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Tribute to Quentin Easter

July 5, 2010

by Wanda Sabir

Big screen magic brought Quentin Easter to his tribute. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
The San Francisco Bay Area Arts Community was out on Monday, June 14, to pay tribute to one of their own, one of our own. Quentin Easter was certainly a man whom too many of us will miss, miss for his warm compassionate smile, unruffled presence and positive outlook in the face of tremendous stress and obstacles. I am speaking of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s search for a home after a long and contentious battle with San Francisco Art Academy when it purchased the Sheehan Hotel and evicted the premiere Black institution, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. Without missing a beat or a season as it were, Quentin Easter, executive director, and Stanley E. Williams, the co-founder and artistic director, found alternative theatre space at the PG&E auditorium, until finally settling in their new home at the old Post Theatre.

After opening with a splash with “Mahalia,” a wonderful musical play starring Jeanie Tracy, the season came to an abrupt close when both co-founders were admitted into the hospital. I can’t believe it was just four months ago. A lot can happen in a short span of time.

The program last night was hosted by Ms. Belva Davis with Brad Erickson, executive director, Theatre Bay Area. The evening, Celebrating the Life and Work of Quentin Easter, featured presentations from a who’s who line-up of people who’d performed on the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre stage or one of its many Bay Area theatre family members like ACT-SF ensemble member Steven Anthony Jones who, with another company member, performed a scene from an Athol Fugard play, cast members from California Shakespeare Festival who performed a scene from John Steinbeck’s “The Pastures of Heaven,” which looks at the early American influx into California, a prosaic look at the early colonizers of this region and the captivating beauty that is California – a beauty which is also Quentin Easter.

Other guests included L. Peter Callender who graced the LHT stage often, most notably in August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” opposite Rhodessa Jones. Callender read a poem, as did Jewelle Gomez, from one of Quentin’s favorite poets, W.H. Auden (1907-1973), who was born into a middle class home in Birmingham, England, now a Black community. Among his more well-known poems is “Stop all the clocks” or “Funeral Blues” written in 1936. It is recited in the film: “Four Weddings and a Funeral”:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with the juicy bone.
Silence the pianos and, with muffled drum,
Bring out the coffin. Let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message: “He is dead!”
Put crepe bows around the white necks of the public doves.
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my north, my south, my east and west,
My working week and Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.
I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one.
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can come to any good.

Melanie DeMore and Brian Freeman chatted at the reception. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
Stanley E. Williams, Quentin’s partner, also spoke to an extended standing ovation which only ended when he asked us to be seated. It was painful to see how frail and sick he still is, as he stood supported on both sides. I was told he was on the mend. Later, I was pleasantly surprised to turn around and see Stanley seated right behind me – talk about choice seats. The theatre could have been fuller. It was a fundraiser; however, many people didn’t come because there was an admission cost albeit just $10 at the low end, which I thought reasonable.

The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre Black Nativity Choir was off the hook with accompaniment by Kenneth Little. However, Ms. Faye Carol’s “Black and Blue” showstopper, a la Ruth Brown, “If I Can’t Sell It (I’m Going to Sit on It),” changed the energy as did her closing gospel piece about heaven. Accompanied by a really tight rhythm section with Glen Pearson on piano, Marcus Shelby on bass and Howard Wiley –yes, Howard was on drums and he was good, had his own sticks and everything.

While Ms. Carol sang, the visuals were of her draped in saintly robes in her role in Black Nativity, a fun juxtaposition when singing about “sitting down on it.” The stills capturing the 30-year legacy Quentin and Stanley started were a treat.

It was Carol’s set and another later on with Michelle Jordan (“Crowns”) which had a tangible effect on the room. Jordan explained how it had been a month since she’d agreed to perform a song for Quentin and, life being what it is, got busy, forgot, so she called on spirit, which filled the room and, with a nod to Glenn on piano to give her a note, led us in an improvisational piece created on the spot about Quentin.

I don’t know why it happened like it did, but having these women singers grace the stage, one diva after another, was just so wonderful. Stanley, seated behind me, was laughing and clapping with joy.

Denise Perrier spoke of her role as Bessie Smith in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” “I hadn’t acted since high school,” she laughed. I remember LHT’s “Ma Rainey,” my favorite Wilson play at that time. Now “Ma Rainey” has been joined by “Gem of the Ocean.”

