Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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A Deep Dive Into the Prison-Industrial Pipeline in “Beyond the Bars”

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What does “home” mean? Is home where the heart is? Where the hatred is? A physical location? A state of mind? Can prison be a home? What does it mean to come home? And, can you ever really go back home again? These philosophical questions are at the core of the Lower Bottom Playaz’ production of “Beyond the Bars: Growing Home.”

In “Beyond the Bars,” the prison-industrial pipeline becomes a backdrop for an powerful examination of black masculinity . An array of black men, ranging in age from mid-20s to senior citizen, come together regularly to check in with their feelings. It’s somewhat telling that the vehicle which allows them to gather for this purpose is a re-entry support group; all of them are formerly-incarcerated.

The prison-industrial pipeline becomes a backdrop for an powerful examination of black masculinity

Their check-ins are largely about dealing with the ramification of their imprisonment, from the horrors and injustice they’ve witnessed behind bars, to their own acknowledgement of guilt and responsibility for their actions, to their struggles with social inclusion, employment – and potential retribution by the relatives of their victims. It’s a set-up which allows a murderer to reveal their motivations in one breath, then argue against the perpetuation of cyclic violence in the other.

The cast represent the so-called thugs and black bogeymen vilified in conservative political rhetoric and sensationalistic media portrayals, but such stereotypical perceptions are entirely superficial in this context. The cyclic patters of crime, incarceration, and recidivism are not entirely the result of personal choices these characters have made, but moreso collective examples of how structural inequity plays out. As the play unfolds, we learn more about the characters, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to dehumanize and demonize them.

The re-entry support group functions as a place where the “cool pose” of black male attitudes are examined and analyzed, revealing a vulnerability and strength rooted as much in resilience as in systemic oppression.

While this is ironic, it’s not a completely-implausible scenario; One in three African Americans are incarcerated in the United States (a statistic which also held true in a post-performance survey of the cast). So, the set-up works. The audience eavesdrops in as a moderator facilitates the meetings, sometimes attended by a doctor who is collecting stories for research.

The cyclic patters of crime, incarceration, and recidivism are not entirely the result of personal choices these characters have made

What follows is a poignant, nearly 90-minute deep dive into how the prison-industrial pipeline has become an integral part of black life. Each of the formerly-incarcerated characters are presented as flawed, yet human. Each has redeeming qualities which can be easily overlooked, or more accurately, swept aside by preconceived notions about the correlation between crime and race.

bb1The play forces viewers to examine those preconceived notions, and to confront the reality of the situation, just as the characters must all confront their uncertain futures outside of jail. “I paid the price. I own the fault… Let me get right,” one of the characters says. It’s a line which suggests redemption is as much about acceptance as repentance. If we believe in rehabilitation, we must allow for re-entry into society, the play argues, undergirding its argument with the alarming statistic than more Africican Americans are incarcerated today than were enslaved in 1863.

A generational dynamic is introduced when a young adult joins the group. His antagonism and apathy create palpable tension; and his impulsiveness leads to a pivotal and climactic conflict which adds a gracenote of gravitas to the already emotionally-laden subject matter.  The older ex-cons attempt to emphasize the senselessness of the “street soldier” mentality: they’ve been down that road before, and know what predictable outcomes await. But ultimately, the younger man must decide for himself whether to choose the path of violence, or turn the other cheek.

“I paid the price. I own the fault… Let me get right,” one of the characters says.

What’s most interesting about this production is the injection of socially-relevant commentary into a theatrical format. It’s the opposite of escapism; instead of zoning out into a fantasy drama, the production locks on to a stark reality, making a point that should be impossible for the audience to ignore.

Two additional elements to the production are the hip-hoppish original score by Young L, and two music videos by WolfHawkJaguar and Prosperity Movement which bookend the show. The former centers the play in a contemporary urban aesthetic, while the latter offers a fantastical, spiritually-grounded vision of aspirational positivity.

The stories themselves are fascinating as well (and are the product of actual research by LBP Executive Director and playwright Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, who also plays the Doctor). The actors all look like guys you might see around town on the streets. Costuming is fairly simple, with characters changing clothes to mark a different day.

bb3Dejon Grant is both venomous and compassionate in the role of Terminal Murder, while Stanley Hunt’s conflicted yet charismatic Young Man nearly steals every scene he’s in. Reggie Wilkins brings wisdom and dignity to the role of OG. That these actors shine is a testament to what they bring to the role, and how easy it becomes for them to inhabit these characters, to make them real in the eyes of the audience. Some of the other roles are less distinctly-individual, or slightly underdeveloped; we never get a sense of what drives the moderator to do this work, and the Doctor seems to be a stand-in for academia in general—a commentary on the poverty-pimp dynamic which throws millions of dollars at the problem of recidivism annually, without making any appreciable headway.

