A smile graced every face in Pleasant Hope Baptist Church on a recent Sunday morning. RIC Director Nathan Connolly and RIC postdoctoral fellow Jasmine Blanks Jones presented a commemorative check to the church’s dance ministry, Angels of Praise. Drs. Connolly and Blanks Jones announced that support secured under “Inheritance Baltimore,” RIC’s grant-sponsored project, will fund a group trip for at least seven Angels of Praise dancers to Liberia this December. Fundraisers for Angels of Praise, to date, had yielded only 10% of the necessary amount for the trip. But that Sunday Pleasant Hope’s congregation jumped to its feet, shouts rang out, and tambourines thrummed, as Connolly unveiled the oversized check, nearly five feet in length, in the amount of $28,500. “All y’all going!” Connolly shouted.
The gift represented Inheritance Baltimore’s ongoing relationship with Orita’s Cross Freedom School, established in 2010 by Rev. Heber Brown, III, to support and advance freedom education in Black Baltimore. This collaboration also advances RIC’s commitment to reparative, redistributive, freedom education in the city and beyond. RIC is inviting graduate students from area universities as well, who will join the trip as chroniclers and research collaborators.
In Liberia, the Angels of Praise dancers will join partners from Maryland’s Burning Barriers Building Bridges (B4 Youth Theatre) and Just One Spirit dance ministry, the culmination of more than a year of rehearsing, research, and performances in Virginia and Maryland. These dancers have developed choreography for 200 Years of Returns, an original performance in commemoration of the Liberian bicentennial.
RIC postdoctoral fellow Jasmine Blanks Jones founded B4 Youth Theatre in 2010 and has been researching the civic capabilities of youth artists in Maryland and Liberia with an eye toward the transnational connections these youth have built to support visions of liberation. Partnering B4 Youth Theatre with Rev. Brown’s Orita’s Cross Freedom Schooloffered, in the words of Blanks Jones, “a natural fit,” as “young artists who were already deeply embedded in a freedom education community” were excited to gather on a weekly basis to rehearse new choreographic material.
200 Years of Returns is a play written through a collaboration between youth theater artists from Liberia and Black Museum Theater actors from Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia. The Angels of Praise choreography provides connective tissue between the scenes of the play, which take place in both present-day Liberia and the DMV region of the United States, depicting the shared struggles and triumphs of freedom-seekers on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The Angels of Praise dancers are eager to share what they have learned through performing in the United States over the past few months, and their trip to Liberia will mark the group’s first overseas performance. Maryland and Liberia have a longstanding and deep connection. This performance will renew the connection, while also encouraging it to take new forms, as the dancers enact a practice of creativity and freedom drawing on lessons from their ancestors.