Kay Bourne Arts Report – Issue #74

July 30th, 2009  |  Published in Kay Bourne Arts Report


by Kay Bourne
(click on Obba’s image to go to the “WHY AM I DOING THIS?” website)

635 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #74OBBA BABATUNDE puts his all into the role of Cliff, a secondary character in the indie comedy “WHY AM I DOING THIS?”, TOM HUANG‘s second feature, a satire on two actor roommates, one African American, the other Asian American, trying to leverage themselves out of Hollywood’s casting ghetto, slated for screening at this week’s ROXBURY FILM FESTIVAL. The 11th annual event runs JULY 30 through AUGUST 3 in six venues throughout the city and is co-presented by ACT Roxbury and The Color of Film Collaborative, Inc.

To hear Babatunde, whose resume sports a lead in the original cast for the Broadway classic “Dream Girls,” among many, many glittering credits over 35 years in the entertainment business, the actor’s reputation rises or falls on this small part.

“Actors say to me, ‘I have a role in a low budget film,’ and I say to them, ‘Are you going to give a low budget performance?’” explains Babatunde.

The actor is intrigued by Cliff’s “re-evaluating what is important in life,” and like his son in the movie, whose comedic style is more that of a Seinfeld than a Martin Lawrence, “wants to identify himself as he sees himself rather than how society sees him.”

“While I may not have gained the recognition of a megastar,” he says. “I have been able to accomplish what I set out to do. Represent myself well and doing that, represent a people well. Art does not have a price tag.”

An actor of stage and screen, Babatunde is known for an Emmy-nominated performance in the TV movie “Miss Evers’ Boys” (the docu-drama that explores the social and ethical issues at the heart of the infamous U.S. run study of untreated Black man with syphilis), a NAACP Image Award nominated performance in the television movie “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” and a Tony Award-nominated role for his performance as C.C. White (the song writer and Effie’s brother) in the original cast of the 1981 Broadway musical “Dream Girls.” He has an enviable number of Hollywood movies to his credit as well (several of them directed by Jonathan Demme).

Even so, or more accurately, because of his breadth of experience, he sees platforms such as the Roxbury Film Festival as “absolutely imperative” as it promotes films that expand the “small framework” Hollywood tends to squeeze actors of color into.

“In independent films, they work outside the lines drawn for them (by stereotypical thinking); nothing important creatively has been produced within the lines.” There is also the benefit to the audience to see actors in roles that have more pertinence to the way life really is and are not demeaning, he adds.

It’s so often a fight. “Coming to Boston was a bold statement because of the history that exists of the challenges Blacks have had” he said about trying out “Dream Girls” here before it went on to Broadway. Babatunde recalls for example, the show’s logo, which shows three pair of legs on the marquee. They were originally White women’s legs “because it was feared that Boston audiences wouldn’t be attracted to the show if the legs were Black. Next the legs were made very dark. Finally, they were colored the brown you now see them.” He also notes that the show had a mixed success here with some people cheering but others feeling, “wait a minute, the men are in tuxedos, the women in beaded gowns.” One of the actors walking back to his apartment after the show was sprayed with a fire extinguisher by a group of men who drove up in a car. “Boston is like everywhere else in America,” he says.

Babatunde takes pride in having been “part of the company that built that show from the ground up,” and notes that the movie was “not the same show. The stage show was ground breaking and we insisted that there be no drugs or alcohol. In the movie (by contrast) one of the characters dies from a drug overdose.

“We were paying tribute to the men and women who’d given us their music; it was an indictment on racist practices in entertainment, particularly in the music business. And it revolutionized theater. For example, for the first time, there was a set piece that turned 360 degrees without a human hand touching it.”

At last year’s Roxbury Film Festival, SHERYL LEE RALPH, another original cast member of “Dream Girls” introduced her film “Secrets and Hopes” which touched on the AIDS pandemic, particularly as it affects Black women in this country. An activist on behalf of promoting understanding of HIV/AIDS and working towards a cure, Ralph first became acquainted with the virulent disease as she performed in “Dream Girls.” She has said, “I had friends who were dancing alongside of me one night who were dead or dying the next.” (This year’s festival also presents an HIV/AIDs related story, DAVID BINDER’s “Calling My Children,” which takes place in Boston).

