Arts Legacy REMIX

What started as a conversation about celebrating the Tampa area’s rich artistic heritage turned into a free concert series drawing unexpectedly large crowds. The Straz Center’s Arts Legacy REMIX was a long time in the making and looks like it’s here to stay.

After a brutal warrior’s stint in Vietnam that gave him an ultimatum to become brutal himself or take a higher calling, Fred Johnson chose love.

A longtime jazz musician who’d played with Aretha Franklin and Lionel Hampton and opened for Miles Davis, Fred immersed himself in studying Sufi wisdom and musical-spiritual cultures around the world. He wove this knowledge into his streetwise philosophy of caring for the neighborhood through the sharing of talents.

Fred Johnson

Fred eventually left The Straz to take this philosophy on the road, traveling around the world working with artists and community organizations to find paths of common ground and opportunities to teach. “I always kept in touch with The Straz and felt connected to the work here. I always felt, on some level, no matter where I was, I was an ambassador for Tampa. My journey out into the world was an extension of the work we did here, looking into how profoundly arts and artists can serve as catalysts for real transcendence and transformation,” he says.

Judy and Fred reconnected in 2016 at a Creative Forces forum, an organization dedicated to exploring ways the arts help veterans with PTSD and effects of traumatic brain injury.

“Our conversations were about the fact that society as a whole sees the therapeutic benefits of the arts from re-attaining wholeness with veterans to the growing need to find common ground among people,” Fred says. “We had started that notion with the Community Arts Ensemble, and we are living in times very receptive to this idea now.”

“We wanted to amplify that commitment and make real ways for the public to have greater access to The Straz. That’s what Arts Legacy was born from.”

Fred returned in 2017 to spearhead the Arts Legacy initiative which built on the philosophical foundations of art’s profoundly transformative role in the human experience.

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“Arts Legacy is about celebrating our community’s cultural impact,” says Straz Center President and CEO Judy Lisi. “Our community artists belong here, creating and having a place to be seen and appreciated. It’s very important that, as a community arts center, we represent the powerful sectors of culture right here. Fred took that notion and brought it to life; he’s always been great at working withdifferent members of the community to communicate and realize our commitment to all.”

Fred assembled a team of diverse community members to give input on what this Arts Legacy initiative would be. “The Straz has a responsibility to be an active community member, to have a voice at the table when decisions are being made that affect people.”

”Our legacy is redefining the role of art — that understanding art and creativity are the foundations to manifest change, to make the world a better place,” says Fred. Through a network of community members, the Arts Legacy team built a series of performances highlighting certain cultures that themselves are foundations to the Tampa Bay area.

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In essence, they got to the work of building bridges.

They got to the business of calling out to the heart and soul.

People answered.

The team took suggestions, made contacts, networked, organized and, in the end, produced six free concerts on the Riverwalk, drawing crowds of up to 500 people. They needed a name for the series and the Straz Center marketing team came up with Arts Legacy REMIX. “It’s hip, it’s inclusive,” says Fred, “and the success of Arts Legacy REMIX events was the outgrowth of reaching into the community and saying ‘hey, not only do we have one of the finest institutions in the world to present art, we also have this amazingly culturally and ethnically rich community that we can learn about from each other.’”

Last year, Arts Legacy REMIX hosted song, dance and drum performances around Hispanic heritage, Indian Diwali, Dr. King, Asian culture and global storytelling. Arts Legacy REMIX also hosted the Black Artists Film Series in the TECO Theater.

“It’s been really great just to see how excited people are about these performances and how much they look forward to it,” Fred says. “People are having an expanded relationship with The Straz and realizing how much we want to celebrate the arts and artistic traditions we have around us. It’s exciting to know we’re becoming more a part of people’s everyday lives by creating more opportunities for them to be on our grounds.”

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“We’re open to suggestions and ideas. We have the line-up for the 2019-2020 season and six more performances, but we are excited to engage as many members of the community as we possibly can,” Fred says. “Now more than ever, the artist is really important in putting a different kind of stamp on the human experience. We welcome community theater companies, community organizations — any folk out there who love what we’re doing and who want to support what we do; they can email communityprograms@strazcenter.org

The next Arts Legacy REMIX performance will be an MLK Commemoration: Power of Storytelling on Jan 17.  performances take place on the Riverwalk Stage, free of charge.

