Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brava Theatre and African American Shakespeare Company present: U.S. Premiere of IPH…

Agamemnon writhes on his stark cellar floor, gripped by a nightmare he must adhere to—kill his daughter to appease the gods. And what a lovely daughter she is—and what a loving relationship he has with his daughter who sees how troubled he is and wishes away Troy and war and the battles men wage which make no one happy.

Is there ever so much bloodletting one has to say enough? Cups runneth over many times and thirst is still not satiated. What a task Agamemnon takes on…if one asked his wife, Klytaimnestra the answer would clearly be no. She tells him, “What, I have children for you to kill them. Who is next?”

As Agamemnon wages war within himself—his wife and the brother whose wife ran away with an enemy—the famous “Helen of Troy,” whose honor Greece takes on in a war, even after her husband, Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus, tells him no, spare his daughter.

I love C. Kelly Wright’s “Klytaimnestra” What a wonderful mother she portrays, especially in her grief—her agony is all too real—Agamemnon a serial child killer, Iphigenia is not the first he has slaughtered. This tragedy follows such joy, mother and daughter singing, happily anticipating Klytaimnestra’s marriage to Achilles—a dashing warrior god.

Traci Tolmarie’s lovely “Iphigenia” resigns herself to her father’s wishes like the good daughter she is. Her decision reminds me of the bull who agreed to his sacrifice at the ritual I attended in Rufisque, Senegal. He ceased struggling and decided to surrender to his fate. But the girl is not meat. No one benefits from her slaughter. Her flesh doesn’t feed the hungry just a bloodthirsty god. I felt like weeping with her mom.

The chorus keeps the story moving and the audience filled in on the latest dirt as the four women salivate over Achilles, Iphigenia’s intended finance. The backdrop is a multimedia collage on screen that brings the war all too close to home—images, a mix of Agamemnon’s agony, his face juxtaposed with that of his child—wars past and present, here and at home.

Agamemnon sacrifices more than a child. He loses his peace even after the war is won.

90 minutes without intermission—I think one would have to see the play more than once or at least read the script, to fully appreciate Colin Teevan’s translation and adaptation, his lovely writing, as well as the scripts subtle nuances which are both old and new. Callender says in the program that he sat with the play for a few years—just go see it twice; it won’t be up in 2013 unless AASC and Brava bring it back (smile).

The use of cameras for real time video capture and simultaneous streaming which projected characters and scenes on the larger screen above…again is so African American Shakespeare and Brava Theatre—both companies known for their contemporary staging of the classics and the mixing of genres. I hope this collaboration is just one of many others to come between the two theatres.

Callender has started his tenure as Artistic Director of the African American Shakespeare Company with a bang…the fire works and confetti still falling. Don’t miss the start of his virgin season. IPH … is up through October 16 at Brava Theater, 2781 24th Street, San Francisco, (415) 647-2822 and

The Brothers Size at the Magic Theatre

I loved In the Red and Brown Water…part 1 of playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brother/Sister Stories, at the Marin Theatre Company through October 10, and if there was a word which conveyed the way my heart wept for Ogun Size when once again his world was split asunder—that word would suffice and the string of approximate utterances in this littered space would be swept clear.

After the uninterrupted 90 minutes ended, I couldn’t move…not even for an ovation. I knew what to expect. I’d read the play a week prior, but I have come to know how what’s on the page is merely a glimpse into the life theatre breathes into a script—the water without oxygen—it was like that and more. I could barely compose myself to speak to Joshua whose “Ogun Size” was everything a brother would want in a brother and everything his name implies: Ogun—iron, stability, steadfastness. It was great seeing the play with a Priestess of Oya; the ride back from Ft. Mason Center where the Magic Theatre is housed—enlightening. What was most enlightening however was seeing three black men on stage telling stories about captivity and escape, healing and survival, trust and love.

There is that word again, but as Ogun told his brother when their two lives became one, Elegba’s recounting to Ogun his brother’s cries for his big brother while inside the prison, how he couldn’t compete nor did he want to—we are in this life together even when we are apart.

The story of Ogun and his kid brother in a town where the only policeman—a black man, sits waiting for young and old black men to make a mistake so he can lock them up. Reminds one of the slave catchers or patrollers lying in wait along dark dusty lonely roads.

When the play opens one hears drums and sees Ogun’s brother’s still form. Asleep, he grumbles when he is awakened. Since he’s been released, Oshoosi has trouble sleeping at night. Unemployed and on parole, all he can think about is cars and girls and sex—in that order. His buddy from prison, Elegba is the man to make it happen.

