Monday, December 31, 2012

The Ups And Downs Of A Gay & Lesbian Film Festival

The New York International Festival of Lesbian and Gay Films, the culmination of a two-year search and acquisition project, comes at a most timely moment--the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village (in which dozens of gay men, many of them drag queens, fought the police back in a raid on a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn) out of which emerged the gay liberation movement.

The festival, an outgrowth of that movement, and the first of its kind in nearly two and a half years, will screen 45 movies, in 77 screenings, during its June 7-20 [1989 ] run at the Biograph Cinema (255 West 57th Street, at Broadway). "We planned it for the month of June," said festival producer Susan Horowitz, the owner of Tower Press, a printing firm that publishes the annual Gay Pride Guide, "to tie into the other cultural emphasis around Stonewall."

While she busied herself with the task of lining up financial backers for the festival within the gay community, her partner John Lewis, who, quipped Horowitz, calls himself "an old movie queen" because of "his passion" for film, "traveled to Berlin and to other film festivals, and was able to see a lot of material."

One of the gems acquired is the 1989 British documentary Desire by Stuart Marshall which discusses through on-camera interviews, stills, and archival footage homosexuality in Germany before and during the Nazi period. (It will be shown opening night for a special screening to benefit the Gay Community Center on 13th Street.)

Said Horowitz: "We had a commitment about a film on Langston Hughes's life by an English filmmaker [Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston] that we were very excited about being able to find on such short notice but it was taken away from us because they decided to hold out for the New York Film Festival which is certainly their prerogative."

The painstaking efforts of Susan Horowitz and John Lewis have paid off in media attention and positive feedback from "the gay community at large," beamed Horowitz. However, there is a downside, too. The New Festival, the sponsors of the event, have sent out via mail, 25,000 copies of the catalogue. Only 32 have been returned requesting that the recipient be removed from the mailing list because they felt that the catalogue--which others have praised for its graphic design--was "disgusting." Horowitz and her cohorts were dismayed to the point of shedding tears, despite the fact that this manifestation of gay self-hatred represented only "a very small percentage."  It became evident to Horowitz that 20 years after Stonewall, there was still "a long way to go" in bolstering gay pride. "That's why a film festival is essential, a community center is essential in every city of every type."

This slightly condensed article was originally published in the Philadelphia Gay News (June 9, 1989).

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Pearl Primus, An Authority On African Dance

One of the greats in the black dance field who should be celebrated during Black History Month is Pearl Primus--dancer, choreographer, anthropologist , educator (she is professor of Ethnic Studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts). In the 1940s and '50s, Primus created such a stir with her African-based  dance works among critics and public alike that Walter Terry, the dance critic, now deceased, 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, is anchored to her "search for roots" and her need to reveal "the dignity, beauty, and strength" of black people.

The 70-year-old Trinidadian-born artist-scholar's quest gave rise last summer to a photo-biographical exhibition at the Caribbean Cultural Center, "A Search for Roots: The Life and Work of Dr. Pearl Primus." The exhibition, part of the center's Third Annual Tribute to African Diaspora Women, consisted of many 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.

Pearl Primus, declared Dan Dawson, who curated the show, is a "living national treasure."

This article was submitted to the New York-based New American newspaper on January 30, 1990,but was not published.

Note: Pearl Primus died in 1994 at the age of 74.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Bringing Jubilation To The Dance Stage

The style of dancing that has brought critical and public acclaim to Jubilation! Dance Company is labeled "kiative movement" by Kevin Jeff, the company's chief choreographer, and has been described in previous press kits as "a unique blend of modern, ethnic, jazz, and classical ballet technique in traditional African dance."

To many of Jubilation!'s fans all of this choreographic nomenclature is of little importance. The bottom line for them is the energy, skill, and joy exhibited by the dancers, both singularly and as an ensemble. All of which has broadened Jubilation!'s appeal not only in this country but abroad. (They recently returned from an extensive tour of 15 American cities and several cities in Canada, Italy, and Switzerland.)

Kevin Jeff founded Jubilation! in 1979 when he was 19 on the advice of his mentor Mr. Lee Lynn Thompson, who taught at the Bernice Johnson Dance Studio in Jamaica, Queens. The name of the company came from a suggestion by a female friend. "At the time, I was choreographing Jubilation! as a dance show," recalled Jeff, who has appeared in the Broadway musicals The Wiz and Comin' Uptown, "not as a dance company. She liked what she saw and said to me, 'I feel jubilant!' I just kept it. It felt good, it felt right."

Since then, Jeff has come a long way. He has done choreography for two Washington, D.C. musicals, Blackbirds and Street Dreams, and choreographed the dance sequence in filmmaker Spike Lee's 1986 comedy-drama, She's Gotta Have It. Jeff's involvement with this film has inspired him to want to do other commercially-oriented work.

This condensed article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (September 24, 1988).

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Hollywood In The South Bronx

Voice of the People
New York Daily News
220 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10017
July 5, 1977

Dear Editor:

If the city had torn down some of the abandoned buildings in the South Bronx and replaced them with a huge television and motion picture sound stage, it would have helped the city's financial situation enormously. New jobs would have been created, companies providing goods and services would have benefited, and it would have given Hollywood some tough competition.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

The above letter was not published.

Note: There are today film studios in Brooklyn and Queens.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Mrs. Bill Cosby's Comedy Error

American Visions *
2101 S Street, NW
Washington, DC 20008-4011
January 21, 1995                                                                                                                                                                                           

Dear Editor:

In an otherwise wonderful and thought-provoking profile of Camille Cosby [Mrs. Bill Cosby] (AV, December/January 1995), I noticed one erroneous statement. When Mrs. Cosby said that "you don't see anything comedic about Hitler" shown on television, she completely overlooked such televised theatrical films as The Producers (1968) and History of the World--Part I (1981) (both films were directed by Mel Brooks) as well as Charlie Chaplin's 1940 comedy, The Great Dictator, in which he has a dual role--as a Jewish barber and a dictator (a Hitler lookalike named Adenoid Hynkel). She also overlooked Hogan's Heroes, the half-hour comedy series about Allied servicemen in a German POW camp, which made the Nazis look like buffoons and incompetents.                                                                                                                                            
Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

This letter was published in American Visions magazine's April/May 1995 issue.

* American Visions is a magazine devoted to African-American history and culture.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Curtis Sliwa's Disdain For "Brainiacs"

The Voice of the People
New York Daily News
220 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10017
February 11, 1994

Dear Editor:

I have heard [Guardian Angels founder] Curtis Sliwa refer to intellectuals as "eggheads"and "brainiacs." Anyone who uses such disparaging terms as these has no respect for the inquiring mind and has no place on the program lineup of [public radio station] WNYC, a cultural and intellectual oasis on the AM radio dial. Plus his brand of radio would attract to the station the know-nothings and loudmouths who predominate on other talk shows.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

This letter was published on February 26, 1994.

Monday, December 17, 2012

An Underground Hideaway

Now that the AIDS epidemic has entered its second decade, more and more plays like Michael Fife's The Hideaway Hilton, will appear on Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway stages to explore the worrisome issues of internment and quarantine.

In The Hideaway Hilton, which ran for three weeks at the Theatre of 224 Waverly Place (Greenwich Village), six characters have hidden in an underground bomb shelter to escape the intensive roundup by the authorities of all those infected with an unnamed disease (probably AIDS, to judge by the symptoms alluded to).

With an ear always to the door for the dreaded knock that never comes, the characters--a male escort of rich old ladies, a yuppie couple, a gay man from the Deep South, a lesbian hack writer, and a young woman (under whose house the bomb shelter is located)--while away the monotonous, fearful days underground playing board games and movie trivia, revealing their most intimate secrets, and fighting (verbally and physically) with each other.

The play would have been more poignant had there been more of a gloom-and-doom ambiance and less campiness, particularly from Fife, whose voice and mannerisms bespoke a gay man rather than a fabulously gorgeous hunk who swept women off their feet.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (November 21, 1991).

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Play's Exploration Of Four Thorny Issues

True to its title, Face to Face, a two-act play which ran recently at the National Black Theatre in Harlem (in association with the Brooklyn-based Rainbow Repertory Theatre), bravely confronted four thorny issues within the African-American community: homosexuality, color-consciousness, sexism, and class, with a generous amount of humor thrown in to ease the tension.

The action of the play takes place entirely in the inner city Washington, D.C. home that Neal (Jeff A. Haskins), a black nationalist undergrad at Howard University, shares with Marcus (Raan Lewis), a religious homeboy.

When Neal's brother Sammy (Bryan Webster), who is about to graduate from Notre Dame, calls him from the airport to announce his arrival in town, Neal rebuffs his request to stop by. It's clear there is no love lost. One cause of the tension is Sammy's "theft" of Neal's girlfriend Hillary. Another source of tension is Sammy's reputation as the "boy wonder" of the family.

While waiting for Neal to come home, Sammy meets Marcus. They instantly take a dislike to each other because of class differences. When Catherine (Tia Sinclair), a light-skinned classmate of Neal and Marcus, enters the picture, she accepts Sammy's invitation to dinner. Neal hits the roof when he learns he has lost another girl to Sammy. After he finds some love letters in Sammy's bag addressed to a guy named Tim, he sees his chance for revenge.

During the confrontation with Neal, Sammy gets his second attack of stomach pains (AIDS-related?) which forces Neal to regard his brother with more sympathy. That sudden change of heart I found unbelievable, especially since the brothers, Neal in particular, have such deeply rooted animosity toward each other.

