Thursday, February 28, 2008

Community Building

I am coming into my own as a community builder as founder and moderator of Morningside Writers Group, organizer of past English/Spanish intercambio groups in the metro NYC area, and when I used to dance barefoot in Central Park with the West African drummers and dancers.

I didn't set out to be a community organizer. This role developed organically over time because I was a frustrated artist seeking others to workshop my fiction, screenplays, and most recently personal essays and memoir chapters.

I happened onto the outdoor roller-skating and inline skating rink when the disco and R&B music floated through the trees and over the lake in Central Park one hot summer afternoon. I was taken aback by the assortment of people seemingly stuck in a time warp, dancing, wiggling, and shaking their groove thing to music from my youth made popular in the movie Roll Bounce.

I found a new home away from home among the locals and tourists armed with camcorders; and for the hours spent, I was in a different world where nothing else mattered besides the bass and treble pouring from the speakers. The organizers were good-natured, spirited, and passionate about skating. They had t-shirts, took photos, and arranged other events throughout the season.

The community welcomed anyone with a pair of skates and a desire to congregate or temporarily escape from whatever ailed them just outside the park perimeter.

The West African drum and dance circle was a similar international community that was just as welcoming and escapist. I'd never seen anything like it before in Texas. I'd only seen or heard African drumming and dancing on PBS. There was a touring company years ago, Ipi Tombi, that I was unable to see, but knew they existed. Prior to the Central Park drum circle, the only other African dance I was familiar with was Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell because of Black History Month.

Both communities subconsciously filtered into the foundation of Morningside. I wanted to create a group for various writing abilities and personality types. I wanted to create a modern-day interracial Harlem Renaissance.

The past five years have been instructive on what works in New York City. I don't know if the same would hold true in Houston, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Does it matter that New York is the understood literary capital? It shouldn't because successful writers live in other parts of the world. My goal moving forward is to create a thriving writing community of published fiction writers and produced playwrights and screenwriters.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Adventures in Filmmaking

My Portuguese roommate, Jorge, and I have been auditioning actors and interviewing potential crew members for several weeks, and it's only now that I've made time to write about the unfolding experience. I wanted to establish distance so that I could see the good and bad of what's been happening, and what might take place in the coming weeks.

Jorge and I are at different places in our respective creative careers. He's a new photographer and videographer, and I am a trained stage and film actor who made the transition to writing and editing.

We posted audition and crew ad on Craigslist, Backpage, Backstage, and in forums on, with varying degrees of success. Craigslist by far was the worst because our ads were constantly being flagged by insecure or jealous people.

We held the video auditions in our small living room, and there were times when we felt overwhelmed by the process. I was approached by a representative of an online audition service to upload our audition tapes to their server for future use by actors who'd sign a release form. I never heard back from the person, and resigned myself to the fact that it wasn't meant to be.

This is our first time producing a film. Jorge has enough faith for both of us, but I know I must dig in and rev up my faith and believe in the genuine goodness of people. We're both optimistic, but that's not enough when we're asking actors and crew to volunteer their talent, time, equipment, and skills on weekends for several months until the summer.

The story is semi-autobiographical, which in itself was unnerving as we explained the character descriptions and motivations to the actors and other interested parties. There were times when it felt all too real as actors soaked up direction and pointers that poured forth from my lips. There were times when I revised the characters and their history on the spot in an effort to distance Jorge and I from the people depicted in the script.

Jorge and I have met with a few people who say they've experience, equipment, and filmmaking expertise. We've no one else to rely upon for the time being, but are taking mental and literal notes on which personalities and procedures work best for the types of projects we'd like to produce.

There's more to learn and refine as we gear up to film promotional trailer scenes in early March. Jorge read a few books to get up to speed: The Complete Book of Scriptwriting, Film Directing - Shot by Shot, and Film Directing - Cinematic Motion.

The goal is to shoot three scenes to attract investors, producers, and additional crew members. Wish us luck!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Give Me That Old Time Religion

I grew up Southern Methodist, and was content with the weekly services absent of bass guitars, drums, or tambourines that were a staple of my cousin's Southern Baptist church.

When I was younger I thought our family went to church because we were supposed to like all good Christians.

Religion can be a confusing topic with various denominations and theologies seemingly competing and contradicting each other. To my mind, spirituality has nothing to do with religion, pomp, circumstance that takes place in most churches.

In the years I've lived in New York City, I've never formally joined a church, but was always interested in finding a regular place of worship. I don't know if it was a feeling of dissatisfaction or confusion that kept me out of organized religious ceremonies.

