David Daniels, our maverick bard


To experience David Daniels is, well, an experience. Lean, good-looking, dreadlocked, owning a world of stage presence, and immersed in his work, Daniels mesmerizes.

Rasta bard Daniels is a maverick of the first order. Always was. From his first play Malcolm X Meet Peter Tosh to the Talkin’ Roots and 4:20 Report CDs, freewheeling originality is essential to the impressive canon of this impassioned local wordsmith.

In 1993, Daniels stormed out of a Playwrights’ Center class over comments from the workshop instructor on Malcolm X Meet Peter Tosh. Several months later, Daniels saw it staged at Minneapolis’s Cedar Cultural Center; later, it moved to Denver’s Mercury Cafe Theater. The play was a hit in both places, and was produced at Denver venues for the next two years before knocking crowds and critics out at 1995’s Minnesota Fringe Festival. Daniels hasn’t stopped doing things his way—and he never took another of my playwriting classes.

This article is part of the Daily Planet’s continuing coverage of the Twin Cities spoken word scene. Read Dwight Hobbes on the best local spoken word discs of 2007, Helen Kinuthia on spoken word performer IBé Kaba, and Jay Gabler on The Cutt open mic night. In future weeks, look for Andrea Myers’s profile of Dessa.

“My life hasn’t followed convention,” says Daniels. He was educated at the Watkinson School in Hartford, a prep school where he was “one out of ten [blacks] in the entire school…and two were my brothers!” He chose afterward to attend Alaska Methodist University (now Alaska Pacific University) and he lived in Alaskan communes. “My writing was bound to be unconventional. [Folk] write what they know, [and] my influences were people who defied the mainstream, mainly Bob Marley and Richard Brautigan.”

Another influence, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, got him here. In 1988, Daniels was working on McCarthy’s bid for the White House as McCarthy’s running mate when McCarthy convinced him to settle in the Twin Cities.

This quintessential firebrand has not only gone against the grain—he prevails. To partially detail his extensive track record: I, Edgar Hoover; Black Hippie Chronicles; I and I Roots Story, and his best known outing, Kolorada…A Western Tale, produced at BUG Performance and Media Center (Denver), Tower Theater (Salt Lake City), Todo Con Nada Theatre (NYC), and a week-long hit at the 1997 New York International Fringe Festival. Kolorada also aired over KFAI Radio and on MTN’s Hemp Channel, and Daniels’s solo performance of the work opened a First Avenue bill for Bob Marley biographer/archivist Roger Steffens.

For good measure, Daniels has performed in Holland, Germany, and France. “What struck me about Germany was how they weren’t hung up on the marijuana aspects of my work. It was given that a Rasta would bring up marijuana, so there was greater interest in the entire work. Also, German immigrants from Ghana, Senegal and South Africa felt I was presenting an authentic Rasta message while never denying that I’m an American. Previously, they felt American reggae artists were primarily imitating Jamaicans.”

None of these accomplishments are small potatoes. Daniels’s sustained career is downright amazing, however, when you factor in that he is ignored by Twin Cities media and was been banned from high-profile space Bryant-Lake Bowl Theatre…and he isn’t particularly welcome back at the Playwrights’ Center. See, if his script calls for smoking ganja, that’s what the routinely self-directed author does. He won’t use a smell-alike, veggie cigarette prop: it’s got to be, as it were, funky. “To be true and honest in representing reggae and Rasta on the stage, that’s what has to be,” he told me once. “It’s given by Jah as a sacrament, a healer of peoples and nations. Like all herbs, it has its place.” Media blackout and closed venues be damned, his flag is planted. “I believe I’ve been planted here and, until life leads me in a different direction, I’ll be here.”

If his script calls for smoking ganja, that’s what the routinely self-directed author does. He won’t use a smell-alike, veggie cigarette prop: it’s got to be, as it were, funky.

How’d he come to his artistry? “Writing,” he explains, has been “a passion since youth.” Daniels crafts a script—be it a solo or ensemble piece—according to the message he wants to send. Count on him to skewer mainstream sensibilities. Kolorada, for instance, takes America to task for lauding spirited independence, yet cracking down on civil disobedience. In a veritable indictment, Hoover takes on the history books’ sacred cow J. Edgar, who hounded gay men in public while wearing a dress for his lover in private and broke the laws he claimed to enforce. Political and social commentary conveyed by artistic integrity: that’s Daniels’s calling card, an indelible trademark that hasn’t changed since day one. A pleasant evolution, though, has recently seen his serenely reflective side poke its head up. A kindler, gentler David Daniels surfaced a few years back, incorporating the work of Brautigan, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other writers.

To be sure, Daniels hasn’t done it quite all on his own. Early on, he partnered with Mitch Olson—a lighting director and stage manager—to found the Reggae Theater Ensemble. The collaboration freed Daniels to focus on his writing and performance. “Mitch was grounded in reggae-hippie culture,” remembers Daniels. “He was instrumental [as] a kindred spirit.” From the outset, RTE work struck a chord with the counterculture. “The vibe at our shows was like a reggae concert or [Grateful] Dead show.” These days, with Daniels doing more solo shows, Reggae Theatre Ensemble doesn’t work as often as it used to. Still, he and Mitch Olson remain tight as friends and as professionals.

There’s something to be said for can’t-nobody-tell-me-who-I-am wordsmithing and performance. Point in case: one dyed-in-the-wool, they-broke-the-mold upstart David Daniels.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.