Juneteenth Comes Early This Year

Producer Darrell Lawrence Willis Sr. goes for BRONZEVILLE GOLD during the fourth annual Juneteenth Urban Arts Festival, beginning Tuesday and continuing through the week in Long Branch.

The whole thing started over gin and tonics, when August Wilson — the late Pulitzer-winning author of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences — met Darrell Lawrence Willis Sr. a few years back, while both were attending the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, NC.

Why gin and tonics? As Willis explained it to us, “when August Wilson asks you what you’re drinking, you say, ‘I’m drinking what YOU’RE drinking’!”

Having been a regular attendee at the bi-annual Festival, Willis had watched it grow exponentially each time out, becoming a cultural celebration that attracted tens of thousands of people (including the likes of Cicely Tyson, Samm-Art Williams, Bill Duke, Ted Lange and Malcolm-Jamal Warner); and transcended its “national” origins to embrace new works from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.

Somewhere along the way, Willis — the Brookdale Community College faculty member whose Dunbar Repertory Company is a local troupe dedicated to presenting African American-themed stageworks — was inspired to found a homegrown version of this major festival; smaller in scale but faithful to the ideals of the late NBTF founder Larry Leon Hamlin.

“He was a real character,” says Willis of the producer who famously sported long dreads, big shades and loud clothes. “It was his vision that made it all possible.”

Willis may not have taken his fashion tips from Hamlin, but as the producer of the annual Juneteenth Urban Arts Festival in Long Branch for the past four years, the assistant director of BCC’s Office of Urban Services captured some of the spirit behind the North Carolina event — while borrowing its name from the observance of the abolition of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865 (it’s since spread to become an observed holiday in 25 other states, including New Jersey).

“We want this event to be tied to the June 19 date as closely as possible,” says the producer-director. “We want to remain true to our original mission.”

Well, Juneteenth comes early this year — a solid week-plus early, as a matter of fact — and when the  celebration of African-American words and sounds commences on Tuesday, June 7 at the BCC Higher Education Center building (as well as the Broadway Park outdoor stage directly behind it), there will be some other fine-tuned changes in place for 2011.

The Broadway Park bandshell (corner of Third and Broadway in downtown Long Branch) is the scene for a daylong blast of music on June 11, part of the fourth annual Juneteenth Urban Arts Festival. (Photo by Carl Hoffman)

The presentation of “staged play readings” by young and/or rarely produced African American writers has been a staple of the Juneteenth schedule from the start, with a particular emphasis upon writers with a New Jersey connection. This year, however, Willis has put aside the traditional slate of single-performance scripts in favor of multiple performances of a single show — the drama Bronzeville Gold, by the Pontiac, MI-based hairdresser slash novelist, poet and playwright Anetria Cole.

Based on the oral-history reminiscences of her family members and based in 1933 Chicago (early versions of the script were reported as being set in Tupelo, MS), Bronzeville Gold details what happens when a new arrival from the South gets involved with a local “numbers wheel” operation (and, by extension, the American Dream). It’s directed by Willis and stars Craig S. Coleman, Sr. (Orange), Jeffrey Woltz (Somerset), Ramon James Morris (Long Branch) and Will Nash (Neptune).

The play will be presented for eight performances, all of them in the large all-purpose room on the second floor of the BCC building at Broadway and Third Avenue. It promises to be a raw theatrical experience — there’s no stage per se, the sight lines are sometimes tricky, and the lighting is of the fluorescent institutional kind — but when it clicks, it doesn’t get more intimate and immediate than this (and don’t get us started on how many lackluster plays with great production values we’ve endured over the years). Showtimes are 8pm on June 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 17 and 18; there’s an extra 2pm matinee on Saturday, June 11 as well. For more info or to purchase tickets ($15, with senior or student discounts), call 732.224.2315 or 908.216.5168.

June 11 is also the date for the climactic centerpiece event of the Juneteenth program; the daylong free music fest in the downtown pocket park. Running from approximately 10am to 8pm, it’s a mix of jazz, R&B and gospel sounds that features a DJ Tribute to the Godfather of Soul (10am-2pm); plus T-Bone Watts and the Funkshunizin Band (2-4pm), Neptune gospel singer Sharon Sylvester (4-5pm), Quint-Essence Gospel of Asbury Park (5-6pm), and Freehold singers The Exciting Holy Echoes (7pm). Also on the agenda is a display of “sidewalk art” by Asbury Park’s own Charles Trott, between the hours of 11am and 2pm.

There’s no charge for enjoying the sounds on the outdoor stage; food and merch vendors will be poised to serve (the Broadway McDonald’s is right next door too), and attendees are encouraged to bring lawn chairs or beach blankets for lawn seating.

A special presentation, The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project, will be part of the program on Saturday (at 1pm and again at 5pm). Special guest speaker (retired US Army Colonel) James E. Wyatt will focus on the life and accomplishments of Nannie Helen Burroughs, a relatively little known African American religious, education, business and political leader who was noted for having advocated for the advancement of black women in American society at the turn of the previous century.

Willis, for his part, would like to see the festival maintain its roots in the neighborhood;  It’s a thought that brings to mind something else that August Wilson told him.

“He said that you’ve got to start right where you’re at; you’ve got to remain humble, and you’ve got to help your people,” recalls Willis. “And if you do good work, then good things will happen.”