by Wanda Sabir
Remembering the Ancestors
A libation for all the born and yet to be born. A libation for those we miss and miss and missed. We call the names of those whose lives will never die as long as we remember their names … Ashay! We ready ourselves for their return. Open our eyes so we can both see and recognize their presence.
My grandson was born with his face up, his fists lifted in a salute. Legend Omar Lyles is rushing into the present. We see him raising his head – holding it steady so he can see hours after birth. My other grandson Robert’s astral twin would speak so clearly to his parents – they knew he was not traveling alone. Ashay!
AfroSolo Free Concert
AfroSolo Arts Festival 2016 at Yerba Buena Garden Festival presents pianist and composer Tammi L. Hall and singer Dr. Linda K. Ricketts on Saturday, Aug. 6, 1-3 p.m., at YBG, Mission Street between Third and Fourth streets, in San Francisco. For information on this free concert, visit afrosolo.org or call 415-771-2376.
‘50 Years in a Flash’ Jim Dennis photography exhibit
“50 Years in a Flash: Celebrating the Photography of Jim Dennis” will be up Aug. 5-27 at Joyce Gordon Gallery, 406 14th St., Oakland. Visit www.joycegordongallery.com.
The artist reception and talk is Friday, Aug. 5, 6-9 p.m. The talk is at 7 p.m. Jim’s birthday celebration is Aug. 18, 6-11 p.m. at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, 410 14th St., Oakland. The closing reception is a portrait session with a makeup artist, Aug. 27, 1-4 p.m.
‘The Black Woman Is God: Reprogramming that God Code’ at SOMArts continues through Aug. 17
The new “Black Woman Is God” exhibit, curated by Karen Seneferu and Melorra Green, features the work of over 50 Black women artists in a variety of genres: film, mixed media installation, sculpture, paintings, photography – in a range of sizes covering entire walls to intimate corners. We travel below ground into spaces where lives are born and secret formulas are calculated … brews stirred.
Karen Seneferu, an installation artist whose work in mixed media continues to amaze, has a red room where, dressed in a striking green gown for “SOMArts Night Out” recently, invited guests to lie down on their tummies and in real time tell audiences what they thought about the work. (You can watch the recorded footage at the artist’s Facebook site.)
More than an exhibition, “The Black Woman is God” is Kemetic nouveau sistahood at a time when Black lives are not just trivialized and dismissed, the Black woman singularly continues, like Ezili Danto (Hagar or patron saint for all the single mothers) takes care of the orphaned children. God provides. She finds the water in the desert for her baby just by whispering to the angels – Zamzam still flows to this day, quenching the thirst of pilgrims in the desert. Yes, this is a metaphor and a reality for those making Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Seneferu’s work looks at what is in our world, whether it is a discarded penny or a bird that befriends her, then leaves a feather when he departs. With a sharpened sense, her work deepens the gaze, allowing us to experience the overlooked or unknown.
I remember her digital nkinsi dolls who provide protection against much of the distracting noise that keeps us from hearing our true voice, a voice located in a region beyond physical touch. Karen’s tribute to her ancestors – a mandala piece in the shape of Africa peopled with furniture, seeds, statues, photographs, created for ProArts many years ago then transported to the Sargent Johnson Gallery for the Maafa 2003: Black African Holocaust Commemoration (in October) – was her entrance into a public space as a fine artist whose craftswomanship has only blossomed and billowed and grown into its current magnificent size.
Karen Seneferu, Kimara Dixon and Salifu Mohammed inaugurated our season of Remembrance that year. It was also our first art exhibition, of which we have had four others: Laney College (2004, 2008), Prescott Joseph Center (2008) and an Oakpod collaboration at an independent gallery in Oakland.
SOMArts Gallery hours are Tuesday–Friday 12–7 p.m. and Saturday 12–5 p.m. at 934 Brannan St. (between 8th and 9th). The exhibit is free.
‘Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery’
“Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery” at UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, July 27-Oct. 23, 2016, features a large selection of photographic cartes de visite of the famed former slave, as well as other Civil War-era photographs and federal currency, none of which have been exhibited before.
