Archive for October 21st, 2018


Recognizing Ashley Bryan’s Work

October 21, 2018


It’s all come together around Ashley Bryan. Art exhibit, theatre performance, film, a visit to Ashley’s home, and a requiem.

This blog post (and more to follow) will provide information about what is presently underway to recognize the work of Ashley Bryan. Ashley is 95 years old and has lived on Islesford – Little Cranberry Island – year-round since he retired from Dartmouth College 31 years ago. He first came to Maine to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1946. Ashley is a poet, storyteller, painter, puppet maker, illustrator, printmaker, and musician. He has written or illustrated over 50 children’s books. He is alive with imagination and creativity!

Ashley with his puppets Babatu and Osaze

I’ve blogged about the exhibit of Ashley Bryan’s at the Portland Museum of Art that opened in early August and will be remain until November 25. Contact the museum to arrange a trip for your students to visit. And, plan to go with your family and friends. I’ve shared information about the film (and the shortened version) created for schools by Maine film maker Richard Kane called I Know a Man… Ashley BryanThe film is available for public libraries and K-12 schools on DVD.

This weekend and tomorrow at the University of Southern Maine one of Ashley’s books, Beautiful Blackbird, which was created into a play, will be performed. Below is information from three people representing the three organizations who have collaborated to make the exhibit and the performance possible.

  • Catherine M. Anderson, Director of Ovations Offstage
  • Marcie P. Griswold, Director of Visitor Experience and Special Programs, Portland Museum of Art
  • René  Goddess Johnson, Coordinator of Multicultural Affairs, Education and Events, Executive & Artistic Director of the Theater Ensemble of Color

Beautiful Blackbird, words and illustrations by Ashley Bryan

Inspired by a traditional story from the Ila-speaking people of Zambia, Blackbird tells the uplifting tale of the only bird in the forest to have black feathers, and his lessons for the other birds, who are envious of his beauty. The moral is that of tolerance, understanding, and self-love, and this limited-run production promises to empower and entertain theater-goers of all ages.

René Goddess has been working with children for 17 years as a nanny, an improv movement teacher and actor at event’s like Portland Stages Play Me story events. She chose not to communicate with the theater group who performed Beautiful Blackbird at the High Museum in Atlanta so she would not be influenced. Instead she has envisioned this completely with the local artists of color as inspiration.

In René’s own words: “Ashley’s work is somehow complex and simple and always stunning. His love for children and their ability to imagine the best in humans is what excites me the most about bringing this to a live stage. His art is complex because all humans, regardless of age, understand depth. The lack of intricate detail on the beautiful creatures, with this particular story, allows for young people to conjure the story around the character. The self love of blackness in all his art has always drawn me to him. Growing up in a place like Maine, where white teachers made me generally feel shame for my blackness, his work gave me options that were positive and affirming. Bring messages of growth in humanity is what theatre does best.”

From Marcie Griswold

At the PMA, collaboration is key. We’re always looking for new access points to visual art; music, dance, and theater provide a magical connection to works of art. Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre had staged two plays based on Ashley Bryan’s works, Dancing Granny and Beautiful Blackbird, which complemented the run of the Bryan’s exhibition at the city’s High Museum. After our Learning & Interpretation colleagues witnessed the magic of that show, we felt the programming would be a fabulous component to our own iteration of the show and to Maine audiences generally.

We needed a collaborative partner to whom we could give this project with the knowledge that the PMA is not in the business of theatre arts. It is only through a creative collaboration that we could bring this work to life. As an institution, the PMA seeks to amplify artists — and this was a great opportunity to continue that practice. The original production and musical accompaniment, written by Theroun Patterson and Eugene H. Russell III, calls for creative movement and vibrant voices; TEoC and Portland Ovations fit the bill for an exciting collaboration.

A quote delivered to PMA from Theroun Patterson and Eugene H. Russell III:

“All of the dynamic elements of theatre are in the Ashley Bryan’s story of Beautiful Blackbird: a great story, positive and affirming messages for young and old alike, and of course, it’s musicality. Having the show travel north exemplifies what is great about the Theatre Arts and Artists: we are a massive hive of shared work! We are each probably no more than three or four degrees separated from someone that has had at least something to do with almost any play out there. It’s what we do. We create. We pass on. We learn. It’s a beautiful ecosystem.”

From Catherine Anderson

When we had the opportunity at Portland Ovations to collaborate with University of Southern Maine to produce the first staged reading of the opera “The Summer King” about the Life of Negro League Ballplayer Josh Gibson in 2014 we had a similar long range goal that was realized. The full length opera The Summer King has been presented at the Pittsburg Opera in 2017, and the Detroit Opera earlier this year.

From the first moment I was contacted by the Jen Deprizzio/The Portland Museum of Art in early 2017 to explore Ovations interest and capacity for supporting this project, Ovations Offstage was in a full-on YES mode. It is a rare and miraculous thing when an offer to work with a trusted and respected partner comes to you with a collaboration offer on a project that you fully believe in before you have even arrived at the table. It was humbling to be at the table with the PMA, and the leadership of the Theatre Ensemble of Color during the various incarnations of this project.  Marcie and the PMA were instrumental in making sure that Ovations and the PMA came this concept of “amplifying” Theatre Ensemble of Color every step of the way. What that meant to Ovations Offstage was always looking for opportunities to make the realization of bringing these performance(s) to fruition as easy as possible, and with as many opportunities for shared learning, and celebration. From lighting design plans, to marketing materials our collective mission was to see this project to where it has arrived; four sold out performances and a wait list with 500 people on it!

%d bloggers like this: