By Camisha Jones
The revived Hippodrome has become home to a weekly event brimming with art in homage to the early 1900s and dynamic performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway who once graced its stage.
For the last two weeks, Mansion Five26, the restaurant connected to the Hippodrome, has been spreading the word on its Facebook page about Live Arts, the newest happy hour series held in their Speakeasy lounge. On Friday evenings from 6 p.m. until 11 p.m., the venue is filled with the music, singing, poetry, and paintings of local artists. Woven throughout the art is a celebration of the greats who once performed at the Hippodrome and the era in which they lived. The event includes art painted on site, a live band playing jazz from the 20s, 30s and 40s, vocalists singing classic songs of today and days gone by, Slam Richmond poets and cocktail waitresses fashionably dressed in outfits from Halcyon Vintage clothing store. Though it is not required, guests are also welcomed to attend dressed in styles from the early 1900s.
“I’m drawn to the Hippodrome…because it has a lot of historical value,” says India Parsons, the visionary behind the event and founder of BEST (Building Economic Stability Together). “There’s just certain things that never change. We can all learn a lot from those entertainers…”
Since January 2012, Parson has been working with small businesses and the artist community in Richmond to implement BEST’s mission which is to give people the power to end poverty first for themselves and then for others. By providing affordable promotional events and marketing for community minded businesses, Parson aims to help organizations raise their revenues so that they might have a greater capacity to employ people and to give back to the community. For instance, Live Arts is a partnership with Halcyon Vintage and it is hoped that the event will attract new customers for the store.
Parson also uses the promotional events she organizes as a platform for artists who connect with her through her ROAR (Rise Overcome Accomplish And Reach-back) program. Live Arts will provide exposure for poets from Slam Richmond, a local open mic venue that will send a youth slam team to Brave New Voices in California and an adult slam team to the National Poetry Slam in North Carolina later this summer. Live Arts will also help the teams raise money for their travels to the competitions through the sale of CDs.
American Idol Contestant Willie Ayee to be a regular at Live Arts
Another artist who will be performing periodically at the Live Arts happy hour is Willie Ayee (www.reverbnation.com/willieayee). A recent American Idol contestant, Ayee, now 24 years old, has been singing since age 13 when he began impersonating singers on the radio during car trips. He says he committed to singing as a profession after competing in a local “Richmond Idol” contest in Short Pump and was asked for his autograph for the first time by a little girl. Last year, the 24 year old traveled to the American Idol auditions in Charleston, South Carolina as morale support for a friend who wanted to try out for the show. While his friend was not selected, Ayee was asked to return in December to audition in Hollywood. Among 112,000 vying to be on the show, Ayee was 180th. “I didn’t quite get as far as I wanted to but I think just having…made it as far as I did…gave me a new confidence for what I’m doing.” Ayee, whose singing ability spans various music genres, finds similarities between himself and Jamie Foxx. “(He) like myself started out doing impressions — sounding like this person, sounding like that person — and then to hear some of his original music, you can’t really classify it because he can do so many things.”
“I am a huge supporter and advocate for the arts,” declares Parson. “I feel like it has the ability to inspire…us all (to) see what our God given talents are when it comes to empowering and employing ourselves.” Parson encourages the artists she works with to see past their life circumstances and to tap into the power of deciding to live within their own power. “You’re not defined by where you come from and you’re not defined by accomplishments. You’re defined by the impact that you have on other people,” states Parson.
Ultimately, Parson sees her work as a way to address poverty and has set for BEST the ambitious goal of helping 10,000 people access employment through its work by the end of the year. She believes that collaboration is a key component to job creation and has, thus far, partnered with businesses such as Suited for Success, Soul Ice, Croaker’s Spot, and Aqua Lounge.
Parson speaks often about the need to eradicate poverty. Having grown up on a farm in Buckingham, Virginia, lived on her own since age 16, and held two jobs while pursuing her high school diploma and a beautician’s license, she knows well the struggles of insufficiency. However, she believes poverty is more than just whether you have a job or not. Parson’s deepest desire is to help people overcome the mindset of poverty. “I believe that the only way to true prosperity is when we see beyond ourselves and see the impact that we have on others — whether we do something or we don’t… Remaining stagnant means that our kids remain stagnant, means that our community remains stagnant.”
Parson’s passionate drive for empowering people and communities is in itself a fitting way of honoring the legacy represented by the Hippodrome.
For more information about BEST, visit www.joinbestnow.com.