The impact of HIV/AIDs on the entertainment community “has been heartrending,” said Babatunde. “A lot of brilliant artists were wiped out. Even more destructive has been the scourge attached to it. It’s one thing to get sick. But then to have people turn away as if they were lepers is appalling.”

OBBA BABATUNDE and director TOM HUANG will be present at the special outdoor DINNER & A MOVIE screening at Haley House Bakery Cafe of WHY AM I DOING THIS? In the case of rain, the event will move inside, to Hibernian Hall, 184 Dudley Street.

Ticket info for “WHY AM I DOING THIS?”

by Kay Bourne
636 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #74MARLA GIBBS‘ last visit to Boston was for a fabulous New Year’s Eve party in an apartment overlooking the harbor. The windows opened onto a great view of the finale of First Night with its glittering fire works display. Also, at the tony bash was news man WALTER CRONKITE. Cabaret singer and pianist BOBBY SHORT entertained at the keyboard.

The actress/singer is as thrilled to be returning to the Hub this week for the ROXBURY FILM FESTIVAL (RFF). Closer to Gibbs’s heart, however, is a screening at RFF of the drama, “WHAT GOES AROUND” written, produced, and directed by her daughter, ANGELA GIBBS, who will also attend the festival. Marla, who first delighted a national audience with her portrayal of the sarcastic maid Florence Johnston on TVs’ “THE JEFFERSONS,” is one of the comedians interviewed in “WHY WE LAUGH – BLACK COMEDIANS ON BLACK COMEDY,” a new film from ROBERT TOWNSEND which also screens at RFF on Sunday, AUG. 2.

The 11th annual edition of RFF, the largest festival in New England dedicated to screening films by, about, and for people of color, opens JULY 30 with a musical “JUMP THE BROOM.” The 50+ films will be shown over four days variously at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Tower Auditorium at the Massachusetts College of Art, Roxbury Center for the Arts at Hibernian Hall, and the Annex Auditorium at Wentworth Institute of Technology. For more info, you can go on-line at www.roxburyfilmfestival.org.

Pert and pleasant, Marla Gibbs, like Florence, rarely minces words. Now happily a resident of California, she has commented about leaving her birth place, Chicago’s South Side, where the winters are frigid and the summers sizzling and muggy, “Chicago’s a nice place to be from,” accent on the “from.” Married at 13, with three children by age 20, Gibbs worked as an airline attendant before relocating from Detroit to L.A. There she involved herself and her daughter in theater in the Black community, Mafundi Institute and Watts Writers Workshop, both in Watts. She landed the role of Florence directly from doing plays such as “Amen Corner.” Gibbs also starred in the television series “227.”

In her daughter’s movie, “What Goes Around,” Gibbs says she plays “a woman whose sister was sexually abused and she seeks revenge.” The actress is flattered her daughter, who directed the 22 minute short (which she wrote based on a short story by VIVIAN REED who produced the film and plays Misha). Angela “hired me. It’s great. She’s such a good director and I’m pleased that she thought of me. She’s been a supporter of mine and I’m a supporter of her.”

Gibbs praises her daughter’s directing skill; “she’s sensitive in allowing people to do what they do and then guide them. She trusts your talent.” Gibbs added that talking to the KBAR, she flashed back to a moment in her daughter’s childhood that indicated this gift. “I was at the window,” recalls Gibbs, “and saw the kids were getting into a fight. She got them together and had them take her hand and shake each other’s hands. It was so funny seeing her do that.”

