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Broadway Success of Black Artists Revealed in ‘Footnotes’

Caseen Gaines explores the question, how long will your star stay aloft?

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Footnotes/Google Books

 You can’t see where the roar is coming from.

But you can hear it, and that’s what matters. The role was made for you, you hit every line and note, the audience loved you – and now the roar of cheers and applause is yours. 

How long does the standing ovation last? How hard do they clap? And, in her new book “Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way”

Caseen Gaines explores the question, how long will your star stay aloft?

Growing up in an affluent Black neighborhood in Columbia, Tenn., Flournoy Miller had everything he could ever want – and when he was 9 years old, he wanted to be onstage. It was 1894, and his parents had taken him to see Sissieretta Jones, a famous soprano and one of the highest-paid Black entertainers of the day.

“Miller,” says Gaines, “was captivated.”

And yet, growing up, Miller knew that fame was a dangerous reach. Every Black entertainer seemed to know someone who was killed by white folks for no reason, but once Miller met Aubrey Lyles in 1903 and “the two hit it off right away,” the warning was ignored. 

Miller, in fact, was more determined than ever for fame, and the two developed a popular comedy act.

From the time he was a child, Noble Sissle loved to sing. Few things pleased him more than a chance to perform in church and, while it was expected that he would become a minister like his father, he grew more passionate about music.

When Sissle took a job in Baltimore, he met Eubie Blake, a talented pianist who grew up in a Godly house as a child and honed his talents at brothels as a teenager. They, too, became fast friends and eventual collaborators.

It’s a small world, and because they worked in the same industry, Miller and Lyles knew Sissle and Blake and there was mutual respect all around. They had kicked around the idea of working together on a show, but the idea didn’t coalesce until early 1921.

And, “with nothing but a handshake agreement..” says Gaines, “the quartet agreed to give it a shot.”

The nicest thing about “Footnotes” is this: you don’t have to be a theater-goer to enjoy it. You don’t ever have to have even seen a play. You can love this lively, sparkling book for no reason but just because.

Though it takes a while to get there and though it may not seem like it, the main subject of this book is the musical, “Shuffle Along.” Gaines seems to use this main feature as a backdrop as he wraps biographies, history, and everyday life around that century-old show to demonstrate how it came to be and why it was so important to Black culture. 

There’s racism in this tale, of course, but also determination and a sense of opulence and grandeur, at times. It can be a feel-good story, but one that hurts, too.

Shakespeare said, “The play’s the thing” and so is “Footnotes.” If you love Broadway, history, or books on culture, it’ll make you roar.

“Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way” by Caseen Gaines. c.2021, Sourcebooks $26.99 / higher in Canada 448 pages

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African American News & Issues

Black Panther Mini Museum Free to BIPOC Juneteenth Weekend

Lisbet Tellefsen is the curator, Linnea Du is the editor, Otherwise provided design, and Art Kotoulas production.

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Graphic courtesy West Oakland Mural Project.

The Mini Museum of the Black Panther Party @ The Mural opens on Juneteenth, June 19, 2021, at 831 Center St., Oakland, CA.  It’s open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.  Tickets for up to five people for a 30-minute tour can be purchased in advance by logging onto westoaklandmuralproject.org.  Children under 12 are free as are BIPOC folks during Juneteenth weekend. Individual tickets can be purchased for $12.50.

Lisbet Tellefsen is the curator, Linnea Du is the editor, Otherwise provided design, and Art Kotoulas production.

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Art

In Colorizing the Characters in ‘Hamilton,’ Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda Whitewashes History

But he should also make sure we all know Hamilton was no hip-hop hero, just another founding slave holder. Miranda’s color change doesn’t change history, nor make it less distasteful.

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Photo of Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton courtesy of cinemablend

Is there any doubt that Ishmael Reed is Oakland’s writer of conscience and consequence?

He was my teacher in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. From him I learned a number of truisms about writing. Like, for me, when in doubt, put in the Filipinos. Don’t take them out!  Another one was career advice. The more money you make, the less you get to say. Conversely, the less you make, the more you get to say. And that brings me to the topic of this column.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of “In the Heights,” opened the movie version of the musical last week. It’s a gushing hydrant of diversity. It should make a lot of money. But when I talked to him a few weeks back I wanted to talk about his other monster hit, “Hamilton,” where Miranda applied what I call a little affirmative action. He put the Black and the Brown actors in the white parts.

The Founding Fathers got “Hamiltoned.” Revolutionary?

“Well, it’s interesting,” he said. “The idea when I picked up the book was it’s an R&B hip-hop musical so, of course, Black and Brown actors would play those roles. As I’m reading the book the first time, I’m picturing which of my favorite hip-hop artists should play Hercules Mulligan or George Washington. They were always people of color, and the music reflects that…I was sort of more surprised that everyone was surprised when we finally came out.”