People Get Ready

Club Jaeb artist Kyshona Armstrong talks about the music that made her and her journey from a music therapist into a singer-songwriter in this exclusive interview.

Caught in the Act caught up with folk musician Kyshona Armstrong while she was on the road to Missouri for a gig. She appears next Monday, Dec. 16 as our featured Club Jaeb artist for December.

Caught in the Act: Let’s talk about the South. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your life there.

Kyshona Armstrong: I grew up in a town called Irmo, South Carolina, and it’s right outside of Columbia. We used to run around in the woods. We spent a lot of time in the house or playing out in the yard or whatnot. My grandpa played guitar and sang in a gospel quartet, and my dad is the same. In the house, my dad was always practicing, so we would hear him playing old gospel songs on his electric or playing “People Get Ready.” [sings] People get ready, for the train’s coming. [laughs] He was always playing that or the solo from Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” Those were his go-to songs. Anytime I hear them, my brother and I are like, we think of Daddy.

When I was young, Mama put me in piano, and that was my escape. I loved telling stories through the music alone. I loved creating a soundtrack to whatever was going on in my mind. Whatever Beethoven or Mozart song, I always had a movie in my head when I was practicing and playing. That’s how I always wanted to emote.

I feel like singing wasn’t something that I grew up doing, though. I preferred getting an emotion across just through my hands. Even when I was playing the oboe, I wanted to tell a story through the music alone. I wasn’t wanting to use my voice. When I went off to college and studied music therapy, music became this ‘oh, we can create in the moment. I don’t have these notes right in front of me that are telling me what to play and what dynamic to play it and what speed to play it, but I’m able to create in the moment with my patients and with my other therapists or with my classmates.’

It got back to what I experienced with my grandfather, with my dad, of creating in the moment with others and creating an environment with the music.

CITA: Was there any particular reason why you didn’t think about singing as a part of who you were as a musician? Did you not want to speak? Did you feel like you didn’t really have anything to say?

KA: I definitely was a very shy kid, very much an introvert. I did not want to be the center of attention. I never want anybody looking at me. I didn’t want focus on me at all. Please ignore the fact that I’m in the room. [laughs].

But I didn’t really have anything to say, either. What I’ve always prided myself on, though, even when I was shy and the ultimate introvert, was the ability to convey an emotion through song. I wanted to give people the experience of going on a musical journey. I wanted to play Fur Elise by Beethoven completely different than anybody else did because I wanted the listener to have a different experience. I’ve always connected to wanting to give people a different emotional response.

But as far as me using my actual voice to do that, though … I didn’t find my voice until I was having to use it for my patients, and it was just my patients saying, ‘your voice is very soothing, your voice is very calming.’

When someone is telling you that, and they’re a person in a hospital bed, then that’s how I’m going to use my voice from then on. If someone has said ‘your voice comforts me,’ I’ll use it again in a comforting way. Slowly, I started to own the voice that was coming out.

My voice has changed for sure over the years from a quiet, comforting voice to one that is gritty. I growl a lot more. I yell a lot more, but I think that’s also because I’ve walked through the world a little bit more and I’ve seen so much more.

CITA:  Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into musical therapy as a job?

KY: I went to the University of Georgia. It was one of the oldest music therapy programs. Because I had so many years under my belt as a pianist and as an oboe player, I knew that if I was going to go to college and needed scholarships, music had to be the way to do it. I was also very fascinated with psychology. My junior year in high school, I met this guy at the cotillion for my church, and I was just talking about, yeah, I need to do music and I’m in the marching band so I know I’m going to have to major in music somehow.

He was like, well you know, there is this profession called music therapy. I leaped on it and started doing research, and I found the American Music Therapy Association organization’s website. There was a music therapist in Columbia who worked at Baptist Medical, and I shadowed her. I followed her around for my junior year class project, and at that point I was like, ‘I think I know what I want to do.’ It sounded awesome—to combine music with psychology and the ability to help people through music.

