Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Vacation Notification

Thanks for visiting I'm on vacation until July 26. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A British Playwright Makes World War II Meet the Impact of African-American Nurses



The cast of the stage play Fort Huachuca appears in a scene during its June debut in Hollywood.
Photo courtesy of Darnell Rhea.
It is not a musical, yet there is a tone in Fort Huachuca that is profound.  It is not a movie but the emotions, clarity, and sincerity that cloak your attention span give you the impression, the stage play is beyond just a story that moved from imagination to lights, cameras, and action. It is not a movement in the traditional sense, yet the African-American nurses battle an invisible war, during the World War II era. “They’re fighting to be seen instead of taking up space and it’s much like the reality of women around the world today,” said director and writer, Ailema Sousa.
British playwright Ailemna Sousa appears in a scene during its June debut in Hollywood. Sousa's inspirataion
to produce, Fort Huachuca: A Tale of Sisterhood, Patriotism, and Race is the result of a dearth of stories like it that feature African-American in lead roles. 

Photo courtesy of Darnell Rhea.
Sousa is also one of the production’s five stars. “It was quite challenging trying to not be bias, and not be limited because you know you’re going to play it,” she said. Her motivation to write the play instead of hitting the marathon of auditions for her big break, shortly after finishing the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, comes from clearly seeing a blind spot in the industry. “I noticed things on television and there were few movies with leading roles for African American women with prominent speaking roles,” she said.

Set on a U.S. Army base of the same name in Southern Arizona during World War II, Fort Huachuca has the drama and full evolution of characters you expect to see, when you think about the time period, racism, skepticism, and defiance. The three-act stage play balances fact and fantasy with a revolution folded into a love story.
The cast of the stage play Fort Huachuca appears in a scene during its June debut in Hollywood.
Photo courtesy of Darnell Rhea.
The three-act play by the British native is told from the perspective of the nurses. The characters have the education, experience, and enthusiasm that define a soldier suited to serve America. But there is something in the way of their ability to live their dream.  Think of Taraji Henson in Hidden Figures, and Alfre Woodard in Miss Evers Boys. Imagine their situations being worse and you get a sense of what Mayvee, Marjorie, Georgia, Elinor, and Thelma face in Fort Huachuca. “A lot happens to them,” said Sousa. “You see relationships between the women, different dynamics, and a lot of support.”

Actors Ashlee Jones (Boston Public), Charles Nkrumah Jr. (Northbound in New York), Natalia Elizabeth (Fatal Attraction) and Nicole Sousa (Bridecon) bring the play to life.
It is a universal story of women embracing their victories, determined not to be vanquished by strict limitations on and off-base. In the midst of the violence and injured soldiers returning home aftermath of the war, their roles in the military are convoluted. 
The cast of the stage play Fort Huachuca appears in a scene during its June debut in Hollywood.
Photo courtesy of Darnell Rhea.
At certain turning points in the play, because of their diverse backgrounds, they are at times, misguided, unapologetically confident, naïve, and fumble as reality and fantasy collide.
Where are the rest of the stories like “Fort Huachuca?” That’s the question Sousa believes the audience will ask, after crying, cringing, and cheering, when the curtain closes.

Ailemna Sousa’s story is one of several weekly stories you’ll see here throughout July, as part of “How Did She…?” The series will focus on women who are defying the odds in various industries. 

Fort Huachuca is on tour in California. It hit its first stage June 2 in Santa Monica, CA. For more information about the play and to find out when it may come to a theatre near you, visit

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Independent Designer Stitches Perfect Fit in Fickle Fashion Industry


Cherika Hart-Ratchford, owner of "Designs by Estell" models one of the recent editions to her summer collection. Her inspiration to launch the business came after being mentally and physically exhausted but energized by her skills and support. "My husband said my health was more important than anything and with that, I started my plan." 
Photo by:  Darrell Moye.

Gone are the days of Black History Month at schools and churches around the country being the only time you catch a glimpse of Afro-centric or Afro-inspired designs. It is not uncommon to see celebrities at events throughout the year going outside of the norm, opting to flaunt elaborate and electrifying designs that give even some of the most renowned fashion experts breathless.  “When it comes to fashion, everyone wants something not everyone will have on,” said Cherika Hart-Ratchford, owner of “Designs by Estell.”  

