The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Friday, October 24, 2008

Spotlight on 40 Years of Black Theatre

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:59 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Inter Press Service (IPS), Oct 24, 2008

For decades, playwrights writing realistically about the black experience in the United States could not get their works produced, black directors didn’t get jobs, and even the most successful performers were confined to roles as servants in plays about whites.

First produced in 1975, “The First Breeze of Summer” by Leslie Lee was one of the early U.S. theatre works about black life.

Broken dreams lie behind the grit of the elderly woman at the centre of this play about the tribulations of being black and Yaya DaCosta and Leslie Uggamsfemale in the U.S. South. “Gremmar” — as her grandsons call her — raised three children by different fathers, none a husband, each offering a hope that was dashed on the rocks of racial prejudice or the sexual double standard.

Lee’s play was staged by the Negro Ensemble Company, established in New York in 1967 as a place where black theatre artists could write and act in plays about the black experience.

The NEC’s founders were actors Douglas Turner Ward and Robert Hooks, who had been in the cast of an exceptional breakthrough black play: Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Ward and Hooks with theatre manager, Gerald Krone, began putting on plays off-Broadway. One was “Day of Absence”, a reverse minstrel show, with black actors in whiteface playing whites in a small Southern town when all the blacks have mysteriously disappeared. It was a big success and led to a grant that funded their new Negro Ensemble Company.

The mission of the company would be “to present live theatre performances by and about black people to a culturally diverse audience that is often underserved by the theatrical community.” The NEC has presented 200 new plays over more than 40 years.

In 1981, Charles Fuller won a Pulitzer Prize for “A Soldier’s Play” about the murder of a black soldier on a southern Army base, and the investigation of the crime by a black army captain. Other playwrights garnered major U.S. theatre awards. Producing not only local plays, the NEC staged works by Wole Soyinka of Nigeria and Derek Walcott of Trinidad.

Lee’s play is a family drama, a common U.S. genre, but not so commonly about black families, especially in the years till the NEC began. Gremmar Edwards (Leslie Uggams) has a place of honour in the white clapboard house that is comfortable but far Family in The First Breeze of Summer, photo Richard Terminefrom elegant and which she shares with her son Milton (Keith Randolph Smith), his wife and their sons. She is the solid matriarch of the home, holding a moral compass for the working-class Philadelphia family whom we see in the 1970s.

Milton and son Nate (Brandon Birden) argue about how they should price a plastering job. Nate — who dropped out of college to heed his father’s demand to join the family business — says his dad set it too low, but Dad wants to be sure to win the bid. The younger Lou (Jason Dirden), still in high school, chafes at his father’s insistence that he work at plastering for the summer when he’d rather get a job that furthers his ambition of being a doctor or scientist. There is security and there are dreams.

In flashbacks, we see the threads of failed aspirations and broken dreams that run through their lives. It starts in the 1920s with the humiliation of a black doctor. Gremmar is the young Lucretia (Yaya Dacosta) whose lover Sam Green (Gilbert Owuor), a railway porter, defends a black doctor who had to work as a porter because black patients couldn’t pay him.

When the man dropped a passenger’s bag and is upbraided, Sam intervenes: “This man is a doctor; you ought to be carrying his bags,” he tells the furious white. Sam is fired. Though Lucretia is pregnant, Sam tells her he must leave town to seek work.

Lucretia becomes a maid. The years that follow Yaya DaCosta and Quincy Dunn-Baker, photo Richard Terminebring two more tragic affairs, one with the white son of her employers, and two more children. She almost marries Harper Edwards (John Earl Jelks), an evangelical preacher working as a miner who is about to get his own church. When he discovers the young mother he wants to wed is not a widow, he becomes distraught about her “sin”. He rapes and abandons her, and his preaching career.

But Gremmar bequeaths a truly religious soul to her family. Sunday afternoon at home presided over by Milton — the erstwhile preacher Edwards’ son — turns into an animated Bible reading and gospel singing revival meeting led by the charismatic Reverend Mosely (Harvy Blanks).

“I have walked the straight and narrow path, ignored temptation along the way,” Gremmar shouts, as in flashbacks she thinks about her lovers. There is no contradiction. Leslie Lee says the play is semi-autobiographical, inspired by his own conflicted feelings toward his grandmother, who had children by several men.

This season, New York’s Signature Theatre, which focuses on particular playwrights or groups of playwrights, is highlighting the NEC. The other works in its series will be “Home” (1979) by Samm-Art Williams, about a man who leaves his family’s farm in North Carolina in the 1950’s to seek refuge and prosperity in the North. He moves from adolescence to adulthood through the Vietnam War and Civil Rights eras.

“Zooman and the Sign” (1980) by Charles Fuller is about the effect of violence on a family and community. The family is terrorised by the violent Zooman, while the neighbours refuse to act.

Charles Weldon, a singer in “Hair” and other musicals, became an actor member of the NEC in 1970 and was named artistic director in 2004. He says that support for black theatre waned in the late 1980s — the Ronald Reagan years — when money for the arts was cut. The big white theatres had better access and money to lobby and got the bulk of the grants.

