If you’re looking for a fanciful tale about unicorns, you might be disappointed. Marjani Forté-Saunders’ “Memoirs of a…Unicorn” isn’t about a one-horned creature so much as “the power of culture and the ingenuity of black men,” as seen through the eyes of a Pasadena-native who went on to become a 2014 Princess Grace Choreography Fellow.
Born and raised in Northwest Pasadena, Forté-Saunders and her husband composer, Everett Saunders, a native of Philadelphia, are currently co-directors of the Alkebulan Cultural Center, located in a converted Pasadena firehouse on North Raymond Avenue. Pasadena is where Forté-Saunders got her start with the Ebony Jivettes.
“It’s the first place I started dancing,” Forté-Saunders noted during a recent phone interview. The Jivettes were meeting in Loma Alta Park in Altadena when Forté-Saunders was only 3. She continued to dance, coming under the tutelage of Nailah Randall-Bellinger. “She specifically wanted to dance within my cultural heritage,” she recalled of her mentor, but Randall-Bellinger also backed that up with a ballet foundation.
After graduating — partially attending both Marshall Fundamental and the LA County High School for the Arts, she ultimately earned a bachelor of arts degree in marketing and dance from Loyola Marymount University. She traveled as a performer with Urban Bush Women Dance Co. for five years, and co-founded (with Nia Love) Love|Forté A Collective. A new work commissioned by Los Angeles-based dance company Contra-Tiempo resulted in the Princess Grace Choreography Fellowship Award.
On Friday, Aug. 24, and Saturday, Aug. 25, her new deeply personal solo piece, “Memoirs of a…Unicorn,” will be performed at the Ford Theatres with an intimate limited audience of only 140. The piece uses structures created by MacArthur Genius and Tony Award-winning set designer Mimi Lien that were built by Forté-Saunders’ father, Rick Forté, a skilled carpenter and contractor. Her father’s involvement adds another layer to the narrative which Forté-Saunders said is spurred by stories from her Arkansas-born father’s life, but also incorporates the experiences of her husband and her son. The piece is about the “unicorns” in her life, who occupy the roles of father, husband, brother and son. For Forté-Saunders, unicorns are magical creatures filled with mercurial passion, enduring purity and unpredictable wildness that can only be approached by kindred spirits.
According to Forté-Saunders’ previous accounts about this piece, her father, who is one of her central unicorns, didn’t have the opportunity to pursue his formal education, leaving at an early age, but he continued to read and introduced her to another local: Octavia Butler. During our interview, Forté-Saunders mentioned that more recently, he can be found tinkering with computers, something he’s done since computers could fill a room. That’s not surprising, considering her husband is a Logic Pro certified instructor and an Apple-certified trainer who has a New York-based company, Flux Inn, which provides audio, video and software training, web design, photography and branding services.
Although Forté-Saunders acknowledges the “dehumanizing space in popular culture” in the identity of black males because it is difficult to say “that my father or my son was a black man without acknowledging the trauma they face of police violence and legislation,” her piece is a “fantastical narrative” that aims to “get the audiences to think less about the construct of race” and more about the “ingenuity” of such men in their “ability to survive and ability to thrive.”
Think of just how much the African diaspora has changed the world, how “nearly every cultural art coming out of North America” has been touched by African culture and how it has spread and “transformed the globe,” she explained. “You hear it in the music of Japan or the hip hop in Australia or referenced in the blues in Scotland.” You can “see all these seeds of culture, sown up and blossomed.” And, she is careful to note, “Not all Africans are descendants of the slave trade.”
There are many stories that are “not necessarily being told” because “people of color aren’t given the opportunities to tell them. I’m using my art to dust those stories off,” she said. “I am interested in sharing the part about celebrating the magic and majesty, the mystic and fantastical ideas of what we can be.” Her work is a celebration of family, with her husband not only designing the sound composition but also even defining her look because he’s a master barber who shaped her hair style.
The production was well-received enough during its New York run to earn a 2018 Bessie Award nomination for Outstanding Production and Outstanding Visual Design. Bessie Awards go to creative work by independent dance artists in NYC.
“Memoirs of a…Unicorn” is at 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, August 24-25, at the Ford Theatres, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. Tickets are $25. Visit FordTheatres.org or call (323) 461-3673.