Saturday, July 28, 2007

Black LGBT Theater, passin' it on...

If you have some San Francisco in your background you've got to have heard of the Pomo Afro Homos (Post Modern African/Afro American Homosexuals), the black gay performance trio (1991-94) that was the hit of Josie's Juice Joint and Cabaret, back before gentrification wiped that place and others like it off the map (why do people move into a neighborhood they fell in love with as a visitor, then insist on changing it's most unique elements when they become a resident? Is it the classic romantic declaration "I love you, now change!" rendered as an urban planning strategy?). (pictured l-r: Eric Gupton, Brian Freeman, Djola Branner)

Named by cultural theorist Kobena Mercer (before he returned to the UK permanently), the Pomo Afro Homos were formed in 1991 by actor Brian Freeman, dancer/choreographer Djola Branner, and dancer/actor/singer Eric Gupton. The three performers/writers were motivated by the glaring absence of portrayals of black gay life as they knew it (as opposed to an Advocate Men pictorial, uh, for example) Their best know works are probably Fierce Love: Stories From Black Gay Life, and Dark Fruit. When Eric Gupton departed, poet/performer Marvin K. White (pictured right) became their newest member. The Pomos, as folks fondly nicknamed them, toured major theaters in the U.S. and internationally to great acclaim, standing ovations, and sold-out shows (so you didn't have to be in Cali to see them). The intelligent and complex humanity and humor of their work spoke to people from a range of backgrounds. While LGBT folks may have loved them something fierce they had a loyal and repeat audience of a mix of people (yep, I had a t-shirt which became so worn out and faded, regrettably I had to let it go). The Pomos continued forward until the mid-90s when the performers went their separate ways.

Brian Freeman, who had been a long-time member of the performance-activist San Francisco Mime Troupe prior his Pomo Afro Homos tenure continued writing and performing, appearing in Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman (1996), and writing and performing Civil Sex (1997/2000), a one-man show he later re-staged as a three-act play based on the life of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. His latest work, Here and There (2007), focuses on the politics of AIDS in South Africa, through life of queer AIDS activist Simon Tseko Nkoli. Marvin K. White, who has become best know for his poetry, also continues to perform, work as a community arts organizer, and has published two LAMBDA Literary Award nominated books of poetry, his work has also been widely anthologized. White is also (say it with me now) a Cave Canem Fellow, and has taught writing in a number of venues. Sadly Eric Gupton passed away due to complications from AIDS on 30 April 2003, at the age of 43. Author Keith Boykin writes of his passing here.
Djola Branner also continued performing, relocating to Minneapolis for a time, writing a number of one-act plays, and garnering a number of awards. He also published a book of poetry, and toured and recorded his solo performance work, Mighty Real: A Tribute to Sylvester.

Recently Branner, along with talented playwright Zina Camblin, facilitated a play development workshop for freedom train productions' first group of Resident Playwrights in Development. freedom train was founded in 2006 and is dedicated to promoting "new work written by up-and-coming Black playwrights. All of our plays feature Black LGBT hero and shero characters." While I'm not a big fan of the potential "positive image" stipulation implicit in that mission statement, I'm still really excited to see an organization dedicated to mentoring a new generation of playwrights of African descent, and the recognition that making connections between different generations of theater artists is imperative to the continued creative production of African American playwrights. And if I needed confirmation, I heard playywright Lynn Nottage say as much at a presentation last year.

Along with providing artist residencies, freedom train also produces FREE staged readings of the workshopped plays:
FIRE! Plays in Development that Matter 5 Plays by 5 Emerging LGBT Playwrights, All FREE!

Wednesdays & Thursdays, 1-30 August 2007

The schedule (full descriptions can be found here):

Opening Night, August 1st & August 2nd:
Are Women Human?
by Nick Mwaluko
Director: Alicia Dhyana House

August 8 - 9th:
by Andre Lancaster
Director: Christopher Burris

August 15 - 16th:
Steal Away
by Andrea E. Davis
Director: C. Sala Hewitt

August 22 - 23rd:
by yvonne fly onakeme etaghene
Director: Gloria Bigelow

August 29 - 30th:
by Jesse Cameron Alick
Director: Andrew K. Russell

Opening Night: August 1st!
And Every Following Wednesday and Thursday in August 2007
8/1, 8/2, 8/8, 8/9, 8/15, 8/16, 8/22, 8/23, 8/29, and 8/30

@ South Oxford Space
138 South Oxford Street in Brooklyn
All Stage Readings are free and begin at 7pm.
Google map here

Endnote: Summer 2007, Djola Branner joined the faculty at Hampshire College's Theatre program. Congratulations, Professor Branner.

Endnote II: Why is this post so dang long?! Well, Michelle Materre got me thinking about documentation of people of color performing artists. Pomo Afro Homos is one of those cultural phenomenons about which a lot of people from a certain arts background may have knowledge. However, I don't even know if there are videos of their performances. With the exception of Marvin K. White none of the former members has a website which makes tracking their history that much harder, unfortunately making their presence more ephemeral.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bold as LIVE + Sights & Sounds @ Luna Lounge

Ed Marshall has been photographing bands on the NY indie scene for a while and developed a ubiquitous presence as a documentarian. Check out his images and the sounds of some of the great NYC bands he's captured in the act.
(pictured left: Social Hero; pictured below right: Pillow Theory; photos Ed Marshall,2006)


Photographs by Ed Marshall
Live Music by
The Batterie
Apollo Heights
Social Hero
Pillow Theory
Visual Collaboration: Yuko Sueta & Ed Marshall

Luna Lounge
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 112111
August 8
Doors Open: 6pm


BoldasL!VE: The new event platform for Black rock
Former PR professional, and rock manager Rob Fields started this series "as a natural outgrowth of his blog BoldasLOVE." Unfortunately, I missed the first in the upcoming series of BoldasL!VE events which are billed as a cross between "Inside the Actors Studio" meets "MTV Unplugged."

The first event:

Sunday, July 22, 3pm
The iconoclastic Nona Hendryx interviewed by journalist Nick Charles (former Editor-in-Chief, AOL Black Voices). Fortunately, BoldasLOVE has a slide show, and the BoldasL!VE's myspace page has video and pix from the event! You can also see a picture of Hendryx and Kandia Crazy Horse here at Crazy Horse and Tavia Nyong'o's culture blog Bluegum.

The upcoming forums are:

Sunday, September 16, 3pm
The Family Stand's Peter Lord & V. Jeffrey Smith
interviewed by Michaela angela Davis, whom BoldasL!VE bills as, "'Urbanista' and Hip Hop Fashion Feminist." Sounds from The Family Stand's latest release, Super Sol Nova, are available on both their website and that of BoldasL!VE, and for purchase as an import and iTunes download. (pictured l-r Peter Lord, Sandra St. Victor, V. Jeffrey Smith; photo: Donald Andrew Agarrat --who oughta to be having a show, himself, right 'bout now)

Sunday, October 14, 3pm
Singer/songwriting Daniella Cotton. Cotton's eponymous CD is available from CDBaby (love 'em!).

All series events
Brooklyn Lyceum
227 4th Ave @President Street
Park Slope, Brooklyn
$8 (children under 13 FREE)
M or R train to Union Street

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Excerpt from the 51st (dream) state by Sekou Sundiata

excerpt from the 51st (dream) state by Sekou Sundiata:

What if we were Life
Or Liberty
Or the Pursuit of something new?
Between the rocks below
and the stars above
What if we were composed by Love?

And what if we could show
that what we dream
is deeper than what we know?
Suppose if something does not live
in the world
that we long to see
then we make it ourselves
as we want it to be

What if we are Life
Or Liberty
and the Pursuit of something new?

And suppose the beautiful answer
asks the more beautiful question,

Why don’t we get our hopes up too high?
What don’t we get our hopes up to high?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Sekou Sundiata, flying onward

I found out about the passing of Sekou Sundiata (August 22, 1948 - July 18, 2007) at the BDC screening of Woodie King, Jr.'s Segregating the Greatest Generation. Curator Michelle Materre shared the news with the audience during the Q&A for the film. In the row ahead of us was an actor who was growing out his hair for a role; people there swore he could have been Sundiata, or at least his twin, but sadly, no.

Sekou Sundiata, as Mark Anthony Neal penned, had truly "gone home." I wish I had heard him read and experienced more of his work, but I'm going to be one of those folks relying on the historical record and memory of others to fill in the gaps. Here's the Academy of American Poets obituary for Sundiata (thanks J.), a J'stheater post on Sundiata which includes video of Sundiata from Def Poetry, one from SWEAT, Louis Reyes Rivera's obituary on ChambaNotes, and The New York Times.

When Materre mourned the absence of footage of Sundiata performing or of interviews, filmmaker Nicole Franklin remembered that she had shot some of his performances for an arts center. So fortunately, that does exist. The other question was one of interviews, and access. When I got home I went into research mode and found a few interviews available online.

One of them moved me deeply, a 2002 NPR interview with Terri Gross in which he reads from his work blessing the boats (the title is taken from the Lucille Clifton poem), and talks about his experience dealing with kidney failure, on which the work was based. He also speaks on his friends' response to his kidney disease, and the subsequent auto accident in which he broke his neck, but was not paralyzed. Another interview focusing on his creative process appears on the KadmusArts webpage, "In Memorium: Sekou Sundiata." has audio of Sundiata reading "The Sound of Memory" from Righteous Babe Records release longstoryshort.

Sekou Sundiata Praise Day
at the Bowery Poetry Club
Saturday, July 28 3-5pm


Gather to praise share further remember forget bring up stories recite poems
perform dreams discover new loves energize yourself continue invent greet
tolerate lie dance

We’ll play Sekou’s CDs and watch his videos, and there will be as many
poems for him as there is room for.

Donations may be made in the name of Sekou Sundiata to the New York Organ
Donor Network or to the National Kidney Foundation.

Bowery Poetry Club
308 Bowery (Bleecker-Houston)
#6 to Bleecker B,D,F,V to Broadway-Lafayette

The video below is from a performance that aired on Bill Moyers Journal, 20 July 2007 in remembrance of Sundiata.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Noisettes + URB ALT Grand can make it if you try

And you should try even if it means having to take the F to the A to the 3 which was an Express (oops) to 96th to connect to the 2 which wasn't running and was replaced by the 5 (sort of). You can't always get what you want--for 135th to be an Express stop--but if you try, try, try...

There I was on the Boardwalk at Coney Island at The Village Voice Seventh Annual Siren Music Festival. I got there in time to see (The--sometimes it's there sometime it isn't) Noisettes on the Main Stage, but on the train I realized I had forgotten my camera. This turned out to be a good thing, but being a nut for documentation initially I was quite through. It was funny though, while there I must have seen at least $20,ooo worth of professional and pro-sumer camera equipment.

(The) Noisettes basically came out, did their thing and were off. Whatever happened to having an emcee to get the crowd energy revved? I'm all for having DJs spin between sets, but you can't cheat the performers and the audience by not having a host for the party, c'mon Village Voice. That pre-recorded voice actor thanking sponsors and urging the attendees to visit their booths really isn't the same deal. The trio, Dan Smith (guitar, backing vocals) Shingal Shoniwa (lead vocals, bass, rhythm guitar), Jamie Morrison (drums) are a lively, somewhat motley, stage presence: Shoniwa's firecracker explosions of sartorial color, mosh pit dancing, leaps off of drum kits, and scaling of stage platforms; Smith's rangy introverted guitar hero fixed at stage right; and Morrison playing with an abandon resembling a cross between Keith Moon and the Sesame Street muppet drummer Animal (unlike Moon's legacy no kit was destroyed, and Morrison reportedly practiced 11 hours a day when learning the instrument). Although Shoniwa has an electro-magnetic field of charisma, I couldn't keep my eyes off Morrison. Looking as though he was in another world and his full-body, windmill-armed drumming style was going to create a fusion reaction suitable for take-off, or at the very least he was going to keep playing after a song was long over, Morrison was completely focused and the three played as a tight unit. Shoniwa's throaty vocals were delivered with gleefully inspired intensity, her quick fire pegging of high notes reminiscent of Lene Lovich and Cindy Wilson (B-52s). Her bass playing is solid, creating a steady rhythm field with Morrison (but this probably gets overlooked with the emphasis on her lead vocalist persona). Shoniwa has an interesting loose fingered style that reminded me slightly of Barbara Lynn's lefty guitar playing (though without playing up the fretboard). Smith's playing is about power and well-placed distortion, a rhythmic-grunge soundbed alternating with wailing sonics. The guitarist was quirky and playful when he did speak, covering for Morrison's run for a break, a little less so when fulfilling an apparent contractual obligation for guitar product placement. But I think most of the audience was aware that Smith's guitar skills would make an electrified cigar box sound interesting, so there were a few audience moans, and then on with the 40 minute set. Sometime during the last 10 minutes I felt nostalgic for Sleater-Kinney, which was probably just a wish for a full concert and a smaller venue with greater performer-audience synergy (also lessening my experience of getting knocked about as people left early for the festival's Stillwell Street Stage). I debated heading to Central Park to see the SummerStage Concert of Music from the Sudan. (pictured left above: Sharhabil Ahmed; and below: Yousif El Moseley) My stomach got the better of me though; I got some much needed food and listened to LavenderDiamond. While absolutely no comparison can be made between the Los Angeles electro-acoustic band and the masters of Sudanese music, the quartet had an enjoyable impish and otherworldly pop sensibility with lead singer Becky Stark offering tinkerbell dance moves and some offbeat patter ("matter is an illusion"; diatribes on modern sewage systems) and newcomer Devon Williams (replacing guitarist Jeffrey Rosenberg) playing straightman to her age-of-aquarian. In retrospect, I probably could have made it over to Central Park and then up to Harlem, pero, no es possible saber todo.

I got to Harlem around 7:30pm not knowing if URB ALT was going to start at the listed 7pm hour, but knowing I didn't want to miss anything. I got to 135th just as a couple of hundred vendors were packing up the Harlem Book Fair. (Note to self: In New York you're always going to be missing something.) It was a low-key scene at the Shrine, with musicians in the midst of soundcheck and a few folks sitting at the bar. A performance space, the Shrine is also a neighborhood bar. They won't let you run a tab, but they'll make you a drink just the way you like it, and serve you some food from the Mediterranean and the African continent. At the bar I talked to a gentleman who had bought a Tuskegee Airmen T-shirt at the book fair, we exchanged the names of the living Tuskegee Airmen we each knew of, and I mentioned the Woodie King Jr. documentary, Segregating the Greatest Generation (I posted about it here). He told me about a family member who was a member of the Red Ball Express, a group of mainly African American soldiers who drove supply trucks over dangerous terrain to field outfits during WWII. I had never heard of them before. They weren't in Tom Brokaw's book or Clint Eastwood's movie either. Paging Mr. Lee, paging Mr. Spike Lee...

Around 8:15 the musicians started setting up after the drummer arrived, shaking his head; likely over the 2 to the 5 situation. MuthaWit played two sets, giving over two hours of music to an intimate and enthusiastically appreciative crowd, with guitarist Deborah DeSalvo and singer/guitarist Shena Varrett each guesting on a song during the second half. The crowd was a mix of folks from Harlem and throughout the buroughs, and some from out of state including Delaware; Phoenix, Arizona; and Philly. While my last writing on MuthaWit Orchestra reflected my mixed experience of that night's performance, I wasn't equivocal about their prowess as musicians which was quite in evidence that evening.

Tonight the audience got MuthaWit as a septet (Boston Fielder, "Little Bit of this, little bit of that," guitar, percussion, lead vocal; Benjamin Tyree, guitar; V. Jeffrey Smith of The Family Stand, tenor sax, alto sax, soprano sax, flute; Samuel Fernandez, bass; William Martina, cello; Jeremy Clemons, drums; Lou Rossi, guitar/effects mixing) which gave each of the players a little more room to breathe musically, and leader and frontman Boston Fielder more space to work as a performer of which he made expressive use. URB ALT events are family affairs with the Twin Brothers Fielder handling video documentation and projection, and on this night a special appearance by Mr. A.J. Fielder, "because without him there would be no other Fielders." This shout out was forwarded by emcee and singer/guitarist Shena Verrett (who may also be a blood relation for all I know) of Tenderhead. Verrett has positivity to spare, much love for all the performing artists on the URB ALT bill, and knows how to create and maintain an expectant audience vibe. Oh yeah, and she can perform a lead vocal with only 30 seconds notice, and, keeping with the family vibe, get her sister to back her up on harmony.

Here's when not having a camera paid off because I listen and watch differently than when I'm focused on documentation. I have to note here Fielder's way with mic technique for vocals. In a live setting this can be a particularly difficult skill to master. Beyond using the mic for amplification, Fielder manipulates it to achieve certain qualities combining room sound, early reflections and timbre. A lot of this is done with Fielder altering distance of mic to instrument, but also with determinations of vocal manipulations and spatial manipulations of the instrument--sometimes he sings with his throat fully open but a step away from the mic, sometimes full out with the mic a foot away and about six inches below his mouth, sometimes he sings through gritted teeth, or the barest parting of lips, altering his palate and/or jaw in order to achieve different sounds. These can look to be simple performative gestures, and they work as such, but incorporated seamlessly into them are various technical manipulations to particular sonic ends: growling, chanting, plaintive callings, crooning, full out howls, etc. I believe this was all done with a standard SM 58 mic. Fielder has a rich and flexible vocal instrument with hints of Bobby Womack's intonations, Bobby "Blue" Bland's willingness to put it all out there emotionally, and some sweet full tones harkening to Charles Brown appearing in the mix. Additionally, as he proved during the night's homage to Barry White, he can drop it when he needs to, sho you right.

