Monday, September 07, 2015

Black Choreographer Festival Here & Now Bustin' Out of February

August 15, 2015 BCF Summer Festival @ Laney College

As I stood in the hallway, just enjoying the afterglow of great art – simply fabulous performances from start to finish, Dr. Albirda Rose speaks of visitations from ancestors – lots of them. Kendra Kimbrough shares her recent dreams about the importance of the work she is doing, passing it on. I am just listening as I wait for the Internet reception, then the phone dies. I find $20 and buy Delina Patrice Brooks’s book, “An Open Love Letter to Black Fathers: A Choreopoem,” much of it performed during the first half of the amazing Summer Showcase “Celebrating Legacy.”

Antoine Hunter’s "Black Music is Repetition" and "Our Brother Dying" with Paunika Jones were both amazing work. Antoine spoke to me earlier this week about his brother, Aaron Hunter’s death. He was shot and killed during an armed robbery. No, not in Oakland, in Lafayette. Just 36, the man in five years, got his GED, AA, and BA degrees and was just admitted into a graduate program. He left behind, besides a brother and sister and parents, five children. Antoine told me how the police and media wanted to paint Aaron as a criminal, that he was a drug dealer and deserved what happened to him, as if anyone deserves a violent end to his life. Later reports told a fuller story.

Slander, this slander on the one year anniversary of Michael Brown and the #BlackLivesMatter, Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, I Can’t Breathe. . . scenarios and the latest, woman killed over a contested traffic stop. Well really, ? was killed because she was not cowered by white supremacy . . . we see the trauma of all this in the character Antoine creates in “Our Brother Dying,” to Max Roach’s We Insist! Abby Lincoln’s wail opens the work, which was banded from commercial radio. The cover was too inflammatory and who was this woman, wailing over the death of black people? Even then, before #BlackLivesMatter, Max Roach’s revolutionary music was saying it really loud—I am black and I’m here to stay!

In the first piece, Antoine is on stage both using ASL and dancing, the word “Repetition” scrolls across the back wall, a canvas filled with words which turn into scrambled letters juxtaposed with the ocean covering the shore, waves rolling toward us. Dressed in dark slacks, he slips on a tie and the stage goes dark and we move into the next scene.
Clearly this black man is in despair; however, a black woman character, dressed in tutu and on pointe clearly has other ideas. He is not going to be sacrificed; she helps him up and through a series of movements . . . shifts the trajectory towards hope.

Paunika Jones’s appearance from the wings is unexpected and necessary; similar to the way girls need their fathers, even imperfect ones, even fathers who have spent time in prison for horrific deeds, especially fathers who admit they’re not perfect, yet try hard to disentangle themselves from the heterosexual programming which kills something precious and worth preserving in their souls – souls reflected in the eyes of their daughters who are watching. Antoine believes in Paunika’s “woman goddess,” who believes in him and together he stabilizes himself enough to walk, dance, continue . . . if only on the other side, which in the last work, “Our Brother,” is porous. His life energy, a libation is poured in multiple directions—Aaron Hunter, now an ancestor.  Ashay! Ashay! Ashay-o!

“Motherless Child,” choreographed by Robert Moses, with Crystaldawn Bell was lovely. The dancer lived the song which was for some reason not at all sad. Sometimes mother’s die, but this does not mean the child has to give up hope and die too. Bell’s character danced for the mother she did not know; she danced for the person she grew into without this tangible presence. The soul of mother fueled the movement. No one is really motherless. For nine months she had her, and for this character, who is not dismayed or discouraged, this is enough.

Lots of strong womanist work this evening (smile).

“Disequilibria” (Work in progress) by Raissa Simpson featured lines (elastic bands) stretched across the stage which the dancers interacted with as the narrative—stories about gender and race, naming and misnamed, silences and spaces without silence, we watched the characters navigate tight spaces, narrow definitions, with difficulty and ease when they stepped from the social constraints or just refused to believe in the barriers, which then opened up to more possibilities.

Yes, it was abstract. “An Open Love Letter. . .” (excerpt) was about the most literal work this evening, even the opening work, “At the Playground,” (choreographers: Phylicia Stroud, Marianna Hester, and Ebonie Barnett) which featured some amazing young women from the company, On Demand— How complex can it get on the playground, right? Well according to the girls who performed, from the tiniest to the tallest, deep stuff happens on the playground, as it should. 

The playground is the best locale to work through the difficulties and the dancers certainly possessed the perfect tools, creativity, rhythm and talent. The girls were so articulate, even when I got lost in the conversation. I knew I just wasn’t listening correctly. I need a diction lesson (smile).

“Drop-bend” (premiere) by Gregory Dawson, parts 2 and 3 following the premiere of DENT in February. With a visual landscape as well as a musical one, the choreography set between and within the ideological subtleties. I don’t remember DENT, but Drop – Bend interrogated automation verses freedom. How long will people put up with following the prescribed course before literally busting loose?
Can’t hold down the rebel spirit – there are large gestures and bold movements. Just as things are about to deteriorate the terrain shifts to percussion and a soloist rewrites the script—this is followed by lovely work with three male dancers, followed by the company. The gestures grow large and hard to ignore, like the music, like change for the better.

Drop Bend Dent will be performed at ODC in San Francisco in November.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Grounded" also at Ubuntu Theater

Review by Wanda Sabir

Don’t miss “Grounded” by George Brant, directed by Emilie Whelan. Heather Ramey’s performance at the Oakland Aviation Museum, is awesome! We are in a hanger with airplanes surrounding us, one overhead. It is really really cool.  Intimate, there is a tiny stage and a table and chair, which provides the space for the narrative to unfold – there is desert in Nevada and Desert Storm in Iraq.  The parallels pile up unevenly and fall in a heap. We meet the pilot as she crawls from below—

The highly decorated, snazzy Major is good at what she does, fly. She is so good, the men see her as one of the boys. Most men she tells us are intimidated by her wings and her love of the Blue, but then she meets her match and goes flying and dropping bombs to sitting in a chair and navigating a drone.  

In both cases, she is fighting for her country.

Flying by the seat of her pants, means she is not in physical danger, and can go home every night to her family, but who gives the United States the right to play God?

It is a riveting work which looks at post-traumatic stress syndrome. The pilot’s melt down is subtle, but recognizable. It happens quickly or so it seems.  The fact that her commanding officer notices the signs and lets her crash speaks to the stigma mental illness carries, even today.

The director, Emilie Whelan says of Grounded, “The play is an act of confession, an act of brave confession in which [the pilot] must take stock in the actions that have led to this moment. Memory, the past, is a funny and fickle thing that too easily slips away if it is not recalled intentionally. Grounded recalls a contemporary isolation that is hard to bear.”

Harmful events which are beyond what is reasonable to expect, cause trauma. These experiences are not stored in places memories are normally stored. Our minds take information and creates connections between the new material and what is already stored. With trauma, which is an experience outside the norm, there is nothing to compare it to, so it is sublimated. Sublimated, it is hard to retrieve. These memories can show up in reenactments or dreams or not at all. Yet, even when unrecognized or irretrievable, these experiences can affect our behavior. We see this in Grounded, as the pilot’s 12 hours watching a grey screen in a dark trailer bleeds into her reality and the two become inseparable.

Haunted.  Ghosts stock her, and because the job is classified, she cannot share her burden with her husband who loves her or even the therapist he talks her into visiting. “Grounded” is certainly a play that should have all of us picking up our phones to demand that soldiers have mental health support before they have a crisis, and that officers take their soldiers’ mental health seriously. I guess we should really think about a war where people are killed by a mouse click on a screen. There is something unethical and cowardly about a fight where machines shoot people from the sky. America can see the prey, but the predator is hidden. There is no honor in such a fight.  Again site specific, George Brant’s play, “Grounded,” at the Oakland Aviation Museum, 8252 Earhart Road, Oakland, closes August 15, 8 p.m. For all the details visit 

Ubuntu Theater Project's The Brothers Size

Deleon Dallas’s Ogun Size hugs his brother
Terrance White’s Oshoosi Size

The Brothers Size, by Tarell Alvin McCraney @  Ubuntu Theatre
A review by Wanda Sabir

Ubuntu Theater’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size is simply phenomenal. Let’s start by saying this theatre company which has distinguished itself with a remarkable three summer tenure is amazing when you learn that the directors and most of the cast are students or alumni of the University of California, San Diego, that is, seeped in academia the rest of the year—Lucky for Bay Area theatre lovers, Ubuntu is their practicum for a few months each summer.

Wednesday evening, my friend and I are driving down San Pablo looking for a garage, as in repair shop. This is where The Brothers Size is staged. I am looking, pass the garage and have to turn around. When we pull up we see a sign, and three actors walk by us. We hurriedly close the car doors and follow the cast into the rear of the shop where there are folding chairs for the audience; the seat of a vehicle which doubles as Oshoosi’s bed, complete with a teddy bear, is in front of us along with cars in various stages of repair. We learn later that Oshoosi believes in Santa Claus. You have to love a man who admits this at twenty-one. 

Big brother, Ogun Size works on cars. It’s his gift.  He and iron get along well. The ore speak to him and he can make engines purr and horns sing basslines. He’s happy his kid brother is back from a stint in prison. Like all families of incarcerated persons, he suffered and felt the bars surrounded him just like his brother. When Oshoosi walked back into his brother’s arms, both experienced freedom.

Oshoosi is the talkative brother. Ogun is annoyed and happy to hear the chatter. Cars and metal don’t fill the space like another human being does. Handsome, yet practical, Ogun has been taking care of Oshoosi for most of his life, at least since their mother died and their Aunt Ellegua reluctantly took the boys in. They laugh about it as adults, but one can see the pain, loneliness and abandonment the two experienced as children.

Actor, Deleon Dallas’s Ogun Size is a man of few words but with a large heart, while Terrance White’s Oshoosi Size has a youthful exuberance that is contagious.  We can see in Ogun’s eyes pride in his little brother who has big dreams and the intelligence to succeed in whatever he puts his mind too. As he listens to his brother speak about his dreams of travel and college, he worries about Oshoosi, what he attracts and what he can’t see in others whom attach themselves to his good nature like lint or cockleburs. Elegba (actor William H.P.), a man he met in prison is like this. Ogun tells his brother, “you don’t meet friends in prison,” yet Oshoosi doesn’t understand what his elder brother means until it’s too late. 

William H.P.’s Elegba in center
This is a story about black gods who are reduced to playing out their huge lives on a stage drafted by their magnificence. Even William H.P.’s Elegba is larger than the town which threatens the dignity of every black resident. The one policeman, a black man, sees as his duty one of humiliation towards every black citizen. That Elegba works at a funeral home, could foreshadow the death sentence lingering in the shadows.

Brothers Size have each other. Elegba seems an outsider. He latches onto Oshoosi like a puppy eager for a home. The home he knows best is prison, while Oshoosi is free and does not plan to return. There is a subtle conditioning we see in Elegba’s aura, absent in his friend’s. It is Ogun who holds the space for his brother, even after he gets too old for lullabies, to feel freedom. Ogun tries to give his brother space to live his life and make his mistakes, but Oshoosi doesn’t have the luxury of living and learning. No black man does. One mistake and the living is gone. Lessons are costly for the Size brothers.

Ogun is practical. He loves Oya , but knows he cannot compete when she turns her gaze towards Shango. Shango is a player; he also has Oshun.  The god of iron and war, the goddess of the winds and rains, hurricanes, storms; the goddess of beauty and love . . . meet at the crossroads (Elegba). Choices have to be made. What will be the outcome for the Size men?

Directed by Keith Wallace, with Stephanie Ann Johnson’s lighting design, Steve Leffue’s sound design, Mary Hill’s set and Candance Thomas’s vocal couching and directing, the weather Wednesday evening was lighting with occasional sprinkles. The drama enhanced the production, especially when the men sang the prologue, then again when Oshoosi and Elegba danced – it was more deceptive. An Elegba kept entangling Oshoosi who was finding it harder and harder to escape the widening net–

Ogun dreams as they dance, then wakes to a premonition he cannot articulate.

There are many moments like this, where time stands still – dark moments, moments where the humidity moans and mosquitos buzz and bite.  Sitting with an umbrella up in the second row worked out pretty well since there was no on behind us. I was amazed that Ubuntu theatre (for this production) is in an auto garage and yes, it was cold.

