Thursday, December 07, 2017

The Amen Corner seeds start of new black theater district

James Baldwin classic marks hopeful emergence of new black theater district

By Prester “Shake Spear” Pickett, M.F.A.

A strong cast anchors the inauguration of Powerful Long Ladder Ensemble company in The Amen Corner, which runs through a matinee performance Sunday, December 10 at the new Holy Trinity Cultural Arts Center.
[Mychal Lilly Photography]

The Holy Trinity Cultural Arts Center (HTCAC) at 7209 Woodland Avenue is almost a quarter in blocks east of what was once known as “The Double Nickel,” or East 55th Street. This part of Cleveland was once known as “The Forgotten Triangle.” Today, in the midst of all of the historical geographic descriptions, a ticket to Holy Trinity's production of The Amen Corner will bring you to a place that Holy Trinity's pastor, Dr. Andrew D. Clark, has rechristened “the new Black Theater District.”

Director Terrence Spivey, left,
founder of Powerful Long Ladder Ensemble
theater company, with Holy Trinity COGIC
pastor Andrew D. Clark.
[Mychal Lilly Photography]
HTCAC has united with Powerful Long Ladder Ensemble's artistic vision in an embrace of “the belief that theatrical arts hold transformative potential.” In many ways, they have combined efforts to find in James Baldwin’s classic work a balm in Gilead that can heal the sin-sick soul. This Terrence Spivey-directed piece takes you to church, the one where foot stomping, hand clapping, and harmonizing voices usher you into a devotion without the contemporary accouterments of state-of-the-art technological alterations.

The Amen Corner plot is centered around Sister Margaret, convincingly played by Jeanine Gaskin.  The December 1 opening night saw Gaskin find every dimension of black womanhood as a sister, loving spouse, and mother despite the conditions of hardships and estrangements. As Margaret pastors a congregation that is critical of her leadership because she is a single woman, you are forced to watch the play and think about the type of challenge that a woman pastor might have faced during the time when Rosa Parks declined to relinquish her seat on that Cleveland Avenue bus. The need to contrast that thought with the fact that opposition to women in the pulpit still exists today soon follows.

Much like many of the storefront churches that developed in Cleveland in response to the great migration after the end of World War I with a fight abroad, this play highlights the fight at home that took place against the warring idea of separate but equal. While it concentrates on the life of a particular family, it reminds us of racism’s serious and lasting impact and may inspire audiences to consider opening history books as well as bibles.

Praise the Lord and put out the Preacher!
[Mychal Lilly Photography]

The set of Margaret's church is framed on the basement stage of Holy Trinity C.O.G.I.C. The home that she shares with her sister is thrust in front of the church scene and slightly elevated above the main floor with the audience. Unfortunately, the structure of the basement causes a concerning acoustics problem that sometimes obscures the dialogue. But, eventually the arrangement is accepted when the consideration of all of the other dynamics of community theater are understood to be at work on the foundational level of this theater as a work in progress.

Sister Margaret and her husband are confronted by
the challenges of work, marriage, and parenthood.
[Mychal Lilly Photography]

The realization that community theater evolves because the people recognize a need to tell their own story empowers the overall experience with this off-Broadway, or for us off-Euclid, encounter. The relevance of this piece speaks to conditions that are still the same today as they were in the past.  

Discussions about infant mortality and poverty are as traumatizing today as they were yesterday. However, the references to the impact of racism with this Baldwin relic directs a closer attention on how we survived versus how we were oppressed. The human experience of a son's longing for his father in his life is portrayed through contrasting dimensions in the developing craft of Kali Hatten, who plays  a teenaged David against the very seasoned Peter Lawson Jones, who portrays his father. Jones encourages the audience to extend to his character both sympathy and empathy in regard to his life's choices and indecisions.

Just like East 55th Street, this play attempts to present both sides of two coins—the religious and the secular with gosel and jazz as well as the young and the old amidst the struggles between righteousness and hypocrisy.  Meanwhile, the play gives several opportunites to reflect on popular bible verses anchored in the churchgoer and practical to a first-time visitor. Another comfort with the play are the clever inserts of familiar gospel songs coached by Sharolyn Ferebee and delivered by groomed voices that transition scenes to a new sequence of emotions.

Cleveland's collective memory of the days when churches fellowshipped with each other with regular concerts, socials, and even plays approach a renaissance in Cleveland with an ensemble with strong supporting actors that make moments both heavy and light. The discussion of Mt. Sinai Ministries advancing a production of A Raisin in the Sun adds to the emergence of a new Black Theater District in Cleveland on Woodland Avenue and give those interested in Black Theater a great alternative. In the meantime, there remain a few days of the doors being open for church and theater with The Amen Corner which is scheduled through this Sunday, December 10.

Prester Pickett is director of The Howard A. Mims African American Cultural Center at Cleveland State University.

SHOW TIMES: Thursday - Saturday - 7:30PM; Saturday Matinee - 1PM; Sunday Matinee - 3PM. For more information call 216.417.4571 or email

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

CPT: Race Relations and Race Results

 Cuyahoga Politics Today
New Show in Town; New councilmen for Lee-Harvard and Hough pending recounts 

We haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but there is a new weekly radio show in town that bears checking out. It’s called “Race Relations in America with Laverne and Jack”. The hour-long program airs Tuesdays from 6-7PM on WERE TalkCLE Radio 1490/AM.

Laverne Jones Gore and Jack Boyle are the co-hosts. Gore, a Cleveland resident, founded and leads the Ohio Diversity Coalition, which appears aimed at fostering a healthier relationship between white and black Republicans. Businesswoman Gore and retired banker Boyle, a Solon resident, launched the show a few months ago.

We don’t know if all the shows are politically oriented but tonight’s should be of some interest as it features Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor, who is seeking the 2018 GOP nomination for Governor.

Taylor is expected to discuss her gubernatorial campaign, the allegations against Roy Moore, the GOP candidate for US Senate in next month’s special election in Alabama, as well as the secret payments US Congressmen have authorized to settle allegations of improper conduct relating to some undetermined number of them preying on women, especially Congressional staffers and interns.

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The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections announced this morning that former Councilman Joe Jones and Basheer Jones have secured narrow election victories over incumbents Terrell Pruitt and T. J. Dow. Joe Jones won the Ward 1 seat by eight votes — 2,690 to 2,682 — while Basheer Jones edged Dow in Ward 7 by thirteen votes — 1,599 to 1,586. The victory margins are well within the range for which the law mandates an automatic recount. The recounts will take place next week.

These are two of the more important political wards in the city. Ward 1, centered in Lee-Harvard, historically generates the highest turnout in the black community, while Hough’s Ward 7 is generally thought to be a prime site for expansion by two of the city’s 800-pound institutional gorillas — the Cleveland Clinic and University Circle. How Basheer navigates the ward’s relationship with those entities will go a long way towards defining his council tenure and political future.
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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Mt. Pleasant NOW selects Nicholas Perry as new director

Community Report

Agency looking to lead neighborhood's renaissance

New director takes helm, says re-boot already underway

Todd Michney’s wonderful book, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980 [2017], describes a once-idyllic mid-2oth century Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. Today, Mt. Pleasant has fallen so far its name seems an oxymoron, a cruel joke for those residents without knowledge of the time when the area was solidly middle class, its atmosphere so benevolent that white people were slower to flee than most of their cross town cousins.

Last night, the community’s eponymously named community development corporation [CDC], Mt. Pleasant NOW, held a reception to introduce its new executive director, Nicholas “Nick” Perry, and herald a sorely needed new day.
Nicholas Perry

Perry, 46, stepped down as board president six weeks ago to become director. In one of his first acts, he said he has extended the hours of its community center, located at 13815 Kinsman near the once-vibrant Kinsman Ave-Union Rd-East 140 St. intersection. It now remains open weekday evenings for the use of community groups and others until 8:30pm.

Perry also said the agency has redefined its role as a brick-and-mortar CDC and plans to roll out an array of social services over the next 18 months. Citing what he said was his favorite Bible verse, Matthew 5:16, Perry concluded his brief remarks by saying “The Light is on in Mt. Pleasant.”

As part of the program, Mt. Pleasant NOW’s board presented several awards for achievement. Its Humanitarian Award went to Ella Thomas, executive director of Thea Bowman Center, one of the community’s nonprofit anchors.

The business-oriented award went to Akil Affrica, who is putting finishing touches on a new business, the Mt. Pleasant Café that is scheduled to open shortly. Mr. Affrica owns several other eateries, including Zanzibar on Shaker Square.

The Community Involvement Award went to M. Anita Gardner, a housing advocate and executive director of the Concerned Citizens Community Council.

The final award, for public service, went to Ward 4 city councilman, Ken Johnson. In rambling and somewhat unctuous remarks, Johnson, 71, noted that he had been born nearby at the corner East 144 St. and Glendale Ave. He has been on council since 1980 and was re-elected last week.

One interesting tidbit to emerge from the event was how the Mt. Pleasant community has been parceled out among four wards — 1, 2, 4 and 6 — and is served by three CDCs. Three of the council seats have turned over in the past several months, Wards 1 and 2 by election and Ward 6 by appointment. It seems apparent that collaboration and communication if not consolidation will be important if restorative efforts are to have any lasting effect.
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