Gibbs has had many satisfying moments in a long and active career, which includes having run a jazz club in South Central L.A. called Marla’s Memory Lane Jazz and Supper Club (1981-1999). She released a CD, “It’s Never Too Late,” in May 2006. Among those highlights, Gibbs counts playing Florence on “The Jeffersons” (“and having it run for 11 seasons”). Other parts that stand out for her was the role of an ex-singer who retreats into a nursing home in embarrassment over what she believes is the role she played in her husband’s death, “Stanley’s Gig,” and a lead in “The Visit” about a young man falsely convicted who contracts the AIDS virus in prison (with an all-star cast that includes former participants in the Roxbury Film Festival, Hill Harper and Billy Dee Williams, along with Obba Babatunde, who has a feature part in “Why Am I Doing This?,” (see above article).

The advice she is likely to impart is philosophical: “Keep going,” she advises. “The work is its own reward and then you’d like to get the appreciation which is not what always happens. So acknowledge the God-given promise in yourself. People who don’t give up, find their way. And maybe that way is set designer rather than the actress you had hoped to be.”

“Know that you are exactly where you are supposed to be at any given moment and there’s a lesson for us in where we are.”

“Read and open your mind. Be against nothing and for something, which is another way of saying: avoid being judgmental,” she said.

Roxbury Film Festival Official Site

by Kay Bourne
637 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #74TV anchor ED BRADLEY, who, like many of us, had not led an altogether blameless life, was asked if he thought he’d get into heaven. The “60 Minutes” reporter responded with assurance that all he’d need to say to St. Peter is “Have you seen my interview with LENA HORNE?!”

Cameras followed the adoring segment host as he strolled with her, first in Paris, a city that held fond memories for them both, and then through Central Park, as she reminisced, sometimes tearfully, about her hard times and how her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement had given her peace as a Black woman. It was a blissful interview.

Author of a new biography of the elegant African American star with the mega-watt smile is unlikely to get the same dispensation at the golden gates. His “STORMY WEATHER – The Life of Lena Horne,” just published by Atria Books, gives us an angry woman who’d had a horrible childhood and who as an adult was thwarted by bigotry and perceived slights, and whose personal life was tumultuous. JAMES GAVIN covers the same territory as did Bradley, and lots more. In the nearly six hundred page “Stormy Weather – The Life of Lena Horne.” Gavin’s portrait of Hollywood’s first Black female star in the sound era is a far remove from Bradley’s sentimental paean, however.

A beacon of hope for aspiring African American acting hopefuls, a diva admired by a host of gay fans, and an entertainer who wowed audiences from Las Vegas to the high society cafes of sophisticated New York, Lena Horne herself was embittered by the racism that prevented her from attaining roles she wanted to play and closed doors she wanted to walk through. She accepted the adulation of White audiences but distained them. She also felt abandoned by the people she wanted to love her. In a moment of pique, perhaps, she said she married her second husband because he could do things for her professionally that a Black man couldn’t. Towards the end of her life she conceded to her daughter that “maybe I was more loved than I thought,” but through most of her years she sought, unsuccessfully, to have her mother acknowledge that she loved her, for one, and she was herself seen, for good reason as an ice princess.

The title of the biography comes from a song first made famous by ETHEL WATERS in the days when she was a front-rank, slinky belter. As Gavin writes in an early scene in the book, Lena, at 16 is sitting off in a corner at the Cotton Club where she’d come to audition. She heard Waters’s “heartrending cry of frustration” which was about a lot more than love gone wrong. The Black entertainer who came up in the 1920′s and 30′s when racism in show business was even more pervasive than Horne would experience wrote in her autobiography, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” that “I was singing the story of my misery and confusion.” The ragged emotion scared Horne.

By the 1940′s, Horne had eclipsed Waters, who bore the younger actress a hatred she barely concealed. That animosity made working on the set of “Cabin in the Sky” in which they were both cast, fraught with high voltage emotion. At one point, Horne broke a bone in her foot when she landed too hard in a dance number. Waters was heard to say, “The Lord works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform,” a snide remark certainly but on Waters behalf Horne never seems to have made any overtures to Waters or other performers, such as KATHERINE DUNHAM, who had also paved the way for her. HATTIE McDANIELS was one of the few performers who tried to establish a relationship (FREDI WASHINGTON was another). McDaniels invited Horne to her home. In later years, Horne told DICK CAVETT, “She said to me, you’re an unhappy girl and I understand why. Your own people are mad at you. . . Darling, don’t let them break your heart. We just haven’t learned yet how to stick together.” Horne took over the song “Stormy Weather,” so to speak, when she starred shortly after “Cabin in the Sky,” in the musical film “Stormy Weather,” establishing, in 1944, once and for al, the glamour girl image that was hers, thereafter, for her entire career.

Of perhaps singular importance to Horne of the men in her life was DUKE ELLINGTON‘s right hand man, the composer/arranger BILLY STRAYHORN, known as Swee’pea (he stood only five foot, two). The author (often uncredited) of some of Ellington’s most beloved songs, among them “Lush Life,” (which he wrote at 16), “Satin Doll,” and “Take the A Train,” Strayhorn was homosexual. The two met when Horne attended an Ellington band rehearsal and, as Gavin writes, “Thus began the one true soul-mate relationship of her life.” Horne would often say that she wished she could have married him. Gavin writes, “She’d known gay men since she entered show business; feeling like their fellow outcast, she found a natural rapport with them. Later, she spoke of how the men and women she liked the most had a ‘sense of being both sexes.’” She, like Waters, may have had lesbian relationships but she never acknowledged that side of her private life. Horne kept a photograph of Strayhorn at her bedside even decades after he died in 1967.

For the most part, however, Horne lost important friendships in her life by severing relationships unexpectedly and without giving a reason. This odd characteristic seems almost an inversion of the abandonment she had experienced as a child, a sort of “I’ll do it to you, before you do it to me.” Even those close to her who die are thought of that way. For instance, when AVA GARDNER, with whom she had a close friendship, passed away, Horne was resentful that Ava had “left me,” as she put it. She ends up nearly alone, visited regularly only by her daughter and those of her grandchildren she has shown affection to. Her regrets are many.

Documentary filmmaker GENE DAVIS, also African American (to whom Gavin dedicates the biography), said of her, “there are people who will look at a blue sky and find the one small cloud and stand under it. That’s Lena.”

Whether you take the Ed Bradley view of Ms. Horne, which Gavin describes as “a heavenly interview” or the more dismal view provided by Gavin’s own “Stormy Weather” is up to you.

by Kay Bourne
638 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #74A selective art exhibit – just six paintings – makes a clarion call. FRITZ DUCHEINE‘s emotionally wrought oil canvases also provide an escape route from the chaos that swirls before your eyes. The reference, of course, is to the world we are living in and how we can transcend its violence.

As the Brockton-based artist himself states in a brief video shot especially for this show at the Museum of the National Center of Afro American Artists, “the artist, like light, like sunshine, sprays rays..points fingers.”

“ESCAPE: Works by FRITZ DUCHEINE” is presented through AUGUST 2 in cooperation with the Peace/Work Gallery of Newton with the Museum of the NCAAA, 300 Walnut Avenue in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.

Four large canvases convey Ducheine‘s essay for our times from the realm of outsider art. The narrative begins with “Judgment Day,” a vast blue and gray horizon of swirls on swirls, whose layers give up the figurative images buried within, after some study. The more you look, the more you can decode the pictures that are hidden to the eye at first. To the left, for example, there is an African mask; in the middle, a candle in a bottle (which is part of the tradition in voodoo practices). For the self-taught artist, whose framework of thought and philosophical reflection arises from a childhood spent in Haiti, these symbols and the others in the painting add up to accountability.

Paired with “Judgment Day” on the long wall of the gallery is the more lurid “Legba’s Manifestation,” a work predominantly in red swirls, also painted in 2000. The loa (voodoo god) Legba is associated with a crossroads. That is his sacred spot, the place where there is one opportunity to make a good choice and three to fail. Legba, like St. Peter of the traditional Christian religion, is the keeper of the passageway between the earthly life and the world beyond. He holds the keys to the gate. In Haiti, there is another special value of Legba, which is to bring together the spiritual traditions of Africa and the Amerindian, native to the Caribbean island.

Every god in voodoo or vodun has a veve or symbol particular to him or her. For Legba, that veve, central in the painting, saying this canvas is Legba’s terrain, is a white symbol, a wavy circle around a cross like the bones on a warning that the potion is poisonous. (In a voodoo service, the priest will draw the many veves he plans to call upon with a white powder on the earth). To the left of the canvas, again which takes some looking to spot, is a profile of an African with his past of slavery and the rape of a continent, to the far right, one of an Amerindian whose past is loss of land by colonization, and in the middle, the unifying veve and a Haitian, whose country was created out of a revolt. In Haitian history lies the ideal of liberty, whose dream, however, has gone unrealized. For the artist, the hope lies in a spiritual transcendence.

At the far end of the gallery is a painting, “Ground Zero,” which Ducheine painted as an immediate response to the destruction of the Trade Center Towers in New York on 9/11. A panorama of smoke and dust from the explosion obscures the ghostly faces of the dead and dying. At the opposite end of the gallery is its mate “Hope in a Wounded World,” as with the other three paintings about 55″ high and 96″ across, on which the artist has applied bits of surgical gauze painted red to evoke blood. The deaths are referenced by skeletons, however, there is also a porpoise, which stands for a gentle aspect of nature. Stand before the painting for awhile and then you see arms outstretched, the hands with spikes in them, and at the lower right a crown of thorns on the head of a crucified Jesus.

There is as well an eight foot tall painting of a cross decorated with some of the painted surgical gauze tying the canvas to the “Wounded World” piece and a tilted cross at the central referencing the Legba painting. All of these paintings verge on the surreal, as outsider art so often does.

Ducheine, who was born in northern Haiti and educated at the Lycee Geggrard in Gonaives, is a self taught artist who has been painting since his teen years and is much influenced by visual artists of Haiti whose work he studied. A member of the Haitian National Arts Assembly of Massachusetts, he has exhibited widely in New England.

Says curator of the exhibit at the Museum of NCAAA , E. BARRY GAITHER, “Ducheine’s painting promotes the idea that you have to nurture hope, despite violence.”

Other exhibits on display at the Museum of the NCAAA include compatriot MARILENE PHIPPS‘ strong work on Haitian feminism and sites of pilgrimage in her native country. A poet of renown, Phipps brings her depth of perception about people and places to her oils. Phipps too lives in New England.

by Josiah Crowley © 2009
639 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #74The notorious bank robber JOHN DILLINGER was crazy about movies. Specifically, he couldn’t get enough of those Warner Brothers’ gangster films. Nor could he get his hands on enough money. Other people’s money, that is. Ironically, it was after watching a Clark Gable gangster film that he was killed by the FBI in a shootout, after emerging from a Chicago movie theater. A film buff to the end!

A disappointing – though not bad – film from director MICHAEL MANN, “PUBLIC ENEMIES” is harmed by a script lacking in deep characterization or finely tuned plot points. In their place, there are a lot of loud explosions and quick editing that keeps the viewer removed from the characters. With such past credits as the DeNiro-Pacino cop classic, “HEAT” and the great journalistic film “THE INSIDER”, we were hoping for better. However, a second-rate Mann film is still better than the average Hollywood film, especially many of the summer releases.

The 1930′s era criminals became heroes to much of Depression-era America – specifically, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, good as always). Detailing his various scrapes with the law, Dillinger is shown repeatedly breaking out of prison and is cheered on by many poverty-stricken Americans. In reality, Dillinger was no Robin Hood, but a violent sociopath out for himself. Crime was his way of life. This film doesn’t romanticize the criminal, so much as simply not present enough point of view. Too often, it’s all about the special effects and shoot-ups; a better film would combine facts about Dillinger’s personal and career elements.

The film has a great supporting cast. Standouts include CHRISTIAN BALE as Dillinger’s nemesis, F. B.I. agent Melvin Purvis; and BILLY CRUDUP, shown as a ruthless J. Edgar Hoover, more about establishing himself as a powerbroker than a man of justice.

