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REVIEW: Ishmael Reed’s Play “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” Comments on Black Artists and White Sponsors

[Haitian-Puerto Rican American artist, Jean-Michel] Basquiat rose to fame in the neo-expressionist art movement in the 1980s and [Andy] Warhol, one of his mentors, had gained renown for Pop Art and drug use in the 1960s. They died within a year of each other, Warhol at age 59 in 1987 and Basquiat died of an overdose at age 27 in 1988.

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Detective Mary van Helsing (Roz Fox), left, rescues Jennifer Blue (Kenya Wilson), one of the victims in the continuing exploitation of Blackness. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Detective Mary van Helsing (Roz Fox), left, rescues Jennifer Blue (Kenya Wilson), one of the victims in the continuing exploitation of Blackness. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

By Wanda Sabir

Ishmael Reed’s current play, directed by Carla Blank, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” at Theater for the New City until January 9, explores Black culture and white exploitation in the relationship between the Haitian-Puerto Rican American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.

Basquiat rose to fame in the neo-expressionist art movement in the 1980s and Warhol, one of his mentors, had gained renown for Pop Art and drug use in the 1960s. They died within a year of each other, Warhol at age 59 in 1987 and Basquiat died of an overdose at age 27 in 1988.

There are so many analogous parallels, both fictional or mythic and actual that it is amazing that the play only has one intermission.

In his play, Reed postulates that the older, white artist presented himself as a benevolent father figure. While under the influence of drugs, a willing Basquiat allows Warhol to install him in a basement where Basquiat churns out art like an assembly worker.

Reed’s premise here is that Warhol had gotten away with a crime.

The cold case is reopened by two forensic scientists, Grace and Raksha, (Monisha Shiva and understudy Kenya Wilson) who want to bring the perpetrators to justice. As the contemporary team investigates, time shifts back and forth as what happened to Basquiat had perpetuated with other captives.

Slave owners used cocaine — which Basquiat used excessively — to increase productivity among the captives, Reed says. Just as slavery was once legal, the Warhol machine also had legal protection, money and power.

Reed’s writing is crisp and sharp as are the actors who deliver and deliver and deliver some more. Carla Blank’s direction is also on point as the diction and storylines unfold clearly in nuanced layers.

I love the scene in Act 2 where the ghost of Richard Pryor — appearing as a shadow puppet danced by actor, Kenya Wilson — tries to prevent Basquiat from going up in chemical flames like the late comedian had.

Pryor’s ghost speaks to the art of selling out to Hollywood, another type of killing field for Black art and artists. We sense Pryor’s regret that he didn’t stay with people who loved him. It’s hard to tell friend from foe when engulfed in f(l)ame(s).

Reed’s characters also convey the prevailing attitudes by police that allow the wealthy and famous to get away with everything from theft to murder, a very real problem on and off the page.

Roz Fox’s Detective Mary van Helsing is a cool sleuth who goes looking for the missing appetizer, “Jennifer Blue” (actor Kenya Wilson) despite legal disinterest. She is our hero. Don’t worry, this is a spoiler, but there is so much going on here, you will probably forget I told you.

In “Slave” we see too often how historians are propagandists who lie to keep the empire solvent.

Remember Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in “1984”? I am reminded also of Jimi Hendrix (1970) and his demise—yes to a drug overdose. . . Fuquan Johnson (2021), Shock G (2021), Juice WRLD (2020), Billie Holiday (1959), Whitney Houston (2012), The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (2006), Michael Jackson (2009).

Since it is Ishmael Reed, we can actually have a happy ending.

The late bell hooks wrote in “Outlaw Culture: ‘Altars of Sacrifice: “Re-membering Basquiat’,” that the young, yet masterful artist “journeyed into the heart of whiteness.

White territory he named as a savage and brutal place. The journey is embarked upon with no certainty of return. Nor is there any way to know what you will find or who you will be at journey’s end. . . . Basquiat understood that he was risking his life—that this journey was all about sacrifice [. . .]” (36). this and his refusal to allow the dominant culture to tell our story, the 99%, the percentage who matter.

