Arts and Entertainment
Idris Ackamoor and Kamau Bakari explore the generation gap as Cultural Odyssey steps forward at the Buriel Clay Theater.
By J.H. Tompkins
"Money ain't anything unless you got your freedom."
"I got to take care of my own."
JAZZ AND HIP -hop are the musical expression of firmly entrenched generational positions in The OG and the B-Boy, which explores the particular disconnect of recent years in black America. The struggle itself falls out in the collision between ideas and things: between a commitment to a traditional community and making one's way in a new breed of community ruled by cell phones and pagers, clothes and cars, and the hustles that buy them.
The new performance piece was created by Cultural Odyssey founder saxophonist-dancer-actor Idris Ackamoor, with additional writing by Antonio Mims. If music has played a important role in binding that community over time, the vastly different soundtrack that plays today and the controversy surrounding it capture the gulf between the two eras.
The divide has been the subject of art (and parental hand-wringing) from the Greeks to modern Hollywood; to mention it on a stage risks losing the audience. But in America, what's sometimes described as a gap is part of a larger sociocultural amnesia that swallows history as it happens. What gives this show immediacy is a real-life world of young men and women who have suffered enormous personal loss in recent years. Young black men, it is said, have become an endangered species, a tragedy that's been captured in hip-hop.
"The thing is," Ackamoor says, "with the violence, the price that people pay for not passing along knowledge is much too high. How do we save the lives of young black males? We've been talking about finding the ways to put that conversation on the stage in the name of art."
The situation inspired the piece, which started when Ackamoor approached a 19-year-old spoken word artist named Antonio Mims with the idea.
"I had to get the ideas of this generation into the piece, but put into their words," Ackamoor explains. "Because being part of the other generation, it wouldn't work."
On this day, Ackamoor and 26-year-old spoken word artist Kamau Bakari are rehearsing the piece at the Buriel Clay Theater in the Western Addition Cultural Center. Rhodessa Jones, Ackamoor's longtime partner in Cultural Odyssey, whose offices are in the center, is directing.
Ackamoor, as a street musician, is on a corner, talking to passersby, playing his horn, and snapping out rhythms on the stage with the taps on his shoes. "Standards, originals, revelations, dedications!" he calls out, and then the taps, followed by a few bright volleys on the horn, and then a furious riff.
"I ain't playin' 'cause I'm mad; I'm playin' to make you mad," he says, building off the cadence and melody of the words with the saxophone, before calling out to Jones for a line. While obliging, she suggests he add a different feel to the previous passage. Ackamoor and Bakari begin the scene again.
Cultural Odyssey has recently taken over stewardship of the 240-seat Buriel Clay built by the city during the early '70s a development that bodes well for the space. The theater had long been plagued by poor management and community infighting that stunted its ability to fulfill its mission. After a spate of recent difficulties, the city stepped in.
"Eventually," Ackamoor explains, "Cultural Odyssey got a $100,000 grant to produce a pilot season. There had been one kind of bad administration after the next, and it led to all kinds of problems. [The city] wants the center to turn around, to become a positive beacon in the community. Cultural Odyssey has been here for a long time, and we've got a good reputation. So I'm the chair of the curatorial committee. I got people involved who I knew were doing something."
The group includes Sherry Young of the African American Shakespeare Company, director-writer-actor Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe of Bay Area Contemporary Cultural Exhibitions, and Thomas Young of AfroSolo. Although individually they represent a number of styles and sensibilities, what characterizes the group is that as leaders of producing companies, they are active which ensures that the upcoming season will be busy.
It's fitting that Cultural Odyssey has shouldered the responsibility for the space: Ackamoor and Jones, together and individually, have been active and successful for many years. They caught the public's eye in the early and mid '80s with The Legend of Lily Overstreet, their two-person show about the experiences of a peep-show dancer. They turned heads by taking it into local nightclubs, where it was a long-running hit. Jones went on to found the Medea Project, a theater group based on work she was doing with incarcerated women. Its shows the Medea Project has now produced nine are an empowering mix of bluesy catharsis and angry exorcism marked by rich, real pain and humor.
The work of Cultural Odyssey founded in 1979 has become so much a part of the city's cultural fabric that it's too easy to take it for granted. It's not stretching the truth to say that without the group's efforts, life in the Bay Area would not be the same. It has brought African American art and issues to a racially diverse audience, an invaluable contribution. No matter what questions may remain in the community over the transfer of the theater to its stewardship, Cultural Odyssey's track record speaks for itself.
As the rehearsal continues, Ackamoor and Bakari trade barbs, struggling uneasily to find common ground. The sketch doesn't sugarcoat the gap it's trying to address, its depth, or the difficulty in finding solutions. In some ways, the life experiences of both men embody the attitudes they're struggling to articulate onstage.
"You're competing with a lot of stuff that's not cool," Bakari says about addressing his generation. "It's all about how you come at it, how you bring the old-school knowledge. And it's got to be made relevant. People have got to understand that these are different times and many people don't understand this. They use the same old methods. There are much harder times; people don't know if they're going to be here tomorrow, and everyone wants things now. Now, now, now! People think you need things to make you feel good. You're going to do what you've got to do to be a man. So you got people at age 14 slingin' this and that; it's all about right now."
The OG and the B-Boy works at today's problems using the small, intimate strokes that characterize the strength and weakness of addressing social issues with live theater in a country ruled by a powerful, impersonal popular culture.
"You're just looking for that one person who you can reach," Ackamoor says. " You can make a difference that way."
"I'm an old social activist," Jones adds. "This is a great opportunity for close contact, to see what we can bring to the stage. We are the mothers and fathers of this generation. You're not trapped by the past, by your mistakes or others' mistakes. You have to say things, you have to point out what you know, and it takes a long time before it comes together. You can be hard, streetwise, but sooner or later what Mom said, or that teacher it makes sense. It takes the right moment. I believe it comes together."
In some respects, the impact is irrelevant, the importance all in the trying and in the pleasures of translating the issues for the stage. Midway through the scene, Bakari unloads a volley of words and images that capture the pain and frustration of a generation whose dreams are stillborn. Ironically, without a boost from recorded beats, the sound and rhythm of his delivery is straight out of jazz; the message, however angry, insistent, and volatile is strictly hip-hop:
"Sunday praise repressed Saturday tears
and made Monday's fears a little easier to deal with
But still Jesus hasn't helped pay the rent
and he ain't got shit on Sister Shirley's son's bail."
He ends, and without a pause Jones directs Ackamoor to "play something to bring us back," and he blows a sad riff that soars out to space and comes back to a few bars of "Misty."
The aspirations of the piece are one thing, its rewards Ackamoor's dancing and playing, Bakari's imaginative wordplay are another. Come Thursday night the piece will provide an enjoyable beginning of a new era at the African American Art and Culture Complex. Sharing the bill at what Cultural Odyssey is calling "First Contact A Showcase of Young Emerging Artists" with Ackamoor and Bakari will be solo performer Oscar McFarlane, spoken word artist Aya De Leon, and Aomawa Baker, Ackamoor's daughter, an MIT graduate with a theater MFA from UCLA. Her presence will provide a very different look at the generational divide explored in OG and the B-Boy.
'First Contact A Showcase of Young Emerging Artists' runs Thurs/28-Sat/2, 8 p.m., Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton, S.F. $10-$15. (415) 292-1850.