by Wanda Sabir
San Francisco says farewell to Dr. Maya Angelou
Glide Memorial Church and the City of San Francisco’s celebration of native daughter Maya Angelou on Sunday, June 15, featured speeches from luminaries like former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, the current mayor, the Honorable Ed Lee, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Janice Mirikitani and Pastor Emeritus Cecil Williams, prayers and songs, and special tributes by Guy Johnson, Dr. Angelou’s son, and singer Valerie Simpson.
There were many high energy points in the well-orchestrated afternoon celebration of a woman whose creative and humanitarian work defies compilation. Yet the Glide Memorial Church family worked wonders by juxtaposing carefully chosen visual moments with prerecorded Maya moments, which made her presence so palatable that by the time Pastor Williams and his lovely wife, poet Janice Mirikitani, came forward to share, the sanctuary lights came under the control of Spirit Maya and played with our collective vision – the room almost dark and the lights flickering off and on. These were her great friends, as Ms. Mirikitani, former San Francisco poet laureate, stated when she shared her Maya stories and her friend’s directive to write – following a poetic reflection on Angelou’s life.
As she was about to leave, her husband, Rev. Williams, asked her to stay on stage – it was a really sweet loving moment (smile). Rev. Williams then shared many stories about Sister Maya, his good friend, yet the story that stands out is his reflection on Angelou’s influence on his wardrobe. The story explained the wardrobe change as he donned his sacred African robes (stage right) before he stood at the microphone to bid his friend a public goodbye.
It is because of Angelou’s embrace of her African self that Rev. Williams says he began to wear dashikis and a huge Afro. Photos of this Rev. Williams in his over 50-year public ministry in San Francisco at Glide Memorial, the church he and his wife co-founded in 1963 to serve the poor, were a part of the celebratory slide show which also featured Dr. Angelou and a younger Guy Johnson and his son, Colin. She gave many sermons there over the years.
There was a large screen outside on the blocked street; picnic tables with awnings were also there facing the huge screen for the overflow audience. There were also huge posters of Angelou on the entrances to Glide which many posed in front of (smile). After the commemoration, everyone was invited to share in the repast: free chicken box lunches.
Located right in the center of San Francisco’s TL or Tenderloin District, Glide stands at the intersection of Ellis and Taylor streets, renamed last year “Rev. Cecil Williams Way,” honoring the 50th anniversary of the founding of Glide Memorial, its main entrance at 330 Ellis St.
As first one then another guest reflected on his or her relationship with Dr. Angelou, there was much humor first from Mr. Brown who spoke of how he seemed to find himself often on Angelou’s “short list,” to Congresswoman Lee, who said she admired Dr. Angelou’s balance between the personal and public, something she struggles with.
Singer Valerie Simpson first moaned, the kind of moan that reaches into the sinewy space between marrow and cell – a place of loss. Yet from what we learned that afternoon, Dr. Angelou had been sick for a while. Simpson then sat at the piano and played for a bit, before getting up and continuing to sing “Walk Around Heaven All Day.”
What a perfect song for that moment – the artist walking, strutting, standing tall as Dr. Angelou had as she sang. We couldn’t help but reflect on the public Angelou’s life and the celebration such a life deserved:
One of these mornings, it won’t be long
You’ll look for me and I’ll be gone
I’m going to a place where I’ll have nothing to do
But just walk around Heaven all day
When I get to Heaven I’ll sing and shout
Nobody will be able to put me out
My mother will be waiting and other loved ones too
And we’ll join hands and walk around Heaven all day
Lord up above please hear me praying
Walk right by my side
And Lord when my way, when my way gets cloudy
Lord, I need You
Lord, I need You to be my guide
Every day will be Sunday, Sabbath will have no end
We’ll do nothing but sing, God knows we’ll pray
And when He says well done, your race has been won
That’s when I’ll walk around Heaven all day
Lord up above, please hear me praying
Walk right by my side
And Lord when my way, when my way gets cloudy
Lord, I need You
Lord, I need You to be my guide
Every day will be Sunday, Sabbath will have no end
We’ll do nothing but sing, God knows we’ll pray
And when He says well done, your race has be won
That’s when I’ll walk around Heaven all day.
Other soloists and program songs included fantastic performances by Gisele Gemus in “My Redeemer Lives,” Mallory Maisner in “God Is,” Dennis Hersey in “Hold On, Don’t Let Go” and Emma Jean Foster-Fiege in “My God Is An Awesome God.” The program closed with the choir in “We Will Sing Praises.”
