“When people ask me what I do, my first answer is that I try to tell Black people who we are. I do it through culture,” says Leatrice Ellzy Wright, who’s just wrapped four years as executive director at the Hammonds House Museum and is heading to Harlem. Her new gig: director of programming at the Apollo Theater.
Hammonds House Museum, in Atlanta’s West End, has a permanent collection of more than 450 works by artists from America, Africa and the Caribbean. Romare Bearden is represented, as art Benny Andrews and Elizabeth Catlett. Atlanta artist Charly Palmer’s Departure is on view through August 1. The museum does four exhibits each year plus artist talks, panel discussions, workshops, art education for young people, book readings, music concerts and more.
Ellzy Wright is a Delaware native. She and her siblings grew up understanding the importance of education and historically Black colleges and universities. Her parents were educators and Ellzy Wright learned to see the world through a broad prism.
Ellzy Wright, 54, spoke with ArtsATL about being kind, the indelible mark of Ntozake Shange’s original choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf and using a ’90s virtual platform for the arts in the pre-Facebook era.
ArtsATL: What can you tell us about your childhood?
Leatrice Ellzy Wright: I think about how my life has become this manifestation, not only of what’s been spoken by my grandmother’s prayers, but my parents were very kind people who opened their doors to help anyone. My father was an educator/activist. By day he’d teach and in the afternoons, he’d have us mentoring at a recreation center he’d started. We were taught that just because we were middle class and were in private school didn’t mean that we were better off than children who didn’t have the same benefits. My mother, who’d graduated from Tuskegee, would always say, that being kind is the right thing to do, but just as importantly, she realized that her children are in the world and she needed people to be kind to her children. It’s amazing to have lived history.
ArtsATL: What is some advice you’ve received on your arts journey that will never leave you?
Ellzy Wright: I still think back to my parents and a whole village of Black community. There I was about 10 years old, sitting at the kitchen table as my dad was seeking grants for the rec center. My mother would be typing grants as my father spoke the information. Me? I’d be the one to take the pages out of the typewriter to check for typos. Growing up, I was surrounded by activists, people who were doers, who believed in and loved Black people in the Black community, and who were hell-bent on moving it forward. My father used to always say, “If you don’t define yourself, others will define you for you.” I needed to define myself. I’ll never forget that, and I realized that I’ve always connected to that contextually.
ArtsATL: How impactful was Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls?
Ellzy Wright: I wrote poetry and did talents shows, dancing and singing. My family even joined a theater group, the Wilmington Theatre Ensemble, I believe. I spent time with a good friend whose mom is a playwright/activist, Bebe Coker. But what also changed me was seeing, for colored girls on PBS. I was only 8 or 9 (and who knew years later I’d work for PBS)? I’d never seen anything like it. Black women and this poetry, even if I didn’t understand it all until I was older. I was in awe. It was the spirit and feeling of what they delivered. That was the spark.
ArtsATL: How did working with the National Black Arts Festival impact you?
Ellzy Wright: After I graduated from Tennessee State University, I came to Atlanta. I saw my first NBAF in 1990. Ten days of Black art and culture. Years later, I got hired by NBAF as a consultant and started working with NBAF executive director Stephanie Smith Hughley. After that I was director of programs in charge of the major events and stages. It was like being baptized in the culture, you know? NBAF was my master class. It changed the trajectory of my life. I thought I understood myself, my purpose, but the festival was like, “let me show you the breadth of who you are.” I traveled the world and had opportunity to interact with artists and other arts leaders who were brimming with new ideas. At this point, I’ve met many of the women that were in for colored girls, including Ntozake Shange (1948–2018), Aku Kadogo and Lynn Whitfield. I found out that Hughley was the former road manager when for colored girls went on tour.
ArtsATL: What about your career would we be surprised to learn?
Ellzy Wright: At NBAF, I understood that Black institutions are under-resourced, I wanted to expand beyond the four walls, expand our audiences. We needed a digital solution. This is the ’90s, pre-Facebook. We had computers, and I am a techie girl, so all this 2.0 stuff intrigued me. Everything was so cheap then. I wanted to create a digital festival using this computer thing that everybody has, but nobody was really using in that way. I built an NBAF space in Second Life, this virtual world. We had virtual office space, a theater, coffee shop, just a chill little vibe. The music was cool. I had gotten this station to broadcast out of London. It was my own version of if-we-had-money-this-is-what-it-would-be. We ended up doing a concert with Russell Gunn at Churchill Grounds [now gone], while using Second Life as the virtual space. We made avatars and people were dancing. I mean, we had it all going on. We were livestreaming before there was even livestreaming.
ArtsATL: What comes to mind when you consider the transformative nature of Black arts?
Ellzy Wright: We are all culturally connected. I understand that we are all held together through a cultural tie, whether we see it and agree with one another or not. That’s the part of this that I love and I feel is necessary. I think about my father’s activism and I look at myself. This is my activism. This is how I activate change. I do it as an arts leader. I’m kind of the conduit to audiences who want arts-centered programming, and then let artists tell their stories. Audiences eagerly need and seek to see a different vision for themselves.
ArtsATL: How did art influence your life?
Ellzy Wright: Art really speaks to the human condition. We can do projects that heal people, especially when you’re talking about Black people. After generations of trauma, how do we enlighten, celebrate and provide programming that is healing programming. All of this is storytelling. We get a vision of someone else’s life. I was a pretty voracious reader as a kid and my aunt shared Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets anthology, and I was like, “a whole poetry book by Black people? Wow.” Once I was off to college, I took Black lit classes, then years later, I got to NBAF and met and worked with most of the people that I read about when I was a 10-year-old girl.
ArtsATL: What are some of your favorite Hammonds House memories?
Ellzy Wright: We were always laughing. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments that I cannot pick just one. That has been part of the joy of working with the Hammonds House team, board, volunteers, artists and patrons. Positivity, laughter and moments of intimate and collective transformation are always at play within the walls of the museum.
ArtsATL: What message do you want to leave for the next generation of Black curators?
Ellzy Wright: Honor the past, examine the present and press into the future.
ArtsATL: If you could share the Apollo stage and perform, with whom would it be?
Ellzy Wright: Dinah Washington was killing it back in the day! Her singing was beautiful and effortless, like breath.
ArtsATL: What sort of Apollo programming do you already have on deck?
Ellzy Wright: The Apollo stands with one foot in Black popular culture and the other in the Black cultural arts scene. That’s a unique space for an organization to occupy so fully and an exciting place to be your most creative self. From D-Nice spinning and the New Black Play Fest performing 10-minute plays in a weekend to Ta-Nahisi Coates in Conversation With Black Thought of the Roots and curating a 25-hour international women’s festival, I get to do all the things.
ArtsATL: If a theme song played every time you entered a room, what would it be?
Ellzy Wright: “Keep Your Head to the Sky” by Earth, Wind and Fire. Everything good in my life is because of the faith and prayers of those who came before me. This song is about faith. I learned about faithfulness and gratitude early in life and exercise it daily. When people see me, I want them to sense that my journey expands beyond me and maybe even includes them.