redlines cover

Redlines: Baltimore 2028 is a collection of speculative fiction edited by Jason T Harris that explores the what if’s of the city of Baltimore, Maryland, in the year 2028. Some stories are bleak, others hopeful, but, mostly, they share in spurring the reader to create a city that they want to live in.

I have been lucky enough to meet a writer/editor with vision and passion who though highly enough of my work to publish it. Jason T Harris, placed my short Amma’s Messenger, in the collection and I must say that my words are in excellent company with other sharp and insightful writers working from my hometown. And, the bonus, is that my story show up in the first pages on Amazon.com. It excites and scares me, but as long as folks buy the book…they can judge their little hearts out.

About Redlines and Jason T Harris:
http://www.newfuturism.com/

Amazon link:
http://www.amazon.com/REDLINES-Baltimore-2028-Jason-Harris/dp/0615685013/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1360080122&sr=1-1#_

After three years of PhD coursework I realize what I’ve always known: that I, too, can bind the power of language to create words that define experience. Theatre is my place. My home. There is nothing I’ve participated in, learned, developed or experienced that I could personally identify with more, but on occasion I have reason to feel out of sorts there. Perhaps the hullabaloo about Hamilton being cost-prohibitive reminded me that there are still problems we need to air out in the study and production of theatre.

A long time ago I came up with this idea, that people of color, particularly African Americans, in the US were missing out on a way to discuss their discontent with American life after the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Freedom with heavily legislated socioeconomic precarity was not an equal right. Afrocentric scholar Mwalimu Baruti says of western cultural imperialism: “Those individuals or groups who dare to hold on to their original sanity become universally depicted as the truly insane” (28). I challenge the media’s interjection into the “conversation” about civil unrest after black men, women, and children are killed by uniformed police officers when it is described as a part of the mentality of black people to destroy. Destruction is not a natural state of people who have been granted social equity. Unfortunately for America, Reconstruction was revoked only a few years after it got started and so there is an unfinished project. As I seek to shape my part of the conversation on America and Race from here I challenge you to find more selective ways of framing your point of view while keeping history in mind. .

The term I use to describe the aggravation of living [and dying while black] in “Western Civilization” is postcolonial angst. It stems from living in the liminal space that many throughout the African diaspora—as well as some other non-whites, women, and other socially marginalized groups—occupy in order to negotiate the borders between the archive of the West and their own experience.

Feel free to add it to your lexicon. Reader, I hope that you can forgive the limits of the English language in my discussion of modes of thinking that contain non-linear thought patterns and imagery. Though I often critique the western tradition of academic evaluation and discourse I do so with a great deal of non-Western concepts.

That being said, I will not allow the limits of theory as it has “evolved” in Western Civilization to control my limits of experience with my artform.

I impress upon my audience that civilization (the act) is a problem in academia, endemic to this particular “home.” While denying the cultural chauvinism of the academy from inside, my theoretically leanings best fit in the realms of Subjectivism, Revisionism, Deconstructionist, and Postcolonial theory among others.spk

These terms suggest that the “real” or “original” research has already been created and I challenge the presumption; believing instead that what has been labelled “primitive” is complex, emotive, and experiential and needs no “civilizing” by restructuring it in the image of “scientific” reason and, by proxy, the written word. The work I do crossing borders is at once a reflection of my being a product of the academic institutions which created the world in their image without actually planning on allowing me membership [superficially or otherwise, See Ebony and Ivy by Craig Steven Wilder].

 

The reason that I persevere is because I can use these tools of language and experience to reshape the word/world as I see it. Besides, I’ve made it this far because they never saw me coming.

 

Baruti, Mwalimu K. Bomani. Eureason: An Afrikan Centered Critique of Eurocentric Social Science. Kearney: Morris Publishing, 2006. Print.

