Archive for the Theater Category

Life Among the Aryans  

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Ishmael Reed, Theater with tags , on June 19, 2018 by playthell

Happy Former White Racists who took the “Black Shot”

 A Profound Play that Speaks to Our Times

Once more Rome Neal, distinguished actor and Director of Theater at the Nuyorican Poets Café, a cultural landmark in the East Village, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, has brought us a new work by Ishmael Reed.  Mr. Reed – a McAarthur “Genius” award winner and prolific author of fiction, essays and plays – is an iconoclast armed with a pen who is not timid about slaughtering sacred cows if their demise will reveal truth!  He has proclaimed that “writin is fightin,” and certainly pulls no punches in the present play. With his customary erudition and devastating mad cap humor, Ishmael attacks all the hidden hypocrisies of the GOP – Grand Obstructionist Party – in the age of Trump, who is thinly disguised as PP Spanky in the play.

It is a subject worthy of a Shakespeare, but since Sweet Willie is unavailable let us thank the Gods and Ancestors that we have the sizziling secular gospels of Ishmael.  This secular evangelist has chosen the novel and the play as the vehicle for his revelatory sermons, and the theater is his church. While there were no references to religious texts there was much moral preachment, excoriation of sinners, and advocacy on behalf of the poor and powerless – just as Jesus Christ commanded us to do and the blaspheming Bible thumpers masquerading as “Evangelical Christians” have failed to do.  However, the erudition of the script was leavened by generous doses of humor.  Ishmael has been roundly praised for his brilliant use of satire, Irony and parody, and these gifts were on prominent display in Life Among the Aryans.

Ishmael uses several narrative techniques to explore the ideas and emotions of those deranged white supremacists who brought us the Trump phenomenon, and also gives voice to those with opposing arguments.  As is the case with his novels, Ishmael employs innovative methods to tell his tale, the essence of which he describes thusly:

“The time is the future. Having elected a clown president, whose administration was the worst disaster since the regime of the Romanovs, Brietbart nationalists are now confronted with the election of a Jewish President, whose FBI  head is a Black man, the ultimate nightmare of Brietbart  nationalism.  The last straw occurs when the government decides to Black citizens whose ancestors suffered the horrors of slavery.  Two White nationalist, John Shaw and Michael Mulvaney have come under they sway of an ethno-nationalist leader, the smooth talking leader Matthews.  He has persuaded his followers that a violent revolution has to occur and will take place as soon as the trucks bringing manure for the purpose of making explosives arrive.  It’s been a year, and his donors are getting restless.”

To relate this absurdist futuristic fable, Ishmael uses newscasters played by Monisha Shiva, and N. Allam Forster to set up the scenes.  Shiva’s character is positioned on stage in such a way as to approximate a television news anchor, and Foster plays an on the street reporter Dobbin Robb Sobbins, a New Yorker who has traveled out in the boonies to do live interviews with the “real Americans” whom the coastal elites have either reduced to figures of ridicule or ignored all together.  Sobbins approaches his task as if it is safari among near savages, lamenting the fact that he is forced to give up his Eggs Benedict breakfast for grits, and his lattes for Maxwell House Coffee.

Early on we are given a peek into the psychic of the type of people that marched in Charlottesville Virginia, shouting the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil.”  They are symbolized by two down and out white males who have fallen out of the work force, are structurally employed, and had been living in the criminal underground economy.  Played by Tom Angelo, Michael Mulvaney is an angry displaced factory worker who is selling the dangerous drug Meth Amphetamine – which has become the drug of choice for many dispossessed and disillusioned white Americans.  John Shaw, his close comrade in the local white supremacists brotherhood, played by Frank Martin, is a former dealer in pirated interracial porn flicks.  To our surprise, Rome announced after the performance that Martin had never acted before this production.

In the conversations between them we hear much of what passes for conventional wisdom in this sad sack white trash crowd.  They rejoice in the fact that “the monkey family” has been removed from the White House, Obama and his “prostitute wife and crack head daughters.” They rail against the outrage that the niggers are getting everything, and poor whites are getting nothing.  They look forward to the day of their deliverance when a million heavily armed white men “march on Washington.” Ishmael is relentless in his portrayal of their stupidity, which is magnified by their blind faith in the local white supremacist leader Jack Matthews, who bleeds them for every cent he can get.  Not only do thy go into debt, which their hard-working wives must pay, but they even rob a bank to get the money Matthews needs to open the new headquarters.

But then, Ishmael is always full of surprises and things seldom are what they seem. First Sobbin’s interviews reveal that the white supremacists are not all losers, as he finds out that the president of the local college is among their number. Then we discover that Matthews – convincingly played by the imposing figure of Timothy Mullins – is a professional con artist whose street name is “Chicago Ed.”

Ed’s true identity is revealed when he runs into a black fellow grifter that he has known for years, who is posing as a Dr. Korkman, wonderfully played by the versatile actor Maurice Carlton, who is running a racket that is making money hand over fist.   The way the two old bunko artists greet each other, and the enthusiastic camaraderie among them, reminds me of the relationship between Donald Trump and the black boxing promoter Don King, from whom Trump learned the long-range con.  I have written about this in some detail in “Game Recognizes Game” * (see link to article at bottom of page this essay.)

The racket Dr. Korkman is running, which is a major plot of the play, comes as a big surprise and reminds me of a famous novel “Black        No More,” written by the caustic and irreverent satirist George Schuyler in the early 20th century.  However, Ishmael flips the script. Whereas in Black No More a white doctor comes up with a pill that will make black people white, Dr. Korkman has a shot that can make white people black!

At the time Schuyler wrote his novel Afro-Americans were living under the hellish conditions of legal apartheid, which was a blueprint for institutionalized white supremacy.   Hence the incentive for blacks wanting to become white.   The incentive for whites to become black in the play is the US government’s decision to pay all black Americans a cash payment of $50.000 as reparations for the enslavement of their ancestors.  The white supremacists rail against the payments…until they discover Dr. Korkman’s magical shot that could get them 50 grand, the formula for which he stole from a graduate student then set up shop.  This act exposes the “White Nationalists” to be as venal as they are stupid.

Perhaps the greatest gift that Ishmael has as a writer is his ability to combine great erudition with side splitting humor to impart complex critical information.  This is no picayune achievement, given the difference in the nature of the tasks, and few have managed to pull it off successfully.   However, through the liberal use of the monologue, a device much beloved by Shakespeare, Ishmael pulls it off marvelously!

Although any successful drama begins with the script, it is the actors that must bring the dramatist’s vision to life and “keep it real” as the rappers say.  In talking with the actors after the play, it became abundantly clear that breathing life into these complex monologues – in which Ishmael sometimes becomes more pundit that poet in addressing the great issues he confronts – was no easy pickings.

They spoke of the challenge in bringing them to life, but they testified to the joy of mastering this unique and immensely relevant material. It is much like listening to virtuoso musicians who have performed a great score; for when the composers conceive of music it is the complexities of the music, not the difficulties of the musicians, that is foremost in their minds. They write the music as they hear it in their heads; it is up to the instrumentalists to development the technique to play it.  So it is with actors.  And there was no finer example of this than Eric Frazier’s electrifying performance as Black Man/Black John, or Malika Iman’s charming performance as Doris Johnson as she warned the reporter Dobbin Robb Sobbins about the perils of “Sundown Towns.”

In a statement titled “Words from the Author” printed in the program, Ishmael makes his purpose abundantly clear:

“All of my plays have been done at the Black Repertory Theater in Berkeley, California, and the Nuyorican Poets Café.  Not once has my director, Rome Neal, or the Nuyorican attempted to shut down my message.  These are the times when, as with the living newspaper, a WPA theater of the 1930’s, artists have to step in and do the job that the corporate media, which makes excuses for haters, fails to do.”

In commercial talk radio it is an article of faith among producers that the most successful product is “edutainment;” to find that special combination of material that enables the broadcaster to educate and entertain his audience simultaneously. This is the task that Ishmael routinely takes on in all of his works with great artistic success; life among the Aliens is no exception.  When I saw the play at the Sunday matinee the house was full and the audience enthusiastic.

Yet despite the brilliance of the play and the skill of the actors, the role of the support crew is indispensable to the success of a play.  Hence the costume designs of Carolyn Adams; the Poster Graphic designs of Afiya Owens; the Sound Design of Alex Santulo, the Set Design of Marlon Campbell and the work of Doug Wade, the Master Carpenter that built the sets, which were illuminated with the Lighting Design of Rome Neal all contributed mightily to our experience of the play.

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Outstanding Members of  The Cast

                                          Director Rome Neal                                  

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Maurice Carlton

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Timothy Mullins

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Angela Shaw and Kim Austin

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Rome Neal  and Maurice Carlton

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Rome Presenting the Shekere Award to Newly Minted Actor

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Monisha Shiva

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Rome Serenading the Audience

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Audience Members Passionately discuss the Play

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 18, 2018

Celebrating Kwanzaa at the Apollo!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays, Theater with tags , , on January 2, 2017 by playthell
apollo-at-kwanzaa-iii Forces of Nature

             Greeting the New Year With Forces of Nature 

In over thirty years of writing about the performing arts in New York City, the cultural center and arts mecca of the world, I have never witnessed a show as spectacular as the Kwanza performance put on by the “Forces of Nature Dance Theater” at Harlem’s venerable Apollo, which correctly bills itself as “The Soul of Black Culture.” Founded and directed by Abdel Salaam, whose sharp intellect and fecund imagination appears to know no limits; the company enjoys an embarrassment of riches in regard to gifted choreographers and dancers.

The company’s dance vocabulary ranges from traditional African dance to Modern, Post Modern, to Afro-American vernacular dance – the creative well from which all original American dance flows – to its latest expression such as Hip hop. The elements of great dance theater include music, costumes, lights, gifted attractive dancers, and daring imaginative choreographers who believe in the gifts of their dancers and are not afraid to challenge them with works of great complexity.

apollo-at-kwanzaa-vi

Real Black Magic!

forces-of-nature-v

A Complexity of Vision

The work was both old and new, innovative yet preserving the best of pan-African dance traditions recast and polished for theatrical performance. One of the highlights of an evening with many incandescent moments was when Forces of Nature was joined onstage by a Native American dance troupe. It was a revelation, the thoughtful observer is compelled to beg the question as to how Europeans, escaping the squalor to which the working poor were confined in European cities, could ever have denounced such magnificent people as mere “savages.

Afro-Indio

apolo-kwanaa-with-indians

Homage to a forgotten Relationship

The performance was serious political commentary and fun; it employed pathos and bathos – tragedy and comedy – without restraint. The works gave free rein to the most voluptuous creative impulses of the choreographers, who produced works that made maximum use of the fabulously sculpted black, brown and beige bodies that were the vehicles for their ideas. The wide range of musical styles to which the dances are set reveal the unfettered scope of the choreographers imagination.  The Drum Choir that accompanies some of the dances has reached a level of virtuosity that I have rarely witnessed in percussion ensembles – despite the fact that I have ben a drummer and student of drumming for over half a century!  It was Black Magic! A splendid exercise in rhythm and movement as alchemy; that hoodoo that we do so well.

The Drums Speak!

apollo-at-kwanza-iv

Their conversation was superb

I am convinced if I spent a thousand and one nights in the theater my chances of catching a better show than this are about equal to a snowflakes chances of survival in a pizza oven. Rare and marvelous events such as this is the reason why I live in the Big Apple. At the bottom of this essay is an interview with the founder and creative genius Abdel Salaam, who along with his gifted wife Dyane Harvey Salaam, are the artistic inspiration and guiding hands that steer the course of Forces of Nature. 

Inside the Beautiful Apollo Theater

apollo-at-kwanza

The most famous theater in New York

The ornately beautiful theater with it’s elegant gold leafing forming intricate patterns around the stage and balcolnies, was packed to the rafters and we could feel the good vibes as the highly regarded radio host Imhotep Gary Byrd, who was celebrating his 50th year on the air, controlled the mike like a Bronx B-Boy.

Imhotep Gary Byrd

apollo-gary-byrd

A Neo-African Griot Anointing the audience with glorious tales

Bedecked in flowing African robes Imhotep was more than a concert M.C. beguiling the audience from the stage where more world class stars were born than any other in this city of great theaters; he was a Neo-African Griot droppin soulful science about the meaning and history of Kwanzaa, the restoration of the Apollo by the late Percy Sutton, and our destiny as a people, as we grooved to the beats of Pan-African rhythms welcoming the new year.  And the magnificent show concluded early enough for people to make it to their Watch Night services in their churches…that sacred Afro-American ritual commenrating the abolition of the enslavement of Africans and their ancestors in the United States, which, curiously, was never mentioned during the Kwanzaa celebrations.

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Forces of Nature in Concert!

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These two videos capture the broad eclecticism of their Repotoire

An Interview with Abdel Salaam

An Revealing Discussion of the Sources of his Electic Art

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
January 2, 2016

 

Resurrection of a Heavy-Weight

Posted in Cultural Matters, Theater with tags , , on April 11, 2016 by playthell

 

Jack Johnson - played by Tommy Moore II

Tommie J. Moore as Jack Johnson
Tommie Moore brings Jack Johnson to Life in “Dare to Be Black”

Of all the difficulties facing an actor in the theater, the one man play is arguably the greatest.  Without a cast of actors to play against, the lone thespian must hold the attention of the audience and create dramatic tensions on his own.  He must be able to create bathos and pathos – comedic and tragic moments – with his verbal delivery and body language alone.  With only stage props, and sometimes recorded music, the actor must create an imaginary world and purely on the basis of his telling of the tale transport us into that world and make it real.

It is a task that has much in common with a solo piano performance for the artist, in that any shortcoming will be magnified and thus only a consummate master can pull it off.  Tommie Moore pulls it off grand fashion; it is as if Jack Johnson sprang before us fully alive and complete….like the goddess Athena sprang into the world full blown from the forehead of Zeus.

Mr. Moore is also the playwright, and as Shakespeare warned us: “The play is the thing.”  Hence the fate of a theatrical work is sometimes dictated before the actor ever looks at the script.  For if a play is badly written – or fatally flawed – not even great actors can salvage it no matter the caliber of their performance.  In this instance Moore has scored on all points because the script is brilliantly written.  And the way Mr. Moore came to write this work was a serendipitous affair; like so many creative works, whether it be in the arts or scientific discoveries.

The play has its origins in a chance encounter he had with an actress, who he now remembers only as “Barbara,” who was performing a one woman show playing Harriet Tubman, the great female abolitionist and “Conductor on the Underground railroad” that ferried runaway slaves out of the South into “Free Territory.” It was she who gave him the idea of writing a one man play about Jack Johnson. He recalls:

She told me that I should write a 15 minute monologue about Jack Johnson. At this time, I knew very little about Jack Johnson. I did much research and I was amazed.  His life was so intriguing. As I continued to research Jack Johnson, I felt sorry for him. How is his story not told? Why is Hollywood staying away from his true story? Why are Blacks staying away from his true story? It was then, I made a commitment to write a full production play. I wanted people to see Jack’s power, charm, and intelligence. He was not only a great boxer. He was a one-man activist. His life was an activist. He refused segregation. Whatever whites could do, Jack did. So now, here I am trying to educate the world about our First Black Heavyweight Champion. As well, as get him a pardon”

The paramount problem for any artistic treatment of historical subjects is to capture the zeitgeist of the era, to recreate the historical milieu so that we can experience the tenor of the times.  The most important themes of that era of American history was white supremacy and the inferiority of peoples of color, especially black people who had only recently emerged from slavery, in fact Jack Johnson’s parent’s had been slaves.  It was a time when the ideology of white supremacy permeated all phases of worthwhile human endeavor.  And the belief that white men were not only smarter that black men, but physically stronger and more courageous, was conventional wisdom.

And it was taken as gospel truth that white men were naturally also more sexually desirable than black men, hence any white woman that had sex with a black man was either deranged white trash or it was rape. And this assumption, like the ideology of white supremacy itself, was an article of faith throughout the dominant white world, which had conquered and colonized the millions of people living in “Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Islands of the seas” as Johnson’s black great intellectual giant and contemporary would put it in his famous statement: “The Problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line!”

The logic of white male sexual dominance was simply stated by the French General/Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in the 18th century.  When Napoleon was informed that Alexander Dumas, a handsome black man who was his leading cavalry general and one of the greatest swordsmen in France, was banging his sister Bonaparte had him arrested.  He explained his actions thusly: “How can you convince a man that you are his superior if he is sleeping with your sister!”  While intellectuals like Dr. Dubois, Dr. Kelly Miller, James Weldon Johnson, Monroe Trotter, Ida B. Wells and others debated the veracity of the white supremacist myth, Jack Johnson shattered them by his actions: defeating Tommy Burns and winning the Undisputed World Heavy-Weight Championship and openly sleeping with white women.

Jack Johnson and Socialite Etta Durea
Jack and White Sweetie II
He openly violated the central Taboo of the era.

boxer-jack-johnson-and-wife

She turned her back on white America for black Johnson

Indeed Jack contemptuously flaunted his violation of this all American taboo.  According to historian Jeffry T. Sammons in his seminal book “Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Civilization,” Johnson would routinely sleep with three white women after publicly humiliating white men in the ring.  Hence one of the enduring mysteries about Jack Johnson is why such a man was not lynched i.e. murdered in a public “ritual of blood” as the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson describes lynching in his chilling and insightful text “Rituals in Blood,” which he argues  is a form of “cannibalism” when black men were burned alive.

