“What shocks us is love,” Alice Walker told a sold-out audience at the Grand Lake Theater. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, longtime activist, and often-controversial figure held court Monday night during a Q&A following the Oakland premiere of “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth,” a new documentary by Pratibha Parmar that traces the long path of Walker’s career, from the segregated South to the progressive environs of Northern California.
Walker appeared to be summing up her life into a handy-dandy take-home message but, as she’s been known to do, she also uncovered a universal truth in the process. “We live in a culture where the most shocking thing for centuries has been love,” she elaborated. “You live in Oakland – lucky you,” she added, giving the Town a shout-out. More verbal veracity followed: “if you live a lie, you will fall off the planet. A lie is not a direction… until you tell the truth, how do you even know where you are?”
Walker was addressing a crowd which was as ready to accept her words of wisdom as it was to show her unconditional love. For almost three hours, the Grand Lake’s patrons had been serenaded by singer Gina Breedlove and guitarist Shelly Doty, educated by actress Geena Davis — an advocate for gender equality in television– and enthralled by Parmar’s uber-sympathetic documentary.
While it may be an exaggeration to say, as Danny Glover does in the documentary, that Walker has been “connected to every single movement that happened over the last 40 years,” that’s not that far off.
Her most famous novel, “The Color Purple,” established black women writers as a literary force and was an outgrowth of her upbringing as the daughter of sharecroppers, informed by the deep racism (and conflicted internal dynamic) southern Blacks experienced. As a young woman, she attended Atlanta’s Spelman College (where she became a mentee of historian-activist Howard Zinn). During the height of the Civil Rights movement, she marched with MLK, became involved in voter registration in rural Mississippi, and challenged miscegenation laws by marrying a white Jewish man . Later she would move to New York and influence the editorial direction of Ms. Magazine. More recently, she’s been an advocate for same-sex relationships (and high-profile paramour of singer Tracy Chapman), a campaigner against female genital mutilation, and a spiritual practitioner of Buddhist-inflected New Age consciousness.
Parmar chooses to spend the better part of the movie establishing Walker’s literary bona fides and telling the back story of—and subsequent backlash against—“The Color Purple.” Walker’s numerous critics are reduced to talking-head clips and sound bites, as if their criticisms amount to little more than “mansplaining.” None of her detractors—which include local literary icon Ishmael Reed—are interviewed. “I didn’t have any defenders,” Walker says at one point, a slight Parmar appears to want to rectify with her film.
Some aspects of Walker’s life seem glossed over: she’s shown walking through Gaza in 2009, but there’s no mention of her controversial stance against Israel, which she once described as a “terrorist organization.” We learn she divorced because her white husband was made to feel unwelcome, but there’s no further explanation. The audience is told that Walker had a falling-out with her daughter—during the Q&A she revealed she’s never seen her grandchild—yet Rebecca Walker is never interviewed, and it’s unclear whether the filmmaker attempted to get her side of the story. Parmar also downplays any tension between first-wave feminists and emerging women writers of color (a clique called “the Sisterhood”), though we do learn from Gloria Steinem that Walker didn’t like to attend Ms. Magazine editorial meetings.
During the Q&A, moderated by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Parmar admitted making the documentary was challenging “because Alice is so prolific.” On the plus side, Parmar was granted unprecedented access to Walker: we see her family photos, report cards, early poems, even the hand-written notes for “The Color Purple.” The inclusion of Zinn, who died in 2010, adds gravitas and, if “Beauty in Truth” comes off like a deification, it’s a heartfelt gesture. At the end of the film, Walker is shown walking along a beach holding a staff; we almost expect her to part the seas like a female Moses, as the credits roll.
In person at the Grand Lake, Walker seemed at peace with herself and the choices she’s made. Still radiant at 69, she clearly comes from a place of deep inner strength, and her impact—not just on black literature, but on American literature as a whole—is indisputable. If you missed the screening, you can see the documentary this Sunday at the New Parkway. details are here.
Originally written in 1935, “Porgy and Bess” is timeless. The operatic stage play about a crippled, big-hearted beggar and an ebon jezebel is one of the all-time great musicals, not just because of its Gershwin score, but because that score was one of the first major attempts at equating the black music canon of blues, jazz, and gospel to classical and opera. Back in the time of Jim Crow, that had to be a super-progressive move; to this day, “Porgy and Bess” remains one of the triumphant statements in American theater.
The current American Repertory Theater production, adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre Murray, just landed at SF’s Golden Gate Theater for a four-week run after conquering Broadway. It’s a dazzlingly high-quality show. Every single musical number is rousing, and there are 25 songs, which is to say there’s never a dull moment. The dialogue alternates between spoken cadences, jazz cadences, and full-on operatic trilling, while the choreography is often ballet-like.
