Monday, June 26, 2017

Black Lives, Interrupted

For most of the 1960s I spent my summers at a YMCA sailing camp in Rhode Island. It was a closed environment that was almost entirely male, extremely white, and relatively free from the pressures of daily life in the outside world. Back in those days cable television, the Internet, and social media had not even been invented. Boys could be boys (focusing mainly on sports) and the environment nurtured a sense of brotherhood and fair play that was almost idyllic. The only time we were allowed to watch television was on July 21, 1969 at 2:56 UTC, when those willing to get up in the middle of the night convened in the mess hall to watch Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the surface of the moon.

How I ended up in Rhode Island is an interesting story. For several years my father (a high school biology teacher) had been the recipient of grants from the National Science Foundation to attend summer institutes (I earned money by typing up his application forms). One year, he received a grant for a summer institute at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. The following summer was spent at Brown University in Providence, where my parents met Anne Schwerner (another biology teacher from New York City) and her husband, Nathan.

On June 21, 1964, headlines were filled with the news that three field/social workers from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had been killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi. At the time of their deaths James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and the Schwerners' son, Michael (Mickey), had been investigating the burning of a nearby Methodist church that had been a CORE Freedom School. However indirect, that was my first exposure to America's racist attitudes toward African Americans.

Since then, thousands of black men, women, and children have been the victims of racist attacks by so-called "real Americans." The recent acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez (the officer who murdered Philando Castile on July 6, 2016) by a jury of his peers in Minnesota was a bitter disappointment to many Americans. In his Op-Ed column in The New York Times entitled Sacrificing Black Lives for the American Lie, Ibram X. Kendi wrote:
"This blaming of the black victim stands in the way of change that might prevent more victims of violent policing in the future. Could it be that some Americans would rather black people die than their perceptions of America? Is black death more palatable than accepting the racist reality of slaveholding America, of segregating America, of mass-incarcerating America? Is black death the cost of maintaining the myth of a just and meritorious America? People seem determined to exonerate the police officer because they are determined to exonerate America."
"To diagnose police officers’ lethal fears as racist, juries and prosecutors would also have to diagnose their own fears of black bodies as racist. That is a tall task. It may even be easier to get a racist cop convicted of murdering a black person than it is to get a racist American to acknowledge his or her own racism. Racist Americans keep justice as far away from black death as possible to keep the racist label as far away from themselves as possible. And in exonerating the police officer and America of racism, people end up exonerating themselves."
While many have criticized the jury's verdict, few have spoken about the situation with as much eloquence, empathy, and common sense as Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.

Melissa Hillman (whose brilliant Bitter Gertrude theatre blog is a constant source of dramatic wisdom) offered the following insights in a post entitled Do Black Lives Matter At Your Theatre and In Your Films?
“It takes one generation growing up with a narrative trope to see that narrative trope as 'natural.' Spinning out from the narrative trope ‘Black = DANGER’ are the racist cultural notions that Black people are tougher and do not feel pain like we do; Black people commit more crimes; Black people ruin property values; Black fathers abandon their children. Our culture is saturated with these slanders, and they are quite literally killing people. We can actively fight white supremacy with the narratives we put into the culture, or we can continue to be complicit in creating the culture that leads to the deaths of people like Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and so, so, so many others. It's not enough to just cast Black artists and produce Black work (although that is an excellent start). White supremacy itself needs to be pulled up from the roots because we are hurting all people of color.”
Theatre artist Melissa Hillman
“Every cultural movement, for good or for ill, had a master narrative at the back of it, created by artists and writers. Examine the master narratives behind the work you produce, because they're there, whether you examine them or not. The dehumanizing tropes we create and disseminate through our plays, films, TV shows, video games, books, web series, music videos, fiction, and nonfiction are quite literally getting people killed. Examine what messages your work puts out into the culture, both in its processes and its product. My fellow purveyors of narrative, we can either work intentionally to disrupt these tropes or we can work to reinforce white supremacy. There is no in between.”
Bay area audiences were recently exposed to two stunning dramas about the black experience in America.
  • One cast a black man as the oppressor; the other cast the black man as the oppressed.
  • One had its world premiere 92 years ago, the other is receiving its world premiere from a small theatre company in Berkeley.
  • One featured a black matriarch easily taken in by a con man posing as a preacher; the other featured a black matriarch who had experienced more than her fair share of tragedy and was susceptible to any bullshit dancing on the silver tongues of men who would play her for a fool.
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In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been highlighting the work of the groundbreaking African-American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux. This year's selection was 1925's Body and Soul in which the 27-year-old Paul Robeson made his screen debut as a pair of twins. As the goodly Sylvester, he portrayed a poor, but conscientious man whose inventions showed great promise. As the two-faced Rev. Isaiah T. Jenkins, he portrayed an escaped convict posing as a corrupt preacher intent on stealing the life savings of one of the congregation's most devout parishioners, a hard-working laundress named Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) who had kept her family afloat by ironing clothes and picking cotton.