When Jack Johnson won the Heavy-Weight Championship in 1908 black men were being crucified in such murderous rituals at the rate of one every two and a half days, and as Dr. Rayford Logan shows in his masterwork “The Betrayal of the Negro,” this had been going on at that rate for twenty years!   That Johnson was able to do the things he did yet remain alive gave him the aura of a superman, and outraged white men of all classes.

He was a living breathing refutation of the white man’s claim to superiority over black men because they had acclaimed the Heavy-Weight Champion of the world the most potent man on earth!  Hence Johnson was the filthy black fly in their pristine bowl of white milk that must be removed at all cost. Yet, ironically, they only way to fully discredit Johnson and nullify the effects of his victory was to find a white man who could kick his black ass fair and square.  Thus began the search for “the great white hope.”

Amazingly Johnson was almost as interesting outside the ring; he was a bass player, bandleader, nightclub owner, aficionado of fast cars, a great dresser and lady’s man.  He was articulate, witty, cocky and was famous for his “golden smile – a reference to the gold crowns he wore on his teeth.  Tommie Moore manages to capture this unique outsized personality and his strange times in a bravura performance that brings this complex character to life and takes us back to the racially troubled milieu of early 20th Century America.

From the moment he walks out onstage, which is at the same level as the audience, except for the boxing ring that dominates this sparse set, he jokes with the audience and talks jive to the ladies in character.  Early on he hooked us and never let up as he spun tall tales about his life and times.

When he strips to the waist, displaying his finely muscled physique, the ladies squealed and we were amazed at how much he actually resembled Jack Johnson, who also possessed a sharply defined Physique.  Moore makes great use of the fact that Johnson fancied himself a thespian.  He aspired to play Othello, who like Johnson was a great black fighting man in a dominant white society who enraged some white men because he won the love of Desdemona, a beautiful white woman.

Choosing the scene where Othello is brought before the authorities and accused by her father of employing Black Magic to place her under his spell, Moore renders Othello’s explanation with a power that does justice to the Bard.  He also comes out in one scene, dressed to the nines in the fashion of the times, turns the music up on the radio and dances a dance that was au courant in that period.

Jack Johnson in fighting gear

Jack Johnson as a young fighter

He became the dominant sex symol of his day among white women

The play encapsulates the major issues that Johnson faced as a man who dared to be unapologetically black, and who whipped the toughest white men in public for a living.  Moore allows us to share Johnson’s disgust at the fact that after he defeated Tommy Burns for the World Heavy-Weight Championship the white press continued to refer to Jim Jefferies, who had retired while still Champion, as the Champ.  One of the things that make this play so powerful is the extent to which Moore incorporates Johnson’s actual words into his script, and here he renders them with perfect blend of amusement, anger and contempt.

This work is a tour de force that deserves a much wider audience, and unless all the producers in New York are blind, tasteless, spineless or racist in should find a path to Broadway.   As in all of his pearls of wisdom Shakespeare was certainly right when he observed “the play is the thing,” but it takes great actors to make it feel real….and Tommie Moore made us forget that he was just acting.  Which is what the Great British Thespian Sir Lawrence Olivier meant when he warned aspiring actors: “Acting is a noble profession…but a real actor must never be caught doing it.”

(See the Historic Johnson v Jefferies Fight)

https://youtu.be/esnq-orAvo8

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Playthell G. Benjamin
New York City
April 11, 2016

 

The Undisputed Truth!

Posted in Theater with tags on December 4, 2013 by playthell

Mike Tyson Kicks Off Australia Speaking Tour In Brisbane

Mike Tyson on Broadway

 Iron Mike Spins Tales from the Hood

Mike Tyson’s one man Broadway show, The Undisputed Truth, which was is now being broadcast as an HBO special, came as quite a surprise to many who witnessed it – the present writer included.  Speaking in what appeared to be an extemporaneous style, Mike was by turns serious, ironic, and comedic.  He slipped seamlessly from donning the masks of tragedy and comedy in a way that would be impressive for a trained actor who had logged many hours on the stage.

But to carry a one man show and keep the audience entertained for over an hour, conjuring moods of pathos and bathos at will, was far beyond anything the audience could reasonably expect from a man who had spent his life in the boxing ring and had a public image as a barely articulate brute who didn’t merely want to subdue his opponents but maim or even kill them.   After watching one of Tyson’s fights Larry Holmes, one of the all-time great Heavy-Weight Champions, remarked: “Most boxers just want to win the fight, but this kid acts like he wants to kill somebody!”

When Tyson burst upon the boxing scene I had been involved in the game as a publicist for Butch Louis Productions – in fact, I created the publicity department in 1981 – where I represented the Olympic Gold Medalist and World Light-Heavy Weight Champion Michael Spinks, one of the all-time greats.  I also represented Greg Page and Tony Tubbs, all of whom became World Heavy-Weight Champions.

After leaving Butch Louis I became involved with the promotion of fighters in the lower weight classes, the highlight of which was negotiating a match between the Undisputed Welter-Weight Champion Sugar Ray Leonard vs. the Undisputed Middle Weight Champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the undisputed Middle-Weight title.  When Leonard got a detached retina in a tune-up fight with Bruce Finch at the MGM Grand Casino in Reno, Leonard retired and I quit the boxing game.

Negotiating with the Great Sugar Ray Leonard
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Trying to make the match with Marvelous Marvin 

When Mike Spinks and Mike Tyson met in a match to unify the Heavy-Weight title on June 27, 1988 I attended the prefight party hosted by Donald Trump in Manhattan.  It was a posh affair and everybody was dressed to the height of fashion.  Perfumed and pomaded, dressed in a black tux, white silk bow tie and cummerbund, Spinks looked like a parlor pimp.  Actress Robin Givens Tyson, Mike’s wife, was dressed in a chic upper-class style that reflected her Sarah Lawrence education and reminded one of Jackie Kennedy.  She was running around like a chicken with a freshly wrung neck, anxiously awaiting the arrival of her husband.

Although I was there as a journalist I was hanging out with the Spinks camp.  And as is characteristic of prize fights, the Spinks and Tyson camps were selling woff tickets trash talkin each other.  The boxing game has its of style of trash talkin.  For instance, despite the fact that the fighters will enter the ring alone and suffer the battering and bruising, everybody in their respective camps are yelling “We want Spinks!” or “We Want Tyson!”  I was prepared to talk a lot of smack until Tyson actually showed up.

Dressed in a pair of wrinkled pants, with half of his shirt hanging out of his pants B-Boy style, he wore a scowl on his face accompanied by a definite IDGAF attitude that seemed to say “Speak outta yo  mouth wrong and I wll bust yo ass!” He was a menacing figure; the only professional prize fighter I have ever been around who gave off that kind of vibe.  So as he walked by me, I remained as quiet as a church mouse. The guy really looked like he would smack a spectator who mouthed off to him.  He was a dangerous guy, like a ticking time bomb.  And when he and the great Michael Spinks met in the ring, the fight lasted all of ninety seconds: the shortest Heavy-Weight Championship fight in history!

At the height of his career Tyson was viewed as pretty near invincible.  The youngest fighter to wear the Heavy-Weight crown, he was a whirlwind of rage and fury, as one opponent after another crumbled under his non-stop blows. Given the ring sobriquet “Iron Mike,” because of the way he simply crushed the best boxers in the Heavy-Weight division, Tyson was not the kind of artless brawler with a granite jaw that could simply punch hard and was always trying to get the knockout while absorbing a lot of punishment from more skilled opponents.

On the contrary he was a gifted pugilist who had mastered all the elements of the game.  He was a superb boxer/puncher who was so skilled at slipping punches it was hard to hit him with a hand full of rice, and a devastating puncher who could dispatch an opponent to dream land with a variety of punches from either hand.  Mike was indeed a great master of his trade.  And he was well beloved by boxing fans, most of whom are as bloodthirsty as the mobs in the ancient Roman arenas.  And Mike loved it!

Iron Mike Demolishes Michael Spinks
Mikea_tyson vs spinks Spinks was undefeated and had never kissed the Canvas

Perhaps it is because he had found a métier where he was able to acquire fame and fortune in vast quantities, and had developed and affection for the roar of the crowd, which led Mike into show business.  And the decision to reminisce about his life story on stage has proven to be a bold and brilliant decision, because Mike’s life is a virtual treasure trove of material from which an able actor/playwright could fashion a moving theatrical experience.  Shakespeare gave us the key when he declared “the play is the thing,” and Mike Tyson’s life story is one hellava play.

