MY SKATEBOARDING GRANDSON – at thirteen and a half, seven months younger than Emmett Till at Till’s death – journeyed through time this summer, to visit the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in North Carolina. He and his parents were in Greensboro for a basketball tournament. His mother walked him through the permanent exhibition on the 1960s lunch counter sit-ins, The Battlegrounds – meanwhile, I got free tickets to the new Anna Deavere Smith play, “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter,” at the Berkeley Rep. Oh yes, he was born in Berkeley; I was born in Berkeley. Just another week in the life of two natives of that synonym for all things radical- and politically cutting-edge – Berkeley.
My friend, who happens to be white, got free tickets to the preview of “Notes from the Field.” She was asked by a member of the tech team at The Rep to invite outspoken, passionate, assertive people for the post-show discussion. Perfect. How Berkeley can you be?
I screwed on my best “outspoken, passionate, assertive” mindset. After all, this was Anna Deavere Smith whose play “Fires in the Mirror” on the Watts Riots, I flipped over at The Berkeley Rep in 1994. Oh, Watts. Never happen here. The Bay Area. Gay Pride. Chez Panisse. The Black Panthers. My grandson’s 4th grade class marched for Cesar Chavez Day. He loves hummus.
USHER BRUTALITY – NOT POLICE BRUTALITY
My friend waits in the lobby for another friend but points three of us (black) upstairs to center front row. The best seats! A white usher, young of course, peers at our tickets and blocks us from our seats. No, no, she says. We’re so happy to be there we keep walking and talking. We can see the reserved seats and two friends (black) sitting in them. As soon as we sit down, the usher comes over to get all five of us out of those seats. We point out my friend’s name on the reserved signs. The usher’s not being very Berkeley. We beg to differ, but stay low key. The theater has given away 1,000 free tickets and 1,000 half-price tickets for the three-week run to raise awareness about the play’s theme, the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Minutes before the show starts I see Fania Davis, executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, with another black woman, frantically trying to locate seats before curtain time. Our usher points the two upwards to the nosebleed section. Oh my, this usher was born long after Fania and her sibling Angela’s faces and crowning Afros were instantly recognizable around The Front.
My good friend P. who lives in Alameda, which is like Berkeley but with Victorian houses set on a quaint island, runs her own graphic design company, quite a feat for a colored gal from Watts. She relates her run-in at this very same theater: “Oh, the irony of it all. I recall a few years back when I went to see another Deavere Smith one-woman show there. I was with a group of African-American friends and had to sit one seat away from them because the – white – man who held a season ticket for the seat right next to my friends was there for that performance, and seated. The views from both seats were equally good. I asked him politely (and why would I ask any other way, really?) if he’d mind switching seats so I could be next to my friends. To my great surprise, he immediately jumped out of his seat in a rage and mumbled something about he was ‘just going to leave’ and stormed out. I was shocked. But here’s the gravy on the mashed potatoes: After the performance when we went out for after-theater drinks, my girlfriend told me that right after the incident she overhead two white women seated behind her trying to figure out what had engendered such a violent reaction from the white ‘gentleman.’ One said to the other ‘She must have been militant.’ ”
A BASTION OF RACISM
Never mind that Ishmael Reed calls our town a “bastion of racism.” Never mind that Uncle Ish, esteemed writer/playwright/essayist/poet/professor/satirist/songwriter/editor and publisher “had a similar experience at the Berkeley Rep. June of 1997,” he writes. “At the invitation of Vinnie Burrows, who performed in my play, ’Hubba City’ at the Nuyorican Cafe, I’d gone to the Berkeley Rep. to see her and Delores Mitchell star in ‘Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 years.’ A young black man, an employee of the Rep, asked me hostile questions, followed me around and even snooped on me as I talked with the two actresses. It was an uncomfortable experience. However,” he says that when he “produced Wajahat Ali’s play, ‘The Domestic Crusaders’ at the Rep. in 2008, the staff cooperated without incident…[Yet] racial profiling is rampant in Berkeley.”
On this grand night of free seats distributed like government cheese to presentable Negroes, I sit amongst a legion of people of color. Far more than I see when I get my customary last-minute no-show seat for Latino satirical troupe Culture Clash’s sociopolitical satire. Even then, I count fewer faces of color than I have fingers – on one hand. Outside, Berkeley remains a tale of two cities. At the university and the hillsides, the flood of Asian students and foreign students colorize Cal like an unfinished portrait. Very little charcoal or, as Crayola dubs it, fuzzy-wuzzy brown. In the flatlands, brown, black and white co-exist. Of the city’s roughly 320,000 residents, 13.2% are African-Americans. The homeless, with worldly goods spilling from shopping carts and ever-present signs, form a strategic border of begging, protecting upscale Berkeley from common, mortal Berkeley. The Berkeley Rep sits evenly on this border. When I was a girl, Berkeley was segregated. Blacks could only swim in the municipal pool on Friday night. And the stores had to be integrated by protesters from CORE.
