The rich tapestry of the human experience and condition cannot possibly be told through one lens and when it has, far more people have been left out than have ever been included,” shares Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, one of many Black artists and organizers engaging in the meaningful work of telling and uplifting voices that have been historically erased. For Pitts-Wiley, inclusive theater and photography are two means of carving out spaces for diversity.
“We tell the stories of African-American achievement and accomplishment in Rhode Island, which sadly many people are unaware of,” says Robb Dimmick, program director of Stages of Freedom. “Rhode Island is seen as this little state, of course the smallest state in the union, and that nothing much happened here, which is completely untrue.”
Black History Month marks a time to reflect for many, and to listen for those who may be less attuned to Providence’s rich yet often little-known Black history and art. Organizations like Stages of Freedom, Rhode Island Black Storytellers, Mixed Magic Theatre, and The Vanta Guild offer a glimpse of what these performers, artists, and historians are cultivating in the community.
This month marks a big moment for Dimmick and executive director Ray Rickman as they prepare to open the new iteration of the Stages of Freedom museum at their Westminster Street location. The former version of this was a boutique museum with 20 percent museum space and 80 percent a shop filled with art, collectibles, and books on Black art, history, and culture. Now, with a reversed floor plan dedicating 80 percent to exhibit space, it will be the only museum of its kind in Providence, showcasing Black history and accomplishments.
“This is exciting work we’re undertaking, and all the history is not ancient. People think Black history, that we’re gonna be talking just about slavery,” shares Rickman. “But Black folks were here early and involved in every aspect of Rhode Island’s society, from building the farms in South County to building University Hall at Brown.”
Since its founding in 2016, Stages of Freedom has hosted a variety of events and programs, beginning with the Swimming Empowerment Program (which the shop helped raise funds for), providing free swimming lessons to Black children in response to the alarming statistic of Black children being five times more likely to die from drowning than white children.
Their mission also involves unearthing Black stories that were not
given space before. “For example, the National Conflict we did on Sisaretta Jones, an African-American opera diva who grew up on the East Side and retired there after completing a stellar international career,” explains Dimmick. “We were able to get a posthumous, very posthumous obituary in The New York Times because she died completely unrecognized. We were involved in getting her included in the Unladylike series that was done on PBS, and we got a headstone on a grave, [in the] absence of any kind of recognition of her burial for 85 years.”
Rickman and Dimmick are also involved in work within the City, such as changing the name of Magee Street, named for a slave trader, to Bannister Street after prolific Black painter and founder of Providence Art Club, Edward Bannister, and wife Christiana Carteaux, an entrepreneur and abolitionist.
Looking ahead to the new museum, Rickman anticipates an expansion of their programming with monthly exhibits, including one in March featuring a portrait of Rebecca Howard, an African-American woman from the 1880s. “Before the 1970s, there were virtually no positive images of Black people, every stereotype – negative, evil looking – making Black people look like buffoons,” says Rickman. “So a positive painting of an angelic Black woman in 1883 is unheard of.”
“We define ‘Black storytelling’ as the oral art and traditions of African-descended people around the world,” explains Valerie Tutson, a storyteller and co-founder of Rhode Island Black Storytellers (RIBS), a nonprofit championing Black voices through performances, education, and cultural experiences. “Basically, what that means is we love to support and present and nurture Black stories and Black storytellers for all people.”
RIBS is now in its 24th year, though the time of its founding was an exciting one for Tutson. “There was a big renaissance of storytelling kind of across the country. As people were looking at how storytelling was important for literacy and cultural preservation, we were also aware that in larger places and spaces, you might have just one Black voice,” explains Tutson, who was inspired by a national Black storytelling festival she attended. “I wanted Rhode Island to have that, and I wanted the children in Rhode Island to experience that.”
Along with Tutson, local performers Len Cabral, Marlon Carey, Rochel Coleman, Ramona Bass Kolobe, Linda and Sumner McClain, and
V. Raffini are joined by storytellers from around the world for their annual Funda Fest. Both last year and this, the event went virtual due to COVID. “What that meant for us last year was that we were able to reach nearly 10,000 people all over the world, literally. We had storytellers from all over the world… That’s one of the great things about being able to do that.”