CITA:  Then you ended up working in some really hardcore situations, in prisons and with people who had mental illnesses. You went straight into what you’ve referenced before as “really heavy circumstances.” Did you feel called to be there? At any point were you aware that you were gathering materials as an artist, or did the work feel more like spiritual healing?

KA:  I definitely was not aware of gathering any kind of materials. I think it was more self-centered than that.

For me, if somebody says, ‘this is a population that is hard and it might be difficult for you, we don’t know if you can handle it,’ then I’m always like, ‘cool.’ That’s what I want to do.

My senior year, we ended up doing some clinical work in the jail that was a couple counties away. I loved the challenge, and the patients challenged me all the time. They kept me engaged. It started off like ‘I dare you to tell me I can’t work with this population because you think I’m too quiet and I’m too sweet and I’m too nice. That’s not who I am.’ After a while, I found out that I actually had the tools and the patience and the desire to go where a lot of people don’t want to go. I enjoy going into places that are difficult for me. I enjoy going into dark spaces with others. I like being stumped. I like sometimes not having the answer.

But, I also found that what I liked about going into those into the hard places was just the fact that not everybody had a positive voice for my patients. Not everybody was seeing them in a positive light.

I found I was able to truly be an advocate for those people who the medical team might have given up on. My work as a musical therapist helped me realize I have the heart and the tools to show up and speak for these people.

CITA: We’re super intrigued by what you just said about being an advocate. We’ve been thinking about your evolution as an artist. In your other interviews and in your Ted Talk, you speak about finding your voice as something that must be an advocate for all people. Is that an evolution that you felt consciously, that your voice needed to be an advocate for healing in these troubled times?

KA:  It was an evolution for sure. What made me pull back from music therapy was the fact that I realized I was getting walls thrown up in front of me when all I was trying to do was good.

The more I spoke up for the kids, the more heat I got from the team. What I realized was, the moment I stepped away from the institution of it all, from the rules and the hierarchy, I could do more work by coming in from the outside. It’s almost like I have more credibility, too. I feel like I can reach people on a deeper level because I’m not confined by any kind of position. I’m not worried about my job at this point. Now, my job is to come in and be a voice. That’s it.

CITA: Who are your big musical influences?

KA:  I’m all over the place. As far as what they stood for and their mission with their music … Definitely a major fan of Nina Simone. Also Sam Cook. I’m listening to Hozier right now because he’s doing the same thing. His music has a meaning and there’s a purpose behind it. He’s trying to create change through it, but sonically it feels so good.

I love that Nina [Simone], her whole thing was that it is the point of the artist to be a reflection of what is happening in this country. That is a responsibility on the songwriter, on the artist to tell the story, of what is really happening in the world. I feel like she’s been definitely an influence of how I walk through the world with this new hat that I wear.

CITA: When we were watching your “Same Blood” video, we wondered if you had any inspiration from Nina Simone. It seems like what she was doing at the time she was visible is very similar to the times that we’re in right now and what you are doing. We’re in a social moment we’re we can no longer assume people are going to have a rational response. Because of that, we’re seeing the kinds of public social violence Nina confronted. Do you feel that too?

KA: Absolutely. Also, from the videos that I’ve seen and interviews that I’ve have heard of hers, her audience was also very similar to mine. It was mainly a white audience, and so she was a reflection of what else was happening, the other side. That’s something that I have to think about every time. Oftentimes, I show up to performing rooms, and I’m the only one who looks like me. Therefore, I try to make sure that I get it right, or as right as possible, and I speak truth.

I don’t have the comfort to just pull up in a gas station, especially if I’m in middle Georgia or South Carolina. I can’t just pull up anywhere. Oftentimes, I’ll pull up to a gas station and be like, ‘oh no, this isn’t a safe spot.’

But people think, oh, you’re a songwriter, you’re out on the road, that must be magical. Yeah, and a little dangerous at times.

I have to really think about where I am and where I’m going to rest my head. That’s not a reality people think about when it comes to what it must be like being a songwriter and storyteller. Some people see it as this awesome experience, but I’m also seeing real America, and not only am I experiencing those moments of ‘is this a safe place for me and a safe space? Can I say what is on my heart and what I’ve experienced?’

