by Wanda Sabir
Sunday afternoon, I had the opportunity to see choreographer Jetaun Maxwell’s entire work, “Invisible Womb: A Self-Revealed Dance Monologue.” I’d seen an excerpt earlier this year, at Black Choreographers Here and Now, and made these notes:
Dressed in black leotards, the dancer-choreographer has a red ribbon, a strip of cloth representing the blood, the noose and rein society places on girls who seek freedom. The blood ties them down, keeps them bound, marks them. I was reminded as I listened to the narrative, watched the blood gush from between her legs, both lovely and ugly – the ribbon strip of cloth connected and disconnected to the body. The gestures reminded me of the use of ribbons in Asian cultural dances of celebration, so to see it here as a metaphor for catastrophe was an interesting juxtaposition, because for some women, the arrival of their menses, while messy and uncomfortable, isn’t unwelcome.
I loved the way the blood seemed a character with ideas of its own. Maxwell gave it life, and choreographed for it too. It transformed and changed throughout the piece – the central character, not the woman, but the blood, which marked and then defined her existence from that moment forward. I’d love to see where Maxwell takes this work – from sanitary napkins to tampons to hysterectomies? I think if you get rid of the womb, you can eliminate the blood. But then according to Maxwell’s “Bondage,” the tangible absence of blood does not guarantee freedom.
I didn’t know then that Jetaun Maxwell’s “Invisible Womb” was a healing journey precipitated by the choreographer’s chilling news last year that she was infertile. The artist incorporates an original soundscape, part live with Sound Sculptress, Destiny, Harpist from the Hood, the other taped. There are three more performances: Friday-Saturday, April 3 and 4, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 5, 3:30 p.m. There will be a post-performance discussion April 3. Tickets are $20 in advance, $12.50 for students with ID. Visit www.phoenixaudiovisualarts.com or (510) 350-8327 and email@example.com.
Destiny Arts Performance Showcase
Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company’s “Dreaming Awake: Excerpts from a Lucid Mind, A Dance/Theater/Martial Arts Show” with a message straight from the heart, is Friday, April 3, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 4, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Sunday, April 5, at 2 p.m. at Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St., Oakland. Tickets for adults are $12-$20 sliding scale. For youth 18 and under: $6. Group rates are available for parties of 10 and larger. Advance tickets available through Brown Paper Tickets at (800) 838-3006 or http://www.destinyarts.org/. For more information, contact Destiny Arts Center at (510) 597-1619, ext. 116, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Let Your Motto Be Resistance’
“Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits” is up April 4-June 14 at MoAD, 685 Mission St., San Francisco, (415) 358-7200. Also on exhibit: “American Icons: Bay Area,” an exhibit which honors two celebrated San Francisco icons: Willie Brown and Willie Mays. Member preview and reception is Friday, April 3, 6:30-8:30 p.m. There will be a catalogue signing April 4, 2-4 p.m.
Celebrate Mumia Abu Jamal’s birthday and the release of his latest book, ‘Jailhouse Lawyers’
City Lights Books in association with Prison Radio announces the Bay Area Book Party and Celebration of Mumia Abu Jamal’s latest work, “Jailhouse Lawyers,” with an introduction by Angela Davis, Ph.D. Local artists and national authors celebrate Mumia’s life and freedom: Angela Davis, Ed Mead, Avotcja, Kiilu Nyasha, JR, Lynne Stewart and Tiny of Poor News Network on Friday, April 24, 6:30 p.m., at the Humanist Hall, 411 28th St., in Oakland. A $5-$25 sliding scale donation is requested, but no one will be turned away.
The African American Concert Singer 1900-1960
On Thursday, April 9, 5:30-7:30 p.m., there is a closing reception for the San Francisco Public Library’s exhibit on African American Concert Singers and celebration of Paul Robeson’s 111th birthday. Clarence Thomas, the Longshoreman union rep, will deliver a keynote address on Robeson, whose life is chronicled in this exhibition. Light refreshments will be served and there will be a cake for Robeson, who inspired so many of the concert singers showcased in the exhibit. The event, which is free and open to the public, is in the Main Library, lower level, Latino/Hispanic Community Meeting Room, 100 Larkin at Grove in San Francisco, near Civic Center BART. Visit www.sfpl.org or call (415) 557-4277.
