Wednesday, August 31, 2011

cleaning it up and clearing it out

i am bound and determined to clear out the pesky junk room in this apartment, once and for all.  initially, it was a second bedroom that was a terrific rehearsal space for me and a makeshift office/mancave for mpb. somewhere along the way, i started sticking stuff in there until after awhile, i couldn't really open the door. last week i looked through one of the window panes and could hardly see the floor. how did it come to this?  once upon a time, it was a place we both spent time in and then all of a sudden, it wasn't. well, i don't care anymore. i want it cleaned up, cleared out and organized.

it's unbelievable to some that i have this much space in new york city, but it's fairly common in harlem.  i've seen some amazing spots up here. actually, my place is a little nook compared to some of the cavernous apartments in my building.

nothing gets it done like a deadline, so this weekend will be my last chance to knock it out of the block. i've spent the last few days shredding junk mail and sorting through business cards, bits of paper and whatnot, and something like 7 years of receipts. at least that's the first layer of stuff. the next layer is a little more stubborn. but everyday, there's less and less. the more i sort through, the further down the rabbit hole i go.  lots of old letters and postcards to reread that make me think and wish and wonder.

the truth is, nothing gets it done like deciding to get it done.  you have to want it. it's just that simple.

once all this is settled, you'll see shocked and amazed by the before and after photos. (actually, so will i.) next project: editing my closets, tim gunn style, followed by end of the season donations to the salvation army.

so far, i've shredded 3 garbage bags of paperwork, which made me feel like a total hoarder. that's probably what's motivating all this: i've seen one too many episodes of hoarders and when i find myself incapable of throwing things away, i think maybe i'm turning into one of those people -- which of course could have me pulling a howard hughes in my old age.

getting everything up and off the ground is paramount. tomorrow, mpb is going to put a hook in the ceiling for his 15 speed bike.and i'm going to cut that junk pile in half.

Monday, August 29, 2011

august in retrograde -- or irene, good night

i tried to stay home all month, like an urban hermit that's taken a vow of antipeople: just me, my guitar and my bright ideas. i have no idea why. something instinctively compelled me to close the door upon myself. in retrospect, it wasn't a bad notion -- not this august, anyway. it was oppressively hot, dangerously hot. so hot, it felt as though the sun pummeled me about the head and shoulders with a bright yellow sledgehammer whenever i went outside. running around at night was no fun, either. the heat was still on and on and on, muted yet insolent enough to sass me, with the kind of sweat that made my entire backside sticky mere minutes after i stepped into it.

navigating the city on the weekends was unthinkable. there's just too many drunken idiots out there, trying desperately to dress like they're in new york city and pushing hard to make sure they have some kind of new york city fun. it's exhausting, just being around them. in the end, they're the epitome of the generic and the average and the ordinary that they're attempting to escape. why? because there is no escaping who or what you really are. to paraphrase the great john lee hooker, it's in you -- whatever it is -- and it's gots to come out. especially if it's your culturally condoned incompetence.

as if all of that weren't enough -- and you know it is -- there's more: mercury was in retrograde for practically the entire month. it seems that everything is crawling out from under that introspective boulder right about now. not that i co-sign astrology but when i read it from my comfy bunker in harlem, it seemed to explain a lot. and yes -- if you're enough of a hippie enough to know what any of that means, you probably wanted to stay home and avoid the world, too.

yes, of course there's the stuff that's absolutely necessary. church. boxing. foraging for victuals at the dominican grocery store up the street. the rest was extra and although there were some things that couldn't be avoided -- a weekend getaway, perhaps or a get together with friends -- i zipped home as fast as my well-toned legs would carry me.

yet and still, i felt compelled to hibernate. this special month of record breaking heat waves, golf ball-sized hail and water main break flooding, topped off by a hurricane found me at home, growing things -- working on the libretto for the billie holiday project (it goes up in september at dixon place), practicing guitar, vocalizing with my slightly out of tune piano, making several submission deadlines for all kinds of stuff and writing more songs and lyrics.

hurricane irene turned out to be the icing on my summer cake.

i can't even tell you how many southern relatives called me, laughing at the yankees they saw on the news who were frolicking on the beach under such ominous skies, and ignoring warnings from the police and fire department. my aunt in charleston south carolina told me one supergenius somewhere on the jersey shore remarked that he lived on the second floor of his building, so he would be fine. hilarious!