Belva Davis, journalist trailblazer, another friend of Maya and host of the ceremony, spoke of her friendship, the times she would visit Angelou and Guy and how well her husband, Bill Moore, and the others would get along. It sounded lovely. I am not certain who mentioned it, but there is a box set now of all of the Angelou biographies (smile).
And then, just as we settled into the mourning of this fallen star, Ruby Dee sails by, cosmic dust still in the air as I write this. Watch photographer TaSin Sabir’s slide show.
Charles Blackwell, artist
I attended the opening reception for artist Charles Blackwell’s current exhibit at the African American Museum and Library, Oakland. When I walked in, the legally blind artist was holding court with a rapt audience hanging on his every word. Imagine losing one’s sight at 19 following a terrible accident? And the loss was gradual until it was gone, as were the young Charles’s dreams.
He’d planned to major in art, but without sight, he drifted a bit. His degree in social work kept him employed and Blackwell says he discovered his literary voice too. His love of music continued to inspire him. I don’t remember the details around how he came to paint again, but the exhibition at AAMLO attests to the reason why we are luckier for his work which uses as its muse an African in America aesthetic.
Sometimes one has to look at the painting for a while before the characters emerge; this love of music, jazz specifically, infuses Blackwell’s work with an ancient modernity. Most of his work is figurative, the titles just as fun and captivating as the motion of his brush – acrylic on canvas, many quite big. The artist also towers above us, especially me, but it is a height which takes us on sublime journeys, each work a story. He was a member of the poetic jazz ensemble Congo Square with the late drummer Billy Toliver and others.
Saturday, June 28, Blackwell was joined by a friend on congas and voice. The poet wrote new work for the reception, each piece sweeping away imperialist fog, bright African Diaspora sunshine rising in the room.
At the reception, prints of work not included in the exhibition were available for sale. I bought a piece with a chicken – boldly standing front and center, at first mistaken for a rooster – the chicken depicted in Blackwell’s Funky Fried Sandwich Special $7.99, Friday Only, is strutting proudly, one of a series (I learned later) Blackwell has on fowls – ghetto birds who have a thing for smoke houses and greasy spoon restaurants (smile). I also bought a collection of his poetry called “Redemption Beyond Blindness.”
He states, “Reinventing the intriguing sound of jazz music into a vibrant visual symphony was my destiny. As such my work captures the joyous, surprising, initial impact of fusing with the musician and the instrument as each painted stroke captures a forever moment in an eternal concert. I use my blindness as an asset in my painting. I’ll strain my eyes to see.”
You can see the other chickens plus much more of Blackwell’s work and another story here: http://www.pbs.org/pov/differentcolorblue/blackwell.php. His album is here: https://picasaweb.google.com/108126074991485370240/CharlesBlackwellArtistGallery?noredirect=1.
For a Diaspora Citizen, true freedom lies in choosing where one belongs. Such is the case for TaSin Sabir, my daughter, who fell in love with Madagascar, its people, fauna and flora at 11 years old in a geography class. When she finally made a journey home recently as an adult, the Sakalava people (West Coast) embraced her too.
“Madagascar Made” (2014) illustrates this journey in bold, bright color. When TaSin donned her people’s traditional basket hat, even police were surprised when this perceived native daughter spoke fluent English and carried an American passport. His facial expression was priceless. This is the creative genius of a Diaspora citizen: We belong and then, we do not. Hidden in plain sight, “Madagascar Made” shows in several self-portraits, TaSin here and TaSin there – Madagascar portraits on site juxtaposed with shots posed similarly on another West Coast.
“Madagascar Made” embraces the multiplicity of the African sojourn then and now and the fact that we are a global presence to be embraced, as TaSin Sabir does photographically in this brilliant book. The book was released June 29 at the Joyce Gordon Gallery, 406 14th St., downtown Oakland.
The African American Museum and Library in Oakland and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco present ‘Authors in Conversation’
Experience the journey of the Black Panthers through guest authors Professor Waldo E. Martin Jr.’s “Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party” and Dr. Rickey Vincent’s “Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers’ Band” courtesy of the Friends of the African American Museum and Library (FAAMLO), African American Museum and Library at Oakland, 659 14th St. Oakland, 510-637-0200.
Theater: ‘Love Balm for My Spirit Child’
“Love Balm for My Spirit Child,” a choreo-play based on testimonies from Bay Area mothers whose children were lost to gun violence, directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, opens at Brava! For Women in the Arts, Theatre Center in San Francisco, 2781 24th St. at York, July 11-20. Shows start at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $10-$25.
Stanley Nelson’s ‘Freedom Summer’ on-line
For a limited time, you can watch “Freedom Summer,” which premiered in PBS’s American Experience on June 24, online at http://video.pbs.org/video/2365156751/. Freedom Summer of 1964 was marked by sustained and deadly violence, including the notorious murders of three civil rights workers, countless beatings, the burning of 35 churches, and the bombing of 70 homes and community centers.
