Monday, May 11, 2015

Mariposa and the Saint: From solitary confinement, a play through letters A Review by Wanda Sabir

The venue was full on a Thursday evening, so was the BART on the way back home . . . so I don’t know what was happening this weekday night, but obviously the city was alive, people actively engaged. Majority women in the house, there were a few stalwart men who stand with women locked up inside the prisons and jails and other custodial units which foster anything but rehabilitation and justice. A fundraiser for California Coalition for Women Prisoner, Sara (Mariposa) Fonseca and Julia Steele Allen’s “Mariposa and the Saint,” is a play created from letters or correspondence between an inmate in solitary confinement and a volunteer for a CCWP visiting team who became Mariposa’s friend.  From 2012-2013 the two women began writing the play and despite the literal barriers in place to thwart such relationships, the women push through all of this to forge a powerful friendship evident in the powerful story shared in the completed work, 2013-to now.

Dressed in a prison jumpsuit and sandal flip flops—prison chic, Mariposa whose alter ego is named, “Saint,” join forces to share her sad, yet powerful story with us. It is amazing how Mariposa hangs onto her dignity and positive outlook when her 15 months in the Security Housing Unit grows into three years, then her parole date is high-jacked while within sight.

She speaks about the suicides, and the systematic way the prison officials have normalized despair. Mariposa says that even if she doesn’t know the women’s stories locked up with her, even if she is not on speaking terms with all of them, they are all her sisters suffering the same indignities as they each try to hang onto their sanity and humanity.

Co-writer, Julia Steele Allen, presents “Mariposa” with humor and dignity.  We watch Mariposa win repeatedly when the isolation gets harder to bear, likewise her sanity harder to hang onto.  There are moments when Mariposa speaks directly to the audience about finding herself locked up, her children taken from her.  She speaks to us about what she misses, like the feel of wet grass between her toes. She then asks us, what would we miss? We even recite a poem she composed and sing together towards the end of a dense 45 minute performance. 

The idea of family is impossible for a prisoner in the SHU. Mariposa can have no phone calls. Solitary confinement is a place without sunshine. The cell shrinks and with it one’s soul. We are not clear why Mariposa is serving so much time. Nonetheless the teen mother, and young adult prisoner 32 when we meet her, 20 years already served, gets no breaks –a Native Californian Indigenous woman, Mi’Wok Tribe of Northern California, suffers from the historic vestiges— colonialism and genocide.

Directed by Noelle Ghoussaini, “Mariposa & The Saint” also features Zach Wymore who in uniform represents the state sanctioned institution which dispassionately seeks to dehumanize its captives.  Yet, somehow for many like “Mariposa”, Sara Mariposa Fonseca, whom is still locked up, now in a unit for prisoners with mental illness, these women find the Saint, within themselves, once again.  Mariposa at first rages, then calms down and asks her captors when she learns that the 15 months have been extended to three years, how she is to prepare for life outside if she is not allowed an opportunity to gain work skills? Silence greets this plea as the gears turn, the dispassionate and dehumanizing routine continues  another day, another month, for another year after year. Mariposa has to remind herself that she taught herself to read behind bars; she writes letters in her mind to her son; she recalls her daughter and sings to her—we all walk with her as she retraces her choices that led to prison to determine if she could have made better choices.  Without assistance, without help . . . we are stymied just as she is/was.

Two performances benefit CCWP visit: or call (415) 255-7036 ext. 4. CCWP was founded by women inside as an advocacy vehicle 20 years ago to demand better healthcare, a need that continues to dominate the list. There were members of CCWP at Stagewerx theatre in San Francisco, who led the audience in conversation and testimony. There were also petitions and bills announced that people were asked to support, one a petition signed by women inside “Demanded the restoration of urgent mental health care to people in secured housing units.”  This unit forms the philosophical and actual setting that Mariposa & the Saint’s is based on. Using bricks made from cardboard boxes covered in gray material, the Steele as Mariposa speaks of how when she first lands in solitary confinement, she spends significant time, cleaning her cell.

Mariposa never leaves the cell, except to take a shower (and that is not daily). The food is handed to her through the bars or slot in the door. For company she stands on a chair and talks to a woman in another cell through the air vents. Each letter she receives is first read by the institution represented by the masked uniformed guard. Many times, when one thinks about the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the people who run it are absent. And while the masked character (actor Zack Wymore) in uniform has a level of anonymity, he is nonetheless specific enough to hold accountable for its misdeeds and injustice.  “Mariposa and the Saint” personalizes what one hears or reads about regarding civil rights and legal rights for prisoners. After the performance this often inaccessible idea is grounded forever in the body—Sara Mariposa Fonseca’s body as portrayed by Steele-Allen, and in turn the audiences’ – At many points we are one.

