Undergraduate Shasparay Lighteard launches Black Arts Matter Festival

Connecting with Community

Black Arts Matter Festival

Undergraduate Shasparay Lighteard launches multidisciplinary festival
to celebrate black artists and build community

Ask Shasparay Lighteard how she came to organize Madison’s first Black Arts Matter Festival this past March, and the junior from Austin, Texas, laughs.

“It’s kind of complicated,” says Lighteard, who is double majoring in theatre and drama, and Afro-American studies at UW–Madison.

After taking a theater production management course through the School of Education’s Department of Theatre and Drama during the 2018 spring semester, Lighteard explains that she was curious about utilizing what she had learned.

“Audrey Wax was great at teaching us what it takes to produce a show — from how to budget and work as a team, to what steps need to be taken to make things happen,” Lighteard says of the senior lecturer who leads the class. “I learn best from doing, so I wanted to try things out.”

Shasparay Lighteard
Shasparay Lighteard, speaking about the first Black Arts Matter
Festival in Madison, notes: "What stood out to me is the Madison
community really showed up in big ways. I was worried the name of
the festival or the ideas we were presenting would turn people off.
Most of the people who attended were white and who I hadn't had a
past connection to. Seeing a room full of people who could have
been uncomfortable with the subject matter listening and
supporting black artists was very encouraging to me and several of
the artists who participated."
At that time, Lighteard was also a member of The Studio, a creative arts community housed in Sellery Residence Hall. Students were being encouraged to apply for The Studio Creative Arts Awards, one of which provides a $500 grant to lead a service project.

“It was a really basic application, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn how to apply for a grant,” says Lighteard, who came to UW–Madison as a highly ranked slam poet on a First Wave Urban Arts scholarship.

When considering what type of project to propose, Lighteard was reflecting on her past year in Wisconsin, which “had its ups and downs.” She explains how, as a black artist, she felt both “hyper-visible” and “invisible.” During the previous year, Lighteard and Colleen Conroy, an assistant professor of acting and voice with the Department of Theatre and Drama, had several conversations about how to bring more diverse voices to the department, and how to better connect the campus to the community.

Lighteard initially envisioned a two-day festival that could help black artists in Madison gain a stronger sense of community — something she missed from her experiences in Austin.

“I really didn’t think I’d win,” Lighteard says of her proposal. “I just wanted feedback on my application.”

But then she received an email in April 2018: “Congratulations! ... We look forward to your project.” Lighteard had secured a $500 Studio Creative Arts Award, funded through the Division of University Housing and the Arts Institute.

Despite this unusual, winding path and modest early backing, Lighteard was able to bring in key collaborators over the coming months and secure additional support and funding en route to unveiling Madison’s inaugural Black Arts Matter Festival, a weeklong event that ran March 3–9 around the area.

“Sometimes people don’t see the value of the arts or under- stand its importance,” says Conroy, who supported Lighteard in her efforts to pull together and carry out the festival. “But I was beaming with pride because the events Shasparay pulled together were fabulous and impactful. She saw a need in wanting a stronger sense of community among black artists and she made it happen.”

The festival, which was free and open to the public, featured artists from a range of fields — including theater, dance, film, and spoken word. It started with Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theater’s production of Alice Childress’ play, “Trouble in Mind,” at Madison’s Bartell Theatre March 3. Next was an art exhibit and panel discussion examining Madison’s black arts scene held at UW–Madison’s Multicultural Student Center Lounge. And March 6–9 featured: a one-person, choreographed poetry performance at Edgewood College showcasing Boston-based artist Porsha Olayiwola; a film screening at the Madison Central Library of Spike Lee’s 2000 film “Bamboozled”; and a two-day poetry slam competition featuring performers from across the nation, again at the Central Library.

“The poetry slam had this mix of poets from both coasts and the Midwest, and the way people came together in the space was really powerful,” says Carlee Latimer, an assistant coordinator for the Madison Public Library’s Bubbler program who helped Lighteard with programming at the library. “It felt like a com- munity sprang up in Madison and it was this hub of incredible talent and energy.”

“What stood out to me is the Madison community really showed up in big ways,” says Lighteard. “I was worried the name of the festival or the ideas we were presenting would turn people off. Most of the people who attended were white and who I hadn’t had a past connection to. Seeing a room full of people who could have been uncomfortable with the subject matter listening and supporting black artists was very encouraging to me and several of the artists who participated.”

To pull together this major event, Lighteard secured additional funding via a range of sources, including the UW–Madison Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (via its Line Breaks Festival and First Wave program), the university’s Center for the Humanities (via its HEX-U program), UW–Madison’s Black Cultural Center, and The Studio. In addition, the Madison Public Library secured additional funding from the Madison Public Library Foundation for the event and contributed event space and support staff, while Edgewood College hosted Olayiwola’s performance.

Behind the scenes, Lighteard leaned heavily on Conroy, Wax, and Sarah Marty, who teaches arts entrepreneurship for the Wisconsin School of Business and is a faculty affiliate with the UW–Madison Arts Institute. Recent UW–Madison alum Wesley Korpela, who majored in creative writing and theatre, was the festival’s technology adviser and Liqi Sheng, who is pursuing an undergraduate degree from the School of Education’s Art Department, led graphic design efforts.

But Lighteard took care of much of the legwork in securing venues and caterers, planning programming, and managing publicity.

“It ended up being a lot of work, but it was worth it,” says Lighteard, who in the week leading up to the Black Arts Matter Festival was playing one of Cinderella’s stepsisters in the joint University Theatre/University Opera production of “Into the Woods.”

Before she could catch her breath at the conclusion of the festival, Lighteard was inundated with people asking about next year’s event.

Latimer says that when Lighteard was thanking people who participated in the festival as the poetry slam competition was wrapping up, someone in the audience shouted out, “How can we get this to hap- pen again?”

“It wasn’t even over yet,” said Latimer. “But people were ener- gized and engaging. And then the next person shouted, ‘How can we help you?’ It was awe- some.”

Adds Conroy: “It feels like this was just a start and we’d love to keep the momentum going and make an even bigger mark in Madison next year.”

When asked if the festival will, indeed, continue, Lighteard says: “If the com- munity wants it to happen, then, yes. But it’s bigger than just me and we have to figure out what it’ll look like.” 
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