Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sitting Between Paul Carter Harrison & Woodie King Jr.

Although I researched the festival online, and looked into the staff at Hattiloo, there was nothing that could prepare me in regard to the people I would experience over the course of a swift 72 hours in town as a performing artist for the inaugural National Black Box Performing Arts Festival in Memphis, TN.

Several luncheons into the festival, I had wrapped up my second show and found myself in a room full of HBCU students and older black folks at Central BBQ just before we headed over to the National Civil Rights Museum to catch Antonio Lyons’ one-man show. Pinned between a gentleman wearing a paperboy cap and silver-maned bloke both as dark as my dad, I went in on the BBQ with the voracity of a starved musician… as I was. The silver-maned bloke spoke to the woman next to him, opposite of me, about Panama. I interrupted with, “Just watched Hands of Stone- y’know the movie about Roberto Durand”. The silver-maned bloke stared at me for a second and nodded...
He went back to whatever conversation he was having with the woman next to him. I recoiled, reset, and checked just how much clout I had to lose in this affair (which was exactly none). If anything, I had negative clout, I meant little to nothing to these people and could only gain (or work my way back to zero) in this room. Aye, I wouldn’t be boxed out of this man’s world, and persisted with the Roberto Durand reference- seeing it’s the only in I currently had upon the conversation.

He gave in, we discussed the 5 youth that were shot & killed during a protest outside of the U.S. Embassy in Panama, then onto the question a few others had already asked once they heard I was from Minneapolis- “Oh, you know Lou then?” Lou Bellamy, the former Artistic Director, of Penumbra Theatre in Saint Paul, MN was inescapable even though he wasn’t anywhere near the zipcode. “Yeah, Lou!” I responded, even though it had been damn near 10 years since I’ve spoke to the guy. I might’ve burned that bridge with the Black Actor, White Theatre article I posted a year ago, then again only 3 folks read this blog, so probably not.

Before knowing someone, their accolades and falls, or even their name, you get a presence about them. The silver-haired bloke emitted this energy of having literally dealt with and seen it all, and being entirely ok with it. If he were in the Marvel Universe, I’d have him pegged as the Watcher or one of the deceased Black Panthers that walks the astral plane. He’s here, he’s created a mass of art & action, and now he observes… to what I’ve briefly gotten from his demeanor from the 30 minutes we sat next to each other.

He explained his retirement to Panama, having once lived in New York as a director, and that was all we really expounded upon- Mostly Panama, which seemed to be the most exciting part, and was also the present tense of his life. I couldn’t get a read on how old this man was. He could be 70, he could be 80, dear lord not 90. Alas, he was somewhere in the winter of longevity and bucking it quite well.
Our dinner wrapped up, the silver-maned bloke called over to the gentleman with the paperboy cap now sitting a few seats away from me. “Woody!” he called, and then said something along the lines of their familiarity betwixt each other. I had taken up enough of this man’s time and it was upon the crowd to go watch Antonio Lyons’ one-man show at the National Civil Rights Museum.

“Hey, you goin’ to the show at the museum?” I asked him, on my way out.

“I’m going to get a ride back to my hotel. And then I’m going to bed.” He said powerfully with emphasis on the “bed”.

I’d taken it this man was tired and had perhaps seen enough theatre for several lifetimes. I, on the other hand, have not. I got a quick picture with him and bumped on down the road to Antonio’s show. Little did I know the man I had been speaking to the whole time was Paul Carter Harrison, legendary playwright, professor to Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen, and much more. And the gentleman with the paperboy cap was Woodie King Jr, founder & director of the legendary New Federal Theatre in NYC. 

I may never get another moment like that again. 

However, if I’m lucky, I’ll live to see 90 and have some good-looking young artist try and start a conversation with me about a movie I haven’t seen yet.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Flight of the Para: Young Boris & The Medallion

I am going to write of the first grader Young Boris before I introduce Honeybrook’s first grade class. The temperament of the Honeybrook First Grade populous is a story unto itself, filled with the intricacies of a moving car’s engine or Infinity Gauntlet saga. Characters and pivotal role players sprint the narrative of the first graders’ present legacy, bending the will of the school building into a multitude of stories. No other grade in Honeybrook wields the power to do this. The first graders alone are the only students that can manipulate the school’s direction from straight to cyclical, and more powerfully while the older 4 grades above them commit to a singular story, the first graders have mastered the art of directing multiple stories all at once.

On this particular Tuesday, the paras and I decided to throw a medallion hunt for each grade during recess. We hid the medallion in five different places, and read them a clue at lunch before they went out hunting.

