Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Living Life in Black and White

After 7-1/2 years of Obama Derangement Syndrome, the horrific events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Dylann Roof's cold-blooded murder of nine African Americans who invited him to pray with them inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, those who had hoped for some kind of post-racial America find themselves confronted by increasing levels of racism.

Two of the most hotly-debated terms to enter popular culture in recent years are "white privilege" and "Black Lives Matter." Whether referencing incidents of police brutality against African Americans, blatant double standards in the media descriptions of terrorist attacks committed by white men versus people of color, continued attempts at voter suppression, or the growing anger of a white supremacy movement, there can be little doubt that American society has been dangerously poisoned by racial bias.

The 20th-century journalist and short story author Italo Calvino once described a classic as "a book that has never finished saying what it has to say." Recently, my Facebook feed included a link to a hair-raising article entitled The Gut-Wrenching History of Black Babies and Alligators, which should be required reading for every American. Lots more documentation about this tragic issue can be found online, including this video clip.


One need only look to the arts to witness how acute the imbalance in our society has become. After the furor that spurred the use of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, it was fascinating to see the diversity on display at this year's Tony Awards. In accepting the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 BET Awards, actor Jesse Williams made the following speech.


Bay area audiences were recently shown two dramas depicting heavily racist stories. One was a silent film from 1920; the other was a play set in South Africa in 1950, when the country was ruled by Apartheid.

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In 2015, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented a rare print of 1913's Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day. As Nsenga Burton explained in her program note:
"Shot then abandoned, the seven unedited reels of film were kept at New York’s Museum of Modern Art after being acquired in 1938 along with everything else from the Biograph vaults. According to MoMA curator Ron Magliozzi, the reels of Lime Kiln Club Field Day were untitled, unidentified, unedited, and had never been released. No script, intertitles, or production credits survive. Examining the footage frame by frame, along with a lip reader to decipher the dialogue, MoMA curators reconstructed the film’s narrative, piecing together an 'archive assembly' of the material."

This year, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened a reconstructed version of Oscar Mischeaux’s African American tragedy, Within Our Gates. Created as a rebuttal to 1915's racist epic (The Birth of a Nation), Within Our Gates focuses on a lot of issues (including Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan) that white America would prefer not to remember. With Michael Morgan conducting musicians from the Oakland East Bay Symphony and members of the Oakland Symphony Chorus, the event included the San Francisco premiere of a film score for strings and voice composed by Adolphus Hailstork.

A scene from Within Our Gates that shows the lynching of
Jasper Landry (William Stark) and his wife (Mattie Edwards)

In his program note, Scott Simmon writes:
Within Our Gates is the earliest surviving feature film by an African American, a distinction that can make it seem merely some historic curiosity. Instead, the film remains dramatically gripping and socially audacious in so many ways. Its mixed-race cast allows it to grapple with issues far beyond the scope both of later all black “race movies” and of tamer Hollywood productions: bigotry, miscegenation, the Great Migration north, racial uplift, and racial betrayal, all under the cloud of Jim Crow-era lynching. This second of Oscar Micheaux’s films (after the lost The Homesteader) centers on a young, light-skinned African American named Sylvia Landry (played by Evelyn Preer, the lead also in eight lost Micheaux silents) with a mysterious past and a mission to raise funds in the North for a struggling school for black children in the South.”
Philanthropist Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn) comforts
Sylvia Landry () in a scene from Within Our Gates 
“It’s no accident that, in the film, Sunday is the day for lynchings, when whole families can festively join in.  The most controversial characters created for the film are the race traitors who toady up to whites: the servant Ephrem, whose offscreen lynching is painfully ironic, and the minister 'Old Ned,' who at least laments his own hypocrisy. Most of its final half-hour is an astonishing backstory tracing Sylvia’s traumatic youth (including the lynching of her foster parents and an attempted rape by her white biological father).”
Armand Gridlestone (Grant Gorman) attempts to rape
Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) in a scene from Within Our Gates

Landry's story takes requires time for the viewer to perceive where Micheaux's film is headed. Her secret is finally revealed by her conniving cousin Alma Prichard (Flo Clements), whose crush on Landry's fiancé, Conrad Drebert (James D. Ruffin) brought a quick end to Sylvia's engagement. The shocking story of the Landry family's lynchings and the depiction of Sylvia's attempted rape left the audience visibly disturbed. As Simmon (who supervised the film's reconstruction by the Library of Congress) explains:
“From 1918 through 1939, with a final film in 1948, Micheaux made some 40 features, an especially astonishing achievement in light of the lack of any institutional structure for their distribution beyond a loose network of theaters and screenings for African American audiences. Micheaux went bankrupt in 1928 (near the close of the silent era) and was forced to rely on white financiers for his sound films. It’s clear that his most uncompromising works were his silents, and more’s the tragedy that so few survive. Within Our Gates was long assumed lost but, in the late 1970s, film historian Thomas Cripps located in Spain’s national film archive a Spanish print released under the title La Negra."
Poster art for 1920's Within Our Gates

While historically interesting, watching Within Our Gates became a fairly tedious experience due to its clumsy acting, disjointed storytelling, and a musical score that was less than exciting. Thankfully, you can watch the reconstructed film in the following hour-long video from You Tube.

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In March of 1982, the Yale Repertory Theatre presented the world premiere of a three-character drama by a South African playwright which had been banned from production in his own country. The first of Athol Fugard’s dramas to premiere outside of his native land, MASTER HAROLD... and the boys has been rattling audience’s nerves ever since.

Adrian Roberts, L. Peter Callender, and Andrew Humann in a scene
from MASTER HAROLD... and the boys (Photo by: David Allen)

The action takes place on a rainy afternoon in Port Elizabeth, South Africa inside the St. Georges Park Tea Room. The year is 1950. Sam (L. Peter Callender) and Willie (Adrian Roberts) are practicing ballroom dancing while discussing girlfriends, dreams, and what life holds in store for them. The two middle-aged black men have been servants to an Afrikaner family for many years. (Sam has essentially been a mentor to the family’s young son, Harold, since he was born). By the time Hally (Andrew Humann) arrives at the café on his way home from school, there are no more customers to serve. As usual, the privileged white teenager expects to spend his time chatting with the two men he has always considered to be his friends. If he can concentrate, he might get to work on his assignment, a 500-word composition.

Andrew Humann, Adrian Roberts, and L. Peter Callender in a scene
from MASTER HAROLD... and the boys (Photo by: David Allen)

There’s just one problem. Hally’s abusive alcoholic father has been in the hospital for a while and his mother may acquiesce to his demand to return home. Having had good reason to resent his father’s drinking, Hally tries to bully his mother over the phone into staying strong and refusing to let the old man leave the hospital. But his mother his weak, his father is a manipulative old drunk and, as a pampered teenager, Hally has precious little influence over his mother. As the young man's frustration with his father starts to get the best of him, he starts acting out, insisting that Sam and Willie call him "Master Harold" instead of Hally. With a fool’s sense of entitlement, the angry teen lashes out at Sam without understanding that this time he has gone too far.

L. Peter Callender, Adrian Roberts, and Andrew Humann in a scene
from MASTER HAROLD...and the boys (Photo by: David Allen)

Directed with aching tenderness by Timothy Near, the Aurora Theatre Company’s production of MASTER HAROLD... and the boys provides a welcome chance for young Andrew Humann (previously seen in Bay area productions of Dogfight, Colossal, and The Totalitarians) to sink his teeth into a much meatier role than usual. The results are most impressive, especially in moments when he is going head-to-head with veteran Peter L. Callender (the artistic director of San Francisco's African American Shakespeare Company), whose portrayal of Sam is heartbreaking. Adrian Roberts provides sturdy backup as Willie, the quieter servant in the household.

Richard Olmsted has designed a handsome unit set for the café, enhanced by Theodore J. H. Hulsker's sound design for the pouring rain. While Fugard’s play continues to pack quite a dramatic wallop, its impact is intensified by the intimacy of Aurora’s 150-seat Alafi Auditorium, with its deep thrust stage and three-quarter round seating. Performances of MASTER HAROLD...and the boys continue through June 17 at the Aurora Theatre Company in downtown Berkeley (click here to order tickets).

L. Peter Callender and Andrew Humann in a scene from
MASTER HAROLD...and the boys (Photo by: David Allen)