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Amiri Baraka’s First Family

amiri-baraka-290We didn’t know the late Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), who died this week at the age of seventy-nine, as a famous poet who initiated the powerful Black Arts Movement in 1965, or as the man whose groundbreaking plays, ranging from 1964’s “Dutchman,” to 1969’s “Four Black Revolutionary Plays,” changed what was possible on the American stage; we just knew him as Kellie and Lisa’s father, and Hettie’s former husband. I remember the thrill of climbing the steps to their apartment in the East Village with my friend Kathy. It was a warren of rooms tidily kept and filled with books and papers and welcoming love—just the kind of haven burgeoning artists such as Kathy and my teen-aged self were learning to seek out in a universe, which, we could already feel, had few safe harbors for people like us.

But Hettie’s place was always a harbor; and what was better than listening to the women of the house laughing at what one said or was about to say? Actually, they didn’t laugh so much as trill, like three birds sitting on a branch in sunshine. And what was better than sitting near Hettie’s rooftop garden drinking lemonade (with honey!)—there wasn’t a grain of refined sugar in the place—and listening to Hettie talk about where food could be gotten at a fair price or good clothes marked down, and the business of art? She knew everything there was to know about style, and survival. After all, by the time we met, in the nineteen-seventies, she had been supporting her children for years by writing books. Hettie’s books were as tall in subject matter as she was small in stature, but you couldn’t tell anyone who loved her that she wasn’t the tallest woman in the room. She wrote books for children and teen-agers, studies of race and social life, like “Big Star Fallin’ Mama,” a series of short portraits of titanic, genre-changing singers such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. In those and other works, Hettie set a path so sensationally followed by artists like Jacqueline Woodson today: children needed to learn about diversity because we lived in a diverse world.

If you wanted to be an artist, Hettie treated you like an adult, no matter what your age. She wanted to prepare you and protect you from the hard work that was to come. Rejection had not dimmed her enthusiasm for anything—especially young people. And one of the chief pleasures of hanging out with the Jones girls was seeing how deeply they had each other’s backs; and, if they loved you, they had yours, too.

During those visits, certain names came up—names I’d have to run to the library to learn something about. The jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp was their neighbor, and he had a little boy named Accra. They were friends with Kali, the child prodigy poet. But none of these people were talked about in the hushed tones surrounding a “famous” person; they were just the people the Joneses knew, and that included the poet Diane di Prima and her daughter, Dominique—“our sister”—and any number of music critics and poets and novelists to be.

After a while we all called Hettie “Mom,” and why not? She was our mother in every sense but the biological one; she fed us good brown bread and said: “Guys! I’m working!” when the games and laughter got too loud in the children’s room. Working! Art was working, and that was real. Living could be hard, too, but sometimes, and for a long time, it could be play. There we learned from Hettie’s example: being an artist did not preclude being human. But Baraka wasn’t a ghost in the Jones household; Hettie’s daughters spent time with his other children, in Newark, on summer holidays and so on, and I often wonder what that was like for them, as their father and mother knit together those various worlds that had been disrupted by politics or, more specifically, Baraka’s ardent belief that your body—your soul—had to reflect your radicalism, no matter the personal cost.

Many people learned about Hettie’s life from her 1990 memoir, “How I Became Hettie Jones.” It’s a terrific book, because it is descriptive of social history—the Beats, the Five Spot jazz scene, etc.—without using those events to sneak in a little bitterness. The book is a love story without rancor. In it, Hettie describes the central romantic event of her young life: meeting, at a music magazine where they both worked, a young black poet named LeRoi Jones. Hettie Jones began her life as Hettie Cohen, a middle-class Jewish girl from Brooklyn who loved the lives she got to know in downtown Manhattan. In the mid nineteen-fifties, when she was barely in her twenties, she met Roi, as he was called. He was small, dark-skinned, large-eyed, and ambitious, and he wanted to be a significant presence on that scene. Hettie was drawn to his energy—and the tender love poems he wrote about her. Their attraction to one another was profound, and the Jewish girl and the black man became a couple. They didn’t think of their relationship as a political statement: for them, being together meant exercising their bigger and better selves.

Together Hettie and LeRoi started a literary magazine, and cultivated friendships with artists ranging from the painter Bob Thompson to the writer Frank O’Hara. In the meantime, they had two children: Kellie, in 1959, and, two years later, Lisa. (Kellie has gone on to have a distinguished career as an art historian, and Lisa is an author and scriptwriter.) As their children grew, so did Jones’ reputation as a poet.

