Monday, April 30, 2012

Noah Webster's Love Of Words

"I must write; it is a happiness I cannot sacrifice."--Noah Webster, American lexicographer (1758-1843).

Police Abuse Of A Gay Cop

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

Dear Editor:

If fellow transit police officers are intolerant of Richard Cano because he is gay, imagine how they would treat a victim of gaybashers. No wonder the gay community is so distrustful of the police.

Sincerely yours,

Charles Michael Smith

The above letter was written on August 12, 1993 and published on August 24, 1993.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Gay Bohemian Of The Harlem Renaissance

Richard Bruce Nugent, who was born in Washington, D.C., died in 1987. During the Harlem Renaissance, he frequented Georgia Douglas Johnson's soirees where he met Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, W.E.B. DuBois, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, among others. Nugent was the only writer of the Harlem Renaissance period to deal with homosexuality explicitly in his work, as in his short story, "Smoke, Lillies, and Jade," published in Fire!! Born of middle class parents in 1906, Nugent's adopted lifestyle made him conspicuous because he lacked a permanent address. He wore his bohemianism and homosexuality like a badge of honor.

This brief obituary of Richard Bruce Nugent was originally published in Black/Out magazine (Fall 1988) and was adapted from my article about him that was published in In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology (Alyson, 1986).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On Being A Triple Threat: Black, Male, & Gay

In Our Own Image: The Art of Black Male Photography, edited by Vega (Vega Press, 88 pp.)

In Our Own Image is a coffee table book that looks at the black male through the lenses of seven black male photographers from the United States and England. The 90-plus black-and-white photos present these models in various poses and states of undress. These well shot photos are several notches above the pornographic, stereotypical images offered to consumers of Sierra Domino and other black male nude photography series: there are no shots of genitalia or explicit sex.

Nevertheless, the photos do not, as poet Carl Cook states in the beefcake book's forward, reveal any of the qualities he believes are inherent in black males: "physical presence, grace, beauty, inner psyche, and spiritual persona." In fact, if straight people were to browse through the book, the nudity (which takes up most of the book), would reinforce their notion that gay men are sex-obsessed. It would have been better if the photographers had broadened their perspective and given us photo-essays that truly showed black men in most, if not all, of their eye-catching, exhilarating  diversity--especially since this book's homoerotic images are specifically aimed at a gay audience.

In Our Own Image's editor, Vega, could have used poet/novelist Langston Hughes and photographer Roy DeCarava's 1955 book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life as a model. In that book, Hughes's words, along with DeCarava's photos of actual people, formed what has been called a "fiction-document" that tells the story of one Harlem family. Through such a forum, In Our Own Image would have been much more effective in telling potential buyers what it means to be a triple threat in this world: black, male, and gay.

This review was originally published in the Lambda Book Report (May/June 1993).

Monday, April 23, 2012

Playwright Wendy Wasserstein's Younger Mother

I love this passage from Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salamon (Penguin Press, 2011):

"At family functions Morris [Wasserstein's father] quietly approached Lola's relatives and asked them, 'Do you know how old Lola [Wasserstein's mother] is?' He never got a definitive answer, because no one knew for sure. Lola enjoyed the game. At Georgette's sixtieth-birthday party, Lola asked a guest, 'How can my daughter be sixty when I'm only thirty-eight?'"

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Two Civil Rights Songs

If I were a radio deejay like the late New York broadcaster Danny Stiles ("The Vicar of Vintage"), I'd play Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit." And then I'd segue into "Georgia Rose" by Carmen McRae. The songs complement each other. Both were recorded two years apart during the Civil Rights Movement days of the 1950s. One dealt with lynching, the other promoted racial pride and self-esteem.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Fabulous Carmen McRae

Carmen McRae (1922?-1994) really knew how to breathe life into a song. On her recording of George and Ira Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On?," there is this wonderful lyric: "What a kick/how I buzz/boy you click like no one does." When she gets to the word "buzz" she stretches it out like the sound of a honeybee in flight--"buzzzzzz." Carmen McRae, what an artist!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

For Blacks, Imprisonment Is Legal Lynching

"Black people are 12 percent of the U.S. population and nearly 50 percent of the prison population; that's a form of lynching--legal lynching. So there are a lot more ways to lynch a people than just hanging them on the tree. ...The ghetto becomes, just like a prison, a metaphor for lynching, if lynching is understood as one group forcing a kind of inhumanity upon another group."--James Cone, theologian, from Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues (The New Press, 2011).

