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Performers unite at King commemoration

Dance troupes, singers, poets and other artists gathered to celebrate

Associate Editor

Published: Monday, January 16, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 04:01


Robin Spector

So you're sitting in a packed Levin Ballroom, plastic chairs and cold floor, squeezed in with the person next to you. You look up and see prayer flags made by elementary school children, inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It's all vaguely reminiscent of MLK, but you're missing a real connection to the meaning behind a day dedicated to his memory. He had a dream. The theme of the evening is "Occupying the Dream." As for you, you're perhaps dreaming of being somewhere else.

And then, one phrase sticks out and drills into your ear: "I don't love you because there's something I want from you. I love you because you need my love." The speaker is explaining the theology of love, the importance of a "universal, unconditional" caring for someone else.

It's the Rev. Liz Walker, an award-winning tele-journalist and co-pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston. She's speaking about her work in Sudan, her desire and efforts to help others even when her ability to make real change seemed uncertain. Her speech follows a performance by a group of five white women playing West African drums and singing blues music, the audience clapping in time and singing along.

In that moment, you get a brief glimpse into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dreams. According to members of the Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries present at last night's event, 300 community members from the Boston area joined together for a day of service, helping others in a diverse swath of areas—from orphans in the Boston area to Haitians affected by the 2010 earthquake to greening projects in the Waltham community.

This is showing love: unconditionally, universally, unfailingly.

In Levin, artists walk on stage and give their heart's work to the audience, sharing themselves to help others understand their passion for the topic. It isn't that they need something from the audience but that the audience needs something from them.

The event opens with a slam poem by Assistant Dean of Student Life Jamele Adams and the president of the Slam Poetry Team, Usman Hameedi '12. The pair, representing Dr. King and Mohandas Gandhi, respectively, questions the motivation of today's youth in the struggle for equality.

As the event continues, performances by poets, dancers and musicians flow into each other seamlessly, stitched together by witty interim remarks by Adams. Most of the pieces focus on themes of today's urban youth and the struggles of the disadvantaged, both in America and Africa. The night's theme, "Occupying the Dream," manifests itself through what Louise Grasmere—a jazz singer who performs smooth yet nontraditional versions of blues songs including Blind Willie Johnson's "What is the Soul of a Man" and the folk song "We Shall Not Be Moved"—says as she works her way through her performance: The space is being occupied with music and with the message of Dr. King.

There were audience members near me singing along to "We Shall Not Be Moved," people who may never have had the opportunity to know the emotion and the spirit of Dr. King's movement, who may never have understood the meaning of the day aside from just a day off from work or school. We are choosing, together, to take part in a celebration that both memorializes and promotes the idea of serving others, not because you need to serve, but because serving is needed of us.

The event ended with a moving poem by Claudiane Philippe '13, using music from the previous performances as a backdrop for her accented, rhythmic words and calling to African-Americans to take pride in their heritage.

In an interview with justArts, the Rev. Alex Kern, executive director of Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, was pleased with the turnout of the second-annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Interfaith Service and the seventh-annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial service. "It was extraordinary," he said, explaining that using the words of a friend of his, he felt that he had been "blessed by the best."

The day truly was a "day on" instead of a day off for many Brandeisians and area community members: Brandeis was one of 200 campuses chosen by the Obama administration to take part in the president's Interfaith Cooperation and Community Service Campus Challenge.

The plan for next year? "Do the same but more and better," Kern and Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries member Omar Abdul-Malik said. Hopefully, the event can continue to be as inspiring and meaningful as this year's creative and service-oriented "day on." 

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