Ebony Payne-English worked tirelessly for more than two years on the final installment of her five-show series. A renowned poet, rapper, and founder of Black on Black Rhyme, the first woman-founded chapter of the international poetry organization, Payne-English had been performing for 17 years straight without a hiatus. After countless hours of writing, rehearsal, logistics and planning “The Goddess Experience”, a one woman play that explores various dynamics associated with motherhood, femininity, and martyrdom was set to be staged in May.
Then came the coronavirus outbreak. And for Payne, like hundreds of performing artists in Northeast Florida, the gig was up–cancelled, essentially overnight.
“It causes me a great deal of heartache and anguish,” says Payne-English of the emotional toll the shutdown has wrought upon her personally. “The stage has always been my coping mechanism”
For artists in Northeast Florida, the fallout from a shutdown that has dragged on for nearly three months as civic leaders try to weigh the risks of an open-ended pandemic brought on by a virus with no known cure or viable treatment, has been harsh. With live music venues, as well as bars and restaurants, and non-traditional art spaces–essentially every single outlet for live performance–shuttered overnight, the economic impact on Jacksonville’s arts community may be incalculable. A bird’s eye view shows record unemployment claims and a state unemployment system unable to meet demands.
Jazz guitarist Taylor Roberts was gigging six, sometimes seven, nights a week before the coronavirus outbreak. A popular and dexterous player capable of riffing on a jazz standard as well as a pop cover, Roberts took to livestream shows, often performing twice a day during the shutdown.
“Sometimes I was able to make more than a typical gig,” he says of his virtual sessions. “But it kind of fizzled after the first few weeks.”
As the state entered its Phase 2 reopening, Roberts performed in front of an audience of actual human beings for the first time in months at Prohibition Kitchen in St. Augustine last week. “People were really respectful and they stayed at a safe distance,” Roberts says. Roberts wore a mask to the venue, but took it off while performing. He’ll resume his regular gigs at Ocean 60 in Atlantic Beach on Wednesday and Thursday. “It still feels a little bit strange. It’s like a crash course of living one day at a time because we don’t know what’s going to happen or if everything will just be shut down again.”
For ten-piece Afro-Cuban Salsa outfit LPT, social distancing among members is fairly impossible. The group played inside Intuition Ale Works Beir Hall on June 7. For a group that is used to packing venues out, encouraging shoulder-to-shoulder crowds to dance Salsa, the scene was a little surreal, as the 600-person venue was capped at 125 patrons.
“We did feel safe,” says keyboardist Ángel Garcia. Dancers were spaced according to social distancing guidelines, hand sanitizer and masks were made available, and beer queues were forced into orderly single-file lines, rather than the elbow-to-elbow morass that’s typical at bars inside of revelrous live music venues.
The band, which is comprised mostly of full-time musicians, is banking on more opportunities to play. They had to cancel a spring tour, which included a Northeast run and a spot on the famed Calle Ocho Festival in Miami, all in support of their Independent Music Awards-winning debut album Sin Parar.
“We have to be cautious for the greater good of our community,” says Garcia. “But we’re itching to be out there playing.”
Payne-English, who is planning to do a short performance on Friday at Archetype in Riverside as part of an event to raise money for artists who’ve lost work, has found a new date at the Times-Union Center for her one woman show (Sept. 6). Still, she admits there is a new-normal for performing artists.
“It feels like a marriage or long relationship ended,” she says of the abrupt halt to her performing career. “It’s an incredible loss. And If we get back together, it’ll never be the same.”