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Talk With Philip Blackwell, Black Gay Playwright

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

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

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

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

He has written a new play called The City Men which will be performed at the Actor's Outlet Theatre, 120 West 28th Street, in a series of benefit performances that begin December 30, 1984 and ends January 13, 1985. [The City Men was inspired by Clare Boothe Luce's play, The Women, which was later made into a movie in 1939.] The proceeds will go to the Gay Men's Health Crisis and the AIDS Resource Center. Both organizations are jointly involved in establishing New York's first shelter for homeless persons with AIDS.

The following interview took place in Blackwell's East Village, Manhattan apartment in 1984.

Charles Michael Smith: Do most of your plays deal with black gay subject matter?
Philip Blackwell: Actually not. I sat down and thought about it and kind of added them up. No. It seems to me such a strange question. I just write about what comes to mind about some particular issue and if it's about being black and gay, that's fine. I'm real positive about that. If it isn't, then it's not. I'm writing a piece now called Ten Lives. It's a very long piece which includes ten people. Some are black, some are not. Some are men, some are women.
CMS: What audience are you writing for?
PB: When I was in a playwriting seminar, people were talking about "Well, think about your audience." My final word on that is fuck the audience. That's too many people in a room with your typewriter. You're supposed to think about what you want to write about. I think that other process is a secondary one. That comes later. But I think a writer owes to himself or herself to just write the piece first and let the chips fall where they may. You may not see an audience right away but maybe you'll create one.
CMS: Do you try to change the audience's mind about anything?
PB: Now that's a different thought. Within the piece, you may want to take the audience from a certain point to another point, take them through some experiences. But what I meant, you don't worry about whose going to buy tickets to this. Are white people going to be offended?
CMS: Or whether the critics are going to like your play.
PB: If you let the critics in your room when you're writing, you might as well fry hamburgers or some shit. You won't write a word.
CMS: Do critics's reviews about a previous work of yours have any influence on how you write a current work?
PB: Yeah. But you have to take critics with a grain of salt. It's like perfume: smell it but don't drink it. You got to take what you get. You got to realize that those are men and women that make their living, too. I don't think you write plays for critics. They have a tremendous affect. But I don't think you write plays for them. A good critic will point out what's wrong with your piece. I think about what I want the affect to be. There are no faces or colors or sexes on the audience.
CMS: Twoheads is not entirely a gay play. There are other subject matters being dealt with.
PB: Well, yeah. But then coming all the way down the ramp, I don't call it a play. I call it a theatre piece. It's not really a play but that just reflects my own personal belief that issues that need to be dealt with sometimes transcends sexual or local or racial, even, issues. What's really important for people is to kind of confront things that are troublesome and that trouble them and ask questions that are difficult. In so far as whether it's a gay piece or not, I don't think anybody can dispute you. It's a very gay piece. It also deals with other issues. And I don't see why it shouldn't. To me, being black and gay are very often analogous. So if somebody came up and said "Well, you're black, you're only supposed to write about black stuff. Don't be writing about me, living out in West Egg." I'd be eviiiiiil! I'd tell them, "Now look, I should write about you more than anybody because I've been looking at your shit, I've been looking at your behind all my life so I can tell you what your behind looks like. And you can't see it." I think that analogy holds for gay stuff, too. I don't think that there should be that hard-and-fast limit although no one will come to Twoheads and not realize this until after I'd seen it, it was the only time I have ever in my life seen two black men in love with each other in any artwork with the possible exception of James Baldwin's Just Above My Head. Other than that, certainly the first time I've ever seen that on stage. So I don't think it's as gay as things get.
CMS: What was the genesis of Twoheads?
PB: Well, the story goes like this: [black gallery owner] John [Neely] and I have known each other for a while. Anyway, I'd done another piece and we all sort of knew each other. John came to see a reading of The Lover's Play. One of the people who read was Walter Holiday. The reading was very successful . John was moved to commission me to do a work specifically for Walter Holiday and Jim Cyrus.
CMS: Would you consider these works autobiographical?
PB: As has been printed in the public press, some of these pieces are allegedly autobiographical in origin. I would now like to take this opportunity [there is laughter from the others in the room] to deny that. Everything that you write in some sense is autobiographical. Some of the pieces are extremely autobiographical. Others are less autobiographical. It just comes from different things.
Some of the pieces in the play are much more successful than are others, of course. The piece "Herbert, Look" is about a black gay man and his black lesbian friend who commit illegal acts on a billboard in San Francisco. That comes out of an aborted play I tried to write and had never gone anywhere for me. And to be very honest, it works better as a piece in Twoheads than it would have worked as a play. Then on the other hand, another one of the pieces that worked real well is "See Through Stone" which literally just flew into my head one day when I was sitting in front of the typewriter. It had no antecedent that I know of. There was also a piece that was very successful called "Brother, It's Good to See You" which is the South African piece that people refer to. That comes out of a combination of my continuing concern with what's going on in South Africa, what that means to me as a black man in America and some specific things that I read. I went to hear Bishop [Desmond] Tutu's wife speak when she was here and I read the Amnesty International report on torture in South Africa. And also I read the reports on torture in Argentina and Brazil. Once you've been taken and tortured and you're lucky enough to survive and be released, how do you reintegrate yourself into your community? So the pieces come from all over.
I don't think of myself as a political person. I belong to no party. I have a very strong point of view. I consider myself a humanist. It's troublesome to me when people are tortured or oppressed. I believe I have been oppressed a little bit in my time. My belief about that is that it ought to make me more sensitive to other people's troubles.
CMS: In Twoheads there are few props and no scenery. What was your intent?
PB: Theatre really happens somewhere between you and the actors. You ought to participate in theatre. Not like film where you can sit there and it sort of does it to you. It's very passive. Theatre's not like that. In theatre there's a term, "suspension of disbelief." What that means is that you say "I'm not in this big room with this woman kicking me in my chair. I'm on this beach with these people." Once you do that, then you hear the surf. It's not there but that's what happens. Me, being the obsessive person that I am, I want to carry it all the way which is what we did in Twoheads and it worked. I saw it work. It was a little hard at first. People were in this slimy little room and these two men were doing these things. We started the scene in a hotel room. There's nothing in this place that looks like a hotel room but people say "I'll go with it." The next scene takes place with these two men sitting in a rowboat on a lake. What we have are two stools and we also had two very good actors who were able to maintain a rocking motion throughout the entire scene. People got ready for that. The next scene, one of the men was playing a man, the bigger man with a mustache was playing a woman. A friend of mine told me, "You know, James's mustache just disappeared on his face." That's really what I'm trying to get at. Send me a chair on a bare stage, let your imagination fill in the rest of it. By the time we get to the end of the show, where Jim plays Sharon, child, he's a big man, big man got on cowboy boots and shit, got a big mustache, and he tells you his name is Sharon Walton, you believe it. By the time you got there and you're so used to these people being all these different things with nothing to help it, you were perfectly willing to believe that Jim , with his short Afro and big mustache, was this 34-year-old woman. Walter plays, in rapid succession, a 23-year-old man, a 60-some-year-old Brooklyn matriarch, an upper-class black housewife from Connecticut, and a wino. Just [he claps his hands once] like that. To me, that's what theatre's about.
These two men [Holiday and Cyrus] had to work so hard. This script gave them no breaks. When we did it in the gallery, like [on] the [video] tape, they never left the stage which was my intention. They were never more than a few feet from you. They had to go from one thing entirely to another, like that. Walter could finish a scene in a rowboat. When Walter did the scene, it was heart rending. It was a man who just totally bared his soul more than he had ever done in his life. Walter would finish the scene in tears and he would have to turn around, take off the life jacket, and become this sort of hip gay man in San Francisco waiting for a bus, trying to go see a Busby Berkeley movie. This is like literally in seconds. I really wanted to give these two men something to work with, something to really make them stretch [themselves as actors].

