Plano — Iv Amenti, a local theater artist and musician, has created a music performance event to continue the legacy of African-American musicians in Deep Ellum. A recipient of the Office of Cultural Affairs Cultural Vitality Program, Amenti’s program, Deep Remembrance Project: Deep Ellum Unplugged, aims to have a lasting impact to celebrate and highlight notable local artists. The first installment of the project is at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, at RBC on Commerce Street. It highlights three musical acts and contains an online component to document the ongoing series.
Amenti notes that her initial inspiration led her in a different direction, “I knew that this project was coming up, that the CVP was available, so I was like ok, I’ll do something. I initially wanted to do something with senior citizens. But then, I thought about my godfather and the shekeres that he makes me.” A shekere is a West African percussion gourd instrument with beads woven on the outside that provide a shaking sound. Amenti’s group Du Shekere performs music and dance exclusively with these instruments.
Living in Dallas since 1999, Amenti considers herself an artist who performs. Trained professionally in theater, she has reached beyond that discipline into music with Du Shekere. Over the past 17 years Amenti developed gratitude for the opportunities the city has to offer. Amenti says, “It is a great time to be an artist in this city and we are on the front line right now.” She also demonstrates appreciation for the Office of Cultural Affairs for supporting her work and offering other opportunities as a teaching artist. “To have that idea supported feels really good. And it makes me feel like what is the next thing we can do to further the conversation or start a new conversation. I’m glad that there are things like that there. I’m also an artist on the CAP roster and one of the beautiful things about that is that it’s expanding into new territory.”
With that new direction, Amenti thought more about the origins of Deep Ellum, in an attempt to reclaim the vibrant African-American culture that first put this section of Dallas on the map. Deep Ellum was first inhabited by former slaves after the Civil War and referred to as a “freedmen’s town.” Moving forward into the early twentieth century, Deep Ellum became a hot spot for live jazz and blues musicians including pianist Whistlin’ Alex Moore and guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson. Blues great Robert Johnson recorded a few blocks west on Canton Street. The vibrant music scene swelled as musicians gained national attention and the number of jazz clubs increased. But that growth took a turn during the emergence of white flight and construction of North Central Expressway, which was built right through a full block on Elm street. Since then, Deep Ellum has gone through decades of empty storefronts and small blooms of activity; and the legacy of those musicians has a faint heartbeat on the district.
For her proposal, Amenti settled on a live event that would confront this issue: “I thought that would be a great idea, to address the erasure of African-American musicians in Deep Ellum stemming from the 1920s.” In 2016, Deep Ellum is known for its night life, bars, clubs, and music venues, but not necessarily a connection to its roots. Amenti calls this dissociation “erasure” and points to many places where Deep Ellum’s past has been discarded. Amenti says, “For example, in the 42 murals project in Deep Ellum, there was only one African-American musician represented in these murals.” She goes on to question if these artists are given a fair opportunity to have a legacy if the people of the present are not paying respect to those who have come before, and continue what they started.
“My premise is looking at legacy as equity. Because when we look at equity, what does it mean? Look at the things happening with ATTPAC, we’re talking about right now present stock of people being able to produce things. But also when we look at legacy as equity, how do we manifest that?” Legacy, equity, diversity, equality, culture—these are all enormous terms that seem to be tossed about in current discourse. But like Amenti says, “What does that mean?”
Her initial work on this project included a significant amount of research, to unearth the seemingly hidden history of Deep Ellum’s music scene in the early 20th century. “I started researching and I found Alan Govenar and he had done extensive history on this subject.” Govenar and Dallas director Akín Babatunde wrote a musical about Blind Lemon that has played in New York, across Europe and at WaterTower Theatre. Through a series of coincidences, Amenti ended up connecting with Govenar. Through months of planning, the first Deep Ellum Unplugged will showcase three local African-American musical acts, to continue the legacy of those great Dallas artists who came before.
Jason Davis and Mahogany are the first act of the night; jazz musicians that are as Amenti says, “what Blind Lemon would have been during his time.” This event coincides with the release of Davis’s newest album. Amenti’s group, Du Shekere, performs second, with a group of five women all playing Shekeres. Their performances usually include vibrant costumes, masks and have audience interactive elements.
