Sunday, September 23, 2007

Actors of Color, What is Your Favorite Monologue?

This fall one of the courses I'm going to teach is a high school class on writing and performing monologues. I'm very keen on using monologues delivered by characters of color as examples, and I'm on a particular quest to collect film adaptations so that I can play the performance of these monologues for my students. If you are an actor of color, perhaps you can help me out. While I welcome monologues from plays -- especially those by playwrights of color -- ideally, I'd love monologues available on video (e.g. the film adaptation of play) and which can stand alone without requiring too much context.

I find that your average book of monologues -- especially those geared toward youth -- are not very diverse with respect to culture or even scenario. Furthermore, while they may be serviceable for teaching performance, I find them inadequate for teaching writing, especially the unique art of writing the standalone monologue.
Here's an example of a great monologue I discovered while conducting research for a different writing project altogether. It comes from the 2000 HBO miniseries The Corner which was created by the same talent behind the TV series The Wire. In this monologue, Gary, a 34 year old dope addict is getting high with some friends.

I went to see this movie. The one about what they did to the Jews in the war. Lord, what they did to them people. The Germans decided that they weren’t human no more. They just said, “No, you ain’t human like we human.” And when they said that, hey, man… it just got easier for them to do all kinds of dirt. By the end, all the Germans could do, man, was like get rid of them, you know. Kill them all. ‘Cause, you know, they couldn’t see them being anything better than rats or bugs. But it was real, all right. And I’m sitting there, and I’m watching this movie, and I’m realizing that it’s happening again. We sit here day after day making ourselves a little bit less human, and the world is happy to see it. It seems like they happy to see it, man. I mean, when I was making money, it didn’t matter because I was still a nigger. And now that I’m sitting up here getting high with y’all, it’s still the same. Don’t you see what I’m saying? The Germans made the Jews into niggers. That’s what that was about. And that’s what this is here except we’re doing it to ourselves. It seems like the world just can’t wait for us to finish until we all end up dead.

This monologue is perfect because you can either read or watch it with no context and still understand it. The actual movie had a few lines of interjecting dialogue from the other characters present in the scene, but their lines can be deleted with nothing lost. It's a great piece of writing (I especially love the subtext), and it gives the actor several moments to mine.

Another good example is a monologue from Romeo Must Die starring Jet Li and the late Aaliyah. In the scene after Aaliyah's character Trish learns that her brother has been murdered, she tells how she and her brother used to get a kick out of scaring their mother by crying wolf and pretending he got hurt. The scene uses this anecdote to reveal Trish coming to grips with her brother's death which this time is real and no laughing matter. She experiences how her mother felt the moment she thought her son had been hurt yet. Unlike her mother, however, Trish realizes that she'll never know the relief of learning that her brother is actually OK.

So if you can suggest any more monologues like these, drop me a line. I'm looking for all ages, genders, sexual orientations and genres. And by people of color, I do mean also Native American, Arab and Asian as well as Black and Latino. If you've seen great monologues in any independent films, even better as I'm sure that information will come in handy for future initiatives. At the very least, any other character's lines should be minimal and can be cut out without the primary character's speech losing meaning. Again, movies readily available on DVD are ideal so that I can play them for my students as well.

Sadly, as many wonderful solo shows many actors of color have produced in recent years, very few of them have been recorded for sale never mind for educational use. What I would give to Sarah Jones' Surface Transit, Staceyann Chin's Border/Clash or Calvin Levels' wonderful Down from the Mountaintop on DVD. Right now a gal is relying on Danny Hoch's Jails, Hospitals and Hip Hop, Roger Guenveur Smith's A Huey P. Newton Story and The Vagina Monologues and even the film The Breakfast Club, but it's just not enough. Even John Leguizamo' s Mambo Mouth, Spic-o-Rama, and Freak are hard to find and mad expensive!