Fundraiser for August Wilson’s ‘Two Trains’ at the Flight Deck in Oakland
The Lower Bottom Playaz Inc. are hosting an online fundraiser this month for their production of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” scheduled to go up in August 2014. Visit:http://www.hatchfund.org/project/tales_of_iron_water_the_american_century_cycle_the_lower_bottom_playaz_inc#.U6xAuIZb7CU.hotmail
The Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s UNIA is 100
Opening ceremony for the 100th anniversary of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) is Aug. 14, 2014 in New York at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Thereafter, the UNIA-African Communities League will have workshops and panel discussions, plus a Red, Black and Green Banquet and Ball on Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, and a parade and rally at Marcus Garvey Park on Sunday, Aug. 17. Most of the events are free and open to the public; however, some of the free events require that participants register in advance. The banquet and ball are ticketed events. There will be a centennial souvenir journal which patrons can take out ads.
UNIA-ACL is having a joint reception with the Embassy of Jamaica in Washington, D.C., on July 20. That is the actual date in 1914 when the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey founded the UNIA-ACL in Kingston, Jamaica. This year also marks the Jubilee Celebration for Jamaica as it celebrates 50 years of having declared Mr. Garvey its national hero. Visit http://www.unia-centennial.org/.
James Gayles’s book launch
James Gayles: Reflections, a collaboration between painting and literature, takes place July 11, 6-9 p.m., at the Oak Stop, 1721 Broadway St., Oakland. “Reflections” is a collaboration of James, Pochino Press and more than 20 national and international writers hailing from cities as diverse as London, Tokyo, New York, Addis Ababa, Taipei and, of course, Oakland. Each writer interpreted one of James’ pieces from over the years, including paintings of Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Celia Cruz, Nelson Mandela, and Sarah Vaughan.
The 30th Anniversary Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo will be held July 12-13, 2:30 p.m., at 9711 Dublin Canyon Road, Hayward, 510-430-1744, https://billpickettrodeo.webconnex.com/Oakland, featuring live music, food and fireworks – free to the public in one of the Bay Area’s most popular Independence Day celebrations.
Oakland Symphony performs in Richmond
The Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Craneway Pavilion, located inside the historic Ford Point Building on the waterfront in Richmond, and the City of Richmond will again join forces to host a family-friendly Target Independence Day Celebration led by the Oakland East Bay Symphony and Music Director Michael Morgan on Thursday, July 3. The evening will also include pre-performance entertainment, food and fireworks. Parking will be available beginning at 5 p.m. and access to the Craneway Pavilion and Wharf will begin at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.oebs.org or www.craneway.com.
Following pre-concert live music featuring performances by top local music groups, at 8 p.m. the Oakland East Bay Symphony, conducted by Music Director Michael Morgan, will begin its set of patriotic, spirited works to celebrate America’s Independence Day, including film music by John Williams, a Disney medley, Sousa marches, Jeff Beal’s “House of Cards Suite,” music from “The Sound of Music” and more with plenty of audience sing-along opportunities. The City of Richmond’s Firework Display will launch over the water just as the Symphony closes its program. The evening will be hosted by KDFC Radio’s Dianne Nicolini.
The Craneway Pavilion is located at 1414 Harbor Way South in the Marina district of Richmond and can be accessed from the 580 freeway. Seating is limited and will be available on a first come, first served basis. Guests are encouraged to bring their own blankets and chairs.
Cuba Exhibit, Talk and Notecard Art Sale by Josie Webb is happening Saturday, July 19, 2-4 p.m., 500 Williams St., Oakland, http://beastcrawl.weebly.com/pandemonium-press.html.
Haiti Action Committee Study Group
The Haiti Action Committee (HAC) Study Group meets Saturday, July 19, 2-4 p.m. at the Niebyl Proctor Library, 6501 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. The study group will explore Haiti’s history, current political situation, and the connections to parallel struggles throughout the U.S. and around the world. The regular meeting examines texts and films, analyzes the latest resources, and utilizes discussion and reflection. This month’s topic is Resistance to U.S. Imperialism: 1915 Occupation and the Legacy Today.
Questions raised: What impact has the U.S. had in Haiti? If the U.S. is constantly giving aid to Haiti, why is Haiti still poor? When did the involvement in Haiti first start? Why and how did it start? What does it look like today?
