Category Archives: Theater

Guest Blog: Why NYC Needs Fire!

Why New York City Needs Fire
by Andre Lancaster

“Who needs a rebel if they are dead?”
from Lenelle Moise’s Expatriate, Culture Project

If Expatriate were only a play about the tragic love story between two black women, one gay and one straight, I would have walked out of the performance moved but not changed.  Good theatre should change you I’ve always thought..  Thankfully, Expatriate hit the spot.   At its core the play puts forth a powerful, cautionary story of the plight of young and terribly gifted artists who love and live as passionately as their art evokes.  Think: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Essex Hemphill, and Heath Ledger.

What also made Expatriate especially poignant was its fresh choice of who would carry the story: a Black queer protagonist.  In a year of hope filled multi-racial politics and the Tony Award winning musical, In The Heights, this being viewed as “fresh” may fall on deaf ears.

I could not disagree more.

Before I digress too much into Expatriate (go see it), let me directly address this article’s title and why New York City desperately needs fire.  Disney, Starbucks, and the Post-Giuliani Police State are three reasons that come quickly to mind.  A once unwieldy metropolis known for its insomnia and spontaneity is now overrun with quality of life laws and chain stores.

And for the comic book fans out there, yes, the title is also a not too subtle reference at the imagined hero of DC Comic’s City of Metropolis.  In Lois Lane’s “Why the world doesn’t need Superman,” she writes:

“People have always longed for God… We wait for our savior’s return though it will never happen and we realize it was better had he never come at all.”

Ultimately, Lois Lane did revisit her article’s title and the urgency for a hero after Superman saved the world from evil in 2007’s Superman Returns.  Hollywood’s messiah complex notwithstanding, the case study is still very apropos.  New York City needs not one hero, but many sheroes and heroes.  We need a burning enthusiasm for new stories from new perspectives; theatre that pays a living wage for all working theatre artists; a civic responsibility to produce culture instead of a nationalist fervor to wage war; and an audience hungry to be challenged and mindlessly entertained.  And yeah, give us health care too!

These are some of the elements that make up our fire and it will, can, and in some ways already has brought new passion to theatre in New York City.   Already movements are taking shape. The Code Committee of the Actors’ Equity Association is considering updating its showcase code to reflect the reality of producing 99 seat or less theatre in the year 2008.  Off-Off Broadway producers are organizing and rebranding their work as Independent Theater.  This fire has come in the form of Mike Daisey’s How Theatre Failed America and, yes, sometimes it will come in the form of a Black queer protagonist not unlike seen in Lenelle Moise’s Expatriate.

What will complicate our efforts will be when fire is misunderstood, ignored or beholden to the aged worldviews that we seek to set ablaze.  Case in point:  Part of my work at Freedom Train, a political theatre company based in Brooklyn, is to promote plays with Black queer protagonists to other producers.  I have found that I have more success in presenting our plays not as Black queer plays (read: token) but as plays that speak to universal experiences.  However, once these plays leave our utopia, we inevitably lose control over how they are presented.  So while last year’s Freedom Train developed play, Nick Mwaluko’s Are Women Human?, was presented to our audience as a story of a person’s freedom for acceptance and love, it could very well be read as a thoughtful, but inappropriate work for another theatre’s audience.  It is in fact a play about a Black transgender person and their audience is, well, white.

Many will read this article and miss the point entirely.  They will cite show after show that has a Black lead or theatres that produce non-linear work, or even the rare company that pays its actors and stagehands as much as it pays its development staff.  Really now?

Fire is an undeniable, natural element that creates fertile ground for new growth.  To not be in constant desire for fire is (boring and) against nature.  Openness is the oxygen to our fire — let it burn.

Andre Lancaster is the Artistic & Managing Director of Freedom Train Productions.  Freedom Train Productions’ Fire! New Play Festival is set to open on August 6th at South Oxford Space in Fort Greene. More information: www.freedomtrainproductions.org.

Lenelle Moise’s Expatriate is showing at Culture Project in Soho through August 3rd.  More information: www.cultureproject.org.

Judith Jamison to Retire from Ailey in 2011

Judith Jamison, principal dancer-turned choreographer, just announced her plans to retire as Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011. Jamison first joined the company in 1965.

Jamison, and Ailey’s choreography, is the thing that made me decide to start taking modern and jazz dance classes when I was young and saw a PBS special and was mesmorized by the classic “Revelations” (betcha didn’t know I started taking dance at age 7 did ya?).

After Ailey died of AIDS in 1989, Jamison took over leadership of the company and helped it grow into a major dance institution. He’s one of my heroes, and and so is she. Here’s to your much deserved rest, Ms. Jamison!

