Alisa Bowens-Mercado was sitting in her empty studio, a copy of Let’s Salsa/Bailemos Salsa in her hands. Soft drums rolled and pitter-pattered beneath her. As she opened to the first page, she transported listeners to a time before coronavirus. Young Estella was standing outside of a dance class at the community center, listening to salsa music lift the dancers off their feet. She had never seen anything like it before.
“She peeked through the little window on the door and couldn’t stop giggling,” Bowens-Mercado read, her voice a smooth salsa slide. “Doña Rosa, Doña Maria and several neighbors were shaking their hips to the fast rhythm. They were sweating and puffing, but had wide smiles on their faces!”
Bowens-Mercado’s weekly storytime series is one of two new online literary collaborations keeping kids—and their parents—reading across the distance. The first, presented in concert with Westville’s ArtEcon Initiative and filmmaker Travis Carbonella, includes weekly stories and dance lessons from Bowens-Mercado and other artists in the Westville neighborhood. The second features the story Funanya's Flowers, written by New Haven playwright Sharece Sellem and narrated by musician Thabisa Rich.
Both are meant to be educational tools for kids and parents feeling the strain of masks, social distancing, and restrictions on play as COVID-19 defines much of the summer. They join similar online initiatives from People Get Ready Bookspace and the New Haven Free Public Library that have been running since March and April respectively.
“The presentation of this, it was brilliant,” Bowens-Mercado said in a phone interview. “Just to literally be able to connect through story time is a joy for me. I feel like it’s continuing to expand the arts during this time when we can’t be together. I can take books that I love and share them on a bigger scale with parents, and teens and adults.”
Both projects were born earlier this year, after the spread of COVID-19 prompted schools to close their doors in mid-March. Sellem, who runs the Quick Quarantined Play Festival and Vintage Soul Productions, watched most of her work as a teaching artist disappear overnight. She turned to a number of plays and stories she’d written years earlier, during her time with Sankofa Kuumba Cultural Arts Consortium in Hartford and students at the Davis Street School in New Haven.
Funanya's Flowers was published in a collection of educational plays in 2017. The story follows the title character Funanya, a young girl with a “magic touch” for growing flowers so quickly they spring up overnight. In her village, Funanya is beloved not only for her flowers, but also for her easy, sweet demeanor and the dances she performs with her three sisters.
When a friend, Ekundayo, joins a dance and accidentally trips Funanya, leaving her with a sprained ankle, she holds a grudge so powerful the rain stops falling. The flowers, in turn, stop blooming. The village faces unbearable heat and Ekundayo’s family begins to talk about leaving, a conversation that seems suddenly close to migration necessitated by climate change. Only when Funanya forgives Ekundayo do the clouds suddenly open, dropping rain on the land.
In the video, Rich’s vocals flex and float over bright illustrations, bringing the story to life. After getting to know Sellem through mutual friends and this year's New Haven Play Project at Long Wharf Theatre, she said she was excited to collaborate. She recalled reading the story with her young daughter, who would talk back to the characters every few pages. It gave Rich a moment to reflect on the grudges she was holding in her own life.
“I really believe that everything happens for a reason,” she said. “I have a thing—this year and last year have been my year of yes. Like, yes, let's do it. Really opening myself up and diving in. It's a hard thing to do, but it literally gives me life. A sense of purpose. People can trust me with projects like this.”
She added that for her, the book echoes through the Black Lives Matter movement, in which she has become increasingly active (her cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” has become a staple at protests) in New Haven in the last three months. She suggested that only when white people let go of their own anti-Black racism—and their understanding of slavery as something "in the past"—can the clouds open and justice rain down on the land.
“I've been seeing people say, ‘they’re trying to take away our rights,’” she said. “We're not asking for revenge. We're not holding a grudge. We just want equality.”
Sellem said she is excited to bring the video to students and adults alike who might be spending more time away from their friends due to COVID-19. She added that she’s hoping to collaborate with Rich again in the near future, inspired by the musician's use of puppetry to talk about anti-Black racism in New Haven and the U.S.
“This has kind of been a standing item in the file folder in the back of my head,” Sellem laughed in a recent phone interview. “The story really talks about forgiveness and energy. It's symbolic of how we have relationships with others.”
That same educational spark has powered ArtEcon’s series, which features four children’s books about dance in English and Spanish. Originally, ArtEcon planned to collaborate with Bowens-Mercado at her Westville studio in March. Then COVID-19 made dancing in person—or gathering at all—untenable. Even now, Bowens-Mercado said she may not reopen her Whalley Avenue studio until August at the earliest. Until then she is teaching virtual classes.
The program was funded in part by the NewAlliance Foundation and federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act emergency relief grants, distributed by the Connecticut Office of the Arts in June. It is part of a larger, online weekly storytelling series that will run through Sept. 24.
“We were happy to transfer it to the virtual stage,” said Liz Antle-O’Donnell, program director for ArtEcon.
While she sheltered in place, Bowens-Mercado lost thousands of dollars in income, from private lessons to teaching contracts that dried up during the pandemic. The collaboration both gave her a little work and a chance to dance across the distance. The books, which are “some of my all-time favorites,” have included Lilian Colon-Vila’s Salsa, Lupe Ruiz-Flores’ Let’s Salsa and an autobiography of the Cuban musician Celia Cruz.
“With everything going on, I don't have the interaction with these people during the day anymore,” she said. “So dancing is my therapy. It kept me motivated. It kept me involved and engaged. It was just a great experience for me. It pushed me to continue my online Zoom classes. Although we're not together physically, we can be emotionally and mentally together.”
Funanya's Flowers is accessible here. To watch episodes of "Let's Play! Stories, Songs and Art," follow the ArtEcon Initiative on YouTube. Episodes air Thursdays at 4 p.m. from July 16 to September 24, 2020.