Opera singer and producer Earl Hazell reminds us that standing up for artists and their vision is standing up for free speech, democracy, and ourselves.
“Playing the role of ‘Celie’ while not believing in her right to be loved, or to express her love in any way she chooses, would be a betrayal of women’s right to be free.”
“Woke” is the new asleep. Strive to be awake, like the Buddha. And when Alice Walker speaks, listen.
“Curve's casting director Kay Magson and director Tinuke Craig have assembled an exceptional group of actors to create this Made at Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome co-production of the stunning musical The Color Purple. We are looking forward to welcoming them all to Leicester very much and know they will create something true, mind-blowing and beautiful…Seyi Omooba is an actress of immense power and she leads a formidable ensemble of astonishing talent; they are set to blow the roof off Leicester.”
--News Desk, “Casting Announced For Leicester Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome's The Color Purple,” Broadway World
Women who are more patriarchal and conservative than the majority of men in my social circles can be as comical as they are infuriating. (My gay friends of both sexes, though they rarely talk about it, say they have grown used to this.) Infuriating, if you know my politics, for obvious reasons. Comical because of the irony: with #metoo changing the way we think, speak of and see gender dynamics in the culture, it can be easy to forget about the women who collude with the institutionalized evil-that-men-do; sometimes via Stockholm syndrome, sometimes out of pure convenience. Easy enough, in fact, that they can sneak up on me when the political melodrama of the day has binary-ed my mind and clouded my thinking. Feminism & womanism have given our culture an objective look at men in groups both micro- and telescopic, but to the degree both disciplines have been hijacked by Wall St. and women of dubious intent via the devolving university system (at the expense of both socialism and intersectionality), they can invite a focus on the male sinner as opposed to the socioeconomic and psychodynamic origins of the sin. This can give irony far more destructive power than it should have; particularly when these disciplines and their revelations are dutifully ignored by demographic chunks of the American Church. When conservative women speak and I hear the classic Bill Cosby line in reverse, i.e. women saying what “toxic masculinity” thinks just with a higher voice, I can either laugh or sigh with sadness. It’s more useful to laugh at the comedy (underneath the tragedy) of it all. As a result, I know but often forget the irony that irony produced: women raised in religiously patriarchal homes can have a longer road to Damascus than some of their male counterparts. Home for them is often farther away.
“When conservative women speak and I hear the classic Bill Cosby line in reverse, i.e. women saying what ‘toxic masculinity’ thinks just with a higher voice, I can either laugh or sigh with sadness.”
In one of the many groups on Facebook through which I share articles and have interesting conversations, all of this and more came up between three conservative women and me as if it were scripted. I shared a New York Daily News article in a group about Alice Walker and the recent controversy surrounding a new production of the musical The Color Purple in the UK. Seyi Omooba, a young African singing actress hired to play the principal role of Celie, was discovered to have made homophobic remarks in her past; the kind that made a philosophical question out of hiring her to play a woman who explores same sex intimacy and experiences true love for the first time through doing so. I should have known this would be the music that would make the irony of ironies dance.
Citing the free speech rights of Christians (along with the obligatory conspiracy theories re the global assault on Black people of faith, Christians as a whole, and Western civ in general by, well, everybody), three women I conversed with chose sides on the musical The Color Purple controversy against Alice Walker. They were polite and succinct, but straight out of Central Casting in the way that mattered: occupants of the same patriarchal/homophobic/imperialist spectrum that all straight American men inhabit, admittedly or otherwise, but on a level ironically less evolved than mine or that of most of my friends. This made them antitheses to Walker in ways that were logical to the point of existential, which, as it caught me by surprise, affected me emotionally. Throughout my adult life, I’ve read maybe half a dozen of Walker’s essays, letters and articles and two of her books. The real estate Auntie Alice owns in my heart, nonetheless—like Mama Toni—is real. Black women siding against Walker on virtually any issue is problematic for me.
None of the three women I conversed with struck me as innately bad by any stretch. I didn’t know them personally. I can’t speak to their character. I’m even sure that at least one of them didn’t realize that their stated positions added up to what was an existential stance against Walker and her work. I was just disturbed; disturbed by the Christ-adjacent beliefs they espoused that distorted the voice of Jesus in them the way a head cold and sinus infection distorts mine. This was a problem in them that could be fixed in conversation, something told me; it just needed to be done right. That, however, involved first running a full diagnostic on myself.
1 JOHN 1:8
Oluwaseyi (Seyi) Omooba was terminated from Leicester Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome’s revival of the acclaimed musical “The Color Purple” after a fellow theater thespian shared a screenshot of her 2014 Facebook post denouncing homosexuality.
