Election Section

Revolution, Racism and Family in “Angela’s Mixtape” By FRED DODSWORTH

Friday May 06, 2005

Angela Davis came back home to Berkeley for her birthday. No, not that Angela Davis, but her niece, Angela Eisa Davis, known as Eisa to her family, fans and friends. The former Berkeley High School graduate, class of 1988, left Berkeley for a degree at Harvard followed by an master’s of fine arts from the Actors Studio Drama School, in Manhattan. 

Eisa, who just celebrated her 34th birthday on Thursday, is here to perform in a hiphop play she wrote and stars in called Angela’s Mixtape, at La Peña this Saturday and Sunday evening, part of the 4th annual Hiphop Theater Festival currently touring the United States.  

Eisa’s character and identity was forged in the crucible of Berkeley, as a member of one of our country’s leading intellectual families—African-American families. Her mother was a Swarthmore graduate who received her law degree from Boalt, her aunt was the Black Panther Angela Davis, whom Eisa knows as a soft-voiced and affectionate woman. 

“This play, what I’m trying to do in the play is … a bridge between what it is that our parents tried to do, and are trying to do, and what it is that we’re doing,” she said.  

“Don’t get all Angela Davis on me,” is a phrase most people might understand, but for Eisa it’s a phrase she has had directed at her by people who don’t know her connection, and a phrase that has powerful resonance to her sense of self and place in the modern world. It’s a large load to carry but it’s also fertile soil to farm. Eisa’s artistic work, especially her plays, re-examines the historic record from an intimate and personal perspective.  

“I’m trying to achieve in all my work the whole concept of ‘Sankofa’— you have to return to your past and understand exactly what happened there in order to claim your future,” Eisa said. “That’s something that I’ve been doing in all of my work … trying to find what it is that my artistic elders have been up to and sort of seeing how it is that those lessons can be applied today. There’s so many contradictions in that but again, they’re just tools that you have to reshape in order to make them effective.”  

Although she returns to Berkeley regularly to see her family and friends, New York is now Eisa’s home. A surprising number of her Berkeley friends have moved to Eisa’s Brooklyn neighborhood, they jokingly refer to it as B-Town Canal. (B-Town is hiphop nomenclature for Berkeley.) 

“New York seems to be one of the few places where a lot people feel they can actually go from being here. It’s either you stay (in Berkeley) or you go to New York or Portugal,” she said laughing.  

Racism is a reducing agent that stains our culture and informs Eisa’s artistic work.  

“I grew up here at a time when we really were in a Utopia, that’s how I felt,” she said. “I could feel it, palpably, that everyone around me tried to create a world around me that was free of all these ‘isms.’ We were this Utopian experiment that was actually working. There was a sense of tribalism. We were different.  

“I think in a lot of ways I grew up really feeling as racism had been eradicated or at least abated in someway. Then going to the East Coast I discovered that wasn’t the case in the rest of the country.”  

Nor was it really eradicated in Berkeley.  

“Our society is (racist) and Berkeley, as much as we try to be the ‘People’s Republic’, of course, it’s systematic and it happens no matter what it is that we chose to do,” Eisa said. “This play is really looking at how thinking that we had resolved and trumped the issue of racism actually hid the racism that was always there and still is. That’s what the play gets into, how racism functions and how racism functioned at that time, underneath the umbrella of what was later, strategically called P.C.”  


Angela’s Mixtape plays Saturday and Sunday, May 7-8, 8 p.m. at La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave. Reservations are recommended. For details, call 849-2568 or see www.lapena.org/Cuentos/Cuentos.html. For more information about the Hiphop Theater Festival see www.hiphoptheaterfest.org.