Lift Ev’ry Voice Arts and Heritage Festival
by Tresca Weinstein
Berkshire County’s Lift Ev’ry Voice arts and heritage festival doesn’t officially begin until Sunday, but it’s already bringing the community together. “This has been one of those projects that is very unifying—there’s a place that has been made for everyone,” says festival co-chair Shirley Edgerton, left with co-chair Don Quinn Kelley. The combined efforts of community members, grass-roots organizations, and high-profile arts venues have resulted in five weeks (June 19 – July 23) packed with some three dozen events celebrating African-American history and culture in the county.
The festival, which boasts Governor Deval Patrick and First Lady Diane Patrick as honorary co-chairs, has events running the gamut from free dance performances at Jacob’s Pillow and an ongoing film series at the Clark to bigger-ticket items, such as Earth, Wind & Fire’s Tanglewood show on June 25 and hip-hop artist Talib Kweli’s appearance at the Colonial Theatre on July 22. The festival kicks off on June 19 with a free family-friendly Juneteenth celebration in Pittsfield (the day was declared a state holiday by Governor Patrick in 2007, commemorating the end of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865). A performance by Evelyn Harris, a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, is the centerpiece of the afternoon, which also includes drumming, world music and gospel as well as food and local vendors. Opening night features a performance at the Colonial of composer Craig S. Harris’ “God’s Trombones,” (above) based on James Weldon Johnson’s book God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Johnson, who owned a summer home in the Berkshires from 1926 until his death in 1938, also wrote the African-American anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing,” for which the festival is named.
The countywide celebration—evidently the first of its kind here—was sparked by Eugenie Sills, of The Women’s Times. Sills was inspired by a production of “…And Ain’t I A Woman: Unsung African American Heroines,” part of a 2009 Berkshire Festival of Women in the Arts sponsored by her paper, which ceased publication last spring. “…And Ain’t I A Woman” will be reprised on July 16 at Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington. Plays, concerts and gallery openings—as well as a topiary-cutting demonstration, of all things—ensure the festival “is in keeping with the focus in Berkshire County on showcasing creativity and our cultural life here,” says Edgerton, who co-produced the original “...And Ain’t I a Woman” and is director of Pittsfield’s Youth Alive Step Dance and Drumline (above right), who will perform, and founder of the Women of Color Giving Circle of the Berkshires.
According to Megan Whilden, a member of the festival’s steering committee and Director of Cultural Development for the City of Pittsfield, Lift Ev’ry Voice builds on the work of the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail. The Trail marks significant historic sites, such as W.E.B. Du Bois’ childhood home, the Colonel Ashley House in Sheffield, where abolitionist hero Elizabeth Freeman was enslaved, and Jacob’s Pillow, thought to have been a station on the Underground Railroad. “African-American history and culture is a part of our larger Berkshire history and culture, and should be known, and celebrated, by all of us,” Sills says. In service of education as well as entertainment, the festival includes lectures, documentaries, panel discussions and a salute to baseball great Ulysses “Frank” Grant (left), a Negro Leagues player and native of Pittsfield.
In homage to our living legends, a Tribute to the Elders is set for July 9, honoring the county’s African Americans aged 70 and up. On the other end of the age spectrum, MASS MoCA has gotten into the act with a Youth Day on July 2 featuring a workshop and dance party with the social-activist hip-hop group Readnex. “One of the goals closest to our heart is to empower and inspire African-American young people by exposing them to the arts and to history,” Whilden says. “It’s about the past and the present, but it’s also about the future.”
Lift Ev’ry Voice: African-American Culture and Heritage
June 19 - July 23, 2011
Sunday, June 19, noon - 5 p.m.
Polish Community Center grounds
55 Linden St, Pittsfield
Sunday, June 19, 7 p.m.
The Colonial Theatre
Admission: Individuals/$10-$25; families (up to 5 people)/$65