But Berkeley has been to integration what lace is to lingerie, and white liberalism could not possibly conceal leftover bigotry. Or could it? Is prejudice like Godzilla? No matter how many times we legislate it away, Supreme-Court it away, affirmative-action it away, talk it to death, it rises ingloriously, like the radiated monster.
Mornings on University Ave., the front line of The Front, the newsstands brim with the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, San Fran Chronical, Oakland Tribune, and free papers including East Bay Express and Bay Guardian. The streets are awash with every kind of transport – cars, buses, bicyclists, toddlers in low-wheelies attached to bikes, joggers with strollers – everything except horses and rickshaws. Uncle Ish goes for his usual morning espresso. This particular day he had a meeting with the officers of his arts foundation. As soon as Uncle Ish entered the area, a Hispanic waiter shouted at him, rudely asking him what he wanted.
Can a brother get some respect? The waiter must have confused Uncle Ish with the legion of homeless brothers out here, some of whom have mental problems. Uncle Ish is gray and bearded, a commonplace in Berkeley. Uncle Ish says this is not the only place that blacks in Berkeley have been quarantined. I love Uncle Ish’s language, quarantined, bastion.
For the meantime, another Berkeley Rep usher, this time black and female, walks over and says, “Folks, you have to move, these seats are reserved.” She pulls out that mama-ain’t-playing-with-you tone; we stay firm. No matter we’re professional, fifties+, spiffed-up and law-abiding. Don’t matter. We might as well be Henry Louis Gates breaking into his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has the same tone that Herman Cain –last seen running away from the Presidential Sweepstakes – took in his interviews. I seem to hear it now from Ben Carson, when he scolds Obama or offers “common-sense prescriptions.” It’s hard to play at gestapo without Uncle Tom tonality.
It takes another few minutes for my friend to appear with her cheery face, and magically the ushers cease and desist. It was all a glitch. Our seats were reserved for the tech crew, and no one had communicated that to the front of the house. We proceed to enjoy the play, if enjoy still applies to collisions at The Front between generations, races and attitudes. At play’s end, Anna Deavere Smith bows and graciously pulls Fania Davis up from her front row seat and kisses her ceremoniously. I guess the ushers got that one wrong.
I jabber about the incident in an open letter to the playwright and the company on Facebook setting out the sequence of events. Two local papers The Daily Californian and East Bay Express pick up the post. It becomes the controversy, and Berkeley Rep calls – after – its director of marketing tells me – much internal talk, and apologizes. I ask for a formal letter of apology. She wants to know if I have any suggestions. Yes, offer more plays with ethnic and black writers, continue to give out free tickets, train everybody in diversity, pair productions with The Lower Bottom Playaz and other community-based theaters. I mention Elizabeth Warren’s clarion call to the upper classes, that they don’t own the bounty of this society nor merit it. And I remind her of TOBA, Theater Owners Booking Agency, informally known as Tough on Black Asses, that booked black acts in the south in the 1900s until artists like Lena Horne and jazz musicians broke the color barrier. It’s not enough for Anna Deavere Smith to come for three weeks and leave, and Berkeley Rep to go back to biz as usual.
The Rep sends me a formal if we’ve offended you, we’re sorry apology, adding that their audiences are 20% people of color. A friend who is a UC prof and season subscriber at the Rep scoffs at the 20% number. She and others attest to audiences that are nearly as all-white as I’ve seen. African-American entrepreneurs, intellectuals and artisans have long been the target of hostility and terror in this country. Many black shopkeepers were lynched by outraged and economically dispossessed white Southerners. Black Wall Street, one of the nation’s most affluent all-black communities, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was burned down in 1921 by angry white residents. Many people are unaware that the terrorist bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City in 1995 wiped out a solid block of the city’s black middle class who were civil service workers. My family is from Oklahoma; my aunt, a librarian and prominent Delta Sigma Theta sorority member, left Oklahoma City after the bombing, distraught at the loss of so many in her community.
Home from his travels to the South, my grandson and his parents found shocking that the white drinking fountains had been a nickel whilst the coloreds’ cost a dime. Ah, those darned public accommodations. If only they were not symptomatic of deeper issues. I imagine the pictures from Greensboro in my grandson’s head as he bikes around our lovely hometown…Berkeley. In spite of the loveliness, his summer travels have an impact. He brings up Emmett Till, puzzled why was murdered so brutally for looking at a white girl. This would never happen in Berkeley, he says. On social media, he gets a headshot from a white classmate. We see it. And, we don’t see it. Then she sends a second, glammed up picture we do not ignore. We have The Talk, the Emmett Till talk, the sexting talk, the Instagram talk…. Yes, there are many versions of The Talk. Being young and black is a precarious life. Even in Berkeley. Or should I say, especially in Berkeley where one can forget the rules and suffer the consequences.