Wednesday, December 3, 2008

BlackMail/Black Male ...Sean Stewart Ruff

In Ishmael Reed's "Writin' Is Fightin'"(Atheneum), Reed suggests, " A black boxer's career is the perfect metaphor for the career of a black male. Every day is like being in the gym, sparring with impersonal opponents as one faces the rudeness and hostility that a black male must confront in the United States, where he is both the object of fear and takes an extraordinary amount of effort to understand someone from a background different than your own, especially when your life doesn't really depend upon it."

The so called black male as endangered warrior revolutionary, finds himself the subject (lately) of many a intellectual discourse on contemporary life and American popular culture. From Academy Award nominated hip-hop hood genre films; dangerous gun toting brothers in gold teeth and pig tails, to magazine covers of shiny beefy men with alluring scowls in an assortment of Fashion Fair earth tone pigmentations , this new protagonist of the media arts comes complete with sex appeal, drama, and published cultural criticism. But the definitions are still narrow and at best, reductive . Boxer's like writer/editor, Sean Stewart Roeuff, (more brain than braun, more sissy than stud) are seldom the topic of conversation of the modern day Othello variety. In the heterosexually dominated world of film and literature the character of the intellectual homosexual of color is still distorted and incomplete as a person- a let down to God fearing heterosexual women and their sons. The fight is obvious. The opponent is not so obvious. And with this new new protagonist (or antagonist) as the character you love to hate for everything from the destruction of the family to the rise in heterosexual AIDS related deaths, one wonders how the career minded gay black male will fair in the ring against impersonal opponents who are not ready to admit fear and fascination as the impetus for battle, as quick as they admit good old fashioned justifiable ethical hate.
Ruff is a former Random House copywriter, former Development Director for the infamous Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co., and a recovered closet novelist who never let anyone read his work. He describes himself as "Always gay, always treated like I was gay...a sissy...a punk." Raised in an American ghetto where "Blacks were the minority of the projects", he found himself searching for himself in books at an early age- identifying with Baldwin's sexually/spiritually torn "David" In "Go Tell It On The Mountain", and a little black girl battling the trappings of a ghettoized environment in "Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack". Escaping James Baldwin's world of incredulity and violence "inside and outside" of his house, little Sean later discovered the English and American Literature Departments in College. The cliched cynicism stops here. What the work of William Styron and Henry James inspired is not from a Baldwin novel or a Williams play. It is a complete character- educated, and eloquent, a little Richard Bruce Nugent with a dash of Gertrude Stein. Altogether pulled up, keen, and fiercely decadent with a penchant for refinement. Seediness. Accomplishment.
Aside from an opera about Robert Oppenheimer he has been commissioned to write the libretto for, a soon to be published novel,and two non-fiction anthologies on Gay and Lesbian culture he is currently editing, this June, Henry Holt will publish the first book edited by Roeuff, "Go The Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African American Gay & Lesbian Fiction". The title is from a Village Voice Interview with James Baldwin. The subtitle is, perhaps, a marketing ploy by the publishers- sure to create some controversy. Collections of gay and lesbian fiction, poetry, essays, etc. are doing very well on the literary market, but this anthology features stories by assumed to be heterosexual writers, including Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright (as well as other writers, known and unknown, who are either homosexual, bisexual or sexually unidentified.) This anthology focuses on sexual identity conflict and gender bending as a reoccurring theme in fiction. It is not the intention of the editor to draw attention to the sexual identity of the authors. The idea of reversed inclusion came to Ruff when he decided to collect work that dealt with gay and lesbian issues. "We don't need to read about our pathologies, we need to know about how ideas are shaped. Without that, there is static in gay fiction.I was interested in fiction that evolved to a level of truth. Not self conscious...fiction about people.It's important there be a diffusing of negative, vitriolic energy about homosexuality."
Ruff discovered Amiri Baraka's play "The Toilet", first published in 1967. He was so impacted by Baraka's violent drama of homoerotic hetero-male camaraderie he sought out and soon discovered Baraka's masterful short story, "The Alternative" featured in his collection of fiction, "Tales by Leroi Jones". It was one of the first pieces by a heterosexual writer to be included in this anthology. Wright's fifty year old short story, also included, could be described as "Bigger Thomas Does Drag" and many readers will be surprised to re-read the excerpt from Miss Morrison's "Song Of Solomon", as it appears in the context of this ensemble. The identity of this collection was shaping. It would not be a book published solely to choral marginalized voices. Sean Roeuff's "Go The Way Your Blood Beats" would take focus as an eye on a certain reality- told by people who either experience, bear witness or observe that reality. " Being gay is incidental to plot, as opposed to the plot hinging on it", Roeuff explains.Celebrated gay and lesbian writers have not been excluded by any means. Noted gay and lesbian authors like Sapphire and Samuel R. Delaney are included in this collection. Both writers have a wide audience. For lack of a better word, multi-cultural. Demographics are important here. This editor is in the ring with chartreuse gloves on, and fighting fiercely to remove the railroad tracks between the gay literary canon and the black literary canon."What literary segregation creates is a kind of beautiful slum. Everybody knows who lives there, and how beautiful the gardens are- but they're afraid to be seen there. They are leery of guilt by association.". He predicts the audience for this book will be " People who read literature. White, Black, Gay, or Straight."
Generally, boiler plate fiction fares better on the market than literature. Gay and Lesbian Literature has a large readership, but according to Roeuff, that's because there is a large populous of gay and lesbian readers. "Most white heterosexuals don't read Black Gay fiction. They do read literary fiction. James Earl Hardy (author of 'B-Boy Blues') does not have a large white heterosexual audience, but Randall Kenan (author of 'A Visitation Of Spirits')does. E. Lynn Harris ( author of bestsellers, 'Just As I Am' & 'Invisible Life') tapped into a certain market that was unexplored. Not Toni Morrison readers. Not Walter Mosley readers. Not even Alice Walker readers. (Harris) tapped into a market of romance novel and Terry Macmillan readers." With the success of Macmillan's monotone yet contemporary black woman identified book and film "Waiting To Exhale", that market is nothing to scoff at. And the task of accessing readers to situations, language and characters an audience can identify with should be the point of the writer rather than creating terms to separate popular art from high art. Roeuff quickly points out, " In 'B-Boy Blues', James Earl Hardy creates a character who is free of the need to forgive himself, gain his mother's forgiveness, and other kinds of recriminating guilt associated with sexuality in most fiction. Hardy's character is a queen, and everybody accepts he's a queen, and he's in love with a homeboy who accepts himself as being gay." Progress springs eternal. Says Ruff, taking a slow drag from his Lucky Strike and striking a pose, " I think to survive in James Baldwin's world is probably, really the greatest accomplishment that anybody can have."

Monday, November 17, 2008


By Carl Hancock Rux

Madrid: little more than a year since a series of explosions hit three train stations during morning rush hour. Two hundred killed. Fifteen hundred injured. Neither the city nor its inhabitants gave any outward indication that a travesty of such magnitude occurred. Castilian remnants and medieval basilicas stretched out on wide avenues decorated in statues; the arched gateways of the Puerta del Sol-Calle Mayor-Calle del Nuncio-Plaza del Marqués de Comillas; Goya; the Teatro Espanol and Picasso on the Prado. Checked into a small but immodest hotel of marble and gilt chandeliers with attic rooms overlooking acres of rooftops rolling in clay tile, unpacked my curiosity and made my way out in search of Spain’s Moor culture. Arab occupation. Spanish Civil war. Hints of an ancient African past stamped on Madrid’s memory—evident in plaques mounted above medieval fountains. Wandering down an alleyway, I came to San Nicolás de los Servitas, the oldest church, and the church of San Pedro el Real or el Viejo, with its bell tower, past the apartment building that had once been home to the poet Gabriel Garcia Lorca. His bronze likeness stood in the Plaza de Victoria surrounded by tourists taking pictures . Returned again and then again, to Lorca, to the bronze poet with cupped palms holding a bird and the political tensions that lurk in the city. Who is Spain now? Did any of us remember Lorca's discontent? His arrival in America and his criticism of American democracy as a government of commercialism and race oppression. Was the statue meant to simply be a reminder of great art, or was it, perhaps, a monument to the Frange militia that murdered the poet/playwright, and cast his body into an unmarked grave? Should it remind us of the his final play, House of Bernida Alba, the cautious widow who incarcerates her daughters who wait impatiently for the arrival of a lover who might marry one of them and deliver their freedom. Was the statue a reminder of the artist’s work, which could not be openly discussed during Franco’s regime, whose expression remained suppressed and absent from the literary canon and library bookshelves of Spain until his death in 1975?.It was hard to decide what a monument—still standing long after the event it once immediately referenced—means to the contemporary viewer. I’d read that sometimes, right wing Spaniards would tie a red scarf around Lorca’s neck, and then as quickly as the scarf appeared, it would be removed by the left; a symbolic and age old argument as yet unresolved, played out poetically with a simple garment around a bronze figure. Perhaps the best use of a monument is what it incites , the discussion it encourages for the centuries to come. Over breakfast at our hotel, which over the weeks lost its charm as we battled bedbugs, confronted depressing images of poverty and brothels in the immediate neighborhood, and received little to no assistance in 24 hour internet cafes packed with voiceless Chinese teenagers playing war games into the morning hours. I read of news of the Freedom tower memorial back home—and the conflict that had erupted over its new architectural designs, and plans of an art gallery that would occupy one of its spaces—against the wishes of the “victims families”—that newly formed party of people who are bereaved relatives of people who lost their lives in or near the World Trade Center or the Pentagon on Sept. 11th. The “families” were first outraged by the initial plans for the freedom towers; its height, its shape, whose names would be carved in stone on its walls and whose names would appear first—the pedestrian victims or the abiding officers? Once the plans were settled, and it was agreed that the Freedom tower would soar 1,776 feet into the sky, the most recent argument regarded plans for an art gallery to occupy its space—one that was known for exhibiting “transgressive works sympathetic to terrorism”. The gallery had exhibited works by artists who questioned America and its political profile, and both the firefighters union and the victim’s families were concerned that a memorial to patriotism had no place for anti-American sentiment. It seemed terribly important to the firefighters and the relatives of the victims that we that we control how history remembers pain. Understands, specifically, the events we endured and honors it accordingly. But how do we control the progression of human understanding? How can a structure, intended as not only a marker but also a piece of art, negate art that disagrees with its premise? Spain had just returned to democracy only thirty years ago, and all of its monuments spoke to so much historical conflict and political transition. Like the red scarves that would appear and disappear around Lorca’s neck, a conversation was still being had. By day's end, several of us were pick-pocketed in the open flea markets of the Rastro as we browsed for antiques along the Calle del Prado and in the Plaza de las Cortes. It dampened our spirits but didn’t distract us from the beauty of Madrid’s galleries and parks and sublime red wine. I went out again, this time to find the 500 foot high cross erected by Franco as a monument to the victory of the civil war. It is said it took 15 years to complete with the blood, sweat and tears of prisoners of war. I didn’t find many Spaniards surrounding it, or tourists taking pictures in front of it. Neither could I find Franco’s statue. Since his death and Spain's return to democracy, Franco’s statues and memorials had been removed from public places. The greatest monument to Franco, torn down from its base in the square of San Juan de la Cruz a couple of years before I was to arrive , much to the dismay of the right wingers who protested its demise. And on our last day in Spain, it was reported that a paper mache statue of a man on horseback, was mysteriously and anonymously erected in one of the town squares, only to be removed by officers. A tribute to the missing representation of Franco? A reminder that there is still a societal disagreement regarding democracy, fascism, and the reigns of a conservative government replaced by a renewed brand of Socialism? An attempt at the continuum of communication ? Or the erection of another relevant marker? To date, I am unaware of any monuments or markers recalling the train station bombings in Madrid. Perhaps, it would be better, if there were none.