Spawned in the bowels of Brooklyn and growing up on the mean streets of Brownsville, his story has the elements common to most who choose the blood sport of boxing as a vocation.  But not all boxers experience the level of family disorganization as Mike.  And while he suffered the deficit of guidance experienced by most fatherless boys growing up in big cities, he also came of age in the final decades of the twentieth century when many young black boys began to get their moral education from rappers rather than reverends.  And since human beings are creatures formed by narratives through which the values of society and the purpose of existence are imparted; whoever tells the stories shapes the moral compass of the youths.

It is clear that the moral universe in which Mike Tyson’s consciousness was formed is chaotic and nihilistic.  He was one of the lost boys personified by the “Thug Life” values of Tupac Shakur, one of Mike’s favorite rappers. It is such a tangle of pathology and confusion that even fame and great wealth couldn’t save them from their self-destructive tendencies.  Hence Tupac wrecked his life acting out his “gangsta” fantasies,and Mike Tyson squandered several hundred million dollars as he went from rags to riches and ended up struggling to avoid ending up in rags again.

This is the marrow of the saga he spins onstage; it is by turns tragic and comic, and his telling of these tales is riveting.  A talented raconteur, he laughs and frowns, acts out fight scenes, impersonates the characters in his marvelous tales, and takes us with him all the way as he establishes an intimacy with the audience reminiscent of a great stand-up comic who tells stories rather than jokes ala Richard Pryor.  If you liked Mike as a boxer you will love him as a thespian, for it is obvious that he approaches this performance with the same dedication that characterized his performances in the ring as he takes us on an intimate journey into one of the epic lives of our times.

Through word and movement Mike paints poignant word portraits of human folly and foible that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats in anticipation of what he will say next.  His monologue is brutally honest and raw like Sushi, as he names names, airs dirty laundry, and puts some well-known people’s business in the street!  I found it one of the most entertaining one man shows that I have witnessed –and I have seen some great ones.  In the end we see a courageous human being who bares his tortured soul to the audience and exorcises his demons in public with extraordinary candor and amazing grace.  I say more power to the Brownsville bully…Bravo Iron Mike!

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
December 4, 2013

A Magic Moment on Broadway!

Posted in Theater with tags , , , , , , on May 24, 2012 by playthell

      Songstress/Actress Alicia Hall in Recital

 Porgy and Bess:

Cultural Anachronism or Timeless Masterpiece?

It was the moment all understudy’s on Broadway hope and dream of, the leading lady took the evening off and the understudy got a chance to shine.  And I cannot imagine anyone ever shining brighter than Alicia Hall Moran last Tuesday night.  Ms. Moran gave a bravura performance singing the role of Bess beside Norm Lewis’ moving performance as Porgy.

She enthralled the audience and left us hungering for more of her magic.  That this lovely songbird should so bewitch me was no picayune affair, for I had long ago fell under the spell of the beautiful, sensuous, Audra McDonald, whose voice is a spellbinding instrument capable of levitating one away to heaven…body and soul.  Thus Ms. Moran’s performance was a revelation.

It was due to an invitation from my good friend, the internationally renowned artists and cultural impersario Ademola Olugbefola that I happend to experience this magic moment in the theater.  I had no particular interests in seeing yet another production of Porgy and Bess, a folk opera about Afro-American life set in a mythical slum of Charleston South Carolina called “Cat Fish Row.

I had sort of dismissed it as a cultural anachronism created at a time when whites manipulated the Afro-American image to suit their racist fantasies.   Composed by George Gershwin, a New York Jew who could not possibly know much about the lives of the characters, which were based on the stereotypical figures in the novel “Porgy” by Dubose Heyward, a white writer who was a native of Charleston.

This work troubles some Afro-American critics, such as Harold Cruse, who justly point out that such an opera was only possible in the first place because of a racial caste system in America at the time; which only permitted works about Afro-Americans to make it in “legitimate” theater if it was written by a white author.

Cruse points out that this situation prompted white artists to pillage black culture for material, and Gershwin and Heywood were emblematic of this cultural trend.  The great Harlem Poet Langston Hughes lamented the plight of Afro-American creative artists in his poem, A Note on the Commercial Theater: “You’ve taken my blues and gone.”

However, unlike Dubose’s critics who lambasted the novel and the Opera based on it, Langston Hughes saw it differently.  “With his white eyes” Hughes said, Heywood saw “wonderful, poetic qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive.”  And George Gershwin – a gifted musician who loved Afro-American music – played the entire score for a select group of Afro-American artists in the living room of NAACP leader Walter White, before it was publicly performed.  Gershwin certainly intended no offense to the black community and sought to transcend the racial gulf between himself and his subject, as well as race and class differences between his subject and the audience –whether racist whites or educated cosmopolitan Afro-Americans.

Thus he concentrated on universal themes: love, hate, jealously, avarice, sexual passion, treachery, honor, etc. in his music based on a libretto largely written  by Heywood.  Judging by the response of the racially and ethnically diverse audience, composed of people from all over the world, who gave the cast a prolonged standing ovation, Gershwin hit his mark. The majesty of the music transcends the shortcomings of the book and ennobles the characters.

For the classically trained Afro-American singer, especially during the early decades of the 20th century, when Afro-Americans were treated in law and custom as if black and tan skin was a crime, there was virtually no trace of the rich Afro-American musical heritage in the Grand Opera repertoire. Thus notwithstanding the racial stereotypes Porgy was viewed as a unique gift by these singers, with its generous references to Blues and Spirituals. Yet while the black artists loved it; the white critics’ response was another matter.

For the established opera critics with the major newspapers and magazines, it was an enigma.  They just didn’t know what to make of it.  And the original production in 1931 flopped at the box office.   One could attribute this failure to the fact that Porgy opened during the Great Depression; except that Broadway flourished during the depression.

A far more likely explanation is that it just didn’t appeal to the taste of a racist, Eurocentric, opera audience.  And Afro-Americans were so strapped for cash most couldn’t fit a Broadway show into their budget; even if it was supposed to be about them.  However true greatness will endure and Gershwin is having the last say.

Porgy and Bess

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis on Broadway

Today his opera is recognized as one of the greatest and most original American operas of the 20th century. Ironically, when the score was first recorded the producer used only white singers because he doubted black singers could sing the roles.  However the all black cast at the Richard Rogers Theater, a grand Broadway House with killer acoustics, equipped with state of the art lighting and sound, surpasses greatness and approaches the sublime.

They are all triple threats who can act, dance and sing.  And they have invested the characters with a dignity far beyond what was envisioned by Heywood or Gershwin.  Audra McDonald told the ladies on The View that this was a major consideration for the performers; who spared no effort to make the characters fully human.

Yet after all is said and done, the music was all about the music.  The orchestra was magnificent, playing the newly arranged score to perfection while the ensemble sang like a band of angels in the heavens.  Soaring above it all was the rich multi-colored soprano voice of Ms. Moran as Bess.  It made my soul clap hands and my spirit dance.  If you want an enchanted evening at the theater: See this production of George Gershwin’s timeless musical masterpiece!

 On Broadway

 Audra McDonald and the Cast

(Double click to see Audra sing “My Man is gone)

http://youtu.be/HT6LDh7cO1g

(Double click to see Audra and Norm Lewis duet)

http://youtu.be/pqCwS3wnGs4

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Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

May 24, 2014

Esther Armah’s Savior

Posted in Cultural Matters, Theater with tags , , , on October 24, 2011 by playthell

Panelist Lynn Nottage, Producer Voza Rivers,  Esther Armah

Pulling the Covers off Liberal Racism

Witnessing  Esther Armah’s new and timely play “Savior” reminds us why the theater is still relevant.  Of the myriad virtues of independent black theater is the fact that it is the only dramatic forum in which black folk actually control their image.  And when good actors get a worthy scrip something magical can happen.  In Ms. Armah’s play we are treated to an embarrassment of riches.  Possessed with the sharp eye of the good reporter, the language of a poet and a skilled sophisticated playwright’s understanding of the role of conflict as the engine of drama, Ms. Armah is well suited to her chosen craft.

 Savior’s appeal partly lies in it’s wit and humor and in the insightful way in which the play handles a variety of complex issues involving race, class and gender that allow Ms. Armah to give full reign to both her irreverent imagination –in that she dares to imagine the unimaginable – sharp intellect, and wide ranging knowledge of the world.  The lady is a true cosmopolite.  This is clearly apparent from her elegantly written memoir “Can I Be Me?”

