FAVORITE POEM — Now Sheba Sings the Song
October 1, 2020
By Margaret Rozga, Wisconsin Poet Laureate
The pandemic has not in the least slowed down playwright and BronzevilleArts Ensemble Artistic Director Sheri Williams Pannell.
In the August 23 to September 12 run of the Milwaukee Black Theater Festival, she performed key roles in five of its events. She served as a panelist, as a host and discussion moderator, director of Home, one of the festival’s three featured plays, and director of The Concert for Unity, the festival’s opening event. She also performed in that first event, singing with Cynthia Cobb, Krystal Drake, and Raven Dockery in the quartet known as the Bronzeville Divas. They sang a stirring rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This James Weldon Johnson song is sometimes referred to as the Black National Anthem.
Even as the festival was in full gear, Professor Pannell began the new fall semester teaching in UW-Milwaukee’s Theater Department and serving as its head of the Musical Theater division. I felt lucky to be able to connect with her in the midst of presentations in and deep-thinking about these events to help build the Milwaukee community and Milwaukee arts community we need.
Sheri said she was happy to talk poetry with me, having come to a love of poetry early in her life. She read and loved the work of Maya Angelou even before attending a reading when Angelou performed in Milwaukee. Hearing Angelou “sometimes read, sometimes recite” her work, Sheri said, “I felt the power of her presence and her language.”
In keeping with her own multi-arts perspective, the favorite poem she chose to highlight is a collaborative one. Maya Angelou’s poem “Now Sheba Sings the Song,” is the text of the 1987 book of the same title that accompanies illustrator Tom Feelings’ drawings of Black women.
Though not as well-known as Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman,” Sheri’s choice also celebrates the beauty of women and extends that theme in time and place throughout the African diaspora. Feelings was inspired to draw these 84 images of women in the United States and those he observed in his travels over the course of 25 years in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.
The book is thus able to convey a sense of the array of styles and skin tones among Black women. In her workshops with high school girls, Sheri found this inclusiveness an important means to counter the status given to lighter hues, even within the Black community. “Girls are trying to see where they fit,” Sheri said, and she wants them “to recognize their beauty.” Moreover, she sees both text and image in this book as helping the girls “appreciate the beauty of their other family members, and those outside the family.”
Those various shades of skin color are praised in Angelou’s poem. Sheri cites these lines to underscore that point:
Throughout the poem the speaker highlights color as essential to natural beauty and links it to herself: