Friday, April 23, 2010

And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi reviewed

...And Jesus Moonwalks on the Mississippi a new play by Marcus Gardley, directed by Amy Muller, currently in an extended run at Cuttingball Theatre is what one might call a Sally Hemings San Francisco Bay Area story, except in this story the white slave mistress raises her husband’s child with slave as her own. The child’s name is “Free Girl.”

First seen about two-three years ago as a part of Bay Area Playwright’s Festival, Marcus Gardley, wunderkind talent…a superb writer whose geographical landscape is Oakland, tells a story his grandmother told him. Jesus was set in the south in a black church at a time when these houses of the lord were going up in smoke. I was put in mind of an installation at YBCA where an artist used the charred remains of a church or maybe churches, this included a burned bible. The pieces were hung in such a way to invoke a building –the string transparent. I think I later saw this same work at the deYoung Museum.

I really liked the earlier work and between the current completed work –there was a draft I missed, so I was kind of surprised at Moonwalks complete revision. I don’t think the river was present in the play I saw, but I know the work one sees at BAPF is a work in progress so I know things change and Gardley is a writer whose work changes and shifts along its path to completion.

Jesus Moonwalks is poetic and rich and textured as one can expect from a Gardley work, his characters multidimensional and as perplexing as ever. I really like the river and I love Jesus. The other folks: Damascus/Demeter, the father who is looking to find his daughter “Poem” to give her her song and instead finds his granddaughter “Free Girl” who knows the song, but doesn’t know who she is; to the slave master, “Jean Verse” who loves “Free Girl’s” mother. Then there is the mistress’s child, “Blanche Verse,” Free Girl’s half sister and the mistress herself, “Cadence Marie Verse” who some say killed Free Girl’s mother, “Poem,” some say not, and the trickster house servant, Brer Bit, and the Union soldier, Yankee Pot Roast.

The action takes place at a pivotal time during the Civil War at the Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, May 22 1863 and May 25, 1865 at Proctorville, Louisiana. The women and children are at home starving while their husbands are out saving their Confederate nation. Actress Jeanette Harrison’s “Cadence Marie Verse” (the mistress of the plantation and the Blanche’s birth mother) acts crazy, but she is really sane. The two girls: Blanche Verse and Free Girl, both seven, are said to be twins, both born the same day or year, to two different women. I found it difficult to believe that the white woman would raise a black child as her own, even if asked, but she did.

I found out later that she didn’t know the child was her husband’s illegitimate child by a slave woman. Though later she might have suspected as the child favored her mother.

Actress Erika A. McCrary’s “Free Girl,” isn’t encouraged to think too much about her brown skin, covered as it is with powder, or think too much about how different she and her sister “Blanche” look. She is white period and her sister who is told they are twins believes this as well, a belief played really convincingly by actress Sarah Mitchell. Jesus Moonwalks certainly calls to question the notion of race as illusion, color the biggest illusion of all.

Okay so while the kids and their mom are starving –the house Negro, Brer Bit (actor Martin F. Grizzell, Jr.) is scheming on how to gain control of the mansion and paint the white house black. The husband has left the army, deserted and is returning home when he meets another deserter, from the Union side and captures him and makes him his slave.

Bondage … I guess if one owns another human being, it’s nothing to enslave another. Damascus—Poem’s father, Free Girls’s grandfather is saved from drowning by Miss Ssippi and then white men hang him, but Jesus or the spirit of the tree (maybe both) save him—well he dies but he is given three days as a woman, Demeter to accomplish his task.

Demeter meets Miss Ssippi again and this time refuses her help. Even so the beneficence and unconditional love this powerful water spirit, Miss Ssippi or Yemeja has for black people and the role she plays in the deliverance of black people from the hardships of slavery is evident. She cushions the falls of so many of our people.

Yes, at times the play is confusing even with the great program notes the dramaturg Nakissa Etemad shares. I don’t know if reading them in advance helps much. I think a tutorial might be required (smile).

The one thing one can be certain of is a father’s love for his daughter. Damascus/Demeter loves “Poem” so much he walks the length of the Mississippi and even defies death just so he can find her and make sure she has what she needs to save herself, and that is her history present in the song he leaves to her. Actor Myers Clark’s “Damascus/Demeter” cannot rest in peace until he finds his girl even if that means in his current form she might not recognize him. Damascus is now Demeter, a woman.

The analogy: going to hell and back is apropos here.

Spirit is clearly working in this blackman life and that of his kin. It is the only thing saving them and by extension those they love. Free Girl loves Jesus whom only she can see, Jesus with long locs and black skin.

Heard the expression, “God works in mysterious ways?” Well in Moonwalks he really does.

The third aspect of this story is the sanitation of rape and its resulting progeny. It is not a case of mixed race or intentional miscegenation here. The master and his property cannot love one another … it is not possible logically even if on stage and in books it is. I am just not with all this white and black together in slavery transposed to the twenty-first century. When Amy Muller, the director, in her statement talks about her being the mother of two black sons, I am distracted. Okay, so what? She does a great job directly a play which sounds complicated here, yet, it not so complicated on stage, which is no easy feat.

