Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Play's The Thing

Story telling meets audience resulting in a rich discussion of race and gender, visceral reactions to segregation and the need for seeing our mixed race experiences reflected on the screen. The backstory performance of American Ubuntu, presented in Oakland. 

A Play Is Born

The kernel of the idea, when Lenore took on the gig at Joyce Gordon Gallery, was to offer the audience an experience of racial segregation. And we didn't warn them ahead of time. That was the surprise audience participation part of it. What they did know was that this was a story of a high school romance set in the '70s with an interracial component—a bold confident black girl pursues a shy sensitive white boy that she has noticed watching her for some time. 

And because no tickets were being sold it was hard to know if anyone would even come, save for friends and family. But all who signed up to help produce this show were committed to see it through.

When I came to the project, six weeks ago there was neither a script nor actors, just a conversation with Eric the gallery curator to present a live performance in a segregated environment. On top of it Lenore was going to be away for two weeks. I was not accustomed to this approach, this diving into the deep end to sink or swim. But I was intrigued by it. And as Lenore posted to her Facebook page "you can only create fantastically when you're willing to fail spectacularly".

Labor of Love

A community derived grassroots production has a lot of room for participation and for some reason I needed to prove myself to an artist with a big vision. Possibly because all of my visions had gotten so small they were hardly worth doing. But also because working with someone on a project with high stakes and a deadline is a very good way to get to know who they are. 

When I arrived at the gallery the week before the performance I had my eighteen tables ready to go. And two helpers to put them together with me. Eighteen tables have 72 legs. Seventy two legs that I wrapped with rubber bands and masking tape to make them friction fit into the pre-drilled holes. It worked without too much difficulty especially once I figured out to wax them so they would slide into the holes better. Seventy-two pieces multiplied by all these procedures takes a while. Nearly thirty hours went into these tables with their many legs. It kept me connected to the project and made me feel like a genius when I had worked through all the design problems.

I loved seeing them in the space, a bit quirky and cartoonish with their legs slightly askew. All of them different and you could still tell they were doors since I had left them unpainted. (I liked for people to be able to see things transformed into new things; it breaks the consumer mindset.) And though not robust they were light and easy to move. The holes where the doorknobs had been we used for cup holders. As we put them around the room, it became clear that the tables were the set; they delineated the space into an environment that would hold all the action and the audience too. I was proud to have made such a significant contribution. And rewarded by the look of appreciation in Lenore's eyes for all I was doing.

Down To The Wire

I built them while Lenore was away at Hedgebrook working on the script. (Hedgebrook is a women's writer's retreat on Whidbey Island.) When she returned two weeks later she still had no actors; the actors she originally had in mind were booked that weekend and though they said they would help find others they had not done so (possibly distracted by Spring break). Lenore was asking me if I knew anyone. I had one tiny lead to a boy actor which turned out to be a dead end. Time was ticking down. She would have to go to the mat to find them herself. Ten days before the show date she was able to meet the drama teacher at Berkeley High to let her audition students there. And finally she had her actors.

When Hannah walked into the gallery Lenore introduced us and told me she was playing Will, the boy lead. I was surprised especially since she was wearing a skirt. (She had just come from a memorial, Lenore told me later.) Boy actors had been hard to come by in my day and that apparently had not changed. Hannah had come to the audition wanting to do Will's part. And in fact, there had been a boy actor there too, but he just refused to get who Will was, argued with Lenore about how things should be done, wasn't getting the meaning of the play and generally sounded like a jerk, while Hannah nailed the part of Will from the beginning. Though her girl's voice did at times interject a layer of lesbian subtext to the mix messing with my mind.

When Taylor, who was playing the part of Sharon, the young black woman, arrived, the two got right down to rehearsing their lines. Taylor was just right for the part, pretty and sassy, but sincere and heartfelt. I stayed for the entire rehearsal because Lenore was going to let me be one of the videographers and I took the opportunity to practice. Her friend Scott would shoot with his camera on the other side of the room. The more experienced person she wanted on the job was already booked. Nothing like having the decks cleared of competition to feel needed. And there were more props to be made. I volunteered to make a stand for the confederate flag that Will's father displays at his house and a sign for the restaurant where the young lovers are refused service. This gave me more fun stuff to do until the play date.

