Archive for Rome Neal

Fanfares for a Culture Hero!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on June 14, 2015 by playthell

Select Senator Pic

Senator Bill Perkins, Rome Neal and Producer Woody King
 An Evening of Banana Puddin, Panegyrics and Jazz

It was yet another wonderful evening of performing art at the Nuyorican Theater. But on this occasion it was the indefatigable impresario Rome Neal that was the raison d’etre for the festivities, as the performers turned out to honor a man that has done so much to advance their careers by providing a space and opportunity to perform in New York City.   For the performing artists the Big Apple is a Darwinian milieu, red of tooth and claw, where only the strong and persistent even if talented and gifted will survive. Rome Neal personifies that intrepid spirit.

With little more than spit, grit and mother wit Rome has not only made a place for himself as an actor and director in the theater, but has become an important independent producer of Jazz performances.  In his role as Jazz impresario he has presented such unique shows as “Women in Jazz” and “LGBT Jazz Greats,” in which he has introduced these Jazz musicians to a wider audience than they might otherwise have had an opportunity to play for.

His “Banana Puddin” Jazz concerts have featured a wide variety of musicians such as “A Night of Legends Featuring Barry Harris, Randy Weston and  Danny Mixon.”  His “Young and the Jazzy” series has also uncovered obscure gems whose prodigious talents might have gone unrecognized.  Rome’s “Japanese Jazz Connections” concerts showcased many of the outstanding Japanese Jazz musicians who migrate to New York in search of the source of their art the way Muslims go to Mecca.  He is continuing the tradition begun by Dr. Billy Taylor, the late great Jazz pianist/composer/bandleader .

From his base at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side, Rome has produced both innovative theater and cutting edge Jazz performances.  As the Director of Theater in this landmark East Village cultural emporium Rome has produced the plays of Laurence Holder – the Dean of playwrights that mine the treasure trove of Afro-American history and employ its riches as the basis for their dramas – and has single handedly kept the dramatic voice of the great Oakland California based novelist/dramatist/poet/essayist Ishmael Reed alive in New York.

An iconoclastic satirists who wields his pen like the sword of an avenging angel, Reed – whom English Professor and insightful critic Leslie Fiedler has called “a highbrow Ironist” and The Nation has declared the most important American satirist since Mark Twain –  has been practically banished by a Euro-American cultural establishment that ought to be celebrating him for enriching American literature and thought.  Rome has come repeatedly to Reed’s rescue by producing his plays in New York; if this were the sum total of his activities as a cultural impresario it would be a worthy legacy.  But he has done so much more, especially in the realm of music.

The liveliest and most spiritually moving of the arts, it is not unusual for people working in other art forms to become mesmerized by the power of music and wish to become involved with this intoxicating medium of expression, but few have managed to make this transition on the level of Neal….Ishmael Reed’s conquest of the piano being the exception that proves the rule.  Reed has become so proficient a pianist that Rome produced a concert featuring the great writer as a pianist.

Rome’s metamorphosis from actor/director to singer and Jazz impresario seems to really take off with his riveting performance of Thelonious Monk, in an insightful one man play written by Lawrence Holder. (See, Monk: the Play on this blog)   Rome’s performance as the enigmatic Jazz piano virtuoso Thelonious Monk is a marvel to behold, a tour de force.  Like all great acting performances we witness Rome morph into his character until we are unable to separate the actor from his role and we forget that he is acting. Which, after all, is the essence of the thespian’s art.

Rome Neal in his signature role
Rome Neal, actor performs in his award winning play "Monk"

Rome Neal, actor performs in his award winning play “Monk”

 A remarkable transformation

Witnessing Rome’s actions since he began playing Monk it sometimes appears that he too could not distinguish the difference between himself and the role.  For instance he began taking music lessons with the great Jazz pianist Barry Harris at the Jazz Cultural Center, a unique learning and performance venue in Tribeca where apprentice where tutored by master musicians in a collegial environment, and he learned to sing.  I confess that I was skeptical of Rome’s new venture, having grown up surrounded by great singers – my next door neighbor Blanch Hammond won a national talent competition singing an extremely difficult passage from Wagner – and had once served as bandleader for Jean Carn, one of the outstanding singers of the twentieth century, I have exacting standards for singers.

Hence I thought Rome’s chances of succeeding at becoming a singer were less than a snowball’s chances in a steel furnace.  Furthermore I did not hestitate to make my feelings known in unambiguous language; willing to risk brusisng his feelings in order to rescue my friend from embarking on a fool’s errand. I was vocal  critic. But he proved me wrong when he played the lead part in Laurence Holder’s play about a Jazz singer: “The Crooner.”

Despite the fact that he would probably not been cast in this role if he were not the producer/director of the play, Rome held his own in the production.  Again I was a first hand witness to his incredible tenacity and his willingness to risk failure in order to realize his artistic aims.  Many of the people who turned out to celebrate Rome’s 12th year as producer of the Banana Pudding Jazz Series at the Nuyorican have benefited by his tireless efforts in behalf of Jazz artists and thespians; efforts fueled by a heroic optimism that come what may great art will find a way.

It was a grand celebration, an outpouring of love and appreciation as one artist after another took the stage and offered musical libations to a respected elder of their community.  Most of the performers were instrumentalists because Jazz is a complex instrumental music that prizes virtuosity and spontaneus innovation, but the singers chimed in too and had their say.  It was an evening of cookers, straight ahead swing, Duke and Dizzy’s thing. They swung so hard the hoofers got up and got down; tapping out complicated rhythms of the sort that inspired the best drummers in the Jazz tradition until tap went the way of the dinosaurs – crushed by changing public taste and the imperatives of the marketplace.

