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A historical musical that examines black identity in the 1901 World's Fair

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    The archive.
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    One may envision rooms and shelves
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    stocked with boxes
    and cartons of old stuff.
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    And yet, for those who are
    patient enough to dig through it,
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    the archive provides
    the precious opportunity
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    to touch the past,
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    to feel and learn from the experiences
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    of once-living people who now seem
    dead and buried deeply in the archive.
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    But what if there was a way
    to bring the archive to life?
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    Jon Michael Reese: "The world
    is thinking wrong about race."
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    Melissa Joyner: "This country insists
    upon judging the Negro."
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    JMR: "Because it does not know."
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    AYGTK: What if one could make it breathe?
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    MJ: "By his lowest
    and most vicious representatives."
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    AYGTK: Speak.
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    JMR: "An honest, straightforward exhibit."
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    AYGTK: And even sing to us,
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    so that the archive
    becomes accessible to everyone.
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    What would performing
    the archive look like?
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    A performance that is not
    simply based on a true story
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    but one that allows us
    to come face-to-face
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    with things we thought
    were once dead and buried.
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    (Piano music)
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    This is what "At Buffalo,"
    a new musical we're developing,
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    is all about.
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    Using collections
    from over 30 archival institutions,
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    "At Buffalo" performs the massive archive
    of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition,
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    the first World's Fair
    of the 20th century,
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    held in Buffalo, New York.
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    Now, if you've heard of this fair,
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    it might be because this is where
    then-US president, William McKinley,
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    was assassinated.
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    For nearly 17 years,
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    I've stayed inside the gates
    and the archive of this fair,
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    not only because of that story
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    but because of a real
    life-and-death racial drama
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    that played out on the fairgrounds.
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    Here, in a place that was like
    Disney World, the Olympics,
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    carnivals, museums, all in one,
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    there were three conflicting displays
    of what it meant to be black
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    in the United States.
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    The archive says white showmen presented
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    a savage black origin
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    in the form of 98 West
    and Central Africans,
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    living and performing war dances
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    in a recreated village
    called Darkest Africa.
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    And across the street,
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    a happy slave life,
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    in the form of 150 Southern
    black performers,
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    picking cotton,
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    singing and dancing minstrel shows
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    in a recreated antebellum attraction
    called Old Plantation.
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    As a response,
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    the black Buffalo community championed
    the third display of blackness:
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    the Negro Exhibit.
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    Codesigned by African American
    scholar W.E.B. Du Bois,
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    it curated photographs,
    charts, books and more,
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    to show black Americans
    as a high-achieving race,
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    capable of education and progress.
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    When I first encountered this story,
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    I understood from my own life experience
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    what was at stake to have members
    of the African diaspora
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    see each other like this.
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    For me, as the child of immigrant parents
    from Ghana, West Africa,
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    born in the American South,
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    raised in Manhattan, Kansas,
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    (Laughter)
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    and having attended the same
    elite school as Du Bois,
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    I could see that the Buffalo fair
    effectively pitted
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    the black Northerner
    against the Southerner,
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    the educated against the uneducated,
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    and the African American
    against the African.
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    And I wanted to know:
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    How did these three distinct groups
    of black folk navigate this experience?
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    Unfortunately, the archive
    had answers to questions like this
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    underneath racial caricature,
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    conflicting information
    and worse -- silence.
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    (Piano music)
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    Still, I could hear musical melodies
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    and see dance numbers
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    and the rhythms of the words
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    coming off the pages
    of old newspaper articles.
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    And learning that this World's Fair
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    had music playing everywhere
    on its fairgrounds,
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    I knew that live, immersive,
    spectacular musical theater,
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    with the latest technologies of our time,
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    is the closest experience that can bring
    the archival story of the 1901 fair
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    out of boxes and into life.
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    Stories, like Tannie and Henrietta,
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    a husband and wife vaudeville duo in love
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    who become at odds over performing
    these "coon" minstrel shows
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    while striving for their
    five-dollar-a-week dream
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    in the Old Plantation attraction.
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    Like African businessman John Tevi,
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    from present-day Togo,
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    who must outwit the savage rules
    of the human zoo
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    in which he has become trapped.
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    And stories like Mary Talbert,
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    a wealthy leader
    of the black Buffalo elite,
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    who must come to terms
