by Wanda Sabir
Happy Birthday, Sister Maryom Anna Al Wadi, one of the founders of San Francisco State University’s School of Ethnic Studies and the Black Student Union 50 years ago. Happy Birthday to my nephew, Wilfred Batin, who I think is a teenager now (smile). Happy Birthday also to Marie Labossiere, Ezili Danto Warrior Woman! Fierce revolutionary for justice.
Avotcja, Bay Area treasure
I don’t know how Avotcja does it all: host two radio shows, perform with her band Modupue and curate such a phenomenal series of poetry and storytelling events. Yet she does and has for more years than we have fingers and toes. This is why, though I appreciated and loved “Beloved Oakland,” one of a series of programs last month EastSide Arts Alliance hosted to promote the conversation regarding the Black Culture Zone (BCZ) in East Oakland, I think two culture workers were left out: Avotcja and Paradise. I would not have excluded any of the awardees; however, to omit Avotcja is like forgetting to bow to the Queen (as in Califa, not Victoria). And Paradise? It was his birthday (Feb. 18) and his poem made the City of Oakland change the signs from “Entering Oakland” to “Welcome to Oakland.” I am just saying. RESPECT!
March 21, 2018, at her Annual Healing Evening of Poetry, Jazz and the Fire of Wordsong with members of Avotcja and Modupue at City College of SF, 50 Phelan Ave., Creative Arts 133, San Francisco, a 10 minute walk from Balboa BART, 6:30 p.m., no cover. All ages always welcome. For more info, call 415-39-3000 and see www.ccsf.edu or www.Avotcja.org.
Avotcja’s monthly series La Palabra Musical, Music of the Word, at Cesar Chavez Library, 3301 East 12th St. at 33rd Avenue in Oakland, is March 24 and looks this month at Poder de Mujer (Woman Power). The program, which is both featured artists and open mic, begins at 3 p.m. and runs to 5 p.m. It’s free. For information, call 510-535-5620 or visit http://oaklandlibrary.org/locations/cesar-e-chavez-branch or www.Avotcja.org.
Every Saturday in March Celebrates Women at Joyce Gordon Gallery
Saturday, March 17, 2-4 p.m., join Wanda Sabir in her work: Choreographing Diaspora: An Afternoon of Poetry, Visual Art, Travel and Storytelling at JGC, 406 14th St. in Oakland. For information, call 510-465-8928 or visit www.JoyceGordonGallery.com.
An Evening with Michelle Obama at the Oracle March 28 in Oakland is too expensive, but if anyone has tickets, I’d love to go and take a photographer. Let me know.
African Film Festival
African Film Festival at BAMPFA kicks off March 8-May 6, Visit https://bampfa.org/program/african-film-festival-2018.
African American Shakespeare
African American Shakes presents Tennessee Williams’ “A Street Car Named Desire” March 4-18 at Marines Memorial Theatre in SF. Visit http://www.african-americanshakes.org/productions/a-streetcar-named-desire/.
Ubuntu Theatre Company
Ubuntu Theatre Company continues its “House Divided” theme with Marcus Gardley’s “Dance of the Holy Ghosts” March 9-31. Visit http://www.ubuntutheaterproject.com/2018-shows/.
Diamano Coura West African Dance Company
Diamano Coura West African Dance Company presents the 23rd annual “Collage des Cultures Africaines: Migration Stories: Our Histories and the Healing of Our People.” March 8-11 are workshops and classes and a book reading. Saturday, March 10, 8 p.m., at Laney College, 900 Fallon St. at Ninth is the performance showcase. Visit diamanocoura.org for the entire schedule or call 510-459-2426. The dance classes and book reading are at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St., Oakland.
