Habari Gani? What’s the news Dec. 29? Ujima! Collective Work and Responsibility: A Benefit performance with Paul Mooney for the San Francisco 8 and Freedom Archives
Paul Mooney, “Black Man” in the White House Tour, Dec. 2008-Jan. 1, 2009
By Wanda Sabir
I remember the first time I saw Paul Mooney, I didn’t know what to expect. His twin sons opened for him and they were also great. I’d never seen African-centered conscious comedy, but the men were politically correct and funny—what a winning combination, and they’re related too. It was New Year’s Eve, my second and last stop before the December 31, 2006-January 1, 2007 countdown. It was the Champagne Supper—upstairs the theatre was decorated festively with streamers and balloons, the music smooth and sexy and the mood mellow as guests ate chicken dinners with dessert.
Soon it was time to go downstairs for the show and Mooney was even funnier than his sons who opened. I’d never seen a comedian who just sat and talked to the audience, the only thing was that what might have seemed ordinary suddenly made us laugh--it made Mooney laugh too. In fact, he took several laughter breaks. It was the same the next time I saw him a year later, when he kicked off his national tour, once again at the Black Rep, his show where he was no longer going to use the N-word.
That was a year ago. Now if he could lose the B-word…but that is not the topic of the current tour: Blackman in the White House. There is New Year's and then the inauguration, Mooney said. The time between January 1 and January 20, is going to fly by as we await the confirmation of our ancestors’ dreams, hard work and aspirations.
Sunday evening’s two shows, December 28, were fundraisers for the San Francisco 8 and Freedom Archives. Most of the people in the audience didn’t know anything about the case of the eight men held on evidence extracted by torture or the wonderful archive of materials, films, and audio recordings of legendary freedom fighters, much of the material accessible free via the Freedom Archives website http://www.freedomarchives.org/ Freedom Archives also produced a film, “Legacy of Torture” about the case and the use of torture to extract confessions of these former members of the Black Panther Party: Herman Bell (59), Ray Boudreaux (64), Richard Brown (65), Henry W. “Hank” Jones (70), Jalil Muntaqim(Anthony Bottom)(55), Richard O’Neal (58), Harold Taylor (58), and Francisco Torres (58).
You can write to these men care of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, P.O. Box 90221, Pasadena, California, 91109.
The audience listened attentively as Richard Brown, who serves as judge arbitrator on a Community Court, where no one goes to prison. His court works with the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. The Honorable Richard Brown, who as a member of the Black Panther Party served the people, is also one of the SF8 freed on bail. Brown spoke of the ridiculous case the State Attorney General, Jerry Brown is trying hard to convict the men on, when it is clear the state is going to eventually lose. For information about the SF8 visit http://www.freethesf8.org/
Hard Knock Radio co-sponsored the evening with the Black Repertory Group, founded in 1964, 44 years ago this year. Both Weyland Southon, one of the programmers from Hard Knock and Sean Vaughn Scott, third generation Black Rep and Artistic Director of BRG, introduced Paul Mooney. Visit http://www.hardknockradio.com/
By way of introduction Sean Vaughn Scott said BRG founded by his grandmother, Nora Vaughn at Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in 1964, 44 years ago this year, Black Rep’s—44th Year as a theatre coinciding with the 44th presidency of Barack Obama, is a great coincidence, but is it really? Perhaps historically such seeming coincidences happen for a reason. “I am not making this up!” Sean states and Mooney concurs with his famous line when his audience is stuck dumb, laughter stuck in its collective throat—I can’t make this stuff.
Truth is funny.
I recall attending Black Rep theatre when it was on Alcatraz Avenue, in a tiny space that had a beam which was the seat one sat behind when late. The black box style theatre setting was cozy, and even before the concept gained popular nomenclature, BRG sported the concept as one of the oldest such spaces in this area. I didn’t know the terms then, I wasn’t writing reviews then either, I just knew I liked seeing plays written by black playwrights—archival and certainly not well-known revivals of work I hadn’t seen much of before moving to the East Bay from San Francisco. I knew Langston Hughes as a poet, but not much as a playwright, the same is true of Zora Neale Hurston's work, and essayist James Baldwin, not to mention Lorraine Hansberry and other lesser know playwrights. Ishmael Reed was a superstar whose work he workshopped at BRG before taking it to New York, similar to the way August Wilson did similar runs with his new plays: Seven Guitars and Jitney at Lorraine Hansberry/ACT collaborations.
Actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee called Ms. Nora Vaughn a “keeper of the culture,” her BRG the Apollo of the West for the many careers she launched on her stages, some of the stars’ photos framed in the lobby at the theatre—a star walk of fame, people like: Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, LaToya London, Terri Vaughn, Kelita Smith and of course Paul Mooney.
Mooney said he was really looking forward to coming home to the Bay Area to kick off his National Tour, which is actually, an International Tour because it will be produced in 52 cities across the nation as well as several cities actually outside the U.S.
“OBAMA, OBAMA-OBAMA,’ Mooney said, “I say it 44 times a day, I love saying it. It keeps my teeth white. I am tabbing this show as, no stop, wait a minute, I take that back. This particular show has tabbed itself. It’s simply called, “BLACKMAN IN THE WHITEHOUSE!?” and the show has a life of its own.
“OBAMA,OBAMA,OBAMA, check my teeth out.” He states as he sports his famous toothy grin. “Quite naturally this is my newest material combined with a manifestation of my greatest works, and the 44th presidency. Alongside my spontaneity, I find myself comically, in the newest and strangest of places. As you know, for the past four years I have been like A Christmas Break College Kid
, coming home to speak my mind at my old stomping ground, where I use to do my Mother Goose Improv.