An Audience Is Ready

By the time the actors came to rehearse the morning of the show, they had really bloomed into their roles. Will embodied his epiphany of his racist white heritage in a touching way that was honest without being self flagellating. While Sharon as a young woman filled with ideas she picked up from progressive parents, was full of confidence and smitten enough with this white boy to bridge whatever social barriers came between them and forgive his whiteness.

The 30 minute show partly acted, partly read in prose form gave more backstory to the movie than most movies have front story. The greeters were prepped as we awaited an audience. They would be the ones who told people where they could sit so they would be segregated by race. One was an African American man, Antonio, who had been the model for the Black Panther character in the poster. Another, Rabia, was a soft spoken African American muslim woman whose words were so carefully chosen it gave her a  calm elegance and the third, Ignacio, was an immigrant from Columbia with a friendly open face. 

Soon the gallery was filled to capacity, mostly with people of color, mostly black. As it happened I had chosen to be the videographer on the colored side of the room. The effect of being immersed amidst a majority of people of color flooded me with the realization that I spend a lot of time being white. By this I mean I forgive with regularity the exclusion of my experience; I don't mention these observations to anyone and I make excuses to myself for people's ignorance. 

Even though I was not a member of the African American community I shared the hyper vigilance of living in a white man's world. Of knowing that at any given time something will come out of nowhere and remind you that you are the other, that you are excluded from an assumed privilege. And how this can feel like an attack so you have to learn to fight back. But what was more draining was that in such a world, your impact is largely ignored, your chance to influence the world deemed irrelevant while the concerns of the majority in power—of white men— are the center of the discussion. Standing on the colored side of the room there was comfort in being seen in numbers too large to ignore.

A Story In Common

This was an audience who had come to hear their story told. And once the performance started they hung on every word, hardly making a sound as each line spoken revealed a path well traveled by those who live intimately with mixed race issues. What prompted this young couple's interest in each other? What did Sharon's mother say when she found out? How did Will come to terms with his alienation from his dad's racist perspective? How would they handle how the outside world greeted their love?

In many ways this story was mine too both in the element of forbidden love and in the mixed race aspect of it. My parents mixed marriage had been notably unusual wherever we lived and when they divorced somehow my identify took twice as much to explain. I am touched whenever color lines are crossed, made whole again. To love across the color line (or any divide) is to appreciate what is different from your own point of view and respect that perspective as if it were your own. It forever changed you. I identified with Sharon's strength and confidence expressing her sexuality and her ideas. And with Will for I also had a father who's conservative politics and alienating social opinions I had to separate myself from.

After the performance was over all were silent until Lenore and crew clapped to prompt the audience that the play had ended. We then moved the tables out of the space and invited the audience to form a circle with their chairs and integrate themselves again. No one left as people often do when an event threatens to become touchy feely. Everyone had questions, wanted to know what this was about. And about the movie that would be made from this story.

Lenore asked the first question—did people think this couple would stay together? A range of answers all from the black audience members, some generous to the romance some fearful of the social pressures against it. But one question hung in the air. An older black woman sitting next to me asked the question. What was it that prompted Lenore, a white woman from Iowa, to take on this story? This had also been my burning question when I came to learn of the project. Lenore explained that she had been a part of a mixed family by adoption of a Native American brother; through him she learned how different the world treated him. Thus she had been an activist for civil rights from the age of fourteen. And she had also had interracial relationships, she said. This seemed to be her ticket into the club, for the black woman also shared that she had had a relationship with a white man in her youth, a Jew. (My first lover had also been a Jew; Jews seemed to be the entry level white lover for people all across the board for both people of color and white Christians curious about the Other.)

