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Kujichagulia Seitu’s ‘Go Tell It!’ plays in Berkeley Dec. 6-7

November 28, 2014

by The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey

The best African centered holiday theatrical play in the nation, “Go Tell It!,” the story of the freedom fighter Harriet Tubman aka Moses told through spirituals, will be showing at the Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley, on Saturday, Dec. 6, at 7 p.m. and on Sunday, Dec. 7, at 3 p.m. Instead of celebrating capitalism during the holidays, “Go Tell It!” is a way that we can remember our ancestors, how far we have come as a people, as well as the leaders, the tactics and the situations that got us here.

Lyric Performing Arts Academy students sing a medley of Spirituals at their November “Harriet Tubman Learned” student showcase.

Lyric Performing Arts Academy students sing a medley of Spirituals at their November “Harriet Tubman Learned” student showcase. – Photo: Ty Ou

Playwright Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu has done a more than stellar job in presenting vital history on the New Afrikan experience in an entertaining way. This is the kind of edutainment that, once you see it, it makes you want to learn more about your ancestors’ history, no matter who you are. Check out playwright Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu in her own words.

Minister of Information JR: “Go Tell It!” is in its third season. How has the script changed from its original season? Why did it change?

Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: The original script consisted of four monologues, narration and 15 Spirituals sung by a choir that was not integral to the action of the show. Since that first script, scenes and dialogue have been added that show the backstory to this particular Harriet Tubman led escape that the show chronicles.

One added scene, my favorite in the show, shows a conversation between Harriet and John Tubman when she told him that she was leaving to go to the North, and the subsequent fallout. Another shows her first escape attempt with her two brothers and the devastating result of that attempt. The December shows will show more of the harsh realities of the lives of enslaved Blacks.

All of these additions to the show were made to give a more complete picture of Harriet Tubman and what drove her to accomplish what she did. Without the backstory, and the added detail, it’s easy to think of her as an extraordinary, almost mythological human being. This perception, I believe, is almost dangerous in that many may feel that they can never do something that brave or daring.

Yolanda Stevenson as Older Harriet in “Go Tell It! A Harriet Tubman Christmas Story”

Yolanda Stevenson as Older Harriet in “Go Tell It! A Harriet Tubman Christmas Story” – Photo: Ty Ou

The backstory helps to humanize her. Showing the brutality suffered by our ancestors at the hands of enslavement capitalists shows audiences how little of a choice Harriet was left with if she wanted to live a life free of tyranny with her family by her side. When the choices set before you are live free, or live forever under hellish conditions, I believe many people would choose freedom.

I wanted people to see that Harriet Tubman was a flesh and blood human being, who accomplished extraordinary things. She was able to do this armed with unwavering faith in God, self-determination and an uncompromising belief in justice.

M.O.I. JR: What have you learned after doing “Go Tell It!” for three consecutive seasons?

Taiwo: I’ve learned two things, the first being that there’s an underserved niche market for educational and entertaining musical theater. What literally took me years of research to find, I’ve put into this production. The information in the show is clearly laid out so that even young audiences walk away knowing more about Spirituals and slavery than they will probably ever learn in school.

The second is that there’s always room for growth and improvement. After every season, I go back to the drawing board to make the production more educational, more moving, more of a testament to the genius of enslaved Blacks in this country. For that reason, each season gets better and better.

After every season, I go back to the drawing board to make the production more educational, more moving, more of a testament to the genius of enslaved Blacks in this country.

M.O.I. JR: So far, which season has been your best season?

Taiwo: This season is our best. Under the direction of my mother, Kujichagulia, this show really leaves no question in the minds of the audience about why Spirituals were necessary and why people had a strong desire to escape slavery. It is clearly laid out so that the show makes sense.

The singing is wonderful. The acting is amazing. I have the perfect cast right now. Our former director, Ms. Linda Johnson, did a wonderful job last year of incorporating the choir into the action of the play in a way that had been difficult for me to imagine. Thus, for this year’s show, all of the components are seamlessly woven together in a way that will really educate and inspire audiences.

M.O.I. JR: Are there any plays in which you are interested in seeing?

Taiwo: I would have loved to see “Party People” about Black Panther and Young Lords Party members who are being reunited after decades of separation. I also want to see “Superheroes,” which is about the history of the crack-cocaine epidemic in this country. I’m always very interested in seeing how historical information is portrayed on stage.

Contrena Jones (left) as the wife of John Ross Jr. is comforted by plantation worker Kehinde Kujichagulia-Seitu in “Go Tell It!”

Contrena Jones (left) as the wife of John Ross Jr. is comforted by plantation worker Kehinde Kujichagulia-Seitu in “Go Tell It!” – Photo: Ty Ou

“Go Tell It!” started out seven years ago as a series of lecture demonstrations about Spirituals. My goal is to educate audiences about the functional use of these songs on and around plantations during slavery. In bringing the information to the stage in the form of a musical drama, that educational component has always been my primary concern.

So, when I hear about shows that are historically based, I look at it through the lens of its educational value. Traditionally speaking, all art forms are functional. I follow in the tradition of griots in that I use the arts to tell the story of my people.

