Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Lower Bottom Playaz's present August Wilson's Fences through Nov. 30, 2013 at AAMLO

The Lower Bottom Playaz continue their exploration of August Wilson's century with Fences, the sixth play in the ten play cycle at a new site, the African American Museum and Library, at Oakland (AAMLO). The house was full Friday evening, Nov. 29, 2013, with an audience that included adults and children, even dignitaries like Oakland's mayor, Jean Quan, Wo'se House of Amen Ra and Vukani Mawetu Choir members, plus friends and family of the cast. The set allows one to use her imagination as the front porch and yard are the setting for most scenes. A screened backdoor--a few chairs and a bottle of Devil's Cut whiskey fill out the rest of the set.

It is perfect for ritual theatre as the men, Troy (Adimu Madyun) and Bono (Harold Desmond) pour libations as they reflect on their lives pre and post incarceration, pre and post the slave plantation, which for Troy is not a euphemism as he has spent time in both.

August Wilson's play Fences (setting 1957-1965) is perhaps one of my favorite works for the intricacies at play between men pivoting on its protagonist Troy: he and his friend Bono, Troy and his mean father, Troy and his sons, Lyons and Cory, Troy and his brother Gabriel. And then there are the women, whom Wilson throws in for color or flavor, like salt? However, in Fences, Rose actually has a presence which shows up in the second act quite powerfully as rendered by Kenitra Love.

For Troy Maxson, former Negro League baseball star, life is analogous to a field he has yet to exit, the play he is trying to set up and the team members he has inherited, who don't always understand his calls. He tells his young son, "a black man is born with two strikes before he gets to the plate."
One son, Lyons, whom his uncle, Gabriel greets, "King of the jungle," says "music helps him belong in the world.  It gives him a reason to get out the bed." The other son, Cory, is an aspiring baseball star with talent. The stern dad rules his roost with an iron fist; sweet to his wife Rose who took a chance on him when after 15 years behind bars for killing a man, he hadn't yet proved himself worthy of --you name it, decency. His history is that of a man chasing sunsets, making foolish choices which take him away from his first sweetheart, Lyons's mother, and their son whom never truly sees let alone knows. 

Emotionally absent for both his sons and his wife, Rose, Troy is a man living with a fractured dream pretending he can walk without pain or support from the community.  Stubborn, he refuses to listen to Bono or anyone else who might interject an opinion counter to what he wants to hear. Raised by a brutal, mean father, Troy says he escaped at 14 and headed for Memphis where he thought he'd find his fortune. Poverty met him there and followed him to Pittsburgh, where all Wilson's plays are set. The grim circumstances of his beginning make Troy's success all that more admirable.
Too bad he doesn't enjoy it.

When  we meet Troy on a Friday afternoon, he is laughing with his friend Bono. The men have just gotten paid and its time for the two to share a drink and talk about the week past. Troy wants to drive a garbage truck, which at that point is driven exclusively by white men.

Troy is a man who is thoughtful and righteous. He is honest and loves his family even if he comes across as crude and unfeeling. His household is one where people hold a lot inside, so much that at times there is nothing left over to share. In this way, Troy fails his sons--Lyons and Cory who want his participation in their lives, something he refuses, because he doesn't know how.

How can a man whose father hated him, love himself let alone his own sons? The doubt, the fear, his sense of unworthiness is like a cloud he can't help but shield himself from with whiskey, sex, work and other women. The idea that he could fill this void with love and acceptance never surfaces, at least not in the Troy we see on stage. Bono, for whom Troy is a hero, is more self-reflective nor does he follow Troy blindly.   

Harold Desmond's Bono is a kind and compassionate friend to Troy. He does not abandon him and continues to throw him a life jacket when he is floundering in the waters of despair and loneliness without anchor. The men enact a weekly ceremony where they invite Jesus and the Devil to do battle (smile).