Her relationship to the material has nothing to do with the characters in the play in 1863 and 1865. Cadence Marie Verse is not happy that her husband has a child with their slave, when she allows herself to think about it. She stays drunk and angry and mean. She is a wildcard one can’t really trust. In the end, one still doesn’t know what to believe.

On stage and within the pages of a book one can create a world that lives in one’s fantasy, but the reality is not as pretty now, certainly not 200 years ago when one thinks about mixed race kids and their parents. More often than not, they were not claimed by their white fathers, certainly not adopted by white stepmothers.

Look at the insulting caricatures President Obama’s campaign and second year in office has met on the covers of major magazines and newspapers and his white mother really is his biological mother and she didn’t hide his heritage behind make-up.

Marcus Gardley known for his surrealism and magical realism plays with such concepts as race, family, war, love, peace, and justice, in this play, yet unlike previous plays or landscapes where this tangible meets intangible worked, the lines between the harshness of antebellum south at a time when so many people died because black people were not seen in the same light as white people, just doesn’t ring true. Where does the softness come from in a Cadence Marie Verse, who can raise a black girl as her own child, yet kill her mother?

It is too simplistic, the ending—two children playing with a quilt, the pieces finally all fitted together.

Free Girl… is she really or is it a contingency plan?

…And Jesus Moonwalks The Mississippi by Marcus Gardley is up at Cuttingball Theater in residence at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco, Friday-Saturday, April 23-25, 8 PM and Sunday at 5 PM.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

...And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi by Marcus Gardley at Cuttingball Theatre through next week

I have been trying to get to Marcus Gardley's play currently extended at Cuttingball Theater at Exit on Taylor for over a month...or at least it feels that way. Finally, I got to see it, and not a day too late. Imagine how timely its debut in the San Francisco Bay Area--its run coinciding with the anniversary date start of the Civil War, April 12, 1861, which ended June 2,1865. The play has to close April 25, 2010, so get your tickets.

What one notices immediately is Miss Ssippi(actress Nicole C. Julien) and her chorus who protect and guide and shelter those who find refuge along her banks. The river is a huge presence and in Julien and her entourage, actresses: Rebecca Frank, Halili Knox, and Erica Richardson, Miss Ssippi is both the conscious and moral thermometer of the play.

When Damascus (actor Myers Clark) is shot and finds himself almost drowned in her waters she saves him the way Yemanja lovingly eased the passage of so many Africans along the triangular slave trafficking route. Her blue garments and lyrical voice ... singing, chanting, praising, even fussing, reminds me of the goddess of the sea: Yemaja, also a river in West Africa in Yorubaland.

The characters are mythical and epic in size. It's amazing that more than one fits on the stage together, let alone the entire cast at the beginning when the song begins and at the conclusion of the journey when Miss Ssippi invites us to sing along.

The story is an American one--what happens when the enslaved and the slave master love one another? What happens when for whatever reason, two children by one father, two women, are raised as one: twins? Reminds one of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and to a certain extent As You Like It as performed by the African American Shakespeare Company, cast in the antebellum south.

The metaphors are numerous, none more so than this "Jesus" (actor David Westley Skillman) character who of course moonwalks on the Mississippi because in this resurrection story its Vicksburg and he's very much alive. He's just grooving. Westley is also cast as "The Great Tree" whose limbs the KKK string "Damascus" from.

So there is this major battle, May 22, 1863 where the Union Army try to take the Confederate stronghold. Vicksburg, MS, is halfway between Memphis in the north and New Orleans to the south. It was an ideal strategy to cut the Confederacy in half and take control of the Mississippi river, which eventually happened but not without many losses on the Union side and the Confederacy surrender July 3 in the Battle of Gettysburg.

The families left behind, in Moonwalk, Blanche Verse (Free Girl's half-sister, actress Sarah Mitchell)and Cadence Marie Verse (the girls mother, actress Jeanette Harrison) spoke often of hunger and this indeed was key to the end of the war--starvation. However, in Jesus Moonwalks ... Gardley is more concerned with relationships or the juxtaposition of relationships: What if, a slave mistress adopts a black child and raises her as her own? What if, two defectors meet, one Confederate, the other Union, and they start to dance? What if, the "House Negro" takes over the plantation? Why if, Jesus really can moonwalk?

Jesus doesn't just moon walk; Jesus talks ... he saves a little girl who doesn't know who she is; he intercedes or calms the waters when they threaten to drown her ... he helps her remember her song.

With characters whose names sing like poetry and bring to mind ancient rites and the cycle of life, like seasons which come whether we want them, anticipate their arrival or await their departure on the river which alternately carries tales and people.

Miss Ssippi the conscious of those along its banks sets the rhythm of her people's lives, like a clock or pacemaker... she's the gravity that keeps it all together. She holds their lives in place like another holds sky: stars, rocks, trees, people --all vital elements which decorate the stage and Free Girl's quilt.