In the post, Omooba said she did not believe people could be “born gay” and described homosexuality as a sin — “legal” but not "right. -- Karu F. Daniels, “‘Color Purple’ actress sacked for homophobic comments sues theater,” New York Daily News
Start with what you know: the passion of these three women in regards to the subject matter reminded me of my wife back when she was my last girlfriend. At a point fairly early on when we were dating, I woke up one morning and realized that even with great sex it wasn’t enough for me anymore. I wanted a wife. The couple of times a voice sounding like mine had said that before, however, rang in my ears; I had long been a “grown-ass man” with a post-adolescent son when I came to this decision. In other words, before my wife, if you asked anyone about me and my thoughts on relationships, they would tell you that the lie I told myself repeatedly about being done with the single life was one of my favorites. Honestly, it didn’t become the truth until Alexis came to town. It was up to me, when I fell in love with her, to go to war with the wounded liar within me and either seek a higher intimacy with her or risk my chance at living a new life forever. The law of attraction (whatever that is) wasn’t going to do the hard work for me either; my right to lie to myself would stay strong enough to get in the way of the rest of my life no matter how well I attracted love, if I let it. Alexis let me know, without even trying, it was time to step into the real; if there was such a thing as The One, she was it, and it was time to pursue her accordingly.
Love can do that: put you in touch with what is real, and what is true. And as Alice taught us with Celie in The Color Purple, love comes in many forms and in unexpected ways. What Alexis did for me when she walked into my life, Shug did for Celie. Alice Walker has also done this with her work for millions, i.e. those who will let her. Block those blessings when they come, and they may go to someone else.
“As Alice taught us with Celie in The Color Purple, love comes in many forms and in unexpected ways.”
Love and marriage came up for me in this conversation with three Christian women for that other thing that matters: truth. That was inevitable because of how it shines like a diamond in the coal mine of our culture: our beloved America, the birthplace of the Constitution, jazz, Bugs Bunny, free slaves and modern advertising, is a factory for mass produced lies. And above all others, our culture is one in particular where the right to lie to oneself about political leanings is sacred. Telling tales about things like our age, marital status (e.g. cheaters regardless of what they say are always single); racial animus; debt; the traumatic nature of our childhoods; the importance of our jobs; our salaries and their actual implications, or sexual orientation is recreation in the USA. Self-deception is America’s number one sport by far, with neocolonial deception its number one export. Lying about our political orientation, however, to ourselves and others, is more than that; it’s a religious calling stronger than the word of the Lord in the American soul. People all over America who declare themselves to be on the spectrum of the political Left, for example, have actual politics that put them laughably on the Center/Right, where none of the long-term social or economic change for which they supposedly stand will ever be facilitated. We are convinced that the politics of our identity (racial, religious, gender, sexual, ethnic, etc.) form a talisman that protects us from either objective analysis or social responsibility, simply by virtue of us expressing the superior nature of our historically victimized tribe boastfully or angrily. Those on the political Right, however, practicing neo-McCarthyism at every turn—while trying to figure out how they can have a velvet rope socialism for just themselves, the wealthy who hate them and their religious institutions—are no less insufferable. These dynamics and their hypocritical infrastructure, endemic to American mores, give those on both sides of the aisle more of the Pavlovian responses to cultural stimuli than any of us are comfortable considering. Recognizing the truth, however—that we are helpless against our easily programmable impulses, and our politics have become unmanageable tools of the neoliberalism we pretend to oppose—is the first step to freedom. And only something that transcends politics like art can put us in touch with still water running this deep.
The problem is, truth hurts. Truth (say it with me, Jesus) is excruciating. Judgement, on the other hand—the true ring that binds us when we put it on—comforts while it lies.
This is why liars love to judge. And we are all liars.
ROMANS 2: 1
“It is safe to say, after a frightful life serving and obeying abusive men, who raped in place of ‘making love,’ my grandmother, like Celie, was not attracted to men…She was, in fact, very drawn to my grandfather’s lover, a beautiful woman who was kind to her, the only grown person who ever seemed to notice how remarkable and creative she was.” -- Alice Walker, from her letter re actress Oluwaseyi Omooba, “To whom it may concern,”
Judgement of others is how we avoid the truth, not declare it. When we judge, we see our best selves distinct from our humanity, and act as if the personal evolution that’s possible is one we’ve already achieved. When we judge, in fact, we see three illusions that control us: 1) the incarnation of only our best (and untested) qualities instead of our flawed & complicated selves, 2) the incarnation of the worst qualities of others equally distinct from their actual humanity (including their gifts), and 3) their worst qualities incarnate further defined as our antithesis. I am, because you are not. And when we judge—not discern or evaluate but judge—truth leaves, empathy dies, hypocrisy becomes a cult, projection a second language, and reality goes from being crystal clear to a Monet painting, to being completely invisible to our naked eyes. We know this because when we judge, there are either no ugly truths about ourselves that need to be confronted, or our lives are nothing but a junkyard collection of them; a junkyard of ugliness that must be hidden with secrets and deflection. Both presumptions of self derived from judgement—the pure and the hopeless—are egoistic lies. But both presumptions buy us out of the pain of going to war with ourselves for the higher truth; an escape which can actually feel great, for about twenty minutes. Some people will chase that first high derived from the cheapest of drugs that is judgement —which never returns—for the rest of their lives, to avoid the pain that comes with truth. Until crisis persuades them not to.
