Dajahn Blevins started Kuumba Fest as a behavior modification intervention for San Diego School. He was part of a team of specialists/artists who used arts and fitness to help at-risk students change the direction their lives were taking.
Little did he know, 28 years ago, that this would become the city’s largest Black History Month celebration.
“Of the first 30 students, 29 were able to turn their lives around and they started being peer educators of other kids,” Blevins says.
“We never set out to start a black history festival. We were just crafting an alternative intervention using the arts. It just was effective, and it kept growing from a one-hour show to a four-day show.”
This year’s theme is “Black 2 Connected” and opens Friday, February 28, at the Lyceum Theatres with the annual Night of Positive Images that honors and celebrates black ancestry. Saturday focuses on family-centered events including Kuumba Kidz performance. On Sunday there is a full day of artistic events that ends with an evening of comedy.
The festival, which has evolved into a partnership with such organizations as the San Diego Repertory Theatre, the San Diego Urban Warriors and the African American Advisory Council of San Diego Rep, draws an audience of nearly 5,000. It involves community leaders, celebrities, artists and performers. They work to involve all sorts of art from visual arts and crafts to gospel to hip hop to dance to speech to theater.
Blevins says the second day is being produced by young artists and producers, people who were children or not even born when the festival first started.
“That is our ultimate goal,” Blevins says. “To leave this legacy to them and leave it to the next generation.”
This year’s play was written, directed and features one of Blevins’ former protegees, Khalif Price, who is staging “Black is the Color of My True Love.” It is a romantic drama that will be performed on the final day of the festival at 6:30 p.m.
In it, a professionally successful, middle-class African-American couple is struggling with keeping their marriage together, which causes tragedy for their family. The ancestors show up and take them on a journey through time where they are shown couples trying to make their love work through such events as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery on plantations, the Jim Crow period, civil rights, the black power movement and the cocaine epidemic. Finally, they are put on trial for the tragedy they caused.
It’s a show that Price developed from a book of poetry by the same name that he wrote and published in 2018.
“The play is really speaking to the fact that black relationships and black marriages are at an all-time low,” Price says. “Divorce rates among African Americans are at an all-time high. Some of the factors I am looking at are slavery and the history. It doesn’t negate the actual responsibility of the actual couple to amend their differences, but it shows there are a lot of outside influences that affect why the relationships have been damaged.”
“Black is the Color of My True Love” is a two-hour play that is a series of vignettes that depict the ancestors reciting excerpts of Price’s books. The two actors playing the main couple, Price and Ashli Sabree, also play each of the historical couples so that as the ancestors transport everyone through historical events, it is always the same couple trying to make their love work but being constantly bombarded with different obstacles.
Price says writing the book of poetry was a form of therapy for himself because he had just ended a relationship after ten years.
“I saw myself with four children, trying to figure out how to move on after loving someone for so long,” Price says. “How did it end when there was so much optimism and awareness and hope that we would be a really strong black couple.”
He says he was reading the Song of Solomon in the Bible and engaging in the love story between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba when the song “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” came on. He listened to the lyrics as she sang of an undying love. He felt like she was really speaking of a kingly black man and wondered if it was just a safe way of trying to depict such a love in a song of that time. It was then, coupled with his own personal lost love, that he was inspired to write what became the basis for the play being performed at Kuumba Festival.
Price also feels the show fits in well with this year’s theme, which is about black people throughout the entire African diaspora connecting to each other and finding solidarity.
“Culturally in the United States, any marginalized group of people are constantly on this flight of achievement,” says Price. “You forget about connecting to the larger world around you, both your ethnic group and the globe around you. This is about broadening perspectives and broadening the outlook of our goals and connecting to other people who are trying to achieve as well and seeing what we can do in solidarity to each other.”
It’s a solidarity that Blevins feels is important to explore both during the Kuumba festival and in activities throughout 2020.
“We need to start coming together and building a legacy for our children and a reputation for our African-American community in San Diego,” Blevins says. “People come here and think there is no black cultural enrichment. But we have this incredible history and legacy. There just is no place you can go and learn about it.”
Blevins points out that despite some of the negative images some have of the African American community in San Diego, there is a long history of cultural excellence. He points out that Kwanza started in San Diego, the man who invented it was a San Diego art teacher. He says they are also the only place in the country with a Malcolm X library.
By encouraging connection, he says the city and the people in it will be able to build the legacy that is so important to everyone’s success.
“The more we provide enrichment and pride, the more people will speak to each other and share their culture and testimonials,” says Blevins. “Their children will become more successful and ambitious. They’ll realize that we’re not second class. We’re trying to get people to connect so they can survive and prosper as a people and as a community.”
