Best of Jackson 2021: Community and Culture

Photo courtesy Ballet Magnificat

Photo courtesy Ballet Magnificat

Best Arts Organization, Best Place to Get Married: Mississippi Museum of Art


File Photo by Trip Burns

(380 S. Lamar St., 601-960-1515,

With its series of constantly rotating exhibits and a substantial permanent collection, the Mississippi Museum of Art offers something for fans of nearly every artistic medium and period. For Director of Marketing Jana Brady, these varied stylings foster MMA's aim: conversation.

"Our hope for the local community is that you can see and experience art where you normally wouldn't and to create a place where you can have comfortable conversations about art and about Mississippi's past, present and future," Brady says.

This sense of comfort and familiarity have led many Mississippians to choose the museum as their wedding venue, and Brady believes that the space lends itself to such a choice.

"The museum offers a wedding experience like no other," Brady remarks. "There's a beautiful indoor and outdoor space, and we have rotating collections, so they have their own entertainment by having (their wedding) at the museum."

Anyone who married at the museum during 2020 had the special privilege of having works from masters Van Gogh, Monet and Degas on display nearby in the galleries for their special occasion, as the museum has played host to an exhibit featuring the European artists and their contemporaries.

The museum's exhibits are open to visitors and members alike, with certain hours designated as "senior hours" to offset COVID-19 concerns. —Taylor McKay Hathorn

Best Arts Organization Finalists

HeARTworks (1100 W. Capitol St., 601-353-2759, / Mississippi Arts Commission (501 N. West St., Suite 1101A, 601-359-6030, / Mississippi Symphony Orchestra (201 E. Pascagoula St., 601-960-1565, / New Stage Theatre (1100 Carlisle St., 601-948-3533,

Best Place to Get Married Finalists

Bridlewood of Madison (3024 Highway 22, Madison, 601-707-4024, / The Cedars (4145 Old Canton Road, 601-366-5552) / Fairview Inn (734 Fairview St., 601-948-3429, / First Baptist Church Jackson (431 N. State St., 601-949-1900, / Ice House (251 W. South St., 601-398-3200, / McClain Lodge (314 Clark Creek Road, Brandon, 601-829-1101,

Best Festival, Best Annual Event: Hal's St. Paddy's Parade and Festival


Photo by Kristin Brenemin


Thirty-seven years ago, Malcolm White and a group of his friends dressed as characters from various media—he was Colonel Sanders—to parade through Jackson's streets. But what originally started out as lighthearted fun has now grown into one of Jackson's most unique cultural events, now named after White's late brother, Hal, who was an ardent supporter of the yearly festival.

As the years went by, parade participants formalized into krewes, with many groups getting together every year to plan around that year's theme or around an original idea they may have that they believe will contribute to the merriment.

Described by parade enthusiasts as Mississippi's "green Mardi Gras," the event begins at Hal and Mal's, circling past the Old Capitol Museum, the Governor's Mansion and the Westin Hotel en route back to its starting point.

This mid-Jackson celebration of the good work of UMMC's Children's of Mississippi hospital features Mississippi blues singers, along with a hearty helping of New Orleans-style brass music, which provides a soundtrack for the after-parties that continue long into the night.

Although White cancelled the 2020 parade due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, plans for the 2021 parade are in full swing, with parade organizers planning to retain the previous theme: "Here's Looking at RUDE, Kid" if they receive permission from the city, which is still pending. The upcoming parade will also feature last year's grand marshal, Trace Alston, and is slated to take place on the fourth Saturday of March, with the usual 70,000-plus revelers expected to join in the fun. —Taylor McKay Hathorn

Best Festival Finalists

Bright Lights Belhaven Nights (August, / Cathead Jam (May, / CelticFest Mississippi (March, / Farish Street Heritage Festival (October, / Mississippi Anime Festival (March, / Mississippi Craft Beer Festival (June,

Best Annual Event Finalists

Bright Lights Belhaven Nights (August, / Cathead Jam (May, / Jackson Indie Music Week (January, / Mississippi Comic Con (June, / Mistletoe Marketplace (November,"601-362-9676,

Best Dance Group: Ballet Magnificat!