Obama-Clinton Showdown: The Lessons of South Carolina

Blogger Jonathan Stein over at Mother Jones beat me to the punch on this one, but that’s one of the tragedies of having a full-time job and trying to blog at the same time. But in all the back patting or weeping (depending on who’s side you’re on) over the South Carolina primaries, Stein at MJ and I are asking the same question: Did the Clinton camp intentionally lose SC to “niggerize” Obama to cut white support from under him?

I definitely think it’s a possibility. First off, the media has been referring to the SC primary as “the Black Primary” because it’s a 30% Black state, and 50% of the voting Democrats in the state are of African descent. With the nation already thinking about what would happen in SC as representative of Black people, here’s what occurred:

  1. Hillary Clinton—in an attempt to pain Obama as some ragtag feel good community organizer and not presidential—used the analogy that while MLK mobilized people, it took LBJ to pass the Civil Rights Act. Black people took offense to that.
  2. Bill Clinton appeared on radio to defend him, and called Obama’s campaign a fantasy.
  3. BET founder Bob Johnson went off on Obama when introducing Senator Clinton at a rally in SC—basically insinuating that Obama was getting high on coke in Chicago while Hillary was serving the Nation.
  4. Then Bill Clinton performed less like the spouse of a candidate and more like a running mate (He even appeared on television to essentially deliver her concession speech after she lost), by appearing all over the place making comments about Obama and using verbiage to link him to Jesse Jackson.

The niggerization campaign in full effect. I think this turned a lot of Black people off to the Clintons, quite frankly, who overwhelmingly (81%) voted for Obama in South Carolina. Even though Obama had a great deal of support of the white voters under 30 years of age, the fact that he won in the Black primary became the story.

The Obama camp has known for some time that they simply cannot run him as a candidate who is concerned only about Black America if they want to have any real chance of winning. But was the Clinton strategy to force Obama off of his “above the political fray and above racial politics” message done to permanently smear his image with white and Latino voters to lessen his chance of winning the states where she is more competitive on Super Tuesday?

I think this bears some thinking about.

What may be problematic for her is the fact that the political establishment that has remained neutral so far may begin to shift to Obama’s camp. Congressman James Clyburn of SC had some thinly veiled harsh words for the Clinton Campaign after Obama’s win, saying about the Obama win: “‘I’m not surprised at that at all…Because I really believe that in the last 48 hours the voters recoiled. They decided to reject the racial animus they seemed to be developing and I’m so pleased.’

This weekend (and today, Monday) it was announced that two Kennedy’s–Caroline and Senator Ted–endorsed Obama. And most surprising, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison endorsed Obama today.

Where this strategy may perhaps get her a nomination at the summer DNC, it may hurt her chances in the fall. Black people, if they feel Clinton played dirty to shut down the chances of the first Black President to be elected, may turn on her and simply not vote in November. Will it then have been worth it?

For more interesting commentary on Obama’s de-racialized campaign read an article from 2007 in In These Times from a person who knows him, and my good friend Kai Wright’s new piece in The Root (a brand new “Black” online publication—owned by the Washington Post. Henry Louis Gates is Editor-in-Chief.

The Dirty Dozens: Race, Civil Rights and the Democrats

It’s gettin hot in herr! The gloves are coming off, and people are now being forced to take sides. Senator Hillary Clinton has been trying to spin herself out of a whole she dug when she, at an attempt to dig at Senator Barack Obama, said that while he likes to compare himself to MLK, it took a president–Lyndon B. Johnson–to pass the Civil Rights Act.

The blacks are giving her hell over that comment, and on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” she said that the Obama campaign was “deliberately distorting” her comments.

Well I saw the interview when it aired, and no, no one is distorting her comments. She said something really politically foolish trying to one-up Obama, and she got caught out there. I thought at the time that that statement was going to come back to haunt her.

But it doesn’t end there. Saturday, Bob Johnson, founder of BET had the unmitigated gall to stand up in front of a crowd and act as the authority on Black people, and defend Clinton’s record with Black people. Johnson said

“To me, as an African American, I am frankly insulted the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues — when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood; I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in his book — when they have been involved.”

He later said he was not referring to Obama’s admitted drug use. As black as the Clintons think they are, they are white enought to not realize how many Black people actually despise Bob Johnson. Many of us blame him for cutting BET news programming (and firing Tavis Smiley), and turning the channel into a video channel replete with images of violent black masculinites, hypersexualized black women, with a hefy dash of homophobia. In fact, THE SAME NIGHT he made these comments, Black folks were protesting outside the taping of a BET Awards show in DC.

