Saturday, January 30, 2016

Deep Jazz: A Review of MTC’s Gem of the Ocean by Wanda Sabir

When we think about improvisational art forms whether this is crazy quilts – its patterns hard to follow or teach or black music, black aesthetics articulate or mirror the lives of its people—it’s what’s in the cupboard when it’s time to eat that goes into the pot that is stirred until the brew is spicy, hot and ready to serve. 

Art is intrinsically linked to legacy; August Wilson’s Citizen (
Gem of the Ocean) learns this when he sails to the City of Bones and meets his ancestors, feels the lash – adjusts his sight so he is one with them, yet apart. He speaks to Aunt Ester about “getting his soul washed.”  Both Aunt Ester and Black Mary tell him that God is the only one who can wash souls. What Citizen is looking for is forgiveness and the community provides a ritual of atonement for the young man. 

Often there is no system in place to right the wrong. Punishment does nothing for a soul who admits to harming another and wants to make it right. Arrest and imprisonment is not restorative justice. Being locked away from the consequences of one’s actions— distance, just makes it a bit easier to harm another. Perhaps this is what happens to soldiers who experience traumas. It is not natural to kill other people, so to train to do so goes against one’s spiritual inclinations. To kill another person, something has to die inside the killer too.

Jazz or the black improvisational aesthetic which is 
most identifiable during, but especially immediately following emancipation is a scored landscape America promised, yet did not live up too. Called “free” music, jazz was black Americas’ answer to Jim Crow and terrorism suffered from 1865 onward.  This ability to find within an art form or social order creative space, no matter how minute, to plan and strategize is in itself liberating. This is evident in Aunt Ester’s kitchen and sitting room—sheet music for the souls of black folk who come, like Citizen to shake off their shackles. 

Sometimes dying is the best way to assert one’s principles, Citizen learns when he steals a bucket of nails and another man is blamed. This knowledge (that he caused an innocent man’s death) hurts his heart and so he travels to the City of Bones to get right with God, to get right with man, to apologize and seek forgiveness.  

Perhaps Gem of the Ocean resonates so strongly today, because of its themes: community, healing, power, residency, sacrifice, hope.  Solly Two Kings (David and Solomon) is a man not to be crossed. He carries three links of the shackles he once wore (while enslaved) for good luck. He also carries these shackles so that he never forgets captivity. When Citizen, an Alabama escapee, compares what black people are suffering in Pittsburgh to slavery, both Solly Two Kings and Aunt Ester quickly inform him of his error. No matter how awful conditions post-slavery, nothing could induce either of them to willingly submit to slavery again.

Black survival is an art form developed over years of making due with little or nothing except one’s own innate capability – not portable or transferable, one just “made do” and did that well. When Aunt Ester speaks of her children as stars in the sky close but a bit of a reach, we see how she has managed to keep moving and not fall over with grief. But her departed family is ever present, seen in her adoption of Citizen who reminds her of her son, Junebug. We see her children’s faces stitched in the skirt of her garment—causalities of trafficking: Sold, traded, exploited.  Stars, galaxies, night skies. Survival poetry. Life for black Americans is tension and release—inhale, pause, rest and rejuvenation. Such is Marin Theatre Company’s Gem of the Ocean, directed by Daniel Alexander Jones. Jazz is black people, so to use this premise—jazz, to tell a story too many think they have mined of all its ore is at once incredible. It is always incredible to see this play, the only Wilson play which puts at its center a black woman, two black women – one younger and one older. These women, Aunt Ester and Black Mary mirror one another, the younger mentored by the elder, similarly Citizen is mentored by Solly Two Kings.

The state of this Union hasn’t changed much from the proclamation Lincoln uttered 150 years ago to now for some Americans.  This nation was divided then, even after a war which decimated the southern economy.  Solly Two Kings says of the battle . . . It was never about justice for the black man, still isn’t.

He utters these words Wilson wrote before the shooting last July at The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME), Denmark Vesey’s church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The playwright wrote these words before the publishing of Karen Branan’s “The Family Tree: a Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth,” a book on kinship lynchings, and  Kidada E. Williams’s “They Left Great Marks on Me, African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I.”

Black people fled to the north and west, but there was no freedom there according to Berkeley resident and activist, Oscar C. Wright, (93) in Growing Up Black in America Vol. 1: 1923-1965 (2015) and Genocide: Locked out by Design (2015). Wright is also the subject of Michael Lange’s last film, “Not for Sale: The Story of Oscar C. Wright” (2016).

While Solly Two Kings freed enslaved Africans, Caesar Wilks (sheriff) wanted to free himself, even if this meant he lost his soul in return. He talks to his sister Black Mary about how he was forced to compromise his values to be accepted by white people. Given a badge and a gun, he was policing black people for white people. Just a glorified overseer, it is strange Caesar missed the fact that he was being used. He was eating his own magic bread. Wilson named this character correctly. A leader among men, Caesar’s hubris is part of his undoing, the other is misplaced loyalties and his refusal to listen.

1839 Wiley Avenue, Aunt Ester’s house is the center or nexus of the story. Aunt Ester (actress Margo Hall), is about 231 years old and has felt enslavements’ inequities. Her home is not just a safe house, it is also a sanctuary, where Black Mary (actress Omoze Idehenri) finds solace from a world pressing in, seeking but not succeeding to decimate her soul. Citizen Bartlow (actor Namir Smallwood) is troubled and seeks Aunt Ester’s help to wash his soul. In Ifa, the soul is one’s ori which is one’s head. Citizen needs his “ori” cleansed. He is worried, his heart is heavy and he hopes Aunt Ester can give him the tools to make his life right once again. At Aunt Ester’s house we meet Eli (actor David Everett Moore), who is Esu-Elegba, the god of the crossroads, the many paths by which one travels reach one’s destiny. To enter Aunt Ester’s house, a guest has to go through him. He is the door. Then there are Aunt Ester’s friends, Solly Two Kings (actor Juney Smith) and a white trader or peddler, Rutherford Selig (Patrick Kelly Jones).

Director Daniel Alexander Jones use of improvisation aesthetics called “theatrical jazz,” a place where recently liberated black folks escaping the south for northern cities like Pittsburgh carve a place for themselves.

In Alabama and elsewhere roads are closed and black people have to create alternative escape routes. The Underground Railroad was still operational in 1904. Solly Two Kings speaks of rescuing his sister, making another trek south to help her escape. White folks were more than determined to re-enslave its legally emancipated citizens. MTC’s production features composer Kevin Carnes’s original soundtrack, while Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, dramaturg, looks at how the psychic space surrounding black bodies then and now is tight. Designed to constrict and confine, seize and possess black souls, the fact that Citizen finds an open window at Aunt Ester’s house is an anomaly. Who left the window open?

Caesar Wilks (actor Tyee Tilghman) struggles ideologically – where are the windows, doors, spaces –legal spaces he is welcomed? Once inside the stratified system of racial dominance or white supremacy, what aspects of his blackness does he have to let go? How does law man maintain a functional connection to black community when white society anoints him with white not black power? Which master will he serve becomes the feather in the scale weighed against his heart.

The play opens with the characters creating frescos, poses where they stop and then go. I look over my shoulder and there is Citizen (actor Namir Smallwood) standing next to me in the aisle. He is waiting for Tuesday when Eli told him to return to speak to Aunt Ester. Rutherford Selig passes me on his way out the door. It is a busy thoroughfare.

