Ise Lyfe: Pistols and Prayers
Friday night, March 19, 2010, at Berkeley Rep, Ise Lyfe's collaboration with Speak Out was something people will be talking about for weeks to come. The unique personnel: poet/performance artist—Ise Lyfe, with an African American folk music and folk traditions expert, a classically trained cellist, a dancer and a DJ provided a soundtrack for the narrative we soon came to realize was Ise's life in what he titled: Pistols and Prayers.
Before the show started women were seated on the stage writing, what I saw later on, lines from the play. Using his life as a canvas Ise moved between childhood and adulthood, the experiences which shaped his development into manhood. Although actual encounters with men were left out, like his father, grandfather and other males in the family a young man might pattern his life after.
He spoke about what it was like having a white grandmother. How the novelty wore off as he grew older, yet he always loved his grandmother even when a comment she carelessly dropped into a conversation one day shattered young Ise's views that she was unaffected by racism, that she was the exception, when bullets spare no one. The trauma of race when one is not the flavor of choice and even those who are, leaves everyone scarred and in recovery.
All gunshot victims don't die and Ise's grandmother, eventually dies, Ise says because she got tired of living; however, he never grew tired of her and this piece honors all that her grandson loved about her and his journey towards forgiveness which he didn't have an opportunity to share. He says, "He lacked the proper tools."
I still wonder about his mother and father, who were they and this black grandfather who married a white woman and lived in the ghetto. Hum. The Delany sisters spoke about their white grandfather who couldn't marry their grandmother legally, but they lived together as husband and wife. Remember the Delany sisters? Each of them lived over 100 years?
Pistols and Prayers is not James McBride’s The Color of Water, McBride's story of growing up with a white mother, Ruth McBride (April 1, 1921-Jan. 9, 2010), and not knowing her racial identity. This is not Ise's story. But McBride and Ise do share observations of how the world views this anomaly as almost a cause cèlébre. Ise's grandmother was born in 1933, McBride's mom in 1921.
Young Barack Obama's American story replays on Ise's East Oakland streets. Perhaps like Obama, Ise’ dad was not around? I don’t know. President Obama speaks about his relationship with his grandparents, in Dreams of My Father, especially his grandmother; perhaps there are poems about dad in Ise’s book which give form to this mythical character?
Ise leaves no sacred cows standing, especially those whom popular culture guards. With words Ise finds chinks in the Plexiglas and within protective vests, until the world while not flat when he finishes his 80-90 minute Pistols and Prayers tour, is certainly flattened.
His “Don't be stupid,” one of many slides projected onto a screen, serves as a visual curtain giving depth or context to the ideas he rapped, sang, spoke on and off stage (in voice overs) in static and moving images.
Obama was not off limits and the analogy of America to Nazi Germany and Obama to a Jew raised in the enemy's camp and allowed to eventually rule was brilliant—one of many brilliant analogies like another: the ocean in a glass, as a way one can picture one's relationship to the creator.
The ocean is a bigger body of water; true, but the little bit in the glass shares characteristics with the larger body. Right? Similarly, shouldn't creation reflect its creator? Aren't human beings, and to extend the analogy further, all life, a reflection of the divine? Are we all gods or goddesses?
I loved the Uncle Randy character, the drunken prince whose human packaging makes him ignored and labeled as simple -- as in Langston Hughes's "Jesse B. Semple", but truly he carries wisdom in his pockets ... every time Ise wore the persona, loose jeans, a knit cap, staggering locomotion, the lights would shut off after Uncle Randy dropped his pearls. We needed a moment to collect our thoughts off the floor, gone what we thought we knew.
Uncle Randy was arrested for walking against the light. He said why should he stop when the sign said stop and then follow the white man when it was time to go? Following white men has not benefited black men historically. And then when Uncle Randy gets to heaven...there are elevators there to take one to hell, the conversation is priceless.
Tight...almost leak proof, is how I'd describe Ise's concept: “We are the space between God and the ancestors: Fill it up.” Pistols and Bullets is his call to action.
He says: “I looked around after Obama was elected and noticed things hadn't changed in the streets and got back to work.” Obama’s election is not a signal to sit down people. He said.
“There were a lot of cameras on black America moments after the nation got the news about the first black president's election.”
