“Who’s Afraid…?”

A headline from the Sunday, May 21, 2017 New York Times caught my attention. It was nothing momentous, nothing of concern on the national or international stage – although it did concern a stage. This news item, probably and justifiably inconsequential to most readers, was about what is not going to appear on the stage of a 35-seat theater in Portland, Oregon, and why. The “why” is what caught me.

The story, written by Times theater reporter Michael Paulson, was about the minor controversy that arose when a producer planning to mount a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” learned he would not be granted the rights to do so because a black actor was cast in the role of a character whose blue-eyed blondness is spoken of more than once in the play. Playwright Edward Albee, who died eight months ago, was notoriously protective of his work, so the denial of rights by his estate was in line with what he would have wished. As Paulson writes, “Albee, one of the nation’s leading 20th-century playwrights, was known for his tight control over professional productions of his plays, insisting on approval of casts and directors while he was alive; directors were often required to submit head shots of proposed cast members before receiving the rights to mount his plays.”

Before you get the wrong idea about where I’m going with this, let me say Albee’s (and his estate’s) objections are not without merit. Albee set his play in the 1960s, and the character in question, Nick, is married. Paulson writes that a representative of the estate noted that Albee himself, having previously considered the matter of nontraditional casting, had pointed out that a black and white couple in that period “’… would not have gone unacknowledged…’” Let me say also that Albee was not always consistent; a black actress played the lead without his objections in 2002. Paulson reports that, two years earlier, Albee assisted with a black-cast production of the play at Howard University. So, no, I see no need to view this brouhaha as racism extending its grip from the grave. What, then, is my interest in this story? Well, we’ll get to that.

First, let me share part of an exchange I had before beginning to write this. I asked a friend (Gregory Ford, and for reasons that will be made clear) what his thoughts were on the matter. He wrote “I don’t have any problem with the Albee estate’s decision. 1) It’s his work. If you want to do your interpretation, write your work; 2) August Wilson – again write your own works from your own people’s mythology; 3) I think Albee writes about whiteness and its repercussions on the world in a way that is similar to how Melville writes about whiteness and how its pursuit, spurred by capitalism, is destructive. I think casting Black actors in this situation allows white people in particular to avoid looking at the destruction their systems perpetrate and how they collude in the maintenance of that destruction.” My agreement was only partial. So strongly do I feel that artists should be doing their own thing that I once wrote a proposal and distributed it among theater friends questioning the efficacy of waiting for casting calls and other offers of work from theaters and producers. (I was young and idealistic). I entreated them to work collectively as their own producers, commissioning the writing of new plays, renting or leasing theater space, hiring directors and other personnel, and developing the criteria for casting members of the collective in productions.

My thinking varied from Ford’s in that I did not see Albee’s work as about whiteness. I wonder if Albee did. If so, he underestimated his own gifts as an artist. In Albee’s work, I’ve always found the human experience, as I have in the works of artists who may never have had “the other” in mind when in the act of creating. I’ve always been able to see the lives of black people reflected in the experiences of those who might never imagine such a thing. As if reading my mind, Ford later followed up with this erudite observation: “On the other hand, a large part of the survival of African Americans is due to the appropriation of the cultural conserves of other cultures and adapting them to forms that served to express and nurture the existence of Africans in the diaspora. Jazz, gospel and all that has come since. So why not appropriate Albee or My Fair Lady?” Exactly.

The question of my interest in this story can be answered by something else Ford said in his first thoughts on the matter, when his initial reaction to the Times article elicited admonishment for those who would do Albee their way. “My views have shifted since we did it, maybe. And maybe it’s different if it is an all-Black cast. I don’t know.” Twelve years before Albee reportedly assisted Howard University with such a cast, Ford, the late Gideon Ferebee and I attempted to mount such a production. What happened instead is the tale I now tell.

My interest began long ago on a Saturday night, sitting in front of a television, not prepared for the movie I was about to see, now eternally grateful. I guess I sat down to watch because of who was going to be in it: Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband, Richard Burton. The night ended with me being marked for life. Why the caustic relationship of the main characters left such a lasting influence on a high-schooler is something I have yet to figure out. Later, when reading Albee’s “The Zoo Story” in English class and learning the movie that had stunned me was a film adaptation of another of his plays, it was the beginning of an idea that stayed buried in the back of my mind for years: I would love to do that play one day and, if I ever did, all the characters would be black.

Those who have known me since those days already know the idea of my doing a play is not unusual. Theater, not academics, was the motivating factor for me in high school. In fact, by the time I got to be a senior, there were days when I only went to school after dismissal time and only for rehearsals of the play we were doing. Even my brief foray into academia following high school was curtailed by a lack of interest in school; among other non-academic pursuits, I was drawn to the black drama group on campus.

The idea of doing Albee’s play never left me, but – over the years — became more of a nice dream because of a dilemma I saw no way of overcoming. “Virginia Woolf” requires an actress of prodigious talents to play the lead character of Martha, and it had been more than a decade since I had seen one I knew could pull it off. She, too, had joined that college drama group, a girl so good it just didn’t make sense, a girl named Alfre Woodard.

Then, one evening, I saw my Martha. She was at the now-defunct Back Alley Theater which was in DC’s 16th Street Heights neighborhood. I had gone there to see the play “Bumps.” I remember an evening of energy and excitement and wonderful performances, and in the midst of all that talent stood a standout. Her name is Cathy Simpson (still doing her thing, having finished a run in “Seven Guitars” in St. Louis in April and another one in “Peaceable Kingdom” in Philadelphia in May). At the time, I didn’t know whether I ever would do Albee’s play, but seeing Cathy gave me hope.