Rome’s love of Jazz is extraordinary…one gets the impression that exposure to it enriches his life in a special way that few can share or even understand. However Rome also deeply believes that exposure to Jazz music can enrich the life of anyone; I believe it is what inspires his efforts as a Jazz impresario.  The extent of this belief was dramatically revealed during his recuperation from a bad fall off a ladder while working on a set at the Nuyorican.  When he began his rehabilitation from the serious injuries resulting from the fall at Governeur Health clinic, the therapist asked him what kind of music he liked; as music is increasingly recognized by medical practitioners for having therapeutic powers.

Rome told the physical therapist, a young white woman, that he loved Thelonious Monk. Although she had never heard of him, through the magic of the internet she found Monk’s music and put it on.   As they began the workout Rome started to tell her Monk’s story and she was amazed at his knowledge of this obscure musician whose existence she had never heard of a few moments ago.

When she asked him how he knew so much about Monk, Rome told her that he had played Monk in an award winning one man play.  Then he began to recite poignant passages from Holder’s play.  And when Round bout Midnight came on – a canonical composition in Jazz – Rome sang the lyrics to her.  He watched a change come over her as the soulful blues and abstract truth of Monk’s musical revelations began to mess with her mind….at the end of the session she left wanting to hear more of Monk’s music.

From his description of the experience, I was reminded of some lines from “The Ballad of Thelonious Monk,” written by Jimmy Rowles, made famous by Carmen McCrea, but most convinvingly recorded by a male country and western singer – my favorite version: “I used to think cowboy music/ was the only thing there was….and then I heard Thelonious Monk.”  The song goes on to explain the marvelous effect monks music had on his life, explaining that his horse wouldn’t go to sleep unless he played “Ruby My Dear.”

The word got around the hospital that they had a great actor and Jazz impresario as a patient.  Before he was done Rome produced a special women’s jazz concert and dedicated it to his female doctor and therapist.  They attended as honored guest and it was a great moment for them.  He later produced a Jazz concert for his team of orthopedic surgeons and they all came out.  Many were introduced to the art of jazzing for the first time, and they have come back for more. This, in essence, is Rome at his best.  He is ever the Jazz Impresario.

One of the grandest moments in an evening of magic moments was when Harlem state Senator Bill Perkins presented a Proclamation from the New York Senate commending Rome for his contribution to the arts, an honor he exuberantly shared with his grandchildren, Delano and Jolie.  Perkins had made the arduous journey from the Capitol, which is upstate in Albany, after the morning session in the Senate in order to make the tribute and present the Proclamation in person.  Rome, in turn, surprised Senator Perkins with a Shekere Award; which he bestows on outstanding lovers and supporters of the arts.  It was an enchanted evening….one befitting a devoted Eulyptian and fearless cultural warrior.  

Senator Perkins reading the Prolamation
As grandaughter boldly looks to the heavens
Rome with Senator Bill Perkins
 Presenting the Proclamation to Rome’s Grand Daughter Joile
Rome presenting the Shekere to Senator Perkins
DSCN0026 A Special Award for Eulypians
Showing the Senator how to shake that thang
Tapping out a rhythm on a stringed gourd with Cowry shells
Woody King Jr.
DSCN0019Offering up praise songs to the man of the hour
The Jazz Impresario Anoints the Audience
 Droppin Science big time
 Rome and Songstress Rosanna Vitro


Musicians came from everywhere
Yoichi Uzeki all the way from Japan
 And Fredrika Krier came from Germany






Alto Saxophonist T.K. Blue


Trumpeter and Congero: Michael C. Lewis and Steve Kroon




Tenor man Arthur Green added a grand voice




Pianist and Bassist: Andre Chez Lewis and Corcoran Holt


Patience Higgins and the Boys


 Hoofer Hank Smith took the Floor
Third Choice
Tapping out Complex Jazz Rhythms

 First Choice

Trading twelves with the Drummer


 The Singers!

Eric FraizerSwinging the Blues
You Don’t Know What Love Is……


 ……Until You Know the Meaning of the Blues
Like a beautiful Bird of Paradise
Leziie Harrison thrilled audience and musicians alike


 Rusannah Swung Blue Monk with a whole lotta soul!



Steve Cromity wasAll Blues!

 The Man of the Hour!


Expresses his gratitude to the artists and audience


Double Click on link to see video

Praise Songs For A Literary Lion!

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Ishmael Reed with tags , , on November 22, 2010 by playthell

Master Of Ceremonies Rome Neal and Basir Mchawi

Homage To A Word Sorcerer

Although the tribute to novelist, poet, playwright, essayist and Librettist Ishmael Reed in the East Village Sunday Afternoon was ignored by the press here in the media capitol of the world, it was a notable event in the literary history of New York City.  Mr. Reed is one America’s most prolific, imaginative and erudite writers – arguably the most important of his generation – thus he well deserves any accolades bestowed upon him by his readers and critics as he recedes into the autumn of life and the twilight of a marvelous career. After an elaborate opening statement by the Master of ceremonies – in which he acquainted the audience with the work of Mr. Reed and reminded us of his long association with the playwright as the producer and director of his plays here at the Nuyorican Poets Café – Rome Neal introduced the first speaker, the gifted modern composer Carmen Moore.

The internationally renowned Afro-American composer provided us an interesting view of how Ishmael’s words have inspired him to create complex musical compositions. “Whenever Ishmael calls me and says he has an interesting poem I know he’s telling me to get to work,” says Mr. Moore, who had just returned from the G-20 economic summit in South Korea where he conducted an orchestra performing music he had been commissioned to write for the occasion.

It was instructive to me especially, because I have been writing lyrics to music for some time.  Here was a revealing look at the flip side of the coin.  I hear beautiful music and the notes turn into words if I concentrate on them; Mr. Moore explained how the process works in reverse – how a composer can look at words on a page and hear music.  Yet it remains an unfathomable gift to me, an inexplicable alchemy that in it’s higher expressions achieves a transcendent power to elevate the spirit that approaches the divine.

The composer was followed by Bashir Mchowi – a Professor of English, radio producer and longtime activist Afrocentric pedagogue. Professor Mchowi gave an expansive presentation that began with an impassioned polemic about the black identity of ancient Egyptian civilization and moved in sweeping fashion to discussions of Ishmael’s oeuvre as a novelist, poet, essayist and musician.  His interpretations of the esoteric allusions and complex symbols in Reed’s fictional masterworks such as “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down” and “Mumbo Jumbo” were both entertaining and enlightening. The Professor’s style was conversational rather than pedantic; which was pretty much as he had planned it, having announced that he was eschewing an academic approach to the subject at hand.

Steve Cannon, the poet, novelist, editor, literary promoter and cultural icon of the East village knows Ish best among the panelists because they are very good and old friends.  As might be expected his talk was informative…but it was also surprisingly entertaining. Mr. Cannon followed professor Mchowi’s example and adopted a conversational style; regaling the audience with amusing inside stuff as he told tales out of school.

We gained important insights into how Ish conceived his masterwork “Mumbo Jumbo,” and much about his method of working. “I consider Ishmael an investigative reporter first and a novelist second,” says Cannon.  “Whenever he takes a position on something, no matter how controversial, I know he knows what he is talking about and can back it up with the facts.  He is a very learned man.”  This explains the erudite and timely nature of Ishmael’s novels, and the revelations in his essays.  Steve’s expansive rap was a magical experience in which we were entertained and instructed simultaneously.

For my part, when I was given the floor I read some excerpts from a critical treatise I wrote on Ishmael that was published in the prestigious journal “The World And I.” Titled “The Gospel According To Ishmael” – the essay explores the esthetic philosophy and literary technique of Mr. Reed, and offers an assessment of the extent to which he has achieved his goals.  Since all the speakers before me were eloquent and expansive, I thought the better of reading a 4,000 word treatise and simply summarized my conclusions and invited people to read the text when I posted it on the Commentaries.

Vinie Borroughs

The final speaker on the panel was Vinie Burroughs, a brilliant actress and story teller, who called Ish “A magician with words.”  As an actress who is conversant with the classical literature of western theater and the modern theater of Africa and the Neo-African Diaspora of the Americas, as well as the folklore of Africa and Afro-Americans, she is well positioned to discuss the author’s importance as a playwright. “He breaks the rules to create another reality; which is possible because of his great knowledge of literature and history. You have to know the rules in order to break them!”   And she warned against writers trying to experiment with new theatrical forms without a solid knowledge of tradition. This is an important piece of advice which is just as valuable for musicians as it is for writers!

Then Ms. Burroughs read a monologue from “Flight to Canada, Ish’s brilliant absurdist novel of slavery.  Her performance was moving, as she made the voices come to life. She assumed the full dramatis personae of the character “Raven Quickskill,” the erudite slave with a grand sense of irony. For her reading of the other story Ms. Burroughs had to assume the character of England’s Queen Elizabeth.  Given the deeply satirical nature of the text – it is a passionate note from Queen Elizabeth to the Cockney houseboy who was discoverd in her chambers and was reported in the press as just having wanderd in her bedroom by accident –  she was required to create believable renditions of arrogance, hauteur, irony, fained innocence, and comedy.  All actresses in the audience left the Nuyorican Café with a far deeper understanding of their craft.  It was a bravura performance.


The Master Fabulist Chillin at the Nuyorican Cafe

The Man Of the hour

Through it all Ishmael sat in the back of the audience occasional guffawing at the comments about his work.  Finally he was called to the stage and the audience bade him speak!  A jovial fellow with an unassuming manner,  the unsuspecting observer would never guess that this genteel man of letters wields his pen like a deadly weapon that can induce death by a thousand barbs.

First he talked about the art of music and his long collaboration with Carman Moore.  He told fascinating stories that revealed the source of his troubles with identity politicians of the left and right – especially white chauvinist.  A compelling and representative anecdote was a tale about having been commissioned by the San Francisco Opera Company to write the Libretto for an Opera with music by Carman Moore.

To anyone who is familiar with his work it seems quite adventurous to select Ishmael Reed as the author of a story about the crucifixion of Christ.  Predictably, the music was heavenly but the text was blasphemous…he made Judas Iscariot a hero!

Hence, it is easy to see that Mr. Reed has been denied the celebration his literary achievement merits by the American cultural establish because he constantly attacks the master narrative of American Civilization concocted by the official mythmakers, and the Eurocentric epistemology upon which it rest. As Ishmael talked about the trials and tribulations that will befall writers who dare to slaughter sacred cows – especially black writers slaughtering white cows – he took us on a fascinating Journey into highly esoteric spiritual philosophies.

Rome Neal and Andre The Poet

Return Of The Pork Pie Hats

However on this occasion Ish was in the mood to swing…do Bird and Dizzy’s thing.  And swing he did.  When Rome Neal requested a song, the great writer sat down at the acoustic piano and played a jazz standard. Swinging lightly and changing the groove at will, he laid down smooth chord progressions with his left hand while spinning off staccato lyrical lines with his right in the classic Bop style. I was surprised and impressed; playing solo piano while improvising on chord changes in bop time is no picayune trick.  It’s really something to talk about.  The whole gig was a blast!

Swinging the Blues

Grooving High


The Poet And his Admirers

It Was A Celebration!


***Ishmael is also one of our most insightful media critics.

His latest book is “Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media.”

It is a must read and I am presenting a review which will be posted here.


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

November 22, 2010

*Photos of Ishmael at the piano

and the group portrait by: Jo Ann Cheatham

Other photos by: Playthell

The Photo of Ms. Burroughs is uncredited




** Below is the text of a critical essay I wrote on Ishmael published in the journal: “The world and I.”  It states my basic view of his literary oeuvre.

The Gospel According To Ishmael!


