For Nki Calloway, Imari Stout and Keegan Winfield, performing together as kids with Springfield Little Theatre forged a lasting bond of friendship. Today, that friendship and their shared passion for the arts benefits the Ozarks community.
In the summer of 2020 — amidst conversations surrounding Black Lives Matter, George Floyd’s murder and diversity and equality — Calloway, Stout and Winfield established Black Arts Alliance Southwest Missouri, a “local, Black-led group of artists working in coalition with the Small Umbrella Theatre, Springfield Regional Arts Council and Springfield Little Theatre to create opportunity for marginalized talent in Southwest Missouri,” as described in its Facebook group. BAA’s mission, they say, is to create opportunities and to advocate for the artistic talent of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and Queer and Trans People of Color (QTPOC) in our community.
With support from local organizations, the grassroots alliance presented “One Night Only,” a musical performance held in February 2021 at the Judith Enyeart Reynolds School of the Performing Arts for Springfield Little Theatre. In August 2021, it presented “Introduction,” a visual arts show hosted by Creava Studio. In coalition with the Small Umbrella Theatre, BAA will co-present “Once on This Island,” a one-act musical scheduled for May.
The drive behind the Black Arts Alliance
It’s important to encourage Black-inspired and Black-led art in the community, Stout says. Well more than a century ago, Springfield was nearly 25 percent Black, she says. Now it’s around 4 percent.
“We’re in a town that at one point in time had a really rich Black history,” she says. “And so much of Springfield’s Black history has been buried, just like every other town that once had a thriving Black culture.”
That’s why talented people of color may not see themselves in the arts or feel confident about sharing their voices.
“We want to create a very safe environment for marginalized artists and artists of color in particular,” says Winfield, speaking from a Los Angeles suburb where she lives. “There’s a lot of people of color with a lot of potential in Springfield, who don’t get to exercise that potential. Or they feel very intimidated because there aren’t a lot of other people who look like them,” she says. “So I think that it is a priority for us — to create a place where people can learn and grow, and take what they learn with us out into the world.”
Longtime community leader Lyle Foster performed a couple of songs in BAA’s “One Night Only.” He’s heartened to see a younger demographic pursuing community exposure for people of color, especially in the arts, for which he has a passion. He recalls one community survey that explored why young adults leave Springfield. They often don’t see themselves in enough places or in enough roles, says Foster, an assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University and a business owner whose Big Momma’s Coffee & Espresso Bar on Commercial Street has hosted performing arts events.
Foster thinks the Black Arts Alliance can help change that. “It gives people what I would call another sense of belonging,” he says. “It’s a tremendous outlet on a very grassroots level for people to express themselves.”
Artist Riana Clark was featured at “Introduction,” BAA’s first visual art show. Painting has been a creative outlet since 2014 for Clark, who works as assistant education director for the Discovery Center of Springfield. Clark paints meaningful abstracts and says her style is distinct.
“And in certain areas, that style is not going to be appreciated,” she says. If not for early support and encouragement by a Commercial Street gallery owner who was also a woman of color, Clark may not have felt the courage to show her work, she says.
She thinks the Black Arts Alliance will serve to help others gain similar confidence. “So I think having the BAA allows us to support one another, to learn from one another, and to get those voices out there in times, perhaps, when they wouldn’t,” she says.
Calloway wants to see more theatrical opportunities for young people. It’s not that people of color are shut out, she says. She played Delores in an SLT production of “Sister Act” and the genie in “Aladdin” to name a couple of great roles. And at the end of 2021, Stout played the title role in “Cinderella.”
Still, Calloway says growing up, “I never felt like I was good enough to be in a lead role. Or that’s just not something for kids of color,” she says. “We’re changing that now.” She likens it to watching the recent televised production of “Annie,” which featured a young Black performer in the lead role. When kids see that, they can imagine it for themselves. “I want all children of color in this community to be able to look up and go, ‘Oh, I don’t have to be a side character. I don’t have to be in the chorus,'” she says. “I think it’s incredibly important.”
Springfield Little Theatre has been supportive of the alliance, the women say. “I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to perform,” Winfield says. “But on the other hand, we did experience a lot of – maybe not intentional discrimination – but just kind of a byproduct of being such a minority in an environment like that.” It’s why having frank conversations with community organizations is part of the BAA mission for advancing people of color in the arts.
Local founders of BAA had a long history
In 2020 — before Black Arts Alliance —Stout and Calloway co-founded the local Black Lives Matter Southwest Missouri. They say formally establishing BAA was the result of elevated conversations happening that same summer. But really, they say, it was a long time coming.
“Black Arts Alliance truly started when we were younger,” says Stout, who remembers how excited they would be when a production called for primary Black cast members. But that was rare. “We were not awarded stories or roles that were for us, and oftentimes if they were for us, we weren’t placed in those positions. So there’s definitely a very real need for art that prioritizes people of color, and artists of color,” she says.
The alliance was founded, also, on friendship. As children in 2001, Calloway and Stout were both cast as orphans for a production of “Annie.” Because it was Calloway’s first show, Stout’s mom helped her with make-up and costumes. It wasn’t until high school that Winfield became involved with SLT after her family moved back to Springfield. From that point forward, they did many shows together.
Eventually, college, careers and families took them in different directions. Calloway, a vocalist, toured with a band for five years. She met her wife in college and in 2014, they moved back to Springfield where Calloway works, volunteers, manages organization social media and helps raise their two kids.
Winfield lives in the L.A. area and works in creative services for Warner Brothers. She also hosts two podcasts, serves on the board of a theater company and performs when she’s asked. She has family and friends in Springfield, and returns often, which is why she remains interested in the community.
Stout lived in L.A. for a while but returned roughly two years ago and has since performed in a couple of SLT shows, including “Cinderella.” She calls herself a “gig hopper” — teaching part-time at SLT, nannying her 12-month-old niece and traveling for work with a couple of Princess Party companies. For one, she performs in water as a mermaid.
In a group Zoom interview, each praises the others’ contributions to the organization. Even long-distance, Winfield practically produced the art show, her co-founders say. Stout has a talent for reaching out directly to people in the community. And Calloway stays on top of social media platforms, posting opportunities and answering inquiries.
While the Black Arts Alliance advocates for emerging artists, the women say it’s important to reach all generations. That’s why the upcoming production of “Once on This Island” will be so important, Calloway says.
“We’re grabbing the elders who did theater 20 to 25 years back and stopped because there was no place for them really,” Calloway says. “And we’re also getting their kids involved.”