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Wanda’s Picks for August 2010

August 3, 2010

by Wanda Sabir

From Houston to Haiti

Here is Wanda with friends at Sopudep School, her home base during her visit to Haiti in April, four months after the earthquake. - Photo: Wanda Sabir
I am off to Haiti again this week. I return on the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s birthday, Aug. 17, just in time to return to work the following day. I had to teach this summer, a Critical Thinking class with the theme “privilege.” We read Tim Wise’s “White Like Me,” Robert King’s “From the Bottom of the Heap,” Edward P. Jones’ “The Known World” and John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me.” My students ranged from university to high school students and we covered a variety of ground as we looked at various argument models, like classical, taken from Aristotle and his teacher Plato and the later Toulmin and Rogerian models. The students who stayed with the course to the end – six out of 20 – impressed me with their synthesis of the material and application of critical thinking strategies in their lives.

I am excited about going back to Haiti, which I visited at the four-month anniversary of the earthquake. It has been six months now and from what we have heard and seen from trusted media, the situation is not any better and for many people it is worse. The official going away party for Wanda’s bon voyage to Haiti is Saturday, July 31, 2010, 9 p.m., at Ashkenaz Music and Dance Center, 1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 525-5054, $10 in advance and for students, $13 on the day of the show: www.CaribbeanAllstars.com and www.basscultureproductions.com.

I visited many grassroots organizations in Delmas, Citi Soleil and Port-au-Prince. I plan to visit the Aristide Foundation this time and spend time at the Institute for Justice and Democracy.

Jean Ristil Jean Baptiste asked for cameras for his kids, so if anyone has cameras, I can take them to him. I’d like to take money to the other organizations like the orphanage supported by Equator Faith Church in Oakland. I’d like to take funds to So Anne to buy food for the meals she serves and to Rea Dol, who is rebuilding her school and taking care of so many people. If you are seeing this column after I am gone, you can still send checks and my daughter will deposit the funds in my account.

I’d like to raise about $4,000, which will cover my airfare ($818), transport and boarding ($400-$500) with money left over to give between $300 and $400 to all these organizations. These are the people doing the work without government and NGO/non-profit assistance. When I was there last, I left everything – tent, sleeping bag, bug spray, medicines, school supplies – with my host Rea Dol. I’d like to leave money too this time.

I need another tent and a sleeping bag (smile). I don’t know who I’ll meet when I go to Jacmel, Les Cayes and hopefully Port-au-Paix with an overnight stop in Cap Haitian to see friends at SOIL and the Island of La Gonaive, but I know I will return with another list. The cost also includes my escort’s travel and lodging expenses.

So dig deep and give generously. Send the donations to me at P.O. Box 30756, Oakland, CA 94604. Checks can be made out to Wanda Sabir. I plan to have another report-back in October during Maafa Awareness Month.

‘Angola 3: The Play’

Last week I was in Houston to see the premiere of Parnell Herbert’s “Angola 3: The Play” at the University of Houston. It was also a commemoration of Carl Hampton’s life and work as one of the founders of People’s Party 2, as the Houston chapter of the Black Panther Party was known. There were panels and workshops at the historic Black college, Southern University at Houston, on Saturday, with a film festival and artist talk that evening following the celebration at Emancipation Park in the 3rd Ward where the police shootout occurred 40 years ago, on July 26. Hampton was just 21 years old. His story reminds us of another tragedy, Chairman Fred Hampton and Mark Clark’s murder by the Chicago police that same year. Both men would be fathers, Chairman Fred’s son born shortly thereafter.

Emory Douglas was in town for the conference, as were Kathleen Cleaver and Robert King, drawn by the wonderful play, “Angola 3.” Gayle Shaw and Billy X were also present, with a special issue of the Black Panther newspaper honoring the life of Carl Hampton, 40 years later. It’s About Time hosted an art exhibit and the film festival that weekend.