Droppin Science At The Nuyorican


When the group of international scholars and students from twenty nations who had gathered at the Sorbonne in February 1992 heard Ishmael Reed open his reading with lines from his new novel Japanese by Spring, which was then a work in progress, almost everybody cracked up with laughter. And as he continued to read from his manuscript–a hilarious tale about a Japanese takeover of Jack London College, a small, elite, private liberal arts college in Oakland, California–it became increasingly clear that we were witnessing the birth of yet another masterwork from the writer whom the Nation magazine has justly designated “the brightest contributor to American satire since Mark Twain.”

The finished product has justified our faith. For Japanese by Spring is a unique narrative that is at once a tour de force of literary innovation that violates nearly all the conventional wisdom about composing a novel, and an erudite fictive polemic satirizing both the intellectual pomposity and hypocrisy of the Eurocentric cultural elite, who have traditionally run our universities, and the vulgar opportunism and banality of radical feminists and Afrocentric ideologues.

Chastising the charlatans on all sides of a question while seeking to enlighten the untutored mob is characteristic of Reed’s literary oeuvre–a body of work that now includes nine novels, four volumes of poetry, two anthologies, three plays, two television productions, and three collections of essays, with another nearing publication. In his most recent essay collection–and most controversial–Writin’ Is Fightin’ Reed provides us an unabridged glimpse of his take on the writers craft:

“I don’t have a predictable, computerized approach to political and social issues in a society in which you’re either for it or agin it. Life is much more complex. And so for my early articles about black on black crime, I’ve been criticized by the left, and for my sympathy with some “left wing” causes I’ve been criticized by the right, though from time to time I’ve noticed that there doesn’t seem to be a dime’s worth of difference between the zealotry of the left and that of the right.”

Reed, who calls his career “Thirty-seven years of boxing on paper,” which is the subtitle of the book, believes that the writer must view all dogmas and orthodoxies with a jaundiced eye. “I think that a certain amount of philosophical skepticism is necessary,” he says. “I think it’s important to maintain a prolific writing jab, as long as my literary legs hold up, because even during these bland and yuppie times, there are issues worth fighting about.”


Multiple targets


In Japanese by Spring, we get the kind of diversity of perspective that allows Reed to critically examine all of the issues that are of enduring interest to him: white cultural chauvinism, white and black feminist collusion in defaming black men, the need for a multicultural perspective, the duplicity of white liberals, the opportunism and ideological bankruptcy of many black nationalists, the viciousness of academic competition, and the absurdity of intellectual fashion. Two of his pet peeves–the unwarranted genuflection before black women writers by the feminist literati and their fellow travelers, and the conflict between pampered academic critics and struggling creative writers–are given a full airing.

In the following passage the narrator paints a vivid picture of the conflict between the critics and writers when Benjamin Chappie Puttbutt, an English teacher at the college, arrives in Paris to deliver a lecture at a conference that includes a contingent of creative writers:

“He was to be the featured speaker at the Nathan Brown Centennial celebration; the writers had been brought along for entertainment. The chauffeur held the door open for him. He climbed in. He instructed the chauffeur to drive past the writers. They were shouting at him. They apparently wanted him to give them a lift. He asked the chauffeur to speed up. Some of the writers had recognized him, but he didn’t wave. He pretended to be absorbed in Le Figaro, which had his photo on the cover.”

Reed explores the question of the white feminists’ role in the defamation of black men by constructing a heated exchange between Chappie Puttbutt and Marsha Marx, chairwoman of the women’s studies department. Prior to the Japanese takeover of the college, Puttbutt was just an unimportant lecturer working on a semester by semester basis, hoping to acquire tenure but frustrated in this effort at every turn. However, when Dr. Yamato–with whom Puttbutt had been taking private lessons in Japanese–suddenly becomes president of the college, there is a radical change in Puttbutt’s fortunes as he is selected to become the top assistant to the new president. The roles quickly reverse, and his former tormentors now seek his favor as the new Japanese owners begin to reorganize and reduce staff. Arrogant Marx, who has always treated Puttbutt with disdain, is forced to plead for the survival of her department, which is scheduled to be combined with the Department of European Studies.

“You’re moving us over there with those patriarchal pigs?”

“I’ll be frank about it, Marsha . . . . The Women’s Studies department is merely a front for European studies. You said so yourself.” Puttbutt picked up a sheet of paper that was lying on his desk. “Europe is the source of our law, our values, and our culture, yet little had been done to recognize the role of women, in the establishment of this great civilization.” He quoted from the MLA Speech she’d made. “The way I see it, there is no significant difference between your aims and those of your patriarchal allies. You just wanted in. What we’ve decided is to hire fifty percent men and fifty percent women.”

However, Ms. Marx would not hear of any such arrangement and protested,

“The members of my department insist upon working in a male-free department.” To which Puttbutt replied, “If you feel that way why don’t you move your people to Mills?. . . We will not tolerate any separation between the sexes.” Finally Marx begins to plead and tries to win Puttbutt to her position. “Look Chap-pie . . . We should be on the same side. United in our fight against white male patriarchy and its control of modes of production. Both sexism and racism are equal contradictions.”

But Chappie’s not buying it.

“Oh yeah, then explain to me why black and brown women are worse off than white women. Why there are few women of color in the main feminist organizations and why the black and brown women are always accusing you of racism . . . . You’re looking out for yourself. I’m going to look out for me . . . . You don’t jump on men of your background as much as you do the fellahs. You lynched Clarence Thomas . . . . You white gender-first feminists in the media and on the campuses have gone Clarence Thomas crazy . . . . The only difference between you and the women in the Klan is that the women in the Klan dress better.”