Dressed in ceremonial white, the meetings on the porch each Friday are councils where the elders discuss matters concerning the community and pour libations to seal the contracts made and promises given. Ayodele Nzinga, Ph.D., director's handling of this work is restorative for the Oakland community. August Wilson's Century Cycle, with "Season 12: Tales of Iron and Water," position those who listen to the conversation Troy never has with his two sons while he is alive, for a changed outcome. Black boys and by extension. black men, now have an opportunity to interrupt this discourse evident in Cory's welcome return and Lyons's embrace of his younger brother. Cory is Troy's hope for a better future.  He does not want Cory to make his mistakes.
There is much talk about the American Promise, yet, when Troy walks the straight and narrow path to freedom he loses his way. His metaphysical fence keeps the family together and the devil out. That's his hope, but what if he is the devil?

Troy speaks many times of wrestling with the devil.  He is a man duty bound. He takes care of his family, because that's what he is supposed to do, not what he wants or enjoys doing. When his younger son asks him why he hates him. Troy asks him if he feeds him, clothes him and provides a roof over his head. The father tells his son that as long as his dad is upholding his duty, that is all that should matter.

Troy as a father is emotionally underdeveloped given a childhood where his father ran away his mother and all subsequent women. Unlike his brutish dad, Troy exercises restraint when challenged by Cory repeatedly. In the capable actor, Madyun's hands, Troy cries when he realizes he has lost his son's respect and admiration.

The way Adimu Madyun plays "Troy," we see a man who feels stuck yet can't figure out how to enjoy life. His family doesn't bring him joy, so he looks outside these relationships--he doesn't go to the club to hear his older son Lyons play in the band. He doesn't encourage his younger son, Cory, to pursue his dreams of playing ball, and he never asks his wife Rose is she is happy.

Then there is guilt, Troy's guilt from his exploitation of his brother Gabriel's injuries suffered in the war. His brother has a metal plate in his head. Nonetheless, Gabriel wrestles with hell hounds and speaks with St. Peter often about his brother Troy whose name is on the roll book. The saint wears a trumpet around his neck which without a working mouth piece is rather inadequate for the job he is called to, so he improvises.  Gabriel lives for a time with Ms. Pearl, a thinly veiled allusion to the Pearly Gates where Gabriel works (smile).

Improvisation is what a people do who have no recollection of love or kindness. Troy in the absence of a mother's love and care imagines such in Rose who tries to fill this void but comes up short when she plants her desires for love and acceptance in what she terms, fallow, rocky and infertile soil. Nothing grows between the couple but despair. Money, employment security and basic needs like housing are met, yet Troy and Rose illustrate how unexpressed discontent and longing leak into relationships until its tenuous seams are unraveled, rent.

Troy cannot raise healthy boys or participate in healthy relationships, because he is suffering from unaddressed trauma. The generational cycle of abuse between fathers and sons illustrated in Wilson's cyclic familial drama cannot end unless such characters are allowed to open up and reflect on their inherited histories.

When Troy leaves the cotton plantation, the only one of his eleven siblings he remains in touch with is Gabriel whose head is blow off in the war, a plate holding together what little there is left of his sensibilities. Gabriel wants Troy to like him, yet Troy having taken Gabriel's government settlement and spent it on a house for himself and his family feels guilty. He feels guilty and eventually has his brother locked up in an institution for the insane.

A product of institutional abuse himself, the Jim Crow south which grew from slavery, the prison system which robbed him of his dreams of baseball stardom, and then the institution of marriage which gifts him with children he is incapable of rearing -- we see hopelessness drowned weekly in a bottle of whiskey.

Perhaps its these demons Troy calls on in a song to Old Blue, the hound dog, that eventually push Troy over the edge. He thinks he is winning the battle, yet they seem to win in the end. Troy is a man torn between duty and his soul's desire. He has lost 15 years of his life and doesn't want to lose anymore, so he works as a garbage man, the stench and residue of his work clinging to him as he baths and tries to forget the places he has gone and the stuff he has seen and touched and still can't shake loose. 

Though Troy battles long and hard and often, we cannot help but admire this character who cannot read and write, yet is determined to drive the garbage truck. How is he going to get a license? We are not worried, because what Troy wants, he somehow gets.