for XM radio/Bob Edwards show

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Omahyra Moto Garcia: Beauty is a Boy Carl Hancock Rux

“Beauty is a boy forever.”
Oscar Wilde

Listen up all ye connoisseurs of image, image makers, icons and iconoclastic fanatics—you avid seekers waiting for new definitions of beauty, you trendsetters and trend followers waiting for the authorities on image to send down freshly anointed representatives of beauty... the newly anointed archetype of type and trope--la belle boheme noveau—fresh symbol of beauty, and accurate sign of our reciprocal times is a seventeen year old Dominican born, Bronx bound, 21st century international runway model with the sex appeal of a boy juvenile delinquent… Omyrah: rugged pre-pubescent face, lips slightly swollen, drooping eyelids canopying dark pupils sharply pointed, black hair tousled and closely cropped. The face is painfully nostalgic; conjuring romantic images of turn of the century newspaper boys trudging up and down Broadway in applejack hats and dirty tweed knickers. Or, if you study her face from another angle, you may be introduced to some protean character from the romantic pages of a 19th century novel by one of the French Surrealists. In this way, she becomes the savage muse of Byron’s Greece, with the allure of some merchant gypsy in Alexander Dumas’ Spain.
Breakdown: There are types and tropes, symbols and signs, and there is a subtle difference between them all. A type is a variety, a sort, or in more headier terms, a “way of perceiving the eternal plan of the contingencies of time.” But tropes are creations of the human will, products of fiction—no transcendental dimension or registrations to the infinite “I am”…an allegory and metaphor dependant upon meaning according to the ingenuity of the creative mind. A symbol is an expression of an intuitive perception, produced from the unconscious as a revelation or intuition. If Omahyra’s rise to stardom as the new “it girl” is due to an overwhelming and unanimous desire for new images of beauty--perhaps the flipped script on aesthetic can best be explained by Jung, who spoke of the existence of a collective unconscious; an inborn disposition to produce parallel images or rather identical psychic structures common to all men. Archetypes of oursleves. Or perhaps, Omahyra’s explanations of her own archetype are simpler...
“They say I’m a male looking girl because I’m a very strong girl—I can be bad fighter sexy--like a boy, or I can be kind of feminine but I can never be like the typical model.”
Possessing a unique quality, typified in those who long to respond to their hearts, not their heads—seekers of beauty who objectify and romanticize a visionary alternative to European femininity, Omahyra—like many of us—looked to the Godhead of image makers to see if she could find reflections of her self. “ I used to look at magazines of pretty girls with blonde hair and very feminine looks and I wasn’t sure if I could ever be a model because I don’t look like that. Nobody who looks like me were in any of the magazines I was reading.”
Her poetic rise to high Glam superstar uber model status is somewhat fantastical—long from the beautiful shores of her native Dominican Republic, Omyrah shared a crowded Astoria Queens working class apartment with her mother, step-father (who sells party decorations from a local storefront), grandmother (a home attendant), older sister and two younger brothers. She’d recently dropped out of John Brown High School in Queens when her mother and then boyfriend (an amateur photographer) suggested she try her hand at modeling. ‘My mom and step-father wanted me to be a model…I was like—it’s not gonna happen—I didn’t have any confidence that I could get into the modeling business but we went on the internet to research modeling agencies and we printed out a list.” Using his Pentex 90 MC, her boyfriend took several photos of Omyrah and sent them to the agencies on the list that “seemed appropriate.” Only one agency responded, The Boss agency—and within one week of Boss agent, George Spiros contacting Omahyra she was a working full time fashion model. Now, less than one year into her career, she travels regularly to Milan, Sweden, Paris, and London.
“It all feels a little weird. I get along with the other girls—the ones with nice attitudes, in fact—I guess now I have more model friends than regular friends. The first time I was photographed (professionally) I was a little scared, but now I see that it’s just a job—everybody is there to do a job and to do their best—the photographer, the stylist, everybody.”
Recognized as one of the “new faces of beauty”, Omahyra is widely sought after for runway shows and print ads, and with this new found lucrative career ahead of her—she and her boyfriend were able to return to the Dominican Republic and get married. “We were married in a green green forest near rivers in a city called Jarabacoa—the city of eternal springs. I wore a blue graduation dress.” The newlyweds now live in a spacious apartment overlooking the beach in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. She has plans to finish high school, to have children one day, and perhaps—she’d like to try her hand at acting next-- but for now—Omahyra plans to enjoy her new found career and her new life with her husband…and oh yes…the new archetype of beauty laughs at the ever changing definitions of beauty and the fascination the fashion world has with her. “To me—it’s funny. I look like my family—I get my height from my father and grandmother—they’re very tall and skinny—I just see myself as regular—you know—I’m just me…”, she says, then continues, “My mother always thought I would be a Hollywood movie star or a singer—but I never thought it could happen. When I was in high school, when we looked at magazines of super models, everybody always talked about Cindy Crawford.”
Now everybody’s talking about Omahyra.

Originally published in Manhattan File magazine, 2001
©Carl Hancock Rux, all rights reserved

Snoop Dogg


CARL: I know you're in the studio right now—judging from that furious bass line pumpin' through the phone line. Are you working on a new track-- something from Last Meal?
S: Yeah. Ain't got no name for it yet, though.
C: If it’s the last track, how about Last Meal Before The Next Meal... because with everything you're doing and everything you've got coming up there has to be something said for a rapper of your status who actually survives it all. Survives the business of it all--manages to make his last record for the label on successful and peaceful terms, then moves right into working on his own label. What's it gonna be like, this last joint you're doing for Master P's No Limit?
S: I'm just trying to give up a hot album that mothafuckas ain't heard in a long time, you know. Every project I do, I try to make it my best one. It’s a message behind everything I do, and the message on this one is more or less the fact know... young artists need to know, that you gonna get tooken.... It's the way of the game. You just gotta be smart enough to stay in the game long enough and be successful enough to change that.... You know what I mean? Change that the way it'd never happen to you again.
C: You're changing from being an artist, to being an artist and an executive in the music industry. You're about to be one of the suits. Do you feel like it's possible to really change the game?
S: Ah, shit. All my artists get all of their publishing off the top. And that's something that's unheard of so we're trying to break new standards and new rules, by giving them all their publishing and not locking them down for selling three albums. You know, if it don't work after three albums, they're able to leave and do what they wanna do. You usually won't have your publishing, and usually you'll be stuck with a label for seven albums. That's something that'll usually get stole from you in the beginning: you're publishing and your freedom. With my label, you know, it's just about givin' em freedom and giving up (to them) all that they deserve.
C: A new form of give and take.
S: Yeah. Record labels, they look at you as talent, and they’re like-- we can take advantage of you. I look at you as talent, and I'm like--you should take advantage of ya own self. And I'm just spot lighting you and bringing you to the light, the same way somebody did me. I'm just taking the bad I learned from Death Row, and the good I learned from No Limit and putting them both together into formulating my own thing and trying to help and give back.
C: Who's on the new label?
S: Night Dome. Cocaine. Butch Cassidy, Toy--those are all my R&B artists. Then I got; Doggy's Angels, my West Coast female group, and rappers...three of them. The EastSiders: Tre D, and Goldie Loc, uh, Superfly...uh...Doghouse Heavyweights which is CPO and RBX, you know I got just the hot music that's missing right now.
C: With all of that on your plate, how much are you looking forward to doing this NWA reunited/reinvented project with Dre and Ice Cube.
S: Like I said, man, every project I do, I try to make it the best thing I've ever been on. And I came out the gate on one of the best projects ever in the rap game, ever, you know what I'm saying, so I got a lot of high standards... so when I say that everything I try to come out with, I like to make it my best project-- I mean it. I don't like to dwell on the past, but I'm trying to out do the shit I done in the past, trying to make history with this new stuff and let people know that we continuing to make music like the great James Brown, and Curtis Mayfield, and Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson, the Temptations. People like that who continue to make hits year after year.
C: James Brown--now there's somebody who we can look back at for like forty years in the music business, and we can still listen to the music that he' made forty years ago, and it still works.
S: He made music about, just havin' a good time, he made music about our people, and us being proud of who we are. He made music about drugs that was affecting our people, and then he made music about life in general, and how the man had us suppressed, and how we have to be a people to overcome that. And that was special because he had his own way of relatin' to his people and that's what I look at myself as doing. And I'm just doing what I do best and that's what makes good music, and that's how you can relate to people whether you black, white, brown, small, big, girl, know, it's music and it's made for everybody.
C: Just in terms of career longevity, would James Brown be one of your models?
S: Oh definitely. As far as career and precision on stage, and the sound, the clarity in the studio, and the professionalism about his self whenever he appeared.
C: Every artist who has clarity on stage doesn't have clarity in the studio. Did it take you a lot of time to learn the studio?
S: I wasn't trying to learn it at first. I was just happy to be in the studio, loving the fact that I could put my voice over music and it sounded good and people loved it. So the learning of it didn't come until I wanted to become an independent aspect of it. After getting with No Limit and seeing that it's a business, and you know I should be trying to create and open up more ventures with this.... Then I started wanting to learn the studio and the studio became real easy for me because I'd already been around it for so many years, around the best people in the game.
C: You got a chance a whole lot of artists will never get-- to be in it long enough to learn something about it. What's the biggest mistake some of new artists make when they first enter the business?
S: I think it's just being so eager to get the money that you really don't focus on none of the other aspects that are important to you, like the publishing. All you know is when to ask when do I get paid?
C: That’s because a lot of people come to the table hungry.
S: Yeah exactly, and nobody's really gonna teach you about those other elements of the game. That's something that you have to learn on your own, or find good attorneys that can be on your side and explain it to you.
C: The Dogfather, your auto-bio, I was feeling it. It was brave if nothing else. I don't think I could ever write an autobiography. What was it like for you, writing about your self?
S: It was just different, cause I had to open up to the man who wrote it. It's not like the music, cause when I'm doing that; I'm doing that. Telling somebody my story was a little bit different for me, but it turned out pretty good, though.
C: A lot of biographical books on icons in the hip-hop world come out post-mortem. Not many people get to say this is what happened, this is how I did it, and this is how I survived it. You just said, "the man who wrote it" so I guess you don't think of yourself as having written it?
S: I think of myself as portraying it, and now I'm gonna take it to the next step and do a movie with it. That's what I'm hoping for, you know what I'm saying, get a life story on my life in a movie theater.
C: Who would you want to play you?
S: Shit, I don't know.
C: You're acting in a movie right now-- Bones, right?
S: Yeah. That's a horror movie. Ernest Dickerson is directing it and it stars me and Pam Greer and Clifton Powell and Ricky (name tk)
C: This is your first movie. Do you feel like it's time to break out into the whole acting thing.
S: Yeah, that's why I went ahead and did this one. This was the right story, the right everything, so it was easy for me to get involved with it.
C: Obvious but necessary question--what's it like working with Pam?
S: Shhh...... It's unbelievable man. Looking at all those movies of hers when I was a kid growing up, and now being able to do scenes with her and you know talk to her, and be a friend of hers, and hear her emotions and feelings on things other than the movie. It's beautiful the way God works in his mysterious ways to bring people together. And that's all we doing is just coming together and making it happen. My label--we're gonna come up with movies too to support our records. So we'll have movies coming to home video, DVD. We're trying provide our people with the entertainment that is missing, you know like all through the 70's we had great movies, and soundtracks, and shit that was you know supportive of that.... that represented our people. But it's like nowadays the people making movies don't care about our heritage or our people. We're too busy making sci-fi thriller bullshit movies, instead of movies that mean something to our peoples and soundtracks to support em. So I'm goin' back to the roots of where it all began, like the Superflys, the (words tk), Foxy Brown, I'm trying to bring them movies back, like Lets Do It Again.
C: Yeah bay, no doubt--those early seventies movies where it was definitely about hyper ghetto style, but all of us who really lived in the ghettos of Harlem or LA still related to it even though Shaft's Harlem was ten times larger than the one I grew up in.
S: But it was still us. It was part of our community. When we seen it, we felt like Superfly was our Superfly, he was in my neighborhood.
C: Hype Williams tried to bring that sensibility back with his movie, Belly. Is that what you're trying to do?
S: No. Belly was dope, but when you see Bones, you'll see exactly what I'm trying to do. It's a scary movie, but it’s got that seventies twist to it, and it's just got that quality that the movies are missing right now. It'll be out in October.
C: just got my first pit bull. I know you have a pit bull, or two or three--how many dogs do you have?
S: Shit, bout five now.
C: Are they all pits?
S: No, one of them is a rot.
C: I adopted my dog...and I was adopted as a kid. He reminds me of myself in allot of ways. He's really mild mannered, but he if he don’t like you he lets you know it. Everybody's always flipping when they see him, because they always think that he's gonna attack him. They ask stupid questions like, "does he bite?" I always say, "if he thinks you'll bite him first".
S: Dogs...They are all you-- they're the best representatives of you. How you are-- that's how they're goin' to be.
C: What are your dogs' personalities like?
S: Just like mine...Cool, friendly, you can chill around them and everything, you know what I'm saying? They cool around kids. Mines don't trip on nobody for no reason, you know what I'm saying. Not just for no reason at all.

