Every other year the two chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. reveal a show that absorbs, it seems, the whole African American community. “Fashionetta,” a unique name, is a fundraising effort to assist and stimulate young women to grow into ambitious adults with healthful goals toward high school graduation, on to college, and graduate or professional school. Awards are presented to successful community adults who stand as examples that they might emulate.
Fundraising efforts involve parents and contestants for three age groups: Little Miss, Junior Miss, and Miss Fashionetta. All contestants are dressed in attractive white formal gowns of various designs to make them feel really important for the night. The whole thing is a stimulating show that the Sorors over the years have honed to perfection. They also bring contrasting entertainment for audience stimulation, usually preceding the Contestants show.
This evening’s fare was the Youth Ensemble Of Atlanta. And what a show it was! About 30 young adults sang, recited, pantomimed and danced their way right into the hearts of a packed house at the Albany Municipal Auditorium on Saturday evening, April 27th. Through these united arts they told a comprehensive story of African and African American experiences from their African homelands until the mortomosis of these experiences in today’s America. The group began the telling in a somber “Prologue” that said something like this: “tonight we are going to tell you a story; a happy story …a sad story …a tragic story…a triumphant story.” Then the lighting suddenly changed as a dance detail of the group burst upon the stage as if having materialized from nothingness, with African attire glistening under bright light and dancing like blazes. These were happy Africans enjoying their freedom with nary a thought of what lay in store for them; nary an idea that their chieftains were at that very moment conspiring against them, making deals with European slave traders for gold, trinkets, silk, smooth talk and only heaven knows what else to gain permission to go into the hinterlands and capture what they deemed to be the finest among them (both male and female) for the arduous “middle passage” to a “new world” filled with promises of a “new life” — these poor, hapless victims of greed — only to realize that their precious freedom was gone, but not yet realizing what lay in store for them. How could they?! Not until they reach the auction block did they realize that they were being sold to the highest bidders. Not until they reached the off shore islands and southern U.S.A. plantations and the forced name changing process began did they finally realize that they would never see their beloved homeland and kin again.
The dancers’ movements now become frenetic but eventually die away. Hopelessness replaced now by a new spirituality becomes apparent as the quiet strains of the beautiful spiritual “Give me Jesus …you may have all dis worl’. Give me Jesus.” wafts forth, coming, it seems, from some unknown, ethereal place. Eventually, the stage brightens as happy dancers with “walking canes” colorful dress, “top hats, etc. come dancing on stage to jazz licks, happy smiles and carefree prancing about. The freedom of Harlem, NYC has been created and discovered. A new life is in the air as former slaves having freed themselves via the Underground Railroad and any other means necessary, by first crossing the new “Ribber (River) of Jordan” — the Ohio, — thence to Chicago and on to New York City, transforming the Harlem ghetto beginning at 125th Street into the Harlem Renaissance. The Apollo Theatre, the Harlem YMCA, the glitzy Small’s Paradise became its centers of dynamic activities for popular culture — jazz, dance, poetry, art and other unmentionable, good time stuff.
To complete the story, the group returned to the South; there to tell of the post-reconstruction laws designed to inhibit the development of the newly freed slaves. The rise of an unofficial citizen police force — the Ku Klux Klan, the expansion of the vocabulary to include the word: “Miscegenation” — the pretended unlawful cohabitation between the races punishable by the death of the Black male partner creating the “Strange Fruit,” a term for that partner, dead, hanging from a tree, made famous in literature by the subtle yet bold opposition of white writer Lillian Smith in her 1944 novel; made even more popular by the sung poetry of singer Billie Holiday. The pantomimed scene of four young men, stilled by this kind of inhuman death, heads hanging at as many angles was a chilling sight even in this theater setting.
The rise of a new Black Church music called “Gospel” invented by the Chicago jazzman, Thomas A. Dorsey in 1937 rallied new hope. It has now enveloped the whole of Black worship and has even spread abroad. The group, now turned choir, sang one of its most popular anthems: “Total Praise” with its ever increasing powerful 4 fold Amen at the end. The stage now bare suddenly turns bright. It rear curtain becomes blood red. The full Ensemble is now on stage — moving about. Dancing. The music is calm; then begins pulsating with a frightening vigor. Has something gone awry in our nation today? Of course, we have the first truly African American president — accomplished, brilliant; putatively a source of pride after almost 250 years. What is it? Political strife? War?
Second Amendment controversy? Perhaps even more? We are left to ponder all these things — and to wonder.
James Marquis is emeritus professor of music, retired, at Albany State University.