Brittani Minnieweather McElveen ~ The Interview

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Brittani Minnieweather McElveen. Her name stirs up the rhythm of a hip hop dance step, and a sense of distinction travels through its sound. Indeed, Brittani or “Britt” as she is called affectionately, is movingmovingmoving to the beat of her own drum—a beat that has led her from the basketball court to the center stage of the theatre.

It’s a curious progression for two reasons. First, Brittani enjoyed the thrill of the game of basketball for eight years. As an athlete, she learned strategy and how to be a team player. Curious also because as did I, Brittani comes from the same über-supportive southern community in Columbia, South Carolina. Youth were expected to excel in the vocational arts and/or go to college and, thereafter, expected to get the job with medical and dental insurance, one-week vacation (two after five years) – you know those tried and true benefits. Theatre and/or entertainment? Pshaw! No communal Elder anointed that occupation. Too unstable. Where are the benefits? Her mother, Sharon, even admitted, “All jokes aside, I was hoping she would see the light and go find a real job, and start building something of a future.”

These are tough sentiments but Brittani, with her mother’s support, managed her life stages well through discipline, focus, and training to step into her passion for theatre with a confidence grounded in her faith and, more important, love.

Want to know more about Brittani Minnieweather McElveen? Read The Interview.

What drew you to the game of basketball?

My height! Really, it all started when I was about nine years old. I played at the park, and my friends would tell me I should play basketball because of my height. So, in seventh grade, I tried out for and made the team. I played basketball year round from then until high school. When I played — from about when I was 10 years old to 18 —basketball was part of my identity as a person.

What do you like the most about the sport?

Whenever I watch a game, I always enjoy the competitive nature of it. I really appreciate how the players work as a team.The cheers, the applause, and just feeling the energy on the court … I think all of these tie into me being a team player. Plus, I see the game as a performance. Coaches push their team as a theatre director would teach me during rehearsal.

How did you grow into your own as an athlete?

As I developed on the court, I came to realize that I was a very good team player. I also felt comfortable in my own lane playing defense; I did not need to be the star because I matured into a good solid player—not a great one–but I honed my strength in the game. It worked out well.

Did you have any aspirations to play professional basketball?

No. I never thought I would play professional. By the time of my junior year in high school, I was through with basketball. In all honesty, I grew weary of it. We won some games; we lost a lot.

What were your plans after basketball?

I knew I was going to college; my mother made sure of it. I strategized how to earn a scholarship. In eighth grade, I took a couple of high school courses to get credit. Those advanced classes created in me the desire to be smart—to really go for the academics. I understood that a high GPA resulted in being in a certain percentage of your class. Also, at graduation, with a high GPA, I could wear a chord signaling academic excellence. I wanted all of those for me. So, I just did my work. I studied. My hard work paid off. I graduated from high school with a 4.1 GPA and earned a full scholarship at Wofford College [in Spartanburg, South Carolina].

Why Wofford College?

I applied to some out-of-state art schools but they offered no scholarships to cover tuition. I was happy to be accepted to Wofford because out of all of the schools I applied, Wofford stood out as one of the best schools in the southeast for academics.

Briefly sketch your first experiences/thoughts on being a college student.

I chose marketing because I wanted a practical major I believed could ensure employment after college. I have to admit, though, academics at Wofford were tough for me. I am a wiz at memorizing facts but writing papers were a challenge—it was very difficult for me my freshman year. In fact, I was put on probation and had to bring up my grades in order to keep my scholarship.

How did you turn that around?

I became good friends with Derek McElveen, a very studious guy whom I met during freshman orientation. He did not play around. We would meet and talk to each other about our dreams and goals—you know, the serious stuff. We helped each other to hone in on what we wanted to do. Sophomore year he started helping me with my papers; we studied and did homework together. College became a little easier for me because we were a focused pair.

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Brittani in Red Noses

At Wofford, you won the James R. Gross Award for Excellence in Theatre. When did theatre become your primary focus of study?

A professor by the name of Dr. Mark Ferguson, the director of Wofford Theatre, from whom I credit gaining a lot of my confidence, suggested that I double major in Theatre and Business. When I told Derek of my aspirations for acting, he encouraged me to go for them. I listened. At the end of my freshman year I joined the theatre department after audition. Needless to say, I enjoyed my time at Wofford after my freshman year. I am so fond of my junior and senior years because of my decision to change my major. My relationship with Derek was a plus. We have been married now for 5 years!

I’d rather be known as a great team player than to be known as the best one on the stage. The best one can always get a job but I want a lifetime of jobs.

You were very popular at Wofford so much that your peers voted you Homecoming Queen in 2010. What accounted for your popularity?

Well, not so much as ‘popular’ but more an acknowledgement of what I stood for. I participated in the Association for Multi-Cultural Students and Wofford Women of Color. I joined the gospel choir. I was one of twelve black young women in a class of 300. My classmates came to know me through my activist work in those groups I joined, and I joined them to address on-campus racism.

Talk more about your on-campus activism.

It was not activism in the sense of organizing protests, but activism in terms of being part of an ongoing dialogue about current issues students of color faced at Wofford. General Robert E. Lee’s portrait hangs high in a campus frat house. My freshman year, someone or a group of people hung a noose outside of a dorm. I lived in a residence hall managed by a resident assistant who is Jewish; someone painted a swastika in the hallway. Certain fraternities didn’t allow black people to come into their frat houses—stuff like that. I engaged these issues with my classmates.

What did Homecoming Queen mean for you?

I earned my crown from the student body. After my crowning, I took the crown off and thrust it at the student section. In the past, young women who belonged to a sorority or who were president of a thousand clubs won the homecoming crown. I was none of those; so my win was an important one because it signaled that the student body of Wofford voted for me. Also, being the only black young woman on the field … I represented women of color at Wofford! I cried. It meant so much to me.

When did you become interested in theatre?

It all goes back to middle school. In the eighth grade, I auditioned for and won entry into the theatre program in the Palmetto Center for the Arts, a program for gifted students. In ninth grade, I played Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie. I loved the theatre. I wanted it to be my focus at the time but had to put it to the side for sundry reasons.

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Brittani and Derek McElveen after being crowned Miss Homecoming at Wofford College 2010

Sports and Theatre carry equal weight in terms of discipline and focus for a middle/high schooler. How did you balance the two?

Well, the first year Annie ran into basketball season. I had to sit on the bench because I missed a couple of practices. After that, I worked theatre around basketball so neither one would interrupt the other. At the same time, I made sure that theatre and sports would not interfere with my studies.

What is it that you enjoy about performing?

I love the storytelling aspect. I find pleasure in moving people while I tell a story through a character who can inspire an audience as she sings and/or dances. I enjoy seeing the immediate reaction from the audience to what is being told onstage. I love the applause. Every aspect about theatre is powerful—very powerful.

How do you get into character?

I have a process. I research my character—even the play–then I determine who I’m basing the character off of. I give them mannerisms and a voice. Then I’ll conduct some research if it pertains to a show, especially a musical because musicals have to do with past performances and shows.

Is there a time when you don’t want to go onstage?

Of course. Just recently I was so tired and worn out during a performance. An actor can even get tired of doing the same show for weeks at a time—sometimes twice in one day.

Do you have a ritual or habit for taking care of your body or instrument?

Dance class is my go to for exercise; I’m trying to pick up yoga. I like to power walk on my days off. I make sure I get my rest—to not party so much. I go home.

A person aspiring for the arts does not have to go to college but I am a firm believer in education; it is vital. … Training teaches you the real world of this business.

The industry is rife with competition. How do you handle that aspect of it?

I try to go into any audition or rehearsal being very kind. I do not backstab. I do my best to not make anything negative so I have to check myself when I feel negative vibrations coming from a group or even in an audition. I don’t throw shade at other actors. I strongly believe good experiences and behaviors reap good relationships with theatres and other actors. My attitude towards my chosen profession is this: I’d rather be known as a great team player than to be known as the best one on the stage. The best one can always get a job but I want a lifetime of jobs.

Every actor has to deal with rejection no matter how talented or even well-connected she is. What are your strategies for managing rejection?

When I have what I believe to be a bad audition, I have to check myself. So one Monday, for example, I had submitted for an audition. I was sent all of this stuff having to do with the play; I felt overwhelmed because I had to find time to read it all even though I was performing and working. I didn’t get a callback and was not asked to read anything else. I was disappointed. That next day, though, I had to get it back together because I had another performance. I prayed the whole afternoon because I knew I had to keep pushing forward or I would not have been able to give my best to Tuesday night’s performance.

What keeps you motivated? Grounded?

My faith. In this field a good number of people do not believe in God but I want people to see me as a Christian. I want God’s light to shine through me and in my performances. I attend church and Bible study to strengthen my spiritual life. I listen to my gospel music; it encourages me. In life there are so many disappointments. I call on my faith and Christian principles when I experience those times.

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Brittani in ‘Thought’

What have you learned about the business of theatre?

It is the hardest of businesses because an audition and performance requires the actor to be so open and vulnerable. I am so sensitive – like super sensitive — so I have to take care of that part of myself.

Your job requires you to be there at certain hours. Does this pose a problem when it comes to auditions?

I have made so many sacrifices for my art because I had jobs that had nothing to do with my art. Now, any job I take needs to be one where personnel understands that I am a performer first and everything else second. Right now I work with other aspiring actors; so, when I have an audition, they can cover for me as can I for them.

Does your profession interfere with your marriage and vice versa?

No. Not at all. Derek and I uplifted each other during college, and we continue to do the same during this journey. I am so blessed to have him on my team. I have to say he is satisfied in his own career as a pharmacist so he’s not like ‘you’re not paying attention to me’. Some people assume that I just can do what I want to without responsibility because of Derek’s profession. That is so not true. I make sure to make my own contributions to our household; I work. After the death of my father, my mother raised me as a single parent. I witnessed her strong work ethic; I take after her. I am not one to depend on anyone to provide for me no matter the situation. We had planned to move to Atlanta after graduation because Derek had been admitted to Mercer University. Our plans changed after his early admission into the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. So, I worked in a bridal shop in Charleston while he finished up his studies. Derek and I desire for the both of us to achieve and to meet our goals.

In your opinion, is it necessary for one who aspires to work in the entertainment industry to have a formal degree in theatre? Should she enroll in a theatre program?

A person aspiring for the arts does not have to go to college but I am a firm believer in education; it is vital. It doesn’t necessarily have to be college but you need some kind of training in the field. Training teaches you the real world of this business. There is a time commitment and a way to think about your participation in theatre. Then, an aspiring artist must realize that Broadway or film may not come as soon as s/he gets out there in the field; you may find you are practicing your craft in regional theatre or as a guest on television here and there.

You are forging a theatrical career in Atlanta and not Los Angeles or New York. Why?

We moved to Los Angeles for about a month and found out we are southern babies! We love the south. Atlanta always was on our radar. By the time we moved here, Atlanta had grown into a vibrant artistic hub for theatre and film. The Alliance Theatre originated The Color Purple, and Bring It On went to Broadway. Other theatres stepped up their game.

It has been the last few years that I understand. She is an artist; this is her passion. I have to support her. I do.

~ Sharon Dreher Minnieweather, mother

What advice would you give to someone who wants to venture into a career in theatre?

Well, I look to Taraji P. Henson as a role model … as a light … She got started in the late 1990s and had her break out role in 2001 in the film Baby Boy at the age of 31. If you keep at it and you keep trying it will come to you. Stick with it. Go through the ups and downs. My advice goes for anyone at any age who wants to venture into this territory. You have to really want it because it is not a pretty business. It has more downs than up so have to really want to do it.

What is the first step?

Your first step is to go to the audition of a show you don’t really know that well but have a character where you think you can relate. The second step is to take classes and learn all you can about your craft.

 How are you feeling now … right now?

Well today I feel good because I had a good audition and I had so much going on. I had workshop of new play and web series. I feel good and accomplished next week might be different but today, right now, is a good day.

 Brittani lives in Atlanta with her husband Derek. She is currently in rehearsals for play Little Shop of Horrors with Actor’s Express to open July 15. She just wrapped Thought, a film short about a woman who becomes disillusioned after the 2016 presidential election. Thought is directed by Alfred Robbins of Bottom of the Net Filmworks. Brittani also wrote Sundays at 4, a play about the dynamics of Sunday dinner with her family after church.

 

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Booker T. Mattison ~ The Interview

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Booker T. Mattison. Filmmaker. Novelist. Screenwriter. Professor. Want to know more about Mattison? Read The Interview.

TDR:    Who named you “Booker T.” and why?

BM:     My father’s best friend is named Booker T., and dad and his friends called him “BT”. They were very close. BT was killed in a car wreck; so, when I was born, he and mom gave me the name to honor his memory.

TDR:    Your parents are from South Carolina. You spent summers there. A summer’s vacation with southern relatives is a common right-of-passage for many African American children. What were your summer experiences like in contrast to living in the big city?

I am a hyper-sensory person, so I am really plugged into how things feel, taste, and smell.

BM:     Actually being on the family land in Williamston—which is considered “the country”—well, my grandfather owned a huge amount of land there. I know the history of the people to whom he sold the land … just knowing that the entire area was all owned by my grandfather—just knowing my history and having a street named for the Mattison family name gave me an incredible sense of self. The people who came before me did incredible things—even my family. It is an awesome feeling.

TDR:    Your writerly voice is impressive. Let me read the opening lines from your novels, published by Revell in 2009 and 2011 respectively.

Unsigned Hype:

Somebody’s banging on my front door and it’s rocking the house harder than the beat I’m laying down in my bedroom.

 Now, from your novel Snitch:

It’s cold tonight. So cold that if you listen hard enough, you can hear the ice that’s wedged in the cracks in the street expand and make greater fissures.

These are very visual openings. They sound. They move.

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BM:     I’m a hyper-sensory person, so I am really plugged into how things feel, taste, and smell. It gives life to my voice as an artist. You mentioned “hearing” sound in those lines, well sound is so important in how I describe experiences. While at Tisch [School of the Arts], I lived in the metropolis of New York, so I listened and watched how the city functions in the seasons.

TDR:    What contributed to your hyper-sensory perception?

BM:     It comes from being an artist and wanting to communicate with the world in any way that I can. Most of the artists I know are in tune with the senses and what is going on around them. We are aware of the affect our experiences have/had on us.

TDR:    How do you move into telling your story on the white page? What does literature do for you as a storyteller?

BM:     The dilemma of the blank page is terrifying. I do not enjoy writing—the process to get to a draft is not pleasant. This is a recent development for me that happened last spring in a creative writing class. I learned in that class, however, that it does not matter what you write, you can’t even make it great until you write it first; it doesn’t matter if it is bad … horrible.

Directing is probably … the easiest for me to do because as a director, it enables me to traffic in all of my gifts …

TDR:    As a creative writer myself, I’d like to know how do you manage the writer’s fear as you move to write on the white page?

BM:     Literature for me is fuel—knowing that when I write a product from my efforts will emerge. Really, writers have to remove the critical brain because it has no place until there is something on the white page to criticize. The rewriting … the editing … these are where and when the gems appear.

TDR:    When did stories matter to you?

BM:     I’ve always had stories in my head and worlds I wanted to shape, mold, and create. I wrote a novel when I was 9 but I did not realize it. I had characters but it was only later I was able to articulate exactly what I was doing.

TDR:    You are a novelist as well as a screenwriter as well as a filmmaker — three different media. Discuss the challenges you meet when approaching each genre. You’ve touched upon literature in the last question. Let’s continue with screenwriting …

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BM:     The goal is the same for all genres: to tell a story. The novel is a complete art form. I write, edit, and publish—there it is … it is complete–done. Notice I said “I write” because in the strictest sense it is not collaborative until you interact with an editor. As for screenwriting, it is the blueprint for the film … it’s collaborative … a team usually is involved to get that story on the screen. The story will move and morph in very different ways. Personally, it is far more difficult writing for screen than writing a novel because it is the form of writing that I have done for the least amount of time. As I keep writing screenplays, however, I am finding that I am getting better at it.

TDR:    Film …

BM:     It’s incredible to create and watch a film I have made. Directing is probably out of the three — author/screenwriter/director — the easiest for me to do because as a director, it enables me to traffic in all of my gifts: storytelling, visual, creating characters and worlds, and it gives me tools that I do not have when writing a novel or screenplay …

TDR:    Specifically, what tools?

BM:     If I want to show intimacy or a tense situation, I can use the film form called the close-up. If I want to give the audience a full range of the environment wherein my story takes place, I can pull my camera back and show depth of field which gives the expanse of a setting. I can use lighting, color, and other visual effects to enhance the images onscreen. And sound … sound is fifty percent of the movie. I can use sound to horrify and to excite; to augment and intensify the sense of sight. In other words, I can direct the audience’s emotions through sound … Being able to capture tone, mood … it’s amazing!

My work encourages and uplifts by examining dark and disturbing aspects of who we are but providing triumphant and uplifting endings that builds people up … that offers hope at the end of the day.

TDR:    The Gilded Six Bits is a short story written by Harlem Renaissance novelist Zora Neale Hurston in 1933. In 2001, you produced a film short of the same name. What drew you to Hurston?

 BM:     An African American lit course at Norfolk State; it is a rare love story from the Harlem Renaissance. I found it refreshing to read something that wasn’t dealing exclusively with racism. Had she done what all of the other Harlem Renaissance writers were doing, a degree of her uniqueness would have been lost …

TDR:    In your opinion, what made Hurston stand apart from her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries or contributed to her “degree of uniqueness” you have mentioned?

BM:     The Gilded Six Bits is a love story set in the 1930s. Typically literature from that period … the focus is on the struggle against racism and oppression in the United States; but that was not Hurston’s voice. She tells us that racism was not the only concern among African American people. Hurston was very interested in the day-to-day life of African Americans—how they lived and interacted with each other. The story, in particular, has an emphasis on the relationship between a young married African American couple living in the south. She specifically focuses on how one couple would enact forgiveness after a betrayal.

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Joe (Chad Coleman) and Missy Mae (T’Keyah Crystal Keyman) in The Gilded Six Bits

TDR:    … and what had to be forgiven … who could do it …

BM:    Exactly. Hurston takes on the power of forgiveness. People told me post-screening that a whole lot of midwives saved a whole lot of marriages. It’s Zora’s genius, really. I went back and forth through the story with calendars to figure out who fathered that baby but I realized Hurston regards love and family to be more important than betrayal.

TDR:    Were you guarded in your interpretation of the story for the screen?

BM:    I did not want to offend her fans! I plaid close attention to Zora’s voice as I read her. I wanted to “hear” her voice on the screen. At the film’s screening, I was holding my breath. Judging from the audience’s reactions, I gathered that I was true to her vision of the story and the message she wanted the audiences to take away from it.

… it doesn’t matter where you go to film school just learn the business. Learn the craft. Learn the culture–that’s equally important.

TDR:    National Black Child Development Institute recognized Unsigned Hype. To that recognition you stated, “I am called to uplift, encourage and challenge readers, but to do it in a way that is morally and ethically responsible. As a media professional, I am acutely aware of the power that media has to introduce and nurture ideas in the minds of young people. And it is these ideas that ultimately shape their worldview.” How do you see your work encouraging and uplifting your readers and viewers?

BM:     My work encourages and uplifts by examining dark and disturbing aspects of who we are but providing a triumphant and uplifting ending that builds people up … that offers up hope at the end of day …

TDR:    You earned an M.F.A. from the Tisch School of the Arts, after earning your Bachelor’s from Norfolk State University in Virginia. So you are credentialed in filmmaking. There are plenty filmmakers – successful filmmakers — who are making films without the formal college degree. How important do you deem formal education in the visual arts? Is it necessary?

BM:     No. it is not necessary. There are far too many people who are successful without the formal degree but it is helpful. Tisch has a conservatory environment, and I absolutely needed to be in a culture and setting that catered strictly to people who aspired to become filmmakers and/or already were working in the field. Formal education, I do believe, is beneficial but it is expensive! You can be so starry-eyed about a school but the financial debt has to be weighed in the decision. If you decide to go, it doesn’t matter where you go to film school just learn the business. Learn the craft. Learn the culture–that’s equally important.

Booker T. Mattison currently is Associate Professor of Film Studies at Hampton University in Virginia. For more information on Mattison visit http://www.bookertmattison.com.  

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Ryan Grovey ~ The Interview

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Ryan Grovey, MIXXEDFIT National Trainer (photo courtesy of Dee Bernal)

Ryan Grovey currently is a National Trainer for MIXXEDFIT, a popular group fitness program founded by Lori Chung out of her studio Dojo 3 in the greater Washington state area. Want to know more about Ryan Grovey? Read The Interview.

TDR: Ryan, you are living your passion as a National Trainer with MIXXEDFIT. You exude joy for the dance in each video and/or picture you post with trainees and the founder, Lori Chung. No one can miss your enthusiasm for what you do! Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk with me. Let us start with some insight into life before MIXXEDFIT. Tell us something about your parents.

RG: My mother, Patricia Yvonne Grovey, and my father Trenedy [“Trent”] Schavaz Grovey graduated from Oklahoma State. They moved to New Mexico after they married. My father, a petroleum engineer, found work in oil there. My mother stayed home for a while but she dreamed of working with children. She worked in banking but later she founded her own non-profit agency which includes four early childhood facilities that serve over 500 low-income children and their families as well.

TDR: What an impressive bio sketch of your parents; we will learn more about them later. For now, let’s move into a discussion of your passion for dance fitness.

As I danced during that demo with the MIXXEDFIT instructor, I was like OMG! This is what I need in my life! The door has opened. This is my new beginning!

RG: I’ll begin with school. In junior high I played basketball and football; I excelled in both. I knew early that academics were it, though. In 10th grade, something changed: I felt like I really wanted to do strictly academics.

TDR: What are “strictly academics”?

RG: I continued to play but I noticed I slowly was walking away from sports. I became involved in student council. I stopped playing sports altogether my senior year because I wanted to be all involved with my class. So, for instance, I was in charge of the senior prom. I worked closely with the principal. Still, I maintained a B average no matter how active I was.

TDR: You have a strong background in sports and academics yet no mention of being a dancer and even taking a dance fitness class during your high school years. When did dance fitness catch your attention?

RG: Well, my mother organized some fitness classes at her facility and I always participated in them with her. I would dance around the house. I wasn’t trained but I loved to dance! My friends would tell me all the time that I was a good dancer. I did teach a hip-hop class to young adults once but dance fitness or dance fitness as an industry … I just was not aware of an industry …

TDR: So, after high school …

RG: I enrolled in New Mexico State University. I don’t know why but during one of my trips home my mother suggested to me to take a Zumba fitness class already happening at her place of business. Let me pause for a moment to say something about my mother: She is my heart. If not for my mother, I would not be where I am today.