Photo courtesy Ballet Magnificat

(5406 Interstate 55, 601-977-1001,

Founded in 1986 by husband-and-wife team Keith and Kathy Thibodeaux, Ballet Magnificat! is an arts organization dedicated to celebrating the word of God through dance. The inter-denominational Protestant ministry tours the world as the first professional Christian ballet company.

Ballet Magnificat's School of the Arts offers dance classes for students as young as 3 years old through adult ages.

Magnificat! Youth Ballet and MiniMag! often perform at local nursing homes, schools and churches, and the Summer Dance Intensive and Teachers Workshop bring hundreds of students from around the world to Jackson for a unique technical and spiritual experience.

Ballet Magnificat! also started the Dance Program at Belhaven University, providing curriculum, faculty and facilities; it has now grown into a full Dance Major program accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance. The studio also helped Belhaven University start the school's dance program.

Most recently, the company has added Ballet Magnificat! Brazil, headquartered in Curitiba, which includes a trainee program and a performance company, and dancers from all over South and Central America proudly proclaim God's word. "Our hearts' desire ... is to be faithful to our lord Jesus Christ and go where He wants us to go," Keith says. —Michele D. Baker

Finalists: Dance Works Studio (1104 E. Northside Drive, Clinton, 601-720-1885, / Dancing Dolls (1410 Ellis Ave., 770-265-1111, / Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet (110 Homestead Drive, Madison; 601-853-4508; 106 Autumn Ridge Place, Suite 3 & 4, Brandon; 601-992-9016; / Montage Theatre of Dance (608 Hinds Blvd., Raymond, 601-857-3460, / Prancing J-Settes (1400 John R. Lynch St., 601-979-2026, / Xpress Dance Company (2160 Main St., Suite D, Madison; 601-853-0826; 155 W. Government St., Brandon; 601-954-6268;

Best Tourist Attraction, Best Museum: Mississippi Civil Rights Museum


Photo courtesy Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

(222 North St., Suite 2205, 601-576-6800,

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum's eight galleries allow Mississippi students and visitors from around the globe to learn about Black Mississippians' struggle against centuries of systemic oppression and their fight for civil rights.

"Students weren't taught this in the history books," Pamela Junior, director of the Two Mississippi Museums, says.

"People walk in and understand that (the fight for civil rights) wasn't just about people like Rosa Parks—who didn't live in Mississippi. Our heroes and sheroes are right here, and they did astonishing things."

The museum, which has been nationally recognized for its contribution to the study of southern civil-rights history, exacerbates this sense of astonishment with its interactive exhibits. A jail cell, a replica of the enclosures at Parchman Prison Farm, is located inside the museum, along with a series of mugshots of the Freedom Riders who were once imprisoned there.

The centerpiece of the museum, dubbed "This Little Light of Mine," however, sings literally and figuratively with hope. In addition, a model classroom, which highlights the stark differences between white and Black schools, showcases a video describing the ramifications of the Brown v. the Board of Education decision.

Another hallway houses five "lynching monoliths" engraved with names of known victims of lynching in the state that had the most.

Ultimately, he museum challenges Mississippians and non-Mississippians alike to reckon with the nation's dark history and to take action to forge a brighter future, an opportunity that the Jacksonian community appreciates enough to vote for the establishment in the Best of Jackson series year after year since its debut. —Taylor McKay Hathorn

Best Tourist Attraction Finalists

Brandon Amphitheater (8190 Rock Way, Brandon, 601-724-2726, / Fondren (916-812-5678, / McClain Resort (874 Holly Bush Road, Brandon, 601-829-1101, / Mississippi Comic Con (1200 Mississippi St., / Mississippi Museum of Natural Science (2148 Riverside Drive, 601-576-6000, / Two Mississippi Museums (222 North St.,

Best Museum Finalists

Agriculture and Forestry Museum (1150 Lakeland Drive, 601-432-4500, / Mississippi Children's Museum (2145 Museum Blvd., 601-981-5469, / Mississippi Museum of Art (380 S. Lamar St., 601-960-1515, / Mississippi Museum of Natural Science (2148 Riverside Drive, 601-576-6000, / Smith Robertson Museum (528 Bloom St., 601-960-1457,

Best Live Theatre/Theatrical Group: New Stage Theatre


Photo courtesy New Stage Theatre

(1100 Carlisle St., 601-948-3533,

Although the COVID-19 pandemic changed the shape of New Stage Theatre's 2020 season, Artistic Director Francine Reynolds believes that the variety of programs Mississippi's only professional theater company offered during this time has ensured its continued success.

"(We offer) education programs, which creates the next adult audience, and we have a lot of extras: children's shows, holiday shows and two different new play series," Reynolds says.

The Eudora Welty New Play series focuses on the development of new plays, while the Mississippi Plays series either features the works of Mississippi writers or depicts the lives of Mississippians, with many stage selections doing both.

New Stage also offers a series of on-demand pre-recorded solo shows that people could stream from anywhere, such as "Why I Live at the P.O." and the upcoming "Fannie Lou Hamer."

This season offered a socially distant spin on these celebrations of Mississippi life, introducing its "Thursday Night Virtual Plays, Conversations and Cocktails" series that featured live readings of plays, one of which revisited "Pipeline," the last show to be performed before a live audience at the theater. Reynolds cited the play as being among her favorites, although she quips that "the most recent play is always (her) favorite."

New Stage also paired each live reading with a recipe for what we all really needed in 2020: a hard drink. —Taylor McKay Hathorn

Finalists: Black Rose Theatre Company (103 Black St., Brandon, 601-852-1293, / Enchanting Memories Entertainment (662-590-2748, / MADDRAMA (601-454-1183, / Magically Perfect (504-502-2847, / Mississippi Children's Music Theater (100 Post Oak Road, Madison, 601-201-8558,

Best Category We Left Off: Best Tattoo Artist

Many consider tattoos to be one of the best forms of self-expression, art they can display to the world. As commonplace as tattoos have become, it's no wonder that Jacksonians would want to highlight the talented artists who hone their craft in the metro by voting that they would like to see a Best Tattoo Artist category.

Since tattoos are generally permanent forms of body art, finding a qualified tattoo artist who can enact your vision for your tattoo can be key, and Jackson is rife with both outstanding shops and artists. While this category does not exist in the current Best of Jackson series, readers can browse the finalists for Best Tattoo/Piercing Parlor in the Urban Living section to see which shops they may want to consider. —Amber Helsel

Finalists: Best Children's Entertainment / Best Couple / Best Home-Based Business / Best Place for a First Date / Best Virtual Church Service

Best Art Gallery: Fondren Art Gallery


Photo courtesy Fondren Art Gallery

(3242 North State St., 601-981-9222,

Seventeen years ago, Richard McKey built and designed Fondren Art Gallery as "a multi-use building and business" to create art and promote local, national and international artists. Today, with more than 30 artists and 500 pieces on display, the gallery endeavors to offer art of exceptional quality at affordable prices.

"There's some really funky, crazy art in there, but there's some fine art also," McKey says, "I like that. I don't want it to be a gallery that just pleases one type of person. I want to be able to attract, entertain and please a lot of different people."

In addition to pieces from every medium, Fondren Art Gallery also offers a custom framing service and a music studio for instrumental lessons and live performances. Although COVID-19 has limited the number of customers in the gallery at any one time, McKey offers a full catalogue of works through his online store.

A creator himself with a background in public art, carpentry and music, McKey hopes the new year will see in-store business and live music "fired up again." And with construction on the road in front of his gallery finished, Fondren Art Gallery is more accessible than ever. —Kyle Hamrick

Finalists: AND Gallery (133 Millsaps Ave., / Brown's Fine Art and Framing (630 Fondren Place, 601-982-4844, / Fischer Galleries (736 S. President St., 601-291-9115, / OffBeat (151 Wesley Ave., 601-376-9404, / View Gallery (1491 Canton Mart Road, Suite 7, 601-278-3991,

Best Local Podcast: Save JXN


After 30 years of living in south Jackson, Clay Edwards concluded that "there aren't very many loud-mouth conservatives, and it felt like a niche that wasn't being catered to."

A proponent of the capital city who bears a "Welcome to Jackson" tattoo on his arm, Edwards received backlash when he shared a video he made with a drone that showcased many of the abandoned buildings in Jackson to his Facebook page.

