By Dwight Hobbes
Minnesota Spoken Word Association (MSWA) founders e.g. bailey and Shá Cage have achieved a triumph in bringing literary icon Amiri Baraka to the
MSWA offshoot Tru Ruts’ Freestyle Theater premieres bailey’s adaptation of Baraka’s Wise Why’s Y’s at the Southern Theater, a landmark event for which Amira Baraka performs. He is supported on the bill by some local luminaries: wordsmith J. Otis Powell!, dancer-choreographer Aneka McMullen, trombonist Chris Cox, and drummer Kevin Washington.
Amiri Baraka, iconic poet-essayist-playwright, characterizes the spirit and substance from which America’s internationally lauded spoken-word genre sprang. Originator in 1965 of the Black Arts Movement, Baraka (then going by LeRoi Jones) took his status as a widely heralded artist of consequence, author of Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Blues People, and the Obie Award-winning play Dutchman.
Baraka spearheaded a thrust that opened wide the way for such successive voices as Nikki Giovanni, Ed Bullins and Sonia Sanchez. World literature was irreversibly changed, never again able to ignore African America.
e.g. bailey, profoundly accomplished performance artist and prose-poet (American Afrikan CD, Speakeasy Records), reflects on how Baraka’s Wise Why’s Y’s at the Southern Theater came about.
“[At] the Givens Black Writers’ Retreat…[Baraka, a mentor at the retreat] and I talked about…the adaptation. He gave his permission, which was amazing. Even though we had met several times over a number of years, he didn’t really know me. I saw it as a blessing that he had that much trust and that much faith.”
At Bedlam Theatre’s 10-Minnute Play Festival, bailey tried out material for the project. It worked.
“Wise Why’s Y’s is an epic journey through the history of Africans in America, [blending] avant-garde poetry with griot consciousness,” bailey continues. “Where [this work] excels is in its understanding and demonstration of the griot form.
“Baraka has championed the djeli [another word for “griot”] tradition [as] oral historian, praise singer, wandering musician-poet bound to…a village. Celebrating exploits or challenging community values with biting satire, the djeli must have a vast knowledge of history and spin that history into a tale that teaches and engages.”
Without doubt the evening will be memorable, marking a singular occasion of contemporary ground-breakers MNSWA honoring the artistry of an enduring, historic firebrand. Amira Baraka (AB) spoke about his craft in an email interview:
MSR: There’s a generation or two who know you solely as Amiri Baraka. What prompted you to change your name from LeRoi Jones?
AB: Part of a whole generation of Black youth changed their names in the ’60s because we wanted to identify with Africa, so we got rid of our “slave names.”
MSR: There are, to this day, young actors for whom Clay in Dutchman is a rite of passage. Any reflections on that?
AB: In some ways, Clay and Dutchman are rites of passage, because it signaled a new, more militant address by Black people living here to American life. What Clay tells Lula near the end of the play seems part of the new language of a generation. The generation of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The language of the Black Panthers and CAP [Congress of African Peoples].
MSR: Your thoughts, feelings about the passing of Gil Scott-Heron?
AB: Gil Scott I knew since he was in college at Lincoln University and came up to Newark to visit me and the organization which I chaired [Congress of African Peoples]. He was an important poet and dazzling entertainer. Having such skills and being Black — hence, very frustrated — drove him into the drug terror.
MSR: From Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, the lines “And now, each night I count the stars, And each night I get the same number. And when they will not come to be counted, I count the holes they leave.” Classic verse. Over history, you stand as a literary legend. How does that feel?
AB: “Literary legend” is somewhat abstract. Better to be called a force for truth and beauty as Du Bois and Keats explained.
MSR: What is next for you?
AB: What’s next? I have a book coming out this month called RAZOR (Revolutionary Art for Cultural Revolution). And a play on W.E.B. Du Bois scheduled to be produced next year by Woodie King.
The world premiere of Amiri Baraka’s Wise Why’s Y’s adapted by e. g. bailey is Saturday, October 15 at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. Brief discussion and reception follow. For more information, see the Spot listings on page 5. Baraka’s RAZOR and Wise Why’s Y’s are published by Third World Press.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.