Near the end of the play, Sammy, with suitcase in hand, prepares to catch his flight back to Notre Dame. Before he can set foot outside the door, he and Marcus come face to face again. This time the confrontation has a murderous result when Marcus, a closet queen, discovers his true feelings for Sammy.

Although Bryan Webster's acting is a little wooden and he and Jeff Haskins look too old to be undergrads, you'll be too involved in the swiftly moving story to care, especially when Raan Lewis, a truly gifted actor, is on the stage.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (November 21, 1991).

Dreams And Knowledge, And Real Estate Musical Chairs?

The West Side Spirit
242 West 30th Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10001

Attn: Letters-to-the-Editor

May 16, 2000

To the Editor:

In Felicia Lee's "Coping" column in the Sunday New York Times (March 26) entitled "Dreams and Knowledge, Under One Roof," she neglected to mention that the Columbia Branch of the New York Public Library on West 113th Street, near Amsterdam Avenue, has only been in its present location for four years. In January of 1986, it left its previous site on West 113th Street in the Butler Library building at Columbia University.

Now, four years after the move, Ms. Lee writes that the "good news for the neighborhood" is that the library will be relocated to "a space 10 times as big down the block" later this year or the early part of next year. "It's new home," she reports, "will be in another Columbia building."

This is the only branch in the library system that I know of that is being bounced around like this. What troubles me, as a frequent user of the Columbia Branch, is how long will the university allow it to stay in the new location? Will the branch, every four or five years, be the victim of what amounts to a real estate version of musical chairs? Perhaps the public library should consider putting the branch in a building that it owns and operates.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

Note: The above is a previously unpublished letter.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Putting Ethnic Prejudice On Parade

West Side Spirit
242 West 30th Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10001
June 26, 2000

To the Editor:

Johnson Corrigan's hateful letter (June 12, 2000) regarding the Puerto Rican Day Parade is an excellent example of the racial animosity, prejudice, and intolerance that people of color have to face every day in this city.

It also underscores the fact that bigotry is not a Southern redneck phenomenon, it exists among the so-called Eastern elite as well.

Corrigan ought to take a closer look at those he derisively calls "lower class, out of control, immodestly dressed, raucous Latino people." (It's surprising he didn't call them savages.) Many of these same people he sees as other are probably the ones employed in or near his Upper East Side neighborhood as doormen, maintenance workers, transit workers, hospital workers, restaurant help, delivery truck drivers, nannies, cashiers, movie theatre ushers, letter carriers, etc. And, like Corrigan and his neighbors, pay taxes and raise families.

What Corrigan has done is demonize an entire group of people because of the misdeeds of a few. (Were the senior citizens in the crowd, for example, being raucous and immodestly dressed?)

Corrigan's letter is more than about what offended him at a particular ethnic parade. It's about how he feels the other 364 days in the year about Latinos.

His deep-seated antipathy makes him unable to differentiate the good from the bad. Maybe if he took the time to understand the many Latino cultures, genuinely finding out "who they really are," he would be less inclined to paint all Latinos with the same brush.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

This letter was published in the West Side Spirit (July 6, 2000).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Breaking The Mental Chains Of Black Gay Self-Hatred

Like its predecessor, Men of Color, A Warm December, published in February [1992] by the Vega Press, offers something of interest to aficionados of each of the three genres it contains: poetry, illustrations, and photography. Also like the previous book, A Warm December, which is divided into seasonal sections, tries "to redefine the negative image [of black men] that's out there," said Lloyd Vega, the founder of the three-year-old press, "and do it in a sensual way. The books show that we're strong, compassionate; that we're lovers, brothers; that we can also be a friend, a confidante, and not a trick [illicit sex partner]."

The images found in A Warm December, contended Vega, are the very opposite of Robert Mapplethorpe's view of black men--sex objects with "the heads or arms cut off, dehumanizing us. No wonder people are afraid of us, envy us."

These pervasive negative images coupled with the dearth of books available about black gay men fueled Vega's determination to create his own publishing company. "One of my goals has been to publish new artists," said Vega, a 37-year-old Philadelphia architect, "and give them the chance that [writer-editor] Joe Beam gave me when he published an illustration by me in [the black gay anthology] In the Life." Among Vega's discoveries are w.e.s. and Jerome Whitehead, both of whom are in the new book. (A Warm December is #2 on the bookstore A Different Light/New York's bestseller list in the Men's Softcovers category.) After hearing them read their poems in a gay bar in Philadelphia, he told them he was impressed with the quality of their work and that he would like to include them in his upcoming anthology.

Vega (the name is an acronym for victory, empowerment, gratitude, assessment) sees his work as part of an ongoing effort to break the "mental chains" of self-hatred that afflicts many black gay men, self-hatred that manifests itself in black-on-black crime, drug addiction, and other self-destructive behavior. The Vega Press's chief mission is achieving  for black gay men "empowerment. It's about taking control of our images, showing black male images by black photographers for a change."

Future Vega Press projects include a book of short stories, two books of poetry, and a line of greeting cards. Each endeavor will echo the sentiments of one of Vega's poems: "Respect yourself, my brother,/for we are so many wondrous things."

Vega will be reading from A Warm December as part of "Outspoken: A Gay and Lesbian Literary Series" at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 236 East 3rd Street, Manhattan, on April 1 [1992].

This article was originally published in NYQ magazine (April 5, 1992).

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dancing About Black Males

The two-year-old DeNoble Men's Dance Company, under the direction of its founder, choreographer/dancer Robert Logan Mayo, who danced with the Alfred Gallman and Donald Byrd companies, will present an evening-long concert of  duets and trios called "Men on Dance" on August 13, 14, and 15 [1992] at the Downtown Dance Studios, 69 West 14th Street, near 6th Avenue. This will be DeNoble's first dance concert since March of this year [1992] when they performed a benefit performance for the Upper Room AIDS Ministry of Harlem at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, where Mayo was a student.

With only a cast of three male dancers, DeNoble will explore themes that range from euthanasia to issues that face black men in general and black gay men in particular.

According to Mayo, who has been dancing for 12 years, DeNoble's repertory consists of seven dance works. By September it will expand to 10. Six of those pieces, three of them premieres, will be on the upcoming program. They include "A Different Testament," a trio choreographed by Mayo, and "Dove," a duo, also choreographed by Mayo, set to music from the gospel musical, The Gospel at Colonus.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (August 15, 1992).

Monday, December 3, 2012

"Streetboy Dreams": An Unusual Love Story

Streetboy Dreams is Kevin Esser's first novel, published by the New York-based Sea Horse Press, and is the story of an oftentimes stormy and frustrating love relationship involving Peter Versani, a young schoolteacher and a 14-year-old streetboy named Gito Lopez whom Peter meets one night in a neighborhood bar while the boy is selling candy from a cardboard box. It is the beginning of a relationship that results in Gito, an orphan, moving into Peter's apartment and Peter discovering, and accepting, his attraction to adolescent boys.

The author, a 30-year-old elementary school music teacher, has completed another autobiographical novel Mad to Be Saved, which "deal[s] with my life between the ages of 14 and 22."

Esser has had 30 short stories published. Among them a trilogy set in Morocco: "Renaissance Boy" (his favorite of the three) published in Panthology Three; "Memory of Khalid," NAMBLA BULLETIN; and "Tangerine Daze," which was also" in a NAMBLA publication ."

The Joliet, Illinois native, who calls himself a nomad, has lived in Boston, London, Paris, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and Mexico. He now lives in a small town in Illinois, " a little factory town of 40,000 people. It's just a typical middle western city but I've been here so often, off and on for so long, it's pretty much home. I use it as a home base."

There is, according to Esser, no gay life to speak of in his small town which doesn't bother him one little bit. "There's people here," he said, " and that's all I'm interested in. Gay bars, gay cinemas, gay this, gay that, I've never been involved in that anyway. I try to stay in the shadows [he laughed] as much as possible."

The youngest of two children (he has a brother), Esser, half Italian and half German, grew up as an Italian. (His immediate family had no involvement with the German side of the family.) Esser's Italian background probably explains why he made Peter, a principal character in Streetboy, a member of that ethnic group.

Esser is six feet tall, weighs 180 pounds, has brown hair and eyes, wears a beard and glasses. The glasses, he claimed, causes people to think he looks professorial.

Esser spoke with me via phone from his home in Illinois.

Charles Michael Smith: How much of Streetboy is autobiographical?
Kevin Esser: It's almost completely autobiographical. I jumbled around a few events in order to make it more dramatically pleasing. The relationships, the settings, the characters were all real.

CMS: What inspired you to write the book?
KE: Well, mainly because I had never read a book on the subject that had pleased me before. So I decided to write one of my own. I was tired of books that either dwelled on nothing but the negative aspects of affairs like that via the self-pity and the despair involved or mostly things that Pan, a magazine from Amsterdam, had come out with. Stories that were just fantasy and unrealistic. They publish an anthology once a year called Panthology. They're stories that have to have a happy ending. Always it's just man meets boy, the boy falls in love with the man, and they live happily ever after. I wanted to write something a little more realistic, dealing with the situation as it would have really happened. Something a little more well-written. There seemed to be a dearth of talented writers in the field. I wanted to see if I could turn out a little better product.