When Mariposa tells us about how she gets four more years when she throws water at a nurse or when we see the photo of her daughter whom she never saw after birthing her, a child who does not know her mother’s name – we are changed. This is not a journey for the fearful or for those who love darkness—“Mariposa” is enlightening. It is great CCWP is present literally, because those so moved have a vehicle to join which addresses the inequities faced by Mariposa and other women inside California’s many prisons or places of legal captivity.

Incarcerated women have needs specific to their gender. We see Mariposa bent over in pain after her newborn is taken from her. Bleeding and leaking milk, she finds no solace or support from the institution – which ignores her cries for help.

Sounds really hard to witness? It is, yet, there is humor in the letters and this is translated into the work. Even when Mariposa, 17, a young mother without housing, tries to sell her body to take care of herself and her son, there is a level of honor or integrity involved here that does not go unnoticed.  

I would have liked to know more about what happened here and what happens that lands Mariposa in solitary confinement once her “wife” is released. What happens to the baby birds the two women rescue? Mariposa speaks about dying multiple times, what revives her? Where does the love come from that allows her eyes to open daily?

The prison will not let Steele-Allen into see Mariposa since the play has been written; however, Colby (CCWP) spoke to Sara Mariposa Fonseca recently and shared a message with the audience opening night.

San Francisco Bay Area Performance Schedule:

Sunday, May 10
La Pena Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, $15 advance, $20 at the door, benefit for CCWP; facebook page here:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Wadada Leo Smith, Residency April 21-26, 44 Year Retrospective, AACM 50th Anniversary, at The Stone in New York’s Lower Eastside

Field Notes (smile)

The first evening at The Stone, a space so esoterically situated that there is no address. Patrons enter into the magic kingdom through a singularly magic door where they give the correct password or $20 admission donation and voila the journey continues. Note I did not say starts (smile). Second Street at Avenue C, around the corner from a bodega where I felt right at home when I saw in the refrigerator my favorite kombucha drink— GTs Enlightened Organic Raw Kombucha, Gingerade.  I had been flying friendly skies all morning and needed a pick up, so of course I indulged. I also saw carrot chips and okra chips; jus up the street there was a Good for You Store where one could order fresh fruit and veggie juices. New Yorkers are health people or at least have healthy options (smile).

I was early (5:30 p.m.), so I got a chance to watch set up—and listen to the banter between artists, Wadada and his artist/musician friends whom he hadn’t played with in 20-30-40 years. When I asked Mr. Dwight Rev. Andrews why, he said he’d been working with August Wilson on five of his plays which were always workshopped at Yale where the director Lloyd Richards served as the dean of the Yale University School of Drama and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. Wadada spoke of rehearsals there with Dwight Andrews and Bobby Naughton whom opened the set with a piece written for him: Changes. This was followed by Divine Love. The men closed with a work that highlight Andrew’s on bass clarinet. I love bass & baritone anything, especially bass clarinet and bass flute, bass saxophone. Now how often does one get to hear such? Rarely. Outside Don Byron, Dr. Michael White, Hamiet Bluiett, Oluyemi Thomas (Positive Knowledge) . . . missed Eric Dolphy, (smile), I haven’t had much listening opportunities.

It’s hard to hide in The Stone, specifically if the artist, Wadada steps into the shadows out of the spotlight and looks at each of the spectators. It was an uneasy shift for some to make, but he wouldn’t let them retreat.
Wadada was more talkative during the second set the first. As already mentioned, he kidded with the audience and gave a few short talks about he and the men during days when as artists, their belief in art called Wadada and by extension his friends to stand for Truth, which on occasion meant they were arrested.

“What’s so beautiful is we’ve lived a long time mow,” Wadada says. “[Each of the men] trusted the musicality of the ensemble.

"I don’t know if you know it or not," he continued, "[that] to use silence in the deepest way inside your music, that’s hard.

"That’s hard, because everybody feels that something should be inside that space.

"Guess what? They’re right. That something that is in that space is actually silence. Silence has a presence. There’s a profound presence, and if you can follow the beginning of the silence as it comes off of the sound, and when the next sound enters if you could follow that you’ve got something fantastic (?), because it’s hard to do.

