Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mother Tongue Reignites Hope at Annual Benefit

Adaku Utah, activist, artist and healer, takes flight onstage
Transnational feminists, scholars, poets, authors and activists came together for Mother Tongue 2015 hosted by the Black Women’s Blueprint as a centering of women’s voices from across the nation.

“It’s a night that sustains us in the work that we do, by both motivating us and showing us the power that we have with our words, our actions and our art,” said Dr. Mayowa Alero Obasaju, member of the board of directors at BWB. “It’s a night of unification and community building.”

Women honored on Saturday, Feb. 21, at the annual event included 2008 Vice Presidential candidate and political activist Rosa Clemente, author, Asha Bandele and the three co-founders of #BlackLivesMatter.

Asha Bandele (third to right) alongside BWB board members
Bandele, an Award-winning poet who’s worked with Audre Lorde, spoke on how crucial it is to “never forget who we came from, praise all the bridges that carried us over,” and gave tribute to the “Queens” who came before her, bringing her to the place she is today.

All women were presented with a plaque and lantern as a symbol of love, respect and appreciation for the work they have committed their lives to, serving as a beacon to women world-wide.

Black Women’s Blueprint is an ongoing effort to solidify human rights, challenge rape culture, prevent sexual assault through education and provide support through resources to the community. The membership-based organization that funds projects that advocates around issues such as sexual assault, racism and violence against women in the public and private sector. 

“Everything that we do, the triggers, the intellectual, the anxieties, the sisterhood, the work that we put in comes to this honoring each other, honoring women that have trail blazed before us,” said Sherley Accime, program director for Black Women’s Blueprint.

Poet hattie gosset performs this little girl...she
Among supporters was Lisa Gissendaner, an Ohio resident who travelled just for the event and was anticipating the performance to come.

“We speak of black boys but what about our black girls,” said Gissendaner. 

She felt as though the matter ought to be addressed more communities and schools. She also referred to the recently released Black Girls Matter report, that her friend, legal scholar and African American Policy Forum co-founder, Kimberle Crenshaw, pioneered.

“Thank you for everything that Black Women’s Blueprint does to advance the struggle of justice and freedom,” said Clemente. “Til’ the day I die, I will fight for justice and freedom and no matter how inconvenient or long it seems to people.”

Born and raised in the South Bronx, Clemente is a political activist, a hip-hop activist and freelance journalist that has contributed to Ebony, CNN, The Huffington Post and Democracy Now!

One of the quotes displayed from Clemente:
“We can start by incorporating discussions about violence in general and violence targeted specifically against girls everywhere.”

Founders of #BlackLivesMatter
At the time of the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012 is when #blacklivesmatter emerged representing the state of the country concerning racism and violence. It was birthed and took life in social media, the founders did not anticipate its growth to embody the movement that it has today.

“We just happen to be the ones to help facilitate that, and it’s a gift, it’s an honor and it’s also a lot of work, but we’re not doing it alone,” said Opal Tometti, one of the co-founders.

As a first generation Nigerian-American, Tometti is the Executive Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and involved with progressing for racial justice and migrant rights. Patricia Cullers-Brignac is currently involved with Building Resilience, the Arcus Center for Social Leadership Fellowship, and is the founder of Dignity and Power Now. Alicia Garza, the third co-founder, is the Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and has worked to win free local public transportation for youth  in San Francisco. 

All three expressed that the work only continues.

“It was never just a hashtag to us, the moment it was hashtag it was clear this is an organizing effort,” said Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, co-founder of #blacklivesmatter and founder of Dignity and Power Now.
Words of Rosa Clemente as Exousia sang in tribute to the evening

During Mother Tongue, writings of Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde and Cherrie Moraga were all celebrated in conjunction with original works by the poet performers.

Proceeds raised at Mother Tongue 2015 goes towards anti-rape advocacy on campuses and communities. More information on BWB can be found at www.blackwomensblueprint.org.

Monday, February 16, 2015

'Black Swan' Premieres at the Ailey Theater

Photo courtesy Dance Iquail
A ballet for the 22nd century. 

Tchaikovsky aside, the musical stylings and interviews of Nina Simone are what set the stage for this dance-based creation revolving around the world of the black ballerina and present-day woman of color.

Dance Iquail, founded by Iquail Shaheed, premiered his production of Black Swan at the Ailey Citigroup Theater this past Saturday, Feb. 14.

The 75-minute show transported the audience through scenes of self-discovery and contemplation, addressing the topics of juxtaposed identities and confined ways of thinking through performance. Whether it was Nina Simone’s words or the sounds of her voice, power emanated with each dance and concluded with a standing ovation by the audience.