Impressive also are the film’s subtle score, solid cinematography, beautifully detailed costumes and impressive set designs. “PUBLIC ENEMIES” certainly looks good, though it’s a bit long. Still, during our current sticky summer weather, not a bad way to spend a couple of hours. Slickly produced and moving at a good speed, it beats watching that last Clark Gable film Dillinger watched, “MANHATTAN MELODRAMA.” And not nearly as lethal..

by Josiah Crowley © 2009
640 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #74“SOUL POWER” is an illuminating documentary film about the 1974 concert that brought together African- American and Black performers from all over the world, to celebrate Black Pride in the country formerly known as Zaire. The three-day concert took place prior to the George Foreman vs. Muhammed Ali fight known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”

Director JEREMY LEVY-HINTE (one of the editors of “When We Were Kings”, the Oscar-winning documentary about that boxing match) has concert footage shot for, but not used, in that earlier film. Here, while viewing what some have called “the Black Woodstock”, we witness such incredible musical legends as JAMES BROWN (who opens and closes the film, in his full glory), B.B. KING, MIRIAM MAKEBA and THE SPINNERS.

Among the film’s talking heads, none has more charisma than MUHAMMED ALI, who speaks of Black Pride and the evils of the White man. We also get glimpses of a very intoxicated GEORGE PLIMPTON; a starstruck STOKEY CARMICHAEL; DON KING (even then all about self- promotion); backstage rehearsals with SISTER SLEDGE.

Mostly, what we have is a film that shows, through the far- ranging talent and varied artists, what it means to have pride in one’s culture and how that pride can evolve into a life of accomplishment. As JAMES BROWN says, in close- up, in the film’s closing moments: “Goddamnit, I AM Somebody.”

Indeed. This is one film that reminds the viewer to be respectful of one’s past, while giving prime examples, through musical performances, of why such pride is worthwhile.

634 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #74The KENDALL SQUARE CONCERT SERIES is a free lunch-time concert series at Cambridge’s Kendall Square, in the outdoor plaza at 300 Athenaeum Streetevery Thursday, noon – 1:30pm, beginning JUNE 18 presented by BERKLEE COLLEGE OF MUSIC. Performers include Berklee students and alumni playing original jazz, Latin, hip-hop, rock, folk, funk, and reggae. Concerts will be postponed in inclement weather. For information about this series and other Berklee free outdoor summer series, click HERE.

THE NATIONAL CENTER OF AFRO-AMERICAN ARTISTS, THE FRANKLIN PARK COALITION and BOSTON PARKS AND RECREATION DEPARTMENT’s ParkARTS presents THE ELMA LEWIS PLAYHOUSE IN THE PARK, free and open to the public for twelve weeks, every Tuesday with programs at 11am for children’s groups and again in the evening for the entire family from 6-8:30pm, starting JULY 14 at Valley Gates, next to The Playstead, the big field between White Stadium and the rear entrance of the Franklin Park Zoo. For the lineup and schedule information call 617-442-4141 or click Here.

FRANKLIN PARK COALITION wants to remind you of other summer cultural festivals happening: Dominican Festival – Sunday, August 16th – Playstead
Kiddies (Caribbean) Carnival – Sunday, August 23rd – White Stadium
Caribbean Carnival – Saturday, August 29th – Blue Hill Ave near front of the Zoo
For info call the Franklin Park Coalition at 617-442-4141.

Mayor Menino and the Boston Police Department Neighborhood Watch Unit invite Boston families to celebrate NATIONAL NIGHT OUT on AUGUST 4, at the Franklin Park Zoo, 5 – 8pm, Free admission, free entertainment. Please bring a non-perishable food item for the Greater Boston Food Bank. For more visit: www.bostoncrimewatch.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.

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The Color of Film Collaborative is a non-profit organization that supports and fosters the individuals and organizations in the creation of diverse images of people of color in film, video, theater and other media, by providing artists with opportunities to exhibit, distribute and find funding for their work, as well as provide a supportive environment where they can share and develop their ideas, their vision and their work with their peers. About Us

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