"I started getting attacked by people calling me racist and all those other things, just because I was posting pictures of these empty buildings," he says.

To present his intent and beliefs more clearly, he decided: "I should probably start talking to tell my side of the story." Thus, he began his website where he posts podcasts, as well as videos and other materials. His website is still a "work in progress," he says, but Save Jxn has garnered more than 26,000 followers on Facebook, 16,000 followers on Instagram and 1,600 subscribers on YouTube.

His wife, Crystal Edwards, sometimes co-hosts the podcast, which Clay describes as "Jackson, Mississippi's only right-leaning news and politics-based podcast."

"I like to consider us the No. 1 source for an alternative opinion on the local news, kinda the Jacktown Alex Jones, minus the conspiracy theories," Edwards says. —Richard Coupe

Finalists: EmpowHER Podcast with Krississippi / From The Heart of A / Key to the City ( / Othor Cain Media ( / Reality Breached ( / Token Talk

Best Public Forum/Speaker Series: Mississippi Black Leadership Summit

(1072 W. Lynch St., 601-353-8452,

The Mississippi Black Leadership Summit started over 10 years ago as a place for elected officials and community members to create solutions to community issues like public education, economic development, voting rights, criminal rights and environmental justice. "We began as a monthly luncheon," Nsombi Lambright, executive director of One Voice, says. "Over the years, it evolved into a full conference event."

The annual Summit brings together sheriffs, tax collectors and assessors, mayors, attorneys, judges and others. In 2020, the slate included state Reps. Chris Bell and Kabir Karriem and Emmy-nominated actress Aunjanue Ellis ("The Help," "Get On Up"). "We come together for strategy and to share best practices across the state and south," Lambright says. "The State of Black Mississippi" was the final panel.

The Summit will continue to bring together diverse leaders. "We want (them) to play a strong leadership role—guiding the agenda and holding the space so community people can talk to their elected officials," Lambright says. —Michele D. Baker

Finalists: Empowering Progressive Speakers Toastmasters Club (4780 N. Interstate 55, 662-251-6517, / Millsaps Arts & Lecture Series (1701 N. State St., 601-974-1000, / Operation Shoestring (1711 Bailey Ave., 601-353-6336, / Refill Cafe Friday Forum (136 S. Adams St., 601-540-7231, / Save Jxn (

Best Socially Distanced Activity in Jackson: McClain Safari Tours

(874 Holly Bush Road, Brandon, 601-829-1101,

Buddy and Joni McClain, the owners of McClain Resort in Brandon, first kept a private collection of animals, but visitors enjoyed the animals just as much as they did. Thus, the McClain Safari Park and Tours came into being in May 2018.

More than 500 animals from 50 different species call the 2,000-acre park home, Safari Park Director Matt Jurney explains. Guided tours began with wagons pulled by tractors, but the pandemic caused the park to open self-guided, drive-through tours over the summer. Families can still enjoy the zebras, giraffes and other exotic animals while maintaining safe social-distancing practices in their own vehicles.

"By no means was COVID-19 a good thing, but it allowed us to adapt and make some good changes," Jurney says. On average, roughly 200 cars visit the park each weekend, doling out provided feed to the waiting animals. —Kyle Hamrick

Finalists: Capital City Kayak Adventures (601-953-7615, / Chalk Walk (Northpark Fall Fest, 1200 E. County Line Road, Ridgeland, 601-863-2300, / Dinner at/Staying Home / Museum-to-Market Trail ( / Reservoir Overlook (Natchez Trace Parkway, Milepost 105.6,

Best Nonprofit Organization: The Mustard Seed

(1085 Luckney Road, Brandon, 601-992-3556,

At age 21, adults with disabilities no longer qualify for special-ed services through Mississippi public schools, and "their worlds to get smaller," The Mustard Seed's Community Relations Director Mandy Sisson says. The organization offers its 40 "seedsters," who range in age from 21 to their mid-70s, the opportunity to learn about the arts, but the nonprofit's goal stretches far beyond the walls of its Brandon campus.

"They have an opportunity to live a full life that's engaged and fulfilling," Sisson says. "We aren't hiding them on campus. We want them out in the community, showing what they can contribute to society."

The Seedsters create hand-painted ceramic art, which the nonprofit sells in its gift shop and at locations in the metro. The sales constitute 20% of the Mustard Seed's budget. —Taylor McKay Hathorn

Finalists: CARA - Community Animal Rescue & Adoption (960 N. Flag Chapel Road, 601-922-7575, / The Good Samaritan Center (114 Millsaps Ave., 601-355-6276, / Mississippi Children's Museum (2145 Museum Blvd., 601-981-5469, / My Brother's Keeper (407 Orchard Park, Ridgeland, 769-216-2455, / Ronald McDonald House (UMMC) (2524 N. State St., 601-981-5683, / WFBC Inc. (769-257-0073,

Best Virtual Fundraiser/Charity: Mistletoe Marketplace

(in-person/hybrid, Junior League of Jackson, 805 Riverside Drive, 601-948-2357,

Mistletoe Marketplace recently celebrated 40 years, "but had to reinvent and reimagine Mistletoe Marketplace 2020" due to COVID-19, as steering committee chair Lori Hill Marshall explains, in order "to help the economy, but in a safe way."

The Junior League of Jackson worked with State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs to determine the safest strategy. As a result, the organization decided to limit physical attendance and hold shopping shifts at three hours apiece.

"We hosted the bands, auctions and luncheon speaker Tim Tebow online," Marshall says.

As a result, they raised about $1 million to support early literacy, children's health and social development for youth. —Michele D. Baker

Finalists: 12Ks for the Holidays (Good Samaritan Center, 114 Millsaps Ave., 601-355-6276, / Best Dressed Jackson (The American Cancer Society, 1380 Livingston Lane, 800-227-2345, / Discovery Night - Remix! (Mississippi Children's Museum, 2145 Museum Blvd., 601-981-5469, / Pink Fridays (ICTV & The Steven James Foundation, / Real Men Wear Pink (The American Cancer Society, 1380 Livingston Lane, 800-227-2345, / Refill Jackson Initiative (136 S. Adams St., 601-540-7231,

Best Radio Personality or Team: Nate and Traci


Photo courtesy Nate and Traci

(WUSJ 96.3,

Country music lovers across the metro area depend on WUSJ's morning team Nate and Traci to begin their day. The affable duo put fun and family on the menu each morning. "We are live, local and we were both born and raised here," Traci Lee says. "Our listeners relate to us because we've known each other for more than 20 years, and we still like each other."

"Well, we like each other 60% of the time," Nate West jokes. "We talk about real stuff. ... I'm a single dad to a terrific daughter, and we always tease Traci because she's not dating right now."

The pair like to laugh, but their relationship also demonstrates genuine respect as well. "I feel so lucky to be working with someone of Nate's caliber. He's a legend in this market," Lee says. "And I'm so grateful for our listeners. If we can make them smile, we've done our jobs."

Hear Nate and Traci on Your Country US 96 (96.3 FM) Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and catch the "Best Of" show on Saturdays from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. —Michele D. Baker

Finalists: Christiana Williams (WJMI 99.7, / DJ Scrap Dirty (WRBJ 97.7, / Mista Maine (WRBJ 97.7, / Percy Davis (WOAD 103.5, / Tambra Cherie (WRBJ 97.7,

Best Stage Play (In-Person or Virtual): "Mamma Mia"


Photo courtesy Jackson Academy Theater

(Jackson Academy Theater) (4908 Ridgewood Road, 601-362-9676,

Despite the difficulties the theater community has faced this year, Jackson Academy managed to put together a successful run of the ABBA musical "Mamma Mia!"

"It's a huge challenge to put on a full-scale production when you're dealing with teenagers who have school schedules, but this year was particularly difficult with COVID-19 protocols," Director of Theatre Arts Kerri Sanders reflects.

Students at the Jackson private school began rehearsals—wearing masks and submitting to temperature checks—in July, and Sanders believes that her students admirably rose to the challenge. "Even though they're student actors, they're held to the same standards as professional actors," Sanders says. This included a professional orchestra and professional costuming, making the show shine during its three evening performances at the Jackson Academy Performing Arts Center, which was filled to 25% of its capacity.

