Review by Wanda Sabir
Ishmael Reed is such a brilliant writer and thinker. Perhaps the MacArthur Genius awardee can collect dividends. His current play, directed by Carla Blank, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” at Theater for the New City through Jan. 9, explores Black culture and white exploitation in the relationship between the Haitian-Puerto Rican American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat (Dec. 22, 1960-Aug. 12, 1988) and Andy Warhol (Aug. 6, 1928-Feb. 22, 1987). There are so many analogous parallels, both fictional or mythic and actual, that it is amazing the play has only one intermission.
Warhol is shown as an exploitive opportunist who masquerades as an artist, while manipulating a youngster whom he fools into believing that the older man is his father divine – when in fact Warhol is a drug pusher who captures a willing Basquiat, then installs him in a basement where the kid churns out art like an assembly worker.
The cold case is reopened by two forensic scientists, Grace and Raksha (actors Monisha Shiva and Kenya Wilson, the understudy on Jan. 1, 2022) who want to bring the perpetrators to justice. It is said Basquiat died of a heroin overdose. However, those who know, know better, as do these scientists. As the contemporary team investigates, time shifts back and forth as what happened to the Haitian artist continues with other captives. Basquiat’s drug induced imprisonment is not the first or the last.
Slave owners actually used cocaine to increase productivity among the captives, Reed shares in his work. Slavery was legal. The Warhol machine also had legal protection, money and power and what money buys when the victim is Black and male or Black and female. Basquiat is compared to Cinderella, Warhol, the dad who disappears as the sharks circle for a kill.
I love the scene in Act 2 when we meet Richard Pryor, whose ghost wants to save Basquiat …
Reed’s writing is crisp and sharp as are the actors who deliver and deliver and deliver some more. Slave is a mystery that has audience up on her feet at home rooting for the victims tied to the tracks as the iron horse approaches. Carla Blank’s direction is also on point as the diction and storylines unfold clearly in nuanced layers.
I love the scene in Act 2 when we meet Richard Pryor, whose ghost wants to save Basquiat so that he doesn’t go up in chemical flames like the elder artist did. Pryor appears as a shadow puppet danced by actor Kenya Wilson.
Pryor speaks to the art of selling out to Hollywood, New York another type of killing field for Black art and artists. Pryor tells us he was a friend of Ishmael Reed, whom we see in photos in Berkeley with the actor. We sense Pryor’s regret that he didn’t stay with people who loved him. It’s hard to tell friend from foe when engulfed in f(l)ame(s).
There are overt blood suckers in the play too. Actor Jesse Bueno’s “Art Agent Antonio Wolfe” and his client, actor Raul Diaz’s “Baron De Whit.” De Whit performs a superb ghoulish job. Dressed in traditional macabre cape, he uses pretty boys to satisfy his hunger while he seduces and serves Black woman appetizer. What is unclear is how Wolfe and De Whit fool folks one would think should know better – their victims are both college educated.
The predators on the loose stay loose because police precincts headed by cops who don’t value life equally cultivate and enable a persona like De Whit’s (Andy Warhol-type) tastes. This is a very real problem on and off the page.
Roz Fox’s Detective Mary van Helsing is a cool sleuth who goes looking for the missing appetizer, “Jennifer Blue” (actor Kenya Wilson), despite legal disinterest. She is our hero. Don’t worry, this is a spoiler, but there is so much going on here, you will probably forget I told you.
I also love the references to Kemetic Ausar’s (Greek Osirus) feast day and his dismemberment or fracture into so many pieces, he could not be put back together. However, if you know how his woman, the goddess, Queen Auset’s (Greek Isis) found 13 of the 14 pieces his brother Set cut him into and then scattered. She even got hold of a spell which made her able to conceive with her dead lover. This is the original immaculate conception that the Christians borrowed.