Blanche Verse, white verse or blank verse? Cadence Verse... cadence as in the rhythm. Brer Bit -- Brer Rabbit, Elegua or the Trickster ... actor Martin F. Grizzell, Jr. speaks in riddles and is plotting to turn the white house black. Yankee Pot Roast and Jean Verse. Free's mother's name is "Poem." Damascus is biblical like Jesus and was the capital of the modern country Syria, a city known as the pearl of the East.

Then we have cross dressing ghosts. It's bigger than Cinderella. Damascus as Demeter doesn't just lose a slipper, if he slips he loses his life. Like the biblical story where Jesus is crucified, Damascus also has three days to work his miracle, that is, to find his daughter "Poem" and give her her song (before his walk on the plank).

Jesus Moonwalks chronicles that journey and like all trips, one has a map or plans but circumstances get in the way and one has to keep one's focus yet stay open to change. This is how Damascus as the woman, Demeter reaches his/her destination. This is how the playwright's great grandfather freed himself from slavery traveling north from Louisiana dressed as a woman. Jefferson Davis wasn't as lucky when he donned his wife's hoop skirt after conspiring in Lincoln's assassination. (There is a reward notice for Davis and five other co-conspirators in the program.)

A quilt is another character in Jesus Moonwalks-- it represents the completion of the story when the pieces are finally joined all the holes closed. There are questions such as, why did the white mistress raise this black child as her own, once she knew the child was black? Why did she hid her black daughter by having her wear make-up to cover her dark skin? What happened to "Poem," did she really die of a broken heart? How did the two girls, sisters continue to live their lives as sisters in a land where black and white were enemies not friends, let alone acknowledged kin?

It is here that the story sounds like echoes of the playwright's imaginary friend who saw Jesus moonwalk. In San Francisco Bay Area in 2010 okay, biracial children do have mothers/fathers who are white, but this is not 2010, it's 1861. While not quite Sally Hemings revisited, the Thomas Jefferson story comes to mind just because Jean Verse (actor David Sinaiko) says he is returning home because he missed Poem and wants to divorce his wife and live with his slave. He writes as much in a note, his daughter, not wife, reads.

Nothing changes between the two girls, although the Verse sister tries to keep Free Girl blind to her identity because she thinks once she knows she is black and her mother is the woman "Poem," things might change between them--it doesn't when Demeter tells his granddaughter to wash off the powder and look at herself in the mirror, and Free Girl sings her song and remembers who she is and who her people are... which includes the Verse family especially her sister.

The world the Verses, Free Girl, Brer Bit live in has crumbled by the end of the play. The white house is blackened, and what they once had all is gone except the quilt which Free wears around her shoulders.

Cuttingball Theater is at the Exit Theater on Taylor, 277 Taylor, in San Francisco, walking distance from Powell Street BART, across the street from Glide Memorial Church. For information visit

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hanging with Rea Dol at the site of the future Sopudep School

I'd just arrived. Rea and Dodo were at the airport with a sign with my name when I arrived. We then headed to the building site, where a wall is going up around the perimeter. When I left six days later, it was about a third completed. Students and family members, as well as employees, are up early at the site working. Occasionally volunteers and other important visitors like former mayors, also drop by to speak to this wonderful, dynamic woman, Rea Dol.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Back from Haiti

If the last earthquake was 200 years ago then it seems like it marked the end of slavery and the beginning of a black nation. Does this earthquake signal something similar?

There's no active government in Haiti. President René Préval is missing, and the people are on their own, literally, which could be a good thing, until one sees nude mad men walking down busy streets.

"What would happen if the person threatened someone's safety?" My friend asked Thursday when we saw another nude man sauntering down the busy evening street. Just around the corner we saw a policeman. Would he have the training to handle such an incident? I can recall so many times in the San Francisco Bay Area where the mentally ill were beaten and sometimes killed because police used excessive force in responding to calls for help.

What systems are in place in Haiti to handle the obvious shock and post-traumatic behaviors victims have experienced now that family and friends are lost, homes and possessions destroyed in an earthquake of a magnitude not seen in 200 years?

The Association of Black Psychologists made a recent trip to Haiti to take emergency relief supplies, but what of the short and long term psychological assistance to help the country heal? Are such conversations taking place and who will implement the resolutions?

California has earthquakes. Japan has earthquakes, Mexico has earthquakes, but not Haiti. Not in a long time. People didn't know what to do: run outside or stay inside? Many ran indoors, while other already outside and clear of any falling masonry ran indoors to their deaths.

The structural integrity of a house and the safety of those inside also depended on whether or not one's neighbor's house was also stable. Many people I spoke to lost family to apartment buildings or houses nearby collapsing on them.

As we drove along Delmas 33, a busy thoroughfare in heavy traffic, a man stood on a leaning building relaxed, his arms holding a collapsed roof, his legs spread, feet on the porch just below--the entire structure, caved roof and housing tumbling down the side of the hill. It looked really unstable, yet, there he stood, casually observing the traffic below on the street.

Driving along, Yvon looked up and asked the rhetorical question: Doesn't he realize what danger he's in?

In Cap-Haïtien I met a man in a store, a friend of my new daughter, Monica, who spoke of arriving home and evacuating his wife and two daughters. Afterwards the children were afraid to be indoors. They wanted to leave the country, so when he was able he put his family on a plane to New York. Now he is alone working and sending them money.

Abel spoke of not having any money to go anywhere, living in his car until he got money for gas to drive to Cap-Haïtien where he is now working. He gave his wife's car to a NGO working on earthquake relief.

Yvon said he'd put his car in a shop and the garage collapsed and there went the car. Insurance?

I could see the anguish in Abel's face as he relived those moments. He spoke of how loud noises made him jump and how he often work up from nightmares. When asked if he'd gotten any psychotherapy he didn't know where he might get such help. I told him I would connect him with some people I know in New York who might be able to help.

Okay so maybe mental health is not an immediate priority, because if it was there would be systems in place with access. On the other hand, perhaps mental health is a priority, but in a situation as chaotic as a country without leadership can be, perhaps folks are just trying to stay afloat until immediate needs like housing and food and water are met.

My hostess, Rea Dol, has teachers who are living on the streets and in their cars since the earthquake. I was happy I could leave my tent and sleeping bag, Imodium and toilet tissue. It wasn't a lot, my resources are limited, but every little bit certainly helps.

Yvon's car was in the shop when the earthquake occurred and the garage collapsed. Do you think his or the shop's insurance covered it?

Tuesday evening Rea and I went over to a collective consisting of nonprofit organizations like SOIL which puts in toilets for people free of charge, and connected with Paul, a Haitian American, who brought her tents for those staff members who are homeless, along with shoes and a ball. He'd just arrived from Ft. Lauderdale that day. He spent the night with us.

I took some of the shoes the next day to Cap-Haïtien with BC or Junior (who lives with Rea's family), Wednesday morning on the bus. BC's from Cap-Haïtien and was excited to see his mother and brothers.

My daughter sent bubbles and Mardi Gras beads, necklaces and rings, and crayons and coloring books and spinning tops and balls and tablets and pens, playing cards. The adults liked the party beads. We just wanted to take a little something to lift people's spirits.

Considering the large amount of funds raised here in America, I expected people to have tents and support services three months after the earthquake, this Monday, April 12, 2010. How long does it take to put such systems in place?

In many neighborhoods, teams of people in yellow t-shirts sweep the streets, but to clear the debris one needs bulldozers, the kind that unconscionably are used to demolish houses in Gaza. In Haiti though, the tractors and other heavy equipment would help people move on with their lives.

I have never lived in a place where the government supports random gunfire on citizens who do not support current leadership, but such happened in Cité Soleil, in 1999 and again in 2004. It's a community located on Haiti's waterfront, what one might call prime property, yet their is no investment in the people before or since President Aristide. His government built a school and nearby started construction apartment buildings which are standing. We didn't know if they were occupied when we drove by, but they certainly did not suffer any damage.

The home of sugar plantations, the major factory was bought out by Mirr(?) which then closed it down and started importing the crash crop in the 1970s. At that time the company was a major anchor in the economy of the area. One can imagine the hit the community felt once it closed; also affected were the railways which transported the goods.

This reminds me of what happens throughout America when urban removal is the goal--urban removal code word for black removal something that has been going on since 1865 (the legal end of slavery). The only thing is, Haitians don't leave their land or communities, they just hang on.

Cité Soleil, the infamous city --one of the largest ghettos in Haiti, with perhaps the country's largest population in such a small geographical area, is also the place that has a love for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas movement, measurably so great, it makes the knees of the political machine quake. Target of raids where children, elderly and adults were killed, their bodies covering the sidewalks and hallways and staircases, bedrooms and homes. The buildings looked like loofah sponges, bullet holes covering the entire surface, like pock marks. The holes were so distracting and distressing recent attempts to spruce up the neighborhood has had crews filling in the holes--I hear it looks better. Hum? But if one knows where to look, evidence of the war is still there.

It is here where infrastructure would be a good thing. However, if the political system is apathetic and ineffective, then complaining about the health and welfare of the economy and community would do nothing because the citizen's review or complaint department is run by the very people committing the crimes.

For many Haitians it's almost like, hum, I'll do what I can without access to resources because I can't wait for help, help is too unreliable, too costly (not just monetarily, it could be too time consuming) and too slow.

Rea Dol is rebuilding her school, Pastor Frank is rebuilding his school, one of 15, Regine Zamor is getting ready to open her center for street kids next week, Jean Yvon Kernizan is expanding his after school program from 86 to 300 served, So Anne prepares a meal for her community daily, people who are homeless and hungry.

I only saw one line for a food giveaway the entire week I was in Haiti. I saw a lot of people going for water at the spigot or creek a few times a day, young and old, with different size containers. Most folks didn't have indoor plumbing or electricity...but they were making due and doing very well at that.

I saw huge blocks of ice, yes for ice boxes. I'd heard of ice boxes, but hadn't seen one before. The charcoal I'd heard about, its use for heating homes and for cooking food, and the soil erosion from cutting down the trees to make the charcoal came to mind.

