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"Black Girl Magic" Celebrates the History and Accomplishments of Black Women Through Story and Song


By Carolyn M. Brown, JerseyArts.com

originally published: 02/22/2024

"Black Girl Magic" Celebrates the History and Accomplishments of Black Women Through Story and Song

Guided by the Ancestors, African Warrior Queens, a woman named Sister struggles to find a place of self-reconciliation and acceptance in the world as she is given a glimpse into the lives and legacy of Black women—past and present, young and old. This is the story behind “Black Girl Magic,” a powerful show coming to West Windsor Township, NJ, hailing from the Underground Performing Arts Collective in Suffolk, Virginia. “Black Girl Magic” premieres at the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer Community College on Friday, March 1, 8 PM EST.

Combining poetry, monologues, music, and conventional drama along with video and film, “Black Girl Magic” was written by Sharon Cook, who is the founder and artistic director of the Underground Performing Arts Collective. A native of Norfolk, Virginia, and retired 30-year veteran educator with Norfolk Public Schools, Cook also served as a theatre instructor in the Hampton Roads community. Original music for the show was written by songwriter and singer Roberta Lea.

The term itself Black Girl Magic (shortened from Black Girls Are Magic) and the hashtag #blackgirlmagic were coined in 2013 by DC educator and social media influencer CaShawn Thompson to celebrate the accomplishments of Black women. It now is used as a positive expression of enlightenment and empowerment.

That is the sentiment behind Cook’s play. Originally conceived as a one-woman show, Cook realized her story needed to be a shared experience with a community of women. “Black Girl Magic” has evolved over the years, including an earlier talk show format, with two hosts introducing different Black women, from the past and the present, before a live audience. During the pandemic, Cook even developed a virtual adaptation.

She began to envision the character of Sister as someone Black women could identify with. She then imagined these griots that Sister would meet along her journey who would help her to discover her self-worth and embrace her identity as a young Black woman. In 2022, “I woke up in the middle of the night and I was like, ‘You know what? No. Sister is being taken on her journey guided by the African warrior queens,’” who would represent “Black women from the days of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement up until present day,” Cook says.



 
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It is not just adult Black women who are highlighted, the play looks at life of Ruby Bridges as a little girl. At six years old, Bridges was the first Black child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in the South. There’s also Sarah Collins, who was the survivor that no one ever really talks about, says Cooks, referencing the 1963 tragedy of four little Black girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. The church was a key civil rights meeting place, and three Ku Klux Klansmen were eventually convicted for their roles in the blast.

There are renowned historical figures like Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks as well as lesser-known people such as then-15-year-old Claudette Colvin who was arrested when she refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This happened just nine months before the widely known incident with Parks, who at the time was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP.

In the play “Black Girl Magic,” Cook also challenges stereotypes about Black women. “These are stereotypes that society has placed on us, but this is not who we are. Stereotypes like the angry Black woman, the subservient Black woman, the welfare queen, and the promiscuous Black woman,” she explains. “It also explores things like our love and hate relationship with our hair as Black women and learning to embody and accept that uniqueness about us, the beauty, and our own authenticity.”

"Black Girl Magic" Celebrates the History and Accomplishments of Black Women Through Story and Song

The myth and the reality around the “strong Black woman” archetype is yet another area that is addressed. “How do we deal with the weight of the world that seems to be placed on us? We've got to press into the community, it's not meant for us to carry it all by ourselves,” notes Cook. “It is about the village, the community, the sisterhood, the bonds between Black women, and our journey into acceptance, self-love, and perseverance, despite the things that we may be confronted with.”

The show’s tale of a young Black woman’s journey is meant not only to dispel the myths and tropes associated with Black women but also to highlight the achievements of Black women throughout history. That is the essence of Cook’s creative work.

She has faced her own set of challenges as a Black female playwright and producer, including the lack of support and belief in the audience for her work and other artists of color. In part, this is the reason she started the Underground Performing Arts Collective to provide a safe and inclusive space for underrepresented artists, signifying BIPOC, LBGTQ+, and Disabled communities, to share their experiences and to tell their stories. Cook emphasizes the importance of representation and inclusivity in the arts and hopes that more companies will be intentional about including underrepresented communities in all aspects of their work.

A veteran of the stage, Cook has appeared in numerous regional and local productions of Broadway shows that include Chicago, Pippin, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Her directing credits include the Path to Freedom, Once on This Island, and The Glory of Gospel, which she also wrote.



 
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While she has directed previous performances of “Black Girl Magic,” this go-round Cook decided to hand over the reins to the Underground Performing Arts Collective’s co-director and choreographer, Jennifer Kelly-Cooper. “I told Jennifer, ‘I am going to allow you to put your own creative Black girl magic into this (production).’”

She adds that “Black women who attend the show are going to see themselves reflected in Sister and in her journey. There are so many similarities because we all have, I believe, similar journeys. But the takeaway for those who don't identify as a Black woman is the idea of just standing in solidarity with us.” Cook hopes that audiences leave the show having gained a better understanding of and respect for Black women.

Kelsey Theatre, West Windsor Township, NJ | March 1-3, 2024 @ 8:00pm/2:00pm. Click here for ticket information.




About the author: Carolyn M. Brown is an investigative journalist, editor, author, playwright, multimedia content producer and an entrepreneur. She has produced content spanning across a portfolio of platforms, including print, digital media, broadcast, theater arts, and custom events. Her publication credits include Essence, Forbes, Inc., and Diversity Woman magazines. She is a founding board member of the Paterson Performing Arts Development Council, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing together diverse communities through the performing arts and cultural events and to creating pathways for new and established artists.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.




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