Paula West also performed “Waters of March,” Portuguese: “Águas de Março.” A Brazilian song composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim closed her short set. If you recall, it’s a list song: a stick, a stone … Jobim himself re-wrote these lyrics for the English version. It’s a whole new poem:

Waters of March

A stick, a stone,
It’s the end of the road,
It’s the rest of a stump,
It’s a little alone
It’s a sliver of glass,
It is life, it’s the sun,
It is night, it is death,
It’s a trap, it’s a gun
The oak when it blooms,
A fox in the brush,
A knot in the wood,
The song of a thrush
The wood of the wind,
A cliff, a fall,
A scratch, a lump,
It is nothing at all
It’s the wind blowing free,
It’s the end of the slope,
It’s a beam, it’s a void,
It’s a hunch, it’s a hope
And the river bank talks
of the waters of March,
It’s the end of the strain,
The joy in your heart
The foot, the ground,
The flesh and the bone,
The beat of the road,
A slingshot’s stone
A fish, a flash,
A silvery glow,
A fight, a bet,
The range of a bow
The bed of the well,
The end of the line,
The dismay in the face,
It’s a loss, it’s a find
A spear, a spike,
A point, a nail,
A drip, a drop,
The end of the tale
A truckload of bricks
in the soft morning light,
The shot of a gun
in the dead of the night
A mile, a must,
A thrust, a bump,
It’s a girl, it’s a rhyme,
It’s a cold, it’s the mumps
The plan of the house,
The body in bed,
And the car that got stuck,
It’s the mud, it’s the mud
Afloat, adrift,
A flight, a wing,
A hawk, a quail,
The promise of spring
And the riverbank talks
of the waters of March,
It’s the promise of life
It’s the joy in your heart
A stick, a stone,
It’s the end of the road
It’s the rest of a stump,
It’s a little alone
A snake, a stick,
It is John, it is Joe,
It’s a thorn in your hand
and a cut in your toe
A point, a grain,
A bee, a bite,
A blink, a buzzard,
A sudden stroke of night
A pin, a needle,
A sting, a pain,
A snail, a riddle,
A wasp, a stain
A pass in the mountains,
A horse and a mule,
In the distance the shelves
rode three shadows of blue
And the riverbank talks
of the waters of March,
It’s the promise of life
in your heart, in your heart
A stick, a stone,
The end of the road,
The rest of a stump,
A lonesome road
A sliver of glass,
A life, the sun,
A knife, a death,
The end of the run
And the riverbank talks
of the waters of March,
It’s the end of all strain,
It’s the joy in your heart

(http://www.brazzil.com/p08sep01.htm).

The reception following the tribute was joyous – many reunions of old friends and colleagues. The event was held on a Monday because that is actors’ day off and the only day of the week they can attend in the evening. Shown here are, from left, an unidentified woman, Elizabeth Carter, Michelle Jordan and Wanda Sabir.
Such a well-choreographed celebration for Quentin Easter! The stories were so funny, such as that shared by someone from the California Arts Council who said when she funded the theatre initially the two men didn’t have two pennies to rub together but they had a vision and a dream and she is happy the organization has funded LHT since its beginning.

Everyone on the program didn’t speak and everyone in the audience who could have spoken was content to be present at this gala tribute to a beloved artist and humanitarian, Quentin Easter. Sen. Jay Leno sent a lovely resolution to the event and the Asian American theatre director shared kind words about the LHT legacy and its presence a precedent setter for multicultural theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the region.

Ms. Doris Ward, former San Francisco supervisor, reflected on her many conversations with Quentin and her love for theatre, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in particular. She called LHT an opportunity for Black youth to express themselves in ways her peers were unable to in Indiana, where there was no Black theatre. Ms. Ward said she was lucky her parents took her to Chicago to see stage performances, but those talented writers and performers in Indiana, her friends, had no stage open to them to express this creativity. LHT has a youth theatre performing arts program, evident that evening on stage when one of the younger choir members sang the national anthem.

I remember subscribing to LHT for the Sunday family matinee where I brought my daughters for many years to the theatre on Sunday afternoons where we’d see friends from the East Bay, as far away as Richmond, as well with kids in tow. One of these patrons eventually became director of the Oakland Public Library. This predates Target Family Days.