April is Jazz Appreciation Month
A performance to raise funds for Jazz Musicians’ Healthcare is Thursday, April 23, at Velma’s Blues and Jazz Club, 2246 Jerrold Ave., San Francisco, (415) 824-7646 and will be web cast worldwide. A soul food dinner and a full bar will be available. Various styles of jazz will be performed under the coordination of Eddie Gale. Invited artists are Marcus Shelby, Sandi Poindexter, Bill Crossman, Destiny Muhammad, Will Nichols, David Boyce, Dante James, Len Wood, E.W. Wainwright, Angela Wellman, India Cooke, Valerie Mih, Lewis Jordan, Joe Hodge, Howard Wiley, Andrew Currier and Mr. B. The suggested donation is $20 general admission, $10 for students and $5 for seniors. Portions of the proceeds will be donated to the California Jazz Foundation for Bay Area artists Joe Henderson, Prince Lasha and Ed Kelly. For information, call (408) 294-3173.
Maafa Awareness Month
April is also the month when a million Africans were massacred in 100 days while the world watched. Governments said, “Never again,” yet in Congo and Darfur the killing continues, the maiming continues – fueled by international greed and plunder.
Teasers for those who ‘missed it’
“Music She Wrote,” in its second year at the Oakland Public Conservatory last month, was a phenomenal hit. It was my second consecutive Friday at OPC, and if Melanie DeMore wasn’t doing her “Pounding for Peace” Friday, April 3, at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, I’d be there again with India Cooke who is facilitating Free Jazz Friday that same evening, April 3, 7:30 p.m., at OPC. La Peña is at 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Visit www.lapena.org.
‘Nothin’ But the Blues’
When I saw my friend C. Kelly Wright’s arms and head coming out of a horn, I knew I had to get by Lucie Stern to see her performance. I didn’t know Michelle E. Jordan was also in it, along with “Polk County” cast member Mississippi Charles Bevel and composer Chic Street Man.
“Nothin’ But the Blues” explores what happened culturally to American and world culture when Black people were ripped from Africa and enslaved – everyone benefited except us. Blues music lays the ground for all the popular musical traditions which would come out of America for the next 500 years: gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues and yes, even hip-hop.
“Nothin’ But the Blues” continues through April 11 at TheatreWorks’ Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, 1305 Middlefield Road. Visit www.theatreworks.org or call (650) 903-6000. Shows are Tuesday-Sunday. Some of the cast will be on wandaspicks.asmnetwork.org Friday, April 3, 8-10 a.m. Listen on line or by calling (347) 237-4610.
‘Human/Nature’ Art Show
University Art Museum presents “Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet.” One of the artists is our good friend to the planet: Rigo 23. His installation incorporates dolls from one of his many visits to Brazil’s Quilombo communities. Visit www.bampfa.berkeley.edu. There is a curator’s talk April 1, 12:15 p.m.
On the fly
Now that Ave is gone, I don’t know what’s going on at the Museum of the African Diaspora, I get nothing from publicity, and when I inquire I have to do too much work to write a story, which is a shame because I really liked the art in the show which just closed. Kathleen Battle is at Marin Center, May 9, (415) 499-6800 or www.marincenter.org. Habib Koité and Bamada from Mali is at Cal Performances Friday, April 3, 8 p.m., UC Berkeley Zellerbach Auditorium, Berkeley. Visit www.calperfs.berkeley.edu or call (510) 642-9988. Lila Downs is at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium Wednesday, April 1, UC Davis’ Jackson Hall Friday, April 3, and The Fillmore Saturday, April 4. Joshua Redman Trio is at Yoshi’s Wednesday, April 8, through Sunday, April 5. Rupa and the April Fishes host a Fool’s Day Performance Arts Bash at the Independent, 628 Divisadero St., San Francisco, 8 p.m. Visit www.theindependentsf.com or call (415) 771-1421.