Hope grew when I learned about Sanctuary Theater, a venue then in Columbia Heights where that neighborhood meets the communities of Adams-Morgan and Mt. Pleasant, right in my neighborhood in fact, but a theater I never had visited. That changed when the late Garth Tate decided to direct his play “Blood Moon” there and asked me to do the lights, something I regularly did for folk who needed it. At Sanctuary, I became acquainted with its founders and artistic directors, Michael Oliver and Elizabeth Bruce, and learned how accommodating they were with their space. Their co-founder, Jill Navarre, a director I had done lights for on a few productions, has written of the three of them that “We were crazy enough to think we could start a new theatre company in Washington which would present cross cultural, inter-racial, avant-garde theatre. And we did.” Following Garth’s play, the actor Clayton LeBouef asked me to do the lights for a play he was directing there, one he had written and in which he would be performing. Clayton would have been a perfect “Nick” for a production of “Virginia Woolf,” but that was still a dream.

The dream began to take form thanks to two colleagues and collaborators, Ford and the late Gideon Ferebee, both of whom – like I (and the aforementioned Garth Tate) – had been among the founding members of the Station-to-Station Performance Poets and Writers’ Collective. The Collective had run its course (another story for another day), and one of the things that had grown from it was Dream-Keepers Productions, an idea of Gideon’s that he had invited Ford and me to help make real. We saw the potential Sanctuary presented and decided to make use of it. As co-producers, we would rent the theater and mount two productions to run in repertory. Ford would direct “The Dozens” by Laird Koenig, and – finally — I was going to direct “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

There was no need to hold auditions for the role of Martha. In my mind, there could be no play without Cathy Simpson in the role. When asked, she said yes. That left me with the stark realization that the other cast members had to be able to rise to her standards. My first inclination was to also not hold auditions for the role of Nick, but to offer it to a young actor I had been strongly impressed by when he had performed at Sanctuary in Clayton’s play, an actor named Isaiah Washington; Isaiah said yes, which meant two down and two to go.

I booked space at the city’s Reeves Center and held auditions for the roles of George, Martha’s husband, and Honey, Nick’s wife. The character of George must be able to go toe-to-toe with the tornado/volcano that is Martha, able to slow her wind and douse her flame; the actor playing the part had to be able to hold his own with Cathy. That actor was Michael Mack, who stepped up to the plate at the audition and hit an out-of-the-ballpark homerun right-off-the-bat, causing me to have to disappoint a friend and neighbor who really wanted the part. I had encountered Michael ten years earlier, when I was running lights at what had been the O. Street Theater when I attended a play there in high school, but what had become the grandiloquently-named Paul Robeson International Center for the Performing Arts (again, another story for another time). Michael had wowed everyone who watched him the day he came to the Robeson to audition, but the Center’s artistic director decided that the then 15-year-old, who had been accompanied there by his father, was too young for the play we were doing at the time. Now, ten years later, here he was demonstrating he had only gotten better. The character of George is a middle-aged man, but the 25-year-old Michael had the voice, the presence, could the effect the carriage, and could evince the gravitas needed to pull it off. I gave him the part. The cast was complete when I selected an actress named Pamela Armstrong for the role of Honey. There would be a black-cast production of “Virginia Woolf” in Washington, DC.

Not knowing any better, we assumed that the fact it would be non-equity, community theater precluded our having to obtain the rights to the play, so we didn’t. The first line-reading rehearsals took place in my livingroom. Then, something happened that would fundamentally change not only the nature of the production, it would deepen a dimension of the play itself.

At this point, I need you to remember something essential to the story that Albee wrought, how it turns on acts of betrayal. Also consider that, in this society, the very nature of something as universal as betrayal can be wholly transformed when experienced by black Americans. Engendered by acts of betrayal intended to cut a soul to the quick, the rage and sense of emasculation Albee intended his characters to feel could – depending on the trigger — easily metastasize exponentially in a black Martha or a black George. Isaiah unwittingly provided that trigger.

My dream of an all-black “Virginia Woolf” died early in the process. One day when we still were in the line-reading phase, Isaiah informed me that – now that he was no longer studying drama at Howard University — he had decided he was leaving DC and heading home to Texas. Seven months ago, in an interview with Soraya McDonald, senior culture writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated, Isaiah spoke of his time here. “Once I realized I was splitting my time from the Sanctuary Theater, and D.C. Space, and George Washington University’s basement theater programs, I found myself quickly ready to make a move. I was like a year short of graduating. … I ran out of money, and, you know, tried to take side jobs here and there, up and down Georgia Avenue, at the Ibex [go-go club], working there, doing whatever I could. Odd jobs, moving people out of their homes, offices … whatever I could get. But just could not afford to remain, and could not qualify for any funding.” Well, it’s true that we could not afford to pay him much.

You’ve heard the saying before, so you know the show must go on, and on we went. The show, however was to take a completely different turn, and the depth it added to the play was something that even went over my head initially. I already had decided I would keep the dialogue about George and Martha’s imaginary Aryan son; I wanted to use it to depict the self-hatred felt by some blacks. I didn’t realize until later how that would mesh so well with the dynamic introduced by the very presence of the actor who would be my new Nick, Matthew Bretz – who is white.

I cannot remember how Matthew came to me. Looking back, I think Cathy or Michael or Pamela may have suggested him. He read for the part, and I could see he would do just fine. Off-stage drama due to personality clashes led to Pamela’s departure, and she was replaced as Honey by an actress named Edie Kattlekopp – also white. So, now, there was the black, middle-aged couple with serious issues spending an evening entertaining the unsuspecting and alternately bewildered and appalled young white couple with issues of their own. It is not difficult to understand why Nick and Honey would endure such an ordeal when social and political maneuverings are involved; Nick, after all, is a college professor with ambition and Martha, his hostess for the evening, just so happens to be the president’s daughter.

I think it was when we finally moved to the theater for rehearsals that I finally saw what I had not seen before, the degree to which certain interactions within this racial mix might make the impending explosions and implosions seem even more certain, more consequential, more relevant. Watching the actors from the lighting booth, I began to understand what had been added by the change in casting, how – for some audience members – the feelings elicited by the proceedings of the night would not arise if watching a dissimilar staging of the play. When the betrayals that propel the play toward its conclusion begin, the severity of the resulting wounds would suggest the pain being borne by the characters is greater than even Albee could have imagined. Was it hubris on my part to think such a thing?

Consider the character of George alone. Albee puts him through the humiliating experience of having to observe his wife overtly flirt with the younger Nick, to watch as she dances with him in a seductive manner, to suffer through the realization that his alcohol-fueled wife and guest disappear for an attempted sexual dalliance. It is easy to understand how any man might feel in that situation; certainly, Albee did. My George, however, was not just “any man.” This was an accomplished black man in America being disrespected and dismissed in his own home by a white man, with his own wife as a willing accomplice.  How would black audience members respond? Would white audience members comprehend the magnitude of the assault on George’s senses and psyche?

Unfortunately, these questions never were formally answered. During the run of the play, I never thought to have an audience discussion after a performance, as is done at times. Comments usually centered on aspects of the staging or the affecting performances (or the wonderful set design by the late Robert “Bobby” Spirdione). Perhaps all that matters is that these questions were answered in the experiences of those sitting in a darkened theater.

Going back to the Times article that started all of this, reporter Michael Paulson quotes Tim Bond, the man who directed the black actress as Martha in 2002 (Andrea Frye, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). “I think the play would work beautifully with any number of approaches to cross-cultural casting.” For us, that proved to be true.

 

 

Help

Eighteen months ago, in November 2015, I asked for your help with a philosophical matter (“…earth’s sweet flowing breast”). I wanted to know whether you believe there is something special about the human species.  As I wrote at that time, “Some of you have deeply-held beliefs on the subject. Others have interesting and provocative theories. Help a brother out; share your thoughts…”  Some of you e-mailed me, writing that you would think about it and get back to me, neglecting to mention it might take a few years. So, although I suspect I may be wasting my time, I now ask you to consider helping me with a matter similar to that last one. Will I have better luck this time?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you there are some who already have helped. The matter once was put to four people three decades ago. Singer, actress and performance artist Brenda Files, dancer and choreographer Joseph ‘Ajax’ Drayton, painter and printmaker Joyce Wellman, and poet Rueben Jackson appeared in separate interviews as part of a short documentary titled “An Amnesiac’s Lament.” Produced for local-access cable television by Gregory Ford (see “Whipped Cream”) and the late writer and performance poet Gideon Ferebee, the program featured each of the four artists discussing their work. They also addressed the matter I now put to you; they did so by sharing the thoughts conjured by a poem they had read. That’s all I’m asking you to do. Just because others have helped doesn’t mean you’re off-the-hook. I can use all the help I can get.

I’m sure there have been plenty of times during the course of your life when you’ve spent quiet moments contemplating the things I ask you to think about now. I know I may be dreaming to think you’ll come through for a brother this time, but we’ll see. So, with that said, here is that same poem for you:

An Amnesiac’s Lament

I: Negation

I don’t know who

I don’t know what

I don’t know when

where

how

why

I don’t know where

how

when

why

I don’t know how

II: Affirmation

I am

I am

I am

I came from

I got here

I came

I am going from here

I am going to get there

I am going

I am going

to find the answers

 III: Lamentation

I don’t know who I am,

I don’t know what I am,

I don’t know where I am,

where I came from,

how I got here,

why I came.

I don’t know where I am going from here,

how I am going to get there,

when I am going,

why I am going.

I don’t know how to find the answers.

IV: Reflection

The voices of science and religion do not suffice.

We speak of Earth and sun,

of unique creatures inhabiting the one,

coveting the other.

We speculate on the natures of gods and ancestors.

We revel in the pleasures of the senses,

in myth and music.

We know our names, addresses, dates of birth,

our mothers’ maiden names,

our Social Security numbers.

We think we know each other.

We live our lives until our deaths.

We are encouraged to accept this

as the sum of our existences.

Resistance is a declaration

that what seems to be

 is not.

Resistance is a challenge

to define what

 is.

My thoughts offer no revelations,

my genesis not even a dim memory.

In this life, on this planet,

we call it amnesia.

 

 

Sleepers

Those of you who have bothered to spend some time reading this blog know I have no agenda. Whatever comes up comes out. My only goal has been to stop being so lazy that I can’t even manage to put thoughts to paper (or computer screen) at least once every thirty days. If there has been any method to this monthly madness, it has been the fact that what happens these days sometimes parallels what has happened before and prompts me to look for the possibility of new lessons in the old or old lessons that apply to the relatively new. What I hope I have avoided for these past nearly-five years is doing nothing more than engaging in pure nostalgia – recently described as “…being a tourist in your own memories.” Well, this time I am doing exactly that. So, what bit of nostalgia comes to mind?

These days, I sit in a university classroom and watch incredulously as students sit on the front row directly in front of the professor and go to sleep. A few do so regularly. Now, I know sleep happens, but if you knew sleep happens to you – repeatedly — would you continue to sit right up front? I don’t get it. One day, noticing a student beginning to nod, I remembered having to pretend to do the same.

I once was part of the cast and crew of a silent movie made by the students and teacher in a filmmaking class. The storyline was the teacher’s idea. Originally, he planned to cast the film with students from the acting class, so he had us sit in on one of them. The acting teacher asked us to join his students in some class exercises, so we did. I must have really gotten into it because, when we got back to our classroom, our teacher announced we weren’t going to use anyone from the acting class and that I was to play the character around whom the story centered. I believe his idea for the story probably arose from how he saw his students, who we were in relation to where we happened to be.

We were a group of black, white, and Latino boys from high schools all over the country; we were considered “underprivileged” students who supposedly showed signs of “potential”. We had been recommended and had applied and been accepted for a summer program called Yale Summer High School, held on the campus of that university’s divinity school. The juxtaposition of us being there most likely struck my teacher as an idea worth exploring, leading to the movie we made.

The story we told is about a student nodding off in a class during a teacher’s lecture and experiencing vivid dreams about everything the teacher is discussing. First up was cultural elitism and Western imperialism as personified by Yale itself. I walk up to what appear to be the gates of that august institution and as I am about to enter I am suddenly blocked by an embodiment of the Ivy League: a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed student wearing a navy-blue, monogramed blazer and a look of utter disdain. I remember how different the classmate playing the part was from the character; he was a kind, gentle kid.