Here Reed has his finger on the pulse of the Afro-American community. All one need do to verify this is to view the Frontline documentary on the Thomas-Hill minstrel show produced by Ofra Bikel for PBS. Reed also uses the Japanese takeover to chastise opponents of a multicultural pedagogy by having Dr. Yamato assault the traditional Eurocentric canon:

“We’re going to close down the Department of Humanity and move it into ethnic studies. You have African studies, Native American studies, Chicano studies, Asian-American studies, and African-American studies. We will have a new department, European studies, with the same size and budget as the rest. My backers would like to eliminate all of these courses which allow for so much foolishness . . . . All they accomplish for these people is to promote such dubious claims that Europe is the birthplace of science, religion, technology and philosophy. I’ve been reading this so-called philosopher, Plato. All about such foolishness as to whether the soul has immortality. What nonsense. Hegel and the rest are full of such nonsense also. This ignorant man maintained that the Chinese had no philosophy. What rubbish. No wonder the Americans can’t make a decent automobile . . . . If one were to apply the empirical razor to all of these so-called theories, the entire history of Western philosophy could be covered in one week.”

Most of the arguments presently raging in America’s universities are scrutinized in this novel. And the ideologues on all sides are lampooned, or harpooned, by Reed’s irreverent, satirical wit. There are so many learned and insightful observations littering this text–including weighty lessons in comparative language and religion–that the thoughtful reader must leave it with the changed perspective of those who have heard the voice of a prophet.

It is a testament to his understanding of the ambiguity of truth, and the tendency to commit folly that appears to be an indelible part of human nature, that Dr. Yamato comes to Jack London College to correct the wicked ways of ethnocentric whites but ends up becoming a power-crazed Japanese chauvinist who renames the school and its major buildings after Japanese war criminals, demands that faculty and students take IQ tests, and commands all professors to learn Japanese by spring. In the end, Professor Puttbutt, who had at first welcomed the Japanese conquest, rejoins his colleagues and plots Dr. Yamato’s demise–evidently preferring the knaves he knew to the scoundrels he didn’t.

Cosmopolitan Afrocentrism


While Reed’s worldview can be considered Afrocentric–in the sense that he proceeds from the perspective of one who is conscious of what it means to be an African-derived person in the modern world–his Afrocentrism is cosmopolitan rather than provincial. Indeed, Leslie Fiedler’s description of Reed as a “highbrow ironist” and a “professional dissenter and baiter of the smug, black or white” is right on the money. Witness these observations of the narrator in Japanese by Spring:

“The English department and the African-American department were similar. They had the habit of weeding out dissidents. You just weren’t rehired. They were both paralyzed by theory, too. A famous black feminist reflected the thinking in her remark that she was more interested in representations than reality. (While thousands of black families were living out in the streets, the black intelligentsia at the New York Exegesis were obsessed with the questions of identity.) But nobody complained about these attitudes for fear of playing into the hands of the enemy (white people)”.

Reed’s cosmopolitanism is best evidenced in the extraordinary range of his reading and the skillful manner in which he weaves universal themes into his narratives about Afro-American life. With a highly eclectic interest in world history; art, music, languages, literature, politics, mysticism, and religious mythology, he employs a hyperactive imagination to produce some of the most erudite and inventive narratives presently being composed in the English language. This passage from his neoslave narrative Flight to Canada is a case in point. Here the protagonist and narrator, Raven Quickskill, a runaway slave and writer, chastises Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for stealing her plot from the story of ex-slave Josiah Henson.

“When Lord Byron came out of the grave to get her, the cartoon showed Harriet leaving her dirty stains all over Byron’s immaculate white statue. Did Josiah Henson do this? The man so identified with Uncle Tom that his home in Dresden, Canada is called Uncle Tom’s museum? Did Tom have the power the Brazilians say he has? Does he know “roots”? Umbanda pretos velhos, pai Thomas, pai Thomas. The curer. Did Tom make Byron’s ghost rise out of his undead burial place of romance and strangle Harriet’s reputation? . . . Do the old African and Indian gods walk the land as the old one said they would, too proud to reveal themselves to the mean spirited?”

The highly allusive, esoteric language gleaned from fragments of the lives of historical personalities and exotic cultures illustrated by the passage above is a pervasive feature of Reed’s novelistic technique. Hence, it is quite literally true that you will get from his books what you bring to them. His tendency to rely on obscure religious systems like the orisha voodoo of the Yoruba, or the Egyptian and Greek “mysteries”–often rendered utilizing all the devices available to the able poet (puns, allegory, and extended metaphors)–makes his symbol imagery incomprehensible to some wanna-be critics.

Reading him I sometimes get the feeling that he, like Harold Cruse and C.L.R. James, has read damn near everything of importance. One highly regarded professional critic of “black women’s literature”–a genre I am not sure actually exists–frankly admitted to me in Paris that “I just don’t understand him.” However, her comment does call to mind one clearly observable difference in the writing of black men and women: Black women generally write about interpersonal relationships centered around the Afro-American family and community, while black men seek to change the world by seizing cultural leadership and subverting the psychologically coercive icons that control the spiritual impulses of American civilization.

One critic who does understand the fiction of Ishmael Reed and has written intelligently on the subject is Bernard Bell, professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University and author of the seminal text The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. According to Bell,

“Ishmael Reed is not only one of the nation’s most gifted and controversial innovative artists but also the leading promoter of black post-modernist writing . . . . uppity, pretentious, pompous, sexist, and sophomoric are the most frequent if not the kindest names hurled by unsympathetic critics at Reed for the neo-hoodoo aesthetic he develops between 1967 and 1983 . . . . At the heart of Reed’s neo-hoodoo aesthetic, which is largely constructed from residual elements of syncretistic African religions (vodum, pocomania, candomble, Macumba, and hoodoo) in the Caribbean and the Americas, especially Haiti, Brazil, and the United States, is a belief in the power of the unknown, particularly as expressed in artistic freedom and originality.”

In a recent conversation with this writer, Reed explained the evolution of his novelistic style thusly: “When you encounter writers like James Joyce, Nathanael West, and Chester Himes, and you find out that there are various ways of writing, you become interested in new possibilities. I began with models like that–fabulist and prose writers, visionaries, cultural nationalists, and poets. Even then, in the 1950s we were searching for some kind of identity that was different from the one that was based on the standard school curriculum. So even then there were hints of going in another direction. Although because of our enforced ignorance of Afro-American history and literature we didn’t know that a lot of this had already been done.”

