by Anthony R. Green
February 2022 is coming up, and this month in this particular year marks the 121st birthday of Langston Hughes (born 1 February 1901) and the 19th anniversary of an incredible CD celebrating his poetry with spoken word and music. This CD is called Rhapsody in Hughes 101, and it was released in February 2003. You can purchase this album via Apple Music, and it is available on Spotify and other streaming platforms! Who created this celebratory album? None other than a true heroine of our times: Val Gray Ward, who, in August this year, will celebrate her 90th birthday! Age has not slowed her down; Val Gray Ward is still creating, teaching, and inspiring the many generations of Black artists she has come to witness and mother, having recently given virtual performances for students at Wellesley College and also lecturing at the Black Arts Movement School Modality at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The legendary Val Gray Ward was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi - an all-Black town founded in 1887 by former enslaved Black Americans. Throughout her life, she has achieved incredible accomplishments. She founded the Kuumba Theater Company in Chicago, which - among many other things - placed a strong focus on community. In this vein, Kuumba sponsored book parties, poetry readings, exhibits, writing workshops, and also broadcasted films. One unique aspect about their theater practice is that they developed a ritual theater style that induced audience reactions and interactions, another element that strengthened community. Through Kuumba, Val Gray Ward worked with James Baldwin when they staged his profound, semi-autobiographical play The Amen Corner. Kuumba toured with this play, with Val Gray Ward in one of the leading roles, and their tour also included a performance in Lincoln Center's Black Festival USA in 1979.
Outside of Kuumba, Val Gray Ward has received acclaim for her solo show titled My Soul is a Witness. In a 2015 interview, she states: "[This show] is my dramatic interpretation of the works of various black writers, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. I also perform a segment from The Life of Harriet Tubman which Francis [Ward, my husband] wrote for me many years ago." Her "multiple hats" style of working has resulted in her being the recipient of over 200 awards, including 21 Emmys for her "docutainment" film Precious Memories: Strolling 47th Street. She is known as "The Voice of the Black Writer" and her work has been significantly instrumental to the Black Arts Movement (BAM). Moreover, her lifelong friendships are near and dear to her, and she cherishes the friendships she has (and has had) with Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, and Nikki Giovanni (with whom she shared an hours long phone conversation recently!). It is impossible to even scratch the surface when it comes to paying tribute to such a phenomenal woman, but it is our strong desire here at Castle of our Skins for you all to read more about her, listen to her interviews, watch and share any related content online, and be enriched and enthusiastic about sharing her legacy! You can start with the following:
An appearance on Windy City Live with a short article: CLICK HERE!
A fantastic interview archived in the Library of Congress: CLICK HERE!
An article about her work with James Baldwin: CLICK HERE!
Note: this blog post would not be possible without the help of Dr. Liseli Fitzpatrick, and we thank you for your contribution and generous sharing of such a legend!
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