Happy Birthday Sister Maryom Anna Al Wadi, one of the founders of San Francisco State University’s School of Ethnic Studies and the Black Student Union 50 years ago. Happy Birthday to my nephew Wilfred Batin who I think is a teenager now (smile). Happy Birthday also to Marie Labossiere, An Ezili Danto Warrior Woman! Fierce revolutionary for justice.
On the Fly:
A Bay Area Treasure, I don’t know how Avotcja does it all: host two radio shows, perform with her band Modupue and curate such a phenomenal series of poetry and storytelling events. Yet she does and has for more years than we have fingers and toes. This is why, though I appreciated and loved “Beloved Oakland,” one of a series of programs last month EastSide Arts Alliance hosted to promote the conversation regarding the Black Culture Zone (BCZ) in East Oakland, I think two culture workers were left out: Avotcja and Paradise. I would not have excluded any of the awardees; however, to omit Avotcja is like forgetting to bow to the Queen (as in Califa not Victoria). And Paradise? It was his birthday (2/18) and his poem made the City of Oakland change the signs from “Entering Oakland” to “Welcome to Oakland.” I am just saying. RESPECT!
March 21st 2018 at her Annual Healing Evening of Poetry, Jazz and the Fire of Wordsong with members of Avotcja & Modupue at City College of SF, 50 Phelan Avenue, Creative Arts 133, San Francisco, CA 94112 (a 10 minute walk from Balboa BART), 6:30PM NO COVER, ALL AGES ALWAYS WELCOME, For more info: (415)239-3000, see: www.ccsf.edu or www.Avotcja.org
Avotcja’s monthly series La Palabra Musical, Music of the Word, at Cesar Chavez Library, 3301 East 12th Street @ 33rd Avenue, in Oakland is March 24th and looks this month at, PODER DE MUJER / WOMAN POWER. The program which is both featured artists and open mic begins at 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. It’s free. For information call: (510)535-5620 or visit http://oaklandlibrary.org/locations/cesar-e-chavez-branch or www.Avotcja.org
Every Saturday in March Celebrates Women at Joyce Gordon Gallery
Sat., March 17, 2-4 p.m., join Wanda Sabir in her work: Choreographing Diaspora: An Afternoon of Poetry, Visual Art, Travel and Storytelling at JGC 406 14th Street in Oakland. For information call: (510) 465-8928 or visit www.JoyceGordonGallery.com
An Evening with Michelle Obama at the Oracle March 28 in Oakland
Too Expensive, but if anyone has tickets, I’d love to go and take a photographer. Let me know:
African Film Festival at BAMPFA kicks off March 8-May 6
African American Shakes presents: Tennessee Williams: A Street Car Named Desire March 4-18 at Marines Memorial Theatre in SF
Ubuntu Theatre Company continue its “House Divided” theme with Marcus Gardley’s “Dance of the Holy Ghosts” March 9-31. Visit http://www.ubuntutheaterproject.com/2018-shows/
Diamano Coura West African Dance Company present: the 23rd Annual Collage des Cultures Africaines: Migration Stories: Our Histories and the Healing of Our People
March 8-11 are workshops and classes and a book reading. Saturday, March 10, 8 p.m. at Laney College, 900 Fallon Street (at Ninth) is the performance showcase. Visit diamanocoura.org for the entire schedule or call (510) 459-2426. The dance classes and book reading are at the Malonga Casquelourd Center For the Arts, 1428 Alice Street, Oakland.
Rhonda Benin’s “Just Like a Woman”
For the sixth continuous year, the tour de force that is vocalist Rhonda Benin, celebrate Women’s History Month with her concert show, JUST LIKE A WOMAN. This year’s stellar lineup features a much anticipated reunion of two pioneers of Women’s Music, Holly Near and Linda Tillery; blues artist EC Scott; neo soul/jazz artist Kimiko Joy; youth artists Lyla Neely and Maya Parades-Hernandez; producer/singer Rhonda Benin; backed by music director Tammy Lynn Hall & The Lillian Armstrong Tribute Band. Peralta College Community radio personality Flo Wiley is host/emcee at Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison, Berkeley, (510) 644-2020. Tickets are $25 in advance and $27 at the door; www.tinyurl.com/JLAW2018
Edgar Arceneaux “Library of Lies” and “Until, Until Until . . .” at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through March 25, Asks the Question: Is Truth Furniture in a Dominant Narrative Structure
In February, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Edgar Arceneaux presented a performance piece in connection with an installation “Library of Lies.” The wooden labyrinth cabin-like structure is filled with bookshelves and books. Some books are wrapped in black plastic, more interesting books are covered in crystalized sugar. As we look at crystalized confections, our moves reflected in mirrors—the shelves are caught in a maze making t is hard to figure out which stacks were visited and which were not. The only books with any certainty were the books with Bill Cosby’s face on the covers.
Just the name, “Library of Lies,” (through March 25 at YBCA) makes the patron fact check her thoughts . . . just in case. Several years ago, Arceneaux, who is an artist whose work is not confined to one genre—theatre, mixed media, architecture, writing, watched a performance by Ben Vereen at Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration at the White House. It was a tribute to vaudeville legend Bert Williams (1874–1922). In blackface, Vereen sang ““Waiting for Robert E. Lee,” and then sang another song, “Nobody “ as he removed the paint. The only problem was, the ABC network just aired the first half which distorted Vereen’s intention and message. The response from Black community was outrage. Vereen was called a sellout and a “Tom.” It was a horrible time for the artist whose work, had audiences seen the entire piece would have realized he was not insulting Williams’s legacy or memory.
Silence or omission is just as bad as an outright lie. When Vereen learned about the project he was supportive and even invited the artist who was to portray him to his home to help him with the dance.
In Until, Until, Until . . . (2015-17) the actor, Frank Lawson, looks just like Vereen. The work is more than a re-creation of an historic moment. The live-action play and immersive multimedia art installation gives audiences a chance to query a particular historic moment from multiple perspectives: the present, the past, Vereen’s and the audience at the White House that evening.
As cameras document the rehearsal and later the performance we see multiple Vereens performing; the effect is past and present merging. This is one of the many beautiful moments in an emotionally disturbing work. Perspective is key, as is memory. Is Vereen’s correct or the camera? What about the viewers who just saw the ABC rebroadcast with Vereen as Bert Williams singing “Waiting for Robert E. Lee” in blackface? The TV audience think they have the truth when we see they did not. If this is just one of many instances when fake news distorts or changes reality irreversibly, we see how fragile information is and how easily it can be changed intentionally. The lie becomes the truth. (Sounds like Orwell’s Ministry of Information in “1984”. Facts are shredded; yesterday does not exist if it does not serve the state’s interests).
“Vereen’s biting commentary on the history of segregation and racist stereotypes in performance was lost on viewers at home” (press notes). When the scene with Williams singing “Nobody” as he removes the black paint is omitted, we lose important commentary and Vereen loses his credibility.
Before the curtain rises, there are free cocktails. Vereen at the bar helps serve. When the lights go up—the lounge becomes a stage where Vereen is rehearsing his steps— Arceneaux says later it is Vereen’s memory telling him to speak more convincingly. There are empty chairs on stage which the audience later fills – not enough for everyone, others stand, some with drinks in hand. Guests at the White House we look out into the empty audience; we now a part of the spectacle. We watch Vereen sit at his dressing table, we see the makeup come off, watch him rise, speak, sob . . . tears streaming down the actor’s face and then he walks off. There is silence. He doesn’t return. We sit and wonder. We look around confused. Is the performance over? Where are the directions for this part? Why are the cameras still rolling?
