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.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Pigeon Sisters Are Flying High To Success

The young and extremely attractive actresses Ronalda Douglas and Sheila Anderson portray the Pigeon Sisters, the upstairs neighbors of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison in The New Odd Couple which premieres at 8:30 p.m. Friday, October 29 [1982] on ABC. (This time out the famous mismatched pair are two black men: Ron Glass as [neatnik] Felix and Demond Wilson as [slob] Oscar. The new version, said Sheila Anderson, contains "a lot of silliness but always with a degree of intelligence." For one thing, she explained further, Wilson and Glass would refuse to take part in the show if it followed an "Amos 'n Andy concept" (which is how she described TV's image of blacks). And for another, "We have very intelligent writers. We have several black writers on the show and they don't think very highly of that kind of method."

Both Sheila Anderson and Ronalda Douglas come to the series with a varied background in theatre, commercials, and modeling. "This [The New Odd Couple] is actually my biggest opportunity thus far aside from working with Mr. [Bob] Fosse," said Anderson. (She appeared in All That Jazz and was edited out but got the chance to work with Fosse again in the upcoming film Star 80, the story of the murdered Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratton. Anderson plays a dancer named Shay.)

Anderson, a native of New York City, began her acting career in commercials while working as a model. And despite her newfound success as a television actress, she remains a "very basic" person. "I try to keep myself as close to the ground as possible. My friends tell me since I've been home that they didn't see any changes, thank God."

Anderson is one of three children born to Sheila Guyse, an actress who appeared in many black circuit films in the 1930s and '40s, and Kenneth Davis, a dancer. Her parents (now divorced) did not encourage her as a child to pursue a show business career. "It was rough, especially in those days and they didn't want to see me suffer and go through a lot of the changes that they went through. But it's a lot different now. Not too different but it's different. Now my mother's thrilled, she's ecstatic."

But Anderson's talent does not stop with acting. Her interest in metaphysics in which she meditates in order to seek answers to personal and career problems led her to write a metaphysical children's book, The Land of Happy.  She also has written a book of poetry called Walking Against the World. Both books are yet to be published.

One other passion of hers is music. "You can shut me up with a stereo," she said, "and I'll be fine."

The other Pigeon Sister, Ronalda Douglas was born in a small town in Louisiana to parents who were educators. Like Sheila Anderson, she was a good student--straight "A"s--because her parents, especially her father, who has degrees in math and philosophy, stressed academic excellence. She began singing at the age of three in a talent show and later in church choirs. And although they encouraged her and her siblings to do whatever they wanted in life, "there was a point though when my father got a little worried that I would tend to be one-sided. In other words, only have music, only have theatre and he, I don't think, really believed in that. He wanted me to take other things just in case I didn't make it." She laughed. Part of the regimen was athletics, i.e. basketball, volleyball, swimming, et cetera. She is still very athletically-inclined.

At one point in her life, Douglas studied opera but was afraid "it would take away my soul." At that time she was the lead singer with an integrated rock band which did only live performances. "I enjoy performing and I thought the opera would take that away from me. I was afraid to be trained. But someone gave me a scholarship and so I started training with great fear and then I started liking it." Six months after taking her first lesson she started giving recitals. Douglas later won a scholarship to study operatic singing in Verona, Italy.

On the subject of opportunities for black actresses in Hollywood, Douglas said, "The opportunities are kind of few and far between" but all in all, "I feel very fortunate, lucky I got this part because the competition is rough for black women." In spite of the poor opportunities and the constant competition, Douglas dreams of the day when she can switch from comedy, in which she has had a spate of roles (Good Times, The Jeffersons, What's Happening!, et cetera), to drama. And because she takes "everything as a lesson," there is no doubt that this healthy attitude will help her grow artistically and financially as her star and that of her colleague, Sheila Anderson, ascends and lights up the Hollywood sky.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News in 1982.

Note: The New Odd Couple only lasted one season (1982-1983). According to the IMDB website, the last episode aired on May 26, 1983.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Johnny Ray Rousseau's Mostly White World

Blackbird by Larry Duplechan (St. Martin's Press, 182 pp.)

