Signs of Inclusivity: Kevin Newbury ’00 Helps Launch a New Art CollectivePublished by Rebecca Goldfine
The nonprofit collective, Up Until Now, was recently featured in The New York Times for covering ten classic songs by Black female artists in sign language. The series, SOUL(SIGNS): An ASL Playlist, "makes music visible." (ASL stands for American Sign Language.)
And now they're having a gigantic debut. The collective's rendition of Gladys Knight and the Pips' song "Midnight Train to Georgia" is lighting up seventy-five screens around Times Square in New York City every evening between July 1 and July 31, exactly at 11:57 p.m. The screenings are part of the Times Square Alliance's Midnight Moment, a late-night public arts event.
Times Square Alliance has also asked Up Until Now artists to stage three live performances in Times Square, on July 9, 13, and 20.
Newbury is working behind the scenes to help create the SOUL(SIGNS) music videos. "When we were brainstorming on how to structure these ten videos for Broadstream, we arrived at this idea of focusing on iconic Black women," he said. Broadstream is an arts streaming platform that commissioned the ASL Playlist.
In their "Midnight Train to Georgia" video, native ASL speaker Brandon Kazen-Maddox performs with Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant, a Deaf actor and dancer. Primeaux-O’Bryant embodies Gladys Knight confessing to the Pips, signed by Kazen-Maddox. The two performers seem to be sitting in a bus or train station, just discussing matters of the heart.
Since then, they've completed songs by Tina Turner, Nina Simone, and En Vogue, and are working on songs by Janet Jackson and Aretha Franklin. "I grew up listening to this music and watching MTV. As a kid, I never could have imagined that I would be part of a collective making queer, ASL music video covers of these songs and projecting them all over Times Square. It feels very special," Newbury said.
Stills from the Up Until Now music video of Midnight Train to Georgia. Native American Sign Language (ASL) speaker Brandon Kazen-Maddox, left, performs with Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant, a Deaf actor and dancer. Kevin Newbury co-directed the video.
While not all of the collective's work will incorporate Deaf artists or sign language, the SOUL(SIGNS) project exemplifies the collective's commitment to "inclusive, accessible, and equitable working environments" and making interdisciplinary art that "is radically empathetic, accessible, diverse, and inclusive," according to its mission statement.
"Up Until Now is about finding new structures for artistic creation, giving everyone a seat at the table, and learning from the intersectionality of a diverse group of artists," Newbury said. The collective has fifty-two collaborators—and counting—as of late June.
An "interdisciplinary company," Up Until Now participants are dancers, make-up artists, musicians, and more, and they'll make film, TV, theater, dance, opera, and hybrid work. "We share an omnivorous taste for different types of art from various disciplines," Newbury said. "We love all of it—we love rock n' roll, we love opera, and we love creating new structures for bringing these things together."
Newbury founded Up Until Now last summer with three others—Kazen-Maddox, Marcus Shields, and Jecca Barry—in the midst of the pandemic. When people were shutting themselves off from others to socially distance, Newbury left his home of New York City for his family camp in Freedom, New Hampshire.
The property was a boys' camp in the 1950s and 1960s, founded by Newbury's grandfather, George Davidson ’38. "It’s always been a refuge and a place of community for me and my family," Newbury said. (He grew up not too far away, in Auburn, Maine, and graduated from Bowdoin in 2000 with a degree in English and theater.)
Throughout the summer, Newbury and Kazen-Maddox—who is Newbury's creative and romantic partner—invited small groups of friends up to the lake. "We were able to provide a place of healing and fellowship," Newbury said, "sitting around the campfire, making meals, playing music."
“We decided to call our collective Up Until Now because, quite simply, we found ourselves saying (and hearing) that phrase a lot throughout the pandemic, as a sort of preamble to so many thoughts and ideas about this seismic shift in our shared human experience.”
One of these groups got inspired by the setting, and the moment, to make a film. "We came up with the idea for a story of transformation, a story about Brandon, a beautiful Black man who gets lost in the woods of New Hampshire and meets magical creatures who turn him into a mermaid," Newbury said.
As a hearing child growing up in a family with seven Deaf relatives, Kazen-Maddox was enchanted with the story of The Little Mermaid, who gives up her voice for her landlocked love. Kazen-Maddox learned sign language before English, and in their work, has "blended the worlds of American Sign Language with dance and acrobatics."
"One of the cool things about Up Until Now, the film, is that it is music-driven and there is no dialogue," Newbury said. "It is about touch and feeling, and it has a musicality that is not about hearing or deafness. It is about actual human connection that transcends both of those things."
Making the film sparked the idea for forming the collective, to commit to artmaking that reflects the story's spirit and "make content that is for everyone."
"While we were making this film, we realized we were mining this territory of empathy and connection, and what does it mean to heal and be touched again," Newbury said. "While sitting around the campfire, we were joking at first that we were starting a media empire in the woods of New Hampshire."
Scenes from the making of Up Until Now, in Freedom, New Hampshire
Photos by Marcus Shields and Jecca Barry
After Kevin Newbury directed Leonard Bernstein's music-theater piece Mass all over the country, PBS aired the production as part of its Great Performances in May 2020. "That is the ultimate piece about the burden of empathy," Newbury said. "The question of empathy is something that drives all of my work, what it means to see and feel the emotions in everyone around you, to take that on and to try to bring out the best of everybody."
His work also explores queer history. An opera he developed and directed in 2016 with composer Gregory Spears and writer Greg Pierce, Fellow Travelers, covers the "lavender scare" of the McCarthy era when gay people were purged from the US government. And a new musical he's working on titled Eighty-Sixed, which is premiering next spring, is about a gay community living through the AIDS crisis in New York City. "That pandemic lasted more than a decade," he noted, comparing it to the shorter timeframe of COVID. "Our government just let us die."
At the moment, Newbury is preparing to direct the world premier opera Castor and Patience, also by Spears, with a libretto by recent US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, at Cincinnati Opera. It will open in the summer of 2022, after being postponed twice due to COVID. "Set during the mortgage crisis of 2008, with flashbacks to 1966 as well as to the nineteenth century, Castor and Patience tells the story of two Black cousins who find themselves at odds over the fate of land owned by members of their family."
"Questions of empathy and queer history, and questions of social and racial justice—those are the things that interest me the most," Newbury said. "I only want to do work that looks at what it means to be alive right now."
“People are making adventurous work and taking chances right now, and I feel excited to be in the middle of these conversations about race, gender, sexuality and disability. It is an honor to be in collaboration with so many amazing artists committed to amplifying each other's voices.”