|Ebony Expressions celebrates
25th at the Orpheum
by Jonathan Gramling
| What began as a summer activity for youth from economically-challenged households sponsored by the Work Experience Program evolved into a crossroads
of cultural connection in 1982 that has given African American students a positive school experience ever since.
Ebony Expressions was the brainchild of Ed Holmes who is now the principal of West High School. No matter where Holmes has worked the past 25 years —
Neighborhood House, Wright Middle School or West High School — some adaptation of Ebony Expressions has found root there. It’s been four years since Ebony
Expressions has put on a show. In commemoration of their 25th anniversary, Holmes decided to put on another show at the Orpheum Theater on State Street
February 29 called ‘The Best of Ebony.’ As with all past Ebony Expressions performances, this revue will explore the evolution of African American music and its
impact on American culture.
“I just want the kids today to experience what it was like 20-25 years ago as we expressed different aspects of African American culture to the Madison
community,” Holmes said after a rehearsal at West High School on a recent Saturday afternoon. While the nucleus of the high school contingent of
performers will be from West High School, it will feature students from across the Madison area. It will also include some past members of Ebony
Expressions who still feel the positive impact of Ebony Expressions on their adult lives.
As the rehearsal unfolded on West’s stage, Holmes worked with the students with a lot of energy, direction and love. Even though he has been fully-
preoccupied with administering West over the past four years, Holmes hasn’t lost his touch for working with African American youth. “You have to have a lot
of patience to deal with kids,” Holmes reflected. “They don’t always get it, but they are willing to learn. If you make it exciting and engaging for them, they
will come. They are drawn to it. That is who they are from deep down and they connect to it. They get excited by it. You can’t get frustrated with them. You just
have to embrace them and teach them. I push the kids. And I tell them I push them because I love them and I’m not going to tell them anything wrong. I’m
going to make them better because I want them to do their absolute best. I want everyone in the audience, their families and themselves to be proud of
Ebony Expressions has filled a void for many African American students and at the same time, has helped them develop skills and connections that have
served them well in their adult lives. Richard Henderson was one of the first participants back in 1983. He was a member of the rap group Fresh Force and totally
absorbed in that genre. “It helped me listen to, appreciate, understand and respect other styles of music even though they weren’t forms of music
I would have listened to before then,” Henderson said. “And since we don’t get the chance to talk about our history a whole lot in school, and the things we do
learn, we learn over and over again: Martin Luther King Jr. and slavery. This helps us open up our eyes to other things that we wouldn’t have known about.”
And what was true back in 1983 is still true today for many African American students at West. “Ebony Expressions is a nice event,” said Brittany Copeland, a
student at West who is participating for the first time.
“It’s very different from any other event that I have sung in. So I’m really happy to be a part of it. I’m more comfortable with the church scene because I do a
lot in the church. I’m singing a song called ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ by Sarah Vaughn. I don’t really know that much about jazz, so I’m really starting to learn
more about it now by singing songs from that era.”
Armani Davis is an Ebony Expressions veteran. He participated in the last Ebony Expressions performance at the Orpheum Theater four years ago as a Wright
Middle School student and is now performing again as a West High student. “It helped me so much with my music because I like to rap,” Davis said
about the first Orpheum Theater show. “It was a life experience. I will probably tell my kids about the first and second Ebony Expressions that I’ve been in.
Before the first Ebony Expressions, I had really no idea about Motown. Perhaps the Jackson Five was the only thing I knew about it. Now I know way more than I
knew before. It’s educational because I know a lot more about the music. If I get another chance to do this, I would definitely like to after this
because it is fun.” While Davis would love to make a career in music, he is also focused on his education as his mainstay in life.
Ebony Expressions was a life-changing experience for Tanika Kromah Wilson who became involved in Ebony Expressions when she moved to Madison
from Beloit as a freshman in high school. “I didn’t know many people and I struggled academically,” Wilson recalled. “But being in Ebony Expressions
and having the support of the other students and my peers and the pride we felt as a group encouraged my academics as well.” Wilson’s involvement in Ebony
Expressions also helped her develop a positive self-concept and blossom as an individual. “Ebony Expressions opened up a whole new world to me,” Wilson said.
“I’ve always been a pretty shy person. But on stage, I’m able to break out of that shell a little bit. It helped me with my own self-expression and gave me more of
an education about African American history and art. It gave me the opportunity to travel. We would do shows throughout Wisconsin. Not only was I able to
perform with Ebony Expressions in high school performances, but I was also able to do some shows at the university as well. It opened up a
new area for me to express myself and helped me to discover talents I never really know I had.”
Henderson was also very high on the skill development that his involvement in Ebony Expressions gave him. “Being involved helped build a lot of character
and confidence to get up in front of so many people and to be someone totally different than who I am,” Henderson emphasized. “It makes it easier
to be with other people either performing or speaking. It definitely gave me confidence for that. It gave me skills I didn’t even know I needed and we built
skills even though we didn’t realize it at the time. That’s something Ed always told us, that things we learned here would carry on into our lives as we got
older. We may not have understood it then — we were just kids, we thought he was just talking — but it definitely helped shape who we are now.”
Henderson now owns his own business — Richard’s Shirt Factory — located in the Genesis Enterprise Center.
While all of the students — and the veterans — have their favorite genres in terms of African American music, be it gospel, jazz or rap, the Ebony
Expressions experience brings it all together for them. “The kids are exposed to all of the primary genres of music and dance throughout African American history
and culture,” Holmes said. “So they understand that it is all connected. I always start out with the drumming and the African dance because a lot of what we
have today emanates from those syncopated rhythms, the call and response and the movement. If you look at some of the traditional African dance and what
the kids are doing now with some of their dance styles, it all emanates from African dance. Then you have the call and response in the Black church and gospel
music. There are connections between spirituals and gospel and blues and jazz. The kids don’t understand that. All they know right now is hip-hop, rap and R&B.
But they don’t know where it came from. It’s an educational process, not just for the kids, but also for the community, so they can see the contributions African
Americans have made to American society for all of these years and the different kinds of music that originated in the Black community.” While Holmes is very
appreciative of the performing arts opportunities that the students receive in the schools and the community — two of the students have competed on American
Idol and have acted in school plays — Ebony Expressions rounds out those experiences for the students. “This is different and I think people need to be exposed
to a different kind of performance art so they can have the experience,” Holmes emphasized. “It will be a different type of performance. And it will push the kids
to express themselves in a different way.
The kids grow as a result of having this experience. We have kids with a lot of talent, but this will push them in a way they have not been pushed before in
terms of raising their awareness and their understanding on how to perform in a different way. I can see their faces and I can see that they are learning
from this experience. It’s valuable for everyone, from kids who have never been on stage before to kids who have had a ton of stage experience.” If the past
Ebony Expressions performances are any indication, audience members at this year’s event will be treated to a top quality, high-school-play level performance
of current and former students who explore African American history through the medium of music and the performing arts. It will be the
perfect finale to a host of Black History Month activities in the Madison area.
Tickets for ‘The Best of Ebony’ are $12 and can be purchased at the Orpheum Theater and JP Hair Designs. All net proceeds of the event will be contributed
to Neighborhood House, Wright Middle School and an Ebony Expressions Scholarship Fund for kids interested in pursuing the performing arts. Ebony Expressions
is also looking for sponsor for this year’s event to defray the cost of the theater, costumes and other production costs. Sponsorship checks should be made out to
Neighborhood House, the event’s fiscal agent, and mailed to Ebony Expressions, 2935 S. Fish Hatchery Rd, STE#109,
Madison, WI 53713.