Future topics include the return to dictatorship, mass incarceration and political prisoners, sweatshops and privatization, the ongoing pillaging of Haiti’s resources, labor activism, COINTELPRO tactics in Haiti and the U.S., racism, parallel struggles in Latin America and many more. Visit www.haitisolidarity.net.
Poetry at Spice Monkey Café
On July 12, 6:30-7:30 p.m., Pandemonium Press presents a reading with host Leila Rae, featuring Rafael Jesús González, Robert Pesich, Tony Press and Joyce Young. See http://beastcrawl.weebly.com/pandemonium-press.html. The event, which is free to the public, will be held at 1628 Webster St. at 17th, just 2 1/2 blocks from the 19th Street BART station, (510) 268-0170, Oakland.
37th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival
In two weekends of plays, six new plays will be performed July 18-27, featuring new work by Elizabeth Hersh, Rob Melrose, T.D. Mitchell, Don Nguyen, E. Hunter Spreen and Phillip Howze. Visit www.playwrightsfoundation.org.
On the fly
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival http://www.sfjff.org; San Jose Summer Jazz Festival http://summerfest.sanjosejazz.org Fillmore Jazz Festival; Jazz Heritage Center https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jazz-Heritage-Center/59221151626; Stanford Jazz Festival https://stanfordjazz.org/jazz-festival; Yerba Buena Garden Music Festival http://ybgfestival.org/.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe opens its summer season at Dolores Park July 4, 1:30 music, 2 p.m. show. Visit http://www.sfmt.org/schedule for more information.
To listen to an interview with Michael Gene Sullivan and Velina Brown, members of the Mime Troupe Collective, visit Wanda’s Picks Radio for Friday, June 27; Sullivan and Brown conclude the show. We also speak to the creator and cast of “Love Balm for My Spirit Child,” filmmaker Stanley Nelson, director of “Freedom Summer,” and director Ayodele Nzinga, Ph.D., artistic director of the Lower Bottom Playaz.
To find fireworks and other events for the fourth of July, visit http://www.mercurynews.com/entertainment/ci_26046840/where-bay-area-see-fireworks-parades-and-other.
Black Coalition on AIDS Rafiki Wellness Events
Enjoy Tai Chi in the Park with Zochi on Saturday, July 5, 9:30-10:30 a.m., at Martin Luther King Jr. Bayview Park, 5701 Third St. This is a special workshop. Come for a gentle yet powerful healing experience. Children and beginners are welcome!
Jazz and Blues Concert, featuring vocalist Anna Maria Flechero
Anna Maria Flechero will sing jazz and blues on Sunday, July 6, 7:30-9 p.m., at the Jazz Heritage Center, 1320 Fillmore St., San Francisco. Small plates and beverages will be offered.
Black Coalition on AIDS soul line dancing, movie night and more
Soul Line Dancing with Ramona moves to Thursday evenings, July 10, 17, 24 and 31, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Bring the family to join the fun and learn the moves. This is a great class for all learning levels!
Movie Night is Friday July 11, 6-8 p.m. The African American Health Equity Council joins BCA in presenting a Friday evening movie series. Snacks and popcorn will be provided. Bring the whole family!
All events except where indicated are free and take place at 601 Cesar Chavez St. at Pier 80 in San Francisco. For more information, call 415-615-9945 or visit www.bcoa.org.
Also, SF AIDS Walk is coming up Sunday, July 20! Support BCA with a donation. Walk with BCA. Visit www.bcoa.org.
African American Emancipation
Two stories on African American emancipation in one weekend! It doesn’t get any better than that.
Michael Gene Sullivan’s “fugitive/slave/act” staged reading on Saturday, June 9, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, was a collaboration between Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Museum of the African Diaspora, all in San Francisco. MoAD (Museum of the African Diaspora) now hosts a traveling show, like LHT has for the past maybe four years, its doors temporarily closed. The LHT’s brief sojourn on Post Street and then a short stay at Fort Mason Center was a nice break for those of us with a historic institutional memory dating back to when founders Stanley Williams and Quentin Easter were alive and LHT was on Sutter Street at the Sheehan Hotel, until it was displaced by the new owner, Art Academy University.
I can’t get used to this purposeful LHT diaspora situation, and now MoAD, closed for renovations, is on the road as well. The count is up – another Black institution in San Francisco and beyond whose doors are closed. Let’s not start taking names: Jazz at Pearls, Rasselas Jazz Club and Restaurant, Marcus Books on Fillmore; I hear Floyd Pellum’s 57th Street Gallery in Oakland needs more support to keep its doors open … but back to Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.
Promoting another theatre’s season is not what I’d call a “season,” but this wandering troupe called BATA, which stands for Bringing Art to the Audience, has, on the plus side, brought Black playwrights and new work to many audiences who’d never heard of LHT, despite having heard of playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s too oft-produced “A Raisin in the Sun,” which opened on Broadway in 1959.
