‘Harriet’s Return’ playwright Karen Jones Meadows to visit divisive Sedalia landmark

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The Rose M. Nolen Black History Library in Sedalia wasn’t getting many visitors. In an effort to draw more patrons, Marge Harlan, a retired psychologist and school teacher who now serves as the library’s director, built a replica of a slave cabin behind the library to show what living conditions had been like for slaves.

For a rustic aesthetic, Harlan had the cabin constructed from old barn board sourced in nearby Bunceton and stones found in the hills surrounding the area. She also planted a heritage garden, which includes period crops such as cotton, rice, tobacco, sugar cane, peanuts and sweet potatoes. A sign posted at the front of the cabin asks that “all who enter make peace with your past and move on.”

But instead of drawing crowds, the cabin drew criticism — and that criticism made national headlines earlier this summer. Some saw the cabin as a reminder of a painful past, and others felt it was inappropriate for Harlan, who is white, to build such a structure.

However, playwright Karen Jones Meadows, whose “Karen Jones Meadows’ Harriet’s Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman” is included in the University Concert Series, said the cabin — and Harlan’s efforts — are worthy of discussion. She plans to visit Harlan and tour the cabin with a group of MU students in the days leading up to her performance.

She writes:

I was very moved that someone 85 years old with enough money to do anything she wanted chose this in an effort to help harmonize a centuries-long divide of pervasive racial issues. Our natural state is harmony. If disharmony were natural, we’d be at peace with it. We’ve learned to settle and adapt, which isn’t the same as experiencing peace, well-being and freedom from caring. Race is an overshadowing illness in our society.

I think a slave cabin is not a reminder of abuse, but of resilience and creativity of generations of African-descended people who weren’t broken and should be recognized for power and contributions, most of which are purposely suppressed and unknown. I’ve been studying our history for decades, and every day I learn something new.

I never say “slave,” always “enslaved people.” Having the generic title “slave” takes our common humanity away. “Slave” automatically marginalizes. There is no country, no origin called “slave.” Then and now, we come from people, a continent, with myriad cultures and traditions, and share the same commonalities of all people.

This interests me because I facilitate Culture in the Quarter experiential adventure workshops, where we explore the history of our ancestors, which translates into great-great-great-great- and beyond uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins, and their ingenuity, arts, rebellion, relationships and cuisine despite circumstances. I also know that people of many races here and abroad were instrumental in the ending of U.S. slavery, for reasons more than race. If we — I mean all of us — know our/the real history, we can move on. If we get stuck in unnecessary illusions, denials, cover-ups and blockages for a sense of protection or superiority, we lose our personal and collective progress.

I see it as a place to gather and go to the core of issues. The Charles Wright Museum in Detroit has an amazing replica of a middle passage ship. When you’re on it, you feel it. You connect with uncles, aunts, grandparents, sisters, husbands, et cetera. You feel the lineage in your cells. You know the agony and become emotional yet strengthened because for a moment you have an inkling of what our ancestors went through and that they had the substance of spirit to transcend conditions — and if they did it, we certainly can. I have been in the cemetery of enslaved people, and it’s actively empowering and enlightening. I’ve also been at Harriet Tubman’s gravesite, and regardless of background, you know you are in the presence of enduring wholeness.

Shame has no place in the context of the African American life experience during enslavement or any other time.

Karen Jones Meadows’ Harriet’s Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman

7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27

Missouri Theatre

$30 – $35

concertseries.org

573-882-3781

 

Karen Jones Meadows will meet with Marge Harlan at 1 p.m. Sept. 24 at the Rose M. Nolen Black History Library, 109 Lima Alley, Sedalia.

A school show will be staged 11 a.m. Monday, Sept. 26 at Missouri Theatre. Admission to school shows is free for students and two chaperones per group of 30. Additional chaperone or adult tickets can be purchased for $5.

Jones Meadows also will lead two free workshops for members of the community. Culture in the Quarter, to be held Wednesday, 3 – 5 p.m. Sept. 28 at Missouri Theatre, explores African American resilience and creativity through arts, relationships, ingenuity, cuisine and rebellion. Towers of Power, to be held 1 – 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29 in Room CLC 103 at the Missouri United Methodist Church, 204 S. 9th Street.

 

Story by Caroline Dohack

 

Remembering Miriam Makeba: ‘Mama Africa’ explores life and times of musical icon, anti-apartheid activist

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In 1986, the issue of apartheid in South Africa rocked the campus.