We’re currently right now driving from Nebraska. We were in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, and that experience … I got to see a different part of America that not many get to see. These are the people who are feeding America. You know what I mean? Their wants and needs are different, their desire is different, and I’m playing in rooms where there was no one there that looks like me. These are towns of 200 and 300 people. I’m a representation of a people, another way of living in a region that they don’t know. But the thing that I’d like to get across to them, too, my storytelling, I always start off by talking about my family and where I come from, because that’s something that many of us have in common—we have roots. We have people who fed into us. We have someone who inspired us, either from traditional or nontraditional families.

That’s something in common. I might look different than you, but somebody raised me and instilled me with qualities and with a purpose and with morals. That’s where I start, and by the time I get to the end of the show, we’re talking about how we’re walking through the world and how are we seeing one another. Are we being truthful with one another and kind with one another? I’m telling the stories of everyone that I’ve met that is incarcerated, that is dealing with mental illness, that is walking around quote unquote free in this world, but in their own prisons because of the wounds they’re carrying and the trauma they’re walking around with.

Yeah. In that way I find I have to always look back at the work that people like Nina Simone and Mavis Staples have done in just telling the stories and singing the songs and keeping the thread going. That’s the only way to bridge the gap between all the regions and all the different ways that we live, not only in this country, but in the world.

CITA:  It’s a hard walk to be true, so we’re glad you’re doing it. How do you let off steam? How do you care for Kyshona?

KA: [laughs] That’s a very good question. I just got a membership at Massage Envy.

CITA: Good idea because Massage Envy is everywhere.

KA: But this is something I’m trying to work on because I’m in a season where I’m working really hard. I’m gone a lot. I’m fortunate for it, I’m grateful for it, but the same thing that happened to me when I was a music therapist has happened. I stopped taking care of myself. I’m feeling again a little run down and a little heavy. I’m trying to just take little moments of joy. When I go home, I shut down. I might turn on some trash television. My new thing has been Schitt’s Creek, catching up on what I’ve missed over the years and just trying to find a way to zone out and maybe not think about anything. A couple of weeks ago I tried to really stand in the privileges that I have, and I went on a because-we-can trip to Barcelona for four days.

CITA: Did you love it?

KA: I did. We had no plans, other than to walk around and eat food and drink wine.

CITA: Well, what other plans do you need in Barcelona?

KA: [laughs] Right? That’s the other thing that music has done for me is pulled me into different countries, which I never thought I would be able to do as a child, or even as a young adult. I never thought I would get to travel the way I have because I have a guitar and stories and songs to share. It was great to travel to Barcelona and experience a whole other culture and a whole other way that people live, to have no job other than receive, right?

CITA: We’re pumped that you’re bringing your music to Tampa. Is this your first time to this part of Florida?

KA: No. I’m actually down there often. The first thing that brought me to the Tampa area was a songwriters’ festival that I did in Safety Harbor, Florida.

CITA:  Oh wow! Yeah, that’s right up the road.

KA: Yeah, I’m always in 30A for this 30A Songwriters’ Festival. and I’ll just keep on coming south. I was just in the area a few months ago to play at Fogertyville.

I’m playing house concerts, which are nice, intimate songwriting series that are in these communities people just built up, and they’ve created a really cool network in Florida, especially around the Tampa, Clearwater, Safety Harbor Area. Florida has surprised me by their love of the singer-songwriter and their love of storytelling

CITA: Well, we’ll be glad to see you here soon.

KA: See you soon!

Learn more about Kyshona Armstrong when she appears live and in person at Club Jaeb next Monday night, Dec. 16.

We Know the Mission

Straz Salutes is an organizational mission to make sure our military and veteran communities know they have a place at The Straz. We provide tickets, outreach programs and presentations for military, veterans and their families.

We’ve always had a soft spot for military, veterans and their families, which is why we’ve offered discounted tickets for our armed forces guests for years. Since 9/11, the country as a whole has seen more wounded warriors return home with visible and invisible injuries sustained in the line of duty. Since we regard our military with the utmost respect, we, like most civilian organizations, needed some first-hand guidance about how to say, ‘hey, we’re here for you in more ways than just tickets’ and still honor the warrior’s code of stoicism regarding pain.