TDR: What a lovely homage to your mother …

RG: Thank you. She is my best friend! Well, I was home for Christmas, and I tried the Zumba classes at one of mom’s facilities. I absolutely fell in love with Zumba!

TDR: Zumba is your first intro to dance fitness after the Hip Hop class you taught?

RG: Yes. It was. I borrowed my mom’s Zumba DVD’s, and practiced the routines with my roommates when I returned to college after Christmas break. That summer, I took Zumba the whole time I was home. My mother noticed my moves. “You have a talent!” she said. She told me that I was super good, and encouraged me to become an instructor. I thought she was crazy! But she and I, along with two other staff members, registered for Zumba Instructor training held in Albuquerque. I received my certification June 2009 at the age of 19!

TDR: Did you start teaching right away after your certification in Zumba?

RG: Yes, but it was kind of sad because my father passed away in May 2009—a month before my Zumba certification. He really didn’t get to see my success! He sees it now, though!

TDR: Would he have supported this endeavor?

RG: Sure! Even though his thing was sports, my dad would have supported anything I was passionate about. He was a basketball and track star in high school in Duncan, Oklahoma. He was state champion in track and was all district in basketball and football. He enrolled me in sports camps, and he always encouraged me from the sidelines.

My goal is to change lives. For just one hour, I give my all to my students. You never know what is going on with anyone, and that’s why I teach to make a difference.

TDR: You were brought up by talented and focused parents who for certain inspired your own interests. Your mother is an entrepreneur; your father, was an athlete, an engineer, and an actor. Both parents were political activists—your mother still is politically aware. I am curious about what particular lessons you learned from them.

RG: My parents instilled in my sister and me an appreciation for discipline, practice, and hard work! My father said, “I want to make sure that you are successful”, and he did. My sister is an anesthesiologist. I opened my business at the age of 20. Mom and dad really invested in our futures and made sure to grow our confidence.

TDR: It’s your first class teaching as a Zumba instructor. How did that feel?

RG: I was so nervous!! My girlfriend was there. I was freaking out just from the nerves! That class was a success, though, and it gave me confidence to develop as an instructor and grow my business. I started expanding like crazy! I taught at a nutrition spot on a patio—pretty ghetto but I did it! I taught at all of the gyms in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I co-taught with a cheerleader from Hobbs High. I even taught it to my Kappa Sigma frats. As my reputation grew, people encouraged me to open my own studio, and I did! My grandfather and my mom supported me through everything.

TDR: How did you grow your business?

RG: Word of mouth! People felt I brought so much joy to my dancing; they loved my teaching style. My classes were packed. Before I knew it, I was in high demand in the city of Las Cruces. People told their friends! After a while, I wanted to be more than just a Zumba instructor; I wanted to go higher.

TDR: What is “higher” in the Zumba organization of instructors?

RG: The Zumba Jammer.* I applied in 2011 but I didn’t make it. Everyone was shocked. I was like ‘whatever’ because, really, I felt I needed to push harder. The second round 2013 I made it.

TDR: What contributed to your success the second time around?

RG: Well, it helped that the organization outlined exactly what they wanted to see in the audition. I was glad I made it because the training provided at the Zumba Jammer level helped me in my development as a dance fitness instructor.

TDR: You resigned as a Zumba Jammer in 2014, but in January 2015, you danced right into MIXXEDFIT. What drew you to this particular program?

RG: A Zumba instructor in one of my Jam sessions asked if I would host a MIXXEDFIT demo in Las Cruces. I made it happen. As I danced during that demo with the MIXXEDFIT instructor, I was like OMG! This is what I need in my life! The door has opened. This is my new beginning! I determined right then and there to host a MIXXEDFIT Instructor certification. I also determined that no one else but the CEO Lori Chung was going to do our certification. I personally contacted Lori, and after a lot of convincing she agreed to come.

MIXXEDFIT music uses only American Top 40 music and yesterday’s hits; we are not Asian-, Latin-, African-inspired … and our moves? Our moves are explosive! They are huge and powerful! These are the features of MIXXEDFIT that separate our program from all others.

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Ryan with MIXXED FIT founder and CEO Lori Chung

TDR: How does Lori Chung fuel your enthusiasm for MIXXEDFIT?

RG: She is people inspired! I appreciate her passion, commitment, and hard work for growing MIXXEDFIT. She personally invests in her instructors and her national trainers. She promotes our workshops through the MIXXEDFIT page. The personal development? Outstanding! Many group fitness programs do not offer this kind of attention to its instructors and trainers.

TDR: Your mother saw something in you and encouraged you to become a Zumba instructor. Lori saw something in you, and brought you on board as a MIXXEDFIT National Trainer. What affect does the belief your mother and Lori have on you?

RG: Their belief in me strengthened my own belief in myself. My mother … see … I watched the process she went through to own her early childcare business. Her determination … her discipline—all of her strength let me know I can do it too! As for Lori–Lori respected my talent. She asked me about my own vision … my own desires, and went about seeing how these could be brought about. My career as a dance fitness instructor started in MIXXEDFIT, and I know that was due to Lori personally seeing my performance, energy, and talent during the certification training. People would say to me always “Ryan you should be on those [Zumba Fitness] videos” but I never had that chance. I am in MIXXEDFIT training videos now.

TDR: Was the switch from Zumba to MIXXEDFIT a smooth one?

RG: I think so. Mom had all faith in me, yes, but she advised me to be cautious in my transition from being a Zumba Jammer to becoming a MIXXEDFIT National Trainer. She did see I had more opportunities with MIXXEDFIT that I did not have through Zumba but she understood the business side of things. Everything worked out nicely, really well.

TDR: MIXXEDFIT and Zumba are both dance fitness formats whereby the common denominator is choreographed dance. What are the particular differences?

RG: MIXXEDFIT music uses only American Top 40 music and yesterday’s hits; we are not Asian-, Latin-, African-inspired … and our moves? Our moves are explosive! They are huge and powerful! These are the features of MIXXEDFIT that separate our program from all others.

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TDR: How are you using MIXXEDFIT in the community:

RG: My goal is to change lives. For just one hour, I give my all to my students. You never know what is going on with anyone and that’s why I teach to make a difference.

TDR: What are some of your personal goals outside of MIXXEDFIT?

RG: Just to have enough of my own personal wealth where I can be free! I’m in no hurry. Eventually I will have a family with about like eight kids! My mom is like “I want a grandchild!”

But right now, I am living life to the fullest! I am living my dream … I am living Ryan!

To learn more about Ryan, visit him on Facebook and Instagram. For more information on MIXXEDFIT and its mission statement, how to become an instructor, to bring MIXXEDFIT to your city, local events, find a class, and to purchase MIXXEDFIT gear, visit http://www.mixxedfit.com. To meet the founder Lori Chung, visit www.mixxedfit.com/lori-chung.

*A Zumba Jammer (ZJ) … specializes in Zumba choreography and … provide[s] ZIN Members with new choreography routines to integrate into their Zumba classes. (Zumba.com)

 

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 …

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.”

Lynn Gentry, Poet ~ An Interview

Lynn Gentry, Poet

Lynn Gentry, Poet

[NOTE:  Lynn Gentry, who has entered his seventh year of writing for patrons, will officially retire from performance based poetry on October 7th, 2015. Gentry will now only be found writing in public spaces on very rare occasions. Instead he plans to pursue print publication opportunities, brand-new independently produced online content, and exciting collaborations that cannot yet be released to the public. For more information visit https://www.facebook.com/events/927639390660333]

On any given day on 7th Avenue and 3rd Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, you just might come across a young poet using a folding table at his “desk” pecking away on his Royal typewriter composing a poem at the request of a patron. The wait takes about … oh … say … 5 minutes. Just as his cardboard sign reads “Pick a Subject & a Price … Get a Poem” Lynn Gentry will press his fingers to the keys and voila! your poem is created on the fly! He even will read it to you. Poets earning their keep on the city’s streets as does Gentry are called buskers, or persons who entertain in a public place for donations.

