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Celebration and reflection
The Savannah Black Heritage Festival brings culture, community and history together
Actor Avery Brooks

February is Black History Month in the United States, and in Savannah that means three weeks of events encompassing arts and music, community, education and more.

“We seek to find that balance, definitely,” says Shirley B. James, coordinator of Savannah’s  Black Heritage Festival. “We do want to make sure it’s still a cultural arts activity, but on the other hand we want it to be educational, and we want as much community involvement as we can have.”

Our 23rd annual Black Heritage Festival is co–sponsored by the City of Savannah and Savannah State University.

One of the most notable arts events takes place this week – a performance (in the Johnny Mercer Theatre) by the Atlanta–based Ballethnic Dance Company. That’s Friday (Feb. 3); the group will spend that morning touring public schools in the area.

On Feb. 11, Grand Festival Day features a health fair, a program on black businesses, children’s book readings, a history exhibition, workshops, a crafts village and lots and lots of entertainment, all in the Savannah Civic Center complex.

Headliners are the jazz group Five Men on a Stool, and the neo–soul vocalist Kwele, who performed with Kanye West on the 2010 single “Power.”

“Our committee is made up of inter–generational groups,” James explains, “so when we’re trying to get the main entertainment for that Saturday we look for someone who might be interesting to a younger set of people, and then somebody for a more mature audience. So we try to have that kind of mix.

“So when it comes to someone like Dwele, that decision I kind of yielded to the younger person on the committee!”

And then there’s this: Actor Avery Brooks (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The Big Hit, American History X) will play Ira Aldridge, a Shakespearean actor – and an African American pioneer – who rose to fame in Great Britain in the 19th Century. Ira Aldridge – The African Roscius was written by, and co–stars, Jewell Robinson, a producer with the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. as part of its Cultures in Motion series. It’s scheduled to be performed at both Savannah State and at Armstrong Atlantic State University.

In 2011, Robinson brought Words Between Two Reformers: Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt to Savannah.

“I met Jewell last year, and found out that she writes these pieces every year based on persons they’ve done research on in the National Portrait Gallery,” James reports. “She features a different African American each year, and they do that performance in Washington.

“And then she said ‘Ira Aldridge,’ and I said ‘Let’s see if we can work it and bring it to Savannah again.”

All events are free and open to the public. To view the complete schedule go to

Arts and entertainment highlights

Wednesday, Feb. 1

SCAD Museum of Art

7 p.m.: Dr. Walter O. Evans, one of the world's foremost collectors of African American art, shares photos and insights into his renowned collection, followed by a personal tour of the 35 pieces on view in the museum.

Friday, Feb. 3

Johnny Mercer Theatre

7:30 p.m.: Ballethnic Dance Company in performance. Advance tickets (free) are required

Sunday, Feb. 5

Beach Institute African- American Cultural Center

3 p.m.: Opening Reception and Visual Arts Exhibition for "Journeys, Passages and Transitions," works by women of the National Alliance of Artists from Historical Black Colleges and Universities. The juried exhibition will be on display until March 5.

Wednesday, Feb. 8

SSU Kennedy Fine Arts Theatre

8 p.m.: August Wilson's play Jitney

Saturday, Feb. 11

Grand Festival Day at the Savannah Civic Center


11 a.m.-6 p.m.: Sankofa African-American Museum on Wheels. Curated by Angela Jennings, this is a unique display of historical artifacts, which also focuses on Ida B. Wells, the Negro Baseball League, the Tuskegee Airmen Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other important figures.

1-2:30 p.m. Local Authors Corner. Discussions, advice a book-signing.

1-3:30 p.m. Children's Reading Circle. Author and playwright Calvin Ramsey and illustrator/publisher Janice Shay read from their books on "unknown pages in African American history."

3:30 p.m.: Ribbon-cutting ceremony and local performers (MLK Arena)

4 p.m.: Youth Talent Extravaganza

6 p.m.: Concerts begin with local performers

7 p.m.: Dwele

8 p.m.: Five Men on a Stool

Sunday, Feb. 12

At St. John Baptist Church

Time TBA: Gospel concert with Lucinda Moore, SSU Weslyan Gospel Choir and others

Monday, Feb. 13

At Jewish Educational Alliance

7:30 p.m. "The Future of Jazz - Now Realized." Concert with Stan Wilkerson, trombone and vocals, with Teddy Adams and young Savannah musicians.

Wednesday, Feb. 15

Location TBA

11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.: Film screening: At the River I Stand, documentary about the last two months in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Saturday, Feb. 18

7 p.m. Ira Aldridge - The African Roscius. Actor Avery Brooks in a portrayal of the 19th century Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. AASU Fine Arts Center

12 p.m.: Spoken Word Tribute to Clinton D. Powell at the Savannah Book Festival Free Speech Tent.

4 p.m.: Film screening: GA 2 DC. Tony Byrd's documentary about Georgia students on a visit to Washington. Followed by a Q & A with the director. At First African Baptist Church.

2 p.m.: "Dem Fish, Dey's Biting" - The Fourth Annual Festival "Gathering." Presented in part by the SSU-NOAA) African American Oral History Project, with storytelling, demonstrations and recipe tastings focusing on families and descendants of African Americans in the fisheries along the Georgia coast. Location TBA.

Sunday, Feb 19

3 p.m.: Ira Aldridge - The African Roscius. Actor Avery Brooks in a portrayal of the 19th century artist Ira Aldridge, at SSU Kennedy Fine Arts Auditorium.

5 p.m.: "How I Got Over: Remembering Our Stories of Faith, Resistance and Freedom." Storyteller Lillian Grant-Baptiste and the historical Second African Baptist "Inspirational Voices" Choir with storytelling, music and folklore. Second African Baptist Church.

Thursday, Feb. 23

Trustees Theater

7 p.m.: SCAD honors conceptual artist Fred Wilson, who'll give a public talk regarding his artistic intervention into the Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art at the SCAD Museum.