The exhibition is organized by Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Arts and Humanities Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby and author of “Enduring Truths. Sojourner’s Shadows and Substance” (University of Chicago Press, 2015), the first book to explore how Truth used her image, the press, the postal service and copyright laws to support her activism and herself. Many of the photographs included in the exhibition were a recent gift from Professor Grigsby to BAMPFA. Check #SojournerTruth #BAMPFA and http://www.bampfa.org/press/sojourner-truth-photography-and-fight-against-slavery for more info. The following events at the UC Berkeley Art Museum are held in coordination with the exhibit:
Carte de Visite Workshop – make your own calling cards like Sojourner Truth used
On Sunday, July 31, 2 p.m., you can create your own personalized carte de visite inspired by those on view in “Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery.” Make a photographic portrait, using props and text to experiment with self-presentation, then make your own set of calling cards using the Art Lab’s Risograph printer. Artist Raphael Noz will help you. The workshop is included with admission.
Family Fare: The Story of Sojourner Truth
On Saturday, Sept. 10, 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., compare and contrast a series of portraits with guide Shivani Sud, including those on view in “Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery.” Then, with artist Kaya Fortune, connect with the experiences of Sojourner Truth by making collages using reproductions of historic photographs, autographs, and stamps from the Civil War period. For kids ages 6 & up and their families. Free for kids plus one adult.
Black Activism and Photography from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement
On Saturday, Sept. 17, 1 p.m., learn how former slave Sojourner Truth strategically deployed photography as a form of political activism. In this roundtable discussion presented in conjunction with “Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery,” UC Berkeley professors Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby (History of Art) and Leigh Raiford (African American Studies) and photographer-photography historian Makeda Best of the California College of the Arts consider how photography has been used in the African American struggle for political change. This discussion is included with admission.
Sojourner Truth Reading Group: Frank B. Wilderson III
On Saturday, Sept. 17, 5 p.m., join award-winning writer, poet and UC Irvine professor Frank B. Wilderson III for a screening of his 2005 film “Reparations … Now,” a critical documentary that captures the terror of unnamable loss shouldered by 21st-century descendants of slaves, followed by a group conversation about the issues raised by the film. The screening is included with admission to the museum.
Sojourner Truth Reading Group: Regina Mason
On Friday, Oct. 7, 7 p.m., meet international speaker, author and storyteller Regina Mason is the third great granddaughter of ex-slave and autobiographer William Grimes. In this talk, learn the fascinating story of how she took history into her own hands by authenticating her ancestor’s book, “Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave,” the first American fugitive slave memoir. This talk is included with admission.
Salsa in Berkeley
On Aug. 21, 12 noon-6 p.m., and every third Saturday through October, enjoy Salsa in Berkeley at Center and Shattuck. Visit http://www.downtownberkeley.com/eats-beats-brews-14.
‘Breaking a Monster,’ a film review
The linguistic parlance today is framed in story, especially tales from the crypt – a counter-narrative told on late night television – the shows just before the TV used to shut down for the night. Remember those days? Days when TV was not all night, rather ended sometime after midnight, back on in the morning. Everyone went to bed, even the picture tube.
Enter “Unlocking the Truth,” three young Brooklynites with a hit single, “I am a Monster.” Say what?! Three boys, 12-13 year olds, whose hit single articulates a fear surrounding Blackness, especially embodied by the male child. Is Malcolm Brickhouse speaking into a chasm where fear lies inert yet deadly, or is he teasing the snake coiled in the basket waiting to strike?
Black boys who play heavy metal and speed punk are not an anomaly; however, given the $1.9 million Sony contract for five records, plus promotions, one might think it was. Friends Malcolm Brickhouse (vocals, guitar), Alec Atkins (bass) and Jarad Dawkins (drums) seem to have been in the right place at the right time, prepared and talented enough to step into their dreamscape once the genie blinked and Alan Sacks appears, an elder with industry knowhow and connections – but are these dreams or nightmares?
Where is the light switch?
Their journey unfolds in the film “Breaking a Monster: A Film about the Band ‘Unlocking the Truth’” (92 minutes, 2016), directed by Luke Meyer, which opened in theatres late July at Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and Opera Plaza in San Francisco. The film chronicles the band’s first breakout year.
