Staying connected in the age of COVID-19: UMass Fine Arts Center offers online music, comedy, dance and more this fall

  • “I Can’t Breathe,” acrylic painting by Saleh Ho of Mauritania. Image courtesy UMass Fine Arts Center

  • “Black Tears,” multimedia art by T. Owens Union. Photo by T. Owens Union/courtesy UMass Fine Arts Center

  • “The Daily Plight of James Black,” painting by Robert A. Ketchens. Image courtesy UMass Fine Arts Center

  • Wil Baptiste, left, and Kev Marcus of Black Violin will play an online concert Oct. 2 as part of the FAC fall season. Photo by Mark Clennon/courtesy UMass Fine Arts Center

  • Comedian and performance artist Kristina Wong riffs on politics and democracy in her Sept. 10 performance “Kristina Wong for Public Office.” Image courtesy UMass Fine Arts Center

  • Wynton Marsalis leads the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in a FAC virtual performance that will stream Nov. 15.  Image courtesy UMass Fine Arts Center

Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2020

In March, events at the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst were still in full swing. And planners had already mapped out and booked performances for the 2020-2021 season before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down.

Now the FAC, after pivoting to offer some online performances in April and May, and staging the first-ever online “Jazz in July” session this summer, has returned with a wide range of virtual programs for the fall — programs that Director Jamilla Deria says are designed both to connect with Valley residents (and others) and be topical.

“We want to be a gathering place for the community, even if we can’t physically be together,” Deria said during a recent phone call. “And we’re partnering with artists to connect with the moment on issues like social justice and race.”

On the agenda: “Breathing While Black,” an exhibition at the Augusta Savage Gallery of work inspired by violence and discrimination against African Americans; a concert by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), a big band led by legendary trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; and a series of events celebrating the centenary of the late Yusef Lateef’s birth.

Though plans had been announced earlier this summer to allow about 7,000 students to live on campus this fall, UMass officials have since dramatically reduced that number, and all FAC venues, from art galleries to performance halls, will remain closed this semester.

Working within those limitations, Deria said the FAC has revamped its programming for the fall — all of it free — to focus on residencies with a number of artists, who in addition to their performances will contribute to some online discussions and classes.

“Covid has really made us try to be innovative,” said Deria, who became FAC director in summer 2019 after former Director Willie Hill Jr. retired. “We’ve tried to build a deeper relationship with our performers for this fall.

“We were fully booked,” Deria added with a laugh, referring to the FAC’s original 2020-21 schedule, which had to be tossed out when the pandemic hit. “We had to go back to square one…. But we were able to bring some of those performers with us for this new schedule, so we’re grateful about that.”

Among the 30-plus performances and exhibits on tap will be some that are part of a continuing series, REVIVAL/50, which celebrates the founding in 1970 of the Augusta Savage Gallery. These shows with “old friends and new,” as press notes put it, begin Sept. 11 when the Connecticut experimental soul ensemble Phat A$tronaut gigs online.

What’s on tap

The FAC’s opening event, Breathing While Black, will debut online Sept. 1, and an online reception for the exhibit takes place Sept. 6. The exhibit will feature over 100 works of art from some 50 artists, from 17 countries including the U.S.

The work came in response from a call by the Augusta Savage Gallery for artists to respond to the deaths of African Amercans earlier this year at the hands of police, such as George Floyd, killed in Minnesota in May when an officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for some nine minutes during an arrest.

Artists from countries as distant as South Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines sent entries, according to the gallery’s website, and staff eventually selected the final art from 350 submissions.

“Our job as we viewed the entries was to not steer too far from the recent shootings of George Floyd and others ... but also to welcome artists’ emotional and intellectual responses to the larger condition of Black folks in America,” the website says.

Looking at another topical issue, California comedian and performance artist Kristina Wong — she’s also an elected member of a neighborhood council in Los Angeles — will bring her one-woman standup routine to the FAC on Sept. 10, via an online link from her home.

“Kristina Wong for Public Office” offers “something a little more on the light side,” Deria says, on another highly charged topic: the approaching November elections. Wong’s show takes a look at what it means to run for local office, the history of voting, and how artists can have an impact on democracy.

Or as Wong puts it, she “was once a scrappy performance artist with a bright future in reality television. Now, the political system she used to ridicule is the one she’s become!”

Wong’s residency will also include educational outreach to UMass students in theater, Asian American Studies, and history, Deria notes.

Other highlights for the fall programming include an Oct. 2 virtual concert by Black Violin, a duo (violin and viola) of classically trained African-American musicians who have fused their classical background with hip hop to create a new way of examining the roots of African music.

Meantime, Yusef Lateef, the influential jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist who taught at UMass in his later years, will be celebrated via a virtual concert Oct. 9 and an exhibit featuring his visual art, a photo gallery, readings, film excerpts and more.

That program, organized by the Magic Triangle Series, will also include two other online concerts, both to be broadcast and streamed live from Amherst Media, by Dreamstruck on Oct. 29 and the James Brandon Lewis Quartet on Nov. 12.

Deria says she’s also excited about not just the Nov. 15 show by the JLCO, which will be followed by a post-show Q&A with Wynton Marsalis, but by a public, six-session course on “Jazz as a Tool of Liberation” that will be offered Oct. 26 to Nov. 11 through the University Without Walls program.

Those online classes, which will be taught by Seton Hawkins, director of public programs and education resources at Jazz at Lincoln Center, will look at the music of jazz greats from the 1920 to the 1960s, from Louis Armstrong to Nina Simone.

“It’s one of the ways we’re trying to reach out to the community and just keep people connected,” said Deria.

Looking ahead, she’s not sure what the FAC will be able to offer in 2021, though she hopes there can be at least some live performances — perhaps some outdoor ones — as well as virtual content. “We’re prepared to do whatever we have to do to maintain our ties with the community,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. For more information on the Fine Arts Center fall program, visit fac.umass.edu.