Congrats to Rhonda Benin, named Best Vocalist at the 2009 Bay Area Blues Society Awards March 29. I missed it, just as I missed the HBO screening of the Brave New Voices in San Francisco. Didn’t know about either event until after the fact. I heard via James Kass, executive director, on Facebook, that it was a huge success. Ms. Faye Carol’s Trio is at Anna’s Jazz Island, April 11. Visit http://www.annasjazzisland.com/. Ahmad Jamal’s at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco Saturday, April 4; other SFJAZZ events: Abrose Akinmusire April 17, Hugh Masekela April 24, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 April 19, SFJAZZ Gala for McCoy Tyner April 25, McCoy Tyner Trio and Bobby Hutcherson April 26. Visit www.sfjazz.org. Melanie DeMore is “Pounding for Peace,” Friday, April 3, at La Peña in Berkeley. That’s where I’ll be with my stick. Visit www.lapena.org. Ashkenaz hosts a Zulu Spear Reunion, April 10, 9 p.m. Visit www.ashkenaz.com. Diane Reeves is at Cal Performances April 25, 8 p.m.
Black Panther Women Speak
“Tribute to the Women of the Black Panther Party” – with poetry, music and refreshments – is Saturday, April 18, 1-3 p.m., in the Rosa Parks Room, Student Union Center, at San Francisco State, 1600 Holloway Ave., San Francisco. Women of the Black Panther Party from the Bay Area will share their stories.
Isaac Hayes Tribute in film
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is screening the film starring Isaac Hayes, directed by Jonathan Kaplan, called “Trucker Turner” on Thursday, April 2, 7:30 p.m., which is great! See http://www.ybca.org/. Note: It is in a psuedo-Blaxploitation genre, pseudo because the director is white. Compare this film with the classic “Shaft,” whose soundtrack Hayes produced for Gordon Parks. I hear hints on the soundtrack in “Trucker,” but Gordon Parks didn’t compose the music for Trucker. “Trucker” is almost a copycat film, only instead of Richard Roundtree; we get Isaac Hayes, a fine Black former football star, now the bounty hunter for a sleazy attorney.
Pacific Film Archive
Pacific Film Archive’s “Film 50: History of Film” April 8 presents Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (US 1977) with the short “What Mozart Saw on Mulberry Street” and, on April 29, “Persepolis” (dir. Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud). Both are on Wednesdays at 3 p.m. For special admission, visit www.bampfa.berkeley.edu.
San Francisco International Film Festival kicks off number 52, April 23-May 7. Visit http://www.sffs.org/sf-intl-film-festival.aspx.
Inspire Awards and Finals for Comedy Competition
Congratulations to Inspire awardees Ise Lyfe, Ajuana Black and Dr. Siri Brown! They’ll be at the Paramount Theatre, 20th and Broadway in downtown Oakland, April 4 at 5 p.m. The Bay Area Black Comedy Festival is at 8 p.m. the same day, same place. Visit http://www.blackcomedycompetition.com/.
NAACP’s Ben Jealous
Benjamin Todd Jealous, 35, the youngest ever president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), will share his vision for the 100-year-old organization at the Oakland Museum of California on Saturday, April 25, at 6 p.m. The talk is free and open to all.
“The Bay Area is currently a center of civil rights activism,” says Jealous, a former Monterey and Alameda resident. “There’s this brain trust of Black activists in the Bay Area. It’s a pretty incredible group.”
Jealous previously headed the U.S. Human Rights Program at Amnesty International, the Rosenberg Foundation and the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a federation of 200 Black community newspapers. He also served as editor of the Jackson Advocate, Mississippi’s oldest Black-owned newspaper, in the mid 1990s.
“Up Close and Personal with Ben: Visions for America” is the last of the museum’s 2009 Black History Events. Jealous will discuss the NAACP’s youth initiatives and the promise of new technologies to galvanize public participation and social change, per the Obama campaign’s brilliant use of digital outreach. The Oakland Museum of California is located at 1000 Oak at 10th Street in Oakland, one block from the Lake Merritt BART. For more information, contact (510) 238-2200 or www.museumca.org.
