Saturday, July 26, 2008

The actor and the playwright ... two icons out of the context of their times ...

I learned some months ago that the Eugene O'Neill Foundation associated with the National Park Service historic site in Danville, California, was considering the staging of "All God's Chillun Got Wings," a play the brooding playwright wrote and produced in 1924. It will be the centerpiece of this year's Eugene O'Neill Fall Festival. The play featured legendary singer/actor Paul Robeson. At the time Robeson was a 26 year-old Pullman porter with advance degrees and dreams of greatness, plus a following in the art world as the result of his growing reputation as a dramatic baritone.

Robeson was one of five children born to a runaway slave father and a mother from a Quaker family that worked for the abolition of slavery in Princeton, New Jersey. His father graduated from Lincoln University; a major accomplishment for those times. Robeson, himself, graduated from Rutgers University on a 4-year scholarship where his athletic prowess on the gridiron was equaled by his law degree and later world acclaim on the concert stage.

The two artists came together in the creation and production of "All God's Chillun" which brought Robeson to the Broadway stage in one of the earliest of O'Neill's most controversial plays. Though O'Neill received mixed reviews for his script which brought hate mail and bomb threats, Robeson seems to have fared relatively well in the role of Jim Harris. "Chillun" would be the first of 3 plays O'Neill would cast him in; "Emperor Jones," and "The Hairy Ape" would follow despite negative public reaction. Robeson is reported as having been troubled by the role of Jim Harris, a submissive black husband to an abusive white wife -- and tried to influence the way the role was played. There are indications in reading news clippings of reviews that it was at times an uneasy alliance.

The role of Jim was viewed as stereotypically demeaning and (by today's standards) hopelessly naive. Nonetheless, I was excited at the prospect of the Foundation's courageously taking on this staging at a time and in a place where it would be least expected. That being so, I asked to be assigned as liaison to the Foundation's planning committee since the Eugene O'Neill park site belongs to our 4-park consortium. Great, right?

Since accepting the assignment I've had a chance to read a synopsis of the play and to meet with the committee. The planning group and the artistic director were wonderful. It was easy to fall into their rhythm and to defer any concerns I'd had early-on about the play itself. Having never read it, but having recently viewed a repeat of PBS's "American Experience" documentary on the life of "America's greatest playwright", Eugene O'Neill, I had a sense of excitement about what may lie ahead. This would be new ground for me in my work -- and in an artistic field where I've great interest but little experience; a new and welcomed challenge.

The play was a hard read for me. Even with the allowances I was making for the times it represents and the social climate in which it was created and produced in the early Twenties -- the dialog was even more repugnant than I imagined. The lens through which the famed playwright viewed African American males was so distorted -- so naive -- that I wondered how on earth it could ever be staged without resulting in the same kind of public response suffered by the (I believe) well-intentioned New Yorker satiric "Obama" cover that brought such negative reactions from even the most liberal and sophisticated of readers.

I'm firmly convinced that there's a way to do this. I've no doubt that the director and the cast and the committee are approaching this production in the spirit of joining the new and long-deferred national conversation on race that we're so in need of. How these words and concepts will play before ethnically-diverse audiences is an unknown. Will the generous use of the "n" word be unforgivably offensive in mixed company? Any altering of the script would be unthinkable, of course, but with little collective memory of the period -- can we dare to evoke those unresolved emotions? Will the 70 minutes that "Chillun" takes to play out be supplemented by enough after-the-show Q&A to defuse feelings of embarrassment and not reinforce those same stereotypes O'Neill may have intended to expose through his work? Have we yet reached the point where -- in an otherwise "white" community -- we can retain enough compassion and generosity of spirit to get us through such an evening without increasing the distance between our worlds? Will these be risks worth taking?

The answers to those questions are illusive in this moment, but I think it's precisely at these edges that the country and the world can now explore new possibilities in human and race relations. O'Neill and Robeson and the O'Neill Foundation and hard-working producers and directors in the theater world may be leading us through these earlier works -- helping us to forge new attitudes through presenting old images of lives that illustrate so painfully where we've been. Maybe it's our role now to ferret out the new directions through revisiting a past that we've yet to process -- and that may indicate how compassion and understanding might move us toward a more enlightened future.

