Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ed Bullins’ The Fabulous Miss Marie and The Question of Next

Friday, Nov 21, 2008

I went with my boyfriend to a staged reading of The Fabulous Miss Marie, held at New York’s Cherry Lane Theater. This was a great experience, my first exposure to Ed Bullins’ work as a live performance.

The reading was directed by Pat Golden (with whom I hope to collaborate soon), and featured a talented cast of some seasoned pros, mid-career talent, and new faces:

Miss Marie – Tonya Pinkins

Bill Horton – Anthony Chisholm

Art Garrison – Brandon Dirden

Wanda – Krystal Hill

Toni – Lanette Ware

Ruth – Carla Brothers

Bud – James King

Marco Polo Henderson – Jesse Williams

Gafney – Nicoye Banks

Steve Benson – Jamal Mallory McCree

and Holly M. Eaton executed the stage directions and audio elements.

My hats off to the production team, and the great folk at the Cherry Lane, for getting this work back out there for people to see! Congrats and Bravo, etc., etc…

Essentially, this play takes place in Los Angeles in the 1960’s, just ahead of the Watts Riots. It is a tumultuous time in American history, and these characters are all living the African American experience of the time. However, most of the various characters who have come to Miss Marie’s house, are there to have a good time, and really aren’t all that concerned about civil rights. They are there to party down, and for me (someone who wasn’t there for the Civil Rights Movement) the point of the play is this: not all black people were that down for the Civil Rights movement. While Miss Marie and her man, and various others there to party took passing interest in what was going on (via TV), they were much more interested in seducing each other, finding a new hustle, telling secrets…little, more everyday matters that we all deal with.

I would say the play is at its best when this contrast is most stark—a great social upheaval outside, of only limited interest to Miss Marie and her crew. And it was oh so much fun to watch Miss Marie be so dismissive of what was going on, cajoling her guests to get her another drink and whatnot. This play is a necessary corrective to the myth-making that goes on when we talk about America’s Civil Rights Era.

Altogether, the Fabulous Miss Marie was a very relevant and entertaining work of live theater. It’s held up well over time, and now I’m ready to jump headfirst into Bullins other work…

Which brings me to Bullins. He was there!

A quiet unassuming man who gracefully took the stage after the show, Bullins, director Pat Golden and Angelina Fiordellisi, the Artistic Director of the Cherry Lane, opened the floor to questions. This event was part of Cherry Lane’s Master Class Series, which has held similar talks with the likes of Edward Albee, Terence McNally, Amiri Baraka, and Wendy Wasserstein.

Listening to Bullins speak—about his work, about working in the theater, about our shared past – was a real treat. I wish I had come prepared with a question or something, but the room was filled with so many much more knowledgeable than I on Bullin’s legacy, and the field in general. So I just sat back and listened.

Among other points, Anthony Chisholm wanted everybody in the audience to remember that Ed Bullins was a mentor and major influence on August Wilson. Chisholm was emphatic about this point, as well as how fortunate we were to have this legend in our midst. There was a chorus of assent in the audience, and more praise followed.

Bullins definitely deserved all that glory. I mean the man has worked! This was a well-earned moment of congratulations for a theater legend, who by the way, took all of this very graciously and with great humility. There was also a lot of discussion of how he got started, and his long stint at the Lafeyette Theater (now closed in Harlem), and other highlights from an age of American performing arts long since gone…

Later on, actor Brandon Dirden asked Bullins about what he would like to see for the next generation of theater, particularly theater that deals with the black experience. This sent Bullins spinning into an extended explanation of, frankly, his next project. I will say little about this work, as it’s not even finished yet and who knows how it will come out. But I will not that he is planning to end it with Barack Obama’s triumph.

I found his response very interesting. For a legend such as Bullins, Obama’s historic victory is all “the happy ending” he ever needed. Even if Miss Marie and her crew really wouldn’t give a damn, all of this “black struggle,” this shared American journey reaches a new climax with the election of America’s first black president. So, beyond this, Bullins doesn’t offer many specifics on “what’s next for black theater.”