So if you're a person of color who produces or develops solo theatre, do your creative kin -- be they emerging and aspiring, practicing and teaching -- a favor and plan on eventually making your show available and affordable on video. :)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Things I've Learned Since My First Book Got Published

Another author wrote this piece and posted it on her blog, but, man, can I relate! I've interspersed my own commentary in blue.

by Cherie Priest, author of the novels Four and Twenty Blackbirds and other stories of Victorian gothic fantasy
I got an email yesterday from a reader who said she saw me a few DragonCons ago when I did a panel on being a new writer. At that time (if I remember correctly) I did not actually have a novel out yet. I was merely in that pre-novel stage of, "I SOLD IT, AND SOMEONE'S GONNA PUBLISH IT, YAY!"* But to make a long story short, she was hoping for an update. Her email concluded, "What have you learned since Four and Twenty Blackbirds cme out? What do you know about publishing now that you wish you'd known about then?" So here's my update, just for her. Let me call it:
Things I've Learned Since My First Book Got Published

Everyone will think you are rich. Obviously, if you got a book published, someone must have given you fat sacks of cash dollars American. You now have a moral obligation to donate to charities, give to your alma mater, and consider including PBS in your will.
Yes, everybody thinks you're rolling in it, but it wouldn't bother me much to be approached by some worthy causes. However, my activism keeps gives me plenty of ideas for where to donate so I don't really need suggestions. What I don't like is the assumptions that folks begin to make about what you can and cannot afford to do as if it's any of their business.

You will not be rich. Whatever money you might have earned from an advance will have been spent fully a year before your book appears. Maybe you paid off your car, or maybe you got that leather jacket out of lay-away at Wilson's. Whatever, that money is LONG gone.
This is so damned true, I have to laugh to keep from crying!

Publishing is very exciting. For you, personally. Everyone else will think it's dead boring, and will be sick of hearing about it by suppertime -- once they figure out that you are not rich.
Well, kinda true. It's boring to those who don't aspire to be published. To those who want to be published but have yet to be, it's way less than exciting than they think, LOL!

You will probably still have a day job. This will make you look like a failure to all the people who assume you must be rich. These people can bite you.
I've been blessed to be able to avoid the 9-to-5 marketplace thus far, but don't get it twisted. I have to do more than write books to make a living and support my modest lifestyle. But there are times when the savings are dwindling and the next check is a few months off, and I'm seriously thinking, "Should I put in an application at Barnes & Noble?"

Getting your foot in the door is not the hard part. It is the first hard part.
Too true. There's a major difference between getting a break and breaking through when it comes to any artistic career. And one book deal does not a career novelist make. It's harder than ever to maintain a writing career even as midlist author now that publishing is becoming more like the film industry -- personality driven and franchise-oriented. It's becoming less about the consistent money an author earns a house over the course of a career and more about the hot commodity that sells blockbuster even if the author is a one-trick pony.
Drinking and blogging is right out. Because once you've published a book, you forfeit the right to ever make a typo in public, ever again.
I guess this depends who you are. I'm not much of a drinker, and I've been known to put my mistakes on blast in a blog so I'm pretty carefree and fearless when it comes this.

You are now the foremost authority on the English language. At least, this is what all your friends/relatives who do not write will assume, and they will treat you like their personal diction consultant. While you are at work, you will receive phone calls from Florida, where your aunt wants to know about a comma she's considering for the church bulletin.**
Not when you write urban fiction with liberal doses of slang and ebonics, you don't. :)

Everyone will want to know how you did it. This will make you feel very SMRT and like an expert and stuff, for maybe the first (I dunno) two weeks after Locus mentions it. Then you'll get kind of tired of talking about it.
Nah, I can't say I ever felt like an expert on publishing or anything. In fact, I still feel very much the amateur. But I am tired of talking about it, but it's all that other aspiring writers want to know. It makes it very tricky to join writing groups, take workshops and enroll in seminars. Often once other people in the group realize you've been published, you are thrusted into the unwanted position of teacher when you came there to be a student. It's tough because I don't want to be unsupportive or aloof, but I can get a bit resentful because I came there to learn not teach.