Ironically, a funding requirement for diversity had a negative effect on the NEC. Weldon said it caused the major nonprofit companies to do one black play a season, generally in February — Black History Month.

He told IPS, “The joke among black actors was if you don’t work in February, you shouldn’t be in this business. I’m sure they thought they were doing the right thing, but it took money from black theatre, which fell by the wayside. In the early 1990s, the NEC totally ran out of money.”

But white theatres doing occasional black plays didn’t end the need for the NEC, Weldon said. “The big theatres do just one black piece a season or they cast a black actor in a white role,” he explained. And they don’t provide a home to new young black writers.

Now Weldon sees a black theatre revival. The NEC belongs to a coalition of 15 black theatres in New York. Weldon said, “Plays come into my theatre every day, young writers coming out of college who give me plays.” This season at the Signature Theatre, audiences will see works that highlight the best of what U.S. black theatre has produced.

Article on IPS site.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Singer Who Defied Nigeria’s Generals

Filed under: Human Rights,Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 12:50 pm

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS) Sept 27, 2008

The scene is 1977 in Lagos, Nigeria. Film projections show people racing frantically to escape the thousand troops who have surrounded and invaded Kalakuta, the communal living space and recording studio of musician-songwriter, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Sahr Ngaujah as Fela, photo Monique Carboni

In a handful of years, Fela had become a worldwide music phenomenon and trenchant political critic of the regime. On stage, Fela, portrayed with intensity and attitude by the dynamic Sahr Ngaujah, recounts how soldiers rape and beat people in the compound and how they murder his 82-year-old mother by throwing her from a second-story window.

How could the songs of one man be deemed such a political threat that the president, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, seeks to destroy him so brutally?

“FELA!”, a stunning U.S. musical theatre piece premiering in New York, tells the story using Fela’s own radical lyrics set to the Afrobeat he created out of jazz, African rhythms, funk and reggae. The play is a stirring musical indictment of decades of misrule by Nigeria’s thuggish military dictators.Sahr Ngaujah as Fela, with dancers, photo Monique Carboni

It was written by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, who also directed and choreographed. Much of the text is authentic, coming from published interviews.

The theatrical device is Fela’s look back at his life as he performs at a final concert at his Africa Shrine club after his mother’s death. Troops are massed outside the large corrugated tin structure. A backdrop of green glass is set off by strings of red, blue and yellow lights. Drums and horns explode.

Ngaujah, a U.S. national whose father is from Sierra Leone, sometimes picks up a saxophone or trumpet to play wild, pulsating riffs. An astonishing line of dancers in brief costumes with traditional motifs do frenetic angular twists and gyrations

Sahr Ngaujah as Fela, photo Monique Carboni inspired by forms ranging from African movements to the jitterbug.

It all starts with music. Fela recalls learning about jazz in London in the early 1960s. Then in 1969, he discovers politics in Los Angeles through the work and writings of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis.

He says, “I had to get to America in order to understand what my mother had been trying to teach me all along.” His mother, Funmilayo, had been the leader of the Nigerian women’s movement in the drive for independence from Britain. When the men she fought alongside took power, they became repressive and corrupt and she opposed them.

The thieving generals and officials become the targets of Fela’s songs. “Trouble Sleep” recalls how Nigerians “Marched into the streets, drove the British out. It’s our country now.”

But he warns, “Wake up, wake up.” Because “General he live like king, while there’s no work, no food no eat. Our children starve in the streets.” The reason, the song says, is “corruption, mismanagement, stealing by government, widespread disease, brutality.”

The white western world is complicit. Fela bitingly satirises “the fair-skinned, tea-drinking guests” who moved into “Hotel Africa”. He says, “You know how it is with new guests. At first it’s kind of fun having new faces around. Looking funny. Talking funnier. But then you start noticing things going missin’. Ashtrays. Towels. Bathrobes. Petroleum, diamonds, people!”

In “International Thief Thief”, the corporate villains FELA dancers, photo by Monique Carboniand their allies are named on signs the dancers carry through the audience: De Beers, Danone, Shell, Monsanto, Chinese Petroleum, Merck, Halliburton, the WTO, the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

In “ITT/Pipeline”, he analyses the cycle of theft and corruption: “Young man graduate from school. He can’t find job, but he needs food. He breaks in markets late at night. Steals mechanic’s merchandise. Next day mechanic cannot work. Next day the taxis all break down. They say your country doesn’t work. Like rats we steal.”

And, “They got one way to pick president. Just choose one African-i man, a man with low mentality. Give him a pile of dollar bills to buy himself election here. All the generals get their bribes. That’s how we get our puppet chief.”

“Then suddenly he brings in: His friend the journalist, His friend the commissioner, His friend the permanent secretary, His friend the minister, His friend the head of state, Start start steal more money, Start start more corruption, Start start more inflation, Start start more oppression, Start start more confusion, Start start more oppression, Start start steal more money.”

He names each “international thief thief” including former presidents Sani Abacha and Obasanjo, and Moshood Abiola, who won elections in 1993 but never took office because the results were annulled.