“From watching it in my head three years ago - now it’s here and it’s sold out,” said Shaheed about the production coming into fruition after facing a series of ups and downs.

He said he wanted to uncover the beauty in matters left undiscussed but very present in society today. The significance of Nina Simone tied together themes of being marginalized in art and in music that he found paralleled dance in metaphorically, applying to even black ballerinas in classical form.

“Where she’s talking about love, to go deeper into the love of the craft, and the love of pursuing something that she otherwise can’t as a result of circumstance and in this case racial and sexist circumstance,” said Shaheed as keys to her work as an activist and an artist. 

“So again, I think I’ve said this before in this same interview, I think sometime before, my job is to somehow make them curious enough or persuade them by hook or crook to get more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there and just to bring it out. This is what compels me to compel them. And I will do it by whatever means necessary.” – Nina Simone, By Any Means Necessary (Interview).”

Black Swan aims to tap into human existence by reveling in its accomplishments while contemplating its shortcomings. It’s a social reflection for a present time that hopes to shed perspective and enlighten through choreography and motion.

“It is the woman’s voice, we are talking about black lives matter but we are not talking about gay men, the black female, that is the least that we talk about, rarely ever,” he said.

The show also featured Concepts in Choreography, a young group dancers from East Orange, New Jersey that lit up the stage. The students opened for Black Swan and then later joined cast for their grande finale.

“Young, mature, retired, gay, straight, asian, that is the world we are living in, it represents the harmony and diversity of the 22nd century,” said Shaheed. 

Dance Iquail was founded to unite and nurture a community of young, talented, and driven dancers that span across various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Shaheed is currently involved with The Harlem School of the Arts, The Ailey School and Steps on Broadway as a faculty member, and is also the recipient of numerous dance awards. 

To support further growth and opportunity, Dance Iquail formed a kickstarter devoted to the ongoing project at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/danceiquail/black-swan.

The next performance of Black Swan will be in Philadelphia at the Mandell Theater on Feb. 25-28th. For more information visit http://www.danceiquail.org

Sunday, February 8, 2015

This Weekend: 5th Annual Athena Film Fest Awards & Red Carpet

Debora Spar addressing invitees at the awards ceremony
Selected for the caliber of their work and demonstrated support of exemplary women in film, the honorees at the 2015 Athena Film Festival Awards Ceremony, held on Saturday, Feb. 7th, opened up about trials and inspirations that have helped light their way. 

On the red carpet, Rosie O'Donnell shared her walk with heart disease and story of surviving a heart attack, after her HBO documentary, Rosie O'Donnell: A Heart Felt Standup premiered in front of a live audience. 

"When they tell you that they don't know why you lived, that you really shouldn't be here - it's very jarring," said O'Donnell. No matter how rapid the pace of New York City living can get, the comedian urged how important it is for women to slow down, take preventative measures and take their personal health seriously.

Gina Prince-Bythewood also shared on the red carpet what a momentous occasion it was to be honored with other women with whom she respects tremendously. She discussed the challenges of having her films backed in Hollywood, that in many respects it can operate as cookie-cutter industry with not as much attention given to ethnic diversity or the stories of strong female characters.

"We are deeply committed to creating cultural conversations about women and leadership," said Kathryn Kolbert, Constance Hess Williams Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies and co-founder of the festival. 

This year's Laura Ziskin Award, named after the critically acclaimed producer and advocate against breast cancer, was given to Jodie Foster. She was present for the festival's opening but upon being awarded a Screen Actor's Guild Award on the same night in Los Angeles, gave her acceptance speech in advance. 

Foster, who's stages of life unfolded on screen, always felt surrounded by males aside from the usual make-up artist and or actress selected to play her mother in roles. 

"There I was, a young girl wanting to be director," she said. "And never seeing a female director's face, I thought it was something I couldn’t do, that I'd never be allowed to do."

With time the amount of female faces on set, from crew members to executives, began to increase. Her hope was in that change she experienced over the recent years, and with the next generation to come.

“The most wonderful thing to come here is to see all these exciting, interesting, talented women,” said Foster.

Producer of Love and Basketball, the Secret Life of Bees and currently playing Beyond the Lights, Prince-Bythewood accepted her award from longtime fellow friend in film and mentor Susan Fales-Hill. 

Hill recounted Prince-Bythewood's beginnings as an apprentice then writer on television show A Different World and connected that to how her career has greatly blossomed before her eyes. 

"I really feel that thing of overcoming has really sustained my career," said Prince-Bythewood, who went from changing her acceptance into UCLA's film school to now producing works that is widely-recieved.

