Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ronald K. Brown, Evidencing The Gift Of Dance

In 1985, at age of 18, Ronald K. Brown, the African-American choreographer, decided he wanted to form his own dance company. He had been told that "I had a good sense of movement, that my movement is original and new; they liked the things I was coming up with." But others in the dance world told him that he "was too young" to start a company and that he "should satisfy that dancer in me before I got hooked up and stuffed into choreographing."

Unabashedly Brown owns up to having an independent mind. "People offer their opinion, but they know I will continue to do what I want. I'll take their opinion and use as much of it as I want. The other stuff I'll shuck to a side for later use."

And so he went ahead and formed his dance company, Evidence, while dancing with Jennifer Muller/The Works.

When the Bedford-Stuyvesant native attended Brooklyn's Edward R. Murrow High School, he was. among other activities, on the school paper and appeared in several school productions. "By the time my junior year came around, I was toying with the idea of being a dancer. I decided to graduate a year early and go up to Vermont, to St. Michael's to study journalism. I auditioned at Mary Anthony's [Dance Studio] for a scholarship that June. I was kind of shocked [when I won it]. I told my mom that I wasn't going to go to college after all. I was going to stay in the city and dance."

Says Brown of his choreography: "I wish my audience to give up coming to figure out the story, to not look to be entertained, but to trust themselves and go ahead and travel with me through a more emotional connection."

As one critic pointed out, "He comments on his being black and makes allusions to his sexuality." For example, "Evidence" speaks about a young man who tries to fit into white society, but comes to the realization, explains Brown, that "all the chemicals in the world, all the color contacts are not going to do it."

Many of his dances are to some extent autobiographical and, says Brown, have "touched people universally. When you present art very specific to your heart, to your life, that's when people relate to it."

This article originally appeared in The New American, a New York-based African-American weekly newspaper, on November 1, 1990. It has been slightly edited.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Choreographer Pearl Primus, A National Treasure

In the 1940s and 1950s, Pearl Primus (1919-1994)--dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, educator (she was professor of Ethnic Studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts)--created such a stir with her African-based dance works among critics and the public alike that Walter Terry, the dance critic, proclaimed her "the world's foremost authority on African dance."

That designation, resulting from her years of travel throughout the American South, the Caribbean, and Africa to study and document black dance in all of its forms, is anchored to her "search for roots" and her need to reveal "the dignity, beauty, and strength" of black people.

The Trinidadian -born artist-scholar's quest gave rise to a photo-biographical exhibition in 1989 called "A Search for Roots: The Life and Work of Dr. Pearl Primus," at the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York. The exhibit consisted of enlarged black-and-white performance photos from such dances as "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," based on the Langston Hughes poem and "Haitian Play Dance" as well as facsimiles of printed concert programs.

In 1990, at New York's City Center, the Alvin Ailey dancers offered dancegoers, who weren't around during Primus's heyday, a real treat--the company premiere of one of her dance works, "Impinyuza." A paen to the royal dancers of the Watusi people, the dance, created in 1952, uses traditional music and costumes, and was reconstructed through funding provided by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.

African-American dance historian Joseph Nash, a Primus dancer from 1946 to 1947, laments the non-existence of a film record of Primus's work. Such films would have given the current generation of dancegoers the opportunity to see what inspired Vogue magazine in the 1940s to describe her movement as "a combination of intellectualized choreography and free emotional drive." Nash attributes this sad state of affairs to Primus not being placed in the hands of "good management. Sound management would have seen to it that everything she did was put on [movie film]." As a result, continues Nash, in a telephone interview from his Harlem apartment, Primus "is not [widely] known like [fellow dancer-choreographer-anthropologist Katherine] Dunham. You have to keep your name in the spotlight. Pearl's company went out[of existence] in the '50s and that was it. When your masterworks can not be seen, people forget you. You're just a figure in the history books."

Although there is no cinematic record of Primus's American concerts, she did tell James Briggs Murray, curator of the photo exhibit, "Black Visions: Movements of Ten Dance Masters," in an interview for the show's catalogue, that she found in an old trunk two reels of silent film shot in Zaire. "This is the only filmed record that I know of in existence of me at the height of my dancing."