Guitarists Lou Rossi and Benjamin Tyree took on alternating roles during the two sets. Of course the standard deal is having a one guitar on rhythm and one on lead. I wish I could have checked out both Tyree and Rossi's set ups. I could see that Tyree had quite a pedal collection including what looked to be a Boss Mega Distortion, and a host of other Boss or Digitech pedals. Rossi had a Digitech processing box, to which he regularly attended. But the point is they created some beautiful sounds. You can plug as many pedals in as there are satellite dishes in this country but if you haven't developed a voice, body to instrument, it really doesn't matter. Tyree had this way of evoking the most precise utterances, delicate yet so deliberate, it was sure-footed dexterity and then some. Simultaneously, Rossi often was weaving a layered tonal soundbed throughout each song, giving the mid-frequencies substance, and also offering melodic counterpoint at particular junctures--the sort of thing that can just be frequency mud if not done with a careful ear.

I was really pleased to have the opportunity to hear cellist William Martina in the sound mix. It might have been my earplugs or just challenges in mixing the front of house (FOH) sound in a small space with MuthaWit in orchestra form, but I couldn't really hear Martina at the last URB ALT. His tone was thoughtful, meditative, slightly, hmm, melancholic, although the cello's resonance lends itself to that characterization. But there was something there that was held back a little. It created this wistful sentiment under what he was playing. Special. There were also some tension-building accents he achieved through, I believe it's called ricochét or slapping, when the bow is bounced on the strings to rhythmic effect. Besides his arco tone (yes, I'm a freak for timbre), one of my favorite parts of Martina's performance was a section in one of the songs where he played near the frog of the bow (the thick part that's like a little handle), effecting a sensuous rasp that plaintively accompanied the colors of Fielder's vocals and V. Jeffrey Smith's horn playing, respectively.

Regarding the latter, I am kinda speechless thinking about Smith's horn work. He made me bust out in a Kool-aid smile when he was just warming up testing his reeds. I mean, there's a reason why just saying his name causes people to applaud and howl. He's just there. In one instance, Deborah DeSalvo was playing guitar on a deep blues that Fielder sprang on us near the midnight hour ("When It's Time to Go"--and DeSalvo was killing it with her sorrow song sonics, prompting Fielder to close his eyes and intone, "Oh, my Lord"). I watched Smith reach towards his row of horns. His middle and index fingers extended to one and then the other horn, which he then picked up, waited a beat, and started playing. From ten feet away I could feel that energy between him and the brass, a spark traveling from fingers to metal, as though horn and man were of a mind about which connection was going to add a sound that would most speak to the current mix. That was deep. That's a serious kind of musical knowledge and commitment.

The rhythm section of Samuel Fernandez and Jeremy Clemons was deeply grooved. There were so many times when I was just watching Clemons' hands and left foot (I couldn't see the right one), and listening to the kick drum. In the second set there was some great interplay between Fielder and Clemons when Fielder asked Clemons to double-time the rhythm. What was a bluesy melody became a driving punk song without missing a beat. Clemons has a really clean sound as does Fernandez, but there's definite flesh on those sleek bones. The reportedly shy bassist has a deceptively understated stage presence. Fernandez wended through each set with a beautiful full sound, controlled yet fluid, carrying the beat. Every time I focused on listening to him, I was just struck with that steady fluidity, amidst the accented notes, propelling the rhythm forward.

When MuthaWit was done, we weren't. So they gifted us with two more numbers. I can say a fantastic time was had by all. I had hardly slept the night before and was going to leave early to get back home before midnight, but I couldn't go--I had to see how URB ALT ended. So glad I stayed. Throughout the next day I found myself spontaneously singing Barry White, specifically, "I'm Gonna Love You Just A Little More, Baby" and "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up"...

Ain't URB ALT good to you, baby? Sho You Right.

Woodie King Jr.'s Segregating the Greatest Generation

The Black Documentary Collective's New York chapter hosted the screening of pioneering African American theater director and New Federal Theatre founder Woodie King Jr.'s new documentary Segregating the Greatest Generation at Anthology Film Archives on Wednesday, July 18th. King was in attendance along with a some of the film's subjects, including filmmaker William Greaves, Hue Man bookstore owner Clara Villarosa, educator/Tuskegee Airman Dr. Roscoe Brown and architect Don Ryder.
(pictured above, Woodie King, Jr. (left) talks to legendary filmmaker William Greaves after the screening)

The audience was also rich with creative history including, film scholar Clyde Taylor, long-time curator, and black independent film distribution doyenne Michelle Materre (Materre was part of KJM3, the marketing group that formed to distribute Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust) filmmaker Julia O'Farrow who interviewed King following the screening, and filmmaker/editor Nicole Franklin. (pictured right, BDC member and filmmaker Julia O'Farrow introducing Woodie King, Jr.)

The film is a compelling look at artists and media makers, African American and European American, and one Asian American, who came of age during WWII, many of the men having served in the armed forces. King reached out to Black Theater Movement colleagues behind the scenes; the interviews were conducted by directors Shauneille Perry and Irving Vincent. Along with the attendees listed previously, included among the interview subjects are: artist/filmmaker Camille Billops; theater director/historian James Hatch; journalist Evelyn Cunningham; theater director Lloyd Richards; Broadway composer/musical arranger Luther Henderson, Lee Strasberg acting teacher Therese Hayden and theater producer Philip Rose. The film was narrated by Ruby Dee, and had interviews with Ossie Davis before he died. King was fortunate to be able to interview a number of people before they passed, Richards and Henderson among them, truly a poignant aspect of the work. (pictured left, Clyde Taylor(left) and Dr. Roscoe Brown talk to an audience member)

The film was overflowing with stories, as was the audience. I was fortunate to receive additional information about the film and its subjects from both Materre and Franklin. Apparently King has some 20 hours of interviews to edit from. There was detailed reminiscing from Phillip Rose, about meeting and befriending Lorraine Hansberry whose play Raisin In the Sun, he produced, and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee who he would later work with on Davis' musical Purlie. Lloyd Richards talked about his early years in Detroit, creating theater groups and early theater education. Luther Henderson supplied the trajectory of his experience growing up in Harlem, attending Juilliard, working with Duke Ellington, and carrying a letter of introduction from Ellington into the army in the hopes he'd get a position with an entertainment division. He did, and ended up staging large shows in the military, and from somewhat accidentally ended up working in musical theater, as Henderson gives a coyly understated narrative King shows some of his credits: Ain't Misbehavin; Funny Girl, Flower Drum Song, and Jelly's Last Jam. Ironically, in the case of both King, Richards, and to a lesser extent Henderson, the lack of opportunities on stage lead to them acquiring skills integral to the actual mounting of a production, and running a theater, enabling a whole new generation of actors, directors, and playwrights to develop their craft. (above right, Michelle Materre, Woodie King, Jr, and William Greaves)