Johnson is also the sleaze bag who moved the show Comic View from Los Angeles to Atlanta, allegedly in order to avoid paying unionized rates to comics appearing on the show. Not that I care about that modern day minstrel show, but it was still a low blow.

To make matters even worse, I just saw a debate on PBS’ The New Hour between SCLC veteran Rev. Joseph C. Lowry (Team Obama) and Civil Rights vet Rep. John Lewis (Team Clinton). John Lewis had the nerve to defend Clinton on the basis that “The Clintons would never do anything to harm African-Americans.” I am not sure if that’s a direct quote, but it’s definitely not far off. He said it twice.

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH US?

I can definitely understand why black people may not necessarily be in 100% Barack’s camp, but I certainly cannot understand why some of us back Clinton over him–and completely uncritically.

But I said a few posts ago this election was going to help expose the tensions of the civil rights old guarde as they fall out of favor. Not because Black people are more conservative, but because they are now too entrenched in the machine to be effective as agitators. And their tacit support of the Clintons against a Black candidate generally more progressive than either Bill or Hillary, is quite telling. William Jelani Cobb has a great article in the Washington Post about this very issue.

Interview with Writer/Director Stanley Bennett Clay

I don’t read a lot of novels, but when I read a good one, I definitely have to pass it on. Recently I read Looker, written by Stanley Bennett Clay. The novel’s basic story is of two black gay men, best friends, living in Los Angeles who struggle to find love—or to run and hide from it. But the novel is so much more than that. It’s a complex read of how Black people negotiate their own sexuality and inner desires through a lens that is often distorted by all the isms and phobias—class, race, age, (trans) gender. Some of the characters find sexual liberation. Some do not.I had a chance to talk to the author, Stanley Bennett Clay, a couple weeks ago. Clay has received three NAACP Image Awards for writing, directing and producing the critically acclaimed play Ritual, as well as the Pan African Film Festival Award for the film adaptation. He is the author of three novels, Diva, In Search of Pretty Young Black Men, and of course, Looker.

KF: I just finished Looker, and thought it was a really amazing novel. Can you tell me what inspired it?

SBC: I guess it was a part of my whole process of writing stories about the gay scene in Los Angeles and gay people in Los Angeles. I found oftentimes in reading a lot of black gay stories, there were few times when there was a discussion of the Los Angeles scene, and most of the stories were set back east. And being a really fanatical Los Angeles kind of person, I really wanted to put a spin on it and show the differences as well as the uniqueness of black gay life in Los Angeles, especially middle class black gay life. And just getting the landscape out there and introducing it to the readers.

KF: One of the things I really liked about Looker was that it explored people’s inner desires, particularly their desires around sex and sexuality, in a way that’s really complicated. Why did you decide to take on sex and sexuality in such an explicit way as you did in this novel?

SBC: I think that’s probably a trademark one would find in all my writing…I’ve always had a sort of a problem with America’s timid-ness and immaturity in regards to sex. I find it interesting that we live in a world were a movie can be shown and we can see dozens of people killed and maimed and mutilated and that gets a PG rating, but if you see a couple, a married couple, making love, and that gets an R rating or even an X rating depending on what is shown. There’s just this thing that really ticks me off which has to do with the way America views sexuality. I look at sex as very normal, and as this God-given thing, so I just show it very normally.

KF: I want to ask you specifically about the Black community and sexuality. For me, on one level through hip-hop videos and other kinds of media, you see a lot of overt sexual imagery of black people, but at the same time in the community you have a very conservative attitude or response to sex and sexuality. The characters in Looker deal with the full spectrum of that—either liberation or shame around his or her own sexual desires. So what do you think the take away is for the black community on sex and sexuality.

SBC: I think it goes back to slavery in a lot of ways. We don’t want to seem out of line with what society sees as acceptable, and because of that we have a tendency to be even more conservative when it comes to sex for fear that the white man is looking. And we don’t want him to do that we are doing some of these things. It comes back to the old cliché that there are black people who are ashamed to let people know that they eat watermelon simply because of the old stereotype, or who won’t buy a Cadillac because of the old stereotype of it being a pimp-mobile. We have to liberate ourselves from that sort of belief, and to be free enough to express ourselves any way we want to. Continue reading

Politics Aside: Find Some Place to Party Tonight!

With all the heavy-ness and seriousness of the world right now–primaries, violence in Kenya and proposed troop surges in Afghanistan, remember to find some space for you to have some fun! Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers said it best: “Though the world cruel and blind/Let’s have a good time.”

