Community and Sharing in “Protest + Hope = Healing”

Three dancers left to right Black man, white woman, Black women

During “Protest + Hope = Healing,” dancers Marcus Johnson, Courtney Collado, and Kennedy Banks perform Tyrone Aiken’s “Loving You.”
Credit: Mike Strong.

In “Protest + Hope = Healing,” choreographer and organizer Tyrone Aiken brought together a multi-disciplinary cadre of artists for an intimate event that explored how these artists have challenged injustice, offering models for others. 

Throughout the past year and beyond, the pandemic and police violence revealed the gaping societal wounds within our communities. For some, this caused seismic shifts to their perceptions of reality; for others, the events of Summer 2020 reignited known issues and caused re-traumatization. 

Aiken, chief artistic advisor for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, organized this occasion to help address these feelings and recognize how members of our community of artists have navigated that emotional strain. Artists shared not only their work, but also the journey to that work, through that pain.

Originally, this event was scheduled for an afternoon performance at the Brush Creek Amphitheater off of Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, situated between the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center and the Spirit of Freedom Fountain. Due to threat of rain, the event was moved to the St. Mark Center for Child Development, on 12th Street. Audience members had temperatures taken at entry, were reminded to stay masked, and seated socially distanced. 

Christopher Page-Sanders performs “I Love This World,” choreographed by Jennifer Owen. Credit: Mike Strong.

After opening words from Aiken about the origins and intentions of the event, he invited dancer Courtney Collado to share a meditation on breath and breathing, and lead a breathing exercise. She instructed the audience to “lift up not only your heart, but the other hearts beating in chests in this room.” 

A seemingly straightforward exercise, it nevertheless felt of significant power. Around the room, backs straightened and shoulders sank in unison through the guided exercise, and I wondered how relationships would change–in families, company meetings, sporting events, political debates–if we all started these events with synchronized breathing. How would that change our conversations and interactions? Would we begin to recognize the simple commonality of our lungs and hearts, of the air we share between ourselves and others?

Most of the program was dance pieces choreographed by Aiken, interspersed with poetry or spoken word. Dancers Collado, Marcus Johnson and Kennedy Banks performed “Loving You,” the trio in near unison, demonstrating the ways different bodies shape movement and change its impact. These dancers came back for solo performances during the show, each demonstrating their unique movement style: Collado performed “Light” and Johnson performed “You For,” set to music; Banks performed “Heart and Home,” set to the poetry of Sheri Purpose Hall. 

Civil rights attorney Maria North Morgan showed a selection of paintings from her Pandemic/Revolution 2020 series. She shared how, in rediscovering painting in the spring of 2020, this act became both her source of protest and her source of hope, a way to connect with her family during lock down and a way to express her pain, addressing issues happening globally and personally. 

Spoken words also joined in the occasion, with poets and actors. Natasha Ria El Scari performed her piece “My Black History,” Jose Faus performed his “Something New,” and Glenn North shared two selections, James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” and Ralph Ellison’s “Why Black Folks Like To Dance.” Damron Armstrong, executive artistic director of the Black Repertory Theater of Kansas City, shared Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.” 

Each offered the audience insight into their story, and the opportunity to reflect on their chosen words. North, in presenting his selection, quoted his grandmother: “You can’t fix what you can’t face,” an elder’s wisdom in addressing all manner of issues. These readings each brought a different viewpoint on the ongoing struggles toward freedom, a total and comfortable freedom available as birthright, not through lottery of skin and sex. 

Aiken also presented a solo work from the Owen/Cox Dance Group, choreographed by Jennifer Owen to music by Brad Cox. “I Love This World” was danced by Christopher Page-Sanders, who gave a transformational performance, imbuing this song of hope and heartbreak with grace and strength. One particular line stood out, emphasized within the occasion: “I don’t believe / that this broken world / can’t get better / if we try.” 

The final work of the event was performed by Latra Wilson, dancing Aiken’s “Today is the Day,” with music from Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, from Roach’s 1960 album “We Insist!” Aiken originally created this piece for a Juneteenth performance at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, what he called a “cautionary piece.” Wilson moved within the heady, fast-paced work with purpose and control, expressive in every gesture.

Latra Wilson performs “Today is the Day,” choreographed by Tyrone Aiken. Credit: Mike Strong.

Since this event was originally imagined for an outdoor venue, the lighting and backdrops were simple, the transitions between pieces casual and communal. Though many people were involved, this was a streamlined, stripped-down production, focusing on the eloquence of movement and the power of words. 

In this sharing, the artists, who were predominantly Black, provided examples of protest and paths toward healing. For some in the audience (split between Black participants and white), it was a communal moment, these shared experiences; for others, an entry point, a place to move forward from. 

In a way, protest is part of the natural progression of both healing and hope. Protest is recognition of a problem and the refusal to be controlled by it. The only way to start a healing process is to first acknowledge, then challenge, the issues at hand. Protest is also recognition that situations can change, could be different, even…better. To strive for change is in itself an act of hope.

Reviewed Saturday, October 2, 2021.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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