000, I was invited to go on the road with a Blues and Rock band. It was the only time I’ve ever been a background singer in a professional capacity,” Henry said. “It was six weeks on a bus tour and as soon as I got home, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

While she’s planning to do more to pursue her acting career, Henry’s bread and butter remains music. She’s currently working on a Nancy Wilson tribute CD that will cover the legend’s more than five-decade career.

“[Wilson is] a living legend and I think sometimes, because she straddled two genres, she gets lost in the mix a little,” Henry said of her idol. “Not that people have forgotten Nancy Wilson; the jazz world and the pop world have a lot of respect and embrace her and I have a lot of respect for her and I’ve been influenced by her style.”

Henry noted that she’s also planning to do a CD of all original music and that she’s excited to hear what she has to say next

When asked what NNPA can expect at the summer conference, Henry didn’t hesitate.

“I would say a mix of jazz and a mix of soul and a mix of…something you haven’t seen in a little while,” she said. “I’ll be happy to do Nancy Wilson, too.”

Freddie Allen is the Editor-In-Chief of the NNPA Newswire and BlackPressUSA.com. Focused on Black people stuff, positively. You should follow Freddie on Twitter and Instagram @freddieallenjr.

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Empire Star Taraji Henson Speaks on Suicide and Mental Health on Capitol Hill

NNPA NEWSWIRE — “It breaks my heart to know that 5-year-old children are contemplating life and death, I just…I’m sorry. That one is tough for me. So, I’m here to appeal to you, because this is a national crisis. When I hear of kids going into bathrooms, cutting themselves, you’re supposed to feel safe in school,” Henson told the members of Congress and those in the audience in a hearing room on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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Award-winning actress and Empire star Taraji P. Henson testified before members of Congress on mental health issues in the African American community. (Photo: YouTube)
Award-winning actress and Empire star Taraji P. Henson testified before members of Congress on mental health issues in the African American community. (Photo: YouTube)

By Lauren Victoria Burke, NNPA Newswire Contributor

“I am here using my celebrity, using my voice, to put a face to this, because I also suffer from depression and anxiety. If you’re a human living in today’s world, I don’t know how you’re not suffering in any way.”

Award-winning actress and ‘Empire’ star Taraji P. Henson testified before members of Congress on mental health issues in the African American community.

The Congressional Black Caucus launched a task force on mental health issues in April of this year. They have held hearings on mental health and the increasing number of suicides among black youth. The CBC Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health is chaired by Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).

The members of the task force are Reps. Alma Adams (D-NC), Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO), Danny Davis (D-IL), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Jahana Hayes (D-CT), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Barbara Lee (D-CA), John Lewis (D-GA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Frederica Wilson (D-FL).

“I’m here to appeal to you because this is a national crisis,” Henson said. Henson founded The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in 2018 to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness in the African American community with a specific emphasis on the suicide rate among Black youth.

“I really don’t know how to fix this problem, I just know that the suicide rate is rising,” she said. “I just know that ages of the children that are committing suicide are getting younger and younger,” the actress added.

“It breaks my heart to know that 5-year-old children are contemplating life and death, I just…I’m sorry. That one is tough for me. So, I’m here to appeal to you, because this is a national crisis. When I hear of kids going into bathrooms, cutting themselves, you’re supposed to feel safe in school,” Henson told the members of Congress and those in the audience in a hearing room on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Every year, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness, but a National Alliance on Mental Illness study discovered that black adults utilize mental health services at half the rate of white adults.

Lauren Victoria Burke is an independent journalist and writer for NNPA as well as a political analyst and strategist as Principal of Win Digital Media LLC. She may be contacted at LBurke007@gmail.com and on twitter at @LVBurke

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Will Packer Drama, ‘Ambitions’ Brings Star Power to OWN

NNPA NEWSWIRE — Entertainment juggernaut Will Packer, the man behind hit films like Girls Trip, Straight Outta Compton. Little, Stomp the Yard, Ride Along, “Ready to Love,” and “The Atlanta Child Murders” has brought “Ambitions,” a big drama starring Robin Givens, Essence Atkins, Kendrick Cross, Brian Bosworth and Brian White, to the small screen.