The casting (all Equity players) is in progress and the play will be performed as a part of the Eugene O'Neill Festival where there will be the awarding, posthumously, of honors to the late great and legendary Paul Robeson. His son, Paul Robeson, Jr., and his wife will be arriving from New York to receive the honor. They will be guests of the Foundation and the City of Danville for the 3-day weekend of performances of "All God's Chillun Got Wings" and other related activities. There's much to be excited about -- despite the quiet concerns that I'm sure are shared by the committee though -- with only one meeting under my belt -- those fears have yet to be voiced. I only know one other member of the group and I'm the only person of color in the room at this point. It will take at least another meeting to break through to candor, I suppose. But given my ever constant sense of urgency -- that state we'll move through ever so quickly, I'm sure. This is that place where age kicks in and ceremony gets booted to the curb because time is a luxury that I can no longer afford.

How we work our way through the anticipated difficulties that may be associated with this project will be interesting if troubling at times. I'm looking forward to the experience. It's another opportunity for learning, and I've never ducked out on occasions that present such lively reminders that I'm alive!
Meet Fred Reid, Radioman stationed in Naples ...

...and one of our guests at this year's Day of Remembrance at Port Chicago. And herein lies one of the untold and unheralded heroic stories of WWII:

Sitting comfortably in his magnificently-restored Victorian near the Panhandle entrance to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, one would hardly guess that the still-handsome 84 year-old former Buffalo Soldier was also the victim in one of the many shameful chapters in the history of our armed forces and our nation.

I'd arrived by pre-arrangement at ten o'clock to spend some time trying to capture this story. I had no hint of what might follow though I'd known Fred Reid casually for almost a lifetime. Stories such as his have been too humiliating to share but in this year 2008 -- the community and the nation appear to be finally ready to have these long-silenced conversations. I'm so privileged to be able to be one of those with some limited power and resources to facilitate their exposure to light and subsequent reconciliation.

There's so much to tell -- where to start?

With the very young army radioman Fred? With the proud Buffalo Soldier -- member of the 10th Calvary stationed at Camp Lockett near the California/Mexican border? With the artist Fred Reid who -- along with other black artists -- traveled to Nigeria in 1977 to participate in the historic festival of arts and culture as guests of the State Department? I might describe for you the beautiful stained-glass piece that sits on a lovely antique mahogany table capturing the sunlight in his living-room window (it was his entry into the FESTAC exhibition). Perhaps I could tell you about Fred Reid, head of the Department of Parks and Recreation for the City and County of San Francisco for 16 years. Any or all of these would be fascinating aspects of this one African American man.

But the story that probably is the signature tale since it veers so far from the spirit -- the ideals -- of the nation at a time when we were far less enlightened -- would be this one:

Fred was at that time (1943-44?) serving in Naples in WWII and, as the war in Europe was winding down, Fred (with many others) was re-deployed to the South Pacific theater. He was among 5000 young black serviceman put aboard a ship to join the battles somewhere in the Phillipines.

It's important to remember that at that time black soldiers were largely assigned to the quartermaster corps; were collecting bodies from battlefields; were working as cooks and waiters in the mess halls, serving as valets to white officers, driving supply trucks, and loading ammunition. They were assigned to all-black companies headed by white officers. Such was life in the armed forces at that time. It was several years after the war's end before President Harry Truman -- under strong pressure and threats of boycotts from black leader, A.Phillip Randolph -- would issue his order to end racial segregation in all branches of the armed forces. That was enacted in July of 1948. Though we tend to forget that it would be another six years before the last units were desegregated -- not until 1954.

Fred spoke unemotionally about how those men were aboard the ship and held at sea for 3 months. They'd been sequentially assigned to Manila, Guam, Hawaii, and other ports -- none of which would allow them to leave the ship. No port or company would accept 5000 black servicemen! They sailed endlessly -- reduced to two meals a day to conserve food supplies -- for 90 days in limbo with no sense of how it would eventually end. Idling at sea while the brutal "War to save Democracy and the world" raged on and the white American military power structure tried to figure out what to do with Americans whose skin color was seen as even more onerous than the threat presented by world domination by Facism.
Mel standing top row center

Looking across at Fred last week, I was reminded of my young husband, Mel (also a Reid but unrelated), who never made it into the Navy because his entry point (after volunteering to serve in his senior year at USF) was limited to being a messman. Mel died in 1988 never having told anyone but me of his 3-day service record at Great Lakes, Illinois. After many hours of interrogation he was given an honorable discharge and sent home with mustering-out pay and a pat on the rear.
"By your record, Reid, you're a natural leader of men.  Why didn't you come in as a white man (he was fair-skinned) You could have avoided all this." And, "We can't afford to place you on board a ship with men who might be easily led. It might spell mutiny on the high seas."  How's that for blaming the victim?

