October 27, 2016 was the best imaginable "hometown" premiere when our film's narrator, courageous activist, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker joined us in Pittsburgh for a dynamic, inspiring, provocative panel discussion following a film screening at Chatham University. The college is the alma mater of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, considered the mother of the contemporary environmental movement.
(Top photo from left: panelist Dr. Rachel Harding, Dr. Jessie Ramey-Chatham Women's Institute, the great Alice Walker, Chatham President Dr. David Finegold, panelist Donna Roberts, moderator Dr, Huberta Jackson-Lowman)
We were also very pleased to welcome author and scholar of indigenous spiritual traditions, Dr. Rachel Elizabeth Harding, daughter of the late, great Freedom Movement leaders Vincent Harding and Rosemarie Freeney Harding. (Rachel and I spoke on a panel with the film at Emory University, Atlanta, in fall of 2015.) Dr. Huberta Jackson-Lowman, psychology professor at Florida A & M moderated the panel. Both scholars are priestesses - Iyas - of traditional African Orisha religions. Rachel is a devotee of Brazilian Candomblé, an Iya of Oxúm, connected with the Bahian terreiro, or spiritual community, known as Cobre (also the spiritual home of Alice Braga, narrator of our film's Portuguese version). Oxúm is the female Orixá of the fresh waters. Huberta is an Iya dedicated to the Orisha known as Obatala, or Oxalá in Candomblé. (Orixá is the spelling in Brazilian Candomblé; Orisha is the spelling according to those practicing the similar Cuban derived spiritual tradition.)
Some 800 guests turned out for the screening held in the historic Campbell Memorial Chapel, with overflow in the nearby Eddy Theatre, where the panel discussion was live-streamed. After a lovely VIP Reception, everyone gathered for the film screening. An opening Libation led by local Priest of Yemonja Baba Frank Hightower transformed the auditorium to a sacred space and set the perfect tone for the film's story. (Nervous as I was seated in the front row with our special guests, just watching this film was calming, as it always is.)
As the credits rolled, the audience applauded enthusiastically as Alice, Rachel and I took the stage. (Alice didn't attend the Reception; the audience was thrilled to finally see her!) Most of the panel discussion is a blur! I just kept thinking that I needed to keep my comments brief - everyone wanted to hear from Alice. And they did! When she stood to respond to a first question, everyone burst into applause! What love! And she returned it! Much of the conversation revolved around women and caring for our Earth. Women of color, elder women, the need for women to embrace our unique selves and stand strong, regardless of size and weight, the importance of the voices of women of indigenous backgrounds worldwide, the absolute necessity to prioritize care for the Earth, the waters, the natural world.
The following day, Alice, Rachel and I participated in a workshop our local advisory circle had organized at a public high school for girls of two very different populations: an inner city public school and a private all-girls school, led by Prof. Gloria Rodriguez who joined us from CUNY. (photo below)
Gloria is also an Iya of Oshun, as is Iya Bea Mitchell, one of our believed local advisors. The significance of gathering three priestesses of the fresh water Orixá in Pittsburgh, the city of three rivers, was extremely special.
Following the morning with the young women, we crossed to the city's North Shore to visit City of Asylum, a project for exiled writers, artists and local community. Organization founder/director Henry and his partner Diane hosted our group for a delicious lunch in their private home, where we were joined by two artists in exile. Afterwards, the group was proud to show us around the artists' accommodations - several rowhouses painted/designed according to the artists' inclination. Alice clearly loved learning about City of Asylum. Afterwards, we headed over to the Carnegie Museum of Art where director Lynn Z. offered a tour of the exhibit of late Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica. (Our favorite part was a room with hammocks! Alice looked like she could have stayed there forever.)
Saturday was the icing on the cake! Iya Gloria and I had worked for months to plan a workshop for women called Living Waters modeled on an activity she led in Salvador, Bahia, and in honor of the feminine water deities, including Yemanjá, Oxúm, and Nanã. Sister-advisor Celeta Hickman created a beautiful facsimile shrine to Yemanja (or Yemaya) which adorned our gathering space at the Hill House Association in Pittsburgh's traditionally black Hill district. We were all invited to place a special object at the shrine. I brought a large framed photo of Mãe Filhinha, our film's eldest matriarch, along with photos of me and Jennifer Alisa Sanders (with whom I began this film's journey in 1997), another of me and associate director/editor Donna Read, who played a major role in bringing the film to fruition in 2015. Full circle! Gloria led us through a series of introspective, reflective exercises in the morning, accompanied by a Divine selection of music. Each woman had the chance to symbolically release what no longer served her, pouring cups of water into a communal vessel for later release to the waters of the Monongahela River.
After a typical Brazilian lunch of feijoada, several members of the ABAFASI women drumming group brought down the house as each woman in the workshop took a turn joyfully dancing in the circle. Some serious energy was raised!!!
To close the day, we traveled to Pittsburgh's South Side meeting on the banks of the Monongahela for a blessing of the waters, the waters of the world, Mother Earth, our own living waters, sharing gratitude, asking for guidance, offering white flowers to the waters of Oxúm, of Yemanjá…Orisha leaders from near and far - men, as well as women - participated, along with water protectors, servers from Pittsburgh region. Diversity and unity in community!
Axé! Ashé! Ase!
Photos - Top to bottom: young women in workshop at Milliones High School; Abafasi drummers at women's Living Waters workshop; Celeta Hickman dancer par excellence; Iya Rachel Harding shows her moves; Sister-Iyas Valerie Lawrence and Huberta Jackson-Lowman approach the drums; Iya Gloria Rodriguez is pure grace; Celeta gets Alice moving; honoring Yemanja; Blessing of the Waters; Alice and Donna; the waters that sustain us.)