Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wanda's Picks Radio: The Fringe Festival Revue

We continue the SF Fringe Festival on the Air with a rebroadcast of the special interview with Campo Maldito playwright and director Bennett Fisher & Jesca Prudencio; continuing with Blues for Charles's playwright Harry R. Hall; and closing with the creative playwright duo: Linda Ayres-Frederick and Nancy Cooper Frank's Assorted Domestic Emergencies (smile).

Visit or 415-673-3847. All plays are at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy Street, in San Francisco Sept. 5-20, 2014.

To listen to the show (click the link in the title) or: 

Blues for Charles
Sept. 7, 9 p.m., 9/13 5:30 p.m., 9/16 7 p.m., 9/17, 7 p.m.

Harry Richard Hall
has got music in his blood! His dad grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Ahmad Jamal, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstein and Errol Garner were just a few of the entertainers who came from Steele Town and graced the powerful memories of his father’s youth.
Charles Sullivan (center left, with Fats Corlett sitting beside him)
in the Booker T. Washington Hotel at Fillmore and Ellis.
Music has always been a part of Harry’s life. At thirteen he took guitar lessons from a neighbor, Steve Hall, at Drapers Music in Palo Alto. Steve was a Berklee School of Music grad and really opened up Harry’s ears. Steve turned him on to Charlie Christian, George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell and Grant Green. Vern Older, a really great guitarist and teacher, ran Draper's Music and would jam with Harry and his friends and show them the ropes when they hung around his store. To this day Harry has fond memories of Mr. Older.

As a CSM broadcast student Harry started listening to KCSM in the mid 1990's. He met Alisa Clancy in one of his classes when she came to lecture about the radio business. He submitted a demo tape, was selected as an overnight jazz host and got hooked on the medium of radio!
Charles Sullivan also owned the Post Street Liquor Co.,
which was runby his brother-in-law George Hall (center, with Sullivan’s key to the city).
Harry Richard Hall is host of Jazz Sessions every Sunday at 9pm. I don’t know how his dad got to the West Coast, but his Mom came here by way of her brother Charles Sullivan, the unofficial Mayor of Fillmore and former owner of the Fillmore Auditorium and the subject of his great nephew’s murder mystery. The photos (all courtesy of the Hall family) are taken from a wonderful story by Gary Carr, "Who Shot the Mayor of Fillmore"

Assorted Domestic Emergencies
Sept. 13@2:30 PM,  Sept. 14@ 6 p.m., Sept. 20@1 p.m.
Home is where the heart isn't, when you're in an isolated cabin in a blizzard with only your dog, memories and cornbread to keep you warm. Or when your plumber demands more blind faith in his unconventional (to say the least) working methods than you can muster. Featuring the best of the San Francisco Bay Area's acting talent, Nancy Cooper Frank's "The Plumber" and Linda Ayres-Frederick's "Blizzard" explore survival strategies both comic and touching.

Linda Ayres-Frederick (Playwright, Blizzard), Phoenix Theatre's Artistic Director since 1985 (, has enjoyed a diverse career as an actor, producer, director, critic and playwright in the San Francisco Bay Area with related work travel to NYC, Edinburgh, France, and Alaska. A member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (VP), American Theatre Critics Association, the Dramatists Guild of America, AEA, and AFTRA/SAG, Linda is twice a Shubert Playwriting Fellow with numerous productions and publications in Bay Area Festivals including Best of SF Fringe 2010 & 2011 (for her play Afield) and Best Play of Marin Fringe 2012 (for her solo Cantata #40, also read last year in Valdez, Alaska at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference). In 2013 at the Marsh San Francisco, and at the O'Hanlon Arts Center in Marin, she performed an earlier solo version of Blizzard. Her full-length play Kiska Bay was read at Tides Theatre in the Dramatists Guild Footlight Series. Her current full-length plays include The Unveiling, Black Swan, The Umbrella Play, and One Foot on the Water. In 2011, The Mav Mum Murder was read at the LFTC in Valdez, where Linda's various work has received readings seven times over the last nine years. Two of her plays (Dinner with the Undertaker's Son and Waiting in the Victory Garden) were performed and published by Three Wise Monkeys Theatre Company in two Bay One-Acts Festivals. She has had over 20 pieces produced and over 30 pieces read publicly. Her work also appears in Monologues from the Last Frontier Theatre Conference, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Poets on Parnassus. For the last several years, Linda has been a member of the Monday Night Playwrights, the longest running writing group in San Francisco, and of Artists Development Lab. She also serves as a Member of the Board of Custom Made Theatre Company and the Advisory Committee of 3 Girls Theatre. Since 2003 she has lived in San Francisco's Mission District with her partner.

Nancy Cooper Frank (Playwright, The Plumber). The Plumber won first prize at FirstStage LA's 2013 One Act Festival. It comes to the San Francisco Fringe fresh from its run in the Arundel Theatre Trail in Arundel, England (produced by the appropriately named Drip Action Theatre Company). A staged reading of Nancy's Daniil Kharms: A Life in One Act and Several Dozen Eggs, directed by L. Peter Callender, was chosen by Virago Theatre to celebrate the June 2014 inauguration of The Flight Deck in Oakland. Nancy, Kharms, and the several dozen eggs also traveled to the Great Plains Theatre Conference for a PlayLab reading this year. Nancy has contributed short plays and one-acts to the Philly Fringe (with Secret Room Theatre), Spare Change Theatre's In A New York Minute Festival, The San Francisco Theater Pub, The Bay One Acts Festival, Berkeley's Play Café, the Chameleon Theatre Circle's New Play Festival (Minnesota), to name a few. She is a proud member of the Drama!tists Guild, the Monday Night Group workshop ( and the board of The Custom Made Theatre. Nancy used to teach Russian literature and still dips into Dead Souls when nobody is looking. She lives with husband Richard and a cat with too many names in San Francisco. 

We open with a rebroadcast of an interview with playwright and director for Campo Maldito-- 9/12 10:30 p.m; 9/16 7 p.m., 9/20 2:30

Bennett Fisher, playwright, is company member of Campo Santo, an associate artist with the Cutting Ball Theater, and a co-founder of the San Francisco Theater Pub. His plays include Campo Maldito, Borealis, Pay Dirt, Hermes, Don’t Be Evil, Devil of a Time, and Whoa is Me. They have been presented and produced by the Kennedy Center MFA Playwrights Workshop, the Martin E. Segel Center, Ubuntu Theater Project, Sleepwalkers Theater, No Nude Men, New Conservatory, the Cutting Ball Theater, Custom Made Theatre Company, and Bread and Water, and others. As an actor, director, and dramaturg he has collaborated with Campo Santo, California Shakespeare Theatre, Stanford Summer Theatre, Just Theater, Crowded Fire, Pear Ave Theatre, Adirondack Shakespeare Company, Marin Shakespeare Company, and many others. Bennett was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is currently pursuing his MFA in playwriting at UC San Diego, class of 2016.

Jesca Prudencio, Director
Jesca is a director, choreographer, and community based artist. Founder, People of Interest, member, Ubuntu Theatre. She has worked on new plays, musicals, and dance theater works with companies including The Movement Theatre Company, Fresh Ground Pepper, Ingenue Theatre, and the Asian American Arts Alliance at venues like Joe’s Pub, 3LD, FringeNYC, Bleecker St. Theater, University Settlement, and The Old Vic in London as part of the TS Eliot US/UK Exchange. Her site-specific dance pieces include We Walk, We Stop at the Astor Place intersection and Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing in Washington Square Park. As a member of Ping Chong + Company, she has worked as a writer, director, and facilitator on a dozen interdisciplinary and documentary theater projects, and including co-writing and directing Listen To Me: voices of survivors of child sexual abuse and those who help thempresented in the Bronx and Manhattan. She recently directed and choreographed a new musicalThe Firebird at NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. Jesca has a BFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

Campo Maldito, A Review

The play Campo Maldito by Bennett Fisher, directed by Jesca Prudencio is an original take on gentrification. Heard the saying, if the walls could speak? Well in Campo Maldito, the walls not only speak, they breathe, demand retribution and scare the daylights out of Ken Ingersoll (actor Walker Hare), a young upstart white boy who has nothing but disdain for the former inhabitants of the flat he occupies. Unable to sleep unless inebriated, he hears voices and senses a living presence in the room with him in his sober moments. Close to losing it completely, his friend recommends a Santero or priest in African Diaspora traditional religion to help him resolve the matter or at least investigate it.

Hieronymo Acosta (actor Luis Vega), the priest, confirms his client’s suspicions $1000.00 is exchanged, cementing the deal. The priest sets up his altar and says a prayer in the West African language, Yoruba—the language of ceremony, before starting.  The authenticity worried me. I didn’t want any aroused spirits to walk from the room with us. The Exit Theatre is right in the mix, that is, in the center of the locale in dispute on stage--The San Francisco Tenderloin District which is being invaded by high tech CEOs like Ken Ingersoll.

As the two men, wrestled with the ghost, (Emilia) former girlfriend of Acosta (the priest), I thought about the notion of displacement and where spirit goes when separated from its body; it has nothing left except the memory of displacement. I could see how such a legacy could make one mad, and angry she is.

Abandoned by the man she cared about, who happens to be the priest, Acosta, we are not certain if Acosta will live through the ceremony, let alone his yuppie client who wants to retire at 40.

Acosta talks about the last day he and his lover saw each other. He fills in the space –the abyss she and so many others occupy not long after his departure. He says he went to a store for more alcohol and never returned. It was what he saw there on the street that helped him regain his sobriety and realize that he was no good to himself or his community drunk.

The encounter in the apartment between the two, Egun or ancestor (girlfriend)– and former boyfriend, now priest, share is closure for Acosta as well.

When a community is emptied of its tenants, where does the energy go? Does it paint the walls and line the stairs? Stain ceilings like spit balls? As the two men wrestle, Acosta and Ingersoll, one scared yet embarrassed that it has come to this. . . his life in the hands of a person he once would have stepped over on the street like debris we see how literally close the two men are to the antithesis of their personal sagas.

Despite his livelihood and eventually his life held in a balance, Ingersoll cannot control the bigoted remarks raining from his mouth . . . so apologies lace linguistic contents.  It would be pitiable if the stakes were not so high. Ken Ingersoll does not believe in what he cannot see and so he makes Acosta’s job harder. The priest or Santero doesn’t wear robes and African attire. He wears a jersey, around his waist a fanny pack that is full of special ingredients for the spiritual cleansing.  

The exorcism is a jaunt that had me sitting on the edge of my seat. The story doesn’t really end, it just flips to the next page . . . with the commodification of property and people and the value inherent in the hands or those who hold the deck, what lies ahead for those who have money to displace entire peoples with a handshake and a paper document.

The evening I attended Campo Maldito, the streets were full of homeless people in and about Eddy Street, Taylor and Ellis and Stockton. The show started at 9 and when I walked out at 10 p.m. there were people barely holding onto their sanity walking along the same sidewalks as modern voyeurs – or theatre patrons.

Spirit is real even unseen, even when ignored or dismissed.
 There is a physicality to the work in the actors and director Prudencio's hands which lend itself to the embodiment of the themes of possession and release . . . forgiveness and reparations. Campo Maldito points to an open wound which needs immediate attention—The Tenderloin looks like a hospital ward. Who are its patients and what is the remedy?

Depending on whose perspective Acosta or Ingersoll's, there is a lot of beauty here, yet the contagion is spreading, consuming any and everything in its path.  In the play its direction is vengeance in the person of egun or ancestor Emilia, who furiously flings her wings at all who’d dare attempt to tame her except the one man who brings love . . . peace.

Campo Maldito has three more performances at
San Francisco Fringe Festival. There are three more performances at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy Street in San Francisco: Sept. 12 @10:30 p.m.; Sept. 16 @7 p.m.; Sept. 20 @2:30 p.m. See (trailer) &

To hear the radio interview visit: 

Friday, September 05, 2014

Wanda's Picks Radio Show Friday, Sept. 5, 2014

Crystal L. Bass is an American author, playwright, freelance writer, and motivational speaker. Bass has used her platform to uncover and illuminate issues that are important to young women, to ultimately empower and strengthen them. Her hit stage play titled, "Ain't No Love Like A Mother's Love," opens in Baltimore City Nov. 15. Visit

Kehinde Koyejo, Artistic Director, InterACT Works, is curator of the 10-minute one-act play series “Don’t Call Me Crazy: A Glimpse into the World of Mental Illness: An Afternoon of Short Plays and Dialogue at the Joyce Gordon Gallery, 3 p.m. 406 14th Street in Oakland, Sun., Sept. 7, then in a reprise “Through the Eyes of Buddha at SGI-USA, Oakland Buddhist Center, 3834 Opal Street in Oakland, Sept. 14, at 1 p.m. Kehinde (“Next Step”) is joined by participating playwrights: Nathan Yungerberg (“Golden Gate”) and Kineithea Carter (“Depression Daughter”).

Poets Genny Lim and Steve Dickison join us to talk about “Struggle for a New World: Fred Ho Memorial Tribute,” Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014, 2:00-4:30 p.m. at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, 2 p.m., 388-9th Street, upstairs Rm. 290, (510) 637-0455. Admission is free. This remarkable landmark gathering of Fred Ho's artistic collaborators, ranging from composers, musicians, poets, singers, storytellers and activists, have come together to pay homage to this great baritone saxophone-composer, cultural activist, teacher, author, pioneer and legend. To listen to Fred Ho

We close with a conversation with San Francisco native, Barry “Shabaka” Henley, about the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre production of the World Premiere of his Mingus Remixed, directed by Delroy Lindo Sept. 5-6 in San Francisco, and 

Music: Gina Breedlove and Donald Duck Bailey. 

Link to show:

Monday, September 01, 2014

UNIA-ACL at 100

I spent a week in Harlem the week of the Centennial Celebration of the Hon. Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association-African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), an organization which looked at Africans separated through the institutions of slavery and colonialism, both global systems of exploitation of people, goods and environments. As we marched through the Harlem streets on a warm Sunday, August 17, Garvey’s birthday (1887), from the people’s response we could see how the objectives of Garvey’s UNIA-ACL were still applicable to date.

Sovereignty, Africa for Africans, Buy Black, Race First we chanted . . .  as Harlemites find it harder and harder to stay in a community established by their forbearers. An empty lot was where the former headquarters of the UNIA stood at 125 Street (MLK Jr. Blvd) and Malcolm X (Lennox Ave.), across the street from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  I was staying with friends in Harlem, so every time I walked to this junction, I thought about the two great men whom politics seemingly divided, yet wanted the same rights for their communities. Further up on 135th Street, stood Adam Clayton Powell, the congressman—the sculpture showed him in motion—bills flying from his fingertips as he legislated for human rights for his community. In the evening when I walked home, I’d stop to listen to brothers playing African drums while large crowds of people danced. I was in the country of New York; humid like Senegal and Gambia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe . . . the marketplace looked like home. I could get fresh fruit from vendors along the sidewalks, shea butter and incense, even clothing, while the hairstylists had everything except the fancy painted signs with their styles displayed. If it weren’t for the corporate chain stores I would have thought the plane landed not at LaGuardia but Léopold Sédar Senghor International (smile).

I’d walk by people who spoke with Diaspora languages I couldn’t decipher—a variety of English I’d never heard before. I felt both at home and foreign, yet my blackness made me welcome as people smiled at me and I smiled back. I didn’t even feel abandoned when people I knew didn’t get back to me until it was time for me to leave. New Yorkers seem to be like that, too busy to slow down for an out of town friend, unless they are retired (smile). I was good though, in great company with new friends of friends. It was like traveling abroad . . . the world just grows larger as it embraces you tightly. I got caught in a rainstorm at Garvey Park where there was a concert. I shared a huge umbrella with a sister standing near me and then with a little girl and her mother. We played open and close musical umbrellas as the outdoor arena raised and lowered their cloth canopies.  I don’t remember the name of the musicians who performed but they were great and I walked home happy. The next day I went to the Apollo theatre—it was Harlem week and the evening was phenomenal as we watched these really talented black boys perform. The winner was a saxophone player. The adult winners were a gospel singer and two poets. The host and deejay were really good as well as the Apollo band.

Harlem in the summertime is a place filled with free music festivals and art, the landscape marred by reminders of structural racism and institutional violence in the form of police brutality. Garvey’s organization was formed when a violent incident occurred in Missouri 100 years ago; the irony of coincidence that the police shooting of an innocent black boy occurred at this time there as well. In New York, in July a policeman choked a black man to death. He kept crying, “I can’t breathe.”  To further condemn themselves, the police then refused to let paramedics into the crime scene to help the dying man. It was worse than a hit and run.

Many people thought the UNIA was dust, a thing of the past, yet such is so far from the truth. The current President-General Senghor Jawara Baye said many times over the four day Centennial Celebration, August 14-17, that even when unacknowledged, a black person doing work to uplift black people is a part of the UNIA-ACL fellowship— they are a part of a larger canvas even if they don’t carry a paint brush. The work today is one of collaboration and recognition that the red, black and green path is fed by many tributaries.

From the Harlem Walk-Thru led by the President General—those gathered walking through the ‘hood passing out leaflets to the evening’s reception and the weekend schedule of activities, to the Black Cross event at Mt. Olive Baptist church honoring women who have exhibited leadership the range from journalism to public policy and children’s programming, Nayaba Arinde, editor, New York Amsterdam News; Queen Mother Dr. Doris Blakely, Ambassador of Goodwill to African and Community Mayor of Harlem; Colia Liddell Lafayette Clark, Civil Rights, Human Rights Advocate, Green Party Candidate for US Senate, NY; Betty Davis, Educator and Co-founder of the New Abolitionist Movement and the Lynne Stewart Defense Organization; Betty Dopson, Warrior Queen and founder of the Committee to Eliminate media Offensive to African People; Johanna Fernández, lead attorney for Mumia Abu Jamal, Assist. Professor of History at Baruch College; and Déqui Kiono-Sadiki, poet, educator, chair, Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, member of NY Chapter of Jericho Movement for Amnesty & Recognition of US held PP/POWs, radio host, Where We Live (99.5 FM); Mama Margaret Lamb, the oldest member of the UNIA-ACL in the New York area. Her 91st birthday was August 18. Leola Maddox, co-director of the Freedom retreat for boys and girls, the first of its kind for the United African Movement; Viola Plummer, one of the founding members of the December 12th movement and others (smile).

The four days were certainly a highlight of my life up to now. So much of what I recalled as a child growing to young womanhood in the Nation of Islam was reinforced at the Centennial. The UNIA-ACL was the backstory I’d heard about, yet hadn’t experienced.

That first afternoon, the famous attorney the Hon. Alton H. Maddox, Jr., founder and director of the Freedom Party, spoke about his life and work. His wife had been honored that morning (smile). The next day, Friday workshops were held in Harlem and Brooklyn. I headed for Brooklyn and attended the workshops for youth at Medgar Evers College.  Youngsters in grade school through high school listened attentively as panelists spoke about Music, Message and Movement, how as consumers, they should listen carefully to the messages less they participate in their own mental destruction. The brilliant entrepreneur Heru Ofori Atta moderated this second panel, which concluded with a performance by the hip hop duo Precise Science. The afternoon concluded and I headed back to the subway station to Harlem for the evening concert at the Oberia Dempsey Center where Sax Preacher from Chicago performed marvelously—we couldn’t stay in our seats (smile). Precise Knowledge also performed along with a really fine poet from Barbados, Adrian Green. Brother Tyhimba performed first—also from Chicago. The UNIA Chapter there seemed really cohesive and fun (smile).  Heru has a black iTunes called where we can support black artists.  He also surprised Dr. Marimba Ani (the following day) when he told her he was going to send her a $6,000.00 check per month for six months to do with it whatever she desired. It is about supporting the work. The Centennial was full of moments like this.

Back to Friday night, though, the concert, hosted by President General Senghor was a fun conclusion to a really full day. Saturday afternoon the free public program was at the Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X Memorial Hall, also in Harlem, but in a place I couldn’t walk to. It was really far from where I’d grown familiar with, so I didn’t have time to return to change clothes for the Red, Black and Green Banquet that evening. I guess I was what one would call California casual (smile).

I just felt chills as I thought about El Hajj Malik’s presence in the building and his demise confirmed across the street at the hospital. Photos of his life and walk were all around the banquet room and when one walked into the entry his bronze stature greeted you at the top of the first landing. Interactive screens were also in the main hall. As one climbed the winding stair case, El Hajj Malik followed you up, almost as if he was host and you the guest. It seemed such a fitting place to have the first convention since 1920. New York had the largest number of members, Cuba was second. Dr. Marimba Ani gave the keynote address. It was about the notion of race, first. At a time when people are colorblind and ignoring difference, it is rather jarring to think about race as a way to identify oneself. Garvey said that “the Black man was universally oppressed on racial grounds, and any program of emancipation would have to be built around the question of race first. The race became a ‘political entity’ which would have to be redeemed. . . . He said ‘it is not humanity’ that was lynched, burned, jim-crowed and segregated, but Black people. The primacy of race [not racial superiority which] characterized the UNIA from its beginnings in Jamaica.’ . . . The world has made being black a crime, and I have felt it in common with men who suffer like me, and instead of making it a crime I hope to make it a virtue.”

I hadn’t known the UNIA-ACL had a constitution and a pledge and a song. Of course I knew the flag, why the UNIA is a government, that’s why it has officers and presidents. I was impressed, more than I was already impressed (smile). I hadn’t known the Hon. Marcus Mosiah Garvey was a poet either— the important of culture to a people was paramount to UNIA founder. When the officials came in stopping before the lovely altar where a sister poured libations, I was so happy to be in this number when the saints marched in (smile). I felt like I feel when I think of the black saints in households in Senegal and Gambia, black saints like Cheikh Amadou Bamba and others. In other traditions they are called orisha, whose function is similar. It is just wonderful seeing black people unapologetically black.

Perhaps one of the more memorial moments, if one can single out one such moment, was when Marcus Garvey showed up at the dinner. Brother Ronn Bobb-Semple is Garvey incarnate. When he walked into the room, we were like “Wow!” “Oh my goodness!” It was the same the following day at the parade—Garvey was with us in the flesh thanks to Brother Bobb-Semple (smile). See for yourself: The President General wife, First Lady of UNIA Kathy English Holt performed a really wonderful soliloquy honoring the work of Nannie Helen Burroughs, a well-loved educator and founder of the first black women’s boarding school. Visit It was also really nice watching the couple honor each other and have fun dancing. I am sorry I missed Ms. English Holt’s son, bassist Corcoran Holt perform Sunday evening. He’d just come off the road with Kenny Garrett (

Sunday morning I got up early, jumped into my clothes, the dress I hadn’t been able to wear the night before, ate some oatmeal and after getting directions, walked over to Marcus Garvey Park for the Sister Circle. I walked around, but couldn’t find anyone—ran into another sister I’d seen the day before and both of us walked around without any luck. I then got a phone call from a sister friend who was in the park with the sisters. Eventually we found them. This was about 10 a.m. We went for a walk to find coffee with non-dairy milk. I ended up buying lunch just in case I couldn’t find anything later. It was a smart move (smile). I also bought a black ballerina from a toy store on my walk back.

A bus from Philly pulled in when we got back and Pam Africa and her husband, with others joined what ended up a powerful contingent. The parade was to start at 1, but it started at 3 p.m., so we returned about 5 p.m. It was worth the wait, but I’d planned to take some items back to Trader Joes and get dinner for my flight back to the Bay, so I wasn’t able to go to the evening performances at the National Black Theatre, which I had been to in February when there was a Black Panther Film Festival featuring Robert King as special guest. It was just so cool to have landmarks to remember (smile).

As we walked down Malcolm X or Lennox Avenue to 134 Street (135 was blocked with a street festival)—it was Harlem Week, people honked their horns in solidarity as they were handed back copies of the Garvey’s Voice. People carried posters and the red black and green flag flew in the air. The line stretched blocks long. We were pretty marvelous to perceive. At a time when black people in Harlem are hardly able to make ends meet, the parade said, Black is not just back, it is here to stay!

Motown, the Musical, A Review

Motown the Musical is a wonderful story of a man’s ability to take a dream and with the support of first his family and secondly his community, in this case, artists in Detroit, Michigan, see the vision through to its fruition. Berry Gordy Jr. wanted to be Sugar Ray Robinson, the Brown Bomber, when he listened to the fight on the radio with family –the fight in the ring, the unofficial end of white supremacy.
Charles Randolph-Wright (dir.) with Berry Gordy Jr.

His father told him to be the best Berry he could be and so he kept that advice close to heart as he tried his hand at boxing where he earned a Golden Glove.  However, his fame lay in another direction, music, and when one of his songs and then another became hits, yet he wasn’t earning hit song money, he decided to open his own music company, Motown, a company that put black music on the map and provided the bridge between mainstream white America and the parallel nation black people occupied, but not for long.

The Hon. Marcus Garvey speaks to the mythology of race, a myth that carries with it tangible consequences for Gordy as he tries to get his songs played on the air to white audiences. Good music is good music and with the many imitators who steal style and content from black artists, the idea that white Americans would or could not appreciate black music was an exercise in denial especially when they kept the content, just switched out the container—homogenized was the name of that brand.

During the encore, Elijah Ahmad Lewis as Stevie Wonder
brings the house down (smile). All photos: Wanda Sabir
When Gordy quits his job to follow his heart, he takes his proposal to his family and they loan him the money. From the very beginning Gordy asks advice from his older sister whom I think he stays with.  This sister ends up being an integral part of the management team, eventually becoming senior vice president.  The stage production, based on Gordy’s book, “To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown,” shows weekly meetings where the artists and managers talk about the ratings, new songs, the direction of the company and Gordy seems to listen to his family of artists and weigh their suggestions and requests. He even admits when he is wrong.  
I don’t know how I missed it, but I am surprised when Gordy falls in love with Diana Ross –it’s gradual as when he first meets her, she is in high school and he tells her and her friends to graduate and then come see him.  One day though, the girl grows up and she and he fall in love, and over time he devotes his life to making her a superstar. This includes moving his company to Los Angeles, so she can break into film.

The story of Motown, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright is black love at its most positive. No one is killed, everyone gets paid and black people remain friends once the gig is up and they move on. Motown is also the story of friendship, Smokey Robinson (Nicholas Christopher) for Berry Gordy and his belief in Gordy’s dream.

The two stars Clifton Oliver (Berry Gordy) and Allison Semmes (Diana Ross) have a rapport and cadence one can hear and feel as Semmes’s Ross grows into her artistry and womanhood.  In Semmes’s skilled hands Ross’s maturation is palatable and genuine. It is so fun to watch her, as you pinch yourself because you know; it’s not Ross, right? There is audience participation and the stars leave the stage during the performance (smile).

It is really a rare evening in the theatre that should not be missed.

The dancing is outstanding and well, the music . . . it is the soundtrack of America, because at some point, the stories are not just our stories, they are OUR stories.  This is why audiences sing along, clap and want to get up and dance (but they don’t (smile). The Motown sound is unique and inimitable; there is nothing like it anywhere. The cast is phenomenal –those already mentioned and others such as: Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse), Gordy as a child and an adult (Reed L. Shannon (the night I attended), Stevie Wonder, and of course Michael Jackson (Reed L. Shannon).  Even Ed Sullivan (Doug Storm) brings back fond memories of watching TV on Sunday night with my parents and waiting for the bubbles to signal the end of the show.

The white studio executives and agents who resist until it is not economically feasible are present, yet these artists see themselves as Freedom Riders. Their music takes the edge off the bitter pill America forces black people to swallow daily. The excellent staging shows how these segregated venues are dangerous for black audiences and for black entertainers.

The juxtaposition of footage from the vitriolic and volatile American south and elsewhere shows the rage that feeds the policies of a separate unequal America. The danger gives an edge to the performances on stages where armed police stand to ensure the musicians and the audiences stay racially segregated.  This Motown is a reminder of the breath of the Civil Rights Movement. Like the later Antiapartheid movement, it too covered a lot of territory—artists an integral part of the movement’s success.

From the costumes to the set, lighting and choreography, not to mention the songs—the live orchestra and the compelling story, Motown is a black success story. Motown was an economic success in as much as it created an artistic legacy few if any have been able to match or sustain. What was Gordy’s secret? How did he make this happen? Was all the talent located in this region exclusively? No of course not, there were unique sounds coming from multiple regions of the country, but none had the Motown machine to polish, package then mass market.

When Marvin Gaye composes What’s Going On, Gordy isn’t happy with the tune. It is a bit heavy for his palate—Motown is known for its love songs, but Gaye has his way and the song is a hit. The staging is a military exercise with scenes from the war projected in the background. Visual imagery suggests immediacy, a strategy used often as political periods mark the landscape as presidents and civil rights leaders are killed— it is never business as usual for the Gordy camp, each day is a new challenge and opportunity to overcome, and they do with tremendous effort. Success means work—work on one’s diction, grace, wardrobe, and fortitude to hang in there as white America comes to realize, black people are here to stay.  

The show, which is a family friendly performance, is up at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco, until Sept.  28. For 20 percent discount on select seats on TWThSun evenings use the code: ALBUM when making a purchase, 888-746-1799. Visit