Glen Pearson and John Handy enjoy the reception. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
There was no cake or peach cobbler, fried chicken and macaroni and cheese to entice my kids. The stories unfolding on stage were enough to keep them rapt in their seats and I was proud as a single parent, able to afford to support Black theatre. I couldn’t even imagine then that I would get to know the founding directors, Quentin and Stanley, that I would write a cover story for Theatre Bay Area’s magazine about Black theatre and of course LHT and become a person whom Quentin stated once always has an “unusual” or was it “original” take on LHT programming.

I always felt welcome and appreciated by Quentin and Stanley and Marc, their publicist. This theatre family’s generosity extended to giving me a ticket to opening night at the SF Playhouse/LHT Theater collaboration when for some reason my RSVP wasn’t received. I sat right next to Quentin and Stanley – yes, it was exciting.

Lorraine Hansberry is an Equity House, yet it is also a place where on Sunday afternoons one finds the seats filled with church buy-outs, a place where I have taken my classes at the College of Alameda to their first theatre performances: “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” and the Word for Word collaboration with LHT, directed by Margo Hall, an original score by Marcus Shelby, “Jimmy’s Blues.”

I always felt at home, just the way I feel like family at Black Rep in Berkeley. Dr. Mona Vaughn Scott and her son, Sean Vaughn Scott, were also present last night.

I sat right next to Quentin and Stanley – yes, it was exciting.

I remember LHT sharing their rehearsal space along San Francisco’s Embarcadero with the African American Shakespeare Company for their “Cinderella” rehearsals. Sherri Young, founding director, and David Skillman, one of the original wicked step-sisters, was there among others. I saw actors from Berkeley Rep, Aurora Theatre, the Magic Theatre and San Francisco Mime Troupe, like veteran couple, Velina Brown and Michael Gene Sullivan.

I remember the conversations hosted by LHT with Idris Ackamoor and others regarding regional Black theatrical institutions and Black arts programs like that envisioned by August Wilson.

Also, one cannot forget the time LHT with ACT-SF hosted August Wilson and allowed the great artist a space to workshop his play, “Jitney,” before it went on to Broadway.

Ms. Ward charged those of us present Monday evening with the task of supporting the vision of Quentin Easter and his partner, Stanley E. Williams, for Black theatre arts in whatever capacity needed so that we can save Black youth.

As stated, everyone on the program didn’t get to present or speak. Missing was Rhodessa Jones, whose Medea Project, Theatre for Incarcerated Women, debuted at LHT on Sutter. Soap Stone, a theatre program out of the San Francisco Sherriff’s Department, also debuted there as did the start of Marvin X’s “One Day in the Life,” a play about addiction and recovery and forgiveness. Recovery Theatre director Gregory Grier was present as was one of my favorite playwrights, Americ.

Rhodessa Jones looks regal at the reception following the tribute to Quentin Easter. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
I just had to get a photo of Rhodessa Jones in her crown, one of three she received while in South Africa. The day Queen Mother Zenzile Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) died, Black women wore the Zulu crown honoring their queen. Surrounded by so many artists and journalists and folks I admire like Brenda Payton, I just marveled at the crème de la African American theatre crème out that night. I wish I’d had a photographer just to work the reception, so I could just look and talk and reflect on Quentin Delancey Easter and Stanley E. Williams.

I hadn’t known Quentin was a graduate of Princeton and that as a child he liked making speeches and graduated with a BA in history and a Certificate of Proficiency from the African American Studies Department in 1975. In high school and at the university he served as president of his class, Undergraduate Assembly at Princeton, Student Council president at Northern High School in Baltimore.

We closed the hall at 11:30 p.m. I kept expecting Quentin to show up and, well, he did in all the words and lives he touched and in the brief clip we watched from a new film on Bay Area theatre where Quentin shared his philosophical belief about the power of art to change lives, transform society and heal community.

Save the date: Celebrate the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre

“Celebrating 30 Years of Great American Stories: A Benefit for Lorraine Hansberry Theatre” will be the place to be on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010, 6 -11 p.m., at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, 335 Powell St., San Francisco. For information, call (925) 855-3255, email kgavin@ingoodco.com or visit http://www.lhtsf.org/.

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wsab1@aol.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 6-7:30 or 8 a.m. and Fridays at 8-10 a.m., can be heard by phone at (347) 237-4610 and are archived on the Afrikan Sistahs’ Media Network.

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