Friday, September 30, 2011

waking up to love, despite the violence

i have been against the death penalty since i was 16 years old. this heightened awareness of the unjust and ineffectual nature of capital punishment was born through my participation in an Alternatives to Violence course taught by journalist and activist, Coleman McCarthy, at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Washington, DC back in 1990. i am thankful for the time he took to open us up and strengthen our foundation in an inherent love for humanity - a love we all share when we are small; one that gets chipped away as we age, walking through this culture of violence and retribution.

however, it wasn't until i had to face the intense fall out of the criminal justice system within my own family that i really understood the dire and varied consequences of our system of (in)justice. my wake up call arrived strong as a knife wound to my heart back in 2003, when the father of my children went to jail. i won't detail the how and why, except to say that he was one of many of our brothers and sisters who, having less than adequate resources to heal their wounds, find themselves seeking community and affirmation in all the wrong places. he lost his own freedom to the ravenous american dream that calls out to many and eats folk alive when they can't get well fast enough. the prison system is where many land. rehabilitation from the dis-ease that places folk in prison comes on a wing and a prayer. countless people fall off that wing; an abyss awaits.

my youngest daughter suffered acutely from this loss. she was only 3 years old, and the trauma was more than her young mind could understand. it was my job to heal her, as i was healing myself. in that process, she began acting out in school. she became a student labeled as a problem, and each time she rebelled against the teachers, frustrated when they could not understand her pain, she lashed out. the teachers became afraid of her. she was suspended repeatedly. i became fearful and consented to having her tested. she was diagnosed as an emotionally disturbed child with a dangerous lack of respect for authority. an independent educational plan was developed for her, one that included occupational therapy and special time for her to be removed from the general population of the classroom. the goal was for her to get right and become a happy girl child, one without scar tissue and scowl. but the independent education plan did not work. she could not be trained out of her trauma, at least not fast enough for school authorities. her suspensions (at ages 3-4) continued, and eventually, the school counselor called me in and told me that she needed to be removed from the school, placed in a special school for special children, and MEDICATED - a prison for her mind and body awaited.

having grown up in a family accustomed to mental illness and the slippery road of western science's cure for it all, i resisted the counselor's advice with the quickness. i knew that when my child was loved unconditionally, when she was not feared, when she was given the space to translate her trauma in creative ways (ways that took more patience and understanding than her teachers could afford), she was able to rise and excel. i immediately withdrew her from the school, placed her in a school staffed by elder black women who better understood her language, and had her re-evaluated. this time, no issue was found. and i realized that she simply needed a different type of educational institution and support system in order to thrive.

how many of our children have not been so lucky? how many of them have gone from being innocent children with troubles to students labeled as potential criminals, medicated and/or funneled into an early culture of discipline that creates a predisposition toward joining the multitudes of youth and adults fueling the prison industrial complex?

at 13 years old, my daughter holds a 98.7 cumulative average in school. she has taught herself to play the piano. she is one of the most emotionally mature people i know, displaying empathy and compassion for people in ways that adults have trouble harnessing. together, we healed from the trauma of losing a family member to the criminal justice system.

though her father did make it out, the truth of how the system can break folk down, creating losses that fall like dominoes, became a truth i knew too well. her father did not succumb to the death penalty. but just the sting of the justice system's less than rehabilitative culture was enough to keep me focused on promoting awareness and action against the prison industrial complex in my daily walk as an educator, artist, and mother.

in 2006, i was invited to attend Harry Belafonte's gathering for justice at the Onondaga reservation in up state new york by a dear childhood friend and activist, Luis Cardona (i will always be thankful to Luis for this; it helped to heal me from the stigma). during that gathering, we dedicated ourselves further to fighting the pipeline from schools to prison and the prison industrial complex. i was struck by the numbers of people dedicated to the fight; i was in awe of the deep sense of love, humanity, and communal responsibility ripe and over-flowing in that space. i took that collective energy back home with me, working its mission into my writing and curricula for the students i was then teaching at Howard University. i was repeatedly saddened when i realized how many people did not have the language to understand what was happening to our brothers and sisters and families as a result of the war against drugs and the criminal justice system's plague unleashed on our communities. though most of us have been touched by the prison industrial complex in some way, many feel that we have no right to resist its existence. the powers that be wear such heavy boots that calls for change and abolition seem pointless and naive. but when spaces for dialogue are created, so many gain the courage, awareness and energy to consider new possibilities.

in the face of the pending execution of brother Troy Davis, i return to these thoughts. and though i am deeply saddened by the system's failure to stay his execution, i am encouraged by the masses of people who have signed petitions, protested, and placed phone calls on his behalf. such an outpouring of love and solidarity gives me hope. this crisis has also helped to educate many people about the global fight against the culture of violence, of which the death penalty, the prison industrial complex, and the pipe line from schools to prison are insidious parts of a deathly whole.

i pray that we continue mobilizing, organizing, and educating around these issues. i pray that a radical love ethic gains greater sustainability through us all. i pray that we remain awake and resilient. and i send light to Troy Davis and his family, the many families caught up in the culture of violence here and abroad. may we all walk forward with greater strength and purpose.

carry on. carry light.

