A new dance project honors Black Texas heroes, families, and the towns they created

Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective in “The Fairytale Project” / Keda Sharber of Images by Papillon

Shankleville, Texas was founded by Jim and Winnie Shankle in Deep East Texas.

Both born into slavery in the early 1800s, the Shankles were known as the first Blacks in Newton County to buy land and become local leaders upon emancipation – establishing Shankleville as one of the many Freedom Colonies in Texas settled by former slaves during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. Between 1865 – 1930, African Americans founded 557 historic Black settlements, according to the Texas Freedom Colonies Project.

The Shankle family’s story of love, resistance, and triumph became the basis for The Fairytale Project, a new work by Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective. The work debuts this Sunday, June 26 at 5pm at Discovery Green in a free performance.

Through choreography that blends modern/contemporary, jazz, musical theater, and dance styles inspired by the African Diaspora, the plot follows the journey of a modern day African American family as they reconnect with their East Texas roots through “peculiar encounters with the past,” as described in a press release – and along the way, telling story of Jim and Winnie Shankle and their descendants.

Stacey Allen – dancer, choreographer, and Artistic Director of Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective – was inspired by her husband’s family history, whose ancestors can be traced back to the Shankles, as she told Jaundréa Clay of the Houston Chronicle.

Allen is also the Director of Artistic Programming at Harris County Cultural Arts Council, a nonprofit arts and culture center that has been serving communities in East Harris County for over two decades. The Fairytale Project is presented in partnership with HCCAC.

“I wanted to create opportunities for Black children to be able to see themselves on stage, especially in live dance theater, outside of Black History Month,” said Allen in a statement.

“It’s a part of my artistic style to celebrate the contributions of Black role models in our families and close-knit communities,” she said.

The adults in the photo are Jimmie Odom (Jim and Winnie Shankle’s grandson) and Roxie Brooks Odom. The kids, L to R back row, are Alvah Troga (A.T.), Leon, Lola and Almada; L to R front row are Jimmie, Louella and Jettie. Jimmie and Jettie are twins. The photo was taken circa 1906. / Caption and photo courtesy of Shankleville Historical Society

Allen founded Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective in 2018 as a multigenerational group of Black women dancers and multidisciplinary artists.

“Nia is Swahili for Purpose, and Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective creates with purpose,” said the organization in a statement. “Upon its founding, Nia’s Daughters was organized to perform culturally competent dance works while telling the stories of Black women and girls.”

The Fairytale Project also features an original score by Andre Cunningham, set design by Ariel Bounds, and film/photography by Keda Sharber. The work is funded in part by the BIPOC Arts Network and Fund, Dance Source Houston, and a Houston Arts Alliance “Let Creativity Happen Grant” with support from Discovery Green Conservancy.

MFAH’s Glassell School of Art has a new director – Paul Coffey, Chicago arts educator and leader

The Glassell School of Art / Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has appointed Paul Coffey, a longtime educator and administrator at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as the new director of its Glassell School of Art.

Coffey begins his role on July 18, 2022. He succeeds Joseph Havel, who retires on June 30 to return full-time to his studio practice, after serving as director for 30 years. During that time, Havel is credited with expanding Glassell’s curriculum, increasing student enrollment, and raising the profile and reach of its Core Residency Program.

“I know that [Paul Coffey] will bring thoughtful leadership to the Glassell School, which is so essential to the Museum’s educational and artistic mission and which, under Joe Havel’s direction, became a center of creativity,” said Gary Tinterow, MFAH Director, in a press release.

“Paul Coffey brings to the Glassell School of Art and to Houston an extraordinary commitment to art, education and community, one that he has demonstrated over two decades in leadership roles at the renowned School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” Tinterow said.

Since 2011, Coffey has served as Vice Provost and Dean of Community Engagement at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the historic and highly ranked training ground for artists, designers, and scholars at the graduate, post-baccalaureate, and undergraduate levels.

He has created and led community engagement programs in Chicago, such as: SAIC at Homan Square, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s campus in the underserved local neighborhood of North Lawndale; summer intensives for military veterans with PTSD, now in its seventh year as a collaboration with CreatiVets; and the College Arts Access Program in Continuing Studies, a free 3-year college-bridge program for Chicago Public Schools students with artistic talent and financial need.

