ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Nobody knows why it happened. So the narrator interviews everyone who knows [him] trying
to find out why this happened. By the time the play is over, we realize
that everybody has contributed to this murder
Books by Tom Dent
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The Legacy of the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans
Interviews with Karen-Kaia Livers and Chakula Cha Jua
By Rachel Breunlin
Arising out of the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties and early seventies, the Black Arts Movement redefined what it meant to be African American. Poets, playwrights, and artists used their mediums to convey a sense of pride in their heritage and natural beauty as they fought for liberation in this country. Within the context of this era, the Free Southern Theater (FST) began at Toogaloo University in Jackson, Mississippi. The intention of the company was to bring theater to people who had never had access to it. Thus, they originally toured in predominantly rural, Black areas of the South. In 1965, however, the FST moved to New Orleans.
Working out of a building in the Creole sector of the city, the company raised eyebrows as it defied many of the social norms: “The Movement ideas, the integration, the disrespect for social conventions in dress and behavior, left a bad taste in the mouths of New Orleans blacks, who of course did not consider themselves black,” relates Tom Dent in The Free Southern Theater by The Free Southern Theater, a documentary on the company. “Most of us lived in the French Quarter . . . the temporary and integrated living . . . attracted considerable public notoriety.”
Throughout the FST’s first year in the city, the subject of an integrated theater caused controversy inside the company as well. Many Black members felt that the company should be a completely Black theater group, a struggle arose over what direction the theater should take just as it began to permanently settle into the city. It was determined by the end of the year that the company would eventually become a black theater, and with that in mind, FST decided to move to an area of the city where they would be able to get involved in the life of the community.
FST found a building on Louisa Street in the Ninth Ward: “it was an old supermarket that had been flooded out in the horrible hurricane of September 1965.
The supermarket was located in what was generally considered the worst and most dangerous black ghetto of New Orleans. . . thus began our romance with the ghetto of Desire”. (Dent, 111)
Louis Edwards, Tom Dent Dent, Jason Berry, Lolis Eric Elie, Tom Piazza
Roscoe Orman, a black actor in the company writes about the beauty and heartache of the area in a poem:
Driving down slinky New Orleans Turns me on And makes me sad. Out in Desire Where the Jazz City funk floats over the street holes . . .All beauty in chains Rumbling deep somewhere-between-the-stomach-and-the brain Oh the day will come Out in Desire The day will come.
Seeing the many problems people faced in their neighborhood, disputes arose within the company regarding the role of the FST in the Desire community. Some people wanted to use part of their space as a community center with a library and information center on Black history while others thought that their activism was primarily through their workshops and theater productions. In the midst of all the changes, FST produced a play called Ghetto of Desire.
This play exposed the gross inequalities people living in the Desire projects faced on a daily basis. In the play, the problems getting in and out of the project due to the railroad tracks and canals that surrounded the area, the inadequate recreational facilities for kids, and the poor condition of the roads within the development came under scrutiny. When CBS decided to broadcast the play in a program called, “Look Up and Live,” the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) went up in arms, demanding its cancellation.
n a letter to Tom Dent, Allen Dowling, then the Tenet Relations Advisor of HANO, wrote that the script, “concentrates on a grossly exaggerated description of the project and its surroundings. The project is identified as a concentration camp.” (126) In the end, the program did not air in New Orleans. The Free Southern Theater, by the Free Southern Theater documents the history of the theater until 1968. Its participation in the city, however, continued for many more years.
Chakula Cha Jua, a long time actor, writer, and director of community theater in New Orleans recalls his introduction to the FST around the time the book was being written: “I came out of the Air Force in ’68 all excited about joining the FST because when I graduated from high school, I wanted to do theater, but being a little black boy in 1964, everybody said, ‘What you gonna do with theater?'”
Hesitant about the neighborhood at first, he quickly began to feel at home:
I wanted to join but I was afraid to go downtown. I lived Uptown. I grew up in the Calliope projects. But we learned later that the people downtown had heard all these crazy things about us. You know, when you’re a kid you always hear, ‘that’s the bad part of town’ but you don¹t know you’re in the ‘bad’ part of town
Chukula followed the FST when they moved to Central City, on the corner of what used to be Dryades and Erato.
The productions were free. People just walked in, the kids came back every night, they knew the lines to all the playsit was really a community thing. We had so much going on in that little raggedy building . . . we had poetry readings, we had coffee shops, we had midnight jazz that would end at seven or eight in the morning.
The FST also published a radical newspaper called The Plain Truth which raised issues pertinent to Black communities in New Orleans. City Councilman James Singleton and Oretha Castle Haley, a well known community activist, were among the frequent contributors. Unfortunately, lack of funding and the final decision by director John O’Neal forced the FST to close in the mid seventies. However, it was not the end of community theater in New Orleans.
Out of the enthusiasm for Black theater and the frustrations with funding sources, the Alliance for Community Theater, better known as ACT 1, began. Chakula explains that
there were a lot of people who were involved in FST who felt that there needed to be a support group for Black theater in New Orleans. At the time there were only three theater companies: Free Southern, Dashiki, and the Ethiopian theater company and people weren’t that interested in the administrative organization. The enthusiasm increased, however, when we started doing the festival.
