Actor and musician Mike Ellison grew up in Reston in the 1980s, the son of a prominent African American journalist in a relatively progressive planned community. From childhood into his 40s, he has routinely heard the same backhanded compliment: “You’re so articulate.”
Ellison has turned that phrase on its head as an avenue to have tough conversations about race. This week, Ellison, who now lives in Loudoun, launches a three-part multimedia and spoken word series “You’re So Articulate.” The first performance in the series, “One Nation,” makes its debut at Loudoun’s Franklin Park Arts Center on July 25.
“I always heard in elementary school, middle school, high school, college and even as an adult, ‘You’re so articulate’ and it’s kind of a double-edged sword. … It’s saying, ‘Wow I like the way you express yourself,’ but you can tell behind that is, ‘We’re not used to Black folks, particularly Black men, being able to express themselves the way you do,’” Ellison said. “I’ve heard that throughout my life. Rather than rest solely on the negative or the positive, I wanted to use that title as a provocative mechanism.”
The world-traveling performer divides his time between his home near Arcola and his artistic and musical home base in Detroit. Ellison has mostly flown under the radar in Loudoun but is stepping up to help the region start important conversations about race.
Ellison is the son of noted journalist Bob Ellison, the first African-American journalist to serve as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, who died in 2010. Ellison was born in Ethiopia while his father was stationed there with the U.S. Agency for International Development and still feels a deep spiritual connection to that country.
“It’s a tremendous connection that has blessed and saved my life,” he said.
Ellison grew up in Reston, a planned community that took pride in its progressive ideals. He graduated from South Lakes High School and the University of Virginia with a degree in communications. As a teen, like so many young men of color, Ellison got “the talk,” which he discusses in the new show.
“Before we learn anything about driving, the talk is what to do when—not if—you’re stopped by a police officer,” he said. “I think before I even knew what gas, brake or a clutch was, I knew what to do if and when I was stopped by a police officer, whether in a car or walking. … That’s a reality for us.”
Ellison started his professional life working in public relations for the U.S. Tennis Association and U.S. Open tennis tournament. He moved to Detroit to work for a firm representing professional athletes in a range of sports, but that city inspired him to shift gears and pursue a career in the arts. Inspired by Detroit’s music scene, Ellison started doing open mic nights at the legendary Cafe Mahogany, a haven for the city’s poets and musicians that closed its doors in 2000. Ellison also started acting classes at the Detroit Repertory Theater.
“Those two experiences essentially woke me up out of a creative coma,” he said.
In 2004, Ellison returned to Ethiopia for the first time since childhood to record the single and video “Everything Will be Alright,” which became a huge hit in his birth country. He followed up in 2007 with his “AfroFlow CD,” the first hip-hop project released by Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and has since recorded two more albums.
Ellison continues to volunteer with groups in the U.S. and Ethiopia working to improve healthcare infrastructure.
“We were able to leverage the popularity of [“Everything Will Be Alright”] to aid that vision—to play fundraisers and bring attention to what we were doing. It connected me in a personal and spiritual way that I never could have imagined,” he said.
Ellison also started racking up film and television roles in the early 2000s and has worked as an actor for nearly two decades, most recently in a guest role as a detective on the latest season of “Chicago Fire.”
While living in Detroit, Ellison’s connections to Northern Virginia remained strong. His mother still lives in Reston, and his brother lives in Ashburn with his family. After moving to Loudoun, Ellison became involved with the local alumni chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. Through a speaking engagement with that group, he connected with County Chair Phyllis Randall’s staff and was invited to serve on the county’s Arts Advisory Commission. Through that organization, Ellison connected with Franklin Park Arts Center manager Elizabeth Bracey, who is known for innovative programming, and launched plans for “You’re So Articulate.” The July 25 performance will be followed by a panel discussion, Purcellville Mayor Kwasi Fraser and representatives of the Carver Alumni Association, on Purcellville’s Black history and how national conversations on race relate to Loudoun.
Ellison’s intent with the new show is to offer “context and perspective, insight into a sliver of the Black experience and the Black perspective,” he said. “I don’t represent the full experience, nor do I represent the opinions of everyone who looks like me, but I think it will at least be a starting point for people to understand how we got here. If you don’t interact with people it’s very hard to understand who they are and where they come from.”
For Ellison and Bracey, the time is right to get the conversation going in Loudoun. The program is one of the arts center’s first in-person performances under Virginia’s Phase 3 reopening and will take place with reduced capacity and strict social distancing protocols.
For Ellison, education and intentional awareness are two key elements to changing the national dialog on race. This includes reforming an educational system that largely ignores the rich history of Africa and the achievements of African Americans in the intellectual sphere. It also demands hard work from white Americans who want to do better. For some, he hopes, the Franklin Park show will be a launching point.
“Do the tough painstaking work that we had to do just to figure out who we are. I cannot give you or anyone else the CliffsNotes as to how we got here and how most of us feel as Blacks living in America. You’re not going to figure it out in one conversation,” Ellison said. “If you truly care you have to invest some time in reading some books, talking to some people, listening, watching documentaries and listening to people who take you out of your comfort zone.”
Mike Ellison’s “One Nation” multimedia presentation and spoken word performance takes place Saturday, July 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville. The audience will be limited to 50 people with social distancing measures in place. Admission is by donation. Advance reservation is required at franklinparkartscenter.org. For more information about Mike Ellison, go to mikeellison.me.