Playwright Marvin X Notes on the BAM Theatre Festival at Flight Deck


Playwright's Notes on the Black Arts Movement Theatre Festival at the Flight Deck, September, 2016

Bathroom Graffiti Queen by Opal Palmer Adisa

I attended the last night of the BAM Theatre Festival, produced by Dr. Ayodele Nzinga's Lower Bottom Playaz at Oakland's Flight Deck Theatre on Broadway. On the last night, three plays were performed: Opal Palmer's Bathroom Graffiti Queen, The Toilet by Amiri Baraka and my own Flowers  for the Trashman.

Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, the Bay Area's Grand Diva of Theatre, has turned Opal Palmer Adisa's play into a neo-BAM classic with her performance of this one-woman show about a bag woman who hangs in a bathroom to give wisdom to women "lost and turned out on the way to grandmother's house" to use a phrase  from the Whisper's song. But what makes Ayodele a diva? Consider that she produced the nine plays in the festival, directed them and performed Graffiti Queen. Consider that she produced and directed the entire August Wilson cycle of plays in chronological order, the first to do so in the known world. Consider that she is  the star student of Black Arts Movement co-founder Marvin X; she has performed  and directed his plays In the Name of Love (Laney College Theatre, 1981), One Day in the Life, Recovery Theatre, San Francisco, 1996-2002) and Flowers for the Trashman. But all this is not enough to qualify her as the Bay Area's grand diva. One has to see her performance in Graffiti Queen to see the awesome power in this child of threatre. We must observe her delivery of lines, stretching words, shouts, screams, cries; her body language, movement, a choreography of the  first order. It is a pleasure to observe an actress at the top of her game, in total command of her art that she has mastered through hard work and sacrifice.

I present my notes from a previous review of Opal Palmer's play:

Opal Palmer Adisa's play Bathroom Graffiti Queen is a womanhood training rite, the feminine counterpart to Amiri Baraka's classic The Toilet which was a manhood rite on the theme of homosexuality. Opal Palmer's play deals with the myriad problems pussy can cause its owner, the woman of course. The language is befitting the bathroom or rest room--though she questions what is there to rest about? But the room is where women come to share their pain by writing on the wall and then await the Bathroom Queen's written reply or spoken to the audience while the women sit on the toilet....  The Queen, performed eloquently by Ayodele Nzingha (also director/producer) gives bits of wisdom to each woman's problem, whether it is the young girl who wonders if she should allow the boy to play with her pussy or stick his tongue in her mouth or eventually put his penis inside her, or the woman who is stalked by a man, or how should a woman deal with her period or the funky smell of yeast infection. These are the problems addressed by the Queen, herself broken from time and space in an oppressive world. Her clothing and makeup are graffiti itself, an extension of her madness since something pushed her to live in the toilet among the piss and shit of life, a victim of capitalism and slavery. Her Jamaican accent adds to the flavor of this Pan African drama.

Just as Baraka's Toilet allowed women to peer or peep inside the world of young men, the males in the audience where allowed to view the feminine private conversation and ranting. We've often wondered what women do in the restroom, why they take so long. One female just came to address the wall and pray for an answer. Thus the room became the therapy clinic for a society lacking mental health workers. The sick must heal themselves. And so the young girls turned to the elder woman for comfort even though she was broken herself, for even the doctor or priestess is a victim of pervasive white supremacy. (from the Mythology of Pussy and Dick, Marvin X.)

We are forced to conclude the BAM Theatre Festival's production of Bathroom Graffiti Queen was the best ever performance by Dr. Ayodele Nzinga. She is simply awesome with her mastery of skills in theatre.

The Toilet by Amiri Baraka

When I saw Woody King's production of the Toilet a few years ago in New York, I was impressed with Baraka's tackling the theme of homophobia among young Black men, but even more so I was impressed at seeing eleven young men on stage using their creative talents. For both reasons I wanted to see a West coast production of The Toilet. The theme of homophobia is certainly on time even though Baraka wrote the play in the early 1960s. For this reason I connected Dr. Nzinga with Baraka's widow, Amina Baraka, who gave Ayo rights to perform the Baraka catalogue of plays. I had to inform Ayodele there were eleven characters in the play, though she thought she could eliminate a few since the production was nearing performance time and she hand's cast all the characters. Eventually, she did and I must declare her production was equal to Woody King's New Federal Theatre production in New York. Again, I present my notes from a previous review:

By definition a classic is a work that withstands the test of time, fad, beyond the ephemeral. A classic theme deconstructs one or more of the eternal concerns of humanity: love, hate, life and death, or the problems of life that never seem to get solved even when the solution is quite apparent. The simple solution to hate is love, so simple we must revisit the question and solution from time to time.

Almost forty-five years ago, Amiri Baraka examined the themes of racism and homophobia in his one-act play The Toilet. The set is a high school men’s room, wherein he gathers a group of young men to decipher the meaning of love and hate. Mostly black, the young men appear to be at an urban manhood training rite. We see a myriad personalities expressing themselves in the rhythm and rhymes of the time—there are no pants sagging, no grills in teeth, but they are there seeking to discover their manhood, racial and sexual identity.

The tragedy of that time and this time is that their search for manhood and sexual identity is unorganized and haphazard, thus then and now young men must grapple with self discovery in isolated groups without mentor, elder or guide. No adult appears in The Toilet to give words of wisdom, thus the young men are adrift in their ignorance, seeking to find themselves in the midst of darkness. How ironic the setting is a high school where we assume learning is taking place, and yet learning occurs not in the classroom but the toilet. The toilet becomes the bush in African or primitive tradition, for there is terror, violence to bring transformation from hatred to love and interracial understanding.

A white boy writes a love letter to a black boy and the drama involves the resolution of this event. The white boy has crossed the racial line into the black brotherhood and suffers violence as a result—he his beaten into a pulp, bloody as a beet, half-dead when brought into The Toilet.

Gang violence is a natural happening in urban culture, senseless violence to express manhood; even sexual violence is a natural part of this oppressed society. And so the black boy is finally confronted by the white boy who loves him and the brother is physically overcome by the white boy to the chagrin of the black brotherhood. The white boy is again attacked by the toilet gang and all depart, including another white boy who had come to the defense of his white brother.

The Toilet ends with the black boy returning to embrace the white boy. Lights down.

What was Baraka trying to tell us forty-five years ago and what relevance has his message now? Since then gays and lesbians have come out of the closet, although the passage of California’s Proposition 8 denies them the right of marriage, and the gays are miffed at Blacks for supporting the proposition, although the president of the state NAACP in her role as a lobbyist opposed the bill, along with many black newspapers and several ministers who were probably paid to do so. Apparently a majority of blacks do not equate gay rights with civil rights. Are sexual rights human rights?

The question Baraka raised had to do with transcending hatred in favor of love. Proposition 8 denied gays and lesbians the right to codify their love in marriage.

Blacks are known to be sexually conservative, although they now have many children on the streets embracing the gay/lesbian lifestyle. Blacks are thus hypocritical and drowning in denial, in similar fashion to the black brothers in The Toilet who refused to consider that one of their own might have crossed the line, not only racially but sexually as well.

Flowers for the Trashman by Marvin X 

The BAM festival ended with my play Flowers for the Trashman, my first play written while an undergrad in the English/Creative writing department at San Francisco State College/now University, 1964. (continued)

Marvin X. Jackmon

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