We know people in the military and their families have chosen a tough path. It is our earnest desire to demonstrate that the performing arts can allow safe passage back to self and home.

We call our initiative in this endeavor Straz Salutes.

Cast of Diavolo’s The Veterans Project in rehearsal at The Straz.

As more research and media emerged explaining the positive effects of the arts for PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI), we realized we had a duty to implement greater efforts to build stronger ties to our military community. Simultaneously, we explored national movements in arts and healing as well as worked with a creative arts therapy network for PTSD and TBI, Creative Forces, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs.

Soon after, the Straz Center community engagement department began direct efforts to initiate visual art, performance collaborations and community conversations with our military community. The Straz received a grant from Creative Forces to launch the VetArtSpan project with the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. The project, spearheaded by our community engagement specialist Fred Johnson, resulted in the VetArtSpan website that includes podcasts, a visual art gallery, helpful information for civilians. The VetArtSpan project culminated in a live performance of veteran artists at The Straz on Aug. 30 this year.

Local veterans and dancers work together to create a meaningful and memorable performance with Diavolo.

These efforts—discounted tickets, our education from national organizations, direct community involvement as well as military-themed programming—converged into a united push to bridge any gaps between us, our military and their families. The different prongs needed unification under one initiative: thus, our over-arching program, Straz Salutes, was born.

The sum of our efforts to reach, meet and support the whole scope of the military community, Straz Salutes appears on the 2019-2020 season in many forms. Our Straz Salutes logo denotes specific performances relating to or of particular interest to our military community, including the United States Air Force Concert Band on Oct. 26 and longtime veteran advocate and country music star Aaron Tippin on Oct. 22. Our ongoing community engagement efforts resulted in some spectacular collaborations, most notably the Diavolo Veterans Project and the Medal of Honor visual art exhibit.

Veterans and dancers from the Tampa Bay area participated in a few weeks of intense dance training with Diavolo earlier this year.

Diavolo, a performance art group based in Los Angeles, made an open call for local dancers and veterans in the Tampa Bay area to participate in a two-week intensive to create a dance to be performed in Diavolo’s Oct. 25 show in Morsani Hall. The piece, A Long Journey Home, held to a demanding 5-hour-a-day, six-days-a-week schedule, and is slated to be the centerpiece of their eye-popping Straz Center program.

At the beginning of October, we unveiled our newest exhibit on the Riverwalk which features the visual art of students from the tri-county area who participated with us as part of the Medal of Honor convention being held in Tampa this year. The kids were given a virtue of the Medal of Honor—”the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force”—to depict upon a coin. The top seven artworks were reproduced physically and now hang upon the panels of the Riverwalk gallery to coincide with the Medal of Honor convention Oct. 22-26. The community engagement department also sent Fred Johnson, himself a veteran and artist who is heavily involved in the Diavolo project as well, to MacDill Youth Center to teach bucket drumming for the children living on MacDill Air Force Base.

Diavolo’s The Veterans Project aims to exemplify strength and emotion through it’s unique dance techniques.

Alice Santana, acting director for the community engagement and education programs, envisions growing more community partnerships through Straz Salutes, formally and informally. “Our job is to accomplish the goal of making sure our military and veteran community feels 100% welcomed here. Straz Salutes is also about equity. If we have something going on in these walls that can help these families get their minds off the past, current deployments or the strains of military life, we want them to have access to our performances, our programs, our campus. We are approachable, we’re open to suggestions and we are continually looking for input from active military and veterans on what we can do better,” she says.

Don’t miss our Straz Salutes performances and events this Oct. For tickets and more information, visit strazcenter.org

Let’s Get in Transformation

The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 29 on Friday. We’re celebrating with a free concert in Maestro’s Restaurant featuring incredibly talented local artists of mixed abilities. Let’s meet a few.

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On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law acknowledging the right of access and inclusion for people with disabilities. That monumental, historic demonstration of America’s commitment to equality turns 29 years old this Friday, and we are rolling out the red carpet with our friends from the Mayor’s Alliance for Persons with Disabilities and the Hillsborough County Alliance for Citizens with Disabilities to throw a party.