The teacher moves on to other subjects, war being one. I remember that dream sequence involves my reacting to seeing President Lyndon Johnson go by me in the back seat of a black Cadillac; a classmate wore an LBJ mask.  That was one of the scenes we shot in downtown New haven during rush hour, and seeing Johnson’s face go by in that car made more than a few heads turn. The same happened when we shot another scene there, this one requiring me to run into the middle of rush-hour traffic looking bewildered. I do so wearing nothing more than a long, black wig and a loincloth. Why? Because the teacher is talking about the history of Native Americans, and in the dream I am a Native aghast at what the modern world has done to the land.

The greatest challenge for me was the fish scene. That’s right; I had to play a fish. I don’t remember if the lecture turned to the environment or endangered species or what. I only know that when I was told I would have to be thrown into a lake, I was not sure the movie would ever be finished. I told my teacher I couldn’t swim and he assured me I wouldn’t have to. He said the water was shallow enough for me to stand if I needed to, but he needed me to stay under for a while.

Students in the art class created the fish, making it large enough to cover my head and upper body. When we got to lake, I had second thoughts again. I was used to water that moved, waves crashing onto a beach. This was still-water, stagnant to me, and partially covered by pond scum. I was cajoled into being a trouper and carrying on with the task at hand. The scene starts off with me being my human character one moment and, in the next, I am a fish writhing on the ground. To save my life, my classmates pick me up, carry me onto a small pier, and toss me into the water.

I never saw the finished movie until months later when some of us returned to New Haven that December for a weekend reunion*. The movie was as weird as it sounds. I sit in class these days and wonder if any of the sleepers are dreamers having as much fun as I once pretended to.

 

 

*I arrived home from that reunion on the night of Sunday, December 10, 1967 and took a taxicab from the bus station. The driver was listening to news on the radio. Earlier that day, a plane had crashed into a lake. Otis Redding was dead. 

Whipped Cream

In mid-February, I received an e-mail from a friend, Gregory Ford, under the subject-line “Moonlight.” “I haven’t seen your thoughts and reactions to this phenomenon,” he wrote.
Ford is an actor, singer, and director. I was surprised he even would be interested in anything I had to say about the movie, given that one of his tasks is to critique plays eligible to be nominated for the annual Helen Hayes Awards. Later that day I wrote this to him:

“Phenomenon indeed. In addition to the movie being gratifying on so many levels, it is so gratifying to witness its reception. I can’t imagine what I could say about the movie itself to a critical viewer like you that would cause you to ponder, so I’ll tell you about something brought back from the depths of memory while I watched.

“What the movie made me remember is a story of machismo thwarted by compassion, all taking place one morning on the floor of a junior high school gymnasium. That school quarter, Physical Ed for 7th-graders included dance — not ballet or modern or jazz. We were learning how people danced in colonial times; from there we moved on to square dancing, then on to social dancing – waltzing and ballroom dancing and the kind of polite dancing we saw people doing at formal affairs in the movies and on television. The 7th grade homerooms were combined for this. Our reward at the end of that quarter was what we considered to be a “real” dance where we would get to play the records we played at home and dance the way we wanted.

“My memory of that day is what happened after the last dance. I don’t remember the record. I just remember I was dancing with Deidre, a dream deferred since elementary school — and I do mean deferred; I’d given up on any hope of her since 3rd grade. I remember the time our fourth-grade teacher turned to us seated side-by-side and asked if we were brother and sister; we both had a similar birthmark faintly visible just below the same eye. We were in different homerooms in 7th grade and I didn’t see her as much, so when the final record started playing I asked her to dance. I had no idea this would be viewed by some onlookers as a transgression.

“Two of those onlookers, Anthony and Nathan, watched the dancers from the bleachers; the gym teacher had made them sit there rather than participate because of some transgression of their own. Anthony watched his girlfriend, Theresa, dance with a boy named Julius; Nathan watched Diedre dance with me. They were not pleased.

“Why would I think Nathan would be mad at me – me, of all people? Nathan had been in the same class in 3rd grade and every other grade right along with me and Deidre. Nathan had given me the nickname I was called by close friends; he knew I had no designs on Deidre, whose attention he had won long before. Does any of this matter when pubescent peer pressure is involved?

“As it turned out, if Anthony and Nathan couldn’t dance with their girls, no one was supposed to. The fact that two had was a problem. More than anything, rather than a problem based on anger it was a problem of saving face. Both Anthony and Nathan had reputations to maintain, and to let this public humiliation pass without some sort of retribution would have been taken as a sign their pecking order might be wrong.

“So, as students and staff began to leave the gym, a group of boys were gathered at one end, Anthony and Nathan and Julius and I at the center of it. Anthony hit Julius, who did not hit him back. I had no aversion to fighting; my oldest brother had taught me to box years earlier. He and my second-oldest brother used that to their advantage, always coming to get me to fight any boy my age or size whom they had decided deserved to be pummeled. But, I didn’t worry about Nathan hitting me because I knew he wasn’t mad. He punched me in the chest. I don’t know if I’d ever heard or paid attention to the now-overused word ‘surreal’ at that time, but understanding its meaning now is the only way I can describe my reaction to the unbelievable fact that Nathan had hit me. Incredulity was brief, and the realization that he of all people had hit me felt like a huge betrayal that suddenly turned into immense grief. I burst into tears on the spot.

“How am I able to write those words and not feel any pangs of shame? It is because I felt none at the time. I didn’t have a chance because of the very next thing Nathan did. After having just demonstrated what was expected of him one moment, he threw it all away the next. Nathan — in front of everyone – grabbed me and hugged me, apologizing and asking for forgiveness. His efforts to soothe me continued when we left the gym. He walked me all the way to my next class with his arm around my shoulder, continuing to console me.

“Now, I know I might be fooling myself. Nathan could have been doing no more than covering his ass. Maybe he thought if someone saw a crying kid he might be in more trouble than whatever had put him on the bleachers. But just as he knew I wasn’t trying to make a move on Deidre, just as he knew I had no interest in fighting him, he knew I wasn’t a snitch. I like to think he was just as sensitive to what he had done as I. Whatever the case, the boys in the gym after the dance learned a lesson they didn’t expect.

“Probably one of the best pieces written about the movie was Scott’s review last year in the NYT – also gratifying. What stood out to me were two passages. Speaking of Jenkins, he wrote ‘He does not generalize. He empathizes. Every moment is infused with what the poet Hart Crane called infinite consanguinity, the mysterious bond that links us with one another and that only an alert and sensitive artistic imagination can make visible.’ The other passage was ‘To insist that stories about poor, oppressed or otherwise marginal groups of people are really about everyone can be a way of denying their specificity. The universe is far too granular and far too vast for any one of us to comprehend, and Mr. Jenkins is far too disciplined a filmmaker to turn his characters into symbols.’ That review was titled ‘Moonlight: Is This the Year’s Best Movie?’ Hell yeah!”

Here is how Ford responded (but anyone who has not seen the movie and is planning to should take fair warning):

“Thank you so much for this. There are so many negative Facebook comments: heterosexual males and females feeling they were ‘tricked’ into seeing this movie (if a story is going to include homosexuality as a point of empathy, they should be warned so they can decide whether they want to see it); Christians dismissing the sin of homosexuality as a suitable subject; displeasure with seeing yet another movie about drug dealers, addicts and poverty. It was a surprise to me the depth, virulence, vehemence and frequency of these views. Why I should have spent so much time reading them is another question. I am through now.

“Barry Jenkins has mentioned that a colleague of his noted that his technique of directing the sequence where Chiron pursues his mother across the courtyard and she turns and talks to him — and she talks directly into the camera – was like psychodrama (role reversal). It feels like this work is an exercise in transformation that the viewer cannot avoid or remain passive about.

“Some favorite moments in which we audience members are put in confrontation with ourselves:

1. Chiron’s mother yelling at him in the hallway of her home when no sound comes out of her body but the color around her shimmers. This is a set up for when he has a flashback of this scene and the voice is heard intruding on his present experience.

2. Chiron’s wet dream. We are occupied with watching Kevin lounge against the outside wall smoking a cigarette and mugging for the camera – for us. The next thing we see, Chiron has ejaculated — thus fusing our thoughts and feelings (which up until that point were private thoughts of an audience member assessing an actor’s attractiveness) with those of Chiron so that we become co-conspirators in this moment.

3. The moment in the third chapter when Kevin recognizes Chiron and we (Chiron?) hear Kevin call out Chiron’s name but his lips don’t move so we hear/ feel Kevin’s voice inside our heads.

“It’s a special movie. It would truly be whipped cream on top if it won the Oscar for best picture. I think that “Lion” may win it. This will allow the academy to still pat itself on the back for having demonstrated its openness to diversity without giving it to the Black guy and at the same time avoid the criticism from a sizeable Black audience about only emasculating images of Black men being approved by Hollywood. It will also avoid the embarrassment of honoring a technically complicated but utterly bland “La La Land”. And, it will be just like how Donald Trump won the Presidency: no one was seriously considering him.”

Sometimes, you gotta

I.

Two days ago, I got an e-mail from The Daily Kos alerting me to a rally that was to take place that evening. Organized by Congressional Democrats, it was to be held at 6:00 pm on the steps of the Supreme Court to highlight their opposition to the new President’s executive order on immigration. I don’t go to marches or rallies often – at least not anymore. I’ve become less convinced of their effectiveness. Marching “into Hell for a heavenly cause” as some have done is one thing; those are the ones that can spur change. Then, there are those marches done simply to make a point; they may be massive displays of disapproval (anti-war) or of unity (Million Man) that sometime provide feel-good moments in the process. It seems evident that some of the problems we meet with marches require us to move in the direction of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). People walked in Montgomery, Alabama rather than ride segregated busses; countries pulled money out of South Africa rather than support apartheid.

I decided to go to the rally for two reasons. Just two days before, I had submitted an opinion piece about local matters to this city’s newspaper of note. Now, there I was two days later reading stories about the effects of the President’s order, and one article even seemed to challenge me by throwing back at me a few of the same expressions I had used in my piece. I also thought about what the Daily Kos e-mail had said: “Activism works. Throughout the weekend, tens of thousands of protesters came together to take an unequivocal stance: We stand united in defeating targeted attacks on our family, friends and neighbors. Your activism has forced Democrats to publicly condemn Trump’s executive orders. We must remain loud and unyielding in the face of fascism.” The second reason I decided to go was knowing how much the President hates numbers that don’t flatter him; if I could help swell a crowd – well, swell.

As the appointed hour approached, I took the subway to the Capitol South station and exited with others arriving for the rally. We walked up the hill along First Street, N.E. past the Cannon House Office Building, across Independence Avenue past the Library of Congress, then across East Capitol Street toward the Court steps. For some, the crowd already amassed was a barrier to getting close to the Court’s plaza. I and a few others managed to wend our way along a narrow pathway until Capitol Hill police came through politely telling us it had to be kept cleared, at which point I pressed myself into the wall of bodies and remained there. I still was not near enough to the steps to hear or see what was happening (the reason some people tell me they prefer to stay home; they can see more at these events by watching them on television). I soon learned I had positioned myself in a prime spot. As it turned out, that narrow path had to remain clear to make way for the event’s organizers. Soon thereafter, there they came, Congress members and staff in a long procession, squeezing through carrying small, battery-powered votive candles and singing “This Land Is Your Land.” “Sing,” said Nancy Pelosi as she noticed that I and the young woman standing to my right were not singing; I did not sing.

On they came, faces I had seen countless times on news shows, names I knew by heart. I stood mute, watching, unlike the woman to my left who did not have to yell to have senators hear her say “Stop voting for Trump’s nominees.” The political stars and heavyweights were cheered when spotted: Schumer, Warren, Sanders. Despite the 33° temperature, the only chills I felt were those induced merely by the proximity of John Lewis walking by. The woman to my right called out to Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who stopped and briefly chatted. “Where are you from,” he asked. “Boston,” she replied, informing him that she had not been in DC long.