What makes this story remarkable is the way the three boys, two whom have been playing since 7, before they bring Jarad into the group, rehearse and plan; then, with Malcolm’s parents’ help, they play at New York’s Times Square to large audiences on weekends. A member of the audience records the boys performing one afternoon, then uploads the video on YouTube, where Unlocking the Truth becomes an overnight sensation. TV coverage attracts the attention of Sacks in Los Angeles, who flies to Brooklyn to meet the families.
Malcolm’s mother and a father recognize their son’s talent early on and decide to support him and his friends in their careers, even if this means learning about show business along the way and trusting industry adults who know the trade better once Sacks enters the picture and the boys literally blow up – Brooklyn, N.Y., too small to contain their talent. This does not mean Malcolm’s parents turn their boys over to strangers.
No, one parent always seems to be in the room, especially when decisions are made or contracts negotiated. Malcolm’s parents voice their disagreement when necessary as do their boys when proposals are not to their liking.
Malcolm’s mother exercises her parental rights to the chagrin sometimes of her son, as do the other parents. When Mr. Brickhouse says Jarad’s and Alec’s parents trust him and his wife with their sons, he means it and takes his responsibility seriously. We see him sigh and wish aloud he could spend all his time with the boys, but he has only so much vacation time.
The boys, who are 12 and 13 in the film, have to read contracts and make decisions about the music and their lives that their manager doesn’t always appreciate or like. We see artistic integrity vie with the economics of show business.
There is a scene where the boys, Alec specifically, holds out when the artistic content of a proposal for a music video undermines the lyrical content. There are also disagreements on branding when the boys tell producers they don’t want their image trivialized by cartoon characters. Unlocking the Truth is serious. The senior Mr. Brickhouse objects when one of the white producers suggests a gesture which is too similar to a gang sign.
We see the boys play and joke and have fun, and push Sacks’s buttons to the point he wants to kick them out of his office at a rehearsal, but Sacks sees his role with “Truth” as an opportunity to be a better grandfather to someone else’s kids than he was father to his own children. At times the boys want to play and Sacks says the boys don’t have a work ethic, that everything came too easy for them, when in fact, the boys are as good musically as they are because they are serious and spend hours rehearsing before Sacks turns up on the scene.
And as he meditates and listens and gets as excited as we do listening to the boys play at their first recording session – the outtake a brilliant piece of music; it all comes together – the effort and patience he exercises is well worth it. When the goal is monetized, though, the boys lose some of the energy which inspires them to play in the first place. Before Sony, there was time for movies and friends and skate boarding, bike riding – hanging out with friends – the contract or multiple year agreement means the boys have to give up their carefree lives and focus on the product – records, concerts, deals, product, marketing.
Skateboarding has to go if an accident might mean Malcolm can no longer play. What are these kids to do when their summer is spent traveling to concerts in Canada, Austin and elsewhere? We see them texting or playing video games on their phones while the adults are making deals with their lives. Some critics say the band Unlocking the Truth is a token for an industry which sees Black teens playing rock as a great investment, one that pays off. It does for everyone. This summer with the film release, the boys toured with their first album, “Chaos,” which dropped June 17.
We see Malcolm learn to sing. His music filled with visually compelling content. I wonder what he was thinking when he wrote, “I am a monster … that’s what you told me baby.” The video has the boys dressed in black jeans, leather jackets, playing the song in an alley – well lit, as people pass by, one a platinum blonde woman whose back is to the boys. I wonder if she is the one who calls the characters in the song “monster(s).”
As more and more Black boys and Black men are slain by police and others, the idea that a youth calls himself a monster could validate the claim that he is not worthy of life. Or is this language a clever counter-narrative meant to disturb, as Michael Jackson did with his “Thriller” debut in 1982?