More or less supported by Hettie, the young writer managed to produce a very personal, this-is-me-looking-at-that book of poems, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” and another, titled “The Dead Lecturer”; the still valuable nonfiction study, “Blues People” about the experience of making a culture in an alien world; and, in 1964, a masterpiece for the stage. Titled “Dutchman,” the Obie-award winning play was written in one night, as though in a fevered dream. Set in the New York City subway—a modern circle of hell—the play centers on two characters: Clay, a middle-class, black intellectual, and Lula, a somewhat loose, blond white woman who eventually does away with Clay and his pretensions and his rage towards his white seductress by violently killing him.

Writing in his 1984 “Autobiography,” Jones said that “Dutchman” was prompted by his desire to make his poetry feel more active; he wanted his plays to move. It was a brilliant decision. Between 1964 and 1967, Baraka wrote three plays of astonishing originality—and pain. Equal parts Living Theatre, spoken-word art, and raw, natural theatrical talent, the plays ricocheted between realism and surrealism, plain-spoken metaphor and dense, concrete riffs about various kinds of love: gay love, a fascination with power, blood lust.

Baraka’s work for the stage garnered a great deal of attention—he turned down a lot of Hollywood hack work—but after his first three plays were performed downtown and Malcolm X was assassinated, he turned his back on the “white” world that had fostered the first part of his career, moved uptown, to Harlem, and spearheaded the Black Arts Movement, the cultural equivalent of the black radicalism put forth by the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X’s early ideas about black separatism. He changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka—spiritual leader, blessed prince. I don’t remember Kellie and Lisa discussing their father specifically, but when his name did come up in the press, or if one happened to be carrying one of his many works, their pride was palpable, real, and true. Indeed, Kellie’s pride in her entire family is manifest in her outstanding 2011 book, “EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art.” As the poet Elizabeth Alexander points out, the book is a powerful act of family. In it, we not only have contributions from Lisa and Hettie about the role aesthetics has always played in their lives, but a beautiful one from Baraka, also about what art meant while he was making his first family. In his reminiscences, Baraka calls his eldest daughter Ms. Kellie.

The love and security one felt visiting the Jones girls was hard won: the dissolution of their family certainly mirrored what Kathy and I had experienced, too, but our own experiences had not taken place on the world stage. One was protective of them because they would not be left alone with their grief, and I want to leave them alone with it now. But the world does not work that way.

Over the years, Baraka became more and more of a public figure, a black-nationalist Marxist whose poetry—the best of it—was intoned at public events where he spoke like no one else. After he moved from Harlem back to the economically and racially devastated Newark of his youth, controversy continued to follow Baraka because, as a poet, his job wasn’t so much about espousing theories as articulating the subconscious, even when it and he were wrong, or misguided. The queasy remarks he’s made about homosexuality over the years, for instance, bothered me less than they should have, but I knew he was speaking from a certain vantage point that was not unfamiliar to me: many black men of his generation didn’t like who I was, certainly on that score, but that wouldn’t stop me from being myself.

Who could forget him at James Baldwin’s memorial service at St. John the Divine, where he said Baldwin was “God’s black revolutionary mouth,” and who could forget him in Warren Beatty’s underrated 1998 film, “Bulworth,” as an oracle who sees the truth through his own black revolutionary mouth? One got the sense though, over the years, that Baraka’s ego was at odds with his writing; that the early success of his poetry and plays irked him because he wanted the audience to see him, to connect with what he had to say on a more visceral level than mere paper and pencil could convey. I only met the grand elder statesman once, or almost met him. It was at Lincoln Center, at an event honoring James Baldwin. I had reviewed his “Autobiography,” none too favorably, some time before. But it was a young man’s review—a settling of old scores I wasn’t aware I had to settle. And there he was: small, intense, an athlete unsure of where to put all his energy, but it had to go somewhere. That night it went into defending Baldwin’s legacy, and as I listened I couldn’t help but remember his first family, the women who had made his life and ours completely different.

Above: Baraka with Kellie as a newborn in 1959. Photograph by Burt Glinn/Magnum.