Seeing Hillary Clinton’s former running mate coming near, I facetiously said “Mr. Vice-President.” Senator Kaine stopped, laughed, put his hand on my shoulder and said “You know, I’m exactly where I feel I need to be right now.” On he and the others went to gather before the cameras that awaited them at the Court steps, the woman on my left occasionally reminding them of their obligation to thwart the President’s agenda by denying him his cabinet picks.

Once the procession ended, people near me were at a loss to hear or see anything that was going on, other than the chants and signs all around us. One poignant plea read “Let my Iraqi intern’s mother come and visit him.” Another sign began by referencing Martin Niemöller’s famous poem, but took a defiantly humorous turn: “First they came for the Muslims, but we said ‘Not today, Donnie!’” There was a chant that took note of the number of days the President had been in office: “Welcome to your 10th day, we’re not going away!” One highlighted his aversion to reality: “No hate, no fear, actual facts are welcomed here.” The former First Lady got an acknowledgement with “When they go low, we go high,” a sentiment not reflected in chants like “Paul Ryan sucks,” or “Can’t build a wall, hands too small.”

Across First Street from all of this stood the Capitol. I couldn’t help noticing, while listening to the chant “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Islamophobia’s got to go,” that in the western sky beyond the Capitol’s dome was the perfect picture of Islam’s symbol: a crescent moon with Venus directly above it, shining brighter than any star.

I heard the woman to my right, the one who had called out to Senator Markey, tell the woman with her that the rally was much like the Women’s March when she covered it, in that she couldn’t see or hear much of the proceedings. Curious, I asked who she worked for. “The Boston Globe,” she answered. Because I sometimes read that paper online, I asked her name. “Victoria McGrane,” she responded. “Keep reading.” I began to squirm through the crowd to head for the subway station.

II.

Once back on my side of town, I stopped in an eatery on U Street owned by a friend. Mo is both an immigrant and a Muslim. Born in Palestine in the West Bank, Mo came to this country in 1982 to attend the University of Tennessee at Martin. For his fellow foreign students who discovered life here might not go as well as they had imagined, he had a running joke: “Welcome to heaven.” Mo says “some immigrants think this is an easy country, but it is a very tough country to survive in. They tend to be hard on themselves because failure is not an answer.”

I have seen him live this ethos first hand, working himself to the point of exhaustion in the business he and his wife have operated in the neighborhood since 2001. He met his wife, Ababa, a native of Ethiopia, when they both were living in Canada, the country in which he settled for a while after finishing school here. They both now have dual Canadian and American citizenship. They are the proud parents of an eight-year-old daughter. Mo says in Palestine children are an asset, but here they are a liability. His belief is difficult to square with his actions; anytime his daughter is in the shop, it is as though she is the princess of the realm, ruling over all she surveys.

The small restaurant is never without a loyal, longtime customer somewhere about the place passing the time in small-talk or hovering over a cup of chamomile tea while utilizing the Wi-Fi. Neighbors, family, friends and food-seekers come in and stay awhile, and conversations are overheard in English, Spanish, Arabic, Amharic and French. As any good businessman should, Mo gets along with everyone.

This was not an easy thing for him to do following the attacks on this country on September 11, 2001. He was called in and questioned by federal authorities because he had failed to register his name, as was required for some residents at that time. He explained that he had been informed by his attorney that it was not necessary for him to do so.

The government agents begged to differ. When they asked where had he come from to this country, he answered honestly “Canada.” That was not acceptable. They asked where had he been born. “Palestine,” he said. He was told there was no such place as Palestine, that the United States (and, at the time, the United Nations) did not recognize such a place. “Tell me where I am from,” Mo said, “and that will be okay with me. You say I’m not Canadian. I come from somewhere, but you say that place does not exist. I’m not a Jordanian, so what do you want me to say?” He was sternly warned not to make jokes, and told that his case would be referred to court. Ultimately, it was not, but Mo thinks this was due in part to the white agent, a woman who seemed to be reasonable during his interview. Mo remembers her supervisor, the other agent questioning him, was much more aggressive and menacing. That stays with him to this day because that agent was a black American, and Mo could not conceive of such treatment coming from him.

Mo says the cost of living (and of doing business) in the Washington area is too high. He sees himself relocating or retiring to Florida in future years. Once, in an earlier conversation, he mentioned a complaint I’ve heard from him before, this idea in some circles that Americans are living too long and, therefore, straining the social safety net.  He asked “Why must all those war ships be maintained?” It is a good question, posed by a truly concerned American.

Name That Tune

Growing up immersed in American popular culture, we are aided along our way toward young adulthood by the music we like. Our tastes may vary, but for many in my generation one important genre was sweet soul music, including the type known as Philly soul. For that, we can thank — among many other things — the songwriting skills and plaintive falsetto of William Hart, lead singer of the Delfonics.

If you ever were drawn to the aching love songs of that group, you may understand why the chorus of one of their long-ago hits has been playing like a refrain in my mind:

“Tell me this is a dream.

Somebody, please

tell me this is a dream.

Somebody, please

tell me this is a dream.”

     Well, we know that’s not going to happen. The election has come and gone, going Donald Trump’s way; absent some unforeseen occurrence* between now and the inauguration (fingers crossed he spontaneously combusts), he will be our next president. If you believe “…life is but a dream,” or are one who sees no difference between the outgoing and incoming administrations, you may be able to think of our upcoming political reality as just more of the same. Apart from his supporters, the rest of us are bracing for a possible series of nightmares.

Although the Delfonics sang songs about the joys and sorrows of romantic love, some of their titles alone might have served as warnings during Trump’s presidential campaign; other titles could be useful during whatever amount of time he remains in office. For instance, one thing you might have told a Trump enthusiast before the election was “He Don’t Really Love You.” You might have tried “Over and Over” to get him or her to “Think it Over.” For your efforts, that member of the make-America-great-again crowd most likely would have told you that all you were doing was just “Trying to Make a Fool of Me.”

