Since my husband and I are members of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, we get invited to the annual Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence ceremony.
There are two ways to give to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The first is that you can endow a fund of some sort for them to manage. Although it is probably obvious to a regular reader of my blog that my husband and I are not hurting for money, we are not at the “endow a fund” level of wealth. The other way to support BRAF is by donating an annual amount of $100 and up, to be used toward their operating expenses, and that’s what we do. People who donate in this way are considered members.
The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence was conceived at another sort of BRAF event several years ago, when Mr. Gaines gave a reading from his work Mozart and Leadbelly. The award is intended to honor Ernest Gaines by selecting a promising African-American author as recipient. This year’s recipient is Stephanie Powell Watts for her book of short stories, We Are Taking Only What We Need. Watts, we are told, “worked as a Jehovah’s Witness minister, a shoe-string factory worker, and a food service and office worker” before receiving her PhD from the University of Missouri-Columbia. “She now teaches at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania”. In addition to the honor of the award and a trophy, she was given $10,000. Honor is nice, but money pays the bills.
As part of the ceremony, recipients read from their work. Ms. Watts read a short selection from the first short story in her book, shorter than the amount that recipients usually read, but she stopped at just the point to leave you wondering what happened next. I’m not sure whether it was purely her decision to read a shorter than average bit, or whether it was to leave time for the Master of Ceremonies, Irvin Mayfield, to lead an improvised sestet in several jazz compositions, including selections from Mayfield’s recent composition: Dirt, Dust and Trees: A Jazz Tribute to Ernest Gaines. The sestet finished their set with a second-line style medley of gospel tunes, including I’ll Fly Away and When the Saints Go Marching In.
After the ceremony, there is always a buffet, compliments of a locally owned and quite elegant restaurant. I would hate to say that the buffet is my husband’s only reason for attending this cultural event so regularly, but he has memorized the exact location of the shrimp-filled pirogue, and heads to it with the determination of a spawning salmon.
The tiny bread plates that accompany the spread are no doubt meant to be a reminder that this isn’t supposed to be dinner, but we’re good at carrying multiple plates. We are also good at snagging a table in the room with the shrimp boat (less congested than the one with the dessert table and martini bar), which means we have seats to give away. Usually we literally give them away; while we hope to attract other folks to talk with, our spare chairs usually get carried off to other tables where people in large groups need extras. This year other people asked if they could sit with us and of course we agreed. They then preceded to carry on their own conversation as if we weren’t there. I eavesdropped shamelessly as one woman, originally from New York by her account before moving to Washington and then here to Baton Rouge, raved about the musicians. By her account, the only place to hear jazz like that in Washington any more is at the Kennedy Center, which she thinks has driven the smaller jazz clubs out of business. Tickets for events at the Kennedy are expensive, so they could only go to one event a year. Culture in Baton Rouge, she continues, is so accessible.
I haven’t really thought of it that way, but there are numerous events at the Shaw Center (where the Gaines award is given) throughout the year. There are small jazz clubs in town with reasonable cover charges, and of course, the Little Theater events we go to, as well as a symphony orchestra. There are three outdoor music festivals each summer. LSU has begun hosting a multi-act country music concert each year, and there are concerts that come through at the River Center. One of our local charitable agencies (about which there was a big scandal several years later) even hosted a concert by Luciano Pavarotti back in the 1990’s. People came from surrounding states for that (and Pavarotti, not the charity, got most of the money.) I still have the program.
Not to mention, that my husband and I take for granted being able to see and hear Ernest Gaines himself each year at this time, as well as guest MC’s that have included, in addition to Mr. Mayfield, actors Courtney Vance and last year, Cicely Tyson.
So yes, say what you will about our small city (and lord knows I say a lot of it), but it has at its heart a group of leaders determined to see that the needs of its citizens are met, and it has ready access to the arts.
Thank you, Miss-Snob-Pretending-the-Original-Occupant-of-the-Table-Wasn’t-There, for reminding me of it.