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“Ambitions,” a big drama starring Robin Givens, Essence Atkins, Kendrick Cross, Brian Bosworth and Brian White, on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.
“Ambitions,” a big drama starring Robin Givens, Essence Atkins, Kendrick Cross, Brian Bosworth and Brian White, on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.

By Nsenga K. Burton, Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., NNPA Newswire Entertainment Editor

Entertainment juggernaut Will Packer, the man behind hit films like Girls Trip, Straight Outta Compton, Little, Stomp the Yard, Ride Along, “Ready to Love,” and “The Atlanta Child Murders” has brought “Ambitions,” a big drama starring Robin Givens, Essence Atkins, Kendrick Cross, Brian Bosworth and Brian White, to the small screen.

Robin Givens plays the role of Stephanie Lancaster, a sophisticated lawyer hailing from a long line of distinguished attorneys. Stephanie desperately wants to be in charge of her family’s prestigious law firm and will stop at nothing to get it. Brian White is ‘Evan Lancaster,’ the Mayor of Atlanta, who is married to attorney Stephanie Carlisle (Robin Givens). Evan’s dream is to be the first African-American governor of Georgia and there’s no line he won’t cross to get there.

Kendrick Cross stars as ‘Titus Hughes,’ a passionate attorney and dedicated husband to Amara (Essence Atkins). Titus has accepted the challenge of being in-house counsel for a big pharma company run by Hunter Purifoy (Brian Bosworth) to fight a class action suit brought by the powerful Carlisle family.

Brely Evans stars as ‘Rondell Lancaster,’ the sister of Atlanta Mayor Evan Lancaster and manager of the Thelma’s Place restaurant. As the new face of an anti-gentrification campaign, she never thought she’d become a crusader for the people, but it’s a badge she wears with pride – and nobody is removing it.

Erica Page plays the role of ‘Bella (Tru) Trujillo,’ Atlanta’s newest and trendiest fashion designer. She’s the exclusive dress designer for First Lady Stephanie Lancaster, but has set her sights much higher. 

Essence Atkins plays the role of ‘Amara Hughes,’ a lawyer in the U.S. Attorney’s Office who has newly arrived in Atlanta with her husband, Titus (Kendrick Cross). Originally from Texas, she is quickly gaining attention from the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a diligent investigator and prosecutor.

In addition, Brian Bosworth (“What Men Want”), Matt Cedeño (“Power”), Deena Dill (“Conrad & Michelle”), Gino Anthony Pesi (“Shades of Blue”) and Kayla Smith (“Star”) will appear in recurring roles.

Created by executive producer/writer Jamey Giddens “AMBITIONS” is produced for OWN by Will Packer Media in association with Lionsgate and Lionsgate-owned distributor Debmar-Mercury.

Will Packer is executive producer. Kevin Arkadie is executive producer/showrunner. Creator/writer Jamey Giddens and Will Packer Media’s Sheila Ducksworth also serve as executive producers.

Benny Boom directed and served as a producer of the pilot episode.

Connect with the series on social media via: @AmbitionsOWN (Instagram & Twitter)

Check local listings for channel information.

This post was curated by Nsenga K Burton, Ph.D., founder & editor-in-chief of The Burton Wire. An expert in intersectionality and media industries, Dr. Burton is also a professor of film and television at Emory University and co-editor of the book, Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual or @TheBurtonWire

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Film, fellowship puts Memphian Jamey Hatley on course for the big screen

NNPA NEWSWIRE — Hatley is the recipient of the inaugural Indie Memphis Black Filmmaker Fellowship in Screenwriting. Funded by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk”), the two-month fellowship comes with a $7,500 unrestricted cash grant to help Hatley develop her screenplay, “The Eureka Hotel.”

