The first time I saw Anita Singleton-Prather perform was at Grand Army Hall, a historic building in downtown Beaufort not too far from where she lives. She and her Gullah Kinfolk ensemble were portraying the history of the Gullah community.
Singleton-Prather was dressed in old-timey clothes and used a tall walking stick to pound the floor with a rhythmic fierceness that gave an edge to her educational, joyous performance. I must've had the big-eyed look of "Oh please, not me!," because she pulled me up out of my seat and got me clapping and singing in front of the audience. It's hard work to perform on stage, no matter how experienced you are.
A few years later, she and I were working together in the local schools, integrating literary and performing arts across the curriculum. I watched her students transform the hallways into the Underground Railroad.
This year, Singleton-Prather is the recipient of the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award. She's also making another movie, filming it here in Beaufort with producers who have worked internationally, and her Gullah Traveling Theater just received nonprofit status. I am very glad she's had the artistic freedom to achieve all this, and I am not referring to the "constraints" of the antebellum South. I am referring to our state legislators, who are actively denouncing books and plays. "Artistic freedom" is not word for nothing left to lose, as the old song goes, it means, instead, expertise and progress.
"This is a dream come true. Showcasing Beaufort is in my heart," Singleton-Prather said about her heritage award. "As you preserve the culture, the culture will preserve you. I'm so excited about the jobs people got because of this movie, and I brought in my former students and gave them something positive to see. Not everyone can sing like ("American Idol") Candice (Glover), but someone has to hold the camera and be the audio engineer. I'm always a teacher."
Inez Miller of St. Helena Island nominated Singleton-Prather for the heritage award from the South Carolina Arts Commission. She and Singleton-Prather connected 15 years ago when Miller's daughter Regina was attending St. Helena Island Elementary School.
"I enjoyed watching the children interact with what she does," Miller explained. "They learned from that. I found myself singing some of the spirituals she taught them. At the Heritage parade last year, Anita introduced the tennis team and said 'These are the future Venus and Serenas.' We're just watching the show, not thinking about them that way, but she's always on the job working, she's always finding a good moment, always giving us a reason to think."
Now Regina is a theater major at Columbia College. "I'm definitely a supporter of the arts," said her proud mother. "I'm a community-service type person, I volunteer a lot with Penn Center and Heritage Days. We need to showcase the talent, run with that, build upon that."
Singleton-Prather will receive the heritage award May 8 before the general assembly at the State House in Columbia, and her Gullah Kinfolk are the featured entertainers for the gala.
"This is not my award," she said. "It's the Aunt Pearlie Sue, Gullah Kinfolk, Beaufort County award. I could not have not done it without my pastor, my children, the Givens." She continued listing people, including the producers of her latest movie, and Ned Tupper, Suzanne Larson, Tracey Dingle, and her extended family who showed her the beauty of the Gullah language and folkways.
"They have been my support, covering me in prayer, keeping me going. My only regret is my mother and grandmother are not here, they were really supportive of every crazy idea I came up with. I was talking like I had a million dollars, but I had a vision, a mission of being a performer, preserving the Gullah culture, sharing with the world, developing pride and integrity for the young people. From now on I keep control of what I do. Thank God for my parents and grandparents who never denied our culture. If I decided to do 200 jumping jacks, my daddy wouldn't let me quit. That was the tenacity they gave me, to not give up on your dreams."
Or the freedom to produce the movies and sing the songs you choose.
Lisa Annelouise Rentz lives and writes in Beaufort.