Is there any more effective delivery system for this drug than the word “heathen”? Christians may lie, to themselves and others, but they know: church can be the equivalent of a crack den for those addicted to judgment as easily as it can be a hospital for sin-sick souls.
Ask any artist and they will tell you: judgement is the path to “the Dark Side.” The Dark Side for an artist, however, is not a theological idea but a very real and destructive thing: it’s the path to mediocrity and deceit in the service of political propaganda. Judgement kidnaps both craft and genius and takes you down the path, and the path takes you straight to hell. The soul of an artist forces us into getting clear pretty quickly: judgement, not the judged, is the devil. I saw (almost) immediately that if my conversations with the three Black Marias who annoyed me on Facebook were going to go anywhere, it would be up to me to let go of the pretense that, being Jesus, I was free to judge them. There would be no greater condemnation—not of them, but of myself.
“Church can be the equivalent of a crack den for those addicted to judgment as easily as it can be a hospital for sin-sick souls.”
“Pastor Ade Omooba, who is the co-founder of Christian Concern alongside Andrea Minichiello Williams, was awarded the honour at Buckingham Palace on Thursday for his work in voluntary service…Pastor Omooba has been involved in a string of anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns over the course of his career, including a failed attempt to stop anti-discrimination legislation against gay people in 2006…The legislation tackled discrimination banning hotels from refusing bookings from same-sex couples. He also campaigned against same-sex marriage, saying equal unions "devalue the meaning of marriage itself." -- Jasmine Andersson, inews.co.uk, “Pastor who advocates gay conversion therapy awarded MBE at Buckingham Palace in the New Year Honours List”
Oluwaseyi (“Seyi”) Omooba, like her father, Pastor Ade Omooba, is a devout Christian. She is also, however, an artist; a professional singing actor, like me. This is a key distinction. “Judge not,” says the book of Matthew in the New Testament as plain as day. Judgement, nonetheless, is a beloved cultural paradigm in literally every one of the dozens of churches I’ve ever visited, prayed in, sung through or music directed across America since I was a child (a dynamic replicated in churches from London to Lagos). The idea of releasing attachments to judgement is introduced in church well, but in none I have ever been to or heard of is it actually practiced like it is as part of the craft of a professional artist. Hence what I believe to be the secret dichotomy—and therefore agony—in the young Omooba’s heart. Ask any actor: Christians can judge themselves to sleep, all day everyday, but while the presence of talent and integrity run the gamut in our field just like any other, an actor, while told many things in training, hears nothing as important as this: it’s better to show up late for every rehearsal and not memorize your lines than it is to judge your character. An actor who plays God with judgement loses connection with the Kingdom of Heaven within them, where the truth lives. That shows up almost instantly in an actor’s work; in rehearsal, in recording, on television & film, or on the living stage. You can hear it in our voice, and see it in our eyes.
Seyi is a Christian, but she is a singing actress whom I can practically guarantee is learning to free herself from an attachment to judgement through her craft, not her religion. Nothing gets in the way of Christ like Christianity. Omooba, therefore, has the public resolve of youth in her responses to her employers’ decisions, but privately, I suggest, the maturing artist in her is struggling. She is trying to figure out which of the two masters giving her orders she was meant to serve: Christianity, the propaganda wing of Western imperialism exemplified by her father, or Christ, the middle Eastern Artist of Truth and father of us all. Look closely at this controversy and you will see the struggle in her. Listen, and you will hear it.
THE VERB TO LISTEN
My defense of Alice Walker, independent of what I saw and heard in Omooba, put me in a strange place as an artist: not just taking a side against a group of Christian women but also that of a writer against an actor. This is where the uncomfortable questions from a voice inside of me continued. Every artist struggles with sides of their personality in conflict; how and exactly why was I going to choose one over the other—and this one over that other? Both Walker and Omooba are artists. Both artists are women. Both women are African and of African descent, as am I. Alice, however, at 75 is almost three years older than my mother, while Seyi at 25 is more than three years younger than my son. Giving up the illusion of Gen-X objectivity when hypocritically judging the moral failures of Baby-boomers and Millenials forced me to question, when reflexively taking Alice’s side, if this was about art at all. I had to wonder for a second if I was running to mother issues to avoid admitting the envy of this later generation’s youth. The Christian women of Facebook whom I debated, seemingly untroubled by any of these questions, forced me to dig in my heels and defend a point of view that I wasn’t quite sure was worth defending. This was bigger than my issue with homophobia (which naturally is where the greater argument around The Color Purple began but not where it could ever end). Or was it? Could this be just basic male ego acting up in patriarchal fashion, trying to control a group of women into thinking the way I wanted, or was there a deeper gnosis within me demanding its own evangelism?
