Saturday, March 23, 2013

At The Met: African Art, New York and the Avant-Garde

I'm almost done with the brilliant, epic, well-researched work Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern by Jayna Brown. It has sent me careening into the turn of the century -- the sights, the sounds, all of the ephemera that surrounds it -- and has me rethinking my world as a black female performer and my place in the entertainment industry.  Our collective history as black performers has been underrreported and grossly underrepresented so consistently and for so long, it was somewhat cathartic to finally learn the truth: we were a powerful influence all over the world -- as performers, as dancers, as vocalists, as bandleaders, as musicians.  We were a revolutionary force to be reckoned with. We still are.

Now that so much of the book has dovetailed so thoroughly with what I already know about the zeitgeist of those times and the performers who were relentless in pursuit of greatness, I'm picking up more pieces to the puzzle as I go along. Not surprisingly, I found quite a few of them at The Met in an exhibit called African Art, New York and the Avant-Garde

It's a small exhibit, tucked away somewhere in the depths of the Pre-Columbian section on The Met's first floor, and it's filled with paintings, photographs, programs and such, collected by wealthy patrons of the arts in the 1920s. It's well worth seeing.  There are quite a lot of beautiful African sculptures. How they got those artifacts from Africa remains a mystery.  It gives one reason to pause and wonder what other priceless items they took.  What's especially important to note is that this art was essential in defining and informing what we now know of as a modern aesthetic.

Here's one of my favorites -- probably because the face is so specific.  It was among the first African works exhibited in an art gallery.  (Who is it -- someone's wife or aunt, perhaps?) I love the well-groomed hair and bun, too. The style looks so. Well. Modern. Exactly like something I'd see on the street in Bed-Stuy or Harlem now.

The Met's website states: By 1914, it had been exhibited at Robert Coady’s Washington Square Gallery in New York. The head therefore became the first African artifact displayed in New York alongside art by modern masters such as Juan Gris and Henri Rousseau.

Displayed alongside modern masters, huh.  To the artists, writers and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance, this was a very important acknowledgement that was happening at a moment in our history when we were beginning to understand our history and our connection to Africa. Clearly, this meant that African art was just as good as European art -- and by extension, so were we.

(Freestanding wood sculpture head from the Fang peoples in Gabon.)

They did much more than simply display the African sculptures they "found". They used them as a kind of creative springboard to explore new abstract ideas and shape them into a modern framework. For example, Picasso's African Period and the subsequent creation of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon -- the first Cubist painting and an important step toward modern art -- was inspired by sculptures from the Fang people.

In one especially disturbing photograph, we see a patron's living room. It is filled to the hilt with priceless works of art. There were so many pieces that I recognized, I couldn't stop gasping.  Where did they get that art?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Working Can Wait -- This Is Paradise!

i'm too busy prepping for auditions and hustling for gigs this weekend to blog anything worthwhile today.  the weather is crummy. i have no endurance in boxing conditioning class and i'm hoping running will fix that.  i'm still decluttering and editing my closets and scouring everything and eating clean.  i'm diligently practicing the ukulele, mostly because it's fun. it's time for a guitar lesson from kelvyn bell.  it's time to get recalibrated. yes, my plate is full.

whenever i'm especially busy, i always think of this porky pig cartoon porky's bear facts with it's sing-a-long song working can wait.  when i first came to the city and no one would give me a job, i gave myself a job and hustled until i had gigs singing in bars and restaurants almost every night of the week. my brother ramon (who was touring back and forth with ronald shannon jackson at the time) and i used to sit around the harlem apartment we shared and sing this  --  sarcastically, of course. I was half-killing myself, I was working so hard.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Covering the Basics, Part 3: Weight of the Nation

I watched the HBO documentary Weight of the Nation, Part 1: Consequences the other night with lurid interest.  It was so compelling, I've posted the entire series here.  I hope it's as much of a learning moment for you as it was for me.

My remarkably healthy Low Country childhood coupled with lots of quality time as an undergrad in the happy health-obsessed hippie enclave of Austin Texas made me more aware of good nutrition and healthy heart choices than most people I knew.  And I was always too body conscious to let myself go completely. But so what. What difference does any of that make if I am forever at the mercy of a bag of baked Cheetos.

I struggled through The Clean Program three times before things began to click.  This last go round has really solidified quite a few things. Thankfully, I've decided to drop some bad habits permanently. At this point, I'm beginning to get my body back -- but I have to fight for it, every day.  And that's really where the rubber hits the road.  It takes hard work and discipline to get healthy and stay that way, and most people aren't willing to make that sacrifice.  On the other hand, I shouldn't have to fight this hard to eat clean food.

It was easier when the food you ate wasn't genetically modified to compel you to keep eating it. It was easier when a snack meant an apple and not a bag of Doritos.  It was easier when everything wasn't loaded with salt and fat and sugar.  It was easier when so much of what you consumed wasn't an allergen.  It was easier when we weren't so sedentary, when work meant that you physically exhausted yourself everyday (like a cowboy or a logger or a steel mill worker or a fieldhand).

Here's my rule, plain and simple: real food doesn't need a nutrition label. From now on, I want to eat real food.

Part 1: Consequences

Part 2: Choices

Part 3: Children in Crisis

Part 4: Challenges

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spring is here but not really...

"No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn."  -- Hal Borland

while spring drags its feet to get here, i'm doing a lot of deep cleaning to my body, this apartment and the rest of my life.  it was instinctual, like a weird reflex. disappearing into the clutter and disarray that constantly threatens to engulf me means losing myself in a whirlwind of memories more often than i care to admit.  sometimes they're not so pleasant.  forgiveness is essential.  so are boundaries.

the other day, i had an epiphany that full-on stopped me and left me floating in midair for what seemed like an eternity: i love myself, i have someone to love and i am doing something -- a lot of things, actually -- that i love. here's the kicker: i'm doing all of this in new york city. my life is nothing short of miraculous. i'm grateful to God for every moment i get to live it.

i don't know how i got here. there were certainly moments when i didn't think i'd ever get this far. and God only knows where any of this will take me. yes, i'm still perfectly capable of getting in my own way but the mistakes i make have a strange way of paying off in the long run. thank God.

so here's to spring, how ever it comes -- spring cleaning, spring makeovers, springing forward instead of falling backward, spring fever. there's something cathartic about these unexpected snowstorms that that have been happening so frequently this year. i step onto the midst of it as it's happening and everything is so fresh and new and deathly still. there's a purity to all that whiteness everywhere. it's like the world is trying to make it all gleam one last time. the garbage magically disappears and everything feels new. all at once, i have a strange, solitary feeling and yet, i feel so much a part of every single snowflake there is. 

and then there are yellow patches in the snow and the garbage begins to reek because no one is collecting it and cars start getting unstuck violently and the snow gets super dirty. and i wonder why i wanted it to snow in the first place.  ah, the neverending love and the unquenchable hate of new york city.

well. something is coming down the pike. i wonder what it is.  or as my great-grandmother's favorite gospel song goes, 'i believe i'll run on and see what the end is gonna be..."

Monday, March 18, 2013

right now

right now/currently/as of this moment, i'm probably
  1. wandering through MoMA (aimlessly), making lists (sporadically) and shaking even more ideas loose (spontaneously)
  2. finishing my next album
  3. trying to figure out a way to pay for graduate school at nyu's tisch school of the arts mfa program
  4. eating clean semi-permanently -- because my stomach really can't take anything else
  5. submitting my musical the billie holiday project to theater companies
  6. applying for writing/performance workshops
  7. furtively looking for a commercial kitchen (preferrably in harlem)
  8. alternately practicing the banjo, the ukulele and my unplugged electric guitar
  9. auditioning for on-camera work and voiceovers
  10. working up a set of songs from the 1920s

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Floating Kabarette, Bastard Keith and Me

"Facebook is for for friends who are now strangers.  Twitter is for strangers who should be your friends." - Unknown

i seriously love twitter.  i have chatted up, argued creatively, exchanged ideas, learned from, virtually hung out with and (yes!) met more strangers than i care to admit.  from the #kccm natural hair challenges to get fit incentives like #sexyshred, it is quite literally the gift that keeps on giving.

facebook, on the other hand, is something to avoid.

i picked up on a remark that burlesque emcee bastard keith made to someone in my timeline about strong, domineering women, realized that we knew a lot of the same performers on the neo-vaudeville scene and all of a sudden, we were off to the races. i was curious: was bastard keith any good at what he did? what did he do exactly, anyway? i had to see him in action.  we made a date to meet properly over a drink -- but not before i suggested a duet we could do. we could perform togther... yikes! wait a minute. can he even sing? hmmm...

as luck would have it, this bastard was doing his thing every saturday at galapagos art space in a show called the floating kabarette. i pushed and shoved some things around in my schedule and made my way to DUMBO -- fashionably late but somehow right on time.  the weather was lousy, the place was packed and sitting in rapturous silence. someone was swinging from the ceiling by what looked like long silk white handkerchiefs, dangling this way and that.  i thought, oh boy -- the circus!  more and more, downtown cabaret in new york city is turning into a one ring sideshow of epic proportions. just as every circus has a ringleader, every cabaret act has an emcee.  the unfortunate truth is, everyone that calls themselves an emcee isn't necessarily a ringleader in the truest sense of what that word means. it takes a lot to pull it off: performance skills; the non-abrasive good humor of an old school catskills stand-up comedian; and of course, showmanship. narcissism -- not stage presence --  seems to be the factor that compels anyone to get onstage and do something, whether they can actually do anything or not.

this is the part where i tell you that bastard keith was, in a word, wonderful. as an emcee he was pitch-perfect -- a straight man with a straight face and a filthy mouth, wrapped up in an elegant, understated demeanor.  he was understated and he was over the top.  he was self-deprecating, he was cloying, he was hilarious.  remarkably, he made what he did look effortless which is only a testament to its difficulty.

here's a bit of bastard keith in action as a host.

relaxed, self-assured and smooth, he glided onto the stage inbetween each act, soothed any feathers that may have been ruffled, upped the ante and kept the ball rolling.  and as if all of that weren't enough, he really can sing.

here he is singing a little ellington along with some live music and a burlesque act.

the highlights?

juggler michael karas stripped all the way down to his adult sized superman undies while keeping all kinds of things up in the air and dancing. pretty hot stuff. here's a video of him winning over the audience and then some at the apollo theater in harlem.

