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Through dance, a centuries-old love story comes home to Shankleville

LaKendra Howard plays Winnie Shankle during a performance of The Fairytale Project at the Texas Purple Hull Pea Festival in Shankleville, Texas, on June 22, 2024.
Patricia Lim
/
Texas Standard
LaKendra Howard plays Winnie Shankle during a performance of The Fairytale Project at the Texas Purple Hull Pea Festival in Shankleville, Texas, on June 22, 2024.

It’s about 15 minutes until showtime, and the dancers and performers of the Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective from Houston are getting ready.

The room is abuzz. Someone calls repeatedly for a safety pin; another person is debating, hair up or hair down this time? There’s a steamer going off in the corner, and folks are stepping over stretching limbs as they take care of their preshow responsibilities.

This may seem chaotic to an onlooker, but it’s more like ritual for dancers in a company – that pre-show anticipation mixed with a touch of chaos brings a cast together. And for Lauren Philpott, this specific performance has another layer added to the usual bonding time.

“Of course, there’s always that little bit of stage-nervousness like, ‘Oh, we have an audience. We’re about to go on,’” she said. “But a lot of it is excitement of being able to share this story and being able to tell it and bring it to an audience.”

The Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective performed at the Mt. Zion C.M.E. Church in Shankleville.
Patricia Lim
/
Texas Standard
The Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective performed at the Mt. Zion C.M.E. Church in Shankleville.

On this day in late June, the collective is dancing in a non-traditional space – not on a stage, but at the Mt. Zion C.M.E. Church, established in the late 1800s in the freedmen’s town of Shankleville. Their performance, the Fairytale Project, is a part of the Texas Purple Hull Pea Festival, a celebration of history and culture.

“Ancestrally, as people who are of the African diaspora, we always tell stories through movement. Music and dance have been a part of our ancestral lineage from West African coast,” said performance creator and choreographer Stacey Allen, the artistic director of Nia’s Daughters.

“What I really, really love is how dance and music can communicate beyond language barriers, amongst many generations, amongst people from different backgrounds. So the language that we utilize the most for storytelling is dance.”

And that story is the centuries-old love story of Jim and Winnie Shankle.

‘No river high enough’

Jim was born into slavery in 1811. He met his wife, Winnie, on a plantation in Mississippi. They were separated, as were many Black families during this time.

“The master there sold her to a slave owner here in East Texas; they broke up the family,” said Shankle family descendant Tracey Clay, president of the Shankleville Historical Society. “And so Jim decided he would escape slavery. But instead of going north for freedom, he would try to come to find his love, Winnie.”

'What I really, really love is how dance and music can communicate beyond language barriers, amongst many generations, amongst people from different backgrounds,' says Stacey Allen, creator and choreographer of the Fairytale Project.
Patricia Lim
/
Texas Standard
'What I really, really love is how dance and music can communicate beyond language barriers, amongst many generations, amongst people from different backgrounds,' says Stacey Allen, creator and choreographer of the Fairytale Project.

Unable to take any kind of ferry for fear of being spotted, Jim swam both the Mississippi and Sabine rivers. He trekked more than 400 miles, dodging slave catchers along the way. Once in Texas, he would sneak onto different plantations at night to ask about Winnie. And then one day, he found her.

“They had a whistle between them that they had established,” Clay said. “And one of her responsibilities was to go down to the spring. And so while she was at the spring one evening, he whistled to her and she recognized the whistle, and then they were reunited.”

After emancipation, Jim and Winnie founded Shankleville along with their friend Stephen McBride. Over time, they bought more than 4,000 acres of property to build the town and welcome many other families and generations.

Their love story, which has been passed on through family stories from generation to generation, is one that Stacey Allen ended up marrying into: Her husband, Chase Allen Sr., is a descendant of the Shankles’ daughter Mary and Stephen McBride.

“In my family, it was just common knowledge that this is what was done for our ancestors to get specifically down to Texas,” he said. “I learned that story when I was so young, I thought it was normal. It wasn’t until my wife pointed out to me that, like, ‘no, this is not normal. This is something extraordinary, and y’all should share it with people.’”

Sharing the story with the world is nerve-racking for him, though. Despite his instinct to keep it close and protected within family, he says he knows the power this history holds.