There are things good government supports like public education, public safety and public health. The Haitian government is falling down on all of these things; is this the reason why former US President Bill Clinton is in charge of rebuilding Haiti? Why can't the grassroots organizers get the funds so they can mobilize their communities and rebuild Haiti themselves? How would Clinton know what Haiti needs or wants? Give the people the money and leave them alone.

The money will create jobs and provide incentives to those without hope.

Many of the people I spoke to mentioned how President Aristide's presence would do much to lift the spirit of his people. If people knew President Aristide were coming, Jean Ristil, Cité Soleil activist, journalist, said, they would start cleaning up the streets now.

In a large field in Cité Soleil, earthquake displaced residents are swatting on privately owned land. If there were an infrastructure in place, government could compensate the landowner, so that he wouldn't make the temporary residents on his land feel unwelcome--dumping mounds of rocks in the middle of fields near people tents-- aesthetically uninviting and humiliating.

Did I mention the tents? More correctly all the people donating money to "worthy causes" like the Red Cross, etc., (do not think for a moment I believe the Red Cross is a worthy organization,certainly not the United Nations) should have been told that the tent is a piece of plastic held in place with sticks in all for corners. I have never seen a shanty town, but I think Cité Soleil (Kreyol: Site Solèy, English: Sun City) qualifies.

"The vast majority of residents of Cité Soleil remained loyal to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas movement. Unlike Haiti's unelected past governments, Lavalas governments invested money into parks, literacy programs and medical centers in Cité Soleil" (Wikipedia).

This is a running commentary. I kept a daily journal and will post the day's musings and photos here as well. The huge tent city is a potential disaster waiting to happen. Young girls might get accosted by predators,which has been documented by visitors (see

I was heartbroken to see so many children trying to make a buck for a meal: washing cars as they waited at a traffic light. I am glad there are so many people, like Jean Ristil Jean Baptiste (29), and Rea Dol,, who care about these children, many in Cité Soleil, orphaned when the shootouts occurred and their parents were killed.

As I stood in line at Immigration once we'd landed in Ft. Lauderdale, I was talking to Sam who was in Haiti to check on his family in Jacmel. He was telling me that he lost I think 8 relatives in the quake and was looking at rebuilding the family home at minimally $40,000. I told him about Constantine Alatzas, Institute for Creative Evolution: Tools for Peace, is working with Rea Dol in designing a sustainable structure for her new school. The key is AERBLOCK, a light weight material which is earthquake and flood or hurricane resistant used in the designs proposed by Alatzas.

As we speak I happen to mention the people I visited this past week, one of them Jean Yvon and Roselene in the line just ahead of me says, Jean Yvon is my cousin. I'm like wow. Well, Yvon is Rea's friend. Both Sam and Roselene know Yvon, but not each other. I give both of them Yvon's information as well as that of Constantine. Sam also knows Jen and the project she has with kids with cameras.

Talk about small world (smile). As I travel the African Diaspora, I am finding my role as facilitator of collaborations clear. It happened in Haiti, it happened in Dakar and The Gambia (to a lesser degree), and it always happens here. I see connections which might not be obvious and easily connect the dots between people, organizations, and projects. Not everything is followed up on; the people I am joining are very busy and always short staffed, but sometimes they least I hope they do. However, even if they don't the idea that they are not alone in the community building processes is I'm sure a boost to morale.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Spreading the Love con't.

Mo'Nique: Spreads the Love

I was so happy to be in the house to see Mo'Nique this evening at her "Spread the Love Tour," at Oakland's Paramount Theatre. Afterward as my friend and I walked to the car, one of the kids walking ahead of us said to his friends, "I shook the hand of Precious's mother." That was so funny, but we could certainly relate--we wished we'd gotten the opportunity (smile).

I was reminded of shaking the hand of the person who shook President Obama's hand and then before washing it, sharing the handshake with a few others. It was at the Alvin Ailey 25th Anniversary season tour in Berkeley last year.

Oscar award-winning actress Mo'Nique's topics tonight ranged from weight loss to orgasms, parenting two boys at 42, her husband, Sidney Hicks, the perks of purple haze, Harriet Tubman, black men, and Michele and Barack Obama and why she used so much profanity on stage.

Besides the repeated uses of the n-word, I found her delightfully refreshing and beautiful. Pretty legs and strong arms and shoulders, she looked great in a black dress just above the knee, with raised bodice, with narrow straps. In black heels that showed off her legs Mo'Nique strutted on stage, and called all her big girls to the front where they had spectacular seats. Cameras were okay, so we were firing away all night. At one point Mo'Nique told someone to stop recording her.

I found her comments on black women telling and true ... and her observations on our first lady and her husband, Michelle and Barack Obama, also correct.

"You know he wants to cuss out some of those cabinet members." She observed.

It was a case of laughing to keep from slapping someone in a few cases this evening, laughter certainly a more peaceful response as her comments hit tender, still raw and painful places.

Mo'Nique spoke of having the first lady's back as her patriotic duty--she did a little salute and a march. This duty meant that she wouldn't allow anyone, not even the Queen of England, to insult Michelle Obama.

