THE STORY OF THE LIGHT
New York City born, Kim Russell is director of educational outreach for the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. She is responsible for a number of programs, including the Southern Nevada Wolf Trap Educational Program, which pairs artists with teachers in the schools. An award-winning playwright and humanities scholar, she was program director of the Las Vegas International House of Blues Foundation and is a performing artist in her own right, having toured internationally with “Sojourner Truth: I Sell the Shadow” and “Tuskegee Love Letters,” a three-act stage production based on letters sent between her father, an original Tuskegee airman, and her mother during World War II.
My dad was a stand-up comic. His stage name was Jay Bernard. But he really was very shy. He was one of the original Tuskegee airmen. It was always his dream to come to Las Vegas. He had performed here over the years. In 1994 they found a house here. He and my stepmother were living in Van Nuys, California, and when they found a house, they said to my spouse, who was my boyfriend at the time, “We’re moving to Las Vegas. Do you want to come?” And I, in my wisdom, said, “Hell, no. I ain’t going to Las Vegas.” The next morning, God said, “You are going to Las Vegas.” That was the morning of the Northridge earthquake. We lived four miles from the center. So, I guess we were going to Las Vegas. Why would you come to the desert? It’s a hundred and some odd degrees out here. There’s nothing in the desert. I had no concept of what life would be like in Las Vegas. In the ’90s what was here? There was nothing beyond Durango and I had no restaurant experience. I couldn’t imagine working for the casinos. I had no idea that there would be so many opportunities that would be available to me, but I moved out here and somehow my dad got me into the entertainment business. I had no idea that was what my path would be. My background is in business. I was exporting aircraft hardware, nuts, bolts and bombs, I like to say. But then my dad was taking acting classes and he dragged me with him. In acting class, you have to have a monologue. I found “Ain’t I a Woman,” and that’s how I was introduced to Sojourner Truth. I started doing that and my friends, God bless Marlene Adrienne of Women of Diversity, asked me to do a whole piece. Of course, I had to go do the research. I started reading her life story and developed the one- woman show. I got a grant from the Nevada Arts Council and went to her home state in Michigan, went to see where she’s buried and met with the third and fourth generation of the Frederick Douglass family. I traveled the country doing Sojourner Truth and that’s how I got the job at the House of Blues. The one phrase in life I live by is, “It’s not who you know, but who knows you.” It’s a small community. Granted, before we know it, we’ll be at 4 million people. But the arts community and the community you work in is still very intimate. I don’t know that I’ve contributed that much — I don’t live in the historical black community — but I do hope that I have influenced black artists to focus on their art form. I hope I’ve done that, obviously, through getting other people to know about Sojourner Truth and the Tuskegee airman, and through the work I do at the Smith Center. Recently, we did a whole piece on getting performing artists to focus on their art work and to think about going into schools and creating arts forms. I hope through performing Sojourner Truth in the schools, I’m getting kids to think about performing. I haven’t focused on west Las Vegas, per se. But I do represent the black community as an African-American woman. I do focus on black history. I think it’s important when we go out into a mixed community, including, and especially the Hispanic community, to say we brown people have a lot to be proud of. We also have to be proud of the white community that has supported us as allies. We have to embrace them. Those that don’t embrace us, they do in time. In some sense, I get the feeling there are those of traditional west Las Vegas who are very protective of their culture, which they should be. They have to protect their history and they have to keep sharing it and I’m not sure how. I don’t know if they have a way to open it up and to sell it to a larger community. Do you sell it as a commercial item or do you say, “This is our community .” Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. I’m sure they are wrestling with that question, too. Branding is the issue. And if you are expanding it is going to mean you are not just all black? How do you keep the black historical identity? You want to show that this is the history of Las Vegas, not just black history; this is the history of Las Vegas. Protect, preserve or make money? How do you preserve it without financing? There had to be a commercial aspect. There has to be a fundraising aspect. The village has grown. This town was not always about the mob. Prior to the Mormons, we mustn’t forget about the Native Americans. We must not forget them, our invasion of their properties. And the Native Americans should benefit from the Strip. Do you know the story of the light? The story of the light — in every theater, whenever a show is done, you always leave a light on for all the souls and the angels. You never leave a theater dark. There’s always one light on. That’s history. That’s tradition.