She isn’t a one-hit wonder writer either, yet not since Stanford University’s student summer theatre project back when Dr. Harry Elam was chair – he is a University provost – and more recently San Francisco’s Multi-Ethnic Theatre’s production of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a compilation of the late Hansberry’s writing and interviews (1962) by Robert Nemiroff, has anyone given us a bit more to chew intellectually from this brilliant award-winning playwright’s canon.
I am not saying don’t go see Margo Hall in “Raisin” at California Shakes in Orinda, but I am just asking – why? Why aren’t any of these plays happening for real with Lorraine Hansberry’s BATA?
Michael Gene Sullivan’s “fugitive/slave/act” is a story where the Black man, William Parker, would get the girl if he didn’t already have her – I think this works better, because Parker’s woman is no shrinking violet or Kerry Washington like the “Broomhilda Von Shaft” character who almost blows it for Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx), who is coming to save her. No, Parker’s wife is politically savvy and so fearless her brother-in-law speaks of her with awe. Condensed to 10 actors who portray multiple characters, Sullivan has pared this epic into a two act masterpiece.
It was a rare white man who did not believe he was within his rights to own Black people. There are current parallels when we watch the increase in prison labor and other forms of cheap production to keep prices down; what was slavery but a way to increase profit and lower expenses?
“fugitive/slave/act” is the true story of William Parker, whose brick house in a community of formerly enslaved Africans is staging ground for Black resistance. They are attacked by a posse of white men armed with legally binding – or so they think – warrants authorizing them under the Fugitive Slave Act to reclaim escaped “property.”
Known historically as the Battle of Christiana, a small village in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, this battle is waged successfully by Black men. Occurring on Sept. 11, 1851, it is cited as the precursor to the Civil War. Funny, California becomes a state just a year earlier in 1850, the same year the law is passed.
What makes “fugitive/slave/act” so entertaining is the absence of apology and the strong male and female characters, especially Parker (actor Marcus Henderson) and his wife, Eliza Ann Elizabeth Howard (actress Velina Brown), Parker’s neighbor, friend and brother-in-law Alexander Pinckney (actor Reggie White), plus Samuel Thompson (actor L. Peter Callendar), whom Edward Gorsuch (actor Jarion Monroe), Thompson’s former owner was looking to get back when he set off from Baltimore, Maryland, by rail two years later. Gorsuch’s arrogance and belief in his right to Colin Thomson (actor Marshall Kline) and the other three Africans who had run away never wavered in the least. He stood his ground, literally and foolishly, as did his son, Dickenson Gorsuch (actor Craig Marker).
“fugitive/slave/act” captures the love and camaraderie and bravery of these Africans who knew their human rights even if the Constitution of the United States didn’t agree – yet. Within Sullivan’s drama is space for love – Parker for his wife, who is fierce herself. When she spoke to the runaway Africans hiding in her attic, one of the junctions on the Underground Rail Station, as she both blew the horn to alert others in the area of the intruders and calmed the jittery Black people in her care, it was with a firm and loving kindness in her voice.
There is music and a discussion of the Bible, a book with multiple, often conflicting interpretations. In one scene with Gorsuch, who is quoting scripture, Parker’s friend, Alexander Pinckney, tells him that he must not have read far enough in his book.
Sullivan’s play skillfully uses a Greek chorus (actresses Cathleen Riddley and Lauren Spencer) to fill the audience in on how this Fugitive Slave Law is shaping policy across the county as word of the battle makes news headlines. The trial is compelling, especially the idea that one could be found guilty of treason and killed because one refuses to participate in the capture of other human beings.
During the Q&A, the playwright says his interest was in the legal definition of treason, then and now. Is treason selling out your country or selling out your soul? Can a man be convicted of treason and hanged for holding onto his principles even if those principles go against the law of the land? Castner Hanway (actor Tim Redmond), a Quaker neighbor who’d come to the battle scene upon request, is also on trial later with Samuel Thompson and other African men on the scene that Sept. 11th day.
In Act 2, we sit in anticipation wondering how the trial will proceed in the absence of Parker and the two other men sought after. The U.S. courts did not believe a Black man could have orchestrated such a successful self-defense strategy, so Hanway is given all the credit and charged with treason.
Word reaches Canadian officials before the three Black men arrive, so their reception by the immigration official, who welcomes the three men into his country, is vastly different from what Parker and his friends are used to in America. Frederick Douglass is involved in their escape to Canada, but Sullivan was unable to add this part of the escape to his play.
