Monday, June 07, 2010

The Marsh Festival of New Plays through June 13, San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival 2010, Woes of a Committed Activist (smile)

This weekend was too busy and as usual when one gets too busy, things are apt to fall through the cracks … I just wonder how I might have been able to complete all my tasks and still not have missed the opening weekend of the Ethnic Dance Festival. I am beyond disappointed. I’d planned to take my granddaughter and nieces to see the performances this weekend which featured Indonesian and African dance troupes, among others. I am happy I got a chance to see the plays at the Marsh San Francisco and Berkeley, but to have missed Fua dia Congo with Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, is well … I have no words.

As I was completing my grades Friday night, wishing I could take a couple of hours to go to the first of three concerts featuring improvisation giants: Mark Wright, Musiki Robeson, Mack Rucks and others at East Side Cultural Center and the opening reception for Kamau Amen Ra at the Merritt Hotel Convention Center, both Friday night, by the time the Sister-to-Sister team made it back to North Bay after spending the day at the Women’s prisons in Chowchilla, it was 7 PM.

I completed my grades just five minutes before the deadline, so obviously I made the right choice, but sometimes doing the right thing is not the thing one wants to do, but I need the job and the benefits.

I’d planned to attend the Berkeley World Music Festival and the celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Oakland Youth Chorus the following day, Saturday, June 5, but after the Be-Still Retreat (a free quarterly event) hosted by the Black Women's Media Project, where Dr. Staggers delivered a great talk on stress and Pat Rambo’s workshop on clutter had me applying some of her tips when I got back home before rushing out and off to San Francisco to catch Sia Amma and Mia Pascal’s plays at the Marsh SF—which were wonderful.

Home again, I prepared for the concert at Ashkanez Music and Dance Center, but didn’t get out in time to stop by La Pena’s 35th Anniversary celebration which continues next week as well, June 11-12.

Got home at 2:00 AM, Markus James and The Wassonrai, who were really wonderful. I ran into some of my favorite sisters who told me about yet another event that day, a talk by Luisah Teish at MoAD earlier. They said Teish has a new book. Visit

After completing a report for my department at College of Alameda, I went over to San Francisco Sunday afternoon—the plan had been to go by the San Francisco Main Library to visit Lenn Keller exhibit (, but as I said, I got finished with the report too late and although I was rushing, I missed Don Reed’s “The Kipling Hotel,” but I did catch, David A. Moss’s “Cracked Clown,” which in beautiful yet tragic language tells the story of a man’s descent into hell and his climb back to earth.

When I walked into the theatre, the upstairs smaller Marsh stage where the air conditioning is powered by wrist action— “Crack” was cracking the whip, a hard and callous taskmaster, merciless in its hold on its victim “Dave.”

If there is a typical tragedy, then perhaps as Ross’s character states, his is not unique: from his father’s disappearance to his stepfather’s brutality, the molestation, and gradual addiction … Dave’s story might be abysmal, but seated in the theatre that afternoon were similar stories weighted about the same. I know because I’d seen many of them performed in that same hot theatre on that same stage.

As the playwright says in his conclusion, one’s life is determined by one’s choices…I would add, if you live to make them. Children don’t have the luxury of absolute control over their lives and depending on certain circumstances, many of them feel pushed into compromised options well illustrated by “Dave” as a child.

Alcohol and later drugs are certainly a means for Dave to silence the demons; unfortunately crack just cranks up the volume. Using light and the full range of the small space…a chair and two tables with three drinks on either side and the floor’s surface, Ross creates a night club, a kitchen, a classroom, office where he plays checkers with a counselor, a car where he and his father switch seats…switch roles as both lose all they love. Dave’s story is a study in genetics –nature vs. nurture. He is the poster child for apples and seeds and scarecrows.

As I sat there I thought about the many stories I’ve seen at the Marsh about black men and their absent fathers like W. Allen Taylor’s In Search of My Father... Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins or the honoring of one’s father, which is how I’d describe, Don Reed’s “East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player.” I don’t remember if Wayne Harris talks about his father in his tribute to his mother, the remarkable debut piece, “Mother’s Milk.” All these wonder solo performances, including Brian Copeland’s “Not a Genuine Black Man.” Ise Lyfe’s recent piece, Pistols and Prayers, while not a part of the Marsh series and/or workshops, certainly fits into the fraternity that is San Francisco bay area black men telling stories of family and fathers and mothers, strong, often single mothers…some of them, as in David Ross and Ise Lyfe’s case: white women raising black men, evidence that the Obama-effect wasn’t exactly an uncommon event.

