Neighborhoods throughout Pittsburgh have gone a bit quiet as the post-holiday rest and recent COVID-19 variant paused some big events. That will change on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when the Kelly Strayhorn Theater honors the legacy of the late civil rights leader with a day of empowering art, music, dance, and more.
Presented in collaboration with the Garfield gallery BOOM Concepts, as well as other local organizations, Give Me Liberty: East Liberty Celebrates MLK Day offers a diverse range of live activities at the historic theater. The event, which takes place on Mon., Jan. 17, is described in a press release as beginning KST’s winter season with a focus on “the power of activism.”
KST executive director Joseph Hall says that the theater has hosted this type of program for over 10 years, adding that the 2022 celebration is “really about spotlighting artists and the community on stage.”
This year’s theme is “Give Me Liberty,” which Hall thinks of as “a declaration, a call to action, a claiming liberty for yourself in this moment of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and many of the protests that were happening and the demonstrations that were actually in the heart of East Liberty,” referring to the summer of 2020, when many took to the streets after the high-profile police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. “And we think about this program as a way to inspire people to see how they can be a part of social justice, and also tell their story,” he adds.
King and other civil rights leaders of the era are credited with furthering federal protections for Black Americans, including the Voting Rights Act.
Even so, the following decades have seen an uphill battle for equal rights, as Black Americans face evident disparities in terms of economic opportunities, housing, and police treatment in Pittsburgh and across the nation.
Johnnie L. Miott, president of the Pittsburgh Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, issued a statement ahead of Jan. 15, what would have been King’s 93rd birthday. It points out that, in the 59 years since King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, his vision of a more equal America has still not come to fruition.
“Today in this country, people of color are still held down by chains of joblessness, hatred, and discrimination,” writes Miott. “Still left behind on the island of poverty with no way to salvation. Still, in many situations, we continue to be judged by the color of our skin rather than the content of our character.”
He adds that, while progress has been made since the speech, “the work is far from over,” and urges everyone to reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and “think about how you can contribute to making a difference in the struggle for a more perfect Union.”
KST and other organizations throughout the city will offer chances to do just that, while also elevating Black leaders, performers, and others in the Pittsburgh community.
Hall says that the MLK Day festivities at KST will feature BOOM Concepts co-founder and artist DS Kinsel as the emcee, and open with a rendition of the song “Lift Every Voice” by musician Anita Levels. From there, visitors will find activities in the theater lobby by community partners like the arts collective Women of Visions and the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. There will also be live performances by the STAYCEE PEARL dance project and Soy Sos, Alloy School, Balafon West African Dance Ensemble, and more.
Since the start of the pandemic, KST delivered dynamic virtual programs to stay connected with its audience. This includes Hotline Ring, an online event designed to showcase local artists and performers while also raising funds for a variety of arts and cultural organizations.
Still, the East Liberty theater will deliver ways for people to become inspired by the work of Dr. King, as well as past and current civil rights activists, by providing what’s described on the KST website as “engaging activities and performances that will highlight the multitude of ways we can use our voices and stories to transform the world.”
“It’s a tricky balance because so many theaters were doing lots of digital programs, and we certainly were as well, and had much success and developed new techniques. However, so many folks are just itching to be together, to experience each other's energy,” says Hall. “So I do think it's important for the mental health of all of us to find ways to safely hold it in person.”