As young as I was then, foundation, eyeshadow and lipstick were easier for me to apply than playing jacks. Painting a character onto my face, and sometimes even performing as myself, were the most entertaining and most fulfilling thing I could do.

productionmasterkit

A ten-year old member of the youth theater company, I was one of the youngest working with middle and high schoolers singing, acting, dancing; and even writing, constructing props and sets. There were others my age who spent their summers at sleep away camps in the mountains or in natural settings fishing and swimming. My summers were make believe settings of fantastic kingdoms and cities and savannas—all made of cardboard, paint, glue and wood. I never wanted to be anywhere else.

Growing into an artist took time, but I had an aptitude for it; a voracious capacity for reading and dissecting psychology theories in order to become someone else. There were no characters I couldn’t comprehend and no stage I shied away from. The more I learned, the easier it was to see the boundaries theatre put on race. Transitioning to performance at the collegiate level meant fewer roles, less time onstage, and fewer plays with room for young black actors.  It was a shock to the system to go from three or four productions a year to competing for the role of Tituba, the slave. I couldn’t find a reason to paint my face for that particular production. I very nearly stopped performing altogether when I realized there were limits to my expression. Only the lipstick remained.

Lorraine Hansberry

In the spirit of the Sesquicentennial (that means 150th) Anniversary of the American Civil War, I’m going to relaunch the blog with a discussion of Lorraine Hansberry’s The Drinking Gourd (1960). Hansberry is known for her most produced and, possibly, the most taught/produced play ever written by a black playwright, A Raisin in the Sun. She was, beyond a serious playwright, a serious historian, particularly of those moments in time that affected the Civil Rights plight of the “American Negro.”

A Raisin in the Sun, the first play produced on Broadway written by an African-American woman, won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Best Play of the Year Award in 1959.

The Drinking Gourd is the exploration of that peculiar domestic institution that was the economic lifeblood of the American South just before the Civil War, slavery. Close on the heels of the Broadway success of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry was commissioned by the television network, NBC, to write a teleplay for the Centennial of the Civil War. She chose for a title a fabled folkloric song that supposedly was used by runaway slaves as a guide to the North and freedom.

 Enslaved people have been escaping their bonds since their deliverance on the shores of the New World.

Slavery was the backbone of the economy of the South and, in spite of the growing popularity for the abolition of slavery as a social and economic solution for America, the Confederate states wanted to protect and expand their rights to trade slaves. They fought the Civil War to guarantee those rights.

The Drinking Gourd allows the audience to view the troubled plantation of the Master, Hiram Sweet, who is usurped of his power by his son, Everett, and whose last days coincide with the advent of the Civil War.

Escaped slave print

Directly affected by these transitions is a young black slave, Hannibal. One of the many ways African Americans were subjugated in slavery was through ignorance. Literacy is an invaluable, but dangerous life-skill for a slave, as Hannibal discovers when his vision is mutilated by the overseer who, poor and white, cannot himself read.

In The Movement Hansberry includes a passage from W.E.B. DuBois that says, while the target of their anger is the black person [because they are accessible], the true source of hatred for the poor white Southerner was toward the system of slavery, which used them and kept them impoverished instead of uplifting them ( The Movement 68).

The slave, cook and right-hand of the old Master is Hannibal’s mother Rissa, who has lost one son already to freedom. She turns her back on her master, Hiram, in his last moments to tend to the wounds of her child because Hannibal’s future matters to her more than her past.

In Act II Hannibal tries to explain to Rissa his liberated mentality and his desire for physical freedom.

…I am the only kind of slave I could stand to be—a bad one! Every day that come and hour that pass that I got sense to make a half step do for a whole…pretend sickness ‘stead of health, to be stupid ‘stead of smart, lazy ‘stead of quick—I aims to do it. And the more pain it give your marster and the more it cost him—the more Hannibal be a man! (Les Blancs 201)

Hansberry, like many playwrights, signifies character through names. For Coffin, the “Uncle Tom” stereotype, living up to his master’s standards as a slave, creates a ghost of a man trapped in the slave body. And Hannibal, defiant to the core, is the epitome of his namesake, the fear-inducing, tenacious Carthaginian general and tormentor of ancient Rome.

