10 August 2006

Coming home to roost

In May I heard the Oakland Opera Theater's performance of Anthony Davis's X. Their performance space turns out to be just a short walk from BART, always a key consideration. I had never been to Oakland Opera Theater before, which is my loss, since it turns out they've done quite a few favorites of mine (4 Saints in 3 Acts, Rake's Progress -- and there was a Gertrude Stein evening and I was not informed?). I've had the CDs of X since they were released about 20 years ago, so I couldn't pass up a chance to attend the only post-premiere live performance I've ever heard of.
The previous week A and I had gone to the Cutting Ball Theater's production of Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, which was wonderful -- Cutting Ball productions always are -- kind of like a staged version of a long lyric poem, like an African-American version of the Wasteland. So she joined me again for some more Fighting of the Power. (Interestingly enough, what she heard about Malcolm X as a black girl growing up in Louisiana was not that different from what I heard about him growing up as a white boy in California -- he was a crazy radical/reverse racist/the bad guy to Dr King's good guy. But the more I hear of what he said, the more sense he makes, especially in the context of his times, which is where we're all trapped anyway.)
Being unsure where the theater was, I arrived even more insanely early than usual, and since they were late opening the doors (like 40 minutes late) I ended up standing around for about 90 minutes, which is why I always travel with a book. The company management was sweeping and finishing up the set after the previous night's poetry slam. The crowd was starting to get restless. One woman who arrived shortly after I did turned out to be the grandmother of Jason Jackson, who sang Malcolm's brother. Someone once told me as a rule of life "never criticize a black woman's hair" (though I would never criticize anyone's hair in the first place, and all the black women I know do amazing sculptural things with their hair anyway, though A cuts it very short and dyes it gold) and to that rule we can add "never make a black woman wait to see her grandson." The growing crowd was now getting extremely restless. I was not looking forward to grabbing a seat (I hate open seating) and then figuring out where the men's room was, when it was already almost starting time for the opera. I was beginning to wonder if I should write off Oakland Opera Theater but the performance changed my mind. Amazingly enough it started on time and was of outstanding quality, despite the limitations of the space (which included sauna-like heat that day).
I'm happy to report that Jackson's grandmother was justifiably proud, and Joseph Wright was superb as Malcolm. The whole cast was excellent (though I felt Darron Flagg as Elijah Muhammad was straining) and the staging was remarkably effective, given that the stage area was smaller than most high school theaters.
The opera itself is tableau-like, with perhaps a bit too much repetition from line to line, and it helps to follow it if you've seen the movie. But it's quite effective on stage and the Oakland Opera Theater, despite its discombobulation beforehand, was sharp and professional where it counted. I can only hope that someday X will provide a vehicle for black performers who are tired of a steady diet of Porgy & Bess.
Anthony Davis himself turned out to be at this performance. I almost went up to him but I always feel awkward about approaching artists, even without the additional awkwardness of the whole white-boy angle. So afterwards we slipped out where the air was much cooler, hoping our applause was sufficient thanks, though it probably isn't.

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