Monday, 03 October 2016 09:30

Month-long Muskegon Area Arts and Humanities Festival explores ‘Us and Them’

Written by  Marla R. Miller
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Author Dennis Lehane Author Dennis Lehane Photo by Ashleigh Faye Beland

Social issues around politics, religion, race, marriage and sexual orientation often polarize family, friends and neighbors — just look to the looming presidential election and debates on Facebook, at the kitchen table or around a campfire. 

We often view these hot button topics through the lens of “us versus them” instead of taking a step back and seeing people as part of a collective humanity. Many question the source of this divisiveness, the invisible line in the sand that keeps people separated by fear, judgment and a sense of superiority.

The Muskegon community will explore themes of Us and Them in art, theater, culture and current events as it celebrates National Arts and Humanities month throughout October. 

Now in its 16th year, the Muskegon Area Arts and Humanities Festival (AhFest) aims to acknowledge and examine the world of ideas as they are expressed through the arts and humanities. The series of events also encourages the community to experience the arts and have conversations about them around a central theme. 

“Years ago, I used to say the festival feeds the mind and the spirit; that’s the kind of food we serve,” said Sheila Wahamaki, a committee member who helps coordinate the festival and teaches theater at Muskegon Community College. “We want people to go to things and read things and see things and talk about them.”

The conversations may not lead to agreement, but perhaps some self-reflection, understanding and less judgment, she said. 

For their part, MCC students will present “Avenue Q The Musical” from Oct. 12-16. The puppet-filled musical comedy follows a group of 20-somethings seeking their purpose in life.

“It’s a fun way for people to take a look at themselves,” Wahamaki said. “Everyone’s a little bit racist and people have different lifestyles and we need to quit judging and start accepting. It really allows us to examine that theme.”

On the eve of one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent history, AhFest examines the myriad factors — race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, nationality — that instantly turn a “brother” into an “other,” according to the theme page on

A subcommittee of the AhFest group develops the theme three years in advance, usually a broad, contemplative topic designed to stir introspection and intellectual discussion. 

“It’s always amazing to me that this committee’s themes are so timely,” Wahamaki said. “It’s kind of interesting when we talked about this theme, it started out as them and us, but it always starts with us first and then them.”

The festival also features a well-known author, poet or speaker hosted by MCC’s English Department. This year, New York Times best-selling novelist and crime writer Dennis Lehane will speak Oct. 27 at Frauenthal Theater. 

A Boston native, Lehane has published a dozen novels, including several that have been made into award-winning films. The Muskegon Museum of Art will present a film series free and open to the public at 6 p.m. on the Wednesdays in October prior to Lehane’s event: “Mystic River,” Oct. 5; “Gone Baby Gone,” Oct. 12; “Shutter Island,” Oct. 19; and “The Drop,” Oct. 26.  

The MMA is also the site of a five-part Tuesday evening lecture series, The Art of the Five Great Religions, with talks by well-regarded speakers in the Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Islamic communities. The series features four speakers from the Grand Rapids Interfaith Dialogue Association and leads into the museum’s major winter exhibition, Expressions of Faith.   

The festival kicked off with West Michigan Symphony’s Heroes and Villians pops concert Sept. 30 at Frauenthal Theater. Other highlights include an Oct. 5 lecture on mindfulness at MCC, a special performance by Rockin’ Road to Dublin featuring Irish music and dance Oct. 2 at Frauenthal Theater, a showing of Buster Keaton’s silent comedy “Sherlock Jr.” Oct. 8 at Frauenthal Theater, and “That Sugar Film” documentary Oct. 6 at Beardsley Theater. 

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