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Linking Past With Present In 'If Da Dirt Could Talk' Performance/Quilt Project

Two friends from Kansas City, Kan., are teaming up for a project called If Da Dirt Could Talk. It combines collaborative quilts with a performance in an historic graveyard in old Quindaro.

Quilting to share history

Artist Nedra Bonds started quilting at the age of six. "Yeah, I didn’t have a choice, I come from a family of quilters on both sides," she says. "So this was something that we did, based upon who we were, based on the needs of the family, and we just always have done it."

But it’s something Bonds put aside as a teenager and didn’t return to for decades, or at least, not until the 1980s when there was talk about building a landfill where she grew up in Kansas City, Kan.: Quindaro.

"There were no images of the history of Quindaro," says Bonds. "It was a site on the Underground Railroad and there were no images."

So Bonds stitched images of Quindaro’s history, including slaves crossing the Missouri River into the free state of Kansas, on a quilt with a bright yellow border. This quilt toured the state – and the proposed landfill for old Quindaro Cemetery was later dropped after ruins and artifacts were uncovered.

Introducing stories of "local heroes"

Now, Nedra Bonds is working on a new series of quilts, with drawings created by kids growing up in her old neighborhood.

At Quindaro Elementary School, in Kansas City, Kan., two third grade classes are packed in one classroom. Children sit at desks, or in rows, cross legged on the floor.

"This is Miss Bonds," says teacher Mrs. Daniels, as she introduces her to the students. "She is visiting with us and she’s going to tell us about a project we’re doing that involves Quindaro heroes, from around your community."

Nedra Bonds stands at the front of the room, next to a projector with images at the ready of notable people who once lived in Quindaro, such as R&B and soul performer Janelle Monae.   

"I’m going to tell you about three people," says Bonds. "Janelle Monae, anybody heard of her?" "Mmhmm," replies a student. "She’s a famous singer."

"Did you know she grew up in Quindaro?" asks Bonds. "No," the students answer. "She's going to be one of the heroes that we talk about, okay?" replies Bonds.

A "hero" of Kansas City, Kansas and the next generation

"That’s so encouraging," says Janelle Monae, who talked in the hallways at KCPT after an interview. "It’s beautiful, it’s humbling to be acknowledged."

Wearing her trademark bright pink lipstick and pompadour, Monae was in Kansas City in November for a sold-out concert at the Uptown Theater.

She’d made other stops on this day, including her alma mater, F.L. Schlagle High School.

"I’m a product of Kansas City, Kan.," explains Monae. "When I write music, I’m always thinking, 'How can I give back? What can I say that would give back to the next generation of people, especially people growing up in my hometown?'"

Presenting a play about slavery near the ancestors

Schoolchildren’s drawings of hometown figures like Janelle Monae - transferred to fabric and sewn into quilts – will provide a backdrop for a play written by another quilter.

Nancy Dawson met Nedra Bonds three decades ago when they were campaigning against the landfill. Now, they’re working to present a performance of a play by Dawson called Stories From Da Dirt.

An excerpt from 'Stories From Da Dirt.'

The play will be performed in the Quindaro graveyard where Dawson’s great-grandmother, a runaway slave, is buried.

"Many of the issues regarding the enslavement are still very difficult to talk about for people," Dawson says. "We talk about the Civil Rights Movement a little better, but that still has some difficulties. But, when you talk about slavery, that’s real hard. That causes people to run red and want to avoid you and so forth."

Dawson gets into difficult topics with her own quilts, too. She calls herself a "social change quilter."

"Quilts are seen as something warm and fuzzy and people like them, they like to hold on to them," she says. "But I like to take their warm and fuzzy approach and put something on it that is thought-provoking, that makes them think about the world around them."

And it’s through theater and quilts that Nancy Dawson and Nedra Bonds hope to get people to talk about the issues, of the past, present and future of Quindaro.

'If Da Dirt Could Talk' is a Rocket Grant project. Find out more on the Rocket Grants website.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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