Lynn’s approach to the genre of poetry hearkens to a most prolific output of work penned by poets of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Poets of that literary time period chose the genre for artistic expression because “it normally require[d] far less time to compose than prose genres such as the novel or short story. It was ideally suited to the felt immediacy of struggle […]”. The present or immediate moment conjures Lynn’s muse, and in this space, the muse summons a cadre of imaginative forces to assist Lynn as he churns out poems giving voice to matters to which the heart cannot speak. That Lynn reads his poetry fresh off his press customized for the patron signifies, still, an homage to a 1960s tradition that resonates with the “performative […] and affective sounds of a black voice […].”

Gentry reading one of his poems to a patron

Gentry reading one of his poems to a patron

As I watched a video of Lynn reading one of his poems on a sidewalk outside somewhere–his baritone voice in gentle competition with street sounds, and the wind, and snippets of “that’s so cute” from an interested passerby—I noted not only the “affective sounds of a black voice”; also, I observed the portability of poetry and how the genre, indeed, gladly obliges the present. A poem could dance behind a podium, sashay onstage, and tumble over onto the street for yet another performance, and a patron could take a hard-copy of it home! Impressive!

Any Creative, as Lynn prefers to call himself, finds inspiration from a well-spring of sources. Lynn’s parents, Charles and Sharon Gentry, encouraged their son to be the best in any endeavor he pursued. His mother, a caregiver, nourished her son’s leanings towards the creative. His father, also a poet who has published books of poetry entitled Trojan and Invincible (Tensiongentry), no doubt contributed to his son’s exploration of the power of words through poetry.

I had the opportunity to talk with Lynn Gentry about his craft. In this interview, he discusses the value of poetry, and his relationship with and access to the genre, and, his style for composing his work on the white page.

TDR: Where were you born?

LG: Torrance, California.

TDR: At what moment in time did your interest in poetry develop?

LG: It developed at an early age—6th grade, actually. My teacher encouraged me to write poetry. He assigned the class to write two poems, but up until that point I hadn’t any interest in poetry.

TDR: Do you remember your first poem?

LG: Yes, I do. “The Feather”, but it was a poem that I actually wrote to poke fun of poetry. I saw poets as these fluffy people so I made fun at the idea. In that poem, the wind is the soul of the feather and it pushes it from place to place. Well, I don’t think my teacher liked it but he did like my second poem “The Champion”. This poem is about a boxer, and the concept that when it came time to quit it took more courage to not actually take a punch. I worked with the idea of peace takes more courage than to actually go to war.

I respond to the rhythm of things. As long as I can put it in the pocket, that rhythm can work even if it is not perfect.

TDR: Were your parents receptive to your being an artist?

LG: I’ve stopped using the word “artist” to describe my work. If I need to use a word to describe me I say Creative, and the pieces I produce are My Work. The reason is I feel that art has become a sort of luxury. Many people say that art is important to them, but when I look at every city, it is the artists who are being evicted. As much as I feel for them, I also realize that people have to be paid. Artists leave their homes/families in search to find self/truth or become famous. For me I have given up on such endeavors and only wish to do my work and find a place to build my idea of a sustainable form of creativity.

But to answer the question, my dad is a poet. Really, my parents … their thoughts on art had to do with being dedicated to your desire, and to put in the work to bring it to fruition.

TDR: How did you come to a relationship with poetry?

LG: It actually came about a lot slower than anything else. I played baseball right up until high school, and that was all I wanted to do. When I got to high school, I moved about a lot. I was living in the outskirts of California’s High Desert region in an unincorporated town outside of the city limits called Marianas. It is between Apple Valley and Hesperia, California. I lived there during high school, and moved further out to Lucerne Valley. I had a lot of space, and could just run around everywhere. So, I just played with my neighbor, but I started writing a lot more. I played the guitar, and with that I began to compose these songs but didn’t know how to play them yet. After a while, I started writing songs and getting into Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Through them my poetry came … really through Bob Dylan then I got turned on to Allen Ginsberg!

TDR: What was it about Ginsberg that caught your interest?

LG: I love his philosophy and I really love his voice. When I watched the documentary on Bob Dylan I remember hearing Ginsberg talk, and it was something about the way Ginsberg delivers America. He conveyed the ‘it’, meaning the essence one puts forth whether it be the words, the rhythm, or the attitude for example. When he asks, “America when will we end the human war? Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb!” he isn’t disguising himself with poetry in a sort of way, and I determined then that is the rhythm of words and that is way it should be.

TDR: Why?

LG: I respond to the rhythm of things. As long as I can put it in the pocket, that rhythm can work even if it is not perfect. Even the philosophy … Ginsberg believed that the artist must be naked before the audience. So Ginsberg’s thinking … it brought out this raw side of poetry that I had not seen in other poets.

gentry3

TDR: You use an Olympia manual typewriter to produce your poems.

LG: I go through a lot of them … Corona … Olivetti … Underwood … Olympia … Royal …

TDR: There is a visceral closeness with your method. The sheet of paper, the tip-tak of the typewriter keys that compete with the street noise, and the final roll-off from the cylinder of the sheet with the final product–the poem. Talk about you, the poet, and the instrument you use to generate your work.

LG: With the typewriter … when I started composing on the typewriter … all of the words started opening up to me. On paper, I think through things. I play with the idea of rhymes … using syllables and counting out that way. The visual side popped out when I used the typewriter; you could see the words … [and this visual] gives you trust. At the same time I responded to the rhythmic side of the poetry for the most part, and just as well the typewriter delves right into that. I can hear something when I use the typewriter. If the typewriter is not going I know that I have lost the flow.

TDR: … and the computer?

LG: The problem with the computer … it questions your intent … spell check and grammar. A poet should stay inside of the flow. The computer disrupts the flow.

… art has become a sort of luxury. Many people say that art is important to them, but when I look at every city, it is the artists who are being evicted. As much as I feel for them, I also realize that people have to be paid.

TDR: The Poet is likened to a God–one who has direct access to the divine. Do you feel the poet has a function in today’s society? If so, what is it?

LG: In a sense the voice of the society has left. What I have found for the most part is that in the time that I have written—and I have written for everyone including judges, cops, and prisoners–what I have found is that in all of these settings I really don’t see anyone having that many answers nor power. The power of poets is that we have an access to the people. If there is any power that the poet has it is to say those things that people are not ready to say.

Gentry composing on Haight Street in San Francisco

Gentry composing on Haight Street in San Francisco

TDR: Let’s talk about place and your relationship to place as an artist. You compose poems outside in public. That’s a pretty vulnerable space not only to people but to the elements. I am asking this question because in the film clip from the film A Place of Truth, you say that people come to the San Francisco because they do not know what they want. Do you feel that there is a power in place and its e/affect on the artist and his work?

LG: Oh, definitely. So there’s San Francisco where I worked as a busker for a time. It’s a love hate relationship. I grew immensely while I was there, and I knew where the city was going. There is a freedom that can be expressed in San Francisco that cannot be expressed in the High Desert, Marianas.

While living in High Desert … before San Francisco … I had no idea of technique, and what was in me was a very kind of clay with potential but no form. I didn’t believe in my form and technique so I kept going after these in San Francisco. I finally realized, however, that there was no one in San Francisco to swat my hands nor to bear down upon me telling me what to do. So, my questions were is my real goal to become the next jazz musician or to realize my ideas? What work do I want to put out and to have more a place to actually pursue it?

The power of poets is that we have an access to the people. If there is any power that the poet has it is to say those things that people are not ready to say.