It was great seeing the intergenerational mix at the panel discussions and other events that weekend. Michael Mable, Albert Woodfox’s brother, along with his wife, son and niece were present opening night.

At the reception in Houston for “Angola 3: The Play” by Parnell Herbert are Robert King of the Angola 3 and Wanda Sabir, Bay View arts editor.
The play looks at the history of Angola, more specifically the events that led to Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert H. King (a.k.a. Wilkerson) spending their lives inside, as well as the lives of the other men inside – friends or comrades and foes. Using music as a transition tool along with lighting and silence, the audience felt the time pass as if they too were in the cell with the men.

Herbert’s craft as a poet and pseudonym, Poetic Panther, is earned here, especially when one realizes that the lines (at times) are in verse.

The work is certainly a call to action as it moves the theoretical into the realm of what’s practical. Herbert’s characters sound like Woodfox and Wallace, especially when Woodfox speaks about having no regrets. The writer does his homework and the effort spent doing interviews with Wallace and Woodfox and King, as well as his research into the era depicted rings true on stage.

There are many great moments and a lot of laughter too, especially when the incarcerated men talk about starting a Black Panther Chapter at Angola and react with enthusiasm when Huey P. Newton sends them a confirmation letter. The guards are almost caricatures, especially the warden, Burl Cain.

Yet throughout the work, the men remain dignified and strong in their convictions. Even when kicked or beaten, they never cower. The humor is never forced, but sometimes the irony or the situation characters find themselves in as they demand justice is so crazy one has to laugh. At other times the men dance and joke with one another which adds a human dimension to the story – fun and play in prison?

Just as Robert King’s candy gives the men something sweet to soften the bitter taste of injustice, so does a man find calm in the middle of the battle as one more man walks to his death. This is a chilling moment in the play just at intermission as one man after another is electrocuted.

Robert Hillary King’s release Feb. 8, 2001, and his ethical struggle over the conditions of that release, despite Wallace and Woodfox’s insistence that he take the deal, is also an impressive moment in the work. The fact that he was pushed to take the deal, that Herman and Albert, knowing King well, decided before he brought the dilemma to them what their response would be: “You are more effective outside than behind bars. Take the deal.”

Parnell Herbert, known as the Poetic Panther, author of “Angola 3: The Play,” and Michael Mable, brother of Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3, at the reception following the performance in Houston – Photo: Wanda Sabir
This seldom mentioned yet crucial decision clarifies Robert King or Umoja’s dedication to the abolition of legal slavery and the emancipation of his comrades: Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. The cast was excellent as was the direction. I could certainly see it on Broadway. Visit www.wandaspicks.com.

‘Winta,’ a new East African film

I attended a screening of “Winta” last month. “Winta,” directed by Mesfin Sinke, is a new Eritrean film shot in Tigrinya (and some English) with English subtitles. The screening was at Samuel Merritt University Bechtel Room, and at the 2 p.m. show, most of those in the audience were members of the cast and their families. Mesfin Sinke, the producer, writer, director and principle on camera and audio, was so nervous he introduced the film entirely in Tigrinya, forgetting to translate for the non-Tigrinya speaking audience (smile).

“Winta” was shot in two locations with two directors. Issayas Tsegay, the Asmara director, with an Asmara cast: Winta’s mother Ghenet Alem, Winta’s brother Tadeos portrayed by actor Ghidey Gebratatiyos, and Fortuna, Winta’s school friend back home, portrayed by actress Samrawit Ghebray. The lovely Homib Abraha who portrays Winta was on location in Asmara and Oakland (smile). Tsegay’s cast was professional, he a highly regarded director, while at home, Sinke’s cast was for the most part amateur, but his principle editor, Feven Debas, actress and filmmaker (Art Academy), brought on board in 2008 is not.

Debas said since her Tigrinya wasn’t as fluent as either director, Sinke would give her a synopsis of the scenes, so she could work on piecing together the story in a way that allowed it to flow thematically from one idea to the next so that in the end one cannot tell there were two shoots and two directors, the work so well integrated – one into the other.