"Occupy Wall Street": The Real "American Dream"

just this morning, i was talking to a family member about the current "Occupy Wall Street" movement. i haven't been able to get down there yet, though i live in the Bronx; it only takes 2 train rides to get there. still, between my gig, my kids, and my other gig, i have yet to check it out live and in person. on top of that, i'm counting my dollars. sure. a train ride there and back only costs about $5. but my most well-paying gig chose not to pay us for the first 2 weeks of work, after we'd worked for 4 weeks. instead of a double check, they gave us pay for 2 weeks, promising to hit us up with what they owe at the end of the semester. word. that's in december. we were all banking on that double pay check, too. but nah. not happening. anyway, that means less duckets in the account. and that also means a little more nickel and diming it. for a single mom with two kids, that means negotiating increased food prices, piano lessons, constant utilities and rent, and transportation for three. the $5 for the train ride to Wall Street could be $5 to get my youngest daughter to her piano lesson. in fact, that's exactly what that $5 will be put toward. what does this have to do with"Occupy Wall Street"? well, it is EXACTLY what the movement is about. and i can't even get there, 'cause the folk holding the state's purse strings owe me for two weeks of work. ain't that trippy? oh. i'm an educator, by the way. go figure.

anyway, i was talking to this family member about how i've been feeling the boot of the wealthy 1% on my neck for the past 16 years and how it's curious that only after the staunchly middle class folk of this country start to feel the pain does any momentum pick up behind the "power to the people-ain't no more American Dream" movement. and we also noted that most of the protesters seem to be white folk - i'm sorry; i can't hold the post racial line. i could say that most of the people down there are of a skin complexion lighter than brown, but that just skirts the truth in a silly way. anyway, that realization (Aha!) led to a conversation about how classism has weakened solidarity within the black community, and we troubled how that all began, leading us to a debate about integration. and many of us already know that debate well. it's formed by this question: did integration strengthen our community, giving us all greater access to equality with white people and creating a less racialized existence? and there is no clear answer. it seems that on the surface, integration led to a more democratic citizenship for us all. we can eat at the same places. we can go to school and live in the same places. we can apply for the same jobs. on paper. but when you study the stats, it's clear that we still tend to forge community based on similarity. and there are still disparities between how black folk live in mass numbers when compared to white folk. and of course, it's more than black and white. we've got many ethnicities populating this nation. but let's be real: the blacker the berries the more likely the oppression, institutionalized and smack up in your face, tazed, maced, cuffed, and problematic.

still, we can all try reaching that proverbial American Dream, which means ... we all have the same chance at getting rich. never mind only a few of us will get there. at least we can all try. and this means that we are now equally able to fail at it, just like white folks. and we should be happy about that. sweet liberty, if you can catch it.

recently, i got into a Facebook debate with another black friend of mine. he happens to be economically privileged. and he said that we are all capitalists, and that means it's "dog eat dog." get what you can for you and yours, never mind the lives of the majority of the population. if you got it, flaunt it. and hold on tight. he didn't say, "if you got it, share it." and his blackness did not cause him to consider the poverty of so many in his community in any heart-felt way. he's holding onto the Dream, and hoping to build into it for the benefit of his children. and that's his right in this country. his blackness does not prevent that, at least it doesn't until it does. and it always can. but he's further removed and running to get even more distance. "don't hate the hustle; learn from it." that's what many say. but for those of us straining against the capitalist beast's boots, there's only vapors left to catch. toxic vapors.

that means that this friend is less a part of my community than a white woman who is also struggling to make ends meet. she can't make it to the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, either. she's simply trying to feed her kids. sure, our realities bear some mark of difference in terms of our individual likelihood of being sucked into the trials of institutionalized racism. but still, our communities are drawn closer together by class similarities, though we have to work hard to remove the veil that our ethnic differences enforce. that doesn't mean loosening ties to cultural solidarity. but that does mean that capitalism, even in its failure, creates interest groups along class lines that have such powerful numbers that we should believe that we cannot fail. we simply have to act on it. integration means that we all have equal opportunity to struggle together; we're already doing it.

and i will be making my way to "Occupy Wall Street," just as soon as i get my next pay check. i suggest all black, brown, yellow, red, white, and blue folk do the same. perhaps that is the true solidarity possible in the American Dream.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Gutta is Beautiful: Aesthetics, Politics, the Pocket and the Pole

The Gutta is Beautiful: Aesthetics, Politics, the Pocket and the Pole

An Interview with Nina Angela Mercer, Interviewed by Ebony Noelle Golden for “In The Peoples’ Hand Zine”

“Gutta Beautiful” dismantles some of the dangerous binaries that exist in our minds and our lives. We look at so much through a very Western lens, philosophically speaking; it informs how we walk in the world. So there’s the "good" and the "bad," and if there’s some "bad" in the "good," it can’t possibly be "good" anymore. That confuses us. Ultimately, one cannot embrace the process of healing without accepting, recognizing, and celebrating that which is imperfect and how we often fall short of our most idealized (and sanctioned) ways of being. I am hoping to explore and cause a rupture inside this intimate and communal dysfunction.

-Nina Angela Mercer

IPH: Our readers may be more familiar with the ghetto or the hood. The gutta, as you explore it, seems to locate a more specific space. Potentially, the ghetto is the liminal space, or threshold, that introduces the audience to the gutta as a space or consciousness. Can you talk more the space of the gutta?

NAM: It’s interesting that you mention that because I have been having that conversation with so many people. Sometimes when elders say the name of the play, they say Ghetto Beautiful instead of "Gutta Beautiful." I am always quick to correct this error, because there is a difference between the “gutta” and the “ghetto”. The history of the term "ghetto" has really been thrown to the wayside in our community. We use "ghetto" to represent a type of behavior or circumstance that is often overtly stereotypical. In actuality, a ghetto is a community of people . Sometimes, residents of the "ghetto" have been forcibly placed in psychological and physical locations of bondage created by external factors, but this is not always true. Quite simply, a "ghetto" is a place where people live. And yes, a contemporary neighborhood in Washington, D.C.(where the play happens most of the time) is our entry point into a consciousness I call "gutta beautiful."