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Jamey Hatley (Photo: Demarcus Bowser)
Jamey Hatley (Photo: Demarcus Bowser)

By Karanja A. Ajanaku, New Tri-State Defender
kajanaku@tsdmemphis.com

Jamey Hatley is from Walker Homes and while debates still rage over whether that’s in Whitehaven or Westwood, there is no question that Hatley’s writing career is on an upward trajectory.

Hatley is the recipient of the inaugural Indie Memphis Black Filmmaker Fellowship in Screenwriting. Funded by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk”), the two-month fellowship comes with a $7,500 unrestricted cash grant to help Hatley develop her screenplay, “The Eureka Hotel.”

Jenkins also handpicked Raven Jackson, another native of Tennessee, as the winner of the Indie Memphis national Black Filmmaker Residency for Screenwriting. The two-month residency, including travel and housing, affords Jackson, a thesis student in New York University’s Graduate Film program, $7,500. Her feature film product is “all dirt roads taste of salt.”

“As an artist, I’ve always admired Memphis and what it’s meant to black artistry across many forms and genres,” said Jenkins. “To partner with Indie Memphis in supporting Jamey Hatley and Raven Jackson in taking the next steps in their quest to creatively engage and contribute to the diaspora is an honor most high.

“In their work, I find resounding proof that Memphis both raises talent from within (Hatley, a native Memphian) and inspires it from abroad (Jackson).”

A Whitehaven High School alum, Hatley had definite plans – attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and become a corporate executive – the day she walked off the graduation stage.

What happened? So many things, she said, including an internship that contributed to her rethinking her plans. Later, she got a journalism degree from the University of Memphis and at one point got mixed up in the music industry via a connection.

“…(W)ords and books were so important to me that I could not imagine myself being a writer. I tiptoed up to it,” she said. “I was doing everything to run away from these stories, but I was still scribbling. The stories ended up catching up with me.”

Screenwriting came into the picture by email and out of the blue last September.

“At that time, I had no job. My literal organization had gotten defunded, it had fallen apart. It was like, ‘Oh, this fancy director considers you an ideal collaborator. Would you do it?’ I’m like, ‘I like to eat, I like to pay my rent, so OK.’”

That project, which is for a major network, still is in development. The experience opened the door to the Writer’s Guild and primed her for the Indie Memphis Black Filmmaker Fellowship in Screenwriting opportunity.

“I think one of my superpowers is knowing, ‘Oh, here’s your door. Are you going to walk through it?’ If it’s a door and I feel like it’s mine, then I’m going to run through it and I’ll figure it out on the other side.”

That the fellowship was being funded by Jenkins was a huge attraction. She’d met him at an event in New Orleans (where she was living at the time) and had summoned the resolve to share with him her first – and then recently published in the Oxford American – short story.

Content to “just watch Barry’s beautiful movies for the rest of my life,” she learned on Twitter that she had won the fellowship and the opportunity to learn more directly from him.

“I still can’t believe it,” she said.

Hatley entered a treatment into the fellowship, eager for the resources and support to create a finished version of her screenplay, “The Eureka Hotel.”

The Eureka Hotel was a real place in Memphis. Hatley became aware of it while researching for her novel, learning that it had operated out of a Victorian-styled home that she had stared at so many times while visiting a friend’s Downtown Memphis art gallery.

“The Eureka Hotel,” Hatley says, is “a journey story because the Eureka was a colored hotel. … Their tagline was ‘Always open.’”

A short film based on the screenplay now is in post-production.

“It’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful,” says Hatley, who must deliver a script for a feature-length film to Jenkins.

She also has “a few things else that are secret that are working in the background that happen to be scripts.

“But I’m also going to finish my novel, because I’m still a novelist….”

The novel is about Memphis.