for everyone in her neck of the woods, hurricane season is just starting. they've got another two months or so to live through -- bracing themselves the same way some yankees did: shopping for food, taping up windows, filling the tub with water, unplugging everything, burrowing themselves in shelters or leaving the state entirely, well into the month of november. they do it every year during hurricane season. it's a way of life.

how well i remember the many hurricanes of my southern childhood, when we would turn off all the lights and throw open all the windows and unplug everything and gather in the den and pray. even a summer storm could turn violent and deadly. all of us -- cousins and uncles and aunts and my grandparents -- huddled together in the darkness. we were so collectively solemn and profoundly unshaken for the most part, even when the lightning would streak across the sky and a powerful clap of thunder would follow, and shake the ground itself.

listen, my grandfather would say, after an especially loud jolt would rattle me all the way down to my little girl bones, and i would shudder involunarily. it was almost as though my body knew to be scared, even if i didn't. listen, he murmured softly, holding his pipe between his thumb and first finger, the ashes glowing in the darkness. he would lean forward and point at me and give me a knowing look. listen, he would say. God is talking.

apropos of nothing, i leave you with one of my favorite neil young songs, like a hurricane. what a beautiful love song.

Saturday, August 13, 2011, i haven't seen "the help" -- yet...

the buzz about the help has been growing to a decidedly two toned fever pitch -- at least on the black hand side. the reviews, from armand white's entertaining empathy to valerie boyd's the help: a feel-good movie for white people have been interesting, to say the least. what some black bloggers have said is especially insightful. the book has sold well over 3 million copies so far and it's been translated into 35 languages. because of the the success of the book, the movie will certainly find box office gold. if it's anywhere near as lopsided as everyone says it is, those sales statistics are pretty frightening because that means this southern white socialite's ignorant pap about who we are as black women is being shmeared all over the world.

that's got a super high creep factor for me -- something you'd know a lot about if you're black and you've ever turned on the tv in a foreign country and seen sanford and son or good times running ad nauseum, complete with an elaborate foreign "negro" voiceovers.

i'm going to see the help -- and yes, i'll probably read the book -- for a myriad of reasons. the first one is pretty obvious: as a professional actor, i'm a part of the entertainment industry. it would behoove me to see and hear what's out there, especially as it relates to me as a person of color. most of the artists that i know in this industry of any genre that are on top of their game are all about paying attention to everything that's going on, whether it's a top 40 album or an off-broadway show. it's all the same industry, it's all entertainment.

i also have a big fear of being an ignorant actor -- someone that doesn't really know anything at all about the world they work in, much less the world itself. i want to be able to intelligently discuss and dissect ideas amongst my thinking peers. i don't want to be uninformed. i don't understand how any thinking person can criticize any work of art that they haven't seen or read. when that happens, what's really being attacked is the idea of what that art represents and not the work itself. that's not good enough, not for me.

and last but not least, i really need to be able to give a very straight answer to anyone i'll inevitably meet who will see this movie and may perhaps subconsciously view it as a documentary and not a work of fiction. i don't need to see a documentary about the help. my grandmother worked as a maid for years. all my life, i learned what it was really like, straight from her. i sometimes rode an early morning city bus to school with domestics. the stories they told haphazardly were unforgettable. even now, i am surrounded by elders who continue to set me straight, with the truth.

apparently, viola davis agrees with me. her mother was a maid. so was her grandmother.

haven't we had enough contemporary race relations movies with long suffering black maids that's told from a white perspective? wait, what? you don't remember the long walk home, with whoopi goldberg?

while i fully understand the concept of artistic and/or creative license, i often wonder what these these films would be like if we as black folk created them, or at least had more of a hand in their development. what do you think the help would be like if a (southern) black woman wrote it? or adapted the screenplay? or directed it?

i've included a well-informed response to the film from the association of black women historians. please pass it along. you probably know someone that really needs to read it.

An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help:

On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.

During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women's employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.

Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.” In the book, black women refer to the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular. For centuries, black women and men have drawn strength from their community institutions. The black family, in particular provided support and the validation of personhood necessary to stand against adversity. We do not recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the black male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood.

Furthermore, African American domestic workers often suffered sexual harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of white employers. For example, a recently discovered letter written by Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks indicates that she, like many black domestic workers, lived under the threat and sometimes reality of sexual assault. The film, on the other hand, makes light of black women’s fears and vulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief.

