Black History Harmonizes With the Music of Ray Charles
Black History Month is an appropriate time that we never repeat patterns of the past, and we never forget the forgotten history of denying Black entertainers and musicians their royalties. Since the 1920s, an unprecedented outburst of creativity began among the African American performers, artists and writers who were wronged by racialized business practices.
Actor and pianist extraordinaire Kenny Brawner, portraying Ray Charles at New Bedford's Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, said he talks about the good times and the years of mistreatment of Black performers.
There are documented cases of Black artists cheated out of millions of dollars, and tyrannized by billy club-holding police officers in segregated cities throughout the South. He said the cops would go into the Black performers' dressing room and gave strict instructions: as Black performers, they were to make eye contact with only the Black fans, who were confined to the balcony, and not with whites on the floor.
In other venues, they would paint a wide line that ran down the center of the theater, separating whites on one side of the line and Blacks on the other side, never the two allowed to sit integrated, or risk arrest. This actually happened not that long ago in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
"As far as discrimination goes, often I'll mention the time in Alabama when Ray Charles came out on stage, saw that the audience was separated with Blacks over here and white folks over there. He stopped and announced that he's refusing to perform to a segregated audience," Brawner said. "There was almost a riot, but he remained courageous amid all the death threats and walked out. They tried suing him and all that, but he stood strong, and years later, Ray Charles was asked to perform in front of the Georgia Legislature, who adopted 'Georgia on My Mind' as the official state song."
Brawner's performance is all-encompassing entertainment. Charles' music, from his early years to his greatest hits, has resonated to audiences here, across Europe and around the world.
"Yes, the influence Ray Charles had on generations of musicians and fans is unequaled," Brawner said.
Ray On My Mind: The Ray Charles Story plays one night only Saturday, February 5 at 8 p.m. at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center.