I am mid way through the production of Jitney. Only 3 shows left. It’s the second show of the cycle we have done at the Flight Deck in newly dubbed “Uptown”, (used to be plain old downtown), Oakland. This is our third production since leaving The Yard , (The Sister Thea) in the Bottoms. We started in the Bottoms and now we are Uptown — we are a success story. What a story it is — the making of art is often if not always as much a drama as the work itself. We are The Lower Bottom Playaz, we are Oakland’s premiere North American African theater company and we have earned every accolade we have ever received.
We are that company Javier Reyes from Colored Ink called the Mc Gyver troupe for our inventiveness and applied ingenuity. How else would a troupe with the motto, We create what we need from what we have been gifted” roll. We much like our art come from a place of struggle. We are more than entertainment. Our mission is to create community one story at a time. We have become very intentional in embodying our mission. We are serious artist.
We do not create art because it is easy. It is in fact very difficult. Art making in America is costly. We are not wealthy but we have something to say. We are artist out of a necessity — we have found our purpose. We are gifted. We share the gifts we have been given. We find a way to make art in spite of the difficulty. We make art as a way of being in the world, as a way of changing the world, as an act of resistance to narratives of lack, marginalization, and scarcity. We are abundantly gifted. We are boundless in our determination. We are dedicated to our craft.
Personally, I stay not because its easy, not because of material rewards, but because art is my calling. The stage is my podium — I am talking to you. I have been gifted a talented cohort of artist to create with — that in itself is a challenge. Sitting in a room of geniuses is not all you might think. Genius comes at a cost. And I demand more than mere genius. I am not fond of actors. I am in love with artist — storytellers, musicians, alchemist who turn story into gospel, magicians who willingly disappear into a character in the name of the story unfolding to show us pain, beauty, horror, injustice,ugly truth, triumphant love and all the other myriad aspects of being. Try herding cats, harnessing fire in a bottle, or aiming a rainbow and you will come to understand what it is to sit in collaboration with genius. I have that privilege.
Yet this is not a cakewalk. It is a marathon in a smorgasbord with all the challenge you can stand . I may have come to the table ready, but I have grown since I pulled up a chair. I have become very firmly who I say I am. I am now capable of setting the table. I owe some of that to Wilson. I owe a great deal to the teachers who came to me before Wilson. I owe it to my horse eating great grand parents and the female lineage they bore who taught me how to strive. I owe it to the characters I recognize and have come to love and admire in the American Century Cycle. I owe it to the genius in the room with me trusting me to invoke Wilson properly. I owe it to my ancestors who walked the path to give me the privilege to claim my gift as my birthright, as my ordained avocation, as my duty to life and nation. I owe it to my nation walking like a blind man in the dark surrounded by enduring hostility and privilege in this nation divided smothered by the myth of the American dream. I owe it to myself for the struggle doing the American Century Cycle has been.
Doing Jitney was difficult. They are all difficult. I don’t expect it will get any easier. Doing what is right, what one should do, what one must to live in the world with dignity in tact is not usually the easiest path. My path has rocks on it. I stay the path rocks and all. I have been called. I have answered. “The destination is worth the journey” as Wilson himself declared. The difficult journey has made me appreciate the lessons learned along the way. We should all know we pay for our lessons in life. With that in mind I am open to the lessons, paying the price for knowing, and determined to remember to remember. I am on the battlefield with Wilson.
With Jitney I claim our space. I mark this point in the journey like Wilson marked completing Jitney which was the eighth play of the ten which would become The American Century Cycle. He had yet to write the bookends Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf. This was a point of epiphany for Wilson. He could see the whole spell. I sit in deep communion with him. I feel this point on the path viscerally. Seeing and knowing have become painful and I channel the pain through the production of art that illuminates the source, and the chance of deliverance from that pain. I am praying with my hands moving, trying to help construct the healing I need — the healing we all need. I have the advantage of having the whole spell writ out before me; nothing left but to perform the incantation. I am on verse eight of ten, shoulder to the grindstone, pushing the envelope, anticipating a blessing.