Similarly, the film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi. Granted, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP, gets some attention. However, Evers’ assassination sends Jackson’s black community frantically scurrying into the streets in utter chaos and disorganized confusion—a far cry from the courage demonstrated by the black men and women who continued his fight. Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.

We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses in this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of their talent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popular rendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.

Ida E. Jones is National Director of ABWH and Assistant Curator at Howard University. Daina Ramey Berry, Tiffany M. Gill, and Kali Nicole Gross are Lifetime Members of ABWH and Associate Professors at the University of Texas at Austin. Janice Sumler-Edmond is a Lifetime Member of ABWH and is a Professor at Huston-Tillotson University.

Suggested Reading:


Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic’s Life, Alice Childress

The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James

Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley

The Street by Ann Petry

A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight


Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph

To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors by Tera Hunter

Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family -- from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones

Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis

Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody

Any questions, comments, or interview requests can be sent to: ABWHTheHelp@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Next Gig: "THE PIANO HAS BEEN DRINKING" - a night of tributes to Tom Waits

Instead of a postcard or a flyer with a cool photo on it, here's a massively huge blurb for the next gig tonight 8/4 10pm at The Rum House near Times Square. We'll be paying tribute to everyone's favorite booze soaked poet/troubadour (and actor!) Tom Waits. There is absolutely no cover whatsoever. Isn't that nice?

Expect well-crafted cocktails, a bit of a neo-vaudeville spark from the emcee Mr. Jonny Porkpie the Burlesque Mayor of New York City (how nice of him to keep his clothes on for this one) and some sort of emotional spontaneous combustion at the mic -- at least, from me.


The Newest Old Cocktail Lounge in Times Square
announces the first event in its new "Bespoke Music" series THE PIANO HAS BEEN DRINKING, a night of tributes to the music of Tom Waits led by Benjamin Ickies (This Ambitious Orchestra, Oh! You Pretty Things) and JC Hopkins (Grammy-nominated songwriter, JC Hopkins Biggish Band). It will be the first event of its kind held at the new Rum House since the bar opened under the supervision of the Gentlemen of Ward III earlier this year.

"Since Rum House reopened, customers have enjoyed their bespoke cocktails to the sound of incredible pianists tickling the ivories almost every night of the week," says Jonny Porkpie, who curates the entertainment menu. "And we've been thrilled with the quality and variety of talent that have come through. Now, we're excited to start hosting some larger events in addition to our regular programming, and a celebration of Tom Waits' mixture of old-school showmanship with bourbon-soaked lyricism was the perfect kickoff."

The event features the talents of two of The Rum House's favorite entertainers, Benjamin Ickies and JC Hopkins. Hopkins and Ickies will take turns at the piano, accompanied by a fabulous array of special guests, musicians and vocalists including DeWitt Fleming Jr, Shien Lee (Dances of Vice), Mamie Minch, John Presnell, Queen Esther, Eric Schmalenbeger (House of Yes) and Sylvester Schneider (Zum Schnieder). Mr. Porkpie, in a rare fully-clothed appearance, hosts the evening.

THE PIANO HAS BEEN DRINKING begins at 10:00pm on Thursday, August 4. There is no cover for the event. The event kicks off the "Bespoke Music" event series, which focuses on the work of a different musician or genre each month. The next event will be in September. The Rum House Entertainment Menu is presented Monday through Saturday nights, with cocktail hour
entertainment Monday through Thursday 6pm - 8pm and late night entertainment Wednesday 8pm - 10pm and Thursday through Saturday starting at 9:30pm.


JC Hopkins is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer. His band, The JC Hopkins Biggish Band, worked with the likes of Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Elvis Costello, Justin Bond and Martha Wainwright. A working habitué of jazz dives, burlesque clubs and seedy piano bars, Hopkins honed his songwriting and musical chops in these colorful surroundings, gaining inspiration for the original material that comprises the majority of his band's swinging repertoire.

Bay Area native Benjamin Ickies moved to New York to study accordion with William Schimmel (featured on the Tom Waits albums Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years) in lieu of college. Thanks to his tutelage in rock, tango and cabaret, Ickies now directs several music ensembles in NYC and performs in many more. As a bandleader, he conducts the symphonic rock band This Ambitious Orchestra, co-produces the quarterly glam rock series Oh! You Pretty Things and on Tuesdays can be seen at the Griffin running the band for the cabaret Cafe Panache.