By Ed Karvoski Jr., Culture Editor
BOSTON – Valerie Stephens of Boston has embodied her longtime passion for history on stages continuously for over three decades.
“In order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you came from,” she advised. “We continue to make the same mistakes over and over again because we don’t look back.”
Stephens looks back at growing up in South Boston when she didn’t see herself reflected in children’s literature.
“There were no Black people in any of my books,” she recalled. “I was constantly looking for something that showed me. I started looking at history in middle school. I fell in love with history.”
Life-changing experience sparks stage work
Her interests expanded while majoring in psychology at UMass Amherst.
“UMass changed my life,” she declared. “I got to UMass the first year that they started Black studies and the second year that they started a scholarship program to bring in more people of color.”
In her 1969 freshman year, Stephens took an intro to Black drama class and made her stage debut. Also that year, she attended a concert of singer-songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone.
After graduating, Stephens performed theater in Western Massachusetts. Her interests in history and performing merged when she portrayed abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman in a national tour for about nine years with the Underground Railway Theater.
Upon returning to Boston, Stephens attended Nina Simone’s 1986 concert at Symphony Hall.
“I started seeing the effect that Nina Simone had on people,” Stephens recounted. “She was completely authentic and spoke her mind to the powers that be through her art form.”
Educating on music history
Beginning in the late-1990s, Stephens educated youth on blues music via stints at the House of Blues’ original Cambridge location in Harvard Square. Working as director of cultural programming and community partnerships for the International House of Blues Foundation (now known as Music Forward), she created “The Blues Schoolhouse: History of the Blues” with performances in Boston and Los Angeles.
When the U.S. Congress proclaimed 2003 as Year of the Blues, she produced and performed “Sweet & Salty: Dressed to the Nines” at the now-closed Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge. The tribute featured music of renowned classic blues singers including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Dinah Washington.
“All the talk during Year of the Blues was about men with no mention of women at all,” Stephens noted. “Women upgraded the blues in this country. Before classic blues singers like Ma Rainey, it was called country blues with men playing instruments at juke joints. Classic blues came after that with almost all women led by Ma Rainey.”
In 2007, Stephens paid tribute to the “High Priestess of Soul” with “The Music & Times of Nina Simone” at multiple Boston venues.
‘Going to the edge’
After concentrating on singing and storytelling at clubs, festivals, libraries and museums for a number of years, Stephens accepted an invitation to return to the theatrical stage. She played the role of Mammy Crow in Company One’s 2011 production of “Neighbors” at Boston Center for the Arts.
“I did the play because they asked me to perform in blackface,” she shared. “I have no problem going to the edge.”
The experience prompted her to produce and perform the solo play “The Mammy Diaries” in 2012. It was workshopped at Roxbury’s Hailey House Bakery Café and then staged at Cambridge’s Multicultural Arts Center.
“In ‘The Mammy Diaries,’ I wanted to explore two questions: What’s the price of assimilation and who determines our aesthetic?” she explained. “We’ve cast these women out in order to assimilate, but has it really worked?”
Continuing to produce relevant projects
Inspired by Simone’s mantra, “an artist’s duty is to reflect the times,” Stephens began producing and performing “Four Women: Nina Simone” in 2015, and “Nina Simone & Hip Hop” in 2018, both at venues in central and eastern Massachusetts.
“Her work is still relevant,” Stephens said of Simone.
Although the pandemic canceled many of Stephens’ gigs, she presented three summertime 2020 performances of “Nina Simone & Hip Hop” at Cambridge’s outdoor Starlight Square.
Pre-pandemic, Stephens performed on stages nearly nonstop.
“I’ve been working for the last 35 years and have never been offstage for longer than three months – and that’s when I had a knee replacement,” she shared. “I’m at my best communicating directly with a live audience.”
Find more information about Valerie Stephens at valerie-stephens.com.