13th Annual Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam
The Annual Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam set off its 13th year with a bang! Hundreds of Bay Area youth between 13 and 19 years old performed original poems and spoken word pieces in our preliminary rounds over the last couple of weeks. Every poet who stepped to the mic exhibited bravery, talent and raw honesty. The crowds were great, and we’re well underway for what will undoubtedly be a memorable showcase of young voices of the Bay.
Semi-Final Events take place at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave. Berkeley, Friday and Saturday, April 3-4. The Grand Slam Final is Saturday, April 11, 7 p.m., at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, where the 17 top-scoring poets compete for a spot on the Bay Area Brave New Voices team to earn a trip to Chicago this summer. Tickets are $6 for youth 24 and under and $10 general; $50 VIP tickets include reception and box seating. The Grand Slam features as emcee Marc Bamuthi Joseph.
Russell Simmons Presents Brave New Voices
Youth Speaks is proud to announce that the HBO original series Russell Simmons Presents Brave New Voices premieres on Sunday, April 5. This 7-part series follows young poets from across the country as they get ready to bust at last summer’s Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, D.C. Youth Speaks will stream the first episode in its entirety on their website in the near future.
Why Punish the Children? Invisible World of Incarcerated
The largely invisible experience of the growing number of women in the nation’s prison system who are mothers is the subject of an upcoming public awareness program at Sonoma State University. “Interrupted Life: Incarcerated Mothers in the United States” describes the lives of these women, most of whom are women of color, and how their children are impacted. The program kicks off with the opening of a multimedia and photographic exhibit called “Interrupted Life: Incarcerated Mothers in the United States” from March 26-April 28 in the University Library Art Gallery.
This dramatic exhibit of painting, drawings, sculpture and photography documents the experiences of incarcerated persons in the United States. “Interrupted Life” seeks to educate about current realities and solutions to a major and growing problem in American society in which 70 percent of the women in prison are mothers, says Criminal Justice Professor Barbara Bloom, who is coordinating the program. It explores the issues related to motherhood, incarceration, policy and politics in the United States where the number of women incarcerated since 1980 has grown by 500 percent.
A keynote speech by Neil Bernstein, author of “All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated,” will be presented from 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 1, in Schulz 3001. A panel discussion entitled “Invisible Punishments: The Collateral Effects of Incarceration” brings the mothers, children and allies of imprisoned women together for a discussion from 5-7 p.m. on Monday, April 6, in Schulz 3001.
A screening of “Till Death Do Us Part,” a documentary about women incarcerated for resisting domestic violence, will be presented at 12:15 p.m. on Tuesday, April 21, in Schulz 2015. The month-long program concludes at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 24, in the Cooperage with a dramatic performance of “Life Without Parole,” a play based on Elizabeth Leonard’s study of battered women survivors imprisoned for killing their abusers. The number of incarcerated mothers has more than doubled, from 29,500 in 1991 to 65,600 in 2007. In 2007, 1.7 million children had a parent in prison.
“The increasing imprisonment of women means that more mothers are being incarcerated than ever before and more children are suffering the negative consequences,” says Criminal Justice Professor Barbara Bloom. Bloom is co-author of “Why Punish the Children? The Reappraisal of the Children of Incarcerated Mothers in America” and a national expert on women’s issues in the criminal justice system. Bloom served on the Governor’s Rehabilitation Strike Team, working to address the state’s crisis in prison overcrowding. Her work on gender-responsive strategies for women will no doubt be the foundation for all future work in this area, colleagues say.
Bloom reports that a significant number of women prisoners do not represent a threat to public safety.” The vast majority – 68 percent – are incarcerated for property or drug crimes rather than violent crimes. Bloom also notes that “many women in prison have histories of physical, sexual, emotional abuse and trauma, which are often contributing factors to substance abuse and addiction.”