"Once silence drifts in, you have to poise your consciousness in a certain way to make it work. And the moment it slips away, you have lost that pose. And sometimes you can recover, but not often. Not often. So the silence is about sharing a presence that’s greater than any silence could ever make. It is also very dramatic, and if you listen closely, you can hear the heartbeat—you can feel the heartbeat inside the room. It is not just the imagination. The human being has amazing skills. And I rest my case."

He bows to applause (smile).  And the music begins with Bobby Naughton’s rendition of “Changes.”

It’s a healing journey we are on as are the artists. Wadada does not forget the audience. The journey which might feel solo, is actually not. He told me after the concert when I asked about the first set. He said it was improvised; however, he followed a chart and the other musicians engaged one another and the music without compositional notes. I found it interesting that unlike a written composition, if I understood Wadada correctly, his musical composition is not mapped with the destinations finitely plotted out.  His is an open document, which means the conclusion if present can change. Perhaps it also means that the end is a collective decision.

The work is a fluid document—not exactly what the notes indicate, then again, exactly what they indicate. Let’s just say that while Wadada might have been playing a work previously composed, the set titled: Sonic River, as he engaged John Zorn on alto sax and George Lewis on trombone, what happened at The Stone Tuesday evening in the first set was not, if anticipated, repeatable as the moment was the canvas where time, sound and space converged to create the unique experience we witnessed.

“It is not just my imagination.” Wadada says re: silences, and I concur re: what I witnessed last night whether is was the first set or second.  Performance art lives in the heart and soul of the medium which is not one dimensional. Music is to be heard, seen, felt.

These words seek to capture what is already gone (smile).

I am not certain if any of what we experienced could happen again. The men had not performed together in forever--it was a bit family reunion of artists. A reunion party which continues tonight through Sunday evening. What is cool about tonight is that there will be a free talk at 7 p.m.

Between sets the men and other honorees retreat to a literal basement where I hear laughter and strand of musical lines wafting upward through the door I see but do not enter. I tried to read Jung, the section I am in speaks about the mandala, signifying, a return to the center or core, oneness. Jung was fond of drawing this concentric circular object which is a unity-- the Self attainable through a process he called individuation.

When Wadada speaks about listening to the silences, I think this is where oneness resides.

To be continued . . . 

Wadada Leo Smith

44 Years: Retrospective
A.A.C.M. 50th Anniversary

Creative music is the oldest music on the planet.  
It doesn’t need to be revolutionized or updated.

Twelve Ensembles

The Stone, New York City
April 21 through April 26, 2015

All Shows: $20

Structure A:

Tuesday, April 21:

Art has known properties and unknown properties, but the unknown properties must be bigger than the known properties.
It’s a monstrous world for those people who want to be artists but are afraid to be so.

Creative Music 1:
Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet
Sonic River:
Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet
John Zorn – alto saxophone
George Lewis - trombone

Divine Love:
Wadada Leo Smith - trumpet
Bobby Naughton - vibraharp
Dwight Andrews - reeds

Monday, March 09, 2015

Let the Living Unbury Their Dead (Xtigone closes Sunday, March 8, 2015)

A Review by Wanda Sabir

, playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s treatment or reimagining of Sophocles’s Antigone raises issues not easily ignored on International Women’s Day 2015 and the 50th Anniversary weekend of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. Set in Chicago, the First Family’s hometown, Lorraine Hansberry’s literal stomping ground along with notables: Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks, The Art Ensemble, the AACM and so many more – DuSable, anyone (smile), Black Classics Press, the Hon. Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, Nobel Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple . . . Dr. Jeremiah Wright’s Black Prophetic Justice, Richard Wright, a Native Son. . . .

Chicago is also one of America’s most bloody cities. It rains red there. Remember the child who marched in the inaugural parade two years ago who was killed just a week later? She survived DC, but not Chi Town.

In the classic story, Antigone wants to bury her brother and when she disobeys her uncle, she is killed. In Kelley’s tale, Tig unburies the dead, because she believes the killing will not stop until the cover-up ceases. It is a time of war, then and now. In actress Ryan Nicole Austin’s able hands Tigs takes on her Uncle Marcellus (Dwight Dean Mahabir), who is also City Mayor, and her Aunt Fay (Jasmine Strange). Even her sister, Izzy (Tavia Percia) does not support her sister’s challenge.

