Memoirist. Playwright. Now Maria C. “Ria” Young is adding “filmmaker” to her growing list of artistic titles.
The Asheville native debuts her documentary short The Power of Our Village online on Sunday, Feb. 28, in hopes of closing out Black History Month in memorable fashion, while sparking dialogue that will continue throughout the year. The film examines the history of the Shiloh community, a historically Black neighborhood established in South Asheville in the 1880s.
“There’s always different things going on within the Shiloh community for Black History Month. But with the [COVID-19 pandemic], some of those things have been scaled back a bit,” Young says. “I was just trying to figure out a way that I could put something together that would be an ode to Shiloh or pay homage to the community that raised me.”
Drawing inspiration from the works of Ava DuVernay (Selma), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), the longtime film buff took a DIY approach to telling the history of what she calls “one of the last historical Black neighborhoods in the city that hasn’t completely fallen into gentrification.”
To ensure that The Power of Our Village’s story is accurate and honors the hard work of community elders over the years, Young consulted Shiloh Community Association leaders Sophie Dixon and Anita White-Carter. She says the two women have been “the ringleaders and on the front line as far as combating gentrification within Shiloh,” and that, in the film and beyond, much can be learned from their ongoing battles to see that the tightknit community’s interests are upheld.
“I’m just trying to talk to them and figure out what individuals in my generation can do to continue that work,” Young says. “They’re [in their 80s], and there are a lot of things that they’ve put into place to where, once they transition, the [anti-gentrification] work can and will continue.”
The film combines historical images and present-day footage with Young’s own spoken-word narrations. The experience taught her plenty about the part of town where she grew up and still lives, including details of smaller surrounding neighborhoods with their own identities, such as Brooklyn. That section is home to Brooklyn Mission Church, believed to be the oldest church continuously operating in “New Shiloh” — the name elders call the current neighborhood location to differentiate it from “Old Shiloh,” which was located north of the Biltmore Estate until George Vanderbilt bought the land and moved the community down what’s now Hendersonville Road.
Making The Power of Our Village has also prompted Young to begin writing a feature film that she describes as “still in its development stages,” but something she can see “bringing to fruition in 2022.” Otherwise, she’s working on multiple projects at Asheville Community Theatre, which hosted a livestreamed staged reading of her play Transition in December and will give the work a full run in its 35below black-box space once pandemic restrictions lift.
“If there’s a project that I want to see or something that I want to create, I try to prepare myself to be able to do that and not wait for permission from somebody else to do so,” Young says. “Anything that I can create always comes from the lens of the values and the morals and the pride that Shiloh has instilled in me. Regardless of if it’s a project directly tied to Shiloh, that’s intertwined with my natural being.” twitter.com/_RiaYoung