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the father of longtime Japanese American arts administrator, Natsu Ifill (Harlem Arts Alliance, Frank Silvera Writer's Workshop, La MaMa, NYC Dept. of Culural Affairs), was deported to Japan. Ifill and her remaining family were interned in camps during the remainder of WWII. Ifill talked about how little people were allowed to take (1 suitcase per person) and that you had to bring your own sheets. The barracks housing with shared bathroom facilities with other families and whole families living in a single room. The camps had doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. But the supervisors were all anglos, and while they made $10K/year, the Japanese American professionals working under them made approximately $16/month (!) according to Ifill. She noted that years went by and suddenly the U.S. government realized they had created another Indian Reservation scenario, with a whole potential underclass of Japanese Americans. So the government established employment training centers in the camps. Ifill took secretarial course, when she was released from the camps she applied to work for the U.S. military in a civilian foreign service position in the hopes of getting placed in Japan so she could visit her parents, which she did on the weekends for two years of the job. She didn't continue with the position because, understandably, she didn't want to work for the U.S. military indefinitely. It wasn't clear if she got to see them again after that. (pictured above right, Michelle Materre and Gregory Gates of imagenation)

Pittsburgh Courier journalist Evelyn Cunningham related the experience of getting to fulfill her dream of becoming a reporter as a result of WWII, as many of the male reporters were drafted into the military. One of her stories included risking her life trying to get an interview from Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama, and participating in a sit-in during the 1960s—so scary, because she was a woman none of the male cops would touch her until they got a woman into the diner to take her away, so she was left alone there, terrified, with the racist patrons who also didn't touch her, instead each one spewed a river of invective at her; she said it was worse than being hit. Nevertheless Cunningham clearly loved her career, having met and interviewed every history maker she wanted to, and successfully negotiating quite a bit of amorous attention. The elegant Cunningham, also a founding member of The Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc., mentioned she could write about book about all the times she was hit on while reporting. A classy lady now, she was a stunner in the pictures from the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Ossie Davis told of the desegregation of his base being prompted by a black soldier of large stature who felt he was constantly being targeted by white soldiers, particularly white MPs. This soldier stole a military vehicle with a mounted gun and killed a number of soldiers, from the sounds of it, mainly other African Americans before taking his own life. Perhaps fearing an wave of violence from similarly demoralized African American troops the unit immediately desegregated. (above left, (l-r)Dr. Roscoe Brow, Louise Greaves, Woodie King, Jr. and Don Ryder)

Dr. Brown spoke about being a Tuskegee Airman and the flying instruction of the day. Brown flew a number of highly successful, and was received awards for his military service. When he returned from the war he attended graduate school and got his doctorate, eventually becoming a professor at City College of New York (CUNY). Interestingly enough, as a decorated veteran he had some really stirring comments about the nature of war in latter half of the 2oth century and now the beginning of the 21st. Unfortunately, I'm not able to do it justice here, but he said something to the effect that WWII was the last war where there was a clear enemy that people could unite against that was doing something clearly horrible—killing people because of their ethnic/racial identity. They were fascists, of course there was also fascism being practiced in the U.S. Now, people try to use war to solve ideological problems that can’t be resolved by dropping bombs on people. Warfare isn’t an applicable method of resolution for our current geo-political conflicts. Now why isn’t anybody in the White House willing to admit that?

King was motivated to document these stories because of journalist Tom Brokaw’s landmark book, The Greatest Generation, which only had one(!) African American interviewee, and no mention of the Tuskegee Airmen. King asked Brokaw about that stunning omission, and Brokaw responded that his researchers(!) hadn’t found anything on that subject(!), and it wasn’t brought to his attention. Say what?! In addition, Clint Eastwood's WWI epic Flags of Our Fathers (2006; again with the mama's baby, papa's maybe, racially stratified paterfamilias narrative: whose fathers?) omitting the presence of African American soldiers when the flag was raised at Iwo Jima, provided another incentive for putting these stories on screen. A number of African American WWII veterans relayed to King that there was "a whole wall of black folks watching" as the flag was raised on Iwo Jima, but the newsreel cameramen and photographers wouldn’t put them on film. So there’s no “official” record of black soldiers being there. But having the resources of a Clint Eastwood, including having a wife who’s a journalist, would seem to belie the impossibility of getting information to verify and correct the “official record.” These historical revisions imply that African Americans were just laying back somewhere, having avoided mandatory service, waiting for it all to be over so they could celebrate the good times to come (hmm, good times like redlining, lynching, jim crow?)

King mentioned that Spike Lee has announced that he’s making a WWII film, also motivated by the stories of black WWII veterans. That's great, the more mediums in which the stories are circulated, the better. I was really happy to see what Woodie King Jr. had created. It's the best way to make a difference—not just craft a response to a specific injustice, but to create something that can stand on it’s own.

