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Phylicia Rashad opens up about Open Fields

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Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad — the legendary entertainment sister act — have enjoyed long and successful arts-centered careers. While both became famous for acting on television (on Fame and The Cosby Show, among other programs), Allen also distinguished herself as a dancer/choreographer and Rashad gained acclaim by playing theatrical roles on stages across the nation as well.

This weekend (May 22-23), the talented pair will endeavor to pass on some of their artistic skill and experience when they host Workshops in Open Fields at the Brainerd Estate in Chester, S.C. Presented by the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in association with Vivian Ayers (Allen and Rashad's mother) and the Brainerd Heritage Project, Open Fields offers two days of classes -- which are free and open to men and women of all ages and skill levels -- focused on dance and other creative disciplines. The program is facilitated by Rashad, Ayers and Allen and taught by a handpicked group of instructors.

Creative Loafing recently talked with Rashad (who also co-stars in the film Just Wright, which is currently in theaters) about her family's involvement in the Open Fields project.

Creative Loafing: What was the impetus for starting Open Fields?

Phylicia Rashad: Open Fields is a concept for artistic development instruction that was developed in Houston, Texas, in the 1970s by my mother, Vivian Ayers, and a group of artists working in Houston at the time. My mother was part of the Houston Harris County Community Action Program, which was a government-funded program for arts and culture in the community of Houston. She had been driving around Houston, and at the time, there were many open fields and open lots with tall grass growing in them, and children would be running free but without any program, just running. And being a mother who had developed children in the arts and seeing what she was seeing, she thought about collecting a group of artists that she knew -- and at that time, it was visual artists like painters and sculptors -- and collectively they sat and talked about "openness" and what that meant. The vision was that the artists would be working in an open field and young people would move about, depending on their interest, and watch. Well, it attracted such attention that Nancy Hanks, who was a director in Houston at the time, had secured funding for it and marked it as a model program for arts programming in the entire nation. So it was very successful in Houston at the time ... This is our third Open Fields dance festival [in Chester] with Debbie Allen and instructors and dancers from the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. In our first one, the students ranged in ages from 3 to 73. It was amazing to see.

Why was the program moved from Houston to South Chester?

Chester is my mother's birthplace. And I don't know what you know about the history of Brainerd Institute, but Brainerd was one of the schools founded ... in the 1800s for the descendants of freed Africans in this country. And it served families in Chester, Lancaster and York counties, and a number of families in this region have historical ties to that institution; my mother is one of them. Her parents are both graduates of Brainerd, [which] closed on my mother's graduation day. It started out as a one-room schoolhouse ... and by the time it closed, Brainerd sat on 14 acres of land with 12 all-brick buildings, electricity and steam heat, instruction in Latin and literature, all branches of math, a chemistry lab, a tennis court, dormitory facilities for girls and boys, and it was part of Carmel Presbyterian Church. So it has been designated as a historic landmark. And of all the buildings that were there, there's one building that remains -- and that is Kumeler Hall, which was the boys' residence. And we have been working to restore that building for archival purposes and office purposes -- and to continue to build on that estate for cultural and educational programming.

As far as the instruction goes, are the attendees people who have backgrounds in the arts or people who just kind of want to do it?

Both.

How are the classes structured?

Well, it's Open Fields, so this is about "openness." This year, we will be dedicating the Deborah Allen Performing Arts Pavilion; this is donated by Deborah and built on the site. Normally we have three to four smaller stages, but this year, we will have two very large ones and Deborah will schedule the classes accordingly. So when people come to register, they will be given the schedule of classes. The first year, there was African dancing, and it was beautiful to see. At the last Open Fields, we had over 200 participants. It is something that doesn't happen anywhere else.

For more info, call 310-280-9145 or visit www.debbieallendanceacademy.com.

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