As I sit and wait for my very delayed flight in the Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, I have time to reflect on the previous day’s activities here in Jackson, Mississippi.
The fact that I was invited to go to Jackson on the exact week South Dallas Cultural Center opens Jonathan Norton’s “Mississippi Goddamn”, a play that examines the complexity of Black life in Jackson during the height of the civil rights battles, is not just ironic, but uncanny. It’s uncanny because the topic of the meeting I was invited to attend i.e. the challenge Southern performing artists face mounting work for the stage has everything to do with the failure of the civil rights movement to eliminate the historical impediments to cultural equity. This failure lies at the root of the challenge where artists of color are concerned.
Carlton Turner, Executive Director of Alternate Roots the host organization for this convening, eloquently laid out the history of Mississippi’s failure to thrive, citing some damning facts about the state’s national standing in areas like health care, education, economic development and arts funding. He opened our discussion by stating that if we are to see substantive change in our country, it needs to start in Mississippi because if Mississippi can come up, the whole country can.
With this as our start point, we began a day of exploration into how to make shifts in the current modus operandi where arts/cultural support is concerned. We explored it from the standpoint of how presenters see the problem, how disenfranchised artists view it and how major funders see it. We revisited the Culture Wars and their affect on the country’s commitment to support for culture & the arts. It was, however, pretty much agreed that although these attacks on the NEA were a devastating blow to the arts in this country, the reality was that most organizations of color never received substantial support from this agency. So the net effect on their bottom lines due to the reduction in NEA funding was negligible. We talked about how organizations like NPN/VAN, NALAC, and South Arts are working to reduce the inequities by developing programs that directly address these inequities. One participant who wasn’t a part of an arts organization but represented an agency involved in social justice work made a telling comment when she observed that we couldn’t expect the ruling majority to respect our culture when there is no respect for our very humanity. Of course, the current #BlackLivesMatter movement is putting a spotlight on this reality like no other since the Anti-Lynching Movement of the early 1900s.
The gathering of participants was multi-generational, multi-racial and multi-disciplinary so many viewpoints were expressed. The dialog was robust and honest and at no time did I feel like I was wasting time talking about a topic I often avoid these days because so much time is wasted talking about it but too little time spent on finding workable solutions. The Mellon Foundation and New England Foundation for the Arts were the major national funding organizations in attendance (they actually underwrote our attendance) and I was impressed with their willingness to just listen and absorb rather than dominate the dialog. I was equally impressed with the white participants doing the same thing when the participants of color told their stories. The often-stultifying habit of whites trying to explain racist practices or at least their role in eradicating it as a way of distancing themselves from the privilege they derive from the system was not in evidence at this convening.
Everyone acknowledged that a lot of work must be done before we see any real equity but at least those in the room committed to influence their own sectors to get on board with the effort to make substantive changes in how southern artists/organizations in general and southern artists/organizations of color in particular are invited to the table both regarding policy making as well as receiving grants/funding. My hat goes off to Alternate Roots, Turner World Around Productions, Mellon Foundation and New England Foundation for the Arts for making this convening happen and all the other work they are engaged in to make cultural equity a reality rather than an on-going conversation.
I consider myself one of the blessed ones when it comes to knowing my history. I grew up in a home where Black History was readily available on the shelves of my parents’ library, a library that we Meek kids utilized constantly for our reports at school, presentations during Black History Week (yes it was once only a week!) and just to argue a point with our friends, many of who knew nothing of our history. In addition to having a wealth of information at home, my parents made a point of exposing us to Black artists in all the arts disciplines. We experienced musical, theatrical, dance and literary performances regularly, so the tradition of attending live arts performances was instilled in me at a very early age.
I grew up seeing the Negro Ensemble Company, which set the stage for my theater snobbery, a condition for which I offer no apology! Their performances were a must see in my household. Douglas Turner Ward pretty much walked on water as far as I was concerned! So it is not without a strong basis of historical context that I am writing about Will Power’s latest piece “Stagger Lee’ and placing it among my all time favorite theater works. There are so many things about this piece that moved me starting with the narrative that continues the Black theater tradition of exploring the Black family seen in the seminal “Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry, continued in the powerful “No Place To Be Somebody” by Charles Gordone, twisted a bit but still clear in “Jelly’s Last Jam” by George C. Wolfe and totally explored in the 10 cycle plays of August Wilson. Power takes us through our historical battle to maintain dignity and continuity right up until the present. That he uses music as the vehicle to move us through the history seems particularly appropriate given the role music has played in keeping Black life vibrant and resilient. I have never been a big fan of musical theater, mainly because I don’t like trying to follow a sung story line. But the lyrics and music in “Stagger Lee’ are crisp and unpretentious, making it easy to keep track of the dialog so I never felt like I was being entertained solely for the purpose of entertainment. Each song pumped more urgency in the message and the actors performing them seemed to understand that. We had no showboating on their part, something that can easily happen in a musical presentation, but only a straightforward delivery of the lyric with the right amount of emotion for the scene portrayed.
I was privileged to have seen the first staged reading of “Stagger Lee” and unfortunately missed the second one but was eager to see how the work progressed. I am a sucker for the process involved in art-making so I love that Dallas had an opportunity to witness “The Making of Stagger Lee” because it allowed some of us to see Will Power’s process and appreciate his creative journey on this piece. I was familiar with Power’s previous work after being introduced to him when he presented as the keynote for a National Performance Network Annual Meeting many years ago. I was intrigued by the dynamic young speaker and made it a point to research his work. This is a playwright/poet/activist/lyricist who approaches storytelling with a truthfulness that is refreshing given the amount of light-weight stuff I’ve seen presented by too many Black writers. That he manages to convincingly compress 400 years of Black life into a 105-minute production is a testament to his commitment to telling our story with authenticity no matter how brief the storytelling session. The fact that he does it in song and dance without ever conjuring up a sense of trivialization speaks volumes about how seriously he takes his job as storyteller. An even more impressive fact is Will Power’s ability to take several Black folk stories, weave them together in such a way that never has us feeling like they aren’t every much a part of today’s narrative as conscious rap is, also speaks volumes about how deeply committed to telling the truth Will Power is in his “Stagger Lee” tale.
However, the thing that convinced me that “Stagger Lee” has the “stuff” needed to qualify as excellent theater is the fact that I cried in the second act, probably just as heartily as I laughed in the first act because the truth of Black Life as we see it being played out today was never so real as the scene of all those actors beating that wall of Black struggle. The final stroke of genius was that fleeting “Long Lost John” figure appearing as a hoodied youth with his hands raised in the now iconic gesture of today's #BlackLifeMatters movement; it took me out; I was done. Someone asked me if I thought that figure needed to be on stage longer and I told her absolutely not! The fact that he played like a side-eyed image that you weren’t quite sure you saw, you know, like that glimpse of someone as you’re walking down the street, out of the corner of your eye you think you spotted someone but when you turn to verify it, they’re not there? That’s what our current situation feels like to me. We made some progress over the 400 years, but in the time it takes for a glimpse, it can be gone.
I thank Will Power for “Stagger Lee”. I thank Patricia MacGregor for her clear-eyed direction. I thank Camille Brown for her brilliant choreography. I thank Kevin Moriarty for knowing this work needed to be mounted by a major Dallas theater and I thank all the actors in “Stagger Lee’ for bringing Will’s vision to such perfect fruition. A luta continua...