“Everything I write is about Memphis, and it’s about Walker Homes. It’s called the ‘Dream Singers.’ It takes place in the wake of the King assassination, and there is a woman … I call her a dream singer. …She has babies, twins. One is born at the moment that King is assassinated. One is born at the moment that he dies, and all the hopes and dreams of this community, that’s based on Walker Homes, reside in these babies. In three months, four months, later in July, one of the babies passes away. That stymies the community. …

“I feel like Memphis feels a debt about King dying here that we’ve never fully acknowledged. …To me, dreams are debt. Anybody’s dream, somebody else pays for it. …It’s really exploring who gets the dream and who pays the price for that.”

America, she says, has never been honest with itself, regarding the root-level issues that existed before Dr. King – issues that brought him to Memphis and ultimately led to his assassination.

“I think art gives us an opportunity to at least explore being honest in a way that’s not comfortable, but more successful.”

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Three special events headline Motown 60 Weekend

MICHIGAN CHRONICLE — Motown Records was founded in Detroit in 1969 by Berry Gordy Jr. To commemorate its 60th year, the Motown Museum announced plans for its highly anticipated Motown 60 Weekend set for September 21-23. The three-day event is packed full of music and star power converging on Detroit in true Motown style for an incredible not-to-be-missed celebration benefiting Motown Museum.

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Motown Museum (Photo by: Michigan Chronicle)

By Branden Hunter
Motown Records was founded in Detroit in 1959 by Berry Gordy Jr. To commemorate its 60th year, the Motown Museum announced plans for its highly anticipated Motown 60 Weekend set for September 21-23. The three-day event is packed full of music and star power converging on Detroit in true Motown style for an incredible not-to-be-missed celebration benefiting Motown Museum.

“It’s been such an important year for us to share Motown history and celebrate this milestone in a big way,” said Motown Museum Chairwoman and CEO Robin Terry. “Our Motown 60 Weekend is the culmination of a year-long celebration all happening right here in Detroit. We’ve created three special and unique events for Motown fans. Most importantly, we will honor and celebrate Motown’s iconic visionary founder Berry Gordy in Detroit where this story was born. We invite all Motown fans to join us as we celebrate the musical and cultural impact of this incredible legacy.”

The weekend’s festivities include a “Motown Gospel Concert” Saturday, September 21 at Detroit World Outreach. The concert will feature artists performing traditional gospel music along with spiritually enhanced Motown favorites. Artists include Grammy Award-winning artist Regina Belle, Stellar Award-winning and current Motown gospel label group Tye Tribbet & G.A., Tasha Page-Lockhart, winner of the gospel singing competition Sunday Best that airs on BET, and Detroit gospel royalty Kierra “Kiki” Sheard. A 125-person choir from more than 70 local faith-based groups will perform. With a capacity of 3,000 people, this is an open-to-the public, free community concert. Tickets are available on a first come, first served basis beginning August 28. For more information, please visit motownmuseum.org.

During “Hitsville Honors: Celebrating Berry Gordy & 60 Years of Motown” Sunday, September 22 at Orchestra Hall at the Max M. Marjorie J. Fisher Music Center, the city that started it all will soon play host to an unforgettable evening of extraordinary entertainment. Hitsville Honors is a powerful musical tribute to Motown’s legacy and a celebration of the Motown family. Highlights will include a tribute to Motown founder Berry Gordy and a celebration of his incredible life and transformative musical and entrepreneurial vision. The evening will be a star-studded event, with planned appearances by celebrities, local dignitaries and special guests. The Temptations, Four Tops, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, and Mary Wilson will perform Motown favorites. That legendary lineup is just the beginning. Award-winning Motown artists Ne-Yo and Kem will be joined by Detroit’s own Big Sean with other artists and performances to be announced. The result is sure to be a moment unlike any other, where legendary meets contemporary, and where Motown favorites come together with some of today’s most innovative talents to showcase the generational impact and lasting legacy of Motown. Tickets range from $50-$1,000 and include various opportunities, including pre- and post-event receptions. Tickets for Hitsville Honors go on sale Thursday, Aug. 1 and can be purchased at www.motownmuseum.org.