Karen Kaia Livers, last year’s festival coordinator, elaborates:
The festival is seventeen years old. Most people wonder why, how when we¹re still not making money. We don¹t do art for arts sake, we do art for the sake of society, for culture, and sometimes when you grow too big, you lose that. We still go into communities and load up out cars with Ms. so and so and her grandchildren and bring them to the theater, and that¹s how its always been.
In addition to the festival, members of ACT 1, also roam the French Quarter during the Winter holidays dressed as historical characters, tour with the Black history program from January through April and work during the summer at enrichment programs for kids. The emphasis on participatory theater is rooted in African and African American cultural traditions characterized as a “call and response.”
In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiongo, a Kenyan social activist and playwright, wrote about how this form of theater actually counteracts society’s education system ,”which practices education as a process of weakening people, of making them feel they cannot do this or that-oh, it must take such brain!” by showing people that they have the ability to participate as well (Ngugi,56). In the type of theater that Ngugi advocates and that, indeed, the FST and ACT 1 promote, perfection becomes a process that the community can observe and even contribute to rather than merely watch. Kaia explains how this understanding of theater works:
In community theater, the invisible wall [between the performers and the audience] was broken a long time go. It excites us if somebody yells something from the audience, hopefully it won’t throw you totally off, but that is important. . Our kids productions are very much involved in pulling them up and bring them on stage.
While many of the same philosophies that guided Free Southern Theater continue to influence the work of performers involved in ACT 1, there have also been a number of changes. As a part of the fourth generation of performers to come out of black community theater in New Orleans, Kaia admits she was, “tired of hearing what it was like . . . I wanted to know what it was going to be like.” Her generation has been more willing to adapt to the dominant forms of media people engage themselves in these days:
There was always this battle of going to television was selling out, but that¹s when what I am- the fourth generation- said, well, I want to do this all the time, I don’t want tot have to work a nine to five doing something totally different and then later on take this up. . and now we are doing everything-television, radio, film.
In addition to working with ACT 1, Chakula and Kaia also have a number of independent projects they are working on. Since Chakula started his own company in 1985, he has performed around the city and in the public schools.
One of most well known plays he directs in Tom Dent’s play Ritual Murder, which is structured like a television documentary.
A narrator comes on stage an announces that Joe Brown Jr, a black youth from New Orleans, has committed murder, has killed his best friend in a bar room. Nobody knows why it happened. So the narrator interviews everyone who know [him] trying to find out why this happened. By the time the play is over, we realize that everybody has contributed to this murder. . . This play does more for helping understand black on black violence, or just violence, than any essay or book you’ll ever read on the subject.
He is currently teaching theater in the public schools through a program called Arts Connection. Kaia has been working on a number of projects and hopes to eventually take them on tour. “Teenage pregnancy” is an interactive theater piece Kaia developed to get her audience thinking about how they would deal with an unexpected pregnancy. She has also been working on pieces that bring to life the African American history of New Orleans.
She explains, “Madam is a piece that talks about women in New Orleans in the 1800s and how they survived and contributed to Louisiana and the different laws that prohibited women of color from doing certain things, from slaves doing certain things.” As a long term project, Kaia would like to create a bridge between community theater in the city and South Africa.
With the opening of Ashe Cultural Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (many people continue to call it Dryades), black community theater may once again find a home in Central City.Works Cited: Dent, Thomas, Richard Schechner, and Gilbert Moses, eds. The Free Southern Theater by the Free Southern Theater. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969. Ngugi, wa Thiongo. Decolonizing the Mind. New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1997.
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#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
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#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
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#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
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By Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly
I Have a Dream. When those words were spoken on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, the crowd stood, electrified, as Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the plight of African Americans to the public consciousness and firmly established himself as one of the greatest orators of all time. Behind the Dream is a thrilling, behind-the-scenes account of the weeks leading up to the great event, as told by Clarence Jones, co-writer of the speech and close confidant to King. Jones was there, on the road, collaborating with the great minds of the time, and hammering out the ideas and the speech that would shape the civil rights movement and inspire Americans for years to come. Palgrave Macmillan
Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation is a smart, insightful, enjoyable read about a momentous event in history. It is the “story behind the story” straight from Clarence Jones, the attorney, speechwriter, and close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. As I read the words on the page, I felt as if I were having an intimate conversation with the author. The book helped me to understand the humanity of Dr. King and the other organizers of the March on Washington. They were people who saw injustice and called for change. Despite FBI wiretaps and other adversity, together they undertook an enormous logistical effort in hopes that the March would be a success. Jones himself handwrote the first draft of the renowned I Have a Dream speech on a yellow legal pad, but it wasn’t until King was inspired to veer from the text that he struck a chord with the audience, delivering the right words at the right time. The I Have a Dream speech helped to elevate King from a man to a hero; this book is a reminder to all to make sure that his Dream lives on.amazon customer
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Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America.
This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”
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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 1 July 2012
Related files: Tom Dent Bio Southern Journey (Book Review) The Legacy of the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans