Nice Vice: Kamala Harris visits Wayland Square

Books on the Square manager Jennifer Kandarian stands with one of the plethora of books from the display created by Percy Sutton just the evening before the historic visit by Vice President Harris

When Jennifer Kandarian awoke on Cinco de Mayo, she did not anticipate meeting Vice President Kamala Harris. As manager of Books on the Square on Angell Street in Providence, Kandarian hadn’t planned to even go in to work. It was her day off, but the rainy weather wasn’t going to lend to her plans for yard work. So she decided to switch her day off. “I had to wonder, ‘If I knew I was going to meet the vice president, would I have worn jeans?’” she said.

Thirty minutes before the vice president arrived at Books on the Square with 30 secret service people present, Kandarian got the call that they were having some visitors. Serendipitously, just the night before, Percy Sutton had put together a lovely display of their collection of Kamala Harris books.

The staff was thrilled to find out that they would have such a rock star visitor, along with former governor and current Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo. Raimondo was the reason for the visit. She and her family used to frequent the store on Sundays. Raimondo routinely declares, “This is my neighborhood store. The best place ever.”  

Books on the Square was already open for business when they got the call. When the entourage arrived, the store was so crowded that it was challenging to see Harris, let alone take photos. Team member Chris Byrnes noticed two teenagers at a book shelf “completely in their own world,” and took it upon himself to pop over and inform them of their possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet a historic leader. Harris caught on to their presence and walked over to chat a bit with the surprised young women.

During this monumental visit, a secret serviceman shared with Kandarian that their team had made several visits to the store over the last weeks. In retrospect, it was intriguing to realize that they had been selling books to covert feds. Says Penny Fisher, “I didn’t know there was a pre-cursory perusal.”

Local co-op Urban Greens was aware that they would be in the socially distanced presence of our veep. Their council chair Philip Trevvett had two minutes to speak on the Social Enterprise Greenhouse. “The most important message that I tried to convey is that co-ops work for communities, that co-ops are a critical part of building an equitable economy and that will build community wealth across this country.” Trevett met the vice president bearing yams from Ghana and numerous locally produced items.

Pedestrians on drizzly Ives street photographed in awe the low-flying helicopter that appeared to be giving Vice President Harris a COVID-safe tour of the small businesses in Rhode Island.

What’s in the Fridge?

Last December, Motif wrote an article about the community fridges popping up around the state, including the Refri, the community refrigerator outside New Urban Arts (motifri.com/communityfridge).

Since the article, the Refri has remained open and available. I recently talked to a young woman carrying a giant box of food who said, “I read about the Refri on Instagram and I had some food, so I brought it,” as she stocked the fridge with half of a pantry full of soup, macaroni, and bread. A man asked me for a dollar, and when I asked him if he knew about the Refri, he replied, “You mean the best thing to ever happen to Providence?” 

The contents of the refrigerator vary. Often, there is produce delivered by locals or people from Farm Fresh Rhode Island. Sometimes there are socks and scarves, bagels and breads, and maxi pads. Many evenings, there are complete meals prepared by Urban Greens, Refri’s neighbor.

Urban Greens is another group that has been doing a lot to help the community stay fed. Every Friday, some of the 2,834 members volunteer to prepare ingredients for the Culinary Academy, the YMCA’s youth cooking program. They prepare meals for up to 900 recipients of the Calvary Baptist Church. They assemble ingredients for “the little guys” whose parents pick up the ingredients for the YMCA Fun & Food club virtual cooking class. Says John Santos, general manager of Urban Greens, “There are so many volunteers to thank. It has been incredible.”   

Take It, or Leave It: Community Freedge PVD, Refri PVD, and PVD Community Fridge are cool responses to COVID

Refri PVD

Refri PVD is a community refrigerator located at 705 Westminster, outside of New Urban Arts, a haven for high school students and trained artist mentors. One can go there right now and retrieve perishable and non-perishable food items. Free. Now. Like, right now.