Conversation: YBCA presents an evening of lively conversation between two longtime friends and collaborators, artist Edgar Arceneaux and art historian Julian Myers-Szupinska on Friday, March 16, 7 p.m. in the YBCA Screening Room, . Admission is free with same day gallery admission
Venturing far beyond mere observation or criticism of the works presented in the exhibition, they will discuss the nature of their artist-historian collaboration and deliver a fresh look at their shared world of art. Using as a point of departure a small but charged set of historical and popular archival images, film clips, writings, and music, they will share their insights on the ideas and themes embedded in these objects and ephemera.
While there don’t miss another exhibit also in the lower gallery: Yishai Jusidman, a Mexican artist of Jewish heritage’s “Prussian Blue” https://ybca.org/whats-on/yishai-jusidman
Yishai Jusidman’s Prussian Blue is a series of paintings rendered almost exclusively in one of the earliest artificially developed pigments used by European painters—Prussian Blue. The chemical compound that makes up this pigment happens to be related to the Prussic acid in Zyklon B, the poisonous product deployed at some of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. By a strange turn, traces of the pigment remain to this day in the walls of the gas chambers. Such stains are quiet, disturbing, and palpable reminders which Jusidman’s paintings re-engage with a profound effect.
This exhibition is organized by Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City, and is making its United States debut at YBCA.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is located at 701 Mission Street, San Francisco, Tix: 415-978-2787, firstname.lastname@example.org
Wanda Sabir: Could you please address the reason why you felt compelled to present the complete story, to exonerate the name of fellow artist, Ben Vereen?
Edgar Arceneaux: “The intentional omission of the second part of the tribute foreshadows a future parade of partial truths normalized in a society where the truth has multiple lives, all of them irrelevant. I am speaking specifically of Trump, but “fake news” is not new. “
EA: “I was compelled to make [Until, Until, Until . . .] because of a coincidence really. I was commissioned to do a performance by Performa out of NYC and thought I had an idea for what I could do. But then I ran into Ben at a kid’s birthday party. I mention that I was not invited to the party partially as a joke, and that it’s also true. I was not invited nor had any idea there was such a party, yet there I was in front a man that had done one of the most memorable works of performance I had ever seen in my life. I thought that if serendipity was showing me something that I should pursue it and see where it leads. Once I learned about the effects that his performance of ‘Nobody’ had on his life and career, I was struck with a risky opportunity and a burden. If I told his story the way in which it was intended to be seen, would I suffer the same fate as Ben? He made me promise that I wouldn’t allow that to ever happen to him again, and with a resolute heart I said “I promise.”
WS: What does Vereen say about the re-staging, screening of his full-work, as well as the sculpture — “Library of Black Lies” (2016) where you say the intentional maze or labyrinth is an opportunity to “find what is lost [in oneself].”
EA: “Ben Vereen has not seen the library and black lies yet and I’m uncertain if he is even aware of it. But he was quite moved to see the performance for the first time in Los Angeles this past summer. He expressed his gratitude and also offered to work with my actor Frank Lawson on some of the dancer’s moves, which we did, two days later and it was surreal to watch the past in the present colliding on stage.”
WS: Why did you find it necessary to catalog and present the Lies with such formality (smile).
Who gets access to Black Lies? Who operated the facility? Where does one get a card? How are Black Lies and artifacts arranged? Is it a circulating space? If so, how long can a patron check out a Black Lie?
EA: “Great Questions. The black lies are more metaphorical then literal. The term is meant to be poetic, [except] in some specific instances, like Cosby as being about misdeeds and criminality. What do we do with the Cosby show now? Can we separate the art from the man?
“Within the narrative of the library, and who owns it, I meant it to feel like a cabin in the woods meeting a geode. Wanted to builder to remain a mystery so you could image who the person might have been who built it, based on what’s left behind, and how its organized. Along the way, within the labyrinth library, or labyrinth, you get lost along the way so you can find yourself in the middle. Both the self-reflected in the mirror and our shadow side.”
WS: Is everything we read a Black Lie? Who is your archivist? Is the Library Growing? If so, how can one contribute? addressed above.
I am also really interested in the sugar metaphor. As black people, “sugar” is both traded and treasured like salt. Both are detrimental to our health once we land on these shores: sugar diabetes and hypertention. (Vereen has diabetes.) My father died from renal failure, another one of those environmental toxins — present traumatic slavery syndrome).
EA: “Oddly enough. I didn’t start w the sociological effects of sugar or its metaphors. I began working with sugar close to 15 years ago because I was looking for material that could exists in multiple states simultaneously. Sugar can exist as a granule and a liquid gelatin or crystal. I was excited about the Crystal because it has geometry to it. Not all sugars are sweet. And it exist as a basic building block of ourselves, the cells in our body. The power of juxtaposition is that when you put two things together that are unrelated they begin to say things, things that they would not on their own.
“When I juxtaposed [sugar] to history and in particular African-American history, you begin to come to some of the conclusions would you described above. As an artist I rely on their prior knowledge that I believe if you were will bring to it. But it’s my job to pivot on what you know to explore something that you may not have considered. The destruction of the book renders it unreadable or readable but the crystals give it a new life. Not just an aesthetic life, but the crystals themselves express a paradox. We consider crystals to be frozen in time but in reality they actually grow organically like the roots of a tree. So well after the crystals are dried they can still inhale and exhale the moisture in the room.
“This is the metaphor of transformation but in what direction is the question. Between the states of building and destruction there is an in between the crystals on the books is that in between. Is the viewer’s job to decide where that’s going. Building up or falling down, is it a ruined or a beautiful transformation; I hope that the viewer can possess both of those things hold them up side-by-side and consider that they are both simultaneously. Does that seem perplexing to want that as a goal for a work of art?”
WS: The work suggests a fragmentation, what Dubois calls “double consciousness” or a split or auteur self, which black people tend to send ahead (the facsimile more welcome that the woman or man. Please talk about The Library and how you conceived it and its integration into “Unil Until Until.”
EA: “These are two separate words that I was developing at the same time. Both use mirrors and reflections refracture transparency and partial views as a way of exploring history. In the library I am doing this with architecture. With Until Until Until I’m doing it with narrative in the format of play and an art installation.
“Both works are meant to envelop the viewer and transform them from the beginning and the end of the experience. This has less to do with the notion of a double consciousness and more to do with the journey of self-exploration that could if intended explore the perils of a dual identity. I hope and both works to show a Third World beyond the dualistic thinking.”
WS: There is an intention structured into your work, which mirrors Vereen’s intention in honoring vaudeville legend Bert Williams (1874–1922), a man many African Americans were ashamed of. What does Bert Williams mean to you, an African American performance and visual artist? Juxtapose this with Ben Vereen, “Chicken George,” juju man, Ifa warrior like Williams who made it work, despite the hostilities he faced in Hollywood? If black men are characters, where are they safe when not performing?
EA: “There’s a lot in those questions. During the lifetime of Brett Williams I am not convinced that people were ashamed of him. He was one of the most celebrated performers [or] entertainers and an all America. He produced his own films and in some instances none of the black actors besides himself in black face. You know that’s what audiences wanted but no one else had to wear a black face. That’s how he got his movies made.”
Charles Peoples III is back in Theatre Rhinoceros’s World Premiere of “Transitions” written and directed by John Fisher at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St. (at Battery St.) in San Francisco. Last seen in The Legend of Pink as Pink, this time the intrigue thickens as a Russian President, an American President and a drag queen (Peoples as Ruby) are the stars of this story about gender and sexuality in the world of geopolitics. A surprising relationship between a young Republican and a no-nonsense drag queen almost set the world on fire. But in a moment of international crisis this romance might just save the planet, as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are about to find out. A satirical drama ripped from the world’s headlines in the tradition of filmmakers Billy Wilder and Oliver Stone.
The show is up through March 17. Visit www.TheRhino.org Listen to an interview with Charles on Wanda’s Picks Radio.
Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko’s “They/Them”
Those Women Productions presents: Shifting Spaces which features the world premiere of They/Them, an intensely moving and lyrical drama about a transgender teen fighting for their mother’s love. They/Them is by Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko, Tanzanian, now an East Bay resident, Nick’s Waafrika 123, a new full-length play set in Kenya about “two queers who are not allowed to exist,” at TheatreFirst 5/3-6/2/2018. They/Them is directed by TWP Associate Artist Norman Patrick Johnson.
The three plays of Shifting Spaces: “They/Them,” “vessels,” and “Revelations,” reflect a wide spectrum of feminist perspectives. Each tells a unique story in a bold and captivating voice. Stylistically very different, they all feature characters who fight passionately for and believe courageously in their right to be themselves.
Shifting Spaces will be up March 23 to April 8. It plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm through April 8 (no performance on Easter Sunday, April 1) at the Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley.
Those Women Productions is committed to a policy of “Radical Hospitality,” making theater accessible to audiences regardless of ability to pay. Prices range from $00.00 to $35.00. Tickets are available at the door and through Brown Paper Tickets: shiftingspaces.brownpapertickets.com/
Brava and BACCE present: House/Full of Blackwomen: AfroNOW — balance on the brink, Thursday, March 15, 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM at Brava Theater Center Cabaret 2781 24th Street San Francisco
Hosts choreographer Amara Tabor Smith, director Ellen Sebastian Chang, multi-media artist Alexa C. Burell (aka LEXAGON), and somatic scholar Amber McZeal invite you to explore an evening in act(ions) of resiliency, rejoicing, rejuvenation through an interactive experience of conversational questioning inspired by Octavia Butler, Audre Lourde and Toni Cade Bambara, multi-media, Afropunk and wellness. Come prepared to move, sing and create.
Tickets are: $10 – $25 sliding scale. No one turned away for lack of funds (subject to availability)
Saturdays @ AAMLO for Women’s History Month
2018 Theme: “Nevertheless, She Persisted: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.”
All programs which are free start at 2 p.m. At AAMLO, 659 14th STREET, OAKLAND. For more information, contact 510.637.0200, or email@example.com.
Featured presenters are Lise Pearlman (3/3); Careth Reid (3/10), Halifu Osumare (3/17); Oakland City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney (3/24)
BETWEEN US @ TheatreFirst at Live Oak Park Theatre, through March 10.
Program A: LAVEAU: A Conjuring of Marie Laveau by Brit Frazier, directed by Margo Hall, Dezi Solèy / Marie Laveau Visit: http://theatrefirst.com/between-us/laveau/ Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, (510) 981-8150.
Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies West Coast World Premiere at Custom Made Theatre in SF
Custom Made Theatre presents: The West Coast premiere of Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies, playwright, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s timely, irreverent examination of growing up black in America. Directed by Lisa Marie Rollins, with Brit Frazier as dramaturg. CMT is located at 533 Sutter Street in San Francisco. Shows are March 8, 9, 10 at 8:00 pm; Opening Night: March 11, 7:00 pm; runs through March 31. Thurs-Sat 8:00 pm, Saturday matinees March 24 & 31 – 2:00 pm. Tickets: $25-42. Call (415) 798-2682, custommade.org
Professor Anita Hill headlines Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series
ANITA HILL is featured speaker at the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series on Saturday, March 10, 7pm at the Oakland City Center Marriott Hotel. To RSVP for this free event, call 510 434 3988.
Professor Hill has contributed greatly to equality and democracy in America. While she is known for her testimony in the United States Congress during sexual harassment hearings concerning Judge Clarence Thomas, she has devoted her career through research, writing, and advocacy in connection with women’s civil rights and women’s equitable inclusion in economic and political participation.
December 2017, Professor Hill became Chair of the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace. The commission’s focus is on sexual mistreatment and inequality in the entertainment industry.
Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau @ TheatreFirst in Berkeley through 3/10
An Interview with Brit Frazier, playwright
Dezi Soley is a woman to watch. She gets it right every time. A goddess certainly, but the kind who walks among us – the characters she embodies as great as the imaginations which birth them—Star Finch and now, Brit Frazier’s LAVEAU: A Conjuring of Marie Laveau, directed by Margo Hall starring Dezi Solèy as Marie Laveau. Recently seen in Alter Theatre Company’s “Bondage,” the Haitian actor is still in the kitchen stirring the broth, this time as chief cook, Madame Marie Laveau. When one thinks conjure woman, Mambo, look no farther that this Louisiana Gumbo Ya-Ya, Spirit Worker.
Frazier’s new work which opens Program A of Between Us at TheatreFirst, once again, Jon Tracy, TF Artistic Director, has done it again. TF is the place where discourse around difficult topics like race, class, politics are encouraged. These 7 new commissions in repertory are amazing.
The situation of the Laveau piece as the opening chapter is fitting. Laveau says: “Words are spells, incantations.” We are what we think, so spirit is self-articulated. Make sure your thesaurus is open so you can choose precisely. Laveau tells black women to breathe and let go of a lexicon which has not served us. Yes, from the stage, the mambo speaks to us. Where else than at TheatreFirst can one see this kind of work?
On a breezy, lovely Berkeley Sunday afternoon, Brit was kind of in a daze after the warm reception—the work, her work is so magnificent. She is truly a vehicle for a story we all need to not just hear, but represent—Laveau’s humor and fearlessness is contagious. Imagine a sorority of Laveau Daughters from the Bay? Brit says when she encountered the Voodoo Woman, enchantress, healer, she wanted to tell her story. Her Laveau appears vivacious, fun yet reverent. She has come to set the record straight. There are too many misconceptions, so bring pens and notebooks. Laveau is a lesson.
The character admits some people fear her, while others love her. A scientist, she knows her spells and incantations work, and if her directions are followed precisely, results are guaranteed. I like that kind of certainty.
An abolitionist, Laveau freed many African Diaspora kinsmen and women. On stage she pours libations on the many altars assembled as she honors her ancestors and deities who helped her with important work—her primary role was to free her people. She talks about the duppies or sleepwalkers and her reach beyond the grave.
Laveau might laugh, but make no mistake, she is a powerful woman.
An altar dominates the room where Laveau performs her prayers and rituals. Dressed in ceremonial white, we see her shadow dancing behind a curtain as projected images cover a screen ending with Laveau’s portrait. As she honors her ancestors and prays throughout the work, Laveau sprinkles juicy tidbits about her life between a song or an offering. She speaks of marriage, divorce, slavery, African deities and spiritual practices.
Solèy’s work as a dancer is evident here. One wonders if the playwright has Dezi in mind as her character evolved. The actress is such a perfect fit. Even though the work is theatre, the ceremony is real. What Brit’s “Laveau” says is both an affirmation and a word to the wise.
The conjure woman’s magic and spells to keep black women, black mothers, black girls safe— We can see this ideological work in the artistic work of two Bay Area conjure women, Amara Tabour-Smith and Ellen Sebastian Chang’s Housefull of Black Women Project. Housefull looks at how enormous a task it is to be a black woman, to walk in our shoes. Smith and Chang have developed creative queries called “episodes.” The series of episodic moments within a discourse unpack the ever shifting dynamic: black women vs. the rest of the world.
The February “Housefull” episode was passing/through/the great middle. Tabour-Smith et al had audiences look at what it means to lose a child—sexual violation and the cost of refusal. The work examined what was left – the words that remain after the body is no more. As she called these spirits from slave ships or in slave quarters or working in the field . . . into the room there was a hush—something holy was passing over. Similar to the masque, a woman dressed in bones walked among us– bones knocking against other bones; rattling, touching us as Egungun or ancestors danced—
Spirit women sang, played music—took us to holy gatherings under sanctified rooftops. We were told to grab hands as we looked for a lost letter, walked down the street into an alley where blood was being washed away only to reappear just as the story recycled.