The PeaceGAMES Training for Trainers is a leadership training opportunity where the focus is on peace and militarism issues through a racial and gender justice lens. The GAMES begin April 17, 9:30-4, at the Women of Color Resource Center, 1611 Telegraph, Ave., Suite 303, in Oakland. The cost is $75-$200 sliding scale. Scholarships are available. The training for educators, organizers, students, youth leaders, veterans, peace organizers and anyone looking to deepen the links between race, gender, militarism and peace. For an application, email email@example.com.
‘Patterns: Music and Related Arts in the African American Tradition 2009′
This “lecture-performance series,” facilitated by India Cooke, musician and professor at Mills College, is a part of the course Music 170, African American Music: The Meaning and the Message. The three free events are April 14, 16 and 21 from 9:30 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. in the Music Building Ensemble Room at Mills College campus, 5000 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland. For information, call (510) 430-2296. Tuesday, April 14, it’s Eddie Gale, trumpeter and San José’s ambassador of jazz. “University of the Bandstand Growing Up in Jazz: An Oral History of Jazz in the ‘50s and ‘60s and It’s Impact on the Civil Rights Movement” is Thursday, April 16, with Brenda Schuman-Post, oboist and documentarian. “African Blackwood, a Global Connection: Harvesting the Music Tree” is Tuesday, April 21, with Elayne Jones, tympanist and educator.
Mission Arts and Performance Project
Saturday April 4, it’s the MAPP, featuring poet-musician Avotcja, music of Africa with Temomo and Yakuba, visual artists Karla Betancourt and Laurie Schoeman and others. Curator-journeyman is Jorge Molina. There is also an open mike. Bring a friend and enjoy the word. It’s Saturday, April 4, at 8 p.m., 2754 Harrison, near 24th Street, San Francisco. The event is free and open to the public. For information, call (415) 824-8566 or visit www.sfmapp.com, www.redpoppyarthouse.org and www.Avotcja.com.
Music of the Word
“The Music of the Word: La Palabra Musical” is April 12and 26, 3:30-5:30 p.m., hosted by Avotcja and Eric Aviles. Admission is free, although donations for features are accepted. Don’t forget to bring your congas, guiros, maracas and panderetas to Rebecca’s Books, a store which specializes in ethnic poetry, at 3268 Adeline St. in Berkeley, near Alcatraz. For information, call (510) 852-4768.
‘Healing the World through Jazz a Note at a Time’
This will an awesome show with Avotcja on small multi-percussion and words, Sandy Poindexter on violin, Eugene Warren on bass, Yancie Taylor on vibes, Ian Dogole on multi-percussions, Val Serrant on steel drums and djembe, Baba Ken Okulolo on talking drum. The host that evening will be Chuy Varela, music director of KCSM. The show, at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, is Monday, April 27, 8 p.m., $10 cover. Call (415) 655-5600 or visit www.Yoshis.com and www.Avotcja.com.
Wise Speech: a half-day retreat for Men of Color
Saturday April 11, 12:30-4:30 p.m., with Lawrence Ellis and Larry Yang is the first retreat in a four-retreat series to explore the practices of meditation, mindfulness and loving kindness in our everyday lives. Each retreat will have a separate registration process. Over the year, we will explore our spiritual practice in areas of our communication, action in the world and livelihood – three aspects of the Buddha’s teachings on ways of being in the world that create no harm. Meditators of any experience are welcome, with a special invitation to beginners. Registration is required and space is limited. To register, go to https://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=0LIAP8nYgmmss5hdA_2fDMzw_3d_3d. The teachings are offered without charge. Participants will be invited to support the teachings and EBMC efforts by choosing their own level of voluntary donations – the practice of “Dana,” or generosity – to support the expenses of the East Bay Meditation Center and the teacher.
‘Mrs. Streeter’ at Black Repertory Group
If you can imagine the mother from hell, then Mrs. Streeter is her sister. She is a bitter woman, a woman who never got over the abuse her mother gave her. A Black Lena Horne, Mrs. Streeter never forgave her mother for not loving her. The new mother left so fast after giving birth to her daughter, the child didn’t even have a name. Her grandmother named her after herself. Irene is named after her grandmother.