New Urban Arts artist mentor Dana Heng is the visionary who ensured the manifestation of the community fridge. Inspired by other community refrigerators that have gone up in other cities since March, Heng received support from New Urban Arts and continues to steer the operation.

The refrigerator is colorfully designed and has its own house, complete with pantry shelves and windows. It is conspicuously visible to pedestrians and drivers, and from the windows of Classical High School, Central High School and Providence Technical Career and Technical Academy. It is within walking distance of at least a dozen schools.

The Refri PVD is unlocked and available 24 hours a day, and no data is collected from those who use it. The stock varies, depending on who is providing. Eggs, kale, radishes, fruit. Sometimes sandwiches from Dips Dips (dipsdipspvd.com). Or whatever is on the weekly menu from The Mosaic Table (themosaictable.com). Bread. One might find goodies from @patspastured and @hocuspocusfarm. No matter what is in the Refri PVD, one can safely assume that Farm Fresh RI (@farmfreshri/www.farmfreshri.com), an organization that unifies consumers with farms, and farmers with each other, lent a hand. Farm Fresh, along with New Urban Arts, was one of Refri PVD’s first supporters.

Community Freedge is another option. It’s run by Tameka Eastman-Coburn and Mary Lindberg and is housed at Small Format, a gallery and café that supports artists, especially marginalized artists and makers. “They need folks to show up tangibly for them right now,”  says leader Eastman-Coburn. “What’s most inspiring about community fridges is how these kinds of food-sharing operations function as a form of protest rooted in sovereignty, justice and sustainable community. Food, healthy food, is a right. Our cultures and societal structures are deeply intertwined with food, and therefore secure access to food is essential to evolve our culture and societal structures. Food justice work asks us to dream of a future that is possible in our lifetime while we practice it in real time.”  

Sara Federici, a student of culinary nutrition whose passion is fighting food insecurity, is raising funds to start PVD Community Fridge (@pvdcommunityfridge). She explains, “Community fridges are awesome because they help foster trust within communities, reduce food waste and fight food insecurity. I spoke with one group a couple of months ago in Massachusetts who said that their host owns a barbershop and since they decided to welcome a community fridge into their space, they’ve received a bunch of new clients as a result.”

Take it or leave it. Take food or leave food. And other ways to support include volunteering to complete community refrigerators’ shelter/exterior/artwork, spreading the word, documenting and for some quite easily: sending CASH green money.

For information on volunteering, donating or receiving food from these community refrigerators, follow Refri PVD @RefriPVD (CashApp $RefriPVD), PVD Community Fridge @pvdcommunityfridge or Community Freedge @communityfreedge

Thrills and Chills: Swamp Scare’s inaugural season left thrill-seekers terrified

Photo credit: Vision Media Productions

The inaugural Swamp Scare, which took place in the weeks leading up to Halloween, is the most recent creation by Vision Media Productions, a polished team of creators, with talented Mark Fisher at the helm. Fisher had already been working with Blackstone Valley Tourism Council (BVTC) on a plethora of successful endeavors when they approached him about putting together a socially distanced Halloween event. Fisher jumped right to it, calling on a local uncle and nephew for their expertise and input. They called on another to help mix it all together, and Swamp Scare was born.

The collaboration between Vision Media Productions and BVTC was a win-win from the get-go because of their history together. BVTC is the creator of the wildly successful Polar Express, which hosted more than 21,000 patrons in fewer than four weeks last year. Vision Media Productions specializes in music, dance, photography, videography and whatever challenges arise.

Swamp Scare defies expectations for a Halloween event. Because of COVID, BVTC knew that if they were embarking on another successful run of seasonal success, it would have to be outdoors, so they decided to use the Blackstone Valley Explorer, the river boat that mostly travels with school students for educational purposes. Fisher loved the idea and began thinking of ways to make it spooky or scary. The entire team wondered how to make patrons soil their pants when there is social distancing? A pandemic is not a time to be in people’s faces for the sake of scaring. Would it be better to wait until 2021?

Vision Media Productions and BTVC said no. We don’t wait. Let’s do this. And the preproduction team was built. Three weeks later, Swamp Scare opened. Four weeks later, it sold out.

It’s difficult to describe the event without revealing its hidden gems. The Space Transformation Station lent some creepiness as did Explosive Corrosive Joseph. Uncle John and Nephew George (HETU) were critical to the manifestation of Swamp Scare, and the Vision Media Production team “got this.”

Imagine the deep depth of the river valley, the sounds of the boat, and the crispness of autumn air within an environmental diorama of eeriness. Defying cliché but honoring the ritual of Halloween, the aquatic stage is set to see and hear the legend of the Swamp Assassin.

“I can’t believe this is Central Falls,” is a commonly heard statement on the slow moving boat rides. Not because Central Falls isn’t beautiful — Central Falls is stunning and gorgeous, particularly during autumn. But at 9pm, in the marsh that fueled mills since 1863, it is the tech and infrastructure developed by Vision Media Productions that can be seen and heard. The light from the moon and the lights from the boat cast a spookier atmosphere than what you’d experience in the daylight hours. The sounds of the swamp, the impending awareness of the swamp assassin, and the homage to Halloween are staples that lead to the sold out success of Swamp Scare. One person disembarked from the Blackstone Valley Explorer, bag of goodies in hand, exclaiming, “That was amazing! Oh my goodness!”

Additional contributions behind and stage center promised depth to the work by Vision Media Productions. Students from Sophia Academy, Achievement First, and Highlander Charter School contributed to a 20-minute storyline. The commercial and post-production features students from Central Falls School District, Lincoln Middle School, Davies Academy, Sophia Academy, Highlander Charter School, Achievement First, Bailey Elementary School, Grace School, the Manton Avenue Project, and the esteemed Zenith Cheer. This phenomenal team is often spotted before and after the event.

On Halloween, the gorgeous Central Falls sign outside the boat landing was unveiled. Senator Jack Reed was there along with Mayor Diossa. Zenith Cheer performed their stellar acrobatics, and the Blackstone Valley Explorer took passengers away for a creepy adventure.

Throughout the season, Swamp Scare had to continue to add shows and “could have sold 500 more seats if it could have worked logistically” (BVTC insider). Other comments overheard, “Are you scared, too? Cause I am shaking.”  “So much fun!” Finally, “That was unbelievably better than we could have imagined.” “How did you do that?”

You might have missed it this year, but it’ll happen again.

For information, go to swampscare.com

Let Justice Roll: Stages of Freedom programming illuminated Benefit Street

There are many things that people don’t know about the country’s smallest state. There is one area code. It’s called Rhode Island, but there are 30 islands in the state. There were more than 1,000 slave ships that came through Rhode Island, many documented in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. There is jazz at the new Yoleni’s on Tuesday nights with Mibbit Threats. There is the Michael Van Leesten Pedestrian Bridge. There have been 25 annual Langston Hughes Community Poetry events.

And there is Stages of Freedom.

Teachers, scholars, students, humanitarians, activists, writers: Take note.

Like many gems, knowledge about Stages of Freedom often travels by word of mouth.  A time saver for the curious is to ask what Stages of Freedom is not.

Stages of Freedom’s offerings are breathtaking. It encompasses a book store (10 Westminster), a museum that has on display “Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge” and “Rare Letter from John Brown regarding the sale of Slaves,” an event space featuring “Freedom Factor,” live performances, youth empowerment workshops, historical walking tours, swimming lessons for youth, events celebrating our shared history, speaking programs, exhibits on black life and culture, concerts, bow-tying workshops, tea parties, and free swimming lessons for the luckiest. The list goes on.

There is a packed schedule on their Facebook page, including this Saturday’s Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine. They are justifiably proud of the 5th annual And Still I Rise, which happens at the First Baptist Church in America. Some will attend not because they know it is a tribute to Maya Angelou and more by great Rhode Island women, but for an excuse to get an inside glimpse of this gorgeous landmark. This church and meeting house was founded in 1638 by Roger Williams, built in 1774, and became a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

A brilliant event graced this space on February 23. It was called Let Justice Roll: An Original Cantata Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr by Mark Miller. There couldn’t have been a more beautiful setting for the power and dignity that ignited Benefit Street in Providence that day. The light cascaded upon the musicians, choir and presenters like heaven was illuminating history. Young people greeted hundreds of people as they entered the establishment with unforced manners and authentic kindness. There was celebration in the air, and the seats were comfy.

Ray Rickman, executive director of Stages of Freedom, delivered a gracious welcome, qualifying that he tried not to produce the event because, as he explained, the organization is preoccupied with raising one million dollars to sustain free swimming lessons for Rhode Island youth. He talked about bow ties. He spoke of tea parties and the importance of teaching youth specific skill sets.

Thank goodness the lyrics for “Birmingham Sunday” by Richard Farina were in the program to distract the weeping listener, or rather, to clarify to the less versed appreciator the depth of the sentiments. The sheer subject matter of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls and injured 22 others was tear jerking. The dynamic delivery by Becky Bass, Stephen Martorella, Geoffe Greene and the absolute angelic choir transcended truth. When a full congregation joins together and looks in the same direction, art happens. Miracles happen. History is revered.

From 1963, The Letter from Birmingham Jail was delivered by a diverse 10 presenters, including Stages of Freedom program director Robb Dimmick, Rhode Island icon Dr. Rose Weaver, Robert DiMuccio (chairman, president and CEO of Amica Mutual Insurance Company) and Darius Henderson Jr. (a student at Jacqueline Walsh School for the Arts). The letter, a major artifact from the Civil Rights Movement, stands out with some of the most famous Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

On this day, because of the stellar lineup and placement of the readers in the presentation, King’s reference to explaining the atrocity of racism to his own children let the bells of sin ring. Channeling the deep well of injustice, Rose Weaver read how Dr. King had to explain to his 6-year-old daughter “… why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television…Funtown is closed to colored children.” A father tries to explain while a Civil Rights Leader attempts to school his own oppressors.

Stages of Freedom is a goldmine of opportunity. For more information, visit its Facebook page, go to stagesoffreedom.org, or visit its museum and store. Or simply donate. Stages of Freedom has announced plans to share video of Let Justice Roll.

25th Annual Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading: If you had been there. “…you would know why”

Emily Ruth Hazel, honorary poet;
Photo credit: AIJ Media

The sounds of steel pan, keyboard, bass and vocals poured out of the Providence Career & Technical Academy Auditorium as hundreds of standup citizens glided inside. They were there to hear 67 people present Langston Hughes’ works, as well as experience some surprises.

Many attendees returned for a third or 20th visit. Sylvia Ann Soares was presenting for the 12th time in 21 years. She said she was “delighted to see the varied ethnicity reflected in Langston’s poems performed by immigrants and others in their language besides English.” There were beautifully dressed children tuning in and out of the tribute to the poet. There was a touch of harmonica, some snapping, singing, drumming, some blues … and due to careful listening and collaboration, at one point we could hear the “Seascape. “

The event began from the moment one walked into the door, greeted by volunteers of all ages who were professionally welcoming. Old and new friends shook hands and hugged, families milled together, and six generations warmed the auditorium. Deborah Spears Moorehead performed the Opening Song. “A prayer that came to me at 4am,” she explained before blessing the space with “A Prayer for the People.” **

One of the quintessential “community” moments took place next. As April Brown and Valerie Tutson prepared to lead “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” there came the sound of a stunning 10-month-old baby.  Tutson said, “Joya wants to sing the Negro National Anthem,” and she held her baby on stage as the entire congregation sang along with them.

