Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Santa Barbara is a region of delightfully strange juxtapositions. Witness the recent wine tasting at the beach. While it's true there is often a great deal of wine drinking going on when the blues is played anywhere, we don't always think of the Chardonnay crowd as blues aficionados.

The legions of BMWs and Jaguars may have come down to the beach that Sunday for the California Wine Festival -- But I was there because of the advertised musical guests, Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan.

Keeping up the Blues traditions of Taj Mahal, Koerner, Ray & Glover and so many others, Ball and Sultan have achieved international recognition for their artistry and are regulars on the festival circuit. They also make their home base here in Southern Califronia, so we get to see them often. You may want to check out their web site and order some of their CDs. Along with recordings of their own performances, the web site offers instructional books and videos as well.

That Sunday they were at the top of their form, playing such old favorites as their song about the perfect woman (she owns a liquor store, you see), and working out on stunning solos, including a harmonica-only rendition of Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" that had all of us harp players in the audience slack-jawed with wonder.

This may not have been the sort of setting for the Blues I grew up with in DC, but the skies were clear, the mountains were near, the ocean was crashing in just the right rhythm -- even the sea birds were rocking --

and oh . . . as you can probably guess from these photos, the Chardonnay was pretty good, too.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


One recent visitor to Santa Barbara was filmmaker Billy Woodberry, who was here to screen his great movie BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS and to participate in panel discussions on the cinema arts. This event was sponsored by UCSB's Black Studies department along with the Center for Black Studies, the Film and Media Studies department and others.

Woodberry was part of that remarkable group of young, African American directors who streamed through UCLA's film school from the late 60s through the early 80s, often known as the Los Angeles School or simply as the L.A. Rebellion. The group included Charles Burnett (TO SLEEP WITH ANGER, KILLER OF SHEEP), Larry Clark (PASSING THROUGH), Julie Dash (DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST) and Haile Gerima (SANKOFA), with whom I had the pleasure of appearing at the Black Archipelagoes Symposium at Georgetown a couple years back.

Woodberry's BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS is characteristic of the movement -- a low budget (in parts a guerilla) production marked by deeply felt acting, shots influenced by neo-realism and portraits of everyday black life in America entirely unlike what Hollywood was giving us at the time -- for that matter, totally unlike the preponderance of portrayals of black life in American media today.

It was a summery gathering, a mix of students earning credit and non-students enriching a few well-earned vacation hours. I took special note of the reactions of the young students to Woodberry's film. None of them was old enough to have known previously of the L.A. group, and clearly none of them had seen films like this about black American life before -- In the era of HUSTLE AND FLOW and CRASH, these films appeared before the students like . . . well, like what they are -- quiet works of art that tell us something about ourselves and leave us with images that will never go away -- BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS was made from a script initially written by Burnett, and so the film is also a testament to the collaborative life of art that these directors created among themselves as UCLA's first black graudate students in film. One of the first black students at UCLA's film school was Teshome Gabriel, from Ethiopia, who went on to teach at UCLA as he worked through his crucial theories of Third Cinema. Teshome, by the way, phoned me out of the blue after reading my first book, establishing a friendship that continues to this day.

As it happens, Burnett's KILLER OF SHEEP is being readied at long last for video release. One can only hope that this will bring wider attention to the worthy work of these film artists.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Now past 80, Russell Atkins still has the power to astonish. Though it has been some time since his last full book, he continues to post poems to the small presses of America. This week's mail brings the latest issue of Kenneth Warren's long-running HOUSE ORGAN, including work by his fellow resident of Ohio Atkins. Here's the first stanza of "Mad Meg (After Breughel)." Read the full poem in HOUSE ORGAN 59, Summer 2007:

dishes ashamed away drawers
their gaps shut up cabinets
scour'd white; silverware in its slot's bed
soap's wept absent from the platter
free of sorrowful waste;
dishcloths long wrung dry,
hung up; dishtowels dehydrated,
laid away, launder'd into morgued
--everything like guilt as mum,
territory is everything

