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Performance brings Harlem Renaissance to SMC

| Friday, September 19, 2014

The sound of the Harlem Renaissance swept through O’Laughlin Auditorium at Saint Mary’s Thursday evening, as the College welcomed award-winning actress, singer and dancer Jasmine Guy and the Avery Sharpe Trio for their performance of “Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey,” director of media relations Gwen O’Brien said.

20140918, Raisin' Cane, SMC, Caitlyn JordanCaitlyn Jordan | The Observer
Inspired by the works of the musicians, composers, poets and actors of the Harlem Renaissance, the production is part of this year’s Shaheen/Duggan Performing Arts Series, O’Brien said.

The play’s title refers to Jean Toomer’s 1923 book, “Cane,” which is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of the Harlem Renaissance, according to a report in the South Bend Tribune.

Guy recited poetry from Harlem Renaissance-era poets including Gwendolyn Bennett and Langston Hughes. Guy also performed literary excerpts from some of the period’s most influential writers, including W. E. B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington, while dancing and singing to the musical backdrop of Sharpe’s trio.

Director of Special Events, Richard Baxter said the community is incredibly fortunate to welcome the traveling production to campus.

“This production is a rare opportunity for our students and community to experience the Harlem Renaissance through the presence of these talented performers,” Baxter said.

“Raisin’ Cane” celebrates and honors the legendary voices of the Harlem Renaissance through text, song, music, movement and imagery, O’Brien said in the event’s press release.

Though right on the heels of the college’s successful Christian Culture Lecture series speaker Reza Aslan, “Raisin’ Cane” presents an opportunity for students to learn about the history of modern day music through theatre and not the classroom, Baxter said.

“It’s a little early in the season, so it was a little harsh from that standpoint,” he said. “I thought it would be worthwhile. It’s a labor of love for all the artists working on this piece. It’s such a rich topic, that I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s bring it in September.’ People aren’t too tired. They don’t have semester fatigue. They might be excited about this type of activity.  That’s what led me to do it.”

The production’s backdrop is the Harlem Renaissance at its peak with a modern artistic explosion of music, dance and self-expression, Baxter said.

“You get a history lesson where the music and the dance add to the fabric of what you’re seeing,” he said. “You don’t just get a dry lecture or you don’t just experience the book, but you get this real engaging and invigorating performance from jazz musicians. It’s the best way to experience that kind of history.”

Baxter said he was excited to hear Guy took on the project with the jazz trio, and he couldn’t wait to make it come alive at Saint Mary’s.

“I am very familiar with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, which is what she was in before she really developed her broader career,” he said. “That dance company is one of the best dance companies in the world. I was familiar with her work in television, and kind of followed it.”

Students interested in experiencing the origins of current music genres such as pop, hip hop or rap were encouraged to participate in this one-of-a-kind event, Baxter said.

“This was a time where jazz was just beginning to come alive,” he said. “I mean this is the music that inspired Ella Fitzgerald [and] Billie Holiday, and from that came Motown, and from that rock, and from that what we have today. If students want an experience in what the background of the music they are listening to now is, [this production] is full of life. It’s almost a religious experience.”

An intercultural and historical event for the entire community, “Raisin’ Cane” especially applies to the mission of Saint Mary’s, Baxter said.

“If you look at the fact that we are educating women to make a difference on the world, those performers made an impact and a difference through their courage and through their artistry and through their talent and ability in the world of entertainment,” he said.

To better understand today’s music and culture, Baxter said students should educate and enjoy themselves with this display of rich music and dance.

“This is such an opportunity,” he said. “Make it count. Believe it or not, this is going to be better than a football game. That’s a promise.”

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