While visiting the now closed side entrance of the historic Palace Theatre in downtown Gallatin that was once the only way black moviegoers were allowed into the building, James Story was reminded of his own childhood growing up in East Tennessee during segregation.
“It was like a chilling effect to just look down that long staircase and knowing that’s how it used to be,” said Story who is now 64. “I experienced segregation up through the fifth grade. I remember being the one that had to sit in the back of the bus when traveling.”
This Saturday, Story will bring his collaborative arts experience stage production “New World Spirituals 1619–2019: A Black History Celebration” to the Palace Theatre.
The retired music educator, who taught at public schools in Gallatin and White House as well as at Volunteer State Community College during his 42-year career, began working on the show last year after learning that 2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the first slaves arriving by boat in America.
“The goal is to preserve these songs and not let them die out while at the same time teaching a new generation about the history of the music of our people,” Story said. “It’s very important that we know where we come from in order to not let the negativity of racism take us back there.”
The multimedia production features visual art, poetry, African drumming, contemporary African dance and slave narratives set to African American spirituals Story recorded in 2003. The show lasts approximately one hour and 20 minutes and features a cast and crew of approximately 20 people.
The timing of the performance in conjunction with Black History Month is “perfect,” said Donna Belote, executive director of Historic Downtown Gallatin (formerly Greater Gallatin), which owns and operates the 107-year-old theatre.
Since reopening in 2000, local residents will still visit the Palace and share personal memories of its segregated past.
“There was one member of the community who came in and just stood in the lobby looking around,” Belote recalled. “You could tell it was a place in his history that he revisited walking through that door. He told me that he had been coming here all of his life and had never been allowed in the lobby. It was very solemn.”
As for the show this weekend, Story said he believes it appeals to anyone who enjoys history, music, art or dance regardless of race.
“It’s about the collective arts all joined together to portray something of hope, a performance of history and a performance of even joy,” Story said. “A lot of young people really have no concept of history and my hope is that some of the younger generation will actually see this and understand from whence their ancestors came from.”
IF YOU GO
What: New World Spirituals 1619–2019: A Black History Celebration
When: Saturday, Feb. 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Palace Theatre, 146 N. Water Ave. in Gallatin
Cost: Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at www.etix.com or call 615-452-5692 for more information.