CMS: How long did it take you to write Streetboy?
KE: About three months. it was the first novel I had written so I was more or less teaching myself how to write the thing as I went along. It took a lot of rewritings. The second novel went much, much faster. Of course, I wasn't using [in Streetboy] the style that I was most comfortable with either. I deliberately used a very, sort of, orthodox, traditional writing style.
Since it was my first novel, I didn't want to try anything experimental which is usually the way I write. I wanted to write an unusual love story that wouldn't turn off any readers because of stylistic excesses or whatever. The second novel is written in a much more, sort of, lyrical, experimental style. I thought I could get away with it at that point. I already knew my editor and had some connections. The way it turned out I was right about that. [With] Streetboy, I wanted to play very safe. In the second novel, the style is part of the story because the main character is slightly crazy at the time so the style is slightly lunatic also. It's told in the first person so there's a much stronger feeling of the character's voice involved in the story. 

CMS: Were you afraid you might get a great deal of criticism from people who are not sympathetic to this type of love affair?
KE: That doesn't bother me. However people react to it is their problem, not mine.

CMS: How long have you been involved in man/boy relationships?
KE: Since I was about 14 I've been sexually active. As soon as I became an adult then I became the adult in the situation instead of the boy.

CMS: At 14 were you involved with older men?
KE: Well, no, actually not. Just with other boys at that point.

CMS: When did you decide that you were attracted to boys?
KE: It was never a conscious decision, just a matter of allowing myself to become involved with whoever I chose to at the time and allowing relationships to develop. In a lot of cases, it's just a matter of not cutting a relationship off because situations develop like that all the time which you can really fall into very easily. I don't go out looking for them very often really. I put myself into situations, just leave myself open to things, see what happens. I don't want to get too specific either.

CMS: When your boy lover grows up, does the relationship continue in some way?
KE: Actually every situation I've been involved in either the boy or I have moved away while the relationship is still going on or immediately after. I've always led a very nomadic lifestyle. There's never been a situation where the boy has grown up and I've still been around. I never met any kids that I knew after they have grown up.

CMS: Is it possible for you and the boy to continue having sex well into his adulthood?
KE: Hmmm, no. Probably the sexual aspect of the relationship would end. We could just remain friends. I certainly wouldn't, as I've seen it described in a lot of literature, just use the boy sexually and then cast him aside. That wouldn't happen. We'd certainly remain good friends. All the relationships have been based on a lot of friendship and genuine affection, not just some sort of hustler affair.
Adult males don't excite me sexually so there'd really be no more chance of that than if I had a sexual affair with a woman.

CMS: Wouldn't you say that your attraction to boys may be due to a desire to stay youthful? Or did it come about because of your lack of confidence in dealing with adults sexually and socially?
KE: I never bothered to explore it really very deeply. It's just what I find beautiful. It's my aesthetic perception of the world. I find the ideal of physical beauty in adolescent boys. That's what I find most attractive.

CMS: It seems to me that the availability of boys is much easier in Mexico, for example, than it would be in the United States.
KE: It is much easier in other countries. The cultures are much different in the United States, England, and a couple of other places. There're really exceptions to the rule as far as attitudes towards sex are concerned. Even in countries like Morocco where the religion very strictly forbids homosexuality, there's sort of a double-edged sword. There's a very long and deep-rooted tradition of man/boy love in the culture itself underlying the religious attitudes which isn't true in this country at all.
In Morocco, a man/boy relationship would be preferable to a man and a girl. The girls are kept very closely guarded. The boys are allowed to run totally free. So it would be the reverse in countries like that. A man having an affair with a young girl would be much more objectionable than fooling around with one of the boys.

CMS: In ancient Greece, man/boy love was quite prevalent and accepted.
KE: That's all through the Mediterranean, even now.

CMS: Would you prefer to live overseas?
KE: I would prefer to be able to visit there as often as I'd like. I don't think I'd want to live there as much as I like one aspect of the culture. I am a product of this society. I still like hot showers and Big Macs and color TV.

This article was originally published in the New York Native in a slightly different form in 1984.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Jubilation! At The Apollo Theatre

Sad to say, but when dancers Aaron Dugger and Glenn Ford Good died, much of the magic and energy of Jubilation! Dance Company  went with them. Despite the enthusiasm of the Apollo Theatre audience at the June 1 [1991] benefit performance for Jubilation!'s Center of Enrichment, that overriding thought could not be dispelled.

Part of the problem was that with the exception of Robin Gray, all of the current members are new and, unlike their predecessors, who unfailingly gave me a spine-tingling, vicarious experience, left me totally without satisfaction.

And that's a shame because for me Jubilation! has always meant an evening of soul-stirring, sensational dance.

Another problem was with the program. I had trouble following it because the sequence of the dances did not always coincide with the printed program. Fortunately a couple of the works from the repertoire, "Nia Keii" and "Dedication," served as "landmarks."

The most beautiful of the night's offerings was Martial Roumain's assertive, thought-provoking "Essence (A Portrait of Four Women)," set to the music of Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, and others. Although the dancers, each wearing a dress of a different color (red, black, green, white), failed to bring dramatic intensity to their character (Robin Gray should have been cast here), the ideas and emotions expressed through the use of movement were recognizable.

During the intermission, a heavy-set, bespectacled West Indian lady approached me in the lobby when she saw me making notes and exclaimed, "That last dance ["Essence"] was so beautiful." Indeed it alone was worth the price of the ticket. The four women embodied the agony, despair, nurturance, and triumph experienced by black women throughout American history.

Jubilation!'s signature piece, "Dedication," which traces the African odyssey from the Motherland to present-day America in three sections, lacked its usual sparkle. In the first section, "Oluwa, Many Rains Ago," sung by [the South African performer] Letta Mbulu, I kept visualizing Aaron Dugger as the Child of a New World, a role he originated and partnered with Kevin Jeff (who was cast as the Ancestral Elder, a role he reprised at the Apollo). Willie Edward Hinton's performance was overshadowed by Dugger's indelible mark on the role.

Anthony Marshall's long, tedious "In His Name," dedicated to Dugger and soloed by Jeff in a G-string-like costume, had Jeff rolling and flinging himself all over the stage, making at times grunting sounds, like a person possessed by demons. I wasn't sure what point was being made. Was Jeff being tormented by the loss of his close friend?

At the end of the program, Jeff, Jubilation!'s artistic director and founder, addressed the audience. He brought the news that this might be the company's last performance. He attributed the possibility of Jubilation!'s demise to financial difficulties. Some of the trouble, I think, might be due to the fact that Jubilation! has lost much of the spirit and joy it once had in abundance.

Note: According to Denice Jeff, Jubilation!'s public relations coordinator, the company plans to return to the Apollo sometime in the fall [of 1991].

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (June 22, 1991).

Friday, November 30, 2012

Psychoanalyzing Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide by Melissa Knox (Yale University Press, 185 pp., illustrated)

Melissa Knox's psychobiography, Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide, is refreshingly unlike many other scholarly books--it's not full of academic jargon, it's not overblown, and it's highly readable.

Knox, a professor of English at St.Peter's College in New Jersey, began her quest to explore the unconscious mind of the famed 19th-century Irish-born playwright/poet/wit (1854-1900) as a way to understand "his life, style, and literary work." It is the unconscious mind, writes Knox, that is "the source of creativity."

Psychobiography, unlike its more conventional counterpart, does not solely rely on the use of "the well-known life experiences of a person and on the conscious mind as revealed in letters, literary works, or public and family life." Those sources don't tell the whole story. By digging deeper through the psychoanalytic approach, the biographer "can identify the unconscious conflicts that determine the forms (the subject's) creative genius took, as well as choices of subject and approach--genre, theme, style, plot." She further states that "ideally, one sees not just the outside actions but whence they originate."

In Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide, Knox takes the pages of Wilde's plays, poems, and other works, and delves into his inner life thus confronting the reader with Wilde's "conflicts, ...weaknesses,...childishness, ...fears, and ...deep shames and secrets." The reader is also made aware of Wilde's contradictions and self-destructiveness. Among the most important aspects of his life are his fear of the debilitations of syphilis (which he ironically contracted from a female prostitute during his undergraduate days at Oxford) that makes itself evident in his 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, "a parable of an artist foreseeing his own physical and mental decay," his ambivalence about his homosexuality (embracing it one minute and calling  it "sexual madness" the next), and his desire to be accepted by the British upper class while at the same time writing unflatteringly about its members. Oscar Wilde was indeed a complex and troubled soul, whose mother  (a writer and Irish revolutionary) expected great things from him. And he tried to fulfill her wish. "I believe in you and your genius," she wrote him prior to the opening of one of his plays, A Woman of No Importance. (Mrs. Wilde wrote essays under the pseudonym, Speranza.)

After serving a two-year sentence in prison for committing "indecent acts," Wilde became a social pariah, "shunned in the streets even by old friends" and eventually died "in mental, physical, and economic decline" at the age of 46.

In Wilde's short, turmoil-filled life, he accomplished much. Besides writing plays and other literary works, he was an early feminist who edited a women's magazine, Lady's World (later renamed Woman's World). And because of his prison experience, he advocated prison reform in letters-to-the-editor that were published in the Daily Chronicle.

It is quite plain that Oscar Wilde was born 100 years too soon. Today he would be a TV talk show staple because of his skills as a conversationalist and wit.

All in all, Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide earns its place beside the collected works of Wilde. This is the book to consult to get a better understanding of the writer who was called "the foremost homosexual in the English mind."

This article was originally published in the Lambda Book Report (March 1997).

Monday, November 26, 2012

Franklin A. Thomas: The First Black President Of The Ford Foundation

Franklin A. Thomas's selection as the seventh president of the Ford Foundation, the largest and richest foundation in the world (its assets total $3.4 billion) becomes especially significant when you consider the fact that Thomas, a successful lawyer, is a black man and was chosen from among more than 300 applicants. On June 1, 1979, he replaced McGeorge Bundy, who stepped down to retire. (Bundy became president in 1966. He had previously been national security advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson).

