To commemorate Black History Month, the Missouri Ballet Theatre (MBT) proudly presented Breaking Boundaries on yesterday and will perform again tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Florissant Civic Center Theater.
The audience will be treated to several musical selections to which ballet pieces have been choreographed by Robert Philander Valentine, Robert Poe and Diontey McDonald.
One of those musical selections will be performed by The Princely Players from Nashville, Tennessee. The Princely Players are known for chronicling African American history by singing spirituals, gospel and folk music, as well as reciting poetry and performing plays.
The group has been known to break a few boundaries or barriers themselves. Odessa Settles, a founding member of The Princely Players, shared some of the group’s history.
The Princely Players was formed in 1967 at Cameron High School in Nashville, where their drama and English teacher, H. German Wilson, encouraged students to form a troupe of singers and actors in response to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which was a federal program to end poverty.
The troupe of 12 students was shaped during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, urban renewal caused several of their families’ homes to be taken to accommodate a new interstate.
“As young students, we were caught in the middle of this and needed something positive and hopeful,” Settles recollects.
Funding from the OEO enabled the troupe, Mr. Wilson and others in the community (both white and black) to open a coffee house called “The Block”. During the summer, the troupe taught drama to neighborhood kids at churches and presented black history in the form of drama and a capella performances each evening at The Block. The performances at The Block helped break down barriers and addressed black and white separatism.
During the school year, the troupe performed at universities, high schools, churches and civic centers in Washington D.C., Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and other U.S. cities.
“There were many sold out and packed audiences. Because of the times, widespread segregation, and uncertainty of public reactions to the content of historical truths, we often had to have police escorts,” Settles says.
Today, five original members plus three long-standing members still perform in addition to having professional careers.
Throughout the years, the group has collaborated with many artists who worked as non-violent civil rights activists, including poet Nikki Giovanni; singer Bernice Johnson Reagon; actress Phylicia Rashad; and writer Carolyn McKinstry (survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama).
The church bombing in Birmingham led to the creation of a song Birmingham Sunday by Richard Farina. The song is the basis of the choreographed piece Sunday, Sunday which The Princely Players performed yesterday and will sing tonight at 7:30 p.m. with the Missouri Ballet Theater.
Tickets for Breaking Boundaries are $28 for adults and $26 for senior citizens, children and students.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.florissantmo.com, by phone at (314) 921-5678, and in person at the Florissant Civic Center Theater Box Office.