Themes like justice and freedom traverse the tenuous horizon where Brothers Size meet once again as Oshoosi’s nightmares awaken him or keep him awake…Ogun stuck in similar twilight landscapes. It is a place where what is impossible is possible—escape is a real possibility –the shovel used to dig the underground railroad against a wall in Ogun’s Garage.

Ogun tells his brother that while he was locked up he would sit and think about him and see him smile and sometimes laugh. Oshoosi tells his brother that he remembers him playing Santa Claus leaving him presents. Ogun remembers when he learns his mother; Yemeja is dead, Oshoosi kidding his brother about his tears.

There is so much between these two men –the affection and understanding and care and the synergy between Joshua Elijah Reese’s Ogun and Tobie Windham’s Oshoosi a tangible entity which is wonderful to witness on stage. Alex Ubokudom’s Elegba is outside the circle, eclipsing Oshoosi only when memories of prison return unbidden and unwelcome.

Elegba is the memory after the decay is gone along with the cavity—one slides his tongue around inside out of habit.

What did Oshoosi do to survive inside the prison? What was his and Elegba’s relationship? Can a relationship begun in prison sustain itself once the bars are removed? What happens when freedom erases the invisible lines drawn in the sand?

In some ways, Elegba reminds me of Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption. In the film Freeman’s character tries to kill himself –captivity is something he knows, not freedom. Does Elegba try to commit a crime to go back to prison—something he knows, or is he just making bad choices? Are his actions deliberate or unintentional?

I last saw Tobie Windham in California Shakespeare Company’s Pastures of Heaven, which he performed an excerpt of at Quentin Easter’s memorial. I last saw Alex Ubokudom in the Stanford production this summer of Wanderings of Odysseus, where he played Achilles and Odysseus, along side L. Peter Callender. I see why he’d want to be in the house opening night at Brava and African American Shakespeare’s production of the U.S. premiere of IPH…. IPH is the back story and many of the key characters show up like Achilles who lost is wife before she was his own.

After seeing the Wanderings this summer, getting the back story is pretty cool stuff. Now I know why Odysseus wasn’t trying to get home too soon to Klytaimnestra.

I don’t know if Peter Callender, Artistic Director for African American Shakespeare Company, planned it this way or the gods, but everything seems lined up as if the oracles predicted it—Callender’s such a regal emissary (smile).

The Brothers Size is up through October 17 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, Bldg. D, Ft. Mason Center. There is a free performance scheduled at Laney College, 900 Fallon Street in Oakland, for Saturday, October 9, 2010 in the afternoon, perhaps about 1-2? Call (415) 441-8822 or

Monday, September 20, 2010

First Black Native American Pow Pow

The first Black Native American Pow Wow was wonderful. It began with a panel discussion Friday evening on what it means to be black and indigenous and then the following two days featured a showcase of dance and drumming and fun for all present at Cal State East Bay.

Congratulations to Don "Little Cloud" Davenport and to all organizers and those present.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

San Francisco Mime Troupe's Posibilidad or Death of the Worker

I almost missed the San Francisco Mime Troupe's 51st season, except I ran into Michael Gene Sullivan and Velina Brown at Rotimi Agbabiaka's Homeless at SF Fringe Saturday, Sept. 18. And I am so happy I caught it even if it meant rushing from the African American Leadership Commission kick off event: "Living Up to Our Greatness" with keynote speaker, Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., Pastor Emeritus Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago, Illinois. That was one auspicious gathering and to think I could have missed it, except for a flier I picked up at the West Oakland Branch Library.
Dr. Wright spoke about the master narrative, the popular discourse that many citizens tie their reality to, to their undoing.

The concluding Mime Troupe performance Sunday evening was at Analy High School in Sebastopol. I'd never traveled there before--I passed dairy farms once I exited I-101 N and traveled along Highway 12 and then 16.

Rotimi was great as the villain, "Juan," in Posibilidad or Death of the Worker, the story of outsourcing production to other countries while maintaining the facade of socially responsible economics was very clear in this newest work.

Juan is the factory owner who spends the profits on himself and when his bottom-line needs adjusting -he balances his account by firing his employees. When the curtain rises, there are only four employees left, two women and two men, one of them Joe (Michael Gene Sullivan) with the company for 30 years. The owner, Juan, inherited the company from his dad.

The company name has changed as well to reflect environmental policies which are bogus--the workers instead of settling for unemployment decide to take over the company and are successful until the leader is bought off by the former owners.

It reminded me of how success is often sabotaged when the insurgents look to the enemy as a model for governance. It always fails, whether that is in formerly colonized countries or at businesses owned by workers. Banks and shareholders are not necessary...and certainly debt should be avoided.

Fear is often used as a weapon by the capitalists who want the workers, those creative people who want to own the work and the means. What Posibilidad shows is how sometimes people know what to do, but are unable to follow through--they self-sabotage.

Joe is not able to follow through, but without him the collective would not have been possible. There are no partial revolutions, but sometimes one's role is to load the ball into the canon, another's job, to light the wick.

Perhaps Michael Gene Sullivan, playwright said it best after the play ended when he said the most important job we have in a democracy is that of citizen and citizens have the right to change systems which are unjust and unfair.

Pat Moran's music and songs are Mime Troupe classics with Velina Brown's solos as an Argentinean revolutionary "Donella," whose pregnant daughter, "Sofia," defects to America are wonderful! Labor Fest 2011 is contemplating inviting SF Mime to present an excerpt of the play next year, so stay tuned.

Carla Pantoja's "Sofia" is really conflicted as she hides her Argentine factory take over story from her disgruntled co-workers. Embarrassed at the outcome in her home country, Sofia allows herself to be cowered into accepting a solution which translates into neoslavery at the small U.S. factory where she now works.

But this is SF Mime Troupe which means, the bad guys --capitalist corporate structures lose.


I interviewed Michael Gene Sullivan in June about the 51st Season on

Pictured: Michael, Rotimi (middle)and another member of the Mime Troupe team. I caught them after Rotimi's Homeless at the Exit on Eddy.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

San Francisco Fringe Festival: Paper Angels

"Paper Angels" written by San Francisco writer Genny Lim 30 years ago still resonates in today's immigrant communities, whether that is new arrivals from Asia or refugees from places like Haiti. Produced by the New York company, Direct Arts, directed by Victoria Linchong, the work looks at the immigrant detention camp on Angel Island (having its 100th Anniversary this weekend as well) which is described as "a larger Alcatraz," a place which was "the Bay Area's primary quarantine and 'disinfection' station, as the immigrant processing and detention center known as 'the Ellis Island of the West,'(

History haunts the island which is now a park, I can imagine the spirits of the Chinese who were once detained there laughing at how soon the tables turned on America now their home country-- China, now owns America.

Unlike Ellis Island where Europeans just outside NY were processed within hours of their arrival, even Chinese immigrants who were guaranteed admission, like students, were denied. Men and women spent days, even months, in the camps.

In Lim's play we see people who have been at the camp for over a year. What doesn't make sense are all the returning men who have been in America for 30-40 years. Familiarity should have brought with it some clout, but nothing helps shorten the processing time except money--bribes.

Laws supported this unfair treatment--the Chinese Exclusion Act 1882–1943, where "the intent of American law was to restrict severely and otherwise impede the entry of Asians—not merely ‘to distinguish between those individuals allowed to move freely and those who were not’ (McKeown 2003: 377). Just like Alcatraz too, Angel Island imprisoned Chinese immigrants, later POWs during WW2. (Robert Barde and Gustavo J. Bobonis's Detention at Angel Island 377).

"Like a bigger Alcatraz, Angel Island is an 'away' place for the city, now a park, but formerly as a site for activities undesirable in the midst of the city" (

Performed at dusk or about 7:30, the seats were all filled when I arrived. Locals sat on the fixtures, planters and the ground. When the play started there were no seats, and the creative people seated behind me had to stand as well to see.

I heard different languages spoken as old timers reflected on Lim's story, her father and mother and sister's story, as well as the story of so many on and off the stage that evening.

Multimedia projection served as a backdrop, often explaining or putting into context Lim's work. I loved the camaraderie among the men and women, both able to find pleasure and support in each other's company.

Listen to an interview with the playwright, Genny Lim at www.blogtalkradio/wandas-picks (Sept. 17, 2010). She was the final interview of the morning show at 9:30 AM. The interview is an hour.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

In the Red & Brown Water

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red & Brown Water, is of the here and now and ever after. Set in the “distant present” in a fictitious small Louisiana town, the piece paces itself to the rhythms of the people of the town, people named Oya and Elegba and Shango . . . African gods and goddesses.

The rhythm or pace is quietly intense as the protagonist, Oya, a young woman who likes to race or run, misses her start and can’t seem to catch up.

