A part of Providence’s local art scene for over 10 years, FirstWorks has brought artists such as DJ Spooky, Lauren Anderson and Sweet Honey in the Rock to the Creative Capital — often with the aid of Brown’s own Creative Arts Council. The partnership’s most recent guest to grace College Hill was the Urban Bush Women, delivering a rendition of “Walking With ’Trane,” a live music dance tribute to saxophonist John Coltrane’s life, Saturday at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
The Urban Bush Women, founded in 1984, focus on the experiences of women and members of the African Diaspora, aiming “to bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance,” according to their website. Urban Bush Women’s work in Providence began in October and culminated in a month-long February residency at FirstWorks.
“FirstWorks is bringing in the kind of performers you used to have to go to Boston or New York to see,” said Kathleen Pletcher, founder and executive artistic director of FirstWorks.
The FirstWorks team has partnered with the Creative Arts Council since its founding, bringing world-renowned artists to work individually with students on campus. The artists FirstWorks invites also engage with the community through workshops, conversations, community dinners and other educational tools.
Faculty members often initiate these partnerships, said Chira DelSesto, assistant director of Creative Arts Council. Partners at FirstWorks approach faculty members, who are then able to approach the Creative Arts Council and request a grant. Approved grants allow FirstWorks to bring in artists and grant students access to them.
A steering committee comprising Pletcher, DelSesto, Department of Africana Studies Managing Director Karen Baxter and Senior Lecturers in Theatre and Performance Arts Julie Strandberg and Michelle Bach-Coulibaly organized Urban Bush Women’s visit. The committee also worked with Dance/USA, The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, Rhode Island School of Design’s Center for Student Involvement, Carter Family Charitable Trust and the National Endowment for the Arts, among other organizations.
The group’s performance of “Walking With ’Trane” Saturday was part of FirstWorks’ Artistic Icons series. The yearly series gives Providence audiences access to masters of a given field. The tribute also figured into Brown’s annual Rhythm of Change festival, which celebrates Mande dance and performance and is steeped in the idea that artistry can dually act as activism. The festival was paired with Urban Bush Women’s performance because they share the message of using artistry “to educate and uplift communities,” Bach-Coulibaly said.
As part of the Rhythm of Change festival, Urban Bush Women met with the members of TAPS0330: “Mande Dance, Music and Culture.” Students in the class were also required to attend the Vets performance as part of their coursework.
Bach-Coulibaly said that Brown’s relationship with FirstWorks will continue to thrive. “It’s a very positive partnership,” said Bach-Coulibaly. “We’re working on the future because it’s a very fruitful engagement.”