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.

So Black and So Gay!: Jermaine Stewart

Some of you may remember that last year at this time (NYC’s Black Pride AKA Pride In the City hosted by People of Color in Crisis (POCC)), I did an entire series called So Black and So Gay!, where I featured videos with implicit and explicit queer themes by Black artists. Well I am gonna serve up a few this week, as well as a guest blogger tomorrow.

Today’s So Black and So Gay! video is none other than Jermaine Stewart’s 1986 smash hit, We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off!

It’s hard to find queens like this in the public pop culture realm anymore–especially Black queens. A lot of homophobic Black nationalist and middle class “racial uplift” Blacks were always deeply troubled by people like Stewart’s presence in the community and in mainstream pop culture, but they were there. Rather than seeing their images as troubling and de-stabilizing racist notions of Black masculinty, they were seen as undermining the Black community, and regressive masculinities that spoke to our defeat as a race of “men.” The HIV/AIDS epidemic became the physical manifestation of 30 years of increasing social death of Black queer men and transwomen from Black public life.

But Stewart was still able to push the Black sissy into public view during the early years of AIDS, even though this particular song is celebrating a kind of middle-class moralistic view of sex and relationships. But you know what? It’s still alot of fun!

For more on Stewart, please check out the Wikipedia entry, which is pretty interesting. Here’s to Jermaine Stewart, So Black and So Gay!

CNN’S BLACK In America: On Black LGBT Folks

….yes. We weren’t there. At best, we got Phil Wilson of Black AIDS Institute, who was interviewed but was not talked about as a Black gay man, but who’s observations on HIV/AIDS were made about the whole community. Secondly, the family they profiled, the Rands, the first family had a son who was a dancer studying at Julliard who’s only appearance was in a photo wearing a purple unitard. I am not certain he’s gay, but I’m just sayin!

As usual, we were marginal, sidelines, and noticeably invisible–not to say anything of lesbians, and transgender folks, who were completely absent.

Nas & Color of Change Bring the Heat to Fox News Channel!

From Color of Change–and i hope to see the NYC peeps there!:

Dear New York Area ColorOfChange.org member,

More than half a million people have joined the effort to call on Fox to end their race-baiting and fear-mongering! It’s an amazing response. We’re taking the campaign to the next step: at Fox News Headquarters in Manhattan, hip hop artist Nas–who has a new track calling out Fox’s racism and fear-mongering–will join ColorOfChange.org members and our allies to deliver the petitions and our message in front of news cameras. Click here to RSVP:

http://colorofchange.org/foxdelivery/?id=2244-125725

You can help make history. Never before has Fox or any other media organization been confronted by this many Black voices and allies. Participating is easy. Just make your way to 48th St and 6th Ave.

This won’t be the end of our campaign. If other media outlets cover us delivering over half-a-million petition signatures, FOX’s advertisers will get the hint that it’s not a good idea to associate their products with Fox’s hate-speech. But we need a crowd to make this event as powerful as possible.

We hope you can join us. To RSVP, click here:

http://colorofchange.org/foxdelivery/?id=2244-125725

Thanks and Peace,

Marsha Ambrosius: From Floetry Songstress to Gangsta Girl?

Searching the internet for news on the upcoming solo album from former Floetry singer Marsha Ambrosius, I came across a free downloadable mixtape her label, Dr. Dre’s Aftermath, produced as a way to do an underground promotion of her in anticipation of the release of the full recording. The mixtape is called Neo-Soul Is Dead, released in November 2007, and much of the disc is retread of famous Dr. Dre beats, mostly from The Chronic.

It’s fine to declare Neo-Soul to be dead, Erykah Badu did that about 5 years ago. But it’s quite another thing to all of a sudden become this gangstress singing to the beat of Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” about how “all you bitches don’t mean shit to me” when you were giving us some of the most beautful R & B love songs recorded in this generation! You would hardly recognize the vocalist from “It’s Getting Late” and “Like A Bird” with songs like “Grind You Up” and “You’s a Beeyatch!!!”

I’m all for artists growing in new directions musically–but this kind of 180 is just too much. Badu’s new recording is a stark departure  from her previous work, but she’s not talking about fightin’ “bitches” and actin like she’s a Crip all of a sudden. I am not sure if I want to hear the full recording when it drops later this year.

I can live if neo-soul is dead, but I hope integrity isn’t.

D-LIST: CNN Denies Me Entrance to ‘Black in America’ Screening

I, like Kathy Griffin, am so D-LIST!!!!

Last week I received an email from my homegirl, a very smart and talented journalist and editor, that CNN was having a screening and reception for their upcoming 2-part special investigation called Black in America tonight at the CNN Center in Manhattan hat they’ve been promoting the hell out of. The event, according to the email, was going to feature CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien and Time Warner Chairman, Richard D. Parsons (He’s Black!).

Well, I am Black in America! And I dabble in media work. So I figured it would be good to attend the event, and tell you all about it here. So I emailed immediately to RSVP as the email requested, as did my friend. Yesterday, she and I (as we do daily) send a flurry of gchat messages talking about what we were going to wear, who else we thought might be there, and a good networking opportunity for Educated Black People like ourselves! As of yesterday we hadn’t heard any thing when I asked her if she had gotten a response from them confirming her place. She hadn’t, and neither had I. So we assumed we were good to go. Well, NOT SO MUCH!

Under the cloak of the night, and presuming I’d be asleep (which I WAS NOT), I got an email from “CNN Screening” sent at 210AM which read coldly

Regretfully we must decline your rsvp as we are at capacity. Thank you for your interest”

First of all, it’s RSVP–ALL CAPS. And where is the “.” after the word interest? Is this the kind of punctuation we should expect from a multi-national million dollar news organization? And what’s up with them sending it in the middle of the damn night? What if I had bought a new outfit the day before? I am so not appreciating this treatment CNN. I can’t wait to see what the series looks like. If the correspondence about it’s premier is as tacky as this, I can’t imagine what this series is gonna look like, let alone the substance. I will be SURE to write all about it when I am watching on regular cable like the rest of America.

Maybe this treatment is thematic–being responded to late, half-assed and when they think you’re not looking is definitely what is like being Black in America.

New Yorker Obama Cover: Satire or Racist Sensationalism?

By now you’ve heard about the infamous cover of this week’s New Yorker magazine, which is a (presumably) satirical take on all the internet rumors circulated by The Right about Obama–he’s secretly a Muslim, his wife (Michelle Obama) is a cracker-hating Black Revolutionary, burning the flag, and that they are somehow in cohoots Al Qaida–all while doing the infamous fist-bump (called a “terrorist fist-jab” by a Fox News reporter). But wait? Weren’t these same people thinking that Obama was the spitting image of his CHRISTIAN former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright? But I digress.

Their has been a backlash against the New Yorker for publishing the photo, with Obama’s campaign spokesperson, Bill Burton saying “The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree.”

McCain’s team even said “We completely agree with the Obama campaign, it’s tasteless and offensive.”

The magazine said in a statement today that it “combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are.”

But does this cover really provide a satire, or help to actually rehash fears of Black rebellion (in a post 9-11 anti-Islam context)? In my opinion, there are several issues here.

  1. The New Yorker has a long investigative article on Obama in this issue of the magazine, but it doesn’t deal with the issues the cover of the magazine is tackling.
  2. I subscribe to the New Yorker, and what’s weird about this cover is that the covers very rarely have anything to do with the content of the magazine.
  3. If you don’t know The New Yorker, seeing the photo on its own, does leave one to question whether it is satire or slander.

I think that all the talk about this cover in the press, whether you think it’s is satire (which by definition, according to my Dictionary application employs “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues,”) or slander, the truth is it does expose and hold up all of the racist stereotypes, and that hyperscrutiny, can perhaps neutralize them. There will obviously be people who want to believe all this, and so they will continue to because, well, they think there’s something wrong with being a revolutionary (the drawing of Michelle for me hearkens to Angela Davis), something wrong with Islam in general, and something suspicious and potentially violent about Blackness in general. And though he is Black, he is not a Muslim, and hardly a revolutionary.

What’s interesting to me is that this cover, done by a liberal magazine, seems to have given Conservatives an opportunity to feign taking the high road, as if they have not been directly responsible for floating these narratives about Obama specifically, and Black people (and Muslims) as a whole for many, many years! Now they can pretend to be outrage by an image they they had every hand in creating.