I like the way, Moss’s character lists his preferences depending on which side is speaking: the black side or the white side and when he gets to race of women he’s attracted to: both sides agree on white women. I can’t imagine how the child must feel once his white mother leaves his black father and remarries a white man, and they have three white girls. He is the only black person in the family then. In Dr. Shakti Butler’s film: Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, one of the subjects in the film reflects on his half-brother, a black child who ended up in the foster care system when his black father dies because the courts would not let his mother’s husband, his stepfather (a white man), have custody of him. The older brother talks about how much he missed his little brother and how he searches for him when he becomes an adult to tell him about how wonderful his biological father was.

Race is so messy when it is allowed to interfere or insert itself between parent and child, between siblings, when the politics of race block intimacy. The Dave character doesn’t speak much about his mother. I wondered where was she when her husband was tormenting her son, as little Dave changes his sister’s diapers and when he is in Special Ed? Why did she leave Dave’s father, yet stay with her daughters’ father who was even more dysfunctional and abusive according to what we learn from David. At least, David’s father went to work, took care of the family, made his boy smile. Are the holes in the story intentional and/or characteristic of an unreliable or immature narrator?

One of Dave’s lines I love is “I’ll get in a rut and furnish it.” Another related to the precarious nature of sobriety once he relapses after a glass of wine is: It was like the “demons (were) on speed dial.”

Dave’s reflection on his wife and his son and his responsibility for the consequences of his choices are really poignant. At one point he likens it to slavery and the excuses chains that keep him bound. Like Audrey Lorde, the mother of bio-mythology, Dave also realizes that his story is just that, his story, to write and rewrite as he sees fit.

“Cracked Clown” runs again: Thursday, June 10, 7:30 PM with an excerpt from Ann Randolph’s The Real Miss America and Saturday, June 12, 8:30 PM.

Sia Amma’s “Uncle Sam Children,” proceeded by Mia Pacal’s “Slaughterhouse Trapeze” is Friday, June 11, 8 PM; then again “Uncle Sam’s Children” proceeded by Paul Sussman’s Do the Math, Sunday, June 13, 3 PM. Visit of call (800) 838-3006.

When I read the title, “Uncle Sam’s Children,” I wasn’t certain what the play was about. Following after Mia Pascal’s witty play about love and heartbreak, a perfect fit thematically on another level … Pascal in an elegant sheath showing off her lovely figure, all the curves accented…yet the color one of mourning: was she dressed for a tomb—is the perfect foil for the two sister stories.

“I am woman, hear me roar,” the women sing.

Mia’s trapeze metaphor appropriate—for isn’t love an often a dangerous balancing act most fall to their death trying out for the starring role?

Okay, so as Mia’s character somersaults through an avalanche of femme fatal relationships, landing at the foot of some mountain or in the back seat of a cab in Milan, her audience sea sick from the abrupt shifts in terrain.

Sia Amma’s character enters the stage bumping along in a taxi as well on her way home to her mother’s village for the funeral. Though the story is a sad one—I remember when Sia Amma’s mother died, the tale is anything but, especially when the characters have their say as only Amma can tell it – this sage of the black Americans, Uncle Sam’s children who repatriate Africa—Liberia, to create a subculture where the indigenous Africans are subservient to the American New Africans, centuries post emancipation. We get a history lesson in the taxi as passengers pay the bribes, so they are not robbed and killed along the road to the village.

I think to myself, how hard it much be to navigate these landscapes and wonder how a black American more recently from the U.S. would be greeted by Uncle Sam’s children. Sia Amma’s character speaks of the pillage and plunder, ravages of war on her family, her immigration, a father’s love for his daughter and her determination to save her family and make her mom’s life easier in her absence.

We also see how much Amma loses when she leaves home and what she might have lost if she had stayed. It is an immigrant story from a perspective ICE perhaps doesn’t know and if so doesn’t care, evident in the United States refusal to let Sia Amma bring her sick mother to the USA during the height of the war. There was no such thing as emergency visas or humanitarian aid at the border which is strange, given the fact that Liberia is like a US colony or protectorate. Black Americans were dumped there after slavery was abolished.

300 years after they were sold, stolen and robbed of their language and culture, descendants of enslaved Africans were shipped back “home,” as if there was a home to return to and like Columbus as in Christopher, the New Negroes proceeded to eliminate the natives and act like the space was unoccupied by a people prior to their arrival or reentry.

Sia Amma’s family’s story is one for the colonists: Liberia founded by Americans, Sierra Leone colonized by the British and Guinea, the French. Sia Amma was born on the border and claims all three. She speaks of Firestone, BF Goodrich and the plunder of the land and exploitation and murder of her people, the Kisi and others.

There is a map of Africa on the wall and a table with gourds and fabric and other instruments. As she tells the story of her family the characters dance, sing, cry and celebrate, mourn and rejoice.

“Uncle Sam’s Children” is the story of a life cycle—both the narrator’s and her character’s, namely her mother’s. However, “Uncle Sam’s Children” is also the story of migration, forced and intentional, and how Uncle Sam changes all who encounter him. At one point, Sia speaks about how she hadn’t realized how much of a San Francisco feminist she had become until she returns home and faces sexual discrimination she at her mom’s grave site--can't throw dirt on her mother's coffin because she is a woman: does she fight it or submit to the custom?

