Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Event Slides Per Node 1415

  • Juneteenth: A Fierce Urgency Celebration! Michael Mwenso sings into a microphone. Samantha Speis dances with a leg and arm raised in the air.

Juneteenth: A Fierce Urgency Celebration!
Hosted by Michael Mwenso
Featuring performances, reflections, and contributions from Black artists and Penn State faculty
Produced by Electric Root in partnership with the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

7:30 pm Saturday, June 19, 2021

Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. Juneteenth (short for June Nineteenth) commemorates the day in 1865 when United States troops arrived in Galveston to seize control of the former Confederate state of Texas. Federal authority ensured that everyone who had been enslaved would be freed. 

The arrival came two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and two months following the Confederate surrender in Virginia, which marked the end of the American Civil War.

Juneteenth: A Fierce Urgency Celebration!, a film featuring artists and academics, honors the meaning and ongoing struggle behind the longest-running African-American holiday. Hosted by musician Michael Mwenso, the film includes Mwenso and The Shakes, Urban Bush Women, Shariffa Chelimo Ali, Dashon Burton, J. Marlena Edwards, Charles Dumas, Aquila Kikora Franklin, and Velvet Brown.

In conjunction with the celebration, Mwenso recommends a Healing playlist that includes fifteen songs by artists including George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, Sade, and Bessie Smith. 

Michael Mwenso

A Harlem-based cross-genre artist and leader of jazz-funk band The Shakes, Mwenso partners with the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State to provide opportunities for faculty, staff, students, and community members to engage in thought-provoking conversations that speak to the topics of equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging. 

A native of Sierra Leone, Mwenso moved to London as a youngster and by his early teens found himself on stage with soul-music great James Brown. After organizing a late-night jam session at Ronnie Scott’s, a London jazz club, Mwenso was hired as a musician and a curator at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Surrounded in New York City by dozens of musicians based in Harlem, Mwenso selected a group of artists who would become The Shakes.

Mwenso and The Shakes

Mwenso and The Shakes features a unique troupe of global artists who present music that merges the highest form of entertainment and artistry, while commanding a formidable timeline of jazz and blues expression through African and Afro-American music. Emigrating from Sierra Leone, London, South Africa, Greenwich Village, Madagascar, France, Jamaica, and Hawaii, members of The Shakes now call Harlem home. Taking from the stylings of Fats Waller, Muddy Waters, James Brown, and many other American music legends, Mwenso leads an electrifying show The New York Times calls “intense, prowling, and ebullient.”

Urban Bush Women

Urban Bush Women, founded in 1984 by choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, is a Brooklyn-based performance ensemble and dance company under the artistic direction of Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis. The company seeks to bring untold and under-told histories and stories to light through dance. It does so from a woman-centered perspective and as members of the African Diaspora community in order to create a more equitable balance of power in the dance world and beyond. The company performs regularly in New York City and tours nationally and internationally.

Off the concert stage, Urban Bush Women has developed an extensive community engagement program called BOLD (Builders, Organizers, and Leaders through Dance). The company’s largest community engagement project is its Summer Leadership Institute, established in 1997. The ten-day intensive training program serves as the foundation for the company’s community engagement activities. Ultimately, the program connects dance professionals and community-based artists/activists in a learning experience to leverage the arts as a vehicle for civic engagement. 

For Juneteenth: A Fierce Urgency Celebration!, Urban Bush Women has contributed My Ancestors Prayed For Me. It’s an excerpt from the 2018 Summer Leadership Institute culminating performance You, Me, We, performed by company members and institute participants at Arizona State University. Courtney J. Cook, the company’s co-rehearsal director, is the vocalist. 

Shariffa Chelimo Ali

Ali is an international creative leader committed to advancing radical change through the power of art and activism. She works across disciplines directing and producing films, virtual reality experiences, and plays. She moves her audiences to engage with timely issues touching upon Black, Afropolitan, and African-American identities.

Born in Kenya and raised in South Africa, Ali is a faculty member at Princeton University. She has also lectured and directed at New York University, Brooklyn College, and Yale University.

