By Michelle London Bell
Mahogany Dance Theatre Founder and Artistic Director Vann J. Gilbert brought the Civil Rights movement to life at Dallas’ Music Hall at Fair Park in South Dallas on Friday, August 6. Hosted and emceed by Channel 8 co-anchor Cynthia Izaguirre, the evening opened bt honoring the Urban Arts-In-Education Initiative, title sponsors and community supporters of the performance. The production is an original work inspired by the “soul stirring pain and promise” of the Movement, with summer program participants as artists.
Act I was full of vibrance and energy as the young artists performed an opening number to the rhythmic sounds from the Congo and African-inspired dance moves in “Overture: Amazing Grace.”
“Heritage Lost – The African Village/The Ship Passage” evoked raw emotion – as the male company dancers graphically depicted the horrific journey of slaves to America, clad in loin cloth and chains. The power and exuberance in the motions as countermovements to the symphonic score was riveting.
According to a release about the production, “Amazing Grace is part of St. Anthony Community Center’s Urban Arts-In-Education Initiative, created to heighten awareness of the importance of keeping the arts alive in urban communities, especially in educational settings (via summer camps, schools and after-school programs).”
Moving through the decades, the female dance solo of “The Communion/Breaking Bread” and ensemble depiction of 1960s-era protests in “Arresting Moment/Rosa” showed the collective dependence on Negro spirituals and hymns (like “Let Us Break Bread Together”) to get through the challenging times. Director Gilbert’s brilliance in choreography shines through – as the number parlays into a spirited female ensemble dance reminiscent of praise dancing to “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
A highlight of Act I was an all-male troupe performing “A Man’s Cry” to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” to lighten the mood of the production a bit. Fun, fresh and funky, this number moved the audience into the 70s and beyond, as the protest stance was reprised with “Taking It To The Streets” as an ode to collective frustration with the system.
Following Intermission, Act Two opens with more exuberant and dramatic performances depicting cultural strife with “Complexities/School Segregation” and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”, which further demonstrate the director’s creativity in artistic expression. The finale had an equally fresh allure – with a mix of modern, jazz, and ethnic works in the choreography.
It is clear that each participating artist took a great sense of pride in their collaborative effort in the production. The audience saluted both the artists and director with a standing ovation following the performance, which is sure to garner support in promoting the relevance of dance and music education and appreciation of the arts in public schools.