Students built and occupied a shantytown on Francis Quadrangle to symbolize the living conditions of blacks living in South Africa. They were protesting university investments in 54 companies with dealings in South Africa. At first, UM officials said they couldn’t divest holdings because, as a public institution, the university system had no place interfering with the operations of U.S. corporations. After the protests continued, the university divested part of its holdings. It would divest the remainder the following year.

Building Bridges

In addition to reassessing UM’s relationship with certain businesses, the Board of Curators of the University of Missouri in 1986 created a formal partnership with South Africa’s University of the Western Cape, at that time a designated “colored” university. This was the first time an American university system partnered with a non-white university.

Since its inception, this partnership has seen more than 600 UM professors from fields as varied as nursing, physics, law and chemistry travel to UWC for academic collaborations, said Rodney Uphoff, Elwood L. Thomas Missouri Endowed Professor Emeritus of Law and Director of the University of Missouri South Africa Educational Program.

“This has been a wonderful partnership, and it actually has been recognized by a number of outside groups as a model partnership between an American university and a foreign university. We’re very proud of it,” Uphoff said.

One product of this academic exchange is the play “Mama Africa,” written and directed by Niyi Coker, E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of African and African-American Studies with the University of Missouri St. Louis’ Department of Theatre and Cinema Studies.

With an all-South African cast of 40 amateur and semi-professional actors, dancers and musicians performing 30 of South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba’s most beloved songs, “Mama Africa” is a feast for the eyes and ears. A production will be staged Sept. 28 at Jesse Auditorium as a celebration of the partnership between UM and UWC, which marks its 30th anniversary on Sept. 30.

The seed for “Mama Africa” was planted about three years ago, when Coker, who runs the Africa World Documentary Film Festival in St. Louis, saw a film about African musicians.

“My interest in Makeba was piqued. I thought, ‘Why don’t you do a musical on her life?’” Coker remembers.

With funding from the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program, Coker traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, where he was granted access to Makeba’s entire library, archival material, offices, personal papers and discography through the ZM Makeba Trust. With this information, Coker wrote a compelling drama that incorporates Makeba’s music in a telling of her life story.

The Life of Miriam Makeba

Born in Johannesburg in 1932, Makeba came of age as South Africa’s National Party began to enforce apartheid legislation. Apartheid is an Afrikaans word that translates literally into “aparthood,” and these policies formalized racial classification and designated racially segregated areas for people to live. Other restrictive laws prohibited marriage between people of different races and barred blacks from operating businesses in white areas. Beaches, buses, hospitals, schools, universities and even park benches were segregated.

In 1959, Makeba, who had gained some renown in South Africa as a jazz singer, made a brief appearance in an anti-apartheid documentary called “Come Back, Africa.” Her cameo caught the attention of Harry Belafonte, the Caribbean-American pop star known for such hits as “Day O” and “Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora).” Belafonte helped her settle in the United States, where she signed to RCA Victor and released her first studio album in 1960.

And so began a storied musical career that would see Makeba and Belafonte performing at President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 birthday celebration in Madison Square Garden and winning a 1965 Grammy Award for best folk recording for their album “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba.” Today, Makeba, who had garnered the nickname Mama Africa, is credited with introducing Western audiences to Xhosa, Zulu and Swahil music and as an early influence on the world music genre.

As Makeba rose to fame, she remained outspoken against apartheid in South Africa. Her views didn’t sit well with some, and when she tried to return for her mother’s funeral in 1960, she discovered that South African authorities had canceled her passport and would not allow her back into the country. Makeba had been exiled.

Still, Makeba continued to protest apartheid, testifying against it before the United Nations in 1963.

In 1968, Makeba married Stokely Carmichael, a Civil Rights activist whose activity with the Black Panther Party drew additional scrutiny to Makeba.

“When Miriam Makeba married him, people stopped booking her for concerts, record labels dropped her, the IRS went after her accounts, she was tracked by surveillance. Basically she was forced to flee the United States,” Coker said.

So the couple moved to Guinea, where Makeba remained for 15 years. During her time there, she was appointed the country’s official delegate to the United Nations and was awarded the Dag Hammerskjöld Peace Prize in 1986 for her work in this capacity.

Following the death of her daughter, Bongi, in 1985, Makeba moved to Brussels, Belgium. She continued to tour and perform, though not in South Africa or the United States.

Upon his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist who would later become the first black president of South Africa, persuaded Makeba to return to South Africa.

This is the point where Coker’s play starts.

Merging Past and Present

It’s hard to fathom what Makeba would have felt in that moment.

“You’re going back home. How would you sleep that night?” Coker said. “She begins to go through how her life … what led her into exile, how she lived in exile, what her struggles were in exile. So this is the unraveling, and it unravels with her songs.”