All alone except for Mama Goddess, Tigs feels compelled—driven to complete the work her brother E-Mem), started.  The Disciples Gang Leader (actor AeJay Mitchell) was trying to uncover the source of the weapons in his community and the trail was leading him to City Hall. As E-Mem called his uncle out, he simultaneously placed the blame for the deaths in the leader’s hands. Tigs not only unburied E-Mem, after Uncle Marcellus performs the rites, she has everyone in Chicago’s effected communities bring their dead to City Hall too. There are bodies everywhere – one could reach out, just lean forward a bit (from front row theatre seats) to touch a corpse.

Yes, it got a bit creepy, but that was the (unstated) intent. Gun violence is epidemic in Chicago and other American cities. It is an illness, a social infection worse than AIDS. The dead cannot rest; AeJay Mitchell’s E-mem and to a lesser degree, rival gang leader, Drew Watkins’s Ernesto is similarly disturbed. Who killed them before peace was secured? E-mem haunts his city; he talks to his sister; appears to his uncle— He will not lie still; his commitment is cut short, but with Tigs he has a chance to continue. Tigs inherits her dead sibling, E-Mem’s work. In Dagara or West African culture, it is expected when a young person dies that the living sibling celebrate his life. E-mem leaves so much unfinished for Tigs, who in turn leads a double life.

Eventually the dead sibling relieves the living person of such responsibility, but only after the earthly tasks are done. AeJay Mitchell’s character is a driving presence in Tigs’s life. He is always on stage—he is not a passive ghost. There is too much at stake and he knows this, even if Tigs does not initially. The work E-Mem, then Tigs do, mirrors that of Dr. Joe Marshall at Alive and Free in San Francisco. E-Mem’s and fellow gang leader, Ernesto’s collective goal is thwarted in a town where the mayor’s wife is selling souls for cash. How can a truce keep citizens alive and free when body counts equal wealth? The Latin Kings and Disciples leadership truce only temporarily interrupts, yet does not stop, the war machine.  They do not operate the machine which prints money on the backs of its most vulnerable citizens. Fay is so deep in the game we see dirt raining on the two, Chicago’s first lady and her unsuspecting husband. She sells her soul without reading the fine print. Faye’s temporary fame ends tragically when she opens the attaché case for everyone to see the corpses, dead bodies (skulls, amputated hands . . . blood money). Chicago’s guns and its violence are interchangeable with Liberian (etc.) conflict diamonds. The enemy keeps us fighting worldwide so it can take the spoils.

Dirt rains on Marsellus as Faye screams.

There are so many guns on stage, so many dead-walking or about-to-be-dead children walking that the heaviness of the work rivets a person to her seat. I know the first time I saw the play, there was no intermission and I could barely move when the curtain fell. The added intermission, while powerful, weakened Xtigone’s intensity.

The potency dissipates, like a cloud pregnant with rain evaporates in the sunshine. I am not sure if that is a good thing.  Did I miss the showers? Was I happy to leave damp, yet dry? Are we let off the hook? Some patrons used the intermission as an opportunity to escape. Not everyone came back I noticed as I moved closer to the burying ground. I wish the performance had ended with a conversation about next steps. Do we take our dead to city hall in San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, San Leandro. . .? What do we do with our loved ones chilling on cooling boards still too warm to touch?

The talented young cast sing, dance and use sign-language in this well-choreographed and directed work.  Coarse street vernacular characterizes most of the dialogue; even the Old Seer (Awele Makeba) uses profanity which I think is unnecessary, yet despite this criticism, Kelley’s reworking of Antigone in Xtigone, a play which revolves around a curse—her father Oedipus sleeps with his mother.  Tigs decides to uncover this degradation of all that is holy and human. She uses her legacy as a warning. How easily honor turns to horror. She unburies the dead to give these ancient roots a repotting.

Ms. Rhodessa Jones is a perfect choice as director; her ability to spin tales and weave magical realism on stage is legendary. Her Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women is testament to her vision. Incarceration is relative. Xtigone is the story of a city under siege, a city at war. Isn’t war the ultimate captivity, that and the fear war brings? Ancestors get up and walk among us— they are in the aisles, behind us in the darker regions of the inarticulate shadowy spaces. The ghosts’ random wanderlust remains one of the works more unsettling aspects.

For those familiar with Jones’s aesthetic hand we notice the use of ASL and the work’s heighted feminine. Even if the words were not spoken, that is, “Mama Goddess,” we would know SHE was running this show (smile).

