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The Smear: A career-killing lie almost ruined this rising Minneapolis dance star

City Pages

City Pages

I. Hate mail

On the morning of October 21, 2017, the budding New York choreographer Jinah Parker was sitting in bed, her husband lying alongside, when she opened her email and found a deeply unsettling, one-paragraph message about her debut dance production.

The show was called SHE, a Choreoplay, an off-off-Broadway interpretative dance in which four women vividly monologize rape and abuse.

Parker wrote and directed. Her newlywed husband, Kevin Powell, was the producer. In 1992, as a tenacious 26-year-old activist, he appeared on the inaugural season of MTV’s genre-defining reality show, The Real World. In the decades since, he’d become a prolific public speaker, author of 13 books, and a two-time congressional candidate.

Powell also has a history of violence. He assaulted women in college and once shoved a girlfriend into a bathroom door. Now he’s a sophist of male fragility, and an essential component of his activist repertoire is to engage in public reflection—usually with equal parts self-effacement and self-righteousness—upon this personal shame.

This was what the email to his wife took issue with.

Locally acclaimed choreographer April Sellers was on the verge of taking her work to the national stage.

Locally acclaimed choreographer April Sellers was on the verge of taking her work to the national stage. Jennifer Glaws

“You are being a hypocrite. How can you present a message via dance on sexual violence, but knowingly choose to marry an admitted woman beater?!”

It continued: “Kevin Powell admits that he can relapse into violence. Don’t be deceived and trade your safety for someone who can assault you.”

The sender was a woman named April Sellers.

Stunned and bewildered, Parker felt that this small but cutting missive attacked her work, her marriage, and her choices all in one breathless dispatch. Silently, she tapped her husband on the shoulder and showed it to him.

The couple Googled “April Sellers.” There was a law professor in Indiana, an Oklahoma district court judge, a high school softball player. But the top links pointed to the April Sellers Dance Collective in Minneapolis.

That April Sellers is a choreographer of modern dance. She’s 43, an anarchist queer feminist known for avant-garde expressions of body politics. Critics would identify her work with epic emotions, big hair, and nude numbers that made all but the most daring of Minnesota venues flinch.

The couple asked themselves who would be so concerned about a production like SHE, and determined that this April Sellers had to be responsible.

Two weeks later, Powell crafted a blistering 1,200-word open letter response, signed jointly by his wife.

It read: “For you, as a so-called progressive White woman, to think it’s okay to send a note like that to a Black woman, about her relationship with her Black husband, speaks to a kind of racist privilege and racist condescension deeply steeped in the history of this country.”

The couple called Sellers sexist for thinking she knew another woman’s journey better than herself, and accused her of committing “a form of violence.”

“We are sharing this response widely, across various communities in Minnesota and nationally, because we feel people like you are dangerous.”

They addressed the email to the April Sellers Dance Collective. The message was blind copied to the Star Tribune, MPR, A Prairie Home Companion, Walker Art Center, Juxtaposition Arts, the Minneapolis NAACP, two dozen members of the state arts board (which issues grants to artists), and the St. Paul Public School District (where Sellers taught part-time).

Asked later what he wanted people to know about Sellers, Powell explained, “If you have someone who’s a white supremacist in your community, people should be aware of it. If you have someone who’s a rapist in the community, people should be aware of it. If you have someone who’s spewing hate speech, they should be aware of it. That’s basic.”

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the couple were enacting their revenge on the wrong woman.

II. An artist’s reputation

The internationally famous Kevin Powell is a journalist, activist, public speaker, and dance producer.

The internationally famous Kevin Powell is a journalist, activist, public speaker, and dance producer.

April Sellers took her dog for a walk, unaware that a pair of New York activists was simultaneously drafting her character assassination. When she returned to her apartment, the email was waiting.

Through tone and content she could tell something terrible had happened. The letter referenced personal details about her life—how she’d been born in Iowa, attended college in Wisconsin, and worked as a dancer and choreographer in Minnesota. There was abundant name-calling, and a library of links to the activism of a man named Kevin Powell.

