Tuesday, July 04, 2006

In late February some members of the Seldom Seen Acting Company and others from the Champion Guidance Center went to the American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in San Francisco to see a professional production of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean." As the Company's director put it, noBODY, charges more than the A.C.T. The A.C.T. is where the rich go to play. Interesting then, that a troupe of homeless men and women and their friends should be in attendance. Much thanks to the people of A.C.T. for their generous donation.

The evening was complete with a pre-performance trip to a lavish New York Deli immediately across the street from the theatre. It was one of the best meals of my life.

For two hours or more the men and women of the Champion Guidance Center--11 of us in total--ate like kings (and believe me when I tell you that not a crumb was left untouched), drank coffee and coke, and laughed big belly laughs. We made fun of each other constantly and told jokes left and right. It was, in the truest sense, an experience of family. And what a diverse family! Afrian Americans, latinos, white, homeless, transitioning folks, teachers, social workers, educated and uneducated alike. Let me tell you, we were jiving. We brought out the best in each other. You see, at only the slightest of opportunities, the joy of the human spirit is evident down at the Center. There is much sadness, indeed, but in the midst of all the pain, allt he suffering, all the depression, violence, anger, rage, and sorrow, just below the surface of all this negativity, there is a sensitivity. The Buddhists would call it "bodhichitta." It is a change in experiences, like going to a play in San Francisco, which often allows the spirit to break free.

And then came the play. What a powerful experience! This was art--both the play itself, the effect it had on the Company, and the Company's presence at the theatre. The connections between the characters in 1904 Pittsburg were powerfully similar to the current life situation of African Americans living in downtown Oakland. The similarities were uncanny, extending all the way down to sayings, modes of speech, even clothing. When someone inquired about Solly "Two Kings," he responded, "I'm blessed. I'm blessed." This very same response can be heard from Dennis--the resident Deacon in our community--in much the same voice.

Row J, seats 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 and Row D, seats 1, 3, and 5 responded with their hearts and they responded in different ways at different times. Oftentimes we laughed big belly laughs when the rest of the audience fell silent. They didn't get it. Other times we were deathly silent or offered a supportive grunt--the kind you utter when somebody shares the bare naked truth even when it hurts--when the rest of the audience felt pulled toward laughter. You see, you have to understand, to live and breath the African culture in America. I was priveleged to identify with certain parts because I happen to be an observer of the play's modern day counteparts at a homeless drop-in center in downtown Oakland. But don't you see: the play was written in their language. There was no intellectual, ivory tower leap that they needed to make. There was no thought experiment to undertake. The play was their play. It literally used their words! And so, one of our illiterate friends can exit the play singing the old negro spiritual from the trip the City of Bones and wonder where his own two pennies are going to be found. He got it.

We were smoking cigarettes at intermission and Dennis was concerned about his money. A friend of his, a Company member himself, apparently owed Dennis. I told him he was being too much like Ceasar. He said "I ain't like Caesar, I'm like that man with the stick. If he don't give me my money I'm going to break his bones!" How could I argue with that?! He could have said that in the play without it skipping a beat. Our men are real life versions of the lives portrayed on stage by highly skilled professional actors. But these actors were so good, so polished, so rehearsed, that their life, to me, was almost indistiguishable from the lives I see lived at the Champion Guidance Center.

Man I wish we could have spoken with the cast.

I wonder how many of the audience members hated Caesar; but how many of those same people turn a blind eye to capital punishment. Afterall, the law is the law and without the law there is chaos.

