WINSTON-SALEM -- Poetry, music and photography combine to explore HIV/AIDS in Jamaica and the experiences of Southern black women in "Wisteria & HOPE," a dual production tonight at the National Black Theatre Festival.
The evening opens with "Wisteria," based on a series of poems that Kwame Dawes, the University of South Carolina distinguished poet, wrote in 1995 to document the lives of African-American women.
"I interviewed women who had lived through Jim Crow, who had lived through segregation, and were sort of in their twilight years," Dawes said in an interview this week. "I wasn't planning on writing poems, but at night I wrote the poems to process what I had heard."
The production combines these poems and Dawes' performance of them with composer Kevin Simmonds' score and vocal arrangements, as well as the photography of Richard Samuel Roberts, who took portraits of black women in South Carolina in the 1920s and '30s.
"Whether it's a woman remembering the harshness of the educational system, walking miles and miles to school or a woman reflecting with irony on the young African-American men who seem to be attracted to white women," Dawes said, "it's a range of experience."
Those experiences can weigh heavy at times in both productions, Simmonds says.
"We didn't know what the audience's response would be when they saw it," Simmonds said. "It was almost like going to church; people didn't clap in between songs. But it concluded with an amen of sorts."
"HOPE" shares both that emotional resonance and the multimedia approach.
Produced by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the new production chronicles those with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, where Dawes grew up. Combining Dawes' poems, Simmonds' music and the photography of Joshua Cogan, a multimedia Web version of the performance ( LiveHopeLove.com) was recently nominated for an Emmy Award. The production features performers from the Carolinas.
"They're poems; they're not journalistic pieces," Dawes said. "It turns experience into something beautiful; and beautiful, not like pretty."
"There are times when I have to stop," Simmonds said. "When I'm singing these poems, sometimes it hits me, these are real people, it's not an abstraction."
Performed back-to-back, the productions are potentially draining, but Simmonds thinks the payoff is worth it.
"The photos, the music, the poems will lift you up, bring you back down to reality, lift you up, bring you down, and at the end, ideally, really bring you up," he said.