According to the Black South Floridian artists and organizers who have produced the Juneteenth Experience at the Miami Beach Bandshell for the last three years, in light of the Sunshine State's dark political reality, it's never been more critical to create and honor spaces and platforms that recognize and celebrate Black belonging, Black freedom, and Black joy.
The third-annual Juneteenth Experience — a multidisciplinary, live performance honoring the date in 1865 when the last enslaved Americans were freed from bondage in Galveston, Texas — will be held Monday, June 19, at the Miami Beach Bandshell. Admission is free to this event produced by South Florida-based performance company Hued Songs, but an upgraded experience for $150 offers prime seats, snacks, and wine.
For Miriam King, a certified diversity consultant, educator, and performer who's worked with Hued Songs since its inception, the significance of celebrating Juneteenth is both historical and topical.
The human race's insistent fight over our bodies — and minds and hearts — as mere chattel continues to this day. It may not be so by slavery's definition of ownership, but the control — and the fight for control over our lives, our narratives, and our ability to build wealth for ourselves, even after we literally built this country — still exists. It has just been called by a different name," says King, who crafted the script for 2023's Juneteenth Experience.
King says this year's live celebration was built around the guiding theme of belonging, a sentiment echoed by the city of Miami Beach when the municipality recognized this event as its official celebration of the federal holiday.
"The production creates both a tradition and a legacy for South Florida, as there is no other show like it," she says. "The city of Miami Beach created a proclamation for the day, and Hued Songs is the official centerpiece for the city's annual observance of this important holiday. We couldn't be more thrilled. What this means is that we get to continue to create inspirational, engaging, and thought-provoking work for years to come."
The Juneteenth Experience, which will be livestreamed on the Miami Beach Bandshell website and Facebook page, as well as the Rhythm Foundation's YouTube channel, incorporates many artistic mediums like song, dance, spoken word, and animation. A diverse cast of local artists includes Arsimmer McCoy, J'Von Brown, Jasmine Williams, Darius Manuel, Eden Marte, Chauncy Riley, and King Friday, as well as dancers of Zest Collective performing under the direction of choreographer Gentry George.
Hued Songs founder and director Kunya Rowley says the Juneteenth Experience performers will not be transforming into new characters onstage. Rather, they'll be creating art as their fullest, truest selves, a practice that Rowley says can build empathy and understanding among audiences.
"I asked the artists to bring their whole selves to this process. So often, as performers, we are asked to compartmentalize different parts of ourselves for a script or production. I make decisions every day around how Black can I be in this space, how queer can I be," Rowley says. "I hope that audiences see a group of artists onstage who are unapologetic, who are joyous, who are sharing laughter together. We are living in a very divisive time right now. Part of that stems from a lack of empathy and understanding. Making space for people to be themselves and making space for culturally affirming programming are important. This show alone is not what builds empathy, but my hope is that it's a catalyst for curiosity, asking questions, and being open-minded."
Juneteenth Experience performer and vocalist J'Von Brown likens the freedom that Rowley encourages among performers to the very ethos behind Juneteenth.
"This performance is the one time a year I can trust to be seen, understood, and heard fully on the stage," Brown says. "The Juneteenth holiday is about just that for me as well: possessing a freedom that should have been fully developed without ever having to be iterated. What we've found throughout history is the counter — this stifling or hiding truth, if you will. It's about the revelation that freedom should be accessible to those who may have to consistently consider otherwise, as in, freedom is everyone's God-given right."
For the third iteration of this annual celebration, Hued Songs has expanded its offerings at Miami Beach Bandshell Park to include the Miami Beach Juneteenth Picnic in the Park featuring the New World School of the Arts Jazz Ensemble and the Harden Project from 4 to 6 p.m., as well as a series of original short-film screenings centering Black joy, culture, and identity beginning at 6:30 p.m. Brown says the 2023 Juneteenth Experience serves as a platform for a cornucopia of artistic disciplines, showing audiences the multifaceted magic that is being Black in South Florida.
I hope participants, and more so the audience at this experience, feel hopeful, inspired, and more insightful of the many facets in which we can operate in our communities, especially as Black people. Growing up, I felt I had to sing only gospel or R&B. Beyond that, I was like, 'Where do I fit in?' I literally didn't realize until I was in college that Black people could sing classically and that this is an option for a career," says Brown, an opera student who will begin his graduate studies in vocal performance this fall at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "The world is our domain to take, and there shouldn't be limits set within ourselves of what we can do. Seeing the colors — and career paths — of everyone on the stage shows that this is possible."
Rowley recalls creating the Juneteenth Experience from scratch in the months that followed the murder of George Floyd as a means of rallying the community in the wake of racial and social injustice. This year, having built satellite events in Broward and Palm Beach counties where the performances will be livestreamed to even larger audiences, Rowley feels galvanized to continue creating public spaces across South Florida for the celebration of Black artistry, community, and liberation.
"I deeply believe that nothing should happen in a silo or vacuum. It's about amplifying our impact, building community, and championing change," Rowley says. "Our goal is that not only does this continue to be an annual celebration, but that it's a pillar among our yearlong programming that centers Black joy, belonging, and liberation. The Nutcracker is performed every December. Opera companies do La Bohème every other year. I hope the Juneteenth Experience becomes something people look forward to each year and that we continue to celebrate Juneteenth, Black belonging, and freedom all year long."