Flushing Town Hall celebrates Black History Month with trilogy series showcasing influential African Americans

n honor of Black History Month, Flushing Town Hall presents its Black History Trilogy, a three-part series of Broadway performers (from l. to r.) Alton Fitzgerald White, Lillias White, and Andre De Shields. (Photo courtesy of FTH)

For the first time ever, Flushing Town Hall is presenting a free virtual three-part Black History Month Trilogy Series featuring outstanding Broadway performers showcasing the music and speeches of influential African Americans including John Lewis, Sarah Vaughan and Frederick Douglass.

Clyde Bullard, a jazz producer in residence at Flushing Town Hall, organized the event that has garnered much attention and excitement from the public. According to Bullard, the Black History Month Trilogy Series will become an annual event. 

“It’s very encouraging and lets us know that there is an interest in participating and experiencing and learning something about Black History Month,” said Bullard, who is also a musician and has organized various events such as the Global Mashup Series showcasing performers from two countries under one roof. “The advanced excitement and media responses are phenomenal. People are really excited about the program and they have been calling in and writing about their attendance.” 

As a jazz producer working at Flushing Town Hall for the past 23 years, Bullard said this is his first time putting together a show in honor of Black History Month, a suggestion made by Ellen Kodadaek, executive director of the organization. 

The trilogy series kicked off on Feb. 5 with Alton Fitzgerald White — a gifted actor who starred in Broadway’s hit show “Ragtime” and performed as Mufasa in “The Lion King”—  bringing to life the legacy of American politician and civil rights leader John Lewis in “John Lewis: A Pioneer for Justice.” Lewis died last summer and coined the popular phrase “good trouble” in one of his most resilient speeches. Following his reading of the speech, White discussed why Lewis’s words and mission are still relevant today.

On Saturday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. the trilogy continues with a presentation of “Divine Sass: A tribute to the music, life and legacy of Sarah Vaughan,” featuring Tony Award-winning actress and vocalist Lillias White, who also wrote and conceived the show. 

Lillias White, who performed in “Dreamgirls,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “South Pacific” and Cy Coleman’s “The Life,” will highlight the music and struggles of the African American jazz artist, a pivotal figure in the formation of bebop who has influenced generations of vocalists with her unique style of expression and melodic phrasing. Vaughan helped desegregate American airwaves and set the stage for the civil rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Born in Newark, NJ, Vaughan, called “Sassy” by the greatest jazz musicians, was not only an extraordinary vocalist but a pianist, as well, who could accompany herself and perform alone if necessary.

The trilogy series concludes on Friday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m. with “Andre De Shields is Frederick Douglass: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.” The Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award winner and “Hadestown” star explores the life and achievements of the great emancipator, Frederick Douglass. 

“Though Douglass began his life as a slave, through heroic effort, he became one of America’s most important and historically influential icons,” De Shields said. 

“Frederick Douglass: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” tells a story about brutality and deliverance that is implausible yet historically accurate. De Shields portrays the great Black emancipator with a performance that is as filled with hope and achievement as it is darkness and anger. 

For those who are unable to watch the 7 p.m. show, it will be posted for 48 hours and will be taken down afterward, Bullard said. 

For his events, Bullard hires world-class artists that have a high level of artistry and integrity. Many of the artists featured at Flushing Town Hall are seen at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., according to Bullard. 

“We also present a plethora of family concerts and workshops online. We present something for everyone. Flushing Town Hall is the window to the world. The staff is well-versed in all of the cultural nuances that are the tenor of the times, and we use this knowledge to present programs that are culturally relevant to serve the borough of Queens,” Bullard said. 

For Bullard, Black History Month is a time to share with the intergalactic internet world important historical facts that African Americans have contributed to the world. 

“All races have contributed to modern civilization, but now we’re speaking specifically about African Americans — Daniel Williams, who performed the first open heart surgery in 1893; Alexander Miles, who invented the automatic elevator doors; and Lewis Latimer, who created the filament for the electric bulb,” Bullard said. “There are so many contributions African Americans have made and a plethora of historical facts. If people knew about it, it might change their view of how they perceive African Americans. That’s why it’s important to host programs like this. It’s important for all races to reaffirm what they’ve contributed to modern society.” 

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