Monday, February 11, 2008

The History At Home | 10. Experiments With Blackness

On Sundays, during the 32 Days Of Black History , we’re all presenting people that you should know about but might not.

1. Mendi Obadike Lewis

Years ago, I had the great privilege of being in a workshop at Cave Canem with Mendi Obadike Lewis . Mendi is one of these sisters who seems unafraid of taking risks and chances. She does not relegate her talents to one neatly identifiable genre. She makes what the project requires using the best modes of expression from them. The result is an impressive array of artistic accomplishment - often alongside of her equally talented husband, Keith.

In 2004, they created an internet opera, The Sour Thunder. Commissioned by the Yale Cabaret, The Sour Thunder streamed as a live performance over the internet. Eventually, the album was released by Bridge Records. According to it’s description, 'The Sour Thunder' blends science fiction and autobiography with pop music, new music, and a theatrical bilingual text (English and Spanish), creating a personal and surreal tale of cultural and racial identity.” Yeah - that and some more innovation and daring artistic choices about the journey towards identity.

Her first book of poetry, Armor & Flesh, Lotus Press, 2004 ISBN: 0-916418-93-6, won the Naomi Long Madgett Award.

Elizabeth Alexander - "Mendi Obadike pares her poems down to the stark, dark places where self and selves unfurl, confront, and recombine. She understands the art of distillation, both formal and emotional. Yet there is nothing reserved in these rich poems, which emanate from a deep understanding of unsentimental, polyphonic human complexity."

Toi Derricotte - “Language clean as a scalpel opens you to worlds of mysterious, powerful, terrifying life like a surgeon opens the body and reveals the great rivers inside."

See for yourself:

One Black Girlhood

When I was white I was a man.
My hair was wavy and feathered.
I wore a cowboy hat. (it was
the Seventies. I was a stud.)

I went to bars and picked up girls.
I could have any one I saw.
They bought me drinks and I drank them,
then took my favorites home to my

waterbed. I never doubted
this was me, even though I was
a small, black girl watching myself
over my shoulder. I knew what

to whisper in a woman’s ear,
how to wear those bones under my skin,
and did not need to see my face
or recognize my own soft voice.

Or go here for this gem of a poem, Even the Magnolia.

Most recently, the received a Pick-Laudati Award for “Big House / Disclosure” - a 200 hour house song / sound installation about slavery for Northwestern University. “Big House / Disclosure” is an intermedia suite exploring the architecture of slavery and Chicago’s role as the first US city to adopt a Slavery-Era Disclosure Ordinance. We conceived and developed this project in conjunction with the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade and Northwestern University’s conference Out of Sight: New World Slavery and the Visual Imagination. Chicago’s Slavery-Era Disclosure Ordinance requires institutions doing business with the city to reveal whether they have profited from slavery.”

Mendi received a BA in English from Spelman College and a PhD in Literature from Duke University. She is a Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University.

2. Damali Ayo

I became aware of Damali Ayo from Mendi Obadike Lewis. Ayo describes her work as “Now Art” which she describes “as being immediate, accessible and engaging social issues,” or “participatory and free;” and that Ayo "art should make you think and feel." And that it truly does. In spite of having appeared in hundreds of publications, including: Harpers, the Village Voice,, the Washington Post, Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune, CSPAN2's Book TV - you just don’t hear that much about the sister.

I find her work outrageous, hilarious, politely in-your-face and a critical contribution to not only the world of art, but, to keeping the ongoing dialogue about race and racism alive.

Please, I urge you to see for yourself:



Here is a video about the project “Living Flag: Panhandling for Reparations”

She actually writes receipts for tax deductions! She gives Black passers-by their first reparations payment. Watch the reactions!

3. Adrienne Kennedy

Mendi, Damali, myself and many experimental African-American artists may not be here today expressing themselves freely and experimenting artistically without Adrienne Kennedy.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1932, Kennedy was raised in Cleveland, Ohio. The daughter of a social worker and a teacher, she had the quiet, normal, conventional life of any middle class, African American woman. Her days were filled with the usual stuff of shy girls: books, music and imagination. After high school, she attended Ohio State University. She married Joe Kennedy. Together, they moved to New York. It was here - in the midst of solitary young motherhood, that she began to write. This lead her to her first Obie award winning play in 1964, “Funnyhouse Of the Negro.”