"I might not get invited back to the White House," she stated. Before the Obama's Mo'Nique said she'd never cared to visit the White House or who was there. She failed history, because it was "his-story" not ours.

She said not to believe everything you read about her as she painted her face white, warrior marks a distinctive feature tonight.

Watch out!

It's as if something is loosened and freer now in the artist ... now that she has more keys on her ring, allowing her entrance into rooms formerly guarded. Who knows? it was refreshing listening to her talk about whatever she wanted to talk about uncensored.

We haven't come a long way from the place where the only safe black folks are those laughing, dancing or singing, but well perhaps this is where the truth hides and "The Spread the Love Tour" is a 21st century camp meeting where Africans led by abolishionist Mo'Nique with a mic not a shotgun sat or stood tonight plotting our escape from internalized sterotypes about ourselves that keep us enslaved and set a part.

I guess on the eve of the rebirth of Christ, one could even say, she has been resurrected, after media crucified her or at least tried. Look at Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey, Gabriel Prosner.

All the big sisters were out tonight showing some love for the sister who made them proud to be in their bodies, made them claim their beautiful selves.

For all the Sarah Baartmans, whom property of another were objectified and ridiculed, Mo'Nique has reshaped and revisioned African feminism and African beauty for them and the legacy western culture still mythologizes and we buy.

If she does nothing else public in her life, Mo'Nique should be applauded for being out there, taking the hits, being bold where others cannot and would not. Glamorous and intelligent, an articulate black woman who cares about her people, especially her sisters, especially the one's society has forgotten and excluded from so much--Mo'Nique represents our time to shine and takes the spotlight with her and illuminates us in all our various non-standard shapes and sizes.

Seriously you should have seen all the black women on the front row when she called her big girls down front to sit in the VIP section. I'd never seen anything like this before and for that alone, I applaud her and support her work as an actress and talk show host. I also like how she has placed her marriage in the public discource and her parenting: tongue in cheek, she loves as it challenges her as an older parent. Black families and black love are something we don't see enough of and like the Obamas, the Hicks, the Washington's and the Ruby Dee/Ossie Davis examples are ones were never tire of just because they are so few.

One of the comics, Tone-X, who opened the show said that we'd never see him with a white woman ... becasue he loved black women.

Hers is the lovely smiling face on Jet/April 5, 2010, Miki Turner's story, "Mo'Nique: Staying True to Herself," a glimpse into the woman behind the camera or off center stage, but for a public person, there is really no time when one is off.

For Mo'Nique, what life's about is honoring one's ancestors, enjoying each moment and remembering what counts, and for her an important task is raising up Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to get the Oscar for her role as "Mammy" in "Gone with the Wind." She plans to make a film about this woman to lift up her name.

Just as McDaniel could only play certain roles in film, it's true of black actors today, especially black women--Mo'Nique's character in the film based on Saffire's novel, PUSH, the psychotic mother of "Precious," is part of that canon, as is the mammy or McDaniel's "Mammy" who took care of her boss's home and children.

That McDaniel was recognized as separate from the family as a character or by extension person in her own right, extended the reference off the stage for black women and for black people. Seen for so long as "Bob's Mammy" or "Jennie's Jane," what she did, for the moment at least, was to exert her personhood, her humanity unconnected to a chattel history. She asserted her freedom. (One can see this as well in Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, where she has given life-her own life, to her mammy "Calpurnia." On the 50th Anniversary of the novel, TheatreWorks is producing the staged version by the same title in Palo Alto, it opens for previews April 7, and is up through May 9. Listen to a conversation with Cathleen Riddley who portrays this character on 4/2/2010).

Sometimes freedom is such a small thing which huge implications.

I think, this is part of Mo'Nique's attractiveness, this ability to be free, and her freedom, what one could say the Love Tour is all about: helping audiences, particularly black women, let go and be free.

Photo credit: Wanda Sabir (of course, smile). The other photos are of opening performers: Rodney Perry and Tone-X. DJ Ant was spinning.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Good Dance--Dakar/Brooklyn: Reggie Wilson, Fist and Heel and Andreya Ouamba, Compangie 1er Temps

Abstract yet concrete, the space between the slave trade is just one name verses another. "What does Mycal Rose say on one of the tracks in “Saga”: When it rains it pours for African people"?

Misissippi River/Congo River...trafficking people or costly minerals?

It also pours if you are a woman.

Abstract yes, but one couldn’t ignore the obvious violence in the gesture of a male dancer (Wilson) towards another dancer (an African woman) who was carrying water from one side of the stage to another.

Even though there were men who could have helped her, none did. They handed her more parcels to carry.

In fact after her painstaking journey—she ran between the two sides of the stage or field—in fact, I was reminded of the women in the villages and the girls who fetch water a few times a day for the family. It takes hours, after she arranged everything just so, the man she meets at home, is not happy to see her and in this case knocks the bottle off her head.

“The Good Dance” was quite intense…there were other moments where people were kicked and rolled over with feet placed on top of one another roughly like stacked dead bodies, and maybe they were many of the thousands or millions of Africans killed in war torn Congo and ghettos throughout the USA?

