L-R Kam Kelly, LaQuita Marie Staten, workshop participant, and Corey The Talented Blind Guy leading the 757 Unity Drum Circle, June 2020. Photo by Karen Pino.
September 2021 | LaQuita Marie Staten
What do you get when you combine caffeinated beverages, world music percussion, and meaningful conversations about people with disabilities led by people with disabilities? You get Atumpan Edutainment Inc.’s (AE) Changing the Narrative of Normal: Java, Djembes, and Djelis (“Java and Djembes”).
Java and Djembes evolved from AE’s annual Rhythms of Life summer drum circles in 2015. Corey the Talented Blind Guy is AE’s co-founder, lead storyteller, playwright, actor, director, workshop facilitator, and percussionist. He says, “We noticed that a lot of people with different abilities were attending the Rhythms of Life drum circles. Lots of great interactions were occuring between people who were differently abled and people who are ‘normal,’ but on a very superficial level. Becoming a part of Alternate ROOTS’ 2020 Partners In Action cohort provided the perfect platform to deepen the engagement and conversations surrounding disability awareness.”
Atumpan Edutainment’s Java and Djembes Drum Circle at Portsmouth Arts & Cultural Center in 2019. Photo by Bonney Barnes.
Java and Djembes took on a life of its own during the COVID-19 pandemic. What was originally planned as a series of drum circles designed to bring policy makers and corporate movers/shakers into real conversations with people with different abilities had to quickly morph into something more dynamic. “Instead of limiting ourselves to a few workshop-style story-sharing and music creation sessions for a select group of people, we opened the drum circles up to the general public,” Corey recounts. “COVID-19 actually kind of helped us out in 2020. We held the drum circles outdoors in some beautiful park and community garden settings. People couldn’t wait to get outside and get creative after being cooped up in the house due to COVID restrictions.”
Even though Java and Djembes was condensed into the months of May-September, 2020, there was still a great impact. The drum circles were facilitated by drum master Kam Kelly, who uses a wheelchair, and percussionist Corey the Talented Blind Guy. “We call ourselves the X-Men,” Corey joked. “Kam is Professor Charles Xavier because he uses a wheelchair. I’m Dare Devil because I’m blind.”
Interacting with differently-abled music instructors was not just an eye-opening experience for Java and Djembes participants. It also challenged AE’s staff members. “You could see a shift in the dynamics of the way people began to interact with each other,” notes AE’s assistant choreographer Fannese Britton. “It never failed that people began to reveal different abilities that typically go unnoticed. People began to open up and share their stories of being hard of hearing, having sciatic nerve disorder, loss of vision in one eye, ADD, ADHD, and even having paralysis after having a stroke. It even made me take note of my own vision which requires prescription eyewear in order for me to read certain things and to drive. That let me know that we’re not as normal as we think we are.”
AE’s assistant choreographer Fannese Britton at the “Arts are Wild” event, May 2014. Photo by LaQuita Staten.
COVID-19 also enhanced AE’s productivity in its efforts to change the narrative of normal. “Once the weather shifted into fall and winter, outdoor gatherings were a wrap,” says Corey. “That’s when my wife LaQuita Marie had the stroke of genius to continue the work of story-sharing by starting a weekly broadcast on our YouTube channel.”
AE’s Blind Guy, His Wife, Their Life Live airs weekly on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 11:15 a.m. EST. The purpose of the show is to change the narrative of viewers’ expectations of what they consider “normal” for a person with a different ability, for a person of color, or for people working in certain professions. Blind Guy, His Wife, Their Life Live has opened up the conversations about disabilities across the country and around the world. Viewers tune in from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, Belgium, and parts of Central America.
“We’ve interviewed cancer survivors, domestic violence survivors, people with hearing and vision loss, and people who lost mobility due to workplace injuries,” Corey recalls. “Our live broadcast has expanded our network of people who have inspirational stories to share; people we never would have met if not interacting with them in different online communities during quarantine.”
Not only have these interactions given the broadcast great guests to interview, it has also opened the doors for national and international business opportunities. “We’ve actually established several business relationships with our new national and international friends,” Corey beams. “We’re currently developing plans to create an animated film about different ability awareness with an animator out in Pennsylvania, our web design and logos was created by a woman in South Africa (Nthabi of iLDesigns), our merchandise line was created and is being managed by PressNSow out of Florida, and we’re developing a new podcast collaboration called Super Friends ColLABoratory with differently abled content creator Shawn Connors. All of these connections were made by a click of a mouse while we were under social distancing restrictions. For us, quarantine was awesome!”
The Super Friends ColLABoratory: Shawn Connors, LaQuita Staten, and Corey Staten, in the home video studio of Blind Guy, His Wife, Their Life Live. Photo by Shawn Connors.
All of the experiences gained from the course of Java and Djembes has helped AE reevaluate its own definition of normal. AE has found ways to increase productivity, creativity, and inclusion in its own artistic productions. The organization was forced to evaluate and mitigate its own shortcomings when it comes to accessibility of their productions. “Java and Djembes made us look more closely at everything we do,” Corey says. “Our script writing has become more descriptive for people who are vision impaired, our staging has evolved to be more inclusive of performers who have mobility challenges, and we are taking advantage of the resources provided by other organizations who specialize in adaptive equipment and accomodations for people with different abilities so that they can access our artistic offerings.”
Author’s Bio: LaQuita Marie Staten is the co-founder and artistic director of Atumpan Edutainment, Inc. Atumpan Edutainment (AE) is the Mid-Atlantic Region’s leading arts education ensemble using original theatrical productions, world music, folklore, and dance as vehicles for inclusion and social change. LaQuita Marie’s passion for changing the narrative of normal was born out of her dual experiences as a geriatric and a pediatric nurse for patients with life sustaining equipment for over 25 years. Her passion for people with different abilities also stems from being the wife of Corey the Talented Blind Guy: AE’s co-founder, lead storyteller, playwright, actor, director, workshop facilitator, and percussionist. Since AE’s inception in 1998, LaQuita Marie has been commissioned to direct and choreograph over 15 theatrical productions for a variety of professional theater companies. LaQuita Marie is also the creative genius and co-host of “Blind Guy, His Wife, Their Life Live,” a weekly broadcast she hosts with her husband on YouTube. LaQuita Marie has combined her experience in the medical field, her talent as a professional musician, and her creativity as a choreographer to position AE as a platform for changing the narrative of normal from disabled to that of differently abled.
Atumpan Edutainment, Inc. is available for in-person and virtual presentation. Bring AE expertise in creating equity for people of all abilities, nonviolent communication, and their interactive, musically-based seminars to your staff’s next team building or professional development day. Promote your brand to AE’s international audience by becoming a promotional sponsor of the Blind Guy, His Wife, Their Life Live broadcast. Be sure to purchase great merchandise, and subscribe, like, and share the great content on Blind Guy, His Wife, Their Life.