This “blast from the past”post that I wrote several years ago was originally published on now defunct Myrtle Hart.org site
It started with the reading of a book from one of the New Negro authors of the nineteen twenties, Jean Toomer. I somehow became fascinated with the narratives of Toomer’s Harlem Renaissance novel Cane. As I read, sleeping memories began to rise and haunt my waking thought. I knew I would never be the same, and I have not.
Cane . . . sugar cane….bending beneath breezes of stilted soft summer wind in early nineteen twenties backwoods rural Black Georgia. I feel as if I know Jean Toomer’s Georgia. His description of dense rural woodlands conflate with frequently told family stories and several collections of faded brown edged early twentieth century photographs.
Several decades ago, on a cool early late summer upstate western New York morning, my uncle’s deep gravelly voice tap dances with intense excitement after a trip south to Georgia. He echoes palpable images of rural life. Uncle Lawyer and my daddy, holding thick bamboo looking stalks at eye level, laugh in a mystic sharing totally unfamiliar to me. Two working class Black men, looking back into a past of “in your face” survival, seem like one soul, lost in sights and sounds of rural life with shoeless feet, mule plowed fields, Sunday overalls, and coal stoked trains. Daddy hands momma the cane. She places it on the red formica kitchen table. Smiling she simply says, “Well.” Her eyes blink small tears. She looks at me as if I should understand her silence. “Is that stuff really sweet?” I ask. Momma, daddy, and Uncle Lawyer go outside to watch the red winged black birds noisily playing above the empty clothes line. When I try to follow, they shoo me back inside, laughing at my youthful Northern suburban naiveté.
I look out the kitchen window. Uncle Lawyer’s hand proudly grips a bundle of Macon Georgia sugar cane like cat eye marbles from an old treasure chest. He and daddy break open a stalk. They hand momma a piece. All three stand in crisp morning sun, woods framing their unity. They laugh and talk for almost a half hour before momma brings several stalks back into the house. She slides one yellow-green stalk on the kitchen table and stands the rest next to the fridge. My brothers and sister eagerly lick their lips as they asked about the cane. I whine again, “Is that stuff REALLY sweet?”
Everyone looks at me as if I am a little space being. I run off to the railroad tracks behind the house, slamming the screen door behind me, singing at the top of my voice, “Freight train, freight train . . .” That’s when I saw Aunt Bert. She winks and shakes her head. Aunt Bert and Uncle Lawyer, momma and daddy, come back outside to sit and sip ice tea with mint leaves. They sit in our back yard facing the suburban Tonawanda New York meadows and trees behind our house. Later, during a supper table of collard greens with ham hocks, pan fried corn bread, pork chops smothered in creamy brown gravy and mashed potatoes, their stories began again.
Like the rural inhabitants of Toomer’s novel Cane, all of daddy’s brothers and sisters inhabited a farmland terrain. Their personal narratives continued as they migrated from Georgia to settle within a few miles of each other in urban Buffalo New York during the late nineteen forties and early fifties. Momma’s immediate family also moved to large urban centers. Her surviving sister lived in Chicago, distant relatives still lived in Georgia, some in the high mountains. Prompted by the sight of Uncle Lawyer’s gift that summer, it seemed as if all my kinfolk who visited talked about sugar cane as if it was mythic ambrosia.
Their conversations surrounded “cane talk” with a cast of colorful, sad, funny, and bigger than life characters from a sun baked distant south. In the next few weeks, with this new batch of cane, my daddy began to talk about parts of his life he hadn’t mentioned before. He talked of his quartet days singing tenor in a local group that traveled to La Grange, Idea, Manchester, and other odd named Georgia counties. Music provided a popular source of folks’ entertainment at church, work, and at home. Daddy and I would walk around our small vegetable garden, talking about birds and listening to their songs. Then, we’d sit on a stump in his small dark purple skinned grape arbor next to the vegetable garden. He’d look over at the oak trees, start talking about Georgia and remembering. We became closer than I’d ever remembered that year.
Some days that summer, when he was working outside alone, he’d whistle, gentle as a breeze, a sad tune. He would stop and pull a piece of cane from his pockets. Unfolding the wax paper, he’d look out over the yard, cane in hand. His whistling was almost as pretty as his sweet high tenor voice. When we lived in Buffalo, few of the neighborhood fathers sang like him. They were city born. Daddy sure seemed “country” then. Out in the suburbs, none of the dads, mostly European immigrants, whistled while they worked. My friends said their folks did sing old songs they mostly couldn’t understand. Seems we all had one thing in common, music.
When we lived in the city, my family had an old piano roll upright … I’d watch the keys and try to press my hands in them as the music played. I guess that’s how my folks decided that I had his and momma’s gift for music. As a matter of fact, they gave all my siblings music lessons. Clarinet, guitar, organ, accordion, and despite the fact that I wanted to play ukulele like Arthur Godfrey on TV, they gave me piano lessons at a piano studio called “Wurlitzers” that specialized in Wurlitzer pianos.
Momma liked that I was learning piano. Every year, she would play hymns and Christmas carols as all of us gathered around and sang. Daddy and momma, who had the best voices of us all, sometimes sang duets. Momma had a high spinning soprano voice that made us sit quiet, made us listen. She and Daddy both read music. His silky high tenor voice was smooth and honey-like. My folks encouraged us to sing and play at least one instrument well. It was just what they grew up doing, what should be for us too. For some reason, everybody expected me to play piano. We had a clunky, solidly built heavy old upright piano with a functioning piano roll. Fascinated by sound and movement, I would watch the keys play and play and play. It was magical entertainment.
When our family moved to suburban Town of Tonawanda in Western New York, we traded our old piano roll upright for a light weight smart spinet. We moved because like many areas of Buffalo New York at that time, our old neighborhood was filling up with people who didn’t have traditional Southern values. These were new, urban second generation people who seemed to move with irritation, seemed to create palpable tension, fusing the air with violence and noisiness. They and their children always seemed ready to fight. In response, our old neighbors, Irish, Italian, and old world Jewish immigrants, began moving out. We had music and song, got to know each other through our “cultural musics” With our old neighbors, from old world places beyond America where group music was better than television, we shared music, songs.
Our new neighbors’ children didn’t sing or play instruments or have a piano like us. They watched a lot of television, sat on their front porches in kitchen chairs and commented on passersby with barely covered. I don’t think I ever saw their dads. And their moms always seemed more intensely cranky near month’s end. Not like our old parents or our old neighbors whose mild crankiness depended on how NOT well behaved us children were at any time of the month as we giggled and played “Engine Engine, Number Nine” or “Red Light Red Light Green Light”or “Giant Step”.
These new Northern born city folks and their kids were less friendly towards my folks and us. My parents were never truly “urban”. I think my siblings and I had somehow absorbed quite a few rural attitudes and ways of being. We could be quiet when needed, not defiantly cussing at adults or throwing rocks at each other.
We couldn’t go to our new neighbors’ houses and sing and just hang out and talk. As girl and boy gangs began to surface, my dad became less tolerant. Perhaps all their fighting and drama pushed him and my mom to move us out of the concrete grey city and into the green lawn suburbs with meadows, woods, and no sidewalks on the street. Without loud anger and noise from the city’s urbanely profane people, my parents felt at peace. It wasn’t Georgia, but it was enough.
The Georgia of the early twentieth century that my parents grew up in was a different place than today. Most people who could afford a piano had a beat up old something to bang on. It was common for somebody in Black neighborhoods to sing or play a guitar, a piano. Music lightened long work days in tending to fields or washing over a hot laundry tub. Perhaps many rural African Americans were unaware of the ways in which academics viewed cultural historical memory linked to usages of music to ease repetitiveness of manual labor and daily chores.
This aspect of music’s function was an African-inflected tradition documented from slavery days. It continued into the twenties and thirties as Blues music spread. According to my mom and dad, music was also used to create a deeper sense of community: music bonded folks with shared meaning as they came together to dance, sing, and play instruments, to celebrate rituals and holidays. The space could have been sacred, secular or profane, but music was often the common unifying performative element.
 Jean Toomer. Cane.(New York: University Place Press, 1951) 3rd printing 1967. with Foreward by Waldo Frank.
Toomer’s collection of poems, vignettes, short stories, and songs weave a surreal tapestry of early twentieth century Georgia rural life. As a child, my images of Georgia, through relatives’ stories, grew into a mystical fable world.
 We attended the Trinity Baptist Church in Buffalo New York which, at that time, was located at 41 Spruce Street.
 According to Earl L. Stewart “General Characteristics of African American Music” in African American Music: An Introduction (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998) p.7, Although several famous African American male singers have been baritones, a majority, especially in popular music, are notably tenors. Typically in popular music, black male vocal lead singers of various musical genres have and are tenor. They cultivate personalities to add flourish to the falsetto range of their tessaturas. The tenor with falsetto is still quite common even in the twentieth century. This is seen today for instance in the voices of Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Ney-o, and Prince
 Mungo Park. “From Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa 1800” in Readings in Black American Music. 2nd ed., Eileen Southern ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1983) 4-7. Julia Floyd Smith. “Slave Culture of the Georgia Coast” in Slavery and Rice Culture in Low Country Georgia 1750-1860 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press:1985) 166-167.
Special note: Cane book Image from zorosko.blogspot.com
Delores Fisher and Chris Smith of Sync Sound (Blogger’s dream simulation”
Comic-Con International:San Diego 2016 as an annual local, national, and international diverse population event was interesting this year http://www.comic-con.org/ . Yes, you detect a hesitation and searching for the right descriptor. Commercials flooded our consciousness with television invocations to “watch us live here in San Diego at Comic-Con 2016” for those who could not or did not get tickets. Professional and quasi-professional Media coverage was massive this year.
As usual, I interacted with quite a few awesome Cosplayers:
My focus this year, due to a different teaching schedule and musician obligations, was to go downtown and photograph a few cosplayers and reflect on science fiction, comics, computer games, and technology. I wanted to NOT include myself in a lot of the photos and to seek out more African American cosplayers.
What inspired my flights into costume play and sci-fi day dreams? Saturday morning Cartoons! And of course, I read plenty of books: fiction, historic, fantasy, and illustrated books like comics and Mad Magazine (one of my personal favorites as a youth). They played a role in African American literacy n the past. Today, an African American Comics festival celebrates these influences and others on today’s youth. http://bcaf.norcalmlkfoundation.org/ It’s an exciting time for those interested in e-books, electronic simu-worlds, space/time/inter-dimensional travel.
For me, in addition to written the influences on African American written and cultural literacy noted in a previous post https://sonictapestry.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/delores-fishers-san-diego-comic-con-chronicles-2015-4-literacy/ , sci-fi horror Blaxploitation films like “Blacula,” alternative worlds films like Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place,” even avant- garde music have all contributed to diverse interests in sci-fi, fantasy, and technology among Black people that often goes unnoticed, invisibilized into more overtly “acceptable” pressing social-cultural concerns and expressions associated with African Americans, or morphed politico-socio-futuristic academically inflected identity issues in lived-experience genres like Afro Futurism.
(See my ongoing newest page:https://sonictapestry.wordpress.com/afrofuturism/
Yet, borrowing a phrase from others and Jimmy Diggs screen writer for “Star Trek Deep Space 9,” and “Space Trek Voyager,” that I heard uttered while on a panel discussion moderated by Prof. Ajani Brown about Afro Futurism, perhaps my thoughts from time to time seem like a case of “Black to the future.”
Dr. Adilifu Nama, Delores Fisher, Grace Gipson, Jimmy Diggs (on Skype) and Ajani Brown
Technology, historical recovery, and identity politics has been reaching across the country, transforming our youths interests in even our poorest neighborhoods most noticeably since the television Star Trek and the pre-Hip Hop generation. As noted by Nichelle Nichols who played the original ground breaking role of communications officer Lt. Uhura, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Star Trek fan.
We have had few African American highly visible galactic female roles like Nichelle Nicholes, despite genre blurring innovators like the heavily make-up covered role Zoe Saldana embodied with poignancy and yet strength in “Avatar.” Her role as communications officer in the new “Star Trek” franchise not only openly explores a vaguely hinted at inter-galactic affair with Dr. Spock in the T.V. show, but also creates a platform on which to become this generations’ space/technology inspiration. However, Lt. Uhura was not the only visible African American woman in an alternative world series. Eartha Kitt was also on the scene.
During that era, Catwoman played by controversial singer/performer Eartha Kitt in 1967 http://learningenglish.voanews.com/a/a-23-2009-06-04-voa1-83142292/130031.html burst into general American TV audiences’ awareness in scintillating sexiness in the weekly comic book inspired Batman series.
Eartha Kitt as Bat Woman
Halle Berry sexily re-caped the role in the 2004 film “Cat Woman”.
Most of the Cat woman cosplayers at Comic-Con :San Diego that I encountered were based on Halle Barry’s film role.
Two cosplayers as Cat Woman.
Several Michael Jackson Cosplayer were at Comic-Con:San Diego 2016. In my opinion, Jackson’s “Thriller” despite its musical video genre busting, sparked a renewed interest in film interpretations of African American sci-fy horror.
One had to be in the arear surrounding downtown San Diego’s Convention Center to enjoy the vibes. T.V. coverage did not capture the flavah for me. Despite enjoying media staged events at home, fora few nights, I had to return to the event just for the vibe. I’m glad I did. I interacted with and photographed a few more cosplayers.
African American super heroes were very visible in the crowd.
African American Gamer cosplayers were also a huge part of this year’s event.
Lastly, but not least, with a nod to early Hip Hop(the past) and to “Star Wars,”(the future), one of the Saturday evening side street photo op sessions, they were amazing, like mini-flash mob groupings all along various blocked off streets where no traffic could mess with the flow, featured a mobile red storm trooper with boombox, bling chain around hid neck, dance moves, and interactive crowd photo ops.
Comic-Con International: San Diego had really fun African American cosplayers in the house!
Delores Fisher ” traditional researcher ”
In community scholar (Delores Fisher), rapper Duchess Smooth, poet Roxanne Della McNiel (Della Queen)
Hip Hop—It survives after at least four decades having morphed into several styles from profane to religious and several forms in many languages among diversely cultures in our global/earth community. Hip Hop is even beginning to resemble its nascent inner city urban origin birthed first in underprivileged New York city communities of Blacks and Puerto Ricans.See https://sonictapestry.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/reflections-on-hip-hop-origins/
And, its surviving originators continue telling their life style embodied in musical expression even though it is now a “legitimate” African American/Puerto Rican derived musical genre with cultural and racial “flavahs” from around the world.1 See my Hip Hop post from 2013 https://sonictapestry.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/youth-cultural-angst-and-hip-hoprap/
San Diego CA has a vibrant Hip Hop community. Similar to activists in Hip Hop influenced communities around the United States, quite a few of San Diego’s young Hip Hop community mentors, activists, and leaders who know or are rappers, singers, dancers, DJs, affiliated with record companies or positive youth oriented organizations, are concerned about Black on Black violence as well as all forms of community conflict that toxically impacts our communities–especially our next generation of youth. Rapper Tiny Doo knows much about “hidden” challenges to those in San Diego’s Hip Hop culture when life took an unexpected twist for him See http://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/San-Diego-Tiny-Doo-Rapper-Gang-Conspiracy-Case–296455551.html as well as for his son http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/arts/culture-report-brandon-tiny-doo-duncan-propelled-into-politics-after-being-put-behind-bars-for-song-lyrics/
I’d heard about a San Diego rapper arrested on a legal technicality, but did not really put it all together until prof. T-Ford began to explain who he was as she introduced Tiny Doo to me at San Diego’s Valencia Park/ Malcolm X Library’s 20th anniversary celebration https://sonictapestry.wordpress.com/2016/03/17/san-diegos-valencia-parkmalcolm-x-library-20th-anniversary/
We talked for several minutes as I thought to myself, “This guy’s community oriented and he’s for real.”
Brandon “Tiny Doo” Duncan.
So when I read a dynamic promo on a main events board almost 7 feet high at San Diego State University announcing a Hip Hop Summit for teens . . . I blinked twice to focus.At San Diego State? Then I saw the name Tiny Doo and knew that it was legit.
Tiny Doo and Delores Fisher
That Saturday after a choir rehearsal, rushing to find the summit, I walked into Tiny Doo. We chatted and continued to the gathering together. The summit was into its second half as we walked in. It was moving into groups of a youth and mentors in a hands on session on how to write and perform a rap. I tweeted live from the session https://twitter.com/DeloresFisher/status/746821481355612160
It was joyous, full of positivity, community love, and care about our youth.
Here are a few photos.
Event organizer Armand (Program Director for Paving Great Futures)
Paving Great Futures staffer
MC/Host Aaron Harvey
When the youth and their mentors who had gone to other areas to workshop returned, the rap battle began. Everyone had to rap over a pre-recorded beat. Talented young vocalists flowed life into hooks. Girls and boys rapped written lyrics in their iindividualstyle(that had to coalesce with their team mates— difficult for only an hour together to create a “sound”).
“Herc” and his mentoring group
Big June and his group
The performance (with feedback)
Winners all, yet one group took the prize . . .Gaslamp Records.
Omar and Gaslamp Records mentoring youth
We congratulate all the young people for such hard work and bravery to perform with short notice!
Delores Fisher and spoken word artist Amen Ra
Rapper mentor on break
A mother and young daughter( future rapper/performer like Missy Elliott?)
Helping the flow of creativity Brandon Holmes
OG’s supporting the move towards less violence and more peace
DJ Curtis McNiel was on sound
Rapper Duchess Smooth and Spoken word poet Roxanne Della Mcniel
Rapper Duchess Smooth and Spoken word poet Della Queen (Roxanne Della McNiel)
Photo op (Delores Fisher) with Duchess Smooth and Della McNiel
Thank you for letting me be a part of such a hope filled community generated event. Without a lot of press coverage, like so many other similar anti-violence Black scholarly symposiums, religious rallies, and informal nurturing cultural events that address concerns about and possible solutions for Black on Black violence San Diego’s Hip Hop summit ended with smiles, hand shakes, hugs, arms around each other. Men, women, girls, boys– community celebrating and sharing a positive lived experience model of interaction, of Hip Hop culture’s potential to create healing and unity.
Delores Fisher, rapper Duchess Smooth , poet Della Queen
In community and “in da house,”
Musewoman Delores Fisher
- I have researched and taught African American music history for several semesters, as well as the history and culture of Hip Hop (with an emphasis on its early years) and guest lectured select aspects in the African American music history.
Delores Fisher blogging on San Diego’s CAT theater
As mentioned in part 1 of this review on the play “Rants,” Jennie Hamilton’s nurturing personality reminds me a little of Minerva Marquis. Jennie too is on a quest to bring local theater to our San Diego community while continuing to cultivate the best in actors. Jennie ran the heartwarming, family oriented two act play “Rants” by playwright Paul Taylor Sr. for several weeks at the end of 2015.
Jennie Hamilton (photo by Delores Fisher)
I must admit, “Rants” title created images in my mind of an in your face crew of actors spittin’ angry Hip Hop nihilistic violent street rhymes: ranting, raging about mo’ money, mo’ cars, mo’ homes, mo’ beefs, mo’ . . . . .you get the picture. Seen it. Heard it. Been teaching in it.
Perhaps my first response was due to our smouldering social unrest, or maybe I’ve had a secret hope of experiencing artistic searing social commentary, sort of like a Public Enemy “Def Jam” mashes up with “Bring in da funk” and local conscious spoken word cautionary uplift with San Diego’s Lyrical Groove. Ya know? A production in which Black folks-audience and actors- could become community roaring in righteous indignation call and response town hall meeting to express frustration with “craftily branded # media spun reactions to societal ills”.”Rants” is quietly about that and more. What a pleasant surprise.
San Diego actress Shea Coleman(music stage name “Blackberi”) had reassured me that it was not what I thought. But for some reason, I was apprehensive. Shoulda’ listened. Its traditional vibes made me smile from lights up on its opening scene at the last matinee performance. Several of my church’s music department members all of whom have stage experience concurred. Paul Taylor has a hit play worth future production.
Shea Coleman (and Delores Fisher)
When we entered Community Actors Theater’s small lobby, a congenial bearded man in the box office greeted us cheerfully, casually. He was taking tickets and engaging the gathering audience in conversation. We talked a few minutes before realization set in. I was talking to playwright Paul Taylor Sr. Of course I had to get a short interview!