A Black Brit of Ghanaian parentage, Ms. Armah is a world traveler and has observed race relations between whites and blacks in Africa, Europe and the Americas.  And she has developed a fine eye for all the ways in which the melanin deprived sector of humanity exercise power and privilege based on nothing more than melanin deprivation. Most of these observations were made when she was working as a journalist and was therefore in position to get a bird’s eye view of human relations in various societies.  All the things she has learned from her journalistic experiences have found their way into this play.

This  is clearly evident in both her choice of subject and the manner in which she explored it.  The play centers around a the struggle of a well know white male liberal who has been very active in causes for racial and economic justice.  It has become his life’s work as an executive in community organizations, but he has just been passed over for the CEO position in favor of a black woman.  In his mind the white male is certain that there is no way the black woman could be better qualified than him and was not awarded the position on merit; hence he views himself as a victim of reverse discrimination and decides to hire a lawyer to sue the organization.

Unable to get the high powered white lawyer he wanted he is assigned a black male lawyer who appears anxious to get the case because it is the kind of case that could make him famous.  He reasoned that although he has been doing brilliant legal work for years as a supporting player, white lawyers with less talent are always appointed to argue the cases in court.  He does the work but they take the bows.  At first the aggrieved white male doesn’t want the black lawyer, and only reluctantly accepts him as counsel after the lawyer convinces him that he is willing to resort to unprincipled gutter tactics to win.

The Cast and Director 

 The story is told with two actors Michael Green and Jimmy Aquino; who play Billy Hall the white plaintiff and Michael Jamal Williams III his black lawyer.  The brilliantly written dialogue between the two men explores all of the issues of sex, race and power in the contemporary American workplace in the age of our first black President.  Which many believe has moved US society into a post black phase.

The two men eventually hatch a diabolical plot to bring down the black female CEO by attacking her judgment in hiring another black woman as her assistant who is a deranged home wrecking ho, that is trying to break up the white male’s family with bogus charges of sexual harassment after he rejected her advances.  At first the white male is reluctant to pursue this course of action because, as it turns out, he and the woman he is about to attack has had a serious affair that ended badly.

The truth is that he has been stalking her to the extent of showing up at her house uninvited. The white male is obsessed with her but his estranged lover broke off the affair when she learned that he had lied to her about getting a divorce from his white wife, which he explains he had no intention of doing.  When he continues to stalk her she calls the cops and it gets in the press.

The white male finally agrees to throw his former lover under the bus when the black lawyer convinces him that this is a sure path to victory.  The upshot is that upon the direction of a callous overly ambitious black male lawyer they devise a plan to destroy the hard won success and wreck the careers of two highly qualified black women in order to maintain the structure of white male privilege.

During the course of the play we are confronted with all of the issues of racial and gender equity in the work place that presently plague American society but nobody wants to speak  about frankly.  It is the white elephant in the room that everybody pretends not to see.  What makes this play so explosive is that Ms. Armah does not present the typical white bigot who is the usual whipping boy in creative works about racism.  Rather Ms. Armah’s character is the kind of professional white liberal who is dedicated to eradicating racial inequality in America; the kind of know-it-all white guy who views himself as the Savior of black people.

Yet in the end the he is willing to destroy the careers of a longtime colleague and a former lover in order to preserve his privileged status as the boss.  The thought of working for a black woman was unbearable.  Yet he refused to see that his attitude was just as racist, and far more dangerous, as any redneck.  It is no accident that Ms. Armah chose such a character to tell this tale of racism, sexism, power and privilege; in fact her personal experience with liberal white males working as a journalist provided a unique perspective on the problem.

In her poignantly written memoir “Can I be Me” she reflects on her tenure as an Assistant Producer on “Panorama,” a current affairs program on the BBC in London.  When the question of racial equity in terms of hiring and promotion was broached a “senior colleague” who was white and male offered the following response.  “No one can accuse us of being racist, just look at the number of programs we’ve done on the far right.”

Ms. Armah was shocked that her white male colleague  saw racism “solely in crude and extreme terms. A truth dawned.” She recalls.  “So many white, middle class liberals defined racism in this fashion.  Their intention, it struck me, was to distance themselves from any possibility of being accused of displaying racism by defining it in such extreme terms.”  But, she concludes that their kind of racism was “far more poisonous, it had become a subtle, cancerous cloak that hovered and sheltered institutions: complex, dangerous, destroyer of dreams and much, much more difficult to actively fight.”

It is clear that the weapon Ms. Armah has chosen to fight this class of phenomenon – which she has observed in Africa and the US also – is the dramatist’s art.  She has put the whole mess on stage in a well-crafted highly intelligent play, and through the agency of two fine actors in a bravura performance engaged the audience, made us think about unpleasant problems some would rather avoid, held us in suspense, and completely fooled most of the audience – this writer included – with her surprise ending.

One of the surprising treats in this lay is the deep insight she provides into the machinations of the trained legal mind.  It is a unique view of how justice is arrived at in our legal system…or the appearance of justice.   One of the ways she achieves this is by her expert use of legal language and explanations of what they mean through the arguments of the lawyer.  This expertise, we would later learn in the panel discussion that followed the play, is because she grew up in a family of lawyers.  Under the insightful direction of Passion this is a splendid evening of theater at the Dwyer Cultural Center – a venue where cultural treasures are common fare.  Esther Armah’s Savior is at once an education and catharsis.  Bravo!

Director, Actor, Playwright

 Passion, Michael Green and Esther Armah 

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Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

October, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legros Honors Our Great Artist!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Theater with tags , on December 6, 2010 by playthell

Actress Vinie Burrows with Sierra Leone Ambassador and Friend

Legros Cultural Arts Inc. held their third  annual awards ceremony to honor outstanding artists at the elegant Gonzalez Y Gonzales, a Latin supper club on the lower east side of Manhattan.  It was a multi cultural affair covering a wide array of artists. The program began with a solo dance performance especially choreographed for this occasion.  It was both imaginative and dynamic and was an excellent way to begin the festivities.

Kamaria Dailey!

The Magic Of Movement


Ecstasy!

The Majesty Of Dance

 

Anu Anam!

A Visual Alchemist Synthesizing Two Worlds

The first recipient was Ms. Anu Annam, a beautiful and elegant East Indian woman who is a visual artist.  But like all of the artists honored here she is a socially conscious cultural worker who has worked on a number of projects such as Haitian relief.  She told of being bi-cultural, regularly traveling back and forth between India and the US.  Ms. Anum spoke of the experience as enriching, and noted the difference in the status of South Asians in the US.  She also spoke of the pressure from parents to do something “safe” like become a doctor or lawyer.  But after they saw the millions that performing artists like Beyonce is making they have accepted her choice.  She also paid high compliments to Legros for bringing her together with such a diverse group of Artists, thus broadening her cultural perspective.

The next honoree was the photographer Jocelyn Denis.  She was a jovial and loquacious lady, oozing with charm and beaming with intelligence.  Her remark about photography reminds me of  the legendary Afro-American photographer James Vanderzee, one of the great photographic artist of the twentieth century.  When she said  “If no body photographs an event how do you know it actually happened?”  I was reminded of Vanderzee’s comment when he looked around at the splendor of the Harlem Reniassance and observed: “A Picture will last forever.”

 

Ms. Jocelyn Denis: Photographer Of Our Cultural Life

Sharing a bright moment with her Lawyer

 

 

The Exquisite Ms. Noreen Crayton

Singer, Songwriter, Thespian

Ms. Crayton was one of the most eloquent of the recipients.  Having begun her singing career in the church, as has so many other great black singers, she was warm, charming and intelligent. And she give abundant props to Legos for creating this forum where multi-cultural  artists can meet and interact.  She was a delight to listen to.

 

Vinie Burrows: A Great Lady Of the American Stage

Actress, Playwright, Producer, Theater Founder, Freedom fighter!

Ms. Vinie Burrows has given 6,000 performances that she can document.  There is no greater American Thespian than this lady. Upon her introduction by the eloquent and erudite playwright J. E. Franklin, the audience gave her a rousing ovation.  She began by thanking the many people from varied walks of life who came out to honor her.  Then Ms. Burrows recalled that early on she began to understand that she “had to struggle not only as a black person but as a woman.” She said of upon receiving her Lifetime Award, “In my case, a life time is very long time.” Yet she chose to exercise the woman’s prerogative and leave us to guess at her age – which is superfluous in this instance because she is nimble of mind and young at heart.

Ms. Burrows recalls that she was primed for the life she has led in the theater with the mysterious rituals of the Catholic Church.  “My sense of struggle came from growing up during the Great Depression.” And her encounters with the racism of the commercial theater led her to concentrate on the one woman shows.  Of which she created eight: “I not only made a living; I made a great life.”

