African American Performance Art in Kentucky

Kentucky is a very beautiful, unique, diverse, and exciting state in which the performing arts—from dance, to music, theatre, and other art forms—are infused throughout the culture.  


These artistic entities are also magnificently and poignantly expressed within the African American community, representing intricate links to their storied past, present, and future.  


Come along as we explore a little bit of the history, and step inside several venerable venues that weave together soulful artistic stories and legacies. 


Let the Music Play


Music is a very big part of the African American experience, and Kentucky is the birthplace of numerous legends that made an indelible mark on the musical landscape over the years.


Back in the early 1900s, the steamboats converging on the waterfront areas in Louisville were the places to hear jazz, at that time primarily performed on the fiddle and banjo. It was here that folks like Henry Hart, a celebrated violinist, bandleader, composer, and singer, got his start.


Arnold Schultz, who was born in Morgantown, was a guitarist and fiddler who played along the Ohio and Mississippi waterways. His talents were so prolific that he eventually earned the moniker, “The Godfather of Bluegrass.”


And then there’s famous jazz singer Helen Humes (1913–1981); bandleader, vibraphonist, pianist, and percussionist Lionel Hampton (1908-2002); and Jonah Jones (1909-2000), the renowned big-band and jazz trumpeter, just to name a few.


Renditions of their distinctive musical stylings, as well as that of many others and genres to follow, are enjoyed at numerous places dotted around the state.


At the Central Library Farish Theater in Lexington, music fans can enjoy the Jazz: Live at the Library! Series. These free monthly concerts feature regional, national, and international artists performing a wide array of golden age to contemporary jazz music.


Every summer, Bluegrass fans also flock here to revel in the Southland Jamboree.  Held at the Moondance Amphitheater, the Jamboree is a free weekly concert series featuring a wide range of bluegrass artists.  Audience participation is also encouraged after the concerts for those willing to bring their own instruments!


A favorite annual event held in Henderson is the W.C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival.  Recognized as one of the largest free music festivals in the nation, the festival is in honor of its namesake—the famous composer, band leader, and skilled cornetist and trumpet player.  Often referred to as the “Father of the Blues,” Handy left an incredible musical legacy that still resonates today.


To learn more about musical contributions by black Americans in the state, you can watch Exploring African American influence on Music in Kentucky, or listen to soundbites in the piece, The African American Folklorist: An Un-recorded Legend of Bluegrass.


Curtain Time!


African American playwrights, dancers, poets, actors, singers, and others in Kentucky have made major contributions to the performing arts for decades.  Their influences are even more significant in that many of them achieved remarkable levels of success in the face of unrelenting racial discrimination in their day.  


Among them were poet Countee Cullen, actor Jim Kelly, performer Todd Duncan, and a host of others. The latter also includes contemporary playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.


This rich performance art legacy continues today through a range of performances held at esteemed Kentucky venues.


Black cinema has always been an important medium for African American expression. In Lexington you can enjoy and bear witness to this art form via the Black Lens Film Series at The Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center.


As the largest city in Kentucky, Louisville is where you’ll find the majority of the state’s artistic venues.


One of the largest arts organizations here is the Kentucky Performing Arts Foundation.  Under its umbrella are three world-class performance centers: Old Forester’s Paristown Hall, the Brown Theatre, and the Kentucky Center.  


Each venue features a wide range of unique stage plays, non-traditional performances, cutting-edge Broadway shows, national touring bands, world-renown singers, contemporary musicians, and others, many of their works speaking to those interested in the African American arts and culture.


The Kentucky Black Repertory Theatre highlights famous plays written by artists like James Baldwin, African American Bluegrass music, and other Afrocentric performance art.  


In addition to its position as a rich repository of priceless artifacts and memorabilia relative to the black experience, the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage presents a bevy of entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring artistic performances, panel discussions, and festivals relative to the black experience throughout the year.


And twice a year both locals and out-of-town visitors alike come to The University of Louisville to enjoy performances presented by the African American Theatre Program, the first and only accredited graduate program in African American Theatre in the country. 


This is just the beginning of the vibrant African American performing arts that Kentucky has to offer.


Written by By Lysa Allman-Baldwin

January 17, 2022


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