ON THE SCENE: Amplifying diverse voices in the Adirondacks

Mohawk artist David Kanietakeron Fadden (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

While developing a career in the arts is never easy, it’s incredibly challenging for artists of diversity, as North Country School students and visitors learned on Saturday, Oct. 21.

The students and a few from the region participated in interactive presentations during the day, and over 125 visitors participated in an evening showcase and discussion.

The overall theme was Amplifying Diverse Voices, a diversity that featured a Black American choreographer-dancer and a Broadway singer-actor, an Asian-American singer-actor touring with a Broadway company, a local Mohawk visual artist, a Guinean West Africa drummer and North Country School’s industrial art teacher, whose journey was no less remarkable.

Yunga Webb, North Country School and Camp Treetops’ director of diversity, equity and inclusion, developed daytime participatory activities for youth and an evening concluding performance open to the general public. Area school students were invited to attend the daytime program, but perhaps as it was held on a weekend, few attended. Students filled the sessions and appreciated what they experienced.

“I found the experience of interacting with the artists exciting, something I hadn’t done before,” said Matias, 14, from Mexico City. “I’ve never been up close to people who are very big in different art industries like painting, ballet, Broadway and all that. The artists shared how they got to where they are now and issues they faced. It was inspiring because it showed that no matter where you come from, you can do great things if you keep trying.”

Jason Andrew and Oyoyo Joi (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Taylor, 14, from Maryland, liked being able to work with such a wide variety of artists and participating in the different activities that ranged from singing songs, participating in a modern dance class, and engaging in improv to a drawing exercise.

Melissa, 15, thought it was an excellent opportunity to meet and work with such a wide range of successful artists. She liked participating in a variety of arts experiences. Meeting Mohawk artist David Kanietakeron Fadden was especially meaningful for her, as she hopes to have a career as a professional graphic artist.

“David was very good as he shared his technique of painting portraits that I found very interesting,” said Melissa. “I like that he hid within it ideas of what he thinks, some inspired by his friends.”

Daytime and evening activities were held in the school’s Walter Breeman Performing Arts Center, known as the Wallypac on campus, a venue that the school hopes community groups will consider using occasionally.

Putting together the program, Webb tapped into talent in her family, the school and the region. Dian Bah, head of North Country School maintenance, is a virtuoso drummer who showcased his talent on instruments from his home country of Conakry, Guinea, West Africa. He and Larry Robjent, the school’s industrial arts instructor, resident sculptor and developer of sets and technical support for theatrical productions, reflected the diverse talent within.

Todd Ormiston and Yunga Webb (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Fadden is also the director of the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center in Onchiota and divides his time between that hamlet and Akwesasne. Choreographer, director of Emerge125 and former director of the Lake Placid School of Dance, Tiffany Rea-Fisher represented regional talent. She is also the director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative at the Adirondack North Country Association.

Representing the Great White Way, Webb’s sister and Broadway star Oyoyo Joi’s credits include “The Book of Mormon,” “MJ the Musical,” “Memphis” and “Moulin Rouge.” At the same time, Megan Masako Haley has performed in several Broadway National Tours, such as “Wicked,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Gretchen,” along with roles on CBS television and Hulu cable.

For several, it was seeing a person who looked like them as a teacher, as a performer and as an artist that inspired and encouraged them through countless setbacks to doggedly pursue a career in the arts.

While inspired by seeing a children’s production of “The Music Man” while young, it was a trip to New York Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Washington Heights-based play “In the Heights” filled with a diversity of talent all supporting each other that lit a fire in Haley along with seeing an Asian woman carry the lead in “Miss Saigon.”

For Oyoyo Joi, it was seeing Audra McDonald on Broadway that was her inspiration, and years later, while a drama major in college in Orem, Utah, seeing McDonald once again carrying a show that inspired her to move back to New York and with the help of her older sister acting as her agent, to push ahead.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher and Dennzyl Green (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“When I grew up here, I was surrounded by non-Natives,” said Fadden. “I was the only non-Native, besides my cousin, in the Saranac Lake School system. At a young age, I felt very old, very different, but I had the support of my family and my grandparents next door, living in a little town in the middle of nowhere. I was very fortunate, very lucky. I didn’t realize that until I got older.”

Fadden grew up in a museum filled with artifacts, some thousands of years old, that told the history of his people. He had parents who encouraged and supported his artistic efforts and a grandfather who was an art teacher who gave him lessons.

“I always wanted to dance since I was very young,” said Rea-Fisher. “One of the things that started happening is that because of my body, my Blackness, my choices started to narrow when I was very young. You probably shouldn’t do ballet; you probably shouldn’t do this or that. I was also very athletic. I think all that altered how I saw myself.

“One of my first Black mentors recently died. He was my first Black teacher, and I didn’t have him until college. I remember walking into the room, we were all 17 or 18, and there was this Black man. It didn’t even cross my mind that he was a teacher. That’s how far I had gone without that kind of a teacher. He was so joyful and taught me that I just had to keep at it no matter what.

“Just because diversity is around, the pipelines to get to the front of the room are still woefully. I don’t know how to finish that sentence. But I think it’s important that me being me and bringing my muchness matters because some out there will go, ‘Oh, I get it,’ that you can do that sort of thing.”

Megan Masako Haley and Dian Bah (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)

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