Douglass does give a riveting speech in Act 2 which lays the ground for the ethical underpinnings of men like Parker, Samuel and Pinckney, who’d experienced slavery and taken their freedom, despite the appearance in the play of Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a quack doctor who uses false science to justify enslaving other human beings. Chair of a committee appointed by the Medical Association of Louisiana in 1851, his “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race” supports enslaving Africans from stating Black physicality and mentality made us best suited for servitude – from Negro knees’ propensity to work best on the ground to the use of the lash as incentive.
It was a rare white man who did not believe he was within his rights to own Black people. There are current parallels when we watch the increase in prison labor and other forms of cheap production to keep prices down; what was slavery but a way to increase profit and lower expenses? I loved it when Gorsuch asked Samuel, “Wasn’t I a good master?” and Samuel doesn’t answer.
‘The Raw Truth’
Sunday, June 8, at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church in East Oakland in the Fellowship Hall, we met William Grimes’s great-great-great granddaughter, Regina E. Mason, who with Michael Lange as Mr. Grimes, tells the story of the first formerly enslaved Black man’s autobiography. With his memoir, published in 1824, William Grimes predates Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, who didn’t write their stories by themselves, rather had a white editor substantiate or validate their works. Grimes is unapologetic and quite graphic in his recall of the horrible slavery experience the moment he opens his mouth.
Mrs. Mason stands next to a table with a few books and shares her journey to find William Grimes and, when she gets to his work, the book comes alive as Michael Lange, who’d been seated patiently dressed in the period clothing – top hat, fitted coat with tails and a cane, gets up and starts speaking.
It’s a conversation between relatives, one deceased (smile). Mrs. Mason even brings the audience into the conversation when we fail to laugh on cue. I think we are just riveted to her every word and Mr. Grimes’, listening so closely, the tale woven so well together we don’t want to slow down the momentum, which starts and ends at a high point.
Mrs. Mason shares with her audience how while in grade school she wondered why she didn’t know who her ancestors were with any specificity like her white classmates. She told of feeling shortchanged. She asked her aunt about the family heritage, who shared what she knew.
A story from her aunt with three clues would start Mason on a 15-year journey much later when she was a mother with two small children. Perhaps Mrs. Mason wanted to spare her children the embarrassment of not knowing their heritage, so with just a name and a geographical location to go on she started researching her family’s genealogy while at the same time looking for clues to this William Grimes character she’d heard of so long ago.
A proper sleuth, Mason shows how one has to follow one’s instincts even when one can’t find a logical connection at first – she seems at times led by spirit to certain artifacts, ledgers and data. Mason doesn’t tell us how she knows where to look, but we have a feeling that she probably took a genealogy research class or workshop at the Mormon Temple Library in Oakland.
How did information from one source lead her to a San Francisco library, where she found an important piece of information? Working at UC Berkley, she had access to their extensive research libraries; is this where she discovered the work of William Andrews, Ph.D., on her great-great-great grandfather?
I am also interested in how this story of her family has impacted her children’s lives and what is the response on the white Grimes’s side of the family who were quite prominent and powerful? That afternoon during the Q&A, people came from the audience and shared their stories – stories of migration in the ‘60s, stories of integrating the Berkeley police force, career military service stories, and the story of gold in California which is how Grimes’ family decided to travel West, not to mine, but to start businesses and develop a wealth base, one Mr. Grimes lost when he had to purchase himself.
I think what is so wonderful about “The Raw Truth” is that two lives, nearly 200 years apart, came together Sunday afternoon for the first time with an audience. Mason’s great-great-great-grandfather’s story, “Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave,” was royally received. Admiration for Mason, who had the tenacity to hang in there literally when, like an alchemist, instead of striking gold, more often than not she hit fool’s gold or pyrite.
“The Raw Truth” is a homecoming for Mr. Grimes and his California family, whom he did not live with, choosing instead to stay in New Haven, his home even if freedom cost him his property and savings and the comfort he had known.
This country owes so much to the families of the formerly enslaved; imagine what this man suffered and then to have to pay for his liberty – a legal debt to the one who owned him even at a cost which he never fully recovered. This is also what happened to Haiti, when it had to pay reparations to France for the bondsmen it lost when France lost the war.
Frederick Douglass’s wife, Black business woman, paid his bondage cost so he could stop looking over his shoulder. William Grimes had to come up with $500, a lot of money then and even now to secure his freedom. Fortunately he could liquidate, but this cost him his family, his business, his home.
In the Atlantic Journal article on Reparations (May 2014), one of the people interviewed in Chicago about the predatory mortgages Black people paid told of how he worked three jobs to pay for his home – that he had to take his kids out of private school and stop their music and dance lessons, that he was gone so much his kids saw him as a stranger.