Friday, July 13, 2007


This year we decided to do something a little different on the 4th of July -- we got in the car and drove down to Los Angeles to see the Kirk Douglas Theater's revival production of COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA. One of the main draws was the presence in the lead role of S. Epatha Merkerson. We've been big fans of her work on LAW & ORDER, but I had completely forgotten that my first experience of her work had in fact been on the stage. Back in '78 when I went to D.C.'s National Theater to see the touring company of Shange's FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF, Merkerson was one of the talented young women on stage. The name, however, had long slipped from my memory. When Merkerson won all those awards for LAKAWANNA BLUES last year, it was a belated testament to her considerable theater skills. I'd known of her work in August Wilson plays, but, like I say, I'd completely forgotten having witnessed those skills so early in her career.

I had seen the film version of William Inge's play, starring Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster, many times over the years -- and so was curious to see how the revival would approach such firmly established interpretations. Rather like seeing somebody else play Stanley in STREETCAR, no?
So, we made our way south to the theater, in the heart of Culver City, one of those neighborhoods in mid-rediscovery stage. Turned out all the restaurants in the neighborhood were closed for the holiday, but we'd already eaten over in Ladera Heights at Pann's, my favorite neighborhood cafe in all L.A. -- The audience was an interesting mix of season ticket holders, people who just love Inge's plays, LAW & ORDER fans, and the odd celebrity. Jackee ("SISTER SISTER," "THE WOMEN OF BREWSTER PLACE") walked into the theater just in front of us.

The part of Doc, so memorably done by Lancaster in the movie, came off quite differently in the performance of Alan Rosenberg, who you may remember as Cybill Sheppard's comic ex-husband in her eponymous sit com of some years ago. Where Lancaster was so tightly wound you worried that he might explode in mid-scene, Rosenberg seemed a bit more like Doc himself would probably have seemed -- a beat-down man trying to live on after the complete dissolution of his ambitions.

But I thought Merkerson's approach to the role of Lola was the most intriguing. There was absolutely no mistaking her for Booth, and yet there were moments when the two performances clearly overlapped. What Merkerson had done was identify the elements of bearing and intonation that belonged to the character herself, so that the continuity between Booth's and Merkerson's interpretations was the continuity of the play itself.
While the language and sets were patently of their era (the play dates to the 1950 Broadway season), the play has an odd way of speaking to our moment despite its dated situations and the occasional references to "spooning" and such. The color-blind casting also made for an unspoken tension. In the time of the play, Doc and Lola's interracial marriage would have been far more of an issue than either Doc's alcoholism or the suggestions of their boarder's sexual dalliances. The script is followed to the letter, though, so that the issue of race is one that ignites within the minds of the audience rather than in the action on stage.
It proved a fine performance and the run of the revival has been extended for an additional week. I confess that I haven't been to the theater in years, finding most plays both badly written and badly done. Maybe I should get out more -- I should certainly see more plays --

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


One of the first things the Bush administration did upon installation in office was to land cushy government jobs for Iran-Contra criminals like Eliott Abrams and John Poindexter. Both had been convicted of major crimes. In Poindexter's case, you may recall, the conviction was subsequently overturned; not because he was found not to have comitted the crimes -- the courts indeed found that he had done everything he was accused of. The reversal came about because he had given testimony before Congress under an immunity and the appeals court found that they could not establish that his conviction had not been tainted by the information given in his testimony. Pretty much the same thing that sprang Ollie North despite his record of serious crime.
Bush's father, you may also recall, pardoned a number of Iran-Contra criminals, going so far as to pardon Cap Weinberger before a trial could even get off the ground. It was thought at the time that the elder Bush ("I was out of the loop" he famously testified) was buying insurance against whatever testimony Weinberger might give were he not taken care of immediately.
Did any of us ever believe that Scooter Libby would spend even one night in prison? This commutation is simply the latest act in an on-going criminal conspiracy.