Sunday, March 28, 2010

Soweto Gospel Choir , Asylum, King Tut, the Play

I assumed incorrectly that the concert songs were listed in the program. Wrong. I was too into the music and performance to try to write in the dark. It was really dark and well, I needed the spiritual upliftment too much to bother with keeping tab on all the songs, so, sorry folks, no set list here. But suffice it to say that the Soweto Gospel Choir are pretty awesome with 27 members, who sing and dance –there is even a skit at the start of the second half, well while I love Voices from Heaven, perhaps the first recording on Shanachie, the multiple Grammy award winning artists for their CDs Blessed and African Spirit, and for Down to Earth, a tune collaborated on with Peter Gabriel for the film WALL-E, for Best Movie Song and was nominated for an Oscar, what could I possibly say, except, YOU MISSED IT!

But there were quite a few people who didn’t, the venue pretty full in the orchestra, many South Africans in the house singing along, getting to their feet in praise and my friends from Vukani Mawethu cutting up in the audience.

The ages ranged from 27 up, I was told by the youngest member of the Choir, Warren Mahlangu, born the same year as my younger daughter, the day after me, June 21. Pretty cool. I don’t know how I happen to meet South African singers born in June—my friend Albert Masibuke, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a June Gemini too. If you have ever seen a South African dance troupe, the choreography is pretty energetic, the men throw their legs straight up—with the Soweto Gospel Choir, women danced with the men swinging their legs vertical as well. This was the first time I’d ever seen a woman dance this way. I also saw within the choreography references to West African dance, so the ensemble was a Pan African mix, both lyrically with several renditions of African American songs, including a Negro Spiritual, as well as a Bob Marley song and even a regional classic, by Edwin Hawkins, “Oh Happy Day.” My friend and photographer that evening, Hubert Collins remembered when the song was first performed and then recorded. He said he attended a concert with the Hawkins Family, Nina Simone . . . (ask who else) He commented on another concert where the song was sung by a Japanese choir, this was at Art and Soul, so Oakland is certainly traveling the globe with this song.

All of the first set was acapella and the second set included a few musical numbers with drum, bass and piano. There were percussionists who also got up and danced throughout the concert. I can’t say enough about the synergy between the ensemble members and the tight moves and choreography. Everyone could dance and sing all at the same time and the costumes were colorful and as the artists moved on stage at times their gowns acted like paint brushes each gesture a stroke on the canvas. The younger cast members did break dancing, a few spinning and falling back then scooting backward on the floor. They called each other out, sometimes a younger artist challenging an older artist or an older woman challenging a younger man. It was so fun!

I wondered when I looked at the names of the members and saw, Vusimuzi Shabalala’s name, I thought that he might be related to Joseph Shabalala, musical director and founder of Ladysmith. I’ll have to get back to you on that one, but having missed the group this year, I was happy to get my South African music fix tonight with the wonderful Soweto Gospel Choir.


Earlier today I was at Laney College theatre for Destiny Art Youth Performance Company’s “Asylum.” I don’t know what I was thinking, but I hadn’t thought, mental hospital, when I first heard the title of this year’s theatre performance. Met by kids dressed as clowns. One brushed dust off me with a magical brush, I was still kind of surprised when “The Ringleader” also narrator of the show, “Claire Seymour,” played by Amber Espinoza-Jones, “Marsha Newman, the therapist” played by Mesiah Burciaga-Hameed, and Courtney Courier, the news anchor, played by Courtney Nicholson, set the stage for the story about The Super Six: Superwoman (actress Sonia Mena), Loverboy (actor Omar Evans), The Mask (Talia Payomo), Imagination (Neenee Franklin), Flow (Ellen Kobori), and Inside Out (Arianna Butler). These innocents are locked in the mental institution because of their trail of good deeds. They have been so busy saving the world they get caught and can’t seem to save themselves.

As the tale unfolds we meet the HMO executive director and her posse: The Super Villians: Dolores Domina a.k.a. Big Money played by Alaysia Brooks, Ulysses Uziah a.k.a. “Uzi”, played by Morgon Grody who has been at Destiny since elementary school (he’s a senior now in high school), and Skin Deep (the media liaison) played by Courtney Nicholson.

The story is tight, the cast well rehearsed, whether they were the baby martial artists or dancers, or the more seasoned cast of high school seniors, everyone knew his or her cues,on equal footing from the smallest and youngest dancers and martial artists to the eldest. All the performances were outstanding.

One of my favorite scenes, which was also an eyeopener was "Welcome to the Madhouse," where I think I finally got it—this is a mental hospital and the setting is a psychiatric ward. Ding!

The parallels between prison and mental institutions is uncanny. "Everything (really) is turned upside down," I think a line went, the aerial dancers literally upside down. Not overly didactic but certainly a "morals play," scenes were dedicated to themes which encouraged the audience to look or dig deeper when falling for the commercials that create desires, make one feel incomplete, especially the women who wants to purchase beauty or happiness.

Many characters are in recovery from something America peddles and the shopaholic buys or tries to like self-respect, self-confidence, or self-reliance usually found in a bottle in liquid or pill form.

“Gwendolyn Gadoe, a.k.a, Inside Out” played by Arianna Butler holds a mirror and helps people see themselves as they are, and to accept that. A retired top model, she was in recovery from high fashion and the shallowness of that world and her former life when we meet her as super hero. Butler's solo is another outstanding number in the show.

The groups therapy sessions were also great, especially the session which began with Melanie McCully or "Superwoman," who was a brilliant scholar as well and had a split personality—the choreography behind a screen shows two dancers Melanie's two selves, as one and as multiple is both clever and creative. The audience can easily visualize the split or schizophrenia as Mena and Ellen Kobori dance, their silhouette fractured.

Everything Princeton Maharam choreographed was awesome and then when he danced and sang on "Stop Callin’" the costumes and the lighting and his ability to solo and dance too was pretty amazing! He had CDs for sale afterward. No, I didn’t buy one, but you can. Money is short which is why I am teaching this summer, to augment my salary for the rest of the year(smile). No seriously, after all the creditors subtract their monthly amounts from my back account, there is nothing left.

I liked Asylum's ending: We all have super power, we just have to recognize it and rise to our potential. A party followed, by party I mean the story ended, but the show was by no means over. The finale was one Destiny Ensemble piece after another which I think was a great way to go out.

This is a fundraising season, Destiny is buying a building—which is great! They will have a dance center similar to dance companies in San Francisco like ODC and Alonzo King—space is the place if one wants to grow and not worry about tomorrow. I haven’t found out where this theatre space is, nor do I remember how much money was raised the evening before the matinee I attended (I know, no help right). Nor do I recall how much is needed, but Destiny would be a great place to send your tax refund check…just sign it over. With kids like these, our future is secure. For answers to all your questions call: (510) 597-1619 and visit

King Tut, the play
Last night I went to see King Tut, the play, at Bayview Opera House. Written and directed by Farad Dews a Bayview Opera House alumnus, whose resume reads like a what else hasn't he done!? From set design to acting classes at the American Conservatory Theatre, to dancing with the San Francisco Ballet and training in African and modern dance, plus film making, Dews is the consummate artist who is now training youth back where he started.

No longer a resident in here, Dews works in Bayview neighborhood and wrote "King Tut, the Boy King," many years ago. It debuted at the de Young Museum where the exhibit closes the same day the play does. Uncanny isn't it. Unlike the exhibit though, one does not have to travel to Egypt to see it. Dews says he hopes to mount it again in the East Bay and perhaps again in San Francisco.

With a large cast, many of them kids themselves, the playwright and company have a lot of heart. There are several remarkable scenes, most in the second half and those involve Tut's gentle and quiet rule. The boy king doesn't argue, and his trust in his friends who are the ones who love him shows his intelligence.

The actor in this role looks like he’s nineteen; in fact most of the cast looked like they were high schoolers. The one's not in public school are probably in college. The audience was full of proud parents, teachers and noisy friends.

Dews's choreography was outstanding and the dancer in the role was a show stopper. There is live drumming and the set looked just like the artifacts from the young king's tomb I'd just seen. I felt like I was still walking through the treasures in the tomb . . . the last couple of galleries filled with “bling.” I guess the young pharaoh had planned to keep up appearances in the afterlife, this before he was robbed.

What does a homeless spirit look like?

Back to Destiny, I really liked the dance, Ascension as well. One of the aerial dancers scaled a back wall which she then flew across. The choreography was really lovely throughout the show, and then there were moments like this which took away what little breath one had left.

The story has a really cool twist . . . but the tragedy is how though this is theatre, there are many good people who are persecuted for wanting to help make the world better, to save others. Patients are beaten, medicated against their will –if ever there were a modern take on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Asylum" is it. Cuckoo’s Nest as a musical. Hum? Alaysia Brooks’s Dolores Domina certainly finds her match in Nurse Ratched Instead of one Indian, there are Six Chief Bromdens and all need busting outand the narrator institutionalized herself, the Ringmaster, was certainly did Randle McMurphy, Cuckoo's Nest's protagonist, "Randle McMurphy," the big gambler, con man, and a backroom boxer, proud. Mesiah Burciaga-Hameed's Ringleader was suitably hardcore, bottom line, no nonsense, unlike Randle who had more of a sense of humor. She was a take no prisoners guide through the nut house.


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