If you go

WHAT: MOJA Arts Festival

WHEN: Sept. 25-Oct. 5

WHERE: Various venues

COST: Various. Some events are free.

MORE INFO: For a full schedule, tickets and more, visit mojafestival.com.

The reimagining of MOJA has begun.

MOJA highlights

2014 festival

Art Forms and Theatre Concepts' production of the musical "Bubbling Brown Sugar," which was a hit at the 2014 Piccolo Spoleto Festival. It will be mounted this time at the Dock Street Theatre. Various times, Thursday-Sept. 28.

A choral concert called "A Sea Island Gospel Explosion" at Trinity United Methodist Church, 273 Meeting St., featuring Allen AME Church Men's Choir, The Male Chorus of Greater St. John AME and New First Missionary Baptist Church Men's Choir. The Rev. Randolph Miller will serve as Master of Ceremonies. 4 p.m. Sept. 28.

The venerable Choraliers Music Club of Charleston presents "a Gullah-Geechie Explosion" of music and folklore at Mother Emanuel AME Church, 110 Calhoun St. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28.

A classical music program called "Poems of the Deep Song" at Mt. Zion AME Church, 5 Glebe St., featuring D'Jaris Whipper Lewis, Tiffany Rice, Anna Brock and Ellen Dressler Moryl. 6 p.m. Sept. 29.

A choral program called "Unsung Heroes: African-American Songs and Stories of the Civil War" at The Citadel's Bond Hall, 171 Moultrie St., featuring The Citadel Choir and the NoSeeums Band. 6:30 p.m. Sept. 30.

The 31st annual MOJA Arts Festival Juried Art Exhibition, coordinated by Francina Smalls-Joyner and judged by Doris Colbert Kennedy, features regional artists and is on view through Oct. 3 at the Avery Research Center, 125 Bull St. Reception and awards ceremony 5:30-7 p.m. today.

An exhibit featuring the work of this year's MOJA poster artist Alvin B. Glen is on view Thursday-Oct. 30 at The Art Institute of Charleston, 24 North Market St. Reception 5-7 p.m. Oct. 9.

Free events

The Opening Day Street Parade, beginning at Marion Square and concluding at the U.S. Custom House, followed by the festival's opening reception in the courtyard of the Dock Street Theatre. 6 p.m. Thursday.

The Reggae Block Dance at Brittlebank Park. 6:30 p.m. Friday.

Heritage Day at the Charleston Farmers Market at Marion Square. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday.

MOJA Finale in Hampton Park. 4 p.m. Oct. 5.

Poetry readings scheduled for 6 p.m. will take place at Republic Garden & Lounge, 462 King St. (Sept. 29 and 30); Craftsmen Kitchen and Tap House, 12 Cumberland St. (Oct. 1); City Gallery at Waterfront Park, 34 Prioleau St. (Oct. 2); and the Dock Street Theatre courtyard (Oct. 3).

The essence of the festival celebrating African-American and Caribbean culture isn't changing - MOJA still will present a variety of local and national artists at several area venues. It will continue to provide opportunities to attend plays and musicals, view art exhibitions, enjoy gospel and jazz concerts, listen to poetry readings and watch dancers strut their stuff.

The patrons, whether occasional or regular, likely won't notice any explicit transformation. It's more about an attitude, a mood, a sense of optimism.

Now in its 31st year, MOJA has seen its ups and downs, but it has always flung the cultural door wide open and invited festivalgoers to immerse themselves in an important aspect of Lowcountry identity and enjoy its manifestations in art.

Over the years, MOJA has grown to include numerous local and national artists working in a variety of genres: dance, music, theater, poetry and storytelling and visual arts. It also organizes sport events, parades, outdoor celebrations and programs for children and for seniors.

Regina Belle

Now, the city prepares to welcome two veritable stars, 83-year-old dancer Carmen de Lavallade and singer Regina Belle, who will headline special performances at the Dock Street Theatre and Family Circle Stadium, respectively.

Belle, 51, is an accomplished singer of R&B and gospel who has moved toward jazz in recent years.

She is no stranger to the pop and R&B charts. Perhaps her biggest hit, "A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)," a duet with Peabo Bryson, won the Grammy Award in 1993 for "Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal" and nabbed the Oscar for "Best Song."

Her headliner show will be 8 p.m. Saturday at the Daniel Island stadium, 161 Seven Farms Drive. Tickets are $21 general admission, $36 reserved.

The concert opens with Charleston's own Rochelle Whitney Green.

Carmen de Lavallade

De Lavallade said her autobiographical one-woman show, "As I Remember It," is a poetic form that combines movement, video and monologue.

"It's a thumbnail of my life, in a way," she said. "But it's all about memory, it's not linear at all. It hops around and changes, it doesn't follow a definite line."

It's safe to say De Lavallade is something of a legend. Her show, "As I Remember It," will be presented 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3 at the Dock Street Theatre.

She went to high school in Los Angeles with Alvin Ailey, a gymnast at the time. When she joined the Lester Horton Dance Theater, she dragged Ailey along, she said.

They moved to New York City after Horton's death and joined the cast of the Broadway production "House of Flowers." Also in the cast was Geoffrey Holder, who de Lavallade soon married.

Ailey and de Lavallade saw their careers diverge, she said. He anchored himself in his company; she remained a free spirit who worked with all sorts of people, secured television appearances and performed at the Metropolitan Opera and other top-drawer institutions.

"It was like Oz," she said. "New York was jumping in the '50s. Everything was going on: dance, music, theater, jazz."

In the midst of all this activity, during the 1970s, she joined the Yale School of Drama and worked with the Repertory Theatre. There she taught movement to the likes of Meryl Streep, Christopher Lloyd and Sigourney Weaver.

In 1992, she returned to the Met to choreograph "Porgy and Bess," "Die Meistersinger," "Rusalka" and "Lucia de Lammermoor."

Growth of black arts

MOJA's origins can be traced to 1979, when the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, Gibbes Museum of Art and the Charleston Chapter of the LINKS organized the first Black Arts Festival, meant to shine a light on the Lowcountry's contemporary arts scene. The Black Arts Festival, a biennial event, was produced twice more before morphing into MOJA.

When Art Gilliard, a Charleston native and Burke High School graduate, left the Lowcountry in the late 1960s to further his education and pursue a career, cultural arts offerings were few, he said.

"When I left, there was no outlet for African Americans in the arts," he said. When he returned to Charleston in 1985, several years after the start of MOJA, things had changed. "Now they were inviting blacks to please be part of the arts. The city was focusing on the festival and the arts in general."

Gilliard, who had become involved in theater and television, renewed acquaintances and discovered a growing interest locally in the arts.

"I sort of enjoyed what I was seeing," he said.

He helped the festival develop a theater component, he said. By 1995, he had founded Art Forms and Theatre Concepts, and since then, his troupe has often participated in MOJA and the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.

Art Forms' "Bubbling Brown Sugar" was presented in the spring at the Footlight Players Theater, where it was very well received, Gilliard said. Now it moves to the Dock Street Theatre for MOJA.

Romaine Heyward, festival coordinator and liaison between the the city's Office of Cultural Affairs and the MOJA organizing committee, said the goal this year is to raise the bar.

"We're trying to make the festival bigger and better," she said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.