Salem Film Fest presents special Thanksgiving weekend screening

FOR AHKEEM

By Shelley A. Sackett

Above: Daje Shelton in “For Ahkeem,” a documentary film directed by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest.

BEVERLY — By the Sunday after Thanksgiving, even the most diehard football fan and Black Friday shopper should be ready to trade leftover pie for popcorn and venture out to the Cabot Theatre where Jeremy Levine, a Beverly native and Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker from New York, will be returning home to screen his latest feature film, “For Ahkeem.”

The film tells the intimate and frank story of Daje Shelton, a strong-willed Black 17-year-old girl in North St. Louis, Missouri. The audience walks beside her as her path takes her from public school expulsion to the court-supervised Innovative Concept Academy, an alternative school for delinquent youth and her last chance to earn a diploma.

Shot over a two-year period against the charged backdrop of nearby Ferguson, we witness Daje’s struggles as she copes with academic rigors, the murders and funerals of friends, teenage love and a pregnancy that results in the birth of a son, Ahkeem.

With motherhood comes the realization that she must contend with raising a young Black boy in a marginalized neighborhood. The film illuminates the challenges that many Black teenagers face in America today, and witnesses the strength and resilience it takes to survive.

“For Ahkeem” will screen on Sunday, November 26 at 4:30 p.m. at The Cabot Theatre, 286 Cabot Street in Beverly as part of a special Salem Film Fest Presents — the documentary fest’s first cinema presentation outside of Salem. Levine will be on hand at to answer audience questions at the post-screening Q&A.

Salem Five Charitable Foundation is underwriting the screening and three local organizations are community partners: The Beverly Human Rights Committee, First Church Salem, UU and Salem No Place for Hate.

For Levine, who attended Beverly High School and worked for years as a counselor at the Waring School, the film he co-directed is more than a simple coming-of-age story. “It highlights the horrible effects of the school-to-prison pipeline, where we suspend and expel huge numbers of students — especially black and brown students — and the impact that has on girls like Daje from the time they’re five-years-old,” he said by phone from New York City, where he and co-director Landon Van Soest run Transient Productions, a full-service production company.

The film also approaches some of the most pressing social challenges facing America today — racial bias, social inequality, public education, police brutality and a biased criminal justice system.

“We wanted to tell a deeply personal story about what it means to live your life when so many systems are set against you,” Levine, an Ithaca College alumnus with a degree in Documentary Studies, said.

“For Ahkeem” has had an award-winning festival run starting in February at the Berlin Film Festival, followed by prestigious showcases like the Tribeca Film Festival, Canada’s Hot Docs, and the DMZ International Film Festival in South Korea.

While the film’s worldwide audience and awards —such as the Grand Jury Prize Award at Boston’s Independent Film Festival — thrill Levine, for him the screenings and discussions at high schools and prisons fulfill a greater mission of trying to do better for future generations of children.

In Tribeca, New York City, for example, approximately 500 high school students attended a screening. “When Daje came out for the Q&A afterwards, the kids erupted in applause,” Levine said.

The ensuing discussions included kids “really opening up about some of the challenges they face in their lives. It was really incredible,” Levine added. He is currently working to bring the film to more public high schools through a grant program.

Screenings at prisons have been equally powerful. When the lights came up at one screening for 100 inmates, all the tears in the room full of men touched Levine. “One of them wrote a poem for Daje and Ahkeem. Another man said, ‘Who knew I could learn so much about being a man from the story of a young woman?’” he said.

Levine credits the culture of Judaism and Hebrew School lessons at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, “a part of my life growing up”, with imbuing in him a sense of responsibility to try to make the world a better place. “I learned about the long suffering of our heritage and the injustice of that. That kind of moral underpinning is definitely huge in the work I do,” he said.

 

“For Ahkeem” will screen on Sunday, November 26 at 4:30 p.m. at The Cabot Theatre, 286 Cabot Street in Beverly as part of a special Salem Film Fest presentation. For more information or to buy tickets, visit theCabot.org.

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The Cabot goes Classical

Chamber music ensemble debuts new “Classical at the Cabot” series

 

The Cabot Theatre in Beverly, which first opened in 1920 as a dream palace of vaudeville and silent movies, will host Virtuoso Soloists of New York (VSNY), a group of young musicians whose shared dream is to commission, perform and record classical music on the international stage. Although each of the seven members brings unique cultural and life experience to the mix, their shared passion for musical exploration and excellence has created one of today’s most exhilarating and vibrant classical music ensembles.

 

The Sunday, February 19 “Classical at the Cabot” concert starts at 3 p.m. and features a program that includes Sergei Rachmaninov: Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor; John H. Wallace: Triskele (A Trio for Viola, Oboe and Piano four-hand); Anton Dvorak: Terzetto in C major, Op. 74; and Robert Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44.