In the Red and Brown Water is the story of her missed race and how sometimes voids cannot be filled.

In language that is so poetic and beautiful the muses or other loa in the town who sing Oya’s story, sing of its inevitability witnessed when the curtain rises on a still form on a raised surface— call it an altar. Call it hallowed ground. Call it Dorothy’s house once the hurricane, no tornado, took it away and her—tossing them both into a land where green people work for a mean old woman.

Call it poverty, poor health care, fate.

Part one of an episodic journey ends on a question, which is not answered necessarily in The Brothers Size or Marcus, parts two and three, Ryan Rilette, director of Marin Theatre Company's production of "Red," says in the audience talk-back the evening I attended opening week.

There is a shared character or two in the two plays that follow Red, but if one is expecting a series--The Brother/Sister plays are not The Cosby Show. One can certainly see how August Wilson went on to his heavenly gig happily when he met Tarell Alvin McCraney who assisted him on his final work, “Radio Golf.”

For Wilson it was the Hill District in Pittsburgh, for McCraney it is the south pre-post Katrina--then it is not. The geography shifts between mystic specificity and mystic eternity--the only constant his Pan African aesthetic.

Born in the black town, Liberty City, Miami, a place gradually going the way of much of black America –gentrification, the playwright grew up in the projects, the eldest of four, his mother addicted to crack. His story is one that many young adults share . . . in a conversation with playwright Ernie Silva, whose solo performance work, "Heavy Like the Weight of a Flame," was performed recently at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, the writer calls himself a street kid with brains—and this "street kid" just completed a MFA from the University of Southern California in theatre art. Similarly, McCraney is a Yale graduate.

Deep. Deep and smart. Deep like the water, yet light as a feather. Herein lies the dilemma for Oya who loves a man who is not good for her soul, a soul no one can fix.

The characters are so well-fashioned yet hard to grasp, especially the principles: Oya (Lakisha May)—it’s her story and Elegba (Jared McNeill) who is a mysterious boy child, who dreams of Oya. His symbol is the moon.

Isaiah Johnson's "Shango" is just a gigolo, while Ryan Vincent Anderson's "Ogun" has a lot of heart, just not enough for his woman. Dawn L. Troupe's "Aunt Elegua" is the voice of conscious one can't always trust and Daveed Diggs's "The Egungun" is the emcee who keeps the party going until one's time it up.

The story is a simple one . . . dreams change once life happens and Oya is ready to change as well. The only problem is the one she loves doesn’t love her back. Her mother, Mama Moja (Nicole Fisher) tries to warn her, but Oya has to make her own mistakes.

In New Orleans the second line is the dirge or funeral hymn that accompanies the rhythmic march to the cemetery. To a certain degree In the Red & Brown Water is a second line ... one just doesn't know it until one reaches the end of the road and meets the ancestors or The Egungun.

In the Red & Brown Water is at the Marin Theatre Company through October 10, 2010. Visit

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Anna Karenina @ Opera San Jose Sept. 11-26 Reviewed Sunday, Sept. 12 matinee

Opera is big on melodrama, and David Carlson's Anna Karenina is the entire Desperate Housewives season in one episode. From the unpleasant premonition when a man leaps to his death in front of her train, to her troubles with her husband, the unexpected pregnancy and the ensuing indiscretions and gossip... poor Anna really makes a mess of things quickly, so quickly it makes one's head spin.

But let's start at the beginning.

Based on the epic novel by the same title, Leo Tolstoy's voluminous tale of high society--its marriages of convenience between older men and younger women, whose careers consist of having babies and throwing parties. When we meet Anna, she is bored and taking a break from her husband, Alexei Karenin, and child, Seioja, at her brother, Stiva Oblonsky's home where she meets a flirt, Alexei Vronsky, (funny, I just noticed the husband and interloper have the same first name).

Anna visits dear brother Stiva to save his marriage and ironically loses her own.

Anna says she used to love her husband, but after I think eight years of marriage, years where he is wrapped up in his work and she never sees him, she is ready for romance, the type of attention, Vronsky provides as soon as he sees her at a party, despite Anna's resistance because, she tells him, "I am a married woman."

Vronsky kisses her in front of everyone, even the woman he supposedly loves, Kitty, whom when proposed to by another man, Konstantin Levin (actor Alexander Boyer), turns him down. Levin, sort of the conscience of the play, is devastated. (Kitty is Anna's sister-in-law, Dolly's sister.)