No one will believe you did it by writing a book that was worth publishing. Aspiring writers will be sure that you had a secret short cut, and you are a raging bitch for holding out on all those other poor folks who are just as worthy as you, but who were unwilling to flash their boobies at exactly the right people. And if you don't think people will actually say things like this, perhaps you have not yet published a book.
It's the worst when you get this feeling from folks who you considered to be your friends. They tend to be the same people who are speculating about how deep your pockets are. You hit the trifecta with those who want you to hook 'em up when they haven't even bought your book let alone read it!

Everyone will want to know why you're not on the New York Times Bestseller List yet. You will pretend that you're much more reasonable about your expectations than that. But secretly, you will also wonder why you're not on an important list someplace and you will feel inadequate.
Yeah, hate to admit it, but it happens sometimes, even when you know that there are perfectly good reasons beyond your control as to why Oprah hasn't called yet.

People will "helpfully" tell you what you should have done differently with your cover. When you explain that (a). you really love your cover and anyway (b). you-as-author don't get any say-so over this aspect of the publishing process, they will feel sorry for you because obviously you are a loser.
You could say the same about titles, but for the most part, I've been thrilled with my covers and titles and have had considerable input into all of them. I realize that I'm the exception to the rule, and it just so happens that I'm not a diva when it comes to these things. So long as the cover or title is not some gross misrepresentation of who I am and what I stand for, I'm pretty open-minded to what the house comes up with. I did have one experience, however, that made it very clear to me that, when push comes to shove, the house calls the shots

You now have the inside track to publishing. Everyone you've ever known -- even in passing -- who has ever written a book now thinks that it's your God-given duty to put them in touch with your agent/editor/publisher. This will get awkward.
True indeed, and what these folks don't understand is that publishing is a labyrinth of an industry that takes years to understand.

People will use your name to lie. At least twice, other writers with whom I was peripherally acquainted approached my (now former) agent and told him that I'd recommended them.
Oh, hell, yeah, don't even get me started on this shit.

You will be asked to work for free. This is because you've now achieved that career point of, Technically Successful - Yet Still Approachable. Small upstart markets, acquaintances, etcetera, will appear with offers to "let" you write for them, for "really great street cred." You should kick these people in the shins.
Well, I've been asked to work for free long before I got published so...

There is such a thing as the law of aggregate success. You will also be offered more paying gigs, and if possible, you should probably try to take advantage of them. Some paying gigs (especially short markets) do not pay much, but there are plenty of very fine venues that can't afford to offer a huge rate.
I'm just starting to appreciate this as I develop two chapters of my current novel-in-progress into standalone short stories.

People will ask you questions about stuff you wrote, and you will say, "Um ..." By the time your book actually comes out, it will have been a full year or even two years since you actually composed the material. You will have moved on to other projects, in which you are wholly immersed; and when someone asks about why character X in book one does thing Y, you'll have no earthly idea. But you'll be confident that there was an excellent reason.
Actually, I pretty much remember, but I much prefer to move on. Still if you're talking to a fan, it's not hard to be gracious and talk to the question. In fact, if it's a fresh question -- and not one that you've heard a thousand times before -- it can be a joy to rediscover your own novel through new eyes. I am, however, tired of answering, "Why did you choose the pen name Black Artemis?" but, alas, I always do because the mere thought of saying, "The answer is in the back of the book" makes me feel like an ungrateful dolt.

You will get book reviews. If they are good, no force on earth will get those reviews into your hands so you can read them for yourself. If they are bad, fifteen people will email you the text before breakfast.
True, I'm still happening across great reviews for Picture Me Rollin' and Divas Don't Yield even though they were published two and one year ago respectively. As for people jumping to send me bad reviews, I can't say that I've had that experience. Then again, in the beginning of your career, you tend to be unusually adept at finding the nasty ones with no ones help even as the raves evade you for years. If you're a "give me the bad news first" kind of gal like I am, it's better this way.

