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Ambitious "Birth of an Answer" Event Debuts Sept. 18

"Birth of An Answer," a landmark evening of film, music and expert panel discussion supported by Old Dominion University's first grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, debuts Sept. 18 at the Attucks Theatre in downtown Norfolk.

Avi Santo, director of ODU's Institute for the Humanities, said the 7:30 p.m. "Birth of an Answer" event "celebrates 100 years of African American creative responses to stereotypical misrepresentations in films like 'Birth of a Nation,' as well as Hampton Roads' historic resistance to that film."

"Birth of a Nation" is the controversial 1915 film that was considered landmark for its advanced filmmaking techniques but also shocking in its depictions of African Americans.

To mark that film's centennial, Santo conceived this wide-ranging multimedia project and enlisted major contributions from Hollywood to New York to ODU's campus.

David Mallin, head of Old Dominion film department, wrote a short film "Our Nation," which was directed by alumnus and feature-film director Derrick Borte. The movie was co-produced by Monty Ross, Spike Lee's longtime producer, and features Broadway and television actors.

Santo commissioned acclaimed composer and Eminent Scholar Adolphus Hailstork, of ODU's music faculty, to produce an original musical score to accompany a screening of the silent classic "Within Our Gates," African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux's 1920 answer to "Birth of a Nation."

And Santo gathered a multigenerational film-industry panel featuring actors Tim Reid, Melvin Van Peebles, Zeinabu Davis and Michael Swanson for an open discussion with the audience on the legacy of "Birth of a Nation" and the challenge of telling African American stories.

The NEA was impressed enough with Santo's ambitious plan to award a $20,000 grant to help produce the event that also features musical contributions from the Harlem Quartet and the I. Sherman Greene Chorale, with guest conductor Michael Morgan of the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

"Birth of an Answer" is presented as part of the Old Dominion University President's Lecture Series and the F. Ludwig Diehn Concert Series.

Encore screenings of "Within Our Gates" and "Our Nation" will be held Monday, Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. at ODU's Chandler Recital Hall in the Diehn Center for the Performing Arts. The panel discussion that evening will feature the composer Hailstork and the "Our Nation" director Borte.

"The prestige the NEA carries is really paramount here," Santo said. "The award recognizes Old Dominion University, the Humanities Institute and 'Birth of an Answer' in ways they haven't been recognized before."

Santo said a goal of "Birth of an Answer" is to engage the local, under-40 community "on local history and historical forms of African American creative resistance to misrepresentation and stereotyping."

Additionally, Santo said he hopes "Birth of an Answer" will lead to deeper discussion of these issues in light of recent racially charged events around the country.

"While "Birth of an Answer" was not developed to directly engage with these current happenings, it has become all the more prescient an event that potentially creates a space for conversations both about media stereotyping's implications then and now, but also how African American artists, filmmakers, musicians and activists have used media then and now to challenge misrepresentation," Santo said.

"It's certainly my hope that the event will engender that kind of conversation and can create opportunities for new collaborations that seek to use the arts and popular culture to promote much-needed dialog."

Tickets for "Birth of an Answer" are $15 for the public and $10 for students. For more information on the event, please visit the "Birth of an Answer" website.

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