All five of the women in question—Alice, Seyi and the Facebook trio—reminded me again that I am a husband. It didn’t help, at first. There is no such thing as a good husband who chooses not to be an ally to women, this I know, but Alice and Seyi, again, are both women; how do I take the side of one over the other?
The diagnostic on myself continued as I considered the wisdom angle in search of a clue. Siding with elders is a natural predilection that is easily justified in the cultures of the African diaspora and countless others around the world, making Alice the easy choice to side with on that basis. The innovators in art throughout every culture’s history, however, prove how often that can be a mistake—forcing another look at Seyi. Faith helps (leading further to Seyi), but we know what faith without good work is (leading back to Alice). Which way to go? I heard the voice of God, but hearing Her voice is not the same as listening to Him. That was the clue I needed.
A husband has one thing in common with an artist above all: the need to learn not how to speak or to hear but to listen. That showed me the truth, and that brought me home. To learn how to learn; how to express your truest feelings with courage; how to admit you’re wrong when it matters by just practicing the saying of the words “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” even when you know in your heart of hearts that you weren’t—because sometimes, sometimes, that feeling in your heart is wrong about being right without knowing it…to learn how to earn trust, even when your trust has been betrayed; to inspire the very one who has disappointed you and ask forgiveness for routinely disappointing them…to take everything seriously and nothing personally; to take care of yourself through taking care of others, and taking care of others as part of taking care of the one to whom you are joined…to rise above the expectations of others while coming to terms with how immature and nonsensical your expectations of them continue to be…to observe, question, discern, lead, love, follow, feel, give, receive, scream, defend, forgive, play, and remember… all of it flows past a good Christian’s ideals through the artists’ fingers, tongue, belly, teeth and toes—and straight to a husband’s heart—from learning how to listen. Being a husband, however, simply reminded me of what the organizing principle of my life has been from long before I was married. I am a musician. I am an actor. I am a spirit. I listen.
1 KINGS 3:25
“I was a religious zealot that hurt people,” Game told the newspaper. “People said they attempted suicide over me and the things I said to them. People, I know, are in therapy because of me. Why would I want that to continue?”…Conversion therapy, sometimes called “ex-gay therapy” or “reparative therapy,” is the pseudoscientific and often religious practice that purports to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The contentious practice has been condemned by nearly every major medical association and has been associated with increased rates of suicide attempts. -- Tim Fitzsimmons, “’Doesn’t surprise me:’ Conversion therapy survivors on another ex-therapist coming out,” NBCnews.com
The three women on Facebook cheerleading for Omooba against Walker were unaware of the error in their ways. They weren’t listening. They had little interest in the musical production of The Color Purple in Birmingham, UK or the facts regarding Omooba being fired from the production. Omooba for them, I gathered, was just another Christian being judged for being a Christian and then persecuted out of a career for being a Christian—like Daniel, like Ruth; like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; like Jesus (none of whom were Christian). That was seemingly all they needed to know, and for me, given they saw no reason to be concerned with the integrity of the production or its effect on the legacy of the musical or the art form, that was the root of all the evil in their arguments. The principle-of-the-thing meant that they didn’t care if the baby died after being split in half.
I had to question my intensity in trying to change their minds nonetheless, given no one changes their minds about anything from a Facebook argument. More than masculine control, was I narcissistically committed to them understanding me as opposed to any of us developing a new understanding of faith? Was dominance and critique more important to me than illumination? Did my desire to connect with them reflect on my commitment to my wife in any sketchy way? There were no clear answers to these questions for me. Acceptance was key: there would never be a pure person in my head pursuing any agendas, noble or otherwise. What was important to know was not what germs and inequities were coming with me on the journey, but to where was the journey leading.
The questions that truly mattered began here: what does it mean to defend an artist? What does it mean to defend one artist over another? When should we?