This is an important distinction that too many young actors do not understand.  For them its all about the “bling,” the glitter and glamour.  After lamenting the dreadful economic climate that young people are facing today, and reminding us of the need to struggle in behalf of the freedom of oppressed everywhere, she gave a dramatic reading of Margret Walker’s epic poem “For My People!”

It was a performance that at once captured both the pathos and joi de vivre of Afro-American life.  Ms. Walkers epic Poem, though written in the middle of the last century continues to ring true today.  It is only through those sensitive souls who can feel the pain of a people that we can experience the full depth of that people’s saga.  And in accurately capturing the hopes, dreams, pain and passions of a single people the poet becomes seer and her truth becomes universal!  Ms. Burrows brought the entire range of our experience to life and illuminated our humanity.

After Ms. Burrows retired to her seat, another great American thespian and engaged artist, the fabulous Ruby Dee, took the stage to sing her praises.  It was spiritually uplifting just to be in the presence of these great women; freedom fighters  whose art was forged in the fires of struggle.  After Ms. Dee concluded her remarks a lady singer with powerful pipes took the stage and sang “Feeling  Free,” which she said was a Nina Simone song.  She sang in a passionate voice that called our spirits to rejoice in the celebration of art.  The entire evening was testimony to the healing power of great art.  Bravo!

 

Sable Sisters Of The  American Theater

Grand Dames: Actress Ruby Dee and Playwright J. E. Franklin!

 

Eye Candy! Was Everywhere!

You can Always Tell Dancers By Their Splendid Bodies

 

 

A Trinidadian Face Man

The Lone Male Honoree

Stephen Hadeed Jr.  A Gentleman Thespian

 

In Recognition Of a Job Well Done!

 

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Text and Photographs By:

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

Dec 1, 2010

Humanity For Haiti!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Theater on February 1, 2010 by playthell

 

The Mickerline Haitian Dance Company

 Makeda Dancing Yambalu!

 

Binding Up The Wounds Of A  Fractured Nation

 And Restoring Their Soul Through the Rituals Of Song, Dance and Prayer

 

This Elegant Hostess

Exemplifies The Strength  and Beauty Of Haitian Women

The whole world mourns the tragedy of Haiti, a nation reduced to rubble by the forces of nature.  This cataclysmic event of biblical proportions wreaked what seems like unbearable  havoc and pain on the Haitian people without warning, an unbelievable tragedy which seems like a cosmic injustice for nation who has borne a lion’s share of the worlds suffering through out its history.  Once known as Saint Domingue, the richest colony in the 18th century after the independence of the English colonies to the north, and home of the world’s most vicious slave society.  With a power paradigm of white French planters over captive West African slaves, the nation of Haiti was born in a bloody revolution as the Africans rose to slaughter their captors and drive three European armies into the sea!

 The Haitian Revolution was one of the three great bourgeois revolutions in the 18th century that expanded human freedom by establishing the first Republics in the modern world. As the brilliant Trinidadian political philosopher and revolutionary theoretician C.L.R. James convincingly points out in his classic history of the Haitian Revolution, “Black Jacobins,” the Haitian revolution was a logical extension of this revolutionary process.  However this was the same conclusion the Afro-American female scholar Dr. Anna Julia Cooper had arrived at earlier when she completed her PhD dissertation on the subject of The French Revolution and the abolition of slavery at the Sorbonne in Paris during the 1924 academic term. 

 This subject held a special interest for Dr. Cooper because she had been born a slave in North Carolina in 1858, six years before the abolition of slavery in the “Land Of the Free” and she suffered under racial apartheid laws and customs all of her life – except when she went to France…or Haiti.  There can be no doubt that the Haitian Revolution was part of the great bourgeois revolution that rejected the age old theology of “The Divine Right Of Kings”  And this places them at the forefront of those who fought to expand the  fundamental conception of human liberty.

 Dr. Anna Julia Cooper

 A Pioneer American Scholar On Haiti

 

The story of Haiti is in many ways a representative anecdote for the black experience in the modern world – a constant struggle against racist white power for personal freedom, economic justice, and the right to happiness and dignity that, according to the canonical founding documents of both the US and French Republics –  Declaration Of Independence and Declaration Of The Rights Of Man – is an inalienable right due all human beings.  No where in the world did the slogans “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” mean more that they meant to the African slaves of Haiti.  Just as there were none in the British Empire who treasured the creed “We hold these truths to be self-evident That all men are created equal” more than African slaves and their descendents. 

 The commonality of our struggles against Europeans – whether in Europe or their descendents in the Diaspora – has forged a bond of fraternity between African Americans and Haitians that although tested by ethnic rivalries in big cities like New York and Miami, the best minds among Afro-Americans and Haitians have kept the bond of brotherhood firm. This bond was clearly in evidence at the Benefit concert, as many African American political and religious turned out to show their solidarity with our Haitian brothers and sisters. 

The long standing interests in Haitian culture and dance forms among African American dancers, choreographers and scholars – as exemplified by the works of Catherine Dunham and Zora Neal Hurston is continued by Ms. Makeda Voletta Benjamin, a serious student of the art of Haitian dance and drumming, who performed with the Haitian Dance Company.  Makeda intends to follow in the path of katherine Dunham and pursue a Ph.D in  Medical Anthropology, using her scientific background to investigate the role of music and dance in the healing arts of pre-industrial traditional socirties.  She was right at home with the Haitian dancers, because Makeda was raised as a Pan-Africanist, where her father constantly told her that the fate of African Peoples was indivisible and we shared deep cultural roots.

The Great Katherine Dunham!

 

 

 

She Brought Traditional Haitian Dance To The Theater 

Spirit Dance!

 

 

 Flash Of The Spirit!!

 

 

 

A Libation To The Ancestors

 

 

 

 Communing With The Loas

 

 Moving In The Spirit Of Haiti!

 

  

Diasporan Memories Of Mother Africa

 

 

 

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 Ra! Ra!

 

 

 Finding Joy Amidst Tragedy

 

 Black Magic Dance!

 

 

The Children Joined Them On Stage!

 

 

 The Hope Of Haiti!

 

Suffer The Little Children

 For They Shall Inherit The Earth!

 

It Was An Uplifting Experience!

 

The Brass Sounded!

 

And The Community Leaders Came Forth 

The Rev. Doctor Edward Davis and Haitian M.d. Fritz Amie

 

Tho We Commemorated  A Tragedy

 It Was Not  Without Laughter!

 

And The Band Played On!!

 

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 * This performance can be seen on You Tube: Theviewfromsugarhill – Makeda Dances for Haiti

 Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New york 

January 31, 2110

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Come Sunday In Brunswick Georgia

Posted in Theater, Travels in the New South with tags , , on December 16, 2009 by playthell

A Church For The High and Mighty!

 I had only arrived a little over twenty four hours ago; slipping into town with the rising sun, 7: o-clock on Saturday morning, when the sleepy little town of Brunswick Georgia was fast asleep.   My senior daughter Sandra met me at the bus stop and at my request we drove down to the waterfront to watch the shrimping trawlers steaming out into the Atlantic Ocean, “the biggety blue,” as the old salty dogs I once sailed out of the port of Philadelphia with called the ocean seas.  I looked around and suspected the sea food would be good…and I was right.

Although Brunswick lacks the sheer beauty of St. Augustine Florida, in some ways it reminded me of the nation’s oldest city, which lies perched on the Atlantic coast just 108 miles due south.   It was not only the white washed wooden trawlers, or docks made of faded gray weather beaten wood, that evoked memories of my boyhood home; the gray Spanish moss that drapes the many live oak trees filled me with bitter/sweet nostalgia.  And the quiet ambience of the city compelled me to reflect upon the virtues of small town southern life.  After all, the best things about my own character were forged in one.

The religious passions I had encountered elsewhere in the south were also percolating in Brunswick, and it didn’t take long to recognize that the battle against Satan was in full force.  The spirit of the lord seemed to be everywhere, infecting the believers with a sublime joy.  I first noticed it in the farmers market, where those hawking their wares were certain that the lord had personally blessed them with the bounty of the land.  This was true even among those farmers who seemed threadbare and quietly desperate.  Perhaps they felt that, like Job, the lord was simply testing their faith with hard times.

But one cheery lady, another white haired alabaster Georgia peach, seemed especially animated by the spirit of Christ as she related a yarn about how she was moved by the spirit of Christian charity to give a homeless man a jar of her famous fig preserves and a home made biscuit.  Everyone repeatedly thanked the lord for the beautiful morning, and for sparing them to see it.  They acknowledged each other as Christian solders – especially my daughter and the cheery Ms. Figgie – and they testified that the works of the Lord are good and righteous in all their manifestations.  I had hardly been in town an hour before I was engulfed in a gale of religious passion, and it was only Saturday; Sunday would be a different story.

