I've always been intrigued by Kwanzaa. I don't really know what it is, and I've never really had to. I'm a Christmas person.
Last year my curiosity led me to a performance by the Kwanzaa Community Choir, which is a program of Asante Children's Theatre. It happened at the Madame Walker Theatre Center and was well promoted, thus well attended. It was lively and colorful and as most Asante shows, filled with amazing talent. And I learned about Kwanzaa, but apparently it's still a mystery to many.
The show is happening again this year but is called "The Holiday Concert" with a subtitle "The British Invasion." Nothing about it says Kwanzaa, and I wondered why they chose to take that out of the title. Fortunately, I got to talk with Ryan Bennett, the assistant to the Artist Director, Deborah Asante. Ryan explained the show will be as good as ever, with 50 singers between the ages of 8 and 82 performing an eclectic array of both contemporary and original musical selections with British influence.
But Ryan also explained that traditionally, Kwanzaa is thought to be an African religious practice. Because that's so specific, some people don't feel the celebration is "for them," which is interesting since it isn't an African tradition, and it doesn't have anything to do with religion. Kwanzaa is actually a 46-year-old African-American tradition that uplifts seven principles.
Each day of the weeklong celebration has a different principle: Kujichangulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujaama (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Umojo (unity), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). Kwanzaa is a movement purposed to better communities. Asante Children's Theatre shares many of these same values and teaches them through its various programs.
"The goal of Asante is to teach life skills through the performing arts," says Ryan. "We teach them about responsibility, time management, team work, respecting elders and so much more--all through the performing arts."
So, even if they've taken the Kwanzaa out of the title, the principles are still there in the kids.
What I like about Asante is that the students learn about respect at such an early age. They learn about the world, they learn about Kwanzaa (something I had to discover myself) while they are children, and it's all through a performing arts lens. Shortly after last year's concert, I saw a teenage boy walking down the street in my neighborhood. Looking to me like he had no place to go, I took a second glance and recognized him. "Oh, that's an Asante kid," I said to myself. It completely changed my perspective. Now I see a boy who has learned about principles and values and a boy who has learned about the arts and local business. That's what it means to be an Asante kid. That's why this group is important to Indy.
There are three performances for the Holiday Concert beginning Thursday, Dec. 5th at John Marshall High School at 7 p.m. Friday night's show takes place at the Athenaeum on Mass Ave. at 7 p.m., and the series ends on Saturday night with a show at the Madame Walker Theatre Center, also at 7 p.m. Admission is two canned good items.