Paul Robeson as Sylvester (the good twin) in Body and Soul

Paul Robeson as the Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins (the evil twin)

Although Martha Jane's daughter, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell), is in love with the handsome Sylvester, her gullible mother is an easy target for a charismatic swindler posing as a man of the cloth. While Body and Soul showcased Robeson’s dramatic versatility, it was the only film he made with an African American director. In supporting roles, Lawrence Chenault appeared as the reverend's former jailmate (Yello-Curley Hinds) while two elders of the church were portrayed by Walter Cornick as Brother Amos and Chester A. Alexander as Deacon Simpkins. Two pious ladies of the church (Lillian Johnson as Sis Caline and Madame Robinson as Sis Lucy) were seen as close friends of Martha Jane.

Lawrence Chenault as Yello-Curly Hines with Paul Robeson as
the Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins in a scene from Body and Soul

After Jenkins convinces Isabelle to take the blame for his theft of her mother's money, she flees from Tatesville to Atlanta. A desperate Martha Jane finds Isabelle who, before she dies, tells her mother that Jenkins had raped her after stealing Martha Jane's money.

As I watched Body and Soul certain overly histrionic patches seemed to strain credibility (partly due to Mercedes Gilbert's acting). However, after the audience learns that what they have witnessed was really a bad dream, the film ends with Martha Jane bestowing her savings upon Sylvester and Isabelle as a wedding gift. With live musical accompaniment by DJ Spooky and Guenter Buchwald, a restored print from Kino Lorber was screened at the Castro Theatre. As Susan Doll explained in her program note:
“Robeson’s twin roles represent two archetypes familiar to African Americans: Stagger Lee the hustler/trickster versus Booker T. Washington’s self-made man. In Micheaux’s view, they represent the two paths available to African American men. His mission was to point out the folly of the wrong path.”
Paul Robeson as the Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins (the evil twin)
“Complicating any assessment of individual films is the censorship Micheaux experienced at the hands of state and local censor boards. New York censors did not accept the director’s original nine-reel version of Body and Soul, rejecting it outright on November 5, 1925, for being sacrilegious and for inciting audiences to commit crimes. Micheaux resubmitted the film a few days later, making it clear through title cards and an insert of a news article that Isaiah T. Jenkins is an escaped convict masquerading as a reverend. The censors rejected Body and Soul again, prompting Micheaux to reduce the film to five reels, cutting it nearly in half. The worst behavior of the reverend was passed on to another character and most of the scenes involving drinking and gambling were eliminated. In February 1927, he submitted a seven-reel version to the Chicago censors, who rejected it for its scandalous depiction of a Protestant minister. He recut it for those censors as well.”

Body and Soul was pretty much unknown to white audiences for many years. In 2000, the New York Film Festival screened Michaux's film with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performing a new score composed by Wycliffe Gordon. At the Castro screening,I found the samplings by DJ Spooky to be a thrilling addition to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Thankfully, a restored print of Body and Soul is available on YouTube (see below).

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One of the rewards of being a theatre critic is to witness the birth of an exciting new drama that is rich in humanity, bursting with life, and has a voice all its own. Because of the economics of live theatre, such plays frequently receive their world premieres from small regional theatre companies.

Thanks to the National New Play Network's ability to encourage the sharing of resources and choreograph rolling world premieres among several theatre companies, a playwright's new work can be seen by multiple audiences in diverse cities within a relatively short period of time. On other occasions, a world premiere may be a stand-alone effort. Some of the more impressive world premieres witnessed by Bay area audiences in recent years include:
I first encountered Kimber Lee's work in 2016 when, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley staged tokyo fish story (which had been part of the company's 2014 New Works Festival). Thanks to the persistent efforts of Amy Mueller (Artistic Director of Playwrights Foundation), Patrick Dooley (Artistic Director of Shotgun Players), and the multitalented Margo Hall, this month's world premiere of Lee's new play offers further cause for jubilation. As Hall explains:
"I heard a reading of brownsville song (b-side for tray) in the 2013 Bay Area Playwrights Festival and fell in love with the play. The joy and pain expressed in the 90-minute run-time was a beautiful roller coaster ride that somehow left me hopeful. Hopeful that the audience that witnessed this story with me was reminded that the death of someone to gun violence affects everyone and everything around them. Hopeful that, after seeing this play, the people of these audiences will be motivated to do something to eliminate gun violence in their respective communities. Each individual who falls victim to gun violence has a name, a family, and a community. Kimber Lee gives us an opportunity to pay homage to all those families and communities who have been victims to gun violence. Lee reminds us that we are all a part of these concentric circles of death and love." 
David Morales (Tray) and Cathleen Riddley (Lena) in a scene from
brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Lee's protagonist is a hyperactive teenager (David Morales) and aspiring boxer from a broken family that has been held together by the tough love of his fearsome grandmother (Cathleen Riddley). After Lena's son was killed with four bullets to the chest and his second wife's alcoholism made Merrell (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) unfit to take care of Tray and his kid sister, Devine (Mimia Ousilas), the children came to live with Lena.

Mimia Ouisilas (Devine) and David Morales (Tray) in a scene from
brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

While Lena worked two jobs (often to the point of exhaustion) and made sure there was food on the table, Tray and Devine learned how to entertain each other while growing sensitive to their sibling's moods and needs. Tray's ability to charm Devine out of her moments of extreme shyness stays with her even after her brother takes "four to the chest" from a member of a local gang simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Working on a unit set designed by Randy Wong-Westbrooke (with lighting by Allen Willner, costumes by Katherine Nowacki, and sound designed by Joel Gimbell II), Margo Hall does a splendid job of eliciting powerhouse performances from Morales and Riddley, two magnetic performers who bring a surge of electricity to the stage whenever they are in front of the audience.

Cathleen Riddley as Lena in a scene from Kimber Lee's new play
brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

The two leads receive strong support from Mimia Ousilas as the shy young sister and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as the recovering stepmother who ends up being interviewed for a job at Starbucks by her own stepson (Tray). William Hartfield has some nice moments as Tray's baggy-pantsed childhood friend (Junior) as well as a black hipster ordering a complicated cup of coffee.

As she did so beautifully in tokyo fish story, Lee delivers moments of great poignancy and poetry through her words as well as her characters' actions. Tray's inherent goodness manifests itself in a beautiful speech in which he tells Lena why Merrell deserves a break and offers his grandmother a lesson in forgiveness as another form of tough love. Similarly, when Merrell freezes while trying to learn how to use an electronic cash register, Tray quietly comes to her rescue with fingers moving so fast and effortlessly that it communicates the difference in motor skills that come naturally to different generations.

Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as Merrell in a scene from
brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

This is an achingly beautiful and thrilling new drama, lovingly crafted and magnificently acted by a tight ensemble. While I look forward to future works from Kimber Lee, I have to admit that it has become frighteningly easy to take for granted the artistic contributions that Cathleen Riddley and Margo Hall make to the Bay area theatre scene. These are two highly gifted and deeply passionate artists who always set the bar for excellence at impressive heights. Rest assured that young David Morales is already nipping at their heels.

Erin Mei-Ling Stuart (Merrell) and David Morales (Tray) in a scene
from brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Performances of brownsville song (b-side for tray) continue through July 9 at the Shotgun Players in Berkeley (click here for tickets).

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