I kept thinking I was seeing things as one dancer kept hanging black men…the noose she tied over and over again so distinct…the good dance, like the good book has different reading. Remember the Klan are Christian soldiers.

Intense isn’t even the have of it as music and silence and narration clip and pull our attention to what doesn’t matter like repetitive cycles—pulling off one’s coat to slip it back one. What matters? What doesn’t matter? Why do human beings allow themselves to be trapped in rote behaviors—which reflect unexamined traditions which need to be discarded.

I liked the baptism…I guess because I knew the place. I also loved the two choreographers when the space between narrowed and dressed in lapas they danced.

I agree with both artists that the “Good Dance” is about process…it’s a collage where the sacred is shattered or leaks because of the imperfect nature of its adherents and creators, if one sees religion as man or woman’s way to explain the inexplicable, then “good” is relative and fluid like the Mississippi and the Congo Rivers which carried death as well life historically and into the present depending on one’s point of view.

The use of bottles as metaphor—plastic recyclable if one has the means, otherwise it is just more solid waste for the landfills in Africa and other so-called Third World nations.
The water which the essence of life, is polluted everywhere except here. Strange how the water systems are such that westerns cannot drink it, unless bottled.

What does that say ultimately about imperialism? If one kills the water, kills the land, and kills the air, eventually one kills the people.

The set is simple…plastic bottles filled with water that leak. The Mississippi and the Congo rivers are now commodities that the original people no longer control—the bottles represent privatization of natural resources, water the most important one. Just think if a corporation could package and resell us air. We have already gotten used to buying earth or soil or dirt. Air is coming next.

The last performance is Saturday, April 3, 2010, 8 PM at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre, Howard at Third Street, in San Francisco.

A Good Friday

It wasn't a good Friday, April 2, 2010, because the weather was warm and the skies were blue. Just the opposite, the weather was chilly and though the skies were clear, showers were imminent so some people carried umbrellas.

It wasn't a good Friday because I had a great show today, guests Reggie Wilson, Kendra Kimbrough Barnes, Ron Jones, and Cathleen Riddley started my day off well. Well actually, my daughter's good morning was how my day got started, after a good night's sleep, the first in two days--I went to sleep sitting at the table Wednesday night...getting my column filed with my editor.

It was a great Friday for all these reasons and more. I watched a wonderful film, Breath Made Visible, which opened today at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco and the Smith Rafael in San Rafael, about a great dance pioneer, Anna Halprin, whose evolution as a dancer reflected her growth and evolution as a human being. She reminded me of August Wilson; he had his work, she hers. But unlike Wilson, whose work in itself lacked the intrinsic comradery of dance--writing is a lonely/solitary occupation, Halprin invited her children and then community to participate in art making, human being making. She had the first multiethnic dance company, after a year long project with white dancers in San Francisco Bay Area and black dancers in Los Angeles, engaged in a dance conversation to heal the community of Watts after the rebellion. The culminating conversation between the two groups once they merged was such a success, the African American dancers wanted to continue with Anna,so some moved north and the stage under the redwoods which her husband had built for her shifted and grew to accomodate them.

The film, directed by Ruedi Gerber, starts at a concert when Anna is 86, then travels back and forth to tell her story, one which includes her grandfather whose praise dance make her think early on, that God must be a dancer.

The lines between art and life blurred until there was no separation. The story of Anna's relations with her husband Lawrence Halprin, who himself is an artist, architecture his field, and the support she'd had as a child from her mother, who enrolled her dancing child in ballet, and when that didn't seem like the right fit discovered Imogen Cunningham, I think--one of those choreographers who expended the contemporary form to include modern dance.

She says she wasn't good academically, but excelled at dance and theatre. She was very funny. Anna was blessed with parents who don't have all the answers and let her speak to them about what she wanted and needed--not verbally neccessarily.

My parents were like that, especially my mother. Money was the only reason why they let me dress up for a trip to Chicago promised me by the minister, rather than just purchasing a plane ticket for me themselves. I knew that Savior's Day was an important one, one not to be missed, but I did...the ticket never materialized and I went to sleep in my dress whites waiting and waiting for a phone call telling me I was going.

This morning and later on that afternoon, I was waiting for news of my trip to Haiti. As I write, I am still waiting, it has been almost two days now, well really a day and a half.

I am excited to be traveling to Haiti for Spring Break. We have a fundraiser coming up at the end of the month and I'd like to have photos and a report back to share with our audience. I am not preparing to enjoy myself, but I do feel called to do this. I haven't paid my mortgage or car insurance. I'll take care of the insurance when I return and any other bills. I plan to eat less this month to compensate for the unexpected expense, but go I must.

This evening I went to a candlelight vigil for trafficked children. Hosted by Victory Outreach Church in Oakland, Ramona Jones, church member, the key organizer did a marvelous job of bringing leaders in the field together with community. I am really disappointed none of my present students were out, (I saw an old friend and former student there) since we are looking at this issue presently in class. It was freezing, but most of us weathered the cold for two hours, going into three.

