During the Solo Flights Festival of plays, dance, music, and poetry presentations at Passage Theater during the month of March you will have a chance to meet a variety of people, including three first ladies, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, and Betty Ford, all in the guise of Emmy-award winning actress Elaine Bromka. In the play “Underneath the Lintel” you will meet a Dutch librarian who decides to investigate a book that shows up 113 years overdue. Passage Theater artistic director June Ballinger says the festival “will get people away from their living rooms and television sets.”
“Flat Black,” another work in the festival, is billed as a “work in progress,” inspired by the autobiographical writings of Newark visual artist/poet Jerry Gant. It is written by Alysia Souder and performed by actor Rodney Gilbert. I have known both Souder and Gilbert for some time and have always been enchanted by their energy and enthusiasm. We talked over lunch in front of the fire in my living room with ideas bouncing off the furniture. Souder is leaving the next day for Guatemala, where she is leading a theater workshop at the International Conference on Literacy.
Souder has been working on “Flat Black” off and on for a number of years. She and artist Gant met when her play “Sisters of Survival” was in production at the African Globe Theater in Newark. Gant designed the poster for the production. As they worked together on additional projects there, Souder was impressed with Gant’s art, his poetry, and the stories from his life and suggested they work on a theater piece based on the material. Souder remembers, “He gave me a big box of stuff — poems, letters, pictures — and said, ‘here you go.’ Some things were scribbles on napkins.” She sorted through this treasure trove and pulled out material that she thought was strong or interesting. The thing that really spurred her imagination was one of Gant’s journal entries he had written in prison. “I thought that was an interesting place to start,” she says, adding that parts of “Flat Black” are real events and some are fiction. “It’s not a retelling of his life,” she says.
According to Souder, Gant has been in and out of prison since he was 14 years old. Working as a “tagger” or graffiti artist, he often came into confrontation with the law that said he had no right to spray paint on someone else’s property. Souder says, “He grew up in the 1970s at the start of the hip hop generation; rapping and graffiti were integral to his scene.” She says that he became an artist through his graffiti. “It’s his way of making statements about the world to his community. That’s his way of doing it.”
After her first work on a script, the play languished. One day actor and teaching artist Rodney Gilbert saw it on Souder’s desk at Playwrights Theater of New Jersey in Madison, where she is the director of education. As he picked it up and began to read, he became very excited about her script. “It’s one of the favorite pieces I’ve read in my life, and I’ve been doing theater 30 years,” he says, adding that he personally related to the material from the point of view of an African American artist who is also a poor urban resident. “It’s about identity,” says Gilbert. “Where do I fit in? Why am I at 40 still in this place [prison] even though I try to do the right thing?” These are questions that Gilbert feels mirror “problems men of color have to face.”
Souder says that the minute Gilbert began to read the script out loud, the play took off and came to life for her. Both are ardent in their concern for problems about urban African American men, but also about the community and country where these injustices continue to exert a terrible impact. I’m amazed at the statistics that Souder quotes regarding the inequity of the justice system that has much heavier penalties for users of cheaper “street drugs” like crack versus the more expensive cocaine that’s often the drug of choice for upwardly mobile/usually white men. “It’s totally disproportional,” she says. “It is about imprisoning people of color, not about imprisoning Johnny who’s working on Wall Street and goes home and snorts some cocaine. Not him. We want to get the little guy on the street corner.”
Her emotions run strong with her anger at this inequity as she also explains that 85 percent of people in jail for drug use are black. “In terms of statistics, white people use drugs just as much as black people do. I think there’s a crisis in this country in imprisoning men of color. It’s directly related to racism and oppression.”
She continues, “I think that the psychology behind it is really deep seated and hard to untangle. Once I started to read elements of Jerry’s life, he was very much symbolic of a man who is so good hearted and so talented and so kind yet caught in a cycle that’s hard to break.” Gant grew up in poverty in Newark around the time of the riots.
Souder says that the play isn’t Gant’s biography. “It’s more than telling Jerry’s story. His story became a way of telling a lot of people’s stories.” “Flat Black” (referring to the paint Gant uses) contains pieces of this man’s life as exposed through his journals, letters and poems juxtaposed with “clippings” from other sources, such as newspapers, official reports, and other writings. Gilbert explains it this way: “The man speaks as his present self in three different voices: remembrance, statistical observations, and poetic expression.” Souder says that the word racism is actually never mentioned in the play. Both Souder and Gilbert feel that it’s not important that Gant is an artist, but that he is a human being.
Talking about the divisions in our society, Souder says, “In so many ways we’re boxed in by what we know, by what we don’t know. We’re so limited.” Gilbert says, “Our country is so hung up on separation: rich/poor, black/white, gay/straight.”
