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Experience Sankofa aims to transport audience back in time to Harlem Renaissance, dawn of hip-hop

'We would love people to dive in'
Posted: 5:00 AM, Feb 01, 2019
Updated: 2019-02-02 01:12:42-05
Experience Sankofa cast
Naquia Chante
Jennie Wright and Nasquia Chante
Napoleon Maddox

CINCINNATI — Jennie Wright is a self-described “super sci-fi nerd” with a lifelong interest in the idea of time travel.

She’s also an artist and producer who has always been fascinated with the Harlem Renaissance.

So when the opportunity arose to apply for a grant from People's Liberty, she combined those passions to come up with a winning proposal.

Wright calls it “Experience Sankofa,” and it opens at the People’s Liberty Globefront on Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine on Feb. 2.

Experience Sankofa is an interactive performance where members of the audience assume the role of time travelers and becomes part of the production.

“Sankofa is actually a Ghanian word, and it means go back and get it or return to get it,” said Wright, the chief imagination officer for the project. “So the whole concept is you need to go back and reclaim your past. Reclaim those old ideals and customs.”

During February performances, Experience Sankofa will focus on the Harlem Renaissance. In March, it will focus on the early years of hip-hop music.

Naquia Chante during a dress rehearsal. Andy Overton | WCPO

People’s Liberty selected Wright as one of this year’s Globe Grant winners because of the powerful combination of her background and her idea, said Community Manager Hannah Gregory.

Wright received $15,000 and mentoring from People’s Liberty for the project. Experience Sankofa performances will occur at the People’s Liberty building just across from Findlay Market.

“Jennie had this dynamic background as a leader and a doer,” Gregory said. “And we thought her project, Sankofa, really kind of encapsulated almost what the market is going through right now where you’re looking back at your history. And you’re bringing it to the present and looking at how that can inform you.”

‘We would love people to dive in’

The project is the first Globe Grant winner on display this year.

Each time period will feature museum displays Monday through Thursday and live performances on Fridays and Saturdays. People who attend the performances are encouraged to dress in period costumes, but Wright said she would have items that people can borrow to blend in with the performers.

“We want them to really just to be engaged,” she said. “To listen to the music – and there’s some wonderful performances – to actually learn some of the dances, to create some works of art themselves.”

Wright’s daughter, Siri Imani, is the project’s talent coordinator. A member of the Cincinnati performance group Triiibe , Imani has connections with lots of local artists and has identified those whose styles best match up with the Harlem Renaissance and hip-hop eras.

Imani, who is 23, said she has been a fan of her mom’s idea from the start.

Napoleon Maddox during a dress rehearsal.

“I thought it was genius,” she said. “I’m a history buff. A lot of young adults my age are not.”

The way Imani learned about history in school wasn’t fun, she said. But she expects the idea of having an “immersive experience where people can immerse in the time and have fun while they’re doing it” to be far more effective, she said.

“Once you come inside, you are in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and that’s where you’ve got to stay,” Imani said. “I would tell people to be prepared to use their imagination and to be open-minded.”

Imani said she’s hoping people will make Experience Sankofa a family experience.

“I think this is something that can connect all generations,” she said.

The goal is for the audience to “document and to observe and to collect these bits of arts and culture,” Wright said.

That can mean learning how to do the Lindy hop or talking with a flapper.

“You become very much involved,” Wright said. “It’s at your comfort level. But we would love people to dive in. You can take a dance lesson. You can paint a mural. You can create a poem.”

There will be special nights throughout the run of the event. Those include a rent party like people used to have in Harlem to help raise money to pay rent and a dance contest with help from the Cincinnati Lindy Society .

“Cincinnati’s always been great about having some really awesome Black History Month offerings, and I think this just falls in line perfectly with that,” Wright said. “It’s an opportunity to explore the culture, the art, everything about that time, and it fits in perfectly with Black History Month.”

Jennie Wright helps Naquia Chante with her hat after a dress rehearsal. Andy Overton | WCPO

More information about Experience Sankofa , including how to get free tickets , is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.