ORLANDO, Fla. – Much like the performers behind Black Theatre Girl Magic, the nonprofit itself adopts different roles over the years, constantly transforming to better serve the Black and brown women within it.
The mastermind behind the magic, Executive Director Mandi Jo John, said the organization has evolved a lot since forming as a Facebook group back in 2017.
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“Initially, it was all about connecting us all to each other and providing solidarity and providing a sounding board and kind of giving each other that what I call ‘the dressing room experience’ that we would not normally get, because very, very rarely are we ever cast in the staged shows together,” John said.
Now, John said, her nonprofit BTGM has grown into a force of advocacy and education for those in the entertainment industry.
“We’ve kind of started to realign. It’s not just about creating awareness and having these conversations. It’s about really standing behind Black and brown women and empowering them and educating them in whatever it is that they feel that they need in order to successfully create their own art independent of a system that may or may not oppress them,” John said.
That effort to empower and search for actionable solutions will be in the spotlight at the nonprofit’s second annual Juneteenth celebration, commemorating the very community they aim to serve on the holiday itself.
The celebration kicks off on June 19 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Orlando Repertory Theatre with a “Lunch & Learn” series, which promises to teach children of all ages about the holiday through dramatic readings of Juneteenth books.
This will be followed by a “Facets of Freedom: Juneteenth Celebration,” featuring musical and cultural performances, an art exhibit, a DJ, food trucks and more from 6-10 p.m. previously scheduled to be held in Loch Haven Park, but due to inclement weather, has since been moved to the Dr. Phillips Center Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater.
“It’s advocacy in action, but it’s mostly a love letter to the Black and brown performers of Central Florida,” said John, an Orlando native who got her performing arts start at the University of Central Florida. “It’s about celebrating this holiday, which is important to all of us, not just the entertainment industry ... so it’s providing us this opportunity to explore what this national holiday means to us as an artistic community because for the first time ever Juneteenth is a national holiday.”
The Juneteenth celebration is reaching new heights since its inception last year when close to 100 people gathered at Nan’s Place, a small arts studio in Maitland, to enjoy a coalescence of creative forces.
“We had visual arts, we had spoken word, African drums, a live band, performances, poetry, a live muralist,” John said. “It was really just an experience and an ability to kind of have fellowship. And it is out of that spirit that we want to continue this particular event. My goal is to use this event to anchor an entire arts festival in Lock Haven Park.”
Her dream festival would be centered around Juneteenth and “the work of the American and Caribbean and diasporic descendants of slavery.”
“In my wildest ambitions of this, it is the premier arts festival on Juneteenth on the East Coast. And that brings in millions of dollars in revenue in Central Florida and creates opportunities for Black and brown artists along the East Coast,” John said. “BTGM is all over the country. Our board is all over the country. And we have members even internationally. But for Juneteenth, and for this dream of an arts festival, Orlando just makes the most sense to me because this is where I was filled up ... I know the community and I know how we can (lift it up).”
It’s a community she knows very well as an Orlando native having been born into a family full of artists of all kinds.
“I was very privileged in that my father’s a singer. My mother is a classical flutist. I was raised in a recording studio and on a stage, so it was just something that I was saturated with and given access to by their experiences,” she said.
And while John has since taken the mantle as a performer-nonprofit leader hyphenate, a role she neither expected nor auditioned for, it’s one she is proud to take on as she molds the metamorphosis of BTGM.
“If you had told me that I would be running an organization that was educationally aimed, that is not something I ever thought I would be doing. That’s where the work took us,” John said. “... What we did last year isn’t necessarily going to be the work that needs to be done this year. So we’re gonna stay fluid with that, at least for, I think, probably another 5 to 7 years just to get a really good holistic view of what progress needs to happen within the industry.”