Even though I have decided to embrace my passion for politics in my blog and do much less entertainment fluff, that doesn’t mean I don’t need to find ways to decompress. I am looking to get my party on tonight! For me, there’s nothing better than house music, and house-heads to truly shake off the oppression, violence, and degradation we are forced to encounter on a daily basis. S

o after going to see Classical Theater of Harlem’s production of Trojan Women, I’ll be headed to the NYC’s Sullivan Room for the in2Deep party, with Roger Sanchez and Ace House Nation on the turntables serving you beats and vocals.Tonight, as Lady Miss Kier of Deee-Lite once said, I JUST WANNA HEAR A GOOD BEAT![googlevideo=http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1985631311033717552&q=deee-lite+good+beat+video&total=16&start=0&num=10&so=0&type=search&plindex=0]

So so does everbody. Including news anchors. NBC’s David Gregory couldn’t resist shaking it to Mary J. Blige’s irresistible new single (and guaranteed dance floor classic) Just Fine, when she recently performed on the Today Show. And he ain’t doin such a bad job either. Stay fierce, stay sane, and find your space to breathe.[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKfHEGZPh2Y]

NH Drama: Did Voting Machines Skew Victory to Clinton?

The blogosphere is awash today with rumors that there were major voting irregularities in New Hampshire–paper ballots count Obama as the winner whereas Diebold electronic machines count Clinton as the winner of the presidential primary. I tried to cut to the chase and go to the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s website to see if the results were posted as such, and thus far, they haven’t posted the results all of the counties in the states. And they don’t list whether the ballots were hand counted or Diebolt AccuVote Machines (recently renamed Premier).

But here’s what’s being said.

Presscue.com:

Hillary Clinton’s victory celebrations in New Hampshire were short lived after Internet bloggers uncovered that the former first lady did better in precincts where the votes were counted by the much maligned Diebold voting machines, whereas in precincts where votes were hand counted, her rival Barack Obama was the clear winner.

Illinois Senator vying to become the first black President of the United States has already conceded victory and congratulated Clinton, but the blogosphere is buzzing with allegations of vote fraud directed at the Clinton camp.

Obama garnered 38.7% of the hand counted votes to Clinton’s 36.2%, but Diebold machines gave Clinton 40.7% of the vote against Obama’s 36.2%.

Bloggers have highlighted the fact that the candidate placed second from each method got exactly 36.2% of the vote. (view their handy chart showing the difference between the handcount and the voting machine count)

Today, Tribune Co. columnist Bob Koehler had this to say in his column today:

Did the Hillary campaign really defy the pollsters? She had been trailing Barack Obama by 13 percentage points, 42 to 29, in a recent Zogby poll, as election watchdog Brad Friedman pointed out. And the weekend’s “rapturous packed rallies for Mr. Obama,” as the New York Times put it, “suggested Mrs. Clinton was in dire shape.”

So when she emerged from the Tuesday primary with an 8,000-vote and 3-percentage-point victory over Obama, perhaps — considering the notorious unreliability, not to mention hackability, of Diebold machines — the media might have hoisted a few red flags in the coverage, rather than immediately chalk the results up to Clinton’s tears and voter unpredictability. (Oh, if only more reporters considered red flags patriotic.)

The fact is, whatever actually happened in New Hampshire voting booths on Tuesday, our elections are horrifically insecure. For instance, Bev Harris, of the highly respected voting watchdog organization Black Box Voting, recently wrote that the Diebold 1.94w optical scan machines used in some 55 percent of New Hampshire precincts (representing more than 80 percent of the state’s voters) are “the exact same make, model and version hacked in the Black Box Voting project in Leon County (Florida)” a few years ago. They haven’t been upgraded; the security problems haven’t been fixed.

National, or at least media, denial about this situation doesn’t say much for the strength of our democracy.

Interesting. But not altogether surprising.

Bitten By The Obama Bug: New Hampshire Be Damned!

I’ve been obsessed with the election. I admit it. I guess that makes me a bad radical. Good revolutionaries (at least in America, for some reason) aren’t supposed to be concerned with elections and the political process (I think leftists in Venezuela, Kenya, and Iran–to name a few–would beg to differ.). But I have been somewhat bitten by the bug. My cynicism is somewhat on hold, and I am trying real hard to show some restraint and not run out and get one of those “Barack The Vote” hoodies I saw for sale. Maybe that’s what’s different here–elections as commodity, politicians as celebrity. But I am joining my homie The Black Snob and am allowing myself to get caught up. Fuck it!

