In 2014 the City of Oakland issued an RFP for the redevelopment of the Henry J Kaiser Center and Calvin Simmons Auditorium. Two proposals were considered; one detailed a robust reuse of the historic site with “baked in community benefit”, and self-accessed itself to supplement funding for Cultural Affairs, the other offered a less defined plan for the use of the site, and at one point considered market rate offices and perhaps a brewery as a use for the refurbished building.
The City accepted the latter proposal and entered into a relationship with Orton Development in 2015 and has bent over backward ever since to accommodate shifting iterations of the project now described as arts and nonprofit offices with a 1500 seat theater.
In April 2019 the Community Coalition for Equitable Development filed an appeal opposing the April 3rd, 2019 Planning Commission decision granting Orton Development a Conditional Use Permit and clearing the way for the negotiation of a 99-year lease between the Developer and the City, privatizing this public site for the length of the agreement.
The appeal is due to be heard by City Council on July 9th, 2019. It cites a failure on the part of the Developer to engage stakeholders, calls out a lack of benefit to marginalized communities, questions the benefit to the City of Oakland, and was fueled in part by the City’s failure to enact its equity policies regarding the use of publicly- owned property.
The negotiations between CCED and the Developer have become a struggle, not over the levels of the anemic concessions contained in the term sheet of a project that was not designed with equity as a lens; but for a way to construct mechanisms that animate and implement some of the equity strategies the City has yet to employ.
Oakland changed between 2014 and 2019. The change is easy to observe in the correlation of the proliferation of cranes in the sky, the not so subtle change in the City’s demographics, and the rising price of living working and creating in The Town. Oakland is booming, but the effect of the boom doesn’t benefit all Oaklanders equally.
Oakland has an equity problem. It has studied the root causes of these prevalent inequities, and crafted strategies informed by data and best practices to mitigate displacement and create more equitable outcomes. The problem is, that as of this moment, the City does not seem to have found a way, or lacks the will, to implement the equity strategies outlined in multiple City policies, recommendations, and guidelines.
An approach suggested in the Mayor’s Task Force Report on Arts and Housing suggests that the City utilize existing properties or buy properties on which to create equitable outcomes for artists at risk of displacement. The Calvin Simmons and the Henry J Kaiser represent unique opportunities to implement equity strategies. They offer an opportunity for the City to do a better job for the community than they did with the Fox, which presents an insurmountable access barrier in the price of production for the few days a year it is available to the community. The Orton project has become subject to Oakland’s Art Ordinance percent, and is subject to the City Impact fee on new development, both grandfathered in, however, the Developer was never instructed to use an equity lens. This selective enforcement of policy does not serve Oakland’s most fragile communities.
As it stands, the City is prepared to give away the Calvin Simons and the Convention Center in the same year it took a huge bite out of Cultural Funding. The budget cuts confirm that the City does not plan to invest in new properties on which to enact it’s stated strategies and they are inexplicably comfortable privatizing Oakland’s civic spaces.
So when will equity arrive in Oakland? If not here–where?
Will Oakland ever make equity a mandate?
At what point does a failure to enact policy become a form of benign neglect?
The Parable of Drowning While Watched
Imagine you are drowning. Someone casually observes you might be in danger. Instead of acting, they commission a study to consider if what is clear to you is based in fact. The consultants employed then confirm that you are indeed drowning and in imminent danger. So then, the observer hires other consultants to devise a strategy to save you. You miraculously are still treading water hoping something is done soon. The consultants provide a strategy. The strategy is rather obvious — a drowning person could be saved if the observer threw them a rope. The result of the studies is published and read widely while you continue to tread water. The observer walks slowly to the furthest place we can imagine and purchases rope. You can see the rope coiled underneath the arms of the observer who is now standing at the edge of the water watching you go under.
Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, founder, producer, playwright, and director of Oakland’s Lower Bottom Playaz opened a new play at the Flight Deck, 1540 Broadway, downtown Oakland. It is a myth-ritual dance drama in the Black Arts Movement Theatre tradition, based on the Yoruba storytelling in the best tradition of African didactic narrative, i.e., teaching a moral story based on ancient spirituality and morality, i.e., the myth of Eshu and the moral teaching of, do the right thing.
In the 1960s, Black Arts Movement poets, playwrights, dancers, drummers, painters turned away from Christian mythology and ritual to embrace Islamic, Yoruba, Rasta and Hebrew myth-ritual. It was a conscious denunciation of European White supremacist Christianity that approved the genocide of 100 million, and even today, 2018, North American Africans suffer trauma and unresolved grief so well depicted in Protective Shields.
The Yoruba priest who probably influenced 1960s Black African culture the most was Oba Serjiman Olatunji who spread Yoruba culture in Harlem, who single-handedly presented Yoruba culture in its most flamboyant and royal manner. As a Harlemite during 1968-69, I recall Oba Serjiman parading through the streets of Harlem with his entourage of wives, priests and devotees in elegant flowing robes and headpieces, chanting Yoruba songs that helped ignite the Black Arts Movement of the 60s, the most radical artistic and literary revolution in American history, alas, it gave birth to the Black Panthers, Black Arts Movement, Black Studies, Ethnic Studies, Gender Studies, et al.
Black Arts Movement co-founders,Amina and Amiri Baraka, were married in a Yoruba ceremony, officiated by Oba Serjiman, who soon departed Harlem to establish his African Yoruba Village in Sheldon, South Carolina. According to the new Oba/king, before his father could have peace with the whites in the area, he had to show superior magic in the manner of Moses and Pharaoh’s magicians.
Oba Serjiman, obviously influenced the Black Arts Movement, alas, he is perhaps the most critical factor in the BAM/Yoruba intersection. There was Nigerian drummer Oljunji reinstating the drum as spiritual therapy with rhythms for all the orishas, i.e., gods, for Harlemites and North American Africans coast to coast deprived of the healing power of the drum since arriving in the Americas, most especially in the USA, elsewhere the drum created new world beats in the old world manner, for orisha rhythms never change–an eternal tribute to the identity and power of the gods and their connection with devotees, supplicants, sycophants…..
A Black Mass was Amiri Baraka’s interpretation and synchronization of Elijah Muhammad’s Myth of Yakub, the mad scientist who created the white man through genetic engineering, but Baraka infused his myth drama with Yoruba and Sufi teachings. We applaud Baraka for utilizing original North American African mythology but extending the myth with African and Islamic myth-rituals.
BAM theatre folks like the New Lafayette’s director Bob Macbeth, Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre, the Last Poets and myself tried to create Black Ritual Theatre, with dramatic energy derived from Yoruba, Islamic and Christian myth-ritual, especially the Holy Ghost church. It had the high level of energy we wanted in the BAM theatre. Further, we wanted to destroy that fourth wall that separated the actors from audience, forcing them into oneness and celebration of the Divine Spirit. My contribution to Ritual Theatre is Resurrection of the Dead, a myth-ritual dance drama by Marvin X, Black Educational Theatre, San Francisco, 1972. In the African tradition of drama, there is no audience, all enjoy the communal experience. When I was told Vudun is a democratic society, I understood in the Vudun ritual one only comes forward when their orisha’s rhythm is beat on the drum. Correct me if I am wrong.
We cannot leave BAM Master Teacher Sun Ra out of this discussion since he fused Kemit mythology with so-called science fiction, although Sun Ra is considered the father of Afro-futurism, Octavia Butler, the Mother. But Sun Ra took Yoruba, Islamic, Christian and all other isms and schisms, including Jazz, Blues and any other sounds to construct his Myth-Ritual Arkestra, demonstrating the highest level of BAM aesthetics, philosophy, dramaturgy. No BAM artist approached Sun Ra’s vision of smashing European art and white supremacy mythology.
In the grand tradition of African drama that originated in the Osirian drama of Resurrection, modeled on the annual inundation of the Hapi River, aka, Nile, Ayodele reveals to us the necessity of high morals and values as the ultimate Protective Shield.
If we cut to the chase in Ayo’s drama at the crossroads ruled by Eshu, aka Legba, aka Ptah, aka Peter, Protection Shields taught us the only protection is to do the right thang, thus the long monologues by characters fighting within themselves to do the right thing. To borrow a line from Islam, we say, “Ithdina s-sirata al mustaqim, Guide us on the right path.” The Christian Bible tells us to put on the armor of God.
Dr. Ayodele Nzinga forces us to transcend the Christian and Muslim myth-ritual, with repeated calls out to the Yoruba orishas, displaying Yoruba myth ritual of offering fruit to placate the orishas, without which one cannot possibly navigate the crossroads, not without Eshu in the persona of a child, yet wielding spiritual power to present the suffering adults with the Protective Shield, even the suspected murderer of the mother’s son is given the Protective Shield but only after he declares the uselessness of murder or “blood for blood” as the narrator repeatedly informed us.
