Friday, April 17, 2009

Love on Both Sides of the Wall: A Two Way Struggle

When I saw the time was 6:45 p.m., I mistakenly thought I’d get out in time to make a trip to Whole Foods in Berkeley, but by intermission, the clock was already at 9-something, but it didn’t matter. I was committed.

Based loosely on the novel: “On Both Sides of the Wall: The Two Way Struggle,” by T.J. Windham, which I thoroughly enjoyed, the production, was topnotch, from the multitalented actors who could sing, dance and act, to the great set and costumes. I was really impressed with the range of actor Mike Grayson, who played a gangster, “Big KO,” in the opening scenes, a police man, and the female protagonist, “Tasha’s” lovers, “Rob” and “Money.” If Mike’s mother, Coretta Grayson, hadn’t been behind me, I wouldn’t have recognized him in these roles—they were so different. His “Money” was my favorite though: gold tooth, big chain with a dollar sign on it, and a flashy black suit.

Another character I liked was Mike’s sister, Michelle Grayson. Her “Lady Squab,” a thugged out girl-gangster was really convincing, especially when reigning kingpin “De” told his “homies” that he wanted out of the game and they weren’t hearing it, especially “Lady Squab,” who said the gang was family and De had taught her everything she knew. He gave her her first gun. Hair in cornrolls, I had to look really hard to recognize the girl child beneath the hard surface. This character was a sharp contrast to another character Michelle portrayed: “Peaches,” Tasha’s best girlfriend. I loved the way “Peaches” kept drinking from her flask.

With hints of McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale,” On Both Sides of the Wall, especially in the scenes between the girl friends is a pleasant journey into black sistah ‘hood. All the women really care about each other: Michelle, Peaches and Tasha. Amanda Doss’ “Michelle” is off the chain, as in unclasped, can’t handle, it let is go loose…she is too cool. Three actresses bring out the best in each other’s characters that are strong and well developed—I love their lines. Here the writing really sings, but one of the productions strong suits is the dialogue.

I am enjoying the sparing between Tasha and her two best girlfriends and also between Tasha and her boyfriend Rob’s sister, Jeanette and De, long before actress Amanda Doss, who portrays both Jeanette and Michelle, sings one of her original songs. (There are three in the program).

Did I confuse you? Don’t worry; it works a lot better on the stage and in the novel (smile).

One of the more poignant scenes is in the prison, when after 15 years “De,” actor, Jaye Diggs, finally breaks down and cries, but it’s the song that foreshadows the tears which is one of the showstoppers sung by Rob Turner, De’s cellmate. After the show, Rob told me that the song was actually written by a man imprisoned who later was released and became a contestant on American Idol. The song is called “Cry” on Lyfe Jennings from his album: "Lyfe 268-192." Visit and

The story?

Right! The story is about gang life in Sacramento between the Crips and the Bloods. It is also a love story, one which is doomed almost from the start, but survives because there is no other alternative—the characters chose life over death, which means they have to change. The story shows how Tasha lets go of destructive behaviors and people who participate in this lifestyle. It’s not easy and in the novel more so than in the play the audience witnesses the arduous journey.

What this couple experiences gives us a microcosm of what our ancestors must have felt each day they awoke and were still enslaved—since prison is slavery nouveau. What does a man do when he has a life sentence and he hasn’t committed the crime he is charged with? De is not saying that he is innocent, but after 20 years, he is a new man.
There are a few meltdowns in the piece, but compared to the novel, it was lightweight. I love the line Tasha gives De when he is feeling like a victim: she says that when a person is behind bars, his entire family, those who love him is doing the same time too. De’s sister, “Kathy,” actress Jonez Cain, is another favorite of mine. Jonez has a hat for almost every occasion. She is the character out to save souls, but Tanya Windham gives the saint flaws too.

When I posted the story on FaceBook, my friends wondered why any woman in her right mind would marry a man behind bars serving life. When I spoke to Tanya, whose life is reflected in both the novel and now the stage production she said though she knew her husband before he went inside, she got to know him when she began corresponding with him and later started visiting. He is my best friend, she said and the two encouraged each other.

I love it in the play when the letters are read aloud and end with: the man you raised/the woman you raised. Remember, when the two met, both were in their teens and then early 20s. Now coming up on 20 years, in the play 15, De’s real life wife, just as her “Tasha” is sharing this story, to be instructive and to raise money for De’s legal defense.

There are several wonderful moments in the film, some I have already shared. Another I liked was during the opening scenes, when the crack addict “Paulette” convinces Big KO to give her drugs. I also like it when Tasha and her girls get together for Peaches birthday. The banter and camaraderie is so genuine and the writing superb. I don’t know who did the choreography, but the greeting is so fun. Each woman has a dance she identifies herself with and the three do it together. I think it dates back to when the three were children.

“On Both Sides of the Wall” is a coming of age story, cautionary, yet uplifting. There are no villains and if there are, the bad guys and gals repent and mend their ways. It’s all about choice. De owns his role in his fate. None of it was accidental, he fell into the trap…but most adolescents do this as a matter of course as a part of the matriculation process.

“Order My Life Productions’” mission is to “uplift, inspire, and encourage the lost, while walking them into a heart changing victory through Gospel Stage Plays.

One of the themes in “On Both Sides of the Wall” is drug commerce, the ease with which drugs and guns are available to youth. In the novel, TJ Windham goes into more detail about De, who is recently released from prison, has a promising career in college sports and a job offer, which he blows when he can’t stay away from the lure of the streets. He makes bad choices and he doesn’t get a third chance—his bridges are literally burned and today he and his wife are trying to mend them: Order My Life Productions is a way to do this.

Tanya’s story is thematically current for another reason when one looks at the high number of African American men and women behind bars. The intentional saturation of the black community with crack cocaine and guns, which Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance,” addresses is played out here—not death, but the other alternative, prison.

Films like: “American Violet,” the story of Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie) which looks at drug raids on the black community and how these communities are targeted in Hearne, Texas, in Robertson County. She sues the county on behalf of other unjustly imprisoned plaintiffs. Another film, Tulia, TX (ITVS) looks at the same phenomena, the case against, not a district attorney, but an FBI undercover operative.

Webbs’ “Dark Alliance,” points to the use of drugs –crack cocaine and hand guns and the destruction of the Black Liberation Movement, most noticeably the Black Panther Party. The generation the protagonists “Tasha” and “De” represent reflect the seemingly forgotten Children of the Movement. “The Other Side of the Wall” is their story.

Love on Both Sides of the Wall: A Two Way Struggle @ The Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek April 17-18, 6:45 p.m.


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