Bring a blanket and wear a coat. Bring a hot beverage in a thermos too.  Ubuntu co-founder, Colin Blattel and his mother traveled by car from Oakland to Albany or further on San Pablo Avenue looking for a garage to sponsor the play. The shops were not clamoring to say yes, but I would certainly support a shop that supports Ubuntu Theatre. The neighbors called the police multiple times during the first few days, requiring the theatre to get permits and still the neighbors didn’t check out the theatre and the performance. Perhaps they will before the show closes Wednesday-Saturday, August 19-22.

The Brothers Size is the new premiere this season. Grounded and Waiting for Lefty are back. Crying Holy opened the season. Again site specific, George Brant’s play, “Grounded” is at the Oakland Aviation Museum, 8252 Earhart Road, Oakland for one week, closing August 15, 8 p.m., and Clifford Odet’s Waiting for Lefty is at Classic Cars West, 411 26th Street, September 3-12, Wednesday-Sunday. I don’t see that Maya is being performed this year. There is no show, Sept. 11. For all the details visit

For a recent interview listen at:

Friday, August 07, 2015

Wanda's Picks Friday, August 7, 2015

Take this link and spread the word about this marvelous show:

Thanks Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, The Brothers Size cast (Umbuntu Theatre) and Michelle Jacques, Chelle's Juke Joint, for a great show which moved between human rights for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Americans; to The Brother's Size, a play that looks at the effects of this system on a family in a small Louisiana town, to closing with Michelle Jacques, a NOLA native, whose culture work with indigenous American-African music resonates with the rhythms and consciousness of "home" and "belonging" for those who through what Dorsey calls, "structural discrimination," might be scattered and displaced, but are not forgotten -- at least not by us, and we are mighty (smile). Michelle's music, as all art does, like Tarell McCraney, playwright, has done with the work, The Brothers Size, humanizes the experience of fraternal love and elevates it to divinity or god consciousness. If you do not know McCraney's work (MacArthur genius awardee), then Umbuntu's staging, with phenomenal direction, is a great entry to his work. This story carried by these remarkable black men, actors: Deleon Dallas (Ogun Size), Terrance White (Oshoosi Size), and William H.P. (Elegba), is awesome. Don't miss it.

Description from website:

This is a black arts and culture site. We will be exploring the African Diaspora via the writing, performance, both musical and theatrical (film and stage), as well as the visual arts of Africans in the Diaspora and those influenced by these aesthetic forms of expression. I am interested in the political and social ramifications of art on society, specifically movements supported by these artists and their forebearers. It is my claim that the artists are the true revolutionaries, their work honest and filled with raw unedited passion. They are our true heroes. Ashay!

1. Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, updates us on current issues like the voting rights act for former prisoners and a conference Sept. 20-21 in Oakland.

2. The Brothers Size Cast, Terrance White, Deleon Dallas, William H.P., Umbuntu Theatre through Aug. 22 @ Dana Meyer Auto Care, Albany, CA

3. Michelle Jacques (Street Sounds, Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, Founder/Director of CHELLE! and Friends, La Mission Band), joins us to talk about CHELLE'S JUKE JOINT A CAPPELLA QUINTET which has a concert coming up August 26 at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, CA.

Friday, July 24, 2015

International Commemoration of African Ancestors of the Middle Passage in Oakland, CA

Saturday, June 13, the second Saturday in the month, at 9 a.m. we stood at Lake Merritt in Oakland reflecting on our ancestors as people jogged by, stretched and looked. Of course an assembly of Pan Africans dressed ceremonially in white and in African designs shattered perceptions lodged unconsciously in the minds of most about black people. Like lint, ideas and perceptions stick to our intellectual or thought-producing surfaces engaging us in ways we come to articulate much too late.

After parking, I pressed the button and crossed the street from Merritt Bakery to the side of the street where the Lake is, where I watched black men and women doing Tai Chi – As I walked down the stairs I greeted friends I'd seen too seldom over the past 12 months and met others I didn't know. We were a larger group than ever before, yet not too large. What is lovely about the Oakland gathering was its intimacy.