TDR: You majored in Jazz and World Music Studies at San Francisco State University and Music at Victor Valley College. Does music influence your writing style? I am thinking of Langston Hughes and how blues played a major role in his composition of poems.

LG: For the most part, I responded to lyricists than I responded to poets. For me … as I mentioned earlier … I love Ginsberg but I don’t think there is a better poet out there than Joni Mitchell. I’ve never known anyone to combine the imagery and artistry to metaphor and meaning without putting bar to where there need not be bars. I see the most purity of every kind of expression coming through her work. These pure honesties are present in Motown … Marvin Gaye … definitely Marvin Gaye. No matter what you are going to think of him, he lays out the truth. You asked me about Poets as gods well with Marvin I see that. He shows you his flaws, his nakedness … Tupac … a sort of prophet …

lynn-gentry-3-2TDR: Is there any time you do not want to write a poem?

LG: For a year and half I was out of commission. During that time … I think I had a nervous breakdown. That time was very weird because I had gotten to the point where I knew something was wrong … like where the essence of my own spirit was not there. I was awake and alive but the idea of sense. I would touch something, and that which I felt as myself left but I did not know it had gone until it came back. In the meantime, I knew something was off. Strange, though, I wrote more music at that time, and other times I knew I could write poetry but I just did not want to. The one control that I had was the knowledge that I could write any day and at any time. I knew I could make a dollar if I had to. On the other side of that coin, though, was the knowledge that I can write but I do not want to and, therefore, I will not make that dollar. It was bad because I wanted so much to feel that what had left.

TDR: How did it come back?

LG: The necessity for it to come back. My friend jumped out of a window. My girlfriend broke up with me. My grandmother died 2 weeks after that. I had to leave San Francisco for Oregon in 2009. I kept thinking, “I’m trying to keep it together but at the same time so many things are coming against me.” I was at this point just dealing with everything. I met my wife, Sarah, in 2010, and then I had a family. So Sarah was taking care of me … that brought me back. That next year we moved to the Tenderloin district in San Francisco. The housing manager kept the place together but it changed owners. I did one gig for poetry, and it took a while for me to be paid. Then I had to go to court because the new company tried to evict me. It was this sort of panic of life that kind of drew life back into me. All the while, Sarah was doing her best to take care of me, so seeing her stressed brought me back to where I needed to be.

TDR: It seems as if life as well as your work has led you to have a strong feel for the truth.

LG: Always. I have tried to find the truth of things. Poetry allows me to dig for it and to give it a voice.

Lynn Gentry writes about 20 poems per day and earns approximately $700 per week in donations—even more in the summer. “Pick a Subject and a Price … Get a Poem” customized for you or a friend or a relative. Visit lynngentry.com, click on ‘request a poem’, and Voila! your poem will arrive in the mail—well … soon as did my own. Need more information? Direct all email inquiries to info@lynngentry.com.

Note: All quotations taken from:
“The Black Arts Movement.” in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie McKay. 1st Ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996:1797.

 

Darla Davenport-Powell, doll maker ~ An Interview

Darla Davenport-Powell, Doll maker

Darla Davenport-Powell, Doll maker


In 1991, Darla Davenport-Powell created a doll and named her Niya in the full awareness of the influence that dolls have on African American children who play with them. Such is the toy’s significance that in the 1940s, African American sociologists Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark chose the doll when they conducted a test to determine the psychological effects of segregation on African American and white children.

Davenport-Powell joins a chorus of enterprising African American doll makers whose models of toy culture renew the spirit of childhood playtime and, more important, child advocacy. In this spirit, Davenport-Powell is a keeper of the doll making tradition as practiced by men and women throughout history: from the crude designs crafted by slave mothers to the papier-mâché dolls with the signature teardrop handmade by 19th century black doll maker Leo Moss.

Niya

Niya

When Davenport-Powell designed Niya, a dynamic multi-lingual doll, her creation made a place for her on the continuum of African American artistic expression. The doll maker connects with her contemporary African American doll makers, whose dolls nourish self-esteem, self-pride, and self-acceptance, including the cloth and vinyl creations by Patricia Green; the sophisticated designs of VonZetta Gant and Daisy Carr; the soft-sculptures of Patricia Coleman Cobb; the expressions of Mari Morris; and, the lush extravagant vision of Byron Lars. As are her current toy “siblings,” Niya is a doll that fosters diversity; her make and style attract collectors, parents, and children from across lines of race and ethnicity. As Niya says on her website Niyakids.com, she “spreads the message of love and cultural awareness through music, songs and languages [and] is today’s multi-cultural voice celebrating the magic of children across the globe.”

… all children deserve to see themselves in the books they read, the toys they play with, and on they shows they watch.

The Niya doll generated a robust interest through mail order, specialty shops, and trade shows. This interest led her creator to seek wider distribution. As a result, ABC’s American Inventor chose Davenport-Powell as a contestant during its 2005-2006 season; she was one of the 12 finalists who received $50,000 to advance their product to the next level. Davenport-Powell, however, did not stop at imagining Niya, the doll; in addition, she has written two children’s books, Here Comes Niya! and her latest, entitled We Are Friends, Niya’s community of interracial playmates and produced its audiobook.

I interviewed Davenport-Powell, and spoke with her about the importance of producing African American artistic cultural artifacts that uplift our children during playtime. Of particular note, we talked about her desire to move into the genre of literature and the audiobook to spread Niya’s message of diversity.

Dr. Kenneth Clark

Dr. Kenneth Clark

TDR: Why literature?
DDP: Early on I had books that opened up the world to me and allowed me to travel outside of the confines of (my hometown) Columbia, South Carolina. I would daydream about being in different places with different people in different time periods. Books allowed me to go beyond what society expected of a little black girl. I placed myself in the fiction that I read.

TDR: What was the one children’s book that really inspired you to dream and to move beyond communal boundaries?
DDR: The Little Engine That Could was my favorite. I identified with that “Little Engine” because there was something about the power of belief that resonated with me. I was encouraged early on by my parents and the people in my community to believe in myself and to be persistent in achieving my goals. I can remember repeating, “I think I can! I think I can! I think I can!” when facing many challenges.

TDR: We are familiar with the Dick and Jane books, a line of children’s literature used to teach children how to read from the 1930s through the 1970s. In the 1960s, Richard Wiley included the African American family in the series. How does We Are Friends follow in this tradition of teachable texts?
DDP: The very basic concept is about accepting one’s self (flaws and all) and celebrating the differences in others. We Are Friends teaches children and adults about the beauty of acceptance, diversity and inclusion. The book is dedicated to children who have been bullied, teased or called names. It’s like Dick and Jane in that the structure is short and simple.

Niya and her Friends model healthy self-acceptance and convey to the world the value of diversity–which is about embracing differences and similarities.

dickjane

TDR: So in what ways does the We Are Friends picture book differ?
DDP: The Dick and Jane books that I read as a child did not have friends that looked like myself. I felt left out, and lost interest very quickly. The We Are Friends picture book features a rainbow of characters of different races, ethnicities, learning styles, cultures, gender and special needs. It’s a book where children can see the humanity in characters that don’t look, talk, act, learn or think as they do. It is a lesson for adults as well.

TDR: So some children’s literature you found lacking. Were there any images on television that did not fit the bill?
DDP: Yes, absolutely. I remember the excitement of waking up early Saturday morning to watch my favorite cartoons and kid shows—Captain Kangaroo, Kukla, Fran & Ollie, Mr. Rodgers, Shari Lewis & Lamb Chop, the Mickey Mouse Club, Romper Room and others. At the end of Romper Room, for instance, I became very sad. Miss Nancy would look through her magic mirror and never call my name. Each Saturday I would sit in front of the television hoping to hear my name. I felt invisible. That made an imprint on my life, and I vowed to change the game when I became an adult. That’s why on the last page of the We Are Friends book, Niya stretches out her hand with a mirror attended by the words “and the only friend missing is you!”