Well, CNN and the Associated Press have just declared Hillary Clinton the winner of the New Hampshire primary. So I guess white people in New Hampshire got in that voting booth and pulled a stunt! Barack is now addressing the audience in NH. He asked them to give Senator Clinton a round of applause–did she do that for him when she lost last week?. He’s dreamy!

It’s interesting because he’s still using the “there’s something happening in America” line. Instead of using it to refer to his historic candidacy, he’s using it to talk about the new dawn of American politics that are about compromise and not about screaming matches. He is calling his voters, and America by extension, “the new majority.”

They clearly love him. They’re chanting O-ba-ma with such fervor! I do have to say it is interesting to see a candidate that inspires so much hope in people.

To my fellow readers, friends, admirers, comrades: I haven’t lost my mind. I don’t agree with everything he says, but hell, I don’t agree with half of what you all say or think half of the time! I am worried about what his role as “Commander in Chief” is going to mean in terms of militarism and policing and prisons and what not. But I do feel inspired by a vision of something less arrogant, less violent,. Can I have that, please? LOL! I feel like I am betraying the $11,000 debt I just racked up for J-school (so I guess I’ve officially given up a conventional career in journalism. The one progressive news outlet I was trying to write for, blew me off, so the hell with it) by publicly supporting a candidate, and betraying my leftist community by being involved in electoral politics, which is a movement faux pas, from what I understand.

He ends his speech with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” The pundits on CNN seem to think it was a funny thing, given the fact that he didn’t take the #1 slot (he’s now only 2% points behind with 79% of the vote–not exactly a blowout) Clinton’s speech is good, but she’s not fire like Obama, who seems to be on nothing short of a mission.

Speaking of speeches? Wanna know something about the editor behind Obama’s speeches? Read this Newsweek story.

What Is the Iowa Caucus to The Black Radical?

Every few years, at election time, I feel very conflicted. I was raised to understand the importance of voting, and more directly, Black people lost their lives for the right for me to do so.

My mother made sure me and my sisters watched Eyes On The Prize on PBS. That documentary chronicled all the different ways Black people in the 1950’s & 60’s organized to fight desegregation (of which protecting/restoring their right to vote unencumbered was a part), and the myriad number of ways white citizens, the states and the federal government were involved in keeping them disenfranchised.

So with a heavy heart full of gratitude and sagging with the debt of my ancestors, I usually find myself treading into some mildewy church basement or pissy school gymnasium to exercise my God-given right pull the lever–an excercise meant to turn the tides of 500 years in one fell swoop.

And so here we are. It’s 2008 and not only can we now vote (mostly), but we have the first viable Black candidate running for president. Barack Obama’s ascendancy to this place, seems rife with all right thoughts of “fulfilling the dream” and “keeping America’s promise,” which has certainly been helped by his PR machine. That’s not to say he’s a phony or a fraud. I have never met him but I do, like most of the people who seem prepared to cast a ballot his way, seem to trust he believes what he says most of the time, which is more than I can say for any of the other frontrunners.

But there are others who feel that this very narrative, the Moses/Jesus/Lincoln/MLK-like prophet come to deliver the people and the nation, is the thing they despise about what he represents most. There are people who feel as though his election will say to the nation and the world, “The US is now beyond race (at least beyond the black & white paradigm). Racism is over. They’ve gotten the Presidency. Now, stop complaining and get to work. Come On, People!”

There are others who feel that he, whose “Black genes” trace most directly to Kenya and not Kentucky, is not Black enough to be even considered the first Black president.

There are more of us, knowing too well that he is Black, who feel he faces the certain and decisive bullet of an assassin if elected.

There are some of us who simply feel the US Presidency will never be a place to transform the United States. Some of us would in fact, rather undo it.

So, if his election may be fraught with such tension, hope, ambivalence or disillusionment for Black people in America, why should I vote? Why should any Black person in America vote?

I don’t honestly know the answer to that question. I don’t know why I do vote most of the time. But I know that there isn’t an easy answer to how the descendants of chattel slaves should position themselves trapped as we are in this strange paradigm. But as much as I feel–in the deepest core of my being–somewhat anxious about Obama and wanting to see him do well, I am under no delusion that his Presidency (nor Clinton nor Edwards nor any of ‘em) will save any of us.

And so I will watch the Iowa Caucus tonight, and all the other election broughaha over this year, with a good deal of hopefulness and anxiety, highly skeptical that freedom can ever be found in a ballot box, but knowing full well that budgets, laws, and public policy can shrivel or spread misery.

The choice is yours.

May the ancestors be with us.