By Ashley Benkarski
NASHVILLE, TN — It’s been a big year for the Fisk Jubilee Singers, having won their first GRAMMY award on the 150th anniversary of their journey to England in spreading the message of life as a slave in the American South.
Playwright and author Jamima B. Jones is partnering with local theatre company Dream 7 to share the Singers’ Underground Railroad tour in “The Story of Jubilee.”
“In the Fall of 2009, while preparing to interview for a position as a Personnel Coordinator for a Los Angeles-based group of Jubilee Singers, I researched who the original Fisk Jubilee Singers were,” Jones wrote. “The deeper I dug, the more intrigued I became with the backstories of Ella Sheppard, Maggie Porter, Thomas Rutling, Frederick Loudin and their Music Director, George White. I was so intrigued, I immediately put pen to paper, and a few short weeks later, I had penned the stage production of The Story of Jubilee.”
Earlier this summer the stars aligned and brought Jones into the presence of Nashville’s own Rossi Turner, a celebrated and widely-recognized Artistic Director who, in turn, introduced Jones to Vida Finley, Executive Director of Dream 7 of Nashville. “Because of their local connections and untiring efforts, plans are in the works to bring The Story of Jubilee home to Nashville and back to the stage during Black History Month, 2022, COVID permitting,” Jones said.
Finley holds over thirty years of experience that includes a run on Broadway, certifications as a Wolf Trap teaching artist writing theatre arts curricula for the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga’s Southeast Institute for Education in Theatre, and developing scripts for a radio soap for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Finley was also a founding member of Nashville’s first premiere African American theatre company, Black Taffeta and Burlap, with Stella Reed and Denise Owens.
A multi-talented performer, Turner is a thirty-year member of the International Association of Blacks in Dance. He’s done choreography for the Miss Black Tennessee Pageant, the Stellar Awards and the Dove Awards and taught dance in 2010 for the United States Embassy in Togo.
Dream 7 is a 501c3 African American theatre company that will celebrate its twentieth anniversary next year.
With a degree in Theatre Communications from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Finley worked with The Carpetbag Theatre for eight years while Turner is a critically acclaimed performer of dance, theater, writing, motivational speaking and teaching.
The Story of Jubilee premiered at the Acme Theatre in Hollywood to a sold-out crowd October 6, 2010 with a volunteer cast of 18 members that included siblings and offspring of the legendary Ray Charles family, Jones said.
The performance also included a member of the Raelettes, members of the infamous West Angeles Church of God In Christ, Jones’s husband and one of their sons.
“The cooperation was overwhelming, so I knew I was onto something wonderful,” Jones recalled.
“This year, the goal was to take the corresponding novel, “The Story of Jubilee”, which was published in September 2018 on Amazon.com on a book-signing tour to gauge the interest of Fisk and the newly-opened National African-American Museum of Music in regards to putting the production back on stage.”
Due to COVID no performances were scheduled for this year but Jones said she scheduled a meeting with a Fisk representative on Oct. 5, the eve of the 150th anniversary of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers’ departure from Nashville on their unprecedented 18-month tour.
An invitation to act as an Artist In Residence at one of Tennessee’s universities has also been extended in conjunction with the planned performances.
“The original Fisk Jubilee Singers are the gateway to the African-American music experience and the world, akin to Bob Marley and Reggae or Michael Jackson and Pop,” Jones remarked. “Not only did they revolutionize Spirituals as a form of entertainment, their travels and triumphs saved Fisk from bankruptcy which, likely, preserved the right to education for all African-Americans.”
Between 1871 and 1877 they reluctantly introduced spirituals as a form of entertainment to save their beloved Fisk from financial ruin, earning an estimated $172,000 which aided in the construction of the first brick and mortar edifice for the education of African-Americans in the South—Jubilee Hall, which is still a prized jewel in Nashville. Ultimately the Singers’ efforts improved the treatment of African-Americans in travel, lodging and education, even though they were given just a dollar by the university to help fund their tour. “Their legacies must be preserved, ergo, I press on,” Jones said.
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