When Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center opens its doors on Dec. 17 for the annual Kwanzaa Festival and Marketplace, the gathering will mark a kind of homecoming.
The free event, at the heart of NJPAC’s community programming for more than a decade, will take place in person for the first time since 2019. This is also the first time that NJPAC will partner with several of its neighbors to present the festival, including The Newark Museum of Art, Newark Arts, Newark Symphony Hall and the Newark Public Library, as well as the City of Newark. This is a partnership that Eyesha Marable, NJPAC’s assistant vice president for community engagement, calls “the fruit of our labors.”
The arts are central to the celebration.
The festival, running from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., will feature music and dance performances by the West Orange High School Step Team, Najah Riker, Columbia High School Step Team and the Brooklyn United Marching Band, among others, in the Prudential Hall Lobby each hour until 6:30 p.m. In addition, a wide variety of art and craft activities for children and families, hosted by Rutgers-Newark, the City of Newark, Essex County, Glassroots and others, will take place throughout the venue’s indoor campus from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Look for storytelling with the Newark Public Library as well as with members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., Beta Alpha Omega Chapter, face painting, drumming with Stephan Litzey, as well as classes in step with Maxine Lyle, Afrobeats with Adeola Fashina, Jersey Club with Anthony “Solo” Harris and salsa with Smiling David’s Dance School, among other dance styles, as well as the traditional lighting of the Kinara, or the candelabra.
“Drum and dance classes enable us to celebrate the spirit of our ancestors,” Marable says. “The past in the present, in preparation for a bright future, our children: This is the essence of unity.”
Each activity hub throughout NJPAC is named for one of Kwanzaa’s Nguzo Saba, or Seven Principles, outlined through these Swahili phrases: Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); and Imani (Faith). The African American and Pan-African holiday, created in 1966 as a means of empowering and uniting the community during a period of racial strife, runs each year from Dec. 24 through Jan. 1. The weeklong festivities, which include feasting and a daily candle-lighting ceremony, are meant to be steeped in a spirit of joy, cultural pride and reflection.
And as Marable sees it, the collaboration between so many key Newark cultural institutions represents a commitment to enact Kwanzaa’s values on the ground, side-by-side, in the city they all serve. Those values are meant to sustain and inspire participants long after the festival ends.
“The whole purpose is to practice principles every day of our lives,” Marable says. The principles “remind us to live, pray, build, dance and create together, and commit our daily living to the unification of all these organizations in our community and embodying the Nzugo Saba.”
As part of the Imani (Faith) aspect of the day, The Newark Museum of Art will offer an Adinkra-stamping activity from 10 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. in the West Shadowbox. Not only will participants learn the history of the traditional Ghanaian cloth, originally worn by royalty in religious ceremonies, but they will engage in block-stamping to design their own patterned cloth, typically ornamented with traditional Adinkra symbols.
Shirley Thomas, senior director of education at The Newark Museum of Art, says they chose to host the Adinkra stamping because Adrinkra symbols “speak to a pride of cultural traditions.” What’s more, Thomas says, the festival partnership gives the museum, founded in 1909, “the privilege to work with local artists, a broader community” that may never have explored the state’s largest museum.
And while the activity will allow participants to “carve their own identifying symbol that represents their family,” and create some unique gift wrap, Thomas says, the stamping also serves to gather families together in a moment of deeper connection.
“Hands-on participation gives each participant the opportunity to have meaningful conversations while creating and having fun with the people they love the most,” Thomas says.
Sharon Owens, children’s librarian and manager of the Springfield branch of The Newark Public Library, will present Kwanzaa stories Seven Candles for Kwanzaa by Andrea Davis Pinkney and The Me I Choose to Be by Natasha Anatasia Tarpley in the Vic Lobby. Dale E. Colston, the library’s interim assistant director of special collections, says the library is inspired to share these tales because they’ve witnessed the ways in which stories can resonate with and fortify children.
“The power of storytelling helps young students become more confident and resilient,” Colston says. “Familiarizing children with these valuable oral stories and traditions allows us to pass on our rich cultural history to the next generation.”
In addition, NJPAC’s Kwanzaa Artisan Marketplace will offer a selection of clothing, jewelry, art, candles and other items from local merchants, artists and crafters. The marketplace will operate in the Prudential Hall Lobby and in the hallways outside Prudential Hall’s first- and second-tier entrances all through the weekend, but if you’re stopping by on Saturday, note that the marketplace runs from noon to 10 p.m.
Marable, a trained dancer (she served as a principal dancer with Forces of Nature Dance Theatre), has celebrated Kwanzaa since 1987. She says she is looking forward to celebrating in person once again.
“The arts create a healthy sense of unity and bond. There is no war, debate or conflict in this artistic construct,” Marable says. “Kwanzaa unites people that normally don't get along or come together. Those moments are celebrating the best of who we are in community.”