No matter what I think of Donald Trump, there is no denying he has earned the right to ask “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?” After writing in March of last year that we might deserve him, and in August that he was right when he said people would still vote for him even if he stood in the middle of New York City’s Fifth Avenue and shot someone, by November I was writing that I didn’t believe he would prevail. I guess I was “Lying to Myself.”

Since the election, there have been news stories reporting that some of his voters already have begun to ask him if he is going to “Break Your Promise.” They’re hoping he won’t give them a reason to ever mutter the words “I’m Sorry.” He will (and we should help ensure it), but when he does disappoint them, we should work at being magnanimous enough to resist saying “I Told You So.” In the meantime, unlike the dulcet tones of the Delfonics, the discordant notes you now hear in the near distance are those of our present-day president-elect bellowing “Ready or Not Here I Come.”

*After writing this post, I happened upon an International Business Times article titled “Will Trump Be President?” In it, Mary Pascaline writes about a blind Bulgarian woman named Baba Vanga who died eleven years before Barack Obama first ran for the White House. Considered to be a psychic and called the “Nostradamus from the Balkans,” Vanga reportedly predicted not only that our 44th president would be black, but that he would be the last president. On this eighth day of Christmas, I’m not hoping for quite that much.

 

 

Talking Out of School

Serendipity, synchronicity, or signs?

I recently was given the task of having to reflect upon what has passed for my “education,” formal and otherwise. I was given the assignment by the English professor teaching the writing course in which I am now enrolled. The first day of class, she wrote on the board “I wanted to tell you…,” and asked us to spend ten minutes continuing that idea. My first few lines were these: “I wanted to tell you I’m not sure about this experiment in education I’ve endeavored to undertake. It seemed the Universe was working against me. A school transcript – requested in May – had not arrived in the admissions office by the beginning of registration. Was that a sign?

The day she gave the class our write-about-your-education assignment, I saw what seemed to me to be a sign that – maybe – this was a time for me to do what the teacher asked. In that day’s Washington Post, there was an article about a course on crime and justice being taught at the D.C. Jail. Some students are inmates; others are Howard University undergrads (including actor Nick Cannon). Reporter Perry Stein wrote that, during class the week prior to his article, “…the professor, Bahiyyah Muhammad, asked each student to think about their formal and informal education backgrounds. What values and skills did they learn as children and adults that contributed to the people they are?” I read those words and thought “Well, ain’t that somp’n?”

So, I decided to do what was required of me as a student. I spent some time looking back at some of the lessons that have gotten me to this point in my life, a senior citizen in a freshman English class where my “formal” education began: in a D.C. public school. Maybe I’ll learn I don’t know what I think I know. More than once, my instructor has said writing, sometimes, makes that happen.

Charlotte

     There is a house in Kingman Park, bought by an “uncle.” He was really my first cousin once removed, but as he was my father’s first cousin and contemporary, to me he was “uncle”. He didn’t live in the house. At first, his mother and his children were the only ones there. When his uncle became ill and needed care, he moved him in. When the apartment building in Georgetown where my grandparents lived was sold, they moved into the house. When my aunt and uncle and cousins needed a place to stay, they moved there; my family – my parents and their seven (eventually nine) offspring — did the same, leaving our apartment in Benning Heights. Other relatives stayed there off and on as well. People slept everywhere at night, several to a bed upstairs and on pullout couches in the living room and den; two of my brothers slept in chairs pushed together in the dining room.

One day years ago, I decided to try and count — from memory – how many of us lived together in that small, three-bedroom house (four, if you count the enclosed back porch upstairs) with one bathroom and an unfinished basement jammed with the stored possessions of a multitude. I counted twenty-five, a number that included fifteen children. I was one; Charlotte was another.

Charlotte was ten-going-on-eleven. Even now, I don’t think I comprehend the magnitude of her deciding to forgo paper dolls one day to play school with me instead. I didn’t know anything about school. I hadn’t gone to kindergarten, but would be entering first grade at age five in that fall of 1957. Charlotte sat me down at a pretend desk and began what would become occasional moments of showing me things I’d never thought about: the look, meaning and significance of numbers, letters, and words.

A few weeks ago, I asked her if she ever had stopped and pulled aside any of the other children as we chased one another through the house, shrieking with glee. She said I was the only one. She guessed I must have been her “favorite little cousin.”

Pamela

     I am an only child now, no longer in a house full of brothers and sisters and cousins. I have learned that being a seven-year-old who is too polite to tell an aunt “no,” means she will believe you when you say “yes” when asked, “Do you want to come and live with us?” My aunt and uncle — my mother’s sister and her husband – would come and get me sometimes, and I would spend the day or night at their apartment in Columbia Heights. They and my parents had been living together in Adams-Morgan when I was born, and I had become their favorite.

The house in Kingman Park is a place I visit now and then. My family has moved back there, after a year in our own apartment at Logan Circle. At age six, I used to ride the streetcar alone from our apartment at the Circle up 11th Street to the end of the line at Monroe Street, right behind the building in which my aunt and uncle – and now, I – live; my mother would put me on, my aunt would be there to meet me when I got off.

Now seven, I begin third grade knowing no one, not even knowing how to find my way home. After school the first day, I begin to follow a girl from my class. I’ve seen her before. I know she lives a block down the street from me. I know she knows the way home. At some point, she turns and notices me, and I am embarrassed by my need and my stupidity.

Her name is Pamela. She lives with her mother and grandmother. She is an only child, too. We become friends. I visit her sometimes. I have to. At seven, I learn girls aren’t allowed to visit boys. I already have learned from the grandmother of a girl in my class who lives on my block that some girls aren’t allowed to come outside even to play with boys; her tone made me understand I was wrong to even knock on their back door and ask.

Pamela has a birthday party. She invites only me, a girl from our class and her little brother, and a girl from across the street. I learn about dry ice, used to keep the punch cold without getting watery. It is 1959.

It is 2016. I talked to Pamela last month. She said she recently discovered a photograph from that party. She said we all have our mouths open, eating ice cream. She said her husband wants to know if I have a good weed connection.

