Black theater, the Manhattan Institute and the Bay Area’s racist conservatism
by JR Valrey, Minister of Information, Oakland Bureau
The Bay Area-based legendary playwright Ishmael Reed’s latest work, “The Conductor,” is based on the real life occurrences surrounding the February 2022 San Francisco School Board recall of Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez and Faauuga Moliga. Many in the community were against the recall because it was organized to prevent the implementation of a district-wide student lottery that would allow low income students and students of color to attend the exclusive, prestigious and historically affluent Lowell High School.
I attended a Zoom reading of the play streamed in front of a live audience, and I must say that it was the first time that I experienced a streamed reading, but I enjoyed it. I was interested in how Reed examined how the media played on stereotypes and tension between San Francisco’s Black and Asian communities to control the narrative – ultimately, to enforce the status quo and maintain power. With the recall having happened not even a year ago, this is a very timely piece that examines the politics of current day San Francisco while under the administration of its first Black woman, Mayor London Breed.
“The Conductor” is set to premiere in New York, at Theater for the New City, in March. Check out the legendary playwright Ishmael Reed as he talks about his newest work, “The Conductor” in his own words.
JR Valrey: Why did you name your new play “The Conductor”?
Ishmael Reed: In this play, the role of the Black is reversed. Instead of a Black fugitive relying on abolitionists to hide him on the way to Canada and freedom, in this play, the Black, Warren Chipp, is the conductor who helps Indian Americans flee to Canada and India. The Indian, Sashi Shamar, is a front for billionaires connected to the eugenics movement. His role was to start a recall movement against Alison Collins and Gabriela Lopez, who inaugurated a lottery program so that more Blacks and Latinos could attend Lowell High School.
They’re still getting death threats, even though the recall was successful. During a question and answer period held at the Black Repertory Group Theatre, after a live audience experienced the streaming of the play, they could present their side of the story, which gave some balance. They were ganged up on by a pro-recall national and local press. CNN covered the event for later broadcast, giving them an international audience.
The play proposes a what-if. So, a firebrand radical anti-American Indian becomes prime minister and shoots down an American spy plane. Local Indians are besieged by mobs and have to flee to India. Warren Chipp hides Sashi Parmar, the leader of the recall movement, ironically because Parmar started a petition that led to Chipp’s firing by The San Francisco Chrysalis because he supported Collins and Lopez.
I invited Justin Phillips of the Chronicle to join the panel (at the Zoom reading). He never responded to my emails. He’d written a review of the play.
JR Valrey: Recalled San Francisco School Board member Alison Collins is mentioned many times in “The Conductor.” What is it about her frontline role in fighting anti-discriminatory policies in the San Francisco Unified School District that intrigued you as a playwright?
Ishmael Reed: Alison Collins and Gabriela Lopez sought to increase the enrollment of Black and Latino students at Lowell High School by introducing a lottery system that would benefit not only Black and Latino students but poor Chinese American students as well. Their views were smothered by the powerful non-diverse Jim Crow media and think tanks aligned with the eugenics movement, like the Manhattan Institute.
Their chief spokesperson, John McWhorter, says that Blacks might need gene splicing or serum to become as smart as whites. For this kind of Nazi sentiment, he was rewarded with a column in The New York Times. When I debated him on Michael Eric Dyson’s show, he was unaware that the Manhattan Institute was founded by Bill Casey, Reagan’s CIA chief. It was a mismatch. Even though the recall was successful, Alison and Gabriela are still being threatened.
JR Valrey: One of the things that I liked about “The Conductor” was how you played with the racial tension between the Black and Asian communities, particularly surrounding the issue of some San Francisco School Board members creating an anti-discriminatory policy around San Francisco’s Lowell High. What is it that you are trying to convey?
Ishmael Reed: I thought that it was between Black and Asian Americans from the press accounts always eager to divide and conquer. No, Alison received support from Asian Americans.
JR Valrey: Why do you feel this issue was worthy of a play? What do you feel a playwright’s role in society is, considering that you have been making conscious plays for decades?
Ishmael Reed: My last three plays have challenged the official version of things. “Hamilton,” the musical, was based on the lie that Hamilton was an “ardent abolitionist.” No, he was a slave trader. I got angry letters in The New York Times and Broadway World. I was ridiculed on the NPR show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.
I did receive support from Joy Behar and Sunny Hostin from The View. Finally, The New York Times revealed a study that showed that Hamilton did own slaves and sold them as well. So my play, “The Haunting of Lin Manuel Miranda,” told the truth.
