Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bridging Community Gaps . . . 'Body and Soul'

"S.T.A.R. (Spirit of Tolerance and Art in the Region) in concert with local civic and interfaith groups, is hosting a BridgeWalk at 3 pm on Sunday, March 28th as a means of nurturing 'tolerance, diversity, and understanding in an ever-evolving community'."  This article affords a 'backdrop' in support of the event.
Beginning last year, and as many already know, the City of Roanoke partnered with Richard Florida's Creative Class Group in a community project comprised of 30 (local) connectors formed expressly to vitalize our 'regional economy'.  As one of the most popular and 'best-selling' authors on the topic, Florida's "basic thesis" in The Rise of the Creative Class centers on the idea "that the economy is transforming, and creativity is to the 21st century what the ability to push a plow was to the 18th century. Creative occupations are growing and firms now orient themselves to attract the creative."  Consequently, the "urban lesson of Florida’s book is that cities that want to succeed must aim at attracting the creative types who are, Florida argues, the wave of the future" (see Edward L. Glaeser's, Review of The Rise of the Creative Class).

Well, uhh Duh!  Good, so being the intelligent and high functioning individuals we are, we're all in agreement and working on the same page with this then . . . right?  Right?  I mean that's our shared objective, wooing or otherwise nurturing a 'creative class'.  After all, Roanoke's cultural heritage is second to none, affording the richest of seed beds from which societal greatness has, in times past, almost magically sprung forth and flourished.

As proof of our city's merit on this count, yet lurking under the shadow of rather dense racial overtones, there was a brief point in Roanoke's earlier history that it afforded creative space and refuge on Henry Street to one of the most prolific, if not obscure, innovators of the 20th century.  Born in 1884, Oscar Micheaux was the first African-American to produce a 'feature-length' film and easily the most prominent contributor to the entire 'race movie' genre, literally inspiring dozens of completed projects over the course of his career (see Oscar Micheaux - Wikipedia).

Making his "first trip to Roanoke" in 1921, Micheaux had already begun filming "on location" in the surrounding vicinity by 1922.  With an opening of the 703 seat capacity Strand Theatre (later the 'Lincoln', pictured at right) in 1923, he established "an office" and operated "the Oscar Michaeux film Corporation" there from "1924 until 1925".  Conveniently, he also chose "the Hotel Dumas" just across the street, for his local residence during this same period.  Thus, but while in Roanoke, with the financial support of "(l)ocal investors", Micheaux was able to render "a total of eight films using nationally known as well as local actors and settings from the Gainsboro neighborhood".

Too, because of its proximity to the Hotel Roanoke, a number of the most prominent jazz musicians of the era "including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fats Waller", "Ethel Waters", "Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Fats Domino," and "Dizzy Gillespie" typically stayed "at the Hotel Dumas" (pictured above) following their performances.  Consequently, but over a span of the three decades witnessing an end to World War I on through the Great Depression and World War II, the Gainsboro area in general, and Henry Street in particular, became a sparkling testament to the vibrancy of the region's African-American culture (see National Register of Historic Places Registration Form).

Today however, in stark contrast to the rich aura of this cultural (i.e. artistic) heritage, it's disconcerting that a looming penumbra of dominant (and let's face it) 'white', societal mores should yet, so insistently cast its pallor across our city's contemporary landscape.  During the societal tumult that was the Roaring Twenties however, and at a time when many of the churches in Roanoke's extended downtown section had been only recently constructed, a young, Hollywood-based film industry, catapulted to success in part with its 1915 Klan-glorifying production of, The Birth of a Nation; towered omnipotently over the toil of Oscar Micheaux.

Nevertheless, and having already obtained a modicum of commercial acceptance himself, Micheaux enlisted the talent of a 27 year-old actor named Paul Robeson to make "his film debut" playing the dual role of Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins and his brother Sylvester, in Body and Soul (1925).  Where mainstream cinema at this juncture still portrayed Black Americans in varying stereotypes of "comedic caricature", the aspiring filmmaker instead spun an intricate story of an "escaped prisoner" plotting to swindle a town's parishioners of their offerings while masquerading as a preacher.  Ironically however, when Micheaux "applied for an exhibition license from the Motion Picture Commission of the State of New York, it was denied approval on the grounds it would 'tend to incite to crime' and was 'immoral' and 'sacrilegious'" (see Body and Soul - Wikipedia).

Without minimizing the complexity involved, Roanoke's Creative Communities Leadership Program (CCLP) represents a very practical, yet significant step in engaging its citizens in the development of "a more authentic, sustainable and prosperous community" (see Creative Connector Description).  In this same respect, these 'connectors' have subsequently translated the "four T's" Florida equates with actually realizing these objectives (Talent, Technology, Tolerance, and Territorial Assets) into separate initiatives.  Consequently, S.T.A.R. (Spirit of Tolerance and Art in the Region) in concert with local civic and interfaith groups, is hosting a BridgeWalk at 3 pm on Sunday, March 28th as a means of nurturing "tolerance, diversity, and understanding in an ever-evolving community".  Beginning at the O. Winston Link Museum, participants will have the opportunity to reflect on steps towards social justice and unity in route to the Henry Street (e.g. Martin Luther King Memorial) Bridge.

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