Rhonda Benin’s “Just Like a Woman”
For the sixth consecutive year, the tour de force that is vocalist Rhonda Benin celebrates Women’s History Month with her concert show, “Just Like a Woman.” This year’s stellar lineup features a much anticipated reunion of two pioneers of women’s music, Holly Near and Linda Tillery; blues artist EC Scott; neo soul/jazz artist Kimiko Joy; youth artists Lyla Neely and Maya Parades-Hernandez; producer-singer Rhonda Benin; backed by music director Tammy Lynn Hall and The Lillian Armstrong Tribute Band. Peralta College Community radio personality Flo Wiley is host/emcee at Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison, Berkeley, 510-644-2020, www.thefreight.org. Tickets are $25 in advance and $27 at the door: www.tinyurl.com/JLAW2018.
‘Library of Lies’ and ‘Until, Until, Until …’
Edgar Arceneaux’s “Library of Lies” and “Until, Until, Until …” at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through March 25 ask the question: Is truth furniture in a dominant narrative structure? In February, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Edgar Arceneaux presented a performance piece in connection with an installation “Library of Lies.” The wooden labyrinth cabin-like structure is filled with bookshelves and books. Some books are wrapped in black plastic; more interesting books are covered in crystalized sugar. As we look at crystalized confections, our moves reflected in mirrors – the shelves are caught in a maze making it hard to figure out which stacks were visited and which were not. The only books with any certainty were the books with Bill Cosby’s face on the covers.
Just the name, “Library of Lies,” (through March 25 at YBCA) makes the patron fact check her thoughts … just in case. Several years ago, Arceneaux, an artist whose work is not confined to one genre – theatre, mixed media, architecture, writing – watched a performance by Ben Vereen at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration at the White House. It was a tribute to vaudeville legend Bert Williams (1874-1922). In blackface, Vereen sang, “Waiting for Robert E. Lee,” and then sang another song, “Nobody,” as he removed the paint.
The only problem was, the ABC network just aired the first half which distorted Vereen’s intention and message. The response from Black community was outrage. Vereen was called a sellout and a “Tom.” It was a horrible time for the artist whose work, had audiences seen the entire piece would have realized he was not insulting Williams’s legacy or memory.
Silence or omission is just as bad as an outright lie. When Vereen learned about the project he was supportive and even invited the artist who was to portray him to his home to help him with the dance.
In “Until, Until, Until …” (2015-17) the actor, Frank Lawson, looks just like Vereen. The work is more than a re-creation of an historic moment. The live-action play and immersive multimedia art installation gives audiences a chance to query a particular historic moment from multiple perspectives: the present, the past, Vereen’s and the audience at the White House that evening.
As cameras document the rehearsal and later the performance, we see multiple Vereens performing; the effect is past and present merging. This is one of the many beautiful moments in an emotionally disturbing work. Perspective is key, as is memory. Is Vereen’s correct or the camera? What about the viewers who just saw the ABC rebroadcast with Vereen as Bert Williams singing “Waiting for Robert E. Lee” in blackface?
The TV audience think they have the truth when we see they did not. If this is just one of many instances when fake news distorts or changes reality irreversibly, we see how fragile information is and how easily it can be changed intentionally. The lie becomes the truth. Sounds like Orwell’s Ministry of Information in “1984.” Facts are shredded; yesterday does not exist if it does not serve the state’s interests.
“Vereen’s biting commentary on the history of segregation and racist stereotypes in performance was lost on viewers at home,” according to the press notes. When the scene with Williams singing “Nobody” as he removes the black paint is omitted, we lose important commentary and Vereen loses his credibility.
Before the curtain rises, there are free cocktails. Vereen at the bar helps serve. When the lights go up – the lounge becomes a stage where Vereen is rehearsing his steps – Arceneaux says later it is Vereen’s memory telling him to speak more convincingly. There are empty chairs on stage which the audience later fills – not enough for everyone, others stand, some with drinks in hand. Guests at the White House, we look out into the empty audience – we now a part of the spectacle. We watch Vereen sit at his dressing table, we see the makeup come off, watch him rise, speak, sob … tears streaming down the actor’s face and then he walks off. There is silence. He doesn’t return. We sit and wonder. We look around confused. Is the performance over? Where are the directions for this part? Why are the cameras still rolling?
