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[whitespace] Allison Wright Window on the World: Allison Wright's 'Ms. Thang, Watcha' Doin' in Ireland?' shows Aug. 18 at Theatre Artaud.


The play may still be the thing, but this year's AfroSolo promises to be the most diverse yet

By Kerry Reid

Back in 1991, all that Thomas Simpson was looking for was a novel way to celebrate his birthday. So he invited nine friends in the performance scene to showcase new solo work at a local acting studio.

Over the years, Simpson's theatrical birthday bash has grown into one of the more intriguing arts festivals in the Bay Area--and one whose scope is no longer limited exclusively to theater. This year's AfroSolo Festival VI, running through Aug. 22 at three venues in the City, features new work from dancers, musicians, actors, spoken- word performers and visual artists, as well as workshops on fundraising and a community forum on black artists responding to AIDS in the African American community.

"Initially, it was a theater festival, because that's my medium. Because of feedback I got from other people, including artists who weren't theater artists, we moved into dance, music and spoken word. Last year, we had our first visual arts exhibit," Simpson explains. "As an artist, it's opened me up to other mediums."

Over the years, AfroSolo has presented an impressive roster of local and national talents; past performers featured at the festival include Ruby Dee and Dick Gregory. But the emphasis has always been on finding the best local voices in African American arts--though the subject matter these artists deal with may not always be directly about African American experience. "I feel a little less strongly than I did in the beginning that the work has to be race-related," Simpson says.

Solo performer Nena St. Louis makes her fourth bow in AfroSolo this year. Two years ago, St. Louis' "Schools!" presented a funny and touching reminiscence of her family's efforts to desegregate her school district. But many of St. Louis' other pieces deal explicitly with her struggles with mental illness.

"The way I feel about it is that if I'm a black person and I'm writing an autobiographical piece, it's about black experience. It doesn't have to be specifically about prejudice or discrimination," St. Louis says. "There isn't enough information about mental illness in the black community, so I feel like I'm contributing something just by talking about it." She describes her new piece, "I Only Jump in My Dreams," as being "about my parents' search for the true religion and the conflict which it caused me while I was fighting with this voice inside my head that was always telling me that I was wrong."

Says St. Louis, "It's such a personal piece. It was really difficult for me to write, and to do it in front of a supportive audience I think is going to mean a lot to me."

Simpson notes, "Our audience [at AfroSolo] is very emotionally open. We touch issues in the black community that are not always dealt with--issues of homosexuality, women's issues--sometimes in the same night." And that audience is by no means exclusively--or even overwhelmingly--African American. "There is a great diversity of audiences," Simpson says. "The idea has always been for people to come together and use art as a way to better see and understand each other. When we're in a dark theater, we let our senses open up in a way that they don't otherwise."

AfroSolo has helped land some of its veterans on the radar of theaters outside the Bay Area. Last year, Elisa Joy White's hilarious multimedia look at academia and political correctness, "The Rock Star of Race Theory," and Venus Opal Reese's poetic movement piece "Something Fragile" appeared in the Los Angeles Women's Theater Festival after debuting at AfroSolo. Other artists have benefited from performance workshops offered by AfroSolo during the rest of the year.

"Eventually, we'd like to develop into a company that operates year-round to develop work and give artists a chance to build audiences and build their craft," explains Simpson. "By artists, we mean performers, directors, writers and designers." Beginning Aug. 18, AfroSolo presents a three-week encore of W. Allen Taylor's "Walkin' Talkin' Bill Hawkins," about Taylor's charismatic but absent father, the first black disc jockey in Cleveland, Ohio; Taylor's piece plays AfroSolo.

Other highlights of this year's festival include Peter Fitzsimmons' "Forever Free: The Life and Times of Sargent Johnson," a multimedia portrait of the Bay Area artist who was one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, on Aug. 20. The appearance of gospel greats Emmit Powell and the Gospel Elites at the Forum at Center for the Arts on Aug. 21 will mark the first AfroSolo concert to be recorded.

Cultural Odyssey's Performance Showcase on Aug. 22, hosted by Idris Ackamoor, features the irresistibly irrepressible Dee Dee Russell (a.k.a. "Art Girl"), along with hip-hop/tap artist Edward Jackson, comedic dancer Steve "Overload" Randle, and Kamau Aboyomi of the East Bay spoken-word group 10 Poets Plus a Mike. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences sponsors a showcase/panel presentation of new hip-hop artists on Aug. 21 at Theater Artaud. Notes Simpson with a laugh, "I'm 46, so I don't always know the newer forms. It's been helpful working with young artists from the Academy as they help curate this event."

"One really unique thing about AfroSolo is that it's a theater company devoted to the artist," Simpson says. "We don't impose AfroSolo on the artist. We are looking for a unique artistic vision. In the workshops, we try to provide what the artist needs--some are with directors, some focus on voice work. We give more marketing support than a lot of other theater companies."

In return, AfroSolo also gets a lot of support from other theaters and arts organizations in the Bay Area. Some--like Cultural Odyssey and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre--are specifically geared toward African American artists; others--like Theater Artaud, Center for the Arts and Z Space--are dedicated to developing and nurturing new voices. (AfroSolo, Cultural Odyssey, and Lorraine Hansberry have been pooling resources over the last year to create a greater audience for African American performing artists through AATAIN--see sidebar.)

Still, Simpson notes that some artists have been reluctant to participate in AfroSolo out of fear of seeing their work trapped in the race box. Admits St. Louis, "I worried at first about being ghettoized, but the way I work, what I write about, what I'm interested in, is about experiences that a lot of the population might have." However, St. Louis also maintains, "It was different for me to perform 'Schools!' in AfroSolo, because it was going to mean something different to a mostly black audience than it would to a mostly white audience. It was pretty significant for me."

Simpson's own experiences as a performer show the universality inherent in AfroSolo's aims. "I really thought, when I started this, that our audiences would mostly be African American. But when I first performed my piece 'Promised Land,' which is a number of black male voices, I had one character who was an abused sharecropper. An older Japanese-American lady came up to me after the show and told me how much that particular piece touched her, because it reminded her of her experiences in the internment camps during World War II."

No matter how much AfroSolo has grown, there's no doubt that it's Thomas Simpson's singular passion and vision that's made it successful and accessible year after year. Says St. Louis, "There's a term in the black community, 'Mammy-made,' which is a term for homemade clothes. AfroSolo is Mammy-made. Thomas does so much work by himself and still treats his artists really well."


The Sixth Annual AfroSolo Arts Festival runs through Aug. 22. For information/reservations, call 415.477.AFRO (2376), or visit www.afrosolo.org

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From the August 16, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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