In 2020, she was artist in residence at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where she had helmed the world premiere of Karen Zacarias’s The Copper Children earlier in the year. Previously, she served as assistant director to mentor Cynthia Nixon for Rasheeda SpeakingSteve (The New Group) and Motherstruck! (Culture Project). Her debut virtual reality short, ATOMU, was an official selection of the Sundance Festival 2020.

Dashon Burton

Praised for his “nobility and rich tone” (The New York Times), two-time Grammy Award-winning bass-baritone Burton has established an international career in opera, recital, and in many works with orchestra. Burton, who graduated from Pennsylvania’s Williamsport Area High School, is a founding member of the progressive vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, with whom he earned a Grammy for the group’s recording of Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices. Roomful of Teeth, which also includes Shaw as a vocalist, performed the award-winning composition and other music at Schwab Auditorium in 2016.

Burton will sing “Deep River” as part of Juneteenth: A  Fierce Urgency Celebration.

J. Marlena Edwards

Edwards, assistant professor of African American Studies and History at Penn State, completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the Africana Research Center at Penn State after earning a dual-major doctorate in African American and African Studies and History from Michigan State University. Her research interests include multiethnic African-American identities, U.S. immigration, and African diaspora histories.

She’s working on her first book, Oceans Away From My Soul: Cape Verdeans and West Indian Community Networks in New England, which documents immigrant communities and their lives in the post-whaling era of early twentieth-century New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Charles Dumas

Dumas, who retired in 2013 as professor emeritus of the Penn State School of Theatre, remains active in the university theatre community. The actor, writer, and playwright devised and directed The Osaze Project, a theatrical workshop that explores the incidents that led to the 2019 death of State College resident Osaze Osagie. In 2002, Dumas was a Fulbright Fellow at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He has written and directed more than fifty plays.

For Juneteenth: A Fierce Urgency Celebration!, Dumas will perform a selection from James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones.

Aquila Kikora Franklin

Franklin is an associate professor of theatre/dance and associate director of equity, diversity, and inclusion for the Penn State School of Theatre, where she teaches courses on West-African, jazz, and Mojah dance plus hip-hop theatre. She has performed, choreographed, and taught in cities across the globe, including Linz, Austria; Grahamstown, South Africa; Dakar, Senegal; and Minas Gerais, Brazil.

She has choreographed and performed for the Atlanta Hawks Dance Team, Grammy Award-winning group Arrested Development, and renowned poet Sonia Sanchez. Franklin is also an original collaborator and choreographer for the award-winning play Blood at the Root.

As co-founder and artistic director of Roots of Life Performing Arts Ensemble, a State College Area School District program for students in grades four through twelve, Franklin shares her passion for dance.

Velvet Brown

Brown, Distinguished Professor of Music and associate director for equity, diversity, and inclusion in the Penn State School of Music, enjoys a career as a teacher, an international soloist, a chamber ensemble performer, a recording artist, a conductor, and an orchestral player. She has performed and taught in Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Finland, France, England, Hungary, Slovenia, Russia, Japan, Cuba, Canada, and the United States. 

The principal tubist of the New Hampshire Music Festival Orchestra, Brown was part of the Hope and Harmony Ensemble, conducted by Marin Also, that recorded a video of fanfares for the 2021 presidential inauguration. 

She is the co-founder of MOJATUBA: Tuba and Dance Fusion Project and is the lead tuba player for Gravity, Howard Johnson’s tuba jazz ensemble. 

Brown was recently named the inaugural David P. Stone Chair in the School of Music, an endowed position created to attract and retain world-class faculty.

Watch the event beginning at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 19. It will be available for streaming until 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 21.


How to Watch

The event will be streamed on this page for free. When streaming becomes available, a "Watch" button will appear. 

The run time is 37 minutes.

Juneteenth: A Fierce Urgency Celebration! is part of the Center for the Performing Arts Fierce Urgency Festival.

2020–2021 Up Close and Virtual season sponsors


Contributions from the members of the Center for the Performing Arts and a grant from the University Park Student Fee Board help make this program free of charge.

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