Thursday night, that mix of local and global underscored the launch of the 24th annual International Festival of Arts & Ideas, scheduled for June 8-22 in and around downtown New Haven. Held at Gateway Community College, the kickoff drew close to 200 people, a turnout that Festival Co-Director Elizabeth Fisher called the largest audience she had seen in her 22 years of working for the organization.
“We come together to celebrate our families, our neighbors, and our friends,” said Chad Herzog, a fellow co-director of the festival with Fisher and Tom Griggs. “We get to challenge our thinking, open our hearts, and feed our souls. We get to question identity, and ask what makes a place our home.”
This year, there are 15 festival fellows, including NHPS students like Keona Marie Gomes, a 15 year old studying theater at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School. "I've lived in New Haven all my life and it feels like I'm holding a torch now," she said at the kickoff.
Over two weeks and three weekends, the festival will once again be expanding its global reach, bringing a number of national and international acts to the New Haven Green and several performance and lecture halls nearby. From its first to its final weekend, those public festivities include a huge Gujarati dance party with Garba360, Afro-Caribbean rhythms with Grammy-nominated Tiempo Libre, shape shifter of Latin folk Gina Chavez, and many others.
Westvillian Thabisa Rich will be one of three Nutmeggers to perform on the New Haven Green on June 8.
The festival is also working on growing its local footprint. Earlier this year, the organization named community champion Aleta Staton as its Louise Endel Community Engagement Manager, and appointed Ice The Beef’s Chaz Carmon to help coordinate neighborhood festivals in Dixwell, Fair Haven and the Hill. It has also expanded its high school fellows program, with 15 New Haven students and two co-facilitators this year. The kickoff began with three languages (French, Spanish and English) and an acknowledgement of the Quinnipiac land on which Gateway Community College is built, marking a first for the organization.
As Carmon heads into May, he said he is looking forward to the events, which both celebrate the neighborhoods and intersect with existing events like Dixwell's beloved Freddy Fixer Parade in June. He’s not the only one: New Haveners comprise a chunk of this year’s festivities on the green, with June 8 headline performances from Westvillian Thabisa Rich and Rohn Lawrence, as well as Stamford-born Marion Meadows. There is also a June 13 serenade from St. Luke’s Steel Band and the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen’s annual CANing Hunger event on June 15 and 16.
Rich, who has performed at several of Arts & Ideas’ neighborhood festivals for the past two years, said Thursday that she is excited to take her music and her message to the main stage. Born and raised in South Africa, Rich sings in both English and Xhosa. She has used her platform many times to speak on human rights, bringing her words and her music to World Refugee Day last summer, as well as the Peabody Museum’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration this January.
“When I came to America and I saw the festival and I saw that Angélique Kidjo was here, I wanted to be part of it,” she recalled Thursday. “I was thinking of anything I can use to get them to notice me. Like, ‘I’m from Africa too! That counts, maybe?’ But nope. Two years, I applied, and nothing.”
In 2017, she performed at all of the neighborhood festivals. The following year, she performed in one of them, because she was getting booked for other concerts. After her set, she ran into Herzog, who told her he was moved by the performance.
“I was like, ‘I’m ready. I’ve been ready. Give me the stage!’” she recalled. “So I’m really excited that this came to fruition. I’m so happy. I really do feel blessed, like the universe is just aligning the stars to go accordingly. I’m especially happy that they’re using someone from the community, and I feel really so welcome.”
She added that she is hopeful that her music will infuse New Haven with joy in a time that has felt difficult and uncertain to her and many of the people around her. Last week, Rich spent Tuesday through Thursday watching news coverage of the officer-involved shooting of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon III in New Haven's Newhallville neighborhood. She said the shooting and protests, one of which she attended on Friday, have left her feeling emotionally exhausted. Her response has been turning to music as a catalyst for change—"and I plan to speak about that” during the performance.
“I feel like, how can I be celebrating things like this when we’re losing Black people on the streets in such an inhumane way?” she said. “It literally takes the joy out of people’s lives. In some ways, I feel like giving up. I’m tired. But then, you gotta do it for the people that are suffering. The victims that are suffering. You have to give them that joy.”
To watch more from the launch, click on the video below.