Paul Coffey, incoming director, Glassell School of Art / Photo by Cosmo Coffey

Coffey’s relationship with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago goes back to earning his own BFA there in 1989.  He also holds an MFA in art and design from the University of Chicago (1992), and he completed the Institute for Management and Leadership in Education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education in 2018.

As he begins his new chapter in Houston, Coffey says he brings with him a connection that he has long felt to the Bayou City through its acclaimed art institutions, like the Rothko Chapel, the Menil Collection, and the MFAH – and through the connection that other artists, like Cy Twombly, also felt to the city – according to reporting by the Houston Chronicle.

As head of the Glassell School of Art, Coffey will oversee the nation’s only museum-affiliated art school serving pre-K through post-graduate students.

Founded in 1979, the Glassell School opened a new 93,000 square-foot building in 2018. Its programs include a Studio School for adults, a Junior School for children and teens, and the Core residency program for artists and writers. According to the MFAH, it serves more than 5,000 adults and children each year.

Flamenco scholar Dr. M. Gabriela Estrada joins University of Houston’s dance faculty

M. Gabriela Estrada / Courtesy of UH Dance Program

The University of Houston Dance Program recently named to its full-time faculty Dr. M. Gabriela Estrada, a bilingual multidisciplinary educator, choreographer, journalist, and filmmaker.

Estrada begins her position as Assistant Professor of Dance in fall 2022. She was one of 60 national candidates who applied for the opening vacated by longtime faculty member, Rebecca Valls, who retired this past spring.

“My creative work embraces contemporary theatrical western dance forms and flamenco,” states Estrada on her website. “In academic settings, my creative work is often inspired by dance history, movement analysis, and social justice.”

Karen Stokes, Head of the UH Dance Program and Professor of Dance, said she is “thrilled” to welcome Estrada to the Houston dance community.

“In addition to her congenial personality, Dr. Estrada brings a deep bench of practice and scholarly activity to our program,” said Stokes. “While she wears many dance hats, including strong organizational skills, I am personally very excited about her flamenco background, and her fusion approach to using flamenco within both teaching and research.”

As an educator, my mission is to promote the appreciation of dance as art, tradition, and culture while advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Dr. M. Gabriela Estrada

Estrada holds a BA and an MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine, and a Ph.D. in Flamenco Interdisciplinary Studies from the Department of Sociocultural Anthropology and Philology at the University of Seville, Spain.

Examples of her work and research include the solo Ni Una Carmen Más! (Not a Single Carmen More!), The Choreographic Development of The Three-Cornered Hat through the 20th Century (MFA thesis), and Flamenco’s Contributions to Ballet (Ph.D. dissertation).

Estrada also directed and produced ENI9MA: The Legend of Félix, a documentary about Félix Fernández García, the flamenco dancer who collaborated with Léonide Massine, Pablo Picasso, Manuel de Falla, and the Ballets Russes de Diaghilev in creating The Three-Cornered Hat.

Estrada was founding director of Dance Collage School of Dance in Mexico and founding faculty at the Universidad de Sonora. She has served as Community Arts Partnership Education Manager for New York’s Ballet Hispánico and is currently a Teaching Assistant Professor of Dance at East Carolina University.

Three teens win Houston’s only high school playwrighting festival

“These kids are the future of the American theatre,” said Trevor Cone, Executive Director of Dirt Dogs Theatre.

Cone is referring to the teens who participate in his company’s annual Student Playwright Festival, now in its fourth year and open to high school seniors in Greater Houston who submit previously unproduced, original one-act plays.

When he and his company started the festival in 2018 – inspired by the talent and hard work in his daughter’s own high school playwrighting class – he says they were not aware of any other local or regional playwriting festivals specifically targeted at high school students.

“This is one of the reasons we decided to start the [festival],” Cone said. “With encouragement and guidance, we hope that kids who are interested in theatre, and specifically the creation of new plays, will follow through on that urge.”

The winners receive a $500 scholarship, mentorship by a local professional playwright, and production of their plays at the festival.

So far, Dirt Dogs has produced 9 student plays over the years – with past winners continuing to write and design for theater after graduation at colleges such as Brandeis, Emerson, and the California Institute of the Arts, according to Cone.

“The festival has been extremely fulfilling to the playwrights, the mentors, and Dirt Dogs Theatre Company,” said Cone. “For the playwrights, the [festival] is a validation of their talent and a celebration of their creativity and dedication to their craft.”