Her plays reflect that bizarre, necessary and surreal disassociation which occurs in every single African-American. She portrays that split consciousness we all develop in order to survive. She shows us the way in which each of us take or rage, despair, internalised racism and experiences of injustice and hide them somewhere safe inside of our minds. Whether we do this consciously or not, it keeps us operational. It is the singular skill which prevents us from waking up one morning; getting a gun, bomb or car and going on a killing spree. For this reason, I find them to be the quintessential reflection of Black consciousness.

She was an exceptionally courageous woman to be true to her voice and her vision. Kennedy was writing and having her plays produced during the the height of the Black Arts Movement. Unlike many of her peers - Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez , Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti - her work did not serve to “uplift,” “glorify,” “inspire revolutionary acts” or “celebrate Blackness.” According to this site "Most main players in the BAM do not consider Kennedy to be a part of the Movement for several reasons including this direction towards multi-racial plots within her works. Because several critics believe that Kennedy treats Blackness as a sickness instead of working to inspire revolution through her works, Kennedy has had trouble gaining the respect of her Black author peers. John Johnson and Jet Magazine refused to review Funnyhouse of a Negro for this very reason."

And yet, their truthfulness and honesty did exactly those things. How can anybody truly understand us and our experience until they can picture our inner-workings clearly?

Werner Sollis gives an excellent overview of her work and life in The Theatre Of Adrienne Kennedy" It begins:

"With Beckett gone, Adrienne Kennedy is probably the boldest artist now writing for the theater," Michael Feingold writes. Kennedy's drama grows out of the entire dramatic tradition, from Greek tragedy to theatre of the absurd, from Euripides to Shakespeare, and from Chekhov to Tennessee Williams. Simultaneously, it recalls the work of Sam Shepard, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Wole Soyinka. Inspired by the themes of Hollywood movies and responding to some of the English classics, Kennedy's works have been praised as surrealistic dream plays, as hauntingly fragmentary and non-linear lyrical dramas, as high points in the development of the American one-act play, and as the forceful expression of feminist themes in contemporary black women's writing.”

Back in college, I had the wonderful opportunity to play the lead role in two of her most famous one act plays, Funnyhouse Of the Negro and The Owl Answers. The role and the plays changed my life forever. More importantly, she came to see the production and her quiet support and confidence in my ability put my feet firmly on a path of artistic self-discovery.

Years later, she is still helping me find new places to apply my talents. When I was teaching Creative Writing at CityLit College in London, her autobiography, “People Who Lead To My Plays” became the foundation of my class. Rather than create a memoir which sticks to conventional form, she presents an evocative and surreal map of her consciousness. Because of the way in which it was crafted, it inspired my students to stop agonising about their work and simply begin working. It’s message was quite simply complex - your mind is a gold mine of stories, poems and plays , let them out however they wish to come.

This is what her work says to me. “I will not climb in your box. I refuse to play your games. I will not dress up in your outlandish costumes. I will be myself. Let’s get serious and grow.”


Ferocious Kitty said...

**It’s message was quite simply complex - your mind is a gold mine of stories, poems and plays , let them out however they wish to come.**

Amen and amen. This is a lesson for me today, tomorrow, and always.

Of these women, I am only familiar with Damali Ayo. As always, many thanks.

Ferocious Kitty said...

Ferocious Kitty = Deesha :-)

grant said...

hey! thanks for the shoutout to damali ayo's work. if you want to see more of her work, you should browse her website, and also check out her myspace page, which has a couple more videos, as well as audio tracks, and event dates posted.

also, damali’s new cd, “LIVE” is out on itunes – just search “damali”.

grant buckles,
assistant to damali ayo

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

great post and nice blog, chk me out some time The father of Jim Crow