Orchestrated mass disobedience is the prime fear of all leadership because their ability to rule is limited by the complicity of the people. Written during the prime time of the American Civil Rights Movement, Lorraine Hansberry also remembered to document the social questions yet unanswered one hundred years after the Civil War. Civil disobedience had taken the spotlight as a means to the end of America’s occlusion of African Americans socially and politically. Even today, the Occupy Movement, seems to have a similar rationale of disrupting the status quo that causes mass economic discontent, by confronting those that benefit most.

Hattie McDaniel (on the right) was the first black actor to win an Oscar.

Lorraine Hansberry’s The Drinking Gourd never aired on NBC or any other television station. Because NBC commissioned the script they maintained the right to film and air it at their discretion and, ultimately, they shelved the entire series of teleplays. One reason may be that The Drinking Gourd forces the audience to recognize the discontent of all Americans of the time, an image contrary to the American film industry’s characterization of slavery, particularly of the “smiling darkies” in Civil War films such as Gone with the Wind. Perhaps Hansberry was not the only writer who submitted a script for the Centennial of the American Civil War which exposed the bitterness of black slaves and poor whites in a society whose destruction was inevitable and completely necessary.  It is possible that NBC realized the Civil War was one of the darkest hours not just in American history, but through all the ages, and that no writer could spin a story to suggest otherwise.

Dearest NBC network, Produce The Drinking Gourd. It’s  time now. We can handle the truth. Thanks.

 Bibliography

  • Hansberry, Lorraine. Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays. Ed. Robert Nemiroff.New York: Vintage, 1994.
  • Hansberry, Lorraine. The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality.New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964.

Personal Sidebar:

Madea with fag in hand

In all her glory?

My mother (thankfully, no Madea), who has sacrificed for and supported my interest in the performing arts since my early childhood, first in community and then college theatre, is quite proud of my current career in the arts. Yet some years ago, she forced me to watch her friend’s bootleg VHS of one of Perry’s first plays. And let me tell you, it was hell! A four-hour horror. I kept asking to be excused and–just like a pusher–she kept saying, just do a little more. I was dying slowly. And, much to her chagrin, no Madea addiction has taken root.

 

 

In fact, no theatre or film experience has been as painful as that and, oh, A.I. There was this one-woman show, though…

Everything I had understood to be sacrosanct about theatre was violated including, but not limited to: breaking character, irrational plot arc, inappropriate song placement without setting the stage for a musical, excess-

TP red

Only half as infamous as his alter ego

ive  and hammy improvisation, etc. And so my first and only instinct was to dismiss Perry’s work as just plain bad. Another riff on the Mama-I-Can-Sing-and-Jesus-Will-Work-it-Out theme. Bad, but avoidable.

Fast forward to now. My mother, currently is obsessed with Why Did I get Married (the movie, not the movie of the play and without a Madea neck roll in sight) on DVD, on Demand, and whenever it’s actually scheduled to play on cable and/or network television. Sometimes concurrently.

Mom’s favorite scene

My mother loves Tyler Perry’s work and I do not. She and I are having, either the generational disconnect, or the “too much fancy schooling” rift, but, clearly, Houston, we have a problem. We have an ongoing conversation about his work and my frustrations with him remixing stereotypes (whether the Madea character’s featured or not) that have haunted black folk since minstrelsy. No matter how funny Perry or anyone else says it is, it’s still stereotyping. And, in my humble opinion, theatrically, there’s got to be another way. My scholarly pursuits have found me struggling to find a diasporatic “African” origin to his approach. Outside of connecting the weak writing and commedia dell’arte-esque stock characters/stereotypes to the Nollywood phenomena of Nigeria and the work of the Blue Mountain Theatre group that tours the “tripe circuit” of England, I’ve had little luck. But I do have hope, however, like the antidrug crusaders, that the Tyler Perry genre is the marijuana of theatre and, “therefore,” a gateway drug that will get people in the doors of other legitimate [sic] theatre spaces. There I said it. Legitimate–no Madea, though.