While reading Blackbird, Larry Duplechan's second romantic gay comic novel, the term "crossover" kept springing to mind. It's obvious that Duplechan sees no value in writing about a totally or predominantly black milieu.

As in Eight Days a Week, the main character is Johnny Ray Rousseau, who is black and gay. However, this time we see him five years earlier when he was an 18-year-old high school student in a small Southern California town. We learn from the outset that "most of the black people live way out on the outskirts of town" (how convenient for Duplechan's storytelling purposes) and that at school "most of the black kids keep pretty much to themselves and the white kids to themselves."

Johnny Ray and Cherie Baker, a black girl who is in love with him, are the exceptions. All of their  cronies, male and female, are white. And these cronies are a mixed bag. Johnny Ray's closest friend, Efrem Zimbalist Johnson, a latent homosexual, seems to delight in sneering at those he feels are his intellectual inferiors, especially the pretty boys. Another friend, Carolann Compton, has a split personality that changes at will.

Sad to say, the most interesting parts of the novel are its sex scenes: the heterosexual one, involving Cherie which introduces him to sex, without diminishing his gay feelings and the homosexual one with a young filmmaker named Marshall Two-Hawks McNeill, which, for Johnny Ray, is the most satisfying of the two liaisons.

Johnny Ray sees himself as a "boy nympho" (the correct word is satyr). Throughout Blackbird, he is constantly at war with his libido, worried that he might, as he puts it, "throw a rod" (have an erection) at inopportune moments. And when those moments occur, "I recite the Twenty-third Psalm to myself, very quickly." This obsession leads Johnny Ray to admit, with a bit of self-derision, that "I get an awful lot of hard-ons, and a pretty good percentage of them seem to end up in my right hand. In other words, I jerk off quite a lot which bothers me sometimes, like maybe I do it too much."

If Larry Duplechan were a much more careful writer, a lot of the inconsistencies that appear in Blackbird would have been greatly reduced, particularly the more obvious bits of information, some of it carryovers from the first book. For example, whatever happened to David, his younger brother, who because he was better-looking, played a significant role in how Johnny Ray viewed himself physically?: "I truly came to abhor my flat nose and (to me) overlarge lips,...." It seems that Johnny Ray has become an only child.

Elsewhere in Blackbird, Johnny Ray, in the first-person narrative, reveals that his father looks like Harry Belafonte, and that he has always had "sort of a crush on my dad. I mean, he's so strong and so very handsome." In another part of the book, he states that one particular guy didn't appeal to him because "he wasn't my type, which is blonde." I would have thought that his dad would be the prototype for Johnny Ray's attractions. After all, Belafonte is no blond. Interestingly, the father is completely absent from Eight Days a Week. Where was he?

And how, in a town with "a certain amount of racism," is it possible for his family to "go to the basically white Baptist church" while "[m]ost of the others go to the black church across town"? Johnny Ray explains it away by saying "we'd just as soon go to church in the neighborhood we live in." If only life were that simple, Johnny Ray.

Blackbird falls into that genre of gay literature known as the "coming-out novel," and carries with it the cliches found therein: the straight girl who tries to "cure" him, the parents who become distraught upon learning of his true nature,
et cetera. I think there is some merit to what writer Philip Lopate has said in the New York Times Book Review (October 5, 1986) about this genre: "...the coming out to one's parents scene is becoming an overworked convention in contemporary fiction."

It would be refreshing, for a change, if Duplechan stopped trying to be an assimilationist, and took pride in being of African descent. "I do not see," says Nigerian writer and 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Wole Soyinka, "how any writer, any artist in fact, can fail to be identified with his sources, with the origin of his inspiration." (The New York Times Book Review, June 23, 1985).

This article was originally published in The New York Student, a City University of New York publication (Summer 1987).

Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Escort In Tangiers

Hello Darling, Are You Working? by Rupert Everett (William Morrow & Co., paperback, 240 pp.)

If you're an aficionado of  high camp, which I'm not, then film actor Rupert Everett's comic first novel, Hello Darling, Are You Working?, will probably be a welcome addition to your library. For me, the humor, British in this case, elicited not one laugh. It just went right past me.

Hello Darling, Are You Working?  takes place mostly in Paris. The protagonist is Rhys Waveral, an out-of-work British actor who once starred in an American soap opera. When Rhys, who goes by a number of names (Dorita, Wavy, et al.), depending on his mood and/or situation, loses all of his money in the 1987 stock market crash, he finds he has no other alternative to paying his enormous hotel suite bill but to turn to prostitution. Enter Mrs. Rikki Lancaster, a rich American widow "dressed to the hilt, her hallmark turban and cape and liberally splattered with chunky jewellery" and her sidekick, Miss Elida Schumann. Mrs. Lancaster over lunch offers to pay Rhys $100,000 to escort her to a costume party in Tangiers, Morocco--$50,000 upfront, the rest after they have done "the deed" (have sex) following the festivities. Rhys reluctantly agrees to the assignment or, in this case, assignation.

At the party in Tangiers, hosted by a flaming queen from the American Deep South, Ashby Montgomery de la Zouche, an interior decorator, Rhys dresses up as a fruit plate, a costume that takes him "almost as long to get out of" as it does "to get into...."

The other bizarre characters include: Peach Delight, a gorgeous transvestite who speaks in pidgin English ("You Rhys father? I Peach. I friend of Rhys."), Maurice Goodbuns, an aging actor who Rhys encounters on the streets of Tangiers disguised as a beggar, and Dim (the Brigidier) Waveral, Rhys's blustering father, who constantly berates (with glee) Rhys.

Divided into three acts like a stage play, Hello Darling, Are You Working? is liberally and wonderfully illustrated by Frances Crichton Stuart. The pictures are like the black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawings found in a children's storybook. At the beginning of each chapter there is a headnote that summarizes the action therein.

Although Rhys is supposed to be a gay man, there is very little in the book to suggest this, which is another reason I found Hello Darling, Are You Working? of no significance to me as a reader or to gay literature in general. There are so much hijinks going on that the reader becomes exhausted and loses the thread of the story. The question arises: What is the point of it all?

This article was originally published in the Lambda Book Report (November/December 1992).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Choreographer Garth Fagan, An Artist Who Happens To Be Black

Reading through the dance reviews about Garth Fagan's Bucket Dance Theatre, you come across such comments as "And though most of the dancers are black, the movement is in no way ethnic" (San Diego Union). After awhile you begin to wonder if that's why the white critics are so enthralled with Fagan's choreography. (Although it's hard to see how the Union critic came to his conclusion, since a dance like "Time After Before Place" has an unmistakable Caribbean motif, including the carnivalesque costumes.)

I saw the Bucket Dance Theatre perform at the Joyce Theatre during the first week of a two-week engagement (their run ends November 13 [1988].) And though I acknowledged the skill of the dancers and the intricacy of the choreography put on them by Fagan, these gymnastic feats left me virtually unmoved. In fact, the audience that night showed more enthusiasm than I did. At the root of my attitude is the fact that Fagan, to quote the critic from San Diego, "never imposes ideas and issues upon the dance material." My preference is for dance-drama, not abstract movement.

Strangely, Fagan, a native of Jamaica, with roots in Afro-Caribbean dance (as a teenager he danced with the Jamaican National Dance Theatre) told the Los Angeles Times critic that he prefers to be known as "an artist who happens to be black." But then again, maybe it isn't so strange. Langston Hughes, in his famous 1926 essay, "The Negro and the Racial Mountain," spoke about a young black poet who told Hughes that he wanted to be known as "a poet--not a Negro poet." Hughes warned us against those artists who harbor "the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible."

That's why I have a tremendous amount of respect and affection for Kevin Jeff and his [Brooklyn-based] Jubilation! Dance Company. They make no apology for who and what they are. I just wish other dancers and choreographers felt the same way.

This item, which appeared in a dance column I wrote for the New York Amsterdam News, was published January 28, 1989.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

African Influence In The Americas

Since its inception in 1976, the Caribbean Cultural Center in Manhattan, along with numerous other black institutions, has been continuing the battle against the centuries-old myth that blacks have had nothing of value culturally or intellectually to offer the New World. The center has been doing this by researching and identifying African continuities and retentions, and showing their impact on general society.