Sia Amma is of two worlds and “Uncle Sam’s Children” shows how she has taken the best of both and woven it into a personal story which she ties around her head and wears as a crown.

After we left the Marsh in San Francisco, Sunday afternoon, (the next day) my friend and I moseyed over to Berkeley to see Don Reed’s E-14th Street at the Berkeley site, Shattuck at Allston Way. There are two stages there: where Anna’s Jazz Island used to be and next door.

A bit longer now with an intermission, Reed’s “true tales of a reluctant player” was just as refreshing as it was when I saw it over a year ago. The house was full on a Sunday evening, and Reed’s performance didn’t allow anyone to rethink their choice in entertainment.

From the opening song and dance where all the characters come out for a bow, Reed dances across the stage as he warms things up. It was like watching a trailer only it was live. I haven’t tried it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the opening segment is on-line. His characters are vivid and so well-crafted and executed from “steak face” and “trout mouth” to brothers Tony and Darryl, not to mention Reed as himself as “Blinky” and later on as the more confident college student or scholar. I love his bird call and dance segments—the music certainly a character in the piece.

The dad’s motto, be yourself, whether that is a scholar or a hustler, and his parenting style indicates a subtle reign or presence Reed doesn’t notice, yet is evident in his father’s ability to ask the right questions and to show up when he needs to to intercept something that might hurt his child(ren). It is the same with Reed’s brothers, they are protective of their little brother and proud of him.

Reed doesn't crucify his stepfather either and brings humor to the obvious dysfunction in the household that has nothing to do with religion. In the end, he even credits the early morning proselytizing as rehearsals for his success later on in school as a pubic speaker and eventually his stage career.

It was fun watching the play and recalling favorite moments like old friends. Don’s brother, Darryl, seemed to spend a lot of time with Don, his advice not necessarily the most well thought out. Eventually Don learns that his brother’s values and his do not always agree. The code of the street is challenged here--perhaps there is a higher code, one called honor? The pimps and prostitutes, hustlers and crooks in Reed's world care about young people like Don who are leaving the volatile game behind for a more certain future. Reed says his father couldn’t read and write, yet he made sure his son didn’t miss any school especially once he was in college.

E-14th is an unusual coming of age story, in that, after Reed’s mother and father divorce, and the household income plummets almost overnight, the Reed’s family was for all intents and purposes a healthy one. His mother remarries and their lifestyle changes drastically when they become Seventh Day Adventists—and Don encounters his stepfather’s brutal child rearing techniques. Once again, as in David Moss’s “Cracked Clown,” story of child abuse and addiction, where was Reed’s mother when “Bill” was beating Don for infractions like throwing orange peels on the ground and tossing his sandwich and eating a cafeteria lunch?

The good thing about Reed’s life was that he knew his father and could leave, whereas Moss's "Dave" could not.

Reed’s “E-14th,” written, performed and directed by Reed, Moss’s “Cracked Clown,” directed by Jeffrey Bihr, and Sia Amma’s “Uncle Sam’s Children,” directed by Wayne Harris, all point to the resilience of the human spirit, especially that of children who seem to possess an infinite capacity to forgive. It’s the forgetting that’s hard, which is why it’s a good thing the Marsh cultivates and commissions and provides a platform for these great new works. It’s a way out of the potential psychosis that imprisons and destroys wounded spirits like those profiled in these stories of triumph.

On Saturday, June 19, 12 noon to midnight is the Marsh’s 20th Anniversary Performance Marathon at the San Francisco Marsh, 1062 Valencia Street (near 22nd Street). There is attendant parking at 21st Street and Bartlett. Among those listed to perform are: MC Azeem, Dan Hoyle, Pamela Z, Fred Harris, Wayne Harris, Dee Spencer, William Allen Taylor, Brian Freeman, Don Reed, Ellen Sebastian Chang. All day passes are $100, afternoon $60,evening $60 and tow hour tickets, $20(sold at the door the day of the event). All tickets include access to the party 11 PM to midnight or so.

Photos: Illustrate my weekend. At the top is part of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners' Sister-to-Sister black women advocacy team; David Moss, Wayne Harris and Jerome, comic, singer, actor and friend of Reed and Moss and was in town on a tour; later in Berkeley, Reed connects with friend, writer, Dwayne Parrish, after the show in the lobby; Sia Amma and Mia Pascal, Festival of New Plays at the Marsh; the other photos are of Wanda Sabir and her sister Octavia Edwards at Ashkenaz in Berkeley where Markus James and The Wassonrai performed (also pictured). There are lots of photos from the Black Women's Media Network's "Be-Still," and the man pictured leading Soul Chi is Maalak.


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