Closing out the night will be Grammy-nominated RC Williams and the Gritz, also coinciding with his album release. Williams is currently the musical director for Erykah Badu, and a major part of the Dallas music scene. Amenti says, “I chose RC because he’s done The Prophet Bar on Wednesday night for ten years. It’s an open mic, so musicians and singers can perform. HE is the person who would have served that role in the 1920s (infusing Deep Ellum with vibrant music and culture).” These three groups hope to provide an unforgettable night of music and stories.
But it can’t end there. It has to continue as Amenti says, “When I think about legacy I think about representation, consistent, constant representation. If we have to think of legacy as a memory, it’s not a legacy at all, right? Who is carrying the torch?” Hopefully, the Deep Remembrance Project will unearth the forgotten and bring new vibrancy to this unique district of Dallas.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.
NEW WORK CURRENTLY ON LOCAL STAGES
- Pocket Sandwich Theatre presents Scott Eckert's Death the Musical II: Death Takes a Harmony, Aug. 26-Sept. 24 OUR LISTING
SELECT UPCOMING NEW WORK
- Uptown Players presents the fifth Pride Performing Arts Festival, which features several new plays on LGBT themes, at various locations on the Kalita Humphreys Theater campus, Sept. 16-24 OUR LISTING
- The Bishop Arts Theatre Center presents the third annual PlayPride LGBT Festival, with six new locally written plays on LGBT themes, Sept. 16-25 OUR LISTING
- Jessica Cavanagh's play Self Injurious Behavior gets a staged reading at Theatre Too! in the basement of Theatre Three, Sept. 18-19 OUR LISTING
- The Dallas Theater Center and New York's Playwrights Horizons presents Kirsten Childs' musical Bella: An American Tall Tale at the Wyly Theatre, Dallas, Sept. 22-Oct. 22 OUR LISTING
- Kitchen Dog Theater presents A Stain Upon the Silence: Beckett's Request, featuring works by or inspired by Samuel Beckett, including the premiere of a KDT-commissioned work by Abe Koogler, Oct. 7-29 at the Trinity River Arts Center OUR LISTING
- PrismCo debuts its latest movement theater work, Midas, at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center, Oct. 8-23 OUR LISTING
- The Drama Club presents The Incident, a one-man work written and performed by Terry Vandivort, running in repertory with Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time, four new adapations of fairytales, at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Theater campus, Oct. 10-29 OUR LISTING
- Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth premieres Kathleen Culebro's Smart Pretty Funny, Oct. 20-Nov. 13 OUR LISTING
- Contemporary Theatre of Dallas presents Patrick Emile and Olivia de Guzman Emile's musical As We Lie Still, which had a workshop performance at the New York Musical Theatre Festival OUR LISTING
- The Ochre House in Dallas presents Kevin Grammer's Dreaming Electric, about Nikolai Tesla, Oct. 28-Nov. 19 OUR LISTING
- Theatre Three presents Bruce R. Coleman's Day Light, Nov. 17-Dec. 11 OUR LISTING
PREVIOUS WORK IN PROGRESS COLUMNS
- Len Jenkin's Jonah at Undermain Theatre (April 15, 2016)
- David Lozano and Lee Trull's Deferred Action in a co-production between Dallas Theater Center and Cara Mía Theatre Company (April 28, 2016)
- Janielle Kastner's Ophelia Underwater, presented by The Tribe at Margo Jones Theatre (May 11, 2016)
- Caridad Svich's De Troya, a developmental reading presented by Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth (May 13, 2016)
- Steve Yockey's Blackberry Winter and The Thrush and the Woodpecker in Kitchen Dog Theater's 18th New Works Festival at Undermain Theatre (May 18, 2016)
- Stefany Cambra's Finding Myself in Bed from Proper Hijinx (June 1, 2016)
- Acoustic Nerves/Therefore, a collaboration by Dean Terry and University of Texas at Dallas artists, at the Texas Theatre (June 9, 2016)
- Checking in with playwright Jonathan Norton (July 22, 2016)
- Lake Simons and John Dyer's visual theater adaptation of Don Quixote at Hip Pocket Theatre (Aug. 6, 2016)
- The Third Dallas One-Minute Play Festival, presented by One-Minute Play Festival and Kitchen Dog Theater (Aug. 8, 2016)
- Justin Locklear's Dreamless at the Ochre House (Aug. 15, 2016)
- Jeff Swearingen's Old McDonald's Farm: A Children's Fable about the Obama Presidency at Fun House Theatre and Film (Aug. 17, 2016)