Mabel Robinson ~ An Interview

 

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Mabel Robinson as Billie in the film Cotton Comes to Harlem

Mabel Robinson. Her artistic skill has made possible opportunities to perform across the genres of dance, theater, film, and television as an actress, director, choreographer, and instructor. She has performed professionally with distinguished companies such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Martha Graham Dance Company, the Juilliard Dance Theatre, and the Hava Kohav Dancers. Ben Vereen, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Carol Burnett, among other actors and personalities, have shared the stage with her. You may remember, however, her intense interpretative dance scene in the film Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), directed by the late actor/director Ossie Davis.

Gerald Hirschfeld’s cinematography in Cotton Comes To Harlem guides the audience to myriad locales throughout the city; one place is Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater. Here, in this hallowed space of African American entertainment, Ms. Robinson (Billie), costumed in full slave regalia, advances the story with burlesque panache to George Tipson’s song Cotton Comes to Harlem. Her dance on top of the bale of cotton that came to Harlem not only entertains, the performance, also, informs audiences of the African American journey from the southern cotton fields to the concrete jungle of the northern urban city.

Ms. Robinson has enjoyed a rich and varied career both on and off screen. It is no surprise. My interview with her brings to relief an artist who respects and honors her craft. This is a story about her sheer love for her talents and abilities, and how this love requires not only practice, focus, and discipline, but also it needs patience, and the right mentors and teachers to fertilize the ground for its growth. Correspondingly, Ms. Robinson makes known the choices an artist has to make when life intervenes and changes the course of direction.

TDR:  How did you nurture your desire for the performing arts?

MR:    My nurture of the arts began when I was an infant—or so I have been told. I loved to dance, according to my grandmother. She told me when she turned on the radio, I would pull up on the crib and jump for hours. She said that’s how she could get her laundry done!

TDR:  So, this nurture came from within your home.

MR:    Yes! My mom was a single parent. Mom went to New York to get a better job. She left us with grandmother in Savannah, Georgia where I was born. When she found a job, she came back for my sister and me. Whatever I did, I had to be the best. My mother said I had to be.

TDR:  You talk of your mother with pride …

MR:    My mom was a very determined and focused person—always. She was a seamstress who tailored men’s clothes; she made the muslin cloth patterns for clothes. Later she went to work at this company and became their bookkeeper; she ended up becoming an accountant. She didn’t finish high school until I finished college, but the way she attacked things–the way she finished things–it made people admire her ability to be such a perfectionist without having the book learning. Then she enrolled in college courses. In essence, my mother guided me to look and move beyond the norm.

TDR:  Were there other men and/or women who encouraged your love for the arts?MR:    Vereda Pearson, a little short black woman who played the piano, was a teacher in the public schools in New York who taught after school in the community center. Well, mom and Ms. Pearson became really good friends. She taught her students to articulate, to learn opera … she worked with [vaudeville actor and the first Black comedian to ever appear in the cinema] Bert Williams, so she had an awful lot to give to us. She was theater for me in a sense.

When you’re 11 and 12 years old you’re trying to get into your own, and she did not allow us let up. She said “there will be no insecurities here!” Her guidance helped me a great deal to be nurtured as far as the arts was concerned.

TDR:  From the crib to the community center, the arts seemingly followed you. Discuss your high school years.

MR:    I entered the High School of Performing Arts. When I enrolled I hadn’t had much technical training. The one thing I did have, though, was the love for dance. I remember I was a week late getting to school because our car broke down. At registration, all of the modern dance classes were filled so I had to go to the ballet classes. Blacks were discouraged from ballet, so luckily I only had to do half year of ballet before I became a double major. This meant having equal classes in ballet and modern techniques. The modern technique allowed me more freedom of movement. Ballet is a highly disciplined genre, and the learning of it, as far as freedom of movement … it’s restricting. The dancer, then, has to have the discipline to get her body to do what she wants it to do.

The most important things any person interested in the arts must do is have a respect for the discipline, learn to be professional, and learn to work for quality. On the whole, the arts take discipline but the artist has to make it look like magic.

TDR:  You mention that blacks were discouraged from ballet. Growing up I remember hearing the reason was the African American body could not express the kinds of movements ballet required. Why the discouragement?

MR:    The ballet establishment believed the African American body could not accommodate the discipline of ballet because we were built with a curvature, had large buttocks, and flat feet–of course you can build up the feet up to stand on point.

TDR:  Yet, in spite of that belief, there are African American ballet dancers …

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Janet Collins, Prima Ballerina

MR:    Janet Collins was the first notable African American ballet dancer in America. Later, [African American dancer and choreographer] Arthur Mitchell challenged these notions about the Black body and ballet. He established The Dance Theater of Harlem, and it is all ballet, even children doing ballet. Louis Johnson, who was the person that I worked with a lot, came [from Statesville, North Carolina] to D.C. He later went to dance with the New York City School of American Ballet and performed with the New York City Ballet. Now, Misty Copeland is a shining example that deletes the statement about Black dancers and ballet.

TDR:  You are a graduate of the High School for Performing Arts and Juilliard School of Music. That you attended these schools leads me to believe that you were/are a very focused and talented individual who knew exactly what she wanted to do.

MR:    The arts always have been a saving grace for me. Dancing is not only about steps or being musical or having a high kick. No. I found that I must be able to tell stories or to “talk” through my movements. When you first work with individuals, I observed they don’t necessarily embrace that approach, so I searched for those who allowed me to do that.

TDR:  Why the dance?

MR:    Dancing was something I had to hold on to; it made me feel good; it made people like me. Those feelings and emotions are important to me.

TDR:  You have performed on Broadway and in film and television. How important do you believe education is when it comes to performing? Is it necessary? Why?

MR:    The most important things any person interested in the arts must do is have a respect for the discipline, learn to be professional, and learn to work for quality. On the whole, the arts take discipline but the artist has to make it look like magic. So, performance, in the eye of the public, is magical. As for the formal degree, it is up to the individual. People do not think about the hard knocks; they only think of the end result. But you asked about education. I think education is important. It establishes a “fit-in” … how you fit … education continues … It’s not only book education, it is also social–how you deal with people and their energies. Hopefully you are studying what it is that you want to do in the future …

The arts always have been a saving grace for me. Dancing is not only about steps or being musical or having a high kick. No. I found that I must be able to tell stories or to “talk” through my movements.

TDR:  When cast in a show, how do you prepare for your character?

MR:    Characters, I think, are extensions of yourself; however, certain things you may not have experienced in life can be projected through your character. When this is realized, the performer has to research and get the information. Then the information has to be interpreted by the performer to establish a frame for that character. If the role has been done or established, the performer still has to make it her own.

TDR:  You are a dancer and a choreographer. In what ways do you prepare your instrument (the body) to be ready for a performance? (i.e., eating habits, exercise, etc.).

MR:    I was very fortunate because of my eating habits; diet is very important. I have a temple and I have to keep it moving. Not only do I deal with nurturing or taking care of my body, I have to eat well. My body tells me what to have and what not to eat. The minute you abuse your body you will get hurt. You have to prepare your body because the body was not built to dance so to speak but you train the body to do those things … you have to warm it up; that’s why athletes, to continue to do what they do, have to warm up and stretch …

TDR:  You participated in the era in film history called Blaxploitation, and the title caused a political backlash by those who filmmaker Melvin van Peebles sarcastically called “the black intelligentsia”. This backlash contributed to the nadir of the era. What are your thoughts on the title of that era and this backlash?

MR:    People became embarrassed and/or hurt by that name. You know, I don’t know whether it was a backlash. It was an era that gave black artists an opportunity to work. During the period I was so happy that there was work for black artists. [The studio heads] had to determine what was going to sell–what was commercial. Because of [director] Ossie Davis’s high respect for theater as was his wife Ruby’s, all of that went into his film work. As a director [of Cotton Comes to Harlem], he demanded excellent artists. He demanded good producers who respected his artistic opinions. As with anything else, if you lose respect for the craft and you are just going for one goal—the money–then you have to deal with the consequences.

TDR:  Do you feel that the the Blaxploitation era was a productive one in terms of the kinds of images, stories, fashion, and dialogue it produced during that time?

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Mabel Robinson as Billie

MR:    Blaxploitation gave us a transition from the intensity of the 1960s. For some it became their lifestyles; a lot of people didn’t know where they wanted to go so the images influenced them in myriad ways.

TDR:  How did you come to be involved in Cotton Comes to Harlem? What was your reaction when you were cast in the movie?

MR:    I felt wonderful because I knew Raymond St. Jacques. He suggested that I audition for the part.

TDR:  The theater scene in Cotton Comes to Harlem is very poignant. There are so many historical registers that are performed: blackface, gospel, dance, the bale of cotton …

MR:    That theater scene upheld the points of the civil rights movement; it kept a certain respect. It made us uphold a certain respect. It showcased the plight of black people through history even with the white man coming entering the stage in blackface — there were a lot of teaching moments in there, yes.

TDR:  Your dance is what takes the audience through those historical registers. Discuss your dance choreography. How did you come up with the theme? What did you hope to accomplish during the routine?

MR:    I should note that Ossie Davis hired me as an actress—not as a dancer because he did not know that I could dance. It was a collaboration as well as an understanding of all creative energies working on the film. Louis Johnson choreographed the scene after Ossie told him what he wanted. I offered to Louis to envision moving through our history within the dance; he said exactly right! We agreed on how we were going to approach the performance. It was only to be 30 seconds but those 30 seconds turned out to be 4 minutes.

TDR:  How was it working with Ossie Davis?

MR:    It was fantastic to work with a director in whom you can find all of the nuances necessary to bring a project to fruition. Ossie not only was an actor, he was a writer as well. He encouraged all actors to try new ways of interpreting characters. I think it was a connection that every one who worked on Cotton Comes to Harlem made. It was a really nice feeling. He had all of those creative energies to put into the film to encourage all actors to go that way or to try something else. I think the connection made by all people in Cotton Comes to Harlem was really a nice feeling.

TDK:  The scene is over, and the director moves on to block other scenes in the film. What are your thoughts?