A Biographical Moment, Rochel Garner Coleman first dazzled the crowd by quipping that he thought the preceding invocation was going to be “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.” Later, when he quoted Hughes, some reflected on the moments of collective guffaws. “Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it.” This day was one of celebration of Hughes, and it included laughter, joy, pain and contemplation. Rochel described Langston Hughes as “the original jazz” and the “JZ of Harlem.” He gave a detailed list of the vocations and let the listeners know that Langston Hughes was far from just a poet. Rochel eloquently wove wit and knowledge, including the ominous question, “What would [Hughes] think of immigration issues, 1994 Rwanda Genocide…” [Langston Hughes lived on earth until 1967.] All the while, Rochel’s voice and the instrumentals played in tandem. This was an eloquent and thorough account of Langston Hughes delivered with a passion usually reserved for eulogies. This was a birthday party.

Many were curious to get to see and hear the Honorary Poet, Emily Ruth Hazel. She had performed the previous night for Funda Fest’s event “Grown Folk Story Telling.” She submitted to the RFP from Pasadena, California. The next 67 poems (plus Hazel’s) were presented in three different categories. The turnout for an authentic community, in the truest sense of the word, emulates much of what Langston Hughes celebrated in his writing. April Brown explains, “There is an elegance, because of the time period he represents. I wanted it to have a very spiritual component to it.”

As can be expected, not every presenter was able to attend. If Ray Rickman were there, it would have been his 25th year presenting. It seems that most people, once they know about the event, attend, dare it be said, religiously. Sidney E. Okashige couldn’t believe that she had never heard of the event. “Why didn’t I know about such an amazing event?” Well, someone told her, and that someone is writing this article. Spread the word. For those who are a little down or need to reboot their spirits, this is a sanctuary where all faith can be restored.  “The power of Langston Hughes’ writing,” as musician Becky Bass stated, along with the inclusive community mentality, were ways in which the Langston Hughes Community Poetry Event is to be revered. There were 10 languages represented onstage, ages from one to ageless and dedicated teenagers who represented their age group with dignity and confidence, executive directors and teachers, visiting artists and families with small children and grandparents, donors and volunteers.

Emily Ruth Hazel talked about how “If you don’t show up, there will be an empty place” and the gentleness of being “swaddled” and how to “practice listening.” She writes about how she “waited to be chosen last” and about “high-profile and highly profiled.” She talked about America and how “you’re welcome here” and an “America still worth singing about.”

As in “Words Like Freedom,” by Langston Hughes, read by Sheila Jackson, it is in our best interest to read these poems, to talk about them, and to listen to them.

A Furtive Movement: The Use of Farce

55481ADB-E440-42F3-BCA3-A2B899492540Providence has the honor of hosting RISCA Play and Screenwriting Merit Award winner Vatic Tayari Kuumba as a resident — possibly a permanent one, according to Kuumba, who is dedicated to our little state. Kuumba has a prolific writing record — from school newspapers to award-winning rap competitions that send him all over the US. He also is the performance coordinator for AS220 Youth, and is working on a large body of work, in literary installations, for the stage.

Furtive Movement: The Use of Farce,  is the first in a series of what could be 10 productions from that large body that will portray the 21st century from 2000 until just before 2999. About this first movement, Kuumba explains, “A Furtive Movement: The Use of Farce is set in an alternate future that parallels our present, where over one thousand people are killed by the police every year, told from the perspective of one of the victims of the state, whose death inspired protest, riots and the formation of a black billionaire super PAC that funnels dark money.”  Furtive Movement: The Use of Farce will run June 7 and 8 at 7pm as part of PVD Fest, and Jun 10 at 4pm and 7pm at the Pell Chafee Performance Center, 87 Empire St, PVD.

FUTUREWORLDS 4: The Goddess, the Cat and the Trap House is a multidimensional performance that begins to tell the intertwining stories of three creatures developed by the young artists at AS220 Youth. As the story goes, each creature of god has played an integral role in destroying what human beings have created: systems of oppression. The evening takes place on June 9 from 5 – 10pm with the main show starting at 8:30pm. The main character of the CAT was created with guidance and support from BIG NAZO LAB.