One Sunday morning years ago, I opted not to go to church and expected my mother would demand that get dressed and make my way to the car. She didn't. It was as simple as my saying I didn't want to go that I was allowed to remain at home. That was pivotal in my ongoing spiritual quest to question my beliefs and why I attend church.

I read scriptures and participated during Sunday morning services in various capacities because I enjoyed public speaking and was encouraged by Sunday school teachers and church personnel. When I landed in New York City, I didn't decide forgo formal church services again. By not actively pursuing a church, the decision was cast in stone.

I miss the spirituals and gospel songs of my adolescence at church and during the glee club. I yearn for inspirational and invigorating Southern-style sermons that are based on reality, not clogged in religious rhetoric or conflicting scriptures.

I've twice attended evening church service at a Midtown Manhattan church that felt more theatrical than spiritual or religious. I didn't like racing into church to get a seat.

The search for God and the strengthening (or establishing) of faith is a continuous process. There's too much information, stimuli, versions of the Bible.

I've began going to a new nondenominational, international church closer to home that's a beautiful place to behold, but the pipe organ and ceremony aren't replacements for what I seek: a meaningful church service with a message.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Black History Month

We live in a country that earmarks the shortest month of the year as Black History Month, which feels like a huge slight against generations of slaves who helped build America.

Other nationalities and minorities have designated months and parades, not in February. I understand that non-black people might have begrudgingly conceded that African Americans and other people of color deserved a special time to highlight our accomplishments.

We shouldn't have to cram the recognition of our past and present inventions, achievements, and rewards inside twenty-eight (or twenty-nine during Leap Year) days.

African Americans should be within their rights to celebrate throughout the year, parades and parties perhaps confined to living rooms, backyards, church, and state parks for family reunions.

Teachers and administrators in predominantly African American schools tend to bring out the heavy artillery for Black History Month. I remember performing or speaking every year during an assembly or at church until I transferred to a white school on the other side of town.

It wasn't until my senior year in high school that I made daily Black History Month announcements. I don't know what prevented me from stepping up during my sophomore and junior years. Actually, I do. I didn't think the suggestion would go over well with the administrators. I wasn't in the comfortable environment of my previous neighborhood or schools. I was in a school with students who drove imported sports cars and had domestics, some of which had bungalows on their property larger than my grandmother's house.

It took me two years of acclimation to step up to the microphone to inform the privileged multi-ethnic student body of the contributions of Black America. I didn't take on the role of Cultural Adviser, but it did feel good to educate the masses even for one month.

Prior to changing schools, I'd never asserted my blackness before; there was no need to make a stand prior to the first time I was called boy by someone other than an African American. I was defiant and felt temporarily out of place after school when a white student spun his hair dry the way a dog shakes itself after a bath. I hadn't felt invisible before that incident, but in that moment I knew I had to say or do something.

We still have a long way to go before there's harmony among the races. There was a series of articles in The New York Times that formed an essay collection, How Race Is Lived in America, that I'd recommend everyone read in addition to the works of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Maya Angelou, Edward P. Jones, and James Baldwin (to name a few).

It would be an amazing occurrence in the United States to have our first African American president. Barack Obama would truly make history!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Time To Heal and Reflect

A lot of time and energy is spent on being a couple, that most people forget about taking care of themselves in lieu of caring for another. It's important to share your life with family, friends, and loved ones, but not at the expense of your sanity or life.

I'm not advocating a life of isolation. Some people aren't couple material, and are able to lead healthy, rewarding, and productive lives without a significant other. Adopt a cat, dog, or exotic animal rather than deal with someone else grief.

How can I get out of bed in the morning if I'm emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausted from someone else's drama or neediness?

My granny would always say, "You don't need nobody to help you do bad, you can it by yourself." I like the simplicity in that statement. You're either helping or you're in the way.

Valentine's Day is lucrative day for chocolatiers, greeting card companies, and vacation getaways that prey upon our human guilt, jealousy, and insecurities. I'm not a total cynic, but we live in a country with a fifty percent divorce rate.

I think people need to spend more alone time before logging into, E Harmony, or any other hookup and dating website. How can I complement another, if I'm not comfortable in my own skin and where I want to be in life?

Are we so terrified to be alone that we latch onto the first available person with come hither smile? Relationships like those tend not to last, founded on weak or eventually transparent motives.

Your boyfriend shouldn't be your surrogate father, nor should your girlfriend be used as your surrogate mother. Whatever issues precede a relationship will be magnified during difficult times, family visits, and professional obligations.

Granny Grums was married to one man her entire life. They were separated by death back in 1973. Our family grew up with their relationship as a model, yet that hasn't prevented divorce in subsequent generations.