MR:    Everyone said I did a good job so my performance affirmed something. I felt there was nothing more I could do for that character because it already was notated. Film is not like live theater. In live theater, you have a chance to revise and reinterpret your character every night of a performance.

TDR:  What did you do after Cotton Comes to Harlem?

MR:    I came back to Broadway and continued to dance. I did some assistant directing. Then, in 1972, I had a son so I did some touring but I did not travel out of the country as much. I felt my son needed structure and discipline. I worked in companies that were off-broadway so that I could keep my craft alive and, more important, continue in my discipline. I was fortunate because black theater was alive and booming then. I was very fortunate because I would swing in some of the shows I was cast in.

TDR:  Define ‘Swing’ …

MR:    To ‘swing’ means to learn more than one role. Those actors who could swing were treasures because not everyone can do that. It’s different from being an understudy whereby you learn one role only. So, for instance, in some shows, I would learn all of the female parts so if something happened, I could be in costume and go on stage and play that part.

TDR:  Among other projects, you went on to work in Funny Lady with Barbra Streisand in 1975.

MR:    I had finished [the musical revue] Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. I took over Hope Clarke’s part in that production, and toured with the show in Canada and San Francisco. Herbie Ross called me to do Funny Lady because I had worked with him in 1963 at the Spoleto Festival [Italy]. Herbie Ross remembered me.

TDR:  What was your experience working with Barbra Streisand?

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Ben Vereen (center) and Mabel Robinson (right)

MR:    For me it was the most fun to dance and sing with both Streisand and Ben Vereen. The quality of the [Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie] routine was sort of Ragtime-ish, and it gave me a chance to do a variety of styles. We were kind of Ross’s skeleton crew which took the edge off and gave you a feeling of importance and leadership during the project.

TDR:  You played a munchkin in The Wiz with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in 1978—two very different movies from those produced during blaxploitation. Discuss your experiences on the set of these movies.

MR:    Well, Funny Lady was a mixed cast; the stars were mixed, too. The Wiz caught on. Sidney Lumet, a white director, signed on to direct the movie with Diana Ross as its lead. This production gave me the chance to explore my knowledge as a choreographer as I worked on big group production numbers. I was assistant choreographer in that movie and responsible for the choreography performed by Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Ted Ross; I would learn their routines. Louis Johnson and I had to be in contact with all of the stars, the dancers, and the models.

TDR:  What are some of your thoughts on the entertainment industry today?

 MR:    I strongly believe that we must keep Black Theater going! Collaborations in theater are so important. If we can just think about opening ourselves up to the possibilities, there will be a great future for the arts. I am glad to see that the young people are so free and doing what they do and how they do; however, I wish that they would take the time to see where it came from. Some do.

TDR: So history plays an important role in theater …

MR:    Those who do not take time to look at the history fall short. I believe that if you just research where you came from–even though you did not come of age during that time– you can learn. I am trusting that there are enough of young people who will understand the history of their art to get a full picture of what is happening politically in the arts; to gain a sense of how things connect. I try to teach my students that, and there are about six of them who are writing their own scripts and doing the big productions.

TDR:  Why did you decide to become an artistic director and instructor?

MR:    First thing, the body starts to break down. Personally, I became limited as a dancer and, on top of that, I had to consider what was necessary for my son and me. Also, I had to find a way to continue to hone my craft. What is more, there were challenges to living in New York City. So, I moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to work for Twin City Stage Theater; I started the musical theater department. I went into churches and universities and found so much talent to cast! As I worked with these individuals, I realized that I just wanted to direct and choreograph. In 2007, Larry [Leon Hamlin, the Artistic Director] passed away, and the board asked if I would assume the role at the North Carolina Black Repertory Company.

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TDR:  Now, you have retired! Why?

MR:    As far as my retirement, it is my 77th birthday present to myself. If I couldn’t do things that I have been trying to catch up on because I didn’t have enough time … commitments at work require me to be there all time, and I feel obligated to carry them out. I try to respond and help the community out as much as possible.

TDR:  Do you have some projects in the works now?

MR:    Yes I do. I have a ballet called Mother’s Tree which is a tribute to my mother and grandmother; it really covers about 3 generations. I want to convert that into a play. It has been successful as a ballet because all of my work has a strong movement background. With that experience, I could see it as a play or an operatta; I could use spoken word. Also, at this stage of my life, I am trying to do different things. Companies have asked me to come and create some projects but I could not when I was working. My friends warn me that once people know I have retired many projects will come my way. Now, I have a choice to at least be able to tell them “I can do it. Let’s try it!” At least I am able to say I have the time …

Only Yesterday @ The Ross

Taeko in the safflower fields

Taeko in the safflower fields

If you are over 5 ft tall and 12 years of age, you may have considered or even taken part in a summer’s activity called detasseling. No frolicking on the the beach or riding the tea cups at Disneyland or touring, say, Universal studios for you. It’s off to a farm in Nebraska or in Iowa to learn the value of work in the cornfields underneath a sweltering July sun!

Meet Taeko, the main character in Academy Award nominated Isao Takahata’s animated film Only Yesterday. Taeko, a 27-year-old unmarried young woman from Tokyo is going on vacation. Rather than a trip abroad, Taeko determines to pick one of humanity’s oldest crops: fields of safflowers. This trek is not the first of her rural adventures; the vacation before, she harvested rice. Despite warnings from friends that she is not getting any younger and needs to settle down, Taeko, packs her bags and travels by train to meet and work with her second family in the countryside.

Taeko w/ Friends (5th grade Taeko upper right)

Taeko w/ Friends (5th grade Taeko upper right)

What is fascinating about Takahata’s Only Yesterday, is the feature of a universal conundrum: how to make peace with the past. Specifically, how to reconcile pain and humiliation that happened to you and that which you caused other people.

Each of us has a desire to reach into the past … to reconstruct it … to look all pretty, neat, and clean. Do not be fooled: The Past? It is a powerful phenomenon, and Takahata strongly suggests some aspects of yesteryear will follow you around as would an abandoned child until you attend to it. In her attention to only yesterday, Taeko contemplates exactly what her fifth-grade self is telling her to do.

Taeko sad over math grades

Taeko sad over math grades

Bring your Kleenex because you will be surprised how Taeko develops her own wings—right there on a colorful safflower farm.

Made 25 years ago in the legendary Studio Ghibli, Only Yesterday is making its film debut here in North America. Daisy Ridley of Star Wars fame voices the adult Taeko and Allison Fernandez dubs Taeko in the 5th-grade.

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Only Yesterday plays through May 5th at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Also showing through May 5th at the Ross are City of Gold, Hello My Name is Doris, and Miles Ahead.

Miles Ahead @ The Ross

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis

How can yours truly do justice to Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s directorial debut in the biopic of the late musician extraordinaire Miles Davis? I honestly do not know if I can pull it off.

Miles Ahead–this film … it is deep; like waaay d e e eeeep; like real down in the ocean deep. The film required two screenings just to get the breadth and scope of Cheadle’s project. He co-wrote and stars in Miles Ahead, and the film is a very rich narrative full of improvisation. If film was jazz, Miles Ahead would be it. Genius. Cheadle handles the iconic Jazz superstar with such care that we see the man—the human being—behind the music. There is no ‘I was born in narrative’; non-existent, too, is the story behind Davis’s interest in his instrument and the genre of Jazz itself.

Ewan McGregor plays Dave Brill, a journalist with Rolling Stone magazine, intent on interviewing Davis in hopes of getting the musician’s comeback story. The film is set in the late 1970s when Miles seemingly has run his course in the Jazz world. He is weary-worn, if not emotionally and artistically spent. He looks unwell and, more significant, out of sync with himself. It is obvious that a facture has occurred between him, his instrument, his music. As a result, he sets himself up in exile in his own Upper West Side apartment. His friend? cocaine, and Dave Brill arranges a drug score from a student drug dealer at Columbia University. A kind of joy ride on the Miles Davis highway of life ensues, as journalist and musician duck & dodge wicked music producers and managers after Cheadle retrieves a tape stolen from his home by one of them.

In all of his darkness, there is love. Davis’s first wife Francis, played with courage and power by Emayatzy Corinealdi, haunts him.

Miles Ahead is a daring project, and Cheadle lands where he wants to be with his subject: a story about a man … an artist who has lost his artistic center but not knowing how to go about finding out what is the matter.

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Miles Ahead plays through May 5th at The Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Also The Messenger, Su Rynard’s exploration of our deep seated connection to birds, plays through April 28 at The Ross.

Where to Invade Next @ The Ross

 

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We are in the midst of some very … how shall I say it … peculiar political times what with the current presidency nearing its end and the political hopefuls who practically are beating us over the head with reasons why they are THE perfect one to fill that post. Is it the best of times? Or the worst? Well, if you are looking for some entertainment to ease your … uhm … pain—to lift you up from news overload, do yourself a favor. Hitch up your horses to your covered wagon and ride on down to the Ross to screen Michael Moore’s newest installation Where to Invade Next. It is a documentary that ponders the thought: How to Make America great again, and, seemingly, the answers cannot be found in our own backyards—or can they?

To answer this question, Moore images that the Joint Chiefs of Staff summon him for advice after realizing that war only led to more war and the creation of subversive forces. Michael narrates, “They hadn’t won a war outright since the big one—WW2 … they felt humiliated, embarrassed … their hands were all placed in a … ahem … no fly zone.” After some thought Moore strongly recommends them to “stand down and give our troops a much deserved break. There are to be no invasions, no more using drones as wedding crashers. Instead of sending in the marines, send in me!”

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The No Fly Zone

These places of invasion are Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, namely, Finland, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, and Tunisia. Moore makes known the communal perks that each country affords its citizens, and you will be surprised to know that these benefits find root in none other than in American soil! In his interviews and conversations with residents, we are mesmerized by the amount of leisure and vacation time Italians are given. The month of August – the MONTH of August, the country practically shuts down. In an average year, he discovers, there are usually 30-35 days of paid holiday, that does not include the 12 days of paid national holidays plus 2 hour lunch breaks. Next invasion: Normandy, France in one of the best places to eat in town: the school cafeteria. You’ll have to see the film to believe the menu!