(THE) PLAY IS THE THING
“The Bible, like the Koran, like the Talmud, and others that claim to teach the best way for people to live, must be interrogated, questioned, and respectfully deconstructed. Love, however it may be expressed, is to be honored and welcomed into the light of our common survival as a consciously human, race.” --Alice Walker, from her letter re actress Oluwaseyi Omooba, “To Whom It May Concern,”
This is a story with no major plot twists and little suspense because there is no twist ending. The full diagnostic of my own psyche was complete soon after I started conversing with the Facebook women trio, and my decision remained the same from before it began: Alice Walker has the final say on this. I shared the article that got the conversation going knowing this implicitly; I just wanted to see where it would take me.
My conversation with these three women on Facebook was play. To engage in the defense of art with art is one way artists play, and we take play very seriously. Faith, however, teaches an artist early on that we are here by a design far more intelligent than we are; truth evolves and touches the world through our play. Most of all, faith in our artist voice teaches us that truth, when expressed and authentically lived by a few, can heal the world. Many preach. Countless believe. Alice knows.
On what bases do you defend one artist over another? Knowing begins with this: to be changed and healed by an artist at play, you must respect the playground. Artistic integrity frees me of both narcissism and hero worship, making the truth as visible as the sunrise: knowing myself is helpful, but this was never about me. It’s not about the women with whom I debated, or Omooba. This isn’t even about Alice. This is about The Color Purple: the house that Alice built. She more than anyone knows exactly where the load bearing beams are.
Minutes into my conversation with the women of Facebook, I realized what I needed to know. This was not my opportunity to dominate or center myself in the debate, but to educate. The faith and free speech arguments made by the women were made clearly and duly noted. It was time to talk about art. I mentioned Edward Albee.
EDWARD ALBEE AND THE ARTIST’S WAY
“Because I believe, and know, that sexual love can be extraordinarily holy, whoever might be engaging in it, I felt I had been able to return a blessing of love to a grandmother who had always offered only blessing and love, when I was a child, to me.” -- Alice Walker, from her letter re actress Oluwaseyi Omooba, “To Whom It May Concern,”
Rigor. Art is not just heart and poetry, it is also reason and prose; applied with the ruthless objectivity of a surgeon’s scalpel. Art is unrelenting and unforgiving craft, and one does not humble craft to themselves if they are an artist; one humbles themselves to craft. Alice Walker’s achievement with The Color Purple can be compared to any number of literary giants and their work in the 20th century. An important one for me, however, in light of the current controversy re the musical, is the work of Edward Albee. Albee was one of the great playwrights of the 20th century who wrote the successful Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was made into an award-winning movie in the 60s with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The play is essentially about a dysfunctional married couple led by George, a college professor whose marriage with Martha is upended as a result of a new young couple coming to their university and, unexpectedly, into their lives. The play is to the New England upper middle class what Raisin in the Sun is to the Black community—an analogy which reveals many things.
Virginia Woolf, at almost sixty years old, is produced everywhere across America. It's been revived on Broadway numerous times. And because of its place in the dramatic canon, it's been open to all kinds of interpretation, with significant changes in the casting to make different points with the work. The problem, however, is that Edward Albee, who died in 2016, never liked the majority of changes to his play in productions subsequent to its 1962 Broadway debut. He thought from the very beginning that Liz Taylor was too young for the role of Martha against Richard Burton's George in the Mike Nichols-directed movie of 1966. And she was; Albee wrote the role, and saw it debut on Broadway, for an actress two decades older than the thirty-three year old Taylor was at the time. And in the past few decades or more, there have been partly Black and all-Black versions of the play produced to great acclaim by both the audiences seeing it and those angered over not being able to. Most across the generations are blissfully unaware of the degree to which Albee felt that unconventional casting muffled the voice of his play, built around the tortured souls of an affluent, virtually all-white New England community and a failed marriage within.
Understanding the feelings of Albee begin with understanding his work. The characteristics of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are no accident. The play is about a specific race & class and the nature of their intimate, heterosexual relationships at a very specific time and place in American society. Make either George or Martha ten or more years younger; change their race, gender or sexual orientation; give them different professions, move them to a different part of the country, or set them in a different time period and there was a good chance, as far as Albee was concerned, you were not really doing his play. Sure, he went along with the licensing of it, etc. for several unconventional productions, but he did so, I believe, with the knowledge that he was compromising his original work, if only in ways only he would know. He still defended the play against what he felt were the most egregious examples of betraying his original vision when it mattered.
“The play is about a specific race & class and the nature of their intimate, heterosexual relationships at a very specific time and place in American society.”
A bitter pill to swallow for defenders of the theatre is the following: it stands to reason that people who do not respect Albee's original casting amongst the play’s other requirements may not fully respect the playwright, the original vision, the overarching theme, the powerful words or dramatic arc of the piece in the first place. That puts the onus on those seeking to produce and sustain Virginia Woolfin ways contrary to Albee’s wishes to prove not just that they respect him, but that they are in fact defenders of the theatre. I know the implications of such a thing are excruciating to consider for all kinds of reasons (like anyone who isn’t English and Caucasian [or male] performing Shakespeare, for example), but embracing the sacred in art demands the kind of rigor and reverence for the playground turned sanctuary of the artist’s work beyond what is convenient for the status quo to believe.