The gap in the retail industry for clothing with an Afro-centric twist for the fashion-savvy and frugal shopper who wants the allure, specific, regal tones, and red carpet awe, designers like Nicole Miller, Vera Wang, and Tory Burch consistently deliver, is no secret.  It is exactly why Hart-Ratchford has no problem balancing the supply and demand, successfully. The independent business owner personally sketches, sews, and ships exactly what her customers want and what she knows they cannot get at signature retail outlets. “Trendy African prints are easy to just make.”
Hart-Ratchford models her original design of a female version of a necktie. The Pinkie Belle is one of her most popular items. Photo by: Darrell Moye. 
Statement T-shirts, monogrammed clutches, flowing or fitted skirts, wraps, scarves, pants, dresses, if you can wear it or accent it, she can make it. The Pinkie Belle is by far the most popular piece she’s designed. “It looks like a skirt around your neck,” Hart-Ratchford said.  “You wear it with a collard-shirt. I wanted something women can wear like a man and I started drawing and cutting from there.”

“I was always crazy about clothes,” she said. She was not as excited about the process she’d seen her grandmother Estell, a well-known seamstress, precisely do flawlessly. “I was afraid of the sewing machine,” Hart-Ratchford said. “Looking at it as a kid, seeing the fabric go through the machine terrified me.” Being terrified of not fully tapping into her passion and potential pushed Hart-Ratchford out the door of her 9-to-5 in 2016. “While working at the insurance company, I felt myself sinking mentally,” she said. “I wasn’t able to do things with the kids because my mind was always at work.”

Feeling marginalized in a cubicle set the tone for the momentum to step away and do what seemed impossible on some level. She was strategic.  “I had to have my house in order financially,” she said. “For two years I saved.”  Also, during that period, unlike some small businesses that use crowd-sourcing, investors or grants to start their road to success, Hart-Ratchford took a different route. “People sent donations to me just because to buy things I may need,” she said.

While she had family members willing to wear anything she made, to get to the next level and expand her brand, the Bethel University graduate faced a hard fact. The fashion industry is brutal, especially when it comes to a new or emerging designer. She named the company “Designs by Estell” in honor of her late grandmother. “I owed it to my grandmother,” she said.

To minimize skepticism about the quality and originality of her work, Hart-Ratchford took two major steps. “I wanted to perfect what I didn’t understand and learn how to create my own patterns and not just use commercial patterns.” A six-month online sewing class also helped sharpen her skills and introduced her to the art of personalizing each garment.
After Hart-Ratchford signs handwritten thank-you notes and seals packages, Josh, Hart-Ratchford's 9-year-old son, routinely stands in line and ships packages to customers. 
The intense training coupled with her intuition to give customers an experience and not just an electronic transaction is a combination of her acute understanding of the fashion industry and a commitment to exceptional customer service. “I give every customer a handwritten thank-you note,” she said.

She may want to thank Marvel Studios one day.  Her business model and popularity met exceptional profits in February that surprised Hart-Ratchford. When “Black Panther” hit theaters, sales tripled for anything Hart-Ratchford created.

According to the Small Business Association, women own nearly 10 million businesses across America. Add that encouraging statistic to what experts predict is an emerging billion dollar e-commerce market with an unprecedented need for African-themed fashion, it’s easy to see how and why “Designs by Estell” has an impressive chance of avoiding becoming a dream deferred.
Satisfied "Designs by Estell" customers like Tyrecia Dawes often proudly pose and post photos on social media promoting their latest, hottest, jaw-dropping haute couture. Photo courtesy of Cherika Hart-Ratchford.
Who are you wearing? Whether it’s the red carpet, the runway or the royal court, the Memphis native hopes one day, when a celebrity is asked that question, “Designs by Estell” is the answer. In the meantime, while she continues to succeed by filling a garment gap, Hart-Ratchford’s considering evolving into the skin care world with a line of beauty products. To see a full inventory or perhaps inquire about your distinctive look, log onto

Cherika Hart-Ratchford’s story is one of several weekly stories you’ll see here throughout July,  as part of “How Did She…?” The series will focus on women who are defying the odds in various industries.

