by The People’s Minister of Information JR
Ayodele “Wordslanger” Nzinga is a major thespian and theatrical force in the Bay Area hailing from the Lower Bottoms of West Oakland. Over the years, she has brought a number of productions to the recently culturally starved area that helped to birth the Black Panther Party and the West Oakland jazz scene.
She is a Black redevelopment agency that is infusing a historic memory in an artistic way. She is now involved in producing the works of the great August Wilson and is currently producing “Seven Guitars,” which will run the last weekend in June and the first two weekends in July. Tune in as Ayo gives us some game on our history.
M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us a little bit about your new play? When will it open?
Ayodele: “Seven Guitars” is the story of the life and death of Floyd Schoolboy Barton, a blues musician from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The title, “Seven Guitars,” is a reference to the seven characters in the play that marks the halfway point in the 10-series cycle by Wilson referred to as the Century Cycle.
The play opens Friday, June 28, and runs for two weekends. Friday and Saturday shows have a 7 p.m. curtain. Sunday offers a matinee at 2 p.m.
M.O.I. JR: Who is August Wilson? What is the August Wilson cycle about?
Ayodele: August Wilson is America’s greatest playwright. His work in the Century Cycle equates with the works of England’s Shakespeare. Wilson has distilled a hundred years into 10 works of theater that span a century, decade by decade, and elegantly manages to convey the North American African experience from emancipation to the current moment.
The work is epic and its rival has yet to emerge from the American theater. Wilson is a master of time, space and dialect.
M.O.I. JR: Why have the last few plays that you have done been from August Wilson?
Ayodele: I started at the Sister Thea Bowman with a commitment to do works of Shakespeare in the urban environment of West Oakland. In order to master Shakespeare, I learned to see the stories offered from the bard through the lens of my North American African experience. So MacBeth was Mack, a greedy gang banger, and Romeo and Juliet gets flipped into Ebony and Johnny.
I felt a need to tinker with the locations of Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun” and even Baldwin’s “Amen Corner” to bring the work closer to home. In doing so I hoped to catch and sustain the attention of an area that one does not readily think of when one references great theater.
So I made West Oakland the center of my theatrical world. When I began to immerse myself in the work of Wilson, I understood why all the work happened in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The Hill is the center of Wilson’s world in the same way I had made West Oakland the center of my creative world.
Wilson and I are both Africanists, and our gaze seeks the universal in the North American African experience. The Bottoms in West Oakland, Calif., and the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Penn., are synonymous with one another. To drive my point, the last tale in the Century Cycle deals with the gentrification of the Hill District.
I recognize August Wilson is telling my story, our story; he is re-centering the history of North America. Wilson is my North Star. He has helped me find and understand my song. Although I never met Wilson, I am his student and I aim to be an apt pupil.
I have undertaken the elevation of Wilson’s work as a part of my creative mission. In particular, I am committed to the production of the entire Century Cycle in chronological order. I have also committed my troupe and the Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater to this purpose as well.
M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us the history of the Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater?
Ayodele: The Sister Thea Bowman is a 2,000 square foot, 100 seat outdoor theater venue located in the rear yard of Prescott Joseph Center for Community Enhancement. Under the artistic direction of Ayodele Nzinga, MFA, PhD, the theater’s focus is performance art, arts training, social justice and community literacy.
The theater was founded in 2001 to accommodate my practice in performance art within marginalized populations. The troupe in residence is the Lower Bottom Playaz, Inc., a community based theater troupe I founded in 1999. The theater and troupe have become West Oakland institutions.
The theater offers two full length productions a year and a no-cost summer theater day camp for youth. Future plans include the formation of a children’s theater troupe.
M.O.I. JR: What role does theater play in the Black experience?
Ayodele: Theater is ritual that mimics life. It is a storytelling tool. For as long as man can remember, he has gathered to be told stories. The fireside has yielded to footlights and we still gather in the dark to hear stories.
Theater is an exchange of experiences and vantage points. It is a space with the power to engage and reshape thought. It’s the news.
As the arts are in urban spaces, it is the new knife with which we slice reality. It is a focal point of our understanding of ourselves and our journey in North America. It is a podium and a pulpit. When properly used, theater can heal. It is a place where the narrative of a people can be embodied.
North American Africans have always been prominent in the shaping of America’s culture. Our continued contribution to theater, film and music offers us a chance to story ourselves and America from our own lens. If a people don’t tell their own stories, others will tell them for them.
M.O.I. JR: How can people keep up with you?
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 other Friday night-Saturday morning, midnight-2 a.m. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.