Casts of iconic ‘Good Times’ and current ‘Black-ish’ among celebs at annual Labor Day weekend event in Orlando
BY PENNY DICKERSON
Black families from across the country upped the ante on the traditional Labor Day weekend barbecues by opting to attend the 2015 Allstate Tom Joyner Family Reunion at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Orlando.
Dubbed both a “fam fest” and “fan fest,” the reunion attracts a cross-section of generations who convened by the thousands for four days, Sept. 3-7, to enjoy a free expo, seminars, celebrity appearances and soulful performances. Nostalgia reigned as families got up close and personal to meet their favorite stars from shows that spanned decades like the casts of “Good Times,’’ “Living Single,’’ and the youth cast from the ABC primetime hit “Black-ish.’’
The reunion is the brainchild of Joyner who hosts the nation’s No. 1 syndicated urban morning radio show in markets all over the country with an audience of more than eight million listeners. His media partner BlackAmericaWeb.com hosts more than 1.5 million monthly visitors.
“When we first created this event, we wanted families to experience a truly spectacular vacation that was unique, all-inclusive, affordable and more than anything entertaining,” said Joyner who shared with the Florida Courier without any filters that the reunion is Black-family focused.
“We’re not ashamed of saying Black. After all, my website is BlackAmericaWeb.com and our mission as a show and organization is to reach African-Americans and super-serve African-Americans, so we unashamedly say Black. We also love the “Black Lives Matters” movement,” Joyner added.
Joyner has long promoted the power of the march, movement, and media as viable influences to positively frame the Black family image, which is the reunion’s central theme.
“Back in the day, when Dr. (Martin Luther) King and others wanted to march, we’d stop playing Aretha (Franklin) and the Temptations and hand the microphone to civil rights leaders. They’d tell us where and why we were marching,” said Joyner.
“There was no CNN, no social media, no cable outlets. We couldn’t even get on the 6 and 10 o’clock news. But there was Black radio and our listeners were the entire community and we continue to reach them. Now, it’s a national platform.” he added.
Joyner further believes television tells you everything you need to know about the world, including poverty and wealth as depicted on the sitcoms “Good Times” and “Black-ish.” Core cast members from each show were on hand at the reunion.
‘Black-ish lives matters’
Who better to set the tone for how America uplifts the Black family than the teens from the hit show ‘Black-ish’? They are articulate, infectiously cute and kept it “100” when sharing their insights with the Florida Courier.
“I think our show has a huge impact on America because the Johnson family is relatable to every race, and we’re breaking a lot of barriers on television,” said Marcus Scribner, who plays Andre Johnson, Jr.
“We’re portraying African-Americans as something to be proud of and that’s good. We’re also bringing important topics to light that people don’t often see on television and we’re adding comedy.”
A fourth-generation Los Angeles native and honor student, Scribner aspires to attend Stanford or UCLA. His sentiments are shared by Yara Shahidi, who plays his younger sister Zoe.
Shahidi is a 4.83 student who recently toured Harvard and is a James Baldwin enthusiast who’s wise beyond her years.
“It’s important to be on a socially relevant comedy because it’s nice to have a positive Black image, someone you can look up to or aspire to be versus seeing Blacks play the drug dealer all the time,” said Shahidi.
“Television plays such an important role in our lives, but we only see negative images. As teenagers, we are pressured by what we see on TV and that’s who we think we need to be, but we don’t have to be anything except us. You figure out who you are by being true to yourself,” she added.
A new tradition
According to Joyner, the reunion has, “created a new Black Family tradition that has come to represent entertainment, exclusivity and fun.” The latter was personified with a Friday night AARP Grown Folks concert that featured Teddy Riley and Regina Belle while Boost Mobile hosted a Soulful Saturday featuring the consummate R&B crowd unifier Frankie Beverly and Maze.
Walmart welcomed the dynamic Yolanda Adams to the stage, but it was Kirk Franklin’s free gospel explosion on Sunday afternoon that best personified what happens when families gather at a Joyner reunion – Black people of all ages are assured a fun time.
Expo with less expense
Ruby James saved close to $2,000 to ensure that her 8-year-old granddaughters Chanelle and Narea James were exposed to the ultimate summer vacation. The 66-year-old retired grandmother saved her Social Security income and retirement earnings, and the three flew from Harlem on Aug. 8 and anchored their one-month vacation with the Joyner reunion before school began in New York on Sept. 9.
“They have so many fun and free things the kids enjoy like games, face painting, and arts and crafts,” said James, who also treated the girls to Lego Land and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. “These are my grandkids and I want them to experience what it’s like for Black people to gather and be positive.”
Samara King was equally interested in her children gaining cultural exposure. An Orlando resident, King’s crew artistically transformed themselves into pirates in the kid’s zone. Jesiah (5) and Daniel King (7) were able to take part in endless fun that cost their mother less than $100, including gas, parking and meals.
“We always come to the reunion just for the event itself,” said King. “There’s a lot of people interaction and the kids got to meet a NASA astronaut and an NBA player. I love the cultural exposure.”
Free to roam through zones
The 200,000-square-foot Gaylord Palms exhibition hall was converted into a user-friendly maze of zones that offered every imaginable free resource for families, including an HBCU college row manned by admissions officers, health care advisors assisting with Obamacare registration and free flu shots by Walgreens. The arts and culture zone hosted Ancestry.com for onsite heritage searches and authors as young as 9 years old signed published books.
Entrepreneurs peddling afrocentric garments and Greek paraphernalia, displayed items apparel and T-shirts for purchase that ran the gamut, but family member’s palette could also be quenched with a ton of free giveaways filled to the rim in Allstate bags.
The Health and Beauty zone was ripe with familiarity, but new kids on the block like “Uncle Funky’s Daughter” natural hair products and “Kimykat Kolors” nail polish maintained a huddle of interest as did a broad offering of “cause marketing” for everything from faith to self-defense to cancer awareness.
Allstate, all-stars and champions
Since 2003, Joyner has collaborated with likeminded corporate advocates like title sponsor Allstate insurance company whose national “Champions for Good” campaign highlights stories of “good’’ in a world where bad news tends to take center stage.
This year’s three, 2015 selected champions are Yvette and Kofi Moyo (Chicago), Kerri Pruitt (Birmingham, Ala.) and Rhonda Wilson (Gainesville). They were each honored and awarded an all-expense paid trip to attend Joyner’s weekend reunion.
Wilson is a lifelong champion who founded the Star Center Theater in Gainesville 15 years ago as a way to provide a safe activity for local youth and exposure to arts education. Although many of the children who attend the theater are from underserved areas of the community, Wilson personally provides scholarships and transportation to ensure that every student is able to participate.
A native of Detroit, Wilson’s formative years were spent in Miami where she graduated from Miami Northwest High School in 1989 followed by the University of Florida. For a decade, she nurtured elementary students as a drama and theater teacher and transitioned this year to Alachua County’s Kanapaha Middle School.
“I’ve never been to the reunion so this has been a great experience, and I’ve met a lot of wonderful people. Regardless of winning the award, seeing so many families and friends together in one place is empowering and inspiring,” Wilson shared with the Florida Courier.
“I’m one of three winners, but thousands of people in local communities are doing great things every day. I’ve had a blast and I’m grateful to Allstate and Tom Joyner for the recognition,” Wilson added.