AATF BEGINS WITH ‘MOTHER G”
by Kay Bourne
(L to R: Garry Bates, Lakeisha Gilliard, David J. Curtis (back) Marvelyn McFarlane (front) Linda Starks-Walker, Alphonzo Moultrie (U/S) Latonya Gregg.)
If you’ve been wondering what’s happening with black theater in Boston, then race to the spirited and foot tapping “MOTHER G,” which gets the 9th ANNUAL AFRICAN AMERICAN THEATER FESTIVAL off to a rousing start.
ROBERT JOHNSON, JR.’s play, written as a tribute to his mother, honors a deeply religious woman who despite her respect for the authority of her church’s leaders confronts a perfidious minister.
“Mother G” continues through JUNE 5 for a total of eight performances in the BCA Plaza Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street in the South End.
The festival continues on with LILLIAN HELLMAN’s “THE CHILDREN’s HOUR,” followed by two plays by JACQUI PARKER whose company OUR PLACE THEATRE stages the AATF, which takes the festival to JUNE 13.
Johnson’s well received historical drama “PATIENCE OF NANTUCKET,” set in the 1800′s staged by Up You Mighty Race Theater Company last season also dealt with a woman who stood by her personal convictions under great stress. This time, however, the story is loosely derived from the playwright at 15 seeing his mom, DOROTHIS LOUISE GUYTON, take a stand against a corrupt preacher.
With the deft and insightful direction of Jacqui Parker combined with Johnson’s first hand remembrances, “Mother G” offers a realistic portrait of a small Black urban church in turmoil even as its members hold fast to their deeply held faith.
“Mother G” is also energized by a prodigious use of gospel music which amplifies the playwright’s message at every turn yet never feels artificial, as it might were this production a Broadway-style musical. The singing is stirring, throughout. The musical direction by recording artist CHAUNCY McGLATHERY, who plays an upright piano in the show, will make you want to be in a pew at any church where he might direct music every Sunday. He is accompanied with fine drumming from DOMINGO “Mingo” GUYTON (who is a grandson of the real Mother G.).
The memorable cast is an interesting mix of experienced actors working side-by-side with individuals who might well have been plucked from local church choirs but under Parker’s strong directorial hand carry off their acting roles well. There is a feeling of genuineness that benefits the production.
Reminiscent of Paul Robson as the maniacal preacher who preys on young women in the film “Body And Soul,” JAMES CROSS portrays the diabolical Reverend James Mercy with great flair, from delivering electrifying sermons to his belittling any parishioner who goes up against him.
He’s met his match with the stalwart Mother G., however, the Queen Mother of the church who is performed by LATONYA GREGG with strength and humor. Another resolute lady of the church is Sister Jackson played with verve by LINDA STARKS-WALKER. Her powerful voice and delicate sense of caricature, especially in her several gospel renditions helps speed the story along in just the right way.
DAVID J. CURTIS as Deacon Michael Bates is very funny as a man pulled in several directions at once. As Hazel Washington, MARVELYN McFARLANE, who has a sweet, light, and lyrical singing voice, gives a touching portrayal of a woman longing for loving acceptance who is wronged by the very person she ought to be able to trust implicitly. Her best friend, and Mother G.’s daughter, Maxine gets a nicely, bouncy portrayal from LAKEISHA GILLIARD. GARY BATES is interesting as a cousin from Cleveland who takes up for the wronged Hazel.
LAETA WHITE, CAYLA M. JOHNSON, VANESSA CASSIDY and MELISSA ERILUS are always of the moment in their various roles as choir members, parishioners, and concerned ladies of the church.
The small budget production gets a more than serviceable set from PETER COLAS who manages to provide a church interior and Mrs. G.’s home in a story that glides back and forth between the two places many times. The lighting from JONATHAN BONNER enhances the moods beautifully.
Robert Johnson’s “Mother G.” is a fascinating insider’s view of people who have little in the way of material wealth but much in the way of spiritual spine, even when a snake slithers into their Eden.
SUDANESE MUSICIAN VISITS AMAARP
by Kay Bourne
“Just pucker up your lips and blow!” coyly advises Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart. But some do it better than others.
Sudanese musician ASIM GORASHI, currently of Australia, returns to his adopted Oz having taken top honors in, yes, that’s right, an international whistling competition. Gorashi took a first in the ‘Allied Arts’ category which heard him whistle, sing, and play the electric violin. As well, Gorashi is proficient on the classical guitar, keyboards, bass guitar, and oud, an Arabic lute.
The “36th Annual International Whistlers Convention” was held this year in Louisburg, North Carolina, home base to the competition which draws champion whistlers from all over the world, Last year, it was held in Japan, next year, Holland. ERIC ARRNOW of Somerville represented the New England region at the competition this year.