I am surprised Anna doesn't know the rule of thumb regarding flirtation: one doesn't take the man home, especially if there is a man already residing there (smile). Girlfriend, not only takes the boy home in her heart, she lets him into the house and into her bed--poor judgment, especially as there were no condoms on the night stand.

Yes, she is doomed. Karenin might be away at work more than he should, but he is an older man who loves his pretty wife and is upset that she is bringing negative attention on the household--one he has ignored, including a son, he barely knows, but this is the life of the aristocracy. Perhaps Anna expected more, but to expect more was to be unrealistic.

It was as if she expected her life to reflect that of the characters in a Harlequin Romance novel.

The sets are each marked by paintings --impressionists (real or fake?) and initially portraits of Anna and Karenin (life size, a nice touch--symbolizing love and/or stability). The furnishings rotate off and on the set, with actors carrying pieces in or out as the orchestra plays throughout. This fluidity means every moment counts.

Several times the characters create a tableau on stage...light and shadows a backdrop to what is happening in the foreground or in a character's head, such as Anna's on the train platform in the closing scene.

I wish the names of the songs were in the program, but just before the end of the first act, the song sung between Anna, Karenin, Vronsky and I think Dolly, is really beautiful in its arrangement--each artist singing a separate part--the question is one of fidelity and love. Will Karenin give Anna her freedom and custody of their son?

What do you think?

He tells Dolly that he might forgive Anna is he didn't hate her. I think it's more male ego than anything else. Anna hurts his feelings and if nothing is felt in moderation, Karenin can't forgive Anna or treat her kindly, especially when whisperers of evil are telling him to be spiteful and full of vengeance. The result is the least powerful suffer like Anna and Karenin's child, "Serioja," wonderfully portrayed by Kameron Duncan (9).

Anna and Karenin, actors Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste and Isiah Musik-Ayala could have possibly worked it out if Karenin's busy body sister Lydia (actress Kindra Scharich) ) hadn't inserted her will between her brother and his former wife, she now mother to Anna's child.

The acting is superb all around with a special kudoos to Torlef Borsting's "Vronsky," home wrecker, who I can't stand. I really like Anna's sister-in-law, Tori Grayum's "Dolly Oblonsky," her husband, Anna's brother, actor Michael Mendelsohn's "Stiva Oblonsky."

The California Theatre is so lovely--art deco period, similar in design to the Paramount and Fox theatres in Oakland and the Castro in San Francisco. The San Jose Opera at the California Theatre is so much more comfortable than that at the Herbst Theatre where in the balcony one can barely move her knees.

The Anna story is so typical of upper class woman in Russia and elsewhere--idle minds really are the devil's workshop and an idle mind coupled with unmet desire, is just a recipe for disaster or a great opera (smile).

In the classic story, The Yellow Wallpaper, the poor wife who is pregnant eventually goes mad when he husband keeps her confined to a certain area of the house where there is no light and she can't visit the garden. Anna isn't physically confined, but there isn't much upward mobility in the matrimony market--

Anna kind of loses it, just as the protagonist in the short story does as well. This mental instability is enhanced by drugs...prescribed by the physicians these women find themselves in the care of (in The Yellow Wallpaper, the pharmacist is the protagonist's husband).

In the end Anna's thinking is impaired by her addiction. She doesn't seem to know what she wants. One of the lessons here is to be careful what one wishes for; often when one's wishes are granted, one cannot send the gift back or get back the life one once knew.

Colin Graham's libretto is so lovely. It's like poetry. The epilogue gives one a reading on Anna's life--one of the characters, Levin haunted by her beauty and sadness.

Ella: The American Dream; Happy Birthday TheArthur Wright ; Joyce Gordon Gallery @ Seven

I have been reading Open Wide The Freedom Gates, Dorothy Height's autobiography, and have been just marveling over her social justice work around racism, from interpersonal to institutional dismantling of such structures.

Often the only woman at meetings between civil rights leaders and presidents, also meetings between major civil rights heroes: A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and Martin King, whom she met at dinner at the home of one of her mentors, Dr. Mays (who became president of Howard University.) King was 15 then and attending the university. She writes of the child's seriousness and how just ten years later, how he was leading a movement. She writes of her mother who was a nurse and her father a contractor, the family's move to Rankin, Pennsylvania, from Richmond, Virginia, where her mother couldn't find work as a nurse and became a household (domestic worker), something Dorothy often resented, as it kept her mother away on important holidays. She writes of growing up in a community of immigrants, where she and a friend wrote the high school song, still sung today. She was a smart reflective introspective child who had parents who nurtured her development. When the straight A student was accepted into Barnard, she writes of the two spaces for black students, already filled, so she was denied admittance when it was discovered she was black. She writes of her work in the Young Christians Association, international organizing meetings as a youth leader.