– When I got to the other side I set up the altar, lit the votive candles (2), put a book in the center with water. Another person added a sea shell. There was a table set up for people to sign in, along with a chair for the eldest person present, Sister Makinyah Kouyate.

Frederick Douglass came to our ancestor tribute in Oakland— We were honored to have the much younger man join us. Currently staying in San Francisco, not many recognized the elder statesman as a youth.  Clean cut, wearing a cloth cap, he took off to address us, we marveled at his bearing and composure, his critique of liberty in an unjust system for a people wronged morally, politically and economically. He shared with us words from his first book, the Autobiography, Written by Himself. He then invited us to join him at Mount Misery, the plantation he is staying at, owned now by Donald Rumsfeld, previously owned by the haunting slave-breaker Edward Covey.  

A play on stage at Cuttingball Theatre in San Francisco that weekend. Giovanni Adams, the actor portraying young Douglass said, if anyone wanted to attend, just tell the theatre Frederick Douglass invited them (smile).

The day was beautiful, sunny, warm – the geese were swimming in threes on the calm Lake in the center of Oakland, near downtown.  I learned that week that the second Saturday is also the Yoruba New Year. The participants ranged in age from about seven to past eighty. Friends were out jogging; just a few feet from us there was a personal trainer and his client preparing to run. A friend jogged by, another man stopped, poured libations and then continued on his way.

One sister spoke of the importance of maintaining our body temple, the importance of keeping it fit and in good health. She said one way to do this is to monitor what we consume. She said she had had many unnecessary or preventable surgeries. Health, both physical and mental is wealth. This was echoed by others who followed her to the pier to pour libations and give thanks.

I felt heavy, yet as people called their families’ names I began to feel able to speak. After the libations two sisters shared lovely poetry, a piece by Maya Angelou, Prayer, and an original piece written at an Ancestor Libation last year.

After announcements there was a collective recitation of the 42 Laws of Maat with commentary by scholar, Molefi Asante, Ph.D.  Sister Yaya then closed the circle and Sister Makulla shared information about the Maafa Commemoration Foundation and the Lest We Forget/Umbuntu Council. There was so much to do that day, lots of choices: Juneteenth in San Francisco, the Berkeley World Music Festival, Black Performing Arts Exposition opening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. . . .  I ended up taking my friend and her mother home and then going to the health food store for supplements and kale, and then I went home to do laundry and prepare for school the following week.

The evening before a friend and I went to hear Thomas Mapfumo and the Black Spirits. He is on tour with his latest project, Danger Zone and Lion Songs, the second compilation to accompany the biography by the same title. At Ashkanez Music and Dance Center in Berkeley he played the acoustic versions many of the new songs. This was a delightful surprise—in this way, we were really able to hear the subtle nuances of the work –

Julia Chigamba and many other Zimbabweans and friends were in the audience, so we were treated to a floor show everyone was invited to participate in. People danced with unopened bottles of water on their heads. One woman, with skills, danced with a cup of water on hers and did not spill one drop.

My friend, Zoe, from Chicago and I went back stage afterward to buy CDs and meet the Lion of Zimbabwe, Mr. Mapfumo, called such for his fierce sense of righteous and his advocacy for the poor and disenfranchised people. Mapfumo’s music formed much of the soundtrack of Zimbabwe’s revolution. Afterward he was so happy; this happiness turned to despair when the victors began to mistreat their people. He composed an album, which made it impossible for him to remain in his country. He has been in exile for 22 years.

As Mapfumo spoke of home, one could see the nostalgia in his face. His tour takes him to Mozambique this year. The artist says people are asking him to come home. I wonder if he will dare try it. There is another book coming out in July, this one written by Mapfumo’s people.

The reason why I wanted to see Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, the day before Libations for African Ancestors was to talk to the ancestors—Shona music is the music of the ancestors. The music Mapfumo plays is sacred, especially the folkloric tune which he opened the first set with, Varimudande (People of Dande): A spiritual song from the mbira repertoire. The words talk about “the spiritual background of our people, our ancestors.”

It was a beautiful evening and beautiful weekend for African Ancestors. Ashay!