i had heard of beautiful boylesque boy-toy go-go harder but i had never seen him in action. it was a one-off one time thing for st. patrick's day weekend -- he was a prancing, preening, glittering leprechaun. pretty hilarious stuff.  here's him doing some colorful and interesting things to the van halen song hot for teacher.

oh, and yeah -- the audience.

the real element of surprise rested with the very nearly sold out house, who needed very little encouragement to bring the filth to the fore. (usually it's a sold out situation.) occasionally bastard keith would read missives that the audience had sent to him via twitter. (ah, twitter -- too, too perfect for audience participation in performance.)  after going on here and there about strap ons and especially violent sex and such, he asked for a few nasty twits from his listeners. my personal favorite was from a lesbian, of course.

  Fuck your wife. I am going to blast you in your gaping hole until you shit out of your dick.

good times. 

somewhere in there, we met at the bar in the back over that drink. (for the record, he's way better looking in person -- and taller, too.)  we talked about performance in new york city and mutual acquaintances like war veterans.  when i heard him sing, something clicked and i started to put together ideas.  who knows where this will end up.  it's definitely the start of something explosively cool. and at the end of the day, isn't that really where you want to begin?

thanks, twitter!

Friday, March 15, 2013

where's the fun?

i really want to go out tonight and have some fun with mpb but i can't because this is new york city and there really isn't much fun out there. at least, not on the weekends.  the streets are filled with a lot of blipsters, sex and the city girls, the usual bridge and tunnel crowd, college students that seem way too much like high school students, european tourists, and hipsters, hipsters, hipsters. where can i go to get away from hipsters? williamsburg? the lower east side? even harlem is infested with them. (more on that later.)

sometimes if i'm not working, i go see a show on a friday or saturday night -- but if i do, i have to know its going to be fantastic.  that means that if you see me out and about on the weekends, i'm having a really good time. the thing is, i really have to dig to find my fun in these parts -- or make my fun, which is what i usually end up doing, mostly because as a performer, i am the fun. 

fun shouldn't be this much work. it definitely shouldn't be this expensive.

tomorrow, i'm going to go to galapagos art space to see the floating kabarette, because i still love the circus. i'll let you know how much fun i found.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Flash Fiction: "Goodbye, Cruel Richard"

Continuing with NaBloPoMo's theme of RISK this month, here's another flash fiction story about someone who took a big risk -- and got a big payoff in return.


Faye looked up from where she stood on the steps of the front porch. The wetness of an early afternoon found her in the calm before a violent storm. From a great distance, she saw a blue-black mass that churned its way towards her.  Faye thought it looked more like a bruise than a hurricane.  The wind whipped her hair against her expressionless face and began to jostle her. Soon it will be here, was all that she could think.  It would be sudden and frightening and beautiful. And then it would all be over. She returned to her perch, a rusted iron swing by the front door, and kneaded her filthy hands.

Bill had slapped her in the face a few days ago.  Hard. He said that she made him do it, that if she had done things right, there would have been no need to ever hit her at all.  That was the heart of the problem between them as far as he was concerned:  she kept saying and doing things that upset him.  If she'd stop, they could be happy. After he left, as Faye lay on the couch with her head back to stop the bleeding, she realized that after ten years of marriage, she couldn't hear his apologies anymore.  She had shut out so much of what he said and did that in a way, he wasn't ever really there until he took a swing at her.  Which was probably why he hit her so often.

She wished she had the guts to kill him.

They had been happy but somewhere in there, they began to argue a lot. One day, Bill hit Faye and she didn't do anything about it.  The next thing she knew, ten years had gone by.   
When she awoke in near darkness the way she always did, when she felt him reach for her and pin her to the bed and pry her legs open and climb on top of her, Faye thought about having him killed.  But then with her luck, she would get caught and have to go to jail for the rest of her life, or fry in the chair.  So she began to consider other options.

She was watching the weather report one afternoon when she remembered a story she'd heard, about a neighbor's best friend's cousin's ex-girlfriend's neighbor.   She got caught in a hurricane and was found several states away.  Battered and bruised, broken legs, completely disoriented--but alive.  That's when Faye realized that, although she was terrified of planes, she'd always wanted to fly.  She decided that if the hurricane came close enough, there would be a flying lesson.  She could hardly wait.

Faye had taken every precaution.  Everything was unplugged, cleared away, set aside.  Windows and doors were flung open as the wind whipped its way through the house,  searching for something.  Faye scrambled into a pair of steel toed boots, a large woolen sweater and finally a leather jacket.  As an afterthought, she grabbed Bill's motorcycle helmet before heading outside. Maybe it will take me to a Chinatown somewhere, she thought to herself as she put on the helmet and stepped out onto the road in front of her house.  Or someplace up North.  Jersey or something.  Anywhere but here. 

The sky turned sullen.  As the wind shoved her, she stood there, legs apart, arms akimbo, mesmerized by the fury that surrounded her.  When she was small, they gave hurricanes female names but this one was named Richard.
           " Don't that beat all?" Bill laughed one evening as they ate supper and watched Richard's progress on the news. "A homo hurricane."

