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San Diego has so many great artists and arts groups that those who regularly make or take in performances sometimes forget that there can be a purpose to performance beyond simply making great art.
Art and activism have a long shared history, from the proto-political cartoons of the Protestant Reformation to modern protest songs like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
This weekend, the San Diego Women’s Chorus and Black Storytellers of San Diego will fill University Christian Church in Hillcrest with an inspired mix of sung and spoken text on equality. The two groups have collaborated several times, and both relish the creative challenge of selecting pieces that fit the concert theme, “Still We Rise,” and uniting the groups’ stories.
Black Storytellers of San Diego (BSSD) was founded in 1999 by Annjennette McFarlane as an affiliate of The National Association of Black Storytellers. The national group has twice named the San Diego offshoot its affiliate of the year. Their mission is to preserve and share uniquely African and African-American stories, and they do this in every imaginable venue for every imaginable audience in multifarious forms, including folk tales, literature, history and personal experience.
While many of us harbor fond childhood memories of story hour at our local libraries, many adults have never seen a storyteller perform, and that’s a shame. Storytellers are like virtuoso musicians whose instruments are their voices and bodies, and their music is the spoken word. A skilled storyteller can hold an entire auditorium in thrall, make you laugh until you cry or cry until you have to laugh, and teach you a lesson before you realized you were learning anything.
Seeing a BSSD performance was what led San Diego Women’s Chorus members to initiate their first collaboration in 2005.
SDWC, founded in 1987 by Cynthia Lawrence-Wallace, started with 14 members dedicated to performing music written by, for and about women. The chorus, which doesn’t require its singers to audition, has grown to over 70.
“This group is incredibly special,” said artistic director Chris Allen. “I’ve never worked with a group in San Diego that cares for one another more: lesbian, straight, young, old, all musical abilities. SDWC covers a broad spectrum of music, but also strives to remain socially active with issues that affect women directly, which many tend to ignore.”
Carin Scheinin, the group’s board president, said, “We have women in the chorus who are singing for the first time outside their shower, and we have women who are trained vocalists. … There is incredible strength in fostering a space for women to create.”
That creativity was on display during a dress rehearsal for “Still We Rise.” During a run-through of this weekend’s program, T. Ford of the Black Storytellers of San Diego said they had a piece that could potentially replace the as-yet-unwritten introduction to a song called “Only Light, Only Love.”
Ford ushered the five other storytellers into place. “We’ll give this a try and see how it sounds,” she said with a smile.
The piece, which was performed chorally, began with the song “This Little Light of Mine,” and was followed by a series of evocative words: Hate. Push. Hurt. Kill. All followed by the refrain: Four-letter words. The ultimate word, after declarations like lash, whip, beat, sold, is love.
The director raised his arms, and the chorus began to sing:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.
Hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only love can do that.”