Sharia Benn has been planting seeds through conversation since she was a girl growing up in Baltimore.
Back then, one of the only African American children in her class, she didn’t invite those conversations, but she engaged because she was often the focal point.
Now, as the cofounder of Sankofa African American Theatre Company in Harrisburg, Benn is the one intentionally facilitating those conversations. She has decided to stand in the spotlight and pull onto the stage topics like veiled and overt racism, police brutality and other issues that some might want to keep hidden.
On Dec. 27, she hopes to start another robust community conversation, as Sankofa hosts the region’s first African American film festival. The event will bring Emmy-nominated actor Michael Kenneth Williams to Harrisburg to discuss his film, “Raised in the System,” which focuses on youth in the criminal justice system. That film, along with “The Hate U Give,” another film that explores themes of family, white privilege, police brutality and love, will be shown during the film festival, to be held in late December at the State Museum.
“Everything in my life has led up to this,” Benn said of her work with Sankofa and its continued growth through events like the film festival.
She recalled how her white classmates and peers back in Baltimore saw her as “just this strange being,” and how her fellow Girl Scouts wanted to touch her hair when she went on camping trips with them.
As an adult, those feelings of being different from many of the people around her have continued.
Now living in Harrisburg, Benn still finds herself in the middle of occasionally awkward conversations, as she is one of the few African Americans in management in the insurance industry, she said.
Some of the things she hears would cause people less practiced in such conversations to turn away—racially insensitive opinions and assumptions. When Benn has those encounters, she embraces them. They’re teachable moments.
When she chooses to engage, to teach, she has often found that people truly don’t realize what they’re doing, and they have an interest in learning, in getting better.
“I believe that a lot of the tension, the pain, is because people on both sides, African Americans (and) whites, don’t know, don’t understand the other perspective,” she said. “And when you do understand it, when you’re exposed to it, what you do after, that’s a choice.”
Sankofa is all about exposing its audiences to themes that open the door to understanding.
Johntrae Williams, 39, a graduate of Harrisburg High School and the University of The Arts in Philadelphia, and the vice president of Sankofa African American Theatre Company, said one of the missions of Sankofa is to give African Americans more exposure to the theater world.
“There’s not enough trained African Americans in the field,” he said.
And, he added, most theatergoers are white.
“One of our goals was to get African Americans as theatergoers,” Williams said.
He added that Sankofa is not about creating an experience exclusive to African Americans, but to create an experience for everyone, where African Americans are driving the message of their own stories and their perspectives, to welcome everyone to be part of the conversation.
“When you create a safe space, you don’t want to preach to the choir,” Williams said. “You want all parties involved to come and talk about the issues.”
Hosting a film festival to draw attention to the theater company and to hopefully draw in financial support for it—it’s a nonprofit that was incorporated in June 2017—came about through another connection. The Sankofa 21 Institute in Harrisburg, which is an entirely separate organization, is partnering with the theater company for the event.
Williams got to talking with Paul Carey, president of Sankofa 21 Institute, and realized they both wanted to bring a film festival to Harrisburg that was focused on African American themes. Carey is the brother of Michael Kenneth Williams—most famous for his roles in “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “12 Years A Slave”—and made the connection with him possible.
“This (film festival) is an opportunity … to be a voice,” Johntrae Williams said. “It’s an opportunity to cultivate change. But it’s really an opportunity to bring the community together, to bring two Sankofas together.”
Benn said she hopes to sell out the State Museum auditorium.
“We want to fill all of the seats there with people who want to know and who want to live better,” she said.
She added that it’s about more than just entertainment.
“It’s about opening minds and hearts to these human experiences,” she said. “For 300 years, African Americans were not even thought of as human.… When you can wrap your head around those things from a historical perspective and a sociological perspective and even an economic perspective, then maybe you can start to see in the present why things are the way they are, and decide and understand what we have to do differently so we can all coexist harmoniously.”
The Sankofa Film Festival takes place on Dec. 27, with doors opening at 6:30 p.m., at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, 300 North St., Harrisburg. General admission tickets can be purchased online or at the door. VIP tickets are also available. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.sankofatheatrehbg.com.