The ”Soul In One Celebrity Golf Classic” will take place Monday, September 23 at Tam-O-Shanter Country Club in West Bloomfield Township. Guests will join Motown alumni and celebrities for an afternoon tee time and a gourmet lunch and dinner. Pricing ranges from $350 for an individual golfer with groups packages available. To register golf event and for information about sponsorship opportunities and tickets packages for all events, contact Motown Museum Director of Development and Community Activation, Paul Barker, at (313) 875-2264, Ext. 226, or email motown60@motownmuseum.org.

In addition to the Motown Museum hosted weekend of events, the Friends of Fuller Gordy Strikefest event, an L.A.-based annual affair led by his daughter Iris Gordy and granddaughter Karla Gordy Bristol, will honor Motown VP, humanitarian and pro bowler Fuller Gordy. The event will serve as a casual ‘warm up’ for Motown alumni, family, friends and fans to connect and support Motown Museum prior to the weekend’s festivities. Featuring bowling, karaoke, dinner and Motown music, Strikefest will take place on Friday, Sept. 20 at 6:30 p.m. at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park. To inquire about tickets and for more information, visit http://friendsoffuller.org.

The Motown Museum was founded in 1985 by Esther Gordy Edwards and is committed to preserving, protecting, and presenting the Motown story through authentic, inspirational and educational experiences.

Announced in late 2016, the Motown Museum expansion will grow the museum to a 50,000-square-foot world-class entertainment and education tourist destination featuring dynamic, interactive exhibits, a performance theater, recording studios, an expanded retail experience and meeting spaces designed by reknown architects and exhibit designers. When completed, the new museum campus will have a transformative impact on the surrounding Detroit neighborhoods, providing employment, sustainability and community pride by serving as an important catalyst for new investment and tourism in the historic area.

This article originally appeared in the Michigan Chronicle

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FILM REVIEW: The Farewell

NNPA NEWSWIRE — When you walk out of the theater you may feel like you just left a family meal or a close friend’s house. That familial reaction is the result of Wang’s welcoming storytelling and an ensemble cast that makes you feel at home as you experience a sweet and sour drama, which tends to be more sweet.

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The cast of The Farewell

By Dwight Brown, NNPA Newswire Film Critic

That thing called life. Everyone goes through it, somehow putting a greater focus on the beginning and not the end. Who’s more adorable? Babies or elders? Yea, right.

The Farwell dares to venture to the last chapter of our existence as it examines how an Asian family handles the finish-line process. It does so with a warm-hearted and uplifting spirit that is quite affecting.

Writer/director Lulu Wang dug into her own experiences to develop the script’s premise, storyline and characters, basing her 98-minute anecdote on an incident that happened to her.

Wang’s alter-ego is Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians), a Chinese-born, U.S.-raised twentysomething who is stunned to learn that her grandma, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and given a short time to live.

Billi is even more shocked when her dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma, The Quiet American, Rush Hour) and mom Jian (Diana Lin) advise her that the family will not tell the matriarch her diagnosis. Instead, they will gather around her in Changchun, China, their hometown, under the pretense of celebrating a wedding.

For Billi, who is brash, the impulse to reach out to Nai Nai and console her is almost uncontrollable. It’s so strong, her parents don’t want her to travel to China, in fear that she’ll spill the beans. They leave for their motherland, without her. Billi, poor as a church mouse, finds a way (credit cards) to follow them there. In China, her parents and extended family are on pins and needles wondering if their cover will be blown.

Bravely Lulu Wang takes on a dreary subject, but adds an inventive touch of magic, humor and artistry to her narrative. Her Nai Nai character is a magnet of strength. Scenes with her practicing Tai chi and teaching it to Billi are priceless.

The tension between Billi and her parents over a tradition of holding back bad news seems authentic. In America, patients hear about the grim reaper all the time. In China, or at least in this family, the focus is on preserving a quality of life for as long as possible. And if that means sheltering the patient from a death sentence with a group charade, so be it.

