MEET OUR 2020 WINNER, AARON JAFFERIS
The Bitsie Clark Fund for Artists is pleased to announce that Hip-Hop artist, poet and playwright Aaron Jafferis is the recipient of this year’s $5,000 grant.
The awardee’s name was revealed at a virtual Celebration of Bitsie and the Arts on October 30th, Bitsie’s 89th birthday. The pre-recorded event also included a re-visit with the 2019 awardees, Adam Matlock and Harold Shapiro; and an introduction of six extraordinary finalists: Allan Appell, Stephen Dest, Rebekah L. Fraser, Dana Elizabeth Fripp, Dr. Tiffany Renee Jackson, and Martha Willette Lewis.
To view the 45-minute celebration, which is both playful and deeply moving, click Bitsie2020.com.
The grant will support Jafferis’ continued development of Smooth Criminal, a Hip-Hop play, which he says “are the art forms he grew up with”. Being the only white boy in his Hillhouse High School class, he learned Hip-Hop at the same time he learned theatre at the Educational Center for the Arts.
Jafferis poses this question regarding Smooth Criminal: “As a white dude, is it criminal, or simply smooth, for a white playwright to use a Black/Latinx-born art form to try to undo white supremacy?” After spending years, as he describes, “talking smack” about privileged white guys in his work, he investigates whether he may, in fact, be one.
While unearthing the history of the two sides of his family, Aaron is exploring their different relationships to race, class and money. “A hundred years ago, one great-grandfather was dying in prison after trying to murder the foreman who denied him work, while the other was running the country’s largest banking empire. Their ghosts mud-wrestle in my body,” he says, “blood-writing this play: about them, my family, me. This play’s been writing me all my life.”
Aaron Jafferis has toured his productions extensively across the US and Europe, many of them garnering awards. He has performed at the Kennedy Center and Madison Square Garden. His poetry has been performed by the esteemed dance company Urban Bush Women. He was also an Open Rap Slam Champion at the National Poetry Slam Championships.
What is more important is the focus of his work. With Collective Consciousness Theatre, Jafferis has worked with refugees from around the world to create the play, Stories of a New America, which is now touring. His collaboration with Chinese American composer Byron Au Yong explores Asian American resistance to American xenophobia. He is also passionately devoted to improving the futures of youth by fomenting their voice and leadership. He has taught at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital, where he was a poet-in-residence; and in middle and high schools in Greater New Haven. He shares his belief that word-based poetry and Hip-Hop helped liberate and inspire him, and can do so for others.
To view the video, click Bitsie2020.com.
MEET OUR 2020 FINALISTS:
ALLAN APPEL, STEPHEN DEST, REBEKAH L. FRASER, DANA ELIZABETH FRIPP, DR. TIFFANY RENEE JACKSON, and MARTHA WILLETTE LEWIS
ALLAN APELL, a playwright, journalist, poet and author of 14 books, is working on a theatrical production entitled “My Liberia,” set in the early 19th century when returning Blacks to Africa, specifically to Liberia, was a popular progressive idea. Allan’s script focuses on the life of William Lanson, a likely one-time slave later known as the “Governor” or “King” of the Negroes.
A self-taught engineer and entrepreneur, Lanson helped build and develop areas of New Haven, including Long Wharf Harbor and the Farmington Canal. He purchased land in the Wooster Square area where he built businesses and hotels, where he gave refuge to free and enslaved Blacks and poor whites. Lanson, however, later faced brutal racism, leading to tragedy, poverty and to his spending time in prison. He is only now receiving the recognition he deserves. In fall, 2020, he was memorialized in a sculpture in New Haven.
Filmmaker STEPHEN DEST , a highly acclaimed director who moved to New Haven after working for years in New York theater, is writing an adaptation to his award-winning documentary entitled “I Am Shakespeare: The Henry Green Story.” (You can see on the poster the festivals that showcased this film).
“I Am Shakespeare,” produced by Stephen Dest with Henry Green as narrator and collaborator, tells the powerful story of a talented African/American boy who grew up in an environment of poverty, racism, gangs and guns but became a gifted young actor. Tragically, at age 19, Henry was shot on the streets and left for dead.
Thanks to multiple surgeries, Henry survived, devoting his next five years to mentoring youth and to working with Stephen on the film, which now screens in schools across the country. But another tragedy struck: Shortly after the film’s release, Henry died from complications from surgery. Stephen Dest intends to complete Henry’s story by focusing on his heroic last years.
Author, multi-media artist, community activist and ardent environmentalist, REBEKAH L. FRASER spent a decade as a journalist covering subjects including waste management and climate change. After publishing nearly 200 articles, a historical novel, and a non-fiction book about climate change mitigation through farming, she realized that her words “would be more impactful and reach a wider audience if presented in a more digestible form: fiction.”
Rebekah merged two of her passions—love stories and environmental justice—and started writing climate-smart romance novels under the pseudonym Tara L. Roi. Tara’s first book was published in February, 2020. Rebekah is now working on Tara’s trilogy of climate-smart romance novels, the first of which is set in New Haven. Her mission is to promote climate-smart living by showing readers the human side of environmental science.
DANA ELIZABETH FRIPP has been singing since she could sit up in a shopping carriage, entertaining whomever passed by. She sang in choirs when young, performed in college, then studied classical voice. Her 30-year professional career has been a whirlwind. She has sung opera and musical theatre in a variety of distinguished venues; was a founding member of The Elm City Vocal Choir of classically trained African/American vocalists. She was a teaching artist for incarcerated youth; has written plays for New Haven students; and even worked as a clown for years.
Now, for the first time, Dana is creating a scripted program for herself, designed to challenge historically defined character types. Entitled “Singing Against Type: Dana Elizabeth Fripp’s Forbidden Audition List,” her program will feature favorite operatic and musical theatre works, with a focus on roles that have historically been reserved for, as she describes, “singers of a different body type, age, ethnicity, gender and voice type.”
Dr. TIFFANY RENEE JACKSON was a girl born to a sharecropper’s daughter who dreamed of a better life for herself. And that is precisely what she created. Dr. Jackson’s love for music began with the spirituals and gospel hymns in the Black churches. After lessons at Neighborhood Music School and participation in local music programs, she later soared through prestigious music schools and academies, including receiving a Masters of Music from Yale, and a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut.
A gifted opera and jazz singer, Dr. Jackson is also a writer, a body builder, a businesswoman and the founder of a non-profit. It was when she was invited to accompany Oprah to South Africa and met Nelson Mandela that she realized her vocal gift could be a path toward greater purpose.
Dr. Jackson’s journey now is to inspire others born into disadvantages to find hope and opportunity through her story. She hopes to continue touring, when possible, her autobiographical, multi-dimensional one woman show, “From the Hood to the Ivy League.”
Multi-media artist Martha Lewis has excelled as artist and curator, including at Yale Quantum Institute where she successfully tackled the issue of quantum mechanics. Facing the pandemic isolation, Martha searched for ways to socially connect with others in pertinent ways. Her innovation? “Quarantine CineGram:” projecting original messages through a screen of yellow silk on her street- facing kitchen window, documenting each day of the lockdown. As she continues her unique project, attracting many followers through social media, she also hopes to pursue a printed catalogue of each day’s creation.