Lenore also asked how people felt sitting in the segregated spaces. Again an articulate response from a black woman explaining that it was part of the black experience to be segregated often purposefully for protection and support so there was no sting to it, but she herself wanted to know how the experience had been for the white people who were told they couldn't sit where they wanted to. Several white women shared their discomfort at being separated from people of color, for being denied the unified family feeling of oneness that they had come to the show to support. While a young mixed race woman shared that she was given the choice of sitting in either section, but had stayed on the colored side. Was there any benefit to sitting on the white side in this scenario, I wondered? Apparently not. 

People also shared their responses to the characters whether they believed them or not, whether what the characters said rang true. Much discussion about whether the aggressiveness of the young woman in the relationship was a stereotype of black women. (It was not one I was familiar with stuck as I was with the stereotype of Thai women being assumed to embody the loose morality of the sex trade we're so famous for.) The only discussion for Will's role was why the part had been played by a young woman rather than a guy, but people agreed that Will's sweetness had been successfully expressed by Hannah. The success of the play was that it was a story about how race divides us, but Lenore had told it in such a way that everyone could empathize with everybody. 

She explained how this back story related to her movie, but she hardly needed to for everyone was already eager to see it, had made the leap from the play to the movie. The movie itself was a post 9/11 political and spiritual thriller with Will now an FBI agent haunted by the memory of Sharon. He goes in search of her and discovers that she is no longer with us, but she has left a legacy of forward thinking ideas which have led to the creation of a utopian vision of Ubuntu, a village looking very much like an eco village with its adobe houses and farmed fields. (Ubuntu means I am what I am because of who we all are.) The movie's heroine is Sharon's daughter, a healer seen in the poster with her shamanic panther drum. Part of the drama was a battle over water rights.

There were so many elements of this movie that I could relate to. Others would too, but does the existence of an audience drive the forces that get movies made? It had for the gay community, but this movie was bigger, more ambitious with a budget of 5 million. It was an idea that encompassed many threads, many communities. It offered so much that needed be addressed. Our audience would have stayed long past our allotted time sharing their insights. In fact more people had come in just to see what was going on. But we had to send them home.

A black man helped me take down the sets and the job was done quickly. I had introduced myself to and talked to more black men and women than I've probably met my entire life. Antonio had told me about his martial arts training and asked about mine. Rabia had shared with us her experiences of dating a white man in her youth in Ohio. And while looking at a portrait painted by a Thai woman of Tiger Woods displayed on the wall of the gallery, Eric the curator and I discussed the various cultures who claimed Tiger. He shared with me his trip to Thailand and how he had a Thai girlfriend there. (Had I had more time I would have asked how he had been received in Thailand for it was not so long ago that Thai text books taught their people that the African race was inferior in intellect.) Through these brief interactions and shared stories I felt enriched for having discovered this world of people so aware of the issues of moving between cultures. 

Lenore had worked hard to bring this show together and had overcome all the obstacles. Whatever perfection she had sought, she had let go with grace, celebrating what we had accomplished each step of the way as a new achievement. She would frame this event as a success bringing the movie closer to reality and would soon look at where it could go next.

As one of my writing group members once said, trying to get published is like throwing popcorn at the moon. But that didn't discourage us from the attempt. Or having fun trying. This performance event was an uncommon bid to attract a producer, but it had ignited further interest in the movie. And the homegrown phenomenon of it beckoned for more such events—for an ubuntu village of its own. Whatever the fate of the movie, what it was already was a happening that brought people together in multiple moments of unification and healing, not to mention all the fun we had. And for that I was satisfied and grateful.

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At 6:27 PM, Anonymous Sylvia said...

So great to read about this event. I've known Lenore for several years and have had many opportunities to experience the community building and creativity with which she is gifted, and which she creates such amazing and healing pathways to bring to life. Thank you for writing so richly about this event. As a recipient of Lenore's healing and an avid supporter of American Ubuntu, I offer my thanks.

At 2:14 PM, Blogger AK said...

Sylvia, —So touched by your taking the time to let me know you appreciated the piece. It was truly an enriching experience and a privilege to be part of this event and to write about it as part of my own healing journey.



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