"Frank Thomas's appointment," wrote Vernon Jordan in a 1979 syndicated column, "as head of a major bulwark of American institutional life heralds a new era of black inclusion, not only as soldiers in our society, but as generals commanding its heights."

Franklin Thomas, the youngest of six children, like many black Americans, began life in a working class neighborhood. In his particular case, the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. His father, who died when Thomas was 11, worked as "a watchman down at the piers," said Thomas. "My mother [a native of Barbados] was a housekeeper; [she] cleaned people's houses, did day work."

As a public school student, Thomas was fortunate enough "to have some teachers who really saw some potential" in him. He also gives credit to his home atmosphere, especially to his mother who fostered the notion that "no one can determine what you're going to be but you and the only time you're damaged is when you let other people's assessment of you start to control your assessment of self. If you're honest and you work hard and you're reasonably smart and [you] get along well with people, you're going to have a good life. That's really what all of this is about. A good life, a decent life. Not hurt other people."

"I never knew any sense of limitation," continued Thomas. "I always worked hard, worked after school, joined the Boy Scouts at the age of 11. You didn't think of yourself as [being] extraordinary. Some guys chose to be on a street corner, hanging out and knocking other people in the head; other guys were on the street corners but you didn't think about trying to rip anybody else off and you knew which blocks were safe to go down, which ones weren't. You built a capacity to survive in an environment that on the one hand is menacing and at the same time is supportive because there are others just like you."

Because of Thomas's athletic ability (he was the captain and star of his high school basketball team), he was offered numerous athletic scholarships. He turned them down and enrolled instead at Columbia University, becoming the first member of his family ever to go to college. "I had a coach and teachers in high school who said 'Don't accept an athletic scholarship. Your grades are good enough to get [you] into the college you want on academic grounds. Then if you want to play basketball, you can. But you're not obliged to play it.' So I got a scholarship based on need rather than an academic scholarship and had a great time. I ended up playing basketball for four years anyway." In 1956 he received his B. A. degree.

After four years in the air force, he went to law school at Columbia, graduating in 1963 with an LL.B degree. A year later, Thomas was admitted to the New York state bar. "My first job was in the housing field [Federal Housing and Finance Agency], working in urban renewal."

Other jobs that followed were: Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York [Manhattan] (1964); deputy police commissioner for legal matters, New York Police Department (1965); and president and chief executive officer of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (1967). "After the [urban] riots [in 1964], Senator [Robert] Kennedy and others had the idea of a development effort in the second largest black community in the country, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and asked me if I would leave my job [at the police department] to help organize it and get it started. After a lot of back and forth, I agreed to do it for two years; I stayed ten years. Then I went back and practiced law for a little while" before accepting the $120,000-a- year top job at the Ford Foundation.

Thomas also sits on the board of directors of such corporate giants as CBS, the Aluminum Corporation of America (Alcoa), and the New York Life Insurance Company. He is the only black person sitting on Citigroup's 26-member board of directors and, according to Current Biography (October 1981), "was instrumental in persuading that company to end its loans to the white supremacist government of South Africa."

Thomas, who has been divorced since 1972, has four children. Since he, at the age of 49, can no longer play basketball, he has tried to learn tennis. Once or twice during the winter he skis but, he is quick to point out, "on intermediate slopes, not on too tough slopes."

Despite the enormous responsibilities as head of the foundation, he tries not to take himself too seriously. And he continues to work 12-hour days, just as he did at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.

The following interview took place in Thomas's office at the Ford Foundation.

Charles Michael Smith: Has the Ford Foundation increased or decreased its funding for inner city programs?
Franklin Thomas: The foundation has increased its support for inner city poverty-related programs in each of the last four years and we look forward to an increase for the upcoming two-year period.

CMS: What programs are receiving financial assistance from Ford?
FT: The largest of the five major program areas the foundation supports is an area called urban poverty and that concentrates on the problems of housing and social and economic revitalization within the inner cities where large concentrations of poor people live and that effort involves supporting organizations that are trying to improve the living conditions in those areas. These organizations are usually called community development corporations.

CMS: Is volunteerism a viable solution to socio-economic problems?
FT: By itself, it is not a solution. It must be combined with commitments from each of the levels of government and a commitment through the private-for- profit sector. When combined with those commitments, volunteerism is a dynamic, critically important part of our strategy as a nation for dealing with some social problems.

CMS: What criteria do you use when you select an organization for a grant?
FT: We try to define problems on which we're going to work or support work in. We try to do that with sufficient clarity so that a prospective grantee can ask, 'Are you interested in these kinds of problems?' If the answer is yes, then we would encourage that person, group to submit a description of what it is they plan to do about an aspect of the problem. We then sit and go over that as a staff, decide if it seems to make sense, [see] if the apparent capability to carry it out is there, and if the answer to those questions is yes, then we would invite the prospective grantee in and have a discussion with them, and make a decision.

CMS: Do grantees come to you or do you come to them?
FT: We do both.

CMS: If I came to you as an individual with a program, I wouldn't necessarily have to be part of a group?
FT: You wouldn't have to, though the overwhelming share of our money goes to organizations that have a plan and a strategy. We do make some grants to individuals. Usually for study, research, what have you. But almost anything you want to carry out in an operational sense will require some institutional context within which to function. If you want to do something about housing beyond a study or a survey which you can do as an individual but you want to cause some change to happen there, then the odds are you're going to have to find some institutional way to bring that about.

CMS: Do Ford Foundation funds go to anti-poverty projects overseas?
FT: We spend roughly a third of our funds overseas in what we call developing countries. We have nine offices around the world.

CMS: Do you see inner city areas improving because of Ford Foundation money?
FT: That's the toughest question of all.  How do you measure impact? My personal answer is yes, I see improvement. It's slower and less pervasive than any of us would like but it's clearly better than it would have been were these resources not being employed in the way they are and have been employed. I think I can answer that with certainty. The tougher question is "Is it enough?" The answer there is no and if not, then what the hell do you do about it? That's the continuing struggle.

CMS: Do you feel you have a special responsibility to the black community in your present position?
FT: It's a continuation of a concern and an interest and a relationship that really has been a part of my life. So I don't think of them as special. I just think of them as natural. They are with me as a part of what I am.
I also recognize the obligation to the total problem of trying to reduce or eliminate poverty and injustice and worry about peace and security matters, worry about international economic matters, worry about refugees and migration matters, worry about higher education, each of which has an impact on minorities, if you will, worldwide. And perhaps, just based on the experience of living in and working in some minority communities in this country, you get a particular sensitivity on not only what is needed, but on the means of assisting that are most likely to be effective.

This condensed article was originally published in two parts in the Harlem Weekly newspaper in 1984.

Two Gay Plays In Brooklyn

The newly-founded Rainbow Repertory Theatre proudly bills itself as a company whose aim is to develop and promote the plays of gay and lesbian playwrights of color. However, its artistic director Reginald Jackson, himself a playwright, does not "want to just appeal to the gay community."

In fact, Rainbow Rep's first offerings--Kids and Enormous Insignificancies (both directed by Jackson)--have more straight characters in them than gay. "We [as gay people] really don't live in a vacuum," explained Jackson, "so I don't see any purpose in doing pieces in a vacuum."

Both one-act plays will be presented back to back March 6  and 13[1988], starting at 7 p.m., at the Alonzo Players Theatre, 317 Clermont Avenue, Brooklyn, under the umbrella title: "Kuumba: A Night of New Theatre." (Kuumba means "creativity" in Swahili.)

Kids, a play with music by Charles Pouncy, deals with self-identity and self-acceptance. The focus is on two adolescent brothers--Jacob, who is openly gay to the point of being effeminate and David, who, when confronted by his mother, denies his homosexuality. "This would be a wonderful piece for gay and lesbian youth of color to come to," said the 24-year-old director, a native of Queens, "because Kids is about them. It's about me, too. I've lived it. But they're living it now. They've got no sense of validation."

While Kids, with its musical soliloquies and humorous touches, can be quite entertaining, its companion piece, Enormous Insignificancies by Hector Lugo, about a Puerto Rican playwright dying of AIDS, can be very unsettling. "What do you want me to do," asks Gaston, the playwright (played by Lugo), as he lay on a psychiatric couch, "go up to this man, the only human being who has been kind to me, who I love, and say I've got--I'm going to die and maybe you've got it, too? I can't, I can't, I can't."

Enormous Insignificancies, recalled Jackson, "was originally done at City College for the one-act festival last year. I didn't see it, but I knew Hector. We were at the college together. [After reading the script], I told him if he was interested in rewriting it, I would consider doing it."

Although the playwrights involved with Rainbow Rep must be gay or lesbian, that rule does not apply when Jackson goes about the task of selecting the cast. "There are 11 people in the total production--five gays and six straights, at least that is their public image. I'm not going to pull people who are in the closet, out of the closet. My political stance is that I don't particularly condone being in the closet, but artistically it's irrelevant. As far as I'm concerned, the actors are asexual on stage. The audience shouldn't be trying to figure out who's gay and who's straight. That defeats the purpose."

A future project waiting in the wings is "a theatrical dialogue" between gay men and lesbians. "It'll be two different pieces," said Jackson,"running about 45 minutes each, comprised of poetry and prose exploring how we feel about each other, what are the myths, the stereotypes, the misconceptions, the questions, the fears that affect the whole relationship. I've got ideas on what I think will probably come up in it, but I have no idea what the overall gist or structure will be." That would be left up to the poets and playwrights "who would get together on a Saturday or a Sunday for three hours, four hours," continued Jackson, and "brainstorm" on how they would "create the written work into a theatre piece; linking the pieces and building a script."