This article was originally published in the New York Native (December 31, 1984-January 13, 1985 issue).

Philip Blackwell is now deceased. He died of AIDS-related complications.

Monday, April 2, 2012

"Libido Lit 101": Black Writers Respond To AIDS

"We need to deal with our sexuality, our erotica," says Donald Woods, a black gay poet. "Especially now, because of this [health] crisis."

From that belief sprang "Libido Lit 101," sponsored by Other Countries, a new black gay literary journal scheduled for publication April 15 [1988]. "Libido Lit 101" will take place at the popular discotheque Tracks (531 West 19th Street, at the corner of 11th Avenue in Manhattan) on April 22. This show is what black lesbian poet Audre Lorde calls in her essay "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," a "celebration of the erotic in all our endeavors." To Lorde, "the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing."

The participants, some of the most talented and notable black gay artists, hope to put us (again in Lorde's words) "in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves" through poetry, prose, and dance. Scheduled to appear are D.C. poet/urban griot Essex Hemphill, whose work has been published, among other places, in the [New York] Native; award-winning science fiction writer Samuel Delany; 21-year-old dancer/choreographer Ron Brown, and poet Assotto Saint. The host of the show will be Joe Simmons, star of the all-black gay erotic video Made in the Shade.

"Libido Lit" 's director, Dennis Green, is aware of the AIDS "paranoia" that has gripped the nation. He feels that "a program that's all about sex, all about erotica and pleasure" is "a very nice thing to have" so long as it's done "in good taste" with "a sense of grace and humor."

"You can be provocative," says Green, "without being obvious. The real fun is suggesting, not stating; saying just enough to let the audience's imagination and sensibility just take off."

This article was originally published in the New York Native (April 25, 1988).