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Fresh Ideas

New LGBTQ Programmer Brings a New Vision to a Longstanding Festival

By Frank Rizzo

The first thing you notice about Malakhi Eason, besides his beaming smile and upbeat personality, is his hair.

It’s a towering creation, a woven golden crown sitting above braided dark follicles, running like tributaries down his scalp, creating an extraordinary work of salon art.

That’s just how Eason, the new director of programming and community impact for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, wants us to feel about all aspects of ourselves. Hair styles are art. Clothes are art. And people are artworks, too — if we can only imagine it.

“Imagine” is the theme Eason has chosen for this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas. This is the 26th year for New Haven’s two-week presentation of 200-plus performances, exhibits, discussions and tours. Most, about 80 percent, of the festival’s offerings are free.

Because of the pandemic, last year’s festival had to quickly move to an all-digital format. This year, the festival will build on the success of that online engagement but will also position itself for live events on the New Haven Green — if Covid-19 numbers and vaccination levels allow.

Eason, who arrived in town in November, and Shelley Quiala, the festival’s new executive director, hustled to create a new gathering in 2021, not knowing if it would be in-person or virtual. The envisioned end result will be a hybrid of both.

The 26th annual festival began mid-May and will continue to the end of June, with its high-profile events happing during between June 18 to 27.

Included among the events are Jacob’s Pillow-awardee choreographer Ronald K. Brown, Indigenous playwright and Forbes “30 under 30” theater director Madeline Sayet, and several unexpected events not seen before at the festival.

One of the homegrown highlights will be a celebration of hair design and its cultural history. Also on tap is a drag spectacular. Both events are examples of Eason looking at festival programming in new ways.

Before his New Haven hire, Eason was programming manager at Omaha Performing Arts, where he curated the expansive Jazz on the Green series, ranging from intimate cabaret performances to outdoor concerts featuring artists like Ladama, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Kim Waters, Sammy Miller and the Congregation, and Marcos y Sabor.

A Circuitous Path

It’s been a long and circuitous road for Eason, both professionally and personally, as he arrives at his new programming position for New Haven’s well-established festival, one that has brought high-profile acts and notables from around the world to the city.

Eason grew up in Boston in a life he called “eventful and challenging.” Eason says he “grew up in the church,” coming from a religious family of ministers, preachers and singers, “so I started, too, at a young age.”

He was raised much of his early life by his grandmother, Lovestine Eason. “She’s my girl — and the most glamorous woman I ever met in my life, wearing sequined dresses, pearls, rings, makeup — and she had a different wig for every day of the week. She always had me looking fresh. I couldn’t wear baggy clothes. She had me in suits, suspenders, sweaters and bowties. I have a love of bowties. I even have a tattoo of one.”

Eason graduated high school from Boston Arts Academy where he was a vocal major. After high school he eventually went to hair school, but learning he would become a father at the age of 19 made him reassess his life.

“Having a son forced me to be more methodical with my decisions in life,” he says. With the help and encouragement of friend Linda Wells — “I will always say her name” — Eason enrolled at the University of Bridgeport, where he majored in mass communications and entertainment business. Along with school and being a youth pastor at a Bridgeport’s Mt. Aery Baptist Church, he would venture to New Haven’s Pulse nightclub, known for its fierce dance music and gay clientele.

New Haven is where he celebrated his secret self.

“This is the first time I’ve ever talked publicly about this,” he says. “I call myself an ally because I don’t like a whole bunch of labels. But I had a male partner right after [my relationship with] the mother of my son. After that, it was all guys. “

He says he knew he was attracted to men since he was 16, but went back in the closet until he left for college.

Eason says he was raised in a conservative, religious, don’t-ask-don’t-tell environment “where we’re used to knowing that a church leader was gay but we’re not supposed to say anything because if you don’t talk about it, we won’t talk about it. That was me — as long as I was respectful and wasn’t too flamboyant. But I was living two lives and in Boston I was always the ‘straight’ man.”

Things are different now and he says he is planning a gathering of his friends to “officially” come out to everybody. “I don’t care now. I’m grown. I’m 34. I’m old,” he says laughing.

Nebraska Rebound

After Eason graduated from the university in 2012, he came across an opportunity to work in the music business in Los Angeles. After talking it over with the mother of his child, he headed to California. But the promise of a job and a career path failed to materialize and he found himself essentially homeless, living on friends’ couches and scraping by with a few gigs, but not enough to flesh out a living, much less a career.

“Someone I was in love with at the time presented a better opportunity for me in the state that he lived in — Nebraska — where the job opportunities were real.”

He also went to graduate school there, earning his masters of arts in leadership degree from Grace University, a private Christian college. Eason is currently working on a doctorate in interdisciplinary leadership from Creighton University, a private Jesuit school in Omaha.

After receiving his master’s degree he landed a job at Omaha Performing Arts and that’s where he found his niche.

He began as programming coordinator overseeing contracts, helping with the bookings and running the outdoor series that brought in about 13,000 people over six weeks.

“Then I moved into management as a programming manager and had a close hand on Broadway series, as well as the jazz and children’s series, and overseeing several 2,000-plus-seat venues as well a 500-seat black box theater.

His relationship with his Nebraska boyfriend ended — and so did his job when the pandemic hit. “That’s when I decided I needed to get back home,” he says. He got the New Haven job last fall.

Festival plans

His International Festival of Arts & Ideas title not only includes “programming” but “community impact.”

“Usually such titles are worded as ‘community engagement’ but ‘impact’ has a deeper meaning. We just don’t want to engage but be a resource,” he says.

There was no programming set up when he arrived and the new director Shelley Quiala encouraged him to be as creative as possible. With the support of a long-established staff, many of whom have worked at the festival for more than 20 years, Eason plans to do just that — but on two simultaneous levels: online and live on the New Haven Green.

“I came up with the theme ‘Imagine’ because I wanted to imagine what we are going to look like after this pandemic. I also wanted to explore how we think about art: what is considered art, how we imagine it,” he says.

He adds, “We always pay attention to dance, theater, the singing; but there are so many different forms of art. There’s chair-making, gardening, food and, of course, the first thing I thought of was hair, which is my passion. I also used to own a salon in Omaha, the Muse Beauty Bar. So when I suggested a hair show for the festival, I was able to go for it. I think it’s going to be a highlight of the festival because there’s never been a hair show like this before. It’s a good way to show how hair is not just something you wear but that it’s art because it’s visual – it’s texture; it changes your mood, the atmosphere and your look on life. We’ll also follow it up with an ‘ideas’ conversation about hair and the historical and cultural part of it all.”

Other events will include a gospel brunch and the festival will end with a drag show “that is going to be so cool. We’re partnering with New Haven Pride and bringing in LaDiva Monet, she’s a Fantasia impersonator from Atlanta. It’s not just a drag show but it will also give the historical meaning behind drag and tap into what drag means and why it’s considered an art, too.”

Says Ellis, beaming, “I want to look at the hopefully post-pandemic festival moving towards joy.”