Legendary Women Take the Stage at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

Image-31 The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts will be swayed by harmonious sounds when it hosts Sweet Honey in the Rock on January 30.

The a cappella ensemble is composed of six African-American women with varying backgrounds but the common love of music. The group’s name comes from Psalm 81:16, which reads “He should have fed them also with the finest of the wheat; and with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee.” They said they chose the name because the verse promises that people will be fed with the honey from the rock and from virtues of the elements. “Honey – an ancient substance, sweet and nurturing. Rock – an elemental strength, enduring the winds of time.”

Founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, the initial members were all intent on a career in theater. Sweet Honey in the Rock has had 23 members over the years. Original members Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson are still with the group. Other members of the group include Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Casel, Shirley Saxton, and Ysaye Barnwell.

The group’s songs are based in a wide range of genres. These influences include traditional African-American music, spiritual, jazz, blues, and gospel, Barnwell says. “African-American songs are so dead-on in terms of what we need now – a musical continuum,” she says. Sweet Honey is so intent on reaching out to a broad audience that Saxton also provides sign language interpretation during their performances.

Sweet Honey’s members draw their lyrical inspiration from the social and political climate. Their most recent single, Are We A Nation, is the group’s response to Arizona’s controversial 2011 immigration law SB 1070. We “write about collective issues that speak to us individually and as a group,” Barnwell says. The Are We A Nation single was a rare collaboration by the members. Normally the women write individually then bring the lyrics to the group. While Barnwell agreed that the members share common social and political views, “an issue will not hit the stage until we’re in full agreement.”

Are We A Nation is also rare in the fact that it is performed with a music track. “We wanted to reach out to as broad an audience as possible,” Barnwell says, so the music was added. Usually if there is any accompaniment to a song, it is some type of percussion.

According to Barnwell, when Sweet Honey is together, it is an amiable experience. She says that some music groups may perform then walk off the stage and not see each other until the next performance. That is not the case for these six women. “When you work together all the time – I think it’s a requirement (to get along). I’m glad we have the ability to really interact with each other as sisters,” Barnwell says. Sweet Honey performs mostly on weekends, allowing members to be home with their families during the week. “We’re not a touring group. We try to cram a lot into a weekend,” Barnwell notes, “sometimes we’re in three different cities. Some (members) are raising children – we construct the calendar to meet personal needs as well as professional.” Weekend concert dates does not mean the group gets much down time during the week. “The business of the group must go on,” Barnwell says. “We all have other interests and involvements.” She laughs while commenting on the issues Sweet Honey brings to light in their music. “I think it’s called life.”

For tickets or more information, visit kauffmancenter.org.

Image-32Another noteworthy show arrives on Valentine’s Day. Comedy lovers have the chance to ask questions of the legendary Carol Burnett during her Laughter and Reflection tour. The show, in question and answer format, is a nod from the days of The Carol Burnett Show. Before the show got underway Burnett would spend some time talking with the live audience.

Burnett got her television start on The Garry Moore Show, and was a permanent member of the cast from 1959 – 1962. The Carol Burnett Show premiered on Sept. 11, 1969 and ran until 1978. Throughout its run the show boasted guest stars such as Lucille Ball, Betty White, Ray Charles, Dick Van Dyke, Alan Alda, and future president Ronald Reagan.

While best known for her comedic roles and characters, Burnett is also a veteran of the theatre, produced and starred in many television specials, and has authored three books about her life and career. This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection and One More Time are New York Times bestsellers. Her third book, Carrie and Me: A Mother – Daughter Love Story is scheduled for publication in April. In 2010 she received a Grammy Award for This Time Together’s audio book. In addition to voicing her own books she was the voice of “Kangaroo” in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who and “Hara” in The Secret World of Arrietty.

Burnett returned to daytime television in 2011 as Verla Grubbs during the final month of All My Children. According to her biography, Burnett was a fan of the show and played the role of Grubbs four times during the show’s 41-year run. Other recent television credits include Glee and Law and Order: SVU.

Burnett’s biography states that over her career she has won “12 People’s Choice Awards, eight Golden Globes, six Emmy Awards, the Horatio Alger Award, the Peabody Award for Friendly Fire, and the Ace Award for Between Friends with Elizabeth Taylor. She has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is a Kennedy Center honoree, and has been inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.” She has also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Cinematographer Guild and the Distinction in Theatre Award from The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.•

About The Author: Janelle Gann-Austin

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