Ms. Jones in collaboration with Tommy “DJ Soulati” Shepard pull together an amazing work—Jones says Shepard was with her in rehearsals composing melodies to fit the scenes. Known for his ability to craft scores, especially in hip hop theatre, Xtigone is in keeping with his reputation. Kelley’s play would have been wonderful without the music; her stunning lyricism coupled with Shepard’s craft, make the work a contemporary masterpiece. Again, it is because the cast are such fine artists: Tigs’s sister Izzy (Tavia Percia), not to mention the Chorus (Brooklyn Fields), Fay (Jasmine Strange) and Tea Flake (Naima Shalhoub) – when the two gangs square off—Michael Wayne Turner (Tigs’s Beau) is paired with a wonderful younger gangster who holds his own with the older actor.

Places of resonance are when the cast surround the mayor and make him face the deaths. The contemporary ring shout holds the dead. The youth call the names of children killed by gunfire and sanctify the ground where they lie uncovered. The mayor runs from its center, but there is nowhere for him to go. While he babbles incoherently at the intersection between worlds, it is the vocalese of mayoral aide Niama Shalhoub’s Tea Flake that keeps us falling off the edges of our seats. Tea Flake opens the work; she is the voice we can trust. And we follow it even when Tigs is arrested; Fay admits to graft, selling out and Beau arrives too late (or so we think)—Tea Cake keeps the story moving from one frame to the next. Often a lone voice in the quiet or disquiet, Tea Flake is also conflicted; she likes and perhaps admires Tigs, but who would go against a power structure like the Mayor and his City Hall unless she wants to suffer the same fate as her brother E-Mem?

Tigs is alone; even her fiancé, Beau (Michael Wayne Turner) cannot save her from the gallows. There is a lovely scene where Tigs sings of her doubt and fate. Human walls confine her—pliant, they push back when she tries to escape. Tigs never forgets where she is going or where she came from. She is connected to a linage bigger than the sins of her father and mother. Several times we hear her call the names of her ancestors and heroines whom she gains inspiration. A name she calls is that of first lady, Mrs. Michelle Obama. The goddess who lives in Tigs’s world is engaged, active and present. She is a Mama Goddess, who blesses all her children, yet seems to favor the women (smile).

Awele Makeba, as the old woman, dances the medicine, while the old seer chastises the mayor who “should have known better,” she says. He once was a man with principles we learn in a talk with his son, Beau (Michael Wayne Turner) who implores his father to return to these core beliefs before it is too late. Dressed in ceremonial white, Makeba whirls and bends the space between subjects as she sweeps the temporal with magical broom, tying off loose threads which occasionally entangle. She welcomes the departed and clears the path for the living. We hear her rattle—like cowries sending telegrams between saints and those left unearthed. The rattle is also Dhambalah, the snake, purifying the sacred spaces which contain both suffering and healing. Makeba’s Spirit, like the seer, mediates between slumber and death.

Tigs can see the dead too. She and her brother E-Mem have a special relationship. Sometimes one cannot outrun destiny.

Xtigone is cautionary, while at the same time it honors the young lives lost to senseless violence. The two gangs: Disciples and Latin Kings want to halt the violence, but who will be the first to put down his gun? In this contemporary world, young girls carry assault weapons as are boys. Bravado leads to unnecessary killing and death, surprising in its random trajectory.  Xtigone is powerful, because we know these children and the names called. The bodies unearthed belong to our kin. Two are my nephews, Carlton and Oba– one killed in San Francisco, the other in Oakland. I wonder what happened to their shoes? Perhaps if killers or those responsible for the death of so many innocents had to walk in the shoes of their victims the landscape might take on a different meaning? To his credit, Marsellus puts on E-Mem’s Jordans.

Dwight Dean Mahabir’s character, to his credit (and Kelley’s writing) does not remain in a weakened state. Just his associations with the Seer or Old Woman whom he initially listens to early on in his career, gives citizens (and the audience) a bit of hope. But until the very end, we don’t know which way his spirit will blow – lovely Fay (Jasmine Strange) his windy city.

From the set to the costumes and lighting, Xtigone had a fabulous world premiere in San Francisco at the African American Shakespeare Theatre, celebrating 20 years this 2015 (smile). Look out Chicago (next stop on the tour), African Shakes’ production will be a hard act to follow (smile).