May 24, 2003
Finally, I am able to come up for air and exhale again. I can now take my time and make another journey entry. I have not done so since my very first website journal entry and that was back in October of 2002. That was seven months ago.
It is certainly time…
This has been a whirlwind year of fast-paced movement for me. Much of my travel has centered around my one woman show, I Am That I Am: Woman, Black.
And now to recount my journey….
My travels began mid-January when I took my show to Klamath Falls, Oregon. My eldest brother, Hollis, a practicing attorney in Klamath Falls said, “Maybe I can bring that one-woman show of yours here since I can’t seem to get you here any other way.”
And thus began the journey of lining up my booking at Ross Ragland Theatre in Klamath Falls, Oregon, a beautiful 700 seat community supported theatre where I performed two excerpted matinee performances for predominately youth audiences from nearby communities.
To make it worth my while, I also sought a venue to present my work to the community-at-large. I wanted to do the entire show and I wanted everyone to have access to seeing it.I got my wish with a second booking of my show at the Oregon Institute of Technology.
And that was from a cold call on my part. The timing was just right because they had not yet decided on programming for Dr. Martin Luther King Day.
At both Klamath Falls venues, I also used the stage to publicly introduce my brother to those in his community who did not know him. Being one of very few African Americans in town and certainly the only Black attorney there, his reputation had already preceded him with some audience members. After being introduced, he stood self-consciously but proudly.
It was important to me that he also have his moment.
My brother, Hollis, is such an accomplished man. After a full career as an army civilian who headed social service programs in the military throughout the world, he decided to challenge himself further after retiring by going back to college after a very brief and restless break from working. He already had a Master’s Degree in Social Welfare but raised the bar (no pun intended) for himself by deciding to go to law school.
A couple of years earlier, tears had streamed down my face as I watched him walk across the University of Oregon stage in Eugene to receive his Law Degree just days before his 60th birthday. While others were ending careers, he was starting another one!
This same brother had been gracious enough to bring my show to his small, inviting community. His friend, Pat Holman, was especially a gem and she loves her community more than just about anyone I have ever seen.
In February,my next stop was to my mother and father’s birth state of Mississippi. Having two fathers who claim me, Edward Barnes is the one I was raised by. It had been over three decades since I had set foot on Mississippi soil and I was thrilled to be returning.
This time around in Mississippi, my first stop was at Rust College , located in Holly Springs which is near Memphis, Tennessee. After having dinner with my presenter at Isaac Hayes’ wonderful restaurant in Memphis, we headed back to Rust College. As we pulled up on campus , I was reminded of my college days as an exchange student from UC Santa Cruz to another Black college, Tougaloo College. There were all the spread out brick buildings and like Tougaloo, Rust College, was on the grounds of property that slaves had once walked.
Tougaloo College was on the site of an old plantation (the “big house” was actually our administration building) and Rust College was the site of an old auction block. It seemed fitting that both sites would now be inherited by descendants of slaves and used as educational institutions where they would be free to use their minds in a way they were forbidden during slavery.
If only the trees could speak of what they have seen at both Tougaloo and Rust College!
My dear cousin, George Pounds, picked me up following my stint at Rust College and wisked me to the area of the state that I most wanted to experience – McComb/ Magnolia, the birthplace of my parents.
Directly following my second performance in the McComb/Magnolia area, an older audience member walked up to me and quietly said, “I knew your mother and father. We rode on the back of the wagon together when we were children.”
I choked up with the revelation that this woman knew both my parents. Both deceased now, she had in that moment, become my link to their childhood. I also met relatives I only knew by family names but their last names where enough to confirm our mutual blood.
The following day, Cousin George drove me to the coast to visit still other relatives I already knew and some I met for the first time in the city of Gulfport.
I was SO impressed with one of the elders in Magnolia who has begun a Black History museum across the street from her home. She turned that house from a crack house into a gallery of our history.
Much to her surprise, I called her on stage to acknowledge her for the incredible work she is doing in the community. At the reception given me at her museum the preceding evening, she made known to me that all that was needed to file for her non-profit status was the fee . I surprised her by presenting her with a check in the very amount she needed.
I saw her as a protector of our history and someone who ought to be honored and treasured for her contributions in the community. What a proud and knowing woman she is.
Mississippi was a very emotional and satisfying stop for me because it took me back to my roots. I was very full by the time I returned to Los Angeles to perform locally at the Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park. Two of my four performances there were for youth and the LA Times covered one of the matinees to support an article that was being written to bring attention to the fact that with district cuts, many schools have no way to bus students to performances any longer. To make the point in the article, they mentioned that 200 students from a nearby school had walked to the Madrid Theatre to see my show because no buses were available to bring them.
And it had rained just the day before!
I told the young audiences that they had been perhaps the most attentive and respectful youth audiences I had ever performed for. I meant every word of it. They were absolutely wonderful.
In March, New York beckoned me as I was asked to speak on a panel for the African American Women in Cinema. They honored me further by bestowing the Pioneer Award on me. Over the week-end, I was flanked by some nine people at different times as they came out to see and support me. Spanning different junctures of my life, they all represented people who have known me in many ways and over many years.
After attending that conference, I thought I was about to come back to Los Angeles to focus on producing the Tenth Anniversary of my Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival. The universe said otherwise.
I was surprised to find that not only had I been cast in an ABC pilot, but that the pilot would be shot in Toronto, Canada. I wrestled on several levels with whether or not to take the offer since it meant I would be away three and a half weeks and during the actual Festival. I had NEVER missed the Festival over its ten years and I was very concerned about leaving in the midst of it.
ABC sweetened the deal by agreeing to allow me to fly back and forth and my team at the Festival assured me I would have the support I needed to handle things in my absence. With those offers, I ultimately decided to take the role of the strong Jamaican character, Constance.
Though the pilot was not picked up for next season, I did have the opportunity to work with the likes of Frank Langella, Tippi Hedron, Joel Grey and Jaleel White. I also had the opportunity to shoot on location outside the country in a city I had never been to (and fortunate for me a former roommate lives in Toronto and was a fantastic host) and received the wonderful perks that being on location bring.
The production even went further by providing me with a birthday cake on the set (since I worked overtime that day) and gave cast members gifts like digital cameras, inscribed terrycloth robes and baseball caps with the name of our pilot, 111 Gramercy Park.
They were a classy outfit to work for…
Though a bit rocky, the Festival prevailed even in my absence, and taught me that the organization is getting bigger than me. And so it ought to because it needs to.
In April, I performed at the third annual White Privilege Conference at Central College in Pella, Iowa.This quaint college community is a town that was founded by the Dutch and reminded me so much of my time performing in Holland. In a way, it felt like I was in Holland all over again. They even have the biggest windmill in the United States there!
I darted to UC Santa Cruz from Iowa to be a part of one of our our Black Alumni’s gatherings.As president and Co-Founder of Black Escargot, I felt compelled to make it. It was a tight squeeze but I did make it there on time.
I concluded my touring season in May by performing two more times. First, I performed for the Jack and Jill Family Day Fundraiser at the historic Crossroads Theatre. Though that Black theatre company no longer exists, I could feel the energy of so many fine actors who had graced that very stage before me.
Sandra Pemberton, mother of one of my mentees, Sasha, was kind enough to make that booking happen. By so doing, New Jersey became the thirty-fifth state my show toured. Again, there were those in the audience I knew who came to see the show from New York and nearby New Jersey areas. I had a wonderful stay there and even got to visit New York to see the encore opening of my friend, Ajene Washington’s award-winning play, American Menu, that he directed for Woodie King’s New Federal Theatre at the Henry Street Settlement.
Woodie lit up when he saw me in the audience. He had no idea I would be coming to see a show in New York that he had produced. He made me feel very welcome. I also took the Pembertons, my niece and a newly met friend with me. We all had a wonderful time in the City.
And finally, I had seen a New York production in New York!
I concluded my tour by performing at Stanford University in Palo Alto. My college buddy, Dr. JohnRickford, had been trying to bring my show there for three years and it finally happened this year. In the audience were other UC Santa Cruz alumni buddies along with relatives and theatre and childhood friends.
After my performance I made my way home to my birthplace of Oroville, California and got the opportunity to visit my 89 year old auntie, Aunt Esther, who was crossing over. I prayed she would hold on until I made it so that we could have our closure and she did. What a time other relatives and I had that last week-end of hers. She made it to Mother s Day and a couple of days beyond.
As I left Aunt Esther’s bed on Mother’s Day, she gave me the biggest smile as we said our good-byes. I had a feeling that would be the last time I would see her alive and it was. I returned the following week for her funeral. She looked stunning in her white gown with rhinestones and she looked so natural, she only seemed to be sleeping..
Her children put her away with such love and care. They even released pink and white helium balloons and live butterflies into that warm Monday sky.
What a time this year has been so far…
And I am full….
And now I am about to pack to make my way to both UC Santa Cruz and Mexico City in June.
The beat goes on!