This episode (as had so many others) took place at EastSide Arts Cultural Center located on a busy thoroughfare in East Oakland (23rd Avenue and International). Before we went down an alley around the corner, we stepped into a sanctified space where Obeah, Juju Conjurers, Mambo women sat on pillows singing – admonishing, laughing and telling plenty lies. Also in the room were altars in a variety of sizes to the Orisha: Yemanja, Oya, Esu Legba. I didn’t see Oṣun, but she was probably there. The space was tight and people let go of each other’s hands.
We then left for another leg of the journey, the final stop outside where obeah women sat on benches while others washed a white cloth. It was a ritual washing, choreographed to the rhythm of the storyteller—Amara’s voice. She told the same horrible story three times. Each time she reminded us that the story was true. This was the hardest to witness and then leave. We were offered a cookie as we made our way back to the theatre singing “Wade in the Water.” Some of the women didn’t make it across – others stopped singing. The silence was worse than the story we could not forget, the story of the child beaten to death because she refused to relinquish her rights to her body.
This “House/Full” episode was about embodiment and how frightening this concept is to captors who tried to beat it out of the girl and failed. That night we heard stories. Words spoken like maps tracing our way back home. Back in the theatre, a film shot on the beach reiterated those same words. Poetic, the repetition was comforting.
This is the place Frazier’s “Laveau” also occupies. This is the place Star Finch’s “Bondage” occupies. In “Bondage,” Dezi Solèy, as mixed-race “Zuri,” is a slave girl who would kill all captors before she relinquished rights to her body. We also see Dezi in a more contemporary work, directed by Frazier in TheatreFirst’s “Participants: Star Finch’s “Take the Ticket.” The work explores how white theatre artists thematically exploit black pain.
All of these black women characters (and to a certain extent their creators) realize there is no place in the world for them—unacknowledged, they pose a very real danger. Nonetheless, just because acknowledgement is refused does not mean black women are not present and can, if she chooses, dismantle the wall or better yet redo the entire cosmos.
All black women should see Brit Frazier’s “Laveau,” up through March 10 at TF at Live Oak Park Theatre in Berkeley. Tickets are going fast. Laveau is an opportunity to leave the baggage behind. It is already too heavy, besides Marie Laveau reminds us, the sh– is not even ours.
Don’t forget to check the tags before exiting the airport or train station. Just as I thought, the tags are wrong.
I had an opportunity to interview the playwright, Brit Frazier, a fierce black woman in front of and behind the curtain. She definitely has the ear of the Orisha or black deities. Ashay, Ashay, Ashayo! The conversation here is insight into the play, answers to questions posed in the review and more.
I also have links to two Wanda’s Picks Radio interviews, one Friday, March 2, 2018 with Dezi Solèy, actress, and director, Margo Hall, plus an interview from the archives (09/09/2011) with one of Brit’s primary sources, writer, Jewell Parker Rhodes.
Wanda Sabir: What is your fascination with Madam Laveau?
Brit Frazier: “I wouldn’t call it fascination, it’s more reverence. I recognize her power and honor her work. She died supposedly over 100 years ago and is still as potent energetically now as she seemed to be in her time. She is an example of a pillar of spiritual strength, and an unapologetic, fearless vessel of the feminine divine.”
WS: Why is she the vehicle for a celebration of Black Life and Black Women?
BF: “She was a healer, a root worker, an abolitionist and a juggernaut in the fight to create and protect space for Black People to worship and experience catharsis in the midst of brutality against their bodies, family structures and worth. She realized black love, black procreation, was important; so along with healing and freeing black bodies, she saw to it that our existence wasn’t whipped away by cruelty, she made sure black People had the time, space and security to know love as well.”
WS: The work is a libation for African Ancestors of the Middle Passage. Talk about the symbolism and ritual items from altars to white garment, projected images, dance . . . songs.
BF: “The color white is owned by Obatala in Santeria and Damballah in Voodoo. Both deities bless our consciousness, they are representations of The Mist High in our thinking. The whole piece surrounds the idea of cleansing the consciousness. Laveau mixes a spiritual “white bath” onstage, traditionally used to cleanse the body and spirit of lower energies, negative influences. Ritual and repetition help us to access that which has been stolen, lost or forgotten.”
WS: There is history and a dismantling of lies and mythology associated with this roots woman Voodoo Queen. Talk about your research and how the material chosen made it to the stage and what spells did not (smile).
BF: “My research involved a mixture of reading, introspection and listening to Marie Laveau guide me through her tribute. There is soo much information about her and her daughters and at the same time so little. Deciphering between truth and lies came from listening to her. I read a few books but two that stuck out were Jewel Parker Rhodes’s “Voodoo Dreams” which is a beautifully rich “fiction,” but has a lot of fact weaved in and the other “Voodoo Queen” by Martha Ward, which is nonfiction and gives a really extensive account of what Antebellum New Orleans was like.
“Ward also does a lot of research finding old legal documents, articles and interviews about the Laveau’s themselves and their rituals that helped me shape the piece. I ended up cutting a lot of the history around her best friend , priest of St. Louise Cathedral and former leader if the Spanish Inquisition, St. Antoine aka Father Sedella and Marie Laveau’s the 1st, second husband ( a white man , who legally changed his race , gave up his privilege to marry her)Christophe de Galpion because I only had so much stage time and two ,we, Marie and I, felt it important to highlight the strength, power and resilience of Black Women… men are great, don’t get me wrong… friends are great but they were cut from this particular iteration.
“Ward includes spells in the book, one of which is supposed to be one Laveau’s most powerful spells to ward off injustice . . . it’s a revenge spell. I didn’t use it, because I have feelings around Ward including the spell in her book in the first place (it’s nothing to play with) and two, this piece isn’t about revenge, it’s about self-preservation and believing as black women that we have the power to do practice that conjure, and see results, watch the blessings show up in our lives.”
WS: You have not been to NOLA or Haiti, two places where Voodun is a national religion, not to mention West Africa in Yorubaland.
BF: “Nope. I’ve never been except in my mind.”
WS: What have you learned about African spirituality in the writing of this mythical character and what lingers with you now that she is fully formed?
BF: “I had knowledge of Yoruba and Santeria religions [developed in the Diaspora] before knowing Laveau or starting this piece. . . . This experience was more about finding her in me. She isn’t a mythical character, she is very real. I learned a lot and was inspired by her unapologetic strength.”
WS: You have shattered the 4th wall. What is your vision for the future of staged work? Talk aesthetic, respect, ethics, voice, content, authenticity, honesty, ownership
BF: “I’m not sure. I just know I’m interested in performance ritual… I feel entertainment especially now has been charged energetically/spiritually with ushering in a new consciousness. . . . I just wanna do that work.”
WS: As the pieces right themselves and artists rethink their processes, what would you like your audiences to take away from this experience?
BF: “Black resilience and the will “to conjure themselves clean.”
WS: What are Laveau and Big Mama whispering to you right now?
BF: “Be easier on yourself Brit. You are magical, gifted and fragile… and worthy. REPEAT AFTER ME, YOU ARE WORTHY! “
WS: Talk about your director, actress, and design team . . . did they make Brit’s vision come true?
BF: “Margo Hall (director) is amazing at everything, she really helped me activate the piece. My biggest fear writing it, was that it would turn out didactic and visually boring. It’s anything but, in my opinion. Margo is a blessing. Dezi Solèy (actress) is a Queen. She herself is a very powerful bruja . . . . I felt it as soon as I met her, she brings light everywhere she goes and isn’t afraid to drop the performance and spiritually attune. The design team are the most patient and giving people ever!!! I think of them like the nurses in the delivery room, they helped clean my baby, make sure she was healthy and vibrant… I’m so thankful for the Love and care they wrapped [me and Queen Laveau] in.”
WS: What’s next? Margo said you have a longer play written. Are plans in the works for a run? Where are you performing next?
BF: “I don’t know… maybe a short? Black noire, shot in New Orleans in Congo Square, on Lake Pontchartrain and in Laveau’s old house and at her gravesite; Featuring dancers, real ritual work, and drummers; shot out of order , highlighting ritual imagery. I don’t know… but I can dream. The piece presented at TheatreFirst is eleven pages, the full piece is around twenty five pages. . . . I don’t know what is next.
“My next gig is Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s “Hooded: Or Being Black for Dummies,” March 8-31, at Custom Made Theatre, (415) 798-CMTC (2682), 533 Sutter Street, in San Francisco in which I’m am Assistant Director and Dramaturg and my next acting opportunity is with Campo Santo called “Casa De Spirts” at YBCA, May 16-17, written and directed by Rodger Guinevere Smith.”
Black Panther: A Reflection on Cultural Solidarity and Historic Debt (spoiler alert)
King T’Challa, the revered “Black Panther,” allows himself to be used to further the cause of white supremacy in this heralded chapter of the Marvel comic series. Depth is not a part of T’Challa’s DNA. We see early on how a pretty face distracts him to the point that Okoye, head of the Dora Milaje (actress Danai Gurira), the all-female special forces of Wakanda, disobeys orders and follows him on a rescue mission, just in case. Let’s just say, her services are needed.
To expect T’Challa to do what is right by his estranged brother N’Jakada is a stretch. Despite knowing his identity, the king doesn’t show the warrior bearing gifts any warmth. N’Jakada does what he was unable to do, stop a known threat—the enemy’s skull in his hand which he throws toward the throne.
(For those who are unfamiliar with the Marvel comic series and previous adventure: Captain America: Civil War in which T’Challa’s father King T’Chaka is killed. This precipitates T’Challa’s return to Wakanda where dirty laundry is aired and then shredded.
While new writers certainly have taken control of the narrative that is T’Challa/Black Panther, his Avenger baggage follows and points him in politically unsavory directions for Marvel series sake. This is why we see Captain America (Winter Soldier) waking up in Wakanda (guest of Black Panther). This foreshadows a major battle in store for Wakanda in the next episode: Avengers: Infinity War, in theatres May 2018.
As the credits roll we see Black Panther comrades, Black Widow and Falcon, from “Civil War” hiding out in Wakanda. All are on the run and wanted by the US government and maybe the United Nations. See Vox. Interestingly, T’Challa plays both political ends with his relationship with CIA agent Everett K. Ross (actor Martin Freeman). One wonders how he maintains trust.
But back to the story at hand, for all the “Black Panther” hype, the film’s attempts at depth within the parameters of Disney and Marvel are still wanting. The framework is just not something created by us. Writer, director Ryan Coogler and co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, actors and other artists associated with the work are allowed only certain tools—yes it is beautiful, yes there are important lessons and values shared, yes, it is certainly has moments where audiences cheer. With all this going for it, shouldn’t the sky be the limit? Yet the Marvel comic universe had Black Panther (character and story) tethered. How else can anyone explain how or why the leader of the world’s mightiest, technologically superior nation, has to play by a set of rules which deny his humanity and cause him to kill his brother? And remember, by playing by their rules, he loses his father.
Sometimes separation is better than integration and certainly assimilation.
In reflecting on the story, which is complex. I listened to the soundtrack and read the annotations in the margins, which gave context to some of what I saw on screen and background on characters whom I’d just met in the story. There is a lot left unsaid; however, ultimately, the Wakanda we meet is not palatable to a Diaspora native who has had a different experience with colonialism. Those who sell out their people to the highest bidder do not have the same relationship with the power-broker that the 99 percent have. Our response is not patient or conciliatory—it is about chopping off heads and taking no prisoners. I am speaking philosophically here as warfare is more spiritual than physical. We are so powerful, we can think the enemy into his grave.
Juju positioned in the right place is guaranteed to cure all ills, especially those of soul. If you have not seen Brit Frazier’s “LAVEAU: A Conjuring of Marie Laveau” (Program A Friday-Sunday) at TheatreFirst in Berkeley, through March 10, do not miss it. In this wonderful work, directed by Margo Hall and embodied by Dezi Solèy, we meet one of New Orleans medicine women, Voodoo Queen. She stirs broths, introduces prayers and blesses the house as we find ourselves drawn into stories of liberation, healing and sacrifice. Brit says: “During the pre-civil war antebellum south, the voodoo queen Marie Laveau built and preserved space for Africans to worship their religion openly and to practice black joy freely. Now, in the midst of present day black genocide, Laveau is conjured to empower a spiritual revolution where Black Lives Matter and the Black Woman is God.”
I think N’Jakada would have appreciated Madame Laveau and she could have helped him cool the rage and manage his anger in a more healthy way. We who are African know what is visible is not all. The physical manifestation is minuscule compared to the actual loss in lives over time. The colonizers think strategically and have been in place for centuries. Imagine, the uranium used to bomb Japan came from ore in Congo. Black liberation globally is just white imperialism gone underground. There is a reason why Wakanda intentionally kept itself off the map. However, spies are everywhere and eventually what is hidden will eventually come to light. This is not to say, Wakanda’s refusal to help neighboring countries or Diaspora Wakandans was correct. It was just a selfish part of a plan which has now imploded—probably another episode in the Marvel comic universe. But I digress we were speaking of Kendrick Lamar’s “Black Panther” Soundtrack.
In Paramedic [Intro: Zacari; Kendrick Lamar] N’Jakada says:
“I am Killmonger
No one’s perfect
But no one’s worthless
We ain’t deservin’ of everything Heaven and Earth is
But word is, good, (this is my home)
Said no one’s perfect, but no ones worth this
We ain’t deservin’ of everything heaven and Earth is
But word is, good (Northern California). ”
T’Challa tries to silence N’Jakada, also known as Killmonger to the rest of the known world. Unmasked—T’Challa meets his equal in the man facing him. Perhaps this is why he doesn’t greet or allow his guest to say his name.
It is still such an insult when T’Challa knows royalty stands before him—Granted brotherman has a rough exterior. It’s been 500+ years; kinda hard to erase the vestiges . . . stains permeate psyche . . . other stains are just hard to erase from garments meant to last just one lifetime, not several. The persona is still tarnished by centuries of survival in the worse conditions—slavery, Jim Crow, structural racism and state violence. The man on the throne grudgingly recognizes himself in his brother’s eyes—N’Jakada is the son of Road Dog Warrior N’Jobu on a secret mission in Oaktown when he is killed many years ago.
Chadwick Boseman who portrays T’Challa says the character is an antagonist and is the enemy of Diaspora Africans. The prince, then king, lives in his supremacist bubble where power is his elixir and tonic of choice. He hangs out with other powerful people – race unimportant as long as they are powerful and do not disturb his way of life. The game he plays with others is not lost on N’Jakada (Michael B. Jordan) who when he cannot kill him refuses second thoughts or a halfhearted gesture and sentencing to imprisonment. Instead N’Jakada tells his cousin he can toss his ashes on the ocean where his African ancestors’ bones line the bottom of the sea.
Was there a way for T’Challa to spare his cousin’s life and not lose his own? The riff between Africa and Diaspora Africans is so large – great compassion, love and forgiveness is the bridge necessary to cross the divide. Perhaps if N’Jadaka Erik Steven and T’Challa had had a bit more time the two men might have found a compromise. However, given the shallowness of Black Panther’s response to external pressure to share Wakanda’s rich reserves with others in the Diaspora not to mention Continental Africa. . . . . Well? He is Black Panther in a nouveaux Peacock Chair making deals with the CIA! I am like hold up?! Are you out of your mind? This must be a slapstick thrown in to distract and confuse the audience who do not know their history and who probably believe it’s okay to share secrets with the US government. Like Okoyo, the CIA is all about meddling in international affairs which threaten white supremacy and its economic and military dominance. Wakanda has a seat in the UN Council and
When N’Jadaka shows up with the head of the King’s arch-enemy in his fist, he is admitted into the chamber where the elder council is assembled. They don’t know this young man who stands with pride and assurance. He knows he is home even if those around him do not guess his lineage—but soon they will. He looks at their faces and dares the king with his eyes. N’Challa does not ask him his name. He dismisses the man before him and in that gesture makes a huge mistake.
Okay, so Erik is faced with the worst case scenario. No love is coming from the throne, so he has to pep himself up. In “I AM” (by Jorja Smith) we could N’Jakada and T’Challa’s voice:
“Try it if it feels right (try it)
Try it if it feels right, yeah
When you try, oh, oh
[Verse 1: Jorja Smith]
“I’m tryin’—I’m just, yeah, I’m just, yeah
I been out here tryin’ to see my homecomin’
And of course, somebody’s always gonna say somethin’
Try and shoot me down for voicin’ my own opinion
Triggerin’ a part of me that’s always been indifferent
[Pre-Chorus: Jorja Smith]
“And I know that we have asked for change
Don’t be scared to put the fears to shame
[Chorus: Jorja Smith]
“When you know what you got
Sacrifice ain’t that hard
Feel like dependin’ on me
Sometimes we ain’t meant to be free
When you know what you got
Sacrifice ain’t that hard
Feel like dependin’ on me.”
Again, N’Jadaka’s hope for acceptance and warm open arms to the prodigal son are dashed into pieces. This just one of many opportunities missed that might have spared lives. Raised in Oakland by a father who is brother to T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, the father and son have a loving relationship. All Erik N’Jadaka Stevens knows is America and Wakanda in the stories his father tells of his land. Later Erik reads for himself about Wakanda in the books his father left for him. Erik’s America a place where death is normed like absent fathers.
Co-writer Joe Robert Cole says of Erik: “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathize with. Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.
“[N’Jadaka] is effective because he really affects our hero. T’Challa ends up the same place that he does, philosophically, through his interactions with him. T’Challa is there out of empathy for the world, and [N’Jadaka or] Killmonger is there out of pain. He affects T’Challa in a way that I think is really meaningful, and meaningful to the story structure. A lot of conversation that [Ryan Coogler and I] were having, early on, was how to approach the dynamic between African Americans and Africans, and what that means and what that dialogue is. He, in a very personal way, addresses that, in terms of the family dynamic and his perspective on that, with isolationism and separation. All of that comes through in his character, but in an emotional way because it’s so personal to him, and you feel for him. You understand why he’s so angry versus just wanting to control the world. And Michael [B. Jordan] is irresistible and so likeable. He’s such a fantastic emotionally available actor and he’s so likeable that for him to play a villain, it’s easy to root for him, no matter what he’s doing” (Collider: C. Radish).
In Kendrick Lamar’s “Pray for Me” we hear lyrics that reflect the spiritual isolation Erik feels, Erik representative of all the black boys and girls in Oakland looking for a break and not finding one. This is where Killmonger is born—
“Who gon’ pray for me?
Take my pain for me?
Save my soul for me?
‘Cause I’m alone, you see
If I’m gon’ die for you
If I’m gon’ kill for you
Then I spilled this blood for you, hey
“I fight the world, I fight you, I fight myself
I fight God, just tell me how many burdens left
I fight pain and hurricanes, today I wept
I’m tryna fight back tears, flood on my doorsteps
Life a livin’ hell, puddles of blood in the streets
Shooters on top of the building, government aid ain’t relief
Earthquake, the body dropped, the ground breaks
The poor run with smoke lungs and Scarface
Who need a hero? (Hero)
You need a hero, look in the mirror, there go your hero
Who on the front lines at ground zero? (Hero)
My heart don’t skip a beat, even when hard times bumps the
Mass destruction and mass corruption
The souls of sufferin’ men
Clutchin’ on deaf ears again, rapture is comin’
It’s all prophecy and if I gotta be sacrificed for the greater
Then that’s what it gotta be.”
Perhaps it is better to dream of the places ancestors tread, rather than to go and then realize you lack the kind of preparation, grooming and/or education to adequately address the assembly of elders. Even if you carry the head of the arch enemy in your hand—the king does not take the gift, the assembly gasps. You were expected, yet your arrival is not welcome.
In your dreams you thought someone might have missed you, that there would have been a card next to a place-setting with your name on it. Little boy dreams you squash as you challenge the throne. Love is not something you have been able to depend on, so you do what is dependable “fight.”
If the sojourn has been too long, the people who knew you are gone, the keys have been changed to doors you once entered, currency is different, and of course language which expands and grows like one’s breath – no longer contains words needed to convey what sits on your heart.
Erik doesn’t know what he wants once he arrives except power, power to replace the vulnerability he has been hiding inside gang-banger bravado for most of his life. Finally home, Erik is too full of angst, anger, and pain. He wants to talk, but like a man locked in solitary – his communication skills are fragile and he strikes out just because he is good at inflicting pain, a pain he knows all too well. Again, given the rules Wakanda functions under, was there another way to handle Erik’s return?
When he travels to the land of the ancestors and confronts Dad, T’Chaka admits his error and the mess he has left his son to rectify. The sins of his father do entrap T’Challa. Unfortunately, there is no time to plan, caucus or develop a strategy. Erik shows up demanding the throne. A counter-offer would have been a perfect, one where Erik was welcomed, the errs of his uncle acknowledged and a period of orientation and spiritual cleansing would have helped the returning son clear himself of the anger, rage, hurt and negativity life in the west causes black people.
Whiteness tends to act as an eraser of black consciousness. Even in the most Third World of Third World countries there is something wholesome and nourishing about waking up and going to sleep surrounded by people who look just like you. Wakanda is a future we can look forward to. Certainly, the resources for such a kingdom exist, if we could somehow stop the international pillage and intercommunal bloodshed.
But back to Wakanda, a fictional country in East Africa, and the juxtaposition of the two brothers N’Jadaka and the king, T’Challa who is also the Black Panther.
The film “Black Panther” is without a doubt exciting. Filled with characters little black boys and little black girls would want to emulate, the world Wakanda reflects is one where the Black king is god. Black women are warriors, inventors, scientists. This is a world white people have not conquered because it is undervalued. While the royals live in opulence, it looks like the rest of the population are herders. Perhaps this is a cover— I couldn’t tell. The Wakandan intelligence is sophisticated, and like the West their spies are also everywhere involved in humanitarian secret missions and also in proactive defense against known and unknown enemies.
Wakanda is not a democracy. Leadership is inherited; however, it can be challenged in ritual combat by other tribal leaders who do not want to serve Wakandan heirs. The ceremonial preparation and inauguration are magnificent—the costumes (a la Ruth E. Carter), scenic design (a la Hannah Beachler), and the phenomenal cast which includes: Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa / Black Panther, alongside Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis. The actors – all of them, are otherworldly. Perhaps this is what makes audiences forget Wakanda is not only imaginary—it is based on inequity and presents a false dichotomy. It vilifies the victim and befriends the enemy aka “the colonizer.”
Don’t trust government agents, they will sell you out every time, is a lesson the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (1966-1982) warned against a backdrop of multiple raids, deaths and imprisonment. As King T’Challa sits in the infamous peacock chair he refuses to allow his cousin, whom he recognizes, speak. Yet, N’Jadaka identifies himself to the royal court. What is T’Challa afraid of? Why does he not welcome his estranged relative home?