According to Taylor, “Rants” came to him in a dream. Segments of a story about family, ritual bonding, generational relationships, prescience of our elders before transition, passing on a love legacy of positive interactions, personal stories and memories unfolded into its one act form. We were indeed fortuitous. “Rants” present form unfolded a few days before, into this final matinee version.
This version is a two act play with five scenes in act one and three scenes in act two. Paul Taylor Sr. is a liminal grandfather one foot here, one foot into eternity, with dementia. He lives with his daughter’s family. This is a traditional Black family, with Afrocentric photos and memorabilia on the walls and desire for uplift. The daughter, convincingly and gently played by Lisa Franks, is married to a somewhat emotionally distant man who is having trouble honoring his marriage vows and respecting her seemingly dementia troubled father.
Lisa Franks and Anthony Dorrah
Paul Taylor Sr. and Lisa Franks
The son-in-law character Lee Gaines, played by actor Anthony Dorrah and Taylor as father-in-law Henry Jackson are at married life’s opposite ends, Gaines with family and wife in life’s mid-flow, Henry Jackson widowed, approaching the river’s final destination point. Their scenes have a nice tension, an edge of competitive father-in-law/son-in-law male ego pathos that may make many men in the audience uncomfortable.
T.T. Gaines played by Clarence Wine an actor with a disability, adds much to reveal aspects of Lee’s personality, male bonding and fraternal interaction.
The ensemble has many fine ensemble moments around the dining room table, even when unexpected visitors bring tension into the plot line. Their early teen son “D” played insightfully by charming young actor Dorian Woodard helps care for grandfather Henry while adult family members work.
Paul Taylor Jr., Paul Taylor Jr.,Lisa Frank, Shea Coleman
Personal oral narratives and history have been a staple of Black familial legacy and keeper of history invisibilized in institutional education textbooks. Henry Jackson shares memory provoking moments throughout the show as recalling African American men’s decades long battle to be recognized as men not boys culminating in the tumultuous 1960s. His quiet retelling of life memories to his “D,” provides the play with Black traditional culture’s male bonding ritual of passing on male experiences through orality by elder to younger generation.
For some Black males of that era, the summers of the 60s was a time of male social “clubs” turning into gangs, blatant violence between males of different races,1 of hidden or denied reports of police brutality in Black communities, of insurrection and cultural turmoil, resistance, protest of defiance’s frustration expressed through community destroying riots.
Henry also relates 60s and 70s law enforcement and community conflict resulting in deadly traffic stops (the changing same for those innocents on either side of conflict caught in the middle). For conscious Black males, the 60s were also filled with ending violence, community building, restoration, cultural reclamation, pride.
One tender story paints a gentle portrait of grandfather’s sometimes troubled marriage to his loving now deceased wife who he misses and wants to join in the afterlife. She was a community pillar, one of the well respected Black nurses of the times. Henry Jackson regrets insensitive behavior towards her and does not want the same pain for his daughter. He delivers several of “Rants” cautionary life lesson lines, “Life is a circle and death is a part. It’s what you do with the in-between.” Henry also says about love: “Life is the only day we have . . . learn what’s needed.” This story fuels a confrontation with Lee about temptation and infidelity. It also sparks a fine romantic moment between “D” and his first major crush.
“D” and his girlfriend
When Henry dies after writing prescient letters to each family member, it is discovered that his dementia, due to his liminal existence, gave him a gaze into their present lives.
Father, mother and son, miss him fondly. The “D” recalls one of Henry’s stories at play’s end, shadow boxing like his grandfather. He repeats an opening line by Henry, one repeated in the play:”I could ‘a been a contender.” It creates a healing circle of life for the family. Borrowed from an almost forgotten pop culture phrase, stories on stories unfold for those of us who remember.
Darius Woodard as “D” (Photo by Delores Fisher)
Worth future production, “Rants” is about rituals, families, cycles within cycles, and epiphany.
Musewoman at the theater,
San Diego is hosting May Grey AND June Gloom this 2016. It is creating for me an atmosphere of contemplation.
Delores Fisher—-walking, thinking, and blogging during a drizzly San Diego AM
A few days after finishing grading, sleepless nights, and fewer cups of coffee, I remembered my March 30th tweet https://twitter.com/DeloresFisher about posting thoughts on “Rants” at San Diego’s Community Actors Theater by playwright Paul Taylor Sr.
Community Actors Theater San Diego, CA.
The cast of Paul Taylor Jr.’s play “Rants”
Grey days and cool AM breezes–and summer break–here are a few San Diego theater reflections
CAT, Community Actors Theater http://www.communityactorstheatre.com/, in San Diego California is a celebrated community space in the Oak Park/South East San Diego area. Jennie Hamilton, its founder, was recently noted by the San Diego Union Tribune http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/photos/galleries/2016/feb/13/faces-san-diego-theater/# . Jennie’s work and dedication to the arts has won community support and admiration for productions over more than twenty years in the business.
