During the week of Jan. 22, the college held a series of events to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and build a safe, welcoming community. From a candlelight vigil on the steps of the Black Cultural Center to a campus-wide reflection at the Friends Meeting House, the week encouraged love and empathy in the memory of Dr. King.
On Thursday in the Scheuer Room, I witnessed one of the most powerful performances of my life during an event entitled “Say the Wrong Thing! Racial Justice from the Heart.” It featured Dr. Amanda Kemp, a performer and professor who attended both Stanford and Northwestern Universities, and Dr. Michael Jamanis, a Juilliard-trained violinist. Together, they are two talented artists who tell stories of their lives as an interracial couple.
As Jamanis accompanied, Kemp shared works of other poets and of her own making. Kemp told stories of her own struggles and fears as a Black woman. I got chills as she told stories that opened my eyes to a different way of viewing the world. She introduced me to fears that I had never had to consider in my life. Everyone in the room was moved as Kemp opened up about the daily fears that are troublingly real to so many people.
Their final piece, titled “Chaconne Emancipated”, moved many to tears. Jamanis and Kemp worked tirelessly on this piece together, and it showed in their performance. The piece incorporated elements from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech and the Emancipation Proclamation to create a powerful narrative on race in America. With every word and movement, you could feel the emotion coming from the performers, which is exactly what Kemp aims to do. She described what it means to perform. “The power of live performance is that it pulls you into the present, into your heart. And from the heart anything can be transformed.”
Using performance as a means for transformation is a prominent part of Kemp’s work. She wants to help people have meaningful, respectful discussions on race. “I see performing as a way to mentor or guide people to connect their concern for racial justice to their deepest, wisest self.” Kemp engaged with the audience, asking them why race is such an uncomfortable subject. Answers varied from citing its difficulty and complexity to the fear of the unknown response. She then led the audience through a breathing exercise. Afterwards, several people cited how they felt more attuned and open. Kemp then explains how that is the place people should come from when having difficult conversations rather than rushing to make a quick comeback.
For Kemp, performance comes from a deep place. “Art and performance are ways for me to connect with the divine and express the divine. So when I do a piece like ‘Chaconne Emancipated,’ I am connecting to the spiritual essence of the ancestors who I quote, and there is a rush of energy that infuses my body.” It is easy to see how these deep connections bring her to such powerful performances. As the music Jamanis’ violin grew in intensity and strength, as did Kemp’s voice.
She conveyed centuries of pain through her performance and in the final minutes of her piece she raised her fist in the air. As the violin quieted her fingers loosened and her hand slowly fell back to her side. What made her performance so striking was that she told not only her story, but the stories of hundreds of others who have experienced racism and injustice.