Charleston’s MOJA Arts Festival, the city’s annual celebration of African-American and Caribbean arts, started as a grassroots event in 1983, run by a volunteer committee. That group is still in effect today, and every year the festival comes together with the help of the city, whose Office of Cultural Affairs reinforces and augments the festival’s programming. After 33 years, MOJA has seen its ups and downs, like last year’s historic flooding that caused many of the festival’s events to be cancelled, including the opening parade and the finale at Hampton Park.
In a sense, this year’s festival feels like a turning point. After last year’s succession of cancellations, this year’s MOJA Festival is chock-full of programming, squeezing as much local talent out of the city as possible, while still bringing in national touring acts. Scott Watson, the director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, notes the significance of this year’s schedule: seven of the 11 days feature live theatrical performances, a first for MOJA.
One of the plays, Stick Fly, is a holdover from last year’s canceled events. Produced by Art Forms and Theatre Concepts, Inc., Stick Fly is an exploration of class and racial divisions, discussing tough topics brought up during a family weekend when two brothers bring their girlfriends home. The first performance will be held on Thurs. Sept. 29 at the Dock Street Theatre.
In addition to Stick Fly, MOJA presents When I First Remember, a Lady in White production Company performance blending music, dance, and dialogue to reveal the origins of Lowcountry Gullah/Geechee culture; Gullah/Geechee Knows Emanuel: A Gullah/Geechee Story is a Carlie Towne production which depicts the history of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston; and Harriet’s Return, produced by Charleston Black Theatre, is a play about the famous Underground Railroad heroine.
Five years ago City Paper ran a piece by Joy Vandevort-Cobb, an associate professor of African-American theater and performance at CofC as well as a company member at PURE Theatre, that bemoaned the lack of local talent in 2011’s MOJA festival. “There is disenchantment with the lack of local performing artists being featured. There is a sense, as one anonymous source put it, that ‘This ain’t my festival.'”
MOJA seems to have heard the message as this year the schedule is peppered with local performers. The festival’s poster was designed by local artist Fletcher Williams III, and the programming includes familiar Charleston names, including the city’s poet laureate Marcus Amaker, and drummer Quentin Baxter, who will put on a free show at the City Gallery on Mon. Oct. 3 from 6-7 p.m.
“We want to get away from bus and [traveling] shows and build a foundation,” says Watson. The festival historically draws its biggest crowds to its biggest shows, which makes sense, but isn’t necessarily what the city wants for the future of MOJA. This year’s big show is an R&B concert on Sat. Oct. 1 at the Joe, featuring performances from Cameo, Monica, and DJ Kid Capri.
While MOJA generally doesn’t have trouble getting people excited about headliners like Monica, smaller events can be overlooked. “We need to build as much enthusiasm around the rest of the event as we do around the headliner,” says Watson.
After 33 years it could be difficult to keep the festival feeling fresh, but with a solid lineup of local and free events, MOJA keeps things contemporary by featuring up-and-coming artists. You can find some of those artists at Future Casting, an interactive (and free) hip-hop event at Fabulon on Sat. Oct. 1 from 5-8 p.m., which explores the generational and contemporary links within the arts to hip-hop.
Future artists are as important to the festival as internationally acclaimed pros, and MOJA caters to kids with a number of youth programs, including storytelling from Julian Gooding at the Main Library on Sat. Oct. 1 at 11 a.m. and Tues. Oct. 4 at 9:15 a.m. Gooding tells tales of Malachiae Moon, an African-American man born on the day the Civil War ended.
This year MOJA is also expanding on traditional programming to include education opportunities for area students. Before their Gaillard performance on Thurs. Oct. 6, the dancers of Dance Theatre of Harlem, as part of a three day residency at the Gaillard, will host lectures, demos, and masterclasses for Charleston students.
“The bones of the event are strong,” says Watson of the decades-long fest. He credits an enthusiastic audience for MOJA’s staying power, saying, “Very few people at MOJA sit back and wait to be entertained.”
This community engagement is key to the festival’s success, and it could also be key to the future of African-American arts in the city. “We want to find a way to weave the tapestry together,” says Watson of the city’s African-American cultural festivals. In addition to MOJA those include August’s Gullah/Geechee festival as well as the upcoming Colour of Music festival and African-American Tourism Conference.
“We want to focus on sharing the spotlight with other heritage events,” he says. And with a museum dedicated entirely to African-American history in the works, Charleston is on the cusp of celebrating that heritage year-round. Until then, Watson is proud of what MOJA offers the community during the fest’s span. “We have 11 days to unapologetically and without compromise celebrate the arts of the diaspora.”
For a full list of MOJA events head to charlestoncitypaper.com. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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