Reed mentions that if he were to add a scene, it would be a bacchanal feast – capitalists eating the flesh of Black artists, similar to how white people at antebellum picnics tore apart the remains of the Black body on the spit once roasted (see Ida B. Wells’s “A Red Record” (1895).
Yes, “Slave” opened on the birthday of the Christian savior (Heru or Horus – the love child from the union). Reed is certainly prescient as is the Theater for The New City’s Artistic Director Crystal Field. What does closing one year and opening another with “The Slave Who Loved Caviar” say about this nation? As confederate monuments are toppled throughout the nation and reparations are a very real possibility, “Slave” is precedent setting certainly. “Slave” is a challenge and a wakeup call to those who have not been paying attention to the right thing. “Slave” says, change the channel. What did the Last Poets say about the Revolution?
Well, it’s streaming through Jan. 9, 2022, at Theater for the New City. Streaming tickets are just $10 plus a small fee. For in person ($15.00) and virtual tickets, visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/35441/production/1091241.
Reed’s “Slave” closes Jan. 9, 10 days after the feast of Auset (Dec. 30). Nia or Purpose during the Kwanzaa calendar. Reed mentions in our radio or podcast interview that if he were to add a scene, it would be a bacchanal feast – capitalists eating the flesh of Black artists, similar to how white people at antebellum picnics tore apart the remains of the Black body on the spit once roasted (see Ida B. Wells’s “A Red Record” (1895).
Reed’s research is impeccable – I lose track of some of the names, like the artist who boycotts with other Black artists a museum that sets out to exploit them. The person who plans the boycott turns around and does a solo exhibition with the museum. “Jack Brooks” (actor Robert E. Turner), an older artist who shares this story, is berated by “Young Blood,” actor Brian Anthony Simmons’s brash youngster in shorts made from the Black Nationalist Flag.
However, he is not aware of the red, black and green significance or the Hon. Marcus Garvey. Young Blood is intent on disproval of his elder’s path and upbraids him repeatedly over a history and time he was not present to evaluate. His arrogance is his downfall. There is something to be said for living to tell the story. Eyewitnesses are important, because they were there.
In “Slave” we see too often how historians are propagandists who lie to keep the empire solvent.
Remember Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in “1984”? I am reminded also of Jimi Hendrix (1970) and his demise – yes, to a drug overdose … Fuquan Johnson (2021), Shock G (2021), Juice WRLD (2020), Billie Holiday (1959), Whitney Houston (2012), The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (2006), Michael Jackson (2009).
Touched on also are the perverse tastes of the ruling class who sanitize sexual perversions, especially involving children. Turks were raping children, as were the Warhol entourage, who, in “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” commit equally egregious crimes. It’s just no one cares enough to stop it (then or now).
Reed hints at this in his inclusion of a disappeared Black girl/woman in the crime log of Detective Mary van Helsing (actor Roz Fox).
“The Slave” is entertaining and complex. If you like your fun intellectually challenging and witty, this is your play. What’s cool is you don’t have to travel to New York; there is a streaming option that is live. Reed has recorded and performed a live score which is also really good. The projections of art and people, Carla Blank’s choreography, Haitian veves or sacred ground drawings – all enhance the immersive quality of production.
Since it is Ishmael Reed, we can actually have a happy ending – bell hooks writes in “Outlaw Culture”: ‘Altars of Sacrifice: “Re-membering Basquiat’,” that the young, yet masterful artist “journeyed into the heart of whiteness. White territory he named as a savage and brutal place. The journey is embarked upon with no certainty of return. Nor is there any way to know what you will find or who you will be at journey’s end. … Basquiat understood that he was risking his life – that this journey was all about sacrifice” (36).
How difficult it must have been for the artist to have his say as he dangled from a purveyor’s noose. Herein lies Black genius. Herein lies the tragedy. Ishmael Reed’s ability to cultivate success for the past 60 or so years stems from his artistic ethics and his refusal to allow the dominant culture to tell our story, the story of the 99 percent, the percentage who matter.
Bay View Arts and Culture 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 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.