Senior Emma Collums, who starred as Donna, and junior Gretchen Morris, who played Sophie, were supported by a talented cast of juniors and seniors who give new meaning to that old adage: "The show must go on!" —Taylor McKay Hathorn

Finalists: "Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical" (New Stage Theatre, 1100 Carlisle St., 601-948-3533, / "The Rocky Horror Burlesque Show" (Black Hat Shows, 601-376-9005, / "Rocky Horror Picture Show" (Fondren Theatre Workshop, 4145 Old Canton Road, / Thursday Night Virtual Plays: Conversations and Cocktails (New Stage Theatre, 1100 Carlise St., 601-948-3533, / "Why I Live at the P.O." (New Stage Theatre, 1100 Carlisle St., 601-948-3533,

Best Community Garden/Nature Attraction: Natchez Trace Parkway


The Natchez Trace Parkway encompasses the 440-mile stretch from Nashville, Tenn., to its namesake Natchez, Miss., and some of its scenic trails are nestled in Hinds County. "I think the fact that it's a national park unit really (brings people to the area)," park ranger Perri Spreiser says. "We protect 423 sites across the country, and each is a little different."

The Natchez Trace Parkway harbors plenty of hiking trails, from a "10-minute stroll to a 10-mile hike," as Spreiser puts it. Many of the trails and scenic views highlight the parkway's original inhabitants: the Native American Chickasaw tribe.

The crowning jewel of the Jackson stretch of the parkway is a large reservoir featuring overlooks and trails with panoramic views of the 33,000-acre lake. The Cypress Swamp, just north of the reservoir, boasts alligators swimming just beneath its boardwalk trail. —Taylor McKay Hathorn

Finalists: The Art Garden (Mississippi Museum of Art, 429 S. West St., 601-973-3681, / Eudora Welty House & Garden (1119 Pinehurst St., 601-354-5219, / Green Grass Acres (534 S. Farish St., 470-645-3669, / LeFleur's Bluff State Park (3315 Lakeland Terrace, 601-987-3923, / Mynelle Gardens (4736 Clinton Blvd., 601-960-1894)

Best Radio Station: WJMI

(99.7, 99 Jams; 731 S. Pear Orchard Road, Suite 27, Ridgeland; 601-957-1300;

WJMI's roots run deep in Jackson. For nearly 50 years, the station has been No. 1 in the hearts and minds of its listeners. "It's fitting that we are first in our target market, hip-hop," Christiana Williams says. The on-air personality also works as promotion and sales director for Alpha Media, which owns the station. "We have such dedicated and loyal listeners."

WJMI disc jockeys spin urban contemporary music, introducing brand-new hits and nodding to the past with an occasional golden oldie.

The keys to WJMI's longevity, Williams asserts, include its seasoned staff, loyal and involved listeners and the station's strong community ties. "We have long-standing relationships with our partners," she says.

Last Christmas, the station partnered with the Jackson Police Department on a toy drive, where WJMI helped 100 families by giving nearly $20,000 worth of toys. The station also bestows some lucky listeners with monetary prizes during the holiday season, giving away $5,500 in total this last December.

"Our long-term relationships with local businesses, nonprofits and service clubs allow us to keep giving back," Williams says. —Michele D. Baker

Finalists: WMPN (MPB 91.3, / WMSI (Miss 103, / WUSJ (96.3, / WYOY (Y101, 101.7,

Best Reason to Live in Jackson: 'It's Home'

Nearly 165,000 people call the city of Jackson home, and while some residents are native Jacksonians, others chose to put down roots in the capital city.

While visitors flock to Jackson to take advantage of its unique yearly offerings, like the state fair, WellsFest, and Hal's St. Paddy's Parade and Festival, locals enjoy the full measure of excitement that comes from living in Mississippi's largest city.

Whether it's the numerous colleges and universities scattered across the metro area, the constantly evolving food scene, the unbeatable nightlife or the proximity to natural attractions like the Natchez Trace and the Reservoir, the "city with soul" draws the attention of people from all walks of life.

Jackson shows its soul best through its willingness to embrace a brighter tomorrow, symbolized in part by the new state flag that now flies over the Capitol building downtown, just a block away from the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum that's dedicated to the true, complex and often tragic story of Mississippi's past. —Taylor McKay Hathorn

Finalists: Affordable Housing / Community / Culture / Fondren / Food / People

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