Baltimore–“I was born in the Congo,” are the first words, bold and demanding, that begin the production “The Ground On Which We Stand: An Exploration Into Black Excellence” at Center Stage on Feb 12.
It took a production team, 104 children, and 62 mothers to create a night that ranged from lament to laughter. For two hours, the audience was guided through eight segments: In The Beginning, Brave New World, American Folklore, The New Negro, Harlem Renaissance, Black Feminist Voices, Civil Rights, and Black Excellence.
The 200+ people in the Pearl Stone Theater didn’t just applaud because the precious toddlers who told the story of folk hero John Henry, were so consumed in their make-believe hammering, that they forgot to exit the stage.
The production was not a frivolous show for adults needing youthful affirmation. It was a show discussing, dissecting, and dancing to, what it means to be Black in America; the production showed that talking about race isn’t “grown folks talk.” It is as relevant to a 50-year-old as it is to a 5-year-old.
The youth performed the work of Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Countee Cullen, J. Cole, among countless others, with matured passion.
The youth weren’t alone in the effort to memorize, and then internalize the meaning. “We would look at a piece and then I’d say write a response to it,” said Hana S. Sharif, Director of “The Ground on Which We Stand” and associate artistic director of Center Stage. Since moving to Baltimore three years ago, Sharif said she has pulled inspiration from the children and Baltimore City, “The energy and the spirit of the city, the fight and the passion in the people, really inspired me,” said Sharif.
The one-time production was a partnership between Center Stage and The Baltimore Chapter of Jack and Jill, a national membership organization of mothers, where Sharif is a member. Offering a more modern look, brimming with white, glass, and silver designs, this is the first time Center Stage has opened its doors for a show since closing for a $32 million renovation in January 2016.
Three Baltimore chapter Jack and Jill mothers choreographed the production. One dance act alternated between Beyonce’s “Freedom” and The Golden Gospel Singers “Oh Freedom!” – switching from up-tempo pop dancing to liturgical dancing with hints of ballet.
The production was unpredictable and musically variant, featuring acts with a trombone, guitar, violin, guitar, drums, and a harp. The main prop of the production was light; the eloquently placed images and videos, from the recorded footage of Eric Garner’s murder, jubilant video of Cab Calloway’s “Hi-De-Ho”, to the heroic visuals of New York portrait painter, Kehinde Wiley, made the tech-savvy production feel swift and picturesque.
While they told the stories of the Jubilee Singers, Benjamin Singleton, and Black Wall Street, spoke the words of Malcolm X, Warsan Shire, and Langston Hughes, their personal stories also made it to the stage. Four young Black men, each told their story of experiencing discrimination at Arundel Mills Mall in their piece “Blind Side.”
“Dear mom,” is how each tale started as they tell their mothers how they felt when security made them leave the mall after they thought “they looked like the group from earlier.” The incident happened in late 2016, and while the piece showed their hurt and confusion, it also showed their understanding and affirmation of themselves.
“When they are faced and challenged by alternative views of themselves,” Sharif began, referring to ‘Blind Side’. “It’s important they don’t allow that to change them and that they remember who they are.”