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Inside Atlanta's Black Arts Festival

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This week, the city of Atlanta kicks off one of its biggest annual event, the National Black Arts Festival. For 19 years, the festival has showcased African diaspora works, film and theater, literature and dance. Nearly half a million people are expected to attend the nine-day festival.

For more, we've got Stephanie Hughley, executive producer of the National Black Arts Festival.

Stephanie, welcome.

Ms. STEPHANIE HUGHLEY (Executive Producer, National Black Arts Festival): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So, for those who don't know, why is this festival such a big deal?

Ms. HUGHLEY: Well, where else can you go in a country and be immersed in culture of people of African descent that includes all of the disciplines from visual arts to film, literary, music, dance, theater. Almost anything you could look for and there's usually something for everyone. We're all over the city; we're out in libraries, community centers, senior centers, as well as the performing arts, the news in and around Atlanta.

So it's the one time a year that you can come to Atlanta, Georgia, and have an experience in culture from people of African descent - artists from all over the world.

CHIDEYA: What are you looking forward to? Whether it's a performance, a film, anything like that?

Ms. HUGHLEY: Well, it's so hard to say. I look forward to the whole thing. This year, the centerpiece was around DNA. We had a very wonderful visual artist by the name of Radcliffe Bailey who wanted to bust outside of gallery walls and found two collaborators - choreographer Fatima Robinson from L.A. and composer Marc Anthony Thompson from Brooklyn. And they decided to do their DNA as a point of intersection for the project.

It turned out they were all from the same ethnic group found in the Sierra Leone-Senegal-Gambia region, and they - we facilitated a trip for them to go there, and they came back and created this amazing installation in two places, Clark Atlanta University Gallery as well as Solomon Projects.

But it also opened up a whole opportunity for us to offer anybody an opportunity to get their DNA done, and we just had our first revealing last night. And so a lot of local Atlanta people - athletes, government officials, with the mayor of Atlanta, even myself, had our DNA done and it's going to, kind of, run through the festival.

So I think of all the things I could think of, that's the thing that was the most exciting to me - to actually discover where we are from.

CHIDEYA: That's really interesting, trying to link the science. I'm familiar with Radcliffe Bailey's work. He is really extraordinary and his works are in the Atlanta airport, aren't they?

Ms. HUGHLEY: Yes, they are, for sure.

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Ms. HUGHLEY: And they'll be all over the city, in Solomon Projects and CAU this festival.

CHIDEYA: So when it comes to who comes, are there a lot of non-black folk who show up? And is their reaction in any way different from the African-American community members and visitors who come?

Ms. HUGHLEY: Well, we certainly always try to promote. The National Black Arts Festival is not just a black festival for black people. It's a festival - it's a cultural festival that really focuses on cultural connections and cultural influences. So from the very beginning since 1988, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has always participated - the Woodruff Arts Center. The Center for Puppetry Arts is doing a piece on "Anansi the Spider."

So we do the festival in different communities all around the city. And I think it certainly has opened up the door more and more to position the festival events at the Woodruff Arts Center and other places and spaces where all the different communities feel welcome and feel like it's an important event to not just come themselves but bring their children and their families because it's an educational event.

You learn so much. The festival is designed to really challenge people in terms of what they think, what they think about themselves and the things that they're experiencing, but then how they see themselves and the responsibility that they take on in their place and space in the world. So…

CHIDEYA: We just had a chance to talk with Roberta Flack. We haven't put that on the air yet, but she was talking about the festival. And you have some really dynamic people from all walks of life who are part of this.

Ms. HUGHLEY: That's right. And Roberta is our legend this year. But, you know, Abdullah Ibrahim from South Africa, jazz master pianist, will be with us. You know, old school, The Dells will be here out at Wolf Creek. But young, up-and-coming artists whom people may not know yet, Les Nubians and Vinx and lots of late-night stuff. Russell Gunn is going to be playing Miles Davis.

But then, Alfre Woodard, we're doing a film retrospective on her work. Victoria Rowell, who so many people know from her soap opera - Drucilla character. She will be coming because Victoria was a foster child and she's now written a book and done a documentary that we're going to be screening. She is going to be interviewed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson.

Andy Young, our ambassador here, has done a film on "Rwanda Rising" and so we're going to be previewing that with our partner, the Pan-African Film Festival. Jennifer Holiday is going to be here recreating her role in "Dreamgirls," all the hype that's been around the movie. We're so excited that she's back.

And, you know, theater is going to be looking at a black classic "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men" and Glen Turman is here. We've done an adaptation of Toni Morrison's book, "The Bluest Eye." A young wonderful artist - performance artist is doing "Emergency" here. Stanley Crouch will be in our literary conference talking about the anniversary of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." It just goes on and on.

CHIDEYA: Well, you got - it definitely does. Well, Stephanie, thank you so much.

Ms. HUGHLEY: It's been our pleasure. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Stephanie Huley is executive producer of the National Black Arts Festival, and she spoke with us from member station WABE in Atlanta, Georgia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.