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Celebrating Mari Evans

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For nearly 50 years, poet Mari Evans has shared her thoughts on family, politics, the African-American community, love, education and the human spirit with the world through her poetry, plays, music, books and lectures.

She's lived a life of community activism -- fighting for prison reform and against capital punishment -- and has worked with community organizations and theaters throughout the country.

Ironically, Evans made her mark as a thought-leader rather quietly right here in Indianapolis. Known to turn down more interviews than she grants, Evans usually lets the work speak for her. "Mari is an icon," says Carol White, a visual artist who has come to know Evans on a personal level. "Because she's just kind of a quiet soul, she doesn't get the (accolades) she deserves. She doesn't toot her own horn, and you're typically not going to see her on the front page of the newspaper. She lays out her thoughts in her work, sits back and watches what happens." Still, her work -- whether on paper, on stage, or in the streets -- has influenced generations. Maybe not to the same fanfare of literary counterparts like Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston or Nikki Giovanni, who have consistently garnered national attention, but an influence just the same.

Mari Evans' impact is the focus of "Celebrations," one of more than 30 Spirit & Place events happening through this weekend around Indianapolis. - COURTESY OF NUVO
  • Courtesy of NUVO
  • Mari Evans' impact is the focus of "Celebrations," one of more than 30 Spirit & Place events happening through this weekend around Indianapolis.

On Nov. 14, the now 91-year-old Evans will get a glimpse of the impact she's made in her own backyard during a tribute to her life and work by four local women in the arts. "Celebrations," part tribute, community conversation and arts showcase, will feature live storytelling, performances by the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, Freetown Village and Iibada Dance Company, an art exhibit and spoken word poetry centered around two of Evans's most popular poems: "I am a Black Woman" and "Celebration."

The program is one of more than 30 included in this year's Spirit & Place Festival. The theme for the annual 10-day festival, which creates civic engagement through collaborations across community sectors, is called "Journey."

"We wanted [Mari] to see and to understand how important she was and is to us," says White, who along with Sabra Logan (Iibada), Betty Perry (MYO) and Ophelia Wellington (Freetown) will share personal stories about their lives and the sometimes bumpy roads they've traveled to start their own arts organization and to fulfill their life's work in the arts.

For all four women, Evans - at some point in their journeys - has served as an inspiration to keep doing the work. They stand in awe of the courage Evans displayed by branching out into other art forms during her career (which began in the 1960s), especially during a time many would consider quite challenging for women, let alone black women.

Artist, teacher and arts administrator Carol White believes that Mari Evans' impact is often overlooked, which is part of the motivation for the "Celebrations" event. - PERRY REICHANADTER
  • Perry Reichanadter
  • Artist, teacher and arts administrator Carol White believes that Mari Evans' impact is often overlooked, which is part of the motivation for the "Celebrations" event.

Known primarily as a poet, Evans also has composed music, written children's books, and held posts at several universities and colleges throughout the United States.

"I have the utmost respect for Mari because she did what she wanted to do," says White. "People try to pigeon-hole you into a specific thing. 'If you do this, then that's all you should do.' But Mari writes poems, plays, music and children's books."

When Wellington started Freetown Village, a living history museum that depicts the lives of free African-Americans in 1870, she says there were definitely naysayers. But Wellington believes it takes great confidence to stand firmly in what you believe in. It's a quality she says Evans displayed throughout her career.

"The obstacles that she (Mari) came up against and what she was able to overcome …," says Wellington, "you have to have something inside you to stay the course. The tenacity, the strength that it took to do all that she has done -- it's inspirational."

During the tribute, Wellington will recite "I Am a Black Woman" and "Celebration" with Evans in the audience. It's an opportunity that Wellington -- who studied Evans's work while a student at Indiana University and years later had the poet as a guest at Freetown's summer camp for youth -- doesn't take lightly.

"Just for me to be in relationship with her was amazing," says Wellington.

In addition to the tributes, Perry, White, Logan and Wellington are working to pass Evans' legacy on to the next generation.

Betty Perry, who founded Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, is one of several local arts leaders who will share the direct impact that Evans had in their lives. - KIRSTEN EAMON-SHINE
  • Kirsten Eamon-Shine
  • Betty Perry, who founded Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, is one of several local arts leaders who will share the direct impact that Evans had in their lives.

They have been teaching students in their respective arts organizations about her work and life. Many of these students will perform during the tribute. White, an art teacher, also has been working with students from Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School, helping them create works based on Evans's poem "Celebration." Their artwork will be on display during the event.

In the process of preparing for the tribute, Perry says they are discovering more things about Evans -- her passion for children, how active she was in the community -- things that make it even more important to share her story and legacy.

"Mari was the wise one for us, and right now we're the wise ones. We're the wise heads for this generation," says Perry, who first met Evans when the poet's grandson was a member of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra that Perry started in 1995.

"We come with the wisdom and are passing that on to the next generation. We're trying to continue Mari's legacy. It's important to us to not only honor Mari, but also to honor each of us, because if we don't, what happens to Mari's legacy when she's gone?"


'Celebrations'

What: A tribute to poet and Indianapolis resident Mari Evans, featuring Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, Iibada Dance Company, Freetown Village, visual artist Carol White, spoken word poet Tony Styxx and more. The event is part of the annual Spirit & Place Festival.

When: 7 - 8:30 p.m. Nov. 14. Where: Broadway United Methodist Church, 609 E. 29th St. The event will be held in the Community Room on the lower level.

Cost: Free.

Info: www.spiritandplace.org.

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