Frank Wittow’s Legacy…Nevaina’s Dream

by Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © 2015 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

The late great actor-director-educator Frank Wittow remains one of my favorite figures in Atlanta’s rich theatre history.  His work with the late, great Georgia Allen was second to none—He placed this multi-talented Black woman in a non-servant role on an Atlanta stage in the early 1960s when the city and indeed the nation were still grappling with the idea that maybe Black folk were more than just the servants of White folk. Georgia Allen had appeared in numerous films and theatre productions throughout the nation and on the campuses of Spelman and Clark Colleges, and Wittow was wise enough to recognize Allen’s superior gifts.  He was simply a different kind of White man. There were no syrupy and useless White liberal platitudes about race relations spewing out of his mouth—he just did what he wanted to do.

Now, Allen predated Wittow’s arrival in Atlanta and she had a much longer career, and to fully honor her contributions to all of the arts and to education would require writing a tome. So, I will save that project for a later date.  Much like Allen, however, Wittow directed, trained, and mentored some of the best performers on the planet and took theatre performances into Atlanta Public Schools throughout much of his life.  He did this almost to the day he died in 2006.  One of his younger protégées had the benefit of his training…

Her name is Nevaina Rhodes—her first name is pronounced “Nih-Von-yah” like “lasagna.”  The first time I saw her perform, I did not know she had any affiliation with Wittow.  When she told me her basic philosophy about acting there was something refreshingly new about her approach to her craft, but also something rather familiar…Let me explain…

You see, when I was growing up in Atlanta, an actor, a musician, a poet, an academic, an intellectual, was simply part of the community in which we all lived.  Importantly, you had to participate in the arts and the humanities, and it did not matter if you had talent or an exceptional intellect or not.  While I adore and admire many younger performers and scholars—and by younger, I mean anyone born after the Baby Boom—I find an increasing number of them who are quite insular; they have fewer connections to each other or with the folk in the communities where they live.  Unlike the Atlanta of my childhood, in recent years I have attended far too many functions filled with musicians, actors, poets, filmmakers, and historians and I end up being the only person in the room who actually knows everybody in that room…

Well, to make a long story short, Nevaina’s conceptualization of Real Actors Workshop (RAW) makes it open to amateur and professional alike.  Her basic theory is that whether you are a professional actor or not, all of us humans act and perform in certain ways depending on the circumstances.  In other words, she insists that, we all are actors. Although she is a North Carolinian by birth, her approach feels much like the Atlanta of my youth, where the long theatre traditions on the campuses of our Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and people like Georgia Allen and Frank Wittow made certain that theatre reached who it was supposed to reach—the people. We were not a community of strangers…everybody knew everybody, which is the way it should be.

I should add that I am writing this to inform you that Nevaina is not only a dazzling performer and an amazing drama coach, but she is also a real survivor. Native Atlantans, in particular, love people with a strong work ethic and those who bounce back when things do not always go as planned.  Less than five years ago, Nevaina miraculously and fully recovered from a stroke that could have easily killed her; and she remained positive while she also endured some personal losses that probably would have destroyed some weaker souls.

Today her Real Actors Workshop (RAW) is headquartered at Dream Café, Atlanta’s first cafe and empowerment lounge, which is owned by Nevaina and her partners, Jay White and Stevie Baggs.  Dream Café‘s premise is simple.  It is designed to be a place where artists, intellectuals, young and old folk can meet and greet and talk and achieve their dreams, over coffee and healthy food.  This concept and these young owners have my support not only because it feels familiar to me, but because it feels right…and it also feels rather cyclical…

Now, I am aware that my hometown has changed.  Nothing stays the same, nor should it stay the same.  Yet, there are some core elements that we must never lose—namely, the ability to connect with each other and exchange ideas.  Not even a semblance of community can survive if we lose this ability.  So, I am proud to call Nevaina a friend. It has been a great privilege to watch her perform; and I have been encouraged by her intellect, her big smile, and her big spirit…I am also certain that Wittow (and Allen) are watching her from that place where great souls go when they leave this earth…So, in honor of them and in honor of future generations, go visit the Dream Café, and write your dream on the wall. Àṣé!

