Thursday, March 31, 2005

Soul Suckas, a digression, Then some love for Sekou & Sotigui

Okay, this is a wee bit off topic, but today I had to take a moment to pull out my salt and sage. You heard right, salt and sage. For those who don't know, sometimes you got to burn some salt and wave some sage just to ward off negativity. What is it with these soul suckas, spiritual vampires that call folk out of the clear blue just to take, take, take? I gotta ask, because within the past 48 hours, three folk who ought to know better, have called or made other unnecessary contact, back-to-back, only for me to find out that they are basically up to the same ole same ole, as Basquiat once penned in gold, same old shit.

Over the past two or so years, I'd made a tough decision about cutting loose what some folk might call toxic personalities, negative vibers, who like to keep up a lot of nonsense and foolishness. You may know what I mean, individuals who don't mean nobody no kind of good, never have a positive thing to say, unless it's about themselves, but insist on staying in touch, supposedly to 'see how you doin', but mostly just to drain you. Soul suckas. They don't reach out, until they want something, usually said something for free, and then you don't hear from them again until the next crisis. Now, it might be different, if these folk were family, you know, bloodlines and such, we have rituals for that kind of kin, but these ain't even the chosen kind, took me a while to figure out that I couldn't even call'em friends, let's say, for the sake of accuracy, once or twice removed Associates, capital ASS. Before I knew better, I used to get caught up in massaging these folks' insecurities and egos, trying to stay positive, but when you find that more times than not, you leave their presence or hang up the phone, weary and worried, then that's a clear sign that you need to leave that one alone, at least until they can come in the spirit of progress and healing. But some things even salt and sage can't heal.

Well, these kind of hard-earned lessons you're not supposed to forget, so why did I find myself dancing to the same ole tired rhythms? Call me a backslider, but it's really about hope. Sometimes you just hope folk learn enough to do better. Oh well. Amen. Carry On.

Now on to better thangs!

"Sekou is one of the most distinctive and original DJALI (Poet, Historian, Musician Signifier) doing it. Sekou is Pre-Griot, meaning in the ancient tradition of 'The Gleeman.' Serious as light overhead in darkness." - Amiri Baraka

Sekou Sundiata's Blessing the Boats performance was as much an exercise in memory as it was an excavation of fear, family, friendship, and the day-to-day reality of living with kidney disease. Sekou, born in Harlem, is a poweful poet and performer, who has been penning works for the page and the stage since the Black Arts Movement of the sixties. In his latest solo, mulitmedia show, he digs through the silence surrounding kidney disease, drug addictions and other self-destructive behaviors, to discuss what it means to come to value your life and the friendships that make it worth living. I don't know much about theatre, beyond what I have gleaned from sitting my butt in cold fold-up chairs, cramped orchestra seats and nose-bleed balconies over the years, but the performance was in the round, okay, semi-round, in a corner of the historic Apollo Theatre. The light was dim and intimate, a modest desk, a chair, a music stand, and a large screen in the back were the only props, but Sekou navigated gracefully through these as if he were in a space ten times larger than what our eyes could see.

The performance is not over long, as too many poetry performances can be, you know how folk get caught up in the music of their own song, even if it's good, damned good, there is a such thing as too much of a good thang, I mean, my brain can't take too much art at one time, got to savor the flavor, but the way Sekou covered his life, expertly moving back and forth from his BAMvt days and the legacy of heroin (riffin' on how the addiction affected the way he thinks, as in, 'you act like you on crack!', the need for adventure and mo' bettah adventure, dancing through life at breakneck speed) to the realization that he might actually die, was dying, in fact, and in desperate need of a kidney donor, to the realization that your family may be your family, but that don't mean they gon' show you no love, as in, not n'am somebody in his family stepped up to be tested to see if they would be a good donor match.... Well, well, much of the evening was moving revelation after moving revelation, he kept digging, bravely uncovering layes of meaning and memory, reminding me that in so many ways, we are blessed, in so many ways, our friends are some of our greatest treasures, and leading me to pray that I never grow to old or to streetwise to be beyond surprise, beyond appreciating that love that good friends bring.

