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Dance, art, poetry and learning at the 29th annual Savannah Black Heritage Festival

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company to perform 'Young, Gifted and Black: A Transformative Experience' at the Johnny Mercer Theatre Feb. 2

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FEBRUARY is designated Black History Month, though it must be acknowledged that African-American contributions to our country’s culture, infrastructure and institutions far exceed any tidy timeline.

However, it does give reason to elevate a sliver of those vital stories, and the Savannah Black Heritage Festival has an extraordinary line-up of events, lectures and exhibits showcasing local and national entertainers and educators Feb. 1-18.

Touting this year’s theme of “Celebrating the Dynamics of Cultures and Shared Experiences,” the 2018 SBHF kicks off Feb. 1 at Savannah State University with a day of recognition of Richard R. Wright, the historic black college’s first president and a former slave. SSU students will read speeches by Wright on WHCJ-FM 90.3 as part of the National African American Read-In Day, sponsored by the university’s Wright Choice Mentoring Initiative.

Thursday also is also the opening of the New Beginning Art Exhibit Opening & Reception at the City of Savannah’s S.P.A.C.E. Gallery (9 W. Henry St.), which will move to the Savannnah/HHI airport in March, as well as a public conversation back at SSU with Debbie Blunden-Diggs, the artistic director of the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. Blunden-Diggs is the daughter of DCDC founder Jeraldyne Blunden, a ballerina who studied with Martha Graham and George Balanchine before starting her own company in her native Ohio in 1968 to create opportunities for dancers and choreographers of color.

On, Friday, Feb 2 at 6:30pm, the award-winning DCDC will perform their dynamic “Young, Gifted and Black: A Transformative Experience” at the Johnny Mercer Theatre. The event is free to the public and seating is open, give all an opportunity to witness this stunning performance.

“Audiences continually comment on the energy and joy the company brings to their communities,” says DCDC’s Associate Artistic Director, Crystal Michelle. “We hear a lot about the company’s ability to reflect that which is human through performance, and how that impacts the lives of the communities we come into contact with.”

The history of Savannah’s local community receives its due honor on Sunday, Feb. 3 with the youth leadership session “Continuing the Legacy of W.W. Law” at the Ralph Gilbert Marks Civil Rights Museum (460 MLK Blvd.), followed by a memorial wreath-laying and acknowledgement of ancestors at the African American Memorial on River Street. Music takes the stage on Monday, Feb. 4 as the SSU Voice Program is joined by chorus members from Beach, Johnson, Groves, Jenkins and Savannah high schools for “Celebrating the Music of Black Composers: A Recital” in the sanctuary of Butler Presbyterian Church (603 W. Victory Drive.)

All forms of culture and community converge at Grand Festival Day on Saturday, Feb. 10 when the Civic Center overflows with line dance demonstrations, the annual health fair with free heart and diabetes screenings, parent education sessions, improv classes and drum and basket-making crafts for kids.

That evening, local songstress Laiken Love will warm up the room with her velvet tones before headliner La’Porsha Renae shows Savannah the phenomenal moxie that took her all the way to first runner-up on American Idol.

Admission to Grand Festival Day is $5 for those 16 and older, though almost every other SBHF event is free: Presentations of “Freedom Songs” by Bright Star Children’s Theater, lectures on Gullah-Geechee culture and Langston Hughes’ poetry, gospel and jazz concerts, a screening of the new documentary of jazz legend Ben Tucker, storytelling with the compelling Lillian Grant-Baptiste and more take place throughout the city during the almost-three week festival (see savannahblackheritagefestival.com for the full schedule.)

All are presented by the dedicated organizers and the City of the Savannah and made possible by contributions from Georgia Power, Gulfstream and Carver State Bank. Live Oak Public Libraries is also hosting Black History month activities, and there is free admission to the Savannah African Art Museum (111 E. 34th St.) all month long.

It’s enough programming to last an entire year, and perhaps one day Black History will simply be known as American history. Until then, the effort of SBHF’s organizers, artists and educators to present a diverse, complex peek at historic and contemporary African American life remains necessary.

“It’s important because it requires that African American culture been seen from several vantage points. It means that we show the fullness of ourselves, and that we can be many different things,” continues DCDC’s Michelle, who is also an assistant professor at Ohio State University.

“Our experience, however specific, is also vast and gives us a way to connect on lots of different levels with the world around us. Our work is all about love and culture and the spreading of those values across the globe.”

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