You will acquire fans. This will blow your freakin' mind
It truly does! .
Some of your fans will be annoying. Especially when they email you to say how much they love your work, and then they spend three pages pointing out all the things you did that they totally hate.
LOL, poor Cherie. First, the "friends" who leap to email her bad reviews and now this. My fans rock. On the rare occassion that one has pushed back on something I've written, s/he has done so with tremendous sensitivity and openmindedness to my explanations (hate mail's another story, but I'm not going to give that any attention.) So pointing out all the things I hate is not the way the rare annoying fan has gotten under my skin. In fact, I don't know if the people who have worked my nerves are true fans. My gut is that they're aspiring writers who are posing as fans in the hopes that if they flatter me, I'll put them on. Or go out with them. Don't get me started on that that.

Most of your fans will make you want to squee yourself to death with joy. Because holy crap, someone who is not one of your parents read your book and liked it. I am not exaggerating when I say that this makes it all worth it.
No truer words have been said.

Edit: I'll update the list as more occur to me.]
So might I. :)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Chicken Soup for the Hip Hop Soul

If you've been waiting for someone to write a book that could be described as Chicken Soup for the Hip Hop Soul, wait no more because it's here.

Thanks to author Felicia Pride, we now how have The Message: 100 LIfe Lessons from Hip Hop's Greatest Songs. Felicia is the founder of BackList and her mission is keeping books in style. Y'all know that ain't esy for a variety of reasons. Whether working with my company Sister Outsider Entertainment on our Urban Literature Initiative or writing her own books, and pushing forward with a myriad of pro-literacy projects, she stays on mission and on point. Support this powerful sister and cop The Message which hits the streets on October 7th.

Until the final version is available, I'm keeping my advanced review copy on my nightstand right alongside Five Good Minutes in the Morning: 100 Morning Practices to Help You Stay Calm and Focused All Day Long and Daily Cornbread: 365 Secrets for a Health Mind, Body and Spirit. :)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Till the Break of Dawn

In celebration of my birthday, some friends and I went to see a preview of the play Till the Break of Dawn written and directed by Danny Hoch, I'm a big fan of Danny's work both artistically and politically, and I had the privilege of hearing an earlier version of this work several years ago. When I found out that he was finally bringing the production to the stage this year around my birthday, I knew going to see it with a group of close friends who would appreciate it as much as I would would make for a fantastic evening. This was especially true to because -- and I'm proud to say that I knew and in some capacity have worked with some members of the cast including Jaymes Jorsling, pattydukes and Flaco Navaja as well as Danny. What a joy to be able to support and be inspired by such talented folks who are following their artistic while staying true to their views of social justice.

For those of you who don't know, Danny Hoch is a trailblazer in the world of theater due to his consistent efforts to create stage productions that resonate with the hip hop generation i.e. hip hop theatre. Among many accomplishments and contributions, he is the founder of The Hip Hop Theater Festival whose vision is at once simple yet profound: to tell the untold stories of the Hip-Hop Generation. Now that's pretty downright revolutionary when you consider several things. One, despite the fact that for as long as there have been humans, there has been some form of theater, it should yet has failed to be the most democratic of the arts. Two b-boys battling it out on a street corner for a spontaneous audience is not only hip hop, at its essence, it is also theater. We don't recognize that, however, because with the institutionalization of theater has also come much its un-democratization. Whether we consider ourselves theater buffs or not, we pretty much buy into the limited notion that theater is a live performance of drama for which you pay to see in a darkened hall with a roomful of strangers.

