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Photo by Linda Middleton

Fort Worth has a long and uneven history of reflecting Black culture through the fine and cultural arts. Jubilee Theatre has been a theatrical stalwart in that effort for 40 years, but it has only been in the past few years that prominent arts directors like Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Keith Cerny have announced long-term commitments to Black representation (whether through repertoire or performing artists) at local cultural events.

That effort gained momentum with the hiring of Fort Worth Opera general director Afton Battle last fall (“Afton Battle Named Fort Worth Opera General Director,” Sept. 2020). Battle is one of the few Black women serving in a prominent leadership position at a U.S. opera company. Around the time Battle joined FWO with the goal of making the company the “people’s opera,” the Tarrant County Pearls Chapter of The Society, Incorporated (a national Black women-led nonprofit dedicated to supporting youth through the arts) was formed.

Afton Battle: “I do not need or want someone who is not Black to direct me and others on how to express their Blackness.”
Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

Battle and Kristin Wright (who co-founded the local Tarrant County Pearls) soon met, and the two groups are partnering on an upcoming virtual program — A Night of Black Excellence — to celebrate Black History Month through dance, song, spoken word, and numerous performances.

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“The collaboration started organically,” Battle said. “I met Jennifer when I arrived in Fort Worth. She spoke about the Pearls Incorporated and their mission to support the arts and to uplift creatives in Fort Worth. It just made perfect sense for us to find a way to collaborate. I wanted to be mindful about what we were collaborating on so it was something that resonated with their mission and was impactful on our community. As I started thinking about what Fort Worth Opera was going to do for Black History Month and the celebration of Black heritage, it seemed natural for us to talk about a partnership with the Tarrant County Pearls. That’s how we started.”

“A Night of Black Excellence was born out of my sheer desire to celebrate my heritage and culture and those who bring their talents and resources to the arts and cultural landscape,” Battle said. “There are so many voices.”

The Sunday, Feb. 21 virtual concert will feature local and internationally renowned artists, including tenor Cameo Humes, baritone Jorell Williams, soprano Karen Slack, soprano Nicole Heaston, and other musicians. Beyond showcasing Black operatic singers, the livestreamed evening will showcase spoken word artist Leslie N. Polk who will be accompanied by Dallas-based Mondo Drummers. Amphibian Stage’s Tad-Poles Stilt Dancing Program and the Houston-based pop string quartet Amp’d Quartet will also be a part of the program.

Beyond presenting Black performers, Battle said it was important to work with an all-Black staging and directorial crew, which was one reason why the opera director did not stage the concert at Bass Performance Hall.

Working with an entirely Black production crew was important, Battle said, because the idea was to create an “ecosystem of Black individuals who do more than just the status quo. It’s important for our community to see representation of themselves on and off the stage. Black individuals who are creative are often not given a platform to create their art. These individuals deserve the same chances and opportunities that their white counterparts receive often just by knowing someone in the industry.”

Photo by Linda Middleton

Tarrant County Pearls and former FWO board member Jennifer Brooks said she applauds Battle “for what she is doing to get the community involved,” she said. “She is taking the opera company where it has not been before. I can tell that 20 years ago, one of the things that we were trying to do was to educate. With Afton, all areas of this community will be engaged with the African American community.”

Tarrant County Pearls member Marnese Elder said her nonprofit’s aim is to support Battle and anyone who is championing Black culture through the arts.

“The Black community is elated” about the program, Elder said. “They are excited to expose themselves to something that they have not been exposed to before. They are looking forward to seeing the talent. Our focus is to promote and support everywhere we can. It is a great calling. We are so excited about this relationship and what it will bring to those who can see the importance of opera.”

The Tarrant County Pearls will engage the local community along several fronts. The local chapter of The Society recently awarded two students (one from Mansfield High School and one from I.M. Terrell Academy) as part of the program Art as Activism: Can a Poster Change the World.

Tarrant County Pearls president Kristin Wright said the idea was to show students how art can express activism. Beyond receiving a monetary award, the winning artworks will be placed in the East Side’s Black Coffee store in the near future.

“We hope to share with youths in our community that the arts are a medium of expression beyond color and painting,” she said. “We would like to cultivate their creative curiosity into career exploration and a lifelong passion for the arts.”

Often, presentations of Black music are watered down to spirituals, Battle said.

“While that is a part of our musical culture, there are an enormous number of art songs that are written by Black composers,” she said. “I hope this program will enlighten folks with the sheer flexibility and depth of not only Black singers but also the depth of music that is written by Black composers. We are excited and proud of the representation of the local community that is part of this program.

This is why I chose to produce this concert in-house. I wanted complete ownership of this event and for it to be Black-owned. I do not need or want someone who is not Black to direct me and others on how to express their Blackness.”

Patrons can purchase tickets and view the concert at FWOpera.org/Green-Room.

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