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: 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: with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author.

The Persistence of Old Models / Old Beliefs

by Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                      Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Last month, I had the good fortune to sit down with, break bread with, and drink good wine a couple of times with award-winning playwright, Black Theatre expert, and educator Paul Carter Harrison.  I have to thank fellow scholar R. Candy Tate for turning what was supposed to be our first meeting (to trade academic notes and talk shop) into a meeting where we added yet another spirited scholar to the mix.  This was one of those rare opportunities we graduate students receive where we can converse with someone who is, arguably, one of the first artists to seriously study Black Theatre and create a scholarly canon that tells us what Black Theatre is and what it is not.

However, I deliberately did not ask Paul about his many books (The Drama of Nommo or Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora).  Among the many things we discussed was his frustration and anger about what he considered to be some younger playwrights, actors, and directors’ pandering to the tastes of White audiences; and an unfortunate dumbing-down of theatre, television and film in an effort to appeal to audiences of all races for the sole benefit of entertainment just for entertainment’s sake.  He was not ambiguous at all; he was livid.  He saw a disturbing trend where some Black performers decided to cater to what White producers and audiences—even well-meaning White folks—wanted them to appear to be on stage.  No more martyred Black folks, he said.  Exactly how many times must everything WE do be a response to some other group of people?  Exactly how many times must we be characterized as long-suffering and stoic or, for that matter, be the super baadaass Black man who always manages to rush in and save the day?  He made his point.

He saw this pandering as something that, while it might be quite commercially satisfying,  stifled Black creativity and stunted artistic risk-taking while it simultaneously applauded and rewarded the mundane, the ordinary.  He noted that this lack of vision, this lack of adventurousness, would eventually cause a lot of artists to hit a commercial brick wall.  He did not bite his tongue about the fact that certain Black stereotypes and certain Black archetypes had become the norm in film, on TV, and on the stage.  While Paul is a part of my larger ongoing research, which will not be discussed here, he did make me think about not only why artistic and scholarly risk-taking is necessary for growth, but also why stereotypes are particularly dangerous.

After our two marathon conversations, I thought about how people on both sides of the political and racial aisle, so to speak, hold onto and cling to certain images and ideas about Black people.  I have to honestly wonder whether, WE Black folks have any real friends who actually know US; that is, friends outside of our own racial/ethnic group.  I am not kidding; I mean this.  Aside from the racist who assumes that at any given moment I will be spitting out watermelon seeds or that I have bred babies like rabbits, there are also those White folks that go to other extremes.  They are so hell bent on proving that they are not racist that they see beauty and goodness in everything and everybody that is Black—and that is a fallacy as well.  Blackness and Black people become a fetish.  One of the first things that makes us, Black folks, human is our ability to be great or weak, right or wrong, smart or dumb, honest or dishonest.  Any belief, sentiment, or romanticism that strips us of the full range of human expression denies us our humanity, no matter how flattering those beliefs and sentiments might be.  It is dangerous to hold onto those kinds of extremes and expectations.

Only a few days after my meeting and hanging out with Paul, one of my History students, a young White male, told me about this funny video he saw.  According to this student, someone filmed security personnel in a department store.  In the video, all of the security personnel were following all the Black customers assuming that the Black customers would be the customers who would shoplift.  However, while security was following all the Black customers, White shoplifters were stealing everything they could get their hands on.  Both my student and I laughed, but the humor quickly faded when we began to consider what really happens when someone makes assumptions based solely and purely on race, or I should say, on racism.  Now, anyone with half a brain knows that people of all races and ethnicities steal for a variety of reasons.  Nevertheless, this video—that I have never seen, by the way—said something else about misconceptions based solely on race.

When people buy into any stereotype it does something more than degrade and devalue the victim of the stereotype, it tells everyone else exactly who they need to victimize or who they need to “not look like” or “not behave like” in order to get away with whatever they are attempting to get away with.  I am not going to say anything about Trayvon Martin, this time.  However, for all of those frightened and paranoid White folks (and Black folks) who live in gated communities in Florida and elsewhere, I have only one thing to say:  Beware of respectable looking young White males who may be walking through your neighborhoods.

While I am sure most of these young White men will not be planning to commit any crime or do anyone any harm, one of them might have decided that since he did not look a certain way that he could get away with certain things.  When you buy into and believe those old models and old beliefs, eventually, someone figures out that all they have to do is make sure they do not fit the model.  After that, they can get away with anything!  And for those folks who might be feeling guilty for believing the worst stereotypes about Black people,  the last thing you need to do is stop for some poor Black guy on the side of the road at midnight, just to prove a point.

The majority of us Black people work hard, pay our bills, take care of our homes and lawns, and never ever hurt anyone, but that does not mean that all Black people are saints.  If we could just let these old models and old beliefs go, we could proceed in this world based just on facts rather than assumptions.  Now, I have a Black elder statesman of Theatre and a young White male student to thank for raising the level of the discussion.

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support 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: with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.