Thursday, September 04, 2008

Happy Birthday Richard Wright!

My decision to attend the preview of The Oakland Public Theater's "Before the Dream: the mysterious death (and life) of Richard Wright, written by Richard Talavera, directed by Norman Gee, instead of opening night was just another one of the situations I find myself in too often here in the Greater Bay Area, so much to do and not enough hours in the weekend to do it all--even if the dates and times didn't overlap.

So there I was with my friend visiting from DC trying to find this elusive Noodle Factory, now Performing Arts Center in the 'hood, deep industrial West Oakland on Union near 26th Street. We asked a few homeless brethern where the place was, even what street we were on and they knew nada.

Enclosed in storm fencing, with a slight opening to walk through, the only noticeable landmark were the candles and I knew it was also a birthday celebration-Richard Wright's, I later found out. (I'd driven by this location earlier and decided it didn't look like a theatre, besides that it was on the wrong street, I thought.)

What good fortune, to be there on one of America's greatest writer's 100th birthday. After the play ended, we sang happy birthday and cast and audience mingled and ate cake.

The play reflects Talavera's scholarship. I believe he told a friend today he'd been working on the script for two years. The series hosted by Oakland Public Theatre which over 11 hours looked at various aspects of Wright's life from Harlem Renaissance to his pivotal texts Native Son and Black Boy, "Before the Dream" brings together the highlights, and key moments and people, especially authors James Baldwin and Chester Hinds, Wright's friend. The FBI's harassment and his loss of his passport, inability to live with his wife and daughter in England, and his untimely death in France is explored also.

Before the Dream with its poetic phrasing and delightful interludes--haiku, Wrights favored style. At one point a character says Wright had haikus hanging around in his apartment on a clothesline.

I kept seeing Wright, so well did actor, Reg Clay, resemble the man. James Baldwin was also well done, but Michael Castillo embodied the spirit of Chester Himes, his humor and good mood, but more importantly his love for Wright, his friend.

Abbie Rhone was multiple characters from Ollie Harrington to Martin King. I really liked his King. I remembered Natasha Noel from African American Shakespeare Company's holiday play, Cinderella. She is a great evil stepmother. Here she is Julia, Wright's daughter, who is just 18 when he dad dies.

"Before the Dream" teases one intellect and made me want to go and get Wright's collected haiku poems, plus other titles which we mentioned I hadn't read. I wanted to reread Native Son and Black Boy, two of my favorite books of his. Margaret Walker was correct, he was a brilliant man, a genius.

All the words, minus directions, are Wright's. This is perhaps the reason why Clay can interpret the material so well--Wright is present with him on stage.

All those who attended the preview, if we return with a paying guest, we get in free. I think this is a fabulous deal--you know I'm returning before October 5. Though the street address is 1255 26th Street, the entrance is on Union. Union is two block up from Mandela Pkwy. in Oakland.

Free tickets are also available to West Oakland neighbors of the theatre. Call (510) 534-9529. Tickets are $20-$9, sliding scale. Visit


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