The Dancer’s Project Sets in Motion the Story of Black Joy and Resilience

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This was originally featured in the Houston Chronicle’s HouWeAre newsletter on race, culture and identity. You can register here.

This weekend, stories of freedom, resilience and jubilation will ring in celebration June 19the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, which last year became the first federally recognized holiday since Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1983.

Stacey Allen — dancer, choreographer, educator and self-proclaimed “artivist” — has hers to add to the canon of Texas’ rich and unique black experience.

The seed was planted in 2018, when Allen overheard her husband talking casually with a family member of their ancestors, the Shankles, who founded Shankleville, one of the Texas Freedom Colonies in Newton County, Deep East Texas. More … than 500 freedom coloniesor freedmen’s towns, were built in the state by former slaves following the June 19 Edict, as groups of landowning black families created self-sustaining, self-sufficient safe spaces amid the terrors of the post-Civil War south.

The story, as the story and Allen tell it, centers on Jim and Winnie Shankle, who were born into slavery in the early 1800s. They met and fell in love on a plantation in Mississippi, and when Winnie and his children were sold to a man moving to Texas, Jim then escaped and, instead of fleeing north, followed his heart to Texas – covering hundreds of miles on foot and like a fugitive and swimming in the mighty Mississippi River to find his love.

Prior to this time, Allen, a Missouri City native with roots in East Texas, had steered clear of slavery-centric choreography or dance productions; then, she saw it as a dark and often shameful period that already had plenty of reinterpretations, artistic and otherwise, in various media. But that changed with the history of the Shankles.

“I saw not just a story of love, but a story of resilience and, above all, agency — something few slaves could access,” Allen says. “For my husband’s family, it was a daily story of their roots, where they came from. But for me, it’s the story of black people with black heroes. It’s the story of Texas. And I had to say it.”

And tell her she will – through the medium she knows best: dance.

When discussing storytelling traditions in Black and Indigenous cultures, the importance of oral histories, the tradition of transmission of culture, knowledge and spirituality through the archives of memory and repetition. But the weight and meaning of the dance is often overlooked – the way the sinew stretch and the arch and flow of the limbs are reminiscent of ritual and relevance.

Allen’s own storytelling culminates in the production of “The Fairytale Project,” inspired by the Shankles story, with a fantastic twist: two teenagers reluctantly attend a family reunion in East Texas (there- Does it even have Wi-Fi?), where they get trapped in time, meet their ancestors, and learn lessons that will help them get back to the present day.

Allen, a former HISD educator and current director of arts programming at the Harris County Cultural Arts Council, deliberately targets children and teens to “plant those seeds of the past into our future” through an art form that offers seldom coherent programming for young people. She designed it with her own children in mind – who inherit this heritage – but also for adults as an accessible cultural edifice not found in curricula.

“It’s high history,” she said. “My goal is to create stories of love, joy, resilience, peace and stability among black people. And while all good stories need conflict to be resolved, I wanted this production to center them. and be accepted as a universal love story.”

“The Fairy Tale Project” premieres June 26 at Discovery Green.

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