Great art in fact, requires more than just reverence or inconvenience for the artist. It demands a spiritual jihad. Choosing to avoid the war within that great art facilitates while claiming ownership of it is an act of colonization in the end, not appreciation. Edward Albee’s play touches on many things in American society and the American psyche, but the order of appearance, intensity and priority of those things, like those of the leitmotifs of a Wagner opera, are as definitive of the work as anything else. And that synecdoche, i.e. that pyramid of priorities expressed in even the minutiae of his language—of which some things important to us today are either irrelevant to the play or not overtly present in it at all—could make a presentation of his work when it isn’t reflected something only slightly more subtle than Pat Boone singing Little Richard songs in the 50s. Such a thing would be obvious to Black folk watching a company trying to produce an all-white Raisin in the Sun in willful ignorance to the Black experience giving it context (to say nothing of Porgy and Bess), but can slip past identity politicians everywhere in virtually every other example.
Was Edward Albee racist, and didn’t like Black people dating his favorite child of a play accordingly? Was he equally homophobic (doubtful!) or sexist? Possibly; with God, all things are possible. It is also possible that neither the speculation or proven reality of any alleged racism, sexism or homophobia in the man had anything to do with his desire to have his plays produced a specific way, insuring that a performance of them said what he intended them to say. They were his. They are his. As such, each of his plays, particularly his operatic masterpiece Virginia Woolf, are the echo of the voice in his X-ray eyes and the semiotics of his broken heart. While it’s possible that gems of sociopolitical insight from his subconscious are embedded in the play and can flicker brighter in the light when dug out by someone else’s vision, it’s also possible that Albee was, in actuality, fully conscious of them all and prioritized other jewels in his message to the world; some less pertinent or less complimentary to what arouses our cultural self-importance today.
A play (like a screenplay, novel, jazz tune, opera, or musical) is a blueprint as much as it is a finished house. Loving it is not enough; are you sure you know where the load bearing beams are?
It cannot be repeated enough: an artist’s work is the living incarnation of something he or she had to say. An actor’s job when playing in the work of another artist is to listen to it. Redefining the work according to what is convenient—to one’s ego or preexisting belief system—is usually not listening, with an agenda. And hidden agendas are political by definition. For those Americans concerned with the religious freedom protected by the same First Amendment that defends the rights of journalists, artists, sex workers, atheists, those committed to religions of which Christians do not approve and everyday people, make no mistake: the dishonor of art, as much as the dishonor of children, is the beating heart of fascism. Fascism does not listen. Fascism does not care. Fascism will pretend to be religious, agnostic or atheist; whatever gets it in your pants. Fascism is anti-art. Fascism is nonfactual and ahistorical. Fascism, using judgement, hypocrisy and deceit, is both seductive and destructive. Fascism is a meta-language that, like a parasite gone mad, kills its host, after killing democracy and before killing itself. Art is life; fascism is anti-life. Fascism is violence bereft of purpose.
Art reveals an unmistakable feature: fascism teaches us that subtext without context, is a pretext.
I KNOW WHY THE FAT LADY SINGS
Why does Alice Walker get the final say regarding the casting choices of a musical she neither produced nor composed? Simple: Alice Walker is the Edward Albee of The Color Purple. Neither Quincy Jones, nor Marsha Norman, nor Brenda Russell, et. al. would tell you otherwise. She wrote the source material of the multiple Tony Award-winning musical. And almost she alone would know whether or not a singing actor’s divergence of opinion on the quality and beauty of the soul of its central character, Celie, would enable them to bring it to life and do the entire musical justice. Alice above everyone.
