Having decided that I will direct all 10 plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle at this juncture in my life has proven instructive.
Wilson’s work is transformative. His ideology is a way of seeing the duty of art, the place art can hold in a culture still seeking its true face, and the essential importance of art to a people still fine tuning the song that will be their redemption song. As I work Wilson, or allow it to work me, I am painfully aware of the growth process. I feel the angst of a painter doing a mural on the floor, having started at the door, and painting the room by moving into a corner. There is no return from this baptism by Wilson. Nothing will ever be the same again. I have been caught by the piper. I follow the roar of the lion.
Music was invented as an aural form of alchemy. A certain arrangement of chords or notes would put one in the presence of the Most High. The word began ‘is’. There was nothing. No thing. And then God spoke. Stories by the fire were the first history lessons. Cavemen painted the walls of their cave. Art is as old as man. Perhaps as old as God.
In my eyes, Art is a conversation. Artists, no matter their medium, are in conversation with those who partake of their Art. I am in conversation with Wilson. Our current discussion is Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. It is a conversation about degrees pf freedom, incarceration, identity, loss, salvation and redemption. It is a deeply personal albeit universal conversation. As Lyfe Jennings says “Bob Marly told you about the Exodus”, I overstand that Wilson explains the present moment by showing us the Genesis. For me it is the moment of my gaze comprehending the continuum illuminated that overstanding takes hold and Wilson becomes teacher, destination, ideology, food, the reason, the sharpest part of the sword; the roar of the lion.
I am being transformed by Wilson. But it’s larger than Wilson. I know because Wilson points our gaze to the source. He tells us of our song of fire that the water can’t put out. The ocean or the crossing of oceans can’t diminish this song. It has held and carried us even when we forgot to sing it. It is kicking at the door of our life’s trying to be sung, wanting to be remembered. It has been patience, while it drank quiet sorrow and funneled impotent rage through ghetto streets, I have heard it howl late night drunk on the need to be remembered. I have seen ghost float behind that song waiting for it to be remembered. The ghost of former slaves, share-croppers, freed men with no knife to cut the freedom that almost choked them, and segregated dreams that drowned in integration, all following that song waiting to be remembered. Wilson reminds us to remember.
To remember is to finger the wound. To recall the pain is to acknowledge the infection, the constant struggle to stand in the ocean, to be with your history is to be at the table that matters. To be with your history is to be in search of your destiny. In search of your destiny you may transform the present. To heal the wound, one may need to lance the site of infection and release the pus, overstanding demands lots of room.
Part II – A Song of Wilson or The Lion’s Roar
Being stole away from his life is the main problem of the central character of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Herald Loomis. Loomis is the North American African, the interrupted African, struggling to find a place to stand in the land of his captors. Joe Turner, The Piney Boys, The Industrial Prison Complex (where slavery by virtue of the 13th amendment is still legal), and slavery itself are all informed by Capitalism. Here we mean the term to describe a form of government or at the least a foundational element of the paradigm that informs our current government. I understand that some would like to define Capitalism as an economic system and they would offer democracy as a form of government that in North America employs a Capitalist economic structure. I say bull shit. It ‘s all about the Benjamin’s. What ever you call them. (Ben Franklin would have told you that profit doesn’t have a flag, I add, or a currency. Yen to Euro’s with a stressed dollar in between, it all translates – ‘Money make it go round’).
Being stole away from his life and treated like a commodity by almost all who encounter him including the black boarding house owner who proudly announces he ain’t never picked no cotton, Herald Loomis struggles to own himself. He is looking for a place to start in the world. Herald Loomis is waiting to “go”. Only when he realizes that he has the power of his own salvation is his freedom possible. Only when he understands that he is his own redeemer can he free himself. After bleeding for “his self”, Herald is free. Free to stand in the world and sing the song of himself.
When we understand we own ourselves we may finally be able to sing the song of us. We are the redemption song if only we will sing it. Wilson says it’s kicking at our throats.
Part 3 – Artist; Heal thy Self or Walking with Wilson
The Full Metal 10th Anniversary Season at The Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater is over. It ties a ribbon around a decade of creating art in the Valley. It is a point to be commemorated in a career of walking thru fire banging full metal.
I came to the Valley on purpose. In the Valley my purpose became clearly defined. I have climbed mountains to be called to stay in the Valley. I have answered the call. Placing faith on my altar and praying to be rewarded for listening and acting on the commands of my ancestors. I have been true to my intent to sustain a conversation though art with a community that is emblematic of urban spaces throughout the Diaspora that Africans were dispersed to after surviving the middle passage and the ravages of slavery. I came to be a part of a transformation. I have been transformed.