ECAS Theatre Glamorously Introduces Mayor Elorza and PVD Fest 2018

0DA88C50-3BFB-45E8-AE0B-234FA73F7C07If you weren’t one of the hundred or so recently at the highly acclaimed ECAS Theatre, rubbing elbows with Mayor Elorza, Firstworks and PVD Fest’s 2017 grand marshall Francis Parra (and founder and executive artistic director of ECAS Theatre), surely you’ve heard about the big plans for PVD Fest 2018.

When Mayor Elorza took the microphone at the event, his enthusiasm was contagious. Because he stood on stage at a theater whose company consists of native Spanish speakers, Mayor Elorza conducted his PVD Fest announcements in Espanol. He relied on the promotional photo to emphasize the inclusivity of the event and the importance of it being free, and to express appreciation for the sponsors, who were named on the photo. If the humans featured in the photo were present, they might have felt special as Mayor Elorza pointed specifically to their expressions of pure elation. His most emphatic moment was when he called the audience to arms. He explained that there was a goal to break the Guinness Book of World Records by having the largest BACHATA dance event at sunset on the opening night of PVD Fest 2018, and he asked that everyone in the audience bring four friends. Mayor Elorza is absolutely gracious and eloquent in his public speaking.

Mayor Elorza introduced FirstWorks executive director, Kathleen Pletcher, in that gracious manner, saying that the City of Providence and FirstWorks arrived at the concept of PVD Fest at the same time and agreed to collaborate. Mayor Elorza congratulated Pletcher and FirstWorks  before Pletcher introduced the director of culture and tourism, Stephanie Fortunato. Fortunato emphasized the BACHATA challenge, the growth of the festival and the importance of spreading the word about the festival. She gave major air time to the talents of Lizzie Araujo, who has a legacy in Providence as a phenomenal organizer and producer.

ECAS Theatre, where the event took place, is currently in rehearsal for La Criolla, written by Melida Delgado and directed by Jhomphy Ventura. ECAS shows are frequently sold out to a standing ovation audience. For Rhode Island visitors and locals equally, ECAS Theatre is a haven for culture, class and kindness.

PVD Fest 2018 runs June 7 – 10, with the BACHATA Guiness World breaking event starting at sunset on June 7 in Kennedy Plaza.


Happy Birthday, Langston: The Community Celebrates with a Reading

(Photo (left to right): April Brown, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Bernadet Pitts-Wiley, Karen Allen Baxter, Angela Nash Wade. Photo Credit: Kathy Moyer)
(Photo (left to right): April Brown, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Bernadet Pitts-Wiley, Karen Allen Baxter, Angela Nash Wade. Photo Credit: Kathy Moyer)

It was Super Bowl Sunday, but the cool kids were hanging out at the Providence Public Library.

Sunday, February 4, marked the 23rd Annual Langston Hughes Community Poetry reading. All the way up on the third floor of the downtown library, there is a gorgeous auditorium that is especially toasty warm on a rainy, winter day. This is where hundreds of Langston Hughes fans gathered to celebrate his birthday. The cool kids were the total of 54 presenters and performers, including a three-piece jazz band.

Everything was a highlight, particularly the sapphire blue dress that must have been tailor made exclusively for April Brown, co-coordinator of this event (Kai Cameron is the other well-dressed co-coordinator). In fact, everyone seemed to be decked out in their Sunday best. Langston Hughes (born James Mercer Langston Hughes) would have been pleased. He also would have been 116 years old. There was birthday cake, but maybe that many candles weren’t allowed in the library. Most people weren’t there for the cake. The cake was frosting on the inspiration, wisdom and strength.

The event began with opening remarks, including informative words from guest scholar Dr. Renee T. White. She guided the audience through her understanding that calling Langston Hughes by just his first name was actually a sign of respect. Dr. White shared, “Langston helped me understand things my parents had said.” She paid him homage saying that after she discovered Langston Hughes, “…through Langston, I discovered myself.”