Mel died in 1988 never having told anyone but me of his 3-day service record at Great Lakes, Illinois. After many hours of interrogation he was given an honorable discharge and sent home with mustering-out pay and a pat on the rear.

The nation failed both these young Americans and countless others.

The interview with Fred ended with his promise to attend last Saturday's commemoration of the tragic explosion at Port Chicago. He came. Maybe at some level some of that bitterness was -- if only slightly -- lifted. On Saturday, those 320 young men (202 of whom were black) who were lost in that home front tragedy were acknowledged and honored in another of the somber annual ceremonies hosted by the National Park Service. Perhaps, Fred and Mel (had he lived to see it) can find some peace and reconciliation in having the Department of Interior honor their sacrifices; sacrifices of a kind rarely publicly acknowledged until recent years.

In a few weeks I plan to bring the Richmond high school students who make up the television production crew in their media department to Fred's beautiful home to see his art collection; to hear his stories; and to televise proceedings for their peers.

I'm not sure where all this fits in my job description, but since my position allows me to explore the outer edges of community outreach, then perhaps I'm involved in the redefinition of what it means to do this work. Maybe the important thing is to use my long and sometimes painful life experience to open doors for others to walk through ... toward the healing that has no known path. Maybe I'm in the process (with others) of drawing the new map toward reconciliation ...


It's time to bring new minds together -- the young and the tried and true who have survived to face the new frontier -- climate change. In an evolving world, there's little time for reflection. Occasions like the memorial service on Saturday allowed time for that. It also allowed me to renew a sense of obligation to the telling of the stories that are still disturbing to so many -- and with the full support of the National Park Service.

Photo: Fred Reid, his wife Careth Bomar Reid, and Electra Kimble-Price pictured at the Port Chicago Memorial anniversary event on Saturday, July 19, 2008.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Meet my niece, Danyel Smith, with unidentified subject ...

Danyel is the brilliant young managing editor of VIBE magazine. As such she was in Washington, D.C. to oversee a photo shoot for a cover of a recent issue of the magazine.

When I think of the long list of accomplished women in our family I feel a growing sense of pride laced with frustration -- and not as an African American -- but as an American. It is clear that the cost of racial segregation has been inestimable over all the decades; costs borne by us all. When one remembers that we've probably sacrificed at least 1/10th of the human potential of our nation at the altar of racial bigotry, it is staggering! And from the look of things, we're not out of the woods yet. A walk through any inner city school is ample proof that we have a long way still to go before full equality of opportunity has been achieved for all who aim high.

At an earlier time Danyel and the many like her would have been encouraged to forego any thought of entering into journalism -- particularly women -- due to the lack of opportunity for those of color. She came along when the bars were being lifted and she has soared!

But what of all th
e other Danyels wasting away in inadequate educational institutions in a dying system of public education?

And what of yesterday's' Bettys whose fate -- until 1941 -- was limited to working in the fields and/or the service industry (
mopping floors, making beds, and tending white children)? We made it, but at what cost -- and against what odds?

I interviewed a Buffalo
Soldier this past week, and learned more about the lives of black servicemen and women during WWII... .I'll save that for another post. I'm still absorbing his story while awed by his ability to "forgive us (Americans) our trespasses".

But yesterday I attended the 64th Annual commemoration of the Port Chicago Explosion at the Concord Weapons Station (now a NPS memorial monument site) and I haven't yet shaken off the effects of meeting with the few still-living survivors and/or families again. It was a weekend of contrasts. With few as stark as is represented here in these photos.

The emotional distance between these two pictures above is on the one hand excruciatingly slow to those of us who lived it; but dizzyingly fast when viewed in terms of the time normally required for significant social change to occur; often centuries.

Nothing is more indicative of progress than these two photos.

It was the tragic explosion at Port Chicago on July 17, 1944, in which 330 young Americans (220 or whom were black) lost their lives in the worst home front accident in our nation's history. That event brought about the beginnings of the modern Civil Rights Movement that unfolded over the next twenty years. In 1948, after continued unrest as the result of public reaction to the mutiny trials (see Robert Allen's book, "Mutiny at Port Chicago") President Harry Truman was finally convinced to eliminate all racial barriers throughout the armed forces.

But we must now revisit those years and have those conversations that we've avoided for the past 64 years. And anything that invites that discussion (yes, even the now infamous New Yorker cover) will facilitate that happening is a godsend. We must take the time to process the changes we've experienced in order to get some measure of the road traveled -- to gain a sense of just where are in history -- and of how we got here.

(Congratulations, Danyel, if you're reading this!)