How difficult it must have been for the artist to have his say as he dangled from a purveyor’s noose. Herein lies Black genius. Herein lies the tragedy. Ishmael Reed’s ability to cultivate success for the past 60 or so years stems from his artistic eReed’s research is impeccable—I lose track of some of the names, like the artist who boycotts with other Black artists a museum that sets out to exploit them.

Reed is certainly prescient as is the Theater for The New City’s Artistic Director Crystal Field. As confederate monuments are toppled throughout the nation and reparations are a very real possibility, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar” certainly sets a precedent. “Slave” is a challenge and a wakeup call to those who have not been paying attention to the right thing. “Slave” says, change the channel. What did the Last Poets say about the Revolution?

The play is streaming through Jan. 9, 2022, at Theater for the New City. Streaming tickets are just $10+ small fee. For in person ($15.00) and virtual tickets visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/35441/production/1091241

You can learn more about Reed on my radio or podcast interview here.

We had a conversation with many members of the cast January 5, 2022 on Wanda’s Picks Radio Show podcast. Tune in (subscribe): http://tobtr.com/12046944

 

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Art

Terrance Kelly, Brother Ben Lead Creative Arts Classes for Elders at West Oakland Senior Center

The Emmy Award-winning conductor and choir director Terrance Kelly leads a special choir class focused on gospel, jazz, blues and world music alongside Paul Daniels of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and the St. Columba Church.

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Ben Tucker, a.k.a. Brother Ben, leads “Straight Outta Oakland,” one of the new classes offered by Stagebridge and held at the West Oakland Senior Center. Photo courtesy of Stagebridge
Ben Tucker, a.k.a. Brother Ben, leads “Straight Outta Oakland,” one of the new classes offered by Stagebridge and held at the West Oakland Senior Center. Photo courtesy of Stagebridge

By Julius Rea

Stagebridge and the West Oakland Senior Center have partnered to offer two incredible classes to be held at the West Oakland Senior Center (WOSC), starting this month. Created for elders, these opportunities will bring out the joy in celebrating Black culture and Oakland history.

The Emmy Award-winning conductor and choir director Terrance Kelly leads a special choir class focused on gospel, jazz, blues and world music alongside Paul Daniels of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and the St. Columba Church.

Inviting both introductory singers and experienced vocalists, “The Community’s Choir” offers a special chance to work with these two Oakland-based musical voices. Also, students are not required to learn to read sheet music. This class will be held Fridays, 1 – 2 p.m. at WOSC.

In 2005, Kelly received the Local Heroes Award from KQED Television for his directorship of the Oakland Interfaith Youth Choir and was also honored at the Gospel Music Awards. In 2013, he was awarded the Dr. Edwin Hawkins Excellence Award. He currently serves as Minister of Magnification at Oakland’s Imani Community Church.

Ben Tucker, a.k.a. Brother Ben, will teach “Straight Outta Oakland,” a class inspired by the history and culture of West Oakland. He will lead students in developing a showcase of five-minute stories. Focused on telling personal narratives in a clear, concise manner, this class will be a bridge to mapping and crafting one-of-a-kind journeys. The class will be held Tuesdays, 1 – 2 p.m. at WOSC at 1724 Adeline St., Oakland, CA 94607.

A retired University of California administrator, Tucker has been a community-focused storyteller for several years while taking classes at Stagebridge. He has performed at the San Francisco and Berkeley Marsh Theaters, Oakland Main and San Francisco Bayview libraries, and many senior centers and schools. Brother Ben is also a singer and author.

Students who are registered members of the West Oakland Senior Center will be offered the classes for free. Those who are not members can register today at www.stagebridge.org. For more information on these classes, call the West Oakland Senior Center directly at (510) 238-7016.

Julius Rea is the director of marketing and communications for Stagebridge.

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Activism

‘Chapter 510’ Opens Youth Writing and Publishing Center in Swan’s Market

Located in the heart of Swan’s Market, the center’s walls and ceilings are covered with bold painted letters and designs. Chapter 510 also has a retail store where you can purchase a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, ‘Poetry is Power,’ in addition to beautifully designed books, posters, and notebooks.

