Dr. Barbara Shannon-Bannister is president and CEO of Grand Design Inc., a nonprofit organization she founded in 1984 to preserve cultural and musical traditions of African Americans in Aurora. What began as a dance group performing in retirement homes now hosts an array of arts opportunities for its surrounding community. Grand Design has classes for both children and adults in art, music, dance and theater and hosts performances that showcase the positive results of its programs. It is still one of the only Black performing arts companies in Aurora, and it’s always evolving.
Grand Design is now sharing the fruits of its latest artistic endeavor: filmmaking. Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges is a twelve-episode, non-fiction narrative that was produced in collaboration with Denver Open Media and directed by several local filmmakers. The docuseries explores Black titans of the music world, such as Aretha Franklin and James Brown, alongside their local Colorado contemporaries and successors. Grand Design will host the premiere of the first two episodes with a free, public event at the People’s Building in Aurora on Friday, February 11, but the evening is designed to be much more than just a screening.
“This is a remembrance for us, an opportunity for us to do something new. It’s also to raise our awareness,” says Shannon-Bannister. “I hope people will leave with a heightened awareness that ‘maybe I should learn [about Black history].’ Too often things like this slide by us; people are busy doing other things.”
Breaking Barriers is in a more complex position than similar films. Aurora has remained an epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement since the 2019 death of Elijah McClain at the hands of the Aurora police, which ended in a $15 million payment to the deceased’s family. A year before, Shannon-Bannister had retired from her thirty-year tenure as the chief of community relations for the city. She still serves on the Civil Service Commission, helping sort through candidates for positions on police and firefighting forces.
The year she retired, Grand Design sought out film as a new, unique venture. The docuseries was conceptualized by Erica Papillion Posey, a volunteer who was advising Grand Design on the performing arts scene in Aurora (she is also a trained mezzo soprano singer). Posey provided a dozen musical touchstones for the organization to explore; Each episode is structured around a different facet of Black musical culture in America, including children’s music, classical, hip-hop, gospel, blues and dance.
The abundance of documents about Black musicians only grow with each passing year. Titles like What Happened, Miss Simone?, Amazing Grace and Summer of Soul crowd streaming platforms. Grand Design knew that to stand out, it would have to go beyond highlighting known icons and dive deep into the community. Shannon-Bannister says that many of the locals the docuseries showcases were found through churches.
“Our churches in the Black community were places where we congregated, sought comfort, had dinners, helped people. Pastors were the people we leaned towards, therefore churches were where we went to find all kinds of talents,” she explains.
The second episode traces the roots of gospel music from “spirituals,” songs created and sung by enslaved Africans in the 18th and 19th centuries. M. Roger Holland II, an assistant professor of music and religion at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver, is a central figure of the episode. Holland directs the university’s Spirituals Project, a community choir initiative to maintain the performance of Black spirituals. Holland refers to these songs as “the mother from which all the other branches and leaves extend for Black music.”
Christiana Danae, Deidra Walker, Stephanie Hancock and Soup d’Jour are among the other promising local talents who appear throughout the series. Discovering these voices, even decades after finding Grand Design for just such purposes, still surprises Shannon-Bannister.
“I was amazed at the amount of talent that we have around us that we don’t even look at or know about,” she says. “That’s the sad part.”
Through highlighting talent and tracing the roots of black music, Breaking Barriers aims to be a positive reflection of its community. February 11 will work as both a premiere and a workshop for the series. Audience members are invited to give their thoughts in a post-screening Q&A setting, and Shannon-Bannister hopes her community embraces the show and sees itself represented in a genuine, authentic light.
The evening will also feature a red carpet, refreshments, and maybe even a choral performance by Grand Design. There is currently no set plan for distribution of the series, but Shannon-Bannister promises to “push all the buttons” and have Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges air on television one day. Most importantly, she hopes to host more public screenings to further harvest interest and fine-tune the show.
Shannon-Bannister is counting on this event to foster community not only through the series, but through authentic, spontaneous discussions. She’s been in the Aurora community for the better part of fifty years and knows she wouldn’t ever want to be anywhere else.
“I want to see the relationship between the community and the police get better,” Bannister declares. “I’ll be there raising my hand and saying, ‘I want to help. Who’ll help me?’ It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, what you feel; if you love Aurora, what are you going to do to make Aurora the best place to live?”
Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges premieres Friday, February 11, 7 pm, The People’s Building, 9995 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora. Reserve free tickets on Eventbrite. Learn more about Grand Design, Inc. on their website.