(pictured above, (l-r) Dr. Roscoe Brown, Louise Greaves, Woodie King, Jr., Clara Villarosa, William Greaves, Don Ryder)

Michelle Materre reminded us of how important this sort of documentation is, letting us know that we had lost another storyteller/history maker earlier that day with the passing of poet/performer Sekou Sundiata, who was also a colleague of Materre's at the New School for Social Research. Materre lamented the possibility that no one had archived interviews with him. This prompted me into research mode, of course, and I found some audio interviews available on the internet (more on this soon). In the meantime, various poets, writers, and performers have been sending their memories of Sundiata across the internet, and the New York Times noted his passing as well.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Color Line @ Jack Shainman Gallery

This week I went to see The Color Line at the Jack Shainman Gallery. This show was curated by artist Odili Donald Odita around the theme of relationships to Africa, the diaspora, and well, color. It featured artists of African descent from the U.S., the Caribbean, and the African continent. Of the exhibit's theme Odita's statement offers the following:

In The Color Line, my main point of investigation is the relationship these selected artists have in their line of aesthetic inquiry with Africa and its Diaspora, as well as with intellectual notions of black, white and color as formats utilized to signify race and culture. Furthermore, I want to look into the psychological condition of black and white. This is not and exhibition about formalism in contemporary art, on the contrary, this is an exhibition about the specific, complex and rich ideas these artists are investigating within their individual practices that have a direct or remote relation to Africa. And in turn, I want to consider the complex conditions of African identity within a global context.

To me, as an viewer, that's already a lot to consider, but there's another five paragraphs discussing "BLACK & WHITE", "COLOR," and "METHOD." This likely of great contextual aid for participating artist, and is helpful to me as a researcher to have some context for the show. However, as a viewer it gave me rather a lot to consider as I surveyed the breadth of work Odita has presented.

Having said that, I do think that it is a wonderfully ambitious exhibit. Whether or not you end up feeling that the works in evidence did collectively create a coherent engagement with Odili's theme(s), it is undeniably a timely conversation. I'm not sure if a consistent feeling of coherence would be possible, there are so many perspectives on display, from different geographical, historical, generational, and ethnic/racial backgrounds. Also, though this was a highly conceptual show, it is a gallery setting. So the mounting layout is set up for commerce; viewers have to circulate through the space with the exhibition sheet listing of artists names, date(s) of art work, artistic medium, prices and thumbnail images to match the spare descriptions with the works. I'm pleased that the artists have a high profile opportunity to sell their work (a stand-alone piece from Nick Cave's Sound Suit project sold for $30,000; pictured left). Concurrently, I would have wished for artist statements to accompany the work, some of which had been completed a number of years in advance of the show and some, notably Nigerian expatriate artist, curator, poet, and art historian Olu Oguibe's take on colonial power, spectacle, and gender, Game, were created this year according to the artist listing (note: an interview with Oguibe in BOMB Magazine lists the date of the work as 2003). (pictured right, partial view of Game)

My favorite pieces were probably the two videos by Argentinian artist Miguel Angel Rios, Return and Love. In the first a silent field of wooden spinning tops, trompos, painted a matte-finish black, begins to reanimate, slowly spinning to full speed away from and around each other. In Love, two spinning tops painted white on one side and black on the other spin towards each other alternating repelling and attracting each other, sometimes black-to-white sometimes white-to-white, sometimes black-to-black, but can never sustain either stance, finally falling still against each other. Angel Rios, who started out as a painter but has changed mediums recently, makes use of the ambient sounds of the spinning tops themselves, but also creates an evocative digitally processed soundscape for his metaphorical narratives. (above right, an image from Angel Rios' three channel projection A Morir from the Hirshhorn Museum)

I was also struck by the image from exiled Cuban photographer Maria Magdalena
Campos-Pons, When I Am Not Here of a woman wearing the white and red colors of Santa Barbara as narrow painted lines the length of her face and as beading in her hair, with her own skin and hair as the third color of the Saint, black. I do wish this image was better.

One reason I attended was the opportunity to see more of Carl Pope's work. He employs the neighborhood placards that many in African American urban communities take for granted as lo-tech marketing tools of the past. Pope utilizes that familiarity and turns it on its head creating something like a philosophical trickster marketing campaign in the process. The one I resonated with turned out to be a quote by Australian artist Tracey Moffatt (thanks to S.D. for that info:

The other quote is a favorite of my friend Q, but I don't know to whom it is originally attributed:

Some other images from the show: a watercolor by Senam Okudzeto:

Fred Holland's 10 Elements (yams, gold, accupuncture needles)

(detail from 10 Elements)

(detail from 10 Elements)

In the background U.S. artist Rashid Johnson's Stay Black and Die, in the foreground Surinamean artist Remy Jungerman's Nobody Is Protected.

Johnson's Signed Amiri Baraka Civil Rights All-Star Throwback Dashiki

's Communication Tree

Detail from Kerry James Marshall's RYTHM MASTR

Monday, July 16, 2007

URB ALT Grand Finale: Sat, 21 July @ the Shrine, 7pm

Thanks to Boston Fielder for mentioning this blog's write-up of the URB ALT Festival in URB ALT's blog. Fielder called for folks to support those of us blogging about "indie endeavors," which I appreciate, and also try to do. 'Cause otherwise I wouldn't know about half the stuff I get to experience. Same positive energy put forth by Cinqué Hicks artist, conceptualizer, and publisher of Code Z: black visual culture now (a publication seriously worth checking out) regarding arts bloggers in the ATL, where I had roots for awhile (but you never really leave the South...).

I blog on a rather eclectic range of subject matter: all kinds of music, new media art, experimental literature & poetry, visual culture & film, 19th century German composers and poets, Crispus Attucks, seeming Afro-futurist (cf. Carbonist) subject matter, etc. (Fielder noted this variety with a shout out to the self-reproducing hammerhead shark in Omaha, Nebraska which I mentioned here). If you're visiting at Fielder's suggestion, thanks for stopping by.

For those who can't wait until this Saturday for their URB ALT fix, here's a little sample of an April '07 MuthaWit performance.

URB ALT Festival 2007 Grand Finale
*Homage to Barry White*
Saturday, 21 July 2007
Shrine World Music Venue

MuthaWit: It'll Make You Feel Better @ The Shrine, 4/21/07

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Writers Like Who? Me, You?....Black Like Who? Black Like Where?

Note(19 July): After getting some feedback on this post, I realized I hadn't made clear the intent of the multiple queries which appear subsequent to my Oyeyemi discussion. I've made some edits which appear in green.

I've been doing a lot of commuting lately. Normally I do research on the train, but on the last two trips I opted to take 22-year-old wunderkind Nigerian-British writer Helen Oyeyemi's recently published second novel, The Opposite House (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). I'm only half-way through. (pictured left, Helen Oyeyemi)

Don't you hate it when people write about books before they've finished them?