She’d never heard of him or his wife, Jinah Parker, before.

Feeling dazed and disoriented, she gathered only that somebody had slighted someone, and she was being blamed for it.

“I wanted right way for anyone who might have gotten it to know it wasn’t me. I didn’t do it,” Sellers recalls, short of breath, as her eyes well. “More than anything, I wanted to engage.”

Less than two hours after receiving the letter, Sellers replied, pleading her innocence and requesting a phone call.

No response came. Sellers followed up with a Facebook post. Later she sent another email begging to know the names of everyone who’d received the letter so she could reach out and clarify. Her name, after all, was her livelihood.

Sellers moved to Minneapolis in 1998 seeking entrance to an artistic community that was seen as a regional mecca of dance. After some 20 years, she established a reputation as a transgressive choreographer who employed and advocated for other dancers.

By the fall of 2017, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council awarded Sellers its Next Step grant to take her work to the national stage. City Pages named her an Artist of the Year. She embarked on a tour of Chicago, Detroit, and Boston, and received prestigious mentorships from Seattle to New York, all in preparation for pitching presenters, curators, and venues across the country.

Yet Parker and Powell, who were rooted in the dance community, had condemned her far and wide. She feared their letter would preclude any chance of establishing a relationship with major arts organizations such as the National Performance Network or Dance USA. So she waited, postponing the next evolution of her career in anticipation that the misunderstanding would be corrected eventually.

“As artists, our reputation is essential to opportunities, and opportunities are our currency,” Sellers says.

“People spend money to come sit in the dark and listen to what I have to say, and focus their attention on my point of view. I also believed that no one was going to want to hear the megaphone of the person they describe in that open letter. I believed I wouldn’t be given a platform.”

But Parker and Powell weren’t about to respond to Sellers. They didn’t believe her, and suspected she might be mentally ill.

They were also busy, wrapping up that fall’s production of SHE, planning a clothing drive for homeless kids, and enjoying the holidays. Their honeymoon lapsed into January. Next came Black History Month, with Powell touring the country on the college lecture circuit. They’d put the whole incident behind them.

“My life is modeled after Gandhi, Dr. King, people who gave their lives to our country. That’s what I do,” he’d say later in defense of his and his wife’s inattention to Sellers’ pleas.

“Regardless if we had proof or not, what we do have proof of is the historical reality of being a person of color in America and having people talk to you in any kind of foul way and thinking it’s okay, even in the state of Minnesota that’s supposed to be liberal and progressive.”

There would be no apology. No correction. And no telling who’d received the smear.

III. The other April Sellers stands up

About a month after receiving the letter, April Sellers took a dancer out to Masu Sushi and Robata in northeast Minneapolis. They’d just had a show. It was her custom to gather feedback from performers in one-on-one reviews.

As the hostess walked them to their table, she ran into Star Tribune arts critic Rohan Preston, who was holding court at the sushi bar with Peter Brosius, artistic director of the Children’s Theatre Company.

Sellers said hello. She and Preston had a long working relationship. His coverage of her early work helped her build credibility and an audience. As they chatted, he mentioned he’d received the letter and a phone call from Kevin Powell, an old friend whom Preston knew as an ambitious young writer in the 1990s. Feeling bad for Sellers, the critic asked how she was doing.

Sellers broke down and began to cry. There was no longer any question about the lengths Powell and Parker had gone to shame her.

A shadow of paranoia stalked her for months afterward, isolating her from other artists and forcing her into a creative drought.

Because she hadn’t had a chance to tell her side of the story, she feared going out. She’d leave shows early to avoid talking to people, quit rehearsals, and wouldn’t enter a studio for half a year. Several of her performers, who’d been with her for seven years, had to commit to other projects.

Dancers spend a lot of time looking at themselves in the mirror, tapping into personal vulnerability, Sellers explained. She couldn’t bring herself to do that anymore because although she was feeling raw, it wasn’t by choice.

“I don’t like stories of victimhood, especially around women. I’m not interested in telling those stories, and yet I was in the midst of it. So I was rejecting my own story artistically.”

Sellers retained lawyer Aaron Mills Scott, who threatened to sue Powell and Parker if they didn’t retract and apologize. The couple likewise lawyered up. A flurry of legal motions ensued as Sellers attempted to compel them to reveal the letter’s recipients. Powell claimed he could not remember who he’d written or called.

Last summer, Scott tracked down the real author of the note that had so enraged Powell and Parker—April Maria Sellers of Cleveland, Ohio.

April Maria, 52, is a Howard University graduate who majored in broadcast journalism and does freelance writing. She’s a genuine fan of Powell’s books on hip-hop, race, and the cycle of violence that accompanies growing up in the ghetto, believing him to be “an amazing writer, a deep thinker, whose voice is needed in society.”

But she also happens to have spent a life faithfully devoted to domestic violence causes. That passion is derived from a visceral memory of watching a disheveled black woman run into the Salvation Army building where April Maria practiced dance as a child, bleeding from the face and calling for help. She’ll never forget that sight, she says.

This April is no longer a part of the dance world, and doesn’t pay much attention to New York productions like SHE, as Parker and Powell assumed. Rather, she’d stumbled upon a line in his memoir, Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? in which he admitted he could relapse into violence. She found it troubling in light of his role as SHE’s producer.

So she wrote to Parker, signed her own name, and left her personal email address. The couple never reached out.

Wondering now whether she could have assuaged their anger by expressing how much she respected Powell’s writings regardless of his crimes, April Maria says, “Woulda, coulda, shoulda.”

“It’s called freedom of speech,” she adds. “Period in the right place, making sure that before you make a comment about someone’s behavior, it’s pros and cons ... that’s not how social media works.”

IV. A rat’s nest of reporters

April Maria Sellers of Cleveland was no coward. She signed an affidavit taking responsibility for her email, stating she’d merely expressed her opinion.

Once it became undeniably obvious to Kevin Powell and Jinah Parker that they’d mistaken one woman for another, Powell attempted to shift the blame to Rohan Preston, the Star Tribune arts critic.

In the heat of researching April Sellers of Minneapolis, Powell called Preston for information about the dancer’s character. In a deposition, he claimed that Preston verified Sellers was very much the type of person capable of writing such a mean email, with “a history of trafficking in black culture,” someone who could be a “loose cannon with her voice.”

It was Preston, Powell said, who’d given him specific examples of Sellers behaving badly toward other artists and people of color, working with black art with “a certain kind of ownership.”

He claimed he’d done his due diligence by turning to a reputable journalist with his finger on the pulse of the Minneapolis arts scene.

Sellers says the last thing she wanted was to involve the critic. So when attorney Scott subpoenaed Preston to testify, he attached the audio recording of Powell’s deposition.

“I was certainly dismayed by what he ascribed to me,” Preston said. “About being lied on, frankly. That he would essentially try to use my credibility to pawn off his mistakes.”

The critic appeared in court, testifying that while Powell did call him to inquire about Sellers, he’d been at his daughter’s raucous volleyball game at the time and did not stay on the phone for long. He’d listened to Powell vent and advised him to check his facts. They might have discussed Sellers’ love of hip-hop.

“I applaud her courage, her creativity,” Preston said of Sellers. “The fact that she’s always curious and learning and growing. She’s a very staunch feminist and strong choreographer.”

Powell’s nuclear error, disseminated to more than 30 “gatekeepers” of the arts community, was a “career killer” in the critic’s opinion.

April Maria flew in from Cleveland to testify as well. She came prepared with quotes from Powell’s books to explain her motivation for sending the email.

“It was just mistaken identity, and the bullet was meant for a different person, but unfortunately an innocent person was the recipient,” she said. “It’s sad and outrageous.”

Powell reminded the court that he’d once been a reporter, a founding staff member of Vibe Magazine, writing volumes on arts and entertainment, for which he would abide manifold laws and ethics in pursuit of the truth.