Young Boris sat at a table with a red cup atop it. The red cup means your table is last to go out to recess, indicating some means of punishment or restrain applied to the students. From simple observation, you can see the public shaming of the red cup in the joints and gestures of the students that actually apply meaning to it, and then there are the others. The students that look at the red cup with the same stare they would give a green cup, the good cup. The color of the cup, the depth of the punishment, the weight and tone of an adult’s voice moves them none. They are the brightest, most intelligent students in the building as they have mastered the observation of emotion, and are able to bend even the strongest will of a teacher with a sleight of hand and misdirection. Young Boris, no stranger to observation of emotion, gave negative f---- for the red cup, and ate his lunch contently.

Upon reading the first clue for the medallion, I noticed Young Boris’ eyes light up with the subtlety of switchblade being drawn in the dark. My surface attention only noticed it for a moment, and thought nothing of it. Perhaps, a jolt of competitive spirit overtook him, or maybe he was putting on for the rest of the table. Aye, it was neither. Looking back on it now, Young Boris’ eyes had lit with the blueprint of his plan to break recess.

Recess had begun, the first graders bolted to the field, then the playground, then the blacktop, then to the hill in urgent search of the medallion. If found, the student would receive a prize from the carnival and a small prize for their entire home classroom. Ms. L and I stood on the black top where we maintained a view of the entire recess sprawl.

The erratic speed and direction of the search groups spun off like bats swirling amongst trees. Again, the first grade is a plethora of individuals all following their own narrative, and shooting from the hip whenever they feel like it. Time, space, gravity- the first graders laughed at these concepts. Suddenly, the speed and direction stopped. It was as if someone had freeze tagged the entire grade and left them standing. Young Boris walked from the playground to the hill. “Sweet Baby Josiah, what did he do?” I thought to myself. As an adult, my ego immediately shouted “Hey, he can’t do that”, and then the rest of me answered, “Hell yes he can, and we will grab popcorn and watch”.

Young Boris ascended the hill, now running with perfect form, and on his command, jilted the entire (all 100+) first grade student body to chase him up the hill. The first graders formed like a disorganized Voltron and swarmed toward him.

The kids lacking cardio fell first. Their inability to keep up with every single student in the first grade class, taking nothing away from them, easily separated them from the herd. The quicker students now reached the top of the hill only to find Young Boris making a dash for the smaller hill. Screams of excitement and “He’s got the medallion!!!” streamed through the cold air. Young Boris, now descending the small hill toward the blacktop, was in full stride until… he slowed and was caught.
The grade surrounded him to what looked almost to be a soap-box sermon gone wrong. Ms. L walked toward the commotion, as I stay standing on the blacktop wondering just what the hell happened. Did he have the medallion? All the other students that found the medallion, just brought it to us paras. Why would he take it and run?

Questions of logic could not be applied to Young Boris. He was several dance moves ahead of even the choreographers.

Young Boris broke away. The grade, now in hot pursuit once again, was lead to the field and then back to the playground. Several students, who had now given up, came to me exclaiming, “Boris has the medallion! He won’t tell us where it is!” Dear lord, he’s broken the game. Young Boris didn’t have the medallion, he had an appetite for entertainment and he damn sure took his fill.

The free time soon expired, and the grade retired to the building. After watching all the other grades glom together in organized search parties and find the medallion, Young Boris had no interest in the game provided. He desired breaking the game and watching the grade and staff dance at his will.

That is the kind of kid who will change things. Although, there is massive potential in each student, Young Boris possesses a creative mind hovering just above all of us.

Arriving for literacy and classroom support, an episode of The Magic School Bus played on a white screen in Ms. Zelda’s classroom. It was snack time, usually the time I check in with a few students and talk about dogs, what we ate for breakfast, and favorite colors.

Pulling up a seat next to Young Boris in the dimly lit room to avert the students’ gaze toward Ms. Frizzle playing on the wall, he kept his eyes forward paying no attention to me.
“You know why I did that?” he said.

“I don’t even know what you did?” I sarcastically replied. I don’t usually hand out sarcasm to 6 and 7 year-olds, however Young Boris is an exception… because he gets it.

“I told everyone I had the medallion, but I didn’t. Honestly, I just wanted to get a work out and have them chase me while I did it.” He continued.

“Well then, Boris. You definitely got a good workout in” I agreed with him.
“Got a great workout” He one upped.

Hot skittles, this kid belongs in Xavier’s school for the gifted. We’re gonna have to raise our game if we’re to operate anywhere near this kid’s level.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Flight of The Para: An Inconvenient Return

All school names, student names and city names have been changed for privacy and anonymity.

Last I was here, Mel and I were confined to a room within a room, a 3-walled cove of sorts that rested right between the resource room and Room 100. Every school has a Room 100, it’s where you take a timeout, detention, timed punishment, or all 3. The teachers can phrase the reasoning however they want, and it doesn’t fool the students. At that particular juncture, Mel wasn’t a fan of anyone. He wanted out of Humbolt Middle School and to go back to the old middle school he was originally placed in, Armstrong. I, a paraprofessional, had little to no power over where Mel took his education. My position is simple, please the teachers, support the students. If it comes down to one or the other, I side with the student.

Now, entering a new school for a new adventure, I couldn’t shake the imagery of Humbolt, the 3-walled cove, and Mel. With each step I took toward this new school- this entirely different scenario I’ve never worked before, I flashed back…

The resource room hosted a dozen or less students, all ranging in a gradient of behavioral issues, mental illness, and histories of potential violence. Most the white students in the resource room had autism and were there for extra support and help. One white student exhibited behavioral problems, and that was it. Every black student in the resource room was there for behavioral reasons. 95% of the staff was white, so you can apply the reasoning to the resource room. Mel’s skin was a shade darker than my own, his hair texturized to tight curls, and his eyes brown like mine. Had it been up to me, I’d flip the resource room into a black leadership space, and turn the entire program inside out. Outside of my reach, I focused on what I could control: The relationship between the black students and the immediate world surrounding them.

Mel, fiercely screamed during this particular episode. It was like no other tantrum I’d seen him throw. It was a moment that little reflected Mel, and more so the resource room. The program had failed this young black boy, and he was shouldering the frustration. Ms. Finley, the lead teacher of the resource room, assigned me to Mel until he cooled out. Alas, there was no cooling down for Mel. The tantrum persisted, the screaming continued… and then… the tears.

I didn’t bother applying reason to him his ears in a moment where reason wouldn’t be had, so I simply blocked the opening to the room until he dealt with the reality of where he was at. Inversely, I’d collide with my own reality as well. As he tears rolled from his eyes, he breathed deeply. He was exhausted, and lost his breath from screaming so intensely. In that, he left an opening, and I stepped through it.

Sitting next to him, we both leaned against the wall. “I want to go back to Armstrong…” he murmured in defeat. “I know, but we’re not there. I need you to breathe, control your body, and show that to Ms. Finley. If she doesn’t see that you can do that, we’re stuck here for the day.” The thought of controlling his body was one thing, but to display it to a white authority figure in the next room was another. He looked away and gasped at an arrhythmic pace, slowly gathering sense. Piecing his consciousness back together, he acquiesced, looked down to his lap.

Right there, it hit me. I was in the foxhole with this young boy, as we both struggled to make sense of a program condemning people of color to rooms to control themselves. Humbolt meant to claim his body. Tears welled up in my eyes, and began to roll. Mel’s head still perched downward looking into his lap. “My middle school was called Windom. It was a good school, but… the detention room always had faces that looked like yours and mine. Dudn’t that seem weird to you?” I said to him, riding a streamline of clarity and conscious.

“Yeah” he murmured through his tears.

“I want you to get out of here. This room ain’t a place for any young person. You just… you just can’t let them put you back in here, y’know. We gotta figure out a way to not come back here. Ok?” I said.

“Ok” he whispered.

Our chests heaved, I wiped my face, and took note that our breathing had synced up in some weird way. I couldn’t tell Ms. Finley what I told Mel, it’d be my job. However, in a moment of truth, I wouldn’t lie to Mel.

Mel and I walked back into the resource room, settled the difference with Ms. Finley, displayed her definition of a controlled body, and proceeded into the day.

And that room still haunts me.

And I’ll never forget Mel. I’ll never forget a second of that day.

Eyes opened, opening the door to Honeybrook Elementary in a 3rd ring suburb of Minneapolis, it felt strangely unfamiliar. The culture was nothing like Humbolt. Could the unfamiliarity be due to the fact I’ve been out of the game for so long? Had I been working with kids on the spectrum so long outside of a school that it warped my perception? Or was it that Honeybrook presented an entirely different operation and budget than Humbolt? Whatever it is, or was, I welcomed the challenge.

Looking back to that  day with Mel, I vowed to never be complicit to a student’s solitary confinement or controlling of their body. We’ll see how that works out here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

With You Into The Next

I’d never done this before, and now was the time to start.

Aborting work to a coffeeshop nearby my mother’s house, I placed the next thing-to-do in the back pocket of my mind. Studying a film schedule and list of scenes for this weekend’s music video shoot put me in half the state I needed to be in. I wasn’t fully there. The mocha was ok, and beckoned of sugar I had abandoned in the last month. Why the hell did I buy a mocha? Possibly because the caffeine rush hits me softer than straight coffee- maybe because I wanted something that felt like a reward for making it this far in the day- making it this close to a gesture I’d never given any living thing before.