There are hints of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” here, especially in Angelou’s story where the long lost parent comes to claim the abandoned child. The difference is that Angelou’s parents love her; Streeter’s mother doesn’t.
There is more than a little of the “Mother from Hell” in T.D. Jakes’ film, “Not Easily Broken,” but even she pales before Irene. Both mothers make their daughters in their image, but Irene doesn’t trust anyone’s love except her children’s and even that is contrived. The siblings feel sorry for their mother; all their lives she has told them stories of her abuse to justify her belief that all men are cheaters and all women sneaky and manipulative and incapable of honesty. Yes, even her own children, even the narrator, Mrs. Streeter, who doesn’t catch herself in this lie or any others. She never catches her breath enough to reflect.
The playwright, Merrill Jones, exaggerates her character, Mrs. Irene Streeter, but she is portrayed so convincingly by the actress in this role, Kimberly Smith, that the audience remains on her side, even if we’d never want to live with her or recommend anyone else do so either. She is a sick woman.
I heard comments from ladies seated nearby: “That’s right child. Tell it,” as Mrs. Streeter taught Tyler how to sew a tear in his pants. “You can’t depend on a woman,” she said.
“Mrs. Streeter” was so well-written I found myself asking the question: Is she real or a composite?
The protagonist has three children and when we meet her she wants to have a family dinner with her three children. Everything is attached to her personal narrative, we soon find out, like baking cakes for her children, no matter the occasion, is attached to the story of her never having a birthday cake, yet having to watch her siblings so indulged by her mother and stepfather.
Mrs. Streeter doesn’t include her children’s spouses or partners in the invitation. She waits for her children to return home, happy in their grief or misfortune. She even goes as far as to break up their relationships with lies. Despite all she does, one feels sad for her because she is a bitter old woman, who is holding onto all the pain she experienced in the past and allowing it to color or cover her achievements: three healthy adult children, three in-laws who love her children, one grandchild and another on the way, plus a neighbor who knows her story and admires her.
Mrs. Streeter is so angry and bitter, she runs away all the men who love her because she can’t recognize love staring her in the face. When she looks in the mirror at 70, she sees a Black child whom no one loved. Insecure, she doesn’t know what to do if her children don’t love her either.
The closing scene is bittersweet for the Streeter children: How can you love someone who doesn’t love herself? A mother’s love when withheld can ruin a child’s life. Mrs. Streeter’s never gets over the way her mother treated her. To hear her tell it, she was Cinderella, yet no prince came to rescue her.
The audience never knows if Irene’s stepfather was mean or just absent emotionally for this child under his roof. What we hear is how her mother mistreated her child.
Mrs. Streeter is the reverse of the “tragic mulatto,” Nella Larsen’s “Quicksand” in reverse. Irene is the villain in the tale her mother constructs, a painful reminder of her “mistake,” yet Irene doesn’t realize when she steps out of her mother’s narrative that she can write her own story. She is no longer villain or victim, unless she wants to be. I think this is what is meant by agency. Irene holds the pen, but her hand is shaky and follows a familiar pattern which, though it takes a while, is her ultimate undoing.
One can see why her daughter and elder son, Charles, would try to do what she wanted, why they would stay around, why her daughter-in-law, Grace, might attend a family dinner when she was in the family way, why the younger son, Jeffery, would attend after a two-year hiatus. Why they would hope the mother inside the iron tank, the mother behind the reinforced fortress might eventually come out.
Love is funny like that.
I wonder about the child, Tyler, who witnesses these tirades, hears these stories and learns these lessons from his grandmother about family. He initially likes his Uncle Charles’ wife, and then his grandmother poisons him against her.
Jeffery’s partner is gay, but in this story, sexual preference isn’t the issue. The mother is jealous of anyone her children loves, perhaps she thinks in the end they will have to choose and they will choose someone other than her. She never realizes that loves expands rather than contracts, that love is not in short supply, that it’s able to accommodate anyone a person wants to include.
