True North: Me and Wilson


When you are on a quest there are some things in your control and others that are left to fate. There are things you can bring to the journey but the more important things are those you take away. One can decide to start a quest, or acknowledge they are on one, they can’t decide when it’s complete they can only decide when its over. One can always quit. It would then be over. However those who have the heart to quest are rarely quitters. Thus once foot is set to the path less traveled the traveler becomes an instrument it is the quest that has life and volition. My foot is on the path and I am an instrument. I travel with August Wilson as a companion because he is my True North.

You see I know where I am trying to go — I surrender to the fact I have no idea how long it will take to get there or indeed even if I will ever arrive. But out of a hunger present at birth, as constant as a guiding star, I travel due North from deep South. My wording of my quest for understanding is a metaphor translated as my passion drives what I want to learn ; from my heart to my consciousness. So with Wilson as my True North I have set sail. I want my song back. I want other’s to sing their songs. I want the songs to heal us, uplift us, fill us with a fighting spirit that will not tire and will of a certainty see us through.

Resistance never sleeps and songs of struggle are passed down . Wilson’s song is in his stories. In honoring Wilson I am singing my song. I am singing a song of self and using that song to crystallize a vision of thriving. I make a business of remembering to remember. Some of what I remember cuts like a knife and stings like the whip.  But that is not all I remember. I remember wealth. I remember song. I remember stories. I remember to remember those who have been torch bearers on our way out of no way. I remember triumphs and victories. I remember successes, inventiveness, courage, valor, and a spirit as big as Africa. I remember our joy, and our gladness, our heartfelt love and our braveness. I remember to resist feeling like I am at the bottom of life, or worth less than any man or woman made by the creator. I remember to marvel that I am and I am because we are.

The Piano Lesson opens on October 5, 2012. I have made it to the 4th stop in my commitment to direct the entire Century Cycle in order. I have learned something with each production. There never seems to be enough time to spend to know all that Wilson wants to tell me. But I listen as hard as I can and I remember.

In The Piano Lesson Wilson wants me to remember to be Janus eyed. I need to look both backwards and forward to inform the moment I am in. The future is carved from the past. We must hold on to ancestry and we must build for future generations. Wilson is talking about time. Now is when we can act. In a sense now is always all there is however now stands on yesterday and is the door to tomorrow.

I create in West Oakland CA. Art and activism have been joined at the hip here since we been here. Racism and the constraints of segregation are as responsible for West Oakland past and present as is our resilient struggle to keep our song playing. Wilson wants me to remember to be dedicated to our stories he has told me they are enough. I learned long ago that if we don’t tell our stories someone else will. I am the lion’s historian the hunter is not the hero here.

In West Oakland for me Wilson’s conversation of movement, time, and place are perfectly placed. I am watching the march of time of the streets of The Bottoms as urban pioneers or inner-city so called hipsters displace traditional residents and families which once gave the space its character and grace.  Yet I knew yesterday today would come. The Lower Bottom Playaz will stay in the Bottoms as long as we are able. Holding space for the story of thriving that was once the reality of a West Oakland composed of people of color who were not allowed to buy elsewhere. There is no longer a Redevelopment Agency in Oakland but the damage has been done. There is no longer a mass concentration of upwardly mobile, well educated, fully employed home owning Black Folk in the Bottoms.

There is a growing swell of new residents who move with the same privilege they move with elsewhere. I am living in the space that Wilson created Radio Golf to define. It is sad and telling to watch people destroy the culture they want to own. It is chilling to be in territory that is being repopulated without consciousness or mindfulness.  Is this what the natives felt like watching the pilgrims expand with their fences and endless hunger? I am harshly reminded that all you can really own is your own song, even as I hear Boy Willie from The Piano Lesson advising us that, “land is the only thing God ain’t making no more of.”

Here in West Oakland we sit between the need and desire to hold on to ancestral legacy and the need for opportunity. Once again we are engaged in involuntary migrations moving by force from the urban centers of Oakland and San Francisco to Antioch, Pittsburg, Stockton, and Sacramento looking for the opportunity to mortgage our song for a slice of the American Dream dissolving ourselves and our ability to influence policy or be effective in elections  in the process. Oakland is no longer Chocolate City and The Bottoms, the home of the Panthers has been gentrified like the Fillmore, and Hunters Point, we have been redeveloped,  dispossessed, and dispersed after being stripped in the mortgage melt down which took back generations of accumulated black wealth. If you don’t understand watch the process as it unfolds in East Oakland, which happens to be the second place in Oakland Blacks were allowed to purchase land in Oakland outside of West Oakland (thus the large concentration of North American Africans in both places). Our movement is not always at our pleasure but often in response to outward forces or in a nomadic search for opportunity denied in our present circumstance. We are ever questing equality. We are searching a place to set down roots and move easy with life in tune with it and ourselves. We are looking for America. When we find the place where our song and our roots are welcomed, the place where our whole self can thrive, then we will be home.

Image: Oludumare, the Creator of Galaxies.

By Ayodele Nzinga,MFA, PhD, the only director in the known world to direct the entire Century Cycle by August Wilson in chronological order. The American Century Cycle Project was produced in Oakland CA. The project started in 2011 and was completed in 2016. Note: The Lower Bottom Playaz are no longer in the Bottoms. They are currently in residence at The Flight Deck downtown Oakland where they completed the Century Cycle Project.Oakland’s premiere North American African Theater Company  continues to strive to create community one story at a time.