From the Uptown Art Fair to the Fringe Festival, from Flow to Northern Spark, the Twin Cities seems awash with arts celebrations. So, what would motivate crackerjack theater director Jamil Jude and his friend, playwright Josh Wilder, to create another one?
Because the things they seek are not adequately addressed in the other celebrations. So they created the New Griots Festival, which will kick off Friday in Uptown after nearly a year of planning.
Pronounced “GREE-o” and named for the storytellers and oral historians of West Africa, the festival will showcase “the work of young black emerging artists in many disciplines,” Wilder said.
“Everyone’s welcome but we saw a gap and wanted to create something that filled it.”
The weekend-long festival offers a smorgasbord of traditional and genre-bending events, from a staged reading of playwright Maxie Rockymore’s “Vacation in the Clouds” to music by composers Stephanie Nevilles and DJ Adora Tokyo.
Actor and spoken word artist ShaVunda Horsley will also be on the bill alongside multimedia storyteller Farrington Llewellyn. There will be dance by Darrius Strong, literary excerpts by Sherrie Fernandez-Williams and sculptural demonstrations by ceramist Rock Johnsen. And let’s not forget the social dancing and partying.
“Many of these artists are not well-known today but they will soon be,” said Jude, noting the festival’s hashtag, “#wegotnext.”
While the organizers talk about their hopes in lofty terms that invoke the Black Lives Matter movement and history, they also admit their idea grew out of relatively small and selfish concerns. Both relocated to the Twin Cities within the past five years — Wilder, a Philadelphia native, moved here for a Jerome Fellowship while Jude, from the U.S. Virgin Islands, came as a producer at Mixed Blood Theatre. They simply wanted to expand their circle of artistic friends.
“We’re young black artists working in theater in the Twin Cities, but we didn’t know dancers or visual artists or musicians,” said Jude, a board member at the Minneapolis Fringe Festival and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. “We wanted to break out of our own little pocket, and help others do the same.”
That goal has been achieved.
“I knew some of these other artists before, but many of them have been discoveries,” said Horsley, a graduate of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA program. “This festival gives us a chance to push our own narratives and walk out our own truths as we deal with the violence against black bodies in the age of the first black president. It’s a crazy time but also an exciting one, and what we’re doing as artists, as people, will help clarify who and where we are.”
An eye on legacy
The organizers acknowledge their elders, particularly cultural institutions such as Penumbra Theatre, Pillsbury House Theatre and the Givens Foundation for African American Literature. Those organizations “laid the groundwork for what we’re doing,” said Wilder, a playwright who will be heading to Yale for graduate school in a couple of weeks.
Wilder and Jude hatched the festival a year ago while tossing around ideas in Wilder’s Minneapolis apartment.
“Every legacy starts with someone dreaming out loud, and putting dreams into action,” said Wilder as he invoked the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. “If it’s been done before, it can be done again.”
The festival will take place not far from where both producers live — the Phoenix Theater, the space occupied for years by the Brave New Workshop. In addition to performances, artists also will conduct free workshops.
“We wanted to make sure there was an element of engagement, of giving back to the community,” said Wilder.
And it’s affordable. A festival pass costs just $30 for eight events plus a party.
That affordability, plus the organizers’ idealism, made it easy to say yes to the invitation to become an inaugural New Griot, said writer Fernandez-Williams, a program manager at the Loft Literary Center who writes nonfiction. She’s the author of “Soft: A Memoir,” and will teach a class on voice.
“That’s one of the things I love about the festival, that we’ll be engaging the audience in a deep way,” she said. “It gives us a space to cultivate our voices in an authentic way so that they will grow and flower.”
Ceramist Johnsen will be throwing clay in a kiln outside the theater. “Most of my designs are based on a traditional technique that the British use but I take influences from everywhere,” he said. “The class I’ll be teaching will include traditional firing techniques from Africa and Japan, plus some chemistry. It’s science meets art and history.”
The festival, he said, will achieve big things, and not just for artists.
“I’m part of the creation of a whole new creative community,” he said. “That’s exciting for me personally, yes, but I think it’s exciting for everyone else. The Twin Cities are very special, and this is going to make it more so.”