Art and the African Diaspora: Five SFIAF artists feature Black culture

Jessica-La-Rel-web, Art and the African Diaspora: Five SFIAF artists feature Black culture, Culture Currents
Jessica La Rel

by Tyler Jeffreys

Five artists who identify with the African Diaspora are presenting work at this year’s San Francisco International Arts Festival that takes place at the Fort Mason Center from May 23 to June 2. In interviews with the San Francisco Bay View, they each go into detail about how their respective projects shed light on and teach about the myriad legacies of the Diaspora.

Through song, dance and theatre, the five artists articulate their truths reflecting on their perspectives as African descendent people continuing to adapt to their Western homes and the ongoing legacy of the transatlantic slave trade from the 16th to 19th centuries that created the Diaspora.

Jessica Lá Rel

“War Love” May 23, 8:30 p.m., Gallery 308 – festival opening night welcome to follow

Jessica Lá Rel, an accomplished musician, brings her new album “War Love” to life at the festival. She deems it “cinematic soul,” a blend of theatre, jazz, gospel and funk, with a soul foundation. The album tells a story and reimagines who we can be rather than who people say we are. It dares us to “unearth our worth.”

Jessica graduated from Stanford University with a degree in African-American/Black Studies. At Stanford, she co-founded an Afro-Jazz fusion group called The Chicago Collective – named for Jessica’s hometown.

As part of her degree program, Jessica taught in Cape Town, South Africa, for four months. She reports feeling more connected to the land than she thought she would: “Lots of the countries question the validity of immigrants,” just like America tends to. “I didn’t feel like I didn’t belong [in Africa].” Jessica says her ancestry goes deeper than biology – her ancestors are any and everybody who paved a way for her to work. Issues due to differences appear all over the world.

“War Love” faces these issues head on with explicit advocacy for Black culture. She fully accepts her role as an “ancestor in the making.” You’ll hear it in her drum-centric, jazzy song “Home Above Water.”

Miriam Araya

SFIAF-‘Us-in-the-U.S.’-performs-Miriam-Araya’s-‘Shifts-in-Consciousness’-0519-web, Art and the African Diaspora: Five SFIAF artists feature Black culture, Culture Currents
Miriam Araya’s ensemble, “Us in the U.S.,” performed her award-winning “CSU Ferguson.” They are continuing her work through “Shifts in Consciousness.”

“Shifts in Consciousness” May 24, 7:00 p.m., and May 26, 6:30 p.m., Southside Theater

Miriam Araya is a Bay Area native. She is the director of “Shifts in Consciousness,” presented by an ensemble of artists calling themselves “Us in the U.S.” They will premiere their work at this year’s festival! The performance consists of pieces written and choreographed by the cast. “It’s a process, not a production,” Miriam says.

The cast is coming together to shift their mentalities away from stereotypes and institutionalized labels. The show touches on toxic media, police brutality, systemic oppression and how to resist it all. Miriam hopes audience members will shift their consciousness as well, in order to be more empathetic when considering the suffering of an emerging generation.  

Miriam has been in theatre since middle school, but went on to graduate from CSU East Bay with a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. She recently graduated from San Jose State with a Masters in Justice Studies and is starting her PhD in Justice Studies at Arizona State this fall. The other members of “Us in the U.S.” call her “Miriam X.”

Miriam found her way to theatre by directing the award-winning “CSU Ferguson,” continuing her work through “Shifts in Consciousness.” Some of the artists in “Shifts in Consciousness” will use the space to find their connection to Africa again.

Miriam says she deals with the pain of missing Mother Africa every day, especially when she speaks English. She knows it’s not her native language. Her father lives in Eritrea along with other family, but she has never met them. She works on healing herself daily, and declares theatre a therapy for everyone. Miriam says, “This show will change people. It’s already changed me.”

Brian Copeland

Brian-Copeland, Art and the African Diaspora: Five SFIAF artists feature Black culture, Culture Currents
Brian Copeland

“The Waiting Period” May 25, 8:00 p.m., Southside Theater

The award-winning actor, comedian, author and radio talk show host Brian Copeland will be performing his hit show “The Waiting Period” at no cost to the public. The show is sponsored by Summit Bank as a way to support Brian’s quest to draw attention to the epidemics of depression and suicide in the United States.