Yes, me too. And I just listened to NPR Book Critic Maureen Corrigan's confession of having raved to a crowd in a bookstore about an author's book after only getting 66.6% of the way through. You guessed it, the last 33.33333...% filled her with chagrin as endless as that repeating decimal (sorry, I couldn't resist).

But I am writing this as a note to myself; anyone else who might happen to read it will just have to take my opining with a grain of salt.

There I was in the train with the greenery rushing by feeling like I was reading something that seemed so familiar to perhaps the way many black writers in the U.S. are forging stories, in fact quite similar to that of a black women's writing group former colleague of mine whom I've lost track of, but I hope is still writing: poetic, stream of consciousness, non-linear, layered, episodic. No, this isn't an "hey, I could've done that!" post. It's a post about how sometimes people have to make their own inroads into a form in order to be able to employ it for their own needs--shred it, rip it apart, re-order it, change the definers of its traditional elements (what is a protagonist? What is time? What is place?) while maintaining others so as to get the audience to trust the author's authority enough to follow him/her...illuminated breadcrumbs for the unlit path.

Thinking about Martha Southgate's recent assessment of the state of African American literary fiction and its writers in her New York Times Book Review article, "Writers Like Me," which I've noted in this blog previously. Not surprisingly, if electronic anecdotal evidence is to be believed, African American writers and writers groups from across the country are widely circulating and discussing Southgate's depiction of economically cautious writers facing starting their careers later in life (if at all), publishing houses more concerned with the bottom line than publishing literary works from a culturally diverse array of talented U.S. writers, editors with an unfortunate lack of cultural literacy when it comes to African American life, and traditionally monochromatic professional networks.

As for Oyeyemi's novel, so far brilliant--she makes very hard work look quite easy, and has an incredible eye for small details that create devastatingly poignant characterizations, quite interesting pacing as well, as she's spinning two different narratives with distinct, but related rhythms. (pictured left to right: Helen Oyeyemi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Aminatta Forna at AFRICAN VISIONS 2005 Think Africa: A Festival of African Literature, Culture and Politics; photo by Rousha Browning)

While the train clogged past the scenery this thought popped into my head: "we were born in the wrong country to be black writers."

But then I thought of the cultural centrism of which African Americans have been accused lately, by both African American writers and recent immigrants of African descent who don't want to be lumped into a mass African American or black American identity. Although I wasn't thinking of Oyeyemi as "black like me," I realized that what was being embraced about her work, as per usual for trans-national folks, is this narrative of displacement which is primarily told through the struggle of the individual to find a place of belonging. In The Opposite House, it's told through the struggle of two individuals whose contexts give a sense of the communal that is elemental in notions of "community" and/or "culture." However, each of those two characters are isolated from each other and seemingly from those around them, by a thin membrane richly diffused with self-doubt, anxious nostalgia, intangible loss, self-censoring silence, the otherworldly and even vague ennui buffers and impedes their ability to consistently connect with others including family and friends--one character, an "Orisha emissary" is altogether without friends, and barely has family; her ancestral spirits are both her strength and her bane. These immigrant narratives of displacement used to be referred to with the line, "y'know, it's a New Yorker story." The magazine, not the state of mind.

In The Opposite House, there's a wonderful re-occurring motif of hysteria, it becomes its own character and more substantive than Freudian metaphor, its frequent visitations mark the dissonance between the moment when young women feel most compelled to speak and they are simultaneously most oppressively silenced. In the NPR interview I linked to above with Oyeyemi's name, it is one of African American journalist Michel Martin's favorite elements and she speaks to Oyeyemi about this, and asks her to read a passage which describes this character.

Why does this, often intergenerational, tale of displacement prove so popular? Well, what's key about these novels is that the struggles are internal, they are not the en masse struggles of a community or culture. But how could one write about these issues in wholistic terms? Why would one? However, the disquieting result of the protagonist centric storytelling is while an author avoids a reductive flattened portrait of "a people," as well as the worst pitfalls of the so-called "social protest novel" an author, particularly if s/he chooses to work in Western narrative forms, has to conform and/or confine the story to one, maybe two, lead characters, or a protagonist and an antagonist. Really, what I mean to say is that we get one point of view at a time, but the reality of dealing with the various communities in which African Americans exist and negotiate, sometime simultaneously in one day, is there is always more than one point of view happening; overlapping micro and macro narratives and often people inhabiting those multiplicities have a conscious sensation of that experience.

I do think that Oyeyemi captures this sensation more effectively, viscerally and mentally, than much of what I have read as of late. But, admittedly I haven't been reading much recent traditional literary fiction by African American writers. Why? Hmm... I guess I've been frustrated. I didn't even realize that Victor LaValle ( Slapboxing With Jesus, The Ecstatic) needed Martha Southgate to put him on an overlooked African American writers list she assembled to accompany her New York Times article, until I saw his name (the Queens, New York native LaValle, by the way, is part Ugandan, on his mother's side).

It's curious that Oyeyemi has recounted that when she was writing her first novel, The Icarus Girl, she did not consciously think of herself as writing a novel. Not until after sending what she thought was a short story to a new literary agent, Robin Wade, to get his advice on her writing style. Oyeyemi "wanted him to take me seriously, so having only written about 20 pages, I told him I’d written 150 pages and would finish the novel soon!" Wade told her he'd burnt his toast reading those first pages, requested more, and that he wanted to represent her. She famously completed the novel while studying for her A-levels (make or break secondary school final exams/college entrance requirements), and inked a two-book deal with Bloomsbury.

