Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges: Aurora Black Performing Arts Company Launches Docuseries

Dr. Barbara Shannon-Bannister is President and CEO of Grand Design Inc., a nonprofit organization she founded in 1984 to preserve the cultural and musical traditions of African Americans in Aurora. What began as a dance group performing in retirement homes now hosts an array of artistic opportunities for its surrounding community. Grand Design offers art, music, dance and theater classes for children and adults, and organizes performances that highlight the positive results of its programs. It’s still one of Aurora’s only black performing arts companies, and it’s always growing.

Grand Design shares today the fruits of its latest artistic adventure: cinema. Break down barriers, build bridges is a twelve-episode non-fiction produced in collaboration with Denver Open Media and directed by several local filmmakers. The docuseries explores black titans of the music world, such as Aretha Franklin and James Brown, alongside their contemporaries and local Colorado successors. Grand Design will host the premiere of the first two episodes with a free public event at the People’s Building on Friday, February 11, but the evening is designed to be much more than just a screening.

“It’s a memory for us, an opportunity for us to do something new. It’s also a realization,” Shannon-Bannister says. “I hope people come away with a heightened awareness that ‘maybe I should learn [about Black history].’ Too often, things like this slide by us; people are busy doing other things.”

Break down barriers is in a more complex position than similar films. Aurora has remained an epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement since the 2019 death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police, which resulted in a $15 million payout to McClain’s family. A year prior, Shannon-Bannister had retired from his thirty-year tenure as the town’s community relations chief. She still sits on the Civil Service Commission, helping to screen candidates for police and fire jobs.

The year she retired, Grand Design sought out filmmaking as a unique new venture. The docuseries was conceptualized by Erica Papillion Posey, a volunteer who advised Grand Design on the performing arts scene in Aurora (she is also a trained mezzo soprano singer). Posey provided a dozen musical touchstones for the organization to explore; each episode is structured around a different facet of black musical culture in America, including children’s music, classical, hip-hop, gospel, blues and dance.

Click to enlarge

John Reid and Dr. Barbara Shannon-Bannister discuss the legacy of Grand Design Inc.

Grand Design, Inc.

The abundance of documentaries on black musicians grows year by year. Titles like What happened, Miss Simone?, amazing Grace and soul summer mass distribution platforms. Grand Design knew that to stand out, it had to go beyond showcasing well-known icons and dig deep into the community. Shannon-Bannister says many of the inhabitants of the docuseries showcases were found in churches.

“Our churches in the black community were places where we gathered, sought comfort, had dinner, helped people. Pastors were the people we leaned on; so churches were where we went to find all kinds of talent” , she explains.

The second episode traces the roots of gospel music from spirituals, songs created and sung by enslaved Africans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mr. Roger Holland II, assistant professor of music and religion at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver, is a central figure in the episode. Holland leads the university’s Spirituals Project, a community choir initiative aimed at sustaining the performance of black spirituals. Holland refers to these songs as “the mother from which all other branches and leaves extend for black music”.

Christiana Danae, Deidra Walker, Stephanie Hancock and Soup d’Jour are some of the other up-and-coming local talents that appear throughout the series. Discovering these voices, even decades after founding Grand Design for such purposes, still surprises Shannon-Bannister.

“I was amazed at the amount of talent we have around us that we don’t even look at or know about,” she says. “That’s the saddest part.”

Click to enlarge Mr. Roger Holland II directs a rehearsal of the Spirituals Project at the University of Denver.  - GREAT DESIGN, INC.

Mr. Roger Holland II directs a rehearsal of the Spirituals Project at the University of Denver.

Grand Design, Inc.

By showcasing talent and tracing the roots of black music, Break down barriers wants to be a positive reflection of its community. Friday’s event will double as a premiere and workshop for the series. Audience members are invited to provide their input in a Q&A after the screening, and Shannon-Bannister hopes her community embraces the show and sees itself portrayed in a genuine, authentic light.

The evening will also include a red carpet, refreshments and maybe even a choral performance by Grand Design. There are currently no definite plans for the cast of the series, but Shannon-Bannister promises to “push all the buttons” and have Break down barriers, build bridges spend a day on television. More importantly, she hopes to hold more public screenings to generate more interest and refine the show.

Shannon-Bannister is counting on this event to foster community not just through the show, but through authentic, spontaneous discussions. She has been in the Aurora community for fifty years and knows she would never want to be anywhere else.

“I want to see the relationship between the community and the police improve,” says Bannister. “I’ll be there, raising my hand and saying, ‘I want to help. Who’s going to help me?’ It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, how you feel; if you love Aurora, what are you going to do to make Aurora the best place to live?”

Break down barriers, build bridges premieres at 7 p.m. Friday, February 11 at the People’s Building, 9995 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora. Book free tickets on Eventbrite. Learn more about Grand Design Inc. on its website.