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For Roots And Wings, Performance And Placemaking Coincide

Kiara Watts of Roots & Wings plays with Senegalese musicians and griots
Josh Miller
Kiara Watts of Roots & Wings plays with Senegalese musicians and griots

Last Sunday, members of Roots and Wings loaded their set into the Kentucky Center for the Arts’ Bomhard Theater and put the final touches on "The Blood Always Returns,” the group’s new original work.

It’s a familiar process to people who are in theater or follow theatrical arts. The bones of the show are there, but a lot of the finishing pieces are just coming together.

The group of roughly 10 Louisville artists of color -- who first came together to present "The Smoketown Poetry Opera" -- will perform the original work of poetry, dance and music twice this weekend. The show represents the journey Roots and Wings has been on since it first came together, a journey that has led from Appalachia to Africa.

Since the group received a $280,000 ArtPlace America grant in mid-2015, the performers have been in rooms with award-winning guest artists and school kids in the five Zones of Hope neighborhoods in West Louisville.

At KCA last weekend, director, artist and scenic designer Charles Nasby showed the performers a giant door on wheels that will move around the stage periodically.

“As you go through this, you have this moment, that beat when you pause in the portal and then you pass through," he said.

The door is based on something the group, including Nasby, saw when they traveled to Senegal last summer. Roots and Wings co-director Stacy Bailey-Ndiaye explained the historical significance.

“[The] Door of No Return is from Goree Island, which was a slave port…. This is where Africans were kept, and so when they would leave, they’d go through this door," she said.

On the other side, slave ships were waiting to take them to the new world.

The door, and the idea of leaving and returning, became central to Roots and Wings’ performance.

“Even the name of the show, ‘The Blood Always Returns;’ it’s the idea that the bloodline returns back home, back to what you know, back to self, in wholeness,” said Bailey-Ndiaye.

'It Was Dope'

Theatrical productions are by their nature attention-grabbing. But the grant that powered much of Roots and Wings’ work isn’t just about performance. It’s about making change in a neighborhood or area through art.

That process is called creative placemaking, and it’s a focus of ArtPlace America.

Hannah Drake, a poet and Root and Wings performer, worked with a creative writing class at Moore Traditional High School. Three of those nine kids will appear in "The Blood Always Returns" as extras and part of a pre-show presentation.

Autumn Knuckles is a junior at Moore and workshop participant. She was inspired by what she saw.

“Yeah, they came to the theater and they showed out,” she said. “It was dope.”

Knuckles and Mark Stone, another participant in the Roots and Wings workshop, would later perform in front of the school; she shared poetry and he rapped. Both went into the performance -- at a pep rally -- with low expectations.

“When we first did it, I was thinking like, worst-case scenario,” said Stone.

Knuckles agreed.

“I thought it was gonna just be, ‘Oh my god, she’s a nerd, she’s over here doing poetry.’”

The duo was pleasantly surprised.

“When she got done, she got a big cheer,” said Stone. “And when I got done, like the whole football team ran and surrounded me.”

The team picked Stone up and passed him around.

“It was hectic,” said Knuckles, smiling at the memory.

'A Shared Rhythm'

The members of Roots and Wings have had opportunities to hone their craft, including workshops with guest artists like poet Nikky Finney and Sankofa Dance Theater of Baltimore.

Kiera Watts and Vay Davis have been with Roots and Wings since its inception. The duo -- both of whom sing and play guitar -- also performs under the name Nzuri Music.

Watts got to spend time with Grammy Award-winning folk artist Dom Flemons. While Watts had previously focused on guitar, Flemons put a banjo in her hands and showed her how to use it.

“It’s a foreign instrument, but it has strings so I’m interested,” said Watts. She’ll use those banjo skills onstage in "The Blood Always Returns."

As impressed as Watts was by Flemons -- she fairly gushed as she explained that he had given her his pick at the end of their session — she said she’s been most influenced by the simple opportunity to perform.

“That’s been the best part,” she said. “Every time we get to hit a stage, it’s not just us giving a performance, it’s us giving of ourselves and pouring out.”

Of course, guest artists and workshops do more than bring people in from out of town; they forge relationships here, too.

To wit: The Louisville Ballet’s Brandon Ragland appears in "The Blood Always Returns." Ragland, a full-time member of the ballet, performs principal roles like Siegfried in "Swan Lake."

“They explained their concept, and the idea, and I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with artists,” he said. “I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it.”

Ragland -- who is the only African-American member of the Louisville Ballet (a local reflection of a national demographic) -- said performing with other artists of color has been rewarding.

“There’s something to be said about being around more African-Americans, there’s kinda like a shared rhythm,” he said. “There’s this shared energy, and when I walked into my first rehearsal with the artists and saw what they were doing, there’s a part of me that felt at home.”

‘That Weight’

The African-American experience figures heavily into Roots and Wings’ work, and the group’s trip to Senegal was eye-opening for some of its members.

“It was great and terrible at the same time, cause you think you’re going to go and get some kind of repatriation revelation…. I mean, we’re discriminated against over there, too. It's just about being Americans,” said Lance Newman III. “The discrimination you feel in America about being black, that constant pressure, I didn’t feel that, so that was cool."

Drake was also moved.

“It didn’t dawn on me until we were at a shop, and I realized no one was watching me shop….no one [was] profiling me,” she said.

She started to cry as she recalled the experience.

“I didn’t know that I was carrying that, until I got somewhere…. I could set that down,” she said. “And then when we all got back on the plane and came home, we were just so, like, damn -- we’re back.”

Creative placemaking is about changing or rebuilding community through the arts. Bailey-Ndiaye said she believes the group has helped to bring the arts into the conversation about the African-American experience here and how to renew West Louisville.

“I think people have sort of woken up to the power that the arts can have," she said.

Roots and Wings’ grant is meant to be used in a relatively short period of time, and it culminates in the performance of “The Blood Always Returns.” But that’s not the end of this journey for the members of the company.

“It’s chess, man,” Newman said. “It’s a big move, a nice move, taking a rook or something like that. But more moves to come.”

“The Blood Always Returns” will be performed Saturday, Nov. 5 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 6 2:30 p.m. in the Bomhard Theater.