Fela says, “We can confront these criminals, take our destiny into our own hands.” And, “Wake up Africa our time is now. Let’s turn this country upside down.”

Not surprisingly, as Fela becomes successful, he suffers increasing repression by authorities. The total of arrests will reach 200. His response is more ridicule and satire. We see him dressed as a goose-stepping general with dark glasses and a jacket with epaulets open to his bare chest over pink theatrical pants.

The “general” says: “You talk of black power, let me show you real power. If you fight us surely you will die.” The threat is torture — a stick breaking bones, a can crushing hands, a blade slashing faces, a broken bottle.”

The “general” warns again: “I know you are angry. You want to change the world. But, Fela, you are young, and inexperienced in politics. Inexperienced in the horrors of the world. You don’t know how bad things can get.”

Military ruler General Olusegun Obasanjo will not let Fela’s challenge pass, and the 1977 attack is ordered. Fela declares, “It’s a revolving door, the church and the generals, the bible and the gun… How can Obasanjo, Azikwe, Abiola, Ironisi, Guwon do what they do? Man, I went to school with Obasanjo. Our families… We grew up together. We are the same tribe.”

Fela doesn’t note it in the play, but the attacking troops fracture his skull and break his bones. “Our people torture their own” he says in “Zombie”, a song that has played all over Africa. In “Sorrow, Tears and Blood”, he calls that “their regular trademark”.

He defiantly arranges a procession with his mother’s coffin to the steps of the capitol. The dancers follow her bier with mock coffins affixed with stickers such as “no blood for oil”. After the attack, Fela goes into brief exile in Ghana, but returns, and we see him announce the founding the Movement of the People and his candidacy for president.

Projections show over 100,000 supporters at his Lagos rally. The Obasanjo government removes his name from the ballot.

Fela imagines climbing a ladder to talk with the ghost of his mother (played by Abena Koomson), who tells him, “Night will end. The light returns…Those who stand and fight must pay a price. Embrace your fate and name and shine.”

Kuti died in 1997 at age 58. A million people marched in his funeral. His songs and now this exciting political show are powerful epitaphs.

article on IPS site

Monday, October 6, 2008

Courter to leave IDT; NYSE threatens delisting; stock in free fall

Filed under: Crime & Corruption,Scoops — Tags: — Lucy Komisar @ 6:29 pm

By Lucy Komisar
Oct 6, 2008

From alleged kickbacks to Aristide to a company that’s tanking.

James Courter, the former New Jersey Republican Congressman who quit as a McCain national finance co-chair after IDT, the global telecommunications company he heads, was fined $1.3 million by the Federal Communications James CourterCommission, now has much bigger problems. IDT announced Friday that Courter will quit the company. IDT’s filing with the SEC the same day shows the company in a free fall. Its stock is tanking, and the New York Stock Exchange has threatened to delist it.

The FCC fine was first reported by the author in July. It turned out that IDT had been sending its fees to a Turks & Caicos shell company instead of to a Haiti Teleco account. A whistleblower charged kickbacks. See previous stories below.

The company said Courter would leave as CEO when his contract expires next October. In the meantime, his 2009 salary will be paid entirely in stock, which he cannot cash in till his departure. That could mean paltry pickings. IDT stock has fallen to 69 cents from more than $24 in 2004 and $1.93 in June.

The New York Stock Exchange informed the company Sept 30 that it could be delisted, because over a consecutive thirty-day trading period its average global market capitalization was below the NYSE’s $100 million requirement and because its common stock fell below $1. The company has to provide the exchange with a business plan in 45 days that demonstrates its ability to achieve compliance with the market capitalization standard within eighteen months.

The FCC fine in July was imposed for IDT’s failure to file its contract with Haiti.  IDT’s Haiti problem arose after an ex-employee, Michael Jewett, sued the company charging he was fired after refusing to agree to a kickback deal to pay off then Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Jewett’s lawyer discovered that the Haiti contract had never been filed with the FCC, a violation of commission rules. The document, which IDT was forced to make public, revealed that it had been sending its Haiti Teleco fees to a secretive company called Mont Salem in the Turks & Caicos Islands instead of to a Teleco account in Haiti.

IDT could be in for some more trouble with the FCC if a new administration decides to enforce its regulations even without the public pressure of private law suits. According to FCC responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, IDT has never filed its contracts with any of the 140 major international carriers to which it claims to supply service. This violation could bring fines of $7,000 a day for each case, but the agency has given the company a pass on obeying its rules.

Since the one contract IDT was forced to file shows money funneled to an offshore shell company, one might think the FCC would be very interested in what the company’s other contracts provide. Its lack of interest could be connected to the fact that IDT founder and chairman Howard Jonas has been a major George W. Bush financial supporter.

IDT also has problems with the IRS, which assessed it $76 million in back taxes due from 2001 to 2006, plus interest of $39.5 million. It says it’s paid $10 million. That leaves a balance that is more than its average global market capitalization.

The Komisar Scoop sought to raise these issues on IDT’s conference call for analysts and journalists today, but it was not selected to speak.

When Courter leaves in a year, Jonas will take the CEO post, which he held from 1991 until 2001. If the company is still around.

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