“I aint trying to keep no woman that don’t want to stay,” exclaims Porgy, played poignantly and charismatically by Nathaniel Stampley. Despite – or perhaps because of – his handicap, Porgy earns the audience’s sympathies, even as his rivals for Bess’ affections, Kingsley Leggs’ swagger-filled Sportin’ Life and Alvin Crawford’s macho thug Crown, inspire enmity. Porgy is the meek yet lovable dude who, we hope, will one day inherit the earth, even though the odds seem stacked against him. As Bess, Alicia Hall Moran has a challenging role: she’s got to be callous enough to be the citified “fast woman” who turns heads in the country backwoods of Catfish Row, South Carolina, yet endearing enough to be believable when she attempts to make a new life for herself as Porgy’s woman. The supporting cast is well-tuned and outstanding, whether singing, dancing, or throwing side-eyes at the city slickers who invade the quiet country village. The “Street Cries” scene, where various vendors hawk their goods, is as rich and satisfying as musical productions get.
Looking at “Porgy and Bess” almost 80 years after it was first written, the social commentary that playwrites Ira Gershwin, Dubose Heyward and Dorothy Heyward –who penned the source material, a novel called “Porgy”—embedded into the dialogue and situational context is still there, but it’s taken on some unforeseen ramifications in a post-Civil Rights era context. In the ’30s, neither the police beating of one of the villagers nor Bess’ rape (and hinted-at physical abuse) at the hands of Crown, were outside accepted social norms. Today, both would be cause for protest.
Still, how much has really changed, in nine decades? The ebonic language in song titles like “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy” might seem dated, but the songs still hold weight, as does the musical’s best-known tune, “Summertime.” The “Happy Dust”-peddling hustler Sportin’ Life is all too reminiscent of present-day urban characters. People still play craps, too, and still argue over rolls of the dice. And a “red-dressed woman” can still signal a caution flag.
At its core, “Porgy and Bess” isn’t really about social justice, or even the politics of being black. It’s a human love story, one which draws from classical myth, e.g. Hephaistos and Aphrodite or Ogun and Oshun – that of a deformed yet spiritually pure man who falls for a beautiful yet morally suspect woman. Jazz and blues forms, combined with operatic arias and call-and-response choruses, form the background around which the plot unfolds. That it happens to be a black love story, one which plays out under the hot lights of Broadway stages, shouldn’t be so remarkable, especially in 2013. But it is, and that’s one of the reasons it’s well worth seeing.
Local love abounded at the Awaken Café last Saturday, as the second night of the Oaktown Music Festival Award Winners showcase commenced. The inaugural event, the brainchild of Oakland Indie Mayhem booker Sarah Sexton and Awaken owner Cortt Dunlap, aimed to give more exposure to the cream of the local indie music crop. Winners were selected through a rigorous process which whittled down 2200 nominations and 250 bands to just six award recipients (plus six runners-up and honorable mentions).
Dunlap’s claim that the local music scene is eminently accessible and potentially marketable—providing audiences are aware of up-and-coming artists–was mostly upheld by the night’s lineup. Newgrass artist Tom Rhodes (aided by female harmony singers The Lady Crooners) seemed every bit as talented in his genre as Mumford & Sons, if not quite yet arena-ready. Minor Birds —whose singer’s vocal gymnastics were reminiscent of Adele or Kate Bush—were a major revelation. Devi Genuone’s electronica-infused take on hip-hop—which fell a bit flat live—was the only real disappointment.
The same cannot be said about experimental soulsters Bells Atlas, who balanced percussion-heavy rhythms with fusionary harmonies. Also great were The Seshen, an electronic soul outfit who sounded like the love child of Thomas Dolby and Morcheeba, balancing hook-laden polish with intentionally underground sensibilities, to the crowd’s delight. The closer, Lila Rose, was intense, emotional, and punky, and it’s unsurprising that the singer-songwriter is already garnering wider attention from national outlets. With any luck, the festival will become an annual conduit through which the diverse range of local talent will flow; from the looks and sounds of things, it’s off to a good start.
This Weeks’ Picks: Latyrx album release party, 11/20, 9pm, The Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF
1002 Nights (DJ Cheb i Sabbah tribute), 11/21, 7pm-2am, $10-$20 sugg. donation, 1015 Folsom, SF
Rocky Rivera album release party, 11/21, $12-$15, New Parish, 579 18th
Blunt Club feat. Gift of Gab, Big Willie Dynamite, 11/22, 9pm, $10, Legionnaire, 2272 Telegraph
Julia Tsitsi Chigamba and Chinyakare Fundraiser for Chigamba Cultural Center (Zimbabwe), 11/23, $12-$15, 9pm, Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo, Berkeley
Deltron 3030 w/ the 3030 Orchestra, 11/23, 8pm, $32.50, The Fillmore, 1805 Geary, SF