My challenge in seeking a mate is not to compare her to my granny, mother, or any of my aunts. My challenge is to try not to compensate for past mistakes, or heal wounds that I had no part in creating.

I think most of us are damaged goods in need of continuous grooming, exercising, and unconditional love. However, we must take the time to get as close to ideal as possible before casting our net into the dating and marriage sea.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Early Intentions & The Velvet Rope

When I relocated to the East Coast years ago, I had no desire or expectation to become a club kid. I moved here to see if I could make it as a stage and perhaps soap opera actor, and then eventually make my way to LA for movies and TV.

I did perform on stage (off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway), but it didn't equal the buzz of clubbing alongside celebrity models, actors, and assorted moneyed people.

"We had a special need to feel that we belong. Come with me inside my velvet rope."

I was introduced to clubbing and bypassing velvet ropes when I met Norma, an exotic, Asian-looking South American promoter at a tasting party for Johnny Walker
at a now defunct supper club, Laura Belle.

I can't recall now if I went alone, but I do remember that I met a beautiful African American actress, Echo, who wore Pippi Longstocking plaits and Western-style clothing. At some point during the night, we ended up dancing together in the center of the floor. Norma approached and introduced herself to us later that night, business card in hand, and invited us to do what we did the following week at one of her events.

I remember some of the club and lounge names from back then: Club USA, Limelight, Peggy Sue's, Supper Club, Tilt, Tatou.

Guest lists are interesting inventions because power and privilege shifts from day to night. Corporate sharks and executives were usually those opposite the velvet rope, whereas those of us without designer suits and trust funds were admitted free of charge and without delay.

It was an addictive lifestyle of our piling up in yellow cabs and traveling to several clubs at night, and having breakfast just before sunrise on certain mornings a week. We (Fitz, Sandra, Paul, Nigel, etc.) worked odd jobs and/or in retail, so it was easier to maintain our version of jet-set.

I wouldn't change much from those years of dancing alongside Beverly Johnson or Naomi Campbell while RuPaul or Lypsinka performed larger than life on stage. Nothing was remotely close to my experiences in NYC back in Houston when I visited over the years. What I liked about my temporary fabulous life was that it was an escape and an adventure.

"We had a special need to feel that we belong. Come with me inside my velvet rope."

Most of the former posse is no longer active in the NYC nightlife, now replaced by spouses, children, relocation, and careers. There was an older white man who either worked for Spy Magazine or just liked wearing a hat emblazoned with its logo. He was easily seventy-five years old ten years ago when we were clubbing. I wonder if he's still out there with a special need?

I ran into Norma a few years ago when I attended an event. She asked, "Are you still working it?"

"I'm trying," I said, and made my way to the other side of the club. I wasn't embarrassed, but seeing her did take me back a few years to the potato sack and circular slide at Club USA.

Friday, February 08, 2008

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Granny Gums' 91st Birthday

Today would have been my granny's 91st birthday. I'd like to think she's in heaven celebrating with her husband, three sons, two daughters, and two grandsons who preceded her in death. What a party that would be!

My grandfather cooked and baked from scratch, my uncle was an Army cook, and both of my aunts were versed in the kitchen. I imagine that there would be lots of food and reminiscing as they look down upon us.

I scanned the picture on the right when I was in Houston for Granny's wake and funeral in December 2007. This is the woman I remember who'd take care of her family and neighbors. She'd walked to the store for ailing or otherwise unable people without a second thought, or even a grocery list.

It seems only yesterday that I spoke to her on the phone, but it's been several months. Today's her birthday, and I intend to celebrate as if she were still alive. We were the party family, chronicled in many photographs my cousin Carl and I scanned in his living room before and after granny's going home service. I like the sound of that - going home - as some African Americans refer to death and what might follow. Kathleen Battle sings a spiritual of the same title.

Perhaps our family took it for granted that Granny Gums would always be around, sitting on the corner of the living room sofa. We have our memories, which can be unreliable, save for the dated photographs that had to be gently pried from the albums in order to be scanned.

I'm imagining a scene at Miss Joe's Café in Heaven. Granny's obviously the owner and hostess. The guests are enjoying themselves, the music (blues, jazz, bebop), and the food. Henry Q., my grandfather, and Uncle Eddie are barbecuing out back, my Aunt Mae is making potato salad, pinto beans, and cornbead, while Aunt Goldie is baking lemon glaze cakes and dinner rolls. My cousins Dwayne and Broderick are waiting tables, and my uncle "Baby" Charles is the bartender. What a wonderful party I see in my mind's eye. Deceased relatives and family friends gathered to wish Granny a happy ninety-first birthday!