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Interview With Richard Maxwell

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Richard Maxwell is one of the more adventurous theatre artists that this country has produced in decades. Born in 1967, he was raised in West Fargo, North Dakota. He comes from a theatrical background. His father had a strong interest in the stage; his sister is the Broadway actress Jan Maxwell. Although Maxwell’s work is driven by narrative, it is very different than the musicals that his sister appears in to such acclaim. Maxwell’s work is about distillation. “I never tell people to avoid realism or naturalism or what feels natural,” he has said. “It’s just that I’m saying you’re not obliged to pretend that you feel something.” In Maxwell’s work, the script and actor live together in a generally bare space; the director finds the drama in being. To consolidate his vision, he founded the New York City Players, in 1999; one of his stars is his wife, the performer Tory Vasquez.

Through April 26th, Maxwell’s New York City Players will be presenting “Isolde,” at the Abrons Art Center, starring Vasquez, in the title role, and Jim Fletcher, as her husband. The four-person drama is graphic and elegant, a prism filled with many ideas and fleeting or slow-moving figures that express them all with difficulty and precision.

I saw an early version of “Isolde” last summer, and I wanted to ask what the genesis was for your show: Were you inspired by reading Goethe? Or Wagner’s opera? Or just by yourself?

Just myself. And then I had a dream where a word presented itself: “Isolde.” I had already written about a couple hiring an architect to realize a dream house, and so the love triangle component was there—maybe I knew the story before that? But not that I recall. Then I looked up the story on Wikipedia and made myself available to elements of the Tristan and Isolde tale.

Have you ever directed an opera on the scale of Wagner’s “Tristan”?

I have no experience in the opera industry. Are they hiring?

Tell me something about your Isolde, and working with your wife, Tory. Is it hard to watch someone you love fall in love, even if it’s fictive?

Isolde is a famous actress who is losing the ability to remember her lines and pieces of her past. I think about Gena Rowlands in “Opening Night.” I think about Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” I think about Ibsen’s “Nora.” I cast against type with Tory. Tory has an innocent, awkward allure that feels pretty raw onstage. Combine that with the diva-like Isolde and it’s a potent mix, and interesting from a power point of view. Top-knot and heels will change a girl. And I’m fine with any fictive lovemaking between her and Gary. I went to high school with Gary. [Gary Wilmes, the actor who plays the architect.] I know that shouldn’t necessarily be comforting.

You come from a theatrical family. Does it just make sense to you that you would be interested in someone who shared your interest in theatre?

I suppose, but when I think about my family in regards to “Isolde,” it isn’t show business associations that come to mind. Maybe because I feel like I’ve spent my whole life inside a theatre.

You can see where these questions are going: I want to get your opinion about love.

I didn’t see it coming! I started this play to talk about realizing perfection, or a curated perfection, actually. Maybe thinking about desire, but not thinking about love. Maybe I can blame the old Celtic tale for bringing me back to love. But I write and write and keep writing, I also do a lot of cutting, like everybody else. But it seems as you whittle and scratch at the thing you’re trying to shape right, it’s always love that remains, in some form.

Tell me something about the script. How long did you work on it?

It’s something I shelved back in 2009, after a couple months of hammering away. It was painfully normal, I remember feeling that. Then the opportunity came to do a show at Theater Basel [September, 2013] and I thought of this play sitting on a shelf and found that maybe normal isn’t such bad thing. Anyway, the basic parts seemed serviceable and the writing seemed to come. Having a deadline helped, but maybe I wasn’t ready five years ago either.

How did the actors respond to the script?

I think they thought is was funny. But responses from these guys are guarded. And I don’t really solicit comments.

You often make a text as plain and poetical as possible. How do you reduce so many big ideas in your work? In rehearsal or purely through rewriting?

I try to listen to the room as much as possible. In writer terms, I know that can mean what other people think about the writing, but I mean how words are just like sounds and how they bounce around in the air. I also really care that things make sense, from a character point of view. Which doesn’t mean I’m always justifying the words psychologically. I like the tonal differences in how people communicate.

How do you cast? Based on looks or general feeling?

Yeah… I try to work with people who are genuinely curious and have the ability to forego what they know.

Can you talk about what’s coming up next?

My next show is called “Custodian of a Man,” and will premiere at the Walker Arts Center, in January of 2015, then The Kitchen/P.S. 122 will show it, in March. With “Custodian of a Man,“ I’ll enter into the darkness of the underworld in order to continue my exploration of myth and minimalism, drawing on the epics of Dante’s “Inferno” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to tell a contemporary American story chronicling the moral decline of a man.