With that it is no surprise that, two, theater in the U.S. has evolved into and largely remains a "luxury" of the White middle class. Is this how it necessarily has to be given that it we can produce theater on a street corner? No, but because of how theater is perceived, this is mostly how it stays like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let me put it this way. When a teacher in the 'hood decides to take her class on a field trip, she is more likely to take them to the nearby multiplex to see, say, the latest Hollywood rendition of a Shakespearean play (e.g. Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet or Tim Blake Nelson's O) than to a Manhattan theatre. That would be the case even if there was a twenty-five seat makeshift theatre in the basement of a community center in Washington Heights where an all-Dominican cast was offering its updated version of Hamlet. Theater that tells stories that veer from the topic of White middle-class angst in its multiple variations remain both underrepresented and marginalized.

And that leads me to three point A and B as to why the concept of using theatre to tell the stories of the hip hop generation is a revolutionary endeavor. Ironically, almost as quickly as the global commodification of rap music popularized hip hop worldwide as a vehicle that gave visibility to the underrepresented and marginalized, it was forgotten that hip hop (a) largely began as a form of cultural resistance and, therefore, (b) was, is and can continue to take forms other than rap music. In other words, many of its biggest fans have lost sight -- if they ever even recognized - that rap music is not the only way hip hop tells stories. If they have never been educated to the power of theater, obviously they would not understand that there can exist such a thing as hip hop theatre (and it not being Scarface: The Broadway Musical. Don't let me get started on that. Thanks to last night, I'm in a great mood and would like to preserve it)

Which brings me back to Till the Break of Dawn, Danny Hoch's latest act of cultural resistance through hip hop theater. Gibran, a young brother who aspires to use hip hop to organize communities worldwide via the internet, plans a trip to Cuba with his multicultural group of activist friends to attend the island's annual Hip Hop Festival. To many activists, Cuba is upheld to be a socialist utopia where, among other things, literacy abounds and racism is nonexistent. Gibran and his crew are eager to network with hip hop heads from around the world at the festival and export la revolucion across the globe including the United States. They even aspire to politicize Big Miff, a Fat Joesque gangster rapper who has been convinced to go and perform.

Once in Havana, however, they quickly learn that their idealistic perception are only partially correct. The sociopolitical reality of being a communist nation under the embargo of a capitalist world power forces the activists' sincere yet simplistic ideas of what it takes to make meaningful social change to undergo dramatic complication. Part of that necessary complication is the painful realization of the paradox inherent in being an American citizen no matter how much they may rage against the policies of the U.S. government, both domestic and international. That is, despite the repression they may experience in the United States, they still remain and are perceived by the global community as the undeservingly privileged citizens of a world empire.

There are no sacred cows in Till the Break of Dawn which is why at many moments it is laugh-out-loud funny. And yet as the playwright, Danny offers tremendous compassion and even empathy along with the unapologetic critique of hip hop activism which in many ways has spawned a culture of its own. We especially see it in characters such as Hector, a charismatic Boricua nationalist whose militancy can be endearing and even infectious at one moment and yet the next can blind him to the humanity of others -- even willingly potential allies whose appearance or choices do not readily fit his political ideals. If you now or have ever considered yourself an activist of any stripe, you have met Hector. Shit, if you're honest with yourself, you've been Hector.

Till the Break of Dawn is a must-see for many different audiences. It's a loving tug on the coattails of hip hop activists who desperately need to rethink how to continue The Work in a post 9-11 era. The play is evidence for the skeptics who doubt there are any people in hip hop who genuinely use the culture as tool for social change. It is "edutainment" for all the hip hop heads who think that going to the theater is something that only old, White folks with money do, and it's inspiration to cultural activists across forms of creative expression trying to marry their art and politics. Finally, it's imperative that theater buffs -- especially those old, White folks with money -- to check out Till the Break of Dawn for no other reason than to familiarize themselves with the cutting-edge content and aesthetic that hip hop brings to their beloved hobby, keeping it alive and relevant.

The play runs from September 13th through October 21st at the Abron Arts Center and tickets can be purchased online at the Culture Project.