A master musician, Gorashi was conservatory-trained in Khartoum (before the government closed the school down when students rejected the request they play for propaganda meetings).
Friend from childhood, KHALID KODI, a painter who is a resident artist in the African American Master Artists In Residencey Program at Northeastern University (AAMARP), says of Gorashi, “he represents Sudanese music in a new and important way by giving it a modern interpretation.”
Gorashi gave an impromptu concert in the AAMARP galleries in Jamaica Plain during his brief visit to Boston, playing and whistling songs he’s modernized from Sudan cultures such as the sweet, plaintive Elgubba Sufi tunes to songs revised from the cowboys of the Sudan many of whom now live in cities. He was accompanied on the electric keyboard by MUHAMMED E YONABA.
Gorashi came to music naturally; “My mom used to sing for me. Faintly I can remember her singing before I went to sleep. She had a very beautiful voice. Then she bought me a tin whistle when I was five and a harmonica, as well.
His grandfather, an important agriculturalist with vast farm lands, was not so encouraging. “When I was eight years old,” reminisced Gorashi, “my grandfather would take me for weekends to work with him in his big fruit garden. The workers had a five-sring harp they’d play. I loved their singing. One of the workers made me a rabbaba but my grandfather threw mine away. He disapproved of the life style of musicians whom he considered losers. He wanted me to be a doctor or a public health inspector such as himself.”
Despite the family patriarch’s censure, Asim’s school teachers identified his talent and pushed him to perform in school concerts. The youngster continued with his love of music taking up the oud at 13. He challenged himself by learning a piece by MOHAMMED EL AMIN, known for his difficulties in composition. In the tenth grade, a teacher took him out of physics class to the school office to play for the other teachers. “You’re not going to be a physician, you’re going to be a musician,” they told him.
Asim took the closing of his conservatory as an opportunity to travel throughout Sudan to study the music of the locals. “I would memorize, memorize, memorize. Then like a painter, I would go my own way with a song.”
The nomadic Sufis (a folk religion of the Sudanese) whose music was often about love, forgiveness, and beauty particularly intrigued Asim. He attached himself to a Sufi leader DAFAELLA EL SAIM, traveling with him. “I loved his smile,” said Asim, “I felt like he’s my real dad, my spiritual father. I feel he is talking to me telepathically. Even to today, I see him in my dreams.”
Asims’ CD which he recorded in his home studio in Australia playing all the instruments, singing and whistling as well, has Sudanese African inspired music and Sufi inspired music. The 9-track “Nostalgia” is available through Africanoz.com.au, a major source for music from Africans living in Australia.
NEC JAZZ PROGRAM TURNS 40
by Kay Bourne
(pictured: Ran Blake and Gunther Schuller;
Photo credit: Rick Tousignant)
Forty years ago jazz went to college thanks to the New England Conservatory of Music. Founder of the Jazz Studies program, GUNTHER SCHULLER, then newly the president of the school at 290 Huntington Avenue, used his office to promote African American’s spectacular gift to the world by establishing the very first department in a conservatory (or any other American institution of high learning) devoted to a music the world loved but academia had snubbed. Previously, even the saxophone was not allowed at the school, even as a classical instrument.
The neglect of jazz music was “racially motivated,” believes Mr. Schuller, who adds that starting up the department “should never have been an issue. There were already schools in Germany and in France that had jazz departments. How neglectful, how ignorant we are about our own music.” The department got underway in 1969 when President Schuller hired saxophonist CARL ATKINS to head the ‘Department of African American Music and Jazz Studies’. Composer GEORGE RUSSELL and pianist JAKI BYARD joined the faculty. Shortly thereafter RAN BLAKE came on board establishing the ‘Third Stream Department’ which linked classical music to jazz.
Composer/reed player HANKUS NETSKY, who became Jazz Studies Chair in 1986, said at the Monday, April 17 kick off to the celebration of jazz at NEC that “I look at jazz as an art form and an art form that is developing.”
Some highlights over the years have been big band residences from RANDY WESTON and MELBA MOORE to SLIDE HAMPTON, JIMMY HEATH, and MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS, and prominent artists teaching for short term residences such as SUN RA and his Arkestra and CECIL TAYLOR.
NEC celebrates its 40th anniversary of a Jazz Studies program during the 2009 – 2010 academic year with festivities in New York and Boston as well as clinics and community events. The Boston centerpiece will be the performance of the WAYNE SHORTER QUARTET with NEC’s Philharmonia on OCTOBER 24 in NEC’s Jordan Hall. Shorter is writing new charts especially for this collaboration. Also scheduled is an all-star jazz concert, as well as master classes open to the public and concerts at clubs throughout the area.
