by Wanda Sabir
What, indeed, to the American slave is the 4th of July, Frederick Douglass (performed by Brian Jones in this clip) asked July 5, 1852, and to date has no satisfactory answer.
At the Arts in Corrections conference presented by Lawyers for the Arts June 24-28 at Santa Clara University, several guest artists, artist scholars, spoke eloquently about art and the practice of freedom. Today’s prisons house millions of people who return to society stripped of their capacity to participate fully. No longer citizens, like their legal chattel ancestors who were not even human – three-fifths human on the books – what does this incapacity mean for a nation whose founding principles speak to life, liberty for all and justice?
The conference was held at Santa Clara University, the eighth of 21 California missions, and the oldest institution of higher learning in California. As we moved between sessions, statuesque trees casting shadows from the past, we could not help but reflect on the scattered bones the Jesuits exploited to be here. Beautiful rose bushes, manicured lawns, disturbing peace. The edifice a graveyard, but then there is probably no California territory where indigenous ancestors do not roam, disgruntled by the state’s blatant and continued disregard for life.
However, Alma Robinson, director, California Lawyers for the Arts, invited such voices in the room, as she also called on her ancestors, Grandmother Isabel whose belief in higher education meant she would oversee the building of a school for African American children. This family reunion is its 106th anniversary. The school was burned down twice by Ku Klux Klan members, whereupon she invited the community into her home for instruction. Her granddaughter, Alma, says education is cheap medicine; art is cheap medicine. Legislators are investing more dollars in this cheap medicine.
CLA with the California Arts Council and the William James Foundation host this biannual conference attended by artists and allies from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: artist teachers, educators and their former students, not to mention, of course, researchers who are plotting the effects of arts on the morale of those inside and the arts’ ability to transform space, if only for a little while. We heard from participants that those moments in rehearsal or performance or at the easel or writing or reciting are not just restorative, the creative process is what freedom looks like. It is what our ancestors held onto when the future looked bleak.
When Rick Walker, guest speaker at the garden reception, spoke of how art saved his life multiple times as he waited for release, incarcerated wrongfully for 12 years (he was not the only person present at the conference to so witness) – art making, whether music or visual arts, kept him sane.
Joey Mason, musician-guitarist, a member of Marin Shakespeare Company’s Returned Citizen’s Theater Troupe, stated instead of being on the yard at San Quentin, he was in the Art Room – an oasis in hell. This kept him away from situations which might have led to trouble. Theatre, in particular is a different kind of collaboration between men who might have be enemies outside, in this case, the Art Room. However, it is art which dismantles these artificial walls both within and without. Creativity is a bold and fearful step in institutions predicated on separation, division and mistrust.
“Breaking Through,” directed by Suraya Keating, with Assistant Director Rachael Adler and Tony Cyprien, Musical Director Maverick Harrison, featured Tony Cyprien, Gary Valentino Hollis, Pamela Ann Keane, Joey Mason and John Nesblett in ensemble and individual scenes and monologues. During the Q&A afterward, many people were visibly moved by the work, especially Tony Cyprien’s solo reflection on time, rehabilitation and friendship. Their performance was part of the evening entertainment programming.
Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) and co-founder of All Of Us Or None (AOUON), said until the state recognizes his humanity, there is no freedom. He shared a recent ad in the Sacramento Bee which asks support for ACA 6: Restore Voting Rights to Californians on Parole. This bill will give “California voters the opportunity to automatically restore voting rights to people immediately upon their release from prison. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have already adopted similar policies.”
The term “returned citizens” implies certain rights denied the recently released, sometimes legal and/or human rights are denied forever depending on the state and/or the crime. Taxation without representation, the reason why this nation resisted Britain’s domination, is true for millions of Americans who have served time in American gulags. They are taxed yet have no voice – this is why Louisiana and Florida in 2018 restored voting rights to people on parole or out of prison. In Florida, Amendment 4, which “restored the right to vote to 1.4 million individuals with felony convictions in their pasts, except individuals convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses,” is being challenged presently to require debt or fees connected to the conviction to be paid off. Civil and human rights restoration is an incremental process.
When Bob Moses, civil rights icon and architect of the Algebra Project, asks, “Who are ‘the People’ the U.S. Constitution references?” Each of us needs to pause and think about the disenfranchised men, women and children absent from this dysfunctional democracy. Just a bit of hemlock on the barbecue sauce – eat with caution.
On the fly
Oakland Symphony’s annual free Independence Eve Celebration is July 3 at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., concert at 8 p.m. “MacBeth: A Dramatic Stage Reading” at Celebration Arts, 2727 B Street, Sacramento, 916-455-2787 is a free event, July 5 and 6, 8 p.m. For information on the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 39, go to sjjff.org or call 415-621-0568.