It’s an extraordinary story to be sure.

But although decades have passed since these events transpired, Coker said it’s very much a contemporary play with an important message.

“I think we’ve almost come around full circle in the struggle to recognize black humanity. You have a whole generation born to civil rights, who have grown up with the notion that they are 100 percent human beings and citizens. Now there is a lot of shock. I look at the faces of my students — what is happening with the police and black community relations when young black men and women are harassed by the police or shot?” Coker said. “But there was a place in history when this occurred. Their grandparents would be able to tell them this story. There’s something fascinating about seeing history from an artistic perspective.”

 

Mama Africa

7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28

Jesse Auditorium

$25 general public; $15 MU students, faculty and staff

concertseries.org

573-882-3781

 

Story by Caroline Dohack

Lady Sings the Blues : Roots N Blues alum Ana Popovic returns to Columbia for Concert Series date

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Ana Popovic is no stranger to Columbia. The Serbian-born blueswoman has played the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival twice, a 9th Street Summerfest and a few additional dates at Missouri Theatre and the Blue Note.

“I still remember the show,” Popovic said of her first Roots N Blues appearance in 2009. “Then we came back a few times and it’s always a great crowd. The crowd knows music and knows blues and knows how to party,” Popovic said.

Popovic returns Sept. 29 to the Missouri Theatre for another party. Currently, Popovic is touring behind her latest album, “Trilogy,” which dropped in May.

“It’s a mix of musical styles: blues, soul, jazz, funk. It’s on three volumes and features about 30 musicians, mostly from New Orleans or Memphis,” Popovic said.

Blues in the morning

The blues could almost be used to teach U.S. geography. Subgenres are easily mapped: Chicago blues, Texas blues, West Coast blues, Memphis blues.

Although Belgrade is a long way from Memphis — 5,408 miles as the crow flies — it never occurred to Popovic that she was growing up a world away from the blues mecca. And Popovic’s father, a devotee to the genre, introduced her to it early.

“I grew up on the Stax sound. There were playing and listening to blues — real Delta stuff. I was 3 or 4 years old and hearing on a daily basis Elmore James, Elmer Johnson … I grew up thinking that was what the whole world was listening to. It was the most natural thing. I woke up in the morning and my dad plays loud Albert King,” Popovic said.

At night, other musicians from around town would join her father for regular jam sessions in their home.

“That was the best way to spend an evening. I thought I was going to learn guitar just so I could jam with these guys. I learned slide guitar by myself. They did not have anybody playing slide in Belgrade, so I would get my five minutes of fame,” Popovic said.

But five minutes turned into 25 years, and a career that has taken her all over the globe.

Cultural immersion

The blues records her father played for her when she was young certainly made a lasting impression on her, but Popovic credits her evolving sound to time spent in major blues hubs.

“When I record, I don’t just rush into the studio but spend time and get to know people and inhale the city. I spent time in New Orleans recording an album. I’d take three or four months, rent a place, enjoy the city. A lot of people make the mistake: Rush to Memphis and they call that the Memphis record,” Popovic said.

Memphis has been especially meaningful for Popovic. Critics often note the Memphis flair to her style, and although she’d intended to stay only for a few months, she wound up making it her home for four years.

“Probably the best thing about living in Memphis you’re so close to so many different sounds. Now I’m on the West Coast,” said Popovic, who recently relocated to Los Angeles. “It was always on my to-do list. I moved here two months ago. Who knows how long? I think I’m going to get into that urban guitar style,” Popovic said.

Still, Popovic emphasizes that while these regional styles influence her, they do not define her.

“Wherever I live, wherever I record, I go and do my thing, whatever it is. Even if I say I’m doing a New Orleans record, it’s still an Ana Popovic record,” Popovic said.

What it means to make an Ana Popovic record is to stay true to true blues structures while asserting herself in other ways.

“In blues, it’s not easy because you are dealing with 12-bar blues, two or three chord changes. … You can’t change too much because it’s going to become rock or heavy metal or jazz. So you have to stick to original form, but at same time come up with original phrasing that is different. As far as my sound, the phrasing is a little times jazzier than the blues players. It’s got a little bit more attack. I’m not that laid back,” Popovic said.

Ana Popovic

7 p.m. Sept. 29

Missouri Theatre

 

Story by Caroline Dohack

 

Legendary Lives: Playwright Karen Jones Meadows shares inspiration behind ‘Harriet’s Return’

In a delicious twist of irony, the U.S. Treasury earlier this spring announced it would replace Andrew Jackson’s portrait with that of famed Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. Jackson, a president who supported slavery and other practices generally looked upon unfavorably a century and a half later, will be bumped to the back of the bill.