The center, the brainchild of Marta Moreno Vega, a New York-born Puerto Rican and its executive director, grew out of a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship she received in 1975 to find out about various art collections that had been properly identified, as well as find out their location. At that time, Ms. Vega, a former art education teacher in the New York City public school system, was director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem and needed the information in order for the art objects to "make any sense."

She had no intention of starting an institution when she got the first of two six-month fellowships. But her difficulties in tracking down and identifying collections made it clear that a center was needed to make these publicly inaccessible artworks available for scholarly examination. It became necessary for her to travel throughout the Caribbean and Bahia, Brazil to see what other institutions were doing so that she could decide what she would do differently. She learned that local institutions focused only on the history and culture of their particular geographic area and that "[n]one of them brought the cultures together and explored their relationship and commonalities and their differences."

It became apparent to Ms. Vega that such a center would be a unique cultural treasure chest to scholars and laymen alike. As it turned out, scholars and researchers were very receptive to the idea because, she said, they "felt there had to be some kind of institutional vehicle that would bring this information to the foreground."

When she was asked how strong the African influence in the Americas has been, Ms. Vega replied: "It's pervasive. You see it in terms of instruments in orchestras, in terms of clothing style, in terms of foods. The Afro-American community is clearly becoming the majority culture. When you have a majority culture, you  have food, clothes, art forms that are expressive of [that] culture. We have to be very clear that the influence and impact is there." Although the African cultural influence in the Americas is "very much intact," she continued, "the media doesn't focus on it and when [the media] does [they present this influence as coming from] primitive cultures. And derogatory terms makes us turn away [from that influence] or say it's not there."

The Caribbean Cultural Center, newly located in a narrow, four-story building near St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital on the West Side of Manhattan receives about 60 to 65 people a day. The support and attendance from the black community, said Ms. Vega, "has been very good. We get increasingly more pleased, more committed to what we're doing because the audience represents black people from all cultures."

The center plans to have an enclosed tropical garden in the backyard so that children can see the various kinds of "plants and vegetation that grows in the Caribbean." Also planned is the completion of fourth-floor remodeling work. This is where all audio-visual documentation of center activities will be made accessible to students and researchers.

When storage space for the audio-visual materials runs out, the center will donate to the New York Public Library's Schomburg Collection or some other library those materials no longer needed.

According to Ms. Vega, the center has developed a five-year plan and is "looking for those kinds of activities and art forms that [will] fit into the development of that plan," a sort of blueprint detailing the center's direction and aesthetic definition. She pointed out that in the search for "the broader impact of African cultures in the Americas," they would like to "move into Panama and Colombia and other areas where black continuities are."

This article was originally published in the Harlem Weekly newspaper in 1983.

Note: The Caribbean Cultural Center, in 2012 or 2013, plans to leave its 58th Street location and move to its new home, an abandoned firehouse on 125th Street in East Harlem, just steps from the Metro North and Lexington Avenue train stations.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

"The Block," A Play About Inner City Family Life

The Block, written by Earl A. Johnson and directed by Hamid Fardjad, ran for a month [October 28-November 20, 1983] at the Actor's Outlet Theatre on West 28th Street [in Manhattan]. It concerned itself with the problems faced by inner city black teenagers from the perspective of three families: a single, alcoholic mother on welfare who wants her daughter to quit high school and find a job; a stable but overly protective and inquisitive single mother who wants to meet her daughter's "little male friends," and a two-parent home where there are four teenagers present. Three of the four kids are problems. One daughter is pregnant, one son is involved in drug-dealing, and another son is consistently absent from school in order to pursue a boxing career.

Although many of the cast members were in group foster care, The Block did not specifically deal with foster care, only the problems that could cause a child to be placed by the authorities in an environment outside of the family unit. The play made the point that these problems can and do take place in any type of family setting. (It should also be pointed out that a child can be placed in foster care for reasons other than parental neglect and/or child abuse.)

The issues raised by the play were ones many adolescents would readily identify with: the lack of parent-child communication, teenage pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, the monetary lure of drug peddling, the struggle to prepare oneself for the adult world, racism, et cetera.