She knew W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Langston Hughes, W.C. Handy, and others. She talks about Ms. Bethune's founding of the National Council of Negro Women, her tenure as president when its founder passed and other organizations dedicated to human and civil rights she started of became a part of. She was a true womanist and activist.

When she was in New York, especially when she first arrived as a student, applying at NYU after Barnard rejected her. NYU wanted her. Height talks about the music and cultural arts scene, how one could hear all the great bands, among them Duke Ellington.

You can imagine my surprise to see a portrait of Duke Ellington at Prescott Joseph Center, TheArthur Wright's Ellington, graces one of the Center Gallery walls.

TheArthur Wright, a wonderful artist know for his paintings using pointillism technique--the medium bleach which turns the surface gold, was celebrated today on the occasion of his birthday, Sept. 7. There were many art pieces I hadn't seen before--the theme Egypt or Kemet.

Not far from Ellington was Maat representing reciprocity and balance--her wings spread out horizontally--a feather on her head. Another painting highlighted the reign of the first pharaoh known as "Scorpio." The pharaoh is in the center light from the heavens illuminating his path, while soldiers are alongside his carriage. TheArthur took a few of us on a tour where he spoke of his technique, working from photographs and his imagination. One of his models for a lovely painting of three African women laughing, was there and I asked her how she felt immortalized in a painting--she was pleased. The artist highlighted the details in color, beaded necklaces and bracelets. One would never know, in many instances that the painting was in fact a print.

It was good to see TheArthur, he'd been in a convalescence home for the past five months, this party his first public appearance since he was released. The art exhibit will be up until mid-October. The first Friday in October the plan is to have an artist talk. Stay tuned. There was live entertainment, a highlight this afternoon a really talented young singer who performed a few gospel favorites.

Ella: The American Dream
I headed for Petaluma after the party ended. Even though it was supposedly sold out, I didn't want to miss Kim Nalley's play: Ella: The American Dream at the Cinnabar Theater. It was a great show: the story, music and message.

Featuring many of my favorite people in the cast: Kim of course, as "Ella," Tammy Hall, musical director and "Beverly Peer," Robert Henry Johnson as "Chick Webb."
The story was one not highlighted as much when one thinks about Ella Fitzgerald, her climb to stardom from misfortune: orphaned when her mother dies, stint on the streets, arrest for juvenile delinquency, the artist's low self-esteem and insecurity, Chick Webb's mentoring and her rise to the top.

The costumes are also doesn't recognize the glamorous Kim Nalley as the young Ella.

When we meet Nalley's Ella she is a street kid in New York singing and dancing for her supper, while trying to stay warm. She and others eking out minimal sustenance that cold winter on desolate corners. Ella happily counts pennies and dimes and the occasional quarter for cream and coffee, warmth promised by a movie ticket, while the older folk on the corner tell her she can do better until she goes across the street to the Apollo theatre and signs up for the amateur night contest and wins, yet the packaging isn't up to par, so she gets the $25 but not the gig.

Later, when Chick Webb walks into the Apollo lamenting the loss of his lead singer to a new group, the Ink Spots, the proprietor, Ralph Cooper, remembers the kid singer and tells Chick about her. They have to clean her up--the girl has lice in her hair, her clothes are so filthy the two men probably burn them, but once teh crud is washed away, Ella truly shines, the marriage between musical geniuses is instantaneous and until her mentor dies Ella, for the first time since her mother passed, feels safe and loved.

It is the Savoy where young Ella makes a name for herself, incurring the wrath of established divas like Billie Holiday.

Nalley's Ella is as much a story about a young woman with exceptional talent as it is about how one could have so much and still not believe it. Ella is a story of how a insecure young woman grows into her song. I like how Nalley shows how the sweet kid engenders love in the most unusual places like the cold New York streets, as well as in show business where competition often means one's friends are few.

Ralph Cooper, emcee at the Apollo tells the shy and frightened Ella that stars rub the trunk of a special tree backstage for luck...that luck can't be chopped down. I think Ella kisses it (smile).

