Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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Flashback 2021

by Gwyn McAllister, The MV Times

After a 2020 pandemic-related lull in entertainment, local organizations made up for lost time with a year full of music, dance, performances, art exhibits, and more. 

A few annual events returned after a 2020 hiatus, to the delight of Islanders and visitors alike. Along with the return of the Agricultural Fair, Illumination Night, and Christmas in Edgartown, folks were once again treated to some of the most anticipated Island events. 

Built on Stilts celebrated its 25th anniversary of bringing a multi-evening festival of dance performances to the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. The celebration included original work by 40 choreographers and more than 100 dancers, over the course of five nights in August. “Our 25th anniversary festival was a joyful, sorely needed reunion of dance and community at the Union Chapel,” Built on Stilts founder and director Abby Bender said. 

The Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival returned for its 19th year of showcasing work by Black filmmakers from around the world. Along with screenings of dozens of new feature films, documentaries, and shorts, the nine-day festival also featured talks and daily soirées. Highlights included a panel discussion following a screening of “Barbara Lee: Speaking Power to Truth.” Lee, a U.S. representative from California and highest-ranking Black woman in Congress, was among the panelists. Academy awardwinner Spike Lee was the guest speaker at a director’s brunch, and festival sponsor General Motors hosted a discussion featuring Oscar winner Regina King.

In response to COVID protocols, Beach Road Weekend returned for a scaled-back event in August. This year the two-day festival celebrated the 350th anniversary of the town of Tisbury, with Grammy awardwinning blues rockers Tedeschi Trucks and jam band Moe headlining. Along with Saturday and Sunday outdoor performances in Veterans Memorial Park, the festival also included preparty and afterparty concerts at the Loft. 

The Yard of Chilmark managed to present a full season of performances by getting a bit creative. The dance organization hosted six residencies at its Chilmark campus over the summer, and also sponsored a few more held remotely in California and New York City. As always, each of the local choreography and dance residents provided a performance of new work for the public. However, this year many of the performances were held outdoors at a variety of locations. This pandemic-friendly model made for some spectacular shows at iconic settings. 

For example, Raphael Xavier and his troupe presented his unique hybrid of break dancing and other forms on the outdoor patio at Featherstone. Appropriately, Stefanie Batten Bland and company performed excerpts from a new work inspired by Martha’s Vineyard history at the M.V. Museum. Jenna Pollack led audience members around the Yard’s various indoor and outdoor spaces with her piece celebrating the Yard itself.

The Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse opted to forgo indoor events, but instead utilized its outdoor Amphitheater on State Road for two productions which spanned the summer months. The uber-talented Scott Barrow starred in the solo show “Every Brilliant Thing,” a lovely ode to all of the things — large and small — that make life worth living. With boundless energy, Barrow engaged the entire audience to take part in this funny, witty show that left audiences with a renewed appreciation for all of life’s gifts. 

The popular Shakespeare for the Masses troupe presented its own abbreviated, enhanced version of “Macbeth,” with typical humor and insight and lots of action this time around. 

The Island’s favorite songstress, Kate Taylor, hosted a concert at the Tabernacle in August to celebrate the release of her latest album, “Why Wait!” The open-air venue was the perfect spot for Taylor’s brand of homespun folk, and provided a safe way for the show to go on. 

A brand-new summer event made its debut this year, turning Edgartown into a festive scene for a week in July. Combining its maritime heritage with its historical dedication to the visual arts, the Old Sculpin Gallery hosted a celebration of the Island’s catboat legacy, featuring a parade, a display of vintage catboats, and an art exhibit honoring the Old Sculpin’s history as the workshop of legendary local boatbuilder Manuel Swartz Roberts. Catboat Week may just become the newest annual event. 

The Kara Taylor Gallery in West Tisbury played host to a special art show and fundraiser to support the Tennessee Innocence Project. Work by exonerated death row inmate Ndume Olatushani was featured in the gallery (the show sold out), while a celebrity-filled benefit raised more than $10,000 for the organization dedicated to investigating and litigating claims of actual innocence.

Capping off an event-filled summer season, dancers Abby Bender and Jesse Keller presented an immersive movement and storytelling spectacle at an empty Victorian house in Oak Bluffs. Presented around Halloween, the performance defies description, but suffice it to say, it was a brilliantly eerie visual treat for audience members who were mesmerized throughout its two-weekend run. 

Looking forward to 2022, all of the Island’s many arts organizations managed to survive the pandemic, and are actively planning new events for the coming year.

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