“Artist Conversation”: YBCA (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) presents an evening of lively conversation between two longtime friends and collaborators, artist Edgar Arceneaux and art historian Julian Myers-Szupinska on Friday, March 16, 7 p.m., in the YBCA Screening Room. Admission is free with same day gallery admission. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is located at 701 Mission St., San Francisco. For tickets, contact 415-978-2787 or email@example.com.
Venturing far beyond mere observation or criticism of the works presented in the exhibition, they will discuss the nature of their artist-historian collaboration and deliver a fresh look at their shared world of art. Using as a point of departure a small but charged set of historical and popular archival images, film clips, writings and music, they will share their insights on the ideas and themes embedded in these objects and ephemera.
While there don’t miss another exhibit also in the lower gallery: Yishai Jusidman, a Mexican artist of Jewish heritage’s “Prussian Blue” https://ybca.org/whats-on/yishai-jusidman. “Prussian Blue” is a series of paintings rendered almost exclusively in one of the earliest artificially developed pigments used by European painters – Prussian Blue. The chemical compound that makes up this pigment happens to be related to the Prussic acid in Zyklon B, the poisonous product deployed at some of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. By a strange turn, traces of the pigment remain to this day in the walls of the gas chambers. Such stains are quiet, disturbing and palpable reminders which Jusidman’s paintings re-engage with a profound effect.
Interview with Edgar Arceneaux while he was here with ‘Until, Until, Until …’
Wanda Sabir: Could you please address the reason why you felt compelled to present the complete story, to exonerate the name of fellow artist, Ben Vereen?
Edgar Arceneaux: The intentional omission of the second part of the tribute foreshadows a future parade of partial truths normalized in a society where the truth has multiple lives, all of them irrelevant. I am speaking specifically of Trump, but “fake news” is not new.
I was compelled to make “Until, Until, Until …” because of a coincidence really. I was commissioned to do a performance by Performa out of NYC and thought I had an idea for what I could do. But then I ran into Ben at a kid’s birthday party. I mention that I was not invited to the party partially as a joke, and that it’s also true. I was not invited nor had any idea there was such a party, yet there I was in front a man that had done one of the most memorable works of performance I had ever seen in my life. I thought that if serendipity was showing me something, that I should pursue it and see where it leads.
Once I learned about the effects that his performance of “Nobody” had on his life and career, I was struck with a risky opportunity and a burden. If I told his story the way in which it was intended to be seen, would I suffer the same fate as Ben? He made me promise that I wouldn’t allow that to ever happen to him again, and with a resolute heart I said, “I promise.”
WS: What does Vereen say about the restaging, screening of his full work, as well as the sculpture, “Library of Black Lies” (2016), where you say the intentional maze or labyrinth is an opportunity to “find what is lost [in oneself].”
EA: Ben Vereen has not seen “The Library of Black Lies” yet and I’m uncertain if he is even aware of it. But he was quite moved to see the performance for the first time in Los Angeles this past summer. He expressed his gratitude and also offered to work with my actor Frank Lawson on some of the dancers’ moves. Which we did two days later, and it was surreal to watch the past and the present colliding on stage.
WS: Why did you find it necessary to catalog and present the “Lies” with such formality (smile)? Who gets access to “Black Lies”? Who operated the facility? Where does one get a card? How are “Black Lies” and artifacts arranged? Is it a circulating space? If so, how long can a patron check out a Black Lie?
EA: Great questions. The black lies are more metaphorical then literal. The term is meant to be poetic, [except] in some specific instances, like Cosby as being about misdeeds and criminality. What do we do with the Cosby show now? Can we separate the art from the man?
Within the narrative of the library, and who owns it, I meant it to feel like a cabin in the woods meeting a geode. Wanted to builder to remain a mystery so you could image who the person might have been who built it, based on what’s left behind, and how it’s organized. Along the way, within the labyrinth library, or labyrinth, you get lost along the way so you can find yourself in the middle. Both the self reflected in the mirror and our shadow side.
