Real Imagination

Real Imagination

Many of us have spent the past year imagining things: worst- and best-case scenarios, the world beyond our constricted orbits, activities we love but couldn’t do. So it’s only fitting that the theme of this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas is “Imagine.”

“I just started to think about where we are now in life,” says Malakhi Eason, the festival’s new director of programming and community impact, who came up with the theme. “Things are slowly opening back up, and artists are slowly starting to perform, so we wanted to… imagine what art looks like .”

Eason, along with Shelley Quiala, the festival’s new executive director, and the entire Arts & Ideas team have kicked their own imaginations into overdrive to dream up new ways of doing New Haven’s biggest festival, now in its 26th year. Yes, the word “virtual” appears in many program descriptions—but often, you’ll find the longed-for phrase “in-person event” beside it. For those who are ready and able to stop dreaming from home and start showing up in person, here are just a few things you can do at this year’s festival.

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Take a Step…
… or get your day’s 10,000 in with one of six walking tours. Stay close to the city’s center or reach into neighborhoods including the Dwight Historic District and Westville. Cross the city line to Imagine Your Food System by exploring 57 acres of Massaro Community Farm. Want to step it up? Try a community class with choreographer and dancer Ronald K. Brown of the dance company EVIDENCE. All ages are invited to bring their movement experience–or none at all–to learn “simplified steps from Brown’s blended style of contemporary, African, and Caribbean dance styles.”

Meet the Queens…
… and their crowns of hair at the Art & Hair Show, a high-fashion display of “never-before-seen hair styles (think: jellyfish bob).” Seven local stylists and “hairstyle innovator” Shawn Jon will “craft ultramodern hairstyles in real-time,” accompanied by live music from Durand Bernarr. Royally stylish hair, costumes, makeup and performances are on the way in The Legend Drag Show, starring headliner La’Diva Monet with nine others including several local queens. A revue of drag performance styles will include “interludes touching on everything from Stonewall to a state of the union on LGBTQ+ and drag communities today.”

Lend an Ear…
… to a Communal Listening Experience with Mwenso & the Shakes, “a unique troupe of global artists who present music that blends jazz and blues expression through African and Afro American music.” Or get an earful of 10-minute stories covering “every method of storytelling imaginable—from spoken word to poetry to folktelling to personal narratives to rap” at Stir the Style: A Storytelling Mashup with nine performers including a surprise musical guest.

Eat Your Fill…
… of pancakes courtesy of Sandra’s Next Generation at a Gospel Brunch featuring Kevin Monroe, “with appearances by Pastor Danny Bland (and choir) and the multi-Grammy-nominated vocal sensation Darrell Walls.” Or try out any of 10 food events serving up everything from barbecue to chaats—with beer and cocktails, of course.

Find Your Groove…
… with the Chillie Willie Groove Band, fusing “funk, rhythm and blues, soul, smooth jazz, and salsa influences” and featuring “unconventional percussionist” William Portela. Looking for a vibe of your own? Arts on Call is back this year, with more than 40 performers to choose from. For a fee, they’ll come to your door or any outdoor venue of your choice within 15 miles of downtown and deliver a personal show.

Flex Your Brain…
… with new ideas, which lend themselves nicely to the digital world. Whether you’re still laying low or simply intrigued, the festival offers 18 virtual-only “ideas” programs to “engage with national and international issues through the microcosm of the culturally rich, diverse, and complex communities of New Haven.” Think topics such as Afrofuturism, “Love as Liberation,” “Reimagining Economies” and more. Or crack open a book and join in the 2021 NEA Big Read, this year featuring the poetry of Joy Harjo’s An American Sunrise.

Performances on the Green are free, but due to pandemic protocols, you can’t just wander in this year to see what’s up. Reservations are required, and in-person tickets are limited. According to Eason, capacity on the Green this year will be a little over 650 people, assigned to pods designated by blankets spaced six feet apart. Each pod can accommodate up to four people. Reservations are not required to attend events virtually; simply visit the event’s page on the website at the proper time and click on the livestream link.

In a normal year, 10 to 15,000 people would gather on the Green for the most popular festival events. “That’s not happening this year,” Eason says. “That’s a big difference, but that’s okay. We just want to make sure we get some kind of live performances out there.” Imagine that.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas
May 14 through June 27, 2021
(203) 498-3771 | |

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features La’Diva Monet. Image 2, featuring a member of EVIDENCE, photographed by Hannah Long. Image 3, featuring Grace Kelly, photographed by Christian Nordstrom. Image 4, featuring Bassel & The Supernaturals, photographed by Samer Almadani. All images provided courtesy of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

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