Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tror Na Foe
(troh- na- fway) Is a phrase in the Ewe language (the people from whom our family sprang in the southeastern corner of Ghana) which means, roughly, "to come back and retrieve something that one has lost."

The Universe Is Made of Stories

"The universe is made
of stories, not of atoms"
Muriel Rukeyser

First meeting between cousin Lawrence Agbemabiese
and I (left) at Gare du Nord, Paris, summer, 2006
(photo, Celeste Grant)

I have always been a lover and collector of stories, ever since I was a kid. No one who knew me back then was the least bit surprised when I became a serious young actor - that's one kind of professional storyteller; nor when as an adult, I became a writer, another time-honored way to turn storytelling into one's living.

As a screenwriter and playwright, I've always loved the challenge of bringing other peoples' stories to life. With the creation of the brand new blog you are now reading, I relish the opportunity, for once, to share one of my own. This is the story of how my family, separated by slavery between Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean; lost to one another for over two hundred fifty years, is in the midst now of reaching out across the historical and cultural divide to reclaim itself from the Great Trans-Atlantic Lost & Found. Through a stroke of Grace and great good luck, we have found not just the specific people from which one branch of our family arose in Africa; we have found a specific family with whom we have blood ties. They're in Ghana. And I'm getting ready, as I write this, to make my first trip - the first of many, many, I'm sure. It's been an incredible journey so far, but the truth is, it's really only just beginning. And I'm inviting you to come along this journey and walk it with me.

A Longing In Our Hearts
The old folks in our family always knew that I was deeply interested in their stories - their personal reminiscences of the teens, twenties, thirties, and forties, for sure - but especially the stories that had been passed down to them from the days of slavery. The stories were full of intriguing and often edifying glimpses of these ancestors. Tales about their grit and determination in the face of the terrible reality through which they lived were always inspirational food for the mind and spirit. And every time I was able to piece together some of the details of lives yet one more generation back; then another... it felt like a huge victory. My window on the past kept getting bigger; the vision through that window a little bit clearer. But like the vast majority of other African Americans, that window on the past never let me see any farther than the shores of this country. Only rarely did the stories passed down to me give more than a tantalizing hint about our family's origins in Africa.

In fact, throughout African American history, it's only been that extremely rare, once in a million story that takes family researchers where we really long to go - back to a solid connection with a specific place in Africa. The Africans from whom we are descended were not born "darkies", "niggers", "jigaboos" nor "spooks." Neither were they "Negroes" nor "coloreds," nor ignorant savages by anybody's definition of the word. They did not come "from nothing" as the ideology that propped up slavery insisted. They were, in fact, people from diverse cultures with rich, complex histories. Many of these cultures were urban and highly sophisticated. They were Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa and Fulani; they were Mande, Wolof, Fula, and Ewe and Balanta. They were farmers, and traders and fishermen; soldiers, tax collectors and royal courtiers; troubadors, priests and magicians.

On these shores, each was reduced to something less than human - a chattel slave. But in each of our families, that first African ancestor to arrive here was somebody, from someplace. He or she had a name. Many of us have nourished in our hearts a profound longing to speak those names if we could but know them - to let their recitation help us properly remember and honor our dead; to let their recitation help us, our children, and their children remember who we are... keep faith with the past as we march forward into whatever future we will make for ourselves.

Suddenly, Everything Changes
But now, DNA-based geneaological research is making it possible to fill huge gaps in our collective knowledge that were previously an almost impossible dream. I'll talk about how our family is using this new knowledge to make the connections we are now exploring, and provide you with links to people who are doing interesting and vital work in this area. I'll spend the next three weeks catching you up with what's happened on this journey so far, and how we've arrived at where