This article was originally published in the Philadelphia Gay News (March 11, 1988).

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The AIDS Gravy Train

The Voice of the People
New York Daily News
450 West 33rd Street
New York, NY 10001
February 20, 1997

Dear Editor:

If a cure for AIDS is ever found, the result will be a lot of unemployed people. Since the onslaught of the disease in 1981, a cottage industry has mushroomed: organizations, periodicals, housing facilities, clinics, etc. And most, if not all, are recipients of public funds.

In every major American city there are probably more groups dealing with AIDS-related issues than there are for any other disease. These days everybody and his brother is hopping a ride on the AIDS gravy train.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

This letter was published on March 15, 1997.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Inside An Architect's Home

"As we look around today," said Percy Griffin, a Harlem-based African American architect, "we see a little of many different styles creeping into architecture: the Renaissance, the Gothic, Byzantine, and so on. We went to one period back in the '50s where we had steel and glass, the glass boxes." Many of these buildings can be found on Manhattan's Park Avenue, north of Grand Central Terminal. For example, the Lever Brothers Building. This style is called "modern" architecture. Now we're in the post-modern period in which architects borrow from other architectural styles. Said Griffin about post-modernism, or what he called "eclectic architecture": "It's like baking a cake. If you have the right ingredients, it will be tasty. So's architecture."

Griffin's home, in a four-story limestone building that he owns on West 144th Street in Harlem, is a mixture of different styles. (He lives there with his wife Sandra, an urban planner, and their seven-year-old daughter, Kammara.)

The Griffins occupy the basement, and the first two floors of the building. The upper two floors are rented out to three tenants.

The den, in the basement, where he and his wife spend most of their time, is described by Griffin as having a high-tech decor. It is furnished with a circular bar, a TV, a stereo, and a spinet piano.

The main floor containing the family area and the living room is eclectic. The walls are white. The living room has a built-in fireplace, a glass top coffee table, and paintings on the wall. (The paintings are his own work. They line the walls throughout the house.) The family area, adjacent to the kitchen, has a long wooden dining table, a couch, a bookshelf that he built, and a wall in which a rectangular opening has been cut inside of which are placed wooden ancient Roman columns on either side of the opening. A few feet away is another column,that is more modern, and painted blue to match a similar column in the living room.

The upstairs area is designed in Scandinavian light wood. The wall of his and his wife's bedroom which faces the stairs is made up of a series of small window panes to emit light when desired and is shielded from within by a Japanese shade. Down the hall is their daughter's bedroom furnished with a bed that is a few feet off the floor and is accessible by a ladder nearby. Underneath the bed is a row of shelves for various dolls, a birdcage with two parakeets, a dresser, and a TV set. Taped to that same wall are her drawings. Along the wall outside her bedroom are framed pictures of her.

This article was part of a much longer article about architect Percy Griffin. It was originally published in the Harlem Weekly in 1984.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Assessing The Dance World

In assessing the current New York dance scene, the four dance experts I interviewed saw very little, if any, trendsetting going on in modern dance or ballet.

The leaning in modern dance toward what Celia Ipiotis, the host of Channel 31's Eye on Dance, described as the blending of "elements from the world of theatre, music, and visual arts" is, said dance historian Joe Nash, "nothing new. Everything now is merely a continuation of what was started in the sixties." Although there is this cyclical aspect to modern dance, Village Voice critic Deborah Jowitt pointed out that "whenever those things come out, they usually come back in a slightly different form."

Back in the sixties, recalled Jowitt, there was "a dance revolution" that took place. It was at this point, said Nash, "when modern dance entered a whole new phase." What the early pioneers such as Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham "established [was] a style, a technique, an approach to modern dance that was related to [a period] when people were trying to communicate about issues, about the human spirit." But, further explained Nash, who teaches dance history at the Alvin Ailey school, the choreographers who emerged from the Judson Movement in the sixties--named after the church performance space on the West Side of Manhattan--wanted to "establish their own principles of movement that ran counter to what was considered traditional. It gained in popularity as more people entered the field. Critics began to try to analyze and describe what they were seeing. They still don't know what they're seeing, but they describe it anyway."

In ballet, particularly with "the major companies," said New York Daily News critic Charles Jurrist, "it is really hard to spot trends." Jowitt attributed this to "the classical language staying the same." She detected, although, "a kind of aggression entering ballet. You can see a lot of aggressive, violent dance today in ballet and contemporary dance."

Said Jurrist, "The New York City Ballet has clearly still not decided where it's going after the death of [its founder and choreographer George] Balanchine. At ABT [American Ballet Theatre], they've mostly been involved in cleaning up the company which needed a lot of cleaning up--disciplining the corps de ballet and sort of weeding out the repertory, making it a more stylistically coherent company." Jurrist added that he "really couldn't say that I would spot a trend in either one of those two companies--as yet."

On the other hand, historian Nash saw the influence of modern dance, particularly the African American contribution to it, on contemporary ballet. "At the root of American dance is the black movement styles. What the African American brought to a whole field of dance was just total involvement of the body in dance. You now see twisting and contorting the body as you would do in jazz or ethnic dance. This is the contemporary trend. Contemporary ballets are really based upon the New Movement as opposed to classical tradition handed down from the 17th century--'Swan Lake', 'Giselle.' The choreographer takes those traditional five-position movements of the legs and arms and updates them and places them in a contemporary mold. More and more companies are using contemporary approaches to ballet production and that will continue."

Although Celia Ipiotis said that today the definition of dance is "fluid," the Daily News's Charles Jurrist thought that a lot of what passes for dance--such as "carrying a transistor radio onto the stage and turning it on"--should be labeled as performance art, which he himself admitted is a catchall phrase, much like the term "post-modern." In his mind, dance has "movement as its primary mode of expression. Otherwise, it's another form of theatre."  Opined Joe Nash, "You will always have people engaged in multimedia because when you're lost for something to say through movement, you can always revert to words or [photo] slides."

This article was originally published in the West Side Spirit (December 19, 1988).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Of Prima Donnas And Bisexual Men

Not a Day Goes By by E. Lynn Harris (Doubleday, 288 pp.)

Not a Day Goes By, whose chapters are mercifully short, tells the story of the ill-fated love affair of Basil Henderson, an ex-football star-turned-sports agent and Yancey Braxton, an extremely ambitious prima donna stage actress. Both characters, products of dysfunctional families, are planning to get married. But Basil has a lingering question: "[C]an a diva and a dude like me ever settle down?"

In the prologue Basil calls Yancey to inform her that their wedding is off for good. (This part of the story appears too early to create suspense.) Then it backtracks to the day of their love-at-first sight meeting at the skating rink in Rockefeller Center. From there subsequent events and revelations (one in particular--Basil's bisexuality--could hurt his chance of being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame) work to doom their marriage plans.

Although the macho, slightly homophobic Basil and the manipulative, self-centered Yancey are described in the dust jacket copy as "two very unforgettable characters," that label rightly belongs to Yancey's cold-blooded, man-grabbing femme fatale mother, Ava, herself an actress. Currently married to a wealthy computer whiz she met on a flight to Hawaii, Ava is ever on the prowl (she already snared the package delivery man) and will stop at nothing to get what, and who, she wants. And that includes acquiring a son-in-law so that Yancey can fleece him of his hard-earned wealth and then divorce him. If Harris had written, a noir novel, a la James M. Cain, Ava would be a standout. I wanted to hear more from her, and less from Basil and Yancey.

Harris's alternate use of first- and third-person narration is annoying and distracting. Basil's scenes are told in his voice, while Yancey's are told in the third person. It's as though Harris was not confident enough to write from a woman's point of view.

Also, the sex scenes always involve Basil and Yancey. But if Basil is a bisexual, there should be a scene or two showing him with a man rather than having him reminisce about an old flame who "could deep-throat the jimmie like a fire-eating circus performer." Does Harris believe that too much detail about two men in bed would turn off female readers?

Overall, Not a Day Goes By is formulaic and is the literary equivalent of junk food. There is very little in it that is thought-provoking. And it certainly isn't stylistically innovative or challenging to the status quo.

This article was originally published in the New York Blade (August 11, 2000) and reprinted in the Washington Blade (September 1, 2000).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fighting Arson: An Interview With Dennis Smith, Author & Former Firefighter

Charles Michael Smith: What type of person becomes an arsonist?
Dennis Smith: I don't think you can make a generalization. There's been a great deal of research into children fire setters. They found out that the profile generally fits the profile of a young delinquent and that is generally from a broken home. People with serious education deficiencies, learning deficiencies, and severe personality problems. It's a couple of steps beyond juvenile delinquency in that it can become deadly.

CMS: When a fire is of suspicious origin what is the investigative procedure?
DS: It's a long procedure. There are certain ways that all firefighters are taught to proceed in the initial exposure to a fire. That is, if there are two different fires--one in one end of the building, one in the other--you know that it's arson. If you go in and see streamers anywhere--streamers meaning long strips of paper or other devices so that the fire will extend--you know that it's arson.

CMS: What is the role of the fire marshal?
DS: Fire marshals are called in some states fire investigators. In some states there are none and the police department is fully responsible for it. Their role is to determine the cause and the origin of all fires. It's only when the fire chief  at the scene says a fire is suspicious that a fire marshal gets really involved.

CMS: What are the attitudes of firemen to the arson problem that you've been able to find out?
DS: I don't think that the concept of arson in its consequences looms very large in the firefighter's mind. All they know is that the building's on fire or that they've got to go out into the streets, into the building to put the fire out.
But one fire to a firefighter is generally thought of in the same way as any other fire. It doesn't matter how it started really. The thing is once you're there how do you extinguish the fire. Do your job, save whatever lives need to be saved and do it as safely as possible without getting yourself killed or severely injured.