TDR: As a community, what exactly does Niya and her Friends convey to the listeners, readers, and children who play with the dolls?
DDP: Niya and her Friends model healthy self-acceptance and convey to the world the value of diversity—which is about embracing differences and similarities. The book, We Are Friends encourages children to learn, to grow, and to live together. It teaches them to accept their unique individuality and to be comfortable in the skin that they are in, flaws and all. It’s a challenge because we live in a society that generally does not tolerate those who do not fit its created “norm.” Niya and her friends are tools to help children to be proud of who they are and to understand, that which makes them different, makes them special.

we are friends
TDR: Can children do this by themselves?
DDP: No! Dr. Dorothy Law Nolte, says it best in her poem, “Children Learn What They Live”: If children live with hostility, they learn to fight / If children live with acceptance, they learn to love / If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves”. Adults are conduits for teaching children respect, love, acceptance and everything else they learn—positive and negative.

TDR: You dedicate We Are Friends to “every child who has been bullied, teased or called names” yet, there are no instances of bullying in the text. In what ways would Niya and her friends handle bullying?
DDP: Bullying is not present in the storyline because my main focus is on the positive interaction between children. I so believe in that. The book, the characters, the audiobook project present a world that showcases collaboration in the production of positive and joyful outcomes. It says to the child who bullies, “I don’t have to do that because just like my classmates, I have my differences too and I want people to accept me for who I am.” So there are visuals that this particular kid notices, and he or she can figure out that Niya and her friends are not threatened by each other. They communicate, play together, work together, and have fun. The story is well illustrated.

We Are Friends encourages children to … accept their unique individuality and to be comfortable in the skin that they are in, flaws and all.

TDR: Talk about the illustrator. Every child is drawn as happy and vibrant beings.
DDP: The illustrations were done by Dynamic Designworks, Inc., the same company that designed the Niya and Friend prototypes that were on the ABC American Inventor show. The team created the illustrations from the dolls. Niya and her friends are our children, literally. It was shared midway through the project that the artist who did a great deal of work on our special needs character ‘Jake’ infused her own experience into the illustration. Her son Jake has a disability and lives life in a wheelchair. These characters are real!

TDR: I noticed while reading the book that there are no Native American nor Jewish children in Niya’s community of friends—just Asian, Caucasian, Latino, and African.
DDP: Stay tuned! We Are Friends is the first offering in the series. New friends will be introduced in the books to come. Our Native American character, Alopay will move into the neighborhood along with others. As Niya travels, she will meet new pals all around the world and her family of friends will expand. This is just the beginning.

niya1
TDR: What are some of your final thoughts?
DDR: First of all, thank you for the opportunity to share my passion and life’s work with your audience. I wish to leave readers with my belief that all children deserve to see themselves in the books they read, the toys they play with, and on they shows they watch. I want children to know that they matter and have value, and that their power is in being an ‘original’ and not a ‘carbon copy’. I want children to become voracious readers and to dream beyond boundaries—knowing that the sky has no limit.

Darla Davenport-Powell is a native of Columbia, S.C. where she and her husband currently reside. She is the founder of the I AM ENUF Foundation, a non-profit mentoring organization that equips youth with leadership skills and tools that foster positive identity development. She is presently developing a Niya and Friends animated cartoon and will soon launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to manufacture the Niya dolls. For more information on the Niya project, visit niyakids.com or contact Darla Davenport-Powell at Greaterworksllc@gmail.com.’Like’ Niya on facebook.com/niyakids or tweet us @niyakids.com.

Notes:
For full article of Darla Davenport-Powell and American Inventor go to: tinyurl.com/86fp9d8.
For more Information on The Clarks and their Dolls Test go to: Interview with Dr. Kenneth Clark, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 4, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection. These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.

Narcel Reedus ~ An Interview

Reedus

“Everybody has their thing. And everything and everybody has a story. Digging deep to find and tell that story is my thing.”

~ Narcel Reedus

… and film is the medium writer-director Narcel Reedus reaches for to tell his stories. In his feature film project One Day in June, Reedus directs his attention to Father’s Day, that one day in June when fathers are recognized as special. Be they biological, step-dad, or guardian, that third Sunday in June is designated as the time when those for whom he has cared are to offer gifts of appreciation. Just check the Hallmark card aisle. Praises range from the serious to the comical—all singing glory to that one man whom we deemed did his job right for yet another year.

Reedus is developing this project and plans to bring to the screen the conundrum of the fatherless child juggling the emotional and psychological remains of anger, shame, and guilt over the father who chose, for whatever reason, to let go of his family. As its bookend is the trek taken by one man named Russ, a musician, who finds the courage to search for the children he left behind.

Poster

Yes, Reedus reaches deep to bring to our minds those strands of life that more often than not are taken for granted or simply overlooked. His digging for the depth, however, is informed by his observations of the socio-cultural dynamics within the African American community. I spoke with the filmmaker, who talked about his love for film and how this medium is a powerful tool for storytelling. Along the way, we discussed the poignant matters of manhood and fatherhood, and their cultural import in today’s society.

TDR: Why did you choose film as your tool for storytelling?

REEDUS: My first introduction to film–certainly in my past as a child–planted the seed and facilitated my development as a storyteller later in life. I remember seeing The Learning Tree in Chicago when I was 5 or 6 years old. For sure, that experience shaped me. I watched a lot of the older black & white films that came on WGN … they held my attention.

TDR: In what ways did film inspire you to tell stories?

REEDUS: My mother and I watched films together, and what I realize now but did not then is that my mother and I were building unconsciously a foundation for the art of storytelling.

TDR: You mentioned your mother and watching films with her. I remember how my mother and I bonded over watching soap operas, affectionately known as “my stories”. Talk more about your mother and how she influenced you.

REEDUS: All in retrospect—I was the youngest of 6, a mother’s boy. My mom and father were older when they had me so I did not get the discipline my brothers and sisters got. I do remember really enjoying that experience of having my little snack and watching a movie on channel 9 on this little black and white TV with my mom. That experience certainly instilled in me an underlying beat–a foundation for filmmaking, storytelling … those sorts of things.

I anticipate communities getting together to talk about growing up without a father. I want One Day in June to be that tool or healing mechanism that enables children, mothers, and families to understand why is it difficult for fathers to step up and to be present.

TDR: The story of focus here is your feature, One Day in June that has to do with Father’s day. How was that concept developed?

REEDUS: Angela Washington and a former student of mine Ms. Pruitt were thinking of a title from a script Ms. Pruitt wrote. It needed more work, and I pushed her towards a bigger concept. We were bouncing around ideas for a movie. I thought June is the month for father’s day—that one day where we recognize fathers. Father’s Day doesn’t get the merit that mom’s day gets; but that collaboration laid the foundation for me to consider the importance in the title as it connects to Father’s Day and to the overall idea of what is a father in our society.

TDR: Your target audiences are African American males and female adults 18-35. Why not children who right now are experiencing the “remains” after a father leaves?

REEDUS: I think that in terms of me developing this story, I came up with people, with characters that I wanted to make it rich and dynamic. If this man is going to find his children, I had to place him in a time where he could do that. So how old is he? When did he start? We made him mid-50s and a horn player who performed with the popular Funk bands of the 1970s. That means that he was a teenager who traveled with band members who would trade off horn players from one concert tour to another.

TDR: I remember the funk bands, and how some of my classmates had formed their own groups…

REEDUS: In my neighborhood and around town posters for Con Funk Shun coming to town would go up; none of them printed the year, just the day and date. They reused those posters from city to city because they were on the road and he traveled a lot. They met women and had kids and thus became biological fathers.