While the characters are all written with some distinguishing characteristics, there seemed to be more commonalities than differences between them. This might be a result of the methodology Nzinga employed to develop the production, gathering stories from multiple individuals which were divvied up between the characters. At times, the characters appear to blend into each other; this effect is reinforced throughout, as several particularly-emphatic  lines are repeated in unison — evoking an Oakland version of a Greek chorus. Much of the dialogue has a prose-like feel (Ms. Nzinga’s research was supplemented by original poetry).

This approach ultimately injects a strong dose of realism and authenticity to the show. The actors all blend into their roles with the ease and comfort of a favorite shoe. The dialogue is accessible and conversational. While the frequent use of the N-word may seem jarring to some, it wouldn’t make logical sense for a group of formerly-incarcerated individuals to dialogue in non-colloquial, speech.

Several particularly-emphatic  lines are repeated in unison — evoking an Oakland version of a Greek chorus

This point bears a little further elaboration. LBP productions, as Nzinga later explained during a post-show talk, honor the tradition and aims of the Black Arts movement, i.e., to create culture which is interconnected with liberation struggles and the push for social justice. So while the staging may be minimalist, it also doesn’t distract from the subject matter. While the costumes may be understated, the low-key aesthetic is consistent with the nature of the story being told. While the dialogue may be down-to-earth, it never comes off as pretentious.

Nzinga and the cast’s breaking of the fourth wall at the end–revealing themselves as activists/reformers—functions as a call to action, intended to stay with the audience as they return to the outside world. It’s the opposite of what can be expected from mindless entertainment, and a reminder that if black lives matter, the plight of the incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated matters a great deal.

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“Beyond the Bars: Growing Home” runs through Sept. 3 at the Flight Deck,  1540 Broadway, Oakland CA

Tickets are here.

LBP website 

 

 

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Anna Deavere Smith’s “Prison Pipeline” Play: Brilliant, Yet Conflicted.

Anna Deavere Smith’s “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,” is more than a play. Part documentary, part drama, it encourages audience members to become activists against the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which connects our failed education system with the prison-industrial complex. The show’s program also contains a “toolkit” which describes the racial inequity of zero tolerance school discipline policies and presents alternative methods such as the restorative justice program currently in place in the Oakland Unified School District and other proactive behavioral approaches which address the reality of post-traumatic stress syndrome among school-age children. But the show doesn’t stop there. It devotes its intermission to interactively engaging attendees in advocacy, with Youth Speaks-trained facilitators pushing small workshop groups to make a commitment to action (more on this later).

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

The first part of the show effectively reveals why Deavere Smith’s one-woman shows have won many prestigious awards: her methodology, which involved interviewing 150 people on both sides of the pipeline, then honing their verbatim accounts into character studies and ultimately, monologues, is absolutely brilliant. This approach one-ups the “one-woman, many characters” style of Sarah Jones by using non-fictional source material, which is technically much more difficult to pull off. Deavere Smith uses simple stage props, varying speech patterns, and gesticulations to bring each character to life, with vocal inflections which range from the crisp articulation of a multi-degree holder, to the guttersnipe syntax of a high school dropout.

The vignettes, which feature education professionals, judges, lawyers, parents, students, and chronic truants (who have become fodder for the prison system), connect thematically, presenting a multi-faceted inquiry from almost all sides of the paradigm – we don’t specifically hear from any law enforcement professionals or correctional facility employees – and segue with musical help from acoustic bassist Marcus Shelby, who provides jazzy textures throughout. In addition to supertitles identifying each interviewee, video clips which play on screens above the stage add further context.

There is both a sense of urgency and topical relevancy, especially when Deavere Smith recounts the stories of the videographer who filmed Freddie Gray’s arrest and a man charged with a $500,000 bail for protesting Gray’s death. Another story, of a Native American man who was never enfranchised by public education and becomes a violent ex-con who is now a concern for tribal authorities, resonates with poignancy.  Though there are numerous comic moments, laughing at them felt a little awkward, since the overall tone is so serious.

Anna deavere Smith as NAACP lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill

Anna Deavere Smith as NAACP lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill

Watching the show, the connections between Oakland and Baltimore seem obvious and apparent – we’re not dealing with a unique problem faced by individual cities as much as one on a national scope, institutionalized by years of economic investment into building prisons, instead of education – which has predictably resulted, Deavere Smith tells us, in the types of outcomes we’re seeing now. 85% of incarcerated people in Maryland, it is revealed, were Special Ed students. (In California, 75% of the prison population are high-school dropouts — an even higher number than the nationwide average of 68 %. Meanwhile, the private prison industry has grown at a staggeringly exponential rate over the past 25 years.)

“Notes From the Field” is ambitious in its reach, to be sure. But these types of problems can’t be solved in a couple hours. The intermission workshop felt a little like drop-in activism for a constituency which has not had to deal personally with any of these issues, such as having an incarcerated family member, or being racially-profiled by police, in their lifetimes.

It’s counter-intuitive, to say the least, to announce —  with all the pomp and circumstance of a critically-acclaimed theater performance — that the system is broken, while simultaneously helping to promote a company complicit in the economic exploitation end of the pipeline.

The reality is a little bit thornier: Whole Foods, who has recently been all over the Internets for utilizing prison labor, is listed as a sponsor of the production.

However, when Whole Foods’ connection to prison labor was pointed out in one of the workshops, one attendee reacted with an angry glare and sputtering disbelief, and the workshop’s facilitator seemed to have difficulty grasping the implications of what that meant. It’s counter-intuitive, to say the least, to announce —  with all the pomp and circumstance of a critically-acclaimed theater performance — that the system is broken, while simultaneously helping to promote a company complicit in the economic exploitation end of the pipeline.  That may not be the fault of Deavere Smith, but it does illuminate the inherent conflicts of even doing a production of this nature. If we’re going to go there, identify the problem in no uncertain terms, and break the fourth wall to demand action be taken, as “Notes From the Field” does, we’ve got to be willing to address how deep the issue really goes, and realize that effecting substantive and meaningful change might just be incompatible with doing business as usual.

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Anna Deavere Smith portrays videographer Kevin Moore

If we were to further nitpick, we’d point out that another of Berkeley Rep’s sponsors, Wells Fargo, owns Wachovia, which was investigated and fined by the Justice Department for laundering money for Mexican drug cartels  – whose influx of illegal narcotics is reportedly a causal factor in the hundreds of annual murders in Chicago, mostly of young black men. Even worse, Wells Fargo also has invested tens of millions of dollars in private prisons , making it complicit in economic exploitation, sexual and physical assault, denial of health services, and racially-disproportionate practices.  Again, this kind of disingenuousness undercuts Deavere Smith’s message, through no fault of the messenger.

The play closed with a coda which transposed two short monologues: one drawn from Deavere Smith’s earlier work, of a Latino man expressing his feelings about race in the aftermath of the 1992 LA Uprising, and another from a 1970 interview with James Baldwin. Both hit expected gracenotes, but for different reasons. The irony of a brown person insisting he’s not racist because he has white friends while describing how he’s been racially stereotyped his entire life isn’t exactly subtle.  And Baldwin seems prescient, as if anticipating #blacklivesmatter, when he said, some 45 years ago, “The police in this country make no distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger.“

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Anna Deavere Smith as West Baltimore student India Sledge

That’s not the exact quote Deavere Smith used, which came from a seven-hour conversation with Margaret Mead called “A Rap on Race,” but in this context it suggests that until we fix our fractured education system and retool our discombobulate criminal justice system, we will not, and cannot, possibly evolve into a “post-racial” society, no matter how many Confederate flags are torn from F-150 trucks.

It’s fitting that “Notes from the Field” is being presented just a few miles from Oakland, the spiritual center of the “New Civil Rights Movement” that #BLM has been called. In one of the interviews, Deavere Smith recounts how a teacher thought she missed the boat on civil rights activism by being born at the wrong time, until she realized that a new movement could happen at any moment.  That statement apparently resonated with a silver-haired white woman seated one row up, who felt compelled to comment to Oakulture about it – seeking the approval of one of the few black men in the room, perhaps.  But only time will tell whether that woman is willing to forgo prison-farmed organic tilapia and artisanal cheeses, for the movement’s sake – or whether a war on bankers would yield better results than the war on drugs.

“Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education” runs through August 2 at Berkeley Rep. For tickets, visit here or call 510-647-2949.