RIBS hosts other programming year round, including workshops, school performances, and camps for kids, along with storytelling training for interested adult volunteers.
“This is not common in our public schools in the state of Rhode Island,” says Tutson. “It’s not common that [children] have access to Black professional artists who are sharing Black traditional tales, folklore, history, from a Black perspective, and we know that that is important, not just for the kids, but for the teachers who are struggling to find ways to bring in different points of view and different aspects of history.”
RIBS welcomes community involvement and is dedicated to uplifting fellow artists. “We recognize that the Black story is a part of the American story, is a part of the world story, is a part of the human story,” says Tutson. “Whenever you know your own story, you can stand straighter and taller and you can look anybody in the eye and be able to hear their story as well.”
Mixed Magic Theatre was founded in 2000 by Ricardo and Bernadet Pitts-Wiley, who are known for the active roles they’ve played in performing arts and arts activism in Rhode Island over the years. Since its founding, the Pawtucket theater has flourished, providing a mixture of original programming and well-known works of theater and music.
“Inspired to tell the untold and under-told stories of the African-American diaspora and beyond, the mission of the theater has always been to ‘first think diverse’ while building more literate, arts-active communities,” says Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, artistic director and son of Ricardo and Bernadet. “This embrace of diversity includes but is not limited to bringing together artists of different races, classes, gender, and sexual identities and, perhaps most importantly, generations.”
Mixed Magic Theatre also produces and hosts numerous cultural events and programming that align with its mission.
“Like many, we pivoted to digital programming early and we like to think we’ve been largely successful in doing so because we embraced the unknown aspects of stepping into the digital realm and didn’t spend much time lamenting the fact that it wasn’t the live experience,” says Pitts-Wiley. “This was something new to us and it opened up a great many possibilities for us that are not pandemic-dependent.”
Also a photographer, Pitts-Wiley saw another opportunity amid the pandemic when he and Dee Speaks teamed up to found The Vanta Guild during spring 2020.
“The mission of The Vanta Guild is to create community amongst Black photographers,” says Speaks, who notes feelings of not belonging in traditional photography circles. “In this community, we strive to celebrate and depict the experiences and imaginations of those of the African diaspora, unapologetically,” through hosting collaborative meetups focusing on different elements of the craft, whether portraiture or street photography.
“Although the pandemic has presented some challenges, we still found and continue to find ways to create and share our work with the public,” shares Speaks. “We’ve hosted photography meetups outdoors and we’ve had our work on display at The Waterfire Arts Center, Barrington Public Library, and The Gamm Theatre.”
Speaks emphasizes the importance of documenting Black experiences through art. “It really comes down to not wanting visual (and other) narratives only created and shaped by others,” she says. “To lean a bit into the Kwanzaa principle of Kujichagulia, we’re determined to define ourselves, speak for ourselves, and create for ourselves.”
“Oftentimes, those who bristle at the notion of diversity do so because acknowledging the stories and truths of other people necessitates a measure of reflection and accountability,” shares Pitts-Wiley. “For people like this, that’s work they’re unwilling to do, which is truly unfortunate because they’re denying themselves immeasurable beauty and hurting other people while doing so. To tell diverse stories is to not only be in the presence of beauty but is also to engage in righteous and necessary rebellion.”
Haus of Glitter, a BIPOC and queer-affirming feminist dance company, is leading a historic intervention. The company has been living and creating in the historic home of slave ship commander Esek Hopkins for two years through a Park-ist Artist Residency with the Providence Parks Department and the Providence Department of Art, Culture + Tourism. Now, Haus of Glitter is campaigning for community-centered reconciliation and transformation of three memorials dedicated to Hopkins: his home, his statue on Branch Avenue (on a pedestal paid for by the City of Providence), and the public middle school in his name. Haus of Glitter is submitting a community proposal in March to the Providence Special Committee for the Review of Commemorative Works to transform these spaces in a way that is reconciliatory, empowering, creative, and care-centered. To learn more or support this project, visit HealEsekHopkins.com
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