Cultural center looks to lay African roots in downtown Aiken

Wendy Bryce recently returned to Aiken from South Africa after more than a decade abroad. A delicate woman with long dreadlocks, she recounted her experiences as she sipped a coffee drink at New Moon Café.

Bryce worked in the embattled country during the years before and after the end of apartheid and the release of leader and former president Nelson Mandela from prison. When she came back to her hometown of Aiken, she immersed herself in the foundation of the Center for African American History, Art & Culture.

She brought to the center knowledge of African arts and culture gained through involvement with arts councils in the Free State, particularly in the capital city of Bloemfontein. And she intends to put that knowledge to good use.

“My goal, particularly having lived in South Africa and learning the intricacies of African culture, is I thought it was really, really important for people to begin to refine their African awareness,” she explained.

Gladdened at seeing a continuing connection by the CSRA’s African-American community with their African roots, she was nonetheless amused when seeing others dressed in African garb that, to the trained eye, revealed not culture or class, but confusion. One might see someone wearing different patterns from warring African tribes, sometimes mixed with the jewelry of the Caribbean.

“In Africa, you wear the clothes and patterns of your tribe. You would never, never mix those patterns, or wear the clothes of another tribe,” she said. And the jewelry of Africa encodes cultural symbols that communicate not only origin, but knowledge, feelings and values.

While the Center for African American History, Art & Culture, which Bryce is toiling to help start, will not focus as much on learning the complexities of the various forms of expression and identity found in Africa, it will help connect African-Americans to both their ancestral and modern roots. The search for identity that consumes us all can be particularly difficult for an individual with few connections to the past, who knows little more than the past two or three generations — particularly when you consider that African culture places a high value on ancestors.

The center will be housed in a building at 120 York St. in downtown Aiken that is currently undergoing remodeling, including the restoration of the façade to its original appearance. It will need $300,000 in repairs and renovations before it can open.

Bryce hopes to raise a modest $30,000 with the production of the center’s upcoming theatrical review, “Epic in Aiken,” an evening of song, theater and celebration of modern African-American culture.

“It’s actually quite a long program. You will definitely get your money’s worth,” Bryce said. “What we want is that the center is very much a grassroots effort, a place that is alive and not just a static building.”

The evening will be just a peek at what such a center can accomplish. The building will house art exhibits, recital rooms, archives and a re-creation of the slave passage. It aims to be as inclusive as possible, and Bryce is already building bridges with businesses and organizations in the CSRA, such as Cutno Dance Studio and the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History.

“The organization has to be flexible enough to accommodate the things that the artists want to achieve,” Bryce said. “That there is a sharing of your resources, of your talent, of your contacts so that the whole arts community is strengthened.”

The evening will open with praise singers from the Republic of South Africa, a nod to Bryce’s experiences. In Africa, whenever there is any official celebration or ceremony, praise singers open the festivities. Traditionally, African tribal chiefs had praise singers whose performances often functioned as a link between them and the people.

It will continue through theatrical productions such as “African Dawn” by Keita Fodeba, choreographed by Aisha River and danced by the Ayoluwa African Dance Theatre. “Symbiosis” is a portion of George C. Wolf’s “The Colored Museum” and deals with the assimilation of black culture.

“This particular piece is about having to lose different aspects of African-American culture to conform to mainstream corporate culture,” Bryce said. “Why can’t there be room for all cultures? Why can’t we be who were are?”

The final production, by up-and-coming playwright Ras Jus Dawa-Colibri, is “Bitter Reflections Do Not Flatter.” It’s written in such a way that audience members may be surprised at what is revealed, not just on the stage, but about themselves.

“Most theater is based on the model of Stanislavski, whereas traditional African theater is based on demonstration,” Bryce explained. “It will be very interesting to see the reaction of the audience to a piece so different in presentation.”

Epic in Aiken will be Friday and Saturday, Feb. 9-10, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 11, at 1 p.m. at Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Aiken. The evening includes three pieces: “Bitter Reflections Do Not Flatter,” by Ras Jus Dawa-Colibri; “Sympbosis,” by Georgia C. Wolfe; and “African Dawn,” by Keita Fodeba, choreographed by Aisha River of the Ayoluwa African Dance Theater. African Roots praise singers from the Republic of South Africa will perform. Opening night tickets are $35 and other tickets are $25. Call 803-649-2221 or visit aikenculturalcenter.org.

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