The boys, Alec Atkins, Malcolm Brickhouse and Jarad Dawkin, play well and whether or not the audience understands or likes rock, Unlocking the Truth band is talented and the vocal content fresh, as is the film. “Breaking a Monster” is a wonderful look at the music industry, the industry guru and manager Alan Sacks’s redemption song and the coming to fruition of the dream of these three young men. Perhaps the monster broken here is an industry which has a history of eating Black boys (Black artists) alive and cleaning its teeth with their bones.
Unlike “The Pact” (2002) doctors Sampson Davis, George Jenkins and Rameck Hunt from New Jersey, these kids didn’t meet in high school, but the commitment to each other and to the hard work necessary to realize their success as artists is equally admirable given their ages. Like all kids, they want to have time for girlfriends (Atkins) and skateboarding (Brickhouse). However, as the lead singer and composer, Malcolm feels the pressure perhaps and at times creativity suffers, as fun becomes work, love becomes a paycheck. Who is making money off Unlocking the Truth band? The agents, Sony and Sacks, or the group?
However, artistic integrity prevails as the boys get used to stardom and pull on inner resources and the guidance of parents and musical mentors – whom we do not see in the film but learn of in other materials and interviews. We see Brickhouse practicing, growing more confident as a singer – which he says he is not. As the youngster and his friends stop playing and start listening and learning, then stepping up to the plate, their potential manifests at levels they hadn’t seen. It is lovely seeing the pride in their family and communities’ eyes – the friends on the block who find inspiration in boys just like them.
The boys, Alec Atkins, Malcolm Brickhouse and Jarad Dawkin, play well and whether or not the audience understands or likes rock, Unlocking the Truth band is talented and the vocal content fresh, as is the film.
Falls are inevitable, but the love of Malcolm Brickhouse’s parents is a safety net he knows he can depend on no matter what happens. I wish we could have seen more of the other two families, learned more about who they are. We see Alec folding clothes with his mother and learn that he is moving away from the apartment complex where all his childhood friends are.
Malcolm says that he can’t play outside like he used to, because his stardom makes him too easy to recognize. Then he says that people see his face, but they don’t know him, the true Malcolm. He even has to switch to another school, one that is smaller. We see the boys reading Lois Lowry’s novel about a dystopia universe called “The Giver” (1993), an interesting shot given the storyline. Visit www.breakingamonster.com.
The universe explored in the film is an honest one, where the boys play what they know, what they feel, what they see. As young as they are, Unlocking the Truth is certainly a band to watch. Hope their tour brings them to Northern California next time (smile).
“Breaking the Monster” is a film which all Black boys should see – it shows how dreams are possible if a person articulates them, puts in the work like Malcolm, Alec and Jarad were willing and continue to be willing to do, and of course have supportive adults on one’s side.
‘The Box,’ a review
Sarah Shourd’s “The Box,” directed by Michael John Garcés at Z-Space in San Francisco for a limited run closing July 30, looks at solitary confinement from the perspective of those inside.
When we walk into the cavernous theatre, there is a young woman standing in front of six cells, two cages high. During the show, two guards move the men by sliding the three towers (two cells each). The men wait, watch and pace. Behind the waiting girl, the units are occupied, three men on the top levels of all three cells, two on the lower – the middle cage has a vacancy.
The men are seated, lying down, standing, holding the bars or yelling, screaming, talking, ranting. One man has his head in his hands. This is not a normal space we find ourselves in – those members of the audience seated next to me complain that the play has not started, without realizing we are in the work the moment we consent with a ticket purchase. Prison guards walk the perimeter of the cages – two officers, one a man, the other a woman.
My neighbors check their watches repeatedly, note time’s passage until the lights dim. When the show officially starts, I have a slight headache and my heart is racing.
This is certainly going to be a different experience. We are all in solitary confinement; we just get to go home. Suddenly, what Robert H. King, member of the Angola 3, prison activist, survivor of 31 years in solitary confinement, says often about imprisonment rings true – minimum and maximum custody depends on location. We are all serving time. Those of us outside are not shackled physically, and the bracelets don’t make noise, but we are limited in our movement and mobility. If we break state rules, implied or stated, we see how easily the noose slips around wrists, ankles, necks.