“Under those circumstances a generation starts out as if they are the only one to encounter the problems that they face. Then they find out that there’s a path, a tradition. We were told that there was not a tradition. I think a lot of African-American students today don’t realize how it was in the 1950s when there was no black studies. In those days if you wanted to learn about our history and traditions you had to do it on your own. When I was a kid I was deeply influenced by a pamphlet I picked up by Joel A. Rodgers: “One Hundred Amazing Facts about the Negro, with Complete Proof.”‘

Reed’s last comment about the role of Rodgers’ work in raising his consciousness about the possibility of a hidden black tradition is revealing. Rodgers dealt with several black traditions, including Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia, North America, and the Caribbean. His books was the path to racial enlightenment traversed by many of the black intellectuals and artists who were the avant-garde of the black power movement–on the cultural and political fronts–this writer included. Furthermore, Rodgers–like Benjamin Banneker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thomas Alva Edison, Henry Ford, Malcolm X, Harold Curse, Benjamin Franklin, and Ishmael Reed himself–belongs to the list of great American autodidacts who invented themselves.

They were men who followed their own star and blazed paths into unknown territory, whether in the arts or sciences. And the more I think about the gross liberties Reed has taken with the language, imagery, poetics, and narrative forms of English literature, the more I am persuaded that he is engaging in the same sort of artistic subversion and sabotage the careful reader will recognize in the fictions of James Joyce and the poetry of the negritude poets like Amié Cesaire, Leon Damas and, of course, Leopold Sedar Senghor. Just as the Irishman Joyce, and the Francophone West Indian and African poets, sought to subvert the language and literature of their imperial tutors, so has Reed reshaped the inherited language and literature of the Anglo-Saxon oppressor in America. And he has done a splendid job of it.

The subversive character of Afro-American art has been evident since antebellum days, when African Americans created a spiritual world of their own through their songs, tales, and folk religion–a religion that reshaped the great stories of the Old Testament into an instrument of liberation. This legacy of creative subversion was carried over into the post emancipation period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the Fisk Jubilee Singers mesmerized European and American audiences with the first concert music developed from folk songs born on American soil; Bert Williams and George Walker conquered Broadway with the cakewalk; and Paul Laurence Dunbar produced his “Lyrics of Lowly Life.”

But Ishmael Reed, the quintessential modernist, has produced a body of work whose subversions of conventional wisdom is closer to the musical heresies of Theolonius Monk, Charles “Yardbird” Parker, and John Coltrane. However, both in terms of idiomatic rapport and the sweeping innovations he has introduced to the Afro-American novel, Reed’s subversion of Euro-American literary conventions is nearest to that of Coltrane’s in music. And like Coltrane, he has also redefined and extended traditional Afro-American forms.

Reed’s subversion of traditional novelistic forms–which is to say, his innovations–can be clearly seen in the way he has handled such well-established American genres as the western and the detective story. He has also taken considerable liberties with the slave narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke Down is Reed’s take on the western novel, and Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red are his significations on the detective story.

But Reed’s cowboy, the Loop Garoo Kid, and Papa La Bas, the detective who unravels mysteries of cosmic proportions, have something in common that is conspicuously absent from other American novels of this genre: They utilize the magical powers of hoodoo–African black magic, the authentic remnants of Afro-American spiritual heritage. As Reed imagines him, the Kid is part figure from the Afro-American tall tale like High John the Conquoroo, and part Elegba, the trickster voodoo God of the Yoruba who guards the crossroads of life. Witness this description: “A cowboy so bad he made a working posse of spells phone in sick. A bull-whacker so unfeeling he left the print of winged mice on hides of crawling women.”

In spite of the grand imaginative adventures of Yellow Back Radio–in which Reed obliterates time and nullifies the restrictions imposed by history and assaults our sense of reality with Indian chiefs who ride around in flying saucers and ranching barons who spy on their cowboys through closed-circuit television cameras–or a slave who escapes from his master on a 747 jumbo jet in Flight to Canada, or the epic clash of African and European cosmologies in Mumbo Jumbo, Reed claims that in Japanese by Spring he is finally writing the kind of novel he really wants to write, because all of the major themes that recur in his novels are present here, and some, perhaps, reach their apotheosis.

For instance, although Yoruba cosmology has long informed Reed’s neo-hoodoo aesthetic, in the present novel he raises the discussion of this religion to new levels of didacticism. In a series of remarkable passages in the final chapter of the book, Reed not only provides us with his vision of the ultimate multicultural society; but also instructs us in the Yoruba language and celebrates both the lack of pretension in orisha voodoo–by holding an important religious service in a shopping mall–as well as its openness to all comers, regardless of race. He even appears in the narrative as himself in order to demonstrate the difficulty experienced by modern intellectuals in accepting the truths embodied in religious myths; people whose cynicism regarding irrational spiritual phenomena has been nurtured by prolonged exposure to the scientific method.

He tells us: “After the song to Olódümarè, Sányá explains that Yoruba people were worshipping Olódümarè thousands of years before Muhammad and Christ. (Being a democrat and a populist, the worship part worried homefolks Ishmael Reed. Sányá wanted Reed to participate in the meeting in a more active way, but Reed begged off, saying that he was not a religious person and just wanted to observe.)”

This passage suggests that Reed’s relationship to orisha voodoo resembles that of many of the Iranian intellectuals who helped bring the Ayatollah Khomeini to power and then fell from favor. They embraced Islam because it supplied a counterpoint to the cosmology of their Western Christian oppressors, symbolized by America. But in the end they could no more submit to the religious dogma of the mullahs than Reed is prepared to prostrate himself before the orishas of his West African ancestors upon the instruction of Sányá, the voodoo priest.

