Essence Music Festival Houston
IT’S BEEN NEARLY a year since Katrina forced thousands to flee from New Orleans and turned Houston’s Astrodome into a hurricane hotel. Now, with another storm season looming and much of the Gulf Coast still in disrepair, Reliant Park will be a home away from home for another Crescent City evacuee: the Essence Music Festival. Never heard of it? Probably not if you haven’t been reading the sponsoring magazine, whose niche is African American women. Or if you’re tone-deaf to Houston’s rap scene. But hear this: The twelve-year-old celebration, with its powerhouse performances and empowerment seminars, is hip-hop and R&B’s annual blockbuster. The summer’s biggest event is now on your home turf, so you have no excuse.
Besides, this is no mere concert. This is an experience as invigorating as Sunday services. Folks come dressed to the nines, whole families in tow, for three days of singing and dancing and reuniting with long-lost friends and relatives. The music alone will shake your soul (and your booty), with superstars out en masse—Mary J. Blige, Diddy, LL Cool J, Yolanda Adams, Toni Braxton, and Earth, Wind, and Fire, among others. And unlike some hype-a-paloozas, this festival has quantity and quality. Any too-big-for-her-britches performer who doesn’t sing her heart out will have to answer to came-to-party crowds (poor Erykah Badu might still be recovering from her ill-received outing a few years back). And everything’s family friendly, so no bumpin’ and grindin’ (hear that, R. Kelly?), though no one has seemed to mind a shirtless LL Cool J. Best of all, anything’s possible—wild card Bobby Brown reunites with New Edition this year—and you can bet that Maze and Frankie Beverly will bring you to your feet on the final evening. Ten dollars goes to the humbug who can resist doing the slide when they turn it up with “Joy and Pain.”
The self-described “party with a purpose” also packs ’em in with free daily seminars. Jamie Foxx, T.D. Jakes, and Magic Johnson (sound familiar?) are just a few of the personalities leading talks on empowering youth, strengthening relationships, and building wealth. Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton—they won’t miss it either. Nor will Queen Latifah, Terrence Howard, Danny Glover—is there a celeb who’s not coming? As Essence editorial director Susan L. Taylor wrote in her May column: “Having linked arms and aims, we will each leave Houston with . . . a charge to get the job done.” And, no doubt, with a deeper commitment to sister city New Orleans.
There isn’t much that’ll keep this good festival down, least of all a temporary move. If anything, its potency is on the rise—and that’s saying something when you count up the 232,000 revelers last year, an event record. But don’t say good-bye too quickly. “I’d say there’s a fifty-fifty chance the festival will still be in Houston in 2007,” says Jordy Tollett, the president and CEO of the city’s convention and visitors bureau, who of course predicts success. This year’s affair has already been Texanized, with organizers calling it a “bigger party with a deeper purpose.” Says Tollett, “We want New Orleans to be rebuilt, but in the meantime, we’re going to have a real good time.” Amen to that. Jul 1–3. Reliant Park, Loop 610 between Kirby Dr & Fannin; 800-488-5252; essence.com/essence/emf
He Is the Very Model Of a Modern Major Thespian
Who would have thunk that a Texas theater troupe would be earning international kudos for its English comic operas? In its own topsy-turvy plot, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston has become one of the premier amateur groups to perform the witty, silly, and quintessentially British musicals, which date back to the 1870’s. Led by the well-credentialed (and yes, British) Alistair Donkin, formerly of the historic D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, the volunteer cast performs Trial By Jury and H.M.S. Pinafore this month. Donkin, who’s celebrating his twenty-fifth season in Houston, talks about performing on this side of the pond.
You’re acting and directing in both shows. What’s it like to direct? You get nearly fifty people onstage who trust you and gel together as a team. A G&S show, like all musical theater, is a team product. There aren’t really stars. The show is the star.
With an amateur cast, you must have quite an audition pool. We never know what’s coming through the door. Last year we thought we’d won the state lottery. We had a matching pair of boys turn up who were both well over six feet, good-looking, sang like angels. But onstage they played like two naughty boys out on the town.
You’ve said that Texas audiences get into the shows more than British ones. Since everybody in England knows these operas backwards, most of the humor they just let go by. But because over here they don’t know it as intently, I get lots of laughter in places I forgot were actually funny. So it’s very challenging to come over here and perform.
What makes these G&S operas so popular? They’re well-built shows, and they’re very funny. There is fabulous music, and you can bring your great-granny or a five-year-old kiddie and they’ll love it. I think Houston is the pinnacle of Gilbert and Sullivan in the United States. I may be a little biased.
Maybe. But the company is a world champion. When we went to the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, in Buxton, England, in 2004, we were crowned champion for our production of The Mikado. We won best director, musical director, costume, chorus, and female lead. I ended up with a suitcase full of trophies.
What did the British think about Texans beating them at their own game? We were the only group, including professional groups, that sold out every seat and standing space. The Brits are desperate to see what Houston can do next. Jul 21–23 & 28–30. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave; 713-627-3570; gilbertandsullivan.net
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