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Shinnerrie Jackson: 'Ain't I a Woman?'

Every actor who steps on stage wants to do justice to the characters she portrays. But that's particularly true for Shinnerrie Jackson, the actor who portrays four remarkable African-American women in the musical theater production "Ain't I a Wom...

'Ain't I a Woman?'
(Clockwise from top left) Zora Neale Hurston, Sojourner Truth, Clementine Hunter and Fannie Lou Hamer's lives will be celebrated in a musical theater piece called "Ain't I a Woman?"
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Every actor who steps on stage wants to do justice to the characters she portrays. But that's particularly true for Shinnerrie Jackson, the actor who portrays four remarkable African-American women in the musical theater production "Ain't I a Woman?"

"Ain't I a Woman," with Jackson and a musical trio called the Core Ensemble, will come to Grand Forks on Monday with a free performance at 7:30 p.m. in the UND Hughes Fine Arts Center. The production is open to the public.

"Most of the time, people don't know them," Jackson said of the four women in "Ain't I a Woman?" -- especially folk artist Clementine Hunter.

"Outside of Louisiana, not many people know who she is," Jackson said. "So, to give her life so people can understand her, to see who she was and what she did -- yes, I feel a responsibility to get my audience to think about her life."

The show's title is based on the famous speech made by ex-slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth given at the 1851 Ohio Women's Rights Convention. She was responding to a man who made what he thought was a chivalrous speech about how women needed to be helped into carriages and the like. Truth, who was illiterate but a powerful speaker, quickly put him in his place.

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"Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me the best place," she said, "and ain't I a woman?"

Truth (1797-1883) is probably the best known of the women whose stories are told in this show. The others are Zora Neal Hurston, anthropologist and author (1891-1960); folk artist Clementine Hunter (1887-1988); and political activist Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977).

Shinnerrie Jackson grew up in Georgia and lives in Jacksonville, Fla. She was educated at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where she studied vocal performance and earned a master's degree in acting from University of Tennessee.

"Ain't I a Woman" uses words and music arranged for the show, including jazz, spirituals and protest songs.

"As the story is being told, the music supports it and the music is the forefront," Jackson said. "It's sort of a second character of the piece."

Of the other characters, all strong black women, Sojourner Truth may be the biggest challenge, she said.

"She is a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind," Jackson said. "That is something that she has taught me throughout the playing of her. She is, of course, much older than me at the time when I play her. So it's something to gather all of that wisdom and all the things she says about her life. It's my biggest challenge of the play."

If "Ain't I a Woman" can tell us anything, it's that success doesn't always come in the best circumstances or at a certain age. None of the women in the play were looking for the changes or challenges that were presented to them.

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"But they didn't go back into their lives and say, 'Oh, I can't do that,'" Jackson said. "They were all, 'This is the change. This is something I believe in and something I can do, and I'm going to do it.'"

Sometimes, Jackson said, she sees the message as one of perseverance. Each woman faced her challenges knowing her own limitations in schooling and intellect, she said, but each also learned to rise above.

Audience reaction to the play often is gratifying, she said. Often people tell her they plan to go home and learn more about the women, about their art and politics and accomplishments. Many seem uplifted about what they learn, which is made more poignant than ever now that America has elected its first black president.

"Fannie Hamer really struggled and was beaten just for the right to vote, because we couldn't even vote and that was in 1962," Jackson said. "In my lifetime, I have been able to do things my parents weren't able to do. The feeling that we've sort of healed ourselves puts this in a different light."

"Ain't I a Woman" is being funded by the UND Multicultural Awareness Committee and sponsored by UND Department of Music.

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to ptobin@gfherald.com .

Shinnerrie Jackson
Shinnerrie Jackson will portray Sojourner Truth and three other African American women in the musical theater piece "Ain't I a Woman," coming Monday night to Grand Forks.

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