A mother wants revenge for the murder of her son. Having lost a son, we were beyond understanding of her trauma and unresolved grief. She was presented with a Protection Shield by Eshu represented by a child who adorned all the supplicants who submitted to do the right thing, some for the first time in their lives. Alas, my patron, Abdul Leroy James, used to say, “Most of you people (excluding himself since he was a successful multi-millionaire from real estate but he did make possible my book projects and community events such as the Melvin Black Forum, Oakland Auditorium, 1979, National Black Men’s Conference, Oakland Auditorium, 1981, Kings and Queens of Black Consciousness, San Francisco State University, 2001, Tenderloin Black Radical Book Fair, 2004, San Francisco, One Day in the Life, docudrama of Marvin X’s addiction and recovery, the longest running North American African drama in Northern California history, 1996-2002)–Ancestor Abdul Leroy James said, “Most of us ain’t done nothing right in our lives.”.
Protection Shield’s dominant theme was, do the right thang! If you kill, the pain of revenge is inescapable, blood feuds for evermore, honor killings. All the supplicants submitted to do the right thang and were thus blessed to transcend the crossroads with the blessing of Eshu.
Throughout the drama, all the orishas were called upon to do their thang. Playwright, producer, director, Dr. Ayodole Nzinga consciously employed the Yoruba myth-ritual to rock 2018 Black Christian myth-ritual, although Africans in the Americas long ago figured out how to synchronize African spirituality with European Christian mythology. We fused Haitian Vudun, Cuban and Puerto Rican Santaria, Brazilian Candomble and other Caribbean spiritual persuasions into an eclecticism of functional religiosity. We can attend a Catholic mass then visit a Vudun ceremony to placate the Orishas without feeling contradictory.
The Yoruba narrative in Ayo’s drama resembled Black American Christian ritual, or Christianity in general with its major theme of suffering and death, although the joy of resurrection derived from Kemet, Egypt, Africa’s Nile Valley Civilization that extended the 4,000 miles of the Hapi River, aka Nile, source of basic Christianity, Judaism and Islamic religiosity. See Yusef Ali’s translation of the Holy Qur’an and his notes on the steps of Egyptian Religion toward Islam.
For sure, Dr. Ayodele transcended Western dramaturgy. Protection Shields was completely devoid of dialogue, instead, a plethora of monologues was employed, many offstage, but even more pervasive was her use of choreography to advance the narrative. The Yoruba method of utilizing dance to advance narrative is well known, going back thousands of years. We know the dancers employed classic Yoruba choreography to tell the story, for every dance movement is connected with an Orisha,yet as much as we enjoyed the dancers whose choreography advanced the narrative, still, something was missing and sorely needed to make this myth-ritual dramatic. A dramatic film can move to stage and visa versa, but Protection Shields is the mytho-history of the hero Wolfhawk Jaguar, an individual experiencing a rite of passage and his devotees enjoying a healing communal rite of passage as well.
We were not satisfied with the hero sleeping throughout the drama of his myth-history. We see him on the second level, primarily asleep in a dream mode, but since he is also the rapper and high priest of this drama, he must be utilized beyond his dream state. After all, we hear him and see him in constant movie clips buy why not allow him to take the stage as rapper to explicate his mythology. He would be much appreciated by the dancers whose every move is about him, so get him out of slumber land and let him rap to us from the upper room. This will make his mythology real to us and expand the reality of his time in our midst and the lessons the narrator informs us about continuously throughout this didactic classical drama in the Yoruba tradition.
Earlier today, I wrote about How to Recognize A Real Nigga, Part Two, Notes on the Nigga Debate, during the intermission, Dr. Nzinga and I conversed and I told her I tried to delineate the positive nigga from the negative nigga. Her drama revealed to us that doing the right thing is the best and only thing to do, anything less has negative repercussions since every action has a reaction and Eshu will not allow us beyond the crossroads unless we put on the Protective Shield, i.e., the armor of God. Thankfully, the supplicants submitted to wear the Protective Shield, so the drama ends in the African fashion of Sheikh Anta Diop, who told us in the Cultural Unity of Africa, there is no tragedy, only comedy, for we know what Frankie Beverly sang about joy and pain, sunshine and rain, sometimes they the same…. Yet, to traverse the crossroads, we must be right, so in Islam we pray, “Ithdina s-sirata al mustaqim, Guide us on the right path. Dr. Ayodele Nzinga continues and extends Black Arts Movement theatre into the present era. We applaud her crew of actors, dancers and technicians.
Protection Shields will rock your consciousness, especially if you are a white man dipped in chocolate as a young man described the Black Anglo Saxons (Dr. Hare) of today.