We value your feedback and story suggestions. Feel free to contact us at

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Film Shows Life After Infidelity and Same-Sex Attraction

by Maniko Barthelemy

Love and Marriage Unravel in "I Thought It Was Forever"

Whether you go to a chapel, courthouse or seal your love with a kiss at a lavish ceremony, marriage has at its core the expectation of lifelong happiness. What happens when your spouse reveals an unnerving truth that interrupts joy and peace in your life? In "I Thought It Was Forever" couples boldly and candidly remove all stereotypes and rumors about life after a spouse comes out. Visit the film's social media page at

As soon as the page reaches 500 likes, Southern Belle Productions will release it online for free. See the trailer, meet the cast and crew at Leave a comment on the page about the film, the issue or your personal experience.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Film Boldly Examines Life Hours After Ex-Offender Leaves Prison

Photo courtesy: Jeff Ray for Southern Belle Productions

How do ex-offenders meet or defy expectations?
by Maniko Barthelemy|

Prison undoubtedly changes people. When you hear the word Reentry, what comes to mind? Between reality TV shows, misconceptions and expectations, the actual determining factor that defines someone's life after prison has a lot to do with the first 24 hours of freedom. 

What makes coming home from prison a fresh start or a setback? Southern Belle Productions, LLC​ is in the pre-production phase of a documentary unapologetically showing the reality of attitudes and expectations when someone is released from prison in Louisiana. 

E-mail Southern Belle Productions at for details.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

by Maniko Barthelemy

Jefferson Parish Celebrates Alternative Drug Sentencing Program

For a brief moment, judges, ex-offenders, parole officers and politicians were all smiles, happy to be around each other. “This is about saving people’s lives, about making sure no one gets left behind and everyone has an opportunity to be a productive member of society,” said Jefferson Parish President, John Young.

Young and nearly 60 people enjoyed a Drug Court Rally, May 15, outside of the Jefferson Parish Juvenile Court Center. The program was one of many around the country celebrating “National Drug Court Month.”
With the emotional testimonies from graduates of the parish’s program and praise from politicians it felt like a joyful church service. One Gretna teenager ecstatic about being included in the festivities and determined to continue his clean and sober road got a standing ovation. “I turned to God and begged him to show me the way, said Philip Long.”

Long, 17, landed in front of a judge in 2013, after his addiction to painkillers spiraled out of control. Instead of being sentenced to time behind bars, Long got a break and slowly regained control of his life. He credits the 12-month court ordered strict intervention with his renewed sense of self-respect and ambition. “I’ve written songs and I think I want to be a journalist,’ said Long.

Court mandated drug treatment is rigorous. It includes frequent drug testing, sobriety meetings, unannounced visits from probation officers and family therapy. For adults, the intervention program is 18 months.

A Gretna woman told the crowd the drug court sentence scared her straight. “I wasn’t fit for jail and I knew I wouldn’t last,” said 39-year-old Natalie Parfait. For nearly 10 years, Parfait bounced between marijuana and heroin, neglecting her family. In 2011, her fast world and drug addiction collided, with tough love from a judge. “I was facing two to 28 years in prison and I was pregnant,” said Parfait. “I was standing there praying for a chance.” Today, she is healthy and happy to spend her days as a personal fitness trainer and her nights being a mother to her children.

Parfait and Long are two of the 500 Jefferson Parish Drug Court success stories over the parish’s 17 years of alternatively dealing with people who commit nonviolent crimes to support their habits. The adult system was put in place in 1997, followed by the juvenile program in 1998. Initially, grants and private donations kept the system afloat. Today, the Louisiana Supreme Court funds the program through earmarked revenue.