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“Blackademics” Offers An Afro-Surrealist Examination of the Myth of “Post-Racial America”

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: two black female professors walk into a café.

Ok, so maybe that’s a new one, and seemingly not the most appealing set-up for a theater production; academia can be a rather tedious topic, given to boring pretentiousness, dry long-windedness, and a tendency to take itself too seriously. Add a dialogue-heavy script and a sparse set design which places the two main characters in one room for the duration of its one hour run time, and you have a recipe for a potentially claustrophobic experience.

Instead, the Crowded Fire Theater production of “Blackademics” — a new work by Idris Goodwin making its West Coast Premiere —  uses the intimate space of the Thick House’s small room to delve into an Afro-surrealist examination of the myth of “post-racial America” and classism within a black feminist sphere. It’s surprisingly engaging; even when “Blackademics” appears to gasp for breath, it never actually runs out of oxygen, as it jabs, pokes, and kicks its way toward a dramatically-thrilling conclusion which is anything but anticlimactic.

Lauren Spencer and Safiya Fredericks in "Blackademics." photo courtesy Crowded Fire Theater

Lauren Spencer and Safiya Fredericks in “Blackademics.” photo courtesy Crowded Fire Theater

Directed by Mina Morita, Goodwin’s play, first developed in a 2012 Chicago production, seems perfectly at home in the Bay Area in 2015 – a time when an emergent social discourse around race and identity has become not just a frontline issue, but a virally-trending topic. So much is made of the struggles black men face, particularly with law enforcement, that it’s safe to say that the tribulations of black women academics are often an afterthought.

“Blackademics” suggests that tension over tenure is as real and compelling an issue as racial profiling, as is the contraction and reframing of ethnic studies departments. Institutional bias is unavoidable, given that most of the canons academics are expected to study are Eurocentric, which begs the question of where identity lies for people of color (and particularly black folks) with advanced degrees. There’s a funny bit where the two main characters, Ann (Safiya Fredericks) and Rachelle (Lauren Spencer) engage in a rapid-fire name-dropping competition, each attempting to one-up the other by mentioning famous figures in literature – all of whom happen to be European.

At its best, “Blackademics” aims for the canon of wit-driven social comedy exemplified by Neil Simon and Noel Coward, before a dark turn into the unexpectedly macabre turns it into something else altogether.

As characters, Ann and Rachelle aren’t completely filled in – a seemingly-intentional choice on Goodwin’s part. Each is a bit of a cipher, and their experiences in academia appear intended to be symbolic; they are more sounding boards for the black academic experience as a whole than detailed character studies. We are told that Ann teaches at a university, while Rachelle is at a state college – a dividing line in terms of career status. Much of their conversation concerns their career-first focus; we don’t learn too much about their social lives, other than that Rachelle – the more “ghetto” of the two – has a brother who deals drugs and quotes “The Wire.”

Michele Apriña Leavy, Lauren Spencer, and Safiya Fredericks in "Blackademics"; photo courtesy Crowded Fire Theater

Michele Apriña Leavy, Lauren Spencer, and Safiya Fredericks in “Blackademics”; photo courtesy Crowded Fire Theater

Ostensibly brought together to celebrate Ann reaching a career milestone, the discussion quickly becomes rife with conflict at the urging of a third character, Georgia, the waitress at the exclusive café chosen for their rendezvous. That the Georgia character (played by Michele Apriña Leavy) is a metaphor for societal and career acceptance, if not the Ivory Tower itself, becomes obvious when Ann and Rachelle are forced to spar intellectually for a seat at the dinner table, silverware, and plates of food. Initially innocuous, Georgia’s quirky machinations become increasingly sinister as the play goes on, setting the stakes for a final showdown, in which the back-and-forth banter crystallizes into physical action.

Fredericks and Spencer have a natural chemistry which makes it easy to see them as friends and colleagues. When they start tearing into each other, there’s a sense of, how far will they go? To their credit, each is able to make middle-class black angst seem nuanced, although the lack of specific depth may be more reflective of the script than the actors. Are we really supposed to believe that black academics sit around dissing Michael Eric Dyson for writing too many books?

As Georgia, Leavy has the most difficult acting task of the three stage performers. She not only has to convey a polite veneer, but also intentional vagueness about her true motivations. When the sparks begin to fly, Leavy plays it off with a goofy smile which, we later learn, is a mask for her real agenda.