When I reference the "gutta," I am defining a space where we are our most imperfect selves, a space we can inhabit when we are dealing with aspects of life which are not necessarily considered acceptable or healthy. Having witnessed and lived poverty, substance abuse, and domestic abuse, I’ve also come to understand that we exist in those spaces feeling like we are less than beautiful, like there’s no way anything positive can come out of this existence because it is so gutta; it is that which we want to hide. I feel that it is important for our communities to recognize that these realities that may be considered “gutta” should not be hushed or hidden under the rug. We must face those intimate and communal traumas in order to heal. And healing our traumas is always beautiful. It is sublime.

IPH: Can you talk more about the space and consciousness is articulated or practiced in the gutta? What would you say comprises a “gutta” aesthetic?

NAM: I started writing the play when I was in a doctoral program in the English Department at the University of Maryland. I had enrolled at University of Maryland after completing my MFA at American University. I thought I needed to pursue the doctorate to create a stronger economic base. I knew I was an artist at the heart level, but I was nervous about jumping into the fray. "Gutta Beautiful" changed that path drastically. The play and its characters jumped my bones! It began as a one woman performance piece, a manifesta of sorts. It evolved into the interactive, multi media stage play with a full ensemble cast, a DJ, and drummers over time. There were many crucial artistic partnerships that grew out of the play's development. Sybil Roberts, my dramaturg during the play's early stages, and Eric Ruffin, the play's first director, were and remain my sustenance during an often grueling process of discovery. Eventually, "Gutta Beautiful" was produced by the non profit I founded, Ocean Ana Rising ( It has gone on to be produced by Woodie King Jr's New Federal Theatre in NYC and Griot Productions in Trinidad, and its movement continues.

During the seminal moments of the play's birth, I was living through my own gutta beautiful walk. I felt that being in graduate school during that very difficult time of my life, dealing with the culture of violence and substance abuse on an intimate level, created an internal resistance movement. As an emerging scholar, I was investigating literature of the Diaspora. I was trying to speak to my community as an activist through theoretical discourse. But the language used in that discourse blocked most people out. I reached a place of frustration. I felt like I was being torn apart, and it was all about the politics of language and the economy of professionalism.

I started the live performance piece with the sole intent of creating an aesthetic that could speak to masses of people by pulling on popular culture and the ordinary ways that we relate. The Gutta Aesthetic is the stoop, the porch, the barber shop, the kitchen and all of the complexities therein. Riffing and "the pocket" are part of the Aesthetic, which is why the scenes have the rhythmic flow that they do; the scenes have a boom bap to them, a certain scat over a consistent bass line. That’s our conversation as a people. When we are standing on the corner talking about one thing; we are eally talking about twelve different things at once. The same thing happens in the beauty salon and barber shop, and in the kitchen, where we conjure nourishment while telling stories and cracking jokes. These are sacred forums in our community, and I want to make the theater into that same sacred forum whenever "Gutta Beautiful" is performed. That is why the core plot line of the play happens in the kitchen and on the corner. The Gutta Aesthetic also privileges "the dozens." Everybody is up for critique. We get to play the dozens with anybody in that space. But we cannot have a conversation in the gutta without there being percussion first, which is why we start the piece with the drum.

The drum and drummers in the play are called The Source. For our people, the drum is the divine catalyst for communication between the living and the spirit realm. It's the bridge between those two worlds. We cannot begin or end without the drum invoking the metaphysical and spiritual conversation that is crucial for our way of knowing and being. Then we get the DJ in there as well, who becomes the Rhythm Angel in "Gutta Beautiful." The Rhythm Angel plays songs that inform our contemporary lives. The DJ needs the drum; though he is often using electronic samples of it, it's there. I did not want to privilege one over the other, because the technology of today's music is still connected to the ancient divinity of The Source. They are different and one. I think that it is important to maintain the connection between contemporary culture and its origins. There is great power in that.

The multi media aspects of the play are crucial. Because I wanted to engage the community in a critical dialogue with popular culture, I needed visual images replicating the impact of advertising and music videos on our collective memory and pysche. A team of photographers and visual artists came together around the play to record the D.C.'s cultural landscape. We also created a slide show during which Lola, the main character of the play, walks down Georgia Avenue, a main "strip" in Northwest DC, completely naked. Initially, Lola is confident in her walk. She is a "star" on her walk through her neighborhood. Eventually, she stumbles and falls. She must rise with a busted lip, and continue her journey while remaining naked to the public eye. That slide show was created by our team, taking photos of Georgia Avenue, photos of Lola in my apartment at home in D.C., and then photo shopping Lola's image over the shots of Georgia Avenue at various perspectives. That slide show is a visual metaphor for Lola's journey in the play; it also exposes the audiences journey with Lola, because the audience must witness this very personal experience with her and determine how they are entertained and disturbed by her pain, her injuries, her ability to triumph. So, throughout "Gutta Beautiful" the audience must process these visual images of cultural landscape and visual metaphor. It is a complex sensory experience. It is a reflection of our own sensory over-load in real time. We are constantly bombarded by these images. We are often completely unaware of the work those images do to us, the way those images manipulate our understanding of being. Inside "Gutta Beautiful," we are able to experience and critique these images.

The gutta is raw; it is rugged. Nobody can say that it has been polished for some pleasant digestion. That is a part of the Gutta Aesthetic as well. That’s what makes it gutta beautiful.

IPH: The audience hears Go-Go before the show begins, and it serves almost as an underlying character throughout the work. Can you talk about your experience growing up listening to Go-Go? What role, if any, did Go- Go play in the creation of “Gutta Beautiful?”