Many films start or end with a screenshot that says, ‘Based on a true story.” The Farewell begins with the notation, “Based on an actual lie.” So, from the git-go, audiences know that this will not be an ordinary family drama. And it isn’t.

Wang is very deft at creating a vibrant family vibe, with rivalries, past history, love and conflict all rolled into one. Her efforts are complemented by an ensemble cast that knows their roles and plays them out accordingly. Tzi Ma as dad is the stodgy patriarch. Diana Lin and Ma make the perfect couple, who have one foot planted firmly in the Western world, and the other in their homeland and its culture.

Awkwafina as Billi, is their polar opposite. She’s as American as apple pie and an Apple Computer. She struggles to stay modern, yet respect her culture, traditions and family, too. Her dilemma will resonate with her generation or the offspring of immigrants. Emotional scenes between the three lead actors run quite deep, giving Awkwafina a chance to show her solid dramatic acting chops.

Wang is an artist. It’s evident in the way she frames scenes like family photo portraits, and also in the excellent choices she makes with her tech crew: The music, from the original score (Alex Weston) to the eclectic playlist (musical supervisors Susan Jacobs and Dylan Neely), is as impeccable as it is quirky. The clothes looked lived in (Athena Wang, costume designer). The footage’s colors and tones look great and the cast is well-lit and photographed (Anna Franquesca Solano, D.P.). Sets, from banquet halls to homes and apartments (Yong Ok Lee, production designer) look genuine, and you often question whether you’re watching a movie or real life.

If there is one imperfection, it’s the editing choices. Some scenes, especially the dinners, run on too long, way after the dramatic point has been made (Matt Friedman and Michael Taylor, editor).

When you walk out of the theater you may feel like you just left a family meal or a close friend’s house. That familial reaction is the result of Wang’s welcoming storytelling and an ensemble cast that makes you feel at home as you experience a sweet and sour drama, which tends to be more sweet.

Visit NNPA Newswire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.comand BlackPressUSA.com.

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Grant paves way to “Take ‘Em Down 901” one-act play

NNPA NEWSWIRE — The real-life drama that culminated with the removal of Confederate-era statues from what had been two Memphis-owned parks will be the subject of a play being developed by Ekundayo Bandele, founder and CEO of the Hattiloo Theatre.

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Ekundayo Bandele and Johnny Jones

By Karanja A. Ajanaku, The New Tri-State Defender
kajanaku@tsdmemphis.com

The real-life drama that culminated with the removal of Confederate-era statues from what had been two Memphis-owned parks will be the subject of a play being developed by Ekundayo Bandele, founder and CEO of the Hattiloo Theatre.

With Bandele and an associate, Johnny Jones, forming the creative team, the Hattiloo is among the 2019 recipients of MAP Fund grants. Forty-two original, live performance projects will be funded, with a total of $1.3 million in direct support for development and production.

Hattiloo will receive $18,725 to support the Take ‘Em Down 901 play.

“This play will premiere in 2021, with free performances in both Health Sciences and Memphis parks,” said Bandele in announcing the grant award. “The MAP Fund invests in artistic production as the critical foundation of imagining — and ultimately co-creating — a more equitable and vibrant society.”

The MAP grantors note that “at a time of deep division, the grantees seek to interrogate marginalizing structures in the United States while asserting new possibilities for thriving interdependence.”

Some of the projects will employ processions and other performance practices as a strategy for “transforming spaces with racist histories, such as contentious borders, waterways, or landmarks.” Others will generate shared rituals, dances and songs in celebration of life.

Topics covered by the 42 performance projects include an exploration of the mental health of firefighters in Detroit, where the vacancy and arson rates are the highest in the country, and a look at the “larger psychological ramifications of border politics for immigrants.”

MAP Fund Executive Director, Moira Brennan, said, “As a whole, this extraordinarily diverse group of artists sends a resounding message of determination and hope. We are honored to support their efforts and can’t wait to watch their visions unfold.”