My mom calls, “I’m here. You wanna just pull up and get her with me?” I comply because it’s what I drove down here to do, and backing out now would… well, it’d sever a few well-worked-on ties my mother and I have sewn over the past month, and it would put me in a hole I’ve had one foot in for some time. The past months have winded through my chest with the fervor of a whirling dervish and hasn’t stopped. I’ve been riding the proverbial lighting, and if I back out of this now, then surely I will have bucked myself off.

I will not be bucked off.

I arrive to my mother’s house, silent and still in my mind, I walk in. Henry, the family Golden Retriever, hustles head first into my knee cap. I stave him off and take him to the front door where he’ll utilize the front lawn as his personal public restroom. I walk to the basement door, open it, and- “Raaaaahhhhhhh”, she cries. Stashi, our family cat of 17 years looks distantly into the basement stares, withered and outside of herself. “Hey baby” I speak softly to her. I pet her lightly as her back arches and tail coils like petting is the last thing she’d ever wanted on this day.

When I put Jack in the box to go to the vet, he yelped and meowed so deeply & loudly, it damn near wrought me to tears. His passing was untimely after being stricken by a car and then having to be euthanized when the surgery didn’t help. However, with Stash… she knew. Somehow she just knew.
I placed Stashi in the traveling cat box, and there she sat silently. She’d brush her nose up against the sides of the box for some form of pressure, but that was it. The brushing of her face was unconditional- she brushed it against the doorframe, my sleeping face, tree trunks… Henry’s sleeping face. She was fearless like that.

I pick up the box and bring it to my mother’s car. What feels like an hour of traffic later, I land to the vet a few minutes after my mother. The woman at the front desk points me in the direction to the room my mother and Stashi are sitting. By this time, I’d almost put it out of my mind that this was happening, that we’d scheduled the visit, that it’d be the last moment with our own lil’ squirrel terrorist and rabbit chaser. And then the walls of any hospital, whether it be for humans or animals, are inescapably singing a harmony of your mortality. Things become just things as you give into the song of the hospital walls, and meaning for fruitless thoughts dissolve into oblivion. The walls keep you true, and this final moment with Stashi will bring my mother and I closer together, as it will bring me closer to an inescapably authentic  reflection of the man I am.

The room is small, box-like almost. One couldn’t fathom this room serving any other function than what we are there for. What matters most, is that we are there. Throughout my lifetime, my mother, bless her soul, has made this voyage 5 times. And 5 times she has placed a last kiss, spoke final words, and given an ultimately ending caress to our families pets. For me, it was easy to say goodbye to our past dog and cats. I’d walk in the house, say goodbye, and then leave them. My final interaction was seeing them alive in the family house, or playing with something. The reality and responsibility would have to be confronted, and today was no better day than the last to do that.
A knock at the door came. Stashi delicately tipped to the door as it opened. Her left eye half shut, back left hind leg limping, and her back as skinny as a malnourished street cat, Stashi meowed at the doc. Placing her on the table, you could see the energy and light missing from her eyes. Somehow she just knew.

In the final days, or damn near past year since Jack passed, there was something removed from Stashi. I don’t know if it was because she missed her homie Jack, or because the last Summer was just a pain in the ass to move around at the age of 17, but she had slowed considerably. Now, she’d only meow for food, and incessantly meow more even after her feeding. I took as her trying to tell us that she wanted to go, that she wanted to move on to the next. Perhaps Jack had spoken to her in a lucid cat dream of the paradise that lay on the other side, and Stashi knowing no other was to communicate that by way of meow was somehow telling us that she longed to not only be there, but to be there with him. Yeah, that’s definitely it.

Before she was euthanized, we chose to have her sedated. Finding a vein in a cat ain’t easy, and it sure as hell isn’t a pleasure for the cat. The doc lay a tray of delicious food in front of her. I have to see this, I have to be here. As Stashi feasts, the doc injects something of a tranquilizing nature in a pinch of her back skin. I must see this, I must be here. Stashi continues to feast until her hind legs give out. Still licking the tray, her front joints dullen to the ability to carry her weight. Still licking the tray, the doc removes the tray, as she looks out at us, now licking the air. I will be here, I will see this. And that’s all she wanted… food… and peace.

I kissed her on the head with tears falling from my face, and stepped out of the building. My mother and I hugged at the car for a little longer than a usual hug. She passed on the experience to me. 5 times she has been here to do this with our family pets, and now for when I raise my family, I know I will be the one to do the same. There is an amazing honor in being with a living creature as it passes, a humbling solar-plexus shaking power you submit to.

And so today, Stashi passed on to that paradise in the sky with Jack.

And that’s all I ever wanted for her… food… peace… and to be with Jack.

Goodbye Stashi.

All my love forever and then some,