Indeed, Reed has been criticized by true believers for half stepping. But these acolytes have misunderstood his purpose. Reed is primarily interested in voodoo as an indigenous African mythological system with which he informs his art, not as a path to personal salvation. And he is also deeply impressed with its philosophical approach to the relationship between man, God, and the things of this world; a relationship that is so plastic it allows the religion to continuously accommodate new ideas and anoint new Gods. This principle informs all of Reed’s novels but is exalted in Japanese by Spring to a sublime virtue.


Monk: Portrait of a Troubled Genius

Posted in Theater with tags , , , , , on October 14, 2009 by playthell

  Monk Returns to the Nuyorican Poets Café!


 Psychohistory as Theater


There are many ways to recount history.  Undoubtedly the most reliable method is that used in the works of professional historians, but it is not always the most compelling.  This has become especially so as the historical profession attempts to become more like the social sciences, privileging statistical analysis and theory construction over a dramatic narrative. This approach may serve just fine in discourses between historians, their colleagues and students, but it takes a good story to capture the hearts and imagination of lay audiences with no particular interest in the past. The historical novel has stepped into this vacuum and helped spread the scholarship of historians to a wider audience with varying degrees of success. It is a risky enterprise however, since the rules of evidence for writing historical fiction are not as rigorously defined as those for writing scholarly histories. This is also true of movies and theater. 

 Yet even so, in the USA the black theater has been on the forefront in clarifying the heroic legacy of hope, faith, struggle and cultural innovation that characterizes the black experience in the modern world. And based upon the nature of cinema and theater, as they have evolved in the US in any case, the theater remains the best medium for the serious exploration of complex character studies. While American films are increasingly driven by car chases, guns, bombs, and special effects, the theatrical drama remains character driven.  Furthermore, given the economics of theater and film production, the theater offers far more opportunities to control the final product, allowing black creative artists to define the image of Afro-Americans in the cultural marketplace rather than some money grubbing philistine interested only in the bottom line.

 Thus, for those who are interested in the Afro-American experience, or good theater, or both, it is great news that playwright Lawrence Holder, a master of the historical drama, and Rome Neal, an accomplished actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to late jazz piano master and composer Thelonius Monk, have collaborated on a play about this great musician and fascinating character. Both men are veterans of the theater, bold souls who persists against formidable odds to bring complex productions about Afro-American life and culture to the New York stage; a heroic enterprise or a fool’s errand depending upon your point of view. 

 Holder is a prolific author who estimates that he has written at least seventy-five plays – exploring contemporary as well as historical subjects. While an impressive feat on the face of it, one realizes the full measure of his accomplishment when compared to the fact that William Shakespeare’s oeuvre consists of thirty-seven plays. Hence seasoned patrons of black theater in New York City have all seen a Lawrence Holder play, for the range of his interests offers something for everybody. A man of eclectic interests, Holder has written several plays about the great southern essayist, novelist and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston, as well as plays about George Bush, Dr. Leonora Fulani and Malcolm X.  In fact I first saw the great Denzel Washington – who went on to become a two time Academy Award winner but was then an unknown – playing Malcolm X in Holders play, “When the Chicken’s Came Home to Roost.” 

 Now Holder has penned a play about the enigmatic genius Thelonious Monk; a man who often jumped up from his piano stool and danced, while the band played on.  A quintessential New Yorker of Carolina roots, and, I suspect from looking at his classically West African visage, of Geechee heritage, Monk was one of the late forties hep cats who launched the Be Bop revolution that made big bands passé’ for the young virtuoso’s who would take modern complex Afro-American instrumental art music to higher ground.  All the bad cats among the boppers – Bird, Diz, Klook, Max Roach, Tommy Potter, Charlie Christian, Oscar Pettiford, et al – say Monk was the man. 

 From their legendary jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, it was Monk’s approach to the harmonics of chord changes, along with Klook’s drumming, that made sense of the emerging style called “Bop;” an artistically challenging style that captured the imagination of all serious instrumentalists who heard it, and won devotees among musicians and fans of music around the world. A man with great generosity of spirit toward his fellow musicians, Monk said of his pivotal role in the creation of Bop: “If my own work had more importance than others, it is because the piano is the key instrument in music.”

 A longtime lover of the art of jazz, Holder has been a serious fan of Monk’s music since he was a teenager.  And he is old enough to have witnessed the late piano virtuoso perform live on many occasions. His first attempt to essay the character of Thelonius Monk for the stage came in 1992, when he wrote  “Monk and Bud,” a play about Monk and his great contemporary jazz pianist Bud Powell.  “I wrote Monk in “1999” because Rome asked me to write it.  He has an affinity for monk; they were born under the same birth sign. And he really digs Monk’s music.” In ninety minutes Holder has miraculously captured the many moods of Monk and presents us with an arresting character. It is a script that incorporates equal proportions of intelligence and insight. Attributes that, when coupled with solid historical research, can result in myth making that reveals deep truths about the subject of a play.

 In “Monk,” Holder has chosen the internal conflicts of an artist in turmoil as the major theme of the play as well as the source of its dramatic tension. “I want to give the audience a vision of a creative artist in crisis.  The sense of the crisis is what creates the drama for the audience as it unfurls, and the way he resolves it. Generally speaking we are dealing with a life cycle, so the unfolding of the crisis takes us right through the person’s life. Different things occurred during different moments and they create different sensations which he gives voice to. There is also much discussion of his music, and frank discussion of his drug use.  But our most important task is to give the audience a sense of Thelonius Monk as a physical person whom things happen to, and who eventually dies, as well as an understanding of the great artist as a human being.”

Monk At Work 

The Genuis At Work

Although “the play is the thing,” as the old adage councils, it is the actor who must bring it to life. Rome Neal seems born to this role. It is a demanding role that requires the actor to create the illusion that we are sharing the inner-life of a multifaceted genius.  With only a sparse set dominated by a piano, Rome riffs on the ivories, laughs and cries, lapses into fits of madness, offers complex commentaries on Jazz music, dances over and again to punctuate points made in his monologue, paints poignant portraits of other master musicians in the Afro-American tradition, and discuss the Darwinian environment of the music business which – like the jungle and show business in general – is red of tooth and claw! 

