Kendra Dennard is full of surprises. The twenty-four-year-old performer from Michigan made her mark on the Pittsburgh dance scene when she joined the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble (AWCDE) as a founding member.
Onstage, she’s impossible to miss, from the legs that seem to reach her ears (or the rafters in an extension), to the infectious energy she projects into the audience and beyond.
The surprise came the first time I heard Dennard sing. That was last summer, when she hosted one of the Pillow Project’s “Second Saturday” happenings dedicated to music of the 1920s. The “Speak Eazy” featured improvised dance, and Dennard did dance, but sparingly. Instead, she fronted a jazz band and put her own spin on standards from the time.
She says she learned to sing in church, during her childhood in Michigan. “I was never a lead; I never sang by myself. Mostly, I sang with my mom while my dad played the piano.”
It wasn’t until an open mic night at the Shadow Lounge in 2010 that she braved the stage alone. And from there, she says, “my life has not been the same.”
Now, at the 720 Music, Clothing & Cafe in Lawrenceville, she hosts her own open mic night, the last Friday of each month. She works as a barista there, daytime. And she still fronts the band - she says they are nameless, for now. She also continues to perform with the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble. Did I mention she also teaches kids on the North Side?
When she had the time to dream up a show that will combine all of her talents in a single performance is beyond me. But it’s happening. On April 19th and 20th at the August Wilson Center, Dennard will present “Viva: BLACK - A Live Theater Documentary.”
The show developed out of a year long compilation of performances that coincidentally focused on black female performers over the decades. Not only the Speak Eazy, but an event at 720 dedicated to Nina Simone, a black dance festival with AWCDE and more. Through all of Dennard’s performing, she found that she hadn’t learned much about influential African-American artists in her childhood.
She says, “In school, you learn about black slaves, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and the underground railroad. And that’s it, really. I decided to highlight and celebrate pivotal black artists, focused on women. I found the underdogs who have been influential in how we experience music, how we perform.”
The show will take place in two acts, fusing music and dance in a celebration of artists who have inspired Dennard. Two different jazz bands will grace the stage, along with featured singer, Anqwenique Wingfield, and several Pittsburgh dancers. Dennard hopes that the fans of her singing will enjoy the dancing, and vice versa.
As for how she will do it all, I’m still not sure. When I ask her, she laughs and the answer seems simple, “It’s easier to work hard at a job you love...the rewards overflow.”
April 19th and 20th, 8:00 p.m.
August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Avenue Downtown.
Click HERE for tickets.