The Block, based on the experiences and thoughts of its 12 non-professional teenage actors, did not try to arrive at any simplistic solutions. Its goal was to present, in dramatic form, the reality of the streets and of home life for many kids in urban neighborhoods and to give us food for thought and discussion.

"Some grownups can learn something from it [the play], too," said 19-year-old Margaret M., a cast member who was working as a nurse's aide, "because there's some parents who act like [the parents in the play] toward their teenagers and there are some teenagers who don't listen to what their parents say. It is not only for the teenagers to learn something from the play, it's also good for some of the grownups to understand their kids better."

One interesting aspect of the play was the pairing of professional actors with non pros. Although it was easy to tell who was a pro and who was not by the quality of the acting, that in no way took anything away from the impact of the scenes or their message.

All that the participants asked the audience to do was come to the theatre with open minds and to check their negative thoughts  about inner city life at the door.

The Block was conceived through improvisation, and was sponsored by the New York City Human Resources Administration's Office of Direct Child Care Services.

This article was originally published in the Harlem Weekly newspaper in 1983.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Two Actors, Few Props, No Scenery

For  its second season, Rainbow Repertory Theatre will present January 6-21 [1989] Philip Blackwell's Twoheads, a theatre piece for two actors, at the Alonzo Players Theatre, 317 Clermont Avenue, Brooklyn.

Originally commissioned in 1983 by John W. M. Neeley, a black art gallery owner in New York, Twoheads, in its diversity of themes and characters, has something of interest for almost everybody. The ten vignettes--some humorous, some serious--explore such issues as torture in South Africa, intergenerational romance, sexism, and homosexuality.

The production, directed by Rainbow Rep's artistic director Reginald T. Jackson, is not only a challenge to the actors, Raan Lewis and Bryan D. Webster, who must play a multitude of roles, but also to its audience who are required to use their imaginations since there are few props and no scenery. "Theatre happens," explained playwright Blackwell, in an interview I did with him for the New York Native, "somewhere between you and the actor. 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 'suspension of disbelief.' 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 you hear the surf. It's not there, but that's what happens."

Blackwell admits that "some of the pieces are more successful than 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."

While waiting for a bus to take them to see a Busby Berkeley movie, Laurie calls to Herbert's attention the "offensive" billboard. Herbert, with a shrug, can't see "what's so terrible" about a black woman appearing in a liquor ad bearing the slogan "Have you ever tasted Black Velvet?" Laurie heatedly replies, "How can you look at it and not see that it's a terrible ripoff of women? And in this case, a ripoff of black women?" She decides, to Herbert's dismay, to take "direct action"--with spray paint.

"Herbert, Look," continued Blackwell, "comes out of an aborted play I tried to write and which had never gone anywhere for me. To be honest, it works better as a piece in Twoheads than it would have worked as a play.
"'Brother, It's Good to See You' is the South African piece that was also very successful. It 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."

Samuel, a victim of police torture, tells his friend Frederick of his experience: "If you'd seen what I've seen. We were in cells only this high. You couldn't lie out, you couldn't stand up... And hot. And no water...And the torture rooms...We could hear the screams. Then silence. Then screams again. They would come to the cell and pound on the door. And laugh. They would say, 'Come on, you're next.' And then...nothing would happen. They would go away."

Twoheads is part of Rainbow Rep's continuing effort to promote the work of gay and lesbian playwrights of color, with the added aim of presenting positive and inspiring images, especially to gay youth, who will be provided free admission.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (January 21, 1989).

Note: See blog post published on April 3, 2012 for an interview with the late Philip Blackwell.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Seeking Guidance From The Blue Lady

The Blue Lady's Hands by John Champagne (Meadowland Books/Lyle Stuart, Inc., 156 pp.)

The nameless protagonist in John Champagne's first novel, The Blue Lady's Hands is described in the dust jacket copy as being "vulnerable, funny but above all resilient." Vulnerable? Most definitely. Resilient? Well, perhaps. Funny? No way. If this guy represents the New Gay Man of the late '80s and '90s, we're in deep trouble. He is an absolute wimp, with a capital W. Throughout this novel, which reads more like a confessional, he is whining and handwringing, all because of his need to find a "man who could love me."