NAM: I love Gogo music and culture. It is deep in my veins. I grew up on the music as do most young people in DC. My father provided legal representation for T.T.E.D. Records, a local label owned by Max Kidd, featuring many of the hottest bands during the eighties. My father was also part of the management team for Experience Unlimited (EU). So, I spent a lot of time in the studio with the bands and traveling with EU when they went on tour. I also danced on stage at concerts and in music videos. The GoGo community was really an extension of my family.

Percussion, the centrifugal force in the music, is very African. It’s got to be one of the most African music forms on this side of the Atlantic. Though it has been exposed to technology and hip-hop, there is something about GoGo that can not be absorbed into any other kind of music form, which is one of the reasons why I feel it has not experienced a high level of commercial viability. It is dependent on live performance, and that’s another reason why it works for me. The music emphasizes call and response. If you listen to recorded GoGo, it is a totally different experience from GoGo performed live because of the influence of the audience. At the GoGo, the "talker" in the band (the front man or woman) always calls out, "Where y’all from?" And the audience will say, "North East!" or "Petworth," or whatever neighborhood they claim. There’s always that give and take. The GoGo cannot exist without the audience. They are privileged as an integral part of the music and the show. In "Gutta Beautiful" that call and response is created through audience participation. The GoGo being played by The Source and The Rhythm Angel enrich that experience. GoGo is also very resistant, rebellious music, because it refuses to be co-opted. So in creating a radical aesthetic, one that speaks and moves against various oppressions, Go-Go is the perfect music.

As a cultural movement, Go-Go has been engaged in a serious battle. Gentrification has shifted the cultural landscape of the city, and the music has been targeted as something the “powers that be” would like to silence. Some GoGo bands have lost their venues. Clubs have had to sign documents saying that they won’t play the music because there is a perceived link between GoGo and violence. Any time we have Black culture at its most raw and funky form, anytime people are getting together in solidarity around a music form that is authentic and unapologetically forceful, it is going to be targeted by those who wish to water it down. So I am committed to keeping GoGo in my work as much as possible. When you come to see “Gutta Beautiful,” no matter what the City Council says in DC, no matter what radio conglomerates say, you are coming to the GoGo; we are going to take you there. We are going to continue the movement of the music.

Simultaneously, The Rhythm Angel (DJ) and The Source also draw on our historical narrative through music as a community. So, The Source moves from Kongolese rhythms to contemporary GoGo rhythms, drawing on the origins of our music in Africa and the music (and peoples') journey through the Trans Atlantic slave trade and Middle Passage and those rhythms' survival and evolution into GoGo. The Rhythm Angel adds to this narrative by spinning the popular cuts remembered from my childhood, from the Blues to RandB to Hip Hop. It is all one quilt.

IPH: The title of the work illuminates and explodes the false binaries about certain facets of Black life. You pull the layers off these binaries by employing irony, satire, and humor. Also you “stage” the stage by giving each of the characters a turn to “work the pole”. Even Michael “works the pole”. What is the physical and meta-physical significance of the “pole”? In doing so, you take a recognizable element of drama, the monologue, and make it multi-dimensional performance practice that reveals the private thoughts affecting each of the characters. Talk about your choice of using the strip club and the solo pole performance as a primary cite of revelation for these characters.

NAM: There are so many layers to this. I am a strong proponent of woman power. I don’t like when we divide, when we say, "Because I got on a head wrap, I’m righteous. And because you got on Apple Bottom Jeans, you are stupid; you are a ho, and I am the Earth/Moon/Empress/Queen." I don’t like that. I'd rather us all put ourselves in the mix together, strip away all of the things that create a superficial illusion of difference, and get to the core of our hurts. Inside those wounds, we are more similar that different.

I have spent time in strip clubs. I have negotiated the space of power that it often becomes. I have been an active participant there. I wanted to address it because many women expressed frustration and fear about that space. Some friends would express that women who worked in the clubs were ignorant, sexual deviants. I knew that this was a dangerous and prejudiced judgement. The strip club is a site of power. It is a place where many cultural and societal dynamics lay naked in literal and figurative terms. Even when we are not there, even when we are not on the pole, we are still there.

Beyond that, what is that woman’s story beyond the work that she does? Let’s take the judgment off of her and make her every woman as opposed to some mutant woman who none of us want to be. Let us look at the space of being a women with sex, who is sexualized and walking through the world, and look behind that. That’s where the monologues come from in "Gutta Beautiful's" "Public Pussy Project," the local strip club in the neighborhood of the play.

This woman told me once that every woman is basically a prostitute. According to her, there is no difference between the woman on the corner marketing her "wares" and the woman in the sanctioned work place or a woman in her kitchen at home, except if a man marries her, and then she is a sanctioned whore. Now clearly this is a heterosexist belief. It is steeped in normalized craziness and passed down as folk wisdom. But it's worth exploring, too. If that is a popular assumption (and many interactions between and among the genders affirm that erroneous belief), and if that is how power functions and how sex becomes a mode of power exchange, if that’s the reality of it, and we are all "ho’s," then let’s look at that and explore it, because then we are all on the pole in varying circumstances. The pole can be the pimp, that which turns you out; it represents the tricks we play in society to get by. When Michael works the pole, he thinks he is in control of that space because he only introduces the women who will perform, soliciting cash for their dances, and encouraging the audience to enjoy the show, but he is being acted on, too. He is taking on a role that has been constructed. Even on the street corner, we must ask - is Michael a hustler, or is he being hustled? Ultimately, the audience must ask, “What is hustling us and why is it that way?”

Let’s look at the pole as a phallic symbol and how it allows for a critique of patriarchy. We slide down that slippery slope of patriarchy and still exist as women and men capable of love, often courageously transcending that very Western way of being. How do we slip and slide and maneuver through patriarchy? How do we claim that space and turn it over, inside out, and make it work for us?