To learn more about Real Actors Workshop (RAW), and Nevaina’s distinguished career as an actor, drama coach, and public speaker, click here: Nevaina Rhodes Inspirational Speaker and Drama Therapy Specialist.

Copyright © 2015 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this blog or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.

Small and Fierce and Woman

by Leslye Joy Allen     Weary Self-Portrait 2

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

When I received the news that actor Ruby Dee had passed on, I immediately grabbed the phone and called my cousin and her good friend director-actor Billie Allen.  These two women made history together and enjoyed over sixty years of friendship.  I fondly remembered standing between them and feeling quite tall, although I barely stand 5 feet 5 inches tall myself…

Both of them are/were quite short—Ms. Dee barely stood 5 feet tall, and Billie is not too much taller. Yet, there was always something so big about both of them. Ruby Dee was one of the biggest women I ever had the pleasure to meet and my cousin Billie remains like a bottomless reservoir of wisdom…and then something hit me about both of them.

When a woman is quite small in physical stature, it is quite easy for folks to underestimate her.  As Billie and I reminisced about Ruby, she reminded me of Ms. Dee’s fighting spirit that she demonstrated on more than one occasion. Ruby Dee was talented, brilliant, warm and loving and she took no mess!

I laughed, trying to imagine Ms. Dee—a waif of a woman who made damned good homemade soup, by the way—getting in anyone’s face. Yet, her entire existence of artistry and activism, coupled with her intellectual, culinary, and maternal gifts demonstrated that there is always a subtle beauty and power in being a woman, but an even greater power in being a small woman…No one really expects you to stand your ground until you do it.  I know.  I have encountered a few bullies (male and female) in my lifetime.

Ruby and Billie’s friendship and tenacity never had anything to do with their height or size, but rather with a spirit, a certain fierceness that defied size and gender.  If that fierceness was unleashed at the right moment, it could either empower you or scare the hell out of you—and in that glorious combination and contradiction of both empowerment and fear is what it really means to be a real woman.  This is a lesson that only a woman can teach you and I am eternally grateful to both of them for that lesson.

Billie Allen and Ruby Dee at “Fences” in 2010.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

CCThis Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen & is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author.  All Rights Reserved.

The Change Agents: A Thought for February

By Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                     Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Ph.D. Candidate

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2013.  All Rights Reserved.  Self-Portrait.

Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2013. All Rights Reserved. Self-Portrait.

Several months ago I heard Black British film director Steve McQueen (not the now-deceased White actor), say that art did not change anything.  I clutched my chest as if I was surely having a massive heart attack at what must be blasphemy.  Later, I figured out what McQueen meant.  Art alters and suspends that space in your head where your creativity and out-of-the-box thinking is located, and then YOU might be able to change yourself or your situation or your mind.  Art is the match or spark, which lights the fire in the potential change agent—YOU!

Now, history has taught us that my brothers and sisters, Black Americans, have, at least since the early twentieth century worked diligently to create art—paintings and sculpture, music and dance, or theatre—that they imbued with the herculean task of changing the way the rest of the world looks at us, and how we look at ourselves.  Too often, the belief is that an artistic representation of us, once seen or experienced, will alter the way others think of us.  This is why so many of my brothers and sisters can hyperventilate until they burst into a sweat (or burst a blood vessel) about a film or television characterization of us that is a pathetic and insulting stereotype or caricature of us that strays far from the truth. Typically, what happens next is a mad search for the most exceptional among us.

This February, 2014, I have been guilty of what WE historians call “chronicling.”  Chronicling is posting basic information about a person or event, often in date order, which we think, or believe to be of “historical significance,” whatever that means.  For Black folks, Black History Month reeks of an unsavory type of history that I, and others, also call “Great Man/Great Woman” history, or “Unsung Man/Unsung Woman” history.  I call it unsavory because it never really satisfies—It is the history of our people whom we see (or have been taught to see), as exceptional, or the exception to the rule.  I am also as guilty of it as anybody else.  Yet, this month, February 2014, in many of my Facebook and Twitter posts, I deliberately focused on Black people that have contributed to or participated in theatre.  I did not do this to simply cast a light on Black folks in the theatre that I think everyone should know about.  It was also designed to cast a light on Black theatre itself, something Black folks, those who were theatre professionals and those who were not, used to participate in on a regular basis as a matter of ritual, as a matter of teaching and learning, as a matter of lifting the spirit.

