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"Juanell’s Chair" offers hope in the struggle for racial justice

A man and woman stand behind an older woman, their hands resting lightly on her shoulders. They are all smiling.
Davvie and Vivian Mims stand with their mother Juanell, the inspiration for the production "Juanell's Chair." (Photo credit: Jasmine McBride)

This Martin Luther King Day, Walker West Music Academy in Saint Paul presented a reading of “Juanell’s Chair,” an original African American saga that recounts the life story of a woman who has lived “nine decades and counting.” “Juanell’s Chair” was written by Davvie Mims, who felt committed to honoring the depth of his mother’s life story as Black woman born in the South in 1931.  Mims says his mother’s truth reflects a collective experience, and could be used to address the complex issues facing Black communities.

“I wanted to write something that was positive and inspirational when it comes to Black folks – even during those turbulent times, in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And that's what we did,” said Mims. “Even though we're dealing with racism and all that stuff, our characters are powerful because they have what was needed at the time; the network and the money.” 

“Juanell’s Chair” refers to the chair Mims’ mother sits in as she shares stories from her life. Mims, who was creatively assisted by his sister Vivian in this project, says in addition to sharing her story with the world in honor of all she has overcome, they wanted the story to have a broader transformative impact. Mims says he’s tired of sad endings that dominate the Black experience in storytelling, and was driven to lift up real solutions to real issues. Vivian Mims says she used her lens as a Black woman to add insight to the struggles their mom navigated.

“I think it’s going to spark the older generation, us, to get a little pep in our step and honor the fact that we are the domino effect. It is our responsibility to infuse some light into this generation – some hope, some desire,” said Vivian Mims.

Mother, Juanell Mims, says she never would’ve guessed opening up about her life story would be the catalyst for a cultural production by her children. 

“I've been telling him about my life so many times. But I didn't know he was remembering all this,” she said.

Juanell says though her life was deeply impacted by the politics of race, in the end her beliefs have remained steady.

“I pray for everybody. I don't care what color you are. We came from God. We don't want to admit it all the time, but we’re all brothers and sisters, no matter what color. We are connected,” said Mims.

“I've seen a lot of dysfunctions – hate, love – I've seen it all in my 92 years. There’s always hope. And that's what I'm hoping for – Hope,” said Mims. “You have to live life as it comes in. There’s always going to be trouble in the world wherever you are. I've always believed in God. I still do. And things get better for me every day that I'm alive. He wakes me up every morning. I love my life just the way it is.” 

Juanell Mim’s niece, Robin Hickman-Winfield, Executive Director and CEO of SoulTouch Productions, says hearing her aunt’s beauty, pain, resilience, and grace, translated into this creative production – as something to be shared and to inspire – left her buzzing with the reminder that no matter what, just keep going.

“Auntie Juanell doesn’t age. And yes, this says Black doesn’t crack, but what it really says is that we cannot be broken. We will not be destroyed. And that gives me hope,” said Hickman-Winfield. “I think this is exactly what Dr. King would have wanted – for us to be together, intergenerationally, with the courage and freedom to reclaim our power and control in our Black narratives.” 

Hickman-Winfield says if there was any quote that summed up the power of Black storytelling that she felt at the reading event, it’d be Martin Luther King’s quote, “the fierce urgency is now.”

That’s a quote that also resonates with community member Melvin Emmanuel, who was born in the ‘60s and recalls the aftermath of the Civil Right Movement. He says moments like today’s reading of Juanell’s Chair reminded him of one of the greatest powers he says he recognized during the endless protests that unfolded during that time throughout his childhood: Presence. 

“I can recall my mother with us kids – putting bread bags in our boots so our feet wouldn't get wet and would stay warmer – because they knew the strength and the numbers of the people. We missed meals because we were outside, marching and protesting. We’d stayed up the night before and sometimes feared, because we knew we had to go out there the next day. But we had to keep going, because somehow we knew that this day that we’d be in this public building, doing something artistic,” recalled Emmanuel. “Dr. King gave us the courage, the inspiration, the hope to know that if we didn't act as stupid as they were, that we could overcome stupidity. When I think about it now, it brings tears to my eyes. To think that you were taught such a level of resilience and fortitude to hold on and to stand steadfast. To hell with a cup! Our basket is running over from the things that we have done – and that we have pushed to get human rights.”

The Mims siblings say portions of “Juanell’s Chair” will continue to be produced as they figure out next steps for the story. The next reading takes place on March 7 at Hamline University. 


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