Faye looked at the back of his head and thought, Who are you and why did I marry you?
The question fell between them like a brick.  She wished she could hit him with it.

Faye leaned into the wind and staggered towards a clearing nearby. This is fun, she thought, and she laughed.  That's when she heard Bill's voice, calling to her from somewhere near the front yard. He was waving to her, then walking towards her gradually, spewing obscenities.  Something about you crazy dumb bitch, are you nuts, I'm gonna beat your ass. Something like that. He came home early from work and how he's going to ruin everything, Faye thought.  So she began to run towards Richard.  As she did, she involuntarily cried out for help and fell into a ditch, with a resounding thud. Startled and frightened, she pressed her face into the soft wet ground and sobbed uncontrollably.  It was the very first time that Faye had ever done such a thing, in all the years that her husband had known her.  Bill stopped for a moment, stunned.

By the time he realized what was really going on, it was all over.

All kinds of things seemed to be going up, up and away, into the darkness above them.  Rooftops.  Cars.  Dirt.  Animals. Bill was carried away, kicking and screaming, lost in the ever-widening swirl of debris that lifted itself higher and higher as it moved farther away until it was finally gone.

Faye closed her eyes and waited her turn but fortunately Bill was the last one scheduled for take-off.  After a few hours, she worked her way out of the ditch and limped towards what was left of the house--her house now.  It would be awhile before anyone found her.  May as well  wait out the rescue effort from the front porch.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

covering the basics, part 2: how did we get here?

i think the way we eat -- then and now -- varies from region to region and depends a lot on ethnicity, tradition and culture. when i was a kid in south carolina's low country, my great-grandmother always kept a large vegetable garden in her expansive backyard, which was speckled with fruit trees and wild grapes. my great-grandfather, grandfather and uncles hunted and fished seasonally, so there was plenty of fresh seafood and game. my grandmother kept a garden, too. i remember green tomatoes ripening on the kitchen windowsill, her house surrounded with carefully tended plants, gorgeous roses and flowers that bloomed year-round. and rice. rice with almost every meal.

we weren't big on what usually passes as soul food. red rice and roasted oysters and venison were fixtures on our dinner table, not fried chicken with all the fixins. and junk food was hardly an issue.

 it's not that we didn't hit the grocery store for what we needed but when you grow and hunt for most of what you consume, you really don't have to make it to the piggly wiggly every week.  not surprisingly, growing your own food and hunting it down is physically hard work. you try killing a 5 point buck and carrying it around until you get home.

my great-grandmother wasn't the big momma type. she was lean and strong, and so was my grandmother. their husbands weren't overweight, either.  that's not surprising because everybody had work that required hard manual labor. when that was done, they had two or three side jobs that wore them out. my grandfather and my great-grandfather worked in a steel mill for decades. my daddy had a day job and seven -- SEVEN -- union cards.  (joe the plumber, in comparison, doesn't have one.)  daddy never stopped working. when he left this world a few years ago at the age of 92, he was outside working on the house.  there were fun times and happy moments but there was never any room for foolishness. the men and the boys in the family were way too busy being great outdoorsmen, or they were off doing man things like fixing cars.  the women and the girls were keeping house: cooking, baking, cleaning, sewing, knitting. they had their children to discipline and instruct, their work that kept them running, their side jobs and whatever.

 i don't know where some people get this black people are lazy stuff.  the movies? stupid comedians? pop culture? step n. fetchit? people who don't know any black people?

so as it turns out, eating clean means that i'm simply shifting gears and going back to my low country roots. i had to do it a few times to break some bad habits and make it stick. thankfully, it is sticking. the thing is, there are moments in my life when a herculean amount of discipline is required to stay away from a bag of baked cheetos. my great-grandparents didn't have that problem.

this handy little infographic is an interesting snapshot of america's nutritional arc over time. the picture gets much more interesting when you get specific.

Source: via Dennis on Pinterest

Monday, March 11, 2013

Don't say I never gave you anything...

i'm eating clean so of course i'm craving all kinds of things i can't have. a slice of this cornbread is definitely one of them. it'll probably be awhile before i eat corn or wheat gluten or dairy again.  my body really likes to eat clean so some of these changes will have to be permanent.  i'll be making this a lot for my friends, so i thought i'd share this fairly simple, delicious recipe with you -- if you aren't on the clean program, that is.

this recipe is foolproof, it's a crowd-pleaser and it's really delicious.  once you get into the habit of making it, you'll be coming up with all kinds of excuses to make it. ideally, it'll be one of those things to throw in the oven when you're having a few guests over for dinner or if you happen to be the dinner guest and pot luck is on the menu. enjoy!


three layer cornbread!


1 cup cornmeal (coarse)
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup unbleached flour
1/4 cup wheat bran or germ
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1/4 to 1/2 cup of honey
1/4 cup of oil or melted butter
3 cups milk or buttermilk


combine dry ingredients in one bowl.
combine wet ingredients in another bowl.
mix them together thoroughly.
pour into a well oiled 9x9 inch pan.

bake at 350F (or 176C) for 50 minutes.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Vintage Kudzu: "The Sights and The Sounds"

here's a snapshot -- taken from my old kudzu entries -- of what my moment-to-moment harlem life was like 10 years ago. enjoy!


The Sights and The Sounds

Wake up to the sounds of Johnny Cash singing The Beast In Me on your Zumbidor.  Get up and drink a quart of water because you know you don’t drink enough of it.  Check The Weather Channel.  Jump into your gas station attendant clothing, grab your headphones and go to the gym.  You don’t want to go but you know that if you don’t do it now, you won’t do it at all.  As you leave your apartment, greet the children across the hall with their mother, the super who’s mopping the halls and stairwells and the grandma in the window of the ground floor apartment --- in Spanish, of course. Make a right and head for Riverside Drive.  Pass a crackhead or two and be sure to say “Buenas.” You know they will. They’re always so polite to you. 

It’s about a 10 minute walk to the gym inside Riverbank State Park.  It’s sunny and it feels like San Francisco outside.  You don’t like that chilly breeze.  Something has to get you going.  You crank The Circle Jerks, Fugazi, The Sex Pistols/God Save The Queen, The Buzzcocks/What Do I Get? And then you remember that Rancid is coming to CBGB’s soon, that Reverend Horton Heat is coming even sooner than that.  You love those bands.  You must get tickets. 

You get to the gym.  You’re listening to Manu Chao.  It’s relatively empty.  Lots of older Latino men, a few black girls here and there.  The Dominican guy at the front who monitors the room touches his heart and points at you and then he sticks out  his tongue at you and makes a face.  You do the exact same thing to him.  He loves it. You love it too and you don’t know why.

You make it through your weightlifting routine with Manu Negra and then you pull out Fatboy Slim to get you through an intense 30 minutes on that treadmill.  When you’re done, you’re dripping with sweat.  On your way out, shove your Dominican monitor buddy off of his chair as he’s talking to someone else.  He almost falls off and shakes his fist at you, pretending to be mad.

The Replacements/A Little Mascara gets you out the building and up the street because you like it so much, you play it three times.   Chris Whitley/Automatic Love is what gets you into your apartment. With any luck, it’s only around 9am.

You don’t eat anything until after 12 noon. You pop early Everything But The Girl into your jambox, and jump in the shower.  You exfoliate with your favorite scrub cream, that sudsy stuff from Aveda. Of course the phone rings several times while you’re in there.  Good thing you put the cordless on the toilet.

Once you’re out and smelling “fresher than thou”, you jump on the internet and do business---returning e-mails, synching your Palm, making phone calls, confirming audition appointments and “go-sees” and checking in with your manager.   You call your parents.  They’re not home.  Your manager has sides for you: two movies, a musical and an industrial.  All of that Everything But The Girl reminds you of when you scooped ice cream for a living in Austin back in the day, so you play XTC/Skylarking for old time’s sake.  You make yourself a protein shake to go and head up Riverside Drive by bus to your manager’s place.  You forgot to charge your cellphone.  You plug it in as you head out the door.  As you leave, you are listening to Derek and the Dominoes/Layla, the deluxe reissue.  You have three auditions this afternoon.  Mentally you are packing your rolling zipfront suitcase while you are on the bus.  While you’re out, you run errands.  You listen to the soundtrack of I am Sam and wonder why Paul Westerberg can’t get it together.  You’re genuinely surprised at how much you love Rufus Wainwright’s voice.  Enough Beatles.  You start start thinking about Rancid again, so you switch to The Cramps/You Got Good Taste.  Some hip-looking black guy stops you at the bank and asks you what you’re listening to, because “it looks like you’re really enjoying it.”  You think about making something up, but you don’t.  When you tell him, he makes a weird face.  You don’t give him a chance to ask why, so he leaves you alone.  A word floats above his head as he walks away: YUTZ. 

When you get back, you warm up your voice, sip green tea, run lines and make more phone calls, pack your bag, pack your purse, put on a slight amount of make-up, dress up and get out.  While you’re running around, you’re listening to Soundgarden, Rage Against The Machine, AC/DC to keep yourself going.  You don’t get back until around 7pm.  When you do, you’re absolutely ravenous.  Your cool neighbors Paul & Chad made lasagna and bring some over for you.  You toss yourself a salad, throw the lasagna in the oven and listen to Charlie Christian’s box set while you read the paper and answer/make phone calls.  

 Here are your options:  Do you a. go to some open bar industry party, filled with bony models, chatty stylists/promoters and people who call themselves actors; b. go to see a cool band all the way in the lower east side, virtually a million miles from where you are now; c. eat dinner in your underwear and bunny slippers with your feet up and then take a nice long hot bath? 

Friday, March 08, 2013

covering the basics, part 1: rethinking food

i've done the clean program several times before this but for some strange reason, my latest foray into the wide, wide world of eating clean is causing too many profound changes in my life.  i can't stop decluttering and cleaning my apartment, for instance. i'm having a lot of epiphanies about my life that are exploding like firecrackers all over the place.  my hair and my nails are growing like crazy.  all good things.

i know that i've reached a fork in the road.  no longer can i eat with abandon, the way i used to when i was a kid. i can no longer eat anything that i want and i can no longer eat without thinking. my stomach has changed.  what i could eat then, i can't handle anymore.  the startling thought is that maybe i never could -- and i ignored the signs that told me so for the sake of food, glorious food. if i want a healthy, lean strong body, i have to eat consciously and carefully from now on. i'm not going to be vegan obsessive about it -- just aware, whatever that means.  this process is me figuring out what that means.  right now it means rethinking how i think about food.

i'm kind of pissed off that food is no longer fun, that i can't eat whatever i want whenever i want and that all of this feels like so much work and sacrifice and discipline. but then again, i'm tired of working against my body. and i'm especially tired of carrying around this extra weight that's keeping me from wearing everything in my closet.  i'm committed to my all around great health. so that's that.

here's the newest revelation: dairy is out. a random piece of cheese here or there is one thing but chugging milk or making an elaborate cheese plate for dinner is totally off my radar. yeesh! the things you find out when you do a little research...!

Thursday, March 07, 2013

What I Do For A Living, Part 3: "You didn't write that...did you?"

i have always loved to read and write.

i can't remember when expressing myself on paper with words was anything other than effortless.  i'm sure this has something to do with my stay-at-home mother who taught me how to read at such an early age. when i was three, there were letters and then there were small words and then there were dr. seuss books. by the time i hit kindergarten, i could read with the comprehension of a kid twice my age. 

i zipped through one advanced placement english class after another with relative ease, churning out essays and whatnot at will. when i was 12, an english teacher insisted that i turn in a journal as a weekly assignment and i've kept one ever since. when i was in college at ut austin as a freelance writer for a student newspaper, i thought it was kind of kitschy to get paid to write, but that was it. it wasn't until i came to new york city that writing mattered professionally.

what happened?

strange but true: when i came to new york city, i thought talent actually mattered. that's right: i honestly believed that if i did a great audition for a show, i'd get it because i was the best one for the part.  i didn't realize that there were all these other factors at work. like my height. or someone else's height in relation to mine. or if my size 4 body fit into the size 16 costume, or headpiece, or whatever costume i had to wear. or whether or not someone behind a desk thought that i was pretty enough.  or my blackness. yeah -- i know, right? believe it or not, i honestly thought: "this is theater. everyone has the willing suspension of disbelief so it doesn't matter that i'm black. i'll audition for every female role in my age range and my talent will get me the work." it never dawned on me that i could be the best one for the part and not get it because i couldn't fit into the costume or somebody thought that i was ugly or i was the wrong kind of black girl for that part, because the negro doing the casting was colorstruck.  none of that ever entered my mind.

when it finally did, i was profoundly depressed. i didn't believe that i was pretty enough to do film and tv -- and even if i were, i wouldn't really get to act.  theater and musical theater was my home base. with this realization, it was gone.

and then for some reason, i went to see john leguizamo in mambo mouth at the american place theater, and that's when all the lights came on. i had never seen a solo show.  i didn't know that such a thing existed. as i watched him work, all i could think was, i can do that. i went home that night and wrote a monologue, almost as a reflex. it just fell right out of me. the next thing i knew, i was performing it at ps 122. two one person shows and a ton of showcases, workshops and festivals later, i've got a sold out run at joe's pub for my newest idea, queen esther: unemployed superstar.

all of a sudden, a whole world of options opened up to me. i was no longer at the mercy of a casting agent.  i didn't have to wait for the phone to ring.  if it did ring, that was terrific but if it didn't, i could employ myself. i came up with ideas, i developed them, i performed them. boom-POW, just like that. ideas oozed out of me all the time.  keeping that journal since childhood shook a lot of them loose without my fully understanding what was happening. eventually, i shifted gears, started writing lyrics and songs -- and that meant more work.

last april, several performers and i -- francesca harper, charles wallace and keith thomas, respectively -- performed the billie holiday project, a show that i'm still developing, at the apollo theater's music cafe.  how strange was it to chat with people in the audience afterwards, so genuinely surprised that i wrote it.  for those who don't know me at all, getting accepted to nyu's tisch school of the arts mfa program was an astonishing feat. the real coup will be finding a way to pay for it.

what happened? all at once, i realized that i'm an originator, not a replicator.  there have been rough moments, sure -- but i haven't looked back. i can't change who i am.

(to paraphrase paul harvey: "...and now you know the rest of the story.")

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

spring cleaning

i'm doing a lot of deep cleaning at home so shifting gears and doing the clean program seems like a natural progression.  today is day 2 of 21 days of eating clean.

the truth is, i've been pretty sedentary lately.  i do my five miles a day, thanks to my fitbit but apparently that's not enough to keep my body from turning into a chunk of solid lard. unbelievable but true: i can't remember the last time i even tried to hit a speed bag. and thanks to all that cheese i ate when i was on the road, my cholesterol is through the roof. 

i've done the clean program several times, without the shakes and pills. the first time was extremely difficult but now, not so much -- probably because i've incorporated a lot of its principles into my diet.  don't get me wrong. i fall off from time to time but the foundation is strong and thankfully its getting stronger all the time.  it's nice to pause, turn around and realize that i've grown and changed and i'm still changing for the better.

if we eat and live like our grandparents and great-grandparents -- fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats/game, plenty of water, fresh air and exercise with no fast foods, processed foods, junk foods or sodas whatsoever -- we'll be just fine. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

What I Do For A Living, Part 2: "Didn't I see you on TV?"

when i was a kid, singing was something that i did in church.  eventually, it was something that i studied formally, in a performing arts high school.  the singing that was respected there meant having range and power and lots and lots of melisma, for the most part. everyone could sing way better than i could. singing that way meant sounding exactly like stephanie mills. or miki howard. it definitely meant sounding exactly like somebody.  i didn't sound like anybody, except myself. clearly, i wasn't doing it right.  undaunted, i moved on to other things.

i never imagined that i would ever sing professionally.  i thought that singing was the kind of thing that would come in handy if i ever did a musical or a play with music, or perhaps some light opera. i certainly didn't want to be an actress. that sounded like someone that wasn't to be taken seriously.   i didn't want to be a movie star because i didn't think i was pretty enough to be on camera.  television looked like fun -- especially the commercials  -- but i wasn't really gunning for that, either.  i wanted to be a theater actor.  i knew that i had that undefinable something that compels someone to look at someone else and i knew that this something had absolutely nothing to do with what i looked like and i knew that this something was absolutely necessary if i wanted to do anything onstage. other people were tall. other people were handsome or beautiful. other people dyed their hair blonde. other people would say or do things to "pull focus" and draw attention to themselves. i didn't do any of those things.  when i was onstage, people were compelled to look at me.  otherwise, i was roundly ignored.

you can work on your skill set until the cows come home but contrary to popular belief, that indefinable something called stage presence can't be taught.  your talent, your excellent comic timing and no, not even how attractive you are can make people want to look at you onstage.  their eye will inevitably wander to that seemingly insignificant someone the director has conveniently located in the back, on the side -- the one who is perched at the edge of the scene who is simply standing there. who are they? what are they doing?  all that nothing is really something, isn't it.

i persisted with theater and musical theater and solo performance because i was determined to do all i could with the talent that God gave me.  i didn't want to sin against my talent. i didn't want to squander it.  i'm transitioning to film and tv because a. most theater productions in new york city don't pay a living wage; b. i'm priced out of nyc, for the most part; c. the pay is cray-cray. 

here i am in a prego commercial, getting paid.

a tv producer. a screenwriter. a song doctor. a concert pianist. a filmmaker. who knows where i'll end up in this business or what i'll be doing. what i know for sure is the theater is where i started. i stepped onstage when i was a kid, curious and unafraid, i looked out into that dark sea of people and i knew and i knew and i knew and i knew and i knew. 

next up? what i do for a living, part 3: "you didn't write that -- did you?"

Sunday, March 03, 2013

What I Do For A Living, Part 1: "Aren't you a jazz singer?"

when people ask me what i do for a living, it's pretty easy to say that i'm an artist.  things tend to get dicey when i am asked to get specific.  aren't you a jazz singer?

just for the record: i'm classically trained (mezzo soprano), i've got a four octave range (my highest note is e flat above high c) and i can safely say that i've sung just about everything to pay my rent. girl group stuff. light opera. musicals. blues. soul. gospel. rhythm and blues -- old school (the real stuff) and contemporary (which is really black pop music). and yes, pop music. i've sung lead. i've sung -- and yes, arranged -- back-ups.  why not?  a gig is a gig, as far as i'm concerned.  i find that people usually get snotty about what style of music they will or won't do when they are incapable of actually playing or singing it. but that's a whole other conversation.

my next album (yep, it's almost finished!) is going to be country rock. (for more details, please check out my discography.)

asking if i'm a jazz singer is a fair question. if you see me at a gig with a swing band, for example, it's a fairly easy assumption to make. but saying that i sing jazz is like saying that i eat food. jazz is a kind of technicolor behemoth, alive with pleasure and filled to the brim with various and sundry subgenres that change and shift with any given decade, musician, trend or feel that's copped along the way. jazz is a road that never, ever really ends. it's just that complicated and it's just that simple.

things get more layered and intense when you're creating the music and/or the work opportunities that let you perform the music. somewhere along the way, i fell so far down the rabbit hole as a vocalist that originated music and work situations that i found myself singing with michael arenella and his dreamland orchestra (1920s), james "blood" ulmer (harmelodics), the billie holiday project (1930s) and my own trio/quartet/quintet (originals and standards) amongst other set-ups, can you sit in tonight situations, wedding gigs, organ trios, swing big bands, back up singer situations and what not -- all at the same time.

here i am, singing back ups with singer/songwriter joseph arthur on the david letterman show -- with mary worm, maya azucena and martha redbone.

one thing is for sure: i have to look the part when i show up, whatever that is. i can pull of the 1930s effortlessly and yes, the bombshell look is not a problem. the 1920s, on the other hand, is especially unforgiving because i'm not androgynous enough to pull of the essence of the look and i'm not committed enough to wear a corset that flattens my d cup chest. of course, all of this requires a great deal of research. i find myself reading books and sifting through photographs to figure out how to wear a brooch correctly, how to roll down my stockings, how to style my natural hair or my wig just so. and because stylistically, things change so drastically in a fast-paced decade like the 20s, i have to be very specific when i'm digging through information about that decade. needless to say, finding that just right dress is a must. i don't mind the search. i'm a vintage girl.

it's not that i enjoy playing dress up and prancing around in vintage attire. well, yes -- i do enjoy it but that's not it. not exactly. the truth is, i'm a theater actor. i do my homework. i research every role. i cover all my bases.  when i decided to take acting seriously, i realized that i was a changeling, of sorts.  i had a becoming thing with everything i did, and singing was no exception. that's a part of the reason why presentation is so important to me.  the other part of the equation is that the scene itself requires it. with most of the gigs i do -- especially the 1920s gigs -- a bigger part of the work is showing up dressed, as they say, to the nines.

 this is me, inbetween sets at michael arenella's sweetheart soiree last month. (photo credit: mpb!)

and yes -- that's just the jazz. nevermind the other stuff. (please see paragraph 2.)

next up: what i do for a living, part 2: didn't i see you on tv?