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    with the racial realities
    of her home town.
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    MJ: "The dominant race in this country
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    insists upon judging the Negro
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    by his lowest and most
    vicious representatives."
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    AYGTK: Like Old Plantation
    and Darkest Africa.
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    MJ: "... instead of by the more
    intelligent and worthy classes."
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    AYGTK: When fair directors
    ignored Mary Talbert
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    and the local black Buffalo community's
    request to participate in the fair,
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    newspapers say that Mary Talbert
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    and her club of educated
    African American women
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    held a rousing protest meeting.
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    But the details of that meeting,
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    even down to the fiery speech she gave,
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    were not fully captured in the archive.
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    So, "At Buffalo" takes the essence
    of Mary's speech
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    and turns it into song.
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    (All singing) We must, we are unanimous.
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    We must, we are unanimous.
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    MJ: We've got something to show --
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    we're going to teach a lesson in Buffalo.
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    It would benefit the nation
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    to see our growth since emancipation.
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    Colored people should be represented
    in this Pan-American exposition,
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    it would benefit the nation
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    to see our growth since emancipation.
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    (All singing) They made a great mistake
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    not to appoint someone from the race.
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    We must, we are unanimous.
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    We must, we are unanimous.
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    We must, we are unanimous.
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    AYGTK: Mary Talbert successfully demands
    that the Negro Exhibit come to the fair.
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    And to have the Negro Exhibit in Buffalo
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    means that the musical must tell the story
    behind why Du Bois cocreated it ...
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    and why Mary and the black elite
    felt it was urgently needed.
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    JMR: "The world is thinking
    wrong about race.
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    They killed Sam Hose
    for who they thought he was.
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    And more men like him, every day,
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    more Negro men, like him, taken apart.
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    And after that -- that red ray ...
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    we can never be the same.
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    (Singing) A red ray
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    [A man hunt in Georgia]
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    cut across my desk
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    [Mob after Hose;
    he will be lynched if caught]
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    the very day
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    Sam's hands were laid to rest.
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    Can words alone withstand the laws unjust?
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    [Escape seems impossible]
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    Can words alone withstand the violence?
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    Oh, no, oh.
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    [Burned alive]
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    [Sam Hose is lynched]
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    Oh, no, oh.
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    [His body cut in many pieces]
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    Oh, no, oh.
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    [Burned at the Stake]
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    [Ten Cents Slice Cooked Liver.]
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    [Fight for souvenirs.]
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    (Both singing) Who has read the books?
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    Our numbers and statistics look small
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    against the page.
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    The crisis has multiplied.
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    Our people are lynched and died.
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    Oh, Lord.
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    Something must change.
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    AYGTK: Something must change.
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    "At Buffalo" reveals
    how the United States today
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    stands at similar crossroads
    as 1901 America.
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    Just as the name of Sam Hose
    filled newspapers back then,
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    today's media carries the names of:
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    JMR: Oscar Grant.
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    MJ: Jacqueline Culp.
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    Pianist: Trayvon Martin.
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    AYGTK: Sandra Bland.
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    And too many others.
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    The 1901 fair's legacies persist
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    in more ways than we can imagine.
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    MJ: Mary Talbert
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    and the National Association
    of Colored Women
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    started movements against lynching
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    and the myth of black criminality
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    just as black women today
    started Black Lives Matter.
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    JMR: And some of the same
    people who fought for
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    and created the Negro Exhibit,
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    including Du Bois,
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    came to Buffalo,
    four years after the fair,
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    to start the Niagara Movement,
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    which set the groundwork
    for the creation of the NAACP.
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    AYGTK: It's not just black folks
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    who had a peculiar experience
    at the 1901 fair.
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    An official handbook informed fair-goers:
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    MJ: "Please remember:"
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    JMR: "... once you get inside the gate,"
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    AYGTK: "... you are a part of the show."
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    Performing the archive in "At Buffalo"
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    allows audiences to ask themselves,
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    "Are we still inside the gates,
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    and are we all still part of the show?"
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    (Music ends)
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    (Applause and cheers)
Title:
A historical musical that examines black identity in the 1901 World's Fair
Speaker:
Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin
Description:

In this lively talk and performance, artist and TED Fellow Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin offers a sneak peek of her forthcoming musical "At Buffalo." Drawing on archival material from the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition, a world's fair held in Buffalo, New York, the show examines conflicting representations of black identity exhibited at the fair -- highlighting unsettlingly familiar parallels between American society at the turn of the century and today, and asking: Are we all still part of the show?

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
10:40

English subtitles

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