Lavinia    

     In 1961, my aunt and uncle bought a house three blocks up the street from our apartment, three blocks but a new world. It was a changing neighborhood, but because of Lavinia, a change never completed.

There were still white households on the block when we moved there. Our neighbors on both sides were Italian-Americans. In the house to our right, the older family members didn’t even speak English. Other than the French I was taking in school, I had never heard anyone speak a foreign language except on television.

Moving there provided me an important, life-long lesson: pay no attention to anyone who insist all members of a “race” or ethnicity can be viewed the same way. What little I may have known about race relations at the time was certainly added to when the neighbor to our left – knowing my aunt was in the hospital and assuming a man and boy alone at home could use the help – knocked on our back door one evening and presented me with a dish of Manicotti she had prepared just for us.

It was the other house, the one with the Italian-speakers, that taught me even more. That is where Lavinia lived, another only child who lived there with her mother, uncle and grandparents. Called “Veenie,” she was thirteen at the time. At nine, I was old enough to know a girl that age was not likely to waste time befriending me. I learned otherwise. The first time I ventured out onto my front porch at the same time she was outside, I expected to be ignored, but Veenie proved to be too open and free-hearted to not acknowledge me. Standing on the sidewalk in front of her house, leaning against the stone wall of her yard, she turned and spoke.

Veenie and I did the things kids do when growing up as neighbors: talking over fences and across porch railings, spending time in each other’s basements listening to music, lying in our backyards on summer nights looking up at the stars, doing those things sometimes in bunches with the other kids on the block.

Over the years, almost all the white families moved. Veenie’s is the only one that never did. There was a period when the harassment that came with being one of the last few white students remaining at Roosevelt High got to be too much for her and her mother sent her to stay with relatives and finish high school in Maryland. As an adult, she made a life for herself elsewhere, but with the passing of her grandparents and mother she returned to the house and lives there today.

The neighborhood is changing once again. When I went to her Christmas party last December, Veenie’s guests included neighbors of varying ethnicities, including whites and the Chinese-American guy to whom my uncle sold our house.

Sonia

I once took a creative writing course at Federal City College. I thought that was something I wanted to do. There are very few things I remember about the class, and none of them involve writing. One was the instructor who served as a guest lecturer. He taught the same course at the same time in a classroom next door, and my teacher would invite him over to speak sometimes. And, why not? After all, he was Gil Scott-Heron. I remember him coming over, but nothing of what he said about writing or anything else. I guess I was just too awed to absorb it.

That was not the case with Sonia Sanchez, who came to the school one warm Spring evening and spoke words that saved my life. She spoke about the danger of being caught up in the madness of one’s life — no matter what that particular madness was – and the importance of easing one’s way out of that madness. She emphasized the need to “ease”, saying that trying to extricate yourself suddenly was not always best.

It was this message that led me to explore more about my writing teacher. He did not have the fame of Scott-Heron, but nonetheless he was Leslie Lacy, author of The Rise and Fall of a Proper Negro, and there was something that drew me to him in a way that went beyond what he had to say about writing. I learned what it was when he spoke about it in class one day. He said he had a school, called the Hara School of Love, where he taught nutrition, vegetarianism, exercise (including yoga), massage, meditation and (of course) writing. The school was held on Saturday afternoons in his apartment and those of some of the students. After my first visit, I lost interest in Federal City College and much else in my life at that time. I was beginning to ease my way out of my personal madness. That was 1973.

Three months ago, I went to see and hear Sonia Sanchez speak at George Washington University. I wanted to thank her. I did.

Dvorah                                                                                             

     In 1974, I moved to California, eventually settling in Berkeley and enrolling in a college high in the Oakland hills. There, I met a classmate who seemed determined that we should be friends. She is one of the most direct people I have ever met, willing to say what is on her mind, doing so with humor (most times) and in full voice. She was born in Turkestan and came to this country as an infant, her family settling in a community of other Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles. When we met, she was the divorced, single parent of a little boy, whom I later babysat. She also was an instructor of TM, Transcendental Meditation, something I had heard of only because the media did stories about it when the Beatles delved into it.

Thanks to Leslie Lacy, meditation was not a foreign concept or practice for me, but what I learned about TM made me realize there was so much more to meditation than I understood, about both its practice and its benefits. I decided to learn the technique. Dvorah agreed to instruct me. A date was set for me to go to the TM center in Oakland for my initiation. On that day, Dvorah had the flu, so a colleague of hers performed the ceremony and gave me my mantra. This is what I learned that day in the midst of my first meditation using TM: The Music of the Spheres is real; I heard it.

How do you forget someone who changes your life in such a way? You don’t.  Dvorah and I talk through e-mails these days. She came to dinner the last time she was in town, and invites me to come visit her in California. In any case, she knows she’ll hear from me every birthday.

Seer

Sometimes, we learn some things in some ways we haven’t been able to adequately explain.

In Music, Its Occult Basis and Healing Values, I learned about the healing values of trees as well, and the importance of having a relationship with one. So, I became a tree-hugger. In the woods of Dimond Park in Oakland, I chose a particular tree alongside Sausal Creek that I would hug upon each visit, then sit with my back pressed against it as I meditated. Once, while sitting there, I heard a group of kids approaching, talking among themselves. I remember wishing I could just disappear into the tree, to become a part of it. Another time, I spent the night alone in those woods; I did this to overcome fearing just the thought of doing so. I sat under “my” tree until light.

At some later point, I went to the Berkeley Psychic Institute for a student “reading”. I opted to be read by a student because the ten-dollar fee suited my budget; the institute’s instructors were beyond my means. I sat in a chair in the front of a room before five or six students, with their instructor seated in the back to observe. The student selected to read me was a young man, a Berkeley police officer who was trying to develop his psychic abilities to improve his work.

Do I remember anything he said? No. This is what I haven’t forgotten: after a short while, the instructor stopped him. An older woman, she stood and said of the then twenty-three-year-old me “I have to read this one. Some souls are too old for you to read.” She looked at me, and the first words out of her mouth were “I see you trying to get in touch with a tree.” Now, ain’t that somp’n?