A July celebration of African American art and culture in Kalamazoo's LaCrone Park is part of an ongoing mission to expose West Michigan residents to a culture rich in diversity.
The 31st annual Kalamazoo Black Arts Festival kicks off on July 13 and continues through July 16 at LaCrone Park in the city’s Northside neighborhood. Yolonda Lavender, executive director of the Black Arts & Cultural Center, said the festival is the only one of its kind in West Michigan.
“There’s no other Kalamazoo festival that reflects black arts and culture and the African American experience,” Lavender said. “We have a responsibility to make sure that the citizens of Kalamazoo have this exposure.”
The festival’s opening day, Youth Day, will take place at Bible Baptist Church and feature food and activities from other cultures. Lavender said members of a youth committee each year decide on a theme and develop ways to highlight that theme. This year it’s “Unity Through Culture,” with events focusing on the African American and Hispanic communities.
“Different cultures will be represented at different stations with activities like coloring or arts and crafts,” Lavender said. “This theme was intentionally chosen because of where we are as a nation. There’s so much division, especially in terms of race relations.
“Sometimes people think that only black people are allowed to come and experience the festival. We want to expose this to diverse groups in the community. We want people to realize that no matter who they are, they can benefit from all cultures.”
Opening day will be capped with a performance of the play In the Blood, featuring members of the BACC’s Face Off Theatre Company. The play, a 2000 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, tells the story of Hester La Negrita — she has five children, each from different and notably absent fathers. The family of six live in destitute poverty beneath a bridge, where Hester tries to learn how to read and goes hungry so that her children can eat.
Hester seizes the opportunity to receive help from her children’s fathers, with hopes that one may help them. The play moves to other characters’ stories, such as a doctor and her friend, who is involved with Hester’s predicament.
Lavender said In the Blood will be staged at the Epic Theatre in downtown Kalamazoo and will have a second performance on July 14. Face Off formed as a vehicle for showcasing black actors and issues of importance to the African American community. Without it, Lavender said people would not have opportunities to be exposed to different types of theater.
“Our theater company pushes the envelope with the productions they choose,” she said. “Every production is followed by a ‘talk back.’”
However, these talk backs were going on well before the Face Off launch. In 1973, the BACC began theater showings designed to get the conversation started about issues of race and equality. One of the earliest showings dealt with the Watts riots.
“We are intentional about the film viewing we choose and the opportunities to talk about it after,” Lavender said. “There aren’t too many other spaces where you can come and talk about stuff that’s hard to talk about. At the BACC you’re in a safe place no matter color you are or how you identify.
“It’s therapeutic for everybody. There’s no progress or upward movement if we don’t talk.”
The selection of LaCrone as the backdrop for the bulk of the festival was an intentional move on the part of festival organizers to bring the event geographically closer to the people served by the BACC. Up until 2014, the event had been held in Bronson Park, and Lavender said during the early 1990s it was the largest African American festival outside of Chicago.
“We’re right in a neighborhood where people can be on their lawns, walk or ride their bike. We can engage directly with the community,” Lavender said.
More than 1,500 people are expected to attend the festival, which will feature dance and music performances, childrens’ activities, African American clothing and artwork for sale, and barbecue and soul food.
“The goal for the BACC is to showcase black arts and culture, and the festival is the primary way for us to do that,” Lavender said. “If we were not to exist, there would be a tremendous void.”
Black Arts Festival
July 13-16, free
blackartskalamazoo.org, (269) 349-1035