I teach theatre and in my mind, one of the best ways to instantly create an audience connection to your topic is via the medium of the stage. Black playwrights and performers since the dawn of time have been creating awareness. Even as far back as the Romantic era writers like Alexander Pushkin and, later, Alexandre Dumas, père, quietly challenged the belief that blacks were not as “civilized” as whites.

Pushkin did for Russian literature what Molière did for French parlor talk.

 When it comes to developing an awareness of the images of black people, the media and film are the most far-reaching; however the development of those images is often stagnant, leaving little room for challenge. Before the President of the United States was a man who checks the racial box “Black or African-American” on his census form, that possibility was still a foreign concept for many people, black and other, to grasp. [Although, to be fair, Chris Rock figured it out in 2003.] Even in the modern age of theatre, black artists are still creating work that redefines their differences from and also their similarities to the mainstream.

In this interview I discuss theatre as ritual, the legacy of minstrelsy, A Raisin in the Sun…but mostly, the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s-70s. It was the sister movement to the Black Power Movement and probably the biggest challenge to the status quo of mainstream theatrical technique. Outside of the Harlem Renaissance, it is probably my favorite artistic movement, not necessarily for its accomplishments, but also for its lofty goals. The aesthetic of the Black Arts Movement returned theatre to the realm of ritual and community participation in order to encourage blacks to acknowledge our African origins. It also challenged us to move beyond the stultified stereotypes which had been used to maintain social oppression.

Listen to me share just the tip of the iceberg on the topic of Black Theatre. I didn’t even get to cover Africanisms in August Wilson, or Paul Carter Harrison’s The Drama of Nommo, or The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World by Suzan Lori Parks. Not enough time and so much great work to cover…that’s why it’s my passion.

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

Paul Lawrence Dunbar

I want to thank Jeff Johnson, itinerant teacher, for bringing this issue to my attention. Shot guerilla style with a single camera and a lot of moxie, Erykah Badu’s newest music video is a walking tour of the last path John F. Kennedy rode and an observation on self-censorship and challenging the status quo. Yes, she strips naked.  And the people who you see in the video don’t expect a thing. The uproar seems to be trapped in the details. Children and small woodland creatures have been confronted by art, molested by social commentary, and their parents have been aroused by a big black butt in living color. The laws of Texas state:

Sec. 21.08.  INDECENT EXPOSURE.

(a)  A person commits an offense if he exposes his anus or any part of his genitals with intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person, and he is reckless about whether another is present who will be offended or alarmed by his act.

(b)  An offense under this section is a Class B misdemeanor.

Sec. 42.01.  DISORDERLY CONDUCT.

(a)  A person commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly:

(10)  exposes his anus or genitals in a public place and is reckless about whether another may be present who will be

offended   or alarmed by his act;

Are Americans morally offended by nudity? Does bathing occur fully clothed? Some are suggesting that Badu’s intent to record a naked black woman getting shot by an invisible shooter was to sexually arouse or provoke. Her crime against the city? Filming without a permit and, maybe, disorderly conduct if they can prove that her legs were open enough to reveal genitalia. Although, tourists don’t need permits to film while they are walking that same route. No one seems to be disturbed that the naked women, as far as they could tell, fell to the ground shot and apparently dead. No one mentions that part of the controversy surrounding JFK’s assassination stems from his making moves to alter America as we knew it then with Civil Rights Law and massively proactive foreign engagement [yet, ironically, had nothing to say against McCarthyism].

A side bar: It reminds me of Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl costume malfunction. Naked black women are either scary or sexually enticing and an affront to the “standards of decency” which have defined film & television, advertising and Western beauty standards in general.