Opera singers know what happens when the wrong people take ownership of an art form. The opera industry in the late 20th/early 21stcentury has a recurring communal nightmare of which its practitioners dare not speak the name: a psychopathic Dorian Grey-like vampire, dressed in the one hundred and fifty year old clothes of a carnival barker, introduces a stage full of trained seals who balance all kinds of athletically melodious balls on the tips of their noses while walking across a stage over an orchestra of drug addicts playing far too loudly…they are performing for an audience of two or three hundred aging, rich hypercritics, dispersed through an arena of fifty thousand empty seats, as part of a dilapidated three-ring circus; one condemned by the public for animal cruelty, having no respect for (nor understanding of) actual storytelling, and the screaming abuse of the undead victims (dressed as underpaid animal trainers) in indecipherable languages. When singers and directors fail to imbue opera’s carefully constructed characters with meaning, metaphor and imagination as part of the dramatic engine that drives the music, the amazing singing, with no microphones or amplification for support, becomes “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and audiences vote with their feet by Netflix-ing drama and Youtube-ing great singing instead of coming to see us in the theatres. Despite the work of innumerable directors, costumers, set designers and singing actors of incomparable integrity and excellence around the world, there is one root cause of the steady decline in ticket sales for the American opera scene of today (one that has less to do with the Internet, or MCU superhero movies, or the art form [or the new Black music scapegoat du jour for that matter] than is typically believed). And it is this: the accountants and middle managers of the opera industry are the children running the nursery in most of the houses across America; through which they are running the multi-cultural and multi-gendered visionaries of new generations out of the industry in suicidal fashion. However, when we in opera see and hear the predictably ritualized, proto-musical gesticulations of corporate pop & Hip-Hop, hypersexualized R&B, sloganized country, egocentric gospel and the Disneyfication of musical theatre—getting (like Hollywood) in the way of songwriters, composers, playwrights, directors and performance artists with something deeper to say—we see and hear exactly what people complain about in our side of the business. The dark, imperious shadow of neoliberalism growing over American creativity is why we cannot claim ownership of art lightly, if at all, given the impulse to do so is usually a product of that thing which has claimed ownership of us.
Our future depends on the defense and celebration of this truth in all things, particularly all things artistic. Like the Earth itself, as the Natives of this stolen land taught us, we did not inherit the art of our fathers, mothers and ancestors so much as we are borrowing it from our grandchildren. As such, we don’t get to decide, without rigorous, courageous and studied reflection, what condition art should be in if we’re not making any, and sometimes even when we are. Deciding self-referentially what someone else’s art should be is unconsciously giving into the fascist impulse of killing it, hollowing it out, or letting it die. Art is our first line of defense in the war against corporatism, aka fascism, late-stage capitalism, or neoliberalism (take your pick). In a democracy, art is oxygen. How dirty do you think we can let it get before democracy suffocates and dies?
“Alice above everyone.”
Like with every masterpiece achieving immortality by becoming emblematic of its time, everyone who has read The Color Purple and seen something of their inner world within its chapters has claimed it as their own. In the Black community, doing so by virtue of crying through multiple showings of the Spielberg movie over the past thirty-five years with the passion by which we claimed Thanksgiving from the Pilgrims (whether you read the book or not) is practically an article of faith. But The Color Purple is still just ours to enjoy, not to own. It still belongs to Alice. It still belongs to Alice’s grandmother. The multiple dramatists and composers who developed and produced the musical for Broadway; the director responsible for the British revival in question; Stephen Spielberg and the Oscar-nominated ensemble cast from the 1985 movie, bridging the novel of 1982 to the Broadway musical premier in 2005 and revival in 2016; Oprah Winfrey; Quincy Jones…these people, places, things and Alice form the Constitution and branches of government of this undiscovered country that is The Color Purple: a country which no other representatives or metaphorical citizens get to intimately redefine without their consent.
A singing actor who has not waged jihad on themselves; who has not washed from their souls the dust and filth of everyday judgement, arrogance, duplicity, ego and fascist impulse before entering the sacred temple of a great work, is one who cannot listen to the secrets of Life their character is telling the world through the writer who introduced them. Because they will not hear them. They will not see them. And if they cannot hear nor see them, there’s a good chance that they will not communicate them. No matter how beautiful the voice or impressive the stage presence, a singing actor who judges—quietly, passive/aggressively or otherwise—is an actor who does not listen. And an actor who does not listen is not just lost. An actor who doesn’t listen is an oxymoron.
I don’t know Omooba. I don’t know her work. I can conjecture but, despite my heart of hearts telling me I do, being a husband reminds me that it’s been wrong before, and in the final analysis, I admit that I don’t know her soul. However, I know we can take neither the craft of acting nor Alice Walker’s wisdom lightly, for reasons that no amount of religious faith can hide. Wisdom illuminates what often remains darkly invisible to youth. Omooba is a brilliant, young, Christian performing artist whose life, growth, commitment, courage and faith must be respected. However, as the director who fired her all but said, she forgot to wash Alice’s feet before entering the Walker house. Omooba was a guest in the house of Alice, where Celie lives, not the host. Alice gets the final word.
OFFERTORY: WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US
You have your opinions, and I have mine. Like the women I argued with on Facebook, so does Omooba. As do her former employers. The truth, however, is clear: regardless of the legal merits of Omooba’s case against the Curve Theatre in Leicester and Global Artists,no opinions on how The Color Purple should be produced give us the right to strip a creative artist of influence over their own work before it is presented to the public. We especially do not have the power to do that and imagine we are properly presenting the transcendental aspects of their work to the world afterwards. The temerity to believe otherwise would be, for starters, so un-Christian—or at least un-Christlike—that it begs to be regulated on that point alone.