I must also draw attention to the role Yoruba culture functions throughout the play, especially in the "Public Pussy Project" scenes. Because I am a Yoruba practitioner, I create through my spiritual understanding of life. Though it is clear that the "Public Pussy Project" is a profane space, there is no way for me to separate the sacred from it. So, Elegua embodied by the character Papa G and possessing The Right Revered Boo Daddy, mediates between the spirit and human worlds and ushers forth the word and the moment of individual choice, standing firm at our crossroads of perception and action. He is the MC and catalyst for all that happens at the "Public Pussy Project." He incites the drama there. Oya/Yansa, the transformative power of the wind and the owner of the market place, regulates the chaos and order coming through our experiences there. It is also her transformational energy which propels the profane moments into spaces of healing. Finally, Oshun embodied by the characters Lil Mama Gypsy, Alice in Wonder-Dick, and School Teacher Pussy, presiding over sexuality, dance, and the conjure emerging from those sites of power, wields significant force throughout these scenes of the play. I want to be certain that it is understood that I am constructing a spiritual healing within the space of the strip club, because I believe that there is no space in this world where spirit is absent. Orisha are everywhere, even in the places we don't expect to find them, because of our conditioning, our accepted understanding of this illusion of a separation between the spirit and flesh. In fact, such forces, including ancestral energies, are present throughout the play, throughout our lives.

Of course, in the literal sense, there are dangers at the strip club. It is of this world. There are not many purely safe spaces in any arena constructed by human beings. But if we can analyze it and turn it over, perhaps we can claim something important in that space. I want to reclaim the space on terms diverging from its traditional classifications in the mainstream, including the video culture. Through "Gutta Beautiful," I give women voices in that space, stories, real laughter, sorrow, and complexity.

IPH: Lola seems to function as the central figure in the piece. However, audience members may be equally moved and impacted by Michael’s story. It seems Lola and Michael serve as foils of each other as they encompass all of the wholeness and brokenness of the “gutta”. Talk about how you are treating the economics and politics of Black creative and sexual energy. How does the white woman’s role symbolize or introduce certain pathologies that impede or stifle Black creative and sexual energy?

NAM: Michael is a dear character to me. I just love him. As a Black woman writing in the tradition of my foremothers, the creation of a Black male character in such a difficult circumstance was a really a labor of love. I definitely had to meditate on the process. I did not want to create a villain out of Michael. I really wanted to show his humanity beyond the dysfunction that has been thrown on Black manhood in this country. It took time because I had to work through my own issues to get there. Mike's existence as an MC is important to the piece because a lot of what "Gutta Beautiful" is about is voice. He is dedicated to cultivating a greater voice as a MC, and this translates as his journey to find agency in this world. Because he is a MC, he must fight against the traps laid by capitalism in one of its most intoxicating spheres; the entertainment industry has historically co-opted Blackness, leaving artists and community left with less than fully empowered stories sold globally. This is Michael's challenge.

Before Mike meets Lola, before they fall in love, we meet him and he rhymes. He rhymes about his endangered and politicized space as an intelligent Black male in urban America with minimal realized power but very powerful ideas. Michael allows the audience to experience a Black man negotiating his power and trying to get it to work, pushing to make his voice heard. He is intelligent, witty, concerned about his world. Once Mike is put on the auction block, he is marketing his creativity, his voice. He thinks that allowing the national standards of commercial tade to govern his creative choices will give him greater power. Perhaps he believes that he can trick capitalism, and still maintain his authenticity. He learns that such a choice can have dire implications for himself, his family, his community. Somehow, he separates himself from the history of slavery. He is turned out by the auction block and its veil of glitz, glamour, and stardom. His motivation is a very American quest for independence and power. He is blinded by that out of sense of urgency. The stakes are high. It's survival or death, but survival on whose terms?

When President Obama came into power, I troubled Mike's journey even more. People asked me if I felt his character needed to be revised because a Black man had finally risen to the highest political office in this country. But I don't feel that there's a need to change Mike. First of all, I reject all conservative critics who attempt to define and judge art emerging from the Black community on such limiting terms as if all Black artists must always create art that makes us feel good about our lives, creating fairy tales out of a need to uplift our community in the world's eyes. I believe that Black artists, and all artists, must have the freedom to create what comes from the heart. When critics limit their support of art emerging from the Black community based on some political and restrictive demand to support art that only serves to sustain some impossibly limiting community agenda, those critics simply re-enact an oppressive attempt to silence our diverse and complex narratives. Secondly, Mike's journey, and the Gutta Beautiful journey as a whole, is urgently relevant, no matter who becomes this nation's President. The social, economic, and political realities that birthed "Gutta Beautiful" in my life and heart did not disappear when Obama was elected.

And then on another level, if we need to see all Black men as Presidents post Obama's election in order to fully internalize our greatest potential as a community, we must also consider that Obama's presidency is not so different from Mike's journey inside Aunty Sam's governing paradigm. We must consider, if we are honest with ourselves, how Obama's "blackness" affects his negotiation of identity and power in the public, how the U.S. government receives or acts upon his leadership, and how his power is experienced or received by the people. How does Obama work the pole? Is he able to represent and advocate for the Black community effectively as he also works for the nation? Should we demand this of him? Consider that.

To your question about Lola and Mike's relationship in the play: Lola and Mike are only foils to each other because they allow themselves to become that. When they meet in the play, they are not blank slates but the potentiality to triumph is there. They make choices that put them at odds with one another whether they are able to be conscious of these choices or not, and that is the tragedy of the piece.

IPH: How is the audience implicated in this shared space and experience of the gutta?

