Penn Center Conversations

Penn Center

Culture and Community at the Penn Center will hold two community conversations each year. Each conversation will bring together academic and community experts and local stakeholders to discuss issues of relevance to the Sea Islands region: Its culture, its environments, and its people.

Gullah Meditations – Reimagined Gullah Spirituals for Voice and Piano

• 6 p.m. Friday, April 26, 2024

While performing at the 2016 Spoleto Festival, GRAMMY®-nominated tenor Victor Ryan Robertson was given an out-of-print edition of sheet music of little-known 19th-century Gullah Geechee spirituals from the islands off the coast of his home state of South Carolina. The history, melodies and lyrics resonated with him deeply. In 2022, he invited his friend and colleague – pianist, composer and Georgia native Adrianne Duncan – to set the a cappella melodies to music that reflected their backgrounds in opera, jazz and classical music. Their hope is that this contemporary take on spirituals from the rich Gullah Geechee culture will help preserve and bring forward this profoundly moving music to a new and wider audience.

Robertson and Duncan will perform their collaborative work, “Gullah Meditations,” followed by an audience conversation moderated by Dr. Robert Adams, Penn Center executive director. The event will take place in the Frisell Community House at Penn Center, and is free and open to the public with no reservations required.

Adrianne Duncan is a pianist, singer, composer, and songwriter based in Los Angeles. She has performed and recorded in the United States and internationally with globally recognized musicians including Grammy-nominated Lado B Brazilian Project, with whom she toured Brazil on keyboards and vocals, and on The Jazz Chamber with legendary multireedist Bennie Maupin. Duncan’s latest release Gemini features her original compositions and arrangements, and her voice and piano playing can be heard in numerous films and television shows.

Victor Ryan Robertson is an American musical artist distinguished by the compass and color of his tenor voice; he performs in genres including classical, contemporary, pop, and Broadway on both opera and theatrical stages. He recently sang the roles of Elijah and Street in X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X at The Metropolitan Opera of New York, and appeared on the soundtrack for the 2023 Netflix movie Rustin.

Adrianne Duncan and Victor Ryan Robinson

Remembering Pasts, Contemplating the Present, and Envisioning Futures: Gullah Geechee Cultures and Black Creativity

• Saturday, October 21, 2023

This conversation explored the impact that Gullah and Geechee cultures have on various contemporary forms of Black artistic expression. Panelists were invited to consider how their engagement with Gullah Geechee culture and history uniquely enables them to speak to audiences today. The conversation highlighted the liberating and catalyzing role that Gullah Geechee cultures continue to play in the Black creative imagination more broadly.

During this Penn Center Conversation, Nicole M. Morris Johnson, Ph.D. interviewed Chanon Judson, Tina McElroy Ansa, Kathy J. Brown, Ph.D., and Dianne McIntyre.

Judson, choreographer and artistic director of Urban Bush Women, conceived, directed, choreographed, and is currently touring Haint Blu, a “site responsive” show informed by Gullah culture.

Facilitator of an annual Sea Island Writers Retreat on Sapelo Island, novelist Tina McElroy Ansa is deeply aware of the creative implications that Gullah and Geechee cultures hold for African American literature broadly, as is evinced in her own writing.

Kathy J. Brown is the 2023 Carter Community Artist and Assistant Professor of Art Education at the University of North Texas College of Visual Art and Design. In both her own artistic practice and in her research and teaching, Professor Brown engages Gullah and Geechee cultures as key sites of visuality in African American art.

A legendary dancer and choreographer for stage and film (credits include Beloved), Dianne McIntyre’s formative, movement-defining research in the Sea Islands has had a lasting impact on her work. This impact shows up in her work referencing Gullah culture directly (In Living Color: A Gullah Story) and indirectly.

Haint Blu by Chanon Judson

Penn Center, Land, and Community

• Saturday, April 22, 2023

Land and community are at the heart of Penn Center’s history and mission. This Penn Center conversation shared contemporary perspectives on what they mean today, and was followed by a book signing and community dinner.

The panelists were Marquetta “Queen Quet” Goodwine, Chair of the Cultural Protection Overlay Review Committee in St. Helena, SC; Faith Rivers James, J.D., Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation League in Charleston, SC; Ben Cunningham, Senior Managing Attorney at South Carolina Environmental Law Project on Pawley’s Island, SC; Jack Smith of Nelson Mullins Law Firm in Charleston, SC; and Dr. Margaret Washington, Marie Underhill Noll Professor of American History at Cornell University.

The conversation was moderated by Dr. Valerie Babb, Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Emory University.

Introductory and closing remarks were given by Dr. Emory Campbell, Executive Director of Penn Center from 1980-2002, with a welcome from Penn Center Interim Executive Director Bernie Wright.

Artwork by Amiri Farris, 2023 Penn Center artist in residence

Sacred Spaces: The Penn Center, Belief and Belonging

• Saturday, April 30, 2022

This conversation explores the spaces where creative power, cultural heritage memories, and practices treated with reverence exist.

Panelists include artist and storyteller Natalie Daise; Griffin Lotson, manager of the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters; and artist and activist Charmaine Minniefield. Dr. Valerie Babb, Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities in the departments of African American Studies and English at Emory University, moderates the discussion.

Dr. Melissa L. Cooper, associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark and author of Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination, was unable to attend in person and provides her remarks in a separate video.

The panel discussion was followed by Charmaine Minniefield’s on-site projected installation, “The Praise House Project: Remembrance as Resistance, Preserving Black Narratives.”

In-person conversation at Penn Center:

Remarks by Dr. Melissa L. Cooper:

Citations for videos and images:

1. President hunts from ox cart in dixie wilds–outtakes. (Fox Movietone News Story 1-644.) Fox Movietone News Collection. Moving Image Research Collections. University of South Carolina.

2. Sandy Island–Huntington–home movies. (Huntington 14.) Anna and Archer Huntington Home Movies. Moving Image Research Collections. University of South Carolina.

3. Hunting photos: University of Georgia Marine Institute Library

*Photos of Penn Center classes from

Heirs’ Property: Land, Culture, and Community

• Monday, April 11, 2022

Virtual event

This conversation explores the ways in which family land preserves culture, provides sustainability, and connects us to history and each other.

Panelists include Emory Campbell, Culture and Community at Penn Center community research partner; Odetta MacLeish-White, Director of Georgia Initiatives at the Center for Community Progress; Beaufort, S.C. City Councilman Mitch Mitchell; attorney Cherese Handy; and moderator Rosalind Bentley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Video of the conversation:

Penn Center