The story, basically, is about a guy named Azzi. a convalescing martial artist, having been injured in a brutal match. He’s cared for by a thirteen year-old girl, trying to get his career back on track. Azzi instead gets himself involved in a series of terrible incidents with bad people. The girl remains his witness.

Photograph by Richard Termine/The New York Times/Redux.

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Stars

MWWhen it comes to technique, actors know what you might call one another’s family secrets. They know what goes into creating a sustained stage illusion, and how to make a scene partner give and then give some more. They know why a script works and when it doesn’t. Even so, the best actors understand that it’s the accidents, the sudden improvisations and flights of fancy, that can make a performance real, or transcendent—a happening that cannot be fully explained. As the storied Geraldine Page said, in Lillian and Helen Ross’s essential 1962 book, “The Player,” “When the character uses you, that’s when you’re really cooking. You know you’re in complete control, yet you get the feeling that you didn’t do it. . . . You don’t completely understand it, and you don’t have to.” Michelle Williams and Neil Patrick Harris, who are starring in “Cabaret” (a Roundabout Theatre Company production, at Studio 54) and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (at the Belasco), respectively, draw on everything they’ve got to portray characters who are performers themselves—outsider artists who are less interested in developing the technique that would ground their passionate display than in climbing the highs of their ever-escalating fantasies and “inspirations.”

What holds Sally Bowles, Christopher Isherwood’s most famous creation, together? Her rouge pot, her ratty fur coat, and her hope in the face of unconquerable odds, which include her lack of singing and dancing talent. In Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939), a London girl takes up residence in the German metropolis at an eerie moment in history: it’s the early thirties, the city is in the midst of economic collapse, and the political tides are turning away from the Weimar Republic’s artistic and sexual experimentalism, and toward fascism, a craving for xenophobic order. Sally, deadly honest in her way, fits right in with the town’s gadflies, emotionally displaced Jews, halfhearted gigolos, and kindly landladies. She has come almost too late to the party, but she doesn’t hear all that Volksgemeinschaft talk; she’s too busy grabbing at life’s balloons, her nails varnished a sickly green. Sally is apolitical, because politics requires analysis and curiosity about other people, and mostly all she can think about—or believe in—is the event of herself. “She sang badly, without any expression, her hands hanging down at her sides,” Isherwood’s narrator observes. “Yet her performance was, in its own way, effective because of her startling appearance and her air of not caring a curse what people thought of her.”

Julie Harris won her first Best Actress Tony for her portrayal of Sally in “I Am a Camera,” John Van Druten’s 1951 stage adaptation of the Isherwood book. The 1955 movie version of the play, which also starred Harris, is a valuable record of what made her unique in the role: her impassioned innocence. Harris’s Sally may sleep with the wrong guy, and he may even throw her over, but it’s nobody’s fault, really—and why cry over spilled Bier when there’s so much pleasure to be had out there? In 1966, John Kander and Fred Ebb adapted the play into the musical “Cabaret,” which Bob Fosse, in 1972, turned into a diamond-hard film, starring Liza Minnelli. Some complained that Minnelli sang and danced too well to be Sally: her Sally is more desperate and less free than Harris’s, precisely because she has talent, oodles of it, but is trapped in a world that values trend over individuality or vision.

Michelle Williams’s Sally, in Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s revival of “Cabaret,” wears her loneliness like a cloak over her fur coat. She’s an emotionally broken person with excellent posture who performs in order to momentarily dispel her fear that the world isn’t always paying attention. When she wants to feign indifference or innocence, she bats her eyes slowly, like a nineteen-twenties boudoir doll, and she speaks in a metallic voice, like the clatter of a typewriter; the voice is a defense, a remnant of the Jazz Age, out of synch with this corroding world. The weight of actual talent would be too much to add to this Sally’s burdens; her singing and dancing are just a way of marking time until she can be herself again, “madly” alive. Williams gives a perspicacious, authentic performance in a synthetic medium, the American musical. She is not a creature of Broadway, so she doesn’t play anything bigger than it needs to be played; it would go against her m.o. Instead, she digs and digs for those moments, in herself and in the script, that will lift the production to a level that can’t be explained. Her performance may baffle those who know only the Minnelli version and don’t realize that Williams is playing Sally as Isherwood envisioned her: talentless, more verbal about sex than sexual (she longs to be considered “shocking”), adrift—and intent on being fascinating.

As the pale-skinned, greasy-haired Emcee, the fierce Alan Cumming—who played the part in two previous revivals—has a flashier attack than Williams, but that’s as it should be: the Emcee wants to draw us into his world and then trap us there. We first see him at the Kit Kat Klub, where he and Sally work; he’s dressed in black trousers, suspenders, and a bow tie—that’s it. Stealing a glance at the balcony, the Emcee, a snob, waves and says, “Hello, you poor people up there!” He keeps up the patter as he sings “Willkommen,” a paean to his form of paganism, which includes eying and probably bedding the hunky solo musicians, as well as the female dancers, who are his corps de perversité. Cumming’s Emcee is a bisexual sheikh, up for the drama of being taken: sexual depravity is the force that drives his polluted world view.

It takes Clifford Bradshaw (Bill Heck), an American writer who has travelled to Berlin to finish a novel, a while to understand that the Emcee’s louche, seen-it-all attitude is a Berlin social style. Cliff finds digs at the boarding house of Fräulein Schneider (the outstanding Linda Emond), who has known better days but no greater love than that of her Jewish lodger, Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein)—yet how can it work? They both hold back at first. (Burstein is a new Karl Malden, subtle and down to earth.) One way to get to know the city, then as now, is to go to its clubs. Cliff does just that—and meets and falls in love with Sally. Sally has lots of lovers, but the only man who gets under her skin is Max (Benjamin Eakeley), who runs the Kit Kat Klub, and whose approval she seeks because it’s hardest to attain. In scenes illuminated by Williams’s reach as an artist, Sally moves in with the sympathetic Cliff, then, in what feels like very little time, goes back to Max: his demeaning power over her is easier to take than Cliff’s sensitivity.

When Williams sings the title song, at the end of the show—a song about Sally’s late pal Elsie, with whom she shared “four sordid rooms in Chelsea” (“The day she died the neighbors came to snicker / ‘Well, that’s what comes of too much pills and liquor’ ”)—it’s Sally’s corpse that we, and Sally, imagine. Williams plays the song as the last vestige of the privilege that is Sally’s ignorance—an ignorance that will lead to her death. Sally is not alone. The Emcee’s hedonism, Fräulein Schneider’s anti-Semitism, and Herr Schultz’s willingness to turn a blind eye to it are all nails in the coffin of European civilization. Looking out at the audience, as a bright light blasts like hate from upstage, the Emcee shows us what will become of him: he removes his leather overcoat—the skin of his German decadence—to reveal a pink triangle and a Star of David. Sally stands on the gallery above him, her face impassive, as if she’d been swallowed whole by the horror of the world.

Neil Patrick Harris’s Hedwig wouldn’t look out of place in this lineup: he and Sally are both benighted, painted figures, spoiled and deprived—performers whom Andy Warhol might classify as “the leftovers of show business.” When we first meet Hedwig, a down-on-his-luck transgender rock musician, he’s playing on a set whose décor consists of old auto parts and a wrecked car. The concert is the story of his culturally confused but ultimately triumphant life, punctuated by eleven vivid songs. (The music and lyrics are by Stephen Trask, the one-of-a-kind book by John Cameron Mitchell, who starred indelibly in the original show and in the 2001 movie.) A native of Communist East Berlin, the young Hedwig became the love object of an American soldier. In order to go back to the U.S. as the soldier’s wife, he agreed to a sex-change operation, which was botched—hence his “angry inch.” The marriage collapsed, leaving Hedwig stranded; love is now a stranger to his hungry heart, despite the affection that Yitzhak (the wonderful Lena Hall), his partner and backup singer, demonstrates on their endless tour through life.

“Hedwig” ’s director, Michael Mayer, is pushing for the show to be a hit—with a big, almost “Jesus Christ Superstar”-like sound and lots of light cues—but, in trying to turn it into a feel-good production, he takes the focus away from Hedwig’s deeply strange and touching tale. Mayer treats Hedwig and Yitzhak not like adults struggling with meaning and purpose but like the adolescents in the tiresome 2006 musical “Spring Awakening” (which won him a Best Direction Tony): they are “kooks,” petulant teens who’ll feel better when they finally grow up. It’s an old story—equating difference with arrested development. Under Mayer’s direction, Harris doesn’t quite capture Hedwig’s profound androgyny of the soul. His Hedwig is a physically disciplined gay man in a wig, who’s afraid of tripping in his Elton John “Pinball Wizard” space boots. (Harris grows more “male,” and thus more audience-friendly, in the course of the musical.) The project likely has deep resonance for Harris, who is one of the few openly gay actors to play straight and cross over to the mainstream. But his imagination has been constrained by Mayer’s condescension. I have no doubt that Harris will mature in the role and, eventually, outgrow, as all stars must, his need for the director’s approval.

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The Sugar Sphinx

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Over the past twenty-five years or so, ever since her spectacular New York début at the Drawing Center, in 1994, the now forty-four-year-old artist Kara Walker’s visual production—sculptures, cutouts, drawings, films—has been diaristic in tone. But the diary Walker keeps is not explicitly personal; it’s a historical ledger filled with one-line descriptions about all those bodies and psyches that were bought and sold from the seventeenth century on, when slavery became the American way of life and its maiming shadows pressed down on black and white souls alike.

Walker knows that ghosts can hurt you because history does not go away. Americans live, still, in an atmosphere of phantasmagorical genocide—we kill each other with looks, judgments, the fantasies that white is better than black and that blackness is bestial while being somehow more “humane”—read mentally inferior—than whiteness. But what do those colors even mean? In Walker’s view, they are signifiers about power—the power separating those who have the language to make the world and map it, and those who work that claimed land for them with no remuneration, no hope, and then degradation and death.

In her silhouettes, Walker’s black characters are often fashioned out of black paper—the color of grief—while her white characters live in the white space of reflection. But, in recent years, this scheme has begun to change—radically, upping the ante on what Walker might “mean” in her gorgeously divisive work. Take, for instance, the success of Walker’s latest piece:

At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:
A Subtlety
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined
our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World
on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant

The title says it all, and then not.

Located in Williamsburg, the Domino Sugar Factory was built in 1882; by the eighteen-nineties, it was producing half the sugar being consumed in the United States. As recently as 2000, it was the site of a long labor strike, in which two hundred and fifty workers protested wages and labor conditions for twenty months. (I saw the piece before the installation was complete and look forward to going back.) Now the factory is about to be torn down and its site developed, and its history will be eradicated by apartments and bodies that do not know the labor and history and death that came before its moneyed hope. The site is worth mentioning at length because Walker’s creation is not only redolent of its history, it’s of a piece with the sugar factory—and its imminent destruction.

Measuring approximately seventy-five and a half feet long and thirty-five and a half feet high, the sculpture is white—a mammy-as-sphinx made out of bleached sugar, which is a metaphor and reality. Remember, sugar is brown in its “raw” state. Walker, in a very informative interview with Kara Rooney, says that she read a book called “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.” There, she learned that sugar was such a commodity that, in the eleventh century, marzipan sculptures were created by the sultans in the East to give to the poor on feast days. This tradition made its way to Northern Europe, eventually, where royal chefs made sugar sculptures called subtleties. Walker was taken not only with those stories but with the history of the slave trade in America: Who cut the sugar cane? Who ground it down to syrup? Who bleached it? Who sacked it?

Operating from the assumption, always, that history can be found out and outed, Walker’s sphinx shows up our assumptions: She has “black” features but is white? Has she been bleached—and thus made more “beautiful”—or is she a spectre of history, the female embodiment of all the human labor that went into making her?

Walker’s radicalism has other routes, too: in European art history, which made Picasso and helped make Kara Walker. But instead of refashioning the European idea of coloredness—think about Brancusi and Giacometti’s love of the primitive and what they did with African and Oceanic art—Walker has snatched colored femaleness from the margins. She’s taken the black servant in Manet’s “Olympia”—exhibited the same year black American slaves were “emancipated”—and plunked her down from the art-historical skies into Brooklyn, where she finally gets to show her regal head and body as an alternative to Manet’s invention, which was based on a working girl living in the demimonde.

Walker’s sphinx is triumphant, rising from another kind of half world—the shadowy half world of slavery and degradation as she gives us a version of “the finger.” (The sphinx’s left hand is configured in such a way that it connotes good luck, or “fuck you,” or fertility. Take it any way you like.) Now she’s bigger than the rest of us. Still, she wears a kerchief to remind us where she comes from. She is Cleopatra as worker: unknown to you because you have rarely seen her as she raised your children, cleaned up your messes—emotional and otherwise. Walker has made this servant monumental not only because she wants us to see her but so the sphinx can show us—so she can get in our face with her brown sugar underneath all that whiteness. And, if that weren’t interesting enough, Walker has given her sphinx a rear—and a vulva. Standing by the sphinx, you may recall the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s 1995 essay “The Rear End Exists”:

 

Legend has it that when Josephine Baker hit Paris in the ’20s, she “just wiggled her fanny and all the French fell in love with her.” … [But] there was a hell of a lot behind that wiggling bottom. Check it: Baker was from America and left it; African-Americans are on the bottom of the heap in America; we are at the bottom on the bottom, practically the bottom itself, and Baker rose to the top by shaking her bottom.

The sphinx crouches in a position that’s regal and yet totemic of subjugation—she is “beat down” but standing. That’s part of her history, too.

And then, again, there’s art history. Over the years, we’ve seen the sphinx at the Pyramids, but have we ever wondered what was beyond that mystery? Walker shows us the mystery and reality of female genitalia while calling our attention, perhaps, to all those African women whose genitalia have been mutilated because they are “slaves” in blackness, too. When has the sphinx ever had a home? What is her real secret? The monumentality of her survival, the blood of her past now “refined,” made white, built to crumble.

Photograph by J Grassi/Patrickmcmullan.com/AP.

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Talking Back to Maya Angelou

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A writer’s byline follows her even as she becomes a different self and develops into a different kind of writer. I do not valorize the dead; our best work—as people and artists—happens in those moments when we can best serve the living.

I was most moved by Maya Angelou when viewing her in connection to an artist I will always learn from: James Baldwin. Her support for her brother in the important 1989 documentary “James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket” is seen in her face; it’s a face that can hold the screen, especially when she describes Baldwin’s great generosity of spirit. (Another tale has the writer taking Angelou home to meet his mother, a woman with many children, and saying something like, “Well, the last thing you need is another child, but here she is.”) In the documentary, Angelou talks intelligently, emotionally, and openly about Baldwin’s ability to transgress certain categories, like the American penchant for defining the world through gender. She’s also very funny about the acceptance of blacks in Paris during the great modernist age. “They were so exotic and so colorful,” she says. “Who wouldn’t want them?”

Wanting—I think that’s a word that applies to Angelou’s work as a memoirist. She wanted so much, and she got so much in the bargain. Along with the Baldwin documentary, which certainly deserves wide distribution, Angelou herself worked in film as a writer, producing two scripts of historical interest: “Georgia, Georgia,” from 1972, starring the unforgettable Diana Sands, and, ten years later, the fascinating “Sister, Sister,” featuring the legendary Rosalind Cash. In that television movie, Cash plays an emotionally down-on-her-luck woman who wants to be embraced by her stern older sister, Diahann Carroll. If you come from anything like Angelou’s admired family, you will recognize the verisimilitude of her words, and how Cash fits her body into them. It’s a great performance. “Georgia, Georgia” haunts me because I have never seen it. I procured a copy through some museum friends, but, before they could set up a screening, they misplaced the DVD. It’s a haunting of a haunting—the now dead Sands and Angelou lost in the bowels of carelessness.

But, even without having seen it, I know that the film is of great historical value, like the black-and-white images that we have of Angelou as an actress, particularly in the 1961 production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks,” featuring Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, and Roscoe Lee Browne. In that show, Angelou played the Queen, an imperious figure with lines of such linguistic lusciousness that you want to bite into them, no matter how rotten they are in the center. While these are the elements of Angelou’s life and work that interest me most, and I am a different person from the one who wrote this essay about her books, I stand by what I’ve written and am, as always, grateful to those artists who produce the work that inspires me to speak as well, which is what our remembered dead leave the living.

Photograph of Angelou, taken in 1974, by Wayne Miller/Magnum.

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Thinking of Ruby Dee

ruby-dee-remembranceI was lying in bed—otherwise known as my office—just now, listening to WBLS, when one of the commentators announced that Ruby Dee had died, at the age of ninety-one. I had such a rush of feelings about this, because Dee had been present during a much cherished time in my life. A time that, when I look back at it, resembles a long stream filled with all sorts of details and a kind of light that I shall never forget, nor would want to.