Originally published in Interview magazine
©Carl Hancock Rux, all rights reserved

The Masculinity of Lil Kim

“A queen is not a queen
Because she is felt
But a queen is a queen
Because failure
has not stopped her
Take it from me
The queen of all queens-
Taking over
for the new millennium…”

Lil Kim (I’m Human)

Bachelorette #1
The Masculine Lil Kim

by Carl Hancock Rux

Purportedly, iconic American figures of twentieth century bachelorhoodum were, in the earlier part of the last century, glamorous monoliths-- square dapper dons in tailored couture, sporting silk ascots and spit shine winged tips—posturing with slicked back well cropped hair and pristinely manicured hands tucked in the side pockets of brocade smoking jackets. By post-war mid-century, these single poster boys butched it up with testosterone studded leather motorcycle jackets thrown over tight white t-shirts and jeans, or— if you preferred the James Bond variety-- took a note from their forefathers in style but not in sexual discretion. The key elements of the twentieth century bachelor were simple; male, white, and wealthy ( or at least, free.)
Fast forward to the beginning of the twenty first century, where sex and race have changed place cards, and the bachelor of yore is as rare today as blushing virgin brides. These days, the reigning symbol of sex, power, opulence and (dare I suggest?) masculinity is not a white male movie matinee idol (ala Cary Grant or Marlon Brando) but an African American girl rapper with a sex kitten veneer and a lionous interior. Enter Lil Kim. “I feel like I have male hormones” she laughs, “I have that hard hard side—and I have that feminine cute, little girl, playful side-- I can balance it out like that.”
The Queen Bee, New York’s Bachelor Number One (sexist terms aside, the ette just doesn’t fit on the end of her bachelor-hood) has done more in the last decade to upset gender politics than the Kinsey Report did in the early 70’s. Even the ultimate sexual provocateur and trendsetter, Madonna, seems to have been inspired by her (You saw the video: Madonna iced down with press on nail tips and a bottle of champagne in the back of a white stretch limo on her way to a lap dance.) On the other hand, sexiness is not a learned behavior in Lil Kim’s book. It just is. "To be sexy is to be natural.” she insists, “My family and my friends think I'm sexy--I'm honored that people see me that way. But I think it starts with what's in your heart. I guess you can learn how to be sexy—but I don't think you have to learn it, I think you have to feel it.”
It’s difficult to imagine Kim, the woman who has inspired a legion of hardcore femme fatale imitators with her hard edged no holds barred urban Glam dripping in diamonds—coyly sipping Cosmos on the upper east side with her girlfriends, trading secrets on how to be sexy while complaining in hushed tones about men and the perils of sex in the city. “I date once in a while. I don't know what to look for in guy no more—There are a lot of guys who wanna be with me and wanna get with me--but it has to connect. Some of them just wanna get to know the real Kim—but these niggas in this industry will fuck a woman's head up--it's up to the women to be strong.” Not without icons of her own, she readily calls out the names of Jada Pinkett, Queen Elizabeth, Oprah Winfrey and the late Princess Di when she thinks of examples of beauty and power , but Kim’s new millennium message to men folk is clearly spelled out in one of her songs-- “Suck My D**K” (from her Notorious KIM CD, the long-delayed follow up to her 1996 raunchy debut, Hardcore). “It's like me sayin', kiss my ass- it annoyed men but it had men boppin' their heads too.”, her soft voice explains, “I was tryin' to say there are some women out there who are stronger than men and think just like men do. I’m lettin' men know--I can talk like ya'll, move like ya'll--you cannot play me.”
Kim’s masculinity is not defined by masculine behavior or sexual preference or even organized feminism. The persona she’s invented for herself is a campy (albeit high class) combination of burlesque hip shaker, B movie Glam girl, blaxploitation ho, and gangster bitch—with a secret ingredient—Barbie. “I still collect Barbie Dolls!” she admits in her giggly voice, then adds “They're gonna put out a Lil Kim Barbie next Christmas!” The hard edge of Lil Kim’s recording voice, spitting lyrics in a deep alto like a dominatrix with a glock in her hand, combined with the superhero image of her warding off competitors and sharply instructing men how to please her -- contrasts sharply with the softer tones of her actual speaking voice—a pre-pubescent soprano full of charm and laughter, reminding you that Lil Kim is just the alter super ego of a Brooklyn girl named Kimberly Jones who needed to decorate her room with glitter and bullet proof glass.
Kimberly Jones grew up in Brooklyn, raised by her mother, a department store clerk, who was married (for a time) to a former Army sergeant and bus driver. At the age of 9, her parents divorced, and Kimberly was sent, reluctantly, to live with relatives, and eventually to live with her mother’s x-husband. A strict disciplinarian who had remarried, little Kimberly and the Sergeant did not get along (she admits having once stabbed him in the shoulder during a bitter argument), and by the time she was a teenager, she had run away from home. Acclimating herself to life on her own on the streets of Brooklyn, Kimberly Jones took up residence with several boyfriends and sold drugs for financial support. It was on the streets of Brooklyn, however, that she would have the fateful meeting with the man who would eventually become the love of her life, and her Svengali—the late Christopher Wallace, better known as Biggie Smalls, The Notorious BIG. Wallace, who was on his way to becoming one of the most significant pop stars of the rap world, was the first to recognize Kim’s unique talent for verse and cadence, and though it is well know he eventually married singer-songwriter Faith Evans, the Wallace/Jones connection sustained itself throughout the rest of his career and short life. With the success of his 1994 Ready to Die; Biggie was able to form an imprint under Atlantic Records, signing the rap consortium Junior M.A.F.I.A. (Masters At Finding Intelligent Attitudes), which included Lil' Cease and Lil' Kim. It was on the 1995 release, Conspiracy, that Lil' Kim made head turns with her rapid fire rapping style and hard edged lyrics, but it wasn't until her 1996 debut album, Hardcore, that she was elevated to the status of superstar and into the realm of legends. The album spawned several hits, and went platinum, as did her latest album, THE NOTORIOUS KIM, posthumously dedicated to Biggie.
When asked about her love life these days, Kim claims to shun the dating game and reflects on her Hepburn/Tracey like relationship with Wallace. “I would've given up anything for BIG--we were a real couple.”, she says, her mood suddenly changing, revealing traces of sadness in her voice, “But when you find someone you love and care about--who loves you—there’s no need to give up anything. People just won't—can’t understand--what we had—will never understand.”
The Star Is Born legend of Kim is replete with more magazine covers than there are news stands, , and the ultimate Ghetto Girl Goes Diva Diana Ross gawking at Kim’s more shocking than Cher get-ups . But hip-hop stardom is thought to be different from the old Hollywood models we’re used to. Artists like Kim have made their celebrity by combining the lifestyles of the rich and famous ( press photos of her and Donatella Versace laughing like old girlfriends) with life in the hood (the recent as yet unsolved shoot out at a Lil Kim radio interview, resulting in the wounding of one man). Until recently, the passage between the two worlds had been dominated mostly by men, but Lil Kim also knows how to travel it freely. “I still go to hood to have a good time—to see my people. I love goin’ back to Bed-Stuy. I don’t disguise myself or anything. I just go.” Because of this kind of brevity, (can you imagine anyone not recognizing Lil Kim on the street) her high profile seems to provoke a more conservative media to focus on her involvement in the dangerous world of hip-hop. But Kim’s never shied away from being under a spy glass. She defends, “My world is neither safe or dangerous--my world is just my world and I'm living in it. When people ask Who is Kim?, it's hard to explain on one sheet of paper—just keep watching me-- because I’m ever changing.”
Hers may very well sound like the ultimate hip-hop fairly tale, the stuff Hollywood films are made of –and her star never seems to stop rising. “I'm currently working on a new album” she brags exhaustingly, “and look for me on the big screen—Hollywood! I did a movie called Juanna Man with Miguel Munez and Tommy Davidson. Acting is something I'm into deeply. I like the way Jennifer Lopez is doin' her thing with movies and music—I wanna balance the two. I’m reading ten scripts right now and I just finished a single and a video for (the Nicole Kidman movie) Moulin Rouge—(featuring Missy Elliot, Christina Aguillera, and Mya).” But rising star status aside, in talking to the level headed star, you realize her fantasy never had anything to do with becoming the reigning diva of New York nightlife, or sipping Cristal in VIP rooms. She’d be happy if the party all took place in her room of Barbies and blonde wigs. “The artist that I wanna be like is Michael Jackson”, she says, further clarifying before anyone misunderstands her yet again, “I'll get the house with the roller coaster and the rides and a disco and I'll invite all my friends and tell them to invite their friends and I’ll just stay at home. That's why I work so hard. So I can have the things I want.”
So the question is, will matrimony or motherhood or even middle age put an end to Kim’s twist on sex and the single girl? “I don’t know but one thing I know” she promises, “(When I’m about 50) I'm gonna have a whole lot more money. I see myself involved in a lot of things…and I see myself more at peace. I’m still young and I’m a long way from thirty. My mother says life begins at thirty, so I haven’t even begun. Hopefully I'll still be alive. I always felt like I'm gonna live for a while…but you never know.”
Meanwhile, the beautiful masculinity of Lil Kim reigns on.

