by Taki S. Raton
Our esteemed ancestor scholar, John Henrik Clarke is quoted as saying that, “The survival of African people away from their ancestral home is one of the great acts of human endeavor in the history of the world.”
A reflection of this resilience will be magnificently reflected in the “Sweet Grass Project – A Celebration of Survival” Friday and Saturday, May 17 and 18, in Mitchell Studio 254 on the campus of UWM.
This premier Friday evening performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee and an evening production beginning at 7:30 p.m.
Creatively interwoven in the form of dance, song, melody, prose and imagery, the 45-minute work is a collaborative between UWM Dance Professor Fern Caulker Bronson and Film Professor Portia Cobb.
Historic and contemporary interviews and personal revelations are employed to artistically rescue, reclaim and reconstruct the perseverance and ever present spirit of the survivors and descendents of the Middle Passage and African enslavement in the United States, particularly as evidenced in the esteemed traditions of the Gullah cultural experience.
According to posted accounts, the Gullah is a distinctive group of Black Americans from South Carolina and Georgia in the southeastern United States.
This stretch along the Atlantic Ocean is home to the descendants of Africans brought to the Carolina colonies. With roots on African soil, their knowledge of growing rice and rice cultivation, along with their labor, made the Gullah the most desired and sought after African enslaved of the agricultural South.
It is critical to note that the production of rice was virtually unknown in and not indigenous to Europe. The American colonist, therefore, had no experience with the cultivation of rice.
They therefore needed Africans, particularly from the region of Sierra Leone, who knew how to plant, harvest, and process this marketable crop.
Because of geographical isolation allowing the survival of African communal life, customs and traditions, the Gullah have been able to preserve intact more of their African cultural heritage than any segment of the African American population.
“Africanisms preserved through the traditions of the Gullah people of South Carolina and Georgia allowed the maintenance of a distinct cultural legacy that embodies the soul of people,” cites Professor Bronson in a “Sweet Grass Project” performance narrative brief.
“Their story is the foundation upon which this project is built and celebrated,” she adds.
Her poetry and inspired narratives finds its source in notes from her many travels and additionally through her choreographic process.
The Ko-Thi Dance Ensemble founder shares that she has been reading slave narratives and researching Gullah culture for the past seven years, “studying imagery and looking for art work to build the concept of this piece.”
Professor Bronson and the cast spent two months creatively structuring movement imagery from her poetic narratives, historical narratives, pictures, conducting musical research and logging in numerous trips to South Carolina and Georgia.
“My inspiration has always been to address the level of misappropriation, omission, and the general avoidance on the subject of African enslavement as a whole,” she positions. “This state of omission and misunderstanding exist all over the African Diaspora,” she asserts.
A combination of dancers from the UWM Dance Department’s African Dance Track, members of Ko-Thi, and community dancers, the 16 member cast will in rhythmic dance, verse, song, symbolism and imagery carry the audience through select peculiar stages of the African enslavement experience culminating in healing and survival.
The audience will be introduced to the “Orisha” or “Osune”. Played by Krislyn World, the Orisha is the healer in Sweet Grass. Her role is to rescue the lost souls from the kidnapped voyage over the Atlantic who were never buried or acknowledged. She “returns” the souls back on the shore.
“To me this is a powerful image. We had to have a part of ourselves renewed – the losses and the memories. But most importantly, it is about how our people embraced, prior to Christianity, a keen sense of spirituality that aided them in sustaining our cultural psyche,” explains Bronson.
The production’s artistic director reveals that the earlier stated omissions and general avoidance of th subject of African enslavement was further confirmed by the cast: “In our discussions, many of the cast still talk about how their families do not want to talk about what the elder generations experienced during our enslavement. It hurts and it’s too painful,” Bronson contends. “The result is that our children are not attached to their history; that our elders have shut down their memories and we no longer talk about our former lives during the plantation era,” she adds.
The Sweet Grass creator positions that this “shutting down” of memory by African American elders “is a disaster for us as a people as compared, for example, to how Jewish children are constantly being taught about the importance of their history and how knowledge of their past has shaped their status and placement in America and throughout the global arena.”
She further reveals that her cast and fellow collaborators have stepped into a painful place: “Each individual brought his or her respective histories to the work as a testament to this memory of African survival.
“We spent the first few weeks researching, talking, and distilling our anger, pain, resentment, history, and culturisms through dance and song. “We then channeled our focus into expressions of hope, well-being and a sense of a personal mission – that being, to continually educate ourselves about our history; to share this information with our community and to move forward with a new sense of self knowledge, healing, and wholeness.”
UWM dance major and Sweet Grass cast member Flauntajia Harris submits that due to her participation in the production, “a lot of barriers are being broken and a lot of healing is taking place in my inner soul.
So I just feel like finally, being an African American here in this department, there is something being heard, there is something being told and, initially, almost more than what I wanted to be told.”
She adds that, “there is something from the root that is coming out,” and that she feels that this artistic work will inspire a deeper understanding, “not only with African Americans and others, but more importantly, a deeper understanding within myself. I am finding myself in this Sweet Grass Project.”
As a result of experiencing Sweet Grass, Bronson envisions that she wants the audience, “to feel, to face, to reconnect and to empathize with the history of our African ancestors through the Middle Passage to the Americas.
But most importantly, I want this process to spawn a renewed interest in the members of the cast regarding the importance of research and a gaining of self esteem from knowing that they have come from an incredible group of humans that have survived a horrific past.”
Associate Professor Cobb says that her role as artistic collaborator is as a Gullah consultant: “I have provided a cultural compass which is both textual and contextual. This has come from my own immersion, research, and familial/ ancestral connections to Low Country South Carolina.”
She shares that she wants the audience to embrace the living legacy of the Gullah people. “It is complex and yet unknown to so many,” she says.
“I hope this work will leave e the audience with the impression of the fact that the Gullah/Geechee are a people whose African identities and memory is evident through the retention of a spiritual, ritual, culinary, material, and linguistic practices.”
Bronson posits that as a result of Sweet Grass, she has returned to her roots as a choreographer: “A large part of my artistic life has been on the African and Caribbean side of the dance.
However, there is so much more to our experience as a people. Africa has influenced the whole world through the deposit of enslaved Africans throughout the African Diaspora. This is just a start of my journey.”
The Sweet Grass Project has been made possible through support from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Research Grant Initiative and through the Peck School of the Arts Dance Department.
For adult, seniors, UWM and Peck School faculty and student ticket information, please contact the UWM Box Office at (414) 229-4308.