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Sonoma County performance will honor legacy of American slaves

THE SPIRIT OF US

What: The Spirit of Us: A Black History Musical PresentationWhen: 3 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 27Where: Community Baptist Church, 1620 Sonoma Ave., Santa RosaInfo: www.cbcsr.org

Who cares to talk about the American slave? Anyone?

Jacqueline Lawrence does. The performer, author, ordained minister, elder-care provider and former plus-size beauty queen does more than speak about the Africans wrested from their homeland in shackles and forced into servitude in the “land of liberty.”

Onstage, Lawrence sometimes channels Miss Mammy, a soulful and potent and sweet-singing 19th-century plantation slave. The uncanny portrayal typically has viewers black and white smiling and crying, but also twitching a bit in their seats; a symptom of shame.

“I think a lot of people are embarrassed about it,” Lawrence said. She understands why many would prefer to stop talking about slavery in America.

But she regards herself as an heiress of the slaves. She answers a calling to celebrate and keep alive their music and the history of their labor, devotion and abundant contributions.

Slaves “were a part of American history, a significant part,” Lawrence, 54, said at her home in Windsor. “We should not ignore that part America's history - good, bad or indifferent.”

Her current tribute to the slaves, their progeny and legacy is “The Spirit of Us: A Black History Musical Presentation.” It's an innovative, multi-media performance that she and a company of more than a dozen will perform Saturday in Santa Rosa in honor of Black History Month.

The production has Lawrence narrating a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by live music, dance and poetry recitation. The music is especially close to her heart.

She's intrigued by the ancient music the Africans brought with them that formed the baseline of Negro spirituals, field hollers, drumming and other musical expressions of the plantation. She has tracked the impact of the slaves' music on every generation and genre of African-American music.

“Africa is today being influenced by our music,” Lawrence said. “So there has been a turnaround, if you will.”

She and the theatrical company will present “The Spirit of Us” at 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27 at Santa Rosa's Community Baptist Church. The public is invited.

Lawrence came to Santa Rosa as a child in 1965 and grew up in one of the city's few black families, graduating from Santa Rosa High School in 1979.

As a teenager, she wasn't especially drawn to the experience or roots of blacks in America.

That changed when she opted to attend Tuskegee University, the historic black college in Alabama. At first, she kept pretty much to her dorm room.

“I was afraid of all those black folks,” she said. “By the second semester, I felt like the blackest person there.”

Lawrence studied business administration at Tuskegee. She worked in retail marketing and social services before making a career of residential care for seniors, and in 2004 earned a doctorate in Christian Counseling at Sacramento Theological Seminary.

She tells of feeling directed by God to honor the contributions of the slaves and the relentless nature of many African-Americans' pursuit of “deliverance, freedom and justice.”

She recalled accompanying her children and grandchildren to a former plantation in Louisiana a couple of summers ago. She stayed behind for a bit when her family moved on from the slaves' quarters.

“I talked to the spirits of the slaves,” she said. “I told them I was sorry for the way a lot of people ignored them and their struggles and their hard work.

“I told them I would not let their legacy die because they did so much for this country. Not only this country, but the world.”

THE SPIRIT OF US

What: The Spirit of Us: A Black History Musical PresentationWhen: 3 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 27Where: Community Baptist Church, 1620 Sonoma Ave., Santa RosaInfo: www.cbcsr.org

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