Theatre is such a brilliant medium, and “The Box” is theatre as it was meant to be used. Written by a woman who also experienced this phenomena, 410 days captive in an Iranian prison, Shroud uses her experience and that of the many people interviewed and befriended when she was released and traveled the nation advocating for those confined to these boxes for days, months and years.
In her collection, “Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement,” edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway and Shourd, we hear the voices magnified on stage. Added are scholars like Stuart Grassian, Terry Kupers and Jeanne Theoharis, who add additional perspectives on this peculiar aspect of an institution which civilized societies abhor and resist, since punishment, not rehabilitation, is the outcome of incarceration, no matter how well intentioned.
Theatre is such a brilliant medium, and “The Box” is theatre as it was meant to be used.
Actor Steven Anthony Jones’s Ray De Vaul is a political prisoner, former Black Panther Party member, who was imprisoned at 19 and is 57 when we meet him. He has been in the hole or administrative segregation or in the box, for 19 years – a record for such cruelty.
Chris H. Holland as Rocky Ashburry fills the empty cage. He is a child – a foster care tragedy. Though the other men, especially Ray, try to help him manage the solitude and isolation, his tenure in the box is hard to watch. He is waiting for a hearing where he is charged with hitting an officer; however, he has witnesses, so the kid thinks the outcome will be favorable.
Carlos Aguirre’s Victor Santiago is one of the few men who have regular visits. The young woman we saw outside the prison before the lights dim is his daughter, Olivia Santiago (actress Gabby Battista). Victor writes his daughter and we see photographs and letters from his child in his cage on the wall. He sews shorts for the men and makes them caps when the weather turns chilly. His family is in touch with him so, unlike the new arrival and others, like Jake Juchau, a white supremacist, in the box for killing his Black cellmate, he is not as alone.
Clive Worsley’s Jake is studious and mutilates himself. He cuts himself up and speaks of a time when he was rushed to the infirmary for treatment – the lit room, the caring nurse and her encouragement to live. Jake likes to write and curse Ray, who is right above. The two seem to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but actually “The Box” brings them closer when Rocky’s suicide makes them see how the prisoners’ shared humanity is a key factor to their ability to bring attention to the cruelty of solitary confinement.
The men decide to go on a hunger strike to change their circumstances. It is a hunger strike to the death if necessary, and everyone is invited to participate. There are four men left in the cages at that point – Rocky is dead and Manual Fernandez’s Carlos has been removed from solitary.
There is a question whether “Looneytunes” aka Albert Roderick (actor J Jha) is capable of participating since he has obvious mental health challenges, but Ray says everyone is invited and they have to present a united front to the institution.
Jake reads and studies and gets college degrees. His writing wins awards and he gets lots of letters. He says the letters give him hope. He calls an old girlfriend he has not spoken to in six year or so to help him get the word out. She does. The strike drags on for 45 days and longer; the prison is getting negative press as hundreds of men starve themselves for justice.
The guards are edgy, especially the female guard, Officer Miller, excellently portrayed by Valerie Weak, whom no one likes. She is tough and even cruel to the men. Together, she and Officer Jones (actor Michael J. Asberry), trick Victor into leaving his cell – at that time, in a wheel chair – for a meeting with mediators.
He is sabotaged. A tube is stuck down his throat and he is force-fed. When the two return for Jake, they have a fight.
Jake knows his legal rights and so does Victor, but the two guards, under orders from the prison administration, do not respect their rights. Jake fights back and is killed. He also injures Officer Miller, who goes into the cage and strikes him repeatedly after Officer Jones tases him.
Actor Steven Anthony Jones’s Ray shows the very real psycho-emotional effects of solitary confinement. Well-adjusted inside, Ray tells Jake in a phone conversation that he misses the quiet in the cell. He says outside is too noisy. Jake encourages his former cellmate that it will get easier. He is adjusting and will be fine. Ray doesn’t look fine. His adjustment seems difficult and his family doesn’t seem to know what to do to help. I wonder what will happen to him when the play ends, yet the issues facing those left behind continue.
“The Box” takes the audience into a world not many people in the room have experienced, despite the thousands of Americans suffering from this prescribed and legal human rights abuse and torture.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com 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 http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.