Con Funk Shun

Con Funk Shun

TDR: … and this is where your character Russ, who is a musician, enters. What are the other threads running through this feature film about children and fatherhood?

REEDUS: Sometimes we have men who choose to not to be in their child’s life and, of course, we have men who, because of circumstances beyond their control, cannot be in the home. In the film, we had to have iconic characters to communicate these situations. For example, there is this unspoken mythology that strippers grew up without a father. Mercedes, an exotic dancer, has a father, Jamal, who is in prison. So, I asked the question through this familial set-up “What does it look like to be an exotic dancer and to have a father in prison?” Little Man is Mercedes’s son growing up without his father. By virtue of not having a father he is asked to step up and to become the man of the house … to take on this responsibility.

TDR: How do women / mothers figure into your project?

REEDUS: More recently we had a Transmedia Storytelling fundraising event. Our target audience with this film is really going to be single parent mothers—those black women who grew up without their fathers. They are the force that is going to be most interested in this. Some men certainly will gravitate towards it; others are going to be turned off by it.

TDR: To what do you attribute the resistance?

REEDUS: There is some hurt and defensiveness from men, and there is this question, “why don’t you talk about those men who ARE present in the home?” that they will ask. ….

Russ Campbell, the father (Chip Hammond)

Russ Campbell, the father (Chip Hammond)

TDR: In what ways to you see One Day In June instigating dialogue about Black fatherhood?

REEDUS: It’s going to be a movement. I anticipate communities getting together to talk about growing up without a father. I want One Day in June to be that tool or healing mechanism that enables children, mothers, and families to understand why is it difficult for fathers to step up and to be present. Once we show this on the screen where we see a man decide “I’m going to seek ways to find my children” it will create a national dialogue.

Something definitely happened to the Black male that trended from the New Negro out of black empowerment into this divide of corporate America. These trends, I believe, left some black men without a badge of honor and without a sense of being.

TDR: Why do you feel it is so difficult to ‘step up’ into that role as father?

REEDUS: I really believe that promiscuity is the new masculinity. Some men are having as many kids that their seed can produce. One Day in June can be a message to them: It is not too late to step up! I strongly feel that we need to move beyond finger pointing and the deadbeat dad syndrome. This film will answer the question, “ok how do I step up? How do I face what I have done?”

Mercedez (Ida Weldesus), granddaughter

Mercedez (Ida Weldesus), granddaughter

TDR: The “promiscuity is the new masculinity.” When do you think this happened?

REEDUS: I think the shift happened when the tangible effects of the Civil Rights movement netted visible changes in the black community in terms of housing and education. There was this attitude of taking every material advantage that economics could bring. There certainly was a swift and sharp divide. Reagonomics played the part … economics … Rap culture and its music.

TDR: In what ways to do you believe Rap culture and its music contributed to these attitudes?

Reedus: Something definitely happened to the Black male that trended from the New Negro out of black empowerment into this divide of corporate America. These trends, I believe, left some black men without a badge of honor and without a sense of being. So, they were left with a sub-culture that became glorified in Rap music. During this time “I am Bad. I have a lot of women. I have a lot of money and respect and gold chains, and I overcompensate for the lack of education, a job, or a career!” became the mantras of the day. The culture emphasized this “me” maleness, and embraced the athletic body: look how bad I am; how violent I can be; I’m a player… I’m a pimp! Blaxploitation … all of these elements moved into the 1980s and nested in Rap culture. They even are present in this present day.

Lisa (Erin Monet), youngest daughter

Lisa (Erin Monet), youngest daughter

TDR: How do women figure into this trend?

Reedus: The glorification of the idea of multiple women and masculine virility all combined together attributed to this epidemic of fatherless children … multiple children with multiple women … “These are my claims to fame, and this is the movement that I have made in my community! I don’t need the upper middle class badges of education and corporate agility to get the house, land, cars, and access to people places and things.”

Jamal (Dennis Scottbey), oldest son

Jamal (Dennis Scottbey), oldest son

TDR: One day in June obviously deals with angst, regret, and memory; how our actions through memory will hold us accountable, so we have to move to satisfy their desire to be reconciled. All of these happen that ‘one day’ in June. Talk about that moment when Russ is in a room, sitting on a bed alone with a TV dinner tray.

Reedus: “In the quietness of everything there is time to reflect on addressing my fatherless child” is the spirit of that scene. When we first opened up the movie, Russ is in his apartment with a little Hispanic boy with smudges on his face; he lives next door. There was a fire, and Russ rescued that little boy and stayed with him for the night. Later Child Protective Services picked up the boy; but that fire burned something in Russ, and sets in motion this desire to search for his own children: Chris, Lisa, Jamal, and Keisha.

TDR: So, the fire serves as a metaphor …

Reedus: Russ felt he had to stop ignoring his shame and go into the fire– the burning building of memory. The house that is burning is his shame—a shame he could not face before then. After that fire, Russ realizes he will not die; it will not kill him. He also realizes that this particular journey will be very difficult but in spite of the difficulty he has to walk that road. He has to. There is no turning back from it. There are very few times in our lives do we have those moments. We can count them on one hand.

Keisha (Vedra Grant), oldest daughter

Keisha (Vedra Grant), oldest daughter

NPR: What do you feel is the value of taking those journeys?

Reedus: There was an honor in saying “this is what I am going to do: be it going to school, get my freedom, marry, fatherhood.” It was divine because we truly believe that we had the perseverance to ride through the storm. There is something about the decision and the process that makes us who we are. Generally, we make deliberate choices about marriage or education or living arrangements. We used to be very thoughtful in making decisions about our children. We did not go back on them, either. … something to the effect of: I have decided that I am going to marry you. I am not going to change my mind. We are going to have children, and we are going to be together NO MATTER WHAT!

I am postulating now how often do we make those decisions that we do not go back on? We are living in society where we can go from Keisha, Valerie, Shenia, and back home to momma—even grandmomma–then move back in with Keisha. It is so transient! There are folks who are afraid of commitment; and, even more tragic there are men who feel living in the ‘big house’ ain’t a bad deal. I have to believe, however, that there are others out there who are going to die trying to live up to the core of who they are.

TDR: If Russ had been famous or had a solid paying gig in the city surrounded by friends, do you think Russ would have had this prompt from memory to move?

Reedus: If he were in New York in a part of the musician’s union and had a gig, I think there still would have been a fire next door; whatever he was doing there would have been a fire …

Chris (Charles Easley), youngest son

Chris (Charles Easley), youngest son

TDR: I am concerned about the character depiction of Chris – the Gay character. Why burden him with any kind of sickness? Why not a healthy gay male?

Reedus: Chris is someone who is trying to come to terms with who he is and how he is trying to live his life. He is speculative, and living off of his sexuality, his good looks, and his gayness. He is processing a bad break-up. The first place that Russ goes to is to Chris. Father and son take do take some time together which results in Chris going to rehab as he tries to get his life together.

TDR: Why not have Russ contact the mothers to get to the children?

Reedus: We did not want Russ to have to try to get through the kids through the mothers because contact would have undone completely what he is trying to do. The children are grown. The mother does not play a part in there. We do have some backstory that we are going to do on Russ … how did he get to be a horn player, his education …

TDR: Does this story of fatherhood come out of some of your experiences as a son?

Reedus: I come to One Day in June purely as an artist able to write for someone who is not me. I don’t have any children so I am not a father, nor did I not grow up without my father. I had a very solid relationship with him, so I don’t fall into those notions of what would motivate me to tell this story. If I call myself a storyteller I can tell anything. My motivation for this is not necessarily personal in terms of my life but it is personal in terms of me being a griot and understanding that this is just one of the stories in my community that needs to be told.

Film Screenings of One Day in June to be announced soon!

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