Mary, Full of Grace
by Carl Hancock Rux

1.INTERIOR: Mid-town Manhattan Hotel Suite. Present. Angle on: Publicist, skipping about in simple suit and brownish hair tossed from desk to chair to phone, then nervously extending her hand and offering assurances that “Miss Blige is just down the hall...will be here any minute. She’s on time these days...hasn’t kept anyone waiting for interviews...doesn’t do that anymore”. Mary walks in promptly. She’s with large man (security guard?) and instructs him and the jumpy press rep. to wait in another room, then takes her seat. Her features are more pointed now than when we first saw pictures of her eight years ago, posturing in bouffant hairdo and fur coats like one of those glammed up Brooklyn girls vamping for Polaroid’s on the Duce. The golden blonde curls have been replaced by long jet black extensions streaked fire bird red. Her mouth shimmers pink; perfectly defined lips in dark pencil. A wide brimmed black leather hat threatens to hide her eyes. But it does not. The eyes are bright, wide awake, confidant...focused. Today we are faced with a new Mary with a new record soon to drop, and a new label all her own where she’ll develop artists of her liking. There are no traces of the temperamental Diva we used to read about. That cartoon is either myth or misrepresentation.
2.DISSOLVE TO GRAINY BLACK & WHITE FLASHBACK: Past. We remember Mary of vulnerability and attitude, soulful wails over hip-hop rhythms. Mary; torch singer and innovator of form. In an early 90’s era of Whitney , Toni, and Mariah vocals, Mary re-introduced that certain sound of suffering and romantic longing in the Black female voice. She forced herself to be heard above sampled beats, keyboard and drum programming, piano hooks... cursing hard like only the homeboys were supposed to do between record deals and rape charges. That summer, those of us who had settled for the annual temporary flirt and fling that handball courts and midnight jam sessions provided, listened closely to a voice affecting scats and gospel riffs, blasting from everybody’s open window. We raised our hands in agreement, an amen thrown back to that girl from Brooklyn? the Bronx? Yonker’s Slow Bomb projects? Those of us who had waited for somebody to build the bridge between the hard core hip-hop we needed and the smooth R& B we loved, gave props to Mary with her baseball cap turned backwards for hollering out loud. Mary earned her legacy, and that special place in our collective consciousness. She didn’t come like some ready made for superstardom sex symbol with Barbie doll looks and high octaves only astronauts could reach.
We remember Mary; Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, pushing Puffy’s sampled beats aside for the smoother R&B/Pop world of Babyface, bringing with her the no shame no bullshit aesthetic of her own reality in the presence of ODB, Nas, and Li’ll Kim. We remember her debuting at #1 with her third album, usurping Biggie’s “Life After Death”, as well as a wide array of country, pop and movie soundtrack contenders. No easy achievement. Mary did it with a skill many hadn’t recognized since Aretha first stepped out on stage in the wrong dress and the wrong wig and just sang. Mary did it with a voice as smooth as it could be raw and unpolished
3. CUT BACK TO: INT. HOTEL ROOM. Her jeans are sistergirl tight, nails are painted and long. Conversation is easy as long as the questions are clear. She’s not trying to be sweet. She’s not trying to be rude. When the legs cross, her body says she’s tending to business now. “These interviews used to be hard for me to do” she confesses, pouring herself a cup of tea, “but when you realize who it’s for you get a big smile in your heart.” She takes a moment to think about what she’s saying, like someone recovering from something, then continues, “If you want a successful career you have to do press. I used to be like I’m not talking to nobody. I used to be like I’m sleepy, hanging out and drinking, but everything is for me today. I’m pacing myself...taking little steps at a time. “
Once upon a time, all a Diva in distress could do was go crazy under the harsh light of public scrutiny, and the world loved nothing more than to witness a superstar haunted by personal demons . It’s what the legend of Billie Holliday is made of. These days, we take notes from survivors of the storm, like Tina. Public personalities who refuse to allow their private tragedies to entertain us as much as their music. “In the world of R&B I’m not battling anymore”, she says loudly, “I’m singing from my heart. Singing my experiences.”
She settles down, ready to talk about the new album again. When asked the title of her new offering she tilts back and laughs out loud, “So gonna ready for it?” The singer covers her mouth like a little girl with a secret and then let’s us in on the joke. “Mary. That’s it! Not Under the River and Through the Bridge! Just Mary! Simple as that.” The project is still in process, so Mary’s not telling any more than is necessary. “There’s still anthems for the women” she promises, “but this album is just about me being human. Something that people never realized all the years I’ve been in the music business...I’m human...I’ve been through the shit that I’m singing about.”
The truth of her humanity can’t be deciphered in an ever changing appearance, it has to be heard in her voice; those strained uneven chords, phenomenally calling out to us. Hard vocals stylizing notes-- like great jazz singers decades before her. “I never had vocal training except for the warm-ups I do now before shows”, she says, shying away from compliments about her talent. “My mother was a singer. She had gotten a scholarship to school for singing, but she never got a chance to pursue it so God passed it on to her children. All I ever did when I was growing up was listen to my mother’s records; Candy Staton, Mavis Staple, Gladys Knight... but even now-- people say I don’t seem to sound like anyone else except myself... and I’m glad of that.” Mary came to us like she’d always been right there with us. No, she didn’t sound like anybody else, and we were glad for that.
Mary will reunite the hip-hop soul songstress with producers Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, R. Kelly, and Babyface and she’ll sing duets with x-boyfriend, K-Ci and (rumor has it) Lauryn Hill... “When I look at her, I find something in me.”, Mary says, easing back into her chair as she thinks of Lauryn and their track, “I Used To Love Him” on Hill’s “Miseducation...” project. Before the international media hype of Lauryn’s solo album, Village Voice writer dream hampton denounced Hill’s entire record as unworthy of legend (an unpopular opinion at best) but even that noted music critic was forced to acknowledge the genius of one track-- the Hill/ Blige duet. Together, these women took all the gospel hip-hop soul they’d lived through and resounded like two evangelists on their knees at the alter, holding each other’s hands, testifying about redemption and men who done them wrong.
“You know Lauryn did her first New York appearance at the Paramount the other night”, Blige informs excitedly, “and I did a guest appearance with her-- so people got a chance to see us doing that song...” She stops for a minute to compose her thoughts, “and what it was for was like a healing process. She called me during a time when I needed to speak on something like this, and I really needed to say the things I was saying on this song. We just connected in a way that was a healing process for both of us. I like Lauryn allot. We’ve always connected. She’s someone you can look at and see who you’re supposed to be. She’s real firm in her decisions. She’s young but she’s firm.” The tears well up in her eyes but don’t seep over and a smile introduces itself on her face. “When I look at her, I find a place where I need to be. That’s how it was when I was on the stage with her the other night. I looked at her, and I could see God’s hand all over her life. She gave me something last night that made me wanna try to keep negativity outta my life...It’s hard for me because of what my surroundings are but I’ll be all right, knowing there are people like her in the world... She’s like a Maya Angelou to me. A singer Maya Angelou.” The eyes turn away for a moment...take a second to dry and re-focus, then they come back, redeemed. “Today I looked at myself and I said ‘I feel good’. That’ s where the beauty comes from. It’s an inner thing. Years ago, I was like-- around ugly things. Ugly things come out of you and become you. You start to look in the mirror, and say ‘Oh My God, it’s BECOMING me!’ Another spirit. People don’t know, this is a spiritual war we fighting out here. You have to keep a constant shield of protection around you.”

There had been women before her, women who demanded we hear them through the thickness of their lives, claiming royalty status while asking for directions back to God. But there have been few women, if any, like that since. This Mary comes without scandal. In fact, the most recent scandal connected to her has little to do with a temperamental hip-hop Diva’s devices. Having covered Stevie Wonder’s “As” from his “Songs In The Key Of Life “ album as a duet with singer, George Michael (on his soon to be released “Best of George Michael”) fans are complaining that Blige’s label (MCA) won’t give Michael’s label (Epic) permission to release the track on the U.S. version. Nor will they allow the highly acclaimed video, featuring the two stars cloned a million times over in a night club, to air here in the states. Exec’s at MCA aren’t talking, but some record company insiders have suggested since Mary’s last album went multi-platinum and Michael is struggling to regain his position as a Pop music superhero, MCA simply didn’t “feel obliged” to release the song here. Others have suggested Michael is a bigger international draw than Blige, and releasing the record in the international markets will be to MCA’s advantage. A simple case of one record label’s hand washing itself.
Some of the people who were once associated with creating Mary’s sound are no longer with her. “ It’s hard to let people go when you love them and it gets lonely for people like me who always get lonely...” she explains. Some of her people have left on their own volition, some have been asked to leave, and some have had no choice in the matter. “What I liked about Biggie”, she reflects, “ is that he lived it and we felt that he lived it. Allot of people rappin’ right now, I don’t feel it. I do feel Nas, and the song ‘Hate Me Now’, and I see his songs. I envision him saying ‘Give me a break’. I feel that. I feel JZ. Redman. Redman makes me laugh. I feel him because he’s telling the jokes from the projects, the ones that made you laugh with the forty’s. That’s all I can feel right now.” Mary is testifying to the latter, scaling down to only the people she can glean familiarity and positivity from. “The people that are with me, really with me ...from my hairdresser to my make-up artist--they the ones that are gonna be around me and on my side...And the ones who weren’t with me to begin with...they’re gone. Quick as they came in last week, a month ago, a year ago, they’re gone. I’m trying to keep it as real as possible.” She throws her hands up in the air, the way she does when she dances, like she’s ready to box or embrace, “When you love people, you don’t wanna let them go...because you love them. It’s hard to let them members, boyfriends, girlfriends...but you just gotta let them go because if you keep them around, they’ll drain you and try to hold you back. You gotta cut them off, because it’s important. I’m important to me now. My not going crazy.”
We watched her going down in black lipstick and heavy dark shades shielding the world from her madness (or shielding herself from the madness of the world). Can’t you see what I been goin’ through? she asked us, while we fell in and out of love with our hard-core cousin who’d moved us too deeply and revealed too much about herself in lyrics and interviews. When she proclaimed all she really wanted was to be happy, we threw our hands up in the air once again, rocked hard on the dance floor and cried a little bit for her and what we saw in those words, then distanced ourselves a little bit for comfort’s sake. It was too much. Easier to gossip about what she was wearing and believe what super models turned journalists had to say about her attitude.
“Allot of people say they look at me now and they see God in my life.” The mirror catches the reflection of this woman, talking matter of factly as if she’s in her aunt’s kitchen. A beautiful image. “I believe they see God because that’s who I’m trying to live for now. I’m trying to live to be a better person. Name my mistakes, name my faults and not beat myself down for them. No I didn’t finish high school , big deal. Allot of people didn’t finish high school. I’m taking care of that. No, I’m not the greatest singer in the world but I’m happy with what I have. It’s called accepting what you have and then people will see beauty in all of what they think they see in you...because you’re connected with yourself. You can call me whatever you want-- a hip-hop illiterate queen, or whatever you like -- it doesn’t matter because I love Mary.”
Loving Mary didn’t come easy. Like many people, Blige grew up in the church, “happy to be singing for God.” And like many people, she eventually strayed away from the church, wrestling with the stricture of it’s doctrine as it butted against the hard realities of daily living. “When you become a teenager, you want to experience stuff” she says, but also admits once she became a young superstar she sought after a refuge away from the limelight. “I went back to church one day-- I was in the music industry by then, and the preacher jumped all over me” she remembers, imitating the voice of fire and brimstone, “Coming in here with your earrings and tight dresses-! My hair was blonde, and the preacher was like you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that! That kinda turned me away from church for a while.” Spiritual transitions, such as the one Blige now professes, are accomplished without membership to gothic buildings. They’re achieved, often enough, in unlikely places, and unfortunately enough, as the result of hard blows and fast come downs. In her case, it took the harsh lessons the music industry had to teach her to really make a decision about spirituality.
“See, allot of people send mixed signals--no patience is being taught. Only thing being taught (in the music industry) is just get out there and get in that business and run and waste and be nasty and be grimy and be horrible...Nobody’s talking about longevity in the buisness. How to last out here, and not go crazy. I have a spiritual advisor now” she reveals, “ My godmother is a minister, and she’s been praying with me. Honestly, I never felt Christ like I feel him now. I feel closer to him than I ever did. It’s about fining you . Finding you is finding Him. When your decisions are firm and you know exactly what you wanna do and it’s positive... that’s God to fear. No hesitation. Positive, firm decisions.” She clasps her hands, almost as if in prayer and supplication. “God--man or a woman. I don’t know. But whatever this force is, it loves me and I love it right back. You gotta love yourself in order for anything to love you.” She takes a moment again to think about her words, as if every revelation she’s ever had happens only in these self imposed silences. These will be the last words today...everything that needed to be said will have been said. “You know...I’ve been knocked down and dragged enough through this music industry. Straight up stomped, cheated , beat on...but I’m glad. Right now I’m glad all this happened to me. I appreciate all the people who came in my life with all the nonsense, stealing from me, and lying to me. I appreciate them all, because I wouldn’t be here now...and I wouldn’t have a story to tell.” The rest of it is in the music.