Here is the description of the Hattiloo performance project:

“Take ‘Em Down 901” is a one-act play about the grassroots movement that resulted in the December 2017 removal of statues of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Capt. J. Harvey Mathes from public parks in Memphis, where they had stood for more than 100 years, casting their shadows over residents of the fifth ‘Blackest’ city in the country.

The script will be developed by Ekundayo Bandele to tell the story from the perspectives of the group of roughly 50 concerned citizens, who succeeded in legally toppling the controversial landmarks, in the process, upending the powerful institutions that had long protected them and the enduring legacy of oppression they represented for Memphis’ marginalized majority.

The City of Memphis sold Health Science Park and the easement to Memphis Park to Memphis Greenspace, Inc., to clear the way for the removal of the three controversial statues saluting Confederate-era figures.

The parks were sold to Memphis Greenspace, Inc. for $1,000 each. The sale of the parks followed the city’s unsuccessful attempt to get a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission to remove the Forrest statue from Health Sciences Park. Memphis Greenspace, Inc. removed the trio of statues within hours of taking ownership.

The MAP Fund was established in 1988 by The Rockefeller Foundation to support innovation and cross-cultural exploration in new works of live performance. Over the past two decades, MAP guidelines have gradually broadened to welcome artists exploring issues of class, sexual orientation, gender, generation, faith and other aspects of cultural difference.

The presentation of the 2019 MAP grantees is in celebration of the group’s 30th anniversary of grant making.

Q&A

Karanja A. Ajanaku: Describe the development of the play idea. Did you have the idea and were in search of funding? Did you learn of the funding, with the idea for the play then coming to mind?

Ekundayo Bandele: I have long been fascinated with how the Confederate statues were brought down and with the people involved. As Hattiloo approaches its 15-year anniversary, we want to start telling the stories that are around us. So often, Black Memphis history is forgotten within the span of a few short years. My desire to tell this story came before the grant opportunity. Still, the support that comes with the grant makes my idea of the play more tangible.

KAA: Have you already started the writing? How long will it take?

EB: I am still in the research-and-interview phase. I’ve met with Mayor (Jim) Strickland and his team, (Shelby County Commissioner) Tami Sawyer (#TakeEmDown901 spokesperson), (Shelby County Commission Chairman) Van (D.) Turner (Jr. of Greenspace) and Patrick Ghant. I anticipate meeting with (Rev. L.) LaSimba (M.) Gray (Jr.) and Alan Wade, as well as (Rev. Dr.) Earl (J.) Fisher. I will take the rest of this year devising the play – it’s surroundings, the archetypal characters, the symbols. Next year I plan to start workshopping it through table and staged readings. The play will premier in the spring of 2021.

KAA: How important is the aspect of the free performances, particularly in the parks? Did you have to get prior permission for the performances? If so, what was the feedback and from whom?

EB: I asked Van Turner if Memphis Greenspace would grant us permission to perform the play there. He said ‘yes’. I think it is imperative that the community is invited to see this story unfold, a story that will be fiction based on fact. Everyone that I’ve spoken to about the free performances have been excited to see them happen.

KAA: Should we expect to see any of the “takemdown901” activists playing themselves? How will you go about casting and when?

EB: None of the real-life people involved in the statues’ removal will be in the play. There will be characters who represent the sentiment of, say, Tami Sawyer, or Alan Wade. This play isn’t meant to be a documentary work, but a spotlight on a movement that has happened in other cities – Baltimore, Charlottesville, New Orleans. I want to make sure that, while the story is about Memphis, there are themes that any person in any of those other cities can relate to.

KAA: Can you describe your history/partnership with Mr. Jones.

EB: I became acquainted with Mr. Jones through actor and director Baron Kelly, who is also at the University of Louisville. Once I learned that the University had the only program where a student can earn a certificate in African-American theatre, I knew that the play had to have input from that department. Mr. Jones is an accomplished thespian, and I’m eager to see how his insight helps bring this play to fruition.

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