SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
One hundred fifty-six years ago today, Union Army General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas, and issued a proclamation declaring the state's enslaved people free, even though President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation almost 2 1/2 years earlier. The day would go on to be known as Juneteenth. Earlier this week, President Biden signed a law making it a federal holiday celebrating the end of slavery. And tonight, at New York's Lincoln Center, a group of distinguished African American artists is presenting an outdoor Juneteenth performance around the arts complex that examines the idea of freedom. Jeff Lunden reports.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Carl Hancock Rux is a multi-hyphenate - a poet, author, playwright, actor, musician. He has conceived and curated the event called I Dream A Dream That Dreams Back At Me. He says he has complicated feelings about Juneteenth, a holiday traditionally celebrated with hot dogs, firecrackers and music.
CARL HANCOCK RUX: These enslaved people who shouldn't have been enslaved in the first place, and then they finally get the information that they're free, and now where do they go? Because there's no program set up for their freedom. There are no institutions - right? - that are set up for their freedom. There's no land even that's promised, given these people for their freedom. There's no housing for them to go to. That is painful to me.
LUNDEN: So Rux says he wanted to create an evening that takes the audience on a journey and asks...
RUX: How do we celebrate freedom? And how do we do more than just celebrate freedom, but actually question the notion of freedom?
LUNDEN: And while there won't be firecrackers and hot dogs, there will be music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LUNDEN: Among the many artists participating in the evening is pop icon Nona Hendryx, who is not only singing but writing music with Vernon Reid to lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Hendryx will represent a welcoming spirit standing in Lincoln Center's reflecting pool. The water is meant to evoke Harriet Tubman, who traveled back-and-forth 19 times through swampy water to take slaves to freedom.
NONA HENDRYX: The water is not just the water that had to be crossed to get from the South to Canada, but the ocean that had to be crossed and survived. So water is a very sacred thing. It's used in baptism. It's used in all these things.
(Singing) Cold water, water. Angry water, water pulling, pulling us down.
LUNDEN: Two other performers will join Hendryx in the water for this opening incantation. Then the audience will move to another location, where Carl Hancock Rux says they'll meet singer and performance artist Helga Davis towering above them, throwing confetti.
HENDRYX: And she'll be singing not only the American anthem, but the Negro national anthem, and will in some ways combine them and deconstruct them, allow some words from one to bleed into the other so that they become interchangeable in a way that makes us question whether or not freedom is everything we thought it should be.
HELGA DAVIS: (Singing) Oh, oh, say, can you see?
RUX: She represents the promised land, but then once, you know, you reach the promised land, you have to question, is it everything you hoped for? Is it everything you wanted? Is it everything you expected it to be? Do you have everything you need?
LUNDEN: The audience then will journey to its final destination, where they'll hear a set played by artist Toshi Reagon and her band, Big Lovely. Reagon says she likes to read about Juneteenth every year, and she always finds the stories relevant.
TOSHI REAGON: I found this story about one of the things they did was like teach people how to vote. You know, like, they were like, you're free now. You need to know how to vote. And I just find that ironic in this era where a lot of politicians and a lot of states are trying to take people's voting rights away
(Singing) I can see the stars deep in my heart. Let me be, let me be free.
LUNDEN: Carl Hancock Rux thought Toshi Reagon's activist background made her the perfect artist to end the evening.
RUX: Toshi Reagon represents the human will to fight, to declare, to celebrate, to be outspoken and to make sure that everybody leaves with some kind of a revival of spirit.
LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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