M.O.I. JR: What is the importance of the Black community preserving the history of spirituals?

Taiwo: The preservation of Spirituals is the preservation of our culture. All over the Diaspora, African people have created rich cultures that grew out of oppression. It birthed Santeria, Candomble and Capoeira. These are the traditions of New Africans, Africans in a new location as a result of enslavement capitalism, throughout the Diaspora.

In the United Stated, Spirituals were the result of that oppression. The amazing fact of the matter is that our ancestors were so intelligent, many people classify Spirituals as early gospel music. They are not gospel music at all.

Spirituals used the language of the Bible to transmit secret messages of escape plans, longing for escape and assistance that is either readily available or on its way. Harriet Tubman herself sang the following Spiritual to a friend as she made her escape, “When dat ar ole chariot comes, I’m gwine to lebe you, I’m boun’ for de promised land, Frien’s. I’m gwine to lebe you.”

She sang this walking past a kitchen window of the big house where her friend worked, while the overseer sat on his horse looking at her. When she sang about the “promised land,” she meant the North. Safe communication was a necessity, and our ancestors sang their messages using the language of the Bible.

When people truly understand our history, they will be inspired, encouraged and uplifted by the knowledge that our ancestors were courageous, intelligent, resourceful and resilient. Furthermore, if they could accomplish what they did under the oppression they faced and with very few resources, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish today.

When people truly understand our history, they will be inspired, encouraged and uplifted by the knowledge that our ancestors were courageous, intelligent, resourceful and resilient. Furthermore, if they could accomplish what they did under the oppression they faced and with very few resources, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish today.

M.O.I. JR: What is next for “Go Tell It!”?

Taiwo: We just released a CD of Spirituals from the show. Additionally, we will have a DVD available of this year’s production. The CD, pre-sale orders of the DVD and tickets can all be purchased on our website at www.gotellit.info.

From left, Alex Bagwell as John Ross Sr., Harriet Bagwell as Harriet Ross and Rakita O’Neal as Younger Harriet in “Go Tell It! A Harriet Tubman Christmas Story”

From left, Alex Bagwell as John Ross Sr., Harriet Bagwell as Harriet Ross and Rakita O’Neal as Younger Harriet in “Go Tell It! A Harriet Tubman Christmas Story” – Photo: Ty Ou

Additionally, we have a couple of opportunities to take the production overseas to Germany and London, so we are currently fundraising for that at www.gofundme.com/Go-Tell-It.

M.O.I. JR: Who are the actors and actresses that you picked as your main characters?

Taiwo: Yolanda Stevenson plays Older Harriet, who recounts stories from her life for the audience. Rakita O’Neal plays Younger Harriet, who audience members see during Older Harriet’s re-telling of her story.

Harriet’s brothers are played by Woodrow Thompson, Paris McClelan and Elandis Brooks. Jashen Edwards plays a double role as John Tubman, Harriet’s husband, and Massuh Broadess. My mother, Kujichagulia, plays the grandmother, the griot telling her grandchildren about our great ancestor, Harriet Tubman.

M.O.I. JR: Who are some of the main singers?

Taiwo: Woodrow Thompson, who plays one of Harriet’s brothers, is also one of the main singers. With a background in opera and musical theater in this country and abroad, he brings a wonderful talent to the stage.

I’m blessed with the husband and wife team of Alex and Harriet Bagwell. They have decades of performance experience, specifically singing Spirituals. They are members of Vukani Mawethu choir. Also members of Vukani Mawethu and wonderful additions to the cast are Brenda Savage, Marilyn Reynolds and Thomas McKinnie. Additionally, my identical twin sister, Kehinde Kujichagulia-Seitu, is singing in the show. Finally, I’m singing as well.

“Go Tell It!” playwright Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu, her twin singer Kehinde, and their mother, djialli (griot) P. Kujichagulia, were at their first show of the season, performed a few weeks ago in the performance theater at Skyline High in Oakland. – Photo: JR Valrey, Block Report

“Go Tell It!” playwright Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu, her twin singer Kehinde, and their mother, djialli (griot) P. Kujichagulia, were at their first show of the season, performed a few weeks ago in the performance theater at Skyline High in Oakland. – Photo: JR Valrey, Block Report

M.O.I. JR: When and where can people see “Go Tell It!” next?

Taiwo: Well, we have two upcoming shows this December. We have a 7 p.m. show on Saturday, Dec. 6, and a 3 p.m. show on Sunday, Dec. 7, at the Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley. Seating is limited, so we’re advising people to purchase tickets in advance to ensure they will have a seat.

M.O.I. JR: How can people stay in touch with you online?

Taiwo: People can visit us online at www.gotellit.info to learn more about the show, hear interviews and songs, see excerpts from last year’s show and purchase CDs and DVDs. Also, audiences will notice several of our students in the show because everything I perform, I also teach.

“Go Tell It!” is being presented by Lyric Performing Arts Academy (LPAA), which is our teaching arm. We teach dance, voice and musical theater to ages 18 months through adults. In fact, six cast members are LPAA instructors. For those who want more information on Lyric Performing Arts Academy, visit us online at www.lyricperformingartsacademy.com.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.

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