EPILOGUE: AND WE SHALL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD
Dave Chappelle’s insights notwithstanding, many people will continue to define the firing of singing actress Omooba on the grounds of homophobic comments she made four years ago in a perfectly ignorant way: as another thing that justifies the ongoing Crusade for the Son of God against the communist secularization of America through political correctness. (The fact that this has been an unimaginably violent Crusade that a) began centuries before the genocidal advent of America or communism, b) has not been abated in the slightest by political correctness and c) has wrought far more havoc to civilization than it could ever be preventing will be, as always, dutifully ignored.) They will seek no more facts regarding the controversy and may never see the narcissism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia or misogyny inherent to their victim theology as a result, because they simply choose not to. (Ask the average Muslim about Yemen, or Iran, or the Uighurs in China, or Prime Minister Modi and India, or Israel/Palestine, or the headscarf bans in France, or the Patriot Act, or the Trump administration: there is no national or global conspiracy against Christians. Few tools work better for killing democracy than the weaponization of delusional hypocrisy.) Others will see the firing of Omooba as a triumph against the forces of fascism and their attempt to establish a new deification of the authoritarian personality by hollowing out the spirituality and empathy inherent to both art and the New Testament. (Oh yeah, and the triumph of keeping pretty Black music pretty, especially when written by white people and sung by a Black diva about a Black lesbian—or something—who does something, I don’t know, like be Black after slavery; oh yeah, and she survives a big Black buck—I mean cisgender African-American criminal—don’t judge me!….) Those antithetical others will cheer for the LGBTQIA underdogs the world over, but they will seek no further enlightenment via the Black American experience contextualizing their human rights struggles as exemplified by Walker’s original work. As a result, they may never see the narcissism, latent racism, or dependence on the status quo inherent to the neoliberal fetishization of identity waging war on art and its appreciation in our time. Because, like their chosen enemies with the planks in their eyes, they simply choose not to.
In the end, lambasting those two ends of the political bell curve for their hypocrisy can’t change for whom it tolls. We all have lies we need to stop telling if we want to dismantle neoliberalism, be married to Divine Truth, know real love, and do our part to save the world. Great art will take us there—or at least show us the way.
No one's rights regarding The Color Purple exceed those of the original writers and producers. And if they are clear that a religious woman with homophobic beliefs, however talented and nice, is existentially incapable of bringing the vision of Alice Walker's spiritually bisexual character fully to life, we need to ask ourselves a question: exactly what gives anyone the right to dismiss these artists and their rights in regards to defining their own work? And how is whatever force that gives anyone the right to do this not anti-Christian, anti-artistic, anti-democratic and wholly malevolent at its heart?
Ye shall know thou art and it will make you free.
“Playing the role of ‘Celie’ while not believing in her right to be loved, or to express her love in any way she chooses, would be a betrayal of women’s right to be free…As an elder, I urge all of us to think carefully about what I am saying, even as you, Oluwaseyi Omooba, sue the theatre company for voiding your contract. This is just an episode in your life; your life, your work, and your growth, will continue, in the real world. A world we must make safe for women and children, female and male. And the greatest freedom of all is the freedom to be your authentic self.” -- Alice Walker, from her letter re actress Oluwaseyi Omooba, “To Whom It May Concern”
Trust Alice Walker. Trust that Alice’s heart beats to the rhythm of the voice of GOD, and dance to that rhythm before all others. Don’t be afraid of Alice Walker. Pretend you’re an artist, and then pretend you’re a husband, i.e. the kind of husband I want to be when I grow up. And then pretend Alice is your wife and she has welcomed you home—and listen to Alice Walker. Alice might have something to teach us now, regarding what she wrote to honor her grandmother then, and why.
“Woke” is the new asleep. Strive to be awake, like the Buddha, the Enlightened One. Like Jesus, the Christ. And when Alice Walker speaks, listen.
Earl Hazell, native New Yorker, Basso Cantante opera singer and jazz composer/arranger, is the Executive & Artistic Director of Jazzoperetry (“Jazz-OP-ruh-tree”), Inc., the innovative production company combining jazz, opera and spoken word poetry in performance. He has worked with, among others, Max Roach, Zuben Mehta, Jon Hendricks, James Levine, Abbey Lincoln, Kurt Masur, Billy Taylor, Jimmy Heath, Karen Slack, Donald Byrd, Eric Owens, and the New York Philharmonic, as well as numerous opera houses globally including San Francisco Opera, the Semperoper of Dresden, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Teatro dell’Opera of Rome.
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