Mrs. Mason answered her ancestor’s call. How many of us are ignoring their voices? We need to talk to our elders; imagine Mrs. Mason’s journey minus those three clues? There are so many stories to tell about our heritage – Mrs. Mason’s family doesn’t own William Grimes; we all do. His story represents so many others who were not able to set their tales down on paper.
I wonder about William Parker’s kinfolk in Canada and those who stayed in Christiana, Pennsylvania – certainly there are stories there that need to be shared. I hope Michael Gene Sullivan’s “fugitive/slave/act” makes it to Canada and to Christiana and someone adds an epilogue to the heroic story.
To listen to an interview with the playwrights, visit Wanda’s Picks Radio.
‘Blackbird,’ a review
“Blackbird,” directed by Patrick-Ian Polk, which screened at Frameline38 this year, features a star-studded lineup of talent with outstanding performances by newcomer to the screen Julian Walker as Randy Rousseau.
Haunted by Christ, Randy struggles with nocturnal emissions – leaks in his faith which he is unable to stop. Add to this a mother who has lost her mind with grief, younger sister abducted or missing for six years – yellow ribbons dangling from bare tree limbs like leaves or bottle fruit. Is this the new sacred tree? Will spirit descend and rectify the wrong? What can this devoted yet confused young Christian do with these dreams which are consuming his consciousness?
The dreams are so real the audience is confused as well until Randy awakens. By far, this is the strongest component of the film, which also features lovely scenes in church with the protagonist leading the choir in song. Other strong moments are those between Randy and his friends – who know he is gay even though he denies it. Except for his sexuality confusion, his distraught mother and absentee dad, Randy is a pretty normal Southern boy (smile).
There are lovely moments where the friends – the two boys and a girlfriend – talk to him about his sexuality, which is complicated by his feelings of guilt. We see Randy praying fervently for himself and his mother and missing sister. His dad, played by Isaiah Washington, is no longer in the home, but he is keeping an eye on his son, who he sees as he walks to or from school. He offers him a ride and finds amusement in his boy’s assertiveness, even though I am sure it also pains him when the child walks away.
Washington’s character, Lance Rousseau, is the only one who gives his son space to see a different answer to his entreaties to the man on the cross. It is also interesting that Mr. Rousseau becomes the parent Randy calls on for help. Maybe it is his stubborn presence within the physical absence. There are many silences surrounding Randy which operate like voids or open spaces that further trap the faltering youth.
Mr. Rousseau tells his son about his younger life and his sexual trysts attended by his mother, to Randy’s astonishment. This makes his son rethink his doubts about his faith. Perhaps he isn’t cursed. Perhaps he isn’t condemned. Perhaps he is OK just as he is.
His father is a patient man, who participates from the fringes in his family’s life. His sorrow is of a different sort and gives another dimension to the concept: abandonment or absence. He is physically absent from the home, yet he is more present than his wife, Claire Rousseau (Mo’Nique) who does not acknowledge the child she did not lose, Randy. Randy’s pain is ours as we watch her ignore his needs, both emotional and physical. Her neglect adds another layer to the complexity of the adolescent’s problem.
What will Randy do about these dreams, which are becoming more like hallucinations, when faced with the person who inspires these dreams? There are fine performances by the young cast, all from Mississippi, Harrisburg to be exact.
I know Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My uncle lived there and Genevieve Bayan and I stayed there when visiting New Medina where Imam Warith Deen Mohammed was speaking. New Medina was to be a Muslim town. There we met Muslims from around the country who had bought land here and were building homes and a school and a grocery store. The conference was at Southern University in Hattiesburg, where the director received his undergraduate degree. My uncle and aunt had two homes there. They are in Picayune now. I think my cousin still lives there.
Adopted from Larry Duplechan’s novel by the same title, writers Polk and Rikki Beadle-Blair (Metrosexuality, FIT) create a lilting, beautiful tale of acceptance and triumph. At times a bit confusing, especially the concluding dream – nonetheless, we see a level of acceptance in this Southern town quite unlike what is anticipated when one thinks about the Black church’s reputation regarding homosexuality. It is rather amazing that Randy’s close childhood friend is “out” and hangs with the minister’s daughter and her boyfriend, who agrees to play a gay character in the senior class’s closing production, which they rename, “Romeo and Jules.” It is elements like this, which might not have happened were this not a film, that add a nice fantasy element in keeping with the script and the story Polk tells.
