Sunday, September 12, 2010

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


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