The program began with music and finished with music. Angela Nash Wade awakened the spirits of the upstairs library and brought the audience to its feet. A talented trio revered each and every presenter with reactive jazz. Daniel Ian Smith, John Baboian and Keala Kaumeheiwa provided the perfect jazz accents to Langston’s poetry. It was interesting to see all of the different ways in which the performers quickly negotiated and/or requested certain sounds before they read. At one point, 32nd on the program, Kaumeheiwa brought his acoustic bass to the podium. Langston probably would have loved this depiction of Dream Boogie.

Most of the presenters signed up exactly one year ago at the 22nd annual event. It was intriguing to see the different levels of familiarity that the audience had with the individual presenters. Forty poems were read with three additional special presentations. Dr. Renee T. White also shared a poem. The event was built into three separate sections: Speak Truth to Power, Let Your Motto Be Resistance, and Dream Variations.

Because most of the presenters were behind a podium and reading off the page, the live music and the vocal variations were distinguishing elements. Julia S. Jordan-Zachary flowed with the jazz. Yamil Baez took an animated approach. Yon Tande’s peacefully sparkling smile added depth to the poem “Man into Men.” John Baboian inserted a comedic spin. Catalina Martinez delivered the poem “Sweet Words on Race” regally and with a sharp level of energy. Sylvia Ann Soares, who received special cheers from the crowd, read “America” with a heightened level of seasoned commitment and grace. Rob Dimmick whispered “Aunt Sue’s Stories” like a lullaby to an onstage, colorfully clad Ramona Bass-Kolobe. When Karen Allen Baxter took the stage, there were shrieks in the audience. Her delivery of “Let America Be America Again” was polished with conviction. And Margaret Connell milked the words “warm manure” from “Un-American Investigators,” much to the delight of the giggling audience.

If there were a voice built just for the oration of Langston Hughes’ body of work, it might be Pell Award Winner Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. His voice carried the catharsis of the Harlem Renaissance with the power of the Civil Rights Movement. He was the guest performer, so he treated the audience to three impeccable deliveries of Langston Hughes’ work. As an added treat for the audience in the finale of the event, Pitts-Wiley invited the Mixed Magic Exult Choir to the stage. If there were a dry eye in the house after 44 profound poems, four intriguing speeches, and an exquisite jazz band, this beautiful choir was there to change that notion. “Give Us Your Peace” was personified in its glory by Pitts-Wiley and the Mixed Magic Exult Choir.

This program was made possible through the Providence Department of Art, Culture and Tourism, and a grant from the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities, an independent state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is just one of the hundreds of enchanting offerings by the Providence Public Library.

The Liar’s Contest by FUNDA Fest at Mixed Magic Theatre

Photo Credit: Dhana Whiteing of All About the Photos
Photo Credit: Dhana Whiteing of All About the Photos

For the 20th year, the RI Black Storytellers hosted and produced a Liar’s Competition on January 19 as part of FUNDA Fest, sometimes referred to as RIBS’ Fibs. The event was hosted by April Brown and Teju Ologboni, and played to a standing-room-only crowd at the Mixed Magic Theater at 560 Mineral Spring Ave in Pawtucket.

Many of the contestants were returning winners competing to add another trophy to their collection. Some participated in prior years and were still striving for a big win. Four judges (Dhana Whiteing, Raffini, Don Mays and Donna Osborne) were assigned the task of judging each performer by originality, creativity, the relative TALLNESS of their TALL tale, delivery and audience response (which counted for 30% of the score). Half of the judges stated for the record that the scores were very close to one another at the end of the night.

After April Brown and Teju did some housekeeping with endlessly sharp banter, visiting poet Ilene Evans graced the stage, followed by Teju’s opening story (was it truth or was it a lie?) about jazz and Fifi La Femme. The rules were explained and the 20th Liar’s Competition began.

One by one, contestants took command of the room. Many of the lies seemed outrageous and credible at the same time. Each lie was unique and each performer was skilled at delivering a fine lie.

