I love mash-ups of cultural elements not usually situated in close proximity, so to see African drummers, a jazz band, a symphony orchestra and slam poets all on the same stage is naturally going to grab my attention. Such was the celebration last night at the Tennessee Theatre. The Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of resident conductor James Fellenbaum, was joined by the actors from Sche Productions, the Marble City Five, the Celebration Choir, the Austin East High School West African Drum and Dance Ensemble and the Black Sunshine Poets for a mix of fun and riveting entertainment.
Diversity wasn’t restricted to the stage. Thanks to both the content and the fact that it was a free event, audience members ranged in socio-economic groups as well as ethnicity. I know it doesn’t matter to everyone as much as it matters to me, but I like to see and be a part of racially diverse groups and this was about as racially mixed as any audience you’ll muster in Knoxville. Fitting that it came in our very own “entertainment palace.”
The night started with an introduction and welcome by Reverend Renee Kesler, Chair of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Commission. The Celebration Choir then joined with the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra to perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song known as the “Black American National Anthem.” I’m not sure I’ve ever attended a public performance of the song, but the audience stood.
After that moving start, drums sounded from the back of the theatre as the Austin East High School West African Drum Ensemble processed to the stage. Soon they were joined by young women from the dance portion of the ensemble. Colorful, riveting and impressive, the performance held the audience to the final beat and the rousing ovation that followed. I could probably listen to and watch those guys all night long – but there was more to come.
The symphony followed with a meditative rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Down a Country Lane,” before the Sche Productions actors took the stage for a drama about keeping the dream alive by action. This skit concluded with JaQuay Gilbert being joined on stage by fourth-grader Jayden Bryant to recite the words of Dr. King as a dramatic conclusion to the drama.
The Marble City Five, one of my favorite local lineups, featuring leader Vance Thompson, Greg Tardy, Keith Brown, Clint Mullican and Nolan Nevels laid down their usual excellent groove with John Coltrane’s, “Love Supreme,” and their version of Roy Hargrove’s “Strasbourg/St. Denis.” Again, I could (and have) listen to them all night long. The orchestra and choir ended with two songs featuring soloists Francis Harshaw and Doris Talley. His was beautiful and hers brought the house down.
After an intermission, Kelle Jolly and Will Boyd received the MLK Arts Award and Kelle made a moving and emotional speech referencing her hospital stay and surgery last year and confessing that she wanted to die, but was awakened to renewed purpose. After a symphony selection the Sche actors took the stage for a drama about the negativity of social media and calling for encouragement. As a part of that skit, Black Atticus and a collective called the Black Sunshine Poets performed their poetry with the raw, visceral impact it always has on an audience.
The night ended with the choir, orchestra and audience joining together to sing, “We Shall Overcome,” which is always powerful. It’s one of those songs I’ll always remember for the first time I ever heard it – on a Joan Baez album – and the impact it had on me from that first time onward. The crowd seemed similarly impacted on this night.
I saw Rachel Dellinger who works with the symphony and she said that the program is different every year. If the quality and variety is as strong every year, it’s an important date to put on your calendar. I’m already making my plans to return next year and to take Urban Girl. It’s the kind of event that might stretch a child’s thinking to include a broader world. Wonderful evening.