The most poignant invasion is in Iceland. In Iceland, Moore allows the voices of the country’s women to lay out a solution to peace and national caretaking of citizens. As a panel of women critique the notion of rugged individualism that the United States embraces with fervor, this panel prefers the “we” or the group. Former President Vigdis Finnbogadottir, explains, “It is my belief in women … if the world can be saved it will be women who will do that; and they do not do it with war; they do it with words!” These visions come at the end of the documentary. It is a strategic move given these political times. Think about it.

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Moore plants flag in the home of an Italian couple

Still in all, Moore reminds audiences that our country once espoused certain ideals and values that catered to the general welfare of the country’s people. The fight for the ERA, he tells us, began 8 years before Iceland elected its first female president. Moore’s trek sadly suggests, however, that the halcyon days of yore have been forgotten or simply dismissed. Where was the love? Right here in the United States. But what happened?

 

Where to Invade Next plays through March 24th at at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

 

A War @ The Ross

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“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”

~ William Tecumseh Sherman

I believe Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm would agree with Sherman’s observations of war. His drama A War is a case in point of the catch-22s every soldier faces on the frontline of the battlefield. Lindholm masterfully moves through the vein of combat as his camera closes in on the emotions of the soldier and the enemy—people military personnel have been dispatched to kill. A War is an in-depth perspective on the perils of conflict, and the film paints a vivid picture of the moral dilemmas each soldier must grapple with; and the decisions a leader determines are in the best interest of the unit. Lindholm’s A War concludes that no matter the good intent, every decision comes a consequence, and these consequences affect those associated with you. Yes, war is hell.

Company commander Claus M. Pedersen, played by Pillow Asbeek, leads men who are fighting in an Afghan province to protect local farmers and their families from attacks from the Taliban. Back in Denmark, Pedersen’s wife Maria, played by Tuva Novotny, manages the home front with their three small children; the eldest suffers separation anxiety over the absence of his father. Back in Afghanistan, Pedersen and his company have been caught in crossfire, and the commander’s is forced to make a decision for the survival of his unit. Pedersen’s call results in heavy penalties.

As would a surgeon, Lindholm, cuts deep into the body of war to dig out and dig up its complexities and to showcase how warfare affects people and their families on and off the battlefield. There are the usual suspects … you know … guns, armored tanks, landmines, grenades, injury, and death; but through the Pedersen Family … Maria, Claus, and children … Lindholm prompts audiences to be aware that at the end of every piece of artillery used in war, there are human beings, and no matter the rules of engagement, at the end of the day, they are just that: human.

A War plays through March 3 at The Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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Also opening at The Ross is Son of Saul László Nemesh’s film about a Jewish worker at the Auschwitz concentration camp looking for a rabbi to give a child a proper burial.

What would you do if a someone asked to park her vehicle in your driveway … temporarily but then stayed parked for the next 15 years? Nicholas Hytner’s film Lady in a Van explores that question. Set in London, England, the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith plays Miss Shepard, who describes herself as a “sick woman looking for a last resting place”. She camps out in Alan Bennett’s driveway, first as a favor. Of course, if someone stays over 3 days, a relationship is bound to develop. See what happens.

Lady in a Van and another film 45 Years, continue through March 3 at the Ross.

 

Janis: Little Girl Blue @ The Ross

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I remember hearing Janis Joplin for the first time, and I did not know what to make of this voice that sounded like desperation screeching across a chalkboard. When I saw publicity stills of her, I wondered why she appeared so scraggly. Humph. Unkempt. Even more bizarre, she looked young but sounded old … and … loud! Her smile, however, invited me in to know some thing about her.

Filmmaker Amy J. Berg, summons us into the world of Janis Joplin, and Berg has outdone herself in the research of her subject. Her documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue is an awe-inspiring journey into the delicate but hardwearing but complicated heart and soul of Janis Joplin, a compelling force of nature on the landscape of rock n’ roll.

Narrated by singer/songwriter Cat Power, Janis chronicles the singer’s rise to power with commentary from her colleagues and friends. There’s Big Brother and the Holding Company—the band that featured her in the 1960s; Clive Davis, Dick Cavett, Melissa Etheridge, Paul Albin, and John Cooke. The one thing they all agree on: Janis Joplin pierced the veil of the male-dominated world of rock and roll but at a great cost.

Some of us are all too familiar with Joplin’s story: the little girl blue born into a conservative family from Texas who came of age as a singer during the psychedelic times of the 60s in San Francisco, and who died from a heroin overdose at the age of 27.

Berg’s storytelling is so raw so visceral that Joplin’s love for life, and her indomitable spirit that compelled her to take it all in feels like a science fiction movie in 3d. Just as did Joplin through her music, Berg’s documentary probes the singer’s heart, and you will hear it beat when old photographs of her family appear; when her letters to her family are read; when her siblings Laura and Michael Joplin speak; and when her voice sears through the archival footage of her interviews and concerts; The tremors are all too real. Janis: Little Girl Blue is soulful in its intimacy; touching in the details rendered by those who knew her; and, brilliant in its intensity.