Back in the mid 1960s, African American theater, and arts in general, had a resurgence similar to the Harlem Renaissance http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Black_aesthetic_movement.aspx
In a trail blazing collection of essays about Black theater at that time entitled The Theater of Black Americans: Roots and Ritals: The Search for Identity The Image Makers: Plays and Playwrights, Errol Hill states
The question of how to encourage and protect needed experimentation in the Afro-American theater while retaining and expanding audiences who have been nurtured on standard theatre fare is the knottiest of all problems faced by responsible Black theatre practitioners.1
It was an issue thirty years ago and despite “Gospel plays,” and work by arts as storytelling and community healing vehicle people like Tyler Perry, Black community theater survival remains an issue. However, thanks to the pre -millenial and current Hip Hop generations’ experimentation with film and theater–it is a less problematic issue than it was fifty years ago.
Personal sidebar: Bravo young people in artistic endeavors. Keep quietly hurdling artistic milestones! Us “artistic OGs” really are proud of you. But, there is much more work to do on so many levels.
Discussing Black theater owners and producers of that era on a local and national scale, Hill further declares,
. . . Most of them, concerned as much with survival as with aesthetic considerations, tend to adopt a pragmatic approach of using whatever form seems to work best for a particular production and are content to bequeath the search for a recognizable Afro-American theater form to the pens of critics and theorists.2
Survival is a must for shows to be seen. Theater space is NOT cheap. Buildings cost—–ON THE REAL!
I don’t know much about other cities, but San Diego is blessed with established theater companies that graciously host experimental shows and collaborate with new or small production companies. 3
Although CAT is a smaller community based theater space, Jennie Hamilton opens her venue to newcomers as well. She continues to embrace live performances of works by amateur actors as well card- carrying professionals: she also embraces neophyte and experienced producers, directors, musicians, composers, vocalists, playwrights, comedians, and spoken word artists.
A couple of years ago, I spent a summer internship helping with basic upkeep jobs for Jennie Hamilton and CAT. I vacuumed, swept, dusted, re-arranged publicity pamphlets, cut out letters for the Marquee, talked local theater and people. We shared theater experiences about rewards and challenges of small San Diego community theater.
My Summer Internship at CAT San Diego
However, in 2015, I took the summer off to rest, read, write; a heavier spring and fall teaching schedule left me academically fulfilled and wanting to be involved in more than theater reviewing, yet just too depleted to volunteer. Jennie and I kept in touch.
This spring, Jennie Hamilton was one of my guests at the Africana Studies 2016 MLK Luncheon at San Diego State University http://africana.sdsu.edu/news.htm
As we sat at dining at our table we talked about the arts with international ballet mistress Kathryn Irey of Stage Seven.
Also joining the conversation was young rising opera vocalist Nicholas Neuman.
Our lively exchanges stirred silent memories of my youth.
During my youth, more than thirty five years ago in seemingly far away edges of time, I worked a “day job” while pursuing a musical theater and film career. Almost everyone I knew at that time who wanted to be in theater or film in San Diego did the same thing. Some made it– fame, fortune, fabulous red carpet lives.
Local San Diego theater buzzed with up and coming talent in the 70s and 80s. Local theater mentors graciously and sometimes sternly shaped aspiring writers, actors, comedians, and directors.We commiserated and partied together!
I worked in various capacities at several theaters including the old Gaslamp Quarter Theater –before its financial issues became problematic http://articles.latimes.com/1989-06-29/entertainment/ca-3438_1_kit-goldman-gaslamp-quarter-theatre-art-groups-survive-debt , in the 1980s at the old Lamb’s theater as piano secundo with Vanda Eggington as primary piano http://www.lambsplayers.org/past.php?id=81
Some of the Dames at Sea cast
At the old San Diego Repertory Theater site, before it moved into its present Lyceum space in Horton Plaza, I also worked as a show pianist. Currently, I do a few show reviews from time to time see https://sonictapestry.wordpress.com/2014/11/12/honky-play-review-san-diego-repertory-theater/. The Rep is currently celebrating its 40th year http://www.sdrep.org What a reunion of talent.
Of all the theatrical companies I’ve worked for, the old Marquis Public Theater is still dear to my memories. The Marquis Public Theater on India Street complete with its separate smaller galley venue, holds a special place in my memories. African American producer/director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley produced shows in the Marquis Galley with his Humani One Theater and at E.C.C. Minerva Marquis and her theater/home for actors helped me become more serious about and appreciative of what it takes to be a performer. Experiences there changed my life in the arts.(More about Minerva later.)
Now defunct, the Bowery theater, a basement show space similar to those in New York with meteoric director Kim McCullum was an experimental space across the street from a wonderful show biz bar that moved downtown before it eventual demise called Playbills. Sonictapestry’s first photo of a very young me at the piano was taken during the Bowery Theater’s production of “The Little Match Girl.”
Delores Fisher show pianist
And high school theater departments?
They were just “bumpin’ as the kids say today. And if one takes a look at a list of recent productions….San Diego City schools theater departments are still producing creative, innovative theater students who later in life help keep arts alive in college and professional venues.
Some of my best images include playing piano for Serra High School with then drama teacher Susan Shattuck who married and became Susan Jones. I learned so much working with her on “Stop The World I want to Get Off,” “Camelot,” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” I had an opportunity to apply what I’d learned playing piano for choir and shows for Debbie Nevin and talented drama teacher Susan Bayliss at Hoover High School where we did among other shows, excerpts from “Phantom From the Opera,” “Mulan,” “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown,” and “A Chorus Line.” When Debbie Nevin moved to the new Lincoln High school in Southeast San Diego, so did I on a part time basis due to my teaching schedule.