CMS: How many kinds of arson are there?
DS: There are three kinds of arson that are major problems in America? The first kind is the traditional maladjusted mental personality who is traditionally called a pyromaniac. The second kind of arson is arson as social protest and that was a huge problem during the late sixties and through the seventies. The third kind of arson is the most serious one facing us now. Although the amounts of arson incidents have declined in the last year it seems. We're not really sure but it does seem that way for the statistics gathering people. So while we have fewer arson fires, the costs are greater which means that the third biggest arson problem, which is arson for economic profit, is the one now that is in the long run the most dangerous to us as a society. That is, people are finding it in tough economic times as we've had in the last four or five years in business that it's an easy answer to recouping an unsound business investment as to burn it down.

CMS: What can a private citizen do to help alert firemen of arson?
DS: One has a great duty to report that. For this reason, when one goes about setting a fire one time in all likelihood they're going to set a fire another time and another time and develop a pattern of setting fires. And if it's a member of the family or friend then that person ought to be helped and also reported to the fire department. The fire department would almost certainly in the bigger cities have some program in place that would be helpful to such a person. Arson kills people. More than a thousand people we estimate at least in America last year.

CMS: What penalties would you like to see enacted in arson cases?
DS: It's interesting that the penalties vary depending on what time the arson takes place. I'm not a lawyer but there is a code of penalties that judges can go by for very specific crimes. If arson occurs during the nighttime hours from 11 o'clock until 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock in the morning, then the penalty ought to be much greater than an arson that occurs at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The rationale being that while somebody's sleeping, arson is a much more serious problem.

Part of this Q and A interview appeared on the Inquiry Page of USA Today (August 30, 1983).

Note: Dennis Smith is a former New York City firefighter. His books include Report from Engine Co. 82, Dennis Smith's History of Firefighting in America, and Report from Ground Zero. This interview took place in 1983 at Firehouse magazine in Manhattan where he was the publisher and editor-in-chief.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Black Gay Man's Personal Odyssey

The End of Innocence: A Journey Into the Life by Alaric Wendell Blair (South Bend, Indiana: Mirage Publishing Co., 249 pp, paperback)

While aboard a Greyhound bus enroute to his native city of Chicago, Fitzgerald Washington, the "scholarly, articulate, and light-skinned" black gay protagonist in Alaric Wendell Blair's debut novel The End of Innocence: A Journey Into the Life, pulls out a copy of his favorite book Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. "This would be my sixth time reading the book since I got it," he declares.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing about The End of Innocence. One reading is enough for me.

Unlike Baldwin's classic novel which seriously deals with sexual identity and the ramifications of love, Blair's novel has a nineties TV sit-com approach to these subjects, with punchlines, catty remarks, and pop culture references (e.g. Joan Collins, Patti Labelle, Oprah, et cetera) to boot.

I'm disappointed that Blair, "an educator, journalist, and activist in the Indiana community where he resides" (according to the back jacket copy) hasn't produced a novel worthy of his background--something that is complex and intellectually stimulating, a la Baldwin or Toni Morrison.

The End of Innocence  is one of these tiresome coming-out novels. Following Fitzgerald from a summer camp "for bored ghetto children" to high school to predominantly white Harmon College to his enlistment in the navy, it reads more like an autobiography or memoir than it does a work of fiction.

As far as young Fitzgerald is concerned, despite his sassy snap diva demeanor, he is very insecure and naive (particularly about gay life). I found it hard to believe that a young gay man living in the 1980s, in Chicago, would not know about the rainbow flag and the pink triangle. (A black lesbian student at the college educates him about the symbols.) If the story had been set in the 1940s or 1950s, and the main character was from the sticks, it would be more believable. but at a time when gay life is visible on TV, in the movies, on national magazine covers, I don't think so. I don't even think straight people are that uniformed about American gay culture.

Also, all or most of the gay male characters (black and white), Fitzgerald included, are depicted as very effeminate, or as Fitzgerald would put it, act "more than a woman," saying things like "[y]ou young girls tickle me." Even in the mid-80s black gay men were caught up in what Michelangelo Signorile, the gay writer, would call the cult of masculinity and would frown at and avoid socializing with effeminate men. Fitzgerald conversely suffers very little negativity as a result of his admittedly "flamboyant behavior" in an increasingly macho gay environment.

Moreover, aside from his naivete ("I wonder if Rockwell or Kevin is gay. Mel could be, but I don't think so because he's fat"), his attitude about what is "real sex" have a Clintonian ring. For example, early in the book, after a sexual encounter (his first ever) with Denise, a promiscuous neighbor two years his senior, he still thinks of himself as "still a virgin because I hadn't achieved an orgasm with her." A later gay tryst doesn't rate as real sex either because it involved oral, not anal, sex.

The most interesting, and most promising, part of The End of Innocence are the last seven chapters. In these chapters, Fitzgerald joins the navy, goes through the naval equivalent of boot camp, and gets kicked out for being gay just as his naval career is beginning. Here is a missed opportunity. Blair could have expanded this section into a book-length indictment against the mistreatment of gay men in the military. It certainly is a topical and controversial issue that Blair could have used to give voice to those very rarely heard from in the media--black gay men in uniform.

This article was originally published in the Lambda Book Report (March 1999).

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Celebrating "The Roots Of Jazz" In Harlem

Right on the heels of Spike Lee's film paen to jazz music, Mo' Better Blues, came Harlem Week 1990's "Roots of Jazz" festival.

The August 17 concert and awards show at City College's Aaron Davis Hall was not only a celebration of four now-departed African American legends--singer Sarah Vaughan, saxophonist Dexter Gordon, all-around entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., and dancer-choreographer LaRocque Bey--but an acknowledgment of young up-and-coming talent who may each become, to quote one award presenter about Davis, "a world treasure, a national treasure, and a Harlem treasure."

The festival, sponsored by Remy Martin Cognac, will become an annual Harlem Week event and will, undoubtedly, like Mo' Better Blues, contribute toward making jazz better appreciated  in the country of its origin.

During the three-and-a-half-hour show, the four deceased performers were awarded plaques for lifetime achievement in the arts (Sammy Davis, Jr.'s mother, Baby Sanchez Davis, and his sister, Ramona, were present to accept his award).

Out of the 43 scholarships (totalling $75,000) awarded this year, only six were awarded onstage. Among the onstage awardees were Dionne Boissiere (whose parents are from Trinidad and Tobago), who won a five-hundred-dollar scholarship and first place in the jazz and popular music competition (she later sang a medley of Gershwin tunes) and two members of the LaRocque Bey School of Dance, Aisha Hawkins and Takima Lewis. Both are teaching apprentices at the school. "Each and every year," announced Lloyd Richards, president and CEO of Harlen Week's sponsor, the Uptown Chamber of Commerce, "we shall present two scholarships to students of the LaRocque Bey School of Dance in honor of Mr. LaRocque Bey."

A Corporate Responsibility Award was given to Gerri Warren, vice president of corporate communications at Paragon Cable Manhattan, in recognition of her "contributions to the youth of New York by initiating and continuing her Harlem Week scholarship program."

Interspersed among the award presentations were the entertainment segments featuring the "Harlem Prince of Soul," saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood; singer Gloria Lynne, who later accepted Sarah Vaughan's award ("She was my friend. I credit her for my style."); veteran tap dancer "Sandman" Sims, the LaRocque Bey Dance Company; and singer Dakota Staton.

Midway through the program, it was announced that Pearl Bailey had just died. The audience, in a state of shock, rose and held hands as Lloyd Richards said a few words of praise for her talent.

The mistress of ceremonies for the evening was the sultry-voiced Maria Von Dickersohn of radio station WQCD (CD 101.9).

This article was originally published in The Black American newspaper (August 23, 1990).

Monday, November 5, 2012

Comic Books That Are Aimed At Adults

Do you still think of comic books as kid stuff? Well, the people at Marvel Comics, the home of such superheroes as The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man, want to change your mind.

In an effort to reach a more mature audience, Marvel Comics has initiated, under its Epic imprint, the Tales From the Heart of Africa series. The first book, The Temporary Natives, focuses on Cathy Grant, a young white Peace Corps volunteer assigned to a village in the Central African Republic. The story is loosely based on the real-life experiences of Peace Corps retiree Cindy Goff (who co-authored with Rafael Nieves.

The Temporary Natives, in an often cinematically-inspired art style (by black Chicago artist Seitu Hayden), traces Cathy's odyssey from her graduation day at the University of Minnesota to her first year in the Peace Corps. We witness her day-to-day interactions with the local people and their customs. We also witness Carthy's role as a mediator when the local people become alienated by the condescension of Jack Glaser, a Corps colleague, during the building of a schoolhouse.

"This book," said 26-year-old Marcus McLaurin , Marvel Comic's only black editor, "can be more broadly interpreted as the Peace Corps in a lot of the underdeveloped countries, and the kind of culture shock that some of the volunteers run into and in general the feeling of hopelessness which tend to pervade a lot of the work. They've come to devote two years of their lives to do something good and yet they come away with questions of whether they did more harm than good."

The next book, continued McLaurin, himself an illustrator (he drew a comic book aimed at teens for the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force), "will be more about the country at the time [the mid-'80s] and the politics of the region, such as a massacre of local college students which really didn't get a lot of press coverage. It was a relatively minor protest which was met with excessive force."

