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Before the curtain rose at the Gaillard Center for a February performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, my wife and I asked our 12-year-old granddaughter whether she spotted children her age in the audience.

Frazier

“No,” she answered quickly. Then, with a genuine tone of deep concern, she asked, “Do I have to leave?”

We chuckled quietly, amused by an innocent response that provided welcome comic relief to our growing frustration.

Why, we wondered, are we in the Gaillard on a school night to see the country’s premier multi-racial dance company? Why not schedule this performance when it wouldn’t interfere with an early rise for school?

I called the Gaillard to voice my concern. Kellie Lawson, the Gaillard’s director of marketing, responded by email: “I understand your concern regarding programming on weekdays versus a weekend,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, since Charleston is a smaller market than the surrounding areas, our ability to select the specific day of the week is extremely limited.

“Sometimes, it is a matter of taking a weekday or not having the show at all because of the tour’s routing and travel schedule. When a weekend is not possible, we do try to look at changing the time of the show to accommodate those traveling downtown.”

And then there’s the history issue. 

For some people, a willingness to attend events at the Gaillard is not about money or timing, but where the Gaillard is and how it got there.

Construction of the original Gaillard building in the late 1960s dislocated dozens of Black families. Many still consider this as one of the sparks that ignited downtown gentrification.

The Gaillard also sits near the infamous Gadsden’s Wharf along the Cooper River, which was once the entry point for thousands of enslaved Africans. It’s also near Emanuel AME Church, whose early leader Denmark Vesey was hanged for allegedly planning a slave uprising. More recently, of course, it’s the site of the massacre of nine parishioners by Dylann Roof. 

Flanked by two historically significant sites, the Gaillard emerged in a once-thriving Black community. To add insult to injury, the 2013 renovation of the current building was halted temporarily with the discovery of 36 human remains in a colonial-era cemetery. The deceased were of African descent. 

Overall, I’ve had several conversations and overheard comments from Black Charlestonians who are reluctant to enjoy the city’s dining and entertainment offerings because they see the city as geared for tourists. But is it also the legacy of slavery and segregation that keeps some Black people away from the city center and even the Gaillard?

Given this cultural backdrop, perhaps we should have asked our granddaughter if she could find Black children in the audience. I was disappointed to see so few Black families at the Alvin Ailey event. Among them were two Black students from a local school who were given tickets.

One of the school’s administrators, who asked not to be named, said that prior to the pandemic the Gaillard offered an educational program and children met visiting performers during school hours. Lawson said that program was scaled back with the pandemic, but the Gaillard plans to ramp it back up for the 2022-23 school year.

In a 2012 report, the National Endowment for the Arts showed that exposure to the arts closes the achievement gap for students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and children of color.

That is precisely why we took our granddaughter to the Alvin Ailey performance. We try to give experiences to our grandchildren. Toys break. Experiences last a lifetime.

Herb Frazier, a former Post and Courier reporter and local author, is special projects editor at the Charleston City Paper.



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