In the aftermath of Erykah Badu’s recent foray into nudity I have to ask. Why are we more attentive to her figure, affronted by her freedom and not enlivened by her message? Erykah Badu’s artistic history tells the story that with each album she is changing, growing. Her 1997 debut album, Baduizm, was more than feel good music. It was poetry and perspectives unvoiced during a period of American music history saturated with sex and violence in the aftermath of gansta rap. She helped to usher in the genre we now call neo-soul. Her Live album (1997) even had my mother singing along, “Ya betta ca-all Ty-ro-one.” Mama’s Gun (2000) put the focus on self-appreciation and accountability whereas Worldwide Underground (2003) had a lush nostalgic feel reminding us all that it’s the party that keeps the pain at bay. Whether or not you like her singing or her production or her videos or approve of who she is dating and how she wears her hair[pieces], it is apparent that unlike some “artists,” Erykah Badu has never created a body of work which was purposely detrimental, misleading, or degrading to her audience or anyone else. The New Amerykah Albums (Pt. 1: 4th World War, 2008) have been clearly presented as a challenge to the norm which, President Obama and all, hasn’t substantially altered much. When it comes to voices of dissention anyone black, seems to stand alone, perhaps is even considered a sell-out; anyone white who does looks like a racist; and the other racial phenotypes are generally discredited somehow. At least, that’s how many media outlets present it. “Window Seat,” the lead single from the 2010 release New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh is a part of her evolution as an artist and from, my perspective, a human being.

From the beginning, I can recall people who felt that Erykah Badu’s lyrics were too esoteric for mass consumption. However, I want to present this thought. For centuries, the songs sung by people of African descent in America were coded. Songs like, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Steal Away” were part of the abolitionist repertoire, and in direct opposition to the socially acceptable practice of slavery.  Later as slang terms developed, blues and jazz musicians kept powerful secrets in seemingly innocuous words like jazz and jelly roll. Rock and Roll artists like Little Richard altered their often burlesque lyrics but never lost the brash spirit behind the words. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that song lyrics are poetry set to music.  [Even if we don’t like it. That’s fair. Art is subjective.] All artists make music considerate of lyrical content and what responses they want to evoke in their audiences. Double entendre can still be heard in the crassest of “urban” music chart toppers. And Erykah Badu’s lyrics are challenging, particularly if one puts no stock in her world view. Everyone though, according to Nietzsche, can regard their own subjective reflections as truthful, with the caveat that they also accept those of everyone else.

Matt and Kim, a New York based music duo also bared all in the video for their song, “Lessons Learned.” Badu thanks them in the beginning of her video. One artist is paying homage to other artists brave enough to break the monotony of Groupthink, a sociology concept attributed to William H. White in 1952 and evolved by Irving Janis in the 1970s. Just why is Groupthink in need of being broken? Badu’s statement at the end of the video clearly says it holds back the individual from their right to growth.

They who play it safe are quick to assassinate what they do not understand.

They move in packs, ingesting more and more fear with every act of hate on one another.

They feel most comfortable in groups–less guilt to swallow.

They are us, this is what we have become, afraid to respect the individual.

The point Badu makes in the “Window Seat” music video is echoed clearly by the wagging fingers and clicking tongues of disapproval. I’ve heard many voices either dismiss her nudity as publicity, a prank, or give it the weightiness of child abuse, sexual depravity, and accuse her of desecrating John F. Kennedy’s legacy. In those highly oversimplified reactions, the lack of understanding of her social-political intent is painfully obvious and it is clear that Badu is not preaching to the choir. In fact she is, as the video suggests a lone voice of dissention. She gets it.

I am not a fanatic worshipping at Erykah Badu’s temple, participating in the orgiastic rites of Baduizm. But I am ignoring the crowd’s directives in favor of my own journey. I am a force for positive change in this world and I respect the spirit of an artist daring enough to do the same. I am open enough to understand that, like uncorrupted civil servants [what few there may be], many artists are soul-bound to serve their communities regardless of their communities’ appreciation. Badu choosing nudity as a metaphor for freeing oneself of social masks proves that she is not a monster but an irritant promoting the evolution of herself as individual and subsequently, society as a whole.

A single person within her circumstance can move one to change, to love herself, to evolve.

Erykah Badu



As of Friday, April 2, the “Window Seat” video was showing in reverse on the Erykah Badu website. This reading is consistent with the following commentary: the artist who speaks up and out is still attacked and shut up by the society which is not yet prepared to comprehend the message.

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