by Wanda Sabir
Congrats to new San Francisco Mayor London Breed! Happy Birthday to all the Capricorns and Aquarians, which includes my brother, mother and daughter, granddaughter and niece! Congrats to TheatreFirst for “Participants,” the kind of collaborative theatre project which should be the norm, not the exception. Make sure you check out the finale for the TF 2017-18 season: “Between Us” and “Just One Day” beginning Feb. 18. Listen to two engaging conversations with playwrights and actors about “Participants”: Dezi Soléy: http://tobtr.com/s/10451115 and Cheri L. Miller; Skyler Cooper; Nick Nanna Mwaluko; Carl Lumbly: http://tobtr.com/10451113.
Habari Gani? Imani or Faith
It was just a year ago that Sister Makinya was unable to attend Kwanzaa, so we took Kwanzaa to her. It was Nia for Queen Mother Makinya Kouate Day at the convalescent hospital. Though she’d agreed to attend, when the time arrived the woman of the honor refused to leave her room.
It was mixed company and Kwanzaa was for Black people. Those of us who knew the drill were not shocked, even if we were disappointed. Later on, people went over to her room to share their greetings.
A year later, it was once again Nia for Sister Makinya Day. The plan was to have Nia at the Malonga Center, but a scheduling snafu meant it was moved to the Advanced Children’s Community Learning Center in West Oakland. The Malonga was eerily silent for the Black community: high holy days, the Nguzo Saba an opportunity to rehearse and reflect on the road behind us as we continue the journey forward – Sankofa Movement.
I remember other years when Malonga was the stop for Umoja, the theatre and lobby spilling over with Black art, bodies, elated to be together once again to reflect on first fruits – harvested: promises made a year earlier and promises kept.
Nia for Sister Makinya was a small gathering. Baba Tacuma King played drums with his kids, who were headed to another Kwanzaa in Vallejo. Baba Ustadi Kidiri officiated and was assisted by three children, who stayed, two who really articulated the principles of the Ngozo Saba. After the candle was lit for the days up to Nia, we shared memories of Sister Makinya, “Mother of Community Kwanzaa Ceremonies.” The first ceremony was in 1965.
We spoke about having a plaque for her near the Boathouse at Lake Merritt where she honored her parents on her birthday each year, July 1. We would also like to document for publication a narrative history of community Kwanzaas in the San Francisco Bay Area. Please send your Kwanzaa stories, photos, videos and contact information to us. We also need help with the plaque design, and with lobbying City Council to place the plaque in a place of honor.
Contact us at HonoringSisterMakinya2018@gmail.com or call 510-255-5579.
28th Annual African American Poetry Celebration at West Oakland Branch Library
Don’t forget to let us know if you would like to be one of our featured poets at the 28th Annual African American Poets and Their Poetry, Saturday, Feb. 3, 1-4 p.m., at the West Oakland Branch Library, 1801 Adeline St., 510-238-7352. The theme this year is “resiliency,” represented by the Akan Adrinkra symbol: Aya, the fern, “symbol of endurance and resourcefulness. The fern is a hardy plant that can grow in difficult places. An individual who wears this symbol suggests that he has endured many adversities and outlasted much difficulty” (Willis, “The Adinkra Dictionary”). For information, call 510-238-7352, leave a message at 510-255-5579 or email email@example.com. We will have a rehearsal Saturday, Jan. 27, 10 a.m., at the library.
In the Name of Love: Songs of Change
The 16th annual musical tribute, “In the Name of Love,” honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, 7 p.m., at the Oakland Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside Drive in Oakland. Visit livingjazz.org/mlktribute. This year, with the theme, “Songs of Change,” the concert features Kim Nalley, Nicolas Beard, Tiffany Austin, Amikaeyla Gaston, Jessica Lá Rel with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and the Living Jazz Children’s Project with the Oakland School for the Arts Ensemble. Dana King hosts. Tickets are $25-$40 in advance, children $8-$12. At the door, tickets are $30-$48; $10-$15. Presented that evening will be the Humanitarian Award to a person in the Bay Area who best exemplifies Dr. King’s vision.
Women’s March 2018 – San Francisco #HearOurVote
A Women’s March, inspired by the marches on Inauguration Day 2017, will be held Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Civic Center in San Francisco. Visit: https://womensmarchbayarea.org/#join-a-march.
There will also be a Women’s March on Jan. 20, beginning at 11 a.m. in Downtown San Jose at City Hall. The theme in San Jose is diversity and inclusiveness.