Originally published in Honey Magazine, 1999
©Carl Hancock Rux all rights reserved

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Rux's Good Bread Alley reviewed by Matt Cibula

Carl Hancock Rux

Good Bread Alley

(Thirsty Ear)

US release date: 23 May 2006

I guess it all depends on how you feel about poetry. If you hate it, if you like your lyrics straightforward and easily understandable, if you feel like life is crazy and inexplicable enough without throwing poetry into the mix, then this ain’t your album and godspeed to you. Me, I dig it.

But then I would. Twelve years ago, before he released his first CD or anything, I heard him wreck shop at the National Poetry Slam in Asheville, North Carolina, and none of us could stop talking about the dude with the bare feet and the basso profundo voice who kind of crooned and kind of chanted and kind of rapped his funny wise smart angry poems. Later, he turned up at the bar where we were hanging out, right after dude stopped serving. It was about 85 at 1 a.m., and he looked disappointed, so I gave him my beer—he deserved it more than I did.

Were I to run into him again, I’d give him another beer for this album. It’s jazz (check the label, he’s rolling with Thirsty Ear) but there’s nothing improvised here; it’s too funky for indie rock but too introspective and fancily-arranged for funk; it contains rap elements but he’s not even trying to rap; it’s haunting but strangely accessible; I don’t know what it is, really. Except kick-ass.

“Lies” is about as easy as it gets, so let’s start with that. It’s a little song driven by Chris Eddleston’s boom-boom-boom-boom-BAP-boom-BAP-BAP drumline and twin lines from piano and organ (shades of E Street) and hushed “oooh yeah” backing vocals, so it doesn’t sound anything but listener-friendly. In it, Rux talks and grunts and coos and wails about how he just didn’t understand how to tell the truth: “The lie grew thick and the lie got old / People got tired and the story’s told”. It’s strange but not-strange, it’s out-there but not very far, it’s sublime and enigmatic but you might be able to seduce someone to it on a warm night.

Some tunes sound like they’re this easy to get, only to throw a sneaky breaking ball right past you. “Living Room” could be a Motown tune covered by Love as Laughter or some other beflanneled act, at least until Rux comes in and starts spitting syllables right and left and center and wow. (It’s craziness to try to summarize any of these songs; they’re all over the place by design. That’s poetry, Jack and/or Jacqueline.) The opening of “Thadius Star” is all cascading piano ripples and portentous psych-rock: “Thadius Star, where are you now / How dare you wear your hair that way / On the last day?” It’s an extremely effective early-Funkadelic pastiche, but there’s a vulnerability here that George Clinton rarely allowed himself to express. Plus, there’s no lengthy overdriven Jimi Hazel solo. (That’s not a good thing, necessarily. I’m just reporting.)

For most poets-who-sing or singers-who-poet, the blues is a shirt to be worn instead of a whole wardrobe. But Rux is rooted in the blues, both musically and philosophically. “Geneva” features Dave Tronzo’s slinky slide guitar and Marcelle Lashey’s heroic testifying, both of which play perfectly against Rux’ tale of a hairdresser who somehow seems like the legendary Greek heroine Atalanta. Even during the Eno/Fripp/Bowie atmospheric cloud of “My Brother’s Hands (Union Song)”, collaborator Jaco van Schalkwyk starts to add congas and backup layers until everything simmers, and then Rux pours his vocabulary all over everything like gravy.

Is it pretentious? Oh, you better believe it, at least sometimes. That’s what you get with poetry, sometimes. You’ll just have to trust me that lyrics like “And may all the listeners know their place / In the race of war / Before the politicians commission to proselytize the baptized believer” sound better on disc than they read on your computer screen. But Rux is the least pretentious of pretentious poets—he even has the courtesy to introduce the protest song “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” with a brief spoken intro giving props to composer Bill Withers, right before he sings the holy living shit out of the song. Just listening to it makes my eyes fill up, especially since it seems like this god damned war in Iraq is never going to end.

So yeah, this is one of my favorite things I have heard in many a moon. I’m really glad there’s a Carl Hancock Rux out there, making things weird and lovely and furious and deep. It might not be your cup of tea, but maybe you need to drink something besides tea for a change.


Friday, November 14, 2008

A RAGE IN HARLEM: Is the Classical Theatre of Harlem a Black Theatre Company? by Carl Hancock Rux

At the present time the world presents us with a spectacle which is so passionately interesting and so full of anxiety that one wonders how the theatre can keep pace with it.
—Michel Saint-Denis

More than 40 years ago, at the dawn of a turbulent and politically charged decade, an impromptu late-night summit of theatre artists—among them actors Louis Gossett Jr., Esther Rolle and Gertrude Jeanette, director Ed Cambridge and playwright Loften Mitchell—convened in the rectory of the St. Mark’s Church on the Lower East Side of New York City to discuss the (non-existent) state of theatre in Harlem. Their intense conversation was prompted by an audition earlier that evening for Mitchell’s Star of the Morning, a biographical drama about the life and career of the great vaudevillian actor Bert Williams.
A line in Mitchell’s play had startled the modest but insurgent group. In a scene about the disbanding of the Williams and Walker Company (the highly successful turn-of-the-20th-century African-American theatrical troupe founded by Williams and his comedy partner, George Walker), a departing company member is asked, “Where’ll you go now?” He replies, “Uptown. 100,000 Negroes in New York now. Lots of them moving to Harlem—maybe they’ll be needing a theatre.” The playwright recalls hearing those lines read out loud for the first time and noting the response it evoked among the listeners at the audition: “The shoulders of a number of people sagged…a sharp pain stabbed me. I wished the lines had not been written.” According to Mitchell, the line evoked a bitter truth: At the beginning of the 20th century, Harlem boasted a vibrant community of African-American theatre when there were only “100,000 Negroes” in New York City; by 1962 (the year Mitchell met with his colleagues at St. Marks rectory), the city’s African-American population had increased tenfold, but “not one Harlem-based theatre existed.”
Whether or not the collective at St. Mark’s attempted to strategize the creation of a Harlem theatre movement is unclear, but the goal and sentiments of that meeting have stayed alive for many prominent Harlem theatre companies in the years since. The H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players, for instance, still thrives after some 25 years of existence; the nonprofit company was founded by one of Mitchell’s concerned colleagues—the actress, playwright, director and producer Gertrude Jeanette, who originated roles on Broadway in such plays as Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars and Ronald Alexander’s Nobody Loves an Albatross. Jeanette actually began her stellar acting career more than 50 years ago in the basement of Harlem’s 135th Street Public Library, where she began taking acting classes (to cure a speech impediment) at the legendary American Negro Theatre, a training ground for Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier, among others.
Building, maintaining and cultivating theatre in Harlem is an inherited tradition; it is shared by other companies who have continued to will themselves to thrive and survive. The New Heritage Theatre, currently co-directed by Vosa Rivers and Jamal Joseph, is said to be Harlem’s oldest African-American not-for-profit theatre company, founded 40 years ago by the late actor/playwright Roger Furman. The Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop—founded in 1973 by playwright/actor Garland Lee Thompson Sr., actor Morgan Freeman and actor/director Billie Allen—developed the early plays of Richard Wesley and Ntozake Shange and continues its reading/critique sessions and festival of emerging playwrights. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre is still located on the block of land it has occupied (and now owns) for over 35 years. Ask any one of these leaders of longstanding arts institutions, and they’ll tell you how difficult it is in today’s economically arts-unfriendly climate. Which makes it all the more surprising that new theatre companies are willing to take on the challenge of bringing theatre arts to the Harlem community.

