It's hard to imagine a world with no stories, no history and no culture. It’s not a place New Mexico Black History Organizing Committee Co-Founder Cathryn McGill can fathom living.
For McGill, a singer, songwriter and playwright, making connections with the triumphs and sorrows of past generations through folklore is the best method for people to take pride in the resilience of their ancestors, gain self-esteem and build confidence for the future.
Three years ago, after chronicling the history of African Americans in song, McGill and Regina Bell-Dowley created Roots Revival: Our Struggle, Our Glory, Our Story. Their musical cabaret celebrates the contributions of African Americans to New Mexico and the country.
"If you can walk you can dance. If you can talk you can sing."
“We’ve incorporated all of our history, even the bad parts, so we don’t repeat them,” McGill tells SFR. “Understanding what’s in someone’s past doesn’t define their future, but it makes it easier to understand what they’ve been through.”
The revival, a first for the Lensic and Santa Fe Black Expo, explores the motherland, middle passages, slavery, emancipation, reconstruction and civil rights through the eyes of summer camp children, who reluctantly give up their mobile phones and video games to listen to generations of historic tales.
The children quickly learn about how African Americans have influenced the social, political and cultural landscape of the United States from a West African griot (a storyteller played by McGill).
Dressed in a vibrantly colored and traditional kanga, the griot reads passages to the students from a prized book that has been bestowed on Kwaku Anansi after she offers Nyame—a sky god—a swarm of hornets, a hungry leopard and a viciously fanged python.
“There is so much to tell. It’s a good way to share our experiences here,” says McGill, who has been practicing her choreographed dance steps with the students in the hallway of an Albuquerque church for the past few weeks.
The show, which is co-sponsored by the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs and the Santa Fe National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter encourages the children and audience members to learn about history and take pride in Martin Luther King’s dream, Malcom X’s activism, Maya Angelou’s poetry and scores of other influential African American business leaders, athletes and elected politicians’ success.
After arriving at the fictional camp, the youngsters—including an energetic performance by Zavier Thompson, a budding Albuquerque middle school talent who performed in Rainbow Studio Theatre’s The WIZ last winter—learn if they can walk they can dance; if they can talk they can sing.
African American’s traditional music, according to McGill, forever changed the country.
“It provides a powerful and appealing window into the soul of our people,” she says. “Where we come from everybody sings; music and dance are integrated into every aspect of African life.”
In a scene documenting the motherland, children watch villagers prepare for a wedding while singing “Afro Blue,” a traditional Swahili song that expresses both joy and sorrow.
“It’s where we explore what Africa and our history should mean to people,” McGill says.
It’s also a song about armed traders capturing and enslaving between four and six million male warriors, women and children.
The Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation, the children discover, may have freed them, but their families’ historical plight continued through reconstruction, the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and later the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“It ain’t ovah yet,” the griot sings, reminding the students the American Creed created all people equal.
As the show transitions to the modern era, McGill treats the audience with music from Michael Jackson, the Supremes, Motown’s Stevie Wonder and an assortment of tap, jazz, rhythm and R&B.
McGill has recruited the state’s top African American talent, including former Gladys Knight backup singer Toni Morgan, who now lives in Rio Rancho; Morris Huling, a retired Albuquerque fire chief, who has returned to his love of performing; and former Broadway veteran actress Wichasta Reese. Retired Army Field Band musician Kirk Kadish has signed on as musical director.
“It will be a wonderful cultural experience,” says Wanda Padilla, African American Executive Advisory Committee vice chair and former Santa Fe NAACP president. Four Santa Fe businesses are slated to participate in the June 7 expo including Jambo Café, Sirius Cycles, Revolution Bakery and A Step Back in Time, a consignment and gift boutique.
“I want everyone to leave the performance a little bit changed,” McGill muses. “I hope they have a new perspective on our culture.”