McLautin believes The Temporary Natives's bookshelf format--quality paper between book-size softcovers--is the appropriate way to present this form of comic book storytelling because "you can tell longer stories, you can do interesting things with color, and a lot of people can afford it, adults as well as younger people."

Although the series is primarily  "seeking a mature audience," observed McLaurin, it is "applicable to any age group. Too often comics talk down to kids. If you present something to them in a mature manner and with thoughtfulness, it [the subject matter] becomes accessible to them."

With The Temporary Natives, McLaurin went on, "[w]e really show how powerful and versatile the comic medium is."

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (August 25, 1990).

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Boxing: Artistry Or Savagery?

Village Voice
842 Broadway
New York, NY 10003
November 26, 1982

Dear Editor:

The corruption that Jack Newfield writes about in his piece on boxing ("The Men Who Are Killing a Noble Sport," November 30 [1982]) is not the only disturbing thing about this so-called "sport." It's also the gladiator mentality that keeps it in existence. I have long advocated for the abolition of boxing and the recent death of the Korean lightweight Duk-Koo Kim underscores that belief. When I heard on the radio that Kim had suffered irreparable brain damage and that he was close to death, it brought to mind Willie Classen who died under similar circumstances about three years ago.To Newfield I ask: Must more lives be lost? Must more families be left behind to grieve before a decision is made to put boxing--which Newfield calls a "noble sport" and I call legalized savagery--to rest?

What baffles me is how Newfield can justify boxing by calling it "artistry." Where is the artistry in two men knocking each other's brains out? Can't Newfield see that boxing is brutal and that it caters not only to the greed of those who promote it but also to the blood lust of those who watch it? Can't he see the hypocrisy of those who decry violence in the street but glorify it in the ring?

I hope ghetto kids who aspire to boxing careers will instead aspire to something far better and far nobler than fame, fortune, and possible brain damage and death in the ring. There are other options, Mr. Newfield, than the gym.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

This letter was sent to the Village Voice but was not published.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Percy Griffin, Architect And Teacher, Designs Mostly For Black Clients

When Percy Charles Griffin was growing up in Mississippi, he was always painting pictures. As a result, his mother told him that she felt he was a born architect. She knew, said Griffin, 39, that "I couldn't make any money at painting, so the next thing to that was to be an architect." At the time, Griffin "didn't know what the word 'architecture' meant. When I came up here [New York], I wanted to be an engineer." But math--a subject he was good in during his high school days--became a stumbling block  when he got to City College. He had lost interest in the subject. "I went to one of my professors," recalled Griffin while perched on a desk in his office above 125th Street and 7th Avenue, "and told him I had no interest. He said, 'Why don't you try architecture?' So sure enough, I did.There too I was very pathetic. The first semester I was very, very sad. Awful. Some of the professors didn't have any hope [for me], didn't have any faith. They felt that I was completely wasting my time trying to study architecture. But inside of me I knew that's what I wanted to do and that's what I would do. The next semester," he continued, "I went from sympathy to admiration. I led my class in the third semester [a year and a half after entering college]. I was at the top of my class." Griffin went on to an architectural award at City College for his thesis design. (The cardboard model was that of a four-story, block-long multi-service cultural center that included a 300-seat theatre, art gallery, restaurant, outdoor fountain and garden, et cetera. If the project had not had funding problems, it would have been constructed on the block located at 8th Avenue and 121st Street. The site is presently a community garden.)

Griffin, the third of four children, is the only one in his family to have gone to college. His parents, despite their lack of formal education (his mother, a housewife, went only as far as the 6th grade; his father, a longshoreman, could not read or write), understood the value of an education. His father would not allow any of his children to work during the summer because he was afraid it would discourage them from going to school.

Griffin's decision to go to college came after he had attended a technical school in Brooklyn and landed a job in the office of Philip Johnson, the famous architect who later designed the AT&T Building in midtown Manhattan. "I went to school because everyone [in Johnson's office] were college graduates. Princeton, Harvard, all over. I really wanted to complete my education. So he [Johnson] told me, 'Fine. We will make this office fit your school program.' I went to City College for five years, taking off one, two, three days every week and they didn't deduct any money from my salary. I was doing regular architectural development, drafting, design development. Same as anyone else. At that time, I had gotten very, very good at it. Very talented." (Griffin gives Johnson credit for helping him in his school projects by evaluating them.) After graduation in 1972, Griffin took the architecture licensing exam; he passed it.

He tells an interesting story of how he came to get the job in Philip Johnson's office. After two years in one architectural firm, Griffin went "looking around for another job in architecture. One of the agencies sent me to Philip Johnson. I didn't want to work in that office because it was too prestigious for me. They offered me a job the very same day. Three weeks later I was standing at the newsstand on Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street when one of the bosses from Johnson came by. He said to me, 'I thought you wanted a job.' I said, 'A job?' He said, 'Yes, you came up to the office looking for a job three weeks ago.'" When the man announced he was from Johnson's office, Griffin replied, "I couldn't pay for the job. They wanted too much money." It was 12 noon. The man told Griffin to call him at 3 p.m. When Griffin called, the man told him, "We gave the agency the money. What's your excuse now?" The following Money morning was the beginning of a five-year association with the firm.

The office he is presently in was once the workspace of the renowned black architect John Louis Wilson, now retired. (Wilson was the first black to graduate from the School of Architecture at Columbia University.) Griffin worked out of Wilson's officer as an independent architect. Today he is in partnership with Stuart Furman, his former teacher at the Brooklyn technical school. (Furman, who is white, teaches at the New York Institute of Technology's Manhattan campus, near Columbus Circle, where Griffin also teaches.)

To Griffin architecture is the best of two world: aesthetics and technology, "It's very artistic. You have to have a concept. You have to have imagination and then you turn right around with this imagination, understanding the technical part of [architecture], which is the engineering, the structure, the mechanical, the electrical, and energy conservation. It's a mixture of many different fields. Not only the design or the technical  but sociology, philosophy, history. I feel that history is a major part of understanding architecture. Where it came from, the different periods it went through. You need to know the history of architecture and the history of the world. I feel that without the history, you would not have much depth as an architect.

"As we look around today, we see a little of many different styles creeping into architecture: the Renaissance, the Gothic, Byzantine, and so on. We went to one period back in the '50s where we had steel and glass, the glass boxes." Many of these buildings can be found on Park Avenue, north of Grand Central Terminal. For example, the Lever Brothers Building. This style  is called "modern" architecture. Now we're the post-modern period in which architects borrow from other architectural styles. Said Griffin about post-modernism, or what he calls "eclectic architecture": "It's like baking a cake. If you have the right ingredients, it will be tasty. So's architecture."

A majority of Griffin's clients--75 percent to be exact--are black individuals who hire him to do home renovations He also does design work for churches (such as the cultural and community center of the Thessalonian Baptist Church in the Bronx) and day care centers (two or three centers a year). His many clients include Sylvia's Restaurant on Lenox Avenue, actor Irving Lee (of the soap opera The Edge of Night), and Dr. Billy Jones, a psychiatrist at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, who lives in Griffin's neighborhood [in Harlem].

Griffin, who said he works very hard but enjoys his work, looks at 1983 as his best year professionally. However, he does have a gripe. He feels that the black community as a whole does not "want to use the professionals that are available to them. How many projects that I see going up in Harlem, the Bronx, Chicago, all over, and no black architect [is involved]. They wouldn't have a black architect. We could survive pretty well if we could get our 10 percent or 15 percent of the money for construction. A black preacher will go to a white architect," Griffin continued, noting the number of buildings going up or being remodeled because of church involvement. "How can he be a leader and not know where black architects are and not realize it's a hard struggle for black architects?"

At the Convent Avenue Baptist Church, he is on the committee that is helping to build "a connection between the church building and the office building." No doubt his church realizes the full value of his  experience and expertise.

At the New York Institute of Technology, Griffin teaches design. He has been there for eight years. He holds several positions at the school. Among them is the position of assistant director of the architecture department. NYIT, he said, "is 10 to 15 percent minority. Maybe. I noticed lately my classes have been all white. If I have a class of 14, 15, maybe I'm lucky to have two blacks. They may be from Africa, the West Indies, or some other place." Very few of his students are black Americans.

In his offices in Harlem, Griffin employs four young draftsmen: two Spanish-speaking females, an African, and a black American graduate of Hampton Institute in Virginia.

For relaxation, Griffin studies painting at the Art Students League. His specialty is abstract oil painting. Doing them gives him peace of mind. When he is painting, there is no need to respond to the wishes of clients or to construction budgets; he has complete freedom of expression. The paintings in his home are so good that people upon seeing them for the first time offer to buy them. Initially he declined these offers because he felt he would not have any paintings for himself. But now, with more than enough to share, he is willing to sell some of them.

When I asked him what advice he would give to students interested in pursuing a career in architecture, he told me that they should not go into the profession with the thought of making a lot of money. "Learn all you can. Work hard. you won't get rich." (It should be noted that architecture is not one of the highest paid fields. The amount of construction work available depends on the ups and downs of the economy.)

Griffin has never dreamt of designing skyscrapers. He couldn't explain why. But he, in a moment of prophecy, sees the day when skyscrapers will be on the drawing boards of black architects. He doesn't believe it will happen in his lifetime, even if he lived to be 150. "It's too far in the future for me to have a dream of being a part of it. Society," he continued, "is not ready for a black man to get involved with that kind of money transaction."

This condensed article was originally published in the Harlem Weekly newspaper in 1984.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Ruth Williams's Harlem Dance School

Since 1947, when Ruth Williams and choreographer Henry LeTang opened the Ruth Williams Dance Studio in Harlem, she has trained three generations of students, many of them the grandparents and parents of the current crop.

