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Boston’s Arts Scene: 2023 year in review

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Boston’s Arts Scene: 2023 year in review
Simone Leigh, "Cupboard", installation view, ICA. PHOTO: Timothy Schenck

Boston’s arts scene, historically catering to an older, white audience, has been slowly but steadily making space for diverse artists and audiences. 2023 saw more music, theater, film, visual art and dance highlighting Black artists and art forms than any year in the last decade. These selections from the Banner’s coverage this year represent some of the most significant examples of that growth, both in community impact and artistic excellence. 

Theater

“Fairview” — Speakeasy Stage
Speakeasy Stage premiered “Fairview,” a probing play that directly confronts the white gaze, particularly in the context of theater spaces. In The Hub, where theater audiences are still predominantly white, this production sparked an essential dialogue about art, access and ethical cultural consumption.

“K.I.S.S.I.N.G.” — Front Porch Arts Collective and The Huntington
Written by Lenelle Moïse, who grew up in Cambridge, “K.I.S.S.I.N.G.” presented a beautiful story of young Black love as three teenagers grappled with their identities, expectations and feelings for each other. In an arts landscape that often centers Black trauma, this slice of youthful joy was a gift.

“The Half-God of Rainfall.” PHOTO: JOAN MARCUS

“The Half-God of Rainfall” — A.R.T.
Yoruba deities and Greek gods shared the stage in this unique production by Nigerian playwright and poet Inua Ellams. Written in verse like a classical myth, the story followed Demi, a half-god conceived from a sexual assault, whose gift was prowess on the basketball court.

“The Wife of Willesden” — A.R.T.
Written by literary powerhouse Zadie Smith, “The Wife of Willesden” retold the classic Chaucer story from “The Canterbury Tales,” with a contemporary feminist twist. Here the Wife of Bath became a confident Jamaican storyteller entrancing a crowd at a local pub and learning to center herself rather than the men in her life.

“Clyde’s” — The Huntington
Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage pulled out all the stops (and the toppings) with this heartwarming comedy about formerly incarcerated individuals working at a sandwich shop. The audience learned the characters’ greatest hopes and fears while they worked in pursuit of the perfect sandwich.

“Fat Ham” — Front Porch Arts Collective and The Huntington
In this delightful queer and Black retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the title character grapples with his father’s death and the desire not to continue the toxic cycle of masculinity within his family. Despite the important and heavy themes, this spin was a comedy, and it created a laugh-out-loud celebration of queerness and both blood and chosen family.

Dance

“Banned Ballet” by Abilities Dance. PHOTO: COURTESY ABILITIES DANCE

“Banned Ballet” — Abilities Dance
Abilities Dance continued to expand its innovative range in “Banned Ballet,” a narrative performance commenting on book bans across the U.S. that particularly target queer and BIPOC narratives and histories. Incorporating animation for the first time, the show was at once beautiful, political and family-friendly.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company
Back in Boston for the first time since 2013, The Paul Taylor Dance Company debuted a recently choreographed work, “Somewhere in the Middle,” during which dancers paid tribute to the African American jazz canon, including Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

“We Move in Color” — Wyatt Jackson & Company
This multimedia performance, featuring movement choreographed by Wyatt Jackson, paid homage to African American history, telling the cultural story from pre-Colonialism through slavery, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement and the birth of hip-hop into present day. This large-scale, immersive experience was a moving and unique way to approach African American history.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. PHOTO: PAUL KOLNIK

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Alvin Ailey’s annual performances in Boston are a joyful slice of the arts calendar and a reminder of the rich history of African American dance. In addition to new compositions, a local connection drew Bostonians to the show: Lawrence native and Boston Arts Academy alum Belén Indhira Pereyra performed with the company.

Subject:Matter
Local tap group Subject:Matter performed selections from their 2019 piece “Songbook” that pays homage to a Boston tap legend, Black dancer Leon Collins. Paired with big band selections from The Great American Songbook, the piece conjured up visions of Roxbury in the 1950s, where Collins had his studio.

Music

Wayne Shorter
Though significant artistic strides were made in 2023, there were significant losses as well, including that of the Grammy award-winning saxophonist Wayne Shorter. The Banner paid homage to Shorter in March after the musician passed away at the age of 89. Shorter worked with jazz greats like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock and produced a significant catalogue of his own jazz compositions. 

Castle of Our Skins album cover. COURTESY PHOTO

Castle of Our Skins
Castle of Our Skins, an organization that shines the light on Black composers and music of the African diaspora, celebrated their 10-year anniversary in 2023. In addition to a significant roster of educational programs, Castle of Our Skins has produced three anthologies and an album of chamber music from the African continent and diaspora.