We spent the rest of Saturday filling each other in with stories about family and friends and preparing a feast of fresh vegetables, rice, potato salad, cornbread, real lemonade and a variety of freshly caught sea foods.  My grandson Kelvin “Big Kel” Whitfield and his wife Lisa – whom I was meeting for the first time – also came over and brought some of their friends to meet me.   It was an interesting mix of personalities.  The young folk were bold, optimistic, and infatuated with various brands of folly.  My daughter’s friends, on the other hand, were mostly middle-aged, man-less but saved women who claimed to be done with the foolishness of this world and were storing up blessings for the hereafter by doing the lord’s work here on earth 24/7.  As they would often reiterate, theirs was a purpose driven life, and their purpose was to serve Jesus Christ and praise his name with every waking hour.  Yet the careful way they decorated themselves, and the sunshine smiles they beamed at the eligible brethren, betrayed a lingering interest in the opposite sex.

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 Come Sunday things started bustling around the house early as the Christian soldiers arose with the sun, carefully laying out their uniforms so as to pass inspection with the lord.  This was the day that the pious saved souls lived for.  This was the day that they visited their father’s house and sanctified their souls in the body of Christ.  None was more dedicated to this ritual than Sandra.  That’s why I had turned down an opportunity to travel into New Orleans with the Dillon family, one of the city’s most influential clans, as they returned to assess the damage the wind and floods of Katrina had done to their homes.  It was a reporter’s dream, but I had promised Sandra that I would be in Brunswick to attend church with her; so I cut out from Baton Rouge and headed for southeastern Georgia.  And on Sunday morning I groomed and decorated myself to the height of good fashion and escorted my daughter to the New Covenant Church.

It didn’t take long to discover the high regard with which my senior daughter is held by the members of her congregation.  She was admired as much for her artistic abilities as her tireless work in behalf of the church. I would later be shown several bill boards for theatrical productions she had presented under the auspices of the church.  She had served as writer, director, choreographer, and designer of the sets and costumes.  I knew that by some mysterious alchemy she had managed to touch the sacred fire and become a poet, but I didn’t know that she had also become a multi-talented thespian.  And she is lauded for her talents in spite of the fact that she has no formal training in any of these arts.  Sandra is a true autodidact. Upon reflection I began to recognize that, like the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach, she has found her muse, audience and patron in the church.  And that’s about as convincing evidence of God’s grace as I have yet seen.

 From Africa to America: A musical Pageant

 

 A historical Odyssey into the African Diaspora

 

 A Swirl of Colors and movement!

 Real Black Magic!

 

 Written, Choreographed, Costumed and Directed by Sandra

There are many impressive churches in Georgia, grand edifices with steeples that reach for the skies, but Sandra’s church was modest, though well decorated; a church where humble working people could feel at home. Yet in spite of its unpretentious architecture, I’m convinced that if the spirit of God was anywhere in Georgia on that Sunday morning, she was in that little church in Brunswick. You could hear in the music, which was divine.  In this holy sanctuary the worshippers were bathed in the word of the lord as it poured from the mouths of passionate preachers, and the word would rejuvenate them and make them feel brand new, cleansed of the sins of this world.  In church, everybody was bedecked in their finest garments, and it was hard to tell some of the saved sisters who shouted out to God from the painted Jezebels and shameless hussies who were shaking their pulcritudinous “Afri-cans” in the juke joints on Saturday night past.   Some said that’s because they were the same crowd!

Since I was a stranger in town I had no way of telling who’s who, but if they were anything like most other church people I know it’s the same crowd alright. I surmised this from the first hand reports I have received from professional church musicians – most of whom are versatile musical artists who play in a variety of venues – who assure me that they get more action on church gigs than playing the cabarets.  This may sound strange to many readers, especially true Christian soldiers, but there are some fairly obvious reasons why the church choir has often been a cauldron of sexual licentiousness and myriad debaucheries.

First of all, as the most perceptive people who study the mating game and religious ecstasy well know, passion is a class of phenomena; and those who are capable of experiencing it in one of life’s arenas are capable of feeling it in others.  To make a short story shorter: Passion is passion whether religious or sexual.  When we add to this emotionally combustible atmosphere all the lonely people who go to church in search of fellowship of some kind, we have the perfect atmosphere for mortal sins of the flesh such as fornication and adultery.

The Reverend Doctor Michael Eric Dyson has written candidly about the lust and licentiousness that flourish in the black protestant church, and the prolific scholar/priest the Reverend Doctor Andrew Greeley, has pulled the covers back and revealed the tempestuous sexual passions – homosexual and heterosexual – among all levels of the priesthood in his insightful and once shocking novel, The Cardinal Sins.  The powerful novel Elmer Gantry, which was made into the classic movie starring Burt Lancaster and the luscious Shirley Jones that set my youthful erotic imagination spinning out of control, also provides an insightful look into religiously inspired sexual passions.  And what’s more it has long been rumored, and can now be backed up with first hand testimony provided to researchers that the church choir is often a passion pit of homosexual assignations.

In fact, a black gay sociologist based in Atlanta recently showed me a study that he is presently working on that will soon make these suppressed homo-erotic narratives public, exposing the hypocritical anti-homosexual stance of most churches.  One long time church singer told me “If it weren’t for gay men there would be no music in these churches.”  Having sung in the church since she was a young lass, over forty years now, the singer knows whereof she speaks.  Hence it makes good sense for gay men to cruise the church choirs in search of deep inner fulfillment.  In spite of the preacher’s admonitions against it, or the proscriptions against buggery in the bible, the church choir remains a prime cruising ground for love starved homosexual males and females in search of forbidden fruit.  The situation is such that it prompted one devoted deacon to remark to this writer: “All the troubles in the church start in the choir!”

  God’s Eunuchs or Priestly Pervs?

 The rape of children is a recurring sin among the “celebate” priesrhood

Nowhere has the blatant hypocrisy toward homosexuality been more egregious than in the Catholic Church.  Here, where all sexual activity by devotees of the religious orders –priests and nuns alike – is deemed a sin, forbidden fruit is especially attractive. Its human nature and no amount of pious preachment can alter it.   After all, was it not Adam’s inability to resist the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden that brought the downfall of man from a state of grace?  Thus when all of those closet perverts who join the Catholic priesthood, desperately attempting to avoid confronting the demons conjured up by their refusal to deal with their lust for forbidden pleasures, are placed in close unsupervised activities with innocent youngsters who are programmed to trust them, the rape of children is increasingly the result.

All this has left an indelible blot upon the character of the Roman Catholic Church and the honor of Pope John Paul II, the late Bishop of Rome, a good friar under whose reign the mass rape of Children occurred while he looked askance in an unholy charade designed to preserve the earthly reputation of the Church, thus failing to exercise his responsibility as chief steward of that church and keeper of the faith.  For this the Pope, now beatified and bound for sainthood, would have had to satisfy the commands of a higher power, not serve the petty politics of the church!

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 Compared to such mortal sins against the word committed by the Catholic hierarchy, a few painted and daringly attired Jezebels in the Pews seeking absolution in my daughters church – even if on a temporary basis – was a welcome sight.   It was easy to tell who among us felt in the need of prayer, because at the invitation of Pastor Albert Armstrong – offered with arms outstretched majestically – the congregants flocked down to the well in front of the pulpit to repent their sins and seek God’s forgiveness and blessings through prayer.

As I watched them I couldn’t help wondering how they imagined God would weigh their sins – their failures of the flesh and petty avarice – Vs. George Bush’s fleecing of the poor to further enrich the rich, or the slaughter of innocents for example. And worse still, his unrepentant blasphemy!  I also wondered if they thought having impure sexual thoughts, or lusting after their neighbor’s spouse, was a graver sin than paying taxes to a government that enables the Bushmen to commit mass murder against weak and unoffending peoples, and to witness these crimes against humanity – the most perfect of God’s creations whom she cast in her own dusky image – without protest.

In spite of a burning desire to interrogate them, I never got to ask them these questions because they didn’t think in such terms.  For them morality was personal, these are the sort of people who were more alarmed about Clinton screwing around with Monica Lewinsky in an ante-room in the White House, than George Bush screwing us all from the Oval Office. The truth, as near as I could tell, is that most Christians who are devoted to other-worldly concerns don’t even pay any attention to the news; which, to my mind, is a real sacrilege.