And for as many years, Ms. Williams has staged an annual dance recital to showcase the talent and skill of these youngsters whose ages range from four to 21 plus, and who come from all over the tri-state area.

This year [1989]--for the 16th time--the recital will take place in Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall June 17 at 7:30 p.m. The 310 recitalists will perform all dance styles taught at the school's Theresa Towers [formerly the Theresa Hotel] location (2090 7th Avenue)--tap, ballet, jazz, ethnic (African), and pointe--in works choreographed by Ms. Williams and her faculty. Such works include an all-female teen tap number set to the immortal Fats Waller-Andy Razaf tune, "Ain't Misbehavin'."

All but seven of the recitalists are female. "It's hard to hold on to boys," said the pleasant-voiced Ms. Williams, a small silver-haired woman, "once they get into athletics." But she hopes to "reach out" to them "over the summer months and in the fall. We'll still continue with the girls," she added, "if that's what it comes down to. But I would like to have some more male dancers. It always adds a little more excitement to the works, adding the strength and the agility of the male dancer."

Ms. Williams, a child development specialist, with degrees from Hunter College and Columbia University, formed the Ruth Williams Dance Foundation eight years ago which has as one of its goals a scholarship program for children.  Recently the foundation was awarded a grant from the New York City Youth Board. "We're looking forward," said Ms. Williams, "to having a very successful tutorial as well as dance incentive program beginning in the fall of '89 through  June of '90." The program is aimed at "low achievers; children that are having trouble sitting still in the classroom, that sort of thing." (The program is only for those who live within the boundaries of Community Board 10 and School District 5.)

But in the meantime, Ms. Williams, the faculty, and most especially the kids, are giving their all toward achieving a boffo show.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (June 17, 1989).

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Burton Clarke, A Gay Artist Who "Draws For My People"

"I draw for my people," asserted Burton Clarke, exhibiting his pride in being gay. "I love to draw men. I love to draw men together. I love to look at men."

Clarke, 38, has done artwork for several gay publications, among them First Hand, Playguy, Gay Comix, and Christopher Street. His Cy Ross character, described by [the Philadelphia-based African American] art historian Steven L. Jones as a "realistically drawn, classically handsome gay Black man," first appeared in the pages of the New York Native in 1980.

A native of Plainfield, New Jersey, Clarke, who is himself black, came to New York to pursue an acting career. (He has a B.A. in theatre from Syracuse University and a M.A. in acting from Florida State University.) Clarke had previously been the first black member of the Asolo State Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, where he "could be doing Shakespeare in the afternoon and French farce in the evening." After four years, Clarke decided he "wanted to have a more stable home base." He earns his living now primarily as a medical secretary at New York University Medical Center.

As a gay man, he feels accepted by his family, of which he is the oldest of six children. However, he does not feel accepted by the black community, and as a result his work "is not wholly black-identified."

A future project he has in mind is to "lampoon" the heterosexual notion that gay men lust after them just because "they have a dick."

Charles Michael Smith: When did you realize you had artistic ability?
Burton Clarke: I've always been able to draw. I've never had formal training as an artist. I've always doodled.

There was one point when I was in junior high school that I came to a fork in the road. I could be an artist or an actor. I  chose to be an actor. When I got to New York, I decided that that was not the kind of life I wanted for myself. I was tired of doing auditions and I was tired of the lack of guarantees that an acting career had. It didn't depend on how talented you were. There were too many variables. A lot of times it was like too short, too tall, too light [skinned]. They wanted someone who looked and sounded black.

One of the problems of being a black actor, as far as being hired by a company for a season, is that very often they can't employ a black actor for an entire season. You can't do [Arthur Miller's] All My Sons and have a black actor in the cast because [the audience] is going to say, "What's he doing there? At this point he wouldn't have had that kind of relationship with these people." I had to do some hard thinking when I came to New York.

CMS: Would you say there was racism involved?
BC: I wouldn't call it racism. The opportunity just wasn't there. I don't think it was a conscious effort of racism. The play, the material wasn't there. For the type of theatre that they did, the roles were not available for black actors.

CMS: As a kid what kind of comics did you like?
BC: My favorite comic of all time, and I still hunger for this guy's work, although he's drawing a different comic strip now, is Leonard Starr's On Stage. It went from 1957 to 1979. I own three pieces of original artwork, one of which I bought at auction. The other two he gave to me when I interviewed him in his Greenwich Village studio in 1970. [Clarke was an intern reporter at the Plainfield Carrier News in New Jersey for three months that year.]
Right now, he's drawing Little Orphan Annie which was originated by Harold Gray.
My own style is heavily influenced by Leonard Starr. The central figure was Mary Perkins, who was an actress and [On Stage] dealt with her adventures. To my way of thinking, it was the best drawn comic strip. It was extremely literate, at times funny, but the characters were very believably drawn, not only artistically but as far as the characters were concerned. It contained a real sense of the theatrical. One of the things I adopted into my style is that whenever the action got very, very dramatic, the darker things would get. By the time you got to the climax, there would be either very heavy black and white silhouette or very heavy-duty lighting effects. It looked much more visually interesting because you were getting into the thick of things.

CMS: How would you describe The Satyr, the superhero comic character you created?
BC: He's a nice avenging angel. Because gay people are so abused a lot of the time, the feeling is that sometimes you would really like to get back. Sometimes you wish you had super human powers to be able to stop somebody in their tracks. It's not just a gay people's dream either. It's people who are downtrodden, people who perceive themselves to be powerless and would like to be powerful, to be able to have that gift. It's not a revenge strip--the end result is positive. He [the gaybasher] accepts who he is. He has gay feelings which he was fighting against so desperately that he was striking out against other people he perceived to be gay. He has come to an acceptance of self through catharsis--fire and water, and all that other stuff. This is not to say that all people who bash gay people have that particular problem. The point is they have a problem with it. I chose to have the Satyr help them see that it's OK to be gay.

CMS: Was the fairytale concept you used in a GMHC safe sex poster your idea?
BC: No. Gay Men's Health Crisis had three strips. Two of them I did not care for. They were basic. I don't want to say stereotypical. It was the kind of thing you've seen before. The storybook script was very different, plus it would give me an opportunity to draw things that were out of the ordinary. So I chose that one instead. I don't know who wrote the script.

CMS: Beginning in the spring of 1988, you plan to work entirely as a freelance artist. What brought you to that decision?
BC: It's time for me to make use of my gift. When I was convalescing from my injury [to my left Achilles heel], I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with my future. I didn't want to spend my days as a medical secretary. I figured I had a God-given gift to draw for some reason. I thought it was time I started to use it [full-time]. I'd be much happier, much more satisfied. Working out of my home is something I've always wanted to do. However, I want to make a living at this. Gay outlets are limited. The pay scale for doing gay work is limited. Gay publications have a bad reputation for not paying good. I don't want to have to hassle with people to get money for something I've already done. So I'll have to broaden my scope. I'll have to do more mainstream things. At the same time, I'm not giving up the gay option whatsoever. If I had a choice, I would probably do more gay-oriented stuff--if I could make a living at it. I would find that ultimately more satisfying on a personal level. It speaks to my experience.

The Satyr who, represents, said Clarke, a gay sensuality, appears in the recently published Gay Comix #10 [1987].

This article was originally published in the New York Native (August 10, 1987).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Growing Up, Out, And Powerful": An Excuse To Rant

Alternating between militancy and humor, Growing Up, Out and Powerful is a semi-improvisational, autobiographical theatre piece. "[Its intent is] to detail and dramatize the process of becoming a sane, healthy, lesbian/gay, progressive person of color in a world that tends to be otherwise," said John Patterson, the director.

Through poetry, songs, monologues, and discussion, the five performers (Patterson, Colin Robinson, Pam Lewis, Nestor Millan, and Lourdes Perez) attempt to fulfill that promise.

It runs through June 27 [1987] at the Castillo Cultural Center, 7 East 20th Street, in Manhattan, in six evening performances. Each of  those shows spotlights different guest poets, and is part of an overall celebration of Gay Pride Month.

Of the five, Patterson was the only experienced actor, which was obvious--he was the one who gave an unstilted, self-confident, and joyful performance.

Surrounded by the audience on three sides, Patterson and company occupied a sparsely furnished set that represented, said the press release, a living room in a railroad flat. Frankly, I couldn't tell where it was supposed to be.

Initially, the dialogue was lively and humorous as they exchanged reminiscences about being black or Latino homosexual adolescents. After about the first 20 minutes, the show began to go downhill. With the exception of Patterson, the autobiographies began to ramble; nothing significant was said. Other problems I found annoying were Nestor Millan's heavily accented English which made it hard to understand him and Pam Lewis's soapbox histrionics. In addition, the show ran close to three hours, with no intermission. It should have been cut to 90 minutes, have as its main focus the lives of three people, not five, and have a more cohesive structure.

As for the special guests--poets Cheryl Clarke and Jewelle Gomez, on the night that I attended--they should not have been isolated in a separate segment but integrated among the regular cast members in a five-minute cameo appearance. In so doing, they would have been given the chance to share a few lines of poetry as well as some thoughts in a manner that would not have destroyed the theatre piece's continuity.

It became apparent to me that Growing Up, Out, and Powerful was an excuse to put forth political ideas endorsed by the New Alliance Party, the left-leaning group that runs the Castillo Cultural Center. But then again, that fact should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with NAP and their tactics.

This article was submitted to the New York Amsterdam News on June 19, 1987. It was not published.