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Janis: Little Girl Blue plays through January 28 at The Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Youth, starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel also plays through January 28 at the Ross.

 

Ball of Confusion ~ An Interview

Richard Street, top right

Richard Street, top right

It is something to think about, really: Black women who had to assume via death the custody of legacies created by Black men who changed the course of history. We know them, and we know them well: Myrlie Evers, the late Coretta Scott King, and the late Betty Shabazz are the most beloved of these custodians. The assassin’s bullet made them young widows at a time when the nation groaned under trauma and chaos.

Cindy Street has joined this chorus of women as she assumes stewardship of the life story of her late husband Richard Street, the soulful lead singer of the most admired group in the history of music, The Temptations. Of course, Richard Street’s legacy does not reach the scale of Evers, King, and Malcolm X–those icons of the civil rights and Black Power movements; however, these venerated widows, no doubt, found some solace in Rhythm and Blues, affectionately known as R&B, the music that bolstered these movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Richard Street is part of that history.

Yes, the maintenance of legacies is something to think about, and Cindy Street provides some insight into what that must be like. In my interview with her, Ms. Street discusses her life with Richard and the meaning of his legacy to the music industry and, specifically, the significance of Richard moving from the microphone to dance on the white page to tell his story in his autobiography Ball of Confusion: My Life as a Temptin’ Temptation.

I do believe it was my man Solomon (not Burke) who said, “Of making many books there is no end.” After all, Smokey did do his book. Mary Wells and Wilson did theirs. And so did Otis (not Redding). So any ’mo of Motown might be considered entirely too much or too little “Richard” penmanship for any soul to stand. But as Marvin once upon a time so melodiously put it, “if the Spirit moves you?”
~ Richard Street

TDR: Ms. Street, audiences are all too familiar with the history Motown and The Temptations, the group Richard joined in 1971. You are the person who shared the last phase of his life. Tell us who you are, the woman who lived with the man.

CS: I am from the Philippines. I was educated there, and came to the United States in search of something different. I am an ambitious and motivated person. I aspire for success.

TDR: What did you do when you came to the United States?

CS: I am a nurse—a very caring and compassionate person. I love caring for people, and that is my passion. But what really saddened me was that with all of my skill as a nurse, I could not help Richard get well.

TDR: What happened to Richard?

CS: He got sick in 2000; he was in a lot of pain. I managed his health as best I could; I tried to make him comfortable … make him feel better.

TDR: How did you meet Richard?

CS: I met him in 1996 the year he left The Temptations in the later stage of his life. He was in his 50s. He was 8 years older than me. He was very cordial … a humble and grounded person. He had all the material things he could want being a successful singer but there was something missing, and that was a family life. He really missed that. Richard loved Las Vegas; he had always wanted to live in Vegas. So we got married at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. The wedding was like a concert.

Richard with Cindy Street and Son

Richard with Cindy Street and Son

TDR: So you marry an entertainer who belonged to a celebrated group whose history reaches long into Hitsville, U.S.A. better known as Motown. Who was Richard Street, the person?

CS: I learned a lot about Richard when I got to know him … oh, he was so handsome! He really was a homebody; he loved to cook. He treasured his privacy and he had a strong personality; he was very opinionated but very cordial … very humble … very grounded ….. Being around him I saw a confident survivor. He had a lot of respect for himself. What a professional he was. He stood out from the rest by the way he carried himself.

TDR: In his autobiography Ball of Confusion, Richard uses a variety of Biblical quotes to explain some of his circumstances growing up and while a member of The Temptations. Was he that way at home?

CS: Richard always had trust and confidence in God; he loved to quote the bible. He prayed a lot. He thanked God every day for what we had and for what we do. Every Sunday he would watch Christian television. He loved Gospel music. He would tell me, “I prayed for a woman like you; I prayed for a woman to understand me.” We enjoyed church; and we watched the Christian television and we talked about the message we heard for that day. I am a Catholic, and we enjoyed a very good spiritual connection.

TDR: How did he develop such a strong spiritual life?

CS: God touched his life. The life as a Temptation was glamorous but that was materialistic part of that life. He felt God was calling him to change and to be who he was and to get closer to him. Richard really wanted to be a responsible person as a performer and as a father.

TDR: What was your impression of Motown?

CS: I loved them! I met Berry Gordy. When my husband passed away they gave a tribute to my husband. They were all sweet; very nice. They felt like family. When we first got together, he took me to Detroit and he took me to the house, the playground the park, the diner …

“Whether you lived down in the valley or upon a hill, you knew ‘my girl’ lived in a ‘psychedelic shack.’ And just because ‘beauty’s only skin deep,’ you could care less if hers or your ‘papa was a rollin’ stone.’ Music defined the vocabulary of a Pepsi generation, and Motown had replaced Webster as the country’s lexicographer and poet laureate.”
~ Richard Street

TDR: How did you feel about the music he made?

CS: It was amazing music! I enjoyed it and I was very proud of it. I danced to it. I was a young teenager singing their Temptations songs. The music lingers on and on. Everybody knows it. For me, as a regular person, their music is very strong and powerful. That group gave meaning to the lives of people especially the baby boomers. There always is a connection somewhere in their music.

