Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ensemble performs 'Ain’t I a Woman!'

By Alison Haywood, A&E Reporter

The University Center got a taste of Greek life Wednesday.

About 120 community members, Pacific Lutheran students, prospective students and faculty members gathered in the Chris Knutzen hall to attend the original Core Ensemble performance Ain’t I a Woman! Wednesday at 7 p.m.

The event last two hours and earned a standing ovation and enthusiastic applause.

Dozens of red sweaters marked much of the audience as members of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority active in the women’s movement throughout the 20th century.

The event was the brainchild of Director of Multicultural Recruitment and Women’s Center advisory board member Melannie Cunningham and the result of a gross collaboration across campus. A personal acquaintance of Cunningham told her about Core Ensemble last November and Cunningham soon after suggested the Women’s Center bring them to PLU.

“Everyone overwhelmingly agreed that this would be good for PLU as well,” Cunningham said.

Ultimately, 13 PLU organizations wound up sponsoring the event. Cunningham also took advantage of the opportunity to showcase the campus and invited a selection of prospective students to the event. Step team Lute Nation opened the event.

“On many different fronts, we’ve got it going on,” Cunningham said. “We’ve got collaboration internally, we have community outreach, we’re doing our admission work and we’re honoring and celebrating women.”

Acting director of the Women’s Center Jennifer Smith said the event met her expectations.

Cunningham said the purpose of the event was to provide opportunities for students to immerse themselves in experiences to expand their awareness about cultures different than their own.

“The reality of the matter is, let’s just keep it real, we are a predominately white institution,” Cunningham said. “We want them [the community] to see diversity of experience, people, all that. That’s why it’s important to me.”

Actress Taylor Mahogany Scott took on the roles of four African-American women of historical significance during the performance: writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, plantation worker and painter Clementine Hunter, suffragette Fannie Lou Hamer and 19th-century activist Sojourner Truth. Portraying each character, Scott delivered Sojourner’s famous 1851 speech Ain’t I a Woman? after which the event was named.

The audience snickered at Scott’s sometimes-irreverent jokes and murmured “mmm-hmms” of affirmation at wise remarks and rhetorical questions.

“I just love the interaction with the audience when you’re the only person onstage, because it’s truly up to you to keep that audience interested,” Scott said.

The three-person combo group Core Ensemble provided a live soundtrack to Scott’s monologues. Tahira Whittington played cello, Hugh Hinton played piano and Michael Parola played percussion, which consisted of a small drum set and a vibraphone.

Core Ensemble is a traveling ensemble and leading innovator in what members call "chamber music theater," which they define as “weaving narrative and theater into the chamber music experience.”

The group has been performing for almost 20 years and Scott estimates it has put on more than 60 performances since September.

Scott said chamber ensembles are usually based in classical music, but this ensemble focused more on jazz, folk and gospel due to the setting of this performance. At times, Whittington plucked the strings of her cello in imitation of a upright bass.

Scott said one of the most important things about Core Ensemble is that it peaks people’s curiosity to learn about history.

“It encourages you to go and study about these characters,” Scott said. “That’s its main focus, its main goal, is to get the audience interested in the characters that they present.”