“I came to be in the Bay Area for one year, in 1984,” said Thomas Simpson, founder of AfroSolo, the annual festival of African-American solo performance that includes tributes and art exhibits. “I was in theater, from Nashville, and this was to be a step between there and L.A. or New York. For my 39th birthday in 1991, I had a party and invited artists to perform who I knew from taking a workshop on developing solo pieces. It occurred to me it should be staged every year as a way for us to tell our own stories, form our own works.”
The first AfroSolo was in 1994 with more than a dozen performers over several nights, and John O’Neill, New Orleans man of the theater, as special guest.
“It’s our desire to honor artists who have had a significant impact on African-American culture and culture in general,” Simpson said. Since then, AfroSolo has featured luminaries like Ruby Dee, Dick Gregory, Charles Brown. “But we’re really focused on local artists.”
August is the time for AfroSolo, and the performances and tributes ran last week with an ongoing art exhibit in the third-floor African-American collection at the San Francisco Public Library, which runs through Oct. 16.
“I invited 15 artists who exhibited with us in the past,” said Simpson, “to express the theme of this AfroSolo—‘Resilience: My Culture, My People, Me.’ There’s ceramics, painting, sculpture ... and the library has done an exceptional job exhibiting it.”
Last week there was a night of tributes at Yoshi’s-San Francisco with Noah Griffin honoring Sammy Davis, Jr., a tribute to John Coltrane by Onaderuth—the band from San Francisco’s Coltrane Church—and operatic and negro spirituals baritone Robert Sims, who just completed another summer teaching at UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program, paying tribute to Duke Ellington.
“He sang songs from the Sacred Concert Duke performed in Grace Cathedral in the mid-’60s,” Simpson said, “and a few of the spirituals he’s famous for.”
Special guest was 86-year-old opera singer Hope Foye, there in person to receive her own tribute—and to perform for it.
“She began with ‘Summertime,’ the first verse the way Gershwin taught her to sing it operatically,” Simpson recounted, “then the next in the jazz nightclub style she had sung at New York’s Cafe Society. Then songs from her time in Mexico, after she was subpoenaed by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee ... and ‘Spring Song’ [‘Is there going to be a war next spring?’], finishing with a sing-along of that song we sing in church, ‘Let There Be Peace On Earth.’”
While expatriated, Foye—who now lives in San Pedro, in Southern California—spent a decade in Europe while the recipient of two Rockefeller awards.
“But in America,” Simpson said, “she was shunned, coming back. Now a renaissance of her career has begun. Every year, during Black History Month, Union Bank makes a CD about an African-American notable. The CD of Hope Foye was handed out at KQED, and I looked her up.”
Last weekend at the Marsh, former Mission District jazz club and mecca for solo performance, four local performing artists showed what AfroSolo is all about. Laura Elaine Ellis, cofounder and executive director of African & African-American Performing Arts Coalition and company member of Dimensions Dance Theater, danced her “re-imagining” of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” with additional music by Ajayi Lumumba with Kimara Dixon. Dixon also did the visuals, projections beginning with galvanized tin sidings, with Ellis working through a quick series of poses and attitudes, convulsive bobs and quick turns to slide guitar, harmonica, bass and drums, then congas, following Simone’s song and with Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s spoken text over, finally after leaps and twists to changing images, down to silence and the dancer’s breath.
Poet Marvin K. White, author of Last Rights and Nothin’ Ugly Fly, performed “Our Name Be Witness,” flipping through the pages of his book and coming out with lines like: “Make sure you crook your neck and look back,/See if somebody’s following you” or “Just because you win it, child,/ Don’t mean that it’s a prize” to a vocal yet rapt response from the audience.
Angela Dean-Baham, who was excellent as Betty Shabazz in Anthony Davis’ opera X at Oakland Opera Theater a couple of years ago, related the life and sang snippets of the songs, both in persona, of the subject of her piece “Unsung Diva: The Life and Times of Sissieretta Jones, aka Black Patti,” African-American opera star of the Gilded Age: “I am what you would describe as dead. It is true, I must remind myself—although being a Negro is a little bit like being dead. There is a part of you, you can never enjoy ... By the time of my death, it was even unclear who I was. I was Juliet, I was Norma, I was Queen Aida ... I was free to be anyone—but me.”
Especially memorable for the grace of delivery and the suggestiveness of its subject’s reserve, Dean-Baham delivers her forgotten diva’s musings with a gentle discretion, part of that older, pre-World War I demeanor that storyteller Jovelyn Richards, in the audience, said “must come nowadays from operatic training.”
Pianist Trente Morant accompanied this brief, bittersweet and elegant elegy with sensitivity.
Longtime jazz and theater figure Idris Ackamoor performed an unusually multidimensional memoir of his life and career in music with storytelling, performing (his brilliant accompanist on piano and drums, Frederick Harris, often joined in), music, dancing, slides and film, working in projections of Djano Reinhardt playing with a disabled hand (Idris accompanying on guitar, then swinging out on alto) and a phenomenal dance routine by Peg Leg Bates, stamping with his prosthesis like a stilt walker, with Idris tapping along—all to expand on Idris’ own story of the disability he overcame. A whirlwind tour through a life, a career and a few recent epochs, engaging, touching and humorous, was directed by his Cultural Odyssey cofounder, Rhodessa Jones.
“Dance, poetry, theater, music and the stories of our lives,” said Thomas Simpson, summing it up at final curtain, “That’s AfroSolo.”
AFROSOLO ARTS FESTIVAL 15:
RESILIENCE: My Culture, My People, Me!
Presented through Oct. 16 at the San Francisco Public Library by the AfroSolo Theatre Company. (415) 771-2376. www.afrosolo.org org.