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From left to right, Kennedy Davis, Ikira Peace and Amber Rance performed in “Suite Blackness.”
strode into the darkened Thompson Theatre, his hands a blur on an
African tubano drum. Once on stage, he joined another percussionist and
three young dancers for the opening act of “Suite Blackness: Black Dance
in Cinema,” which was performed Feb. 16-18 at the theatre in University
of Delaware’s Roselle Center for the Arts. The production, a
combination of dance, video, music and spoken word, was directed by
Hassan El-Amin, a member of UD’s Resident Ensemble Players (REP) and by
Lynnette Young Overby, a professor in the department of theatre and
director of the dance minor program.
The script weaves together a tapestry of stories of performers and
dance styles from the 1920s through the early 2000s, including that of
Josephine Baker and her move to Paris at age 19. It also talks about
Herbert “Whitey” White and his Lindy Hoppers, a group of swing dancers
that toured internationally in the 1920s and 1930s. The audience also
learns about Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, at one time the highest paid
African-American entertainer, and about the Nicholas Brothers, whose
performance in the movie Stormy Weather was called by Fred Astaire “the greatest dancing he had ever seen on film.”
Everett’s role in this highly collaborative performance went beyond
his work on stage. Earlier that day, he had been demonstrating drumming
techniques to an eager group of students at Wilmington’s Gateway Charter
School, where he has served as music teacher since 2017. Last month,
Everett and other Gateway teachers took part in a professional
development workshop about “Suite Blackness” conducted by Overby and
Ashley SK Davis, the artistic director for the Delaware Institute for
the Arts in Education (DIAE). The workshop helped Everett and his
colleagues infuse not only the music but the history of Black dance in
film into their classrooms.
Much like Everett, Davis participated in “Suite Blackness” in
multiple ways. Beyond her work with DIAE, she choreographed a piece for
the show called “Brand New Day.” Members of her dance company, Pieces of
a Dream, performed in this and other numbers.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Rachel DeLauder (left) and Ikira Peace danced in “Suite Blackness.”
The goal was to create a collaboration between faculty,
professionals and students from UD’s theatre and dance departments and
multiple community partners, both old and new. El-Amin said that
Overby’s wide-ranging connections made that easy to achieve.
“Lynnette is a phenomenal woman and loved by those who have shared a
creative space with her,” said El-Amin. “The dancers, choreographers,
musicians, community artists, and spoken word artists all readily
responded to Dr. Overby’s call to participate.”
Raye Jones Avery, who sang a solo in tribute to Josephine Baker, said
that there was no way she could say no when Overby asked her to get
involved. “Lynnette is such a powerful force in such an understated
way,” said Jones Avery, a vocalist and arts advocate who formerly served
as the executive director of the Christina Cultural Arts Center. “She
is a force of nature.”
The impetus to create “Suite Blackness” originated from a
conversation El-Amin had with Overby last spring, when she noted that
UD’s theatre and dance programs had never partnered on a joint
production. El-Amin reached out to Steve Tague, interim producing
artistic director of the Resident Ensemble Players, to see if the REP
would be willing to host the first-ever joint endeavor between these
programs. El-Amin’s creative juices flowed and he wrote a script for a
theatrical experience that would celebrate the powerful social and
historical aspects of Black Dance in film.
“I thought this idea was pretty dang cool,” Tague said. “As a white
man, I have seen my story on stage and film for years and years. I want
to see other stories, like that of Josephine Baker. I’d heard her name
for years, but sadly knew nothing of the various facets of her life. Now
I am fascinated by her and want to learn more.”
UD’s Office of Institutional Equity supported the production and
purchased a block of tickets for distribution to students and other area
“I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to live in New Orleans
for a large part of my adult life, and it was there that I realized that
the arts are a great equalizer,” said Fatimah Conley, UD’s vice
president of institutional equity and chief diversity officer. “No
matter the demographic, background or point of view, people tend to be
able to come together around art performances. What better way to
celebrate Black history, Black joy and Black excellence than through a
performance like this one?
“It was important to provide the opportunity for community members,
specifically K-12 students and their families, to come to our campus to
enjoy such a landmark and important event. Community engagement really
is ‘equity in action,’ and the more we can bring Delawareans to UD to
experience all that we have to offer, the more engaged the community is
with our campus.”
Article by Margo McDonough, photos courtesy of Resident Ensemble Players
Published March 01, 2023