Juke Joint

Sara Caroway clutched her parasol, damaged knees awkwardly jutting out beneath the hem of her skirt as she walked toward a small, shabby establishment in the near distance--"Little's Grocery" by day and an illegal liquor house by night.

It was evening, and like many other figures from the youth of Willie Little, a North Carolina artist and storyteller, Caroway belonged to a regular crowd of customers at the 1960s bar. For Little, that cast of characters left some indelible memories that he has now recreated to help understand the experience of blacks in the American South.

Little's installation, entitled "Juke Joint", opened at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies this July and uses varied, interactive media to recall Little's younger experiences.

"I initially created the exhibit with the notion of telling my story. I have come to find that I am telling a more universal story that expands beyond the boundaries of race and socioeconomic status," Little wrote in an e-mail. "Rich people, poor, Black, White, Latino, Filipino, African all tell me I am telling their story."

Little first resurrected the juke joint as a series of vignettes in 1994 and 1995, and he later recreated them as an installation that allows viewers to physically engage with its music hall and bar. The installation was made possible by a $5,000 Artist Project Grant from the North Carolina Arts Council.

Sculptured mannequins reconstructed from Little's memory are painstakingly detailed, from facial and body expressions to the texture of skin and hair, all of which emit a nostalgic aura of an African-American past set against the rural background of Pactolus Township, N.C., where Little and his family grew up.

In addition to Caroway, characters show different sides of the nightlife Little witnessed.

As visitors enter the CDS' Juanita Kreps Gallery, music joyfully blasts from the jukebox. The scene is set--Mr. William Godley is already dancing, head slightly bowed and hands gesturing almost artistically, in position with the beat. Miss Beola has joined in, arms slightly raised and outstretched, her hair twirled around large pink curlers.

Eshu and Glory, among the regulars, just finished their routine bar fight and were making up behind the liquor house, unaware that they had just been sighted by seven-year-old Willie Little.

Like other documentary work, Little's installation involves "true" storytelling, stressed Courtney Reid-Eaton, CDS program coordinator. "Juke Joint", with its attention to detail and history rooted in Little's stories, particularly reflects this concept.

"I am very grateful to share this wonderful historic slice of American life," Little wrote.

Reid-Eaton said the CDS usually searches for its exhibits, but that Little was so well-known among artists that the exhibit came to the CDS' Lyndhurst House through word of mouth.

Since arriving, the installation has expanded from the Carolinas to several other locations, including Dallas and Detroit, where it was exhibited at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History--the largest museum in the world dedicated to that field of history.

The CDS will celebrate "Juke Joint" with a fish fry Sept. 27, followed by a performance by blues artist Cootie Stark, in association with Music Maker Relief Foundation.


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