NAM: "Gutta Beautiful" puts everyone under the microscope, including the “self”. When I started writing the play, I was taking classes at the Brecht Forum in NYC with Theater of the Oppressed Lab. I was learning Augusto Boal's techniques and the use of theater to provoke change as a tool in Labor Rights movements. Any one who has studied Boal knows that it is important for the audience to become a part of the piece, because only when the audience becomes an actor, and not just a spectator of the piece, only when the audience becomes active do they really walk away with something that could potentially transform the way that they think and act.

“Gutta Beautiful” is not fully entrenched in the Theater of the Oppressed techniques. I have modified them for the specific purposes of the play. As a playwright, I hope that the actors will engage the audience as often as they can. They should speak to the audience and move through the house. Those actors must be prepared for the audience members to respond in various, often unexpected ways.

We bring the audience into the “Public Pussy Project”. They actually become involved in those scenes so that they understand that you are not simply watching and being entertained. This is your world; now what are you going to do?

So, the audience is definitely implicated. I am not comfortable with the audience walking away saying the character Auntie Sam did this to Michael and Lola and did this to me. No we allowed this to happen. What did you choose to do when you got on stage? What was you answer to School Teacher’s question? Did you get the lap dance? Did you enjoy it?

All of that is important to me because the primary goal of the piece is to have a conversation with masses of people. So they must be implicated; they must have some level of subjectivity and agency in the piece. It is important that the audience lives this world with the characters. When the audience is removed from the chaos or the farce or the spectacle that has happened then the art loses some of its power.

IPH: It seems as if the characters are articulating a critique of contemporary Black arts-intelligentsia. Is the Black arts-intelligentsia apart of or a part from the “gutta”?

NAM: I am not one for labels. I am careful about aligning myself with any particular group. I think that philosophical space needs to be troubled a bit. What are we doing when we elevate what way of being at the expense of another? I love the art that came out of the Black Arts Movement. It has influenced my life as a Black woman and artist. That gives me even more reason to critique. I have lived the reality of trying to come to terms with my blackness. I have considered the enslavement of my ancestors, and I have tried to recover the traditions through my dress, in my spiritual practice, and in my diet. In embracing all of that, I felt as if I had to reject anything that did not resonate as Afrikan. Anything other than this newly realized authentic Blackness was evidence of one's oppression by "the man," a certain blindness, ignorance and disempowerment. Eventually, however, I realized that is the creation of a cultural hierarchy, and it doesn’t really do much service to anyone, if all of my talk cannot embrace and speak to masses of people. I can’t start adhering to this cultural hierarchy at the expense of maintaining a connection to my community in all of its variations.

I am a woman who practices traditions born through the Trans Atlantic slave trade with roots in Africa. I celebrate that aspect of myself all the time. My ancestors are crucial to my way of being. My ancestors inform the work of “Gutta Beautiful." I can’t separate myself from any community that has been born through the diaspora, but I know we have to be able to critique ourselves.

I have a critique of the Black Arts Movement and the Black Nationalist Movement in the play as both relate to the experiences of Black women. I feel like some of those stories have been silenced. There are some stories that we have not shared across generations, especially among women, as it all pertains to the Black Arts Movement and the Black Nationalist Movement. I have talked to women who were active during both movements; I've found that the movements were so much about the uplift of Black people that the uplift of Black women, and the stories about how gendered violence was enacted upon the bodies of Black women, how their labor was often under-valued, have become silenced and relegated to the unknown We’re not supposed to talk about that and how patriarchy played a role in Black Nationalism and what that meant for Black women.

We are not supposed to talk about that because in our most coveted memories of that time period, we recovered Black beauty from the ugliness of racism, segregation, and the haunting force of slavery. But I reject that stance. If we can’t fully explore those movements and put them under the microscope for critical dialogue, we can’t grow.

IPH: What does that mean as an activist artist?

NAM: I took a class called Women’s Protest Literature. The professor, Susan Leonardi, encouraged me to write a performance piece after I expressed interest in working outside of the usual discourse of the academy. I grew up performing with DC Parks and Recreation's Show Mobile Program through Mayor Marion Barry's Summer Youth Employment Program. The young people working for that program were trained by professional dancers, vocalists and musicians. I was a company dancer. We traveled throughout DC performing every summer. So I knew that if I really wanted to talk to my folk, I would have to talk to them through live performance. That was the only way to engage them in progressive and authentic way, because the discourse of academia was too specialized to reach my community effectively. I was striving for real talk. Being an activist artist is about sustaining critical dialogue and transformation. Exploring the difficulties of our community's cultural and political movements, bringing that conversation to the community, that's all activism. As an artist, I am encouraging the audience to become intellectually present in our contemporary lives and critical in our understanding of history. I am encouraging the audience to imagine a different way of seeing, being, and doing this life.

IPH: This issue of In the People’s Hands looks at the huge issue of Africana women and the legacy of violence. How does “Gutta Beautiful” engage the topic? How are the characters in the piece working through this legacy?

NAM: "Gutta Beautiful" travels through history so that our understanding of time's linearity is disrupted. On the surface, the characters are living in our contemporary time. However, the audience is asked to suspend their understanding of reality and imagine that the auction blocks of slavery and the Middle Passage still exist in our current lives. Those past lives still matter now. That culture of violence and oppression did not disappear with the abolition of slavery, nor did it begin there, though I construct its origin at the points of Lola's birth and during the Middle Passage and Chain Gang scenes in the play. Regardless of where we set the origin of the culture, however, it is clear that the culture is sustained whenever we enact violence on one another or on ourselves, whether that violence is physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual.

