Libations for Langston Hughes
Before the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival could begin last month, some housekeeping was in order. For two years, the event had been without its spiritual home, as the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center was undergoing a $3.3 million renovation. The April 14 opening night screening of Matthew Cherry’s film The Last Fall was the first time the Central District hub would reopen its doors. The building, a 97-year-old former synagogue that was transformed into the African American cultural center in 1972, needed a proper introduction.
Two hundred and fifty fans of black cinema sat in the refurbished theatre’s reupholstered chairs waiting for the screening when a tall, dark man in a purple dashiki took the stage. He introduced himself as Erwin E.A. Thomas Awo Obaniyi Fasanmi Faymi Adesanya. He was, he said, both an artist and a priest.
“In the spirit of those who come before us, on whose shoulders we stand, we will begin the process of libation,” he said. Then he instructed the audience on its role in this ceremony.
“We will call the names of all our connective ancestors who are in the arts and politics,” he said. “Those who fought, bled, died and struggled so that we may be here today. I’ll start out with a few names. And after each name, we will say ashay, a word that translates to ‘Let it be so.’ And because we are people of color, we have jazz like that, and oftentimes we say, ashay-ooooh! to put an extra exclamation on it.”
In his hand, he held a glass jug of water. On the stage floor beside him sat a large glass bowl.
“We pour water because water is our oldest ancestor,” he said. “And we pour it to the ground, because it’s the earth, and we love the earth.”
Though his point was understood, the earth was not directly beneath the stage floor. Interrupting the space between the priest’s bare feet and the soil was the newly minted Great Hall, where the audience before him had gathered earlier in the night. At that reception, the Center’s executive director, Royal Alley-Barnes, motioned to the Hall’s wood floor. “This is a sprung floor,” she said, her face beaming behind her prescription Ray-Ban sunglasses.
“Before, this was just a space that we would rent out. Now this is a place where our artists can create work. We had a high school ask if they could hold their prom here. No way. Your kids aren’t gonna mess up my beautiful new floors.”
Most of the Center’s renovation is largely invisible, $2 million of the city-funded work going to seismic retrofitting and electrical renovations. Other architectural changes still in the works include a revamped music space that includes practice rooms and a recording studio, as well as a small apartment for an artist-in-residence.
“It is important that we give our artists the space and the time to create,” Alley-Barnes said as she walked the building’s hallways.
Back in the theatre, the priest continued his libation.
“We pour this water of libation to give thanks to the honorable ancestors,” he said. “We give thanks to Langston Hughes…”
“Ashay-oooh,” the crowd responded.
“We give thanks to James Baldwin.”
“We give thanks to Zora Neale Hurston.”
“We give thanks to Octavia Butler.”
“We give thanks tooooooooooo …”
“Lorraine Hansberry,” a woman cried from the audience.
“Jacob Lawrence,” another shouted.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” the priest interrupted. “We are calling on our ancestors; those who have passed. To be clear, though we respect and honor those who are here and who are our elders, we do not want them to go soon.”
The crowd laughed before continuing the litany of names.
“Gordon Parks.” “James Brown.” “Etta James.” “Richard Pryor.” “Lena Horne.” “Charles Roland!!!”