Take in an Afrofuturist sermon at ‘Stellar Masses’ – May 16, 2018

Musician Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa)

Musician Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) "delivers The Word" on the first night of "Stellar Masses," a series of events dedicated to the spoken word. The first night, themed "Firmament," was at the Free Library's Skyline Terrace. (Courtesy of Rashid Zakat)

Story Highlights

  • Stellar Masses III: Earth at the Fels Planetarium
  • Wednesday, May 16, 2018. 6 – 8:30 p.m.
  • Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St., Philadelphia 19103
  • Tickets are $10

Last Thursday, I walked into the Iron Gate Theater in West Philly feeling exhausted and distinctly earthbound. When I left two hours later, after a visit to the “church of the spoken word,” I was refreshed and humbled, newly aware of the sky.

I’d caught the second installment of “Stellar Masses,” a three-night performance series  dedicated to “the sacred roots and interstellar potential of spoken word practices.” Each night features a different lineup of poets, musicians, films, and performances, all curated around the idea that the human voice is both ancient and prophetic, grounding and otherworldly.

Organizer Yolanda Wisher, who was Philadelphia’s 2016-2017 poet laureate, says the show aims to capture some of the feeling of the black Baptist church, with poets as preachers and literary presentations as sermons. The effect is stylish and moving. Attendees were given hand fans and little scrolls printed with that night’s astrological chart and the performance lineup — a new-age take on the hymnal. The four-part Stellar Masses Choir kicked off the evening by processing from the audience to the stage in nearly total darkness, accompanied by a trumpeter in the mezzanine. When musicians Bethlehem and Sad Patrick performed their song “Rise” — “Oh my city, it’s your time to rise” — I’d wager everyone in the audience felt a shiver along their spines.

Each night’s location is carefully tailored to the theme. The first performance, “Firmament,” took place at the Free Library’s Skyline Terrace. The Iron Gate Theater, a repurposed church, made an ideal venue for the second night, themed “Heaven.” Glints of stained glass peeked through high above the performers; the spotlights put me in mind of celestial bodies. In her reading, poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs grounded the audience in our own bodies, inviting us to breathe with her.

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“Breathe like you know what you believe in,” she preached. It felt a fitting sermon for those of us who may not be religious, exactly, but could use a little connection to the cosmos right now.The last night of “Stellar Masses,” themed “Earth,” is Wednesday. It takes place, fittingly enough, at the Fels Planetarium. Performances will include readings by poet Ursula Rucker and poet-preacher Marvin K. White, music by King Britt, short films by Renee Cox and Will Haughery and Kris Harzinski, and a star show by Madison McFerrin.

This article is part of a new effort recommending things to do in the Philly region.  Tell us what you think.

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