Participants at the 2022 MANiFest STEM Crawl Credit: Mohammad Sadat- Mizghund Productions

It was a conversation with a friend about what freedom truly meant for former slaves that inspired Qisoundra Flowers to co-write, produce, and direct a play this year. The production is intended to educate members of Flowers’s Fuquay-Varina community about the significance of Juneteenth. 

“I was immediately inspired and decided to embark on a journey to share the story of my ancestors,” Flowers writes in the playbill for Freedom to What?, an original production that a community group is hosting to commemorate the federal holiday. “The purpose of the stories is not to divide us but to bring us together to acknowledge the hard truths and work together to build a better tomorrow.”

In 2021, under the guidance of Qisoundra and her partner Alexander Flowers’s company, BrainSTEMology LLC (BSo), several Fuquay-Varina groups and organizations first came together to highlight and recognize African American cultural contributions through a two-day community event. Thus, the M.A.N.ifest community event (Music, Art, and Networking) was born. M.A.N.ifest seeks to educate people and audiences on the local history and African American culture through various forms of artistic expression. 

This year’s event kicks off today with a BSo STEM networking event. It aims to connect middle and high school students with local STEM leaders, but there’s a twist—BSo intertwines hip-hop and STEM  to teach the students the importance of education and the field. 

This year, the main event is the Juneteenth performance Freedom To What? Written by Qisoundra Flowers, Jennifer Holt, and Shaun Harris, the play centers on the Jenkins family who will take audiences on a journey to the past, discussing the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation on freeing slaves. It will also highlight how, even after the proclamation, there were still slaves in Galveston, Texas, who were not freed until two and half years after the fact, on June 19, 1865 (or Juneteenth). 

Flowers, who is also chair of the M.A.N.ifest planning committee, says that even as some slaves were freed and Juneteenth was celebrated, it could more accurately be described as “freeish.” Former slaves didn’t have anywhere to go, they didn’t have money, and many of them could not read—hence the title of the play, Freedom To What?

“The idea behind this production is really to say there are things in our history books that don’t mention the true story of Juneteenth and the things that African Americans went through,” Flowers says. “Although it is about slavery and Juneteenth, it is something that we try to bring people together. That was the whole idea of M.A.N.ifest, an initiative of togetherness. Each year our audience has been a diverse crowd. And we want to continue to have that.”

Flowers describes the Jenkins family as a traditional African American middle-class family spanning three generations.

There’s a granddaughter who is less interested in the history of the family and more interested in Tik-Tok; the grandmother who grew up in the church, and the dad who balances them out with a mix of humor and seriousness. Flowers says there are real stories intertwined with the fiction of this performance, such as the inclusion of Dr. Opal Lee’s character. 

Opal Lee is widely regarded as the grandmother of Juneteenth. She fought for decades for Juneteenth to be recognized as a national holiday, leading two-and-a-half-mile walks all around Texas every year to emphasize the two and a half years that slaves were not free in those states. Her fierce activism is what led the federal government to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday in 2021 under President Joe Biden. 

Flowers says she’s excited for the monologues, and praises her co-writer, Holt, for making the characters come alive and envisioning how the ancestors would have felt in those long-ago moments. 

Shonta Blue, who plays Sarah, a young pregnant slave, is a Fuquay-Varina native. She says the way the play touches home, but is also educational for audiences, is what mainly inspired her to want to be a part of it. 

“A lot of us don’t know a lot of our history, and not just African American, but across the board,” she says. “All of our history is all of our history. So I feel like it crosses color, it crosses race, it crosses cultures. It’s informational. And I’m excited to get the information out, to be a part of such an amazing work in our community.” 

Blue performed in theater back in elementary and middle school but says she auditioned on more of a whim. She says she is most excited for the spoken word parts of the play, and the passion and charge to these pieces. The support for Black students getting into STEM doesn’t hurt either. 

“It’s well needed and the support of it is well needed because our children are already advancing in STEM and research,” Blue says. “Support from their own community and from people that look just like them is going to be very important … towards their goals and dreams in that career in that field.”

Celeste Hinnant, who plays the role of Dr. Opal Lee, has performed numerous monologues before (including slave narratives). Most recently, Hinnant portrayed Phillis Wheatley, Madam C.J. Walker, and Georgia Gilmore in a Black History production.  

Hinnant was inspired to join the production as a way to honor the woman who had a crucial role in shaping America’s history. Hinnant says Lee’s story is one that must be shared.

“During the audition, I felt honored and proud as I delivered the words the playwrights had written for the character I read for,” Hinnant wrote in an email to the INDY. “I instantly knew I wanted to be part of the cast. I can’t wait for the final presentation.”

When asked what she hopes viewers gain from the play, Hinnant wrote, “The importance of the contributions that African Americans have made and continue to make throughout history. And the impact local theater has in the community.” 

Freedom To What?, she emphasizes, including the music, is an original piece of work, a production that’s completely new and unique for local audiences. 

M.A.N.ifest kicks off on June 16 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Fuquay-Varina Arts Center for the BrainSTEMology event. The Juneteenth celebration and production takes place on June 19 at 6 p.m. at the Fuquay-Varina Arts Center. For registration and ticket information, check out the BrainSTEMology website. 

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