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QTIP’s Black Cultural Arts Festival has soul

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In the past, the Black Cultural Arts Festival has been more oriented toward producing original black plays, but this year Artistic Director Leon Denmark and Executive Director Jeffrey Rosenstock wanted to focus on celebrating black music. Seemingly by programming happenstance, they've booked mostly female vocalists singing soul, R&B and blues. The O'Jays, a defining group of the 1970s Philly Soul sound, are the only men performing this year. QTIP's objective for its cultural festivals - it sponsors annual Latino, Greek and Asian festivals - is primarily to widen its net, according to Rosenstock. In creating a program of culture-specific events, QTIP hopes to entice otherwise reluctant theatergoers, exposing them to the theater's other performances. From examination of ticket sales and statistical information about the audience, Rosenstock can witness the inter-cultural crossover coming to fruition. "Forty-three percent of our first-time Black Cultural Festival audiences return for other programming," he said. The gathering of such data with the purpose of targeting audiences to turn them on to something else might strike some as an off-putting bait-and-switch, but QTIP's core motives are innocuous enough - to make people feel welcome by providing what's familiar and hopefully to introduce different cultures to each other. Denmark, who curated the Black Cultural Arts Festival, said, "It's important for black people to see other blacks performing. It helps sustain daily life and vision for the future. But it's not just about African Americans, it's all different people and not accepting what seems like superior values."QTIP lacks a certain Manhattan polish in its operations. Its Web site is far from flashy, for example, and this year's Black Cultural Arts Festival doesn't appear to have any clear, culturally analytical theme. But it's just that self-obliviousness and lack of intellectual contrivance that enables this festival to have a genuine element one rarely finds in the music business anymore: soul.Denmark, who is also a programming consultant for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, talks about classic soul and R&B and the importance of honest, heartfelt music with the unadulterated reverence of a teenager who has newly discovered the band or genre that will be the measure for all other music he encounters in life. However commercialized and cheapened music might become, he believes that people will always come back to the rhythms of classic blues, R&B and soul. "The underpinning of everything is rhythm, everyone can identify with it," he said. "It's the thread of life, it's spiritual. Without music you're just another entity." The festival features a performance by Queens resident Sandra Reaves-Phillips, primarily a blues singer, though some might recognize her as Mrs. Powers, the music teacher from the 1989 film "Stand By Me." Reaves-Phillips, like Denmark, is a devotee of musical icons of jazz & blues, soul and R&B. Her show, "The Late Great Ladies of Jazz and Blues," gives what Reaves-Phillips describes as an "essence" of blues music icons such as Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, presented as a mixture of poetry, monologues, song and interplay with the audience. Reaves-Phillips has been performing the show since 1980 but manages to never tire of it, and one gets the sense from her childlike exuberance in describing the different costumes she wears for each character that these blues women have been her heroes so ardently and for so long that they've become almost parental.Oleta Adams, critically acclaimed for her musical integrity and authenticity, is also on the roster, performing April 5.The Black Cultural Arts Festival always tries to bring a high-profile group which has never performed in Queens before. This year it's the O'Jays, who will be performing April 12 at Queens College, and concertgoers can expect an evening of the group's well-known, danceable hits, "Love Train," "For the Love of Money" and "She Used to be My Girl," among the numerous other hits that brought the group unheard-of platinum success in the 1970s. Eric Grant, who joined the O'Jays in 1995, suggested that the music industry has become detrimentally obsessed with formulaic performances and saleability partly because the younger generation of music executives is unfamiliar with music history and the industry of the 1950s through the '70s. "The O'Jays didn't have music videos, you know," he said. "People found out from records, or you saw a show. There's no BET runway. You had to sell with sound, not image." Grant mourns the would-be careers of some of the powerful yet invisible talents he's come across in his years of performing, but he's also appreciative of and hopeful for artists like Jill Scott, India Arie and Chris Brown, whose styles borrow heavily from '60s and '70s soul and R&B. In the spirit of promoting a younger generation of soul and R&B musicians, QTIP is also appealing to younger crowds with a free concert called "New Voices," featuring young, up-and-coming singers Ruby Collins, Liz Philds and Sparlha Swa.If you goBlack Cultural Arts FestivalQueens Theatre in the Park, Flushing Meadows Corona Park¥ Welcome Home Marian AndersonWhen: Thursday, April 3, 3 p.m.; Saturday, April 5, 8 p.m.Cost: $24; seniors $22; students $12; multi-show $20¥ New Voices: Ruby Collins, Liz Philds and Sparlha SwaWhen: Friday, April 4, 8 p.m.Cost: Free; reservations required¥ In Concert É Oleta AdamsWhen: Saturday, April 5, 8 p.m.Cost: $35; seniors $33; students $20; multi-show $30¥ Sandra Reaves-Phillips: The Late Great Ladies of Blues & JazzWhen: Sunday, April 6, 3 p.m.Cost: $35; seniors $33; students $20; multi-show $30 ¥ The O'Jays in ConcertWhen: Saturday, April 12, 8 p.m.Where: Colden Auditorium, Queens College, 65-30 Kissena Blvd., Flushing Cost: Orchestra: $48, seniors & students $44; mezzanine: $42, seniors & students $38For More: 718-793-8080 or www.queenstheatre.org for info and tickets

Updated 6:57 pm, October 10, 2011
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