“I do think as Black people, we need more stories like this to know, to let each other know that we can strive through all the adversities, through all the negativity that we have to go through on a daily basis,” he said.

The cast gets ready for their performance on June 22, 2024.
Patricia Lim
/
Texas Standard
The cast gets ready for their performance on June 22, 2024.

Backstage

Back behind the scenes at Mt. Zion C.M.E. Church, the clock to showtime is ticking down. Dancer Toba Atkins-Montana’s right leg is folded directly under him. His left leg is sprawled out, knee down directly behind as he reaches the opposite direction. It might not look comfortable, but Atkins-Montana begs to differ.

“I am stretching and warming myself up so I don’t injure myself during a performance,” he said. “The one I am doing right now, the pigeon stretch, is one of my favorites. It’s usually my go-to. I can sit in it forever.”

Atkins-Montana, who plays Jim Shankle, said it’s been an honor to help deliver this story to audiences through his own love of dance.

“It’s been a lot of fun, very educational, learning about history that entails my past and entails my family as well,” he said. “I’m not like a Shankle, but it’s history that expands through all African Americans, especially if you live in Texas.”

LaKendra Howard has been performing as Winnie Shankle since the show premiered in Houston two years ago.

“It’s a pleasure and an honor to finally be able to bring it to Shankleville,” she said. “To have it here on the land where the story actually happened.”

On the land of their ancestors

Earlier in the day in the 95-degree heat and humidity, the performers took a short tour of the land. Just yards away is the stream at which Jim is said to have spotted Winnie after his long journey.

Sister Mama Sonya is following a trail through the Shankleville woods to get a glimpse of the creek. But she wasn’t expecting a hike.

“Oh, they didn’t tell me I was gonna go get Winnie,” she said of the trek. “Oh Winnie, I have more admiration for you and Jim now.”

A friend of Stacey, Sister Mama Sonya plays the role of Granny Griot, who tells the story as the other performers dance.

'I got chills to be actually in the space where Jim and Winnie were,' says Sister Mama Sonya, who plays the part of Granny Griot.
Patricia Lim
/
Texas Standard
'I got chills to be actually in the space where Jim and Winnie were,' says Sister Mama Sonya, who plays the part of Granny Griot.

Walking under the four-story-tall East Texas pines, the significance of the moment is clear as Shankle descendants both big and small join the walk. This was the land of their ancestors.

Though not a Shankle herself, Sister Mama Sonya sums up her love of this story, this history and, as she says, this “herstory”: “I got chills to be actually in the space where Jim and Winnie were.”

“It’s so important for us to tell our story because now with the no DEI … our children don’t get a chance to learn who they are and where they’ve come from,” she said. “So I think it’s so very, very important for us to always tell the story.”

The power of water

The Fairytale Project has gone through several variations and performers in its two years on tour. But like in Jim and Winnie’s story, water has always played a significant role.

Back in the church, Courtney Sherman Allen – no relation to Stacey, “but I like to say I’m her daughter,” she laughs – is finishing her shimmery water-inspired makeup.

“I am an ensemble dancer, as well as a representation of Mami Wata, which is the goddess of water,” she says. “So, my role in the story represents a person who connects and guides the grandchildren to and through the journey of Jim and Winnie Shankle.”

It’s now two minutes to showtime, and Stacey Allen has already welcomed the audience in the pews. The show is about to begin.

To the left plays a short video of Stacey, her family and a few of the dancers. There is a poem along with music that is sweet and soulful. All the music used in the performance and the video was specifically commissioned for this project, by her.

Courtney Sherman Allen as Mami Wata, the goddess of water: 'My role in the story represents a person who connects and guides the grandchildren to and through the journey of Jim and Winnie Shankle.'
Patricia Lim
/
Texas Standard
Courtney Sherman Allen as Mami Wata, the goddess of water: 'My role in the story represents a person who connects and guides the grandchildren to and through the journey of Jim and Winnie Shankle.'

As the film fades, the audience first turns to Courtney Sherman Allen. She is seated center, in front of the pulpit with her back to the audience. Then the voice of Sister Mama Sonya, playing Granny Griot, pulls us to look left.

“I want to ask an elder for permission to begin,” she says. From the pews, a voice says yes.

She begins old African proverb that says, when you’re gone and the last person who knows your name leaves the earth, you cease to exist.