For Karen Jones Meadows, this announcement is poetic justice. In her one-woman play, “Karen Jones Meadows’ Harriet’s Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman,” Jones Meadows plays Tubman and 30 other characters to paint a multi-dimensional picture of Tubman and the time during which she lived.

In the play, Jackson’s appearance isn’t met with much ardor.

“I call him ‘the most hateful, treacherous, scoundrel of a man who ever took a hold of breath,’” Jones Meadows said.

Harsh words perhaps, but whether or not they’re warranted isn’t the point. What matters is that people feel such an affinity with Tubman that they not only called to evict Jackson from his perch on the 20 note, but they voted for Tubman over such popular figures as Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks. Clearly, there’s something about Tubman’s story that resonates with modern audiences, and in her play Jones Meadows seeks to examine how qualities such as resilience, creativity and intuition helped Tubman achieve the things she did — and to reveal how others can identify those same qualities within themselves.

To know Harriet

Tubman has been with Jones Meadows since the 1980s, when the executive director of Charlotte, N.C.’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, then called the Afro-American Cultural Center, asked Jones Meadows to create a portrayal of high points in black history.

Jones Meadows researched four women — Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to see her poetry published; Lorraine Hansberry, author of “A Raisin in the Sun”; Nzinga, the warrior queen of the Ndongo and Matamba people in Angola; and Tubman — and performed their biographies extemporaneously depending on audience age and composition.

“For all of these characters, I learned their lives, the period of their lives, what was going on in their lives,” Jones Meadows said.

To be sure, each woman has a vibrant, compelling story, but Jones Meadows said it was Tubman who most captivated her audiences.

“She has a persuasive, uplifting, enlightening energy,” Jones Meadows said.

After the project ended, Jones Meadows moved on to other projects.

“I thought I was done, but no matter what I did, Harriet would come back,” Jones Meadows said.

It was almost as if Tubman were following Jones Meadows, tapping her on the shoulder to remind her of her presence.

While working for a company specializing in music CDs for children, Jones Meadows was asked to condense an opera based on Tubman’s life into a 7-minute segment.

And one day in New York City while waiting for a streetlight to change, a man in a business suit — a total stranger to Jones Meadows — turned to her and asked if she happened to know anything about Tubman.

Then Detroit playwright Ron Milner invited her to write a children’s play about Tubman. She was happy to do it, but she saw the potential for more.

Becoming Harriet

To accurately portray Tubman and 30 other characters in the play, Jones Meadows had to immerse herself in historical research.

She spent countless hours in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, N.Y., and the Louis Round Wilson Library’s North Carolina Collection in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she read books and examined historic and personal documents.

Not surprisingly, she’s amassed a considerable collection of Tubman tomes.

“I’ve got stacks and stacks. My favorite is Earl Conrad’s ‘General Tubman,’” Jones Meadows said.

The depth of this research has allowed her to create a nuanced portrait of Tubman. It’s not just about the chronology — forget the chronology, in fact, as the play involves a bit of travel through time and space. This, Jones Meadows said, is the Harriet you don’t know.

And yet, in a way, there’s something about this story that feels familiar on an intimate level.

“Everybody somewhere has been enslaved,” Jones Meadows said, listing constructs such as family, education, money and beliefs as examples of things that can shackle us.

And so on its face, “Harriet’s Return” is a play about a remarkable woman who led an extraordinary life, but it also is a call to action.

“As with all of us who evolve, she had cathartic moments that led her to the next thing, and to the next thing. So she’s like us. She takes the action and most people don’t. The play is about how if you take the action, revolution and evolution happen personally and collectively,” Jones Meadows said.

Karen Jones Meadows’ Harriet’s Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman

7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27

Missouri Theatre

$30 – $35

concertseries.org

573-882-3781

A school show will be staged 11 a.m. Monday, Sept. 26 at Missouri Theatre. Admission to school shows is free for students and two chaperones per group of 30. Additional chaperone or adult tickets can be purchased for $5.

Karen Jones Meadows also will lead two free workshops for members of the community. Culture in the Quarter, to be held Wednesday, 2 – 5 p.m. Sept. 28 at Missouri Theatre, explores African American resilience and creativity through arts, relationships, ingenuity, cuisine and rebellion. Towers of Power, which examines conscious fulfillment, wellbeing and service to others, will held 1 – 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29 in Room CLC 103 at the Missouri United Methodist Church, 204 S. 9th Street. 

Story by Caroline Dohack