By setting "Impinyuza" on the Ailey company, Pearl Primus's name and pioneering efforts in bringing African dance to American audiences will become better known, as well as prompt dance lovers to agree with one Primus admirer that she is indeed a "living national treasure."

Author's note: A version of this article originally appeared in the December 22, 1990 issue of the New York Amsterdam News.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Philip Blackwell, A Forgotten Playwright

The following is the introduction to a Q & A interview with the black gay playwright Philip Blackwell (now deceased) that appeared in the New York Native in 1985. Unfortunately, Blackwell has become a forgotten playwright. Perhaps one day his name will become as familiar as that of fellow black literary figures Assotto Saint, Melvin Dixon, and Joseph Beam.

Philip Blackwell, a 32-year-old openly gay black playwright, has had three plays produced since his arrival to New York in 1980 (Silk and Silver, The Lover's Play, and Twoheads.) He is a native of Minneapolis where he began his involvement in the theatre at the age of five in a city-sponsored theatre project. While still in high school, he studied acting at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, a city Blackwell describes as having "some of the best theatre in the country."

Later he went on to earn a B.A. (summa) in theatre from the University of Minnesota and a M.A. in playwriting and theatre history from Tufts University in Boston.

"I got my Equity card when I was 22. I was an actor for ten years. That's how I made my living." He has also directed plays. Blackwell's interest in playwriting came about after he, still living in Minneapolis, "started a theatre company of my own. We did a lot of comedy, satire, and children's folk tales. I started writing more and more things. From song lyrics to scenes. When I finally went away to graduate school," he continues, "I had a chance to take some playwriting seminars. I took two years of it. I had a chance to work with actors and I began to like it."

Blackwell also wrote a long short story called "Left-footed." It appeared in the black gay literary magazine Blackheart 1: Yemonja.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book Review: "The Lavender Screen"

The Lavender Screen by Boze Hadleigh (Citadel Press, 256 pages), illustrated with photographs.

Although Hollywood releases very few films that are gay-focused, the silver screen nevertheless, writes Boze Hadleigh in his study of gay and lesbian-themed films, The Lavender Screen, is a cornucopia of "minor gay characters, references, and plots."

In its discussion of more than 100 such films, The Lavender Screen emphasizes the period after 1959 when gay and lesbian characters became more visible when the Production code's gay ban was lifted in 1961 following "the success of Suddenly Last Summer and big budget movies like The Children's Hour, Advise and Consent, and Walk On the Wild Side, which had gay themes or subplots and were already completed." (All of these movies are included in the book.)

Each chapter, grouped around a single theme such as "Hunks," "Older Men, Younger Men," "Lesbians You Love To/Or Hate," and "Dress Reversal," ends with critical comments from the gay and mainstream press, both American and foreign.

For those who have not seen all or any of the films under scrutiny, there is one problem: Hadleigh tells too much of the plotlines, often giving away the endings.

But aside from that drawback, The Lavender Screen, deserves a place on the bookshelf or near the DVD player for quick reference, even though it is not as scholarly, opinionated, and comprehensive as its predecessor, The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo's magnum opus. This book was written with the layman in mind.

Three highlights of The Lavender Screen are Hadleigh's willingness to name gay names, the behind-the-scenes anecdotes (like the one about Henry Fonda, supposedly a liberal, who during a rehearsal for the play, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, insulted its director, Charles Laughton, with the remark, "What do you know about men, you fat, ugly homosexual."), and its extensive bibliography.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book Review: "Spells Of A Voodoo Doll"

Spells of a Voodoo Doll by Assotto Saint (Masquerade/Richard Kasak Books, 405 pages)

The late Assotto Saint (1957-1994) did not mince words or suffer fools gladly. His motto, if he were given the opportunity to choose one, would have been: "My duty is to tell the truth as I see it." If you didn't like what he saw as the truth, and many didn't, that was your problem. He was a rebel with a cause who fearlessly marched to the pulpit during a friend's funeral "to avenge your censored queer legacy" and "to stand a pompous minister who under his breath/damned us for mass-invading his holy territory." For Saint it was important that black gay men "become whistleblowers" and "become powerful enough to stand tall and not fall, thrive and not just survive."

