Monday, January 16, 2012

MLK Day -- Redemption and Remembrance

Watch A Different Color Blue on PBS. See more from POV.

I spent a good deal of yesterday with an old friend, Charles Curtis Blackwell, a blind Black poet, painter, and playwright whose astonishing and powerful poetry-performance play "Is, the Color of Mississippi Mud" inaugurated our first season in our Downtown facility more than 20 years ago now.

It was a production like no other that had been attempted in this area; it's memory still reverberates among those who participated in it or saw it or heard about it, and it is still talked about in terms of awe and wonder.

Charles is not your everyday talent by any means -- as can be seen in the video above, as well as in the pages available to preview in the link to the script.
And there is so much more beyond these spare elements.

He's been through a kind of living hell more than once -- only to emerge stronger and more in tune with what I think he and I would call the Divine.

We discussed all kinds of things yesterday including how little the young, now the age our grandchildren might have been had we had any, seem to know or comprehend about the lives and the legacy of those like Dr. King who blazed such paths for the rest of us to follow in.

Charles is intimately familiar with the badder sides of the American experience -- he's lived it, not simply in the Jim Crow South (though he did) but through some of the most devastating emotional and psychological trials of modern living as well.

He is no stranger to the redemptive power of suffering, and part of why we got together yesterday was to remember some of our common experience as well as to celebrate what's coming.

He gave me a copy of his new script: "When Struggle Gave Improvisation the Blues." I'm reading it now. It's a vision of how the world was when time was, a very distinctive and characteristic Blackwell vision of the 1950's in America and the struggles of so many to build a better future. Their sacrifices, their gifts to the rest of us.

It's told in powerful poetry and jazz and dance and song and story, by a cast of eight or nine or twelve or however many are needed and want to be involved, the way Blackwell's "big pieces" always are, and it's fluid and open and deeply moving the way his works tend to be; but I don't know how it ends, as I haven't finished it yet. Something for the remainder of the day.

The idea of Redemption was always part of the mystique of Martin Luther King, Jr. The point being, of course, that the nation desperately needed redemption. So many false starts and dashed hopes, destroyed lives, absent futures due to America's Original Sin of chattel slavery and the ongoing efforts to suppress the liberties and human dignities of the slaves' descendants -- and so many others as well.

Art -- whether in performance or by some other means -- can be and often is a powerful redemptive force especially for individuals, but in the case of Martin Luther King the quest for redemption went far beyond the individual. His legacy is profound, but it is incomplete.

Over at Crooks and Liars, Richard EJ Eskow has written as extensive an examination of just how incomplete that legacy is as I've seen anywhere, and it is something I think we can all benefit from internalizing. We all have so very much farther to go to realize King's dream.

Even the worst among us seem to be moving toward the Light. I know, it seems impossible, but the signs are there. The armor of the Highest of the Mighty is cracking. They know they can't maintain the rest of creation in their thrall, for they are too frail and they know too little to pose as gods who walk among us much longer.

"Getting Past Self" (2006) by Charles Curtis Blackwell

Getting Past Self

Press Play


  1. Ah, the power of theatre. I saw the first production of "Angels in America" at the Mark Taper Forum in LA in 1992; though I'd produced theatre and dance for several years prior, I'd never seen anything quite like it. "Greek" by Steven Berkoff came close....
    I hope the new piece gets produced; let me know what you think when you've finished it.

  2. "When Struggle Gave Improvisation the Blues" is, in a word, brilliant.

    I would love to produce it, but I don't do that any more. I gave the theater thirty good years. Then... stopped.

    It was a wise and necessary decision at the time, at least I think so, and now I'm just too much of an old fart, set in my ways, to go back and pick up where we left off, though truth to tell, we do get more than a few inducements from time to time...

    There are still a few productions I would realllly like to do before shuffling off this mortal coil.

    This latest of Charles's scripts is right up there. It is an exploration of the Negro experience in 1950's during the Civil Rights struggle, and the 1960's as that struggle came to a climax and led to such triumph -- and grief. The simultaneity of of triumph and despair is a constant theme throughout the piece.

    It's told in jazz-dance-poetry-song in characteristic Blackwell style, as distinctive and identifiable as Mingus or Coltrane -- who his characters keep calling on and evoking.

    It could well be that this piece is a means for young people -- who have little idea of the Negro experience and struggle back in the day (it wasn't all Dr. Martin Luther King after all) -- to gain a visceral understanding of what their grandparents went through. The sanitized version they may pick up in school doesn't begin to touch the reality of the times.

    Part of the power of the theater is to bring a sense of that past reality into the present.

    No doubt I'll be writing a bit more on the topic. No doubt.