It did not matter whether the person(s) had talent or not, theatre was what WE did for each other and for ourselves.  In the early days of the twentieth century, theatre had not yet become the rather parochial profession as some folks think of it today, but rather it remained an essential exercise in the communal rituals we always participated in as a people.  After all, nobody said you needed talent to recite an Easter Speech or to memorize and recite a poem, did they?  Mama, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa all thought you “did good” up there on that stage even if you would never, ever be able to act or sing your way out of a jar, to say nothing of survive an audition.  I say all of this to make a few simple points…

Take one moment and forget about “Great Man/Great Woman History.”  Forget about “Unsung Man/Unsung Woman History,” and begin to look at your mothers, fathers, grandparents and others who belong to so many generations before you as the “multi-talented,” “multi-hat-wearing,” “multi-title-holding,” “multi-I’m-going-to-get-this-done-if-it-kills-me” people that they were.  When you do this, you will begin to measure greatness not by accolades and plaques, but by how well something they did served them, saved them and you, and whether it is or is not possible for you to emulate them.  Then you will find out everything you ever needed to know that never went into a History Book or on the cover of a magazine or in a documentary about our/your people.  You will then find that match or spark that ignites you—the change agent!  Ashé!

Leslye Joy Allen is a perpetual and proud supporter of the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.
Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author.

18 Days Earlier We Marched and then We Lost…

A staged reading of the play "Four Little Girls" streaming live online from the Kennedy Center on September 15, 2013 at 6:00 PM EST.

A staged reading of the play “Four Little Girls” streaming live online from the Kennedy Center on September 15, 2013 at 6:00 PM EST.

…FOUR LITTLE GIRLS

By Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, and Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

There were four little Black girls whose lives were snuffed out on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963 when a bomb planted by racist White terrorists exploded in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  They were, Denise McNair who was the youngest at age 11, Carol Robertson aged 14, Cynthia Wesley** aged 14 (**Real and Birth name is “CYNTHIA MORRIS”), and Addie Mae Collins was aged 14.  When that bomb went off, most Black Birmingham citizens and most Black Americans forgot about the “March on Washington,” held a mere eighteen days earlier on August 28.  Not long after the blast, all hell broke loose.  The New York Times headline on the following day read (click here for article): “Birmingham Bomb Kills 4 Negro Girls in Church; Riots Flare; 2 Boys Slain.

Birmingham, then nicknamed “Bombingham,” had an ugly history it would take decades to live down.  A middle class neighborhood in the city had suffered so many bombings that it was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill,” because angry Whites bombed homes to stop Black people from moving into the area.  Dynamite Hill was the neighborhood that honed and developed future Phi Beta Kappa scholar, radical activist, and author Angela Davis.  Yet, that is a story for another essay.  There are those of us, however, who think the story of what and who we lost on that fateful Sunday morning deserves its place in all the national narratives of American history.  I am one of those people; so is actor and activist Erich McMillan-McCall.

My friend, Erich is the founder of Project1Voice, an organization devoted to preserving Black theatre companies and our important historical legacies.  I should add that not only is he a multitalented performance artist with credits on Broadway, national stages, and television, he is also a visionary.  I say he is a visionary, however, with a very important acknowledgement of the type of communities that both of us grew up in as children.  Black women, he emphasizes, were at the center of these communities.  Yet, in several of our usual marathon-long telephone conversations, he has lamented that he is bothered by how Black women’s voices are not only muted or unacknowledged in the historical narratives, but also on the stage, and in the arts.

Erich and I are products of a time when to be young and Black and living in the American South did not necessarily mean that everywhere you went there was danger; what it tended to mean was the Black community in which you grew up was supportive, filled with a great deal of love and encouragement.  There were threats to our wellbeing, to be sure.  Yet, those threats largely came from outside the neighborhoods where we lived.  As much as some very sympathetic White liberal folks and some younger Black Americans have erroneously assumed otherwise, our Black parents and elders made sure we had normal childhoods with school, church, piano lessons, baseball games, concerts, plays, parties, and family picnics.  They did all of this for us in spite of the racism and the perpetual threat of (and often real) racial violence that characterized much of life for us during the 1960s and 1970s.  Erich understands this type of upbringing.