We are being watched. We are not free. 1984 is not a fictionalized world when your address is East Oakland, West Oakland, Bay View Hunter's Point, North Richmond, South Berkeley and your name plate waves blackness.
Ise said Pistols and Bullets wasn't to assign blame, rather to help his audience see the truth and take control of their lives, to think about 9/11, the War in Iraq, the first black president, and the incarceration of black youth at alarming numbers, the deteriorating neighborhoods.
His piece on "Nigger" and "Nigga" was on point; the word has no redeeming characteristics he said. There were even a few love poems after the author clearly distinguished self-respect from abuse in a piece about a toilet and the vomit found there when a young girl's life is flushed of all its potential for greatness. He asked the audience to look at the words used to describe women--the word "bitch" right there with the word "nigger." It was here that Sade Adona’s choreography poetically illustrated the author’s words.
The set was minimalized: a chair for the cellist to sit and lean his instrument against and a podium and a stool for the redneck scene about 9/11 and terrorism, and for a later scene, the mood indigo or love stories. It was a multisensory journey—sight and sound the two main intelligences utilized.
The tour which was filmed, so I think there will be a movie called Pistols and Prayers, ended in a bit of audience participation. We were invited to stand up and dance. Durrel "DC" Coleman, the DJ kept the party moving during those spaces in the piece where a little light was needed in the darkness where Pistols hung out quite a bit between ideas.
The audience was mixed. There were the folks who loved Melanie DeMore's work with Negro Spirituals and folk music, and her pounding sticks, which she carried and used; then there were the classical followers who Michael Fecskes, the cellist drew, then there was the hip hop or rap music audience which Durrel "DC" Coleman, above our heads in a corner of a balcony, drew. Sade Adona, dancer, was a treat I hadn't expected...the varied supporting cast and collaborators key to the narrative which illustrated how one young man lives his life mindfully.
My one complaint was in the piece entitled: “They Love Everything About You But You,” a thinly veiled sampling of a line from a Bay Area poet, Paradise's classic poem: “I Love Everything About You But You.” The complaint wasn't about the work. No, the writing was on-point, excellent! It was the obvious reference to Paradise's poem, "I Love Everything about You, but You," without acknowledgment.
Okay, legally one can do this with published work, but some words are sacrosanct and this line is. Hands down, it belongs to my friend Paradise. I was surprised that so many people in the audience were grooving to the line which was the segue between concepts, which were Ise’s, as if this line were the poet’s on stage to recast it in this context. Perhaps it’s the composition teacher in me, but I was like where is the nod to Paradise, where are the credits in the projected images, where is the acknowledgment to his elder?
I wondered what Paradise would say. Perhaps Ise already discussed it with the brother and he said, “cool.” Maybe, since the segment looked at “getting paid” there was a monetary exchange for its use? Paradise is not mentioned in the thanks or credits either in the program we received; many rap artists write a thanks to the creator now when they “sample” a lyric or a beat.
This segment which looked at the commodification and disposal of black Americans by immigrants who love everything about black people but the black people, was a wonderful reflection on the blatant disrespect and disregard of black people, from the Arab Muslims who own the liquor stores in black neighborhoods where they sell alcohol and pork, to the Koreans who sell the hair and the nails to sisters who want long hair and nails, to immigrant Africans who diss the black container but not the black contents. They do love everything about black people but the black people.
Pistols and Prayers is a prayer, it's a ritual indicated by an absence of shoes and the ancient inscriptions on the pavement or walls which last in our memories long after they are physically erased, like murals, the markings are not intended to last forever, just until their usefulness is past. For black people, art is functional.
In ceremony--a vévé or mandala often marks the moment or intensifies the spiritual energy. Although he can't control all the elements Ise is really masterful in his delivery and control. He certainly knows his audiences and the message he wants them to take away.
Pistols and Prayers invokes all the fallen ones, named and unnamed, like Oscar Grant. There is a moment of silence for Grant's memory which lingers on our collective hearts and within our consciousness the way all the calls for moments of silence go unacknowledged or rushed through, no matter how well-intentioned. Ise opens a space and lets us fill it.
Theatre is ritual and Ise knows this, as do his collaborators, especially Melanie DeMore whose work I know well.
We are the space between God and the ancestors: Fill it up!