The juxstaposition of Christian dogma against African tribal ritual is a tightrope walked daily by our guys. In the Center even the preachy tone that the evangelical brothers often undertake when sharing from the Gospel or from the Old Testament always carries this twinge of a more spiritual, more mystical experience. The more vehement their argue for Christian dogma the more vehement the belief in spirits, ghosts, and devils. Dennis always talks to me about the Devil's influence. He really believes in a personal Devil--someone or something out there trying to influence people to make wrong choices. This personification of the Evil One is something outside my realm of beliefs--a thought that I reject. But in the context of Dennis' spirituality it seems to have roots in African spirituality. The characters take a trip to the City of Bones, they perform something that looks like an excorism, they cast out the Devil. The dialogue in the play about how God threw Lucifer out of heaven and how he really did not treat others how he would be treated (surely God wouldn't have wanted his own self thrown out of heaven) represents the point at which Christian teaching falls short of speaking to the African. It was superimposed on them anyway, was it not? But nevertheless the story of Jesus Christ resounds. Aunt Ester wounders why Peter denied Jesus three times, three times. Mythical charaters--Aunt Ester counted among them--are always good teachers. The holes in the Christian dogma were apparent to Solly. The contradiction between the Old Testament and the New Testament were explored.

Aunt Ester talked about how everyone come into her house looking for something but what they're really looking for is love. This is exactly what our guys are looking for. Everybody has a hole in their soul, everybody needs their soul washed. They need love. And they need to face their deamons, they need to face God, their Gatekeeper, they need to say "My name is Joe Adams, and I stole the bucket of nails."

She told the intruder to go and get her purse and she would give him $2 out of it. She trusted him regardless of his obvious reputation as a scoundrel. This is what we do at the Center. We trust the scoundrel, we give the keys to the center ("the keys to the kingdom") to the low-down rotten drug dealer, the pimp, the hustler, the prostitute.

The economic frustration experienced by Citizen is rampant for the guys that come into the Center. As Citizen said, "every time I get some money, seems like it belongs to someone else." The woman who signed up for Homeless Court just last month wrote a letter about the gap in her income: "I'm always behind in something," she wrote. Citizen lamented how the mill promised him $2.50 a day, they gave him $1.50, they took $1.25 for "room and board." But when they didn't feed him he had to spend $.50 on food, leaving him $.25 in debt every week. There was not getting out. Emancipation made freedom the law, but the sharecropper system implemented after Abraham Lincoln's made it impractical.

The line about the situation being Abraham Lincoln's fault garnered many laughs from the audience. Most were probably from the white folks dismissing it as ironic. But the laughs from our guys may have been more like laugh you laugh just before you start to cry. You see, Abraham Lincoln gave the African freedom but didn't provide any support systems for taking advantage of it. It's like when the Allied troops rolled into Nazi concentration camps and the prisoners walked out of the gates confused, totally incapable of understanding what had just happend. When captivitiy is extended for a long period of time, freedom, it seems, is dislodged from the psyche. That's why Solly cried when he got to Canada. The air didn't smell different. Food didn't taste different. All he knew was his family was still on the battlefield in the United States and he had to stay on the battlefield until everybody was out of it. Freedom seemed hallow unless you were raging against captivity.

I am forced to wonder, now, "how free our the people we serve?" Sometimes it seems we still have yet to make the Emancipation Proclomation a reality. Lyndon claims, as a black man, to be a member of history's unwanted race, and I think there's some truth to that. But I tell you, on this half day, for at least several hours we were wanted. You see, within the story told by August Wilson--the one about Solly Two Kings and Ceasar and Aunt Ester--is the story of August Wilson himself, a giant literary figure and an African American. Thanks to August Wilson, the men of the Champion Guidance Center were able to hear their own story--the story of their history, their spirituality, their love life, their mothers, their fears, and their dreams--told by a fellow just like them. But August Wilson's story (both the one who wrote and the one he lived) is one of hope. Because he made it, he created purpose, he shocked the world of playwriting and he stuck it to everybody when he refused to stray from his singular purpose of chartering the map of the African American experience for all to see. The message, to me, was that August Wilson had made it to Canada, he had been released from the Nazi concentration camp, and then he pushed on. He waded through the hangover of slavery, of sharecropping, of Jim Crow laws, and of the corporate glass ceiling. He freed his mind and dedicated his work to awakening the minds of his own people. This steadfastness was a great act of compassion. Like the Buddhist monks who find enlightenment only to remain on Earth so that they may share the message, like the recovering alcoholic who found serenity only to return to help others along the path, August Wilson found freedom and, like Solly, steadfastly fought to help others find the same.


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