‘Fostering a sense of connection’: UNCW gets back to in-person events with new season of arts programming

DRUMline Live will perform in January 2022 as part of UNCW Presents new season of arts programming. (Port City Daily/Courtesy UNCW Presents)

WILMINGTON –– The antithesis to 2020’s year of isolation is collaboration — at least that’s the goal at UNCW’s Office of the Arts. Executive director Fidias Reyes said when curating the 2021 season of UNCW Presents, she thought in terms of empathy and humanity but, mostly, “fostering a sense of connection in these trying times.”

Kenan Auditorium, the primary venue for UNCW Presents, has been shuttered throughout Covid-19. Its last performance featured Ailey II in February 2020, according to Reyes. 

“Staying relevant as a performance venue in a pandemic was a challenging feat,” Reyes admitted. 

While it managed with livestreams (“Best Seat in the House”) and a podcast (“Behind the Curtain”), nothing could replace face-to-face engagement. This year Reyes hopes to resume connectivity to the community.

“You can expect to see accompanying residencies, workshops, and outreach initiatives that aim to inspire cultural, artistic, and community engagement,” she said.

The new season will be made up of 16 in-person events and kicks off Aug. 26 with free salsa lessons from Wilmington Latin Dance at the UNCW Amphitheater on campus. UNCW Presents’ foundation includes programming with community organizations (Opera Wilmington and the Wilmington Dance Festival from Dance Cooperative have billing this season, too).

Securing international, national and regional talent, featuring various genres of arts and diversity, also remains top-of-mind. Such will be seen when award-winning composer Scott Alan is joined by Broadway star Shoshana Bean on Sept. 10. Alan will have a question-and-answer session with the audience about his career afterward as well.

Likewise, John Brown Big Band’s world-class jazz will ring in the holidays with the addition of Grammy nominee Nnenna Freelon on Dec. 18. Hosting the big band is a crowning moment in the season, Reyes noted, mainly because it’s a large show to pull off with a 17-piece orchestra. Plus, the band and Freelon are in demand.

“Both are highly involved in their respective arts communities,” Reyes explained. 

Brown is the vice provost of the arts at Duke University, while Freelon, a North Carolina native, tours frequently and extensively. 

A few of the season’s most playful performances include the stilt-walking acrobatic theatrics of Carpetbag Brigade, as well as DRUMLine Live, featuring the rhythms and funk of marching bands from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Next spring, the New Morse Code features out-of-the ordinary sounds created by cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello. The duo push orchestral boundaries by connecting their music to causes of social and environmental justice. 

“[They] find innovative ways to interact with communities while spreading awareness of the issues that mean the most to them,” Reyes explained. 

The duo creates original compositions from unique sounds. Collins and Compitello have recorded audio of the cities they play in, captured the crinkling of crushed plastic bottles, and incorporated audio of synthetic materials audience members wear into their playing.

According to Katie Crosby, who handles artist services and is the residency manager at the office of the arts, New Morse Code will offer a series of workshops. Participants will bring found objects to repurpose for musical accompaniment.

“We have made the commitment to always go above and beyond just the performance aspect of our programming,” Reyes said. 

The new season will involve literature as well. 

At the beginning of June 2021, UNCW Presents received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to launch the Big Read Cape Fear. The community reading program will center on Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street.” Cisneros will lead discussions throughout the community that help enlighten and broaden understanding of home and place, including diversity. Cisneros also will speak in November as part of both UNCW Presents’ season and the university’s Writers Week, hosted by its creative writing department. 

In tandem with Cisneros’ work, Las Cafeteria will perform next April, using roots music, rock and hip-hop to tell stories of diverse communities. The group utilizes Son Jarocho instruments, like the jarana, requinto, quijada (donkey jawbone), and tarima (a wooden platform), and sings in English, Spanish, and Spanglish.

Film will not be left out of the lineup either. It was one of the ways UNCW Presents continued its outreach during Covid-19 shutdowns, as the program teamed up with community partners, including Cucalorus Film Festival, to host Curbside Cinema. The Covid-safe, drive-in movie experience began in summer 2020 and wrapped in spring 2021 in the parking lot of Kenan Auditorium. 

“There are no plans to relaunch Curbside Cinema,” according to Crosby. “However, if there seems to be a community need for it in the future, we are willing and able to bring it back!” 

For now, UNCW Presents will have folks seated at various on- and off-campus venues across town — including inside Jengo’s Playhouse, Cucalorus’ headquarters. The South Arts’ Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers reaches into the artistic lodes of the global community to screen works by documentarians worldwide. 

Crosby said the filmmaker organization puts emphasis on stories told from the points-of-view of Black and indigenous creators and people of color. UNCW Presents will feature 10 films that envelop a variety of social-justice issues. Screenings will feature virtual or in-person dialogs, not only with filmmakers and subjects of the film, but with experts in related fields, too. 

Reyes said social justice is an important aspect that the arts office honed in throughout the past year. It inspired the launch of “Artivism for Social Change.” The initiative was born “to show solidarity and stand by our values,” Reyes said, in response to police brutality and the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

UNCW Office of the Arts, in collaboration with other university departments, recently revealed the public art installation “Because It’s Time” near the UNCW Amphitheater. Created by artist Dare Coulter, the piece celebrates the Black Lives Matter movement. It also touches on local events, such as the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, that have affected Black lives, in hopes of creating tough conversations that help heal.

RELATED: ‘Time doesn’t heal wounds, intention does’: BLM sculpture unveiled on UNCW campus, challenges uncomfortable conversations

The arts office also launched in Veteran’s Hall a photography exhibit, “A World of Aging,” by Dr. Jeffrey M. Levine. The doctor specializes in geriatric and palliative care and has taken photos worldwide of people in their golden years, in hopes of creating ease around discussions of aging. 

Exhibits are free to the public, though viewers must follow Covid-19 protocols on campus, which adheres to UNC System and state policies. The same goes for audiences in Kenan Auditorium, where most events take place for UNCW Presents. Sanitation stations are installed in the venue, Reyes confirmed, and there are optional paperless tickets and programs to help limit shared contact. 

Tickets go on sale for UNCW Presents’ new season, Thursday, Aug. 5; the rundown of events and prices can be found on the university’s website.

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