‘The One Truthiness’
The Lower Bottom Playaz and The Flight Deck present “The One Truthiness” on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, 8 p.m. Tickets are $40. Artist Charlie Levin creates a wax-on-glass painting in real time response to texts – culled from a variety of sources, including social media – and read aloud by the audience. The show occurs quarterly, each time resulting in a new painting that responds to current events. Visit https://onetruthiness.com.
Savion Glover dances in “Still Bringing the Funk” with Marcus Gilmore and Jack DeJohnette at SFJAZZ. Not to be missed are two Savion Glover events, Jan. 4-5 with drummer Marcus Gilmore and Jan. 6-7 with Jack DeJohnette. And visit sfjazz.org for information about Vjay Iyer’s residency and upcoming concerts this month.
Solo Performance Play Festival
The PlayGround Solo Performance Festival is Jan. 11-28. Visit http://playground-sf.org/solofest/ for the entire schedule each day. This listing is edited.
PlayGround’s performance schedule includes three African American playwrights and actors: Lisa Evans’s “You Really Should Sit Like a Lady (or how I got to Femme),” beginning Friday, Jan. 12, 7 p.m.; Malcolm Grissom’s “Me, My Song,” beginning Saturday, Jan. 13, 7 p.m.; and Thomas Simpson’s “Courage Under Fire: The Story of Elroy” beginning Sunday, Jan. 14, 7 p.m., through Friday, Jan. 25, 2018.
There are two venues. Check to see where the show is being performed: Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, or Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., San Francisco.
‘Lifer’ opens Jan. 12 at The Flight Deck
Ayodele Nzinga and Triple OG Glenn Bailey joined me for a conversation about “Lifer,” a new work going up at The Flight Deck, 1540 Broadway, in Downtown Oakland Jan. 12-28. Tickets are $20-$40. For information, visit: http://www.lowerbottomplayaz.com/.
The play, starring Adimu Madyun and the Lower Bottom Playaz, takes its story from Mr. Bailey’s life. Born in Louisiana, raised in West Oakland, he spent 52 years of his life in California prisons, the last time for 42 years. Mr. Bailey says he holds no anger for his years behind bars. He spent a lot of his time cutting hair, listening and using his access to ears with power to change the circumstances for those without such access. Even now, he visits San Quentin on Sundays to talk to the young men about freedom.
Nzinga writes: “‘Lifer’ is a darkly humorous cautionary tale filled with advice about how to avoid incarceration from the unlikely lead character: a convicted murderer. Bailey, a lifer at large, is intent on saving lives as a way of ascribing value to his own. He is a unique, serenely hilarious yogi-like sage, who is shaped by his modes of survival: building relationships, sharp insight and flawlessly honest self-reflection on his own life as well as the system from which he spent five decades learning.”
Wanda Sabir: What is your interest in mass incarceration and returning citizens? How does your work with Glenn Bailey reflect a culmination of scholarship and theatre on the topic?
Ayodele Nzinga, Ph.D.: All art rests upon something. Mine, informed by the continuum of the Black Arts Movement, rests upon the dirt in the slave quarters, the smell in the bottom of tight-packed ships with names like Jesus – carrying human cargo, in the wind beneath the auction blocks where they traded slaves on Wall Street, and in the blood that flows directly from these narrow spaces in existence to tight-packed projects in inner cities lacking opportunities to thrive that melt beneath your feet forcing perpetual migration and existential reinvention.
I am a storyteller who is invested in excavating, debilitating invisible narratives, making them visible by placing them center stage in the room where we can confront the context and the lived realities of the assumptions that deny us ownership of our own bodies, freedom of movement, a resting place to flourish in and the voice to articulate such an abject reality.
An enduring thread through the subjugation of North American Africans is the legal containment of Black bodies. Nowhere is that rope-like thread more visible than inside the industrial prison complex. My scholarship informs my creative work, and my area of interest and concentration is the creation of narratives of ability that create a narrative to counter consecrated narratives of inability.
I believe as August Wilson did that the study of North American African daily life in North America is entirely sufficient to inform any consideration that undertakes the understanding of America as a concept and a reality and or the earnest contemplation of being human in modernity. It is impossible to consider the North American African narrative without engaging incarceration and its effect on those incarcerated, their families and their communities.
WS: This season reflects an unprecedented exploration of the topic of mass incarceration, whether that is Cat Brooks’s “Tasha,” which you directed, or “Beyond the Bars: Growing Home,” even “Mama at Twilight, Death by Love,” which was remounted last season – and now “Lifer.”
Reflect on your 19th season. How does theatre as an institution serve the disenfranchised, silenced and disappeared people? Who is your audience? Has this changed? Have any constituencies been added? You mention that The Flight Deck is in the heart of the Black Arts District; however, TFD is not a Black theatre.
AN: Cultural production is the event of people creating signs and symbols that signify they have learned how to live. This includes creating origin stories, a clearly defined context within the greater systems they inhabit.
For 19 seasons, 20 years, my troupe has made Black life visible. We strive to create and produce work in which we recognize ourselves, work that reflects our communities in realistic enactment. To elevate and place our daily lives on center stage as equal and worthy of reflection and introspection, reshapes the gaze of those who would “other” us whole cloth by assumption and offer us a space in which to engage as a collective with a common context and as humans who may not share our context but share our humanity.
My audience is composed in part of those who appreciate good theater, in part by my community in search of affirming images and stories they recognize, and in part by those who may never have seen live theater – may not yet know they love it. The latter demographic is enabled by our efforts to remove the barrier of price in exchange for exposing marginalized populations to theater. A growing constituency is theater critics, other theater makers and those interested in theater that is more than entertainment.
The Flight Deck is a venue. It is the venue in which the oldest North American African theater company in Oakland is a co-tenant. A venue is not a theater company; it’s an empty space we make sacred with our presence. It should be noted the venue was the second organization to sign a MOU with the Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corp. The Lower Bottom Playaz, Inc., was the first. We have the power to influence the spaces we inhabit. We utilize that power.
WS: You speak often of theatre as ritual. I remember seeing you on stage in “One Day in the Life,” Marvin X’s work which made history as the longest running play in the nation. For many actors in the work, they said the performance was healing, the stage an opportunity to recover their lives and humanity. Talk about the Ayo then and the Dr. Ayo now.
AN: Yes. I directed “One Day in the Life” and played two parts I could not cast. The work was healing for members in the cast and those who witnessed it. That is the inherent power of art to create change, to inspire, to be in conversation with the public sphere. The subject of “One Day in the Life” was drug addiction, but it was a standard for addiction of all kinds, including the addiction to systems that oppress.
Every opportunity on stage is an opportunity to strengthen your humanity, to heal by introspection and to tap into a connection to the heartbeat that is bigger than your own. Theater as I create and perform it is ritual. I do not do art for art’s sake. I am in conversation with reality, with life, with my own experiences and the experiences of those who share my context.
I am smarter now. What began with instinct has been informed by intellect and experience. I am a better version of myself. The alphabet behind my name grants me visibility and gravitas in rooms that don’t expect me, make me harder to minimize, but they are merely accessories. I am dressed in my avocation, walking the path that was whispered in my ear before I took my first breath; I am in alignment with my purpose.
WS: You built a theatre named after a Black women saint: Thea Bowman, an African American nun. Sanctified, this theatre was in West Oakland, the Lower Bottoms. You established a theatre district in a place historically known for Black art and culture, yet lay fallow due to excavation by scavengers and scavenger hunters.
AN: And claimed a space in a place, the heart of downtown Oakland, where we once could not conduct business, were sundowned and made targets of aggressive policing. I key into a space in a place we were denied access. We fell forward.
As of this writing we rep the West and the Town. We have gone through great sacrifice with the intention of building an institution that outlives us. It is more than proper we are in what has become the Black Arts Movement Business District. Our history and legacy are rooted in West Oakland. We took West Oakland downtown and remain there. Sister Thea is smiling on us and a sign in a yard does not make a theater. We made Sister Thea a theater. We took her spirit with us and we rep her too.
WS: You also began an academy where you trained your Black men and women in the art of storytelling. You made the classics accessible by introducing the youth to August Wilson, who articulated their lives in language they understood. They donned the language, attitudes and situations of their ancestors – only to find these lives of yesterday reflected how much nothing for Black Americans has changed, like Joe Turner.
AN: Lower Bottom Playaz’s Summer Theater Day Camp, in summer of 2017, completed its 10th year of providing free summer enrichment to Oakland’s youth. We now offer reasonably priced enrichment camps for Thanksgiving and Spring break as well. We are training our replacements. We consider that a revolutionary act.
WS: Who is “Joe Turner” today? What puts us at risk? How does what you do on stage both during the formal season as well as over the summer with the kids and youth fortify and immunize or protect the community against capture.
AN: We make the invisible visible. We make the elephant on the table impossible to ignore. We poke at it, prod it, talk to it; we will repurpose it or we will destroy it. We refuse to live in the narrative offered us, so we pray with our hands moving, clearing the road as we create it. We are gifted. We use those gifts to show others they are also gifted with the power to rewrite their individual and collective narrative.
WS: The Centennial Cycle changed many lives.
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.