Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Monday, February 20, 2012
Friday, February 17, 2012
(Carl Hancock Rux responds to) The Gentrifier's lament: Black writers talk, new Brooklynite doesn't listen
Sitting on a little wooden chair in a bookstore located in the increasingly gentrified neighborhood of Fort Greene, I did not understand exactly what the host of the event meant when he looked out across the crowd of twenty or so in attendance, with a slight smile, and said “Welcome to Brooklyn.” “This is going to be great!” I thought, excited to learn more of the rich cultural history of my newly adopted home borough. “This is going to be sick!” I took out my I-pad, and began to take notes in earnest.The event was titled “Black Writers: A History of the Neighborhood,” and the audience in the front room of the Greenlight Bookstore was mixed in race but uniform in urbanity.We sat rapt as black writers Nelson George, Carl Hancock Rux, Martha Southgate and John Lee stood, next to microphones they didn’t need, relating tales of living and working in a hard-scrabble Brooklyn neighborhood which was foreign to my particular experience but positively thrilling to hear tell of. They remarked that the neighborhood is changing. Changing? I thought. I’ll say! For the better! Last week this shabby little bodega next to my apartment was replaced by an unmarked used record store. At first I was troubled, for the old man behind the register at Rodrigo’s Grocery had had such sad eyes, but then I reconsidered. For how can any place that sells LCD Soundsystem vinyls be anything but a boon for the neighborhood? God, LCD Soundsystem is so sick. Anyway, the night wore on. The writers' stories, following the path of the neighborhood itself, seemed to emphasize progression: things getting more generally sick. Fort Greene, I learned, has been home to a number of literary figures, not the least of which was Richard Wright, who wrote most of "Native Son" from a bench in Fort Greene Park. I can relate to this especially, having composed the script to my Off-Broadway one-man-show entirely at a side booth in the DUMBO Starbucks! “Of course, the neighborhood has changed a lot since then,” George said later, smiling slightly again, having just recalled an anecdote from his own life growing up in the Tilden projects in Brownsville. I jotted this down on my I-pad. I felt strangely disconcerted all of a sudden: my ‘pad was running low on battery.Carl Hancock Rux spoke next. His voice was deep and mellow like a late night DJ’s. Rux, a playwright, novelist, actor and product of the New York City foster care system (ohmigod, can you imagine?), spoke of the progression of Fort Greene from an impoverished shanty town to an enclave of the rich and famous in the 1880’s. “Where do the poor go when their neighborhoods are gentrified?” Rux asked us, “All I know is that history is repeating itself.” Reflexively, I frowned. History repeating itself? I thought but did not say. Isn’t that kind of a cliché, Carl? Come on. Meanwhile, my ‘pad completely died. That thing is such a piece of junk. I was growing frustrated. Novelist Martha Southgate then stood up, wearing an old “She’s Gotta Have It” T-shirt. She told a story about buying the shirt from Spike Lee himself as he stood on the street corner hawking merchandise on a hot summer day. Now, let me interject here. I studied Spike Lee in my Introduction to Film Theory class back in college, and I have to say, old Spike has some pretty inflammatory things to say about white people. Annoyed now, and little sick of all this history, I stuffed my decrepit ‘pad into my canvass side-bag and prepared to leave.And then I heard the voice of the last speaker, John Lee, former member of the Masters of Deception computer-hacking gang, as well as an influential video director and Internet activist. He spoke of serving time in prison - of how the neighborhood went on without him like a girl you thought you knew, but really didn't. “You see those little bits of gum on the sidewalk?” he said, his eyes wide behind thick glasses, “Those bits of gum probably have my own blood still left in them. That’s how long I been on these streets.”I clapped politely, but could hardly refrain from rolling my eyes. It was time to go home now. I’d had enough. I walked down the sidewalk back towards the subway home, checking my shoes for blood and bubble-gum.-- Frank Santo
Below is my response
The displacement of the poor is cliche, as in hackneyed or overused? Nothing cliche about the repetition of history, and if you'd rolled your eyes less and refrained from fidgeting with your ipad, you might have paid attention to the fact that the "Rich Man Poor Man" essay I mentioned about the shanty towns and displacement of poor people on Myrtle Avenue in the face of the Victorian era brownstone boom was very much like what's happening in Fort Greene Clinton hill now, not all for the better and not all for the worse. The study and analysis of urban livelihoods and governance shows us little is known about how displaced people negotiate their way in the urban environment, their relationships with host communities and governance institutions and their specific vulnerabilities as compared with other urban poor. Likewise, the role of humanitarian and development actors in supporting these populations, and the strategies and approaches best suited to address the assistance and protection needs of urban people are poorly understood.The phenomenon of rapid and uncontrolled urbanization in developing countries is increasingly threatening the well-being and the development opportunities of millions of city dwellers. The factors influencing dramatic population growth are complex and multi-factored. A prominent feature is forced displacement triggered by economic conflict, situations of political instability, and a slow and sudden combination of these factors. There are also broader ‘push factors’ at play, which include lack of livelihood options and inadequate access to or availability of essential services. Furthermore, it is often the case that, like other migrants, internally displaced persons (IDP) are attracted to urban areas because of the perceived availability and better quality of basic services and livelihood opportunities, the chance to live in proximity to their family members and increased security through anonymity in the urban space. When ethnic or economic assimilation is subtracted from the potential of these people to survive or remain in certain areas, new areas of the displaced impoverished are created with little to no attention paid (by urban developers) as to how disenfranchisement travels and regenerates itself. You can applaud the vanishing of a bodega and the appearance of a store that sells LCD Soundsystem all you want...it appeals to your interest, but not to to the merchant who must now figure out his livelihood and the return on his investment in a community he has served for many years, providing basic goods and services. Yes, it happens. Yes, it reeks of cool...but brother PUH-LEEEEASE take an urban theory class before you roll your eyes at displacement and the vanquishing of the poor. I'm surprised you didn't at least learn something of the overall thesis of Spike Lee films in your film theory class, or understand what Richard Wright was writing about when he wrote "Native Son" to begin with.-- Carl Hancock Rux