Part One: Let the Shameful Walls of Exclusion Finally Come Tumbling Down

In his public remarks that day, President Bush exhorted the world’s governments and directed American citizens to “let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

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President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act on the White House South Lawn on July 26, 1990.

After a brutal history of cloaking disabilities in shame and ostracism, America made a pioneering effort with the ADA to bring citizens with disabilities into the fold both socially and economically. It was supremely successful, driving business and leading to social improvements that benefitted everyone. Today, we have large print, automatic sliding doors, access ramps and beeping crosswalks thanks to the ADA. The notion of “disabilities” is being eclipsed by the understanding of “different abilities.”

Many years ago, as leadership at The Straz searched for ways to expand our own efforts at inclusion, we held a community round table to ensure we were doing our best to make the performing arts accessible for all. We made some great friends and partners during this process, one of whom is Brenda Clark, the project director and employment services coordinator for the Florida Center for Inclusive Communities at the University of South Florida.

If you come to the get-together Friday (the first part of the celebration is at the John F. Germany Library across the street starting at 3:30 p.m.), there’s no doubt you’ll see Brenda. Enthusiastic, excited about ways to implement inclusion and accessibility and a lot of fun to be around, Brenda worked with the Straz Center’s Acting Director of Community Engagement Alice Santana to hold the first-ever performing arts component of the annual ADA celebration.

Part Two: TRANSFORMATIONS: Building a World of Access and Inclusion

This year, the annual ADA anniversary celebration, titled TRANSFORMATIONS: Building a World of Access and Inclusion, takes place in two parts at two locations—The John F. Germany Library and the Straz Center—and features artists from Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

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“Our event is also partnered with Arts for All, which is a statewide visual arts competition,” says Brenda. “We’ll announce the awards with a first, second and third prize. The John F. Germany Library offered to host a gallery of the visual art. We thought, ‘This is so great! Let’s see what else we can do.’ It was my wildest dream to showcase our local pool of performing artists, and I wanted the performing arts involved so badly. When we met Alice, everything started falling into place. The Straz is so professional. It’s real. It’s not something that someone is doing as a handout. So, at the concert at The Straz, we’ll have a dance troupe. We have singers. We have a classical pianist. The Straz is providing an accessible stage, lighting, sound and Fred Johnson will emcee. We’re just super, super, super exited about it. I may be more excited than anyone.”

The celebration concert at The Straz starts around 6 p.m. We have a full roster of performers including drummers, spoken word and sign language performance artists. We thought we’d introduce you to a few to give you a taste of the awesomeness that will be this Friday night event. The entire 29th anniversary celebration of the ADA is called TRANSFORMATIONS: Building a World of Access and Inclusion and is entirely free. All are welcomed and encouraged to attend.

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MATT WEIHMULLER, jazz musician

“I will be presenting my ensemble as a jazz quartet, comprised of myself on saxophone, along with a rhythm section which includes, piano, bass, and drums. We will perform music that is representative of traditional straight-ahead jazz. We’ll also play my own modern interpretation of the genre in an original composition titled “Dots On a Page.” It means so much to me to be able to share this musical composition because I get to present it to an audience which the piece was intended for, and this is the ultimate goal of any performer.

I wrote the song “Dots On a Page” as a tribute to learning braille music. As a visually impaired musician, it has always been my goal to continue to champion the cause of braille literacy. Braille is made of a six-dot system, so it seemed appropriate to name my composition “Dots On a Page.” Performing music is freedom to me because playing jazz, which is an improvisational artform, means that there are no barriers for creativity. I hope I can inspire others through performing music to have the same outlook I try to have each day, to be able to turn any disadvantage they may have into an advantage through their disability.”

Stephanie
STEPHANIE SLAGLE, singer

“I will be presenting two of my favorite musical theatre songs for my performance: “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from The Phantom of the Opera and “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady.