Sexuality and sexual questions are ones all the close friends raise, Randy the only one who feels guilty. Mo’Nique’s character is mourning and crazed by grief. She has checked out of her son’s life and lives only for the return of her daughter, gone now for six years. One wonders how the protagonist has grown into the healthy kid he has, given his mother’s emotional absence. As we cringe, we see the pain her negation has on his young, still formative life.
I wonder at Mo’Nique’s ability to carry these maternal characters from “Precious” to “Blackbird”; she steps so well into these toxic maternal roles given her comedic and dramatic range, yet who wants to be known for such? At least in “Blackbird” she is allowed a degree of redemption. At the Q&A she states she makes these films to save children.
Polk shares at the Frameline38 premiere how he stumbled across the novel, one in a series, 21 years ago, and how he immediately knew he wanted to adapt it for the screen. He contacted the author then, who gave him the option for $1 and so this work is one from the director’s “to do list.”
I haven’t read the book so I cannot speak to all the additional elements; however, I am sure the older Rousseau’s queries to his son about safe sex are a 2014 addition. Maybe not? Nonetheless, I like every scene Isaiah Washington’s character, Lance Rousseau, is a part of – even those where he doesn’t have lines, like when he is in the church seated in the rear listening to his son sing, and leaves before he is acknowledged, or at the end of the film, where we see him taking care of the lawn or standing silently behind his wife and son.
When Randy takes an ad from a tree for an audition for a film and meets Marshall MacNeil (actor Kevin Allesee) in an abandoned lot, we are afraid for Randy, even when we learn that this attack was a part of the audition. A bit older and a lot wiser youth at 21, Marshall finds Randy’s innocence charming and attractive. I like it that Marshall does not take advantage of this. It is in the interaction between the two, a questioning Randy and an attracted Marshall, that the dialogue is superb. Allesee’s Marshall is kind, yet frank with Randy as he introduces the questioning kid to a world he didn’t know existed, except perhaps in his dreams.
There is a sordidness present in the Piney Woods car park the two visit, where young and older men, both Black and white, pick up other men who are looking for love and acceptance or a place to hide their desires at least for the night beneath a starry canopy. There Randy sees someone he knows. This is juxtaposed with a club Marshall takes Randy to to dance, where he says in answer to his friend’s query, “What is this place?” “It is a place where you can be yourself.’”
In this club scene, we see the director performing in a band (smile). I failed to mention that Marshall is white, a talented filmmaker, yet poor, his homestead a trailer park. At times it was really hard to understand Allesee’s accent on screen, and at the Castro Theatre Sunday night, June 22, the actor was clearly overwhelmed by the experience, his response to questions a self-deprecating profanity-laced tirade. Hopefully he will relax and get used to the accolades (smile).
Within the film we see a middle class Black community, juxtaposed with a white community unable to afford the dreams Randy and his peers have for themselves. It is refreshing to see on screen a community where the kids are law abiding, go to school, respect their parents and believe in God. As such, we have a feeling that Randy’s family will work it out and that Randy will resolve the conflict present in his dreams.
The novel is set in Southern California; however, Polk sets it in his hometown, Hattiesburg. I am told this particular fiction genre (1970s) has as its trope the Black man rescued by a white man. This is revealed in the closing dreamscape where a tearful Randy is visited by his classmate Romeo, who foretells his future, one where his white friend and lover will save him and provide access to a charmed life when, in actuality, it is Randy’s acceptance of himself and the love he has for his family that saves him.
The physical window that opens where dreams enter the room allows the interaction between the secular or profane and the sacred. It contracts and expands as its multiple dimensions are explored. Voyeurs are extended invitations into this porous psychic space to witness Randy and his friends take turns losing their virginity, and Randy’s remorse as he tries to wash his desires away, yet each night they return to haunt him.
I love the bloody hand print on the mattress – evidence again of the porous nature of the psyche. The youthful stories of sexual conquest, yearning and disaster are interwoven and connected. It is in his bed that the pastor’s daughter loses her virginity. His bed is the true stage in this drama as first one then another character finds resolution, demons are exorcised and Christ is relieved of his cross.
Why is it so important to lose one’s virginity? When did being a virgin lose its attractiveness? Julian Walker’s Randy shows that virginity is an attitude or disposition, not necessarily a physical state. In the film within the film we see how this is so. Once again, Walker really carries the work, of course with excellent support from a fantastic cast – professional and otherwise – but it is his lovely singing voice, big eyes and sweet demeanor that share a story of acceptance and love, which will certainly appeal to both parents and youth. What parent does not want for his or her child a life filled with pride and certainty?
It is a story gay and straight audiences can appreciate, because when things are not working out in one’s life, they haunt your dreams.
Don’t forget to visit Interchangefor more reviews and interviews with photos.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.