Lead Story West Edition

SHOWCASING TALENT: Black artists take stage at annual booking conference

LOS ANGELES — Dancers dressed in colorful flowing outfits leaped and sashayed across a stark black stage as the sultry voice of Nina Simone played in the background.  

Members of JazzAntiqua Dance and Music Ensemble were aware that this was a rare opportunity. This performance could lead to bookings at performance venues across the western United States and Canada.

“There was a lot of the excitement and electricity and buzz that you could feel throughout the evening and the post-performance with audience members,” said JazzAntiqua’s Artistic Director and choreographer Pat Taylor.

For three nights, African-American musicians, dancers and artists as well as queer performers took front and center stage at a symposium and a series of performances that were part of an initiative focused on black artists as part of the 2019 Western Arts Alliance Annual Booking Conference held in downtown Los Angeles earlier this month.

The symposium and performances were one of several pre-conference events entitled “Black Arts @ WAA,” co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and Western Arts Alliance, a membership organization of artists, talent managers, agents and presenters who book live performances at educational and entertainment venues in the Western United States and Canada.

Tim Wilson, WAA executive director, said Black Arts @WAA came out of a conversation he had with an event coordinator at a conference in Seattle in 2015.

“Here were all these great young black artists who were starting out and who hadn’t quite broken through yet, but they were supporting one another — playing on each other’s albums, helping each other produce concerts and marketing,” Wilson said. “They’re doing all this work which is completely unseen by the wide (whiter) community. One of WAA’s main member benefits is showcasing talent, it struck me as she talked about this that there was something really wrong.”

As a result, Wilson thought the organization should sponsor an initiative that would focus on black artists.

The symposium was followed by a welcome reception held for WAA members, artists and stakeholders in the Community Build Park in Leimert Park Village. The first of three sets of talent showcases entitled, Black Music in L.A. @ WAA, were held at five venues in Leimert Park Village: The World Stage, Hot and Cool Café, L.A. Third Church, KAOS Network and the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center.  

“The symposium at our theater and the annual conference gave African-American performers an opportunity to look at the business side of the performing arts,” said Erwin Washington, executive director and co-founder of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre and a WAA member for more than 30 years. “It also gave presenters — people who book talent for theaters around the country as well as people from outside the country — a chance to look at L.A. area artists that they could be hiring.”

Ben Johnson, performing arts director for the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, knew Black Arts @ WAA provided a unique opportunity. 

“We designed this to help amplify Leimert Park and help connect the local South L.A. arts community to the national arts community through WAA,” Johnson said.

Leimert Park was the first and only choice for WAA activities, according to Johnson. With the reopening of the Vision Theater in late 2020, the occasion provided a prime opportunity to coalesce South L.A. performers with wider audiences.

“There were leaders from all over the U.S. who were here for the very first time ever going to venues in Leimert Park,” Johnson said. “They were witnessing something very special.”

Robert Sausedo, president and CEO of Community Build Inc., where the reception was held, welcomed the exposure.

“With the opening of the LAX Crenshaw Metro and Destination Crenshaw next year, the timing is perfect to confirm Leimert Park as the epicenter of Black Los Angeles,” Sausedo said.

Taylor and Ebony Repertory Theatre Managing Director Gayle Hooks co-curated Black Dance in L.A. @ WAA at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. Seven dance companies, including Taylor’s JazzAntiqua, performed in front of a capacity audience comprised of WAA presenters and invited guests.

Taylor says she has received a lot of positive feedback about the event and hopes that WAA members will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the black performing arts.

Performers MJ Brown and Kai Hazelwood curated the final showcase, Black Queer Arts in L.A. @ WAA, hosted at the LGBTQ-owned venue Redline, in downtown Los Angeles. Brown, who performs under the pseudonym “Miss Barbie-Q,” and Hazelwood, founder of Good Trouble Maker, said they were approached by Johnson to produce an event showcasing queer artists which Brown hopes will continue in the future.

“I think an organization like WAA can really set the tone for credibility and openness for the spectrum of queer artists being booked at venues,” Brown said.

Tamica Washington-Miller, associate director of the Lula Washington Dance Theater and a member of the Black Arts @ WAA organizing committee, hopes that now more L.A. artists understand what WAA is about, and that the pre-conference symposium was an eye opener for everyone who was involved. 

“I hope that we can bring more presenters, funders and philanthropists to the table to talk about and to understand the unique challenges of the black arts community and also begin to understand the value that we bring to performing arts wherever we are.”