Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe ’s ‘Traveling While Black’ at Brava through Oct. 26

by Wanda Sabir

“Traveling While Black” is epic. It is a story that has audiences laughing while at the same time catching their breath as Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe takes us with her into situations only a well-written narrative can then retrieve us from unscathed.

San Francisco writer-director-actor-teacher Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe presents the second in a proposed trilogy of solo shows, “Adventures of a Black Girl: Traveling While Black.” – Photo: Anastacia Powers Cuellar
San Francisco writer-director-actor-teacher Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe presents the second in a proposed trilogy of solo shows, “Adventures of a Black Girl: Traveling While Black.” – Photo: Anastacia Powers Cuellar

The journey is fraught with peril. And for those who thought only Black men had it rough, Cooper-Anifowoshe quickly erases that illusion as she transports us from a Muni bus ride in San Francisco to a slave ship off the coast of West Africa without a blink of an eye. Seamless transport – the shocks keep us comfortable, so comfortable we don’t miss or feel the millions lost on the journey with us as “TWB” takes us through the massacre of the Indigenous populations here to the separation of Black people abroad, via countries of origin. All of a sudden TWB with an American passport removes the racial stigma and one is just an American traveling.

Cooper-Anifowoshe uses her experiences as a child growing up in Tennessee and Arkansas with a nuclear physicist dad, who liked to get in the car with his children and take them on road trips, to share her early experiences TWB in America. Those who know the playwright’s trajectory know this is the condensed version of the story – she leaves out a lot, but what we see is her navigation of a racially articulated paradigm that keeps beeping when she gets too close to a border or treaty or international agreement. This border or margin is also complicated by gender and national origin.

Using a boat, an airplane and a suitcase, Cooper-Anifowoshe sails from Spain to Morocco then takes a plane to Nigeria, then to Abidjan, where finally she’s home. The story of her welcome there is one all people of the Diaspora need to feel.

“Traveling While Black” is epic. It is a story that has audiences laughing while at the same time catching their breath as Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe takes us with her into situations only a well-written narrative can then retrieve us from unscathed.

All along the journey we hear Cooper-Anifowoshe’s mother and father. In fact, “TWB” shows that one cannot leave oneself behind when one changes landscape; however, it is good to check the baggage or lock it away before one boards the plane. “TWB” shows how having the right attitude and being able to think quickly on one’s feet can save a person’s life as TWB is not for the faint of heart.

No, it takes a lot of heart to TWB, especially when traveling with ignorant companions – white Americans with the wrong attitude. She saves her companion’s life more than once and then decides it isn’t worth the risk, so she “veils up” and leaves him in a pool of blood.

Anifowoshe-Cooper talks about a cultural orientation that has white American students from Iowa University thinking it strange that there are no white people (or few) in Africa, nor do they find it easy to adjust to the fact that Black people are in charge.

“TWB” shows how having the right attitude and being able to think quickly on one’s feet can save a person’s life as TWB is not for the faint of heart.

She realizes they are a risk, yet as their teacher she cannot leave them at the airport (smile). The many faces of the story are funny as the actress puts on many masks, one a sister-friend who doesn’t greet fake camaraderie well when the white Americans want to be friends in Africa when in Iowa they could barely speak to her.

TWB shifts for Cooper-Anifowoshe when, with dual citizenship, once she marries a Yoruba man, she can choose to show her green African passport or blue American passport. A friend of mine (later) tells me the story of her husband, who was caught in Egypt when the Americans were held by Iran and the airports were shutting down. Marty held up his blue passport, and he was able to board one of the last planes leaving North Africa.

Cooper-Anifowoshe speaks about how sad she and her newly minted African American students felt when they saw how disrespectfully people they’d come to respect and love were treated by American immigration. The newlywed had to leave her husband behind.

We visit former Southern plantations, slave ships, the Shrine in Lagos while Fela lay ill behind the curtain, sacred places along the Oshun river. We run for our lives with Edris as boys chase her and others in Spain with ill intent, bricks sailing by her head. We get pulled over in a SF Mime Troupe truck by Southern cops who take them in for questioning after finding contraband in the vehicle – Black and white people.

It is a wonderful jaunt. Cooper-Anifowoshe is lively, the pacing is up tempo, the text sharp and witty – it is as if we dropped by the playwright’s house for the evening following a time away to catch up on the news. Considering this is a long overdue visit – the hundreds of years between conversations, time travel and continent hopping and return to get back on the 14 bus, which I believe has one of the longest routes in San Francisco; at least it goes through more neighborhoods with a changing demographic than any other. (I saw a film about this at the Mill Valley or San Francisco International Film Festival many years ago – Rhodessa Jones, founder of the Medea Project, is in it. The bus goes through Noe Valley, her neighborhood.)

It is a wonderful jaunt. Cooper-Anifowoshe is lively, the pacing is up tempo, the text sharp and witty.

Brava Theater Center is at 2781 24th St. at York in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit www.brava.org. Edris’ play is in the smaller, more intimate theatre Annex.

Shows are Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 3 p.m. Tickets are $15.

Recent articles about TWB: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/travel/traveling-while-black.html?_r=0, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/oneika-raymond/musings-on-traveling-while-black_b_4552607.html and http://www.essence.com/2013/01/07/real-talk-tales-traveling-while-black/.

Funny, none of these stories are from a Black American male perspective. Just make sure you have Esta Visa tho.

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.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 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.