An added treat to the great music--I don't know if all the songs Nalley sings as Ella were Ella's, but those and the other tunes which knit the story together are just phonomenal, as is the interpretive dancing to many of the tunes, especially those performed at the Savoy by Webb's band. Robert Henry Johnson, as drummer Chick Webb, dances on the drums as Kent Bryson plays with the rest of the trio: Tammy Hall, piano, and Michael Zisman, bass.

Chick Webb would have turned over in his grave if the playwright left out Lindy-hop dancers: Frankie Manning and Ruthie portrayed by: Kevin Munroe and "Hep Jen" Holland. They did Webb proud, boy could they cut the rug! I am so happy I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Manning and hear his lecture/demonstration years ago at Ashkenaz Music and Dance Center in Berkeley.

Wayne Hovey's poster art looked great on the walls in the lobby and on the Savoy and Apollo theatre walls. I wish we could have taken a CD home of the program, the music is so good with Nalley singing it, not to mention again with the fantastic musicians.

The cozy Cinnabar theater was easy to find, only an hour away from Oakland in great traffic Saturday evening.

Joyce Gordon Gallery's Seventh Anniversary

Friday night was the kickoff of seven day celebration of Joyce Gordon Gallery's Seventh Anniversary. The fun continues through Thursday, Sept. 16. Visit

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Black Pearl Sings @ San Jose Rep through Sept. 26

When the set rolled out onto the stage and the door said warden against an audio background of a lovely woman's voice singing a work song, "Down On Me," the kind one hears on the chain gang, I thought the woman standing in the office marked warden was the warden and after it registered that the person in the striped prison issue was a woman, and that this was a woman's prison, well a white woman in the south at a prison for women had to be a warden, right?

Wrong. "Susannah Mullalley" is an opportunist, just like many of the women locked up in southern prisons--opportunists looking for the big break. Jannie Jones's "Alberta 'Pearl' Johnson" and Jessica Wortham's "Susannah" are each other's opportunity, and both are too smart to let the moment pass without exploitation.

Black Pearl Sings is the story of that exploitation. Susannah has been watching positions and promotions pass her up--just because she is a woman. When we meet her she is bitter if and when she allows herself to think about it, which is often. An ethnomusicologist open to seeing the humanity of her subject, whom in this case is Pearl who she genuinely likes, Susannah gradually wipes off the psychological makeup and lets Pearl see her as she really is.

The women swap songs: Susannah's "When I Was Single" for Pearl's "Trouble's So Hard." "Little Sally Walker" is an opportunity for the two women to bond as Pearl insists that Susannah participate. It is here that the character feels the music in her body, the difference one that affects her listening from that moment forward...Pearl helps Susannah see the music as something that lives and lets live.

My favorite songs are Hard Times in Old Virginia, Pay Me My Money Down, Do Lord, Remember Me; Skin and Bone, Keys to the Kingdom, and Six Feet of Earth. I like the staging of Kum Ba Ya. Some of the songs are from Susannah's collection of mountain songs and others from Pearl.

In writing which is humorous and witty and lovely, Frank Higgins's play, Black Pearl is also the story of a friendship between two unlikely persons: an incarcerated black woman in the South at a time when the two communities rarely, if ever, shared their dreams and aspirations, hopes and mistakes. The intersection between women's liberation and black liberation is natural--in this way, Black Pearl is a womanist as much as feminist story.

This story has an epic quality which is natural considering the call to the ancestors heard throughout the work as Susannah digs for gold and finds hints of the shiny matter in Pearl. She never quite strikes the big mine she has been panning for, but the two women, especially Pearl, do quite well.

References to white America's propensity to objectify African American lives the way one collects steer heads or elephant tusks, doesn't pass unnoticed by Pearl when she calls Susannah's attention to the bust of a Congolese man. Nothing escapes Pearl's eye. She often sees what others, like Susannah, miss.

Susannah's work with the Smithsonian is instrumental in Pearl's parole. The two women give speaking and performance tours in New York to help Pearl raise funds to find her daughter. Similar to an Alice Childress's character in the play "Trouble in Mind" (extended through October 3 at the Aurora theatre) who thinks he can write black life for stage better than his cast who live this life off stage as well. Susannah tells Pearl "she knows what the white audience wants;" it doesn't matter if it is stereotypical and buffoonery.

Pearl agrees with Susannah when she says she knows what sells when the consumer is white America, however, she calls her young friend out on her white superiority slips of the tongue. It is refreshing to see how Higgins gave his characters the creative space to develop, change and grow, then witness Jones and Wortham do an excellent job portraying this.