After, I got a chance to talk with a talented brotherman who has been working with Sekou, traveling on the road with the Blessing the Boats performance, as they refine and rework cues. Sista Isis was tripped up by Sekou's swift summary remix at the end, the part where in one instant, we are lying in the snow, neck's broke, marveling at how swift the universe can turn us around, remind us that we are all children in the Spirit, to the next moment when Sekou encounters an Ethiopian family on the beach, then we are dancing and reciting Lucille Clifton's breathtaking poem, from which the performance gets it title, Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems from 1988-2000 (BOA Editions, Winner of the 2000 National Book Award):

(at St. Mary's)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

From Quilting: Poems 1987-1990 by Lucille Clifton. Copyright © 2001 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted with permission of BOA Editions Ltd. All rights reserved.

I think a transition would have made the abrupt scene change clearer, smoother for audiences, but when asked by the audience, Sekou responded that the story of his remarkable recovery from paralysis is yet another performance, and that he is currently working on his own State of the Union address, exploring America, post-911. Last fall I had an opportunity to participate in one of his poetry circles at City College, where the gathered voices read and exchanged poems, exploring what America means to us today, particularly to immigrant communities. What I remember most about that experience, is something that was echoed at the Blessing the Boats performance,

Listen to Sekou @ Salon.

His career spans many years and cultures, but Malian griot and actor Sotigui Kouyaté brings a timelessness to his performances that leaves you breathless. The first time I saw his work was in the film Genesis*, an epic, African retelling covering chapters 23 through 37 (Jacob & Esau's story) filmed so beautifully that I can still see scenes in my mind's eye, years later. Later I saw Little Senegal, a film described as a 'reverse Roots' or perhapas, a reverse Sankofa, following Alloune, a retiree's journey to the American South and on to Harlem, in search of his American cousins who were sold into slavery centuries before. Alloune is a tour guide who leads visitors to the former Slave Castles of West Africa. Alloune's quest comes to him in a dream and he never loses faith or sight of it as he struggles to make meaningful connections across the waters. Sotigui plays this role, as he does all others, with sensitivity and grace. I was so caught up in the storyline - the difficulties Alloune encounters with his nephew living in Brooklyn, and the hard-edged Harlemite (played by Sharon Hope), desperately trying to rescue her runaway, pregnant granddaughter from neglect and depression, that I went online to find out everything I could about Sotigui Kouyate. Imagine the l'il happy joy when I learned that he would be appearing right here in New York in Peter Brooks' TIERNO BOKAR, only blocks from my woodshed here in the backside of Harlem.

Tierno Bokar, a Malian spiritual leader and Sufi sage, lived from 1875 to 1939. His followers believed in repeating a Sufi prayer twelve times, while another clan followed the traditional eleven. After a personal revelation, Tierno later joined the rival clan, an act viewed as betrayal by his family. A long and painful struggle ensued over this practice, which came to symbolize far more than what may appear at first glance. Place this struggle against the background of aggressive French colonialism in the region and you have some idea of what the play explores. It's adapted by French dramatist
Marie-Hélène Estienne from Amadou Hampaté Bâ’s book about his studies with Tierno. If you're fluent in French and crafty enough to get your hands on a copy, you can read it for yourself in The Life and Teaching of Tierno Bokar: The Sage of Bandiagara (Paris: Editions Présence Africaine, 1957).

Click here to read Read Margo Jefferson's review of Tierno Bokar.

I agree with Margo's assessment that sometimes 'the spirit weakened and the history faltered' in Peter Brooks' production of TIERNO BOKAR, but I loved the play all the same. As I watched the sensitive, graceful performances of Sotigui and the fine cast, played against a gorgeous, deceptively simple set with live music, I couldn't help feeling that in an effort to present the humility and wisdom of Bokar's philosophy, the larger project of how to convey the complexity and violence of colonialism got lost. What I was left with was how cultures tend to consume their peacemakers lives, swallow them whole while they still have breath and life, and later regurgitate them into plastic icons who resemble little of what they were known and loved for. But something must be said for a performance that is so compelling, so beautifully acted and clear in any language, that audiences not fluent in French soon forget the English superscript altogether and find themselves moved by the drama of the company's immense talent and heart.

* Hey, if you're looking for GENESIS, remember that there are actually two different films, both featuring Sotigui Kouyate: The African Biblical feature-length film and a French documentary exploring what science theorizes about the origins of life, narrated by Sotigui. Check out both if you can!