Lauren Spencer and Safiya fredericks in "Blackademics"; photo courtesy Crowded Fire Theater

Lauren Spencer and Safiya Fredericks in “Blackademics”; photo courtesy Crowded Fire Theater

That Goodwin is a gifted playwrite is evident in the extent to which “Blackademics” balances lighthearted humor with denser social commentary, continuously circling around the intersectionality between race and class – a difficult theme to correctly outline. The play’s zinging one-liners (“fuck Tennyson!,” one character says) are one of its high points; at its best, “Blackademics” aims for the canon of wit-driven social comedy exemplified by Neil Simon and Noel Coward, before a dark turn into the unexpectedly macabre turns it into something else altogether.

“Blackademics” runs through May 2; to purchase tickets, call (415) 746-9238 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

 

 


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“Xtigone” Reimagines Sophocles as Urban Ritual-Myth

In Nambi Kelley’s “Xtigone,” the ancient Greek city-state of Thebes is replaced by Chicago’s south side – an urban killing field marked by gang rivalry and drive-by-shootings. The protagonist, Tigs, wages a one-woman crusade to expose the truth, challenging patriarchy and political corruption, even at the expense of her own well-being. Kelley’s urban myth recasts Sophocles’ classic morality play about pride into a blood-soaked examination of gun violence and inner-city PTSD. The characters still make lengthy soliloquies, but they speak in contemporary vernacular. There is a hip-hop soundtrack (composed by Tommy Shepherd aka Soulati), references to social media, and several musical numbers. The Greek chorus now chants about police brutality and HIV. It’s an amazing show.

RyanNicole as Tigs

Ryan Nicole Austin as Tigs

The play was originally scheduled to debut in 2012, but was postponed until this year. The current African American Shakespeare Company production, thus, marks the official world premiere of “Xtigone” – a different production is scheduled for Chicago later this year—a play with a message, whose already-relevant subject matter has gained only more currency with the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Drew Watkins and AeJay Mitchell play rival gang leaders

Drew Watkins and AeJay Mitchell play rival gang leaders

A strong cast from top to bottom anchors the production, with the younger actors more than holding their own with veteran stage performers.  As Tigs, Oakland’s Ryan Nicole Austin is a revelation. Her role is one requiring inner strength, conviction, and compassion, qualities she evokes seemingly effortlessly. It’s not easy to portray a woman who is emotionally vulnerable, and physically and mentally strong at the same time. Austin thankfully lets Kelley’s prose come to her, without overreaching. A gifted poet, rapper, and singer, she brings a feminist hip-hop swagger to the part, which is exactly what’s called for.

Naima Shalhoub and RyanNicole

Naima Shalhoub and Ryan Nicole Austin

In one scene, Tigs is chastised for her activist ambitions by her sister Izzy (played by Tavia Percia) — a woman who has accepted subservience along with fake hair. Defiantly, Tigs announces, “we stand on the shoulders of Herstory. I am the amazons of Dahomey, the queen called Nefertiti,  Coretta, Obama’s mama, and if I stand still, Mama Till.”

Naima Shalhoub as Tea Flake

Naima Shalhoub as Tea Flake

Another Oaklander, Naima Shalhoub, practically steals every scene she’s in as Tea Flake, a character who functions much like a griot, singing the praises of patriarchal leader Marcellus Da Man, as well as offering a running narrative commentary as events unfold. Shalhoub’s character often has something serious to sing about, but there are also comedic elements which make her somewhat of a jester in Marcellus’ court.

Michael Wayne Turner and RyanNicole

Michael Wayne Turner and Ryan Nicole Austin

The third youthful standout is Michael Wayne Turner, who plays Tigs’ boyfriend, Beau. This guy can straight-up act, and his dynamic rendering of the character doesn’t lack for energy at all. Also good is AeJay Mitchell as Tigs’ murdered brother E-Mem, whose ghost hangs around watching –and sometimes commenting on—the proceedings after his unfortunate death in the play’s opening scene.

Jasmine Strange and Dwight Dean Mahabir

Jasmine Strange and Dwight Dean Mahabir

As Marcellus, Dwight Dean Mahabir has gravitas. His is a pivotal role, and he tiptoes the fine line between the arrogant bluster of political ambition and the more humanistic concerns of a father. His character isn’t completely sympathetic, but the audience is left with an understanding of why he’s made the choices he has. Yet another Oaklander, Jasmine Strange, plays his wife, Fay, who has devoted her life to his career, even at the expense of her own soul. Strange is also a gifted singer, and the scene where she and Shalhoub alternate verses resonates with vibrancy.