This got me thinking about the romance that some scholars and literary people in the U.S. have with the post-colonial. It has also been an area popular with U.S. activists who would focus on justice in Latin America while ignoring the race-based inequalities in their own neighborhood (sometimes right across the street). But the romance of the reader with the solitary post-colonial émigré protagonist allows for a mystification of both the larger issues that initiated that immigration, and the socio-political relations with the colonizing country. In The Opposite House, Oyeyemi's characters are Cuban émigrés the child who was born there has barely a handful of memories, and the parents who left have an ambivalent relationship with Castro and the revolution not the issues of injustice that led to that upheaval. Fortunately, for the U.S. publisher, Nan A. Talese, the relationship to the U.S. doesn't figure in the story at all. This is the problem of course for U.S. publishers considering African American work, the discomfort with the figuring of the U.S. in the story. And not some vague shadowy Uncle Sam, but neighbors, teachers, bosses, the easy cruelty and hostile indifference of white children whose portraits perhaps seem a little too close to home.

On the train I thought about whether it would be more palatable to those publishers, and perhaps the marketing department What if black writers could write about displacement, anxious nostalgia, hysteria, ambiguous loss and identity in a manner that didn't stick a narrowed finger to a longstanding civil wound? Would that allow us more publishing opportunities? If we could talk about our displacement as something that happened "over there" or in the distance traveled between "over here" and "over there?" If we each were, or each had an ancestor who was, implicated by the agency of choice in our legacy of mass migration to this country, wouldn't that be different? If each of us had an "over there" that we in operable theory could go back to; it might be a bombed crater instead of the house or village we or our parents knew, but we'd know the name of the streets, or what their names used to be, or that of the man or woman who used to sell our favorite________ from a cart in the street, and the woman or man who got "too much of the white man's education 'over there' in the land of the ghost-devil," so they came back not quite right but everyone helped them by having their children take piano lessons from them, even if the parents could only pay with food, or hemming faded "ghost-devil land" suits and thinning dresses.

But ancestrally, I mean the language that issues from the marrow, black writers were brought to the colony, and colonized, or is it that we were colonized and then brought to the colony? Whichever, it is about the colony and colonization that we write, past, present, and future--even if just marginally, even if the sentiments are embossed as fog, the faintest palimpsest. I sometimes think that when we write, when we insist on doing so, the reading of those words touches some secret wound in the elite that guards the gates to the printed word. Those words weren't supposed to be for us. We weren't ever supposed to be able to tell our stories. We weren't ever supposed to know that the labor of our ancestors bought our progress, the crowns of Baldwin's famous quote, but they also bought the iron, and ornamental welding that bends and arcs that metal into the beautiful and intimidating demarcation of "inside" and "outside" of, to get Bourdieuan, "taste" and "tastelessness." Slavery, desegregation busing, segregation, redlining, are not topics for "polite conversation." When inside those rarified rooms some white person speaks wistfully of what it would have been like to live in the days of X or Y author, I've often realized that many white people have conveniently forgotten Jim Crow, or the reason why there are American Associations of ____ and National Associations of ______ , because the former professional organizations racially excluded African Americans and so African Americans formed the latter. The irony being that when the former ended its racist policies the National institutions experienced brain drain. If we were to create a speculative fiction of our post-colonial situation analogous to that of African-British, African-French, Caribbean-British, Caribbean-Dutch, Indian-British, writers, could we count those "American" organizations as Were those our little countries? Were they our small, under-developed nations from which we migrated after various layerings of U.S. domestic policy (as opposed to multi-national Western foreign policy) and the unexpected challenges of having achieved integration (as opposed to national independence) exhausted us? Left us searching for a better life, a place of peace, if only in our own homes after we turned the key in the lock?

Ah (insert wistful sarcasm here), if only black writers could write about that place as though it were another country that did not potentially implicate every white person (none of whom would be of our "nation"): the white person who created a breeze as they hurriedly passed an inch away from us on the way to the pharmacy, or to pick up their child from daycare; the white person with whom we unintentionally, but nonetheless intimately, shared a breath on a crowded subway, or a packed concert, calling out the praises of a beloved musician.

In the U.S. South there are times when blacks and whites are practically up underneath each others' skin. This is a tangible sensation in the South, but it is not isolated to the South. It is a particular and a peculiar institutional legacy. To be clear here, I'm not talking about sexual violence during slavery and the children who were thusly conceived. I am talking about centuries of trafficking in bodies, of incarcerating care and circumscribing emotional display in ways that meant that bodies that did not own themselves were forced to care for, feed, bathe, wash the "unmentionables" and play dumb to the secrets of, provide mothers milk for, bodies that did own themselves and owned these supplying bodies and it was at their will that these bodies were allowed to give or not to themselves or their kin (time, love, water, plaiting of hair, washing of feet). And of course these bodies were people, not property, not a social problem, not incarceration data, not asthma or HIV-serio conversion numbers. They were flesh and blood layers of humaness: humane, troubled, morally upright, morally ambiguous, loving, seething, despairing, insane, joyful (maybe not by our standards), or perhaps at any given moment all of the above.

All that ambiguity of identity and intimacy still characterizes a tender-fleshed place in this country's history. Why else do predominantly white cast movies still include the lone Magic Negro character? Do white people with power and the audiences to whom they call themselves catering, still want Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben to make it all better with some witty homily, and do it with a smile that denies any desire that Aunt or Uncle would rather be giving that wisdom to a daughter or a nephew, or their own selves? I don't know if the commercial publishing industry as it now exist really wants to invest in U.S. black literary writers who have found new ways to tell about the membranes, the scrims, the unique layers of fleshy torque, digestive tract wreath, neurological circuitry, etc., of this America, of this American history. Do you?

Endnote I: Oyeyemi is on her way to Columbia University to get an MFA in Creative Writing. Why? Because she wants to teach creative writing. That does tell you something about the economics power and authority in the literary world. I'm not saying there's nothing to be gained by getting an MFA, but the classic reason given is the desire to better one's writing (when you're getting rave reviews from the NYTBR, the Washington Post, the Guardian UK and your first novel, The Icarus Girl, was short-listed for the Commonwealth Prize it could be argued, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"). Oyeyemi may not have a lot of years behind her, but she understands the dynamics of power and institutions: she's young, a woman, black (even if a London-raised British accented Nigerian is a more palatable embodiment of blackness in the U.S.), scary-brilliant, soft-spoken with a high-girlish tone of voice--though it is often weighted by the headiness of her considerations--getting the MFA stamp will make her life a lot easier.