On June 19, 1865, news of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves finally reached Galveston, Texas—a full two and a half years after it was signed. Accounts differ as to why it took so long for the slaves of Texas to be told of their freedom, but they didn’t hesitate to celebrate, dubbing the day Juneteenth. For decades, Juneteenth celebrations were common in Black communities, but the holiday gradually faded into obscurity as it was written out of history. Still, the annual celebrations never completely stopped, taking the form of barbecues, church services, and, this year in Chicago, a comedy show.
Bosses in Bonnets, a sketch group made up of Black women, and Preach, an improvised spoken word collective made up of artists of color, are coming together for Pass the Plate: A Juneteenth Celebration. The virtual show will take place on each group’s Instagram page (@Bossesinbonnets and @Preachimprov) starting at midnight on Friday, June 19, with 19 different videos featuring sketches and poetry dropping every hour. Eventually all the videos will be available as a playlist on YouTube for those who can’t watch along in real time, but the idea is for these artists of color to hold space for the Black community all day long.
“We wanted to set it up almost as like a sketch festival or video festival where we’ll have the program out before we release our sketches to let people know when things are happening and when they can see certain performers perform their pieces,” says Ashley Bland, a member of Bosses in Bonnets. “We wanted to make it a day of celebration since [Juneteenth] should be nationally recognized as a day of celebration.”
Trinidad and Tobago was the first country to declare Emancipation Day a national holiday in 1985, and since then other Caribbean countries have followed suit. In the U.S., Juneteenth is still only recognized as a state holiday, with three states—Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota—still holding out. And even in places like here in Illinois, where it has been a state-recognized holiday since 2003, there is not a universal agreement to celebrate by giving folks the day off work and encouraging cookouts and parties the way there is surrounding things like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, and still many don’t even know what the holiday is. Bosses in Bonnets and Preach hope that Pass the Plate puts Juneteenth on more people’s radar.
The members of Bosses in Bonnets first had the idea to do a Juneteenth show earlier this year—before there was even a threat of the city shutting down—and have been working on sketches for it ever since. Originally the show was going to be staged at Steppenwolf, but when the theater canceled its June programming, the group decided to pivot to putting on a virtual show so as to not waste the material they were already working on. At the same time Preach was thinking about putting on a Juneteenth show. That’s when Kayla Pulley, who is a part of both groups, brought them together to not only collaborate but lighten the load of work that goes into putting together a virtual show, something neither group has done.
- Bosses in Bonnets first began work on a Juneteenth show before quarantine even started.
- courtesy bosses in bonnets
The show has been built through weekly Zoom video meetings that serve as more than just brainstorming sessions. “For my mental health it’s been good because it’s the one thing that’s been constant right now,” Pulley says. “It’s something to continue lifting us all up during this time. Also creatively it’s been really cool because like, one of us will have an idea and bounce ideas off of each other, and then we see all the different places this one idea can be taken. And that’s a really cool thing with collaboration happening is just how all of us have started using different parts of our imagination while working with each other.”
Bland agrees, “It’s just kind of a creative party, which I love. It’s really been therapeutic as well because along with being a think tank, it’s been like we’ve been able to sort of confide in each other and let each other know that with everything going on that we’re gonna be OK.”
Some of the material Bosses in Bonnets originally created will remain in the lineup, but the content continued to evolve and grow in reaction to the ever-changing world the groups were creating in. But overall it is a celebration.
“We want it to be a release, where people feel heard, where there are pieces that they relate to,” Pulley says. “We hope that this show can just be all the feelings that a person needs to feel right now.” v