Souder grew up in a world of diversity, “a Hispanic household in a black neighborhood,” that she says enriched her life and propelled her determination to break down the barriers between people in praise of humanity in all its diverse forms. Her mother is Hispanic, her father black. Her mother married a white man when Souder was 12 years old.”I feel what I want to say about racism is very important.”
Very early in her life, her family moved from Newark and she grew up in Montclair, a town with a large middle class that was both white and black. “My first three teachers in public school were black women teaching black and white kids. Now you go into schools and you don’t see that.” She attended an arts magnet school in Montclair where arts were integrated into the curriculum. “School was totally like the movie ‘Fame’ — kids dancing in the hallway. I was in arts from the get go. I always loved it.” Her mother, too, was a writer though she became discouraged with it; her father tried unsuccessfully for a singing career. Souder is quite excited that her brother, a writer, just the night before our interview had finished his orals for his doctorate at Rutgers. “He’s really unbelievable. He’s going to write Rodney’s next play.”
Souder went to college at Trenton State with plans to become a pediatrician. She was in pre-med for three years, but during that time she became increasingly busy directing plays. “Theater was really what my heart was into,” she says. So she dropped the science and finished with a degree in theater/communications still not knowing exactly what she would do, but thinking she would figure that out in graduate school. “I ended up becoming a teaching artist. That was something I always liked to do, work with kids. So it was kind of a natural progression.” She never got to grad school.
Gilbert attended the Arts High School in Newark though he says it was run like a conservatory and unlike Souder’s high school experience no dancing in the halls would have been allowed. He feels that he learned about diversity through theater. He began acting when he was 10 years old, playing the youngster in a production of “Raisin in the Sun” that was mounted at County Cafe Theater in East Orange. A mentor, a white woman named Katherine Sheppard took him under her wing and took him to auditions in New York and to see productions at the Shakespeare Festival on the campus at Drew University. (now the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey). Interestingly, Gilbert is back on the campus at Drew as an adjunct instructor of acting and speech.
Souder describes Gilbert, who earned a bachelors degree from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 1989, as a “visionary.” In addition to teaching at Drew and acting in various productions (last year I saw him in New York City in a modern-day adaptation of Ibsen’s “Ghosts”), Gilbert has formed a company, Yendor Arts, with the goal of bringing arts into underserved areas.
The free reading of “Flat Black” offers a chance to meet multiple personalities: the three “voices” of Jerry Gant, the actor Rodney Gilbert who brings his art to Gant’s stories, and Alysia Souder who ties the parts together and makes the play take flight. Since discussion of the play is encouraged after the play in Passage’s intimate lobby, over coffee and a cookie, it may turn out to be a not-so-solo flight.
Solo Flights Festival, Thursday, March 1, through March 24, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. www.passagetheatre.org or 609-392-0766.
Ole (La Cueva de Sacromonte), Thursday, March 1, 7:30 p.m. Alborada Spanish Dance Theater presentation of flamenco dances including rumbas, tientos, and solea. Eva Lucena, artistic director, guides the audience through the show. $20.
Underneath the Lintel, Friday, March 2, and Saturdays, March 10 and 17 at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, March 25, 3 p.m. Glen Berger’s drama about a Dutch librarian’s quest to find a man who returned a book, 113 years overdue features Christopher Coucill. $20.
Tea for Three: Lady Bird, Pat, and Betty, Saturday, March 3, 8 p.m.; Sundays, March 11 and 18, 3 p.m.; and Thursday, March 22, 8 p.m. Elaine Bromka takes on the personae of three first ladies. $20.
For Lost Words, Sunday, March 4, 3 p.m., and Saturday, March 24, 8 p.m. World premier of composer Vince di Mura’s new electronic sonic symphony, inspired by poet Yusef Komunyakaa’s Vietnam opus, Dien Cai Dau. $20.
“Flat Black,” Thursday, March 8, 8 p.m. Rodney Gilbert presents a reading of a one-man play by Alysia Souder based on the autobiographic writings of Newark artist Jerry Gant. Free.
Metamorphoses, Friday, March 9, 8 p.m. Todd Conner explores the poetic rituals of Western storytelling traditions to present Ovid’s work. $20.
Changing the Changes in Poetry and Song, Thursday, March 15, 8 p.m. Hermine Pinson celebrates an on-stage release party for her blues and post-fusion album, “Changing the Changes in Poetry and Song,” created in collaboration with Yusef Komunyakaa and Estelle Convwioll. Tomas Doncker and his trio will also be featured. $20.
Human Beatbox, Friday, March 16, 8 p.m. Yuri Lane presents a comedic hip-hop journey through Chicago neighborhoods. $20.
In the Theater, Friday, March 23, 8 p.m. Mary Martello presents a concert reading of a one-woman musical about the life of British theater revolutionary Joan Littlewood. Free.