 

Yoni Avi Battat, a core member of VSNY, is enthusiastic about the selection for VSNY’s first concert at the Cabot. “We will play a lyrical and stormy contemporary piece by Salem local, John H. Wallace, which has an interesting orchestration of oboe, viola and four hands piano. Dr. Wallace is the composer-in-residence for the Classical at the Cabot concert series, and is on the music faculty at Boston University,” he said.

 

The pieces range from the “innocent and charming” to the “robust and iconic”. “We chose these pieces around the theme of Romance, offering a satisfying and indulgent outing for the Sunday after Valentine’s Day,” he said.

 

Founded in New York City in 2014 by Italian pianist Edoardo Carpendao and Portuguese pianist Inês Andrade, VSNY’s members hail from all over the globe. Violinist Micah Brightwell is a native of New Zealand, cellist Gracie Keith and oboist Courtney Miller are American, and clarinetist Samuel Brandão Marques was born in Portugal.

 

Over the course of its two-year existence, VSNY has performed extensively across the United States and abroad. During the 2015 summer, the ensemble completed a two-week tour of Northern Italy, including a residency at the Udine National Conservatory. This tour realized the group’s collaboration with Italian composer Mario Pagotto, who dedicated a newly composed piece to the group.

 

Each performer is a recognized solo virtuoso, and their combined expertise, enthusiasm and musical flair attracts new audiences by crafting unique programs that highlight the connection between well-known classics and newly commissioned pieces.

 

A Boston-based performer and teacher, Battat plays viola and violin in a variety of different styles. With strong roots in classical music, he has played across the United States and abroad with a number of professional orchestras and chamber ensembles. An advocate of contemporary music, Battat works regularly with living composers of all ages to workshop, premiere and record new works.

 

He started playing violin at age four and picked up the viola at age 14 “because the one violist in my school’s orchestra was not available for our concert”. After playing just a few notes on the rich, low register of the instrument, he quickly realized that it would be far more than a temporary gig. “I felt that I had discovered my true voice as a musician. I especially liked that I could contribute so much as a supporting voice without being in the spotlight, that viola is a collaborative instrument by nature of its register and its role in chamber music.”

 

In addition to his work in classical music with VSNY, Battat also improvises in a number of other musical traditions, from jazz and folk to middle-eastern, salsa, and klezmer. Through his work in these styles, Battat says he aims to increase global awareness and celebrate cultural diversity through music.

 

Although Battat has performed klezmer music in a synagogue and Mario Pagotto’s music at the Udine Conservatory in Italy where the composer teaches, he is equally moved by the upcoming concert in Beverly.

 

“There is something equally special about bringing music to places it hasn’t belonged in the past. This concert season at the Cabot is the first classical music series ever in that beautiful and historic venue, so I’m excited to bring fresh music to audiences there as well,” he said.

 

 

The Girls Are Dreamin’ in Beverly

Eric LaJuan Summers steals the show as James “Thunder” Early in NSMT’s production of “Dreamgirls.”
PhotoPaul
Lyden

Attending the season opener at the North Shore Music Theatre brings back memories of stepping off the bus on the first day of summer camp. Like the joy of reconnecting with old friends and places, the NSMT’s round stage with its magic trapdoor center pit, its live orchestra and its signature disco-esque spinning light signal that, finally, summer is here.

And with its exuberant production of “Dreamgirls”,the winner of six Tony and two Grammy Awards, NSMT throws quite the summer party. There’s even dancin’ in the streets.

Inspired by the career of Diana Ross and The Supremes, the musical follows the onstage and backstage drama of the 1960s up-and-coming female trio, “The Dreams.” From their career-launching talent contest at New York City’s famed Apollo Theatre to their farewell concert over a decade later, there are the usual love triangles, artistic squabbles and managerial double-crossings.

There are also a soulful score, slick choreography and the performances of Bryonha Marie Parham as Effie and Eric LaJuan Summers as James “Thunder” Early that make “Dreamgirls” anything but the usual summer musical fare.

Parham and Summers are hands down the standouts in the strong 22-member cast. In Effie, Parham has a vehicle to unleash her powerful voice, and what a set of pipes she has. Her “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” deservedly brought down the house. Summers likewise packs a wallop as the showboat Early, playing him with a blend of James Brown athleticism, Stevie Wonder crooning and Little Richard flamboyance. Not since J. Cameron Barnett tore up the stage last summer as Sebastian the crab in “The Little Mermaid” has the NSMT hosted such an electrifying performer.

Like most NSMT productions, “Dreamgirls” is a little long at two-and-a-half hours (which includes a 20-minute intermission), but in this age of shrinking values and increasing costs, that seems a pretty silly thing to complain about.

“Dreamgirls” plays through June 14. For tickets and more information, visit nsmt.org or call 978-232-7200.