With my commitment to the American Century Cycle. the world I knew has fell apart as I walk the path. The producer and the theater we started with are in our rear view as is the neighborhood we moved into to do art that had the intention of being much more than entertainment. We were Griots coming home to tell the tale of falling forward into the American dream with our souls still in tact. We had the idea that, if we worked to make it so, it would surely be. My home itself has become an emblematic battleground. Home and the idea of it had to be rethought, are still being considered as I write. At this moment my only home is in the graveyard where the songs of my ancestors whisper to me — stay the path. Wilson has blown so much away.
We were not wrong it has just not turned out the way we thought it would. That’s okay. We have become fine dancers we have learned to change the steps when necessary but we refuse to leave the path. We are no longer sure where the path will take us. We have faith in our fate, we have surrendered to our destiny, we are doing what we must–sharing the gifts given. We are in alignment. We are the water that Ester speaks of in Gem of the Ocean, we are fluid, we have learned the necessity and rude contours of Diaspora. None of it matters as much as the fact that this is exactly where we should be. Even the difficulty factor acknowledges we are at the top of a mountain. Wilson and the ancestors stand there with us waiting for the song. The song must be sung the spell must be completed.
No one not even Wilson has enacted the spell in order. We will be the first. We are in a new theater. We produce our own work. We will finish this spell of a work and move on changed forever having walked with Wilson though the past to the point where Radio Golf ends. We will know more than we now know, and that will inform how we walk though the world carrying the song we have found in Wilson. I have learned a fair amount so far:
One must match walk with talk or become simply sound and fury.
If you pray with moving hands the path will clear.
One’s song is the essence of one’s being the inner light, the purpose, the soul force, it must be nurtured, it demands to be sung.
We have a duty to life.
We must remember.
If you drop the ball go back and pick it up.
Everything ain’t always what it seem.
If you lose sight of your song you will suffer.
You were born free with dignity and everything.
Our stories are enough.
You can’t pass the torch to the future and then insist on calling the music it dances to.
We must consider doing what we have never done if we desire what we have never had.
The past is the key to the present you need it to see the path to the future clearly.
Trust what you know you know.
I am because we are.
If the wheel don’t work somebody got to fix it — it don’t matter who it pains.
Right is right and right don’t wrong nobody.
You got to tell the truth and stand in the light.
We are enough.
What I have learned is what feeds me now. Finally we are getting feature stories. To all this I say yes. But as the SF Gate feature pointed out “we have been doing this with very little fanfare.” Truth is fanfare cost. You need money for advertising and bells and whistles. We are so grassroots. I value paying artist. I know we eat and that heat and water cost even geniuses. It’s nice to finally get reviewed. They say:
The actors capture the essence of their characters, and director Nzinga succeeds in providing the elements necessary to bring them together into a cohesive and unflinching portrayal. “Jitney” is an exceptional piece of theater, well played by this gifted group of artists.” —Elizabeth WarnimontJitney is a must see. If you can, rush, run, fly downtown to the Flight Deck Theatre at 15th and Broadway, go pass the boarded up buildings from I Can’t Breathe & Hands UP, Pants Up! and take a seat…
So the fanfare is coming.
But it’s not what drives me. I am driven by what drove Wilson: the urgency to hear the song . The need to complete the spell. This is my duty to life. If my art is my weapon I have chosen well with Wilson. We are on the battlefield in dark times when the song of self is our most potent magic. The world is poised for change. I can hear it in the people’s getting up and taking to the street. The fight is not over. We have not forgotten being born free. We are all called to contribute to a better world. There are forces in place that like the way the wheel works its their job to guard the wheel. I am a Black Arts Movement artist. My art is my contribution to the battle to change what is into what needs to be. I battle not against personalities but principalities, this art is spiritual, its a leavening stone, it is resistance. I am emboldened with my hard earned lessons firmly rooting. I am fit for the battle. In the tradition of the Black Arts Movement art is ritual, it is political, it is my calling card for discourse, it is my intra-inter group interface with my humanity. I am teaching while I am learning. This song will be sung.
*The portrait of August Wilson at the top of the article is by James Gayles. It is for sale to support The August Wilson American Century Cycle Project undertaken by The Lower Bottom Playaz in 2010 to be completed in 2015. Inquires to: email@example.com
The American Century Cycle
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From my friend, Ayodele Nzinga, MFA, PhD