Troy in his relationship with his sons reminds me of director Lee Daniel's Butler's relationship with his sons, the sons' who challenge their father's resistance to justice and refusal to look objectively at the changing American landscape. In Wilson's Fences, this son is Cory, admirably portrayed by Ajman Thrower who literally wrestles with the big man and throws him.

Rose, wonderfully portrayed by Kenitra Love, holds her family together behind a fence she asks Troy to build.  He finishes it, but her husband is too big and unwieldy to fence in, so is Cory (Ajman Thrower) her younger son. Rose needs Troy to walk with her and not use her as a crutch, but the world has crippled him, even more so that Gabriel. Gabriel portrayed by Luchan Baker, lives elsewhere.  He lets his feet touch the ground every so often. We see him eating every now and then out of necessity. He always comes with a smile and a flower for rose, his broken trumpet around his neck.

It is Gabriel who keeps the devil at bay, not Troy, for all his songs and stories of might and feat. In his innocence and naivete Gabriel keeps his big brother, sister-in-law, nephews and niece safe. It is Gabriel who opens the doors to heaven for his brother to enter when his trumpet, still broken blows silence.

Surrounded by images of historic black Oakland, this production of Fences couldn't have better staging--scenes from the early twentieth century hang above us as stories of early black Californians echo Troy's on stage. The African American Museum and Library, at Oakland's permanent exhibit is augmented by a new one, The Griots of Oakland: Voices from the African American Oral History Project, where young African American Oakland boys share their dreams and circumstances. They talk about safety, most of them feeling safest in their homes; home often where most of the "drama" unfolds on stage.

It is an abusive angry mean father who sets his young son, Troy, up for a life where he can't find happiness despite a good woman(s) and two law abiding smart sons. Lyons follows his father to hell, despite his father's admonition to not do as he did. There is no tenderness or softness in Troy as portrayed by Madyun.  He is his father--the man he despised and Rose tells her son, Cory something similar.

So how do we stop the fratricide?

How do black men repair their souls so they do not pass on a legacy of torment and confusion, illness and despair to their sons?  Troy was functional. When we meet him he is lobbying for a promotion on the job and with it he gets to drive into white neighborhoods and inventory what they discard. 

Troy loves his son and to spare him he projects his failure onto him.  He does not let Cory make his own way, make his own mistakes.  He cannot see how the world has perhaps changed. If he can drive a garbage truck, why can't his son play professional baseball?  Troy's fear shatters his younger son's world, while his emotional absence causes his elder son (portrayed well by Koran Jenkins) to fall into the hole his father had only covered not filled.

Sometimes fences keep the unwelcome at bay; other times, fences hole what should be released. As with all Wilson journeys chronically 100 years of black history, there are no absolutes.  The conversation continues in TheGriots of Oakland: Voices from the African American Oral History Project up through March 1, 2014.

Don't miss the final performance of The Lower Bottom Playaz's production of August Wilson's Fences at the African American Museum and Library (AAMLO), 659 14th Street at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, 7 p.m. For tickets and information: (510) 457-8999, and

Friday, November 29, 2013

President Obama Comes to Town

Immigration Policy is Good Policy? If so, for Whom?
By Wanda Sabir

          On Monday, November 25, 2013 President Barack Obama visited the Betty Ann Ong Chinese
President Barack Obama in San Francisco
All Photo Credits: TaSin Sabir
Recreation Center in San Francisco to talk about his Common Sense Immigration Bill slowly making its way through the United States Congress.  Immigration is always topical in a country where most of us are immigrants even in the visible absence of its First Peoples.  Purposeful genocide has rendered the original inhabitants almost invisible, but we known through shared ancestry, they are still here. The president is a product of historic immigrant rights, a child of Kenyan and Irish ancestry.  He also has Asian ancestry as he came of age in Indonesia and his step-father, Lolo Soetoro Martodihardjo raised him to be a man who is fair, just and upright. So though, we cannot necessarily see this in his genetic structure, the president is Kenyan, Irish and culturally Indonesian.
             This bill looks to make it easier for Asian Pacific Islanders and South Asians or Indians to become American Citizens and to sponsor family members. Also people from these nations will be eligible for work visas. Nothing is mentioned about Latinos or Africans or any other ethnic groups who want to make this nation legally home. There is of course monetary benefits attached to the political bundle. The proposed Senate Bill would
"reduce the deficit by $850 billion and grow the economy by $1.4 trillion over the next two decades adding 5.4% to the GDP by 2033 and create new visa pathways for immigrant entrepreneurs and investors and make key improvement to the H-1B program." What this means is that it will be easier for non-American citizens to realize their American dreams.
          It is hard enough for American entrepreneurs to get capital to develop businesses, yet this bill encourages and favors Asian Pacific Islander and Indian investors to come, invest and develop business opportunities for others. This bill will also "increase the number of employment based visas and eliminate restrictions on the number of immigrants from populous nations like India and China and in the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program the number of available green cards for immigrant investors would increase from approximately 10,000 annually to approximately 14,000 annually." This bill will allow US businesses to recruit employees from outside this nation who have skills supposedly underdeveloped or not accessible here. Instead of creating a skilled pool here, the bill will skirt such development by bringing in talent. The bill also does not take into account the many entrepreneurs from other nations like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Haiti, Mexico and elsewhere who have educated and skilled talent pools and also have developed many business ventures. Cuba has a highly skilled population, but can Cubans immigrate here? What about Venezuelans?
          Is this Immigration Bill a way to appease China, the nation which holds the majority of the US debt? Is it a good faith gesture or trade? Are we selling out to balance the books?

          The president mentions his immigrant heritage in his speech as he acknowledges the shadow of Angel Island in the Pacific which was a way station for Chinese immigrants into this country. California, known as Gold Mountain, was not always welcoming, as only men were allowed into the country to work. Initially recruited as laborers on the railroad, this policy tore families apart, as the ties of morale to production were not considered when telling a man he could not bring his wife or children with him. Yet, Chinese Americans preserved, just as black Americans before who suffered generations of separation through enslavement preserved and succeeded.

           I am not certain why this nation doesn’t value family security. It seems the first place of interruption, instead of the first place of repair. Perhaps if families were supported and strengthened, there would be less of a judicial hold on so many. This is one of the built-in hopes of the Common Sense Immigration Bill, that family members would not be separated.
          But politics being what it is, the President smiled his most charming and put a positive spin on the matter, but we heard what wasn’t said and that was, this nation’s current legislators are not concerned with immigration policy, just as it isn’t concerned about the medically uninsured.
          “Of course, just because something is smart, fair, good for the economy, and supported by business, labor, law enforcement and faith leaders -- (laughter) -- Democratic and Republican governors, including the Governor of this state –- just because all that is in place doesn’t mean we'll actually get it done, because this is Washington, after all, that we’re talking about and everything is looked through a political prism.  And, look, let's be honest, some folks automatically think, well, if Obama’s for it, then I've got to be against it even if I was, before that, for it.” President Obama admits.
           “But I want to remind everybody, to his great credit, my Republican predecessor, President Bush, was for reform.  He proposed reform like this almost a decade ago.  I was in the Senate.  I joined 23 Senate Republicans back then supporting reform.  It's worth remembering that the Senate bill that just passed won more than a dozen Republican votes this past summer.  And some of them even forget that I'm -- sometimes people forget I'm not running for office again.  Michelle doesn’t forget.   (Laughter and applause.)  So you don’t have to worry about this somehow being good for me.  This is good for the country.   It's the right thing to do for the American people.”

          In response to a Korean graduate student who interrupted his speech and other citizens who have been separated from family members who cannot legally join them, the president waxed on about the promise of America and the fact that there are policies and laws which he has to abide by. However, he trusts the process and welcomes all those willing to work with him to see it actualized.
          “We’re also a nation of laws.” Obama states.  “That’s part of our tradition.  And so the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws.  And what I’m proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve.  But it won’t be as easy as just shouting.  It requires us lobbying and getting it done.”
          As the president spoke of the 300,000 Chinese who came through Angel Island and their descendents, one of them national hero Betty Ann Ong, who alerted the Air Traffic Control that her plane had been hijacked on the fateful Sept. 11, 2001, I marveled at the success these immigrants have had. What about those less fortunate immigrants? Not the Dreamers, but those seeking political asylum, those from countries on the alert and watch lists and others who are not here by choice rather historic circumstances? I speak of my ancestors over 500 years ago.

