Exhibit designer Joseph “JR” Sanders reflected on the screen showing the documentary film ”From These Roots.”
Photography by Terrence Jennings
The Writing Blackness Harlem | Paris exhibit is now closed due to unforeseen circumstances that have affected all exhibits in the 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue location. We apologize for the inconvenience and hope to share more photos and information from the exhibit on this companion site.
The Schomburg Center’s In the Life Archive’s Ordinary People series presents Djola Branner.
Can you talk about how you came to the stage, first as a dancer, then as an actor and playwright?
My first experience as a performer was actually doing open mike poetry readings, before they were called SLAMS, back in the day back in San Francisco. My hands would shake and my knees would knock, but I would steady myself as best I could and lunge as the microphone to utter a few words despite myself. It was terrifying and liberating all at the same time. Next came… the dance, which opened me to a whole new level of energy and community. I actually studied, taught and performed Haitian dance for 25 years (so yes, I AM older than I look) and that experience informs my approach to creating and staging original drama to this day.
As a lot of folks know, my theatrical trial by fire came with the formation of Pomo Afro Homos. It provided the perfect venue for my love of poetry, dance and personal narrative. And in the wake of my life as a Pomo, I realized I had become a theatre artist.
How did sash & trim come together?
sash & trim started as a writing exercise. My favorite graduate playwriting teacher, Laura Maria Censabella, said: “Imagine your parent’s first date, and write about it”. Once I had completed the exercise, I realized the characters had a LOT more to say. I had written and performed a piece about my mother (in 1994), a one-person show entitled Sweet Sadie,and initially my intention for writing sash & trim was to script a companion piece about my father. He was a frustrated singer/songwriter who never made his living as an artist, and I knew that his original music, or what I could remember of it, would play significantly in constructing his story.
What can audiences expect to see next week when you visit the Schomburg Center next Tuesday with your book, sash & trim?
Audiences can expect to see a family grappling with the legacy of one complicated African-American man. “Hank” is complicated. One the one hand he’s a romantic singer/songwriter, and on the other he’s a philandering husband and father. The story is told through memory, music and a good dose of laughter.
I’m particularly excited because four of the five actors – Khi Armand, David Donnella, and I are reprising our roles from the original workshop production, and Laurie Carlos (who directed the play) is reading the role of “Sadie”. Judyie Al-Bilali is reading the role of “Anne”, which she read at the book release party in Amherst, MA last September. I’m ecstatic to be amongst this cast. So audiences are also likely to see me grinning from ear to ear.
On Tuesday, June 17, at 6:30, playwright, actor, and co-founder of the Pomo Afro Homos (Postmodern African-American Homosexuals), Djola Branner will be performing excerpts from his first collection of dramatic work, sash & trim and other plays published by RedBone Press earlier this year. The reading will be followed by a small reception. Books will be available for purchase.
Djola Branner combines movement, sound and light to enliven voices historically absent from the stage. Co-founder of the seminal group Pomo Afro Homos, he toured nationally and internationally with their shows Fierce Love: Stories from Black Gay Life and Dark Fruit. His interdisciplinary work has been supported by Creative Capital, the Jerome, McKnight, and Bush Foundations, and published in such anthologies as In the Life, The Road Before Us, Colored Contradictions, Staging Gay Lives, and Voices Rising. He has createdsuch performances as Sweet Sadie, Mighty Real: A Tribute to Sylvester and sash & trim, and performed in regional theaters across the country. Djola is currently Dean of the School for Interdisciplinary Arts, and Associate Professor of Theater at Hampshire College.
Writing a biography is hard work. American historian, biographer, playwright, and gay rights activist Martin Duberman knows this and has written several biographies including James Russell Lowell (a National Book Award finalist), Charles Francis Adams, Sr. (Bancroft Prize winner), Paul Robeson, and Howard Zinn, among other works. This time Duberman focuses his lens on two activists of note, in Hold Tight Gently; Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill and The Battlefield of AIDS (New Press, 2014).
Tuesday, June 3, 2014, Duberman will be reading from his new work at the Schomburg Center, followed by a Q&A with the author and reception. Below Duberman talks the inspiration for the book, and his why he chose these two 1980s public figures to help tell a story about the devastating impact of AIDS particularly on the gay community.
Martin Duberman: The biographical approach to history has always been the form most congenial to me, and after deciding that I wanted to write about the AIDS epidemic, I initially thought I’d tell the story through the lives of some half dozen or so individuals. I wasn’t far into the research, though, when I realized that the lives of two men, Michael Callen, singer and activist, and Essex Hemphill, poet and cultural worker,
epitomized much of the AIDS narrative I was most interested in exploring—meaning, above all, the very different ways the epidemic impinged on the white gay and black gay communities. It helped that I’d known both men somewhat and had deeply admired both.