“Black Rep is also actually in its 44th Season; they’ve been doing it since 1964. They really need to be rewarded; I can’t make this up, the whole serendipity of the process is exciting and new. I have put together, no change that, a show has put itself together, driven all of our courses into a predestined new day. As you know after the whole Michael Roberts thing, (as Richard did back in the day) I have continued my commitment, when I kicked of my ‘I'll never say ‘It’ Again’ Tour at Black Repertory Group. What a show this is going to be and of course I will, I shed light on the old , the new, and with OBAMA-OBAMA-OBAMA in the house, this particular show is tailored specifically for Y-O-U! No matter who you are. The moment in time will never exist as it will in a (few weeks, January 20, 2009.)”
Mooney said he was looking forward to the ten events to raise funds for the kids and our community. These events are a major resource for the Music in the Community program hosted by Ms. Faye Carol, just one of the many programs BRG sponsors for the children, another the summer theatre program.
The more than two hours long show Sunday evening at 8 p.m. following an earlier show at 6 p.m., was filled with the latest in pop culture: who’s sleeping with whom, who has a new book out, who changed religions, along with his name and address; the fickleness of black audiences, plus nostalgic trips down memory lane where Dorothy Dandridge, Sarah Vaughn, Jennifer Hudson, and Marilyn Monroe all know each other and standards in craft and artistry are not compromised.
Mooney gave us a survey of classic films and new ones in the box office, like “Milk” and “I Am Legend,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still”—the latter remade Mooney style. He even shared “Titanic 3” with us, complete with cast and sound track.
Funny doesn’t describe the way my chest hurt from laughing so much. Mooney occasionally laughed too, as he teased a couple on the front row. One young woman in a lovely hat reminded Mooney of German actress Marlene Dietrich. The woman was too young to know the actress, known for her roles in “The Blue Angel” (1930) and “Shanghai Express” (1932) so Mooney reenacted a famous scene he enjoyed.
It was like this the entire evening. The man whose, “Know Your History: Jesus Was Black and So Was Cleopatra,” is still selling well, grew up in Berkeley, next door to the home of the Black Panther Party, Oakland, California. Mooney said Huey P. Newton, also born in Louisiana, admired him and wanted to transfer to Mooney’s high school to be with him. The two spoke often about the circumstances which led Newton to co-found the Black Panther Party. These are the same reasons why Mooney still does stand up. His themes race and black America.
Paul Mooney uses his comedic platform to connect key historic reference points without confrontation, without the police shooting up the venue, yet in the way the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense bore arms, the weapons outside no less important than the political education classes, reflecting the importance to arm oneself with knowledge as well. He is one of our bards, the African griot of our village.
Mooney’s stand up is a weapon which can save an angry black man or woman's life. One could feel the laughter he inspired in the theatre audience defuse potentially volatile or incendiary moments we carried, some of us, unconsciously.
As Mooney sat on a stool, his hand on the microphone stand, the Oval Office serving as a back drop complete with rug sporting the government seal, various Obama and family photos on the walls in the hallowed space, as well as on the walls throughout the BRG. Huge silver balloons with the letters: O-B-A-M-A, hung with silver streamers across the stage.
Outside in the lobby a vendor sold Obama t-shirts, sweat shirts, posters and other Obama souvenirs. The vendor gave a few prizes away that night to lucky audience member: a woman with bright red lipstick and another to me, when I happened to have a toothpick in my purse. The poster I won will go in my window on the opposite side on the life-size artist poster, my daughter made of a photo she shot last year when Obama came to downtown Oakland for a St. Patrick’s Day rally at 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza.
Mooney’s yearly pilgrimage home to the Bay Area and to Black Rep, is his community service. He doesn’t forget the debt he owes to Ms. Vaughn and the community who loved him and received his memorable characters so warmly when he was a youngster. Mooney went on to write material for the Richard Pryor Show and as such provided opportunities for up and coming comics, Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard, Marsha Warfield, John Witherspoon, and Tim Reid. He known for his role as Sam Cooke in The Buddy Holly Story and as Junebug in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” and Negrodamus in Dave Chappelle’s Show.
I don’t know how he hosts such marathon series, Sean Vaughn Scott joked on my radio show, http://www.wandaspicks.asmnetwork.org, Friday morning, that Paul told him that if he started to slip off his stool, he could prop him up with a stick. BRG is a South Berkeley institution which uses theatre and other performance art forms as a tool for social change, in its Music in the Community Show. Other programs have been with the Alameda country Public Health Department doing HIV/AIDS education theatre and also theatre with youth on loan from Camp Sweeney, one of Alameda county’s juvenile prisons.
BRG is how Mooney survived the streets and became a success, a success which doesn’t prevent daily assaults on his dignity at airports or on American streets, where being a black man is still cause for some alarm, censor or bigoted actions. What does Mooney do? With his uncompromising stare, he doesn’t let them off the hook then at his next show, he tells about it—there are ways to stand for justice and righteousness and everyone lives to tell about it later. These are the kinds of lessons, similar to that which allowed the judge to release six of the eight men held for the killing of the police at the Ingleside Police Station 40 years ago, the evidence taken through torture. The weapon was lost, the finger prints and DNA do not match that of the men arrested. The idea that evidence gained through torture can be used to convict someone, was found illegal during the prior Grand Jury Hearing and thrown out, yet the State Attorney General’s office keep trying to finagle the evidence to make a lost cause and expensive case turn up new evidence.
There are five more shows, at the Black Repertory Group located at 3201 Adeline Street, in Berkeley, two Monday-Tuesday, Dec. 29-30, 8 p.m. and three, December 31. For information call (510) 652-2120 or (925) 812-2787. Visit http://www.blackrepertorygroup.com/