Author, creative artist, filmmaker, playwright, and multi-dimensional performance artist Junauda Petrus will be the special guest at Westport’s 17th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, to be held Friday, January 13, through Sunday, January 15, 2023.

Petrus’ work centers around Black wildness, laughter, futurism, ancestral healing, sweetness, spectacle, and shimmer. Her debut novel, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them, received the 2020 Coretta Scott King Book Award, and she is currently writing a screenplay adaptation of the book.

“I am overjoyed to be reflecting on the legacies of justice, tenderness, and peace that honoring MLK Jr. situates us in,” Petrus said.

Petrus’ visit to Westport will focus on reimagining community diversity, engagement, and civility. She will be in town starting Friday, January 13, presenting for local schools. She will visit The Westport Library on Saturday for an experiential workshop with local artists, followed by a 3 pm panel discussion with the artists.

The three-day celebration culminates on Sunday at 3 pm with a keynote address delivered by Petrus at the Westport Country Playhouse. Copies of her book will be available for purchase on-site, with Petrus signing copies after her address. The program will also include a dance performed by the Regional Center for the Arts.

“While at The Westport Library, I will be grounding all of my offerings in the sacred force of sweetness, imagination, and creativity as foundational to our work in actualizing justice and healing in our world,” said Petrus. “This engagement will be filled with joy, playfulness, and connection, and will be an opportunity to replenish and warm our souls in the depths of winter.”

The Westport Martin Luther King Jr. celebration began in 2006 as an interfaith gathering coordinated by the Westport/Weston Interfaith Council and Westport/Weston Interfaith Clergy. Since 2016, it has been hosted by those two organizations as well as The Westport Library, Westport Country Playhouse, and TEAM Westport.

“We are honored to once again be part of the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration and cannot wait to welcome Junauda to the Library,” said Bill Harmer, Westport Library executive director. “Her talents know no bounds, and her message is as powerful as it is resonant. We look forward to our Westport community having a chance to hear from her.”

With her coming appearance, Petrus joins an esteemed list of past keynote speakers, including National Book Award winner and MacArthur Fellow Ibram X. Kendi, Pulitzer Prize winner James Forman Jr., New York Times best-selling authors Heather McGhee and Layla Saad, Guggenheim Scholar Carol Anderson, American Book Award winner Tricia Rose, and Quinnipiac Law School founder Marilyn Ford.

“Over much of the past decade, the MLK keynote has featured world-class speakers with profoundly timely updates and insights to facilitate racial understanding,” said Harold Bailey Jr., chair of TEAM Westport. “This year, throughout MLK weekend, we are delighted to have Junauda Petrus in Westport to extend that track record, with the added dimensions of her talent as an award-winning writer, poet, and performance artist. Furthermore, her strength as a young adult author should broaden our engagement of young people throughout the area.”

Among her many accomplishments, Petrus wrote and directed There Are Other Worlds, an ancestral-circus-poem-play with a cast of Black women to tell the story of an activist who has spent the majority of her two teenage daughter’s lives incarcerated, and wrote, directed, and produced Sweetness of Wild, an episodic-poetic-film-series about  life after Prince, first queer love, police violence, and bike culture against the backdrop of Minneapolis.

She also performed in and co-wrote (with Erik Ehn) the puppet-gospel-musical Queen starring Laurie Carlos, served as the lead artist with the Heart of the Beast Theatre’s May Day Parade, and created and performed in her own experimental short film work, including Love Tones, Out My Mind, and Erotics of Abolition.

As an aerial acrobat of the corde lisse (a hanging smooth rope), Petrus intertwined her background in West African and Afro-Caribbean dance and explored themes of Blackness, queerness, and wildness reclaimed and re-imagined in the vertical space.

Among her many honors, she received a Jerome Foundation grant to research queerness and African-inspired spiritualities in Trinidad and Tobago for her fiction and was named a 2016 City Pages Twin Cities artist of the year. Her stories and essays have been featured in anthologies including Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, Body Talk, How I Resist, and the speculative fiction collection Tasting Light.

Her forthcoming children’s book, Could We Please Give The Police Department to the Grandmothers?, is based on her viral poem that imagines a radically positive future where love and healing are at the center of public safety and community well-being.

In addition, Petrus is the co-founder (with Erin Sharkey) of Free Black Dirt, an experimental artist collective based in Minneapolis that creates original performances and supports the emerging literary artists’ community.

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Past Keynote Speakers

  • 2016: Quinnipiac Law School founder and Professor Marilyn Ford outlined the legal basis for Civil Rights legislation and progress over the past two centuries.
  • 2017: American Book Award winner and Brown Professor Tricia Rose detailed the stark reality of systemic racism’s impact in the U.S. through history to the present day. 
  • 2018: Boston University professor, National Book Award winner, MacArthur Fellow, and Guggenheim Scholar Ibram X. Kendi introduced the concepts of anti-racism and being racist as a moment-to-moment dynamic versus a permanent condition.
  • 2019: Guggenheim Scholar and Emory University Professor Carol Anderson turned the myths of Black voter apathy and Black rage on their heads with her exposition of Black voter suppression and white rage from the nation’s beginning.
  • 2020: National Book Award winner and Yale Professor James Forman Jr. outlined the role of Black political leaders in the explosion of Black incarceration in the latter part of the 20th century.
  • 2021: New York Times best-selling author and social media sensation Layla Saad provided a powerful vehicle for looking internally to address the personal demons surrounding attitudes of white supremacy.
  • 2022: Color of Change Board Chair and New York Times best-selling author Heather McGheedetailed the self-defeating history of the national attitude that opposes the inclusion of benefits for people of color at all costs.
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