Arts program provides outlet for citizens of all ages

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Mary Lillie with the Altman sisters
Mary Lillie with the Altman sisters

by Jordan Green

Japanese swordsmanship. African-American storytelling. Scottish dance.

Those cultural activities and more were all on display at the Greensboro Cultural Center on Aug. 23 as part of a showcase of the many classes that residents can take through City Arts, a program of the city’s parks and recreation department.

“The role of City Arts is to provide as many opportunities in the arts as possible,” said Supervisor Mary Alice Kurr-Murphy, while greeting visitors at a reception table for the open house. “There are some who will develop the skills to make a profession out of their disciplines, but people can also understand the arts as a recreational activity as much as athletics that’s important for personal development, relaxation and enjoyment.”

Founded in 1970, City Arts has grown to include 16 citizen-based musical performing groups, a drama program for all ages, a playwrights’ forum, African drumming, all kinds of dance from tap to bachata, and martial arts ranging from tai chi to kendo. Kurr-Murphy said City Arts often writes grants to support emerging artists, such as poets Clement Mallory and Josephus Thompson. Greensboro’s parks and recreation department is unique in its direct support of the arts, she said.

“I can’t tell you the number of people I talk to around the country who say, ‘I’m from Detroit,’ or, ‘I’m from Dallas,’ and they don’t have ‘anything like what you have,’” Kurr-Murphy said.

The Aug. 23 City Arts’ showcase featured a series of performances and demonstrations in the studio theater on the first floor of the cultural center in downtown Greensboro, with Scottish dance segueing into an African-American drama production. The bleachers were filled mainly with a rotating cohort of parents and other family members.

After the Scottish dancers cleared the floor, an ensemble from the We Are One theater group performed a play that honored the late Margaret Clinard, a foster mother and local community leader who died in 2012.

Led by Angela Tripp, We Are One meets at the Caldcleugh Multicultural Arts Center near the Smith Homes public housing community in south Greensboro. Tripp explained that the play came out of a project called Black Mama Monologues. Initially, children wrote and performed stories about their mothers, and later the project was expanded for adults. Ingram Clinard wrote one of the monologues, which was adapted into a play, about her mother.

“She raised over a hundred foster kids, and that’s not even counting all the other kids whose lives she touched in some way,” Ingram Clinard said after the performance.

Clinard portrayed her mother in the play, while her own daughter, Ashanti Bell, starred as one of Margaret Clinard’s girls.

As a toddler in the front row babbled and squealed, Bell playing the daughter, chided her mother for feeling like she had to take on everyone else’s problems.

“They suspended those boys from Hampton Homes,” Clinard replied, referring to a nearby public housing community, with a mixture of weariness and steely determination. “I’ve got to go talk to the principal.”

In another scene, Clindard cooed to a small child, as two school-age boys squabbled, one ratting the other out for skipping school.

As Tripp explained to the audience that the play honored the mother and granddaughter of the two cast members, Bell wept audibly behind the curtain, overcome with emotion at the loss of her grandmother.

Mary Lillie, a teacher of Scottish dance, gently instructed the three Altman sisters, ranging in age from 5 to 7, counting hops from the sidelines. Her oldest pupil, 26-year-old Lisbeth Glasgow, gave a crisp performance of the Highland Fling.

“They didn’t let the women compete until after World War II because they didn’t think they were strong enough to do it,” Lillie said. “It’s very strenuous. The Highland Fling has 96 hops. There are 12 hops on one foot before you change.”

Down the hall, Sassan Dowlatshahi and Greensboro Kendo Club instructor Glenn Weyler demonstrated samurai sword-fighting techniques. Suited in armor that looked like a cross between a medieval executioner and something from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, they struck each other with fiberglass practice swords, emitting guttural yells after each successful blow.

“You wouldn’t wear armor and carry a sword like this on the street in Japan, so it’s not really practical for self-defense,” Weyler said. “The point of kendo is more to develop an appreciation of pre-modern Japanese culture, and to put yourself in the mindset of a warrior from that time.”

Maybe that’s why they call it an art.