Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Festival With A Focus - 10th Annual I'll Make Me a World In Iowa

By Dana Boone

The state's largest African-American festival will celebrate its 10th anniversary this month, with an expected crowd of nearly 20,000 people.

The two-day I`ll Make Me a World in Iowa festival will be held on Jan. 25-26 at the Polk County Convention Complex in Des Moines.

This year's headliners for Celebration Day on Jan. 26 include actor Morris Chestnut, best known for his movie roles in "The Best Man," "Boyz n the Hood" and "Perfect Holiday," and the gospel group Trin-i-tee 5:7.

"When we say Morris Chestnut, that's a first-name recognition," said Betty Andrews, the festival's executive director and president and CEO of Betty Andrews Media. "His name needs no introduction. We know who he is. We're definitely excited."

Securing high-profile celebrities is a unique part of the festival, Andrews said. It's an affirmation for blacks, who make up just 2.5 percent of the state's population with 73,086 people, that the state can draw such well-known entertainers, she said.

"African-Americans in Iowa sometimes feel like we're not part of the national community, but having these celebrities be accessible to our community just lets us know it could happen here like it happens in Atlanta or California or New York," Andrews said. "We do things and we do them well and we can be proud that we have made our world in Iowa."

The festival began following a 1999 PBS miniseries "I'll Make Me a World." Iowa's festival is designed to highlight black history, culture and the contributions blacks have made to Iowa.

Pam Williams is instructor of the Isiserettes Drill & Drum Corps, which will perform at the festival on Jan. 26. She said some of her female instructors know that Chesnut is coming and they're looking forward to seeing him.

"I know the younger women are excited he's coming," Williams said.

Last Sunday, Williams said she saw Trin-i-tee 5:7 perform on BET, a cable network that reaches an estimated 87 million households.

"They're geared toward young people with a gospel message," she said.

Part of the festival's allure is people-watching, "soul food" sampling and live performances in Iowa's big-scale celebration of black culture. Vendors will sell art and other items. Puppet shows, rides and other attractions will keep children engaged, Andrews said. A health fair called "Fat to PHAT" will include free health assessments and will promote heart-health awareness. A new Iowa Events and Info Line will debut next week, Andrews said. The telephone line will contain updates on the festival, a community calendar, community information, health tips and short stories about influential figures in black history, such as inventor George Washington Carver. The phone number has not yet been released.

"Even though it's in the winter, we try to make sure that people get that it's a festival," Andrews said.

But, it's a festival with a focus, she added.

"We wanted to make sure that people understand that we have played an invaluable role in the history of America," Andrews said. "We use ingenuity. We're overcomers. We have that 'soul food' mentality. We were able to take nothing and make it into something . . . we took scraps and made it into delicacies."

The first day of the festival is Education Day, which emphasizes black history to more than 1,200 middle and high school students from across the state, Andrews said. Students form teams and study for a month for the Black History Game Show, which is the highlight of Education Day. Educational workshops are also held during the event.

"A lot has been said about the lack of African-American history being taught in schools," said Andrews. "We wanted to make sure we sent the message that we have this great celebration, but African-Americans are not only about singing and dancing. That's a big part of our culture and we're proud of it and everything, but we're also about the great inventors we have in our community. We're about achievers and pacesetters."

Iowa performers continue to dominate the festival. This year's performers include Waterloo singer Effie Burt, the Gateway Dance Theatre and the Isiserettes, among dozens of others.

Williams said the members of the drill team get "treated like celebrities" at the festival. A video of the group's 2007 performances will also be shown, she said.

"I think it's a great event," she said. "We look forward to it."

Williams said a fight that broke out among teens during a previous festival emphasizes the need for parents to accompany their children to the event.

"Kids under a certain age need to be accompanied by an adult and not just dropped off to be there all day," Williams said. "People need to bring their kids and share what's there."

In 1999, organizers planned for 300 people, but 1,000 showed up. About 10,000 people attended the event in 2006 and attendance grew to about 15,000 in 2007, Andrews said. Past headliners have included Victoria Rowell, Blair Underwood, Hill Harper, Lynn Whitfield, GregAlan Williams, Bev Smith and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, among others.

Hundreds of volunteers helped organize the festival, which Andrews said she hopes will excite this year's festival-goers.

"It's going to be a grand experience," Andrews said.


"I'll Make Me a World in Iowa" schedule

Jan. 25

- Education Day features the Black History Game Show competition from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Polk County Convention Complex, 501 Grand Ave. More than 1,200 students from across the state participated in 2006.

- The Grand Gala: Embracing Excellence will be held from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at HyVee Hall, Iowa Events Center, 730 Third St. Tickets for the formal event are $50 per person.

- Honorees include the Iowa/Nebraska NAACP, Stacey Walker and the late Jimmie Porter.

"We didn't want to let his passing and accomplishments go by unnoticed," Andrews said of Porter.

Jan. 26:

- The Celebration Day festival, featuring headliners Morris Chesnut and Trin-i-tee 5:7, runs from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Polk County Convention Complex.

For more information call (515) 288-7171. Photo is of Betty Andrews.

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