Lifting up BB King and Michael Lange: Reflections on lives well lived

by Wanda Sabir

Michael-Lange-238x300, Lifting up BB King and Michael Lange: Reflections on lives well lived, Culture Currents
Michael Lange

The thrill isn’t gone, but certainly without BB King (Sept. 16, 1925-May 14, 2015) singing it, living it, being an example of it, well – the world without him and his faithful Lucille will not be quite the same any longer. Good times? Well, they are on “pause” presently.

And then there is Michael Lange, our Malcolm X. Michael made his transition May 20, the day after what would have been Malcolm X’s 90th birthday. Michael was 66. His mother, Jerri Lange, made 90 this year. She and El Hajj Malik El Shabazz were age mates. Michael’s Memorial Celebration is Saturday, May 30, 12 noon, at St. Columba Catholic Church, 6401 San Pablo Ave., Emeryville, CA, 94608.

I never knew El Hajj Malik Shabazz, so when I saw Michael perform his speech, “Ballots or Bullets,” the first time in the James Moore Theatre at the Oakland Museum, I was mesmerized. I knew it wasn’t MX but certainly in front of me was a man who’d channeled his energy and brought him to life. Michael later performed this piece again at an event at West Oakland Branch Library I hosted honoring Malcolm X.

Imam Abu Qadir El Amin spoke about El Hajj Malik the Muslim and Robert Henry Johnson performed “Creation,” a poem written by James Weldon Johnson. I’d seen RHJ at Black Choreographers Moving Towards the 21st Century, and he agreed to perform at our community celebration of this wonderful man’s life.

BMAN-’14-Michael-Lange-friend-091314-by-Malaika-200x300, Lifting up BB King and Michael Lange: Reflections on lives well lived, Culture Currents
Michael Lange and a friend pose at the reception leading into Black Media Appreciation Night on Sept. 13, 2014. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

I don’t know if I knew Michael’s day job was running the City of Oakland’s Feather River Camp then. However, when I was hired one summer to teacher a writing class – California Gold Rush History – his office was a great place to hang out. Slim’s guitar and boots were near the door and as a staff and camper that first summer, I was treated to the talent night where Michael as Slim emceed and performed.

I went to Feather River Camp a few more times over the years with my granddaughter and nieces for camp cleanups and Family Camp. Even after the City of Oakland no longer ran it, Slim would still come up and perform and teach music workshops.

Michael was so generous. His was a life completely devoted to service. I loved the way he took care of his mother too. Theirs was an example of reciprocity, teamwork and loving kindness.

He and I also sat on the board for the Northern California Center for African American History and Life, the trustees of the archives that the African American Museum and Library, Oakland, houses. Michael was the president. He served until he had a heart attack – his body’s message to him to slow it down.

He listened and devoted himself full throttle to art. He directed films and plays. In fact, when he died, a play going up at the Black Rep was in rehearsal. He was also working on a film. Michael led a really full life.

Jerri-and-Michael-Lange-in-front-of-mural-300x259, Lifting up BB King and Michael Lange: Reflections on lives well lived, Culture Currents
Jerri and Michael Lange stand in front of Jerri’s portrait in the renowned Alice Street Mural in downtown Oakland. Journalist Jerri Lange, 90, mother of thespians Michael and Ted Lange, was one of the Bay Area’s first African-American women radio and TV personalities and also a professor at San Francisco State University.

I think his portrayal of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in America’s “The Expulsion of Malcolm X,” which he also directed, was brilliant, as was his stunning performance of William Grimes, a fugitive slave who wrote about the tyranny of captivity and published the book too (1825) in Regina E. Mason’s play based on her great-great-great grandfather’s life.

Yearly at the Oakland Ensemble Theatre, I would look forward to the seasonal productions of Jeff Stetson’s “The Meeting,” which Michael, as Malcolm X, would perform opposite James Brooks as Martin King.

For a while Michael and Lonnie Elder had a theatre in Oakland called the Bay Area Repertory Theater, where they produced original work and classics. One of the pieces mounted was Michael’s “Prophet Nat,” a musical docu-drama that explores the life of enslaved prophet Nat Turner, who led the first successful rebellion of enslaved Africans in Virginia in 1831. As a storyteller and singer, Michael has penned over 40 songs whose lyrics convey a story of hope at a time when today’s world is at the crossroads between freedom and oppression. It was a really wonderful production.

James-Brooks-Michael-Lange-070307-by-Wanda-web-300x225, Lifting up BB King and Michael Lange: Reflections on lives well lived, Culture Currents
James Brooks and Michael Lange perform a staged reading of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the American Slave is the Fourth of July” on July 3, 2007. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

When the Oakland Public Conservatory was on Franklin, their Alternative July 4 event featured Michael and James Brooks performing a staged reading of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the American Slave is the Fourth of July.”

For a while Michael managed what was then the Alice Arts Center. There he and Edsel Matthews, founder of Koncepts Cultural Gallery, would have great conversations. At his farewell salute the evening he made his exit, ideas flowed unabated as people thought about Michael’s life and his legacy – the Michael Lange Foundation, a street named after him were just a few ideas contemplated.

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at Visit her website at 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

BB King and Joan Baez perform an over hour-long concert at New York’s infamous Sing Sing Prison on July 1, 1973.