The two never met and had little in common. Callen was a white mid-westerner who came to New York City after college to pursue a singing career. Hemphill was an African American gay man who grew up in Washington, D.C. and knew early that he wanted to become a writer, and specifically a poet. Both were diagnosed as HIV-positive early in the epidemic. In the half dozen years before the foundation of ACT-UP in 1987, Mike was at the forefront of the self-empowerment movement (about which little has previously been written). Essex—who always considered race, not sexual orientation his “primary emergency”—mostly steered clear of the white-dominated activist movement and devoted his energy instead to playing a key role in the black gay male and lesbian cultural flowering of the 1980s, now widely referred to as the “second Harlem Renaissance.”
Their different paths and personalities exemplify the story of AIDS in the years preceding the discovery of protease inhibitors. Both men died of the disease, both at age 38.
Her Business, or Ours? Outing Lorraine at the Schomburg Center
On Thursday May 22, 2014, the Schomburg Center’s In the Life Archive series, Ordinary People, will feature the program Outing Lorraine, an engaging panel discussion about imposing gay and lesbian labels on public figures who never publicly identified as such. This conversation centers on playwright, activist and intellectual, Lorraine Hansberry. Panelists include Joi Gresham, Director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, Alexis de Veaux, writer, Steven G. Fullwood, curator, and moderatorShawn(ta) Smith, librarian and writer.
One panelist, Ms. Gresham, along with the moderator Shawn(ta) Smith, share their insights about their personal and professional connections to Hansberry’s work, and if the playwright’s sexuality matters, and if so, to whom and why.
I am connected to Lorraine through the blended family that she created in her life and that she left behind when she died. My father, Robert Nemiroff, before meeting and marrying my mother, formed a close partnership with Lorraine in a marriage that lasted ten years and a deep friendship and creative collaboration that is actually still evolving as we look at and learn to appreciate its scope. An only child, I grew up as part of that family — a direct beneficiary and guardian of her legacy. I was trained in the theater from a very early age—benefitting from a close affinity with Lorraine and drawn to her artistry. My primary career has been in dance. I would say that Lorraine has deeply influenced and informed my work and creativity. I would also say that growing up inside of Lorraine’s creative realm has profoundly affected multiple and all aspects of my identity as an individual and as an artist. Lorraine was dedicated to art as a weapon in the struggle for human liberation and greater human understanding. She saw this as her fundamental calling as an artist. Her personal identity was factored into this as was her commitment to human service and an unreserved opposition to narcissism and vanity. In this regard, she was vehement.
As we think about Lorraine’s sexuality and its importance I would say that to her, in general — someone’s status doesn’t matter — as much as how they construct their identity. It is part of a larger continuum of personal and social liberation. Lorraine was a person who carried multiple identities. Inside of any of those identities she steadily challenged the like-minded to bring a political examination to their engagement, to think about the broader human agency in their actions and encouraged all to focus on contributing to the larger movement of social transformation and civil rights.
Librarians are engaged in the information life-cycle, and I enjoy the work of disseminating information to students and researchers. As an archivist and scholar, however, I am challenged with the notion of “content creation.” In essence, we all have the power to re-interpret, create, and sometimes even, manipulate what others deem as information.
There has been an erasure in our encyclopedias and history books on the African American experience and the contributions that African Americans have made in US History. The erasure of peoples of LGBT experience from history stems from this same act. We – black people, black LGBT people, black librarians, archivists, women, activists, scholars, and queer – are finally in a place of power and access to not only (re)write our histories, (re)claim our rich narratives, but ultimately, to right the wrongs bestowed upon us for generations. It is time to fill in the blanks of these systemic erasures.
In respect to the conversation of “Outing Lorraine,” this concept of “outing” assumes the existence of shaming those who choose to bring to light a more complete and true Lorraine Hansberry. Being silent when information is clearly laid out before us is a worse crime than erasure. We know that Hansberry was married to a Communist. We know that Hansberry had an FBI file years before Raisin in the Sun was debuted. We also know that Hansberry was involved in lesbian feminist social networks. As responsible scholars and researchers, it is our duty to make connections to these, until recently, disparate points of Hansberry’s life. None of these facets are unrelated; Hansberry’s alliance and social networks with white lesbian feminists provides an added layer of complexity to any implied intentions for her work. Deepening the understanding of Hansberry’s life in mid-twentieth century McCarthy era, by using the analytical tools and access of African American and LGBT scholars and archivists today, the more lessons we as a global nation may receive from Hansberry’s work tomorrow.