BAMS Fest
The Boston Art & Music Soul Festival, more commonly referred to as BAMS Fest, hosted its fifth annual event in June 2023. The multi-day music festival in Franklin Park celebrates BIPOC and local artists with a particular focus on Black artists. The festival has grown into a significant community event made by and for Black Boston.

Local hip-hop group STL GLD. COURTESY PHOTO

GLD FSTVL
Iconic Boston-born hip-hop group STL GLD launched their first GLD FSTVL, showcasing both local and national hip-hop artists. In addition to providing a platform, GLD FSTVL made a point of paying local artists equitably, offering more significant compensation than larger-scale festivals, including Boston Calling.

“Dear Summer” Mixtape
For the first time ever, the City of Boston produced a summer mixtape featuring 68 tracks by local artists, mixed by local DJs. Artists from Roxbury and Dorchester were heavily represented in this groundbreaking celebration of local music, making up about half the tape.

Film

“Love to Love You, Donna Summer”
Splicing together archival footage and home videos with voice recordings from friends, family members and fellow celebrities, this documentary, featured in the Independent Film Festival Boston, delved into the life behind the sequins of Boston-born disco diva Donna Summer.

A scene from the film “A Thousand and One.” IMAGE: COURTESY FOCUS FEATURES

“A Thousand and One”
A.V. Rockwell made a strong directorial debut with “A Thousand and One,” which won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. In a story about an incarcerated woman attempting to reconnect with her family and build a new life, Rockwell illustrated the complexity of Black women, a far reach away from standard tropes.

Ruth E. Carter — Coolidge Award
Legendary costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who has styled divas like Tina Turner and characters for films like “Black Panther,” was honored with a Coolidge Award from the Coolidge Corner Theater. The Springfield native was the first African American to win the award. 

“The Little Mermaid”
This Disney remake may not be classified as high art, but there’s no denying the significance of the casting. Black actress Halle Bailey played Ariel, and the updated script included allusions to climate change, cultural inclusion and a more independent Disney princess.

SAG-AFTRA strike hits Boston
The SAG-AFTRA strike had a profound impact on local actors. Despite the challenges, with many actors having to ration groceries and pick up extra gigs to make ends meet, the Boston SAG-AFTRA chapter stayed strong, fighting for ethical compensation and rights to their own digital image.

Visual Art

“The Embrace” sculpture unveiled on
Boston Common. PHOTO: CELINA COLBY

“The Embrace”
This bronze sculpture by artist Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group honored Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King on an epic scale. Despite some controversy, the piece brought much-needed contemporary art and Black history representation to the Boston Common.

“Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer” — Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Famed contemporary artist and assemblage creator Betye Saar was highlighted in this exhibition, with a particular focus on her travel works. A connection was made between Saar and Isabella Stewart Gardner, as they traveled to many of the same places, although in very different contexts, and documented their experiences. 

“Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina” — Museum of Fine Arts
The art pieces of enslaved ceramicists working in Old Edgefield, South Carolina between 1820 and 1870 were the focus of this exhibition. Though significant for the artwork’s aesthetic beauty and technical prowess, the show was also a landmark for the MFA. It was the first exhibition in the museum’s 153-year history that displayed works indisputably created by enslaved artists.

Fabiola Jean-Louis stands in front of her exhibition “Rewriting History” at the IsabellaStewart Gardner Museum. PHOTO: ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM

“Fabiola Jean-Louis: Rewriting History” – Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Haitian American artist Fabiola Jean-Louis uses photography and fashion, in the form of intricate paper dresses, to probe racial and cultural power structures in history and today. This exhibition was just the start of the Gardner Museum’s extensive work with the artist. She’ll be taking over all of the museum exhibition spaces in 2025, a coup for Boston as Jean-Louis is on the precipice of greatness.

“Simone Leigh” — Institute of Contemporary Art
Simone Leigh was the first Black woman to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale and she was selected for the commission by the ICA/Boston curatorial team. Her comprehensive show “Simone Leigh” in Boston included some of the Biennale works as well as other sculptures, photographs and films.

“Resurgence” — African American Master Artists-in-Residence Program
AAMARP has been a home for some of Boston’s most renowned Black artists for nearly 50 years. “Resurgence” was the first exhibition from the group after a period of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic and tense negotiations with Northeastern University, which houses the program. The show also marked the group’s beginning steps towards empowering a younger generation of artists.

Faith Ringgold COURTESY PHOTO

“Faith Ringgold: Freedom to Say What I Please” — Worcester Art Museum
This year, the Worcester Art Museum exhibited Black artist and activist Faith Ringgold’s first solo show in New England in more than 15 years. The exhibition showcased a wide variety of Ringgold’s multimedia, textile-centric works, almost all of which include potent social or political commentary.