Now that it is complete, it would be interesting to find out how Tsegay managed to keep or maintain the story’s integrity in Sinke’s physical absence. In a lot of ways, as the piece that sets the tone for the entire film, it is even more remarkable that the Asmara director was able to pull it off. I wonder if such innovation is common in filmmaking?

It was remarkably courageous for the first time director to decide to use his native language rather than English to tell the story as well. Is it because of its theme or the audience he was trying to reach?

Many women marry men from different countries before coming to America or come to America to marry a man they might know simply as a pen-pal or correspondent. This is how my sister-in-law came to America. She didn’t marry the man who sent for her, but my brother, which is not the story here, but it is not at all unusual in the Muslim community for marriages to be made in cyberspace – close but not always heavenly (smile).

The African team was a professional cast and experienced director, while the California team consisted of first time actors. Maybe this is what makes the film work so well. The story is one which is not unique to the geography or ethnicity of the cast.

Everyone is a potential victim of a broken promise –it’s what one does afterward which is the key to this story. The character Winta is married to an older man, Asgodom (actor Girmay Ogbay) who lives in America. She travels to Oakland to live with him and believes his promise of supporting her desire to get a college degree; however, this promise is supplanted with his desire for children first. When he is controlling and physically abusive, Winta grows desperate and without family doesn’t know what to do.

In director Sinke’s film “Winta,” one sees themes of immigration overlapping those of assimilation, cultural values and true benevolence, as portrayed by Suleman, played by actor Biniam Habtemichael, a stranger and Winta’s neighbor who goes out of his way to help her escape her unhappy household. Suleman creates a network of supportive safe houses for her among his friends, who almost all agree to try to handle the dissolution without bringing in the police.

There is Suleman’s friend, Dawit (actor Merih Abrha), a man who is also guardian for his younger sisters: Haben, 17 (actress Jerusalem Gebru), and the slightly older sister Salem (actress Awet Misgun). Salem is living out of wedlock with Mussie (actor Yonas Tesfagabr), a man her brother doesn’t approve of. Dawit is an engineer whose traditional or conservative views on courtship and relationships speak to the same values Winta also accepts and believes. It is here that Winta finally feels at home until superficial circumstances interfere in her budding romance with her host.

Actress Homib Abraha, who stars as Winta in the play of the same name, with Feven Debas, editor of “Winta" – Photo: Wanda Sabir
Winta finds herself once again misunderstood with friendships souring between her and her hosts to the point she can’t sleep or eat. Suleman continues to support and believe in her throughout her journey; he doesn’t let the negative tales told to him about her color his relationship with her or affect how he perceives her.

This is one of the lessons in Sinke’s “Winta,” that we cannot always believe what we see and that often our prejudices cloud our vision so that we read situations in ways which confirm our misperceptions or lies. Salem thinks her partner, Mussie, is cheating on her with Winta, when he isn’t. Haben thinks Winta is lying when she sees Winta greeting her sister’s boyfriend, Mussie, in the parking lot of her job. She assumes Winta is cheating and lying about it when she goes to Winta’s job and she isn’t there yet.

Winta tells her she took a taxi to work because she ran late from an appointment. She didn’t see Winta get out of the taxi (so of course Winta is lying). Winta’s ex-husband, Asgodom, believes the worse of Winta as well because he feels guilty about his broken promises. He thinks his wife is cheating on him because Winta greets a neighbor in the hallway of their apartment as she returns from tossing the trash. This same man comes back into the story later on, so the husband thinks the meeting in the hallway was planned. Suspicion has dire consequences for all involved, especially the innocent.

Oakland is like a small town, so lives overlap innocently. Not so for Winta, she is always at fault in her new country. Connecting the dots leads to erroneous conclusions each time a character picks up his or her pen to draw Winta’s profile. The Eritrea immigrants Winta meets through Suleman are so removed from their cultural values, ones Winta holds as a recent immigrant, that they are reading her behavior out of context.