Our fans treated us like modern-day Greek gods. I mean Mt. Olympus didn’t have anything on Detroit’s Motown.
~ Richard Street

TDR: Did Richard ever give you his opinions about the popular music being made today?

CS: Well, he always said when he heard Hip Hop there is no respect in that music; there is no meaning. Our music, he would say, sent love and a lot of meaning to it. He believed his music helped people … poor and rich. It could touch people everywhere. He was very proud of that fact and proud to be a part of it.

TDR: What is the most memorable story he told you about his life?

CS: The story about how they all started in the little house in Hitsville. I asked, “how could all of these people fit into this little house?” He said it was all about quality control.

TDR: What are some of the conversations he would have with you about being a member of The Temptations?

Richard Street far right

Richard Street far right

CS: Yes, he did talk about his life with The Temptations. He enjoyed the group; it was like a family because they were all together. But there was another side of the story: being a member was a job for him to do and it made it possible for him to have everything materially he wanted–the fame, the fortune … He met everyone from all walks of life such as the president, Prince Charles. But the life of The Temptations … there were sacrifices ….

But my story is not told to impress or depress. It’s not about a biblical Job and what it is to suffer. It’s simply about a job (as in employment) of biblical proportions. If you were a young adult in the mid 1960s or ’70s, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Being a Temptation was “heavenly.”
~ Richard Street

TDR: Did Richard ever talk to you about his former wives or girlfriends?

CS: He did not want to talk about his other women. He would tell me that I was his wife and that his life was with me now in the present. They are in the past, and his present was happy with me. It would upset him if I asked about them so I learned my lesson. What mattered to Richard was his peace of mind.

“The story I’m here to tell is not about feeding the hunger for gossip. Neither is it meant to scratch the itching ear of that inquiring mind that wants to know the dirty lowdown some fifty years after the fact. If you are looking for titillation, keep on truckin’, baby. There’s no tit for tat to suck on here.”
~ Richard Street

TDR: Did you and Richard have children together?

CS: We decided not to have children because we were in our prime. We both came into the marriage with children so we had a ball on all holidays. He loved the family life—those who would love and respect him for whom he was and accept him as a regular person. When he got sick all of my children were with him.

TDR: He has 4 children but he does not mention them in the book …

CS: Whatever is in the book is what he wanted the public to know. He interacted with his children. We bought a house in Vegas; they were in Detroit, Michigan.

TDR: Richard writes his life story but passes on before it is published. Why was writing his autobiography Ball of Confusion: My Life As a Temptin’ Temptation so important to him? …

CS: It was important to him to tell his story. He said to me, “Baby, I am the only one alive who can tell the story. I want to have a closure. I need closure.” I promised him … when he passed away, I said “Papa, I promise you that book will be out.” That’s what I told him. The day after he died I called the owner of the publishing house and that’s it … it happened. The book is out.

Unfortunately, a lot of the books that have been written about the Motown era stifle the reader’s spiritual growth. Yes, there were temptations in the spiritual sense of the Word. But there were also the triumphs in the same spiritual sense that have yet to be heard.
~ Richard Street

TDR: What are you memories when you think of Richard Street?

CS: When I go got the cemetery to visit my husband I know his music lingers on through the world and to everybody. There is always THAT memory, and it is the greatest of all.

Richard Street 1942-2013 Rest in Peach

Richard Street
1942-2013
Rest in Peace

On February 27, 2013, the singer died of respiratory failure caused by emphysema after performing 45 shows in the United Kingdom. He collaborated with Gary Flanigan, on his autobiography but he would not live to see it published. Death held sway until Cindy made this promise to her husband: “I will always take care of you. I will make sure your book will be published because that is your dream.” In 2014, Ball of Confusion: My Life As a Temptin’ Temptation (with Gary Flanigan), was published by Tate publishers. Street summarized his dance on the white page as, “a passion play of biblical proportions for all who felt the spirit of music made flesh through the rhythm and the blues of the body, mind, and soul.”

Chi-Raq @ The Ross

Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata

Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata

Peace & Love … Afros & Rap … Feuds & Guns …
Young men & women
sportin’ colors
of purple and orange …
holding g r r r r u d g e s

Black mothers
shedding tears
holding posters
of the heads
of their slain
daughters & sons;

the spines of grown men
s h a t t e r e d from a bullet …
now ridin’ in wheelchairs on the concrete …

Chi-Raq

an insurance salesman
comin’ ‘round the ‘hood
confident of that signature on another policy
to cover the body of another baby boy … baby girl

What can the church give?
One thing is for sure: The undertaker
will have its due …

Put da Guns Down!
There’s blood flowin’
in the streets
in Chi-Raq

No Peace? No Piece!

Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes

Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes

Chi-Raq, the much-anticipated film by acclaimed director, Spike Lee, is powerful chaotic suspenseful raunchy bawdy and full of cussin’ n braggin’ — concern … all spoken in verse. Let me pause to give some background of the term. According to the Urban Dictionary, “Chiraq is a nickname given to Americas third largest city, Chicago . . . because there are more murders and violence that occur in Chicago than the war in Iraq.”

