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"The Show Must Go On", but How?

By Merri Ann Osborne

When the Governor signed into effect a statewide emergency on March 16th to temporarily shut down ‘life as we know it’ because of COVID-19, I understood that decision. A lot was still being learned about the virus and no one knew for sure how it was spread or how long it would be with us. The one thing we did know was that people were dying because of it.

The 4 months prior to that shut down I had auditioned, hired and was rehearsing a show with 4 actors for a March performance through my arts organization The Mahogany Project. And at CD Forum, we were getting ready for our spring shows featuring solo artists, Sunday Dinners, Kitchen Sessions, Galas and so much more.

I remember the week leading up to that shut down announcement.

Sharon, our ED, had said to our team, ‘Everyone, grab your computers now, because we may be working from home for awhile.’

Boy, was she right!

Now close to 8 months later, so much has changed.

As the weeks turned into months, the global pandemic worries were joined by the continued murders of unarmed Black people, murders of Black Trans women, protests, marches, voter suppression, unemployment, healthcare inequities, fights over wearing masks, white supremacists (they never have gone away), unease about upcoming election, etc. etc.

Every day brought something new and it usually wasn’t good! Constantly on my mind was how I was going to navigate living life while taking care of myself and others in this new reality of social distancing, masks, self-isolation, 6-feet and stay safe. How would I deal with the fear, anger and mistrust that this country is going through in 2020?

I have found that creating art and working with other artists has continued to be my anchor in these very choppy waters! Art does heal, save lives, and can uplift and empower people, even when we feel powerless. I’m so thankful to have art and creativity in my life both personally and professionally.

As an artist and arts administrator, I’m constantly checking in with artists and other arts organizations as we work together, as a community, to share information on Covid-19 best practices in our spaces and how to financially survive this pandemic.

But more importantly, and what I love the most, is that the arts community – individually or as organizations – is reaching out to others in our creative community to make sure that artists and their loved ones are doing okay as we support each other through these challenging times.

The Mahogany Project and CD Forum has thought carefully and seriously about this new reality and have dedicated ourselves to our commitment of providing a platform for Black artists and conversations centered around our community, with or without COVID.

Both organizations took their programing 100% virtual and CD Forum also pumped up its social media presence. This shift has allowed us to explore new production opportunities and to continue to showcase Black artists while at the same time, connecting with audiences nationally and globally that we wouldn’t have reached in traditional performance settings.

For the Mahogany Project, we ended up producing our planned March event but split it into two events that were held in August and September. These events, in collaboration with our annual and community partners (including CD Forum), focused on voter suppression in Black and Native communities. As virtual town halls, we were able to have expert panelists (local and national) who could talk on these issues. The event still had its signature Q&A session, but this time, because it was a virtual event, the panelists received a broader scope of questions from all over the country.

During these Town Halls, we screened clips from documentaries that addressed voter suppression in Black and Native communities, adding an artistic element to this serious issue that continues to haunt the integrity of our democracy.

The Mahogany Project also had been planning, since the summer of 2019, for a stage reading event to take place in summer 2020. Because of the pandemic, we switched to a virtual event and filmed 6 new short plays by playwrights from the African American Writers Alliance. This production engaged over 20 artists including playwrights, directors, actors, tech support and other artists.

The whole project was a huge learning experience for me and I couldn’t have done it without the openness and talents of all the artists involved and from our community partners and donors.

All of these projects are accessible for viewing on YouTube and, once again, have introduced audiences to emerging and established artists in our community.

Because of the play festival production, I am also happy to say that some of the artists received additional employment opportunities due to their involvement in the festival.

As for CD Forum, we went ahead and rolled out CD Forum TV, an online viewing portal where creativity just flows and flows. The first virtual performance we presented since the pandemic began was a May solo show and we haven’t stopped since.

Throughout the spring, summer and fall, CD Forum Curator Dani Tirrell, has been having Instagram Live conversations with Black artists, leaders, thinkers and makers through Dani’s show ‘Intimate Conversations’. We also did our first online fundraising party in July called the Boujee Brunch Soiree. Thanks to Dani, Nina (CD Forum’s Business Manager) and the organizing team, this event was not only successful but lots of fun! A chance to gather with friends, dress up, relax and enjoy during a summer where most of us were hunkering indoors.

In a few weeks, we will be filming our annual ‘Showing Out’ program featuring Black Choreographers. ‘Showing Out’ is the official start of our 2020-2021 season for CD Forum and will be the first of three performances by the seven Showing Out artists featured this season.

As the Production Manager for CD Forum, I am thankful that we have been able to successfully make this transfer to virtual thanks to the film production talents of Michael B. Maine, and that I can continue to work with artists to showcase their talents and for the viewer to still be able to connect with the performers and their art.

Like I said before, The Mahogany Project and CD Forum haven’t stopped doing what we do because of the pandemic and social unrest. In fact, it motivates us even more to bring quality, thought-provoking and joyous productions and conversations that artists can be proud of and audiences can enjoy.

Wishing all a peaceful holiday season and wishes for a super-feeling-good 2021!

We all could use it.

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