Minneapolis theater artists Tiffany Cooper (left) and Denzel Belin (right) will showcase pieces at the "Blackness Is..." festival May 21–23, 2021. Credit: MN Black Theatre Circle

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The summer after the police killing of George Floyd, a group of Black theater artists in the Twin Cities started thinking about a powerful question: What is Blackness?

Black artists from multiple generations then formed the MN Black Theatre Circle and began answering that question through sketch comedies, plays, music, dance, poetry, and more. Their work will be displayed at the first “Blackness Is…” Arts Festival in partnership with the Guthrie Theater. The virtual event will run May 21–23 to mark the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death.

Each day will start with a ceremony honoring Black theater artists from different decades. Four or five pieces will be livestreamed each day. There are also workshops and discussions with a few of the artists throughout the weekend.

Domino D’Lorion, a founding member of the MN Black Theatre Circle, said the goal of the festival is to show that Blackness is not monolithic by uplifting Black artists who haven’t yet received recognition. 

“Twin Cities theater would not exist without Black actors. Twin Cities art would not exist without the Black community here,” D’Lorion said. “We’ve got Black actors in Plymouth, Burnsville, in Minneapolis. They’re everywhere.”

Sahan Journal spoke with a pair of the artists based in Minneapolis about their featured work. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Tiffany Cooper is an actress, singer, dancer, voiceover artist, and educator. Cooper produced “Black Thread: A Tribute to Ann Lowe, ” a solo multimedia piece about the first African American couture designer. Denzel Belin is a writer, director, actor, producer, and improviser. His piece, “With Love, From Washington” is a collection of satirical monologues and comedic essays.

Festival organizers received 60 submissions and chose works by 13 artists. D’Lorion said the festival will highlight theater artists beyond “the same 10 to 12 Black artists in every show in the Twin Cities.” Instead, the MN Black Theatre Circle is expanding the scope for artists like Cooper and Belin.

“These are very great established Black artists that don’t necessarily have the platform or the scope of audience that knows about them and the great work they do,” D’Lorion said.

Sahan Journal: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your work?

Tiffany Cooper: I’m a professional actress, singer and dancer and spoken-word artist, and I’ve lived all over the country. I’m originally from Kentucky, I worked in New York City for almost 20 years and then worked in Europe. Lived in Alaska as an artist, and then moved to Oregon. Now, I’ve been in Minneapolis for almost three years, so I’m fairly new. I am feeling the vibe, the energy, the importance, and urgency of creating work.

My work for the “Blackness Is…” festival is called “Black Thread,” and it’s a solo multimedia theatrical piece that interweaves song, poem, dance, music, and visual display. It’s a tribute to Ann Lowe, who was one of America’s great unknown Black fashion designers. Lowe was the great granddaughter of a skilled seamstress slave and a white plantation owner. And she was the first African American to become a noted fashion designer. She designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress and her bridesmaid dresses to no credit to her name. “Black Thread” celebrates her contributions, her legacy, and her hope of resilience.

Denzel Belin: I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. My mother is originally from West Monroe, Louisiana. So I grew up in a weird hybrid of good old southern values, meeting the weird energy that is the Pacific Northwest.

When I had moved up to the cities after graduating from St. Olaf College, I had to figure out how to navigate everything again. I was actually in a show at HUGE Improv Theater when I was approached with the opportunity to understudy at the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theater. I loved being on a stage again, and this was really one of my biggest forays back on a stage—doing satirical comedy sketches, which are words I never really associated with myself.

When I saw this opportunity with this fantastic panel of people, this “Blackness Is…” festival, I really got to sit down and be like, what is my Blackness? What my Blackness is so fueled by, is joy. It’s through really smart, sexy, and stupid stuff, mainly through the lens of comedy. 

So I ended up with my final product, a sketch comedy show called “With Love, From Washington.” Growing up in Seattle was very important to me. I have sketches that are a little bit more satirical about what it’s like to be, like, a diversity and equity officer-director type. I also have some just dumb sketches in there that are super fun on what it’s like to be a young Anime lover. I also end the show with some sexier sketches. If this isn’t your cup of tea, thank you for attending, but also it’s very important to me as a Black male. Black bodies are often sexualized outside of our control. Doing that in a comedic and fun lens just felt right for me. It’s my love letter to the Twin Cities to say, thank you for the growth, but also, I’m here, I’m queer. Let me blow your mind.

Cooper: That’s really funny that you say that. I’ve been thinking that, too—that this whole festival is a love letter to the city, the resilience of the city, and what Blackness is. What came up for me were three questions: As people of color, who were we in the past? Who are we today? And who are we becoming? I think about Blackness as identity that carries history, representation, culture, and spirituality. You said it’s a love letter to the city, but I also think the love language of Blackness is resilience, joy, and overcoming.

We’ve got to continue to push through. The work never ends. George Floyd’s family got justice, but that work doesn’t end. It’s important that we create our own work too. If anything, the pandemic has taught us that we need each other more than ever, but we also don’t need permission to create. You do not need permission to have courage. Step outside of that, and magic happens when we live in our truth, our honesty.

Sahan Journal: What do you hope people will take away from the work you’ll be showcasing this weekend? 

Cooper: I’m hoping that people will be inspired to look up Ann Lowe’s story. This is more of a historical creativity project for me, and I want people to know that Ann’s story is important and she needs to be in history books. And I love fashion. I respect those who sew, I respect that kind of work. I love the type of clothing that she designed. That’s one thing I think that art can do. You can bridge the gap for all types of struggles. This story of Ann Lowe is going to inspire someone else to say, ‘She achieved these things, maybe I can do that too.’ So I’m hoping people walk away inspired to look up her story and start creating. 

Belin: Me being a Black man in Minnesota, I felt so overwhelmed by my story just being considered a story of police brutality, a story of thugs, and the jail system. But at the same time I had hope, because there was some amazing Black storytelling that was different. So this festival is such a great example of fashion history, comedy, we’ve got all these different things. And that’s what I love about the title. It’s “Blackness Is, dot dot dot.” It’s not going to be a single answer. If it was, then why would you have the ellipses?

Cooper: I feel like the mayor needs to see this. It’s a love letter to the city, right? I do think the “Blackness Is…” festival is for the city, but really it reaches beyond that. It has the legs to be expansive. I hope some of the pieces resonate with people so they can act on their own life. That is what art is really supposed to do. It’s not just about saying,’Oh that was a great piece,’ clap, and then go home. What is the actionable step when you watch something? Do you think differently? Do you agree? Do you walk away mad? Do you walk away with action? That is what art does.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.