His proactive approach, that provides greater visibility to financially struggling Black theatre companies while engaging educational, civic, and political organizations in this collective struggle for artistic, political, educational, economic, and historical viability is not exactly a new way of doing things.  The Black community that I grew up in was filled with folks who could sing, dance, act, organize, who taught school, practiced medicine, ran businesses, and helped elect Black people to political office—This is what we were/are.  I loved this Black community, and the activism and the theatre it produced.  I still live in the neighborhood my family moved to when I was around the age of eleven.  It has not entirely lost those same qualities that it had during my childhood.  However, I fear that these types of communities become more rare with each passing decade.  At the same time, I am gratified and encouraged by Erich’s embrace of the old collaborative efforts of our neighborhoods and organizations that we remember about our childhoods; and his insistence that those qualities can be modified and used to great affect in the information age.  I hope this is the beginning of a new trend.

Sunday, September 15, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of one of our worst tragedies.  On this date, Project1Voice, in collaboration with Howard University, African Continuum Theatre Company, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will present a reading of the play “Four Little Girls,” written by Christina Ham, directed by Phylicia Rashad.  It will stream live online at 6:00 PM EST via the Kennedy Center’s website.

Targeted toward young audiences, this will be one of those wonderful opportunities to sit down in front of your computer screens with your children and your friends to watch this important piece of theatre and history—Free of Charge.  You should also check for viewing parties around the country.  Additionally, over thirty Black theatre companies around this nation will be presenting “Four Little Girls” simultaneously on the fiftieth anniversary of this national tragedy.

Erich and I both remember neighborhoods where middle class and working class Black families looked out for each other and each other’s children.  These facts, however, are precisely why the slaughter of Denise McNair, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley** (**born as “Cynthia Morris,” but cited in the historiography and in most news reports as “Cynthia Wesley“) and Addie Mae Collins was so devastating to Birmingham’s Black community and other Black communities throughout the nation.  The reading of this play is not only a way to honor these dead children, but to also recall and remember the kind of stable and warm neighborhoods where all of them and us grew up.  Let us honor these little girls by going home again.  Peace.

Please visit: Project1Voice and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for more information about this play; how to access the play via the internet on Sept. 15, 2013 at 6 PM EST; and for information about other great performances and programs.

Leslye Joy Allen is also a perpetual  and proud supporter of the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.

** Shortly after this blog was published, I, Leslye Joy Allen, was contacted by Fate Morris, the brother of the young girl commonly known in historical and news records as “Cynthia Wesley.”  Fate Morris insisted that his sister’s real name is “CYNTHIA DIANE MORRIS,” and that authorities recorded her name incorrectly the day of the explosion.  Mr. Morris also informed me that he has decided to accept the Congressional Medal for his sister.  Originally he and Sarah Collins Rudolph (sister of Addie Mae Collins) had declined this medal.  Please read the following article about the survivors of this tragedy: “Survivor of ’63 Bombing Seeks Funds”** 

Please join Project1Voice‘s commemoration of the lives of these four little girls:

Thorough Good Thurgood

by Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

What could “Thoroughgood” ask for

when he did not dig his birth name?

I like “Thurgood, much better,” he said.

But what else do you do when your classmates at

Lincoln

Wrote stories and poetry as in Langston,

Sang and danced as in Cab,

Redeemed the Gold Coast into a new Ghana as in Kwame?

You did what all of us could do now, IF

We paid that much attention to each other.

We would do what you did:

You built on what you knew;

Rejoiced in what you knew;

and created a New World.

– Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2013

**The late U. S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908 with the birth name “Thoroughgood” and he attended the HBCU Lincoln University with poet and writer Langston Hughes, entertainer and musician Cab Calloway and with the future President of the newly independent nation Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) named Kwame Nkrumah.  Marshall died January 24, 1993.

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.