The rally marked the 25th anniversary of National Drug Court Month. The concept of drug courts was launched in Miami in 1989 to ease crowded criminal courtrooms and prisons. Every state has a drug court program. Experts point to the cost savings and success as reasons why it’s a viable solution. Critics see it as going soft on crime. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Festival Hits High Note with Entertainers and Entrepreneurs

by Maniko Barthelemy

It's the one place in the world where you'll always find peculiar entertainment. New Orleans is always festive, hot, humid and full of high notes from musicians imitated but never duplicated. In Louis Armstrong Park, named in honor of one of the city’s most beloved musicians, it’s time again for a festival unlike most in the city.

“Jazz in the Park,” a free music festival offering a gumbo of artists that are popular local favorites and who have traveled the world shining an international microscope on their talents, kicked off its fifth season, April 17. Every Thursday, 4 p.m. – 7 p.m., until June 2, the hypnotic sound of great free concerts, affordable, unforgettable food, and unique handcrafted souvenirs will welcome thousands.  “A lot of people forgot about this park,” said ????, referring to the years the park set abandoned, following Hurricane Katrina.

On this cool and perfectly calm day, there was no hint of sadness. A New Orleans second-line parade set the tone. High-steppers from the Sudan Social Aid and Pleasure Club, wearing red and yellow flashy costumes, jubilantly danced around the park, to hypnotic tunes blaring from a brass band’s horns complimented by thunderous beats from the drum, and of course people smiled, took photos and joined in on the fun.  “We don’t practice our dance moves because it’s just in our blood,” said Wendell Carter, a member of the Sudan Social Aid & Pleasure Club.

5th Ward Weebie Works the Crowd with his song "Let Me Find Out."
The dancing moved from the park’s entrance to center stage when local rapper, 5th Ward Weebie took the microphone. Weebie seemed like a choir director with his call-and-response style. He barely got a word out before the crowd began clapping their hands, dancing and shouting the hook to “Let Me Find Out,” the artist’s latest hit song. The lyrics are laced with crass criticism, jokes at the expense of others, and quite honestly will cause you to move your hips and chuckle a few times. “It’s a self-check song for people who love to talk about other people but know they have their own issues,” said Weebie. To see 5th Ward Weebie’s video of “Let Me Find Out,” visit YouTube,

The next artist who electrified fans with his testimony, raspy voice, and bold declarations was Glen David Andrews. He’s a member of the almost uniquely unbelievably talented and gifted Andrews family. The Andrews clan is as respected and adored musically as the Jacksons. Andrews joyfully entertained everyone with highlights from “Redemption,” his newest CD. It’s a rousing candid lyrical road trip into his life, giving fans all of the ups, downs and turnarounds that have landed his album on the top 40 jazz charts within the last week.  

Andrews launched onto the stage clapping his hands, dancing and bobbing his head easing into  “Movin' Up.” The song reconfirms his renewed love of self, appreciation of his family, fans, and celebration of his career’s rebirth. Here’s a glimpse of Andrews performing “Movin Up,”

Robert Piazza, owner of Bayou Leather and Jewelry, stands near his special hand-designed beer holsters
Musicians aren’t the only ones who welcome the invitation to be part of Jazz in the Park. Robert Piazza owns Bayou Leather and Jewelry. He’s one of more than a dozen vendors at the festival. “We sell a lot of our merchandise but the best thing about this is it's unlike other festivals because it’s two seasons, lasts about eight weeks in the spring and again in the fall, so we meet people from around the world,” said Piazza.

Maniko Barthelemy grabs a strawberry snowball at Jazz in the Park
People from around the world looking to get their hands on something cool, like crushed ice drowned in sweet syrup, stop by and visit the festival's unofficial cooling station. “I have the best snowballs in the state,” said Aquanette (Ackie) Singleton, owner of Mrs. Ackie & Keimika Snoballs, Food and Catering Service. Singleton sells hundreds of the cold cups but another big hit is her twist on cheesy nachos, topping them off with jalapeño peppers and spicy crawfish. Give her a call for your next event, (504) 250-4996.
Crawfish Nachos by Mrs. Ackie & Keimika Snoballs, Food and  Catering Service
Jazz in the Park is every Thursday until June 5. Here’s a look at the festival’s schedule, Every week you'll see at least two live bands with a little lagniappe sliced in as a special treat.