My play, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” challenged the idea that Jean Michel Basquiat was Andy Warhol’s “mascot” and that his success depended upon Warhol’s fame. No, Basquiat did all of the work during their “collaboration.” He was left to die after the decadent downtown death cult squeezed everything they could out of him.
This play, “The Conductor,” did what the press failed to do: Reveal the dark money and forces behind the SF Recall movement in which an Indian immigrant named Siva Raj was used to front the thing.
JR Valrey: What is the role that theater plays, and what is the history of theater in Black society in the U.S.?
Ishmael Reed: Well, to achieve success on Broadway, you have to cater to the 71% of those who buy tickets, which means a lot of gussied-up minstrel shows, Black bogeyman shows and refried classics like “Death of a Salesman,” which is better than television series, pimps and whores.
The favorite image that the Nazi media applied to Jewish males during the ‘30s was that of a pimp. The fact that David Simon (The Wire), a Jewish producer, produces the Black pimp series is ironic.
JR Valrey: You had told me that arts editor of the SF Bay View, Wanda Sabir, played a part in “The Conductor.” What part did she play?
Ishmael Reed: She analyzed a thoughtful dialogue between a Black reporter for the View and an Indian character Karla Shamar. I’m revising that part of the script because of her input.
JR Valrey: When and where is the premiere of “The Conductor”?
Ishmael Reed: Well, it’s been streamed by the Theater for the New City and the Black Repertory Group, which shows the importance of Black theater. A total production will occur in March at New York’s off-Broadway Theater for the New City.
JR Valrey: How important is the Bay Area theater scene to the rest of the nation?
Ishmael Reed: I think that the Black Repertory Group is essential. No other Bay area theater would do my plays. I tried to get a master’s grant from the California Council of the Arts to produce a play out here. They said that I wasn’t qualified to receive a master’s grant. They were supposed to send me the reasons why the panel turned me down. The notes have yet to arrive. Members of the Legislature should take a look at the Master of the Arts program. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe has received grants from The New York State Council of the Arts to do my plays.
The City of Berkeley has harassed the Black Repertory Group Theater for decades, yet the City grovels before the Berkeley Rep(ertory) Theatre to the tune of millions. I wrote a piece about the different treatment of the two theaters for Alta magazine, “Tale of Two Theaters,” which just came in second place under the category Commentary Analysis/Trend-on Other Arts among the awards given by the Los Angeles Press Club.
Due to high rental prices, the City of Berkeley is building a hotel for visiting actors for the Berkeley Rep. Shotgun Players and other white theaters favored by the City of Berkeley will have access to this hotel. As far as I know, The Black Rep hasn’t been invited to participate.
The Black Rep had a program where they trained kids to perform in a play. The parents would leave their kids so that they could go to work. They got fed lunch. It was like a childcare program. I saw these kids do “The Wiz.” It was better than the minstrel thing that Diana Ross starred in. They’ve helped kids considered incorrigible.
JR Valrey: At 84 years old, do you think you will ever retire from published writing or playwriting?
Ishmael Reed: Well, they say that the last asset left for an aging boxer is power. Remember, George Foreman was getting beat up by Michael Moorer until Foreman got him with a right and knocked him out.
JR Valrey: When will we ever be able to see “The Conductor” on a stage in the Bay Area?
Ishmael Reed: I don’t know. If I can raise the money, say $30,000, I’ll do it out here. But the mainstream, including San Francisco theater, seems to prefer plays in which do-no-wrong saintly women are surrounded by Black one-dimensional brutes, which CJ McInnis calls Black bogeyman art. He says it sells “better than sex.” At least Carol Perloff of the American Conservatory Theater was honest. She said that her subscribers didn’t want to see any Black plays.
JR Valrey: Where can people find you online?
Ishmael Reed: Ishmaelreed.org.
JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, heads the SF Bay View’s Oakland Bureau and is founder of his latest project, the Ministry of Information Podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Instagram.
This story was made possible by a grant from the California State Library’s #StopTheHate campaign to promote interracial dialogue and intervene in hate crimes, which have drastically increased against all communities of color, specifically Black people, since 2020. The Stop The Hate campaign is made possible with funding from CSL in partnership with the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs (CAPIAA). The views expressed on this website and other materials produced by the SF Bay View do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the CSL, CAPIAA or the California government. Learn more at www.sfbayview.com/stopthehate or capiaa.ca.gov/stop-the-hate.