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Black arts festival features standout performers

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Ashley Wilkerson didn't intend to write a solo show when she sat down to gather her feelings on paper after her brother was killed.

"At first I wanted to write (my brother's) story," says the Dallas-based performer and writer by phone recently. "I needed to try to understand his life. I had to find peace with his passing."

(John Wilkerson was shot in 2007 in Lubbock. Police say he and his alleged assailants were involved in gang activity.)

But then Wilkerson found her writing going in a different direction. When she finished she had another story on her hands. "Freckle in My Eye" tells the story of a young woman on Texas' death row.

Wilkerson performs her show June 14 as part of the Black Arts Movement Festival. The two-week showcase features performers in multiple disciplines from around the country.

Wilkerson, 28, is one of the younger solo performers featured at BAM.

" 'Freckle' has taught me to have more compassion," she says. "My brother's story is so many people's story. But then I had to look at both sides of the story, from a victim's standpoint and a nonvictim's. It felt like I had a calling to tell the truth about people who are around me, and this is my way to do that."

In "Freckle," Wilkerson, who studied media and theater at New York's New School, shape-shifts through multiple characters. In addition to She-see Jones, the young woman living on death row, there's the wild child little girl LisaBeckyKellyPierce and Lil Crazy, a volatile teenage boy. For all its tragedy, Wilkerson musters a range of emotion in the course of the one-hour show, from witty hilarity to poignant tenderness. And no, she doesn't shrink away from the tough stuff.

"If art doesn't make you uncomfortable, what are you doing it for?" she asks.

Musician Samuel Thompson also will participate in the Black Arts Movement Festival.

He unexpectedly captured the world's attention during the darkest hours of Hurricane Katrina. He had been staying in New Orleans, using the break from his home in Baltimore to rehearse for a major international violin competition, when he got caught in the storm. Along with thousands of others, he was evacuated to the New Orleans Superdome. And after hours of living through the squalor and chaos, he pulled out his violin and played. The moment later caught the attention of international media.

"I don't remember thinking, this is crazy here and if I play, it will make people feel calmer," said Thompson by phone from his home in Baltimore. Instead, he remembers someone nearby casually suggesting he play. And he remembers that he played a piece by Bach for solo violin, but he doesn't recall which one. And he also recalls that he didn't play for very long because he put down his violin to help move elderly evacuees so they could be airlifted to safety. Still, he says, "It's interesting how a little moment like that got so much attention."

For his concert at BAM, Thompson, who earned his master's degree from Rice University in Houston and concertizes regularly as both a soloist and ensemble player, will play a Bach solo violin piece, the Sonata in A Minor. Thompson will also play Brahms' Sonata No. 3, a work he's been wanting to "dig in and tackle for a while now."

Thompson also did some archival digging recently and found music for solo violin by African American composer William Grant Still. Though recognized by musicologists for his significant contribution to 20th-century American classical music (Still was the first black composer to write a major orchestral work that was performed by a major American orchestra), Still's works aren't performed often.

"Musically, Still was what I would call 'multilingual,'\u2009" Thompson says. "He was so well-versed in so many musical styles, and as I've been rehearsing these pieces, I'm struck by how much there is to discover in them."

By including Still's music on his program, Thompson hopes that it will encourage the audience to dig into often under-recognized repertoire of African American classical composers.

"We're all a part of this huge continuum," he says. "Maybe it would be better to pay attention to that, and that it has existed for a while, as we look at it and really study connections, we wouldn't pay attention to what we see on the surface."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

Black Arts Movement Festival

When: Through June 18

Where: Multiple venues including the State Theatre, Ebenezer Baptist Church and Salvage Vanguard Theater

Cost: Individual events are $22

Information: 236-0644, bamaustin.org .

Critic's picks

‘Women, Sex and Desire.' Washington, D.C.-based director and choreographer Gesel Mason blends dance, personal stories and video imagery in ‘Women, Sex and Desire,' her multimedia modern dance performance that explores female desire, choice and sexual expression. Adult content. 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Austin Ventures Studio Theater, Ballet Austin, 501 W. Third St.

Dallas Black Dance Theatre. One the oldest African American dance companies in the country, the celebrated Dallas Black Dance Theatre, brings a program of new work. 7:30 p.m. Saturday. State Theatre, 719 Congress Ave.

‘The Last Poets.' An artistic outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement, the Last Poets are a group of spoken word and literary artists who are widely credited as being the aesthetic forerunners of rap lyrics. In a rare opportunity, the three remaining poets of the group — Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan — give a live performance. 9:30 p.m. Saturday. State Theatre.

Samuel Thompson, violin. The Baltimore-based musician plays, among other works, Bach's Sonata in A minor for Unaccompanied Violin and three short works by William Grant Still. 3 p.m. June 12. Ebenezer Baptist Church, 1010 E. 10th St.

‘Freckle in My Eye.' Ashley Wilkerson's powerful one-woman, multicharacter show about a young woman on death row. 8 p.m. June 14. Salvage Vanguard, 2803 Manor Road.

‘Ready, Set, Grow.' Critically acclaimed Houston-based rapper and spoken word artist Tim'm T brings his coming of age story that explores the diversity and complexity of black male experience. 9 p.m. June 16, Salvage Vanguard Theater.

Hazélle Goodman & Ali Siddiq. 7 p.m. June 17. State Theatre.