In the recently restored world of uptown Manhattan, a small theatre company sits sandwiched between a parking garage and an imposing modern concrete structure. Having donned Harlem theatre’s mantel continuum, the five-year-old Classical Theater of Harlem has become one of the most-talked-about theatre companies in New York City, judging from its five Obie awards, 24 AUDELCO nominations, first-place ranking in the New York Times’ annual theatre roundup, Drama League citation as one of “eight theatre companies in America to watch” and Drama Desk of New York’s special-award citation. CTH’s prize-winning production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks was named by the Times as one of the “10 Best Off-Broadway picks” of the 2002–03 season, and the City University of New York recognized the company’s “substantial contribution to American theatre” with its 2004 Edwin Booth Award, thus placing CTH on par with such past honorees as the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Negro Ensemble Company, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Founded by Alfred Preisser and Chris McElroen, the not-for-profit CTH is currently in residence at the Harlem School of the Arts (a nonprofit cultural center that offers after-school classes in the arts), where it utilizes the talents of both student and professional actors.
CTH has pulled off what is perhaps its greatest achievement, though, without citations or medals of honor—the company has developed what began as a supportive community-based audience into one of the most diverse theatregoing audiences in New York City.
The bloodline of ideas passed down from former Harlem arts movements clearly courses through the veins of CTH, whose first production, a feverish, volatile staging of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, took place in 1999. This past season’s productions, in fact, echo the vitality of performances from Harlem eras past. Obie–winner Ty Jones’s in-your face-brilliance in The Blacks and Gwendolyn Mulumba’s masterfully layered Mother Courage in a revival of the Bertolt Brecht classic bring to mind those scenes of notable-actors-at-the-beginning-of-their-careers as captured in Bert Andrew’s historic photographs: Cicely Tyson at the feet of Roscoe Lee Brown at the Harlem YMCA in Vinnette Carroll’s 1957 Dark of the Moon, or Moses Gunn and Frances Foster in (THE MIDST OF A VIOLENT SCREAM) from Negro Ensemble Company’s 1968 premiere of The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll—performances and plays that now seem to have come up from the sidewalk of a city long passed.
Architecturally speaking, however, CTH’s headquarters at the Harlem School of the Arts does not measure up to the glory of its theatrical ancestors. An unadorned square brick structure with a plain steel slab door, the HSA building is a far cry from the now-forgotten landmarks that exist only in folklore and silver-gelatin prints. Except for the longstanding Apollo Theatre, most of Harlem’s proud Beaux-Arts structures, which once boasted elaborately carved Gothic corbels gilt in gold, have given way to Starbucks and Ian Shrager–inspired cocktail bars for the hip-hop elite. Then again, Harlem has always been a community of transition, one that seems to easily redefine itself according to the ever-changing dialect of its streets.
Forty-one-year-old Alfred Preisser, CTH’s artistic director, is as unassuming a figure as one could imagine. Once an actor and visual artist, he is the gruff-voiced man with thinning black hair who, when you arrive to see one of his productions, is crouched down in the HSA theatre’s ticket booth, counting change and searching through the guest list. This is hardly the image most have of an innovative theatre director on the cutting edge. Preisser’s co-founding partner, executive director Christopher McElroen, is 10 years his junior, a soft-spoken guy in baseball cap, jeans and sneakers who typically collects tickets at the door. With his sandy-blond goatee and perpetually casual manner, McElroen may strike you as more of a backstage techie than an agitprop-influenced director focused on integrating technical design with the entropic language of nonlinear drama. Playing the role of artists, however, seems less important to these two men than realizing their ambitions of cultivating a new experimental classical theatre company born of their Shakespeare workshops with HSA students.
“I want people who don’t even speak English to see and understand the plays,” says Preisser, who was directing actor/filmmaker D.J. Mendel’s Citrus Bird for the Ground Floor Theater Lab on Manhattan’s Lower East Side when he first met McElroen in 19XX. Formerly a theatre major at New York City’s Pace University, where he honed his directing skills staging Edna St. Vincent Millay’s anti-war verse drama Aria da Capo, McElroen was in the throes of launching his own professional career. “While I was at Pace, I’d become fascinated with all aspects of theatre from design to performance,” McElroen says. The two men found agreement in their aesthetic approach to theatre, and after Preisser began teaching at the Harlem School of the Arts, McElroen joined him there to teach technical design (Preisser is now director of the school’s theatre department). The intensely driven duo received moral support and free space from the HSA administration and embarked upon their dream with a small combined life savings, creating jobs as well as on-the-job-training not only for the students, but for unemployed actors, musicians and designers throughout the city.
Not unlike performance-theory-driven companies such as the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, CTH is informed by what appears to be a consistent philosophy of style. This CTH style, an intermingling of the physical diction of everyday life with a kind of lyrical delirium, has confounded expectations in Harlem; indeed, it confounds the expectations one may have of a regional theatre operating outside Manhattan’s more mainstream theatre districts. Is the latent postpartum depression of CTH’s 2002 production of Euripides’s Medea not closer to stoop-side naturalism than to anything mythological and tensely knotted? Does not the anti-futuristic vision of Polish writer Stanislaw Witkiewicz’s The Crazy Locomotive in CTH’s spring 2003 production—which featured the violent crash of a steam engine locomotive and a passenger train—speak to the tangible collision between urban development and urban blight in Harlem?
Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show, which McElroen directed three versions of in the fall and winter of 2003, is CTH’s crowning production, and its most exemplary. The initial production was abruptly shut down due to 9/11. The second enjoyed a sold-out limited run in Harlem. The director says he embarked upon the controversial play enthusiastically but with some trepidation. “Before we could stage anything, we talked not just about the Genet text but about the actors and their own feelings and experiences in relationship to white people,” McElroen recalls. “I did a lot of listening, because the experience of the play”—the vaudeville-like interaction between the black actors and white audience members that prompted Genet to dub his play “A Clown Show”—“had to come from the actors.” The community and critical reaction to McElroen’s production was so strong that it moved from Harlem to downtown’s Classic Stage Company, where it continued to play to sold-out houses.
But CTH’s success, as well as its avant-garde ethos, has elicited a guarded reaction from certain quarters of the community. Some observers have questioned the very idea of a so-called classical experimental theatre and its value to the daily realities of urban Harlem dwellers. “The shows are excellent, ” exclaims audience member Patrick Synmoie, a Jamaican-born, Harvard-educated lawyer who has become a recent CTH fan, “but you have to wonder whether or not the local community gets it.”
This particular criticism was certainly borne out during the winter 2004 run of CTH’s Dream on Monkey Mountain. Replete with dense politics of allegorical formalism, Derek Walcott’s Caribbean play draws its inspiration from the postcolonial climate of the playwright’s native St. Lucia, the theories of Jean-Paul Sartre and the writings of French sociologist Frantz Fanon. Broadway song-and-dance man André DeShields took on the role of the play’s protagonist Makak (French patois for “ape”), a mountain hermit plagued by dreams and in search of a romanticized Africa. CTH’s production had DeShields remain on stage throughout the three-hour performance, even during intermission. A sizeable portion of the show’s audiences were first-time theatregoers, many of them hailing from the other boroughs of Manhattan, a fact that was no surprise to DeShields. Culling new audiences has not been—and will not be—difficult for CTH, he insists, because “the artistic landscape is barren—there’s nothing else out there.” Asked if Walcott’s brand of magical realism carries the potential to attract contemporary Harlem audiences, first time theatregoers or not, De Shields declares, “People need this kind of theatre, even if they don’t know anything about it. They participate in learning something about themselves. It’s about them.”
Preisser agrees: “The classical experience of Medea or Oedipus Rex is relevant to now,” he avows, adding that “any company that has ‘classical’ in its title must do new plays” as well. Preisser says that it is his intention to plan seasons of familiar European classics mixed with original plays by up-and-coming playwrights and by company and community members. “We’re still cobbling things together, talking to other directors about doing other plays,” Preisser continues. He knows that words like “classical” and “experimental” can be problematic—even though he uses them. “ ‘Experimental’ is still one of those dirty words,” he concedes. “We’re only experimenting [in that we’re] trying to get to the heart and essence of what the play is.”

In The Rediscovery of Style, the French drama theorist Michel Saint-Denis describes the growing fascination a working-class, Depression-era audience in England had with classical theatre. He argues that a pedestrian audience had suddenly become attracted to theatre in a time of socioeconomic difficulty, because “poetry is better able to express reality than the so-called realistic language of everyday life.” “Style,” he writes, is the only “penetrating instrument of authentic realism.”
For theatre to be a necessity to its community, in other words, it must provide not only entertainment but also a language that speaks to, for and with its relevant populace. At once a place and an idea, Harlem is a space that has undergone continual transformations since its establishment by Dutch settlers almost 350 ago. From its beginnings as Dutch and British colonial farmland to its days of opulent estates occupied by some of New York City’s most prominent families (like the Bleeckers and the Beekmans), Harlem remade itself many times over before it would begin, in the early 1900s, its long run as the internationally renowned mecca of African-American art and culture.
Then came the neighborhood’s postwar decline into crime, poverty and poor housing. Today, as the 21st century dawns, Harlem’s ethnically, economically and socially diverse residents are experiencing a highly publicized revitalization. This most recent transformation can be attributed to a booming real-estate market that has launched luxury housing, community development funding, new arts organizations, employment growth and—arguably—the expansion of ethnic and economic gentrification. And CTH may well be Harlem’s latest contribution to its own restored legacy. But the “recovery” and “rehabilitation” have a long way to go. Harlem’s unemployment rates are still 10 percent higher, and its average household income is still 50 percent lower, than in the rest of Manhattan. Its infant mortality rate is double the citywide average. The incidence of AIDS and drug-related deaths are also three times higher than in the rest of the city. As the worth of its once-derelict brownstones climbs rapidly toward seven figures, longtime Harlem residents complain of being priced out of their homes, making gentrification a sore point for many.
With issues such as these that have yet to be tackled, what is the ultimate role of community theatre in Harlem? There was an extended moment, from the mid-’60s into the ’70s, when—despite high crime rates, poor housing and extreme poverty—a sociopolitical and artistic renaissance seemed ready to blossom, and the promise of a vibrant theatre scene in Harlem loomed on the horizon. As Lofton Mitchell inquired two years after the strategic meeting at St. Mark’s Church (in his 1964 essay, “The Negro Theatre and the Harlem Community”), is it “possible to build a Harlem community theatre in an era when community theatres are almost non-existent”? In attempting to answer, Mitchell warned that African-American theatre artists who work “outside of Harlem” will only be able to work in plays “written by whites dealing with [areas] of Negro life receptive to white audiences.” Mitchell also lamented that American theatre remains “a middle-class luxury wherein the playwright speaks…to an expense-account audience.” He closed his essay by advising that “one of the most needed theatre workers at present is the Negro producer, [because] he could utilize the rich dramatic history of these times. Wonderful artists and the splendid audiences can be attracted if the theatre speaks to them in terms of the truth of their daily lives.”
What may seem unclear today is whether Mitchell was calling for a theatre in Harlem—or for a specifically black theatre in Harlem.