Kuumba Festival for the past 30 years has set out to tell the stories of African Americans in San Diego using arts and culture. Blevins says the partnership with San Diego Repertory has also been a crucial element. When the festival started, he had founded a black theater company and others in the community would tell him that the white folk weren’t going to let him into their theater or if they did, they wouldn’t let him return.
“I’ve been there for 28 years,” Blevins says. “It shows young people whose grandparents said there will never be a black president or black folks will never be in that theater, that if you have self-determination and self-love, you can accomplish anything.”
Price also feels the self-love and connection to one’s history is important to being successful, especially in the context of a relationship or marriage.
“When you look back and you start to compare what a struggle others have gone through, who have fought so diligently to have the opportunity you have, you have a little more humility,” says Price. “You are connected to a lot more sacrifices. Somehow, they were able to maintain relationships and love and faith and belief in God and still steam forward ahead. The connection (to the past) is enriching, it also creates a certain level of accountability.”
With so much to offer and accomplish, Blevins is eager to throw open the door to everyone and encourages them to participate.
“We celebrate everything else,” Blevins says. “Now it is important that we celebrate ourselves and anyone who claims to love us, should come out and learn about us and support our cultural enrichment as well.”
Here is the full list of events for the Kuumba Festival. For more information, call 619.544.1000 or visit sdrep.org/kuumba.
Friday, February 28
Friday Night of Positive Images
Open for shopping at 6 p.m., the African Market Place offers exotic, cultural vendors, fashion, art, jewelry, food, live jazz, a community reception, exhibits, family resources, libations and a drum call serve as the preshow. Beginning at 7 p.m., pageantry and power backdrops the awards ceremony in the royal court, Parade of the Ancestors speak of black heritage, closing the night with a moving chore poem play “Sarah Elizabeth: The Lynching of a Black Woman Who was Connected.” Tickets are $25.
Saturday, February 29
11 a.m. Reopening of the African Market Place with the addition of the youth village, educational workshops, panel discussions and book fair. Entrance to the African Market Place is free.
1 p.m. Annual youth presentation of Kuumba Kidz who learn African culture, history and heritage and share in the Youth Production. Tickets for Kuumba Kidz are $5.
2 p.m. Extemporaneous Speech Competition – Youth and adult participants pull topics from the box and have 2 minutes to speak on their selected topic, with a $45 prize for each winner. Admission is free.
2:30 p.m. Workshop on Healthy Foods – Cooking and healthy living demonstration and teach back. Admission is free.
3 p.m. Step & Dance – Black 2 Connected fitness and movement competition and showcase connecting dance and movement to healthy fit lifestyles and tools to address childhood obesity and increased discipline. Tickets to Step & Dance are $12.
5 p.m. Taste of Soul – Contest in the spirit of Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) Kuumba Fest host a friendly competition of San Diego top chefs, cooks and restaurants promoting the best black-owned and -operated eateries. Tickets are $7.
6 p.m. Black 2 Connected Poetry Slam & Arts Experiential: through words and expression what it will take to reconnect to the struggle and journey for cultural integrity, survival and sustained prosperity. Tickets are $10.
8 p.m. YBNB VIP Showcase of positive images and vibration of local black owned businesses, and organizations that serve the community showcasing their products, brand and services. Admission is free.
9 p.m. Late Nite Live, Tribute to the Apollo Theatre – Interactive audience showcasing of San Diego’s top and most self- determined artist, performers and entertainers. Youth and adult segments and $600 in prizes. Tickets are $15.
Sunday, March 30
11 a.m. Readers Theatre presentation led by Antonio Johnson connecting to and celebrating the African-American experience honoring the work of critically acclaimed August Wilson. Don’t miss this treat. Tickets are $10.
Noon. Reopening of the African Market Place. Entrance to the African Market Place is free.
2 p.m. Panel Discussion: The Plight of the Black Family – Interactive panel of black men sharing, discussing and answering questions based on their feelings and experience on what it will take to save the black family. Admission is free.
4 p.m. Gospel Celebration: Hand clapping, foot stomping traditional spiritually moving music, singing and rendering up praises for the positive vibrations and energy of empowerment from a higher power. Tickets are $10.
6:30 p.m. “Black is the Color of my True Love:” A romantic drama about a couple whose divorce causes the ancestors to take them on a journey of reconnecting can the ancestors help confront the pain and restore the American black family. Tickets are $15.
8:30 p.m. Comedy Show/After-Hours Event for the whole Kuumba Fest family and community to come together closing out Kuumba Fest 2020, gathering with celebration, laughter and healing featuring J. Anhur-Shi, Kayshawn, P. Howard, N. Robinson, W. Ford, B. Young. Tickets are $15.