At the newly rebuilt Lincoln High School, arts mavin/choral director Sharletta Richardson recruited me as choir accompanist and Debbie Nevin recruited me as show pianist. Sharletta Richardson put together those mellow choral sections of shows such as “The Wiz,” and “Grease.”
Debbie Nevin headed really banging show bands comprised of students and a few pros. Under the watchful eye of dance instructor choreographer Don Robinson, student dancers matched theater dance professional standards. His choreography was sheer joy to watch.
Working with choreographers, doing musical theater, staged readings, readers theater, comedy, drama, I balanced being active in the arts with performer’s hours and with functioning as a regular person, with a “normal” day job. I was young and ambitious. Weren’t we all?
One busy year, I even added a poetry performance (the audition preparation was intense) directed by Patricia Elmore with several other actors at the old D.G. Wills Bookstore. That staged performance was later repackaged, broadcast and recorded live by KPBS. I used to have the tape somewhere in storage. Like my memories . . . .
As I grow older, a few particular years’ vapors steadily solidify into focus. Several actors and I were nurtured by director Minerva Marquis- now deceased-of the then famous Marquis Public Theater http://legacy.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/metro/20011208-9999_1m8marqu is.html
What a trooper she was. So gracious, patient and kind to us flaky, egocentric, always hungry, head strong young actors. One summer, Minerva Marquis gathered a few local actors together to propose a daring plan. She wanted us to organize into a repertory group. Consenting meant long hours, little pay, working on acting as well as whatever job Minerva assigned us. She nurtured us, gave us personal and professional advice, cautioned us about recklessness, taught us rehearsal discipline, and from time to time gave us a shoulder to cry on as the show went on despite a broken heart. If several of us had stayed out of the dance clubs and toxic relationships, concentrated on stagecraft more . . . . well. (LOUD, LONG, SIGH). . .ANYWAY—-
It was an informative and formative rousing year! We were part of the hype around the scandalously popular David Mamet play “Sexual Peversity in Chicago.” Minerva had her hands full, but she knew how to gently corral wild young actors who were more interested in the glamour and glitch side of the biz than the work side.
But thanks to Minerva Marquis, I got to run the box office, manage the house, help with props, do basic clean up, and assist with publicity as well as act. A few years later, less of a “party, party, party, ya’ll” young adult and somewhat wiser, I served as a musician/music director and composer under the directorship of Jennifer Myers Johnson4 on a pretty popular show called “Vinegar Tom” by Carlie Carlyle http://articles.latimes.com/1987-03-04/entertainment/ca-4580_1_vinegar-tom
I will perhaps blog more fully about my time at the Marquis Public Theater with Minerva Marquis and other moments onstage as a member of the spoken word ensemble member of the group 4nth, a solo spoken word artist, and a stage/show Host.
A young Delores Fisher at the old Claire de Lune Cafe
And hopefully I will also get an opportunity to compose and serve as a music director for a CAT experimental theater production like “Vinegar Tom” at the Marquis Public Theater.
Well, this a rather long introduction—-on to my main post about local African American theater AND Jennie Hamilton’s Community Theater Production of “Rants.
1. Hill, Errol. eds. “Introduction. The Theater of Black Americans: Roots and Rituals:The Search for Identity, The Image Makers:Plays and Playwrights. A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice-Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliifs 1980.),8. The collecton includes essays on dance, by Kimberly W. Benson and Robert Farris Thompson,The show “Shuffle Along” by Helen Armstead Johnson, Black playwrights byC. W. Bigsby, and African American music by a musicologist whose works have influenced my research-Eileen Southern.
2. Ibid., 8-9
3. San Diego’s Lyceum theater, Old Globe Theater, Horton Grand Theater, Community Actor’s Theater (CAT), and even small venues as diverse San Diego’s “World Beat Center,” The Queen Bee,” and East Village Community Church hosts experimental theater productions.
4. See Jennifer Myers Johnson. “Jennifer Myers Johnson.” in Artists On the Art of Survival: Observations on Frustration, Perspiration, and Inspiration for the Young Artist. Bill Meese Jr. ed (Hamilton Books: New York 2004), 234-237. The book is a collection of various young artists’ interview-reflections on what it takes to “be” in the arts.
I mentioned Stevie Wonder’s support for making Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday in my MLK post. Gil Scott Heron’s autobiography-memoir The Last Holiday provides an up close and personal eyewitness report through this well known singer/ poet/activist/prose author’s eyes.1
Several of the book’s chapters reminisce about Stevie Wonder’s October 1980 “Hotter Than July” album tour that included Wonder’s January 1981 rally in Washington D.C. with a focus on the national debate over whether or not to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King with a holiday, provide personal, socio-cultural and political context for Stevie Wonder’s commitment to the “holiday” movement.