Assemblyman Sandre Swanson was present, and I hadn't expected him. He also spoke. He was followed by Nancy E.O'Malley, JD, Alameda county District Attorney. I think besides the great speech by a representative of New Day for Children, the most moving testimony was the policeman who has been on the human trafficking taskforce for ten years. As he shared the stories of the children he was trying to rescue and the adults who are kidnapping and enslaving them, he had to stop several times to pull himself together. He spoke of a recent case where a young girl was killed her body dumped at Mosswood Park. He asked for information about the assailants. He said he was retiring after this year, he said he couldn't do this anymore.

"They won't come talk to me," he said. "They'll talk to you." He said.

As I left, another woman, who once recruited girls for the pimps, spoke of a child she fed recently. "My heart went out to her," she said, as she watched the girl eat her meal and tell her that she had to go hit the streets to make money for herself and her pimp to have a place to sleep.

"She wasn't ready to leave that life," the woman said, but at least she knew that someone cared.

I thought about my ancestors stacked like logs in the bottom of ships, tossed overboard when too ill and hosed off like animals when dirty, and these children who by the hundreds and thousands are being held against their will, drugged, beaten and forced to have sex with 30-40 men a night.

The founder of MISSEY said she was one of the girls her agency is now trying to save. "Most of these girls come from foster care and the juvenile system." She also thanked those who voted yes on Measure Y, which is where most of the organizations funds come from.

Not all the trafickked children are from dysfunctional homes, not all victims are uneducated, some have college degrees. The common denominator is substance dependency, whether that is illegal or prescription or alcohol, low self-esteem, and many times, post-traumatic stress.

Those of us concerned enough to weather the inclimate climate are the new abolishionists. On Good Friday, it was okay to call Jesus's name, but people who need help don't have to be Christian to take advantage of the safe house at Victory Outreach or A Safe Place.

I was appalled when I learned that in the country there are onky 44 beds for traffickked children. We certainly need to do something about that. I have so many homeless kids coming through my classroom, many former foster care kids reuniting with dyfunctional families they were taken from, for good reason. At 18 though, the kids age out of foster care and often don't have anywhere to go. College is a good thing, but if they don't have anywhere to live and don't have any income, what are they going to do when they get hungry or cold?

I have met some brilliant youngsters, some whom were responsible for their siblings and themselves, and eventually dropped out. I just hope when I don't see them anymore that they have transferred or got a job and that's why I don't see them, not that they are in jail or prison.

As my candle's flame kept blowing out and I kept relighting it with the flame of the woman next to me, eventually blowing it out, I thought about the children on International near my house who are victims of sexual abuse.

I am so happy in California, thanks to Assemblyman Swanson, traffickked children are no longer arrested and booked and treated like criminals when they are victims. I remember when the Oakland City Council wad divided on the issue. I don't remember which argument won. Strange, although the event took place on City Hall steps, the mayor's office didn't issue a statement, nor were they present, neither were any City Councilmembers.

For more information visit: , A Safe Place, Family Justice Center,, Children of the Night, Victory Outreach Oakland, S.A.G.E.

HEAT WATCH: Office of the District Attorney
America's Human Exploitation and TRafficking (HEAT) Epidemic. HEAT Watch Hotline: (510) 208-4959 or Requests for anonymity will be honored. When calling or emailing tips, include the following:

1. Exact dates
2. Make,model, color and license plate of any vehicles invloved
3. Descriptions of people invloved, including gender,age, race, height, weight, clothing, scars, tattoos
4. Details about actions/activities taking place between trafickers and victims,such as, location and timegirls are droppedoff and by whom; name and room numbers of motels/hotels being used

Do not confront or physically encounter any offenders, your personal safety comes first. Visit

I met a mother helping her daughter get the word out about a girl scout project next week, April 10, 2010: "This is How We Do It: Youth Violence Prevention Forum, Oakland Youth Addressing Violence"

Topics: Gang/Turf Violence, Teen Dating Violence, Drugs/Alcohol role in Violence, Gun Violence

The forum is at the EOYDC, 8200 InternationalBlvd., Oakland, CA, 10AM to 4:30 PM. REgistration begins at 9 AM/ Lunch is provided.

The forum is supported by the Alameda County District Attorney's office, Girl Scout Award Project/Girl Scouts of Northern California Troop No.30228 Oakland Service Unit--Jean Follete Advisor

For information contact: Taylor Marie (510)632-1171or

Another event is a play, "Echo: A Poetic Journey into Justice," a theatre performance to bring awareness to the horrors of sex slavery/trafficking, Friday, April 9, 8 PM, Saturday, April 10, 8 PM, and Sunday, April 11, 5 PM.

50 percent of proceeds will go to MISSEY. The other 50 percent raised will go to Dreamcatchers Runaway and Homeless Youth Services.

I met the playwright Regina Y. Evans last year at a production of Machiavelli's "The Prince" at Central Works Theatre where the play is staged, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley (located inside the Berkeley City Club).

For information call (510) 562-2336 or Tickets are also available through