 Dr Martin Luther King

 A Modern Prophet

Unfortunately, the Christian revivalism presently sweeping the south is not the prophetic Christianity of Dr. Martin Luther King, or his longtime comrade in the struggle Dr. Joseph Lowery, who told me in Atlanta a few days after I attended New Covenant Church, that he continues to see participation in the struggle against injustice here and now as the best way to serve the will of God.  But since the fundamentalists are certain that this sinful world is doomed to destruction by fire come Judgment Day, and many believe that we are clearly living in the last days – they can see it in the signs of the times – the truly righteous are spending all of their time getting ready to meet their maker.  And that means, first and foremost, “getting right with the lord,” which leaves them precious little time for contemplating the troubles of this world.

On this Sunday morning the sermon, which they referred to as “Praising the Word,” was delivered by Rev. Catherine Armstrong, the wife in the joint pastorate of New Covenant.  She wore her hair in a short “au natural” style, and was both bright and articulate as she delivered a straight forward message on the need for people to stand up and make a stab at achieving their dreams while seeking the lord’s help through prayer.  She was both erudite and funny, as she lifted the spirits of the congregants with her sermon.  Like the old time preachers in James Weldon Johnson’s epic poems God’s Trombones, this preacher was a poet, “with all the devices of eloquence at her command.”  And she was preaching in just the sort of church the great novelist and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston had in mind when she said a preacher “must be a poet in order to survive in a Negro pulpit.”

 Zora the Word Sorcerer!

 Her poetic prose celebrated the essence of black southern culture

As I sat and listened to this soul stirring sister I was reminded that it was the unschooled divines to whom these praises were addressed, Johnson in his poems and Hurston in her wonderful novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine, both written within a couple of hundred miles from each other in the same part of Florida where I grew up.  So by the end of my visit to this little Georgia church with the mighty spirit, after I had joined the congregation in physically driving the devil out of New Covenant’s sanctuary and witnessed my daughter raise her voice in sacred song, waving her hands above her head in time with the music, channeling the holy spirit on sound waves to the soul, I too, unrepentant infidel that I am, felt uplifted by the spirit of their sermons and the spiritual power of their songs.

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Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

December 15, 2009

Zora Returns To Harlem

Posted in Theater with tags , , , , , , on November 12, 2009 by playthell

Antonia as Zora 

Antonia Badon As Zora Neal Hurston

 For theater lovers in New York City there is an embarrassment of riches.  There is of course the usual Broadway fare; but there is also a wide variety of daring productions Off-Broadway and Off Off Broadway.  And then there are those who put on productions in all sorts of makeshift theaters, employing their artistic creativity to entrepreneurial tasks just as Shakespeare did to create audiences for his theatrical entertainments.   One of the newest venues for theatrical performance is the Baton Rouge restaurant on 145th street near Convent Ave, just up the street from the campus of City College.  This is the second incarnation for this posh Harlem café.  Not too long ago it opened as the “Sugar Hill Bistro,” an elegant eatery that featured jazz performances.  It opened with great promise, inspiring the peerless trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis to perform with his band gratis.  Here’s hoping that this time out the owners will have better luck in this grand restaurant of several floors. 

 On this enchanted Sunday evening, amid the exotic aromas of Louisiana cuisine and period art, the beautiful and talented Louisiana born actress Antonia Badon recreates the life and times of the fascinating Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, a /folklorist and adventuress.  She enters the stage dressed in the glamorous style of bygone days, wide brim straw hat, high heels and all.  After lamenting her present predicament she reverts to childhood, affecting the change of age with a series of costume changes and speaking in a child’s voice.  While all theater requires a leap of the imagination, the spare sets in the cramped performance space afforded by this packed dining room tested the limits of the audience’s imagination. 

 The script, like all of Laurence Holder’s plays, evokes all the important people, places and events that recreate the historical milieu in which the drama is set.   Zora made her entrance into New York as a student at Barnard College, Columbia University’s college for women, and Holder delves into her experience studying with Franz Boas, the pioneering American anthropologist.   She went from naïve country girl to a Jazz Age flapper as the result of an amazing red and black flapper outfit that displayed her striking physical assets to great advantage.  Ms. Badon pranced and danced about the stage as she brought Holder’s historical portrait of Zora and 1920’s Harlem bubbling to life. 

 The Real Zora

 Zora looking glamorous

 Looking smart and glamorous

 

 The costume changes, which are essential to creating the grand illusion that we are witnessing the different phases of Zora’s life is aided greatly by excellent choices of music, as nothing evokes the zeitgeist of a bygone age like music.   Her fourth costume change is a chic black suit, which she wears as if it were molded to her voluptuous pecan tan frame, and it evokes a sophisticated Zora as she recounts her experiences as a published writer living off the patronage of Charlotte Osgood Mason, a rich eccentric white woman with quaint ideas about black people and the art they create.   She recounts how she had to do a little “Tommin” in order to remain in the good graces of the silly white woman whom they all referred to as “Godmother,” because she insisted that the art they produce must be “primitive!”   She also evokes the pathos that accompanied the death of the “Harlem Renaissance” when the depression came, the money dried up, and Harlem was no longer in vogue.

We next see her dressed in bohemian style smoking wisdom weed and contemplating an offer by a lover to get hitched.  However she makes it clear that the domestic role wives were expected to play held no charms for her.  But considering her bleak economic prospects she agrees to marry Herbie, who is a musician and dancer.   It didn’t last long, and she laments the failure of her marriage and her failed relations with men in general.  From her father, to Langston Hughes – whom she had once adored but had a falling out with over the play they co-authored, “Mule Bone.”  Next we see her as the folklorist who has collected a great collection of folk tales that she cannot get published.  She ruminates over her plight and wonders if the reason she can’t find a publisher is because “They don’t like the way I portray my people: Big, bad, and independent!”   Then she is suddenly approached about writing fiction and we witness the birth of her fine 1934 novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine.

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When she returns after the intermission Ms. Badon is Zora at her most glamorous; she is stunning in a floor length gown and mink stole adorning her honey brown skin.  The big band music is swinging and she is in high spirits as she plays the grand dame who is riding high with literary success.  She storms about chastising the black critics who misunderstood what she was trying to achieve in her beautifully textured novel Their Eyes were Watching God, which Oprah Winfrey made into a television movie starring the fabulous Halle Berry. 

The most poignant aspect of this cleverly written vignette is her excoriation of Richard Wright and his sad suffering Negroes.  She told us how she would never invite those sad sacks to dinner at her crib.  It was a wonderful way of exploring the conflict between Zora and Wright – which in effect represents two visions of black American life in the apartheid south.  The audience was with her – grunting their approval – as she agonized over the fact that poor Richard’s tragic vision of black people was all the white folks wanted to hear.  Thus there was little room for Zora’s affirmative vision of black southern life.  She also denounces the patrician and hypercritical reviews of the Howard University Philosopher Alain Locke.  She dances to conjure music, old time gospels and curses the philandering younger man she married.  Then as she retires for a costume change we are anointed with the heavenly and sensuous blues sound of Charlie Parker playing “Stella By Starlight.” 

When we next see Ms. Badon she is decked out in a white linen jacket and wide brim white straw hat, looking too marvelous for words as the music evokes the elegance of a bygone age in Afro-American life.   She denounces the Communists, accuses them of using Richard Wright and Paul Robeson, and sings the praises of American democracy while denouncing the desires of some black folks who would abandon black institutions in favor of integrating with whites.  This attitude led her to oppose the landmark 1954 Supreme Court Decision in Brown Vs The Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. Here Laurence Holder has not only done his home work but has made the most of the fruits of his labors; capturing the complex nuances of Zora’s thought about race, art and politics in American society.

With the next costume change Zora is adorned in her bathroom ruminating about her illness, and the lack of interest by publishers in her work although she was one of the most versatile writers in America.  And most of all she laments the destruction of what was left of her reputation due to a false charge of sodomizing a 10 year-old-boy.  She tells us the case was thrown out after the authorities discovered that the boy’s mother concocted the story due to a personal grudge she had against Zora, and furthermore the boy had a history of emotional problems. 

 Alas, we finally see Zora as a down and out writer moving on in age with no interests in her work by magazine editors and book publishers.  But still she regales us with a tall tale.  In this Zora at least, the fire in her soul never dies. It is a heroic performance by Ms. Badon, who holds the audience – which included the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist and distinguished editor Les Payne – in the palm of her hand for an hour and twenty minutes. When she had spoken her last lines, the applause was tumultuous from the packed room; and she received their generous ovation like the gracious southern lady that she is.   Bravo!!

 Actress and Entreprenuer Antonia Badon

 DSC00684

 

Promoting her Play at Harlem cultural event

 

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Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

November 10 2009

* This review was originally published on

The Black World Today

January 27, 2007

*Ms. Badon is presently playing Zora at:

 The George Faison Theater in Manhattan

** Photo of Ms. Badon by: Playthell Benjamin