This is Black History Month, which means local writer and performer Kim Russell has been in high demand. Each February, Russell performs her one-woman show, Sojourner Truth: A Woman of Three Wars, in high school classrooms and libraries. When we were finally able to pin her down to talk, she still had her hair braided from that day’s performance.
After 14 years of bringing one of black history’s greatest figures to life, Russell continues to be fascinated by the story of a slave turned civil rights activist. Her interest was originally sparked by Truth’s inspirational “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, and she still enjoys delivering it to schoolchildren.
Russell is also busy for another reason: Her day job is education program coordinator at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Upon completion in 2012, the $470 million complex will be home to three theaters, plus the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet Theatre. Meantime, Russell helps the center continue its educational component, including organizing the Southern Nevada Wolf Trap Early Learning Through the Arts program. Whether it’s performing or teaching, Russell is determined to keep young people engaged in Las Vegas’ arts scene.
What is it about the “Ain’t I a Woman?” monologue that speaks to you?
Here is a woman who grew up with only her internal spirit to guide her because she was not educated originally. She had such a driving force that she went on to move from slavery—both the physical bondage of being enslaved and the mental bondage of being sexually abused—to fight in the court systems against indignities against women and slaves. That’s a very different course from other people. I admire her indomitable spirit.
Who is your favorite figure in black history?
There are some modern heroes out there. A group of them are the ladies who do the quilts of Gee’s Bend [Ala.]. These are handmade quilts that carry on the tradition of telling stories. These are African-American women in a small country town. There is this myth out there that these quilts are also a sign of escaping slaves. When they were escaping they were looking for signs in the hanging quilts or lack of hanging quilts. I would say the women of Gee’s Bend, whose quilts are on display across America now, are to be admired because they kept a family tradition alive.
How do you think the arts can be better used in education?
I think we have to understand that all of us learn differently. Some of us are visual learners, some of us learn through hearing and some of us learn from doing. The arts can look at a very solid subject and try to find creative ways to examine it.
What’s one thing about the Smith Center that people don’t know but should?
That upon its completion, in 2012, it will have been doing five years of education before it was even open.
What do you think is special about Las Vegas?
There is an artist community brewing; it’s cultivating. There are committed individuals, and you just have to pray that their dreams come true.
When are you most happy?
When I’m sitting with my husband watching the rain. If I can just sit and read and look out on a cloudy day and look at my husband, I’m good.
What’s your motto?
Life is too short not to enjoy everything you can.