"An now being in the position that I’m in and being a filmmaker, it is a tremendous gift and it is a tremendous fight as well," she said. "I am not discriminated against, but I’m discriminated against for my choices of focusing on stories of women and women in color." 

The two years of work put into Beyond the Lights have brought their own rewards to her,  and it's the quality of the end result that proves to be reaffirming. 

"Two things you think of as a filmmaker: Am I proud of the film? and Are the people who have seen it moved by it?," Prince-Bythewood said.

Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, was presented her award by Rosie O’Donnell and referred to her mother as an inspiration for all the narratives she's worked to share. 

Due to a rare disease that claimed her mother's arm below the elbow, she mentioned that she would typically tie the end of her sleeve. While the two were at lunch, an onlooking woman at expressed disgust at the sight of her mother’s arm, stating that she was trying to eat. 

“Well, it was really a turning point,” said Nevins. “Because I realized I was going to tell stories about people who wanted to pull up their sleeve, no matter what was underneath.”

Cathy Schulman, Oscar-winning producer of Crash, Darfur Now and president of Mandalay pictures, was introduced for her award by Emmy-nominated producer and lawyer, Debra Martin Chase. 

"I’ve been in this business for a long time, and long enough to really intimately understand that longevity is special and deserves kudos," said Chase. "When you combine longevity with someone whose really pushed boundaries, whose had a voice, whose taken risks, whose fought really hard to get great movies done - that is someone who deserves much respect."

During her career Schulman, credited men and women who she's learned valuable lessons from about film, ambition and overcoming obstacles. Through embracing problems and difficulty, she learned to focus her drive, build strength and gain perspective moving forward. 

Female participation in media was described as vital to her as any other cause because of women being in apart of a population that decides on all matters relating to education, government, politics and society. Her goals continuously remain focused on supporting the progress of women and their careers in media. 

"I guess what I've learned is there aren't so many people that you can look up to to say 'show me the way,'" said Schulman.  "But sometimes you have to pave the way.

Susan Fales-Hill (l) and Gina Prince-Bythewood

Kathryn Kolbert, director of the Athena Center and co-founder
Melissa Silverstein (l), Deborah Spar, Dylan McDermott and Kathryn Kolbert 
Debora Spar, Barnard president
Debra Martin Chase presenting award to Cathy Schulman.
Cathy Schulman speaks on film and motivation

Kathryn Kolbert, co-founder of the festival
Melissa Silverstein with the winners of the 2015 Athena List
Sheila Nevins accepting her award presented by Rosie O'Donnell

Friday, February 6, 2015

Afro Latin Jazz Enlivens East Harlem

The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra amidst audible conversation
It was non-verbal communication directed by the gestures of two hands, a sign language that unleashed waves of sound most supernatural. 

Just as every instrument became animated with character and story, each note was played with intent and purpose. Seismic notes, were played under the guise of humor and while others were melodies played with tender affection.

“I cried,” said Toia Bremermann, of Argentina, after seeing the orchestra for the first time. “It was emotional, it touched my soul.”

That was essence of the music performed by the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, lead by Grammy Award-winning Arturo O’Farrill. It was a fantasia of it’s own.

The ensemble graced El Teatro at El Museo Del Barrio last Wednesday, Feb. 4th and followed with dialogue between O’Farrill and Tania Leòn, founder and artistic director of Composers Now. 

“It’s a celebration of the composer, a lot of people write these notes we listen to, music doesn’t just spring into existence,” said O’Farrill. “When people think of composers they think of old dead people, when there are a lot of young talented people alive and kicking creating music today.”

Jazz standards and ragtime of older eras were blended with the earthy sounds traditionally found in Latin and African music that commemorated the careers of jazz greats like Dizzie Gillespie and Chazo Pono. 

“Jazz and Latin came from the same place - Africa,” said O’Farrill about the style. “There’s an equal marriage of both, their legacies are interrelated and if we don’t understand the notes we don’t understand the future.”

“Guajira Simple,” “Triumphant Journey,” “Second Line Soca/Bruddah Singh” and “Vaca Frita,” were all works featured from the orchestra’s fifth album, Cuba: the conversation continued, to which other jazz legends such as Alexis Bosch, Earl McIntyre and Dafnis Prieto were contributors.

When many artists write music in abstract ways, O’Farrill says people and events are what inspire his compositions. 

Whether it was “Vaca Frita,” inspired by the Cuban dish of seasoned, carmelized beef, or “The Jazz Twins,” written about two mysterious followers of the band who he later discovered were fans, each tune was intertwined with memories and meaning. 

