by Minister of Information JR
Storytelling is one of the most ancient forms of entertainment – before radio, television, paper and cinema. Ayodele “Wordslanger” Nzinga is one of the Bay Area’s most talented griots who tells stories of the past through her West Oakland-based theater company, The Lower Bottom Playaz.
The legendary August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” directed by Ayodele “Wordslanger” Nzinga, opens July 13 at the Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater, 920 Peralta St. in Oakland, with a sneak peak on July 12. Come out and support your local artists, and check her out and learn a little bit about herstory …
M.O.I. JR: When and how did you get into theater?
Ayodele: I did my first play at 6. I was the angel in the Christmas story at my Granny’s church. I learned the entire script. I knew everyone’s lines. Mary got stage fright and forgot her lines. So I did them. Her stage fright was catching. Joseph was next to crumble followed by the three wise men. By the end of the play I was doing all the lines.
That is the often-repeated story of my first theater experience. But in truth I have always been a storyteller. I remember writing stories for my paper dolls to act out. Theater is my calling. It is the thing that I am supposed to do, the thing that was whispered in my ear before I took my first breath. One of my greatest blessings is that I have always known this.
Theater is not just a thing I do; it is my way of seeing and connecting with the world. If I want you to know something, I will tell you a story. It is who I am and it is the function I fill in community. I tell stories.
For me, all of art is a conversation – I am talking to you. I am in conversation with the communities in which I create. They tell me that people have difficulty paying attention – so I fade my conversations with lights and actors in costumes who embody characters and move around the stage to help me hold your attention while I tell you a story.
The Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater has allowed me to do tell stories in community for a decade. Imagine it as a fireside in the heart of the village where I appear faithfully each summer with a band of artists bearing tales. Now imagine further that the ritual is an ancient kind of magic that’s been going on since before there were Africans in North America and you begin to understand the importance of what it is that I have been called to perform.
I understood that the talent that had been gifted to me was intended to serve many. So I followed the path that was lit by those who came before me. I found the places where they practiced the kind of magic that called to me.
I found a Black drama teacher in elementary school and in junior high. In high school I wrote and produced dramas. A teacher appeared in junior college. Teachers appeared to train me in community.
Life led me to Washington Burns, M.D., who listened to my story and then built me a theater so that I could continue to tell stories. I took advantage of that opportunity and for over a decade I have shown up faithfully each summer with my troupe of artists with tales to share.
M.O.I. JR: Who is August Wilson, and why did you pick one of his plays to direct?
Ayodele: August Wilson is America’s greatest storyteller. He is to North American theater what Shakespeare is to European classical theater. Wilson is the lyrical embodiment of jazz, an autochthonous North American product unprecedented and unrivaled in its authenticity.
Wilson’s forte is tales that reflect the foundation stories, the pathos they evoke, and the dances they entertain from a historical lens that unflinchingly reflects the present moment. He at once makes the slightness of movement and the great distance we have traveled both physically and metaphysically apparent.
His enduring predilection with the lost song of North American Africans is pregnant with meaning. In “Ma Rainey,” the song is a commercial commodity and it is the soul of the North American African. Sturdyvant, the record producer in “Ma Rainey,” represents capitalism, commodity culture and the great horned one himself in the flesh collecting the souls of those who aspire to fame at any cost.
August Wilson is America’s greatest storyteller. He is to North American theater what Shakespeare is to European classical theater. Wilson is the lyrical embodiment of jazz. His enduring predilection with the lost song of North American Africans is pregnant with meaning.
This is the third Wilson piece I have directed. I am going through the Pittsburg Cycle in order. I did “Gem of the Ocean” twice, then “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the third in the 10-piece set known as Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. I will direct the fourth piece, “The Piano Lesson,” next. It will open in October at The Sister Thea.
The intention of Wilson’s 10-part collection is a contextualized rendering of the lived experience of North American Africans in North America. As the artistic director of The Sister Thea, I have replaced Shakespeare with August Wilson in our Shakespeare in the Yard series. In fact I am now exclusively directing the work of August Wilson in the Sister Thea theater space. My decision is based on the worth of Wilson’s work artistically, its value as a catalyst to transforming conversations within the nation in the nation and its valuable contribution to the American dramatic form.
M.O.I. JR: Who are the Lower Bottom Playaz? And where did the name come from?
Ayodele: The Lower Bottom Playaz is a group of intergenerational performers. The troupe, informally organized in 1999, has been the troupe in residence at The Sister Thea Bowman Theater since it was constructed for my use in 2001. We have provided a theater season in West Oakland for over a decade. This year we will offer six shows in the West Oakland area.
Our name is derived from the area in which my practice is concentrated. The Lower Bottoms, also known as The Village Bottoms, is historically important to North American Africans. West Oakland was a destination point in various migrations. Freed slaves settled there after emancipation. It is one of the places where Pullman porters brought their families from the South, and a place where folks came for opportunity during both world wars.
M.O.I. JR: In the age of television and movies, what is unique about theater? What role does theater traditionally play in the Black community?
Ayodele: Theater is live. It is the corporeal embodiment of ideas. It is a particular art separated from film by its transient immediacy. Most entertainment is at its core story based. Stories are after all man’s oldest form of entertainment.
In theater your connection to the storyteller(s) is intimate. There is a distance between the audience and the story that unfolds on a television screen. Film comes a bit closer in its life sized, surround sound presentation, but nothing has the power of live performance. That’s why we go to concerts even though recorded work usually sounds better. It is not the perfection of technology that moves us; it is the artist.
North American African theater is based in ritual enactment. It has a history of its own within the annals of American theater. It continues to function in much the same way it always has: It is a space for constantly evolving community introspection, reflection and conversation. We talk about things. Art is a conversation.
North American African theater is based in ritual enactment. It is a space for constantly evolving community introspection, reflection and conversation. We talk about things. Art is a conversation.
M.O.I. JR: What do you guys have planned?
Ayodele: This season we will offer two productions of Wilson’s work: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” opens July 13, with a sneak preview performance on July 12, at the Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater at 920 Peralta St., Oakland, Calif. Shows at the Sister Thea run Friday-Sunday, with Friday and Saturday curtains at 7:00 p.m., and Sunday only has a matinee showing at 2:00 p.m. “The Piano Lesson” by Wilson opens at the Sister Thea on Oct. 4.
We will also be offering four one-act plays along with other cultural activities at The Legendary Black Dot Gallery and Performance Cafe. We will present “Flowers for the Trashman,” “Bathroom Graffiti Queen,” “Big Brother Little Brother” and “Rag Doll Lullaby.” Check out our website for upcoming shows, for ticket purchase, and for the most current information on what’s showing now: www.lowerbottomplayaz.com. You can also get information by calling our box office, at (510) 332-1319.
The People’s Minister of Information JR is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He also hosts two weekly shows on KPFA 94.1 FM and kpfa.org: The Morning Mix every Wednesday, 8-9 a.m., and The Block Report every Friday night-Saturday morning, midnight-2 a.m. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.