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New Griots Festival: 10 black artists, 10 days, a wealth of performances

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Vie Boheme
Vie Boheme is one of 10 "griots" -- cultural storytellers -- in this year's New Griots Festival, celebrating emerging black artists in the Twin Cities.
Courtesy of Jonny Stuckmayer

On a darkened stage, the performance artist Vie Boheme is caught in a pool of white light. No matter how hard she struggles to escape the beam, she remains captured.

The 45-minute performance piece is entitled "Viva: Black." Boheme combines dance, song, video and text in a rumination on — among other things — what it means to be a black female performer, from Josephine Baker to Beyonce. 

She's one of 10 young black artists who are sharing their work in the New Griots Festival, which got underway Thursday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

In West Africa, a griot is someone who serves as the keeper of a community's stories and history. It's a revered position in an oral tradition. 

Aerialist Miss Coco Nostal’jah.
The New Griots Festival aims to highlight the work of talented black artists like aerialist Miss Coco Nostal'jah.
Courtesy of Upper Boundary Photography

Festival producer and co-founder Jamil Jude explained that in the United States the term has evolved into a broader cultural meaning. 

"So this festival, the New Griots, we want to say we are introducing you all to the storytellers who have received those stories from their elders and will carry that torch into the future," Jude said.   

The New Griots Festival features 43 different events over 10 days, including performances, free classes and panel discussions. This is its second iteration; the first festival took place in 2015. Jude and another theater artist were fellows at the Playwrights Center, and as young black men they felt isolated. Given the size of the Twin Cities arts scene, they realized there were probably young black artists in other disciplines who felt the same way. 

"We set out to meet our peers," Jude said. "It was really selfish, to be honest. We just wanted to get to know other artists that looked like us." 

That desire to connect, combined with grant funding and hard work, became a powerful vehicle for building community. This year's festival brings together actors, dancers, writers, drummers, improv comedians and even an aerialist. Poet April Gibson said she's thrilled to be a part of it.

"You know, being a poet, I am fortunately attached to the literary community," she said. "But I am not as immersed in the other arts that happen, and I'm just really happy that I'm meeting black artists that do these other arts. Because I like going to the theater, I like to see shows. And not only do I want something out of it, I want to be able to be generous and have this reciprocity of love and support."

Gibson is performing in a show called "The Black Woman Press Conference," and she's teaching a class on poetry in times of civil unrest. Jamil Jude said part of the festival's aim is to get non-performing artists to try performance, and to give all the artists opportunities to develop their teaching skills. 

Dame Jasmine Hughes is a well-regarded actress in local theaters. For this festival she's performing from an original work she co-wrote, called "ABB."

Arthur “L.A.” Buckner drumming.
As part of the New Griots Festival, Arthur "L.A." Buckner is both performing and teaching improvisational drumming.
Courtesy of Alice Gebura

"It's a situational dark comedy about two woke brown girls trying to be successful in their respective fields while navigating a culturally stark city like Minneapolis," she said, "managing micro-aggressions and passive aggressiveness while always understanding that there's an undercurrent of a stereotype known as the angry black woman."

Hughes would love to see "ABB" turned into a television show. The New Griots Festival is providing her a platform both to present and to further develop the show concept. 

Jamil Jude said the festival is about sharing information and resources, like where to find grant money to fuel one's work. It's about introducing audiences to great young talent, and breaking down stereotypes about what black artists can and can't do. 

"It's made me understand the importance of the work just that much more," Jude said. "We have to keep this going, because if not us, if we aren't championing our voices, if we aren't providing space and opportunity, then the challenges we hear our artists talk about as we work together — they'll continue."

The New Griots Festival runs through July 16 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.