 The American Promise is not available to all citizens, because there is something wrong with this system.  Money and class buy access to a certain extent, but unless one can lose the pigment and gender assignment, there is always a difference made—here and elsewhere. Black people can work hard, yet in the end, not end up any better because the system is innately broken.  The Jefferson’s might have “moved on up,” but how frequently did this happen?
          Where are the black businesses? Look at historic Fillmore in San Francisco and equally historic Seventh Street in West Oakland. I am sure in each town where black migrants from the South moved during the Great Migration North, West and East pre and post-world wars, there were enclaves of economic development where black communities flourished with black hospitals, grocery stores, hotels, meat markets, dress shops, Freedom Schools, cleaners, jitney services for those without cars, farms and liberty gardens, newspapers, social clubs and churches.
          The “sacrifice today and reap benefits tomorrow” might be a reality for a man whose grandparents are white, but not for most of us whose parents did not leave us a legacy that opens doors previously shut. These doors remain shut today and if they are still open once individuals cross the threshold, it is because someone stuck a rock in the door jam to keep it from shutting completely after he or she crossed that threshold to the other side. Not only that, once on the other side, somebody has to sit at the entrance to make sure others like us get through. It’s the secret password or the handshake nobody tells perspective dreamers about that keeps doors from opening.
          The President admits that he cannot change this country alone, that there are forces at work on Capitol Hill that go against everything he proposes just because his name is on it, not for any rational reason. If we want to see things change under his leadership we are going to have to make our presence known while he is still in office and thereafter.
          In the political sense, we have to make noise, show up and interrupt the proceedings; otherwise we will not be counted. The problem is the different ways civil disobedience is regarded when one is none white. Can a black person risk arrest? It was dangerous in the 1960s when the Freedom Riders went to Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana to register voters 50 years ago. It is still dangerous now.
          There were no other independent black press at the invitation only event. This was our first invite and it was addressed to me. Betty Ann Ong’s sister Gloria sent me a nice email; she knew my work and was happy Wanda’s Picks was there. Citizens have to hold our government and our president to the shared responsibility and promise of our nation to  “leave this country more generous, more hopeful than we found it.  And if we stay true to that history – if we get immigration reform across the finish line – and it is there just within our grasp, if we can just get folks in Washington to go ahead and do what needs to be done – we’re going to grow our economy; we’re going to make our country more secure; we’ll strengthen our families; and most importantly, we will live – “ (This is where he was interrupted.)
           Opening his speech with a recap of recent political coups which I will not repeat here, except to say, I do not agree with most of them, the President then went on to acknowledge California representatives in the audience which included Janet Napolitano, formerly in Washington now head of the UC System. I am not sure if that is a good thing.
          I just want to end with the thought that while we do need a better immigration policy, this country still has not addressed the social welfare policies that keep the underclass disenfranchised and without hope. We have enough people here to employ and educate. There is no need to continue to recruit beyond national borders and export resources. The president spoke of corporations that depend on an immigrant workforce and how this can improve our economy. What happened to “Buy American?”  Black folks need to become more politically savvy and get our concerns addressed in new and more powerful language, before we are not just the new minority, but gone – completely erased from popular memory.



Thursday, November 28, 2013

Wanda's Picks Radio Show, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013

Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy on stage now
We open with Donald "Duck" Bailey's Gone, followed by a lovely conversation with Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy with  Alicia Hall Moran's Bess in SHN's production of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess with Suzan-Lori Parks's book adaptation, Diedre L. Murray's musical score adaptation, Ronald K. Brown's choreography with director Diane Paulus. The show is up at San Francisco's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Market Street, Tuesday-Sunday, through Dec. 8, 2013. For a $35.00 discount on selected seats, enter the code AfroSolo1 at

To listen to the interview

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wanda's Picks Radio: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 "Family Legacies"

Today we look at Family Legacies, first in the life of Margo Hall as she pays tribute, in BeBop Baby: A Musical Memoir at Z Space, Nov. 19-23, 2013, to the life of her beloved step-dad, artist and musical ambassador of Detroit, Teddy Harris, Jr. and her biological dad, Armsby Hall.  BeBop is a love story, that of a daughter for her dad, the man who raised her and forgiveness for her biological father whom she still nurses a grudge when we meet her on stage in this fantastic play.  The tension is filled with broken promises and betrayed trusts between father and daughter who initially is finding it hard to see past the decades of disappointment. How many children have two fathers? What a potential opportunity, this father throws away repeatedly. As he stands in his former wife’s basement, the shrine for his rival, her husband, Teddy Harris, Jr. boxed up, we see his desire to mend the shredded space between he and his younger daughter, Margo. Will Margo extend her hand for him to cross?

Bebop Baby shows how girls need their father’s too, despite popular opinion to the contrary, and her dad, Teddy Harris, Jr. steps into this role for two girls whose father has fallen down on the job again and again.
Yet the door stays open. It is even open beyond the grave as Margo steps back into time, when she visits her mom’s house and finds her past visibly erased. Evidence of her life with Teddy Harris gone, her biological father’s presence an unwelcome reminder of so much that went wrong. But Mr. Hall tries to make amends and over the course of Margo’s short stay in the basement where she reminiscences on her childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, each highlighted by musical interlude complete with choreography, we see the child-Margo speak to the adult-Margo, especially when her biological father shares photos of her paternal grandmother who performed in a circus and when not on stage, took on another role, that of a white woman.

Margo speaks about this without bitterness as she shares the story of her grandmother’s refusal to open the door for her brown-skinned granddaughter one afternoon when she knocks on the door one afternoon after school. She can’t stay mad at dad who recalls memories of the two of them singing Beetles’ songs, her dad in a red wig.

Margo’s lyricism captured by Shelby’s superb orchestration seen in Be Bop Baby is evident in several moments of Memoir, specifically “When the Time is Right,” where her dad sings his sorrow. Mujahid Abdul-Rashid’s Armsby Hall is a man who loves his daughter, and as he looks at her preparation for a tribute for her step-father wonders aloud if she will do the same for him, when he dies.

This question remains unanswered as Margo tries to ignore him and with that a piece of her life and heart. The amputation is not complete—there is still feeling in the limb and with that lingering feeling, hope.

The man tries awfully hard to not intrude, but his presence clearly interrupts what Margo saw as a reunion of sorts with her memories of mom and dad and a life that laid the foundation for the one she lives today. The intimate moments with dad when he’d return late from a gig and play the piano softly before retiring, his love for Margo’s mom and his desire to join her once she died, which he did shortly thereafter; Margo as a child performing with the band and on stage with her idols . . . the encouragement she received from her dad and other artists, her feisty mom who slapped the heavyweight boxing champion with a wet towel when he got fresh with her. . . wonderful fantastic stories set music about a life long ago, but not too long ago.  
New Breed Be Bop Jazz Orchestra, founded by Teddy Harris, Jr. performs with one of many archival photos projected on stage. The setting is Margo’s family home basement, the smaller more intimate space set within a larger stage where Margo’s memories touch a larger world stage.  There are articles and photos of Mr. Harris in the theatre lobby.

Teddy Harris, Jr. represents safety for his younger step-daughter who sings of waiting up for him to return, memories of the scary world outside their door intruding as family members are injured and killed. Her childhood Detroit was not always a safe place, yet at the same time, her street was lined with floor room model cars as visitors stopped by the basement to jam. Being a resident of the Motor City meant that even if you didn’t have a home, you certainly had a fine car.  The home Harris and his wife made for their daughters seemed exceptional and full of love a love which included space for Margo’s biological father who was offered many opportunities to continue to participate in his daughter’s lives.

We fall down, and hopefully we get back up again. This Memoir is Margo, his daughter’s acknowledgement of that. Visit

Idris and Seun
American Promise

We conclude with an extended conversation with directors, husband and wife team, Joe Brewster and Michelle Stephenson, whose film American Promise, covered 13 years of their lives as they document their son, Idris and his best friend, Seun's educational journey kindergarten to high school in one of this nation's most prestigious private schools. What is America's Promise to its citizens and does its educational system uphold this for these families. Opening just a week ago in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Oakland this Friday, Nov. 22 at the New Parkway, American Promise takes this nation to task as it shows how even among the best schools, it is still not doing its best for its black boys.Visit

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Oakland School for the Arts presents Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun this weekend

Robert Cornn as Walter Lee Younger; Kreona Turner
as Lena Younger (Big Mama)

K. Turner and R. Cornn; Nia Lundkvist as Ruth Younger
(to Walter's right), Brittani McBride as Beneatha at table

Friday morning, after an exciting opening night performance, November 14, 2013, the cast and director of the OSA's production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, join us on the air for an engaging conversation about the themes and issues raised by this work which in many ways mirrors Hansberry's life in Chicago as well. The playwright's father was a real estate broker who also owned rental property. Hansberry would go with him to collect rents and in this work, the Younger family is like many of the families she met then. This family's desire to own a home and the resistance this is met with is also true to Hansberry's experience.

The playwright wrote of sitting near the window at a home her father bought in a white neighborhood when a brick crashes through the glass just where she'd been seated moments before.

I kept forgetting that these young actors are in their teens and even younger, yet they embody all the passion and pathos of a family where a man of 35 has dreams which are deferred indefinitely, as his wife wants to feel happy about a new life she carries in her womb, but the clouds rain in her living room daily. Sodden, she can't seem to shake the chest cold that is drowning her, and then there is Beneatha, little sister and college student whom of all the adult Youngers has a vision she just might achieve, and then there is Mama Younger, who holds the family together, dotes on her grandson, Travis, and believes in the capacity of this family step into all that they are capable of and worthy of.

Sounds neat on paper, but the Youngers have a volatile relationship with each other. The clothes basket with a spool of yarn and knitting needles stay inside as Mama and Ruth fold towels almost daily. It's as if the adage about idle hands hangs in the balance without luck.

What is wrong with wanting better? Why must the Youngers be satisfied with watching the world turn, actually pushing this world on its axis without ever getting a chance to enjoy the ride? It is sad that so many black American families, good people, like the deceased Mr. Walter Younger, work themselves into an early grave under the assumption that working hard or harder would somehow lift their families from poverty.

The happiness promised all who live in this democracy is not available to everyone. Walter Lee speaks often of the price tag attached to it--happiness. This price is often paid for in blood because truly money cannot purchase tolerance and peace, it cannot erase bigotry and violence for those black families like the Youngers who would dare dream beyond the plantation or ghettos society defines as their geographic space or place for living and dying.

Look today at the blood running through the streets in Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Richmond, California. Look at the new prisons being built for the Walters and their sons who decide working hard is not worth the effort--why not just take until one is taken, either by the police, another person like themselves or by death which gets us all in the end, some sooner than others.

A Raisin in the Sun perhaps performed by a young ensemble illustrates more than an adult cast how precarious such a notion, hopelessness is for a man who has almost lost all respect for himself. Such a man has nothing to lose. Walter Lee has not forgotten his dad, his father's tired entry into the home late in the evening and his defeated exit from their lives before he could share with his son, his youthful dreams.

A beautiful moment in the play is when Walter Lee takes a few days off from work to think --he borrows a car and drives to areas in Chicago he has not visited before. He parks and people watches and dreams. The imagination is powerful--it can lift one from despair and it can also annihilate one too. Yet, when one despairs one's thinking becomes flawed and inaccurate, opening Walter up to heartache because he is desperate.

What we call patsies or easy marks are groomed and easy prey for hunters who see the scarlet letter emblazoned on such hearts. This is why the net stays full and one can invest in future generations to keep the process going. It is a lot like inheriting season tickets to an execution. Perhaps it's a legacy that we need to terminate, as Mama Younger does when she takes the blood money and purchases a new life for her family in a strange land.

Mama Younger understands the value of travel, how a new place presents an opportunity for veteran explorers and Walter Lee, her son, is ready we note when he speaks of his recent travels beyond the confines of his square block existence.

When Walter Lee asks what is wrong with wanting pearls to grace his wife's neck, we know he is already there, so when under an illusion he betrays his mother's trust and breaks down in front of his family in shame, the front row discreetly wipes away tears while I let my roll down my cheeks.

We understand the cycle of despair that permeates the walls like the roaches the family tries to get rid of but can't. Their lives are infestation. They have to move. They have to give back what they have held onto for so long, leave the shallow end of the pool and swim or die.

It has come to that. The new life Ruth is carrying represents the future and the fact that this father cannot celebrate the potential for this life to thrive, is something the audience needs to pay close attention to. What is Hansberry staying here about black men, the Youngers and by extension, black family life in America?

Amazing performance. 

Walter Lee is such a frustrated man, full of so much potential without capital to invest in it. Some dreams come with price tags and all Walter Lee's do.

Within the tapestry of black life Hansberry spins here we meet three other men and a forth is mentioned in conversation. We hear of Walter Lee's nightly strategy sessions with his friends, other black men who want better lives, who do not accept their sentencing or the geographic setting they seem destined to occupy. They meet to develop blueprints for another theatre, one where the director looks like them, believes in them and sees with them beyond the stifled capacity that is black manhood in America.

This is echoed in Hansberry's introduction of a character, Joseph Asagai, a Yoruba man who loves Beneatha, Walter's sister.  His presence speaks to the fact that black life has a longer history than what immediately comes to mind: sharecropping, migration, and more urban sharecropping or neo-slavery. His story is one of resistance. It is 1957. Ghana has successfully rid itself of the parasitic British empire under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah.

And then there is George Murchison who is a wealthy young black man. He has none of the problems he sees in the Younger household as his father can buy access to places Walter dreams of entering. George knows there is no equal society, but he doesn't seem to care as it doesn't affect him adversely. He doesn't buy into the notion that education can change the social fabric of American society for those excluded, yet he plans to participate bolstered by his dad's capital.

His world has its own orbit peopled by the Youngers and others like them. The only difference is, for George his encounters with white America are different because his father has power or wealth. For those of us who know the story, we know that the power dynamic is uneven and unfair even here, yet from Walter Lee and George's perspective, the lines are clearly divergent when the Youngers represent a truer picture of what America thinks about its black citizens. It is here that Beneatha's militancy coupled with a sweet naivete speaks to this riff between the two halves.

Money cannot buy happiness Walter learns, but it certainly makes life a lot easier to swallow.

OSA's production, which runs tonight through Sunday afternoon, (7 and 2 p.m.) continues its theme this year: Many Voices, One Spirit. In this revised version of the play (completed after the Broadway premiere), the students use language a bit too incendiary for audiences at that time, perhaps presently as well. It is real talk, the kind of real talk absent in the political discourse where compromise and concession rob the truth of its teeth.

William Grant Still (1895-1978), the "dean of African American classical composers" highlight the tension and provide segues between scenes and acts.

The set is a large apartment with two bedrooms off the main room, a small step up kitchenette with the only window, where a flowering plant sits. The lighting creates a beautiful atmosphere, especially towards the end when it highlights, literally the polarities that exist between the two warring siblings, Mama Younger and Ruth.  The blocking and use of the stage especially the edges where the actors seem to be speaking directly to us--those of us on the front row can literally reach out and touch them (but we don't --smile), adds to the dramatic effect of the piece.

Obviously, the Youngers are a family in crisis. Walter is about to explode and if not for the promise of the check, insurance money paid for his dad's death, who knows what would happen or what could happen if the money does not solve his needs. 

For tickets and information visit

OSA's theatre entrance is on 19th Street, around the corner from the Oakland Fox Theatre, just mid-block.
To hear the OSA's cast speak about the play visit