And, chapter 38 sets the record straight about an article review about an Oakland show which accuses Wonder and Scott-Heron of not mentioning or caring about much loved and respected John Lennon’s death. According to Heron, while on the “Hotter Than July” tour, Stevie Wonder met him at the bottom of the stage stairs. He told Heron about Lennon’s murder. Wonder seemed almost in shock and was greatly troubled about John Lennon’s death. He gave an on stage passionate speech addressing the tragedy around 11:30 PM during the concert. States Heron:
“Later, I could not remember us playing those last two songs, though I was sure we had. I could only
bring back the three solid images of that night, two of Stevie: the first one was of the brother standing
there waiting for me at the bottom of those stairs. The second was of him standing alone in that spotlight,
crying. And the third was of me standing there next to Santana with our eyes sweeping the floor as though
there was really something to look for. 2
The article was negative and blasted Wonder and Scott-Heron for a racialized hypocrisy lack of caring for those who were not African American. It distorted/spun the facts for readers of the article; as related to his readers, Gil Scott-Heron notes, “It implied that because I was Black and Stevie was Black and John Lennon was White and therefore not a “Soul Brother,” that there had been no mention from the stage about the murder. . . It’s all about the deadline . . .In order to get that article in the paper this morning the reporter had to leave by 11:00. And Stevie didn’t start talking until 11:30.”3
Here’s a bit more information from the web.4 Stevie Wonder-Martin Luther King Day
To those of you for whom Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron are a part of a vague Black history memory from a paragraph about Civil Rights in your high school textbooks . . .. this is encouragement to do more research, help bring light to some of the vagueness.
Today, we often sing the chorus of this birthday song to our family and friends. Here is Stevie Wonder singing the “Happy Birthday” song in another commemorative context: For Nelson Mandela.
A joyous serious celebratory salute, embedded in a fun song.
Black History month? As I said on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DeloresFisher/status/563057482483105792
1. Heron, Gil Scott. The Last Holiday. “Chapters 30-39″ (New York, New York: Grove Press, 2012 ) 224-292. Often cited for his groundbreaking poem,”The Revolution Will Not be Televised” 1st premiered to the general public on the album Gil-Scott-Heron- Small Talk At 125th and Lennox in 1970, the poet sprang into America’s consciousness and performed for a following that grew into a national and international audience. GilScott-Heron’s memoir was posthumously published. The publisher notes on p 316 reveal that one purpose of this edited manuscript was to document Stevie Wonder’s role in the establishment of a national holiday to celebrate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy.
2. Ibid., 281-282.
3. Ibid., 282.
4. Short but to the point min-biography of the events” Biography website http://www.biography.com/people/stevie-wonder-9536078/videos/stevie-wonder-martin-luther-king-day-3270723700.
Celebrations, celebrations rain or shine!
As Spring semester started, invitations and appearance commitments were a bit interesting to fulfill. For me this Spring 2016, several events were most enjoyable and memorable. The Valencia Park/ Malcolm X Library 20th year anniversary celebration on January 9th was one of those events. City Library personnel(former Valencia Park Librarian Marguerite Farmer), politicians (Dr. Shirley Weber and City Council member Myrtle Cole) were on the program, as well as activists, educators, and entertainers. Everyone sat side by side and shared the experience even just the “regular folks,” the Southeast San Diego community who use the facilities and check out books at the Valencia Park/Malcolm X library.
In the background were Friends of the library and interim librarian Marc Chery.
Marc Cheri from the San Diego Central Library, voluntarily stepped in to manage the library when it needed a guiding hand due to a staff vacancy. He is familiar with the site and knows how it functions for that area. http://www.kpbs.org/news/2016/feb/04/black-history-month-local-hero-marc-chery/
The Valencia Park/ Malcolm X Library, right next door to the Elementary Institute of Science, also serves as a resource for many of its neighborhood students who do homework and use the computers for research.
Here are a few photo highlights of the event.
Audience listening to one of several speakers
Community member and family
(In a photo op moment, before her announcement to run for the San Diego School board candidate) Aid to Dr. Shirley Weber, LaShae Collins enjoys the program.
Junk Yard Dance Crew danced a lively performance and Pianist/music teacher Bobbie Hearns presented a historic-musical panorama of African American Music from its origins to today’s Uptown Funk, Neo Soul, Gospel, and Rap/Hip Hop. Gloria Verdieu gave an historic overview of the original plans for and the naming of the library. Poet Rocio Cordova blazed with lyrical flow on self-hood and social agency. Poet Activist Rocio Cordoba
Jim Moreno, educator/activist made a surprise appearance http://www.servinghousejournal.com/MorenoNinePoems.aspx
Poet Educator /activist Jim Moreno
Central Library Assistant Alan Bugg and I had a chance to catch up on small talk. Sylvia Talafaro, president of the African American Writer’s Ink who presents community programs for young artists, is also a cultural activist. She gave me exciting information on several upcoming projects for 2016—more about that later this year!
I spotted T-Ford, dressed down, blending in; there in community, mingling, talking to people and enjoying the performances.Bloggerazzi moment!!!
Low key and quite quiet, Rapper Tiny Doo, who has seen his share of controversy, http://www.kpbs.org/news/2015/mar/16/judge-dismisses-charges-against-san-diego-rapper-t/ was at the event to support literacy and educational programs that the library provides to youth and adults.
San Diego Rapper Tiny Doo
Delores Fisher and Tiny Doo
Keynote Speaker, UCSD professor, Dennis Childs gave a dynamic speech filled with anecdotes and an inspirational message about the importance of family, community, education, and organizations that unite communities towards a positive future.
The 20th Year anniversary celebration of the Malcolm X library was definitely one of my favorite 2016 year opening events.