Perhaps the most credible threat that exists within Harlem is synchronous with the credible threat that exists to blackness as such—the conclusion…that culture = race…. —Milton S. Curry, “Black Futurism: Architecture as Signifier”

If the theatre is ever to compete with the school or the pulpit for cultural influence, the success of a community-based artistic renaissance in Harlem will be contingent upon a solid, long-term commitment from its community. But who is the Harlem community? In Harlem World: Metropolis as Metaphor, the catalogue to the Studio Museum of Harlem’s recent architectural exhibition, architect Milton S. Curry observes that the neighborhood’s future as an urban cultural enclave is tied to the synonymous notions of Harlem as a cosmopolitan locus and of blackness as its primary face. Indeed, race is one of the main apprehensions people have voiced regarding the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s artistic directors: Both McElroen and Preisser are white and hail from upstate New York.
Other observers have posited race as a non-issue. Longtime CTH admirer Melanie Joseph, artistic director of the Foundry Theatre on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, only learned of Preisser and McElroen’s ethnicity DURING THIS INTERVIEW. “It doesn’t matter,” Joseph asserts matter-of-factly. “Good art is good art. That’s what I care about. It would be disappointing to learn that [the ethnicity of the theatre’s leaders] is an issue for anybody.”
But for African-American actress Trazana Beverly, a Striver’s Row resident, ethnicity is definitely a concern. One of the few Harlem-based artists willing to go on record with her doubts about CTH’s founders and their company of young black actors, Beverly offers her opinion that people who run arts institutions in African-American neighborhoods should do so equipped with a “shared experience of that community.” “It is important,” she explains, “that African-Americans who work with and/or patronize community theatre in Harlem get from that experience the implicit understanding of who we are and what we are, an understanding that taps into the bloodline of our community.”
Beverly, the first African-American actress to win a Tony Award for dramatic performance, has solid avant-garde credentials as well: She trained in the late ’60s at New York University’s School of the Arts as well as in workshops with Polish drama theorist Jerzy Grotowski. Having recently formed her own theatre company (whose mission—to re-imagine the classics with experimental overtones for new black audiences—echoes that of CTH)—Beverly contends that, while “it behooves us to expose our people to that body of work that is classical and experimental,” community-based theatres have a “social obligation” to reflect their community’s reality on stage.
“Most black audiences, if they are not already versed in theatre, have no formal knowledge of classical theatre when they first come to see it,” she says. “It is a time-proven fact that anyone who is engaged by poetry, debate, ritual or movement will find much to glean from classical works”—which is why it is an imperative in her own company’s productions that the actors not alienate the audience with “conservatory-fed westernized interpretations of the classics.”
“When we first open up the plays of Greek theatre [to new African-American audiences], for example,” Beverly continues, “we have to also let that community know where Greek theatre came from—to introduce them to the African theatre that Greek drama grew out of.”
In founding CTH, Preisser and McElroen seem to have been inspired to fashion a theatre company out of a shared aesthetic more than out of any pre-supposed social responsibility. “I admit I was a little naïve,” Preisser says today. “I met some talented people, and we got together and staged plays the way we’d always wanted to. That’s it. I didn’t think about stepping on someone else’s territory or turf.”
Nevertheless, the mission statement Preisser and McElroen fashioned for CTH declares the company exists to “create and nurture a new, young and culturally diverse audience for the classics; and to heighten the awareness of theatre and of great art in Harlem, thus helping to re-establish Harlem as a theatrical mecca.”
“We will always be committed to the community of Harlem,” McElroen states adamantly. “We will always have a predominately African-American cast in our plays because that is Harlem’s identity.”
One CTH production that has troubled African-American theatre artists like Beverly is the company’s inaugural staging of Macbeth, which, according to CTH’s press statement, was “the first professional production of Macbeth in Harlem since the historic 1936 production directed by Orson Welles.” The parallel between Welles’s Macbeth in Harlem and CTH’s does not sit well in many quarters. (CTH’s Macbeth will perform this summer at the Bonn Biennale in Germany, along with such celebrated New York–based theatre companies as Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, in Charles L. Mee’s bobrauschenbergamerica; the Wooster Group, reprising its Phaedra variation, To You the Birdie; and the Foundry Theatre, mounting Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales.)
A brief detour into Welles’s Macbeth is instructive. Funded by the Works Project Administration through the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Unit, Welles’s experimental production with an all-black cast was the brainchild of John Houseman, who had earlier directed Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, also with an all-black cast. The Federal Theatre Project’s aim during the Depression was to provide work for unemployed artists, as well as to produce “free, adult, uncensored” theatre. Houseman’s idea was to produce a unit of all-black actors in classical plays “without concession or reference to color.” The actors of the Negro Unit, as well as Housman’s co-director Rose McClendon, one of the most acclaimed black actresses of the time, are said to have requested a white stage director for their first classical production so as to give it “more credibility.” In his directorial debut, Welles turned Shakespeare’s witches into voodoo priestesses and the protagonist into an Emperor Jones–like character gone mad. The production, replete with African drummers and jungle backdrop, was a huge success, inspiring many black theatre companies to stage their own versions of the classics.
Under Houseman, the Federal Theatre Project produced several plays by black writers as well as works pertaining to black Americans, such as Big White Fog, a Theodore Ward drama about the integration of black and white laborers. Some plays by white writers regarding African Americans (such as Black Empire by Christine Ames and Clarke Painter, a play about the negativity of Haitians and voodoo) were green-lighted, while some by African Americans (such as Troubled Island by the acclaimed poet Langston Hughes) were not. Inspired by the success of Welles’s Macbeth, the Seattle branch of the Negro Unit staged Lysistrata, but it was shut down by the WPA for being too “risqué,” and when African-American choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham proposed to create a ballet based on the life of Henri Christophe, she was rejected. The expected resurrection of the “Negro theatre” did not take hold. As America approached war, Congress shut down the FTP in 1939, and the WPA appropriations bill forbade the funding of all theatre projects. Without government subsidy, the Negro Unit and most black troupes died out quickly. U.S. theatrical unions would not grant entry to any of the black theatre technicians trained by the FTP, and African-American actors returned to the minor comic-relief or servitude roles they were customarily offered in white shows.
“I understand the feelings people have about the history of Welles’s Macbeth,” Preisser empathizes. “Welles came, did his thing, and he left. But we’re not going anywhere. We’re in this for the long run, and we’re here to stay.”
Preisser worries about perceptions of CTH created by misrepresentations in the media. “We don’t want people to think we’re doing anything great because we’re two white guys who have come to Harlem to save anybody by bringing theatre uptown,” he declares. He is miffed with articles that “refer to our actors as if they’re untrained. We haven’t pulled anybody off the streets. We teach acting at Harlem School for the Arts, and we employ actors who have studied their craft at Ivy League institutions”—such as company member Michael Early, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama who has taught at Vassar College and the British American Drama Academy—“as well as veteran actors who have been in this business a long time.”
Feature articles in the mainstream press have had an impact on CTH’s audience demographic. The theatre’s increasing exposure and popularity have encouraged the attendance of theatre-savvy downtown audiences, and in the opinion of at least some CTH regulars, this is a disincentive for the community-based audience the theatre had built for itself. Actress Gwendolyn Mulumba, a Harlem resident who starred in CTH’s Mother Courage, allows that she can relate to some of the “frustrations” expressed to her by community members: When she appeared in the first production of The Blacks, she says, the show was sold out to a “strong, community-based audience.” “By the time we did Mother Courage,” she notes, “the audience was predominately white and from outside the community—that seemed to be a problem for some black people.” Mulumba recalls what one Harlem community member said to her after attending a white-audience-dominated performance of Mother Courage: “Something has to be done about this.”
CTH’s artistic directors are, in fact, looking for new ways to appeal to Harlem locals and to clarify their role to the community, as well as the identity of their company. Preisser, for instance, does not take it lightly when the media refers to CTH as a “black theatre company,” regarding the moniker as “insulting to the integrity and history of great black theatre companies like the New Federal Theatre and the now-defunct Negro Ensemble Company.”
Mulumba counters that, in her experience, when people “talk about CTH, they talk about it as a black theatre company because the bulk of the talent is African American. ” As Sugar Hill resident and cultural critic Greg Tate argues, “Putting a bunch of black people in a theatre does not make it a black theatre—but in America, the one-drop theory applies. [CTH] can’t help but be thought of as black theatre: Even with two white guys running it, it doesn’t make it not a black theatre.”
However, Preisser strongly confirms: “We are not a black theatre company. We are a Harlem theatre company.”
Preisser may have his own idea of what a black theatre company is, but the term itself has remained a crucial point of argument among members of the black theatre community. At the height of black nationalist politics of the mid-to-late ’60s, playwright Larry Neal proclaimed the Black Arts movement to be the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the black power concept,” a more aggressive politic born out of the civil rights movement. The Black Arts movement encouraged a black theatre reliant upon revolutionary politics, race pride, community commitment and revolutionary action. Black theatres cropped up all over the country, especially in New York City, among them Woody King’s New Federal Theatre (founded over 30 years ago and still in operation) and Douglas Turner Ward’s Negro Ensemble Company in lower Manhattan, and, in Harlem, the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (or BART/S), founded by Amiri Baraka, and Robert Macbeth’s seminal New Lafayette Theatre.
Macbeth produced plays inspired by the works of Bertolt Brecht and Albert Camus and introduced the work of Ron Milner and Athol Fugard to Harlem. New Lafayette’s most famous playwright, Ed Bullins, (WHO, WHILE CHAMPIONING BLACK REVOLUTIONARY THEORUM IN HIS PLAYS), rendered a highly stylized and politicized urban theatre that landed somewhere between the in-your-face dramas of the Black Arts movement and the less confrontational plays of downtown Manhattan’s more mainstream theatres. In Ed Bullins; A Literary Biography, Samuel A. Hay suggests that Bullins “helped to change the kill whitey rhetoric in Black Revolutionary drama and the cussing and fussing in Black Experience drama.” Baraka, on the other hand, called for “poems that kill,” and other members of BART/S would come to criticize Macbeth’s New Lafayette for being too “western” in ideology and form. For his part, Macbeth was no fan of Baraka’s plays or his definition of black revolutionary theatre.
The question of black theatre authenticity has been a similar point of contention. Critical accolades did not shield Ward’s Negro Ensemble Company from skepticism on this score. In a 1968 interview in Black Theatre magazine, Baraka said of the NEC, “It’s significant that in their first initial season they did a couple of plays by white people and an African—not one Black writer—so that’s corny…for them to even try to front that off as a Black theatre.” The same year, Peter Bailey, in a Negro Digest essay titled “Is The Negro Ensemble Company Really Black?”, questioned the commitment of Ward’s company to black revolutionary politics as well as its financial support by white funders. Bailey ascertained that, ultimately, “The Negro Ensemble Company, despite its claims, is not black theatre. It may be interesting theatre; it may be good theatre; but to call it black theatre would be considerably stretching the definition.”
Bullins, who initially refused an invitation to participate in a 1968 panel on black theatre at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn., attended nonetheless, and reported on it for his now-defunct Black Theatre magazine. Commenting on Michael Schultz, who participated as a representative of the NEC, Bullins wrote, “…the O’Neill people wanted and knew the several Blacks who had somehow slipped into their limited and segregated fields of vision, possibly through well-chosen backstage doors; and that’s all they wanted—to talk politely to colored people about Black Theatre…Black Theatre cannot be polite; for the nature of Black Art and Theatre is its essential threat to the status quo white Western Civilization. Or Black Theatre can be as polite as an executioner can be to the condemned.”
To say there was discord lurking behind the black theatre movement’s unified front is an understatement. Yet, despite this raging debate over its black-theatre credentials, the Negro Ensemble Company endured to become one of the most important African-American theatre companies in history. And other companies formed out of the Black Arts movement—including the National Black Theater and Frank Silvera’s Writing Workshop—continue to serve their community with professional productions and training programs. Others of the revolutionary black theatres formed in Harlem 30 to 40 years ago did not survive the economic challenges, internal conflicts and political controversy that eventually darkened their stages. In January 1968, a mysterious fire burned down Macbeth’s New Lafayette Theatre; the company took a temporary hiatus and relocated, but with severe funding challenges, it closed permanently in the early ’70s.
Any criticism or controversy the Classical Theatre of Harlem may face should be regarded as an initiation rite into the heritage of Harlem theatre. Cultural reflection stirs cultural involvement, which stimulates cultural growth—and, in its brief five years, CTH seems a confirmation of that maxim. The company has created more than 350 temporary jobs for local residents and given scores of New York City high school students their first jobs in professional theatre. In addition to providing arts training and employment, CTH has become one more valuable resource for African-American actors who struggle to cultivate their craft. As Gwendolyn Mulumba testifies, she cherishes her experience with CTH if only for the opportunity it affords her to “do good work in the community I live in”—and for her family and friends to “see good theatre that is affordable.” “I needed to heal myself from the rejections I experienced and to decide whether or not I was prepared to endure the harsh realities of being a black actress in an industry that, more of than not, will not take advantage of my training,” she says.
Moreover, CTH’s achievements must be viewed in a wider context, for the survival of community-oriented theatre in a media-driven, economically challenged, wartime climate comes with few formulas. As Greg Tate contends, “You have to commend anybody who creates a regional theatre company, especially in Harlem. With a few exceptions, black people haven’t been able to develop and sustain theatre in New York, it really is such a white domain.”
It may or may not be accurate to classify CTH as a black theatre. What is clear, though, is that this Harlem company has forged a strong relationship to its community; it has, therefore, inherited both historical and cultural elements from that community, for better or worse. Just as blues, jazz, rock-and-roll and hip-hop are not only artistic inventions of the African-American community but also authentic American art forms, so has theatre from within Harlem’s African-American community left an identifiable handprint of content, form and style that can be studied and amended as easily as any genre in American modernism. To deny that CTH descends from the panoply of Harlem’s arts movements would be misguided; even the (TITLE CASE; Black Theatre Movement) finds its resurgence in CTH’s risk-taking expressionistic aesthetic. Grounded in the experiences of its Harlem-based actors, CTH productions might be thought of as a hybrid of Art Povera and poetic modernism—a poor theatre of experimentation, lavished with sculptures and installations of bodies as cultural artifacts in movement. DeShields’s Makak in CTH’s Dream on Monkey Mountain, for instance, could just as easily have been any number of men you’ve passed on the street, reciting poetic delusions of urbanity. The war-torn, draped-in-heavy-wool city of McElroen’s Mother Courage locates the audience anywhere between occupied Poland and the hostile police force evacuation of Harlem’s own African street vendors during the Giuliani era. The responsive, reactionary women stomping out the insurgency of dreams from behind the gate of their incarceration in CTH’s adaptation of Euripides’s The Trojan Women resonates with the raw spitfire one might have seen in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf—(OR) as Shange herself put it, (DANCING) “to demand of [their own] sweat a perfection that could continually be approached but never known.” Preisser defines his directorial style as somewhat similar to his painting style—“large canvases with lots of violence; sensation underneath words.” His description calls to mind Antonin Artaud’s Surrealist theories of a sub-verbal, physically primal theatre of cruelty—or, as defined by Baraka, a violent theatre of “actual explosions.”
With this carefully executed performance style of spontaneous combustion coursing through its veins, CTH has a vitality possessed only by young theatre companies who’ve had to steal their existence. The void the company seems to fill for its audiences and critics may have less to do with innovative theatre in Harlem as much as it has to do with innovative theatre, period.
André DeShields, who wants to work with CTH some time in the near future on a play of his own based on the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, avows that he is not at all worried that the patrician-sounding label “classical” may prove to be the very thing that distances the company from local audiences. Recalling Michel Saint-Denis’ observation about new audiences attending Shakespeare’s plays, DeShields describes the Harlem populace that is being exposed to poetic theatre for the first time as thirsty for it: “They come because they are drawn to it, like you are drawn to water when you are dry.” DeShields regards with esteem the hard work Preisser and McElroen have put in to build a new theatre in Harlem. “It doesn’t matter who fills the void,” the veteran actor says calmly. “What matters is the restoration of a legacy.”

