Memphis Black Arts Alliance serves as talent starting point

The Memphis Black Arts Alliance serves as a gateway to Soulsville USA and the South Memphis area where it works as a starting point for black creative talent in the community.
For over 30 years, a historic 1910-era converted firehouse has served as the gateway to Soulsville USA and Greater South Memphis at 985 S. Bellevue Blvd. The location is paramount because of the neighborhood’s history of being a starting point for black creative talent.
More than its physical FireHouse Community Arts Building, since 1982 the Memphis Black Arts Alliance has served as a portal and incubator for black artists of all sorts in the Memphis area and a way for those artists to give back to the community via classes and other events put on by the organization.
The MBAA was born out of a coalition of black arts groups in the late 1970s in Memphis. Bennie Nelson West officially started the MBAA in 1982 with the mission of improving the quality of life and economic well-being of Greater Memphis through the preservation?, celebration? and advancement of African-American arts, culture and literature. 
Nelson West remained at the helm as founding executive director until her retirement in late 2015.
The organization's logo is the “sankofa,” a bird flying forward while looking backward with an egg (symbolizing the future) in its mouth. The interpretation of looking back at the past to achieve future potential is a guiding source of inspiration for the organization; paying homage to the past while nurturing budding artists.
Over the years, MBAA has had several mainstay programs. These have included the ArtsAcademy, consisting of year-round group and private classes for all ages in dance, music, theater, visual and literary arts. The Arts-A-F!RE Summer Camp, which included African history and geography, acting, jazz/hip hop, African dance, musical theater, drawing, photography, painting, crafts, singing, piano, creative writing, social etiquette, gardening, entrepreneurship and field trips to cultural attractions, fishing, games and musical theater productions; and concluding with the Arts-A-F!RE Showcase Finale.
Finally, the Encore Creative Arts Series, for adults 55 and older, included the Encore Chorale with singers performing music from the radio days of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s; two dance troupes: The Encore Movers and the Encore Chair Dancers; the Encore Visionaries: photographers, painters and craftspeople; and the Encore Players: a theater troupe featuring comedic, dramatic and poetic works.
In its years of existence the MBAA claims to have employed 300 performing and visual artists and provided community-based arts education to 3,000.
Among these artists were Stax legend Rufus Thomas who taught tap classes at the center, Carla Thomas who taught voice, and Nokie Taylor who taught sax. MBAA has provided space to visual artists such as George Hunt and Brenda Joysmith.
New to the organization is LarJuanette Williams, who took the helm as executive director in late 2015 and creative director, Eric Henderson, a dancer/choreographer.
Williams, a Memphis native, has returned home after 25 years away. Her career includes 30 years of performing as a singer, actress, dancer and writer, and 20 year of working in arts administration, with stints in Texas, Knoxville and Los Angeles.
At age 21 Williams said after writing her first musical theater piece the MBAA helped her to find funding to produce it.
“Now many years later and hundreds of productions under my belt it is my time to help the next 21-year-old with a dream,” she added.
Williams has two main focuses that her new administration of MBAA will focus on.
The first focus is sustainability of the organization. Due to personal family issues, Nelson West halted most programming for nearly two years. Williams is working with Henderson to establish commercial programming, such as redeveloping the Jazz-A-F!RE program to include a concert series, hosting visual artists and restarting the Voices-A-F!RE open mic series.
The second focus is youth development. Williams plans to create a scholarship program called Music-A-F!RE to give creative and multimedia artistic training to 20 young artists to help them share their voices and also offer solutions to issues.
“?We inspire, educate and engage artists and audiences towards the creation of just and equitable communities through forward-thinking experiences,” Williams said.
Upcoming MBAA community events include the Jazz-A-F!RE Chocolate Cabaret blues and jazz concert from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Feb. 28 at Memphis Sounds Lounge, 22 N. Third St. honoring both Valentine’s Day and Black History Month.
The Jazz-A-F!RE singer series typically is held from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the last Sunday of each month at Memphis Sounds Lounge.
Also upcoming is the Voice-A-F!RE open mic night series scheduled for 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on March 18 and May 20 at the FireHouse Community Arts Center. Cost of admission is a donation of the attendee’s choice at the door.

Read more articles by Elle Perry.

A native of Memphis, Elle Perry serves as coordinator of the Teen Appeal, the Scripps Howard city-wide high school newspaper program.