By Natalie Prioleau
Just two Sundays ago, some of Charleston’s best and brightest in politics, education, music and poetry collaborated at PURE Theatre in the original production “Rainbow Rowed: A Civic Engagement.” Set up as a panel discussion which was led by a “clueless mediator” (KJ Kearney of Charleston Sticks Together), the production provided an explicit comparison between the projected images of life in Charleston and the reality of living in the city for Blacks and other racial and religious minorities.
The panelists included historian and Professor Damon Fordham, Shaundra Scott from the American Civil Liberties Union, Gullah culture expert Sharon Cooper-Murray, Kat Morgan of Standing Up for Racial Justice and musician/attorney Elliott Smith of the Very Hypnotic Soul Band. They covered a range of topics on based on their expertise such as institutional racism, gentrification, religious freedom, homophobia and the Gullah culture. Professor Fordham explains, “I wanted to use this forum to bring some important facts before the Charleston community, such as how the city and state historically sought to deliberately under educate the black community, so that it would remain a permanent class of cheap labor and how that affects our society today.” Having given such talks, the professor and fellow panelists incited passionate feedback from the audience.
Time was allotted in between talks for the audience to share their experiences as it related to these topics, creating a sense of inclusiveness and promoting dialogue.
Adding to the inclusive setting, Benny Starr, Matt Monday, Matthew Foley and Charleston’s Poet Laureate Marcus Amaker were among the poets who secretly sat in the audience until they were cued to take the stage. This subtle and unique set up elicited an enthused, engaged and uproarious response that can be likened to a packed Easter Sunday service at a Baptist Church! Onlookers clapped, snapped, stomped and shouted, “Preach!” and “Re-wiiiind!” in response to historic, political and social issues presented in the form of poetry.
Marcus Amaker explains, “I really like the idea of spoken word being an art form to teach history, so I went to KJ Kearney to help plan the “poetry and hip-hop” idea. He brought in Benjamin Starr and Elliott Smith, they came up with the Rainbow Rowed idea, and it came together really well.” He continues, “We were hoping to help people see the idea of “forum” differently.”
The response from the audience as well as the issues that were covered within the forum demand that Charleston pay attention to the voices that have been ignored because they are in the minority, or they make people uncomfortable. In other words, Rainbow Rowed, needs an encore. Amaker adds, “We are in talks to make it bigger and better. People walked away changed.”