In New York, performances during the week of MARCH 21 – 27 will take place at the B. B. KING BLUES BAR & GRILL with such artists as REGINA CARTER, RON BLAKE, DON BYRON, CARL ATKINS and others associated with the jazz program at NEC.
Versatile post bop bassist CECIL McBEE commented about the value of a Jazz Studies program at NEC that in his day “you had to get (instruction on playing jazz music) off the street or by association on the band stand. It took me 15 to 20 years to come to the level you can come to in two or three years at NEC.”
Jazz trumpeter and composer JOHN McNEIL, a NEC faculty member, said that “self expression is totally dependent on your craft – the more skills you have, the freer you are. The skills we offer are a means to an end, not the end.” He noted also that as a professional musician “NEC never made me choose between teaching and having a career playing.”
It may also be that the schools that have put jazz into their curriculum are playing a major role in keeping the music alive. Mr Schuller, who retired as NEC president in 1977, observed that in the 1920′s, Americans were split in their listening preference, 50/50 between jazz and European classical music that nowadays only some three percent of the American public favor either of them.
Schuller said he came to love jazz when as a teenager he heard Duke Ellington on the radio. “The music was so beautiful, so perfect. I realized that jazz music in the hands of great practitioners of the art were as great as Beethoven,” he said.
MARSHALL MIXES MEMORIES WITH HISTORY
by Kay Bourne
Next to the altar in a Barbados parish church gleams a sankofa bird, carved from the same polished reddish- brown wood as the chancel. The mythic bird that flies forward with an egg in its beak, as the bird looks backward, sits in the direct view of the congregation. The parishioners are reminded of their ancestors brought to this island chained in the hold of a slaver while simultaneously encouraging them to achieve their full potential as they move forward.
Her parents, by the way, emigrated from Barbados, as did a sizeable number of their fellow islanders in a voluntary dispersal, to cities along the Eastern seaboard. Most notably for Marshall’s story, many of them came to Brooklyn where her first novel is set, “Brown Girl, Brownstones” (1959). Marshall has written five novels in all and published two collections of short fiction. She is a MacArthur Fellow and the winner of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature.
As Marshall, now age 80, looks back at her development as a writer in a literary career that has spanned some 50 years, she recounts scenes from her Brooklyn youth and her returning to her parent’s homeland which jogged her imagination as a writer. The title of her new book, however, refers to the dispersal of African people through the slave trade which typically brought them as chattel first to Barbados and some other Caribbean islands to clean them off before shipping them to Central and South American, and of particular interest to Marshall, to the United States.
PAULE MARSHALL, who gave herself her first name and insists it be pronounced “Paul,” begins the book with an homage to LANGSTON HUGHES. The beloved African American writer’s own career blossomed during the Harlem Renaissance but he was writing and giving talks through the mid 1960′s. Mr. Hughes was known for his support and encouragement of a generation of younger writers but it was still a stunning moment for Marshall when he appeared unexpectedly at a book party in a Harlem storefront celebrating the publication of “Brown Girl, Brownstones.” (Academics and biographers today believe that Hughes was a homosexual and, in the 1989 film “Looking For Langston,” ISAAC JULIEN memorializes Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance from a Black, gay perspective).
In 1965, Mr. Hughes requested that Marshall accompany him on a State Department sponsored tour, as she describes “a once-in-a-lifetime plum of an invitation,” which took them to Oxford, Paris, and Copenhagen. She places this fascinating account at the beginning of “TRIANGULAR ROAD” probably because, by her book’s conclusion, she has become an elder statesman of Black letters.
Her history of activism dates to the Civil Rights Movement while Hughes’ was the era of Jim Crow with its lynchings. The point being: that he passed off the mantle of race obligation to her and other younger writers and with “TRIANGULAR ROAD“ she is doing much the same. She is telling the next generation of writers – and all of us, really – to be connected with this African Diaspora past which is everywhere around us. By internalizing this past, we can look with renewed purpose to making a better future.
SHAKESPEARE COMES TO HIBERNIAN HALL
(pictured: Richard Snee (as Benedick), Sheldon Best (as Claudio) & Paula Plum (as Beatrice).
photos by Stratton McCrady Â© 2008)
When it comes to humor, the blues’ double entendres have a lot in common with Shakespeare’s puns. Take the comedy, currently in the Roxbury Center for the Arts at Hibernian Hall, for example. “MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING” is about a courtship that goes awry because a young man is tricked into supposing his bride-to-be has been unfaithful to him.
The lighthearted hear the title as a comment on the silliness of resisting getting married since society holds that institution in such high regard. For the Elizabethean ear, however, the word “nothing” is also slang for the female genitalia. The play then becomes about the lethal seriousness of the regard men have for virginity in the one they marry.
“MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING” continues through JUNE 14 with the cast: SHELDON BEST, JOHNNY LEE DAVENPORT, JOHN KUNTZ, DOUG LOCKWOOD, PAULA PLUM, KAMI RUSHELL SMITH, RICHARD SNEE, BOBBIE STEINBACK and MICHAEL FORDEN WALKER, (nearly half, African American) directed by BENJAMIN EVETT. For more info call 866-811-4111.
FYI: SAVE 50%
1/2 off all tickets for Roxbury residents & businesses: enter the code HIBROX when ordering tickets online at www.actorsshakespeareproject.org or when ordering from 866-811-4111. cast: Sheldon Best, Johnny Lee Davenport, John Kuntz, Doug Lockwood, Paula Plum, Kami Rushell Smith, Richard Snee, Bobbie Steinbach, Michael Forden WalkerMUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING website
“BOSTON CHILDREN’s CHORUS” presents “An Afternoon at the Theater”, Saturday, MAY 30, 2 pm, The Strand Theater, 543 Columbia Road, Dorchester. All nine choirs of the Boston Children’s Chorus take part in this season finale. During “An Afternoon at the Theater,” co-sponsored by the City of Boston, nearly 300 voices will fill The Strand with the sounds of music from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Disney films and a host of favorite musicals that span generations. Free and open for the public. For more information, click here or call 617-778-2242.
Tuesday, JUNE 2, MassMentoring will launch its new Mentors of Color campaign at Ryan’s Lounge, UMass-Boston from 6:30-8:30pm. Mentors and mentees will share their inspiring stories and information will be available on how your too can become a mentor and make a positive, lasting impact in a Boston teen’s life.Click HERE for information on the Mentors of Color program, or call 617-695-1200.
FILMMAKERS COLLABORATIVE presents the MAKING MEDIA NOW Conference on JUNE 5. A day filled with workshops on making media in today’s digital age, distribution, marketing and more. To sign up and for more information click HERE. This is not to be missed for aspiring and experienced filmmakers.
Countdown to the HARLEM BOOK FAIR ROXBURY! Starting with THE LITERARY LUNCHEON free and open to the public on Saturday, MAY 30 from 12 – 4pm. The Luncheon showcases selected well-known and emerging authors, reading selections from their works and engaging the audience in question and answer sessions. In the past the luncheon was held at the N.U. African American Master of Artists Program’s Cultural CafÃ©. This year’s luncheon will be combined with Jazz at the Dudley Library featuring THE MAKANDA JAZZ PROJECT, who is heralded by the Boston Globe as “one of the most powerful and original acts on the local scene.” Boston’s own Makanda Jazz Project is recognized for its, “emphasized textured, the ebb and flow of horns crafting achingly lyrical soundscapes.” Rounding out the afternoon will be a video performance by “OrigiNations” along with Spoken Word and Drum Projects funded through the Fellowes Trust of the Dudley Library.
Saturday JUNE 6, 12 – 5pm is the 5th ANNUAL HARLEM BOOK FAIR ROXBURY, with book signings, writers’ workshops and author talks featuring Dr. Deborah Prothrow Stith “Murder is no Accident” on violence in the Black community; Mel King “Streets” on neighborhoods and communities; Bob Hayden, historian on African American History; Erline Belton “A Journey that Matters” on creating your legacy and more. The Book Fair ends with an evening of “GUMBO” at 5:30pm, a rich, thick, mixture – will have Bostonians share their experiences in poetry and prose, featuring SAM CORNISH, Poet Laureate of Boston, and other well-known Boston poets and more.
The 1st ANNUAL SALEM ARTS FESTIVAL will be held in downtown Salem, MA, JUNE 5 – 7. All events are free and open to the public. The Festival features a collaboration of world-class artists and will include interactive events for children. For the full schedule and more information visit the website at www.salemartsfestival.com
FREE MUSEUM ADMISSIONS Most museums and art galleries offer free admission on certain days or weekends. Go to Free-Attractions.com for a list of availabilities in your area. Also visit the website for the Bank of America’s “Museums on US” program HERE. for locations of more than 100 museums nationwide who offer free admission on the first weekend of every month. In Massachusetts this includes The Boston Museum of Fine Arts; The DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, in Lincoln; The EcoTarium (museum of science and nature,) in Worcester; The Danforth Museum of Art, in Framingham, and The Harvard Museum of Natural History, in Cambridge.
Beginners SABAR DRUM classes, 3 – 4 :30pm every Sunday taught by dynamic master Sabar drummer Babacar Moha Seck, $10 per class, at the YWCA, 7 Temple Street, Central Square, Cambridge, MA. For Info call 617-602-7320. If you have your own sabar or djembe drum, bring it.