The 2022 winners are:

Alexandra Askew (Westside High School). Her play, Absquatulate: To leave without saying goodbye, centers on a family struggling with unexpected loss. She describes the play as “a story about the complex relationship between mother and daughter following the death of their father/husband.” Askew will be mentored by Ted Swindley, creator of the hit musical Always…Patsy Cline and Founding Artistic Director of Stages Repertory Theatre.

Kaleigh Medlow (Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts). Her play, Hand Me Downs, takes on the journey of three generations of Black women who hand down a blouse from daughter to daughter, while simultaneously handing down generational trauma and tendencies. Medlow will be mentored by playwright Gwen Flager, whose plays have been produced in Houston, as well as festivals in California, Kansas, and Louisiana.

Pearl Reagler (Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts). Her written work focuses on the grotesque, gothic, and futuristic. In her play, Stay Sunny, four teenagers join a group phone call to try and make sense of a mysterious impending disaster. Reagler will be mentored by Doug Williams, a playwright, novelist, and award-winning screenwriter.

The 2022 Student Playwright Festival takes place in person on June 8, 7:30pm at MATCH and virtually via video-on-demand available for view June 9 – 24.

Based on Houston Arts Journal’s review of multiple arts organizations, Dirt Dog Theatre Company’s Student Playwright Festival is currently the only festival of its kind open to high school students citywide.

Houston has an active and nationally-recognized youth theater scene overall, with youth training programs offered by institutions such as the Alley TheatreEnsemble TheatreMain Street TheaterStages, and Theater Under The Stars. Local teachers have garnered prestigious accolades, including Roshunda Jones-Koumba, theater director at G.W. Carver Magnet High School, who will receive the 2022 Excellence in Theatre Education Award on June 12 at the Tony Awards in New York City.

New ‘Longevity’ mural is a sign of growing interest in public art in Asiatown

Artist Thomas Tran stands in front of his mural, “Longevity” / VCSA Facebook

Artist Thomas Tran’s new mural has an auspicious name – Longevity.

It references the blessing of long life that holds significance in many Asian cultures. The title is also a nod to the themes of community health and wellness contained in its images, which Tran conceived and developed with input from a public survey conducted earlier this spring.

Completed on May 22, Longevity is the latest mural in Houston’s Asiatown – a massively colorful 2-story painting located in Sterling Plaza at 9798 Bellaire Boulevard. 

Full view of Thomas Tran’s mural “Longevity” with artist standing in front / VCSA Facebook

It was commissioned by the nonprofit VCSA (Vietnamese Culture and Science Association) and funded with part of a grant from Houston in Action’s “Safer Together” Vaccine Equity Campaign.

“This mural … reflects the tradition of intergenerational care that is prevalent in Asian families,” said Teresa Trinh, President of VCSA.

“You will see an interaction between an elderly grandmother and a grandchild, in addition to the interaction between a parent and child. The mural also contains other traditional elements of the Asian culture including a tiger, dragon, and phoenix,” she said.

Even when the mural was still in its planning stages, there was one image that Tran knew he wanted to include – that of a loving Asian father hugging his son. 

“The theme is about community health, so I’d definitely want to include mental health,” said Tran.

That father-son hug is now a major focal point in the mural – the artist’s way to destigmatize the topic of mental health, which has faced barriers in the AAPI community. Recent studies indicate that Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health treatment than other racial groups.

The mural’s official public unveiling will be on Saturday, June 4 from 10 – 11am with refreshments, speakers, and a lion dance.

It marks the culmination of hard work behind a project that took 2 days to outline with a projector, 5 days of painting, 1 day of touch-up work by the artist, and roughly 205 volunteers working together in the days leading up to its completion.

“Personally, it was grueling but rewarding work,” said Tran. “People seem to like it.”

One of those people is Matt Manalo, founder of Filipinx Artists of Houston and Alief Art House, who calls Tran’s mural “delightful,” “engaging,” and “thoughtful.”

“The new mural brings in the conversation of inclusivity in Asiatown, which breaks all the stereotypes of what or how Asians should be or look like, which I am truly excited about,” said Manalo.

The faces, clothing, and personalities captured in the mural aim to reflect the multiethnic nature of Greater Houston’s AAPI community – which include Vietnamese, South Asians, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, Cambodians, and Asians from Myanmar, Indonesia, and Thailand, and numerous other ethnic groups.

Thomas Tran’s Alief Community Mural 2019 / Courtesy of Thomas Tran

Tran’s Longevity mural comes at a time when public art has been brewing in Asiatown and in neighboring Alief in recent years.