One might think American cultural norms are globalized via cyberspace, but Winta’s tight jeans in Eritrea do not mean she is a loose woman in America – no matter her innocence or naïveté. She might be oblivious to the subliminal messages such clothing choices carry in her new country; however, her intention is not to attract male attention or to flirt or make Salem or even Asgedom jealous, even if the camera panning her derrière follows the unbidden thoughts hidden in those male or female eyes: Messie’s, Dawit’s, Haben’s, even Suleman’s.

If each character would look into his or her own heart, each person would realize that the reason each of them is blaming Winta is based on his or her own fears and insecurities. To love someone, Winta teaches everyone, means one has to love oneself first and live one’s truth. There are only two people in the film who do this: Suleman and Winta’s estranged husband’s best friend Bereket (actor Mebrahtu Asmelash) who assists Winta by talking truth to his friend Asgodom, who angrily refuses to hear him out.

I know well the geography of the film: Piedmont Gardens Apartments across from the Kaiser Permanente Hospital campus in Oakland, Asmara Restaurant, which nicely parallels Asmara, Eritrea, where Winta comes from, and the Red Sea Restaurant & Bar.

I remember when many of my neighbors were relocated from Oak Center 1 Apartments to Piedmont Gardens when the rental company was remodeling our apartments and subsequently evicting many of the families who had lived at Oak Center for decades. This was in 2000.

It was a forced removal like that experienced by Black property owners historically throughout the Bay Area. We weren’t property owners, so it was easier to get rid of us; nonetheless the result was the same, a disruption and permanent elimination of a strong Black community, which in our case was a model Pan African community with Eritrean neighbors, Nigerian neighbors, Somalians and a multigenerational African American community living together.

It was a priceless experience to live in and raise a family for 15 years. My children grew up in such a community; my father when he could no longer take care of himself also lived at Oak Center until he died; my brother also lived there briefly while my father was sick.

Piedmont Apartments where Winta meets Suleman reminds me of Oak Center – the spirit of the place. We were one big family, which means all the members, no matter how new to the vicinity, were treated with respect and kindness. Suleman’s trust and selflessness is not fictional. Such kindness really does exist today in a society where cynicism is becoming the norm. There are not as many Sulemans, but he does still exist and what happens in “Winta” is at once fictional and real. This is one of the reasons why this film pacts such a powerful lesson.

The cinematography is great as well. The director has a wonderful first film. He was on his way to the Eritrean Soccer Match in Atlanta. It is a big tournament which has moved throughout the country – maybe world – for the past 20 years. He is showing the film there and will be joined by some of the cast.

We were lucky at the Bay Area screening to meet so many members of the cast: the star who plays Winta, the actor who plays Suleman, the actor who is Winta’s husband, his friend, Dawit, who falls in love with Winta. That character’s sisters weren’t there when I left. The director, Mesfin Sinke, was there of course and the editor, Feven Debas, plus my friend Jai Jia Noire, who was going to be filming audience responses. Jai also shot the scenes that take place in a mechanic’s garage in Oakland where Winta’s husband works. She also helped with fixing color correction, audio correction, SFX, fine tuning some edits and DVD authoring. Further editing was done by Biniam Habtemichael (Suleman).

I kept hearing Gil Scott Heron’s classic “Winter in America” when I heard the name of the film and its principle character’s name. Winta’s tragic tale certainly reflects symbolically on a sort of winter, a time when seasonally the planet retreats and all life recedes from view. Winta tells Dawit she wants to go home. Home is a place where she was loved by her mother and siblings, a place where there was life, not the barren winter that marks her stay in America.

Now Winta in Tigrinya might have a lovely meaning, but this is the beauty of how the linguistic nuances heard in the term Winta play so well in both cultures: American and African.

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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