Monday, November 5, 2007
Black Extravaganza Intro
Cultural Exhibit Revisits Roots
by John T. Stephens III
In May 15, 1905 an estimated 110 acres was purchased and more was auctioned off to found a city. A city that would experience unprecedented growth and become a landmark destination for adult play underneath record breaking high temperatures and an occasional mild tremor to help shake the dice in a would be gambler’s hand.
Las Vegas, which is Spanish for “The Meadows”, was first used by a territorial scout Rafael Rivera to describe the wild grasses and many water formations that reduced his journey through the West by days. His amazement of the desert foliage back then would surely be eclipsed today by the proliferation of hotels and casinos throughout southern Nevada.
In March of 1931 the Nevada Legislature mandated it was legal to gamble in the 36th state admitted into the union. The news of legalized gambling in Nevada had spread like wildfire and you had the likes of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel coming to Las Vegas in 1941 to set up shop for the Chicago Outfit. Siegel had become a minority owner of the El Cortez Hotel and later had purchased the Flamingo Las Vegas on the strip. By 1945 and the end of World War II, eye appealing hotels and casinos are opened which offered top named entertainment by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horn and Josephine Baker just to name a few.
Despite the glamour and glam that is Las Vegas, in its earlier years, that reputed electricity and excitement was not enjoyed by all who lived and worked in the entertainment capital of the world. For people of color (African-Americans), hotels and casinos on the strip were barred and for Black artists in the 50's performing in the showrooms would have to use the kitchen to enter the stage and could not stay in the hotels.
This segregation and isolation of the Black performers along with the no colored allowed policy on the strip, earned the town that never sleeps the Black popular moniker, “The Mississippi of the West.”
This division between the can and cannot heated racial tensions on the strip between Blacks and Whites. Compounding the problem further was the civil rights movement being led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and other freedom fighter groups.
On March 26, 1960, through the efforts of the NAACP, Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer, City of Las Vegas Mayor Oran Gragson and other civic minded individuals, segregation died on the strip. But, only after the threat of a march on the strip to protest and bring national attention to the unfair treatment and non-hiring of blacks in the lavish hotels and plush casinos.
This new beginning for blacks in Las Vegas was something, a victory of sorts, but none the less a great accomplishment. A footnote in history that asked Black Las Vegans, “who were they?” and “Where were they going as a people?”
The landscape of the Las Vegas valley was rich in history, prosperity and culture for other races and ethnic groups. But, what about Blacks? Though they populated the area in great numbers and had too, come from other regions and corners of the U.S. to start a new life and pursue happiness, they were still found wanting culturally.
They adjusted to the complacency of existence. From that self-actualization, self-awareness and hard cold reality lived a black hole of emptiness that begged and demanded to be full.
In 1968, Black Extravaganza was born to feed a gnawing hunger for a local Black statement that spoke to the youth while paying homage and respect to the elders who wanted to live and witness a new Las Vegas that was for everybody. That voice was music, singing, dancing, comedy, poetry and fashion that encapsulated the black experience in the newly segregated Las Vegas.
John T Stephens II and his partner Rev. Willie Jacobs Jr. accepted the call for a Harlem like renaissance in the desert, a period they would call a Black Cultural Awakening.
“It was a lacking and restless period,” said John T. Stephens II author and owner of the Black Extravaganza Exhibit. “We were the first non-profit African-American corporation charted in the state of Nevada.”
Black Extravaganza. A Cultural Awakening!, is a presentation of an assortment of pictorial collages in color and black and white commemorating the contributions of local Black artist, dancers, fashion and musical talents.
The production was first introduced on the back drop of the world famous Las Vegas strip in 1968 and having a successful and growing following of entertainment talent until 1976. Black Extravaganza’s showcase performances were a smash at Doolittle Center, UNLV, Dusty’s Playland, Nellis Air force Base and the Las Vegas Convention Center Rotunda.
This memorabilia collection of the Black Extravaganza Productions brings reminiscent flashbacks of an era in Las Vegas when Blacks were seeking recognition in this entertainment capitol of the world. The 1973 “What Color is Love” show at UNLV was the duo’s most renowned and memorable show that was also complimented by Mr. Stephens’ own personal poetic works and scribe which brought identity, recognition and definition to this period of Black Cultural Awakening.
Black Extravaganza. A Cultural Awakening!, will be showing at the West Las Vegas Arts Center located at 947 West Lake Mead Blvd. January 12, 2008 to March 2, 2008. On Saturday, January 19 at 2pm, author and poet John T Stephens II will express his views concerning the production and this exciting and hardly known era of Las Vegas history, until now, in a lecture.
For more information call 702-229-4800.