“So, you must always tell the name,” she says. “So I ask you right now, call out the names of those ancestors and sisters who you wish to always remember. Call them out.”

Slowly, a volley of names can be heard from the audience. Granny Griot lists her loved ones out loud as well.

The performers of the Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective share the story of Jim and Winnie Shankle.
Patricia Lim
/
Texas Standard
The performers of the Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective share the story of Jim and Winnie Shankle.

When the music dies down, the show begins. Granny Griot welcomes the two dancers playing the grandchildren. Courtney, dancing as Wata the African goddess of water, magically transports the children – and in turn, the audience – back into history.

“I represent the spiritual realm of it,” she explained moments before the start of the show. “Like the connectivity from how they go from the current time back into the past and back to the current time. Just that through line, that divine goddess of beauty.”

Choreography tells the story

Through the center of the pews, 9-year-old Kareem Willis and 8-year-old Chase Allen Jr., a Shankle descendant, wave a long, flowing piece of blue fabric – that water and throughline – through the aisle to make it look like a river is flowing.

The representation of water through the blue fabric is an homage to famed choreographer Alvin Ailey, whose piece “Wade in the Water” from the acclaimed “Revelations” performance uses the same theatrical technique.

Long considered a classic piece of dance Americana, especially in the Black dance repertoire, it premiered in 1960 and is based on Ailey’s blood memories, his ancestral connection, at church revivals while growing up in East Texas.

Stacey Allen underscored that connection.

“Right now we are in a church in East Texas, right? So how beautiful is that?” she said.

Her choreography nods to more than just Ailey’s performance, taking inspiration from his technique and that of other modern dance masters like Lester Horton and Katherine Dunham.

“So you have like the Dunham arm placements, you have the hip isolations, you see that throughout the movement,” she said.

Pulling from the African dance diaspora, Stacey also uses Yanvalou, an Afro-Haitian dance technique she’s studied for years. The polyrhythm of its slow movements up and down is very much rooted in our African diaspora music and dance traditions, she said.

“It’s a serpent dance, and you undulate through your torsos and your arms,” she said. “So as they’re crossing the river, you could see that undulation, extending out.”

She moves her arm and extends it out from her shoulder blade.

“And then we take that undulation from your fingertips and it rolls all the way through to your shoulder blade,” she explained. “And while that is happening, you are also undulating from your womb all the way up through your sternum.”

Toba Atkins-Montana says it's been an honor to play the role of Jim Shankle: 'I’m not like a Shankle, but it’s history that expands through all African Americans, especially if you live in Texas.'
Patricia Lim
/
Texas Standard
Toba Atkins-Montana says it's been an honor to play the role of Jim Shankle: 'I’m not like a Shankle, but it’s history that expands through all African Americans, especially if you live in Texas.'

‘Love them and learn about them’

As folks begin to clear out, a few like Pastor Armond Cauley and his wife, Donna, stay behind to share their appreciation.

“It was excellent. It was very beautiful, moving and it brought to light the actual love story in the movement, the mannerisms, the love and the joy,” they praised in tandem, finishing each other’s sentences. “You can actually feel it. It was choreographed perfectly.”

Backstage, as is typical at the end of almost every dance performance, there is a mix of elation and relief of a job well done – as well as reviewing those little moments when things don’t go to plan, ones the audience hardly ever notices.

“I turned the wrong way because my hand got caught,” Atkins-Montana says to the group backstage.

“You couldn’t even tell,” chimes in someone else.

Courtney Sherman Allen, standing, Nessaja Sharber and Lauren Philpott in the Fairytale Project on June 22.
Patricia Lim
/
Texas Standard
Courtney Sherman Allen, standing, Nessaja Sharber and Lauren Philpott in the Fairytale Project on June 22.

The atmosphere has shifted. The room is filled with leaving energy as zippers are closed and costumes and gear packed away. Plans are made not to forget something, though inevitably something always gets left behind.

And of course, the kids are able to relax a bit more now that their part is over.

For Chase Allen Jr., getting to take part in the performance is a joy. But even for his young age, the significance of it and the role of family is not lost on him.

“You should take time to care about them,” he says of family. “And love them, and learn about them, and meet them, if you can.”

And you don’t have to be a descendant of the Shankles to appreciate this.

Copyright 2024 KUT 90.5

Kristen Cabrera