This search for love brings him to Andrea, a psychotherapist, who tries to help him overcome childhood experiences that have made him feel that his "love is bad." One of these experiences is seeing his mother sent away to a hospital for electro-shock treatments when she suffers a nervous breakdown. He believes he is to blame because he loved her too much. Andrea explains to him that "when something happens that doesn't make sense, that can't be made 'right' with a kiss or a hug, then we tell ourselves a story. We make up a reason, find some reason for why things happen the way they do. That way, the world will still make sense. ...So you decided that it had to be your fault. In that way, you could still have some control over the situation."

The other person who is helping the protagonist to know "what it means to love someone" is the Blue Lady, a character he admits does not exist, except in his imagination. He describes her as wearing "robes as blue as a clear sea on a sunny day" and as having a " bright, so radiant, it hurts my eyes to look at her." From time to time her hands start "poking around inside of me" causing "terrible pains in my chest." This is her way of reminding him whenever he begins to "love someone who can't possibly love me back the way I'd like to be loved" that "love is so very hard to bear" at times.

Later, near the end of the book, after he's found a new (possibly permanent) lover named Daniel, he asks himself: "Could I possibly have made up the whole story of the Blue Lady? I don't know. ...But I believe in the Blue Lady,"

The guy is all mixed-up. Let's face it, after endlessly wading through his self-pity and insecurities ("Am I attractive? I wonder if I really want to be with anyone."), you begin not to care if he ever gets himself together.

The Blue Lady's Hands is so fragmented (there are no chapters; events are presented as vignettes separated by white space) that the story is a bit confusing at times. Even the significance of the Blue Lady's presence is equally unclear. And to make matters worse, the poetry that the protagonist writes as "conversations with myself," add nothing to the story and are, in fact, intrusive.

I don't have anything against nonlinear novels, as long as they are coherently written. This one, sad to say, is not. The dust jacket copywriter must have been talking about another novel when he or she wrote that The Blue Lady's Hands is a "triumph of storytelling."

Note: This article was originally written for the Lambda Rising Book Report (later renamed the Lambda Book Report) in 1988. The manuscript was later returned to me because they received it past the deadline. The real reason, I think, was that my review of The Blue Lady's Hands was considered too harsh.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Dancing In Japan

Tyrone Aiken, the 26-year-old associate artistic director of the Blue Mercury Dancing Company, performed  a male solo called "Returns," at the Nikolais/Louis ChoreoSpace  on November 11, 12, and 13 [1988]. The work is choreographed by Loris Anthony Beckles, Blue Mercury's artistic director, to the music of  jazz musician Lester Bowie.

Aiken  recently returned from a six-week tour of Japan with Michiyo, "a small modern company." While there they were able "to tune into [the Japanese] people: what they're doing , what they thought about Americans, and dancers, and how inspiring they are [to outsiders]. They work so hard at what they do, whatever it is. They're just really very appreciative of artists or knowledge," said Aiken.

On a previous trip to Japan, Aiken, along with other members of Michiyo, spent time teaching and performing. On that trip, he recalled, there was "This one girl, one of my students there, [who] was so kind as to bow and tell me I was a god for teaching and thinking."

Said Aiken: "I don't know how soon, but I will go back. It's a really good experience."

This item, from a dance column I wrote, was published in the New York Amsterdam News (ca. February 4, 1989).

Ailey Dancers Are Body-Poets

Among the various sections and inserts in the November 6 [1988] Sunday New York Times was--to my absolute surprise and delight--a 20-page advertising supplement celebrating Alvin Ailey's 30 years of dance making.

Surrounding the text were color performance photos and quotes from Ailey himself. In the back of the book was a schedule of the 1988-89 season at City Center [in Manhattan]. This slick -looking fundraising vehicle is worth saving because in a nutshell it gives potential subscribers the history and philosophy of the Ailey organization.

However, I was a bit dismayed with the presence of full-page cigarette and whiskey ads. For a [dance] company that glorifies dancers as "body-poets," these ads are out of place. Why didn't dance-related ads appear in their place?

This item, from a dance column I wrote, was published in the New York Amsterdam News (ca. February 4, 1989).