That attitude permeates Spells of a Voodoo Doll, a mostly autobiographical collection of his poems, essays, fiction, song lyrics, and plays that explores his life as a black gay man "living with/dying of AIDS." It is easy to see why those who flinched at his whistleblowing were glad to learn he had Kaposi's sarcoma lesions in his mouth so that "the bitch will have to shut up." But they forgot one thing--Saint was still able to wield a mighty pen.

And that pen, especially in the poetry sections, vividly details a short but brilliant and productive life. In these sections Saint reveals that he was born out of wedlock in Haiti, that he was brought up by an aunt and uncle when his mother, with whom he was later reunited, moved to Switzerland, that he was "seven when I realized my attraction to men," that he didn't "believe/in the foolishness/of spiritual/afterlife," and that he and his Swedish lover Jan (also deceased) "loved the New York Knicks basketball team, our terrace in spring & summer, soap operas, The Today Show, & our friends. We were committed & devoted to each other."

Many of the poems express his deep love for Jan before, during, and after Jan's illness from AIDS. To those who believe gay men are incapable of having long-term relationships, they have only to open Spells of a Voodoo Doll to have that belief refuted again and again.

The best and most memorable parts of the book are the poetry and essay sections. The essays "Haiti: A Memory Journal," "Why Winnie Mandela Should Go to Jail," and "A Match with Ashe" show that Saint was a gifted essayist and thinker. Although the Mandela essay digresses a bit toward the end, it is a strong indictment against homophobia and violence.

All of the short fiction are really sections of the three plays that appear at the back of the book and are more interesting than the plays, all multi-media pieces, as a whole.

Michele Karlsberg's brief introduction is a resume of Saint's career and tells the reader nothing about how she came to know him or anything about their relationship. Plus, she mistakenly identifies the Other Countries writing collective as "the start of a renaissance in black gay writing" when in fact it was the Blackheart Collective. Saint, in his essay "Why I Write," correctly calls Blackheart's founder, Isaac Jackson, "a groundbreaker in openly gay black publishing."

Overall, Spells of a Voodoo Doll is an important tribute to the legacy of a black gay man who called himself Assotto Saint, and thought of himself as the Impossible Black Homosexual because he was "not afraid/to stand my ground."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Book Review: "Growing Up Before Stonewall"

Growing Up Before Stonewall: Life Stories of Some Gay Men by Peter M. Nardi, David Sanders, and Judd Marmor (Routledge, 177 pages).

The authors of Growing Up Before Stonewall acknowledge in the introduction that the 11 pseudonymous white men interviewed in the book's second half "do not represent the much wider diversity of lives that exist among lesbian and gay people." This lack of multiculturalism, however, did not lessen my fascination with the details of these men's pre-Stonewall lives precisely because their comments provided "a view of the social history and the psychology of homosexual men of that period."

Growing Up Before Stonewall also delves into the prejudicial attitudes of most of the psychiatric community at that time toward homosexuality. Those sentiments are reflected in the book's cover photo of a 1950s middle-class family of four's preparation for a picnic outing: that homosexuality is "incompatible with the perceived typical normal, healthy, happy heterosexual life."

The interviews, which take up most of the book, were conducted by co-author David Sanders in 1979 in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and San Francisco with men who ranged in age from 33 to 70 as part of "a psychological study of vocationally successful men, focusing on the factors that led to success and difficulties they faced." Presented as monologues, each interviewee's comments are grouped around four categories: "Family Memories," "Early Social Experiences," "Early Sexual Memories," and "Current Situation and Experiences."

Except for the interview with activist Morris Kight and the one with psychiatrist (and co-author) Judd Marmor, the rest of Part I, which is an overview of pre-Stonewall gay life and the psychiatric community's handling of gay men, is very bland.

Unfortunately, Growing Up Before Stonewall does not include a postscript on the whereabouts of these men. For instance, I would like to know what happened to Ed, the Norwegian-born math teacher, who stated that "If I got a deadly disease or my life turned disastrous, certainly I would entertain it [suicide]." If he is still around, how has the AIDS epidemic changed his life?

The book is not without its moments of humor. Louis, a college professor with two male lovers, admitted to finding "some women extremely attractive" and to having sex once a year with a woman "whether I need it or not, just to keep my hand in, but not to reassure myself of my masculinity."

The men in Growing Up Before Stonewall have stories that, for the most part, are engrossing and edifying. These stories will become an important addition to the growing body of literature that explains how and why gay life has evolved.