At a Huey P. Newton birthday event at the West Oakland Library hosted by Billy X, a speaker suggested Marvel give some proceeds from the film to The Jericho Movement to support political prisoners, many former Black Panthers. The film continues to set milestones in just its third week of release, becoming the third-highest-grossing Marvel film, behind “The Avengers” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron. Black Panther has already grossed $8.1 million on Monday, [Feb. 26,] bringing its domestic gross to $411.7 million in just 11 days” (ABC News).
Once the hologram which makes the true Wakanda invisible is disarmed and the secret is out, white characters become a part of the African landscape—a friendly CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), participates in a war between King N’Jadaka aka Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (actor Michael B. Jordan) and King T’Challa (actor Chadwick Boseman). The epic battle is the beginning of the kingdom’s undoing. Walter Rodney’s classic text “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) is queried here as we see Wakanda’s intentional low profile blown asunder.
The third world country sits on a mineral keg – vibranium, a magical energy source that can do just about anything – power the country, facilitate telecommunications, heal or restore life, act as a shield. . . . We can anticipate how vibranium (like colton in DRC) will make Wakanda the target for international plunder.
Instead of strategic involvement in black community development, the Wakandan elite invite the enemy into its house. Important secrets are shared with historically unworthy allies. Instead of killing the enemy immediately, King T’Challa as the Black Panther hesitates and lets CIA agent Ross define the terms. Ross meets alone with Ulysses Klaue, the villain. The South African black-market arms dealer, smuggler and gangster, Klaue (actor Andy Serkis) shares secrets with Ross and then escapes. It is his cousin, N’Jakada who slays Klaue and brings his head to Wakanda. Again, why is not N’Jakada embraced? Why is his appearance met with silence?
Marvel’s Black Panther borrows from the historic Black Panther Party for Self-Defense yet power is not for “the people.” A select few know where the powder-keg lies. Coded secrets populate plans to steal control and conquer the world. White men are greeted as colonizers, yet the new King T’Challa trusts his secrets to a white man (whom he knew when his dad was alive). The American Intelligence Agency gets favorable press in Black Panther. Funny how spies and infiltration, COINTELPRO— are also dropped into the discourse like olives or pimento in a martini landscape where the undermining of blackness is inevitable.
Why is black power so threatening? Why did the angry black child have to fight his way home? Why wasn’t the door open for him? Just like other prodigal tales – note Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola prescient novel “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” (1954), where a West African boy child is abandoned in a scary forest –He fights many battles, some with wit and others with might, and just like N’Jakada, when he reaches home only one person recognizes him.
Sunset. Maghrib. The blessing at close of day. Brothers should make peace before the sun sets. It would have been so easy to forgive the wayward son. He was left alone. His avenging the death of his father, N’Jobu, was his right. With family and love he could have helped his people. If a nation was watching, the domestic warfare on black people would end. It’s the threat of annihilation that makes nations rethink terror. Wakanda is that powerful. Imagine if those in the Diaspora could depend on its support.
Both men – T-Challa and N’Jadaka honor their ancestors. Sankofa is a bird looking over its shoulder as if it forgot something—in the Akan culture, this Adinkra says to remember your history, do not forget your past. Besides the bird with an egg in its beak; the Sankofa symbol is also found shaped like a heart.
The heart-shaped herb is central to psychic transport and healing in Wakanda We see both kings swallow the potion before being buried alive—submerged, the men visit the ancestral realm to find answers to vital questions and for validation. Our ancestors love us unconditionally. This is something N’Jakada needs when Wakanda is not the welcoming place he’d dreamed of since childhood. For N’Jakada Erik Killmonger Stevens, there is an urgency the other ruler does not feel because he is soft and comfortable. T’Challa has not suffered. Those of us in the wilderness have suffered and are short-tempered and out of patience. In the world Black Panther opens onto there is hostility, betrayal and murder. A child is abandoned, dreams extinguished.
Boseman says in an Atlantic magazine interview that his character, T’Challa, is the enemy: “’It’s the enemy I’ve always known. It’s power. It’s having privilege. I don’t know if we as African-Americans would accept T’Challa as our hero if he didn’t go through Killmonger because Killmonger has been through our struggle, and [T’Challa hasn’t]’” (Paur).
Black Panther borrows from the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense yet power is not for “the people.” The memes are jumbled here. The king is not compassionate, he is an indecisive and often distracted. He cares what white America thinks. He cares how he looks on the evening news. King T’Challa or the Black Panther is just playing at god, his brother by circumstance is serious. The contrast— that between black folks in the diaspora and the folks back home, many descendants of the Africans responsible for our capture and exile is greed fuels civil conflict. Again look at the DRC. Warfare is a strategy which continues today. The intercontinental racial alliances have not gone away: China owns most of Congo not to mention other parts of Africa; however, so does Germany, France, England, South Africa.
Wakanda presents an opportunity to philosophically mend this riff between Africa and the Black Diaspora. The two kings resonate so strongly within black audiences because killing and death are endemic in black community both nationally and internationally. Ironically, both are fueled by the same source: the racialization of capital, raw materials and human resources. Each night a black child prays for a hero to rescue him or her from certain death if not tonight, tomorrow morning— The young N’Jadaka (actor Seth Carr) cries for his dad N’Jobu (actor Sterling K. Brown). Yet, as the boy slips his father’s signet ring from his finger, he is not surprised the warrior is dead. The battle is internal.
Where is the Mothership the Messenger of Allah spoke of, Sun Ra envisioned in song, and ET actualized? Why does Erik’s Uncle T’Chaka and the counterspy, Zuri, leave the boy behind and never speak of his father again? Townson’s “Brother from Another Planet” and Will Smith’s “I Am Legend” are about as close Hollywood will let a black hero get to anything like a happy ending . . . certainly not happily ever after for black boys abandoned, isolated and alone, dreams of home extinguished.
What is admirable about the antagonist is his fortitude despite isolation. Soon fatherless and maybe motherless (we are not privy to the backstory) N’Jadaka (or Erik Stevens) teaches himself to be a warrior his Wakandan ancestors would be proud. He uses the master’s tools to prepare himself at MIT and later as a soldier who is admired and feared by American intelligent forces. The CIA agent tells the King, when N’Jadaka shows up, “he is one of our Negroes.”
Don’t let black kids walk away from this film thinking it is okay for two strong men (1st cousins, whom I reference as “brothers”) to kill each other. The propaganda regarding fratricide while tangibly thematic to the plot is not resolved. Why is the king so intent on removing this man? Was he afraid he might eventually lose the battle? If so, why did he carry his wounded brother to the mountainside to see his first and last sunset? When T’Challa begins to suggest perhaps a way for N’Jadaka to live, he is stopped. N’Jadaka tells him that his ancestors spent too much time in the bottom of slaveships for him to ever agree to a life confined.
Kendrick Lamar invited other artists to collaborate with him on his album. In this song, Season’s the artist features South African rapper Sjava who sings in Zulu, which is the language King “T’Challa speaks. John Kani, the actor who portrays his father in the film is also Zulu. Angela Bassett is not Zulu; however, she is a lovely, Ramonda, T’Challa and Shuri’s mom. She is Queen Mother of Wakanda.
“Seasons” also features two California rappers: Mozzy and Reason. In this verse Mozzy sings about “being trapped in a cycle of institutional racism, poverty and violence. Those aren’t problems that a song or a superhero can solve. But if “Black Panther” had wanted simple comic-book escapism, it wouldn’t have hired Mr. Lamar” (Pareles).
SEASONS (Sung in Zulu and English)
[Verse 2: Mozzy]
I cried when lil’ bruh died
Got high and watched the sunrise
Wiggle on ’em if it’s one time
They done hung all of my people
I love all of my people
I’m in the slums with all of my people
They tryna tell us that we all equal
We get no justice so it ain’t peaceful, yeah
[If] They can bluff you, they can beat you
. . . Momma told me there was demons
And she ain’t never lied on her Jesus’
. . . Trapped in the system, traffickin’ drugs
Modern-day slavery, African thugs
We go to war for this African blood
We go to war for this African blood
When I put n– on, it was all out of love
You was disloyal, can’t call it no love
What does freedom look like for a people estranged from home a land so far away, it is not even imaginable? Perhaps this is why Black Panther is so exciting for so many black people here and elsewhere. Wakanda is the home so many black folks psychically long for—its characters seemingly nuanced and accessible. Why don’t African leaders in the tradition of Presidents Ahmad Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Kambarage Nyerere invite those in the Diaspora to return home?
Set in both Africa and America, the most African town on the West Coast is Oakland—well in its heyday (smile). New Orleans is hands down Africa in the South. Seventh Street Blues, deFremery Park with Lil Bobby Hutton Grove, the 16th Street Train Station. Cooger says about Oakland: “In the Nineties, where would be a place where [Erik’s] father, a Wakandan spy could go to be exposed to these points of view? Not points of view that are radical, but him being a Wakandan and being exposed to these things could lead to the conclusion and the choices that he makes. Oakland was that,” the director revealed before naming Tupac Shakur as a source of inspiration.
“We wanted to bring the energy of Tupac to a Marvel movie,” he added. “That’s where ‘Pac spent a lot of his time, the ‘Pac that we know came from his time in the Bay Area. Black people got to California and the Bay Area from repeated migration, fleeing awful things. And that’s where you saw these organizations [like the Black Panther Party] come from. They ran out of places to run.”
Though two white dudes created the Marvel comics “Black Panther” 52 years ago, surprisingly just a few months before Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded an organization with the same symbol. Uncanny how Stan Lee and writer-artist Jack Kirby’s Black Panther character first “appears in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966) in what is called the Silver Age of Comic Books, 1956-1970.”
Though the comic series predates the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the Black Panther character does not predate the Lowndes County Freedom Party in Alabama where the Black Panther symbol appears on voting ballots and voting rights leaflets. Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton requested permission from LCFP to use the Black Panther as the symbol for the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. When the BPP begins to use the Black Panther as well, Lee and Kirby consider using a leopard instead; however, the new character and name doesn’t stick. I am waiting for one or both of the men to come clean about the coincident—
How do we have a conversation when words are inadequate?
N’Jadaka is fueled by rage. He has wanted to belong. He misses his family. His entire life was spent preparing to claim his birthright. Now that he is face to face with his blood relatives, he can hardly contain his anger. Those in the Diaspora understand his rage. How to temper it is the question when all the boy-child in a man’s body wants to do is rip Wakanda apart and he does. He tells the gardener to burn everything—the fire a reflection of his inner turmoil. With all his study, he could not have imagined the greatness into which he was born. Wakanda lineage plus that of the enslaved Africans together make N’Jadaka a mighty adversary or valuable ally and comrade. Too bad, T’Challa realizes this too late.
Rising from the dead?
T’Challa cheats. He is on life support, technically dead. Okay, the film is Black Panther and of course the lead has to win (even if scientifically it is a stretch). In the ritual battle N’Jadaka throws the king off the cliff. Everyone assumes he is dead; however, his ally finds his body and keeps the deposed king frozen so that his vital signs remain stable. Ice is also a material which extinguishes fire or rage. That the king is not dead or that he rises from a comatose state furthers the Easter or Christ mythology – the film is released during Lent season. The dead rise multiple times in the mythic Black Panther. All they need is a shot of vibranium.
Is Black Panther saying to viewers—let see you look at race when both the good and bad guys are both black? We even let a CIA agent save the King’s fiancé. We give you a good white guy and a bad white guy. Fair is fair, right? Wrong.
Some of the Wakandan allies know what drives N’Jadaka—they see the unchecked state violence in America. They too question their rulers’ inaction when they know the neocolonial history and how black people were spread throughout the west to build the colonizers’ power base. Purchasing a few housing projects and showing off a space ship to kids in the same parking lot where N’Jadaka looked up that night and watched his folks leave him behind, will not solve the intrinsic problem in the West nor will arming black people resolve systemic white supremacy either.
Several characters rattle the cage that surrounds Wakandan elite. Nakia (actress Lupita Nyong’o) rescues women being sexually trafficked. Princess Shuri (actress Letitia Wright), the young scientist, is too smart to not spread her knowledge to other smart youth. Wakanda has access to medical technologies which could cure many ailments and prevent others. When the film ends, we see several possibilities.
Wakanda needs to look at the debt it owes N’Jadaka’s African America. Uncloaking at UN Headquarters in Geneva does not undo the harm. The end of the film is not the end of the story nor does it resolve the conflict or rebalance power. T’Challa, the Black Panther might be able to walk on water, even rise from the dead with the help of heart-shaped flower-power medicine (opiates?); however, the road to forgiveness, reconciliation and reparations between Africa and Diaspora Citizens is not resolved by the purchase of a few apartment buildings. To think so is to miss what is a most vital question in this cinematic wonderland.
How could the king knowingly kill his brother and then leave his brother’s child behind? Why didn’t he send anyone for the child? It is the Frankenstein story. The monster is the scientist, not the creature he creates. The creature just wants love. What he incites is fear because he is so ugly. Killmonger incites fear. As the moniker implies, the warrior is a killing machine, the scarification on his body for everyone killed makes others look away. He is seen as a beast, uncivilized, something to be stopped, not a man with a heart capable of reason.
Killmonger is stopped or at least it looks that way. However, he will not go away because he lives and walks among us. For Black Americans, revolution remains on our minds. It would be helpful if Wakanda were really on our side – hope Africa is listening.
And for the badass sisters. . . Wakanda might have T’Challa as Black Panther, but I read that when he was injured, his kid sister, Shuri stepped up and took over as Black Panther. Reminds me of Elaine Brown who was Chairwoman of the BBP (1974-77). Watch out! It might be worth it to read “Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection.” Here is a list of the other collections: 5 Black Panther Comics to Read Before You See the Movie
Michael B. Jordan Just Wants to Watch the World Burn This is a great interview with Jordan, the actor who portrays the antagonist, N’Jadaka Erik “Killmonger” Stevens
In this article, The Evolution of Marvel’s Black Panther, there is great background on the Marvel comic series especially how the “Black Panther” character was renamed “Leopard” for a minute. The creators did not want their character to be confused with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. They did not have a position on the BPP one way of the other, creators’ state in a recent interview. There is also info on the first black writer for the series, Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection Vol. 1 (62 issues) up to Ta-Nehisi Coates (4 issues). In Coates series, Black Panther: World of Wakanda, there are also writers like Roxane Gay who writes the prequel to “A Nation Under Our Feet’ “in which the origins of two members of Wakanda’s elite all-woman soldier squad known as the Dora Milaje are explored.” The article, “Evolution of Marvel’s Black Panther” looks at the social evolution of the character and the language associated with Africa. It was Tarzan, jungles and savages then.
Roxane Gay. Alongside artists Alitha E. Martinez and Rachelle Rosenberg, Gay penned a prequel to A Nation Under Our Feet in which we saw the origins of two of the members of Wakanda’s elite all-woman soldier squad known as the Dora Milaje.
I also watched a fun video about a screening in Accra, West Africa. The hosts are African Americans in Ghana: https://youtu.be/PvD6ZLMn3u0
 I am reminded of another sojourn, that depicted in Amos Tutuola’s (1920-1997) “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” (1954), is the story of a young boy separated from his older brother in the bush and his many adventures as he tries to find his way back home. When he stumbles out of the forest into the light his mother doesn’t know him, but an uncle or his brother does and welcomes him home.
 Also the Black Panther
 Historically white men have shown they are allies even when on opposite sides of the battlefield. It is no different here. The audience sees Stevens’s eyes glaze over as he sees the Wakandan enemy as an ally with information he can use.