‘Expressions of Black Progression’: a powerful journey from past to present

Dahlia Jones starred as Billie Holiday
Dahlia Jones starred as Billie Holiday

February is the month to celebrate Black excellence, the time to share Black knowledge, pride and the continuation of the African American journey. What better way to celebrate than seeing a play entitled Expressions of Black Progression?

On February 23, some 2000 people of all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors packed the State Theatre in downtown Minneapolis for such an event, presented by The Fair School Downtown, Hennepin Theatre Trust, with production by The Avant Garde, LLC.

The opening act of the night starred Fair High School Original Youth with a one-act play entitled “Bang, Bang, Fourth Precinct Shutdown.” The stage was populated by the youth as they navigated the events that took place at the Fourth Precinct in North Minneapolis following the police shooting of Jamar Clark a couple of months ago.

The students highlighted the fears, excitement and stress that comes with being a part of a protest. They talked about present racial injustices and how these injustices affect their lives. Some of the questions raised were: Whose voices should be heard? Whose voices aren’t being heard and how can we remedy that?

“You got that right?!” “Yes!” and frequent applause from the audience signaled that many emotions were triggered by the questions raised. The performance was the perfect segue into the rest of the program.

The curtains opened with three historical figures on stage: Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, and Sam Cooke. Chadwick “Niles” Phillips, founder and CEO of The Avant Garde, LLC served as director and narrator.

“You are a powerful generation with amazing gifts, so use it!” was the central refrain repeated throughout the show that helped create cohesion between each segment and connect the past with the present.

Phillips took the audience through the journey, pacing the stage as he told the stories of African American history. He introduced, Hughes, who was the product of the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration.

Joe Davis, playing Hughes, traveled back in time as he told the story of his grandmother and how the stories she told him were so poetic that they inspired him to write. With all the racism going on in America, Hughes decided to use his gift to make a difference and did so by writing poems such as the classic “Dream Deferred.”

After Langston, Billie Holiday appeared, a product of the Great Depression/World War 2 and bebop era. Dahlia Jones, a former The Voice contestant, graced the stage as Holiday, going back to visit the singer’s humble beginnings. “I sing about life sincerely; I sing about the things that move me,” she stated. She used her gifts by performing two classics, the poignant “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child.” Both received rousing approval from the audience.

Sam Cooke, played by Traiveon Dunlap, appeared next, and let’s just say he is still a favorite of the ladies. Son of a pastor, it’s no surprise that the man has always had soul. He sang what seems to be a favorite of so many, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and caused emotions to run high in the room.

At the end of the evening tears flowed from Phillips’ eyes. After the program, when asked by the MSR why he wanted to tell this story, he responded, “our history is deep and rich… That story needs to be told.”

From slave ships to Barack Obama, Expressions of Black Progression told that story and made for an engaging, soulful and empowering evening.


Julia Johnson welcomes readers responses to jjohnson@spokesman-recorder.com.