A big anniversary celebration calls for a big show. The 30th Henry Street Heritage Festival has one lined up.
1990s R&B hitmaker Dru Hill is back together and scheduled to headline the Saturday festival at Elmwood Park. Contemporary R&B singer Vivian Green is the other half of the Henry Street fest’s national acts bill, with both bringing full backing bands.
Henry Street celebrators are used to such performers — Freddie Jackson, Ruben Studdard, Mint Condition, Johnny Gill, Kid ’N Play, Leela James and Marsha Ambrosius are among many who have played the event. This time out, there are more wrinkles, including a performance of “If Henry Street Could Talk,” a shorter adaptation of the play “Henry Street,” which played at Mill Mountain Theater a couple of decades ago.
“It focuses on the history of all the amazing music, entertainment, culture and history that once took place on Henry Street,” said Kianna Price, a longtime co-organizer of the event, which benefits the Harrison Museum of African American Culture.
Henry Street centered Roanoke’s thriving black business and cultural district in its day, before urban renewal essentially erased it in the 1960s and 1970s. When the Harrison Museum’s then-director, Melody Stovall, created the event, it was held on the actual Henry Street. It wasn’t long before the festival grew too large for that spot. These days, up to 4,000 people show up for the event, at Elmwood Park.
The inaugural festival, in 1990, was meant to celebrate the Harrison Museum’s fifth anniversary, Stovall, who died in 2008, told the Roanoke Times. It was “a small idea that just kept snowballing,” she said. Originally scheduled for the museum itself, then located on Harrison Street, organizers moved it outside to Henry Street, in a neighborhood where such performers as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Otis Redding had played.
Saturday’s bill includes D.C.-area jazz and go go band Plunky & Oneness, a step show from members of black fraternities and sororities, gospel music from multiple acts and the two winners of the Roanoke’s Got Talent contest, Price said.
“Roanoke and our surrounding areas have continually shown up and showed out — showing your love and support — and because of you, we are still here!,” according to a short history of the festival that co-organizer Kit Kelso provided to The Roanoke Times.
Kelso is co-directing “If Henry Street Could Talk” with Lisa Gaouret, who will narrate it. Actresses Tawanna Taylor and Deborah Hairston, dancer YoLanda Michelle, band Soulacostix, singer Nadirah Wright and announcer Anita Price round out the cast.
“We’re doing our best to make it as special as possible, to celebrate the 30th year,” said Kianna Price, a daughter of Anita Price (a Roanoke City Council member) and Harrison Museum board president Charles Price. Kianna Price was working for ViBE-FM (WVBE, 100.1 and 97.7 FM) when she began booking the festival’s national acts. She is now a TV host at WFXR, but still books those performers as part of the all-volunteer group that organizes the Henry Street Heritage Festival.
“We do our best to try to get the best level of entertainment,” she said. “It’s always worth it when you look out and see thousands and thousands of people out in the audience, screaming their heads off and smiling and having a good time.”