The exhibition, “About things loved: Blackness and Belonging,” Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) continues through July 21, Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., with selected tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays. BAMPFA is located at 2155 Center St., Berkeley, 510-642-0808 and firstname.lastname@example.org. On Saturday, July 13, 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m. or 1–2:30 p.m., there is a special workshop, “Gallery + Studio: Finding Form and Space in Black Abstraction,” where participants can explore the varied perceptions of space and form on view in “About Things Loved,” then use paint and other materials to create a layered canvas of your own. The workshop is for ages 6 to 12 with accompanying adult(s). Visit https://bampfa.org/program/about-things-loved-blackness-and-belonging.
“Coffee, Rhum, Sugar, Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox” continues at the Museum of the African Diaspora through August, with a special film series curated by Cornelius Moore, director of California Newsreel. The screenings are Wednesdays, 6:30-9 p.m., July 10-Aug. 7. There is also an artist talk with Firelei Baez in conversation with Pamela Joyner, Tuesday, July 9, 7:30 p.m. Visit https://www.moadsf.org/calendar/.
Verdict Day to demand an end to police murder
To commemorate the day, July 8, 2010, when the officer who killed Oscar Grant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and Oscar’s mother, Wanda Johnson, was recorded on news cameras shouting, “My son was MURDERED!” the Love Not Blood Campaign, founded by Oscar Grant’s “Uncle Bobby,” Cephus Johnson, is hosting Verdict Day on Sunday, July 7, noon to 5 p.m., at the Freedom and Movement Center, 4400 Market St., Oakland. Sister Beatrice X is moderator.
Families impacted by police abuse and demanding police accountability will be represented by Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant; Rosemary Duenez, mother of Ernesto Duenez Jr.; Denise Friday, mother of Colby Friday; Taun Hall, mother of Miles Hall; Yolanda Banks Reed, mother of Sahleem Tindle; Karla Gonsalez, mother of Agustin Gonsalez; Sequette Clark, mother of Stephon Clark; and Dionne Smith, mother of James Rivera. On the agenda are food, spoken word and a Fathers’ Panel and Mothers’ Panel. Strategies to support AB392, the California Act to Save Lives, requiring police to avoid using deadly force whenever possible, will be discussed. For information, call 510-480-8187.
‘Measure for Measure’ at Marin Shakespeare Company
On this remarkable theatre’s 30th Anniversary Season entitled: “Playing for Good,” Marin Shakespeare Company mounts perhaps its most thematically descriptive work of the Bard, if one were to ask, What does MSC do? Not only does Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” articulate the company’s mission, its relevance today is all the more reason to continue producing such work. Art raises the bar literally on what it means to be human.
Dominican University setting, a monastery with San Quentin State Prison a close neighbor many of us passed on our way to the theatre – on stage there are men wearing CDCR attire, both orange and the blues – recently released men sit in the audience and perform on stage. Engaged opening night (pay-what-you-can), the audience relishes the chocolate cake and sips champagne, as novitiate Isabella (Luisa Frasconi) pleads her brother’s case – sentenced to death for fornication. Pompey (Ed Berkeley) and Mistress Overdone (Isabelle Grimm) and others parley the inequity of something as natural as sex being the cause of death. Sitting judges also think death too great a sentence, but with mandatory statutes, there is no recourse except a pardon.
Such laws would certainly be a quick way to trim a population.
Morality is a personal choice. When legality and morality collide, the legal system is set up to act, citizens hope, as a check and balance. More often than not, as in “Measure for Measure,” justice is a club the powerful control. Justice is not fairness or what is right; the justice “Measure for Measure” shows is for those who can get away with tyranny and abuse.
When the sitting judge, Lord Angelo (Joseph Patrick O’Malley), thinks he can bargain with Isabella – sexual favors for her brother Claudio’s release – the question arises, is justice just for “just-us?” The powerful make and break rules others are imprisoned and executed for?
Set to wonderful original spoken word created and performed by LeMar Maverick Harrison, Marin Shakespeare Company’s timely production that calls into question sexual violence, over incarceration, state violence and trivial laws that waste valuable resources, and honor, atonement and forgiveness as we laugh as gravity settles like confetti, agile actors dancing from stage into the audience where a few lucky patrons are addressed directly. I am not sure what to think about Vincentio (Patrick Russell) who abdicates his responsibility and is the reason for the mess. He hides out in costume as clergy to watch what is going on in his kingdom and cleverly makes the problem go away as Shakespeare does as one can on stage. The only problem, this problem doesn’t dissipate. In fact, the way Russell plays Vincentio he also needs to check his behavior toward the chaste Isabella.
I wonder, given the over-incarceration of Black men and women, and the undervalue of Black women, would Angelou have asked for Isabella’s sexual trade or just taken it, as his will to do so, and still executed her brother? Would a Black Isabella have gotten such a platform to share her story publicly and then have it validated? I am just reminded of Anita Hill and her testimony and her bravery, yet nothing came of it and Thomas was given the post in this nation’s highest court. If he’d been denied, perhaps there might not be such a level of tolerance in public offices like the presidency.
“Measure for Measure” continues through July 21 at Forest Meadows Amphitheater on the campus of Domincan University, 890 Belle Avenue in San Rafael. Visit marinshakespeare.org or call (415) 499-4488.
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 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.