Dance Performance Reveals the Untold Stories of S.F.’s Early African-American Leaders


Media Contact:
Kate Patterson, San Francisco Arts Commission
Tel: 415/252-4638 E:



Zaccho Dance Theatre to Perform on Market between Powell and First streets October 7-10, 2010 from 1-5 p.m. Zaccho_Photo_website

SAN FRANCISCO, August 9, 2010 – Director of Cultural Affairs for the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) Luis R. Cancel is pleased to announce the world premiere of Sailing Away, a site-specific dance performance on Market Street exploring the history of African Americans’ early contributions to the development of San Francisco. The performance is being presented as part of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Art on Market Street Temporary Projects Program, which commissions interdisciplinary projects from Bay Area artist annually.  Created by Joanna Haigood, the artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theatre, Sailing Away tells the story of eight prominent African Americans who lived and worked near Market Street during the mid-nineteenth century and of the events leading up to the mass exodus of African Americans from San Francisco in 1858. From October 7-10 between 1:00 and 5:00 p.m. each day, Market Street will provide the backdrop as performers enact historical narratives through a series of gestures and activities incorporating sites and monuments located between Powell and First streets. Through character interactions, audience members will get a feel for 19th-century commercial life on the city’s most important thoroughfare, which was once home to myriad African American-owned enterprises.

“The history of African Americans in San Francisco and their important role in shaping the city is absolutely fascinating, but, tragically, largely unknown,” said Mr. Cancel. “Zaccho Dance Theatre brings this history to life in a way that is visually engaging. We are proud to be able to offer the thousands of people who frequent Market Street with an opportunity to take a break from the hustle and bustle and experience something amazing while soaking up a little history.”

The performances will take place in one continuous loop of 30-minute cycles. Some of the figures explored in the work include: Mary Ellen Pleasant (AKA “Mammy” Pleasant), an entrepreneur who used her fortune to further the abolitionist movement; Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, a devoted abolitionist, participant in the Underground Railroad and friend of Frederick Douglass, who made a fortune in the clothing and dry goods trade, real estate speculation, and transportation industries; Archy Lee, a slave who was the focus of several court cases involving slavery laws and a civil rights movement in 1858 and James Monroe Whitfield, a barber by trade, a major propagandist for black separatism and racial justice, and a poet of impassioned protest verse. During the performance, newspapers containing historical information that is referenced in the work (maps, biographies and significant events) will be distributed to the public by certain characters. Sailing Away also includes a contemporary character referencing African Americans living in San Francisco today and the current trend in relocation to East Bay communities.

“African Americans and their histories are disappearing from San Francisco,” said Ms. Haigood. “The average San Franciscan would not recognize the names of Mifflin Gibbs or James Whitfield and yet they were national figures, working on behalf of all African Americans. This piece hopes to illuminate obscured histories and initiate meaningful dialogue around their subsequent legacies.”

At the top of each half hour all the characters will appear at the North East corner of Market and Battery streets near Shoreline Plaque, the brass plaque that marks the early San Francisco shoreline. The performers will create a short series of gestures that are meant to acknowledge the exodus of half of the African American population in 1858 due to racial discrimination. According to Ms. Haigood, “While creating this work, it was important for me to include a moment to reflect on the invisibility and loss of African American history and to comment on the current out-migration of African Americans.” Other important city monuments in the piece include: Andrew S. Hallidie Monument and Plaza, Mechanics Monument and Admission Day Monument.

San Francisco Arts Commission

401 Van Ness, Ste. 325
San Francisco, CA 94102

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