Of all urban cities in the U.S., the percentage of San Francisco's African American population is the smallest. Yet, much of early Black history in California is set in the city, and remains largely untold.
Sailing Away, a site-specific dance performance on Market Street from October 7 to October 10 will explore the history of African Americans' early contributions to the development of San Francisco.
Created by Joanna Haigood, the artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theatre, Sailing Away tells the story of eight prominent African Americans who lived and worked near Market Street during the mid-nineteenth century and of the events leading up to the mass exodus of African Americans from San Francisco in 1858.
Market Street will provide the backdrop as performers enact historical narratives through a series of gestures and activities incorporating sites and monuments located between Powell and First streets. Through character interactions, audience members will get a feel for 19th-century commercial life on the city's most important thoroughfare, which was once home to myriad African American-owned enterprises.
Some of the figures explored in the work include: Mary Ellen Pleasant, an entrepreneur who used her fortune to further the abolitionist movement; Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, a devoted abolitionist, participant in the Underground Railroad and friend of Frederick Douglass, who made a fortune in the clothing and dry goods trade, real estate speculation, and transportation industries; Archy Lee, a slave who was the focus of several court cases involving slavery laws and a civil rights movement in 1858. During the performance, newspapers containing historical information is referenced in the work will be distributed.
"African Americans and their histories are disappearing from San Francisco. The average San Franciscan would not recognize the names of Mifflin Gibbs or James Whitfield and yet they were national figures, working on behalf of all African Americans. This piece hopes to illuminate obscured histories and initiate meaningful dialogue around their subsequent legacies.”
Sailing Away also includes a contemporary character referencing African Americans living in San Francisco today and the current trend in relocation to East Bay communities.
“African Americans and their histories are disappearing from San Francisco,” Haigood said. “The average San Franciscan would not recognize the names of Mifflin Gibbs or James Whitfield and yet they were national figures, working on behalf of all African Americans. This piece hopes to illuminate obscured histories and initiate meaningful dialogue around their subsequent legacies.”
At the top of each half hour all the characters will appear at the North East corner of Market and Battery streets near Shoreline Plaque, the brass plaque that marks the early San Francisco shoreline.
“While creating this work, it was important for me to include a moment to reflect on the invisibility and loss of African American history and to comment on the current out-migration of African Americans,” Haigood said.
Sailing Way begins Thursday, October 7 and runs through Sunday, October 10. Performances will take place at the top of each half hour from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Photo Credits: San Francisco Arts Commission
Thursday, October 07, 2010 The Black Hour