Sunday, March 20, 2005

An Elder Once Said

A stumble is not a fall.
-- Haitian proverb.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, not yesterday, but the time before, somebody messed up. I don't know how, exactly when, or even who, but whoever it was, offered this wise saying, on their way back up to dance in life's two step. And to whoever said it first, gratitude and blessings. This is the kind of elder wisdom a body needs every now n' then. For me, it was a mantra I had to sing before sleep a little too often last year. And so it is.

Friends know it's no secret that 2004 wasn't the best for me, not health-wise, not spiritually, and sho'nuff not financially. That said, I am striving to keep my art alive in this here 2005. I wish you all the same or better in each of your personal endeavors. The more I write, the more I am beginning to become aware that, as with a great many other things in life, things undergo cycles, of growth and renewal, and times of, well, let's call it stillness. And while there is a grace in stillness--we all know this, but sometimes we forget -- geographically, at least, as defined as where my body was in relation to my heart and mind, the past three years were anything but still. It seemed that I hardly had time to unbuckle my traveling shoes before they were called somewhere else. Lesson learned: sometimes a body ought to be still and not worry itself trippin'.

Last night was an unexpected study in stillness, and I was right where I wanted--and most importantly, needed to be. Some friends and I gathered at the 45th Street Theatre off Broadway to support a veteran playwright's latest production, Leslie Lee's Blues in a Broken Tongue. Produced by the historic Negro Ensemble Company and directed by NYC actress Barbara Montgomery, Blues... explores what happens between three black women in the wig room of the Metropolitan Opera during a performance of the 'Magic Flute.' As a friend who saw the Negro Ensemble's last production before they closed their doors alongside many others in the 80s said, it sure is good to see the company back with such innovative work. This was the show's last performance, and I can't tell you enough how blessed I feel to have been a witness.

Some of you may know Leslie Lee, a Obie award-winning and Tony nominated playwright, from his works, such as Colored People's Time (1982), a history of Black folk in America from Mississippi in 1859 to the Montgomery boycotts a century later, or from his American Playhouse screenplay of Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain. Leslie has been writing for the stage and the screen since the 70s and teaches at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and formerly at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, where I first had the pleasure of meeting him. Contrary to whatever low expectations some folk may have about blacks on stage today, this is no chitlin circuit, modern-day minstrel show buckdance. With a great deal of wit and strong storytelling, Leslie's play subverts the stereotypes of 'traditional black theater' that George C. Wolfe scathingly satirized in The Colored Museum. In Blues in a Broken Tongue, he presents an egnimatic Black Russian wig mistress, Mrs. Caldwell (sic?), Angela, her naive apprentice and aspiring actress from Philadelphia in dogged pursuit of an Equity card, and an unhinged diva, Mme. Yvette, all at spiritual crossroads and wonderfully performed. The story pulled me in, particularly the slow reveal of how a black family from Tuskegee's Alabama could pull up roots and plant them in Russian soil in search of a true American dream and how their daughters fought for return passage.

Blues in a Broken Tongue is a provocative examination of identity and faith, the quest for self and a more livable future, in a spiritually bankrupt time. I left the performance full of thought and looking forward to see much more of Leslie Lee's work on and off the stage. To read some of his previous plays, visit Samuel French, Inc. To support the next Negro Ensemble Company production, visit


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