Shows are Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturday, 2:30 and 8 p.m., through April 25. The BRG is located across the street from the Ashby BART at 3201 Adeline Street, Berkeley, (510) 652-2120. Visit www.blackrepretorygroup.com.
There is no such thing as the truth, especially when we are speaking of journalism. This is one reason why terms like “angle, pitch, lead and story” are employed. Granted, the media worker, or news reporter, wants to give as accurate an account as possible to the public but if there is no such thing as “the truth,” just shifting definitions along a continuum which is just an approximation of what one says happened, a view which changes as the perspective rotates along said horizon. Then what can one say when fiction is knowingly stated as fact? What about errors? Can belief alone sustain reality? How does one know a source is to be believed?
In the terms of most working journalists, a fact has to be verifiable. The claim one states as true has empirical validity. Journalism is based on an integrity which few live up to, but most aim for. It is integrity to which Chauncey Bailey gave life and for which many journalists continue to put their lives on the line daily, whether that is on Oakland or Gaza or Congo.
But journalism is also a job, a career, not necessarily a vocation or a calling. Some might see it as such, but others understand the power such media workers have to shape public opinion and inspire civic action, destroy and build lives. We live in a culture which understands and values literary prowess and expertise and rewards the modern griots -journalists.
So what is the penalty for a breach of such a trust? What is the cost to the field when one of its stars is found to have sullied the hallowed chambers intentionally by inserting a fiction and calling it factual truth? Death? Well, if we were living centuries ago, one might be hanged for … The Story.
Does anyone ever really get the story? It’s such a prize in news production. The reporter who gets the story first, breaks the story, has a lead, is the one who is always ahead, envied and sought after. But what is the story, who owns rights to it and is the story one reads the real story? We have tall tales and myths; even facts are born out of consensus and when were any of us asked to verify a phenomenon’s right to exist?
What in the heck am I talking about? The ramblings of a reporter who spent too many hours after curtain chatting with actors about the back story of Tracey Scott Wilson’s “The Story,” currently on stage at The SF Playhouse, a co-production with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre – and even that story took on its own twists and turns depending on whether I was speaking to the wonderful lead actress, Ryan Nicole Peters, about her Rookie Reporter, “Yvonne,” actress Halili Knox’s “Pat,” the sister on the frontline back when Black journalists weren’t allowed on the team, her sidekick “Neil” (Dwight Huntsman), the lone brother in the play, plus ensemble members and “Jeff” (actor Craig Marker), the lone white character, who is over the Metro desk, the editor there. He also happens to be Yvonne’s boyfriend.
“The Story” is about a reporter’s fabrication of the truth. She gets her story, but what story is it? Did she make it up or is it at least partially true? At the end of the play, one leaves with lots of questions. The plot follows loosely the tale of Washington Post journalist Janet Cooke, whose prizewinning story about a juvenile heroine addict was fabricated. She got the Pulitzer Prize for it, but when questions came up about her false credentials, the paper got suspicious and asked for evidence, sources, proof – there was none. Cooke admitted to making the story up, quit and the paper that broke Watergate had to give her prize back. She ended up a little worse for the wear – I don’t know: The kid at the NY Times seems to have done better – but remember the woman who plagiarized her book on Lincoln and she was on the Noble Prize or maybe it was Pulitzer Prize committee. At least Cooke got $1.5 million for the movie rights for the interview with GQ – well, maybe she did. Maybe she split it with the publication?
At the end of “The Story,” we aren’t certain what the outcome is – “Yvonne” is a tough cookie. Performed without intermission, Margo Hall’s direction set against a backdrop of sliding panels with a repetitive motif – a Black girl in a news clip: five panels and five girls or so it seems. Really, it’s just one girl in different clothes, scenic designer Lisa Clark tells me at the reception opening night.
“The Story” is about perception. Even if we are wrong, what we see is often not what we see. What we see can be a lie, yet, because we want to, we believe. What we see can be the truth and because we don’t want to believe it is true, then for us, the truth in this instance is a lie. Oh, I feel myself slipping back into the redundancy.
