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State of the Nation 

Wed.-Sun., March 18-22

Various locations; www.sonfestival.org

click to enlarge New Orleans' MudHoney Dance Collective performs at State of the - Nation.
  • New Orleans' MudHoney Dance Collective performs at State of the Nation.

When members of Mondo Bizarro, Alternate Roots, Junebug Productions and other arts groups created the State of the Nation (SON) theater and performance festival in 2004, politics was on many participants' minds.

  "It was a politically charged time moving into the Bush/Kerry election," says Nick Slie, founder of Mondo Bizarro and a State of the Nation organizer. "We asked artists to address what they thought the state of the nation was."

  Many participating artists shared the presumption that making art is inherently a political act — not so much in terms of national political campaigns, but in initiating community dialogues about social issues like race, class, freedom and justice. Whether or not art affected that election, the festival has grown, and this year's event includes more than 100 artists and groups from New York to Hawaii. Now in its fifth year, the fest's 2009 theme reflects both its growth and broader change.

  "We put out an open call [for participants] on the theme of 'Tipping Point,'" Slie says. "That's the moment in history or time where the momentum for change becomes unstoppable."

  SON features professional and student theater, dance and musical performances, as well as free workshops and discussions at Marigny Theatre, the Studio at Colton, Lakeview Baptist Church and other venues. Subject matter ranges from the effects of Hurricane Katrina on children to how Middle Eastern political differences play out on Brooklyn streets. The festival is supported by grants from the Ford Foundation, Arts Council of New Orleans, Louisiana Division of the Arts, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation and other organizations.

click to enlarge New Orleans' dance group Hijack/Heron performs at the State of the Nation
  • New Orleans' dance group Hijack/Heron performs at the State of the Nation

  The festival alternates between New Orleans and Jackson, Miss., but the effects of Katrina galvanized the union of artistic and activist interests in the forum. The storm proved to be a font of artistic expression. The 2009 festival includes The Heart to Hurt Ratio, a dance piece created by New Orleans Recreation Department and New Orleans Ballet Association students about how they have coped with post-K New Orleans.

  Artists from other areas also related work to the storm. Carlton Turner is the organizer of Alternate Roots, a 30-year-old regional arts networking organization, as well as a spoken-word performer in M.U.G.A.B.E.E., along with his brother Maurice, a jazz trumpeter.

  "We didn't like the way people affected by the storm were misrepresented," he says about his community in Jackson, which sheltered many evacuees. "That damage went much deeper than the physical damage of the storm."

  Post-storm New Orleans became the most appropriate setting for SON. Turner will participate in workshops on art and social engagement, and with M.U.G.A.B.E.E., he'll collaborate with local musicians in a blend of jazz, hip-hop and spoken-word performance.

  Socially engaging art is not a new concept, and tipping points are not reached without antecedents. New Orleans playwright John O'Neal is a co-founder of Free Southern Theater, created in 1963; a co-founder of Alternate Roots in 1976; and his Junebug Productions (which previews new work in the festival) helped initiate SON. A lot has changed in those years, and he is excited that President Barack Obama's election has called attention to issues of social justice and race. It's an engaging time to do socially based art, he says.

  "I'm glad artists are using their craft to represent their concerns," O'Neal says. "It's all part of this dialogue we're having."

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