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Dance company and green group receive local arts boost

The stories of the Great Migration and what it’s like to be Black in Chicago will take centerstage when Deeply Rooted Dance Company produces a unique showcase this summer. In partnership with the environmental group Blacks in Green (BIG), the arts organization recently announced a casting call for its community ensemble.

In anticipation of the production “Fertile Ground,” led by director Daniel Bryant, the dance company is casting actors, dancers, singers, and poets at two sessions on July 22 at 5 p.m. and July 23 at 3 p.m. at the Mayfair Arts Center, 8701 S. Bennett Ave.

The group seeks to recruit people with deep connections to the city’s rich history, as well as unique stories to dramatize about the Great Migration, Black heritage and African American resilience.

According to producers, “Fertile Ground” is part of the Creative Communities StoryBridge workshop, which seeks “to engage Chicago’s Black and brown communities, along with other diverse individuals,” through a “robust network of community partners,” according to Naomi Davis, executive director of BIG.

The showcase will be supported by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) and its “Together We Heal Creative Place Program.” The effort was born during the COVID-19 pandemic in recognition of how the arts play an important role in promoting health, healing and safety for communities.

“The program encourages participants to engage in an organic creative process of sharing stories, creating and performing material around the theme of celebrating the Great Migration and green living in Black Chicago,” Davis said. “We want the community to share and perform their stories as we lift up the voices from the South Side and the Stony Island corridor.”

Deeply Rooted Dance Theater was co-founded by Kevin Iega Jeff and Gary Abbott in 1996. Jeff, who founded JUBILATION! Dance Company in New York City in 1982, came to Chicago in 1994 to take over as artistic director of Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre.

The summer performance is a centerpiece of BIG’s “Sustainable Square Mile” community development program. It utilizes a holistic approach to systemic problems facing impoverished Blacks caused by poverty, environmental racism, disinvestment and poor health.

In addition to green village buildings, the program calls for locally produced clean energy, robust home ownership, and support for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Rehearsals for “Fertile Ground” begin July 30. The first performance is slated for August 11 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.

“We want people from all communities on the South Side to be a part of this,” Davis shared. “You don’t need experience. Each performer will be partnered with professional actors and dancers.”

Recently, Deeply Rooted received a $5 million grant from the city’s Recovery Plan Fund. The donation comes ahead of the group’s plan to open a state-of-the-art, 30,000-square-foot dance center next year in Washington Park near the 5400 block of South State Street. The group has estimated the total cost of the new building at $15.6 million. Funding includes federal, city, state and private donations.

In February, the city announced $11 million in grants for non-profit arts organizations, including via a new Chicago Arts Recovery Program. More than $6 million was set aside to fund the CityArts Program, which provides operating support “for non-profits of all sizes and artistic disciplines.”

BIG has also received a financial boost. In April, the environmental advocacy group received $10 million from the Biden administration. The five-year grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will help the organization expand its community-focused approach to sustainability and climate resilience throughout the Midwest.

“Only a whole-system solution can transform the whole-system problem common to Black communities everywhere,” Davis said at the time. “We are about — in our core founding vision and mission — self-sustaining Black communities everywhere. And the mission being to reinvent the walk to work, walk to shop, walk to learn, walk to play village, where African Americans own the businesses, own the land, and live the conservation lifestyle.”

The resurgence in commitment to Chicago’s arts communities can be tied to the recent $207 million allocated to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and $211 million to the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) earlier this year.

On the state level, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) distributed $50 million in grant money to assist businesses, non-profit organizations, and sole proprietors in the creative sector that have suffered losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The application process closed in May.

Administered through Arts Alliance Illinois, awards ranged from $5,000 to $250,000 and were based on 2021 losses for businesses that received prior state relief funding. Eligible groups included performing and presenting arts facilities such as theaters, museums, cultural heritage organizations, and arts education groups.

After a five-year hiatus, in September 2022, President Joe Biden issued a new Executive Order re-establishing and bolstering the mission of the President’s Committee of the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) to promote excellence in these sectors. The order recognizes how the arts and humanities sectors can positively impact community well-being, equity, economic development, public health, education, civic engagement, and climate change across the United States.

PCAH was founded in 1982 by Executive Order to advise the president and the heads of U.S. cultural agencies on policy, philanthropic and private sector engagement, and other efforts to enhance federal support for the arts, humanities, and museum and library services.

It also engages the nation’s artists, humanities scholars, and cultural heritage practitioners to promote excellence in the arts, humanities, and museum and library services and demonstrate their relevance to the country’s health, economy, equity, and civic life.

This week, Mayor Brandon Johnson announced that the Mellon Foundation will grant $6.8 million to DCASE to support the Chicago Monuments Project (CMP) and community-generated commemorative initiatives. This funding will enable the creation of eight new monuments, including the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial, in recognition of the victims of police Commander Jon Burge.

Reporting made possible by the Inland Foundation.

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