What sells more papers, crime or human interest? Crime, of course, and when rookie reporter Yvonne gets a lead on the killer in a case still unresolved, that of an AmeriCorps teacher, she gets attention at the paper. Did I mention Yvonne is Black? Well, it is of no real consequence. Yvonne has nothing in common with the Black staff except she is forced to work with them and barely hides her disdain. Her boyfriend is also at the paper and is editor of the Metro section, a place Yvonne would like to migrate.
There is a perceived racial tension in the newsroom so Yvonne and Jeff do not tell their colleagues about their relationship, yet when alone we are privy to the strain the job is places on the two. There are several times in the piece where the protagonist could be speaking to Jeff while Neil is speaking to Pat somewhat like choral singing, only this is choral speaking. It is in these moments that we get into the head of the characters – antagonists Yvonne and Neil, who shifts from friend to foe when he is rebuffed by the rookie.
These scenes are core moments in the work, as are the moments with the victim’s wife, Jessica Dunn (actress Rebecca Schweitzer), who is lost in the story, when she is the reason – she and her deceased husband, “Tim Dunn,” are key, one would think to “the story.” They might have made the story what it is, but once a reporter has it, the victims are in the way. “The story” is the pass ambition wants to catch. What will it yield for the person who gets to tell it? Ultimately the news story is not about the tragedy that made it news in the first place, a story a public might be interested in reading.
“The Story” is at The SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter St., one block off Union Square, between Powell and Mason, San Francisco. Take BART to Powell Street and walk up. For tickets and information, visit www.sfplayhouse.org or call (415) 677-9596. Shows are Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., plus Saturdays at 3 p.m.
Opera Piccola (“Small Works”) presents “Magic Journeys,” interactive performance for all ages, Saturday, April 18, 6:30-8 p.m., at the Oakland Museum of California James Moore Theatre, 10th and Fallon Streets, Oakland. The suggested donation is $5 to $25. For tickets and information, call (510) 482-0967, ext 303.
Based on a selection of world folktales and contemporary myths, “Magic Journeys” explores the ageless themes of the human condition through the voices of multicultural stories. Volunteers from 2 to 102 may wear a costume and perform alongside professional actors, experiencing the magic of theater as a cloud, a cook, a kitten or a ghost from Oakland’s past. No prior acting experience needed! On April 18 the actors will be joined by high school and college poets in a tapestry of poems and folk tales.
As part of its mission to bring the arts to audiences of all ages and backgrounds, Opera Piccola collaborates with award-winning artists such as Rinde Eckert, George Brooks, and Carolyn Lau to create innovative fusion operas combining jazz, folk and cultural performance styles.
AIDS Prevention Action Network and Perfect Love
The AIDS Prevention Action Network and Perfect Love present the 2009 Thursday Education and Information Luncheon Series, an opportunity for men and women living with the virus to learn the latest HIV/AIDS treatment options. The series will be held in the Alameda County Office of AIDS, 1000 Broadway, Suite 310, Main Conference Room, Downtown Oakland. The scheduled topics are:
April 16: HIV and the Heart
April 30: Sex and HIV
May 21: HIV/Hepatitis C Co-infection
May 28:HIV and Depression (mental health)
June 4: HIV Treatment Update
June 11: HIV Drug to Drug Interaction
All events are from noon to 2 p.m. and are free and open to the public. The series is an opportunity to ask your questions of renowned experts. Perfect Love’s Mission is to eliminate the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS within the Black church and Black community through education, thereby encouraging men and women to test, get treated and LIVE extraordinary lives!
AIDS Prevention ACTION Network (APAN) Mission Statement: APAN is committed to arresting the spread of HIV, HCV and other blood-borne pathogens via the most effective and efficient available means. It is a California non-profit corporation, 501(c) (3) pending, fiscal agent, APAN. For information, contact Michael at (510) 818-0865 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at email@example.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com for an expanded version of Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 6-7 a.m. and Fridays at 8-10 a.m. and archived on the Afrikan Sistahs’ Media Network, http://www.WandasPicks.ASMNetwork.org.