It is a subject close to home for Brian. Even with his show business career advancing, he began to have suicidal thoughts in 2008. “The Waiting Period” offers up Brian’s story of depression with humor and sincerity. “This show saves lives!” he claims.

A woman once told him she flipped a coin, one side: she goes to see “The Waiting Period,” the other side: she jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. The fate of the flip brought her to the theatre. Later that night after the show, she claims he saved her life.

Depression shows up in the Black community through homicide as much as through suicide. Brian theorizes that our homicide is actually suicide: We are killing ourselves. Or we participate in high risk activities in gangs and turf wars – even though we don’t own the land. These high-risk crimes are also symptoms of depression. He says, “Our disconnect from Africa makes us the gullible part of Africa.”

“The Waiting Period” won the 2015 Theatre Bay Area Outstanding Production of a Solo Show Award. Brian considers his festival show to be free education, therapy and entertainment all rolled into one. He says, “Come see ‘The Waiting Period.’ The worst thing that can happen is you’ll be entertained for 75 minutes.”

People are encouraged to bring loved ones they may be worried about, or those who need help asking for help.

 Mestra Cigarra (Márcia Treidler)

SFIAF-ABADA-Copoeira-0519-web, Art and the African Diaspora: Five SFIAF artists feature Black culture, Culture Currents
Presentation for SFIAF is “Spirit of Brazil 2019.”

“Spirit of Brazil 2019” May 31, 7:00 p.m., and June 2, 2:00 p.m., Gallery 308

Mestra Cigarra is the founder and artistic director of ABADÁ-Capoeira San Francisco. ABADÁ’s festival presentation is “Spirit of Brazil 2019.” The show features song, dance, acrobatics and, of course, capoeira: the Afro-Brazilian martial art form that incorporates acrobatics, dance, percussion and songs in a rhythmic dialogue of body, mind and spirit.

Originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Mestra Cigarra breathes history lessons into her shows. Capoeira stems from African slaves in Brazil who disguised martial arts as dance. After slavery was abolished in 1888, capoeira became illegal for over 40 years. The dangerous secret helped Africans defend themselves against Portuguese colonists and was passed through the generations, becoming tradition.

Mestra Cigarra offers us a cultural blend of enslaved Africans, Brazilian indigenous peoples and Portuguese immigrants: the art of capoeira. “Spirit of Brazil 2019” will deliver groundbreaking rhythms and powerful movements that reveal the history and spirit of resistance to oppression. Come celebrate! ¡Venha celebrar!

Mestra Cigarra is one of the top eight capoeiristas out of more than 50,000 international ABADÁ-Capoeira members. She says Brazil is in touch with her African mother, and “it would be great to have more African-American students.”

Abdul Kenyatta

Abdul-Kenyatta, Art and the African Diaspora: Five SFIAF artists feature Black culture, Culture Currents
Abdul Kenyatta

“Speakeasy Storyteller Series” May 31, 9:00 p.m., Fort Mason Center Chapel

Adbul Kenyatta hails from Harlem and is a legend in the Bay Area art scene. He is a jazz and blues vocalist, poet, novelist and storyteller. He’s integrated several arts programs in the community, including within juvenile facilities. The “Speakeasy Storyteller Series,” Abdul’s newest project, will have its inaugural San Francisco presentation at this year’s festival.

Ten of the Bay’s top professional storytellers will tell us their favorite story, hosted by Moth SLAM host Corey Rosen. Abdul is choosing to focus on what they want to tell rather than having a theme for the show.

“We use stories to make sense of our world, and here we get a chance to see the insides of 10 different worlds, and 10 different truths.” Abdul claims he is “going for the truth no matter who tells it.”

He may have found his truth as a little boy when he heard Malcolm X claim the same thing: “I’m going for truth no matter who tells it.” When Abdul saw “Whites Only” bathroom signs, he realized his disconnection from Africa. He went on to write “Confessions of an Angry African in America” and other healing works. Now, Abdul owns an internet business in Ethiopia and flies to Africa regularly. He claims to be “certainly connected” now.

“The Speakeasy Series” is a program providing a safe and supportive environment for people to tell their stories. The line-up includes Jamie De Wolf, Jeff Hanson, Justina Wu, Nora Orton, Hari Sangvi, Natalie Campbell and Kevin Whittinghill.

Tyler Jeffreys, a Bay Area film and stage actor and a fitness instructor specializing in dance and flexibility, can be reached at