The next step for black arts is open…where do we go? I suppose if someone had pressed, Bullins might say that black theater should simply continue….That is how he ended the talk, he told everyone to “keep on keepin’ on.” Do not give up. He was clear about that. But this living legend offered no other mandates to the next generation, no manifesto on where or how the theater should focus its energies; it just wasn’t in his frame of mind.

He’s going to write a play that ends with Obama. Obama is the happy ending.

This is so fascinating to me because his generation deserves this moment. And, while I would have loved to hear more about his hopes for the future of the field, it was so wonderful to see an artist who was apparently content, who was actually pleased even (at least for the moment) with where we were as Americans. Why should Bullins bother with what happens after “happily ever after?”

It’s for the next generations to figure that out. For us (somewhat) younger folk, all-that-is-obama points to a new direction perhaps, but certainly not a conclusion. “The Question of Next” is very heavy on our minds. It remains to be seen how we will answer it.

Of course, I have a few ideas that I look forward to sharing, but more on that later.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Musings -- New Thresholds of Possibility and Sci-Fi Geek Out

The blogosphere is already crowded with 222 too many “Age of Obama” essays, and really, this blog isn’t about politics. Yet as I sit here musing about the shifting American social fabric, I am wondering how all of this talk (and hopefully action) about “change” is going to inform creative expression and intellectual inquiry.

In other contexts, I have described my own work (as a whole) as “writing towards change.” I like to think of my writing as working against and through oppressive regimes of thought. This is a moral imperative for me. I write to help forge a path to a brighter future.

However, as I write towards change, I am writing within dramatic and literary traditions that seem to understand me best as a minority--peripheral to the larger scheme of things. I cannot deny the truth of these statements: I am black. I am American. I am male. I am gay. I would not presume to deny similar statements from others, but what disturbs me is the persistent unspoken, but commonplace, belief that these are unassailable limits of existence. It is as if we cannot even imagine alternatives.

And so my battleground for change as an artist is the human imagination itself. I find my tools for change outside the real. I seek possibility in the fantastic, in the unbelievable that goes beyond mere spectacle and enters the speculative.

It is this fact of speculative fiction—the possibility—that has always made it my favorite genre. I am a champion of SF precisely because it challenges our limits, brings us to new thresholds. Does science fiction predict our future? Yeah....but I think that’s a bit of a crude way of looking at it. I do think that sci fi at its best anticipates our future. And stuff like Star Trek attempts to envision a future worth working towards. SF helps to articulate possibility.

If you are of the mind that pop culture helps shade the American imagination, I invite you to consider the impact of Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in Star Trek…

Consider the impact (decades later) of Avery Brooks, as not only a crew member, but as the Commander (and later Captain) on Star Trek Deep Space Nine…And that’s just Star Trek.

There has been a concerted, if imperfect, effort to be more inclusive in science fiction in so many interesting works…and not just in race…consider Sigorney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien...and those are just a few pop culture ones…

This week has been a rare moment where we have rushed head-first across a threshold into our future. The concept of a “black president” has been a marker in the African-American psyche for as long as I can remember. I would say it has been something always deemed possible, but probably not “in our lifetimes.” And yet, here we are.

So now, as we come together to break this historical barrier, I am wondering what other articulations of the future will preoccupy my imagination. There’s a lot of work to do, of course. Plenty to “write towards change” about. And…it’s as if all of a sudden I have a bit more latitude, especially as a person of color, to set my sights on new possibilities…hmmm. Interesting to see where this will lead.

I want to know what Christopher Columbus would think. What would Thomas Jefferson say? Harriet Tubman? Frantz Fanon…Queen Victoria…W.E.B. DuBois….Walt Whitman…Emperor Hirohito…Walt Disney…what about Black Elk? I want to chat with James Baldwin and Octavia Butler about it…I want to see what history would say about this moment…about this future that is somehow already here.