In 2019, Tran painted an Alief Community Mural located behind Thien Phu Wedding Restaurant at 11360 Bellaire Blvd, Suite 100.

Also in 2019, Manalo founded the Alief Art House – a shipping container set up in Alief SPARK Park and Nature Center to house free art exhibits and events for the neighborhood, and to support Alief artists.

In 2019, the International Management District, which is just west of Asiatown, gave a public art makeover to 22 concrete globes along Bellaire Boulevard. Local artist Armando Castelan was hired to paint the large spheres in the esplanades into mini murals depicting the district’s diversity.

Mini mural by artist Armando Castelan, located on Bellaire Boulevard / Courtesy of International Management District

In 2020, Tran painted the temporary mural “Crocodile Garden” for Alief Art House, which recently added a second shipping container to set up offices and workshops.

Other existing public art in Asiatown include the Vietnam War Memorial at Universal Shopping Plaza at 11360 Bellaire Boulevard, and various sculptures in public spaces, such as a small fish sculpture at the northwest corner of Bellaire and Ranchester.

Still – Tran, Manalo, and Trinh all agree that there is not enough public art in Asiatown.

“Hopefully, with the completion of this [Longevity] mural, it will spur other organizations to host murals throughout the area,” Trinh said.

Manalo believes that the impact of public art is not only economic but also educational, barrier-breaking, and personal.

“The mural … will not only draw more people to support Asian-owned businesses, but it will also draw attention to the stories and culture of folks who live and work in the area,” said Manalo.

“The mural and public art in Asiatown are so important because it also shows that Asians can also be creative,” he said. “It brings me back to the conversation I had with my parents about switching to pursuing art as my career. I believe that it is a discussion that needs to happen more.”

Father hugging son in Thomas Tran’s “Longevity” mural / Photo by Thomas Tran

The Southwest Management District, which worked with VCSA to find a location for the Longevity mural, considers public art a “key part of the beautification of the business corridors within its boundaries,” according to its Executive Director Alice Lee.

Lee says that for years her district, which encompasses Asiatown, has funded the removal of graffiti and litter, and has maintained landscaping of medians.

Now, she says, they are considering funding public art projects – and art is ever-present, if you look for it:

“From the lion sculptures in front of the Hope Clinic on Bellaire Boulevard to the bright pink edifice of the Reiwatakiya cosmetics store just down the street, businesses and institutions continue to provide visually attractive features that almost make the District a constantly changing piece of art itself,” said Lee.

Jennifer Bowman named Houston Grand Opera’s Director of Community and Learning, formerly HGOco

Jennifer Bowman / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Houston Grand Opera has appointed Jennifer Bowman as its new Director of Community and Learning, effective June 6, 2022.

This follows the name change of HGOco to HGO Community and Learning in February 2022. 

Under Khori Dastoor, HGO’s new General Director and CEO, the company “felt it important to showcase this extraordinary initiative with a name that reflects the deep commitment of the entire organization, and the ownership of this important work across the company,” according to a press release.

The department remains the company’s education and community collaboration initiative, which was started in 2007 and which has produced numerous new works that center the diversity of Houston. Its previous director was Carleen Graham and its founding director was Sandra Bernhard.

A native Houstonian, Jennifer Bowman joins HGO after five years as the Director of Music Education at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

“Throughout her impactful career, Jennifer has shown a remarkable commitment to producing work that speaks to her entire community while building new audiences,” said Dastoor in a statement, also calling Bowman a “thought leader” and a “true inspiration.”

Among her notable achievements, [Bowman] served as the [John F. Kennedy] Center’s lead representative for the Washington Musical Pathways Initiative for young BIPOC artists wishing to pursue advanced study in music; spearheaded WNO’s 18-month community engagement project in support of Blue, an opera about a Harlem family’s experience with police brutality; revamped the Center’s training programs for young musicians; commissioned new works that reflect the population of the region served by the Center; and introduced youth and family audiences to diverse artists making their Center debuts.

Houston Grand Opera

“My first foray into the operatic world took place at Houston Grand Opera. It was an experience I will never forget. I am honored to bring my career full circle and return to my hometown in this exciting role,” said Bowman in a statement.

“The organization’s Community and Learning initiative has set the standard in the industry, and it is truly thrilling to have the opportunity to build upon its many successes. I cannot wait to get to work!” she said.