The history of theatre in Harlem is a lofty one. Evidence of historic Harlem theatres and opera houses—such as the Alhambra, the Crescent, the Lafayette, and the Renaissance—have either long succumbed to demolition, or remain hidden behind plywood and scaffolding. Most of these theatres, when first opened, were vaudeville houses for white audiences only. In the late 1890’s, New York’s African-American population totaled close to 5,000,000. African Americans, who lived in Manhattan’s Tenderloin district (west side of Manhattan between 20th and 64th Streets. At the turn of the 20th century, an area within the Tenderloin on West 53rd street was dubbed “Black Bohemia”, the center of black artistic life where many prominent black vaudevillians , musicians and writers hung out or lived at the Marshall Hotel) fled their communities at the dawn of race riots of 1900 and moved uptown to a Harlem then dominated by second and third-generation Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrant families. The African American’s theatrical presence in New York developed decades before. As early as 1821, the African Grove Theatre staged the plays of Shakespeare in Greenwich Village (amid much racist contention). Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white American performer, introduced the character of “Jim Crow” a singing and dancing slave, to mainstream theatres. Soon, his “Coon Show” paved the way for the form of entertainment known as minstrelsy, performed by white entertainers made up to look like grotesque cartoon characters of slaves. These musical impersonations and caricatures would be the prevailing theatrical depiction of African Americans for decades, well into the 20th century where the tradition of blackface (burnt cork make-up used to create a shiny black countenance) was continued in Hollywood movies (besides Al Jolson, see Shirley Temple, Jimmy Durante, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Marion Davies, Fred Astaire) and even in dramatic plays on Broadway (ie., in the 1930 Broadway production of “Scarlet Sister Mary”, a drama about blacks living on the Gullah sea islands, an entire cast of white American actors, including it’s star, the great Ethel Barrymore, appeared in blackface to portray the unwed mother of numerous children, one of whom–Unex (short for unexpected) comes home to die. Other characters are described as “Picadilly accented husband snatchers”, and “old darkies”. Theatre critic Gerald Bordman wrote, “The day when whites could routinely play blacks had gone”, noting that the all black cast of Green Pasteurs was playing across the street.)

In 1885, The Astor Place Colored Tragedy Players staged performances in Greenwhich Village. Three years later, African American producer/writer, Bob Cole created the musical comedy, “A Trip To Coon Town”–performed at the Grand Opera House on 23rd St., and Eighth Avenue–the first commercially successful show written, produced, directed and performed by blacks in New York. Broadway actor Bert Williams moved to Harlem during the Industrial revolution and performed at the Crescent Theatre on 135th Street. The Lincoln Theatre, which opened on 125th Street in 1909 as a silent movie/live stage show house, also becomes the first integrated theatre in Harlem when African-American playwrights Eddie Hunter and Henry Cramer helped forge a black theatre movement with their dramatic plays that same year. Anita Bush formed the Anita Bush Players at the Lincoln theatre (later to become the Lafayette Players when they move to the Lafayette theatre) in 1914 with the help of actor Charles Gilpin, performing Shakespearean plays and Broadway standards. By 1916, black dramatists and theatre companies sprung up all over Harlem, largely inspired by the success of two African American playwrights, Angelina Grimke and Willis Richardson. Grimke’s “Rachel” was produced by the NAACP in Washington DC in 1916 and Richardson’s “The Chip Woman’s Fortune” performed at the Lafayette Theatre and on Broadway in 1923 in conjunction with Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”. Richardson’s play is the first drama by an African American to appear on Broadway (Garland Anderson’s play, Appearances becomes the second in 1925.) Harlem based actors also began to receive broader recognition. In 1920, the Theatrical Owners and Bookers Association was formed as touring circuit for African American performers. performingAfter garnering attention for his dramatic work with the Lafayette Players, Charles Gilpin was cast as the protagonist in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones in 1920, making his performance the first dramatic production in an all-white theatre to star an African-American actor. That same year, Paul Robeson starred in the all black cast play Simon the Cyrenian by Ridgely Torrence's (a white poet) at the Harlem YMCA, where he was spotted by O’Neill (as well as Augustin Duncan, the director brother of dancer, Isadora, who first brings Robeson to Broadway and then to England in a 1922 production titled “Voodoo”) and cast in the 1924 production of his “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” at the Provincetown Playhouse, and The Emporer Jones on Broadway in 1925. Harlem based dramatic actress Rose McClendon starred in Paul Green’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Abraham’s Bosom at the Provincetown Playhouse as well. Several black dramatic theatre companies sprung up in Harlem during the next two decades, including W.E.B. DuBois’ Krigwa Players (formed in 1926, later to become the Harlem Experimental Theatre), staging plays by black playwrights focused on issues such as lynching, and the abolition of slavery, and The National Colored Players, founded in 1929 at the West End Theatre on St. Nicholas and 125th street. That same year, Harlem Renaissance writer Wallace Thurman’s play Harlem; A Melodrama of Negro Life opened on Broadway. In the early 30’s, Zora Neal Hurston writes a series of skits for a Broadway variety show also featuring comedian/monologuist, Moms Mabley, who had begun her long tenure at the Apollo Theatre where she appeared more times than any performer in history. Broadway actress Rose McClendon formed the Negro People’s Theatre in Harlem in 1935 (later to become the Rose McClendon Players after the actress’ death in 1936, coached by the Russian émigré director Theodore Komisarejevsky, from the Moscow Arts Theatre) mounting agitprop dramas such as an all black version of Clifford Odet’s “Waiting for Lefty” at Harlem’s Rockland Palace. McClendon also spearheaded Harlem’s Negro Unit of the FTP, and after the successful Broadway production of his play, Mulatto in 1935, Langston Hughes formed the Harlem Suitcase Theatre in 1938 in a loft on 125th street. (Gertrude Jeannette and Robert Earl Jones–father of actor, James–were members. Beginning in the late 60’s, the loft became the home to the Frank Silvera’s Writers Workshop, who occupied the space for r twenty five years.) Frederick O’Neal–after the disbanding of McClendon’s company– formed the legendary American Negro Theatre at the 135th St. Library, now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Former McClendon players Ossie Davis joined other ANT alumni including Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Alice Childress, Earl Hyman, and Harry Belafonte, among others. The Negro Playwrights Unit, formed in Harlem in 1940, included writer Richard Wright, but after WWII, the Harlem theatre movement had all but vanished. The Council on the Harlem Theatre was formed by Miss Childress and other concerned black theatre artists, in an effort to restore the legacy they had already been a part of. They produced an adaptation of Langston Hughes’ folk hero, Jesse B. Simple at the Harlem Baron in 1950, also the site of a scattering of independently produced plays in the early 50s with casts that included Eli Wallach, Helen Martin and Clarice Taylor. The Elks Community Theatre in Harlem was the site of Ossie Davis’ first produced play in 1952, and Miss Childress became the first African American playwright to win an OBIE award for her 1955 play, Trouble In Mind, produced in Greenwhich Village. In 1957, Vinnette Carroll directed unknown actors such as Cicely Tyson, Clarence Williams III, Roscoe Lee Brown at the Harlem YMCA in Dark of The Moon, a play produced by the YMCA Drama Guild in association with the Little Theatre Players, but with several opportunities opening for African American writers and actors in Manhattan’s off-Broadway theatre districts, Harlem lost its reputation as the bed of Black theatre. Theatre. It would take the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s to restore Harlem’s reputation and evoke another renaissance. Besides those theatres already mentioned, Ernie McClintock intertwined street life awareness with acting theory for Harlem youth at his Afro-American Studio Theatre and Vinette Carroll formed the Urban Arts Corps, developing two musicals that would eventually go to Broadway, but by the mid-70s, only a few companies survived and the movement itself became another significant moment belonging to another time in Harlem history. Since the formation of Anita Bush’s theatre at the Lincoln Theatre, many Harlem theatre companies have come and gone, most leaving a well worn trail of significant artistic landmarks along the way, making way for yet another chapter in Harlem theatre.

Originally published in American Theater Magazine 2004
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