By FRANK RIZZO
For more than two decades, New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas has brought theater, dance and music artists—as well as great thinkers and influencers—to the city from around the globe for a multi-week celebration in venues throughout the city.
But in recent years, its international sensibility has been recalibrated, looking inward as well as out, reflecting more of the diverse community of New Haven in a deeper and more meaningful way, informed the festival’s leaders.
“For the last few years, we have been finding the international through the lens of those who are here already,” said Shelley Quiala, executive director of the festival.
Quiala noted New Haven’s many multi-cultural communities, which include those with roots in Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Italy, Asia and other countries, as well as the African American community and its global diaspora.
This year’s festival—its 28th—will take place June 10 to 25 at indoor and outdoor venues around the city as well as online for many events. It will mark the return of a fuller festival line-up that began to emerge last year after the height of the pandemic, which had severely limited programming for two years.
The change in the festival’s approach to programming began in earnest upon Quiala’s hiring in 2020. The pandemic slowed the full execution of the mission, limiting the festival to only virtual shows in 2020 and limited in-person events only on the New Haven Green with socially distanced seating in 2021.
Last year, in-person indoor shows returned to the Shubert, university and Iseman theaters; the College Street Music Hall; and other venues. This June, in-person events will be held at indoor and outdoor events around the city, mostly free, and significantly on the New Haven Green.
Though the pandemic slowed transformative goals, it also allowed the festival team time to make a deeper connection in the neighborhoods of New Haven.
A major player in these efforts was Malakhi Eason, who arrived shortly after Quiala’s hire, and whose title not only includes director of programming but also of community impact.
“Usually such titles are worded as ‘community engagement,’ but ‘impact’ has a deeper meaning. We just don’t want to engage but to be a resource,” said Eason, who was previously programming manager at Omaha Performing Arts where he helped to bring in a wide range of entertainment. “It takes time to get to know your community. So many times, programming is done without understanding and connecting to your community in a real way.”
The staff “hit the ground running” and made it their mission to connect personally with the community, spending much time in churches, coffeeshops, schools, and even on porches and park benches, just talking and listening one-on-one, getting to know the community as individuals, Eason said.
“It’s about hearing about what music they like and what other cultural activities they might respond to—and finding out what will bring them into our spaces,” he explained.
Quiala encouraged Eason to be as creative as possible. One of the early programs was a celebration based on the African American culture of hair and its significance. That was the community’s ownership, commented Eason.
Another event reflecting local interests was a fashion show that featured international designers from Jamaica, Haiti, Asia and Puerto Rico, as well as local ones. That event sold out because it was community-based, he said, adding that all festival marketers are now based out of the community.
“When we present shows in our spaces, it has to answer how we are going to connect with our community,” said Eason, adding that that involvement extends to artists’ contracts, which insist on community interaction.
“Rise” is the theme of this year’s festival. Among the highlights will include performances by Angelique Kidjo, a Beninese American singer-songwriter, actress and activist noted for her diverse musical influences and creative music videos. She will headline with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and perform for free on the New Haven Green.
Also featured will be Heidi Latsky Dance D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D., a group which celebrates dancers with physical disabilities; the tropical Afro-Latin combo The Quitapenas Band; the Wolfpack Drumline (from the Rhythm Exchange Series); piano and organ player Matthew Whittaker; and comedian Kristina Wong in a solo show, a co-presentation with Long Wharf Theatre. There will be arts representation from Europe as well.
“This is the direction the work is moving toward: global/local,” concluded Quiala. “We’re not just intentionally focusing on community location but in racial equity among communities of color. It feels very in step to what is happening around the country. Perhaps we’re even a little ahead of those steps.”