Catalina Martinez began the evening telling about her Grandmother Dulce from Cuba who used to soak her teeth in holy water. Martinez attested that she knew, for a fact, that this was true because it was Martinez, at a young age, who used to go to the church and steal the holy water herself.  This wasn’t that far-fetched, yet the audience knew that some or all of it was a lie. This first story about Agua de Dulce was so well-received, that one had to wonder if it might have won for best lie if it hadn’t gone just a little bit over the 5-minute mark (scores were dropped 5 points for every minute over). Martinez provided a phenomenal jumpstart into a fast-paced evening.

From there, one of the winners from last year, Josh, announced that he was going to tell the truth because lying didn’t work for him. His tale of wearing his Batman onesie with a cape to do the polar plunge escalated to the question, “How can I get everything wet without getting everything wet?”

Paul Hossfield, a retired engineer, began his lie by saying that he was God.

April Brown kept the audience on its toes with clever quips. She introduced the next act reading off the card, “He says he is young at heart. Now, see, that’s something men say.” Mark Binder then shared the very believable story about Old Scratch Nichols and the Bloated Chicken Challenge. This story brought the audience to knee slapping and tambourine playing when they heard about a three-times dead politician who had to be killed by a taxidermist (and others) to enhance his work ethic.

Rusty Monty told a story about gold digging before and after the Civil War.

The youngest liar of the group was 14-year-old Haley Roche. She was overheard telling an audience member that her account of making one friend on the bus and not being weird or awkward in the 3rd grade was true. She held her own on stage and it seemed like a lie that it was her first time on the Liar’s Contest stage.

When Marvin Novogrodski took the stage carrying a rolled-up brown paper bag, one of the good-hearted hecklers called out, “He brought dinner!” Little did the audience know, the bag was filled with underwear. His lie involved meeting up with FUNDA Fest creator, Valerie Tutson, sharing coffee and ideas, and ultimately agreeing to sell signed underwear from all of the various and talented RI Black Story Tellers. It didn’t seem like a lie that they agreed that the underwear be clean, as he stated. During his brief (as it were) 5 minutes, Novogrodski pulled out allegedly signed tightie whities such as, “Put some Tutson on your butson. Love, Val” and “Put this on your ass. Love, Ramona Bass.” All of this lie seemed like a logical way to subsidize FUNDA Fest. Who wouldn’t buy a fancy pink undergarment signed, “I like them teeny. Love, Raffini”?

Next on the bill was Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. With his purple voice and his engaging physicality, it was easy to forget this was a contest. Pitts-Wiley is the kind of performer who does not lie on stage. Perhaps he was just telling someone else’s truth. He and Bernadet Pitts-Wiley are the founders of Mixed Magic Theatre, a haven of integrity and reliably engaging programming.

Burr Harrison entered the stage in an argyle sweater, taped-up glasses and hiked-up jeans. He delivered his lie in a high-pitched voice. It made one wonder if the words were true, but the delivery was a lie, or if Burr blurred the lies together.

Cassandra Cato-Louis, author of How to Marry a Black Man, skillfully tricked the audience in her account about how her mother never met Isaac Hayes.

Then Jim Roche, who may or may not have worked on Wall Street, told a story about his encounter with someone who turned out to be an international spy … maybe.

Once all of the contestants finished, Masankho Banda performed a bonus story. He is a visiting story teller for the FUNDA Fest, and one of the many talented presenters over the last couple of weeks.

Then there was a raffle. The top three winners were announced. Third place went to Mark Binder, second place to Marvin Novogrodski (who flung his prop underwear to enchanted audience members en route to his prize), and first place was awarded to Burr Harrison.

Audience members chatted enthusiastically afterward. They enjoyed the lovely Mixed Magic Theatre space and discussed their plans for upcoming FUNDA Fest events. One might expect a review to limit itself to the highlights of an event, but with FUNDA Fest, every single offering is a highlight.