Artists at a libretto workshop for “The Big Swim,” a new opera by composer Meilina Tsui and librettist Melisa Tien, currently being developed by HGO Community and Learning in partnership with Asia Society Texas, to premiere in February 2024 in celebration of the Lunar New Year / Houston Grand Opera Facebook

According to a press release, upcoming programs for Community and Learning include:

  • Monkey and Francine in the City of Tigers: Starting in fall 2022, Kamala Sankaram and David Johnston’s HGO-commissioned original opera will begin touring schools, libraries, and community spaces across Houston as part of the company’s popular Opera to Go! program. Drawing on Bollywood, opera, and Ethiopian jazz and inspired by monkey stories from India, China, and West Africa, the work shares the tale of a pair of siblings who must outwit a crocodile. Other initiatives for students include the Storybook Opera program and student performances of La traviata in fall 2022.
  • Another City: In March 2023, HGO will present Another City, the newest opera in the company’s award-winning Song of Houston series, which supports the development of new works based on stories that define the unique character of Houston. Composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann explore an often-unseen side of the city with an opera centered around our homeless community that reflects upon what it means to be home, to have a home, and to share the home that we call Houston.
  • Seeking the Human Spirit: HGO’s six-year artistic and collaborative community initiative culminates in 2023 with a set of six chamber-scale commissions, each of which responds to one of the program’s six annual themes, all grounded in opera’s universality. Together six composer/librettist teams will premiere new works centering around sacrifice, transformation, identity, faith, character, and spirit.
  • The Big Swim: This new family-friendly chamber opera from composer Meilina Tsui and librettist Melisa Tien, currently in development by HGO in partnership with the Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC), shares the story of the Jade Emperor and the Great Race. The work will premiere at ASTC in February 2024 as part of its Lunar New Year festivities.
Librettist Melisa Tien and composer Meilina Tsui at a libretto workshop for their new opera, “The Big Swim” / Houston Grand Opera Facebook

Local museums offer free admission to military families this summer

Austin Street, Jefferson, 2018, oil on canvas, by Lee Jamison. “Ode to East Texas,” paintings by Lee Jamison, is on view through May 28, 2022 at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum / Folz Fine Art

Around 2,000 museums nationwide, including 10 in Greater Houston, will provide free admission to active-duty U.S. military personnel and their families through the Blue Star Museums program.

An initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, and the Department of Defense, the program runs through the summer – this year, from Saturday, May 21 (Armed Forces Day) through Monday, September 5 (Labor Day).

Blue Star Museums is an effort to improve the quality of life for active-duty military families, especially focusing on the approximately two million children who have had at least one parent deployed since 2001.

Blue Star Museums was created to show support for military families who have faced multiple deployments and the challenges of reintegration. This program offers these families a chance to visit museums this summer when many will have limited resources and limited time to be together.

National Endowment for the Arts

Free admission is available to those currently serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Reserve, National Guard, U.S. Public Health Commissioned Corps, NOAA Commissioned Corps – and up to five family members. Qualified members must show a Geneva Convention common access card (CAC), DD Form 1173 ID card (dependent ID), or a DD Form 1173-1 ID card. The active-duty member does not have to be present for family members to receive free admission.

Local Blue Star Museums include:

GALVESTON

Bryan Museum

Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum and Education Center

HOUSTON

Buffalo Soldiers National Museum

Holocaust Museum Houston

Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University

Houston Maritime Education Center and Museum

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Health Museum

HUNTSVILLE

Sam Houston Memorial Museum

LA PORTE

San Jacinto Museum of History

Several of these museums also offer discounts for military personnel throughout the year.

Outside the Blue Star Museums program, the MFAH provides free admission to military individuals plus one family member year-round – as does the Houston Maritime Center, which is currently available by appointment only.

HBU’s Dunham Bible Museum is always free to the public, but its director Diana Severance said that its participation in the program aids in outreach.

“Though the Bible Museum is already free, being a member of the Blue Star Museums is a way of letting the military personnel know of the existence of our museum,” said Severance. “Several areas of our exhibits also focus on the Bible in American history and Bibles in the military.”

A complete list of 2022 Blue Star Museums is available here.

Houston’s literary scene shows signs of surviving – and thriving post-pandemic

BIPOC Book Festival founders Brooke Lewis, Jaundrea Clay, and Brittany Britto; Houston Poet Laureate Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean; and Houston Poet Laureate Emeritus Deborah “D.E.E.P.” Mouton at Kindred Stories Bookstore / Photo by J. Vince

From national grants to the new BIPOC Book Fest and the return of Writefest, recent developments suggest that Houston’s literary scene is recovering, returning, and growing as we emerge from the pandemic.

Five Houston literary groups will receive aid from the Literary Emergency Fund, which announced last week $4.3 million in funding to support 313 literary nonprofits and publishers across the U.S. – as these groups experience continued financial losses due to COVID-19 and as literary magazines struggle to stay afloat.

The 2022 Houston recipients are:

Launched in 2020, the Literary Emergency Fund is administered by the Academy of American Poets, the Community of Literary Magazines & Presses, and the National Book Foundation, with a grant from the Mellon Foundation.

“In some ways, this year was even more challenging than last year for literary organizations and publishers, as there were fewer opportunities to receive emergency funding but also increased costs including producing hybrid events,” said Ruth Dickey, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, in a statement.

The emergency funding helps these organizations continue to serve readers, writers, students, and teachers, who “rely on our country’s vibrant ecosystem of literary magazines, presses, and organizations — one that reveals the power and the possibility of the literary arts to the broader public,” according to Elizabeth Alexander, President of the Mellon Foundation.

With plans first announced last fall, Houston’s inaugural BIPOC Book Fest is coming to fruition and takes place this weekend, April 23 – 24.

While the city has seen other notable efforts to support writers of color, the festival is the first of its kind in Houston centered on literary works by and about Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, who are underrepresented in U.S. publishing.

An analysis of children’s books in 2020 shows that only 8% were written by Black authors and 12% centered Black characters, while 7% were by Latinx authors and 6% were about Latinx characters – with those percentages changing little in 2021.

Founded by Houston journalists Brittany Britto GarleyJaundrea Clay, and Brooke Lewis, who grew up with a love of school book fairs, the festival aims to encourage reading through representation, inclusion, and dialogue.

It kicks off on Saturday, April 23 at Buffalo Soldiers Museum with a book fair for adults and teens. The day also includes panels on book banning, the state of Latino literature and publishing, contemporary voices of the Asian diaspora, and comic books, as well as a poetry showcase featuring Texas Poet Laureate Lupe Mendez and Houston Youth Poet Laureate Avalon Hogans. Tickets and a full schedule are available here.

The festival continues on Sunday, April 24 at Smither Park with the Little BIPOC Book Fest, a free children’s event aimed at developing and empowering young readers.

This comes at a time when Houston-area schools are seeing a widening gap in student reading levels due to the pandemic.

The Little BIPOC Book Fest will feature book giveaways, writing workshops, crafts, and storytime with award-winning authors, including Jasminne Mendez and Alda P. Hobbs. Free tickets can be reserved here.

The indie writers’ festival, Writefest, is back after a two-year hiatus.

Founded in 2016 by the Houston grassroots literary nonprofit Writespace, the festival grew from a desire to help local writers not only improve their craft but also connect them with agents, teach them about the industry, and build community.

“The last Writefest was planned for 2020. We already had our keynote selected (poet Jericho Brown, who won the Pulitzer Prize that year), and we were forced to cancel,” said Holly Lyn Walrath, the festival’s coordinator and a board member of Writespace, in an email.

“In 2021, Writespace underwent a shift in board management, and we felt it wasn’t yet safe for all of our writers to hold an in-person event,” she said.

This year, the festival made the decision to go virtual, April 29 – 30.

Nearly 50 editors and writers – many Houston- and Texas-based, as well as those from around the country – will present online writing workshops and panels on topics like submissions, podcasting, publishing, slam poetry, horror fiction, writing for young writers, inclusivity and representation, writing sexuality and gender, and writing through trauma.

There will be two in-person events – a free open mic on April 29 at The Orange Show and a Writefest Social on April 30 at City Orchard Cidery.

A complete schedule and registration details are available here.

“We’ve made this year’s festival more intimate and virtual, so while there are fewer panels than in the past, I think the events will serve our diverse literary community in new ways,” said Walrath. “Writers are starved for engagement.”

No more ‘SPA’ – The organization soon becomes ‘Performing Arts Houston’

Winners and performers of the 2021 Houston Artist Commissioning Project with Mayor Sylvester Turner / Asaeda Badat Photography

After 55 years, Society for the Performing Arts is changing its name to Performing Arts Houston.