This performance is special to me for many reasons. The Straz Center itself is special to me; I have many beautiful memories of seeing shows at The Straz, and I’ve performed here for an All State conference in the concert choir and participated in a couple of Patel Conservatory’s summer classes. Being here to help celebrate the ADA 29th Anniversary is amazing! The ADA is so important because it gives opportunity and support to people who need it. When I give my performance, I want it to be representative of the amazing things the whole community can do for people—those with disabilities and those that have helped them grow to success beyond their wildest dreams.”

Johnathan Davis
JOHNATHAN DAVIS, pianist/vocalist

“Johnathan is so grateful for the opportunity to perform at The Straz! Although he is autistic and blind since birth, he has developed his talent and loves to share his gift. His joy in life is making people happy. He does this through his music. Johnathan is an accomplished pianist/vocalist and will hopefully touch the hearts of our guests at this special event.” –Cheryl Worsham, Spokesperson for Johnathan Davis

Seasons of Love

Adults around the world offer inspiration to LGBTQ youth through the It Gets Better Project.

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A scene from It Gets Better. Photo: Morten Kier.

In 2010, a series of teen suicides shocked the news cycle, shoving the real-life consequences of tormenting classmates into the national spotlight.

Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old violinist and freshman at Rutgers University, leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly Facebook live-streamed Clementi in a romantic encounter. Seth Walsh, 13, of California, and Billy Lucas, 15, of Indiana, hanged themselves after non-stop verbal abuse by their middle school classmates. Asher Brown, 13, from Texas, shot himself for the same reason.

There are other stories across the generations, all equally horrifying, all the direct results of school bullying of kids who happened to be gay.

The psychological effect of ridicule, especially in middle school years, shapes the brain and taps into one of the greatest human fears: the fear of abandonment (being outcast from one’s community). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) young people, who report that they often have no adults in their lives who they can talk to about personal problems*, must face this hostile school world day after day after day. And, let’s face it, middle school and high school can be rough enough socially without the added pressures of dealing with someone else’s arbitrary judgment about sexual orientation.

It can seem, trapped in a well of ridicule, that life will never get better, that there’s no way out.

These LGBTQ suicide reports fell across the desk of syndicated columnist Dan Savage, who survived middle school and high school as a “semi-out gay man” and went on to create a really great life for himself. He decided to carry a very important, very vital message to the next generation of young people toughing it out in the often cruel heteronormative ball of confusion that is middle school and high school: it gets better.

Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, created a simple video, posted it on YouTube, and it went viral instantly. The It Gets Better Project was born, and adults around the world saw their chance to step up and offer hope to LGBTQ kids. The list of celebrity testimonies grew, as did the corporations who valued diversity, creativity and inclusivity: Apple, Google, Pearson Education, Pixar, Facebook and NASA all taped videos for the It Gets Better Project. So did the Fire Department of New York, the Austin Police Department and Lt. James “Jim” Young of Orlando PD.

In time, It Gets Better went on tour, stopping in cities around the country for week-long residencies with local LGBTQ youth to create a concert based on the unique experiences of those young people.

It Gets Better evolved from a simple message of hope to an entire out-and-open community specifically lifting up LGTBQ young people who need support making it through their toughest years. Community serves as a source of strength, and adults built a visible, accessible network through It Gets Better as living proof that every wonderful, vibrant, creative and resilient fiber of an LGBTQ person has a place in the world somewhere, with something unique and valuable to offer.

As NASA says in their video: “You are necessary.”

This year, It Gets Better arrives in Tampa, with a performance here at The Straz on March 24.


For more information on the show and tour, take a look here .

*from the Human Rights Campaign’s report “Growing up LGBT in America: HRC Youth Survey Report Key Findings.”

Frock On, Sisters and Brothers!

Kinky Boots 2

Kinky Boots tour.

We’re celebrating the arrival of the Broadway blockbuster bromance Kinky Boots and wanted to take a minute to talk about how much drag queens have contributed to the joy that is the performing arts.

RuPaul

Actor, drag queen, model, author and recording artist RuPaul.

And transgender folks.

wendy carlos

Wendy Carlos, born Walter, wrote scores for A Clockwork Orange and Tron. She is considered one of the greatest music innovators of the 20th century.