It was the late nineteen-seventies; I was not out of my teens. In those days, Dee and her husband, the actor, writer, and director Ossie Davis, were friends with my mentor, the theatre director and poet Owen Dodson. That fabled couple—the Lunt and Fontanne of Harlem—had known Owen since the nineteen-forties, when he was making a big name for himself, at Howard University, as a dramatist, teacher, and director who, for instance, took his all-black student company to Norway to do Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck.”

Meanwhile, Dee and Davis, who married in 1948, and whose marriage lasted until Davis’s death, in 2005, had become, together and separately, stars in a world that didn’t exactly welcome actors of color or handle them with anything approaching sensitivity. Dee was born in Ohio, in 1922; she moved with her family to Harlem while still a young girl, and it was there that she became immersed in theatre, her great love. With the support of black-run theatre companies formed by the likes of Frank Silvera, Dee was able to work and hone her craft. Being in the majority always gives you confidence, and for many years her world was the black stage and, eventually, black film.

By 1950, Ruby Dee was appearing in “Negro” movies, like “The Jackie Robinson Story,” in which she played the wife. Dee was small, with large, liquid eyes that looked as though they were being lit from within. It was not difficult to imagine what the Georgia-born Davis saw in his co-star when they appeared together on Broadway in “Jeb,” in 1946: not just a woman who could match his will to succeed in non-stereotypical roles but an artist who would not be defined solely as a performer. After the couple married—Dee had divorced her previous husband, a blues singer, some years before—they wrote a number of plays and memoirs, including one in which they disclosed the fact that they had an open marriage, a decision that they later changed their minds about. (They were artists, after all.) They were also, along with their friend James Baldwin, forceful members of the civil-rights movement—indefatigable because they never lost the ability to dream.

Dreams are energizing; they feed the imagination. Dee and Davis shared many things, including two of the most beautiful voices we’ve ever heard in film or onstage. Davis’s was round and deep; it vibrated you the way it seemed to vibrate his chest. Dee on the other hand always sounded, especially if she was laughing, as though she had just finished crying—and the laughter was her relief over being sad. She took in great draughts of air as laughter, tears, and the joy of being rippled through her small body.

In 1961, Dee reprised her role as Ruth Younger in the film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” It’s a performance that I can barely take; everything Dee does is so on the surface—so thin-skinned and real—that it never fails to remind me of my mother. Who were these women who worked in other people’s kitchens, but who looked so much more elegant than their employers, especially when they put on their white gloves and gave a Sunday air to the day’s proceedings in the company of their children, who were their everything?

I could barely look at Dee when I would see her at Owen’s, in that penthouse on West Fifty-first Street, where his parties were legion. There, one saw one beauty after another: Josephine Premice, Derek Walcott, Mary Mon Toy—a whole colored world of mutual support. And sometimes, there, in that dream of Manhattan sophistication, I would stare at Dee in my mind while trying not to stare at her, recalling how the performances of hers that I loved best had less to do with her public self and her righteous indomitability than with the wizardry she could spin as an artist, when she could use all the things she was.

In addition to Ruth, there was Dee’s hugely imaginative work as Thief in the 1963 film version of Jean Genet’s “The Balcony,” and as Julia Augustine in Joseph Papp’s 1974 television version of Alice Childress’s “Wedding Band.” Indeed, it was Dee’s portrayal of the lovesick Augustine, struggling to make it with a white lover in a segregated world, that inspired me to stage the play this past winter at Harvard under the aegis of the American Repertory Theatre. While the unsurpassable Khandi Alexander owned the role in our production, Dee was our impetus—profound and true and, again, so stripped bare in the part that you wondered how she was able to get through it. But that’s the secret, and the gift, of a performer who is perfectly aware of her technique and how to use it—especially when it comes to exploring and showing human weakness and weirdness.

The magic of Dee’s work in those roles was such that she became a different person altogether—I did not understand how, but she did—beautifully suited and a little flirtatious and always serious about what someone else had to say. Despite my pathetic attempts not to stare at the legend as she made her way to the door, I couldn’t look away when she would bend down to kiss Owen goodnight in that blaze of glamour, calling her old friend “darling,” for what felt like a long time, before she took the candle that was herself into the starry night.

Above: Ruby Dee, January 15, 1966. Photograph courtesy FremantleMedia Ltd/REX USA.