Arturo O'Farrill and Tania Leòn on the future of music composition
“This is not Broadway, it’s better than Broadway,” said Felipe Haveraner, a musical theater student, in reaction to the orchestra. “Amazing is not even the word for it, it was so much better than I imagined it would be.”

Eddie Crawford, of Westchester, sought out to attend after the last time he saw the composer perform with his two sons at the Town Hall in Queens, and left inspired to continue his mastery of both the piano and flute. 

“Latin and Jazz are embedded in the genes,” said Crawford. “I love it, even the dexterity in his fingers as he plays the piano.”

O’Farrill, born in Mexico, came to New York to study music at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and is an educator at Brooklyn College and the Manhattan School of Music. He’s collaborated with Wynton Marsalis and Harry Belafonte, and with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is an artist-in-residence at the Harlem School of the Arts. In 2007 he founded the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance.

“Everything I do reflects my life in New York City,” said O’Farrill, “the sights, the sounds, the smells are irrevocably mixed up with every note I play.”

Monday, February 2, 2015

Athena Film Fest Honors Leaders Through Film

Visionaries are highlighted on and off the screen at this year's Athena Film Festival, which is just days away.

Returning to Morningside Heights, the weekend is bursting with insightful workshops, exclusive screenings and selective events centered around diverse women and leadership.

“Women onscreen is a plus, not a minus,” said Melissa Silverstein, co-founder, about celebrating dynamic female protagonists from various walks of life.

Going on five years strong, the 2015 line-up provides connective, interactive experiences and meld the ideas around production with a sense of community.

Festival-goers also have a first look of the opening film Dreamcatchers, making its New York debut. Produced by British filmmaker, Kim Longinotto, the story revolves around a Chicago woman’s efforts to positively transform the lives of women seeking an alternative to a life in prostitution.

Rosie O’Donnell is also premiering her documentary sponsored by HBO at the festival. In Rosie O’Donnell: A Heartfelt Stand Up, the comedian openly shares her journey dealing with heart disease and describes how it affected her outlook, career and family. Following the film, O’Donnell will also appear before the audience.

“I want them to come away with seeing wonderful film makers and wonderful stories that should be told,” said Silverstein.

Althea featured on Feb. 6
From critically-buzzed about Dear White People, to Angelina Jolie’s Difret, to recently-released Beyond the Lights, the feature films chosen touch upon issues of pop culture, race and social politics, and international culture.

Also garnering attention is Althea, a documentary produced by Rex Miller. He brings to light Althea Gibson’s historic, barrier-breaking tennis career. It chronicles her rise from Harlem in the 1950s, to her reign as a champion in an arena that was not ready for her.

“She was a woman before her time,” said Silverstein, which applies to the narratives of many women showcased this weekend.

The festival is also honoring Jodi Foster with the Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award for her portrayal of women in film, and her work that consistently pushes the boundaries of conventionality.

In order to disseminate knowledge gained through experience and make it accessible to all, Silverstein mentioned the importance of having the workshops and panel discussions as essential. 

“We try to create an entire environment where you are being stimulated though aspiration and inspiration,” she said.

Dreamcatcher opens the festival on Feb. 5
This year’s workshops feature Master Classes lead by award-winning directors such as Gina Prince-Bythewood, producer of Beyond the Lights, the Secret Life of Bees, and Love and Basketball; Cathy Schulman, Academy Award-winning producer of Crash; and Stephanie Laing, Emmy-nominated producer and current producer of Veep.

Additional panel discussions include “A Guide to Successful Crowdfunding,” on financing options for projects; “Below the Line,” on female cinematographers breaking into the field; and “Twyla Tharp’s Moving Notations and Comments,” where in dance, vision and creativity are explored.

“I always love the works-in-progress workshop where filmmakers show clips of their work and seek advice on ways to improve their films,” said Kathryn Kolbert, also co-founder of the Athena Film Festival. “Tharp and I will be discussing the role of film in her significant career and that promises to be intriguing.”

All-access passes general admission are $80 and $35 for students. Individual ticket prices vary, with most events at $12 for general admission and $5 for students. 

Barnard in the Biz Panel on Feb. 6
The festival is located at the Athena Center at Barnard College and will run from Feb. 5th - 8th. For additional information on scheduling, pricing or packages visit www.athenafilmfestival.com.

“Our goal is simple: we want to change what leadership looks like so that when you picture a leader, you picture women from across the globe making a difference in their communities,” said Kolbert. “I think most New Yorkers can embrace that goal.”