Saturday, March 02, 2013

"The NRA doesn't speak for me..."

i never hear enough from gun owners like this -- probably because what he's saying is a little too close to the truth. every registered gun owner should rise up against the nra. but that's another conversation...

Friday, March 01, 2013

Flash Fiction: "Chicken Lips"

NaBloPoMo March 2013


This month's NaBloPoMo theme is RISK. I've been revisiting some flash fiction that I'd written some time ago and I found this one that seems to have a bit of risk in it somewhere, so here you go.

Chicken Lips


It was their first date and it was a blind one, rabid with good intentions and interesting talk.  A mutual friend had set them up and Dana figured, why not, it'll be fun.  They both put on a mock game face when they met--for Marion's sake, they laughed--but there was a mutual attraction that neither of them could deny.   After awhile, they were chatting as though they'd known each other for years.

Unfortunately, something was killing her buzz. 

Every time Jason smiled at her, what little was there in the way of a mouth disappeared into the rest of his face, revealing two rows of gleaming whiteness. Dana smiled at him warmly and tried not to think about it but as the night wore on, it was all that she could think about.  The words glowed as they hovered around his head, in neon: chicken lips. After she watched him talk through the main course, she was ready to politely excuse herself and go home.  But to tell the truth, she was having a good time.  And besides--she never skipped dessert.

A question loomed over her thoughts like a cloud: Would he kiss her?  No sooner did this query appear than another floated along behind it, listlessly: If he did kiss her, what in God's name would it feel like?

That she was unlike anything that he had even remotely expected was enough to knock the wind out of Jason's Nantucket sails.  The details she gave him about herself and her life made him sputter with a mixture of bewilderment, confusion and pleasure.  He had driven his car past quite a few, locking the doors carefully as his vehicle came to a complete stop at the red light.  Perhaps there were one or two in his classes at his alma mater that he hadn't really paid any attention to.  This was certainly true at work.  And he'd certainly seen plenty in the movies, on television and those videos--music, sports, porn and otherwise.  But to have an intelligent insightful conversation with one--and a beautiful one, at that--this had never happened.

Jason, on the other hand, was exactly what Dana had expected. 

Jason was wonderful in a New England white guy kind of way.  The kind that can trace his family tree all the way back to Old England.  The kind that likes to go rock climbing on the weekends. The kind that walked through this life with the patented swagger of privelege and entitlement.  Jason had no need to stand up and demand whatever he wanted out of life. He understood from a very early age that clearly, it was already his.  An all-American birthright, if you will.  Somewhere down the line, whether they had any money or not, didn't they all come off like that to some degree?  Doing whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, with society condoning them all the way?

If my brother behaved like that, Dana thought, the cops would shoot him in the back 41 times.

As he excused himself and disappeared to the men's room, she sighed and wondered what she'd say to Marion the next day. Dana could visualize the look of disappointment on her face so easily.  How could she get out of explaining this one?  She'd have to think of something.  She always did.  Only someone who'd been in a situation with someone like this would truly empathize. As Dana nibbled on her dessert, she began to count the days leading up to the next night in with the girls and thought about how she'd describe this encounter.

Suddenly, she felt a slight pressure on the embankment next to her.  It was Jason, sliding towards her in the booth.  Here it comes, Dana thought and for a moment she closed her eyes to clear her thoughts.  When she opened them, he was very close to her.  Too close.

"Have you ever seen that movie Annie Hall?"
"You know that part about how they kiss each other at the beginning of the date to get the kiss overwith?  Because if they don't, Woody Allen will be thinking about it for the whole date and then the evening will be ruined?"
"I remember that scene."
"That's how I feel."

Dana looked into his face.  She could see the freckles that speckled his eyelids so delicately, so faintly, she had to resist the urge to touch them.  She wanted to tell him that they were beautiful but nothing would come out of her mouth.  She waited for the words to say and as she did, she held his gaze.

"I feel like if I don't kiss you now, I never will."

As he spoke, he came closer gradually, lowering his eyes to look at her mouth, stained with berries from her half-eaten dessert.  She held his gaze and readjusted, smiling faintly. All at once, she knew. That's why he noticed her.  That's why he harassed Marion into a blind date set-up. That's why he persued her all this time, polite and unassuming and direct.  He wanted a kiss, a real one, from big soft lips like hers that would taste like everything he'd ever wanted.  He got everything he ever wanted, didn't he?   Isn't that why this should be the one thing he doesn't get?

In that moment, Dana felt like the most powerful woman in the whole wide world.  And for a moment that seemed to last an eternity, she was.