 A master of the actor’s craft, Rome is the rare thespian who is able to employ all the energies of his body and soul in bringing a character to life.  Equipped with a great script, Rome’s performance reminds me of Andre’ Watts playing Franz Lists’ Etudes on solo piano, or Isaac Stern’s solo performances of the Paganini variations on the violin. Some readers may find the comparison of Rome’s performance of a one-man play about a jazz musician with solo performances of classical music a bit odd; that a comparison with say, McCoy Tyner playing solo piano, would be more fitting.

But this argument fails to take into account that McCoy, like all jazz musicians, is playing variations on a theme that he improvises in the moment; while Rome is interpreting a script, which is the literary counterpart of the classic musical score, which, unlike the jazz score, affords no room for improvisation on the text. Hence, just as William Shakespeare is the literary counterpart of Johan Sebastian Bach, Lawrence Holder is the literary counterpart of William Grant Still.  I chose Still, rather than the Pulitzer Prize winning composer George Walker for instance, because like Holder, Still’s work consciously explores Afro-American traditions.

 Armed with Holder’s poetic and thoughtful text, Rome Neal anoints his audiences with great dramatic meditations on the life that was Thelonius Monk.  If the mark of true virtuosity is to make the difficult look easy, then Rome personifies the dramatic virtuoso. He can change our moods from joy to pathos with his body language and an expressive face that suggests a West African version of the Greek Masks of tragedy and comedy.  Aided by music and lighting effects, he makes full use of the few props that are available on the sparse set of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, which is the performance I saw – a performance that was roundly praised by his audience.

By simply changing hats Rome is able to give us different sides of Monk’s colorful personality; from the ebullient optimist confident of his place among the geniuses of modern music, to the depressed pessimist who lapses into fits of madness and despair. These are the marks of a great talent to be sure, but the complexities of the thespians art cannot be mastered with talent alone.  It also takes plenty of hard work i.e. study and practice.  Musicians call it “paying your dues.”

 Rome has paid plenty of dues to arrive at his present level of artistic achievement.  He was twenty years old before he was introduced to acting, virtually stumbling into a college acting class when forced to take a humanities elective while working on a business degree.  He showed promise quickly and was cast in “Our Town,” a play by Thornton Wilder. He soon fell in love with acting and minored in theater. When a job in business didn’t open up fast enough after graduation from college, Rome traveled to Africa where he wrote his first play, and upon his return six months later he began teaching an acting class at Tompkins Park in Brooklyn, where he founded a amateur theater troupe called the Neal Ensemble Theater Workshop. Over the last thirty years Neal has played and directed plays in the off off Broadway black theater as well as interracial off Broadway companies like The Theater for The New City, and The Nuyorican Poets Café, where he is the artistic director for theater productions.  

The path that led Rome to the Monk role began when Phillip Hayes Dean, himself a fine playwright, asked him to read the Monk character in Holder’s play “Monk and Bud.” Monk, whose life he felt mirrored his own in some fundamental ways, fascinated Rome. It was while directing Holder’s plays at the Theater for the New City later on that Rome realized that he was also the author of the Monk and Bud..  “When I directed ‘Red Channels -’ a play about the effects of the anti-communist witch hunt conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy on politically active black intellectuals, artists, and political leaders – I developed a great admiration and respect for Lawrence as a playwright, especially his historical plays and critiques of contemporary life and society.”  And it was this admiration for Holders unique talent that led Rome to ask Holder to write a one-man play about Thelonius Monk.

 A Mighty Three!

Max Roach and Rome Neal

Holder, Legendary Percussionist/bandleader Max Roach and Rome


 “Laurence wrote the Monk play in less than a week,” Rome recalls. “When I read it I was amazed, I thought it was great! I said to myself: ‘Well Rome, you’ve got yourself a great one man show.  So now you’ve got to get to work.’  I threw myself into studying the role, and we honed and polished it to a fine finish by staging three readings at the Nuyorican.  The readings were a month apart and this gave us a chance to re-write the script based on what we were learning from audience feedback. When we felt the play was ready, Lawrence and I co-produced the play at the Nuyorican Theater” However, although the play was performed at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, “Monk” was staged under the auspices of the Holder/Neal Production Company. The play’s initial run was two months. 

 Since then the play has gone through several productions including an off Broadway production with a marvelous new score of Monk inspired music composed by his contemporary, bassist Bill Lee, the father of the brilliant screenwriter/director Spike Lee. When Monk opened at the Abbingdon Theater at 312 west 36th street, just off Broadway between Eight and Ninth Avenues, it was the first time an Afro-American Writer and actor had shepherded and independent production from the publicly funded off off Broadway theater, to the commercial off Broadway theater.

 This was an important development not only for Neal and Holder, but also the entire black theater movement.  Although this dynamic duo’s production might not make it to the Promised land of Broadway, the Mecca of American theater just a few blocks away, they might well be blazing a path that future black theater productions might travel. to Broadway, the Mecca of American theater Hence anyone who would like to invest in Neal and Holder’s production should check out their investment plan on Rome Neal’s website.  It is the view of this critic that an investment in this play is an investment in the future of black theater. Once it becomes clear that the off off Broadway black theater can develop plays for Broadway, the sky’s the limit for black thespians. 

 Monk has now returned to its original home, the world famous Nuyorican Poets Café for the holidays and will be running nightly from December 18, through January 11.  anyone planning a visit to New York City over the Yule Tide season and would like to take in an evening of great theater then check out the critically acclaimed production of Monk, and witness the magic that won Rome the coveted Audelco Award for Solo Performance by an actor.




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York 

December 19, 2008