An interview with Rhenotha Whitaker: Faith-based initiatives deliver spiritual enrichment, engagement and NJPAC ticket sales

  Rhenotha Whitaker is a force of nature. A native of Newark, N.J., who holds degrees in economics and public administration, Rhenotha is an official contributor to the Dr. Oz Show and Dr. Oz’s Go To Girl; a certified fitness instructor, and the creator and lead writer of the lifestyle blog, Full Figured Fabulous and On The Way To Fit.

I met Rhenotha in her role as co-chair of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s (NJPAC) Faith-based Advisory Committee (FBAC). NJPAC previously had an active and successful Baptist Minister’s Council, which was developed by Pearl Wise-Crawley, who was the director of Marketing and Sales at the time. However, when I arrived at NJPAC, I changed the name to Faith-based Advisory Committee to expand the possible participation of other denominations.

Along with her co-chair, Sharon J. Hunt, and the other, wonderful members of the committee, Rhenotha has demonstrated how effectively the committee can engage, promote and sell NJPAC’s events. I am very impressed with this committee’s passion, efforts, and results, which have directly, seamlessly and joyfully led to the expansion of awareness and interest in NJPAC by New Jersey’s faith-based community; increased ticket sales, and their input into its programming. In this week’s blog, I wanted to share with you my recent experience working with the FBAC as an example of the positive and effective influence this type of partnership can have on both the arts organization and the community.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: You’ve been active in Newark’s community for many years. How did you become co-chair of NJPAC’s FBAC?

Rhenotha Whitaker: I was a part of NJPAC as a teenager and had an internship at the Urban League. One of my sites was NJPAC. I used to work in the building. I was 15 and gave tours. I thought it was fascinating. When I was chief of staff for a local councilman, I was the go-to person for Community Engagement and everyone knew me. Even now, as a consultant, people ask me to help galvanize the community and get the word out.

I became a part of the FBAC because I know people and the community. Soon after, I became co-chair. Looking back from my experience as a teen to now—to be able to be a part of NJPAC’s FBAC is amazing!

A school play can positively impact youth, but unless the access is consistent they may not ever see or understand what art is for. Or they may not see what others may see downtown, or they may not be involved in what others see as the mainstream. At the same time, it’s important that they can see it. However, a lot of information doesn’t get to the neighborhoods. That’s why being concerned about art and the church is important.

People feel that all Baptist churches do is holler and scream, but that is not true. We have to embrace our culture as well.

Donna: What do you think is important for engaging communities in the arts today?

Rhenotha: Real engagement is important. In 2018, everyone is on their phone and on social media, including political candidates who are using it more than knocking on doors, the way they did in the past. But in my opinion, real engagement is face-to-face. It’s more important than surface engagement. People want to see actual folks in the community and directly hear what’s going on. They don’t want you to make it seem like you know what’s going on. It’s still very important to see people face-to-face. I also learned not to label people who may not look like they have a legitimate role in society. It’s so important to embrace them and share information and opportunities with them.

Donna: How does the FBAC engage the community on behalf of NJPAC?

Rhenotha: I am not working by myself. It is the concerted effort of the advisory committee. We didn’t want it to be business as usual. The community needed encouragement to engage, but we didn’t want to follow the same model. We felt our efforts required something new; to create something they would want to see flourish. That was our free Beyond Gospel Series, which provides an opportunity for expressions of faith through the performing arts, such as spoken word, hip-hop and jazz. We held three performances and the attendance grew for each one—from 50 to 100 people. We now have consistent numbers of people attending our planning committee meetings, as well as participants coming to the series. The last performance was during a snowstorm, but people still came out! The committee provides refreshments on our own dime because we believe in this program and want our audience to be comfortable.

Gospel music is the standard expression for the majority of the Black Christian community. But there are other ways to give praise beyond gospel music. The selected artists were chosen with that in mind. The first show was choral music and traditional spiritual selections by the Elmwood Presbyterian Church Community Choir; it featured soloist the Rev. Sharon Moody. The music had an operatic quality and also touched the soul. Our second program was jazz—the David Hardy Quartet, featuring a young man whose love for authentic jazz music is unprecedented. He shows others that gospel music can also be performed as jazz, and it was both moving and amazing. The last performance featured two artists –hip hop and spoken word artists—and it was phenomenal.

So, at the core of our committee’s work is the spiritual belief and the link is to NJPAC’s main programs, especially the gospel shows. I am also excited about the theater group that performed, Perth Performing Arts, a New York-based group, which delivered quality theater, and not just typical church basement sound. It was actual theater that honored faith and went beyond gospel music.

Donna: What other ways does FBAC engage with the community on behalf of NJPAC?

Rhenotha: Our committee has united together financially to provide refreshments. People are coming out, so we want them to have a good time and eat and want to come back. That doesn’t mean every time we have to feed them. But we appreciate them and the committee agreed to provide refreshments for each session of the Beyond Gospel series. No one complained, and they did it of their own free will.

Another example is the program director for Gospel music at NJPAC asked me to check with the committee for recommendations for gospel performing artists. The top artists on the committee’s list were Mary Mary (sisters Erica and Tina Atkins) and Tasha Cobbs. NJPAC booked the artists, and the committee understood their responsibility. This past January, the FBAC sold over 200 tickets for the Mary Mary concert and the show sold out.

The FBAC has monthly calls, followed immediately by minutes that include action steps and deadlines. We will begin in-person, bi-monthly meetings this month. Next year, there will be another Beyond Gospel series; promoting gospel shows and interconnected efforts with the other Advisory Committees for jazz, dance, and Latino programming.

Currently, the FBAC is focused on promoting and supporting NJPAC’s annual Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Mother’s Day week-end performances.

Donna: I am quite confident the committee will be successful in all of its endeavors. As Rhenotha would say, NJPAC’s FBAC is “cooking with Crisco.”