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The entrance of Chapter 510's new space in Swan's Market in Oakland. Photo courtesy of Chapter 510.
The entrance of Chapter 510's new space in Swan's Market in Oakland. Photo courtesy of Chapter 510.

By Irena Knight

There was a celebration last weekend at 546 9th St., Chapter 510’s new home. Also known as the Dept. of Make Believe, the space offers free writing workshops, bookmaking, and publishing opportunities for young people of color.

Located in the heart of Swan’s Market, the center’s walls and ceilings are covered with bold painted letters and designs. Chapter 510 also has a retail store where you can purchase a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, ‘Poetry is Power,’ in addition to beautifully designed books, posters, and notebooks.

During the pandemic, Chapter 510, like many others, conducted online classes. Chapter 510’s teaching artists currently conduct programs at several Oakland schools including Franklin Elementary, Westlake Middle, MetWest High School and more.

In 2013, Janet Heller founded the center with Tavia Stewart to provide space for Black, Brown and queer youth to write and share their stories. The new space will allow Chapter 510 to expand their current programs, and in the future, offer podcasting and bookmaking.

At their opening weekend, Heller said, “Students of color need a space emotionally and physically where they can be supported by adults of color to write, edit, and publish.”

She emphasized that such a space has to be beautiful: “Light, air, and color is essential for creativity.”

The organization’s budget for 2021/ 2022 is $850,000 and the goal, according to their website, is to grow to $1.2 million by 2022/2023. To date, the center has raised $1.1 million. Heller said the center is supported by government, foundation, and institutional giving.

Think about buying your holiday gifts at the center’s retail store and supporting programs for youth of color. For more information, go to www.chapter510.org or call (510) 469-0108.

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Advice

Former Marin City Resident and New Author, Niesha Roary, Appears at Library

As a former preschool teacher, Niesha Roary has read hundreds of children’s books. This inspired her to write her own children’s book. Roary’s writing mission is to increase the racial diversity in children’s literature.

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Book cover, Niesha Roary (Photo from Marin City Library
Book cover, Niesha Roary (Photo from Marin City Library

By Godfrey Lee

Niesha Roary, who was born and raised in Marin City, shared from her first children’s book, “Very Victoria: Moving to Michigan” Saturday, December 4 at the Marin City Library on 164 Donahue St. The program was attended by youth and adults. The youths each received a copy of the book.

The book was illustrated by Kseniia Pavska. It was published by Regal Readers Publishing on November 8, 2021. The book can be ordered through Amazon or bought at Barnes and Noble for $12.99.

Roary, the daughter of Donnie Roary, who is also an alum of Performing Stars of Marin while growing up in Marin City,

Roary earned a master’s degree in Health Service Administration from Central Michigan University. She currently lives in Orion, Mich., and teaches at a community college.

As a former preschool teacher, Roary has read hundreds of children’s books. This inspired her to write her own children’s book. Roary’s writing mission is to increase the racial diversity in children’s literature.

“We need more of these role models so our young kids can see that you can grow up here, but you can be an achiever and you can be successful and give back to the community,” said Felecia Gaston, director of Performing Stars told the Marin IJ.

“Very Victoria Moving to Michigan,” is loosely based on Roary’s real-life experience of moving to Michigan. The reader will take a journey with Victoria as she describes her thoughts and feelings about her upcoming move to Michigan.

The Amazon book review says, “Victoria is a 6-year-old girl who lived in California with both her mother and father. One day Victoria’s mother sat her down to let her know that at the end of summer they would be moving to Michigan. Not only would Victoria have to move away from a familiar place, family and friends but her dad, also.

Victoria offers some insight into a child’s mind when adults make decisions that will ultimately affect the child. This book is ideal for parents and children to read together and discuss the child’s thoughts and feelings surrounding a new move.

With bold and colorful illustrations, readers will see how Victoria coped with her new reality. Most importantly this heartwarming book reminds us that the unbreakable connections between the ones we love go on, no matter how far apart you are.

Roary dedicates her book to her grandmothers: “Alberta Roary and the late Ida Banks for raising her to be the woman she is today.”

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