Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Feature in Photograph Exhibition on Black Debutantes at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, Alabama, May 2009

"I like a debutante, who comes across
Now that's what I call class."
Louis, "Prowlin'," from Grease 2 (1982)

The annual National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa souvenior book has usually included a profile image of a debutante with her hair up and in silhouette over the years, as pictured above; Keri is invoking that pose in the first shots below.

Photos taken by Keri Smith and Megan Smith on the afternoon of "Talk and Tea" at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, including images of our debutante photos and the quilt of Keri featured in the display

Vanity table featuring debutante and other cotillion and formal portraits of women in family spanning over decades

Riche' Deianne Richardson, Age 17, Debutante presentation at the Montgomery Civic Center in Cotillion of the National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc., Beta Beta Chapter, Montgomery, AL, April 1989

Keri Diamond Smith, Age 17, Debutante presentation at the Montgomery Civic Center in Cotillion of the National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc., Beta Beta Chapter, Montgomery, AL, April 2004

Megan Cheree Smith, Age 17, Debutante presentation at the Joe L. Reed Acadome in Cotillion of the National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc., Beta Beta Chapter, Montgomery, AL, April

My debutante photo from the program booklet, April, 1989

My cousin Keri Smith's debutante photo from the program booklet, April, 2004

My cousin Megan Smith's debutante photo from the program booklet, April, 2006

Art quilt featuring Keri Diamond Smith that reproduces debutante program portrait

Newspaper feature in the Montgomery Advertiser including Keri and her escort during the minuet. To see larger debutante family album on Facebook, go to

It was an honor that the original debutante photographs of my cousin Megan Smith and me (above) were selected and featured in an exhibition of 20 enlarged photographs at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival on May 15, 2009 and throughout the weekend as part of the Southern Writers' Project Festival of Plays, along with the art quilt from my debutante series (within my family series) that reproduces the debutante program portrait of her sister and my cousin, Keri Smith. This photographic exhibition, which also incorporated some art pieces, was put together in tandem with an event entitled “Tea and Talk” for the debut reading of acclaimed author/playwright Pearl Cleage's "The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years." The goal was to highlight images of black debutantes in Montgomery, Alabama across several decades, beginning in the 1940s. The featuring of several vintage debutante dresses helped to make the exhibition more dynamic. My family attended this reading at ASF, along with many others in the Montgomery community. This powerful exhibition was curated by Soyia Ellison. It also came together with the assistance of Johnson Chong. It is exciting that this much-anticipated play is being staged in Montgomery this fall, whose description is copied below.

The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years

by Pearl Cleage

In the 1960s, burning issues dominated the news; however in Montgomery, Alabama the Black debutante society was alive. Pearl Cleage’s production starring Jasmine Guy gives well and worthy comedic treatment to the timeless clash of youthful generations.

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is excited to open its Silver Anniversary Season with the world premiere of renowned playwright Pearl Cleage's comedy The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years. With the world's eyes on Montgomery, Alabama during the turbulent 1960s there were those in Black debutante society who had eyes only on beautiful dresses, balls, parties -- and the young ladies about to be introduced to the upper crust of African-American society.

The Nacirema Society boasts an incredible cast of actors including Tony Award-winning Trazana Beverly and television, film and Broadway star Jasmine Guy.

I was also presented at several other major social events during my junior and senior years of high school, including the Coronation Ball at my school, the historic St. Jude Educational Institute, but the debutante cotillion was for me the culminating event. When she was interviewing me for her book "Crafted Lives," Patricia A. Turner had me count the number of formal events I attended and for which I needed formal attire in high school and they totaled fifteen from 9th to 12th grades. I think that this background informs what I do now as an artist in the sense that one reason I can do the costuming for the gowns on my quilts (i.e. Scarlett O'Hara, Michelle Obama, the debutante quilts) is that I actually wore so many growing up. We shopped for debutante dresses in a range of places, including Atlanta and Birmingham, and in the months leading up to the ball, I tried on forty gowns. We finally found the right one two weeks before the event at Gayfers Department Store in Montgomery, which got many compliments the night of the ball and was talked about for days thereafter.

At the party later that night, I heard a guy refer to me as “the girl that was wearing that dress.” One of my classmates at school excitedly described it to someone by saying that “it had layers and layers and layers of ruffles!” I'd been a bit sleepy late that Friday night that I tried it on in the fitting room and was just pleased and relieved that we'd finally found a dress as I vaguely heard my mother talk to the sales person about how stunning it was and the seamstress began to pin it for alterations. My escort's reaction to it when he picked me up and his excitement about it in the car as we drove down to the Civic Center was when the dress began to become real for me, and I began to sense the impact that it was making, a feeling only escalated as the night went on. One of my other male friends who was an escort in the ball joked that he didn't see me when I was presented because some escorts who were at the backstage curtain were blocking his way and trying to get a look as I went up on the platform. The dress seems positively Victorian by today's standards when spaghetti straps and even strapless styles predominate in the styling of formal gowns for teens, but back then, the dress pushed the envelope a little with its neckline. The most interesting thing about it was the homemade touch, for my mom took some scraps from the bottom and made matching edging to trim my gloves, which I now display in my art studio. (Always, the debutante dresses in my family have been given a special touch; Megan had also worn her dress as first attendant to Miss Senior in St. Jude's Coronation ball, and so made straps out of mesh to make it interesting for her debut a few months later). Some people who had been at the ball talked about my dress, or described it to the people who were not there, to the point that I got tired of hearing about it eventually. I finally escaped from it all though my trip away to Hampton a few days later to see the campus.

In Hampton, Virginia a week after Debutante Cotillion

Nearly sixty debutantes were presented the night I came out, and my escort and I led the minuet, which was choreographed by Sheyann Webb-Christburg, author of the book "Selma Lord Selma" highlighting her childhood encounter with Martin Luther King, which was also made into a Disney Film. She has done amazing choreography annually for this cotillion in Montgomery, as well as others. I most recently saw her work at the Miss Fashionetta contest prior to Ebony Fashion Fair in 2009. Incidentally, my escort was the very friend and classmate whom I pictured as my escort someday when I attended the ball at age 11. I first attended the Phi Delta Kappa debutante cotillion at age 5 when my aunt came out, and also as a participant as a sophomore and junior debutante. I made the court the night that I came out and was honored and surprised to be showered with so many gifts, piled literally up to my chin, from my official "little sisters," and even from people who were not. To this day, this has been one of the happiest days of my life. One thing about that night is that almost everybody that I loved in the world was there.

Finally, I have to mention the scene from the film "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," which shows the crashing of Natalie's cotillion at the country club as the song "Wake Up the Neighborhood" plays, and after her invitation is photocopied and distributed to the public.

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