The lesson in Pearl is to know what to share and what to keep close for your family and people.

Pearl is not for sale. There are places in her soul which are not open for public scrutiny or access. At a time when commodification often means: if the price is right, one will get the sale, Pearl says, "No, you can offer me $50,000 and I won't tell you," and Susannah ultimately learns to respect Pearl enough to stop asking.

A highlight in Black Pearl Sings is of course the music. Any fan of Negro Spirituals and folk music will love this play. The idea that black America is still connected to Africa through the cultural retention, namely songs is really powerful. Riggins speaks of how he was inspired to write the play after watching a film, The Language You Cry In. This film, available at California Newsreel, depicts two communities, one is Hilton Head, South Carolina, a place where the Gullah and Geechie dialect can be traced to coastal regions of West Africa--the "Windward Coast" or "Rice Coast." The film traces the ancestry of a woman from Georgia and connects a song she learned as a child to a song another woman in Sierra Leone sings. The song is sung at births and deaths--(program). I had Higgins and Jannie Jones and the artistic director at SJ Rep on Wanda's Picks Radio, Sept. 10. They are the last interview (9-10 AM).

Visit for ticket information, post-show discussions, creative playshops for kids 6-12 for parents with kids who want to bring them to the theatre, and much more.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Judi Bari Update/Rachel Corrie

In the radio announcements today, I mention Judi Bari, Earth First activist whose death resulted from complications incurred from a car bombing 20 years ago this year. Visit

FBI Seeks to Destroy Bomb Evidence
Motion to Preserve Bomb Evidence, August-September 2010

In a brazen move, the FBI, which never honestly investigated the evidence in the Judi Bari bombing, has given notice that they intend to destroy the remaining evidence in the still unsolved attempted murder. Surviving plaintiff Darryl Cherney files an objection to the destruction of evidence and moves the court to order the FBI to preserve the evidence and either turn the it over to him for DNA testing and other forensic analysis, or to deliver it to a certified 3rd party for testing. The FBI objects, saying it wants to destroy the evidence and claiming that the remains of two bombs are "contraband" which can not be released to a private individual.

The motion is set for hearing Sept. 8, 2010, in Federal Court in San Francisco before Magistrate Judge James Larson. A press conference follows the hearing and will be held in the plaza adjoining the San Francisco federal building at 450 Golden Gate Ave.

You can read the motion and supporting documents from the Legal Documents at

Rachel Corrie
I also mention Rachel Corrie's trial in Haifa’s District Court. Visit Al Jazeera for Nora Barrows-Friedman's coverage.

She writes: "Sitting in on the Rachel Corrie trial alarmingly reveals an open Israeli policy of indiscrimination towards civilians."

"During War there are no civilians," that’s what “Yossi,” an Israeli military (IDF) training unit leader simply stated during a round of questioning on day two of the Rachel Corrie trials, held in Haifa’s District Court earlier this week. “When you write a [protocol] manual, that manual is for war,” he added.

"For the human rights activists and friends and family of Rachel Corrie sitting in the courtroom, this open admission of an Israeli policy of indiscrimination towards civilians -- Palestinian or foreign -- created an audible gasp.

"Yet, put into context, this policy comes as no surprise. The Israeli military’s track record of insouciance towards the killings of Palestinians, from the 1948 massacre of Deir Yassin in Jerusalem to the 2008-2009 attacks on Gaza that killed upwards of 1400 men, women and children, has illustrated that not only is this an entrenched operational framework but rarely has it been challenged until recently.

"Rachel Corrie, the young American peace activist from Olympia, Washington, was crushed to death by a Caterpillar D9-R bulldozer, as she and other members of the nonviolent International Solidarity Movement attempted to protect a Palestinian home from imminent demolition on March 16, 2003 in Rafah, Gaza Strip. Corrie has since become a symbol of Palestinian solidarity as her family continues to fight for justice in her name.

"Her parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie, filed a civil lawsuit against the State of Israel for Rachel’s unlawful killing -- what they allege was an intentional act -- and this round of testimonies called by the State’s defense team follows the Corries’ witness testimonies last March. The Corries’ lawsuit charges the State with recklessness and a failure to take appropriate measures to protect human life, actions that violate both Israeli and international laws" (

I plan to rebroadcast the wonderful interview with Israeli/French director, Simone Bitton, whose film "Rachel," met with protest last year at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival." Rachel's mother Cindy Corrie, was a guest of the festival. Visit