WS: Is everything we read a black lie? Who is your archivist? Is the library growing? If so, how can one contribute? I am also really interested in the sugar metaphor. As Black people, “sugar” is both traded and treasured like salt. Both are detrimental to our health once we land on these shores: sugar diabetes and hypertension. (Vereen has diabetes.) My father died from renal failure, another one of those environmental toxins – present traumatic slavery syndrome.
EA: Oddly enough. I didn’t start with the sociological effects of sugar or its metaphors. I began working with sugar close to 15 years ago because I was looking for material that could exist in multiple states simultaneously. Sugar can exist as a granule and a liquid gelatin or crystal. I was excited about the crystal because it has geometry to it. Not all sugars are sweet. And it exists as a basic building block of ourselves, the cells in our body.
The power of juxtaposition is that when you put two things together that are unrelated, they begin to say things, things that they would not on their own. When I juxtaposed [sugar] to history, and in particular African-American history, you begin to come to some of the conclusions you described above. As an artist, I rely on the prior knowledge that I believe you will bring to it. But it’s my job to pivot on what you know to explore something that you may not have considered. The destruction of the book renders it unreadable or readable but the crystals give it a new life. Not just an aesthetic life, but the crystals themselves express a paradox. We consider crystals to be frozen in time, but in reality they actually grow organically like the roots of a tree. So well after the crystals are dried they can still inhale and exhale the moisture in the room.
This is the metaphor of transformation – but in what direction is the question. Between the states of building and destruction, there is an in between; the crystals on the books is that in between. Is the viewer’s job to decide where that’s going – building up or falling down. Is it a ruined or a beautiful transformation; I hope that the viewer can possess both of those things hold them up side-by-side and consider that they are both simultaneously. Does that seem perplexing to want that as a goal for a work of art?
WS: The work suggests a fragmentation, what Dubois calls “double consciousness” or a split or auteur self, which Black people tend to send ahead (the facsimile more welcome that the woman or man). Please talk about “The Library” and how you conceived it and its integration into “Until, Until, Until.”
EA: These are two separate words that I was developing at the same time. Both use mirrors and reflections refracture transparency and partial views as a way of exploring history. In the library I am doing this with architecture. With “Until, Until, Until,” I’m doing it with narrative in the format of play and an art installation.
Both works are meant to envelop the viewer and transform them from the beginning and the end of the experience. This has less to do with the notion of a double consciousness and more to do with the journey of self-exploration that could if intended explore the perils of a dual identity. I hope in both works to show a Third World beyond the dualistic thinking.
WS: There is an intention structured into your work that mirrors Vereen’s intention in honoring vaudeville legend Bert Williams (1874-1922), a man many African Americans were ashamed of. What does Bert Williams mean to you, an African American performance and visual artist? Juxtapose this with Ben Vereen, “Chicken George,” juju man, Ifa warrior like Williams, who made it work, despite the hostilities he faced in Hollywood? If Black men are characters, where are they safe when not performing?
EA: There’s a lot in those questions. During the lifetime of Bert Williams, I am not convinced that people were ashamed of him. He was one of the most celebrated performers [or] entertainers in all America. He produced his own films and in some instances none of the black actors besides himself in black face. You know that’s what audiences wanted but no one else had to wear a black face. That’s how he got his movies made.
Charles Peoples III is back in Theatre Rhinoceros’s world premiere of “Transitions,” written and directed by John Fisher at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St. at Battery Street in San Francisco. Last seen in “The Legend of Pink” as Pink, this time the intrigue thickens as a Russian president, an American president and a drag queen (Peoples as Ruby) are the stars of this story about gender and sexuality in the world of geopolitics. A surprising relationship between a young Republican and a no-nonsense drag queen almost set the world on fire. But in a moment of international crisis, this romance might just save the planet, as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are about to find out. A satirical drama ripped from the world’s headlines in the tradition of filmmakers Billy Wilder and Oliver Stone.
The show is up through March 17. Visit www.TheRhino.org. Listen to an interview with Charles on Wanda’s Picks Radio.
Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko’s ‘They/Them’
Those Women Productions presents “Shifting Spaces,” which features the world premiere of “They/Them,” an intensely moving and lyrical drama about a transgender teen fighting for their mother’s love. “They/Them” is by Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko, Tanzanian, now an East Bay resident. Nick’s “Waafrika 123,” a new full-length play set in Kenya about “two queers who are not allowed to exist,” is at TheatreFirst May 3-June 2, 2018. “They/Them” is directed by TWP Associate Artist Norman Patrick Johnson.
The three plays of “Shifting Spaces” – “They/Them,” “Vessels” and “Revelations,” reflect a wide spectrum of feminist perspectives. Each tells a unique story in a bold and captivating voice. Stylistically very different, they all feature characters who fight passionately for and believe courageously in their right to be themselves.
“Shifting Spaces” will be up March 23 to April 8. It plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through April 8 – no performance on Easter Sunday, April 1 – at the Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley.
Those Women Productions is committed to a policy of “Radical Hospitality,” making theater accessible to audiences regardless of ability to pay. Prices range from $00 to $35. Tickets are available at the door and through Brown Paper Tickets: https://shiftingspaces.brownpapertickets.com/.
‘House/Full of Blackwomen: AfroNOW’
Brava and BACCE present “House/Full of Blackwomen: AfroNOW – balance on the brink,” Thursday, March 15, 7 p.m., at Brava Theater Center Cabaret, 2781 24th St., San Francisco.
Hosts choreographer Amara Tabor Smith, director Ellen Sebastian Chang, multi-media artist Alexa C. Burell (aka LEXAGON) and somatic scholar Amber McZeal invite you to explore an evening in act(ions) of resiliency, rejoicing, rejuvenation through an interactive experience of conversational questioning inspired by Octavia Butler, Audre Lourde and Toni Cade Bambara, multi-media, Afropunk and wellness. Come prepared to move, sing and create. Tickets are $10-$25 sliding scale. No one turned away for lack of funds (subject to availability).
Saturdays at AAMLO for Women’s History Month
The 2018 theme: “Nevertheless, She Persisted: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” All programs, which are free, start at 2 p.m. at AAMLO, 659 14th St., Oakland. For more information, contact 510-637-0200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured presenters are Lise Pearlman on March 3, Careth Reid on March 10, Halifu Osumare on March 17 and Oakland City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney on March 24.
“BETWEEN US” is at TheatreFirst at Live Oak Park Theatre through March 10. Program A: “LAVEAU: A Conjuring of Marie Laveau” by Brit Frazier, directed by Margo Hall, Dezi Solèy as Marie Laveau. Visit http://theatrefirst.com/between-us/laveau/. Live Oak Theater is at 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-981-8150.
‘Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies’
Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies’” West Coast premiere is at Custom Made Theatre in SF. This is Chisholm’s timely, irreverent examination of growing up Black in America, directed by Lisa Marie Rollins, with Brit Frazier as dramaturg. CMT is located at 533 Sutter St. in San Francisco. Shows are March 8, 9, 10 at 8 p.m.; opening night March 11, 7 p.m.; runs through March 31. Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m., Saturday matinees March 24 and 31 2 p.m. Tickets are $25-$42. Call 415-798-2682, and visit www.custommade.org.
Professor Anita Hill headlines Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series
Anita Hill is featured speaker at the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series on Saturday, March 10, 7 p.m., at the Oakland City Center Marriott Hotel. To RSVP for this free event, call 510-434-3988.
Professor Hill has contributed greatly to equality and democracy in America. While she is known for her testimony in the United States Congress during sexual harassment hearings concerning Judge Clarence Thomas, she has devoted her career through research, writing and advocacy in connection with women’s civil rights and women’s equitable inclusion in economic and political participation.
In December 2017, Professor Hill became chair of the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace. The commission’s focus is on sexual mistreatment and inequality in the entertainment industry.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at email@example.com. 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.