Monday, April 23, 2012

and now is right on time

i've come such a long way to get to where i am now. it seems so random at first glance but every haphazard thing has happened for a very specific reason. all those solo shows i wrote and performed with so much joy and ease as i worked one crummy corporate day job after another.  singing with big bands.  my texas years.  my grandma says i would make up stories and act them out all over the place when i was no taller than her knee -- and here i am, making up stories and acting them out all over the place. have i really come all the way back around to where i was when i started? or did i ever really get up and go? maybe everything shifted and moved around me and i'm the same as i ever was, when i was three or four or so.  i can't tell from here.

sometimes the curtain is pulled back and i get to see a little more of the bigger picture than i thought i would. that's what happened last week during the performance residency at the apollo theater.

there was a moment when i literally lived through the rush and flow of my dreams coming true.  for once, it wasn't something that i realized later in a random meditative pause or an epiphany that hit me in the head like a hard pillow, or floated over my head like an imaginary light bulb, glowing with the promise of a good idea. because that's what usually happens. usually everything zooms by, like a fast train.  it's over and i'm overwhelmed and i don't know what happened. but not this time.  this time was fast and slow, like peckinpah. i could feel it all rip right through me and hit me before i hit the ground running and falling all at once.  to be in midair and to sing and to feel and to fall and to rise and to fall again. to stay on the ground and never touch the ground at all. it stayed that way. i think everybody got lifted.

i'm so happy, so relieved, so grateful. really elated that everyone embraced this new idea and wanted more. and i feel justified. i'm making the art that i want to see in the world -- art that empowers black women, employs black people and uplifts the race.

so now what.

now the world rushes in. gigs and money, off and on and on and on. dental work and oral surgery and pain most unholy and drugs drugs drugs -- thank you Jesus for the drugs.  on camera work.  guitar practice. voice lessons.  eating clean.  running in the morning to wake my body up.  boxing in the evening to wear myself out.  the steam room, the sauna.  losing enough weight to get back into not some but all of my summer clothes. copy editing from my couch, in my underwear.  wearing short wigs to hide my whoa, it's getting longer! beautiful natural hair. writing and rewriting, over and over again.  mental health days and beauty days and errand days and harlem nights.  soaking endlessly at spa castle.  finishing my album.  graduate school at nyu/tisch.  drunken tea parties and bar hopping uptown. long hangs with black girls who really know what's up. making art with francesca harper. live shows and burlesque and dim sum, oh my!

and as the world turns, i will work on the billie holiday project all over again and wait for another break in the ice. because a bigger part of what it means to make art is to wait. it's what i do while i wait that really matters.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Billie Holiday Project 3.0 - a few thoughts...

although brad learmonth of harlem stages instigated all of this with an invitation for me to fuse billie holiday and zora neale hurston and perform at lenox lounge for the very first harlem jazz shrines, i felt compelled to take it further when i read zora's newly discovered harlem based short stories. i think farrah griffin knew what she was sparking up when she gave them to me. they didn't just speak to me -- they felt like some other part of me that i didn't know was there. i knew those people, i recognized them. all of me fell into those pages and got lost, wandering in and out of their lives.

it was a beautiful moment of discovery, to glimpse more of zora -- someone whose work is so fresh and unexpected and new with every read. these newly discovered stories haven't seen the light of day in more than 70 years. all of a sudden, the literary world shifts and realizes that perhaps they didn't really know her as well as they thought they did. if they are ever published and widely distributed, the rest of the world will, too.

i began toying with the idea of doing an album of billie holiday's rare sides when i started collecting various box sets of her work awhile ago and unhinging her earlier material. there was a ton of it. i already read and researched enough to know that she was more than the torchy, brooding victim in a gown at the mercy of a heroin needle with a heavily scented flower in her hair. everyone seems to recognize that image instantly and cling to it in this sometimes really insufferable way. like she couldn't possibly be anything else. in those box sets, i heard everything else -- ambivalence about love, so much hope and yearning, a good time girl and yes, sometimes even a sunshiny disposition that positively bounced with joy. great tunes, too. where was the tragic victim? why hadn't i ever met this billie holiday before?

to tell you the truth, i don't really listen to jazz vocalists. what i mean is, i certainly know who they are and what they sound like. i've done my homework, extensively. however -- when it comes to growing and refining my sound and my style, i listen to horn players because frankly, that's what those jazz vocalists did. and then i reach for my own ideas in the moment. louis armstrong sounds like a horn when he sings. he's not imititating another singer that's imitating a horn. he's not imitating anyone. but i digress.

i created the billie holiday project because i wanted to make the kind of art that i'd like to see in the world. i want my blackgrrl stories to be told -- and judging by the sold out run at the apollo theater this weekend, there's someone out there that would like to see them, too.

i hope that this will be the first of many performance moments -- for this idea and others. please stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Great news, sports fans!

I just found out a few weeks ago that I got accepted to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts MFA program – dramatic writing for musical theater. It’s a two year program, it is intense and it would mean fully immersing myself in the creative collaborative process. If all goes well, I’ll start in the fall. It’s a real kick in the head, just knowing that I made the cut and I’m bright enough and talented enough to be a part of such an illustrious program. I feel especially grateful – and sweetly relieved.
The application process was harrowing, in a way. Once I completed all of the paperwork (which was as thick as a small town phone book, and no I’m not exaggerating), there was an applicant’s weekend where we were arbitrarily paired off, librettists with composers, and asked to write a five minute script to song in a day from a list of about 10 prompts. yes, that’s right – we had ONE day, more or less. we met on friday evening, worked on our idea saturday and presented on sunday at high noon.
The process was unexpected, for me at least, but I totally get it now. The faculty needed to see us work under pressure as strangers because that’s pretty much what we’ll be doing in the program. You can’t necessarily teach someone how to collaborate – and collaboration is the absolute backbone of what they do there. It’s a bigger part of what creating a musical is all about.
That was trippy – sitting in the lounge area that Friday evening, listening to everyone introduce themselves and unravel their stories: where they were from, how they got here from there, what their lives were like, their hopes and dreams. It felt like the first day of school. Or something.
It helped a great deal that I got really lucky with my random choice when I was paired with Benjamin Gammerman, a recent NYU graduate from Long Island. He was pretty much bubbling over with snippets of little ditties at all times. He’s the kind of guy that can turn anything into a song. Not only that but he was open, friendly and willing to start working right away. An added bonus was that we both have pianos (in case we got stuck and couldn’t get to the rehearsal studios) but the real kicker was that he lived four blocks away from me.
Actually, now that I think about it, it wasn’t luck at all. God threw me a bone.
I don’t mind putting my life on hold to pull this off, if I must. I’m already writing musicals. This week has me in Harlem’s iconic Apollo Theater for a performance residency that will culminate in 2 performances this weekend. One of them is already sold out. (No pressure…)
I have always believed in having something solid and meaningful to show for my time, especially in a place like New York City, where one can burn through time exponentially without even realizing it. Two years goes by in this city in a matter of months. I have friends who are already figuring out what their options are for retirement, and they’re in their 30s. (Egad.)
The real work with graduate school? Figuring out how to pay for it. Stay tuned.