Jasmine Blanks Jones: An Introduction to the CSC’s New Executive Director

The performance, 200 Years of Returns, mid performance showing a man beating a drum with four women in the background smiling and dancing. Done through previous work by Dr. Jasmine Blanks Jones.

By: Sierra Romero

The Center for Social Concern welcomed Jasmine Blanks Jones as the new Executive Director this past semester. Jasmine comes to the CSC with a multitude of exciting experiences, some that are occurring while she transitions into her new role at Hopkins.

Over twelve days in December, Dr. Jasmine Blanks Jones and 13 DMV-based students traveled to Liberia, West Africa. Here, they performed 200 Years of Returns, an original play.

Learning and Performing in Liberia

This Community-Based Learning (CBL) abroad experience was supported by JHU’s Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship in partnership with Inheritance Baltimore. The project involved a vast array of people including residents of Baltimore City. Some include affiliates of Orita’s Cross Freedom School and Angels of Praise dance ministry at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church. In addition, two graduate students from the Baltimore area, Black actors from the Department of Museum Theatre at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation joined. Finally, youth leaders and students of B4 Youth Theatre, a Maryland-based non-profit, traveled as well.

“You have professional actors, you have people who are acting for the first time, and then you have some youth who have done this a couple of times with a theater,” said graduate student Markya Reed, University of Maryland Baltimore County. “You have this diverse range of experiences with people doing something together that’s connected by intertwined history, personal history.”

An Overview of B4 Youth Theatre and 200 Years of Return

Burning Barriers Building Bridges, referred to as B4 Youth Theatre, was founded by Dr. Jasmine Blanks Jones in Liberia, 2010. This was in effort to showcase the civic capabilities and artistic storytelling of youth artists in Maryland and Liberia. B4 has actively worked to amplify the voices of young people through the arts. At one point, they even performed at Johns Hopkins University over the summer. However, this most recent trip to Liberia was the first time the organization brought performers from the United States abroad for an original production. Notably, former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hosted the play’s ensemble to discuss how the play was being received in Liberia and its implications for the ongoing debate on the nation’s motto, “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.”

200 Years of Returns was originally written in collaboration between Liberian B4 artists and four actors from Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia. The performance looks at the adversities and triumphs of freedom seekers and indigenous African people during the late 18th century and early 19th century. This is done through the lens of present-day Liberia and the DMV region of the United States.

Group photo. Done through previous work by Dr. Jasmine Blanks JonesFor the Liberian bicentennial performances, the script was revised to center the concerns of a Liberian audience around amplifying the presence and agency of Indigenous people in the history of its founding. The opening performance took place at the UNESCO World Heritage site, Providence Island. The 200 Years of Returns ensemble also performed at the Bong County Technical College in Gbarnga City, Liberia.

Beyond the Showcase

The trip was not only a showcase of 200 Years of Returns, but also an opportunity to illuminate the richness of Liberian culture. There is also a uniquely tied history between Gbarnga City and Baltimore that contributes to this. For 50 years, the two had an established relationship to foster mutual learning. This was done through the Baltimore-Gbarnga Sister Cities committee under the Mayor’s Office of each respective city. The Baltimore artists met with Gbarnga City Mayor Lucia Herbert who also provided remarks at the Gbarnga City performance.

In addition, the trip also opened a dialogue around what CBL can look like on an international level. Other themes include challenging narrow definitions of civic engagement that do not consider the complexity of migrations. “Civic engagement is being able to be involved in your community. To make changes in your community for yourself and for your people, whoever your people are,” said Reed. “People have to expand what they think civic engagement is.”

Plans to Come

Following this, Reed plans to create a full-length documentary with Morgan State University SWAN alum Amari Grant about the trip. In addition, a series of shorts and an edited version of the full performance will be made available. The team looks forward to future performances and workshops in both the US and Liberia. They anticipate the release of the documentary this coming fall. It will be through a series of screenings throughout the U.S. and with the B4 Youth Theatre team in Liberia. Stay tuned to see when the 200 Years of Returns screening comes to Hopkins!