Props like chairs hang from a wall, where they inhale and exhale, a visible levitation between multiple dimensions, while benches become cooling boards, staffs totems, dog feces called “pure,” a delicacy. We hear saxophones wail and basses hum as African rhythms heat the ground and confuse the hounds chasing Solly Two Kings as he carries the enslaved over into Jordan (Canada). In the kitchen area there is an altar—bottle jars or houses for spirit beings or souls passing to and fro. (Remember, Aunt Ester’s is a safe house.) There are bells and sacred medicinal stones, as well as pipe joints reinforced with black leather. The textured set is also alive as water swims in the walls where shadows move as Aunt Ester rocks, Citizen enters or Black Mary prepares a bed.

The ancestors stitched in Aunt Ester and Solly Two King’s garments are living sacraments. Children who have died too soon to violence then and now, Emmett Till and Oscar Grant, Mike Brown and Aiyani Mo’Nay Stanley Jones – Aunt Ester’s Junebug alive in Citizen Bartlow’s young face.  Her children and husband killed or sold away during enslavement. She tells Citizen often he is a part of a familial constellation.

Gem of the Ocean is a story of memory and triumph, faith and courage. The body politic that is “black bodies” since 1904 and now remains polemic, which is why Gem of the Ocean is so resonant January – February 2016. What does the warrior medicine woman Aunt Ester represent for her people? What does she leave with Black Betty to prepare her descendants whom we meet in Wilson’s Radio Golf?  There relationship is proof of a game plan. Our ancestors left us with a legacy. Perhaps this is why at Aunt Ester’s house there is laughter, song and dance. We witness Citizen dancing Juba in a ring shout. Black Mary kicks up her heels to as Africa pulses in the depths.
Citizen learns as he prepares for his trip to the City of Bones, one first has to believe. He is not a citizen of this nation, rather he is a citizen of something much greater. Solly Two Kings tells him that when his mother named him Citizen, “[s]he put a heavy load on you. It’s hard being a citizen. You gonna have to fight to get that. And time you get it you be surprised how heavy it is. . . . The people think they in freedom. That’s all my daddy talked about. He died and never did have it. I say I got it but what is it? I’m still trying to find out. It ain’t never been nothing but trouble. . . .You got to fight to make it mean something. All it mean is you got a long row to hoe and ain’t got no plow. Ain’t got no seed. Ain’t got no mule. What good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it? I seen many a man die for freedom but he didn’t know what he was getting. If he had known he might have thought twice about it.” Listen to a recent Wanda’s Picks Radio interview with Omoze Idehenre, David Everett Moore, and Tyee J. Tilghman:

August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” directed by Daniel Alexander Jones, closes Feb. 14, at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley. For ticket discounts use code DATENIGHT to get buy 1 ticket and get 1 free ticket to bring a friend. The short link to the ticketing site is:

Friday, January 22, 2016

Wanda's Picks Jan. 20 & Jan. 22, 2016

This is a black arts and culture site. We will be exploring the African Diaspora via the writing, performance, both musical and theatrical (film and stage), as well as the visual arts of Africans in the Diaspora and those influenced by these aesthetic forms of expression. I am interested in the political and social ramifications of art on society, specifically movements supported by these artists and their forebearers. It is my claim that the artists are the true revolutionaries, their work honest and filled with raw unedited passion. They are our true heroes. Ashay!

1. Tammy Hall, composer, musician, joins us to talk about Mahalia Jackson: Just As I AM at the Cinnabar Theater, Thursday, Jan. 21-Sunday, Jan. 24. Visit

2. Dee Hibbert-Jones, co-director, joins us to talk about her Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Short, Last Day of Freedom. The story is that of two brothers, Bill and Manny Babbitt. When Bill realizes his brother Manny has committed a crime, he agonizes over his decision - should he call the police? LAST DAY OF FREEDOM (32 min.) tells the story of Bill’s decision. This film is a portrait of a man at the nexus of the most pressing social issues of our day–veterans’ care, mental health access and criminal justice.

3. Woody Carter, Ph.D., author, theologian, associate professor and theater arts instructor joins us to talk about Narada's Children: A Visionary Tale of Two Cities (2015). He is having a book signing at Marcus Books, 3900 MLK Jr. Way, in Oakland, Sat., Jan. 23, 5-7 p.m.

Music: Tammy Hall live performs "There is Power in the Blood" from Mahalia Jackson: Just As I Am; Staple Singers' "Precious Lord"; Kim Nalley's "Trouble the World."

Here is a link to the Jan. 22 show:

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Wanda's Picks Friday, Jan. 15, 2016

This is a black arts and culture site. We will be exploring the African Diaspora via the writing, performance, both musical and theatrical (film and stage), as well as the visual arts of Africans in the Diaspora and those influenced by these aesthetic forms of expression. I am interested in the political and social ramifications of art on society, specifically movements supported by these artists and their forebearers. It is my claim that the artists are the true revolutionaries, their work honest and filled with raw unedited passion. They are our true heroes. Ashay!

1. Charles Curtis Blackwell & Arthur Norcome re: "Invisible Men: Black Male Artists in Art" @ Warehouse 416 in Oakland, Jan. 9-Feb. 28.

2. Artists from Dance in Dangerous Times (DIRT) at Dance Mission Rainy Demerson, choreographer, Program A; Latanya Tigner, choreographer, Program A; Kristy Keefer, choreographer, Program C.

3. Glen Pearson (scholar, professor, composer, musician) speaks about 
In The Name of Love, the 14th Annual Musical Tribute Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sunday, Jan. 17, Oakland Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside Dr., Oakland. (interview cancelled)

4. From the Archives: Ben Vereen (2012)

Show link:

Music: Ben Vereen's "Wicked" and Amikaeyla Gaston's "Lovely Day."

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Wanda's Picks Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016

Cat Brooks 
This is a black arts and culture site. We will be exploring the African Diaspora via the writing, performance, both musical and theatrical (film and stage), as well as the visual arts of Africans in the Diaspora and those influenced by these aesthetic forms of expression. I am interested in the political and social ramifications of art on society, specifically movements supported by these artists and their forebearers. It is my claim that the artists are the true revolutionaries, their work honest and filled with raw unedited passion. They are our true heroes. Ashay!

1. Cat Brooks, Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) speaks about the 96 hours of direct action across the Bay Area this weekend. &

 Canaan Kennedy
2. Canaan Kennedy (18), author, Struggles to Victory over Racism in America (2015), 

3. Amikaeyla Gaston, director, Living Jazz Children's Project for "In the Name of Love, the 14th Annual Musical Tribute Honoring Dr. MLK, Jr.," Sun., Jan. 17, 7 p.m. Visit or call (510) 858-5313.
Amikaeyla Gaston

4. Co-Artistic Director William Hodgson and actors Rolanda Dene and William Hartfield speak about Ubuntu Project's season opening work: Marcus Gardley's 
Gospel of Loving Kindness, Jan. 13-31 at Oakland City Church, 2735 MacAthur Blvd., Oakland, (510) 646-1126 & 
Link to show:

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Wanda's Picks Radio Show January 6, 2015

This is a black arts and culture site. We will be exploring the African Diaspora via the writing, performance, both musical and theatrical (film and stage), as well as the visual arts of Africans in the Diaspora and those influenced by these aesthetic forms of expression. I am interested in the political and social ramifications of art on society, specifically movements supported by these artists and their forebearers. It is my claim that the artists are the true revolutionaries, their work honest and filled with raw unedited passion. They are our true heroes. Ashay!

Regina Y. Evans (photo: Malaika Kabon)
January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. We are joined by two abolitionists who use their art to bring attention to this human rights issue affecting boys and girls throughout America, with special attention to those victims and survivors in Oakland.

Zorina London
Regina Y. Evans, playwright, actress, performs her one woman story, "52 Letters," and Evangelist Zorina London, is Billie Holiday or Lady Day in her original work, "One Night of Day."  In One Night of Day, we meet Billie Holiday as she prepares for a performance. Her two friends, Lena Horne and Bessie Smith drop by the club. In the Green Room they try to raise Billie's spirits, but fail. In the performance which follows we see how Holiday takes the sorrow and transforms it; the pain leaves as she flushes is through her soul. Nina Causey plays the role of Lena Horne.

Doors open at 2 p.m. on both days at the Black Repertory Group Theater, 3201 Adeline Street, Berkeley. The plays start at 3 p.m.

Videos of last years program:

Music: Michael White's "The Blessing Song"; Novalima's "Africa Lando" & "Tumbala" (Coba Coba); Robert Glasper's "Butterfly" (Double Booked); Jahahara Alkebulan's "Love and Defend Pachamama."

Guest Bios:
Regina Y. Evans, a native of Oakland, CA, is a Poet, Playwright, Actor, Entrepreneur, Modern Day Abolitionist and a Survivor Leader in the fight against sex trafficking. She is the Founder/CEO of Regina's Door, a social enterprise vintage boutique located in Oakland, Ca. Regina's Door trained and mentors survivors of trafficking through the workforce development program of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Love Never Fails organization. The boutique is also a safe haven and sanctuary for at risk youth, homeless youth and young artists and creatives.

Regina's Door was honored to receive the 2015 Oakland Indie Award for Social Changemaker.

Ms. Evans holds a Performing Artist Residency at the Flight Deck, Oakland, Ca. Her most current stage play, "52 Letters" (Writer, Producer, Director, Performer), a poetic stage play bringing awareness to the issue of sex trafficking in the United States, was honored to win a Best of 2013 San Francisco Fringe Festival Award. Additionally, Ms Evans has performed 52 Letters venues including the Berkeley Festival of Ideas (Excerpt performance, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley, Ca), The Flight Deck, (Oakland, Ca), The Marsh Theatre (San Francisco, Ca), 2015 Freedom Summit (Santa Clara, Ca), UC Berkeley Conference on Human Trafficking (Berkeley, Ca), Love Don't Hurt Trafficking Awareness Community Event (Oakland, Ca), Rescue Is Not Enough Trafficking Awareness Event (San Jose, Ca), YWCA of Silicon Valley Anti Trafficking Freedom Week Event (San Jose, Ca), the Ignite Conference/UC Berkeley (Berkeley, Ca) Human Trafficking Freedom Seder, Beth Am Congregation (Los Altos, Ca), 2013 DIVAS Tell All series (The EXIT Theatre, SF, CA), and the 2013 DIVAfest, (EXIT Theatre, SF, CA).

Ms Evans is also the Writer, Producer and Director of Echo: A Poetic Journey into Justice, a stage play also focusing upon the issue of trafficking. The 2010 staging of Echo: A Poetic Journey into Justice was organized as a 100 percent volunteer community effort, and played to sold out performances for the entirety of its run (The Berkeley City Club, Berkeley, Ca). The play was sponsored by twelve local and national organizations including MISSSEY, Chab Dai and Not For Sale. In 2011, Ms. Evans was honored to receive an inspiring personal phone call of recognition from the White House stating President Barack Obama's gratitude for the community effort and awareness raising created by the play.

Ms. Evans is also the published author of two inspirational poetry books: "Nonnie And The Butterfly" and "Nothing Cool About Ten". 

As a Modern Day Abolitionist, Ms. Evans volunteers with Love Never Fails Anti-Trafficking organization. Love Never Fails was founded by Vanessa Marie Russell, and is committed to compassionately serving sex trafficking victims and survivors.

As a Survivor-Leader and Abolitionist, she is also a member of The S.H.A.D.E. Project (Survivors Healing, Advising and Dedicated to Empowerment), a survivor run consulting/advocacy project, founded by Social Justice Advocate and Survivor Leader Sarai Theolinda Smith-Mazariegos, established to empower survivors of sexual exploitation and domestic sex trafficking. 

Ms. Evans is also a board member of the non-profit Seek and Save, founded by Social Justice Advocate and Humanitarian Mark Fisher. Seek and Safe serves Bay Area at-risk youth by providing mentoring and much needed resources including household goods, bill payment, and groceries.

Ms. Evans has traveled extensively throughout the world and resided in Sydney, Australia for 15 years, before returning home to the United States in 2006, where she operated and owned The Diva's Closet Vintage Clothing Boutique which catered to a celebrity clientele including Beyonce, Cate Blanchett, Deborah Mailman, Claudia Karvan, Bridie Carter, and Georgie Parker. The boutique was also a costume and red carpet styling resource for the Australian theater, music, television and movie industries. Her dresses were seen at Cannes Film Festival, MTV Awards, Aria Awards, Logie Awards, and AFI Awards.

Zorina London has lived a very interesting life; she’s a former Beauty Pageant winner, Model, Variety show choreographer / lead dancer, TV Show Host, and Playboy Bunny. Yes, Playboy Bunny! After winning a local beauty pageant, and being crowned “Miss Knights Of Honor” in 1973, Zorina later became a Playboy Bunny at the San Francisco Playboy Club. There she began her professional singing career, being billed as “The Singing Bunny”.

 Zorina “Alisha” London (born Carolyn A. London of Manny Louisiana), better known as “The Black Pearl of Asia”, hails from San Francisco CA. and now resides in Taipei Taiwan. Currently employed at Taipei’s “ORTV” (Overseas radio and Television), a Missionary / English teaching company, where she uses her skills as an Actress, Song Writer / Producer, and Gospel / Inspirational Recording Artist. Zorina gave her heart to the LORD in 1992 and has now given her life completely to the LORD using all of her gifts and talent to Glorify GOD. She looks forward to being used by the LORD in the lives of those that are hurting and in need all over the world.

Asia has become Zorina’s second home, and the people of Asia have become her second family.  She has even been given a Chinese name “Hei Zhen Zhu” which means “Black Pearl”. The Black Pearl is a very rare, and a very special pearl through out all of Asia, and so is this Charming, Multi Talented vocalist and performer Zorina London. Is she a great Vocalist and Performer? Yes! Is she only a Vocalist and performer? No! This anointed Renaissance woman is also a Gospel Playwright  (Having her first play “Restoration” considered by Broadway), Director, Actress, Poet, Author, Song Writer and, Dancer. To add to her credits Zorina is a Motivational Speaker for the youth of Taiwan (she has also been called upon to speak at public schools- junior high and high school in San Francisco CA.).

The LORD has used Zorina London in the U.S.A. as well; she is a Congressional Award Holder, a Recipient of two Certificates of Honor, one from the city of San Francisco, the other from the Church for the Fellowship of all People, also in San Francisco. These Awards were presented to her for her help in the Community and her concern for the people using the Arts as a vehicle to enlighten, to inform and to bless them. For the pass seven years she has held the position of International Outreach Representative / Assistant Creative Director for Black Repertory Theater in Berkeley CA. Having her performances broadcasted through out North America, South America, Europe and Asia, at the age of 55, it was prophesied; Evangelist Zee is on her way to becoming a household name, and a force to reckon with for the Kingdom of Heaven!

Nina Causey
Ready for Big Leagues...singer Nina Causey has stellar potential, she has been singing and playing the piano since the age of four she earned her bachelor and masters degrees in music from, respectively, Roosevelt University in Chicago and The University of Illinois in Urbana, IL and also studied classical piano for twelve years at The American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. "Gordon Raddue"

Nina is truly an extraordinary performer. Her rich performing experience has included being the opening act for many of the entertainment giants of the world, including The Temptations and
The Drifters.
Recent Performances:

Broadway Grill Cotton Club appearance as
Lena Horne, Burlingame, CA

Featured as a jazz/blues vocalist in concert with her
three piece combo @ Angelica's Bell Theater, Redwood City, CA