Thursday, February 16, 2012
The Invisible Playwright
"Where really lies Americans,’ America’s passion? What does its citizens really hope for?" Harry Belafonte
I first read Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Adrienne Kennedy, Amiri Baraka, Jean Genet, and Ed Bullins, while attending a public junior high school in the South Bronx. I didn't think they were (specifically) speaking to me, a twelve year old African American (and I argue nor did they) but I was taught to learn a language, for which I am eternally grateful. I am also grateful for the language of their unapparent heirs, writers whose works are largely considered (by the commercial majority) as non-translatable; vestigial members of a dying breed who embark upon an investigation of a theoretical construct of reality as shared by human experience, in order to cultivate expression as a means of invading one’s own privacy and building a rhetorical pluralism of epistolary narratives. For me, there is no wall dividing reality from the unconscious. Those things considered otherworldly are tangibles. In my own work, often one character is represented as two characters, and introduced as a gradual emerging of characters as it occurs via a sharing of gestures, and a synchronicity in language. Neither time nor space, according to traditional theatre conventions, is important. My characters are split into dualities. Their thoughts come from the conscious and the unconscious, concentrating heavily on the perceived gap between the two. The texts concentrate on bodies and cities in ruin, referencing C. G. Jung's Mysterium Coniunctionis; performance texts combining dance, music, dream theory, and Greek mythology into an American context. If this constitutes an American playwright then Yes, I Am.
Following the broadcast of the 64th annual Tony awards, Jill Dolan, Annan Professor in English and Theatre at Princeton University, asked a question, “Where are the Women?” (posted in the Huffington Post 6/10/2011). She wrote, “The Tony Awards season confirms what anyone concerned about the status of women in theatre has long come to expect: plays by women are excluded from the nominations once again. When will power brokers and critics realize that until work by women is produced and recognized, Americans will continue to hear only one side of the stories of our lives?” Dolan’s erudite question prompts many questions: What is American theatre, who is it written for, and who are its authors? If the answer to the latter is American playwrights, does that mean, by definition, U.S. writers of plays or U.S.-born writers of performance works? How and why do they differ? Since 2000, of the forty-eight titles nominated by the American Theatre Wing for Best Play only six have been written by women, only three written by a single African American male (August Wilson), only one play written by an African American woman (Suzan- Lori Parks) and only one play written by a gay Latino male (the last two received Pulitzers) and only one written by a French-Jewish-Hungarian of Iranian descent has won, and none written by women or Asians or indigenous peoples or … .
As Dolan points out, no American women playwright have won Best Play since the turn of the twenty-first century. Only 12% of those nominated have been written by women, which begs the questions, do Americans write America? Further, are American theatregoers’ ears no longer attuned to the complexity of, say, Adrienne Kennedy’s fractured psyche? For me, Ms. Kennedy’s plays are an example of an insurgent métier where a bloody Patrice Lumumba and a Black woman's conversion into a screeching owl are tropes of American colonialism, charting the cartography of Ms. Kennedy’s self in cold war America. I have listened as she painfully expressed her disappointment with an abysmal place called “American theatre” where young writers are not trained to defend the illogical structures of dreams according to principles of ritual. Does this mean the creative output of writers like Adrienne Kennedy are just the forgotten musings of a theatre that came to light amidst an era of experimentation when language, protest, music, performance genres, and image clashed about like so much overhead shrapnel? Is this no longer relevant or viable to an American theatre audience? What is the responsibility of those of us who teach theatre in the brutal place called Academe, where—as Ms. Kennedy’s mentor Edward Albee once said to me at a dinner party with Sir David Hare and John Guare— “playwrights are not taught to write, they are taught to RE-write.”
I am often reminded, when reading mainstream theatre criticism, of an absence of real cognitive tools enabling critics to review the non-linear. It seems to me American theatre co-ops the detritus of regurgitated classics, managing to marginalize, oppress, and exclude new living forms. As Professor Dolan points out in her post, old dead white male playwrights remain the relevant majority of the American theatre organism. This tactic of celebrating the old and oppressing the new acts as codified exclusion. The conceit of copy given to American theatre seems all too concerned with the twitter of excitement concerning something monumental coming over the horizon, such as the musical version of Spider-Man. The soup the rest of us are drowning in is a dense mud trying to thin itself out into a pool of discourse. We wade through it as best we can, demanding (perhaps hoping against hope) for the language of mad ramblings that moves us toward a contemporary realm of experience, and the only light at the end of the tunnel is that (I believe) there remains a gulf between what the people want and what critics see.
Admittedly, we all come to the theatre with different intentions. The ones who come to the theatre with the least expectations are the ones who walk out of the theatre with the heaviest load. As an invisible playwright, according to James Baldwin, the responsibility of the writer is to “excavate the experience of the people who produced him (because) we don’t yet exist in the imagination of this century, and we cannot afford to play games; there’s too much at stake.”