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.

Ava, Oprah, Moms, Dads, and Cheerleaders!

Leslye Joy Allen @ Spelman College Archives. Copyright © 2015 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen @ Spelman College Archives. Copyright © 2015 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

by Leslye Joy Allen

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

This is not a review of the film SELMA. However, I will say I saw it on Christmas Day when it was in limited release and let me put it this way—I had one of the best Christmas’ ever. Brilliantly acted, superbly directed. I dig Sister Ava DuVernay because she is a Black Woman, but also a young woman director who is unafraid to use all of the nuances that come with being a woman.

I also learned very quickly that she has two great parents and I see “Daddy’s Girl” written all over her face. Oprah Winfrey is another Daddy’s Girl. I know one when I see one—I was a Daddy’s Girl too. I love my late Mama to death because we had a lot of fun, but Dad was my playmate for life. I thought about my parents when I watched SELMA in the dark of that packed movie theatre on Christmas Day. They would have been so proud; and my tell-it-like-it-is Father would have been one of Ava’s biggest supporters. I can hear his loud mouth right now talking about how “Ava is one baaaaaad young sister!!”

For the first time we have a feature film about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Selma March movement, but also a film where women are highly visible, as are so many other long forgotten foot soldiers. Yet, for a filmmaker to press ahead and make the kind of film that truly honors the Black and White women who made so many sacrifices for civil and human rights takes courage.  For a Black woman filmmaker that courage often comes from the fact that in a male-dominated world, when a father approves of his daughter, when he encourages her and believes in her, she never, ever needs another man’s approval.

Mothers are extremely important too, and are always our confidantes and advisors; it is she who helps us navigate in a world full of possibilities and limitations. We watch our mothers make sacrifices and often we later wonder how she managed to make those sacrifices. Yet, our Dads’ support truly matters because sexism is alive and well, no matter how many men that love us try to downplay it. I am a Black woman and because my Dad supported me, I can handle blatant sexism and the occasional lukewarm support I get from some of the men I know and love. Most women know that only a minority of men can be our cheerleaders. Cheerleaders have to perform on the sidelines.

Ava and Oprah know whom their male and female cheerleaders are; an overwhelming majority of those cheerleaders has a pair of ovaries. I have several male cheerleaders, but every once in a while I hear that disinterest in their voices when the subject of the conversation changes from their problems or their work to a discussion about me and what is going on in my life and work.  They do not mean me any harm.   Yet, when I need to discuss me, I turn to my sister friends. So, in the spirit of that Sisterhood I am going on record as saying I am so very proud of Oprah Winfrey, who never fails to honor all of her people.  I am so very proud of Black woman filmmaker and director Ava DuVernay for the exact same reason!  My late parents loved Oprah…they did not live long enough to witness Ava…but I suspect they are watching from somewhere in the cosmos! Àṣé!

 

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.

Common Sense

by Leslye Joy Allen Weary Self-Portrait 2 by Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen

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

 

 

I am a Black woman, born and raised

in the American South, but I have

often had to yell or give long lectures

about my circumstances and my

problems and about what has happened to me

or other folk like me

and yelling and lecturing is a bore and a waste of my time, in spite

of the fact that I have met many of my Black folk that I love

and many White folk that I love and who love me,

but I have never seen any mass movement of White folk who

marched in the streets to say that they loved or supported Black women and

I have never seen any mass movement of Black people

who marched in the streets to say that they loved or supported Black women, so

I figured that in spite of that loving handful of

men and women who do or did love me, that

remain in my life or my memory, that I better

depend on myself because Common Sense demands that since I

am a Black American woman I better not make too many assumptions

about who I can count on

besides myself.

Copyright © 2014 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.