Chi-Raq …

The film is Lee’s adaption of the ancient Greek comedy, Lysistrata written by Aristophenes. In that play, Lysistrata convinces the women of Greece to withhold sex until peace is negotiated between Athens and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta.

In Chi-Raq, Lee sets the action in the city of Chicago’s southside, specifically in the neighborhood called Englewood. There, Lee dramatizes the everywhere presence of guns: in the club, on the street, in the house, in the bedroom, and the people who use them without caution …

Chi-Raq

Lysistrata (Parris) outlining her plan for No Peace? No Piece!

Lysistrata (Parris) outlining her plan for No Peace? No Piece!

Once a girl is hit by a bullet from a drive-by, Lysistrata, played with sass by Teyonah Parris, calls for the women in the community to shut down of sexual activity until peace is restored to the neighborhood. Nick Cannon plays Lysistrata’s boyfriend Chi-Raq, also known as Demetrius, a gun-totin’ but talented rapper who has to face his own truth and face the consequences. You will appreciate the performances by Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, and Jennifer Hudson as they speak in verse to tell the story of lives in Chi-Raq.

Chi-Raq is ambitious and flawed, but Spike Lee shines when he demonstrates that gun violence is inherited by each generation to the next.

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Chi-Raq plays through January 21st at The Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Also opening at The Ross is The Wonders, Alice Rohrwacher’s story of beekeepers living in isolation in the Tuscan countryside.

A Poem is a Naked Person @ The Ross

Leon Russell

Leon Russell

I came of age swath in the music of the 1970s–rock & roll and rhythm & blues. The Rolling Stones Kiss The Jackson Five Aerosmith Abba Foreigner The Four Tops The Temptations … ah … I could go on and on; yet, in all of my coming of age, I never heard of American musician and songwriter Leon Russell. Curious. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame notes him as being a Rock & Roll Renaissance man and a veritable superstar of the 1970s. Never heard of him; but, I did know Paul Revere & the Raiders Phil Specter Joe Cocker and the tender love song “A Song for you” sung by Ray Charles; but I did not know that Leon Russell wrote that song, and that he was a most respected and sought after session musician who worked with those groups and solo artists as well.

Les Blank’s documentary A Poem is a Naked Person brings to relief a kind of life & times of Leon Russell, the Oklahoma resident who made it big in the world of rock and roll. Blank, who died in 2013, documents Russell’s work in his studio in Oklahoma 1972-1974. The film, however, languished on the shelf for forty years due to creative differences and legalities. A Poem is a Naked Person finally receives its due thanks to Blank’s son, Harrod. To view the documentary is to witness unretouched performances that challenge our usual expectations of documentaries. They are to be slick, no matter how raw and visceral the subject matter. We anticipate interruptions from and interpretations by talking heads and/or a narrator. A Poem is a Naked Person is a flat-line of a documentary whose only intervals are footage from Russell’s concerts or practice sessions.

This is due in part because A Poem is a Naked Person reveals almost nothing about Russell, the person. As filmed, it is a documentary that requires knowledge of Russell’s socio-cultural imprint on Rock & Roll. Without that, you are searching for your own point of entry into the film. Yet, Blank’s project is a reminder that not everything will be handed to you. He pushes those of us without prior knowledge of Leon Russell to look him up, and that is exactly what I did. Have you heard Lady Blue? How about Roll Away the Stone? Listen to A Song for You. Nice!

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A Poem is a Naked Person plays through November 11 at The Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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Best of Enemies @ The Ross

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal

If you want an education on how to throw daggers at your enemy without serving jail time, then Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s film Best of Enemies is the documentary for you! Three networks: ABC NBC CBS – all fighting for ratings in the 1960s with ABC lagging behind. The Flying Nun could not save it. Batman could not rescue it. Not even the good old Doc Marcus Welby could bring it to health. And tell me just how could ABC compete with the likes of the vocal drones of Walter Cronkite on CBS or the powerhouse of the broadcast buddy team Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC? Hmmm! What’s a station to do! Well, you put together two of the most incorrigible personalities in journalism: Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley! I don’t believe the devil would have wanted to contend with these two! Buckley is dubbed by Lee Edwards as “the Saint Paul of the Conservative Movement” and whom Vidal would call a “crypto-nazi” on national television; and, there’s Vidal whom Buckley claimed to be the devil incarnate.

ABC knew it hit gold when executives put these two privileged prep school graduates together in front of a camera AND during a most tumultuous time in our nation’s history: the civil rights movement with its eye on racial issues and poverty, the Vietnam war, identity politics–oh! It was something. They hated each other; you could see it in their eyes!

Filmmakers Gordon and Neville excel in piecing together the archival footage of this moment in broadcast journalism, and they are quite attentive to the biographical sketches of each man to give the context for their appeal. Best of Enemies is a good, solid documentary. Watch and Learn!

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Best of Enemies plays through October 29 at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Also showing at The Ross through the 29th is the post-cultural revolution Chinese film Coming Home, and the Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy.

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