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'From Colored to Black': A way for the arts to effect social change

Two women sit next to each other on a couch with a man listening in the background.
From Colored to Black
The From Colored to Black project is holding story circles to gather material for a version incorporating Pittsburgh.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

While the impact of systemic racism on health has always been an issue, much of the conversation in Pittsburgh in recent years has been framed by “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race,” a 2019 report by the city’s Gender Equity Commission.

Among that document’s awful (but, to many, unsurprising) findings was that maternal mortality in Black pregnant women and incidences of cancer and cardiovascular disease in Black men exceed not only those for white people here, but also those for Black people in most other cities.

Putting a face to such inequities is the goal of “From Colored to Black,” a storytelling project based in Florida that’s getting a Pittsburgh component thanks to the Demaskus Theatre Collective, with an event Sat., June 17 — on Juneteenth weekend — at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center.

The project suggests a way for the arts to effect social change. Its creators are playwright Brittney M. Caldwell and Jeffrey Pufahl, a researcher with the University of Florida’s Center for Arts in Medicine (whose programs include Applied Theatre for Health and Music in Medicine).

From Colored to Black solicited oral histories from Black residents of north-central Florida, and got responses that covered civil rights and, more specifically, things like redlining, gentrification, educational inequities, and colorism. The stories included one about Frank B. Butler, a Black man in harshly segregated 1920s St. Augustine who created his own beach for Blacks that became a regional attraction for decades, and whose survival was backed by no less than Martin Luther King Jr.

The stories were adapted into a multimedia presentation that included actors performing live monologues and vignettes, supplemented by video.

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Demaskus founder Shaunda McDill met Caldwell and Pufahl through a program presented by Pittsburgh’s Office for Public Art. About two months ago, Demaskus began holding its own, Pittsburgh-centric story circles, at gathering places including Mount Ararat Baptist Church, in Larimer, and Aliquippa’s Uncommon Grounds Cafe. With funding from the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh, the POISE Foundation, and the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh initiative, the group aims to collect 200 stories. The plan is to create a new version of the show that blends some of the Florida stories with Pittsburgh content.

Demaskus hopes to gather some of those stories Saturday, at the August Wilson Center. The afternoon-long program features a screening of a 90-minute video version of the show, followed by community story circles and a barbecue buffet. More story circles will follow in the coming weeks, including opportunities for participants to earn $50 each. Contributed stories could become part of the new Demaskus production.

As McDill puts it, “People really want to share their stories.”

More information is available here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: