Online variety show Arts Unite Windham to benefit local social justice organizations

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After months of not performing in front of a live audience due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Samirah Evans has been given what she described as two meaningful opportunities in a brief period.

The first was a private show for a local centenarian.

"I've only performed one time since March 1, and that was just this past weekend, playing for a 103-year-old Black woman in our community," said Evans, who is African American.

The second opportunity, her first in a concert setting, takes place this Sunday, when the singer known for a soulful approach to jazz and blues is the opening act for Arts Unite Windham, a new, online variety show organized by local arts organizations as a fundraiser for the Windham County chapter of the NAACP and The Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro. The event will take place from 4 to 8 p.m. across the seven participating venues and be livestreamed via YouTube. Audiences will have an option to donate online.

Evans, of Brattleboro, said she is pleased to be part of an event in which local arts organizations are taking a stand.

"I'm really moved by the heightened awareness that has resurrected in our community and in our world in regards to the inequities of African American people and people of color," she said. "This is such a meaningful way to return back to what I love to do the most."

Arts Unite Windham, produced by Next Stage Arts Project, features performances at Next Stage and Sandglass Theater in Putney and New England Center for Circus Arts, the Brattleboro Music Center, New England Youth Theatre, the Vermont Jazz Center and the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro.

Keith Marks, executive director of Next Stage, said he had been envisioning a collaborative event for Windham County arts organizations, and the idea for Arts Unite Windham came about through discussions with his colleagues. He said he had initially planned the event to be a benefit for local arts organizations, but changed his focus in response to the current social climate.

"We felt it was more important to speak to the moment, and through a series of conversations, everybody agreed we needed to focus on something larger than ourselves," Marks said. "It's not just about money; it's about awareness."

Evans will perform at Next Stage, accompanied by New England musicians Franz Robert on piano, Ron Smith on bass and his son, Jacob Smith, on drums. She said the event is an opportunity for "everybody to make some changes of the heart and mind."

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Also performing at Next Stage will be Moxie, an indie rock band from Brattleboro.

Steffen Gillom, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said he appreciates the willingness to strengthen the bond between arts and justice.

"Organizations such as the NAACP have historically fought for equity and better treatment for people of color for over 100 years," Gillom said in an email. "This long-lasting type of activism is only sustainable via community support and awareness. Increased awareness and funds help people who may be unable to directly participate feel more connected to that fight. Black and brown people and their white allies put their bodies on the line every day in the fight for justice and this fight is far from over. We need the community and the community needs us."

Tara O'Brien, spokeswoman for The Root Social Justice Center, expressed gratitude to organizers of Arts Unite Windham.

"Arts and music have always been a way for both artists and activists to express complex ideas and feelings about what our communities are experiencing. Now, especially with the current social climate and uprisings we are seeing throughout the country — and in this region — the timing couldn't be better for an event for folks to come together and support social justice organizations," she wrote in an email.

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She said funds from the event will support the center's Mutual Aid Support Network, which she said is one of the only mutual aid networks centered on the needs, resources and abilities of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) in Vermont.

Jon Potter, executive director of the Latchis Theatre, said his venue will show a prerecorded tribute to the Latchis and to theaters in general, featuring murals painted on the walls of the theater. He said the tribute speaks to the role of theaters in a community, and the responsibility of residents to be good stewards of their local theaters.

"We think it's a very powerful story and a very apt one and of course, we're just thrilled to be with our colleagues in the arts as part of this event," he said.

Separate from Arts Unite Windham, in honor of the late congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, the theater will show "John Lewis: Good Trouble," this weekend, with showtimes at 7:15 p.m. Friday, 3:15 and 7:15 p.m. Saturday and at 3:15 p.m. Sunday.

"As an organization, we are committed to reviewing everything we do through lenses of equity and racial and social justice and make sure we're a better organization for having done all this," Potter said. "We're quite honored to be standing with all of our colleagues in the arts for this event."

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Jamie Hodgson, executive director of New England Center for Circus Arts, said she couldn't pass up a chance to join forces with her colleagues in the arts while supporting social justice.

"For us, it was a win-win," she said.

For Arts Unite Windham, three of the center's staff members will perform on three different apparatus: Casey Haynes on Cyr wheel, Erika Radcliffe on rope and Cheya Potter on Chinese Pole. In keeping with social distancing guidelines, they will perform across the room from each other and everyone in the space will wear masks, Hodgson said.

Brattleboro Music Center will host two performances. The first will showcase the work of composer, violinist and educator Jessie Montgomery, and the second will feature Kathy Andrew and Michelle Liechti on violin and cellist Zon Eastes performing the first two movements of Bach's Trio Sonata in G Major. They will be joined by special guest performer and music center alum Oliver Greene-Cramer, currently a member of Ballet Austin. He has created a new work for Arts Unite Windham.

"Especially now, arts organizations have a vital responsibility not only to stand against hatred and racial injustice but also to be agents for change," Brattleboro Music Center Executive Director Mary Greene said in a statement. "The BMC is honored to be a part of this event."

Vermont Jazz Center will host performances by Eugene Uman and Julian Gerstin from 4:40 to 4:50 p.m., Uman and Rob Freeberg from 4:50 to 5 p.m. and Franz Robert on solo piano at 6:50.

Dana Haley, a faculty member and spokeswoman for New England Youth Theatre, said the venue will host three acts during Arts Unite Windham. One is a snippet of the organization's intensive musical theater class, she said.

"We are so humbled and proud to be part of this," she wrote in an email. "Our community is such an incredible force of determination, creativity and innovation."

The first performance at Sandglass Theater will feature a crankie — a story told on a handmade scroll — and "Give Me One More Day," a song by David Surette. A second piece, "When I Put On Your Glove," originally created by Sandglass cofounder Eric Bass, will be performed by his daughter, co-artistic director Shoshana Bass.

"There is so much about this event that is important right now," Shoshana Bass said in an email. "1. That we feel our community and continue to cultivate connectedness the best we can right now; 2. That we acknowledge the importance of the arts and culture in Southern Vermont in terms of our mental, physical and economic health; and 3. That we remain focused on advocating for social and racial justice, and creating safer spaces in which to do so."


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