African-American culture is theme to summer cultural event

By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff

PITTSFIELD -- A countywide arts festival will debut next summer, celebrating African-American history and culture in an event organizers say will enhance the Berkshires stature as a tourist destination.

"Lift Ev'ry Voice," scheduled to run from June 19 through July 23, will feature new events and incorporate existing ones focused on the contributions of African-Americans locally, nationally and abroad.

The festival will be a public-private collaboration of area theaters, museums, cultural and tourism groups, businesses, and the cities of Pittsfield and North Adams.

"We're going to have local youth engaged in many of the activities," said Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto.

"This festival will not only drive visitors to our region, but involves every major cultural attraction," said North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright.

The festival's title is taken from the song "Lift Ev'ry Voice & Sing," traditionally considered the African-American national anthem. It was penned by early 20th-century author and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, who spent his summers in the Berkshires, according to festival organizers.

The announcement Monday afternoon came at the Second Congregational Church on Onota Street, a church once led by the Rev. Samuel Harrison, who served as chaplain of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the all-black unit of the Union Army portrayed in the Civl War movie "Glory."

"This festival is an opportunity to celebrate the human spirit [and pay] tribute to our ancestors for the contributions and hardships they endured," said Shirley Edgerton, co-chair of the festival's steering committee.

While fundraising for the monthlong celebration has just begun, with a goal to be determined, several events already have been scheduled or are in the planning stages, including a kick-off street fair June 19 in Pittsfield.

The start date coincides with "Juneteenth," which marks the day that news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, the last state to learn of President Abraham Lincoln proclaiming slaves to be free.

"Freedom is more than the absence of slavery," said co-chair Don Quinn Kelley. "It's about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

"Lift Ev'ry Voice" also will include yet-be-scheduled special performances at the Colonial Theatre and Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, a free film series at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, and a youth day at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams on July 2.

In addition, Pittsfield's monthly Third Thursday event July 21 will have an African-American focus. "Lift Ev'ry Voice" will end Saturday, July 23, with the annual "Gather-in," a traditionally African-American neighborhood celebration held at Pitt Park in Pittsfield.

Additional events and performances will be announced in the months leading up to the festival, which organizers view as an educational experience for all.

"The more we get youth involved, the better the payoff for education," Kelley said.

"We don't do enough to educate our children about African-American history, including here in the Berkshires," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

"Lift Ev'ry Voice" will be promoted as a major tourist attraction to all demographics.

"I don't know anyone who isn't a fan of an African-American singer, actor or celebrity," said Megan Whilden, Pittsfield's director of cultural development. "This will appeal to all people, not just those of color."

n What: "Lift Ev'ry Voice," a countywide arts and heritage festival celebrating African-American history and culture.

n When: June 19 to July 23, 2011.

n Where: Locations throughout the Berkshires. Here are some highlights of the festival thus far:

June 19: Kick-off street festival in Pittsfield. Musician and composer Craig Harris will perform "God's Trombones" at the Colonial Theatre.

June 23: Downstreet Art in North Adams will have an African-American focus.

July 2: Youth day at Mass MoCA in North Adams.

July 21: Opening night of the Barrington Stage Company's "The Best of Enemies," about the fight for school desegregation in North Carolina in 1971. The play will run through Aug. 6.

July 23: Annual "gather-in" at Pitt Park in Pittsfield.

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