Diversity celebrated at showcase

By Kate Daniel, Eagle Life Editor

Performers at Photo by Karissa Berg "Shades of Black" dance to convey creativity and culture.
Performers at “Shades of Black” dance to convey creativity and culture. Photo by Karissa Berg.

The lights dimmed on a room filled with students anxiously awaiting the opening of “Shades of Black,” a show that has been hailed by viewers as one of the most culturally relevant, intellectually stimulating and entertaining showcases in the Northwest.

Emcee Mic Montgomery, an EWU alumnus, stepped onto an illuminated platform in the center of the room, immediately engaging the audience with an invitation for participation and interaction. “A microphone is a very powerful thing,” he said, laughing.

He continued, explaining the objective of “Shades of Black:” to celebrate culture through artistic expression and have an open dialogue about difficult topics.

This statement was also reflected in a press release for the event, “‘The Shades of Black Show’ is a celebration of the different textures and dimensions of the cultural experience through the performing arts. For students, this is an opportunity to watch their peers take the stage and express who they are and how their own identity, experiences and observations relate to their surroundings and society.”

Throughout the show, various artists — including EWU dance troupe Code Red and student poet Anastasia Aguon — displayed their artistic talents through song, spoken word and dance. Spoken word topics ranged from race issues and discrimination to love, self-confidence and coping with loss. Musicians rapped and sang a variety of covers and original songs, while dancers moved to music from gospel to hip-hop and pop. Many performances inspired audience reactions including tears, laughter and standing ovations.

Kwapi Vengesayi created the showcase at the University of Idaho about 10 years ago. This is the second time EWU has hosted the event, which was sponsored by Student Activities, Involvement and Leadership and Eagle Entertainment and was held April 18 at 7 p.m. in the PUB MPR.

“’The Shades of Black’ Show is a current and relevant medium that embraces all participants into the black experience,” said University of Idaho director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs Eddy Ruiz. “Dance, spoken word and other performances highlight cultural diversity, which draws people into the current state of society. Kwapi Vengesayi’s creation leaves [the] audience informed and empowered to better understand the world around us.”

Katie Rousso, Eagle Entertainment chairperson and coordinator for this year’s performance of “Shades of Black” at EWU, said she has attended the show for the last two years and was very impressed.

“It was so awesome, so much more than I expected. I think something that really stood out to me … is being able to see other people’s cultures expressed through the arts. I think that is something so cool about ‘Shades of Black’ is that you’re learning about culture in a whole new way,” she said.

Rousso said that the most important takeaway for student attendees is the appreciation of various cultures, and the importance of expressing their own in whatever way they desire.

“Students should take away pride in their own culture, and hopefully it will inspire some students to go out there and explore the culture that they identify with,” she said.

Vengesayi, “Shades of Black” creator, said he created the showcase after realizing that there was no cultural event which brought both the University of Idaho and Washington State University campuses together.

Vengesayi said that the show has become more encompassing of different backgrounds since its conception because of its focus on social commentary as opposed to an exclusive dedication to one topic, such as race issues.

“We endeavor to provide those involved with an opportunity to express who they are and how their own identity, experiences and observations relate to their surroundings and society regardless of their race, sexuality, gender [or] religion. As long as their message is honest and not offensive and their delivery is creative and captivating, [we] welcome them to audition and grace our stage with their talent,” he said.

He added that “Shades of Black” is one-of-a-kind because of the energy and dedication his team devotes to ensuring that each performance accurately reflects the campus and community in which it is hosted. He said it is unique due to the strong sense of family within the group.

“Whether it’s on or off stage, we work with students and other willing participants and volunteers to make sure that each production is custom made and unique to that particular school and community, thus ensuring that no two shows are ever the same,” Vengesayi said. “In addition to this, we allow students to participate and perform at shows on other campuses, thus promoting and encouraging networking and the exchange of ideas. That’s what the show brings to EWU and the campuses that participate. It creates a sense of community on that campus and also builds community across campuses as its students perform at other schools and students from other schools perform at EWU.”

 Vengesayi said the takeaway is different for everyone but that many audience members seem to have a strong connection to the performance in one way or another. He also said he encourages audience members interested in performing themselves to audition for the show.

“The show has different things for everyone so what one takes away depends on what they were drawn to. For some, being enlightened about a certain topic is something they walk away with,” he said. “For others, it’s the feeling of ‘not being alone’ when one performer goes up on that stage and expresses the same exact thought or sentiment you’ve always had.”

Vengesayi said his ultimate goal for the show is multi-layered and includes a desire to maintain relationships with schools like EWU while expanding to other universities.

“At the end of the day it’s about making a difference,” he said. “I think expression is divine, and the ‘Shades of Black’ show gives people the opportunity to do so.”