By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
When someone hears the word violin, their first thought is probably classical music, but the music group Black Violin takes that idea and spins it on its head. The duo is made up of two classically trained musicians known as Kev Marcus and Wil B. Their style is a combination of classical and hip-hop music.
Earlier this week, students from around Milwaukee had the opportunity to see Black Violin perform as part of the Marcus Performing Arts Centers’ student matinee series.
For some students, it was an opportunity to see musicians who looked like them perform live on a stage and for all, it was a chance to reconcile the notion of what classical music is and what classically trained musicians look like.
The group Black Violin is just one of many performers that is making up this season’s lineup. Other performances include Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hiplet Ballerinas and more.
The lineup is a part of the center’s commitment to racial equity, diversity and inclusion or REDI initiatives.
Anthony Smith is the director of community engagement and inclusion. He has been with Marcus Performing Arts Center for just over three years.
Smith explained that inclusion means being invited to the party and being asked to dance or participate as well.
He noted that in the past, the community’s perception of the Marcus Performing Arts Center may have impacted their desire to engage with the center. Many felt like it wasn’t a place for them, he said, and since then the center has worked to make the place more inclusive and welcoming to not only audience members but to performers as well.
“The artists we select should be a reflection of the diversity in our country as well as our communities,” he said.
Part of the center’s efforts include a new cultural programming series that focuses on jazz, dance and “National Geographic LIVE.”
The series began at the start of the 2021-2022 season and featured well-known jazz artists Dianne Reeves and Terrence Blanchard, to name a few. Upcoming performers include the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, a Broadway performance of “Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations” and a tribute to Aretha Franklin.
“We’re old school, we’re bringing in new school, we’re bringing hip-hop to the chart, we’re bringing jazz to our stages, we’re having Black and brown performers to the stages, we’re doing a whole lot,” Smith said. “The Performing Arts Centers is not just for one audience but it’s for all audiences.”
Milwaukee has so many cultures, Smith said, it all depends on what block one is standing on. As part of its REDI initiative, the Marcus Performing Arts Center is working to show that no matter which part of the city someone is from, art transcends those divides.
“It doesn’t matter where you live, we just want you to come down here and enjoy and experience what we have to offer,” he said.
Smith acknowledged that there are some barriers that prevent people from attending shows such as transportation. Others don’t like coming Downtown because they don’t feel wanted, he said.
The center is working to establish partnerships with groups that will make transportation to the center easier. And making everyone feel more welcome in the space is the overarching goal of its REDI initiatives.
Through the center’s educational efforts such as the student matinee series it hopes to engage students and by extension their families.
These educational opportunities include speaking with the artists after the show and master classes for youth and adults. The master classes cover a range of topics from dance and monologues and compositions to the behind-the-scenes work such as lighting and sound and props.
“There are so many jobs available behind the house,” Smith said. “And there’s a longer lifespan working behind the house.”
He added that he offers the master classes to schools as well to make it easier for students to participate.
“We offer it and there’s a hunger for it and we want to provide that to these students” Smith said, referencing the time that students caught a Milwaukee County Transit System bus to attend a “Hamilton” workshop.
Next week, the center will be offering a dance master class alongside Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández. There will be an adult master class at 1 p.m. and a children master class at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 10. Having classes for multiple age groups is a part of being inclusive, Smith said.
The master class programs for youth include complimentary tickets for their families and free boxed lunches.
Furthermore, the center’s KidZ Days programs takes the performances to the community through partnerships with Neighborhood House, The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee and more. Performing artists go to the locations to provide entertainment and education, Smith said.
There’s a lot of work that goes into planning these events, Smith said, but seeing the faces of the individuals once they experience the show is worth it. The Marcus Performing Arts Center will be announcing next season’s lineup at the end of March and Smith is looking ahead to achieving the goals he has set for upcoming shows.
“As we achieve those goals, I know they’re going to fit our audiences,” Smith said. “And when I say audiences, that’s everyone in the community. We want to be everyone performing arts center.”