“I think it kicks open the door,” he added. “Why are we so literal when it comes to this stuff? And you know, I see Shakespeare with people of every ethnicity playing the roles. Why can’t that be the case with our founders? We know what they look like – they’re on our f***ing money. So, like, let’s move forward here. But I think once you see a show that has had the diversity that we have on stage, it’s very hard to go back to sort of these all-white productions because you’ve got to ask why, what stories aren’t we getting when you see that?”

You still have to ask what you’re getting. Miranda got comfortable enough to cuss and didn’t like the term “affirmative action.” But was he rehabbing Hamilton, making him and the others better than they were by applying the hip-hop beat?

It was the perfect opening to ask a question about Reed, the MacArthur ‘genius’ award-winning novelist, satirist, and playwright who last year wrote  “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” a play that takes Miranda to task for the failure to highlight the real history of Hamilton.

Hamilton and his in-laws, the Schuyler family, were slave owners.

Miranda may have given the actors some tone, but the historical soul remains the same. Just obscured. Reed sees Miranda as duped by the Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow, which Miranda used as the main source for his skin-deep musical that glosses over our racist founders.

“I think seducing thousands of children and even the inaugural poet Amanda Gorman into believing that Hamilton and the Schuyler girls were ‘ardent abolitionists,’ must rank as a cultural crime,” Reed said to me.

As I asked Miranda my question about Reed, the PR rep cuts in: “We are actually out of time.”

Then Miranda says, “I got a long schedule, sorry. Thank you.”

It would have been interesting to hear his answer, with “Hamilton” beginning a new tour in August.

But this is megabuck showbiz, and the PR juggernaut must go on.

So, Miranda wiggled his way out. He could have answered. I gave him a shot.

Then again, Miranda’s got this new property to sell that’s a lot more cleansing and joyful. “In the Heights” is the feel-good movie of the post-pandemic, you know. All the fire hydrants are gushing.

But he should also make sure we all know Hamilton was no hip-hop hero, just another founding slave holder. Miranda’s color change doesn’t change history, nor make it less distasteful.

In fact, the 2021 tour for “Hamilton” is coming to San Francisco, Sacramento and San Jose for multiple-week runs in August through October.

Will he come clean by then? Or come up with a new song? In the meantime, you should read Reed’s “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda.”  There’s no music to wash away the truth.

Emil Guillermo is a veteran Bay Area journalist and commentator. He vlogs at www.amok.com Twitter @emilamok

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City Selects Ayodele Nzinga as Inaugural Poet Laureate

As poet laureate, Nzinga will make an inaugural address, partner with the city’s youth poet laureate Myra Estrada on a reading series, deliver four readings in Oakland, and write a poem that commemorates the city.

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Oakland first poet laureate Ayodele Nzinga, author of “SorrowLand Oracle” and “The Horse Eaters,” in an undated photo. (Photo courtesy City of Oakland).

Poet, playwright, and community activist Ayodele Nzinga was selected as Oakland’s inaugural poet laureate, city officials announced on June 11.

Nzinga is the founding producer and director of the West Oakland theater company Lower Bottom Playaz, established in 1999. She’s also the founding director of Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corporation, which produces BAMBDFEST, an international arts and cultural festival celebrating the arts in the Black community.

“Her decades-long commitment to Oakland’s art scene will feed the richness of her storytelling as she nurtures creativity in others,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement.

Nzinga is the author of at least two books of poetry: “SorrowLand Oracle,” a collection of spells, incantations, prayers, and “The Horse Eaters,” which is described as an origin tale, a reclamation of memory and a movement toward wholeness in thought.

Nzinga said she is “overjoyed” with her selection as Oakland’s first poet laureate.

“I look forward to representing ‘The Town’ and the honor of bringing poetry to the people!” she said in a statement.

As poet laureate, Nzinga will make an inaugural address, partner with the city’s youth poet laureate Myra Estrada on a reading series, deliver four readings in Oakland, and write a poem that commemorates the city.

“Whether in the visual performing arts, music or literature, the talents of the Town’s artists are world-renowned and deserve recognition and financial support,” J. K. Fowler, cultural affairs commissioner and chair of the poet laureate selection team, said in a statement.

City officials closed nominations on May 19 for Oakland’s inaugural poet laureate and five members of the city’s literary community selected Nzinga from other nominees based on five criteria.

That included their poetic work, and among other things, their understanding of civic stories around belonging, culture, and equity.

Nzinga will serve a two-year term until May 2023. Her selection comes with a $5,000 honorarium.

The date for the inaugural address by Nzinga has not been set.

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