As the nation reflects on the “20 and odd” Africans who were first sold at the Jamestown colony in August 1619, an experimental tribute to one of the least-known aspects of the African-American experience is preparing to debut at Ashe Cultural Arts Center on Sunday, August 25 at 4 pm.
“Maroon Messengers Calling: Past, Present & Beyond” is a mixed-media performance installation featuring spoken word by visiting artist Deidre “CreativeSoul” Gantt and special guest Chuck Perkins; visual art by Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Maroon Queen of Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society; original music by Nkem Big Chief Brian-Michael Harrison Nelson, and a musical ensemble consisting of the Mardi Gras Indian Collective, Young Guardians of the Flame and Congo Kids, who will close the show with a performance in full suited Mardi Gras Indian attire.
“Most people are familiar with the underground railroad stories of enslaved Africans who ran away to the Northern states and Canada,” says Gantt, a poet and playwright from Washington, DC, who spent this summer as an artist-in-residence with Guardians of the Flame. “The Maroons ran from slavery too, but they chose to exit American society altogether. They created hidden communities all over North America, the Caribbean, and South America in hills, swamps, bayous, and other remote, dangerous terrain where slave catchers feared to tread. But the history books hardly ever mention them.”
The Historic Jamestown site was one of several sites the creative team visited in preparation for the project. They also spent time at Destrehan Plantation in Louisiana and in the Great Dismal Swamp along the Virginia-North Carolina border, where up to 30,000 runaways and Maroons are believed to have sought refuge during a 100-year period before the Civil War.
The result is a tapestry that weaves together dress art, narrative beadwork, photography, singing, drumming, poetry from the imagined point of view of a Maroon, and storytelling about Harrison’s actual family experiences from the theft of her great-great grandfather from near Richmond, Virginia, and his sale to Louisiana planters through four generations of immersion in New Orleans’ Black Masking Indian tradition and present-day identity as a Contemporary Urban Maroon.
This project is made possible, in part, through a grant from the Network of Ensemble Theaters’ Travel & Exchange Network (NET/TEN), supported by lead funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Additional support is provided by Ashé Cultural Arts Center, Positive Vibrations Foundation, Arts Council of New Orleans and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation.