When I was three years old, my Grand Uncle Daniel, a jack-leg or circuit preacher came up to visit for Thanksgiving from rural northeast Arkansas. All the aunts, uncles and cousins were gathered at Aunt Emma’s house. The windows were steamed, the table was overflowing, food-incense filled the inner city apartment. In the middle of the living room, a gas heater hissed, popped and glowed and the children played on the floor.
Uncle Daniel was known in his rural Arkansas community for having the gift of prophesy. In the middle of my play, Aunt Emma came over, took me by the hand and brought me to Uncle Daniel, who stood waiting for us in the hall.
“Uncle Daniel”, she said. “What do you see for this boy?”
“Weeelll” Uncle Daniel began, touching my head and face with his Bible reading,
dry, handy-man hands, “This chile gonna be a precha or a doctah.”
Many years later, when I listen carefully to many different peoples reactions to my performance work, I began to realize what Uncle Daniel was talking about. It was kind of scary for me to come face-to-face with the presence of spirit and healing inside my work. I have gradually gotten more comfortable with this reality as time passes by. Thank you Uncle Daniel.
It wasn’t until after I discovered and assimilated what I could of the wisdom and genius of performing artists Bernice Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock, Sun Ra, John Coltrane and others that I began to understand the power of words, music and movement to heal, transform, instruct and enlighten. Remember theatre began around sacred fires.
Bernice Reagon articulated the political/spiritual content of African American expression within its oral and musical traditions. The music of the Civil Rights Movement in particular, like most African derived art, was both functional and visionary, in that it empowered people to do what that had been taught they dare not do as Black People in this country.
Sun Ra, one of the major jazz innovators of the last century, operated out of a mythology that synthesized both past and future through his various versions of his Space Arkestras. His presentations included wild improvisations, seductive and playful chants, functional electronic instruments (that were also sculptures), dancers, drama and lights that illuminated their costumes. He was a master showman/shaman/ritualist. He had the complete presentation. Space is the Place!
John Coltrane whether he played accessible rivers of sound or incomprehensibly out, channeled spirit that made you vividly see things that sometimes you couldn’t even talk about where you had been. But something had changed inside you, like being rewired. Elegance. Elation. Exaltation. Awe filled silence!