Having your own theater and a production budget allows you opportunity as an artist. The lack of access can be the reason there is no substantive art in a community. I am very grateful to The Prescott Joseph Center’s Founding Director, Washington Burns, MD, for building the Sister Thea Bowman Memorial and for furnishing the funds to support an artistic practice in West Oakland. It is in part his love of theater and his support of my work that has enabled me to grow into the artist I have become. He has helped to sharpen my blade and joins a line of mentors that have all cleared a path for me to be who I was meant to be.
Years ago, I interviewed Bob Chrisman, the founder of Black Scholar magazine. Chrisman is the friend of a friend, an educator, and a very sharp mind. He introduced me to the work of Zora Neale Hurston and the idea that art could be deconstructed to reveal societal conditions and historical relationships. This may be where I began to understand art as an ongoing dialogue. It helped me make sense of the creative chatter in my head. I remember asking him what teacher had inspired him to be who he became. He is remembered here for his answer that he became what he was by himself. There had been no teacher of note, his inspiration was not in the form of a mentor he could supply in answer to my query. The angel that built the Sr. Thea, Dr. Burns, told me once that despite his philanthropy in West Oakland, he felt no particular debt to the West Oakland community. His good work is not in response to repaying the road being paved for him by other North American Africans – it is in spite of it not having been paved. It is in fact perhaps because there was no path provided him he sought to furnish one. I greatly admire both men. I am blessed to have had a different experience. I stand not only on their shoulders but the shoulders of those who have come before. I do not separate myself. I can’t. It would be a lie if I were to claim to be self made. I like the sound of the part but it is not me. I do not walk alone. But, this is my walk. No one else can walk it for me.
When I speak to contributors to the Black Arts Movement, (BAM), they sometimes disavow a connection to Hip Hop and feel that ‘their’ movement did not grow out of the Harlem Renaissance. I just see movement. I am a child of the continuum. I see a line that stretches back, weaving through, explaining now. I am on a path that has been made smooth by those who have stumbled on it before me. For this I am grateful. I have never walked alone. I walk for many. I remember. It is my duty. I continue on the path.
I gratefully accepted a physical theater in exchange for the privilege of working with a disenfranchised community through the medium of theater. I thought it was a great deal then, and I acknowledge it as a defining blessing now. I agreed to stage works by Shakespeare and was given the freedom to chose another work by an artist of color for production annually. I was allowed to install my own theater troupe and given office space as a resident artist in a Center that had a long standing special relationship with a community that has often been the site of tumultuous change and hard won reinvention. The decade of service that has resulted has seemed very short, extremely arduous, instructive beyond belief or anticipation, and beyond all that transformational.
In many ways the distance from there to here has been magical. From William Shakespeare the outside standard, to August Wilson my internal standard, I have been stretched and tested, each step a chapter in a primer for Community Artist 101.
We are in a new book. If artistic careers are noted by movements or periods within a career then this will be known as my Wilson period. I am committed to telling the entire story contained in the Pittsburgh Cycle, fully expecting some momentous message to emerge for me upon overstanding the cycle as whole cloth. I am thankful for having two passes at Gem. The experience of the production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has insisted I slow down in my approach to the work. I can’t fly through it. I need to dwell in it. So as the formal season draws to a close I understand my duty to my troupe, my art, and myself differently. I am being offered a chance to choose to sing my song.
This comes with a reality I must accept. It comes with a set of responsibilities I must embrace in order to be happy and to have a chance at being successful. My legs got to stand up. If I decide to stand in the light, and that life has to mean something, then it is my responsibility to my life, to live it to the fullest. If I have decided my battlefield and my weapon then it is my choice to wage war or remain ensnared in forces that would keep me from singing my song. It don’t matter how heavy the song is, how unwieldy or unruly, its my song, and only I can sing it. If I would be a part of the Lion’s roar all I need to do is stand up, step up, put my foot on the path and continue to follow the light that lead me from Shakespeare to Wilson, my heart kicking in my chest with a song worth singing.
Our stories are enough. They are all I need to be free of the stories that have struggled to own me. Its time to stand up.
Ma Rainey and The Piano Lesson next.
Stanley Hunt as Herald Loomis www.lowerbottomplayaz.com