In some instances, we have allowed that culture to manifest in our most intimate relationships. It is also part of our psychological make-up. We often understand who we are through a violent lens, because it was an act of violence that birthed our people on this side of the Atlantic. Thus, simply being a woman of color in America can be violent, painful and oppressive. Being a woman of color in America demands courage, resilience, and strength. The women characters in "Gutta Beautiful" are speaking back to that culture while existing inside of it. They are attempting to claim a safe space inside that culture. Eventually, Lola recognizes that though she has been oppressed inside this culture of violence, she can choose to create a path that liberates her self from it simply through realizing that she can make the choice to heal. That does not mean that the culture disappears or that potential new hurts cannot arise but that she can tell her story, accept it, and still feel beautiful - as a survivor, as a woman, as a human being with love in her heart. The choice to tell the story of how one exists inside a violent history and culture is the act of resistance. It is a walk toward and inside liberation. And I think that is the case for all Africana women. We must tell our stories to dismantle the violence. Silence is not an option.

I also think that it is important to realize that Mike is going through a similar reality. He is a man. In some ways, his walk is different. However, I believe that there is no way for Africana women to heal and act as empowered agents of social change without considering the journey of Africana men. Ultimately, we are dealing with a human problem. It transcends gender. Men who act violently against women and other men have often been oppressed and abused. It is a lethal cycle. As Africana women, we must be open to conversations that challenge the gender boundaries which help that dangerous culture to continue.

Remembering Toni Cade Bambara for The Women on Wednesdays Art and Culture Project

Dear Sista Mama Toni Cade Bambara,
When I was 19, I sat at your feet in Howard University’s Blackburn Center, hungry for the secret to a word smith’s brilliance. I listened to your words with awe, though there was much in the meaning I could not have understood, because I hadn’t really lived yet. I had no idea how close to transitioning you were. I only knew that I found home in your cadence, the weaving of your thoughts and imaginings in language, your magic, your truth.
Eighteen years later, I returned to your novel The Salt Eaters, and I was immediately struck by the healer Minnie Ransom’s first words to Velma Henry, after Velma’s suicide attempt: “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”
Bam. Right in my face, inside my heart, and down in my gut. I knew that this time The Salt Eaters would rock me to my core, because in the 18 years it took me to get back to that novel, I had become mother of two, divorced, single and often troubled. I was also an activist and cultural organizer, and a vulnerable woman, wide open and daring a lover to enter, afraid he would stay, and see me less evolved than I often professed. And, I'd become an artist and educator, under-paid and losing sleep to debt, wondering why make art if I don’t matter. I was finally that perpetual giver and healer sustained by a deep commitment to love. And I was walking contradiction. My own life missions unveiled me as a woman veering far too close to insanity far too often. I was skilled at wearing various masks and hats, covering my own less than holistically well self with a righteous focus on doing good work in the world, while a series of moments inside my own head would tell anyone the truth – I was perpetually uncertain about whether I wanted to be well myself. There have been hives, swollen limbs, boils and a tendency toward grinding my teeth in sleep, causing fractures. I pummeled myself, directing my rage inward because uncontrolled anger was counter-revolutionary. I neglected myself, my very own heart and health. I trained my attention on any and every thing that would stop me from cleaning the dust from the mirror and seeing the mess I had become. A beautiful mess.
And there was Velma Henry – mother, wife, activist, silenced artist, under-valued laborer for the people, trusted friend, the invisible corner stone at the foundation of the community. And Velma had sliced her wrists and crawled into the oven to die. I knew her. I knew her in my own nicotine tinged finger tips; the loss of health coverage, and too many years of economic hardship; a quiet depression; the eyes that cannot shed another tear; the near-crazed mind that considers what it would take to stare death in the face, because maybe it would be easier. And I read on, letting it all find roots in my blood stream, forcing me to consider Minnie Ransom’s question, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” I found an awakening of the inward eye/I through Velma’s journey toward her ancestral mothers and their strength with her community gathered around her in a sacred cipher, merging their own stories with Velmas, and calling on spirit guides and Lwa to create a quilt, a communion, a shelter inside understanding.
When we began the process of organizing the “Women on Wednesday Art and Culture Project” for 2011, I offered my experience of The Salt Eaters, and found camaraderie among my sister collaborators. We all knew the novel’s road, its weight, and urgent importance to countless women artists and conjurers, mothers, sister, and daughters -those of us born into the world with the mission of caring for it, while pretending our own scars and hurts and real down right ugly could hardly be worth the trouble of healing. And we agreed that you would be the ancestral foremother for the Series. Not just because of The Salt Eaters but for your life, your walk, your body of work, your calling and your way of loving us from the spirit realm, giving us a wake up call we wanted to pass on to our entire community. We pose the questions: Are we sure we all want to be well? And if so, how will we get there? How will we forge community, and build holistic wellness in ciphers that both liberate and nurture our voices, our lives? It is our prayer and intention that the “Women on Wednesday Art and Culture Project” provides a sacred space for us to answer those questions affirmatively, and set about doing that work together in your
Toni Cade Bambara - the ancestral mother for “The Women on Wednesday Art and Culture Project (WoW)” 2011. We honor her for her creative approach to social justice and holistic wellness for the individual and communal woman. Ibaye Toni Cade Bambara, Ibaye!
For more information about "The Women on Wednesday Art and Culture Project," visit us at For WoW 2012, our ancestral mother will be Audre Lorde.

Itagua Meji by Nina Angela Mercer

ITAGUA MEJI is a new play in development.

In ITAGUA MEJI, GirlChildWoman battles against the divinity of her own head, Ori, eventually learning a simple lesson: just listen. ITAGUA MEJI is a choreo poem and black woman’s manifesta that travels from the side walk cheers and dance halls of our youth to the long journeys home conjured by a healing rooted in a celebration of ancient cleansing rituals, survival recipes, and folk sayings passed on from one generation to the next. It troubles the problematic tradition of racism in this country, challenging us to accept and celebrate every aspect of our fractured cultural identities in America to create wholeness and well-being through spiritual discovery and a re-membered self. In ITAGUA MEJI, recipes for spiritual baths using plants and true stories gathered from the writer’s own ancestral history are shared with the audience as the performers encourage us to reclaim and sustain those crucial survival tools and stories that belong to us all.

*The title of the choreo poem, ITAGUA MEJI is based on a sign in the Yoruba divination system of Obi, during which four coconut shells are thrown and consulted by a priest for an individual present for a spiritual reading. When the four shells fall in the pattern of three white sides up and one side down, the diviner must throw a second time, invoking a sacred prayer. If upon the second throw, the shells fall in the same pattern, it is called the sign of Itagua Meji. The loose translation of this letter is an affirmative response to a question. However, it is a “yes” that comes with a difficult journey. There will be rough twists and turns that can lead to both the realization of one’s goals and many hard-won lessons. It is a road of intense discovery with high stakes.

ITAGUA MEJI has been workshopped at The Brecht Forum, NYC (Feb 2010), Rutgers University-Newark (March 2010), and The Alernate Roots Annual Meeting in Arden, North Carolina (August 2010). Its development continues ...

Gutta Beautiful by Nina Angela Mercer

GUTTA BEAUTIFUL is a multi media, interactive stage play which takes place in the contemporary urban hyper-reality of the nation’s capitol, and tells the tragic and comical love story of Lola, born to Mama Say (an ancestral spirit and guide who lives by the power of food and its preparation), and Papa G (an energetic, cosmic force, who is both trickster and surrogate father to the “word” and its myriad deeds). After her birth into womanhood, Lola meets Mike, a lyricist and seeker inside life’s circumstances, while hanging out on the block with her best girlfriends, Suga Sweet and Orchid.

Together, Lola and Mike dare to make it beyond mere survival in the bitter sweet landscape of Gutta Beautiful, a contemporary urban obstacle course where choices often find them confronting the haunting history of enslavement and imperialism embodied by the alluring and ever-changing Aunty Sam, as well as Aunty Sam’s contemporary masks – the harsh realities of the drug trade economy, violence, and the capitalist demand for consistent cash flow. For Lola and Mike, their home, Gutta Beautiful, becomes a political battle-ground where the most common and innocent choice to fall in love and raise a family is a revolutionary act with no easy path to victory. Though Mama Say and Papa G provide some ancestral guidance, it is ultimately a battle Lola and Mike must wage with the power of their own imperfect wills.

GUTTA BEAUTIFUL does not offer easy answers. There are no mythic heroes here. Instead, it provides a raw and honest depiction of our ordinary and spectacular lives, and the most gutta and beautiful circumstances we all choose to live. Lola finds herself in this journey, and so does Mike. They, along with Suga Sweet and Orchid, are our mirror reflections, asking us to discover our gorgeous imperfections toward a potential shared space of discovery and transformation.


-The Warehouse Theatre, DC (2005)
-The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company/DC Fringe, DC (2006)
- Woodie King Jr's New Federal Theatre at Henry Street Settlement/Abrons Arts Center (2007)
-Wings Theatre, NYC. stage reading (2008)
-The Corner Bar, Woodbrook, Trinidad. stage reading (2009)
-The Little Carib Theatre, Trinidad (November and December 2011)

Gypsy and The Bully Door by Nina Angela Mercer

In Gypsy & The Bully Door, Sara Josephine James – hairstylist, fortune teller, aspiring rock star and member of the “We Bomb Truth Over Lies” graffiti rebel movement – is haunted in the nation’s capital. The City eats its residents and exiles their spirits to her apartment. When her childhood friend Nate Bledsoe gets killed by the police after returning from the war in the Middle East, his spirit demands that she create a response that the local authorities cannot ignore. But when she gets her comrades, Roy Peoples and Khadija Freeman, to rebel with her, they are forced to disband, escaping capture by the same authorities who took the life of their friend. They set off on their own individual journeys to freedom in a country where democracy seems to be falling apart at every turn. And what they once thought was their rightful destiny becomes a dangerously perilous journey through exile, poverty, and the loss of love, funk and rhythm. It is a battle for the one truth they thought could never be lost in America – their voices and the solidarity that made them believe they had any power at all. While Sara sets up shop in NYC, using her fortune telling and hair styling expertise to pay the bills & manipulate clients for her own entertainment, Roy travels the world in search of the ever-elusive and sublime perfect beauty, and Khadija dares to continue the wandering rebel movement alive in DC alone. All hope to forget what they lost together, only to realize some doors to freedom are more difficult to pass through than they ever knew.

Gypsy & The Bully Door is fueled by the live music of the GoGo band, “The Pocket Roll Call,” and its leader, The Mayor; the often conflicting truths of the unofficial super stars of daily life – the folk who keep it poppin’, no matter what; and the spirits of our ancestors, who push and pull us, even when we doubt their meaning in our lives. It is a story of race, class, sex, dreams, and the magic we conjure to make it in America, and the world.

Dates for Gypsy & The Bully Door:

-May 28, 2011: Stage Reading at The Classical Theatre of Harlem's "Future Classics Reading Series"

-July 2011: Workshop Production for DC's Capital Fringe Festival at The Warehouse Theatre

-January 14, 2012: Stage Reading at Howard University's Ira Aldridge Theatre for HU Theatre Arts Department's "Roxie's Swagg List Reading Series"