Awele Makeba plays Old Blind Woman

Awele Makeba plays the Old Blind Woman

A crucial part is that of the “Old Blind Woman/Spirit,” played by Awele Makeba. As the Old Blind Woman, Makeba replaces Sophocles’ seer Tiresias, and functions as the conscience of the play.  She sets in motion the cathartic transformation which first tests and then redeems Marcellus, ultimately causing him to rethink his actions. Yet Marcellus’ redemption can’t prevent further tragedy from happening.

As the "spirit," Awele Makeba grounds "Xtigone" in ritual

As the Spirit, Awele Makeba grounds “Xtigone” in ritual

As the Spirit, Makeba grounds the play in ritual, connecting the spiritual world to the physical one, using African dance moves in place of speech throughout most of her scenes. Towards the end, she does speak a few times, signifying a breach of the wall separating the two worlds, implying the transcendent process the characters have undergone.

The "Greek chorus" raps, sings, and offers social commentary

The “Greek chorus” raps, sings, and offers social commentary

The production is anything but static, with fluid choreography and several scenes where characters enter the stage from the audience.  There is constant motion, reflecting a chaotic state of being. The Greek chorus—symbolizing the community—dances, raps, sings, and witnesses a failed attempt at a gang truce, followed by bodies piling up, as Marcellus strives to give the appearance of normality and order, by word of law.

Tavia Percia and Ryan Nicole Austin

Tavia Percia and Ryan Nicole Austin

The lighting and stage design are kept simple for the most part, yet the sparseness is surprisingly effective: in an early scene, Tea Leaf sings against a backdrop of projected pictures of child soldiers from different countries holding rifles. Simple props like a chair, a handgun, and basketball sneakers are amplified for maximum symbolic effect.

Jasmine Strange and Dwight Dean Mahabir

Jasmine Strange and Dwight Dean Mahabir

As a theater production, “Xtigone”—directed by veteran Rhodessa Jones—is very much in the tradition of the Black Arts Movement, from which Jones has drawn inspiration throughout her career. Not only does “Xtigone” recast Sophocles in a contemporary light, but it does so through an African American lens – addressing the issue of youth violence, but also of societal responsibility.

Ryan Nicole Austin and Awele Makeba

Ryan Nicole Austin and Awele Makeba

The play is also in the tradition of Yoruba ritual-myth – it evokes the blood/iron rituals of the orisha Ogun, whom playwright/author Wole Soyinka has called “the first actor” –and emphasizes spirituality over sensationalism, making its point through repetition of a few well-honed memes.

Tweets detail the tragedy of gun violence in "Xtigone"

Tweets detail the tragedy of gun violence in “Xtigone”

Tigs references Mamie Till—whose insistence on an open casket funeral for her murdered son Emmett catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement—on more than one occasion, and the couplet of “unearth the truth/thank the ancestors” voiced by E-Mem in the opening scene becomes a theme which underscores the entire play. By the end of the show, E-Mem himself has transitioned from gangbanger to “ancestral brother.”

Awele Makeba, Dwight Dean Mahabir, and AeJay Mitchell

Awele Makeba, Dwight Dean Mahabir, and AeJay Mitchell

“Xtigone” functions on two levels: on one hand, it revisits a classic Greek tragedy from a black feminist perspective. In that respect, it posits that a “change of heart” is possible for misguided male leaders like Marcellus – a stand-in for authoritarian politicians who have failed to address the roots causes of gun violence. But it also has a deeper purpose: to restore ritual into lives which have become devalued. It does this by offering glimpses into what Soyinka defined as the three stages of human existence—the world of the ancestors, the world of the living, and the world of the unborn—while setting its scenes in Soyinka’s fourth stage, the cthonic domain of Ogun.

AeJay Mitchell and Drew Watkins

AeJay Mitchell and Drew Watkins

This is a place where conflict and chaos recur without resolution, where love is overcome by hate, which only blood sacrifice can quell. That sacrifice is offered symbolically and metaphorically onstage, so that we, the audience, can be the change which needs to happen. By the end of the almost two-hour performance, it becomes clear that “Xtigone” has succeded in creating the ritual space. Now it’s up to us to do the rest.

“Xtigone” runs until March 8th at the AAACC’s Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton, SF. >> Buy Tickets.