The major nonprofit arts presenter publicly announced the new name on April 5 in a newsletter to patrons and on social media.

The new name goes into effect on April 12, along with a new website, new branding, and a new membership program. That same day, Performing Arts Houston will also announce its 2022-2023 season and open applications for its 2nd annual Houston Artist Commissioning Project.

“Dropping the word ‘Society’ from the name helps us welcome everyone to the performing arts. This is an experience for all Houstonians,” said the organization in a statement.

The shorter new name is intended to celebrate the connection to local communities, while capturing the depth of arts presented.

“It also lets us lose the acronym SPA,” stated the organization, adding cheekily: “As therapeutic as the performing arts may be, we are not a spa.”

We’ve presented Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for over 50 years. We’ve brought Marcel Marceaux, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Yo-Yo Ma, Martha Graham Dance Company, Lang Lang, STOMP, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Spalding Gray, American Ballet Theatre, and hundreds more world class artists to our city. Parallel to what you see on stage, our education and community programs create and inspire arts engagement to the wider community. We’re proud to continue that work as Performing Arts Houston.

Society for the Performing Arts, April Newsletter

The new name was first revealed to attendees of its April 2 gala, The Kaleidoscope Ball, which raised nearly $600,000 is support of the organization’s presentations and education and community engagement programs.

Groundbreaking ballerina Lauren Anderson inspires a new scholarship fund at Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet Principal Lauren Anderson as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker / Photo by Jim Caldwell (2005), courtesy of Houston Ballet
 

Houston Ballet has announced the company’s first endowed scholarship to be named for a dancer.

Established in honor of the company’s first African American Principal Dancer, the new Lauren Anderson Young Dancer Scholarship Fund will provide yearly scholarships “for up to four underrepresented artists who aspire to be professional ballet dancers and show great promise in their physical and artistic abilities,” according to a press release.

The scholarships will cover full annual tuition costs at Houston Ballet Academy and aim to help develop the next generation of elite ballet dancers.

The company says that incoming and current students in the Academy’s Professional Program may be considered for the award, and the first scholarship will be presented at the Academy Spring Showcase in late April 2022.

Former Houston Ballet Principals Lauren Anderson as Kitri and Carlos Acosta as Bastilio in Ben Stevenson’s Don Quixote / Photo by Geoff Winningham (1995), courtesy of Houston Ballet.

Native Houstonian Lauren Anderson danced with Houston Ballet from 1983 to 2006, during which she became the first African American promoted to Principal Dancer at the company in 1990. She remains one of the few African American ballerinas to hold the highest rank at a major U.S. ballet company.

Anderson’s critically acclaimed 23-year career with Houston Ballet spanned performances of leading roles in all the great classical ballets, as well as roles created for her including Ben Stevenson’s Cleopatra – though her deep relationship with the company goes back to when she began training there at age 7.

“Fifty years ago, I started at the Houston Ballet Academy on scholarship, which gave me the opportunity to begin my journey towards becoming a professional dancer,” said Anderson in a statement.

“To now have a scholarship named after me means everything,” she continued. “Houston Ballet is the foundation of my life … It’s where my dreams came true, and I am so proud that this scholarship will give the next generation of aspiring young dancers from underrepresented communities an opportunity to reach further than they ever thought they could go.”

Houston Ballet Education and Community Engagement Associate Director Lauren Anderson guest teaching students during the Academy Summer Intensive Program / Photo by Chenay Newton (2019), courtesy of Houston Ballet

The Lauren Anderson Young Dancer Scholarship becomes the Academy’s 9th endowed scholarship. Information about donating to the fund can be found here.

“It is our mission that our student body reflects the city of Houston, the most diverse city in the country. This will allow us to reward deserving students based on their merit to receive the highest level of training,” said Jennifer Sommers, Houston Ballet Academy director, in a statement.

Lauren Anderson continues to serve the Houston community through master classes and lectures in her role as the Academy’s Associate Director of Education and Community Engagement, and she continues to inspire the ballet world and beyond.

A Lauren Anderson Scholarship was also established at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago in May 2021.

Anderson’s life story has been adapted into a World Premiere stage work, Plumshuga: The Rise of Lauren Anderson, by Deborah DEEP Mouton, with music by Jasmine Barnes, choreography by Stanton Welch and Harrison Guy, and featuring Houston Ballet dancers. Plumshuga will debut in October 2022 at Stages.