Oh, and cross-dressers. And gender-benders.

grace jones

Grace Jones is known for her unique look at least as much as she is for her music, acting and modeling career.

Of the many perks of life in the performing arts is the singular power of theater life to allow people to be who they are—and who they’re not. A theater world’s magic brims with exploration of identity, and for many centuries, humans have used the stage as a forum and refuge, a liminal space where character, reality, fantasy and persona blur into performance. LGBT identity historically challenges the arbitrary definitions of normal gender behaviors and sexuality for society at large, but LGBT is LIFE in the performing arts, part of the norm that adds its own value to the mix.

Mainstream movies tend to typecast drag queens as a comic device for sexual gags and variations on the bitchy glamorpuss, though it’s worth noting that in popular films like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and its American counterpart, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, as well as in Kinky Boots, drag queens continue to teach audiences the value of tolerance in a world too charged by judgment and violence.

Long a “fringe” performing art form, drag is making its way, slowly, as normative. In Kinky Boots, Lola is a complex character, not the schtick comic in a double act working off (literally) the straight man. Lola’s ambiguous sexuality in Kinky Boots remains one of the cooler parts of the musical often overshadowed by the fun of it all. Is she gay? Straight? Does it matter? And why are we so preoccupied with a man in a dress’s sexuality anyway? Can’t a person just be happy in a dress?

johnny depp

Johnny Depp in a scene from Ed Wood, a 1994 biopic about the cult filmmaker, directed by Tim Burton.

So, keep rocking the frocks, brothers and sisters, and we’ll see you stage side.

Patron alert: the Straz Center continues to see more fake ticket agencies pop up on the internet, selling our shows for far more than our ticket price, especially for the Broadway series. Be sure you get your tickets for Kinky Boots at strazcenter.org. Any other website is a ticket scam.

Diversity in Ballet

Many performing arts lovers shouted “Bravo!,” “Finally!” and “What Took So Long?” when American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland broke the oft-unspoken color barrier in the European-standards of ballet to become an international star. Her recent commercial for Under Armor went viral, forcing people to rethink their notions of ballet dancers as athletes and also as white women in tutus. Fortunately—for ballet and for all the dancers of color who want solo and prima places in ballet companies—Misty Copeland’s rise to public prominence has brought a new respect to the art form and a more public conversation about the experience of black and brown dancers in the world of ballet. Caught in the Act came across this recent article on Mashable to address the history and social challenges of this fact of life in American dance—one that, with our understanding and changing ideas—will hopefully soon turn into history instead of reality.

NEW YORK, New York — In three to five years, no one will be talking about diversity in ballet.

That’s according to Virginia Johnson, a founding member and artistic director of New York City’s famed Dance Theatre of Harlem. In a few years, she thinks it will be a boring topic “because it will have happened,” she says in a light but commanding voice. Soon, she says, the largely white world of ballet will be populated with dancers of color.

Soon — but not today. Not in 2015.

Today, the ballet world still has a race issue. Brown ballerinas are almost invisible, rarely in the spotlight. Pools of talent are left untouched, as major dance companies glide over people of color in favor of white dancers. Dancers of color don’t often get coveted principal or soloist roles, and browsing through the corps de ballet roster of renowned institutions like the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet shows that diverse swans are in short supply.

Johnson rests comfortably in her three- to five-year theory, though. She is in a position to push that change forward. Along with companies like the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, the Dance Theatre of Harlem is a well-known entity in the ballet world, founded in 1969 “shortly after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the site declares. Its mission statement is clear: “To present a ballet company of African-American and other racially diverse artists who perform the most demanding repertory at the highest level of quality.”

“Right from the beginning, this company started making people think different about ballet,” says Johnson.

She remembers her early days at New York University, cramming in church basement ballet classes on the weekend with dancer Arthur Mitchell. Once she found out he was starting his own company, she took a leave of absence from college and joined him at his Dance Theatre of Harlem. It was a bold idea in a tense dance era for people of color.

“People had told us, ‘You can’t do this,'” Johnson recalls. “All of us were in that place as warriors, who were like, ‘Yes we can, just give us a chance.'”

She’s been with the company 27 years now.

For the whole article, read here.