In the shady backyard of the Prescott-Joseph Center for Community Enhancement, a grand old Victorian just a few blocks up Peralta Street from West Oakland BART, The Low Bottom Playaz present two short plays, and the actors’ lines as they perform are textured by the rustling of leaves in the breeze at this outdoor venue.
The first play up, Flowers for the Trashman, depicts a sadly familiar happening: two young African-American men are ushered into jail, where they are expected to share a cell with a white prisoner (another young black actor in whiteface) who keeps calling out: “Dammit, jailer, I want to make my phone call.” Finally, the jailer (also in whiteface) escorts him out; the two remaining young men sit, stew—and talk.
What rises out of that conversation is the play. One, Wes, doesn’t know his father. When asking what he’s like, he’s told one thing one day, something very different the next, depending on his mother’s mood. His buddy Joe, on the other hand, lives with his father, the two of them alone since his mother left; father and son hardly talk.
Joe’s fraught, and he’s angry, reading out the others around him—he’s someone who gets in trouble for his mouth. His inheritance, no doubt: Joe’s father, who sells flowers, is called the Trashman because of his bad tongue, one reason Joe’s mother “put him down.”
“Your daddy thinks he’s white or something,” Wes needles. “Don’t know anything about flowers but ‘Roses are Red, Violets are Blue’”—then sings that old doo-wop, “White port and lemon juice.” Even Wes will finally admonish his buddy for his hot put-downs of his own father.
Another prisoner is brought in, a little bit older. Joe starts in on him, too, and Wes defuses it. Turns out he knew Joe’s brother in Folsom. “You got a cold ass brother, man.” But he remembers Joe sending books to his brother and asks, “Ain’t you supposed to be a writer or something?” He compares him to James Baldwin, though Baldwin’s gay. “How do you know Jesus Christ ain’t a fag?” Joe shoots back. “All those Apostles he had with him. He must’ve had a gay old time, spreading the Gospel!” The prison-hardened parolee, worried his arrest will send him back, doesn’t like Joe “cuttin’ up on J. C. like that.”
The talk and the tale go round and round, covering the same ground but always turning up something else, some realization of both wanting and not wanting, loving and hating, what they have.
Flowers for the Trashman was written by Marvin X in the early ’60s. Things haven’t changed much at all. And, as director Ayodele Nzinga remarked of her cast—the young men of the Lower Bottom Playaz, most of them Hip-Hop performers—“They never asked for interpretation, they just understood the inflections, as if they were in the same era.” It comes across as anxious yet offhand, streetwise.
Marvin X—poet, playwright, cultural figure since the days of Black House in Oakland, with Ed Bullins, Eldridge Cleaver and other, maybe more familiar, names—lives in Berkeley now. The notorious (but elegiac) play, Salaam, Huey, Salaam, concerns a meeting between Marvin and Huey Newton in an Oakland crackhouse. Nzinga has worked with him since meeting him and directing a play of his at Laney College, over 20 years ago.
Next up is Opal Palmer Adisa’s The Bathroom Grafitti Queen, with Nzinga in the regal lead role, and Tatiana Monet bravely taking up a slew of supporting parts—all the women, from church lady to street, who occupy the next stall and provide the scribble for the Grafitti Queen to pontificate on.
It’s funny, and harrowing. Nzinga brings across a woman who’s walked away from her job as a meter maid, leaving her vehicle’s engine running, to follow a higher, if ribald, calling. Or is it a street person’s sense of dislocation? She’s looking for her daughter, searching for her home ... sharp one minute, hazy the next. As Nzinga says, “She’s trying to remember, get back and handle it ... Even in her absence, she ministers to other people. She’s misplaced her life, but is perfectly willing to tell you what to do with yours!” Her mission, at least, is as clear as its premises are stained and jotted over.
“I love the freedom to walk around all painted up!” Nzinga’s a thoughtful, humorous, articulate woman, with a great deal to say about theater and its relation to community. She jokes about her identification with the Bathroom Queen: “Longly, wistfully thought of as being crazy—but of what I’ve got to do next Tuesday! That’s what’s beautifully tender and precious about her.”
Nzinga also produces Recovery Theater and Shakespeare In The Hood, with her “remixes” of The Bard, like Mack, A Gangsta Tale, from Macbeth, or the new Romeo and Juliet remix, Ebony and Johnny. Some of her cast, besides Tatiana Monet, who just returned from acting in LA, go by their Hip-Hop handles: Doe & Reezy (Joe and Wes), Wolfhawk Jaguar (vocalist for Hairdoo, who played the parolee), Leo Coleman (the white prisoner), Hi-Beats Entertainment (jailer plus working the tech boards in the booth)—and have all been with the Lower Bottom Playaz (named after the neighborhood’s monicker), some for all nine seasons.
After the show closes, July 25, they’ll take the plays along with Nzinga’s Mama at Twilight; Death by Love to the San Francisco Theater Festival in Yerba Buena Gardens.
THE LOWER BOTTOM PLAYAZ
Flowers for the Trashman by Marvin X and The Bathrroom Grafitti Queen by Opal Palmer Adisa, performed by The Low Bottom Playaz, Friday–Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p. m. through July 25. Prescott-Joseph Center, 920 Peralta Street (four blocks from West Oakland BART). $10 (no one turned away for lack of funds). Information: 510-835-8683; reservations: 510-208-1912.