Yet he’d been caught in a lie before.

In 2017, when the Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me came out, Powell sued the filmmakers, alleging they’d lifted material from a series of jailhouse interviews he’d conducted with the rap legend while writing for Vibe in 1995. He demanded a slice of the film’s $56 million profits.

The problem was that, legally, Powell couldn’t claim copyright over true episodes in a historic figure’s life. So in a twist, he outed himself as a fabulist, admitting he’d “re-worked narratives” and concocted “fictional characters” loosely based on people in Shakur’s life. Those fake details had made it into the movie.

He knew the film had stolen his original work, Powell argued, because the original work was fiction. (He ultimately dropped the suit.)

V. The truth arrives

Fifty-two-year-old Kevin Powell closes his eyes and folds his hands in prayer as he takes the stand.

He exudes an aristocratic defiance, wearing a prim navy suit, pocket square, and cashmere scarf wrapped tight like an ascot. Signaling his annoyance with sharp, combative responses and a simmering glower, he leaves no doubt that he thinks April Sellers’ lawsuit is nothing more than a frivolous money grab.

Jinah Parker seems in good spirits, recounting their effervescent courtship after meeting in a yoga studio. Powell wanted only to defend their marriage, she says, and she trusted his decision to do so through an open letter.

Each laments how the situation has been blown out of proportion. They assert they did nothing wrong; they genuinely thought they had the right April Sellers. They denounce Rohan Preston as more or less an Uncle Tom—a reporter lying to protect his job at a white institution.

In his closing statement, their attorney Lee Hutton compares April Maria Sellers to Kathy Bates’ character in the Stephen King movie Misery —the psychotic fan who abducts a beloved author and breaks his legs with a sledgehammer. He tells a meandering vignette about clowns, canons, and smoke and mirrors, and implores jurors not to punish his clients for merely using words like “racist” and “sexist” just because the emotional coddling of modern society makes some people ultra-sensitive.

Yet the law is clear on the meaning of defamation, which has more to do with facts than with feelings.

Sellers’ attorney has only to summarize the basic elements of the case—that Powell and Parker told a lie, that they did it without basic fact-checking, and that the lie had serious consequences. His statement takes about 10 minutes. Powell plugs his ears with his fingers the entire time.

While phone records show Powell contacting a deluge of artists in Minnesota and abroad around the time he wrote the letter, he declines to produce text messages. Judge Karen Janisch is forced to instruct jurors to assume that they may never know how broadly the gossip traveled.

Ultimately, the jury awards Sellers $210,000, a little less than half of what she’d requested. They let Parker off the hook because Powell admitted taking the lead in writing and disseminating their letter.

Neither apologizes to Sellers.

After the trial, Powell creates an “emergency” legal defense GoFundMe that sheds some light on his lack of penance.

“I also need funds for a possible and absolutely necessary appeal,” he writes. “Here we are in a majority White city and state, Minneapolis, Minnesota, two Black folks from New York City, going up against a White woman with an all-White jury. You can only imagine our trauma around this situation.”

He makes no mention of the mistaken identity, and raises about $16,000 out of a $50,000 goal.

The day after her win, Sellers feels freshly wounded still, albeit free from the burden of silence that litigation imposes. For the first time in a year and a half, she can tell her side of the story far and wide, of standing up in the face of career demolition.

“I needed the judgment, so there’s a clear understanding that this happened. And now I feel like oxygen, ready to open the door to the studio, ready to create, ready to ask people to trust me.”

A part of Sellers still mourns the wasted opportunity for a collaborative, creative remedy to what began as a simple misunderstanding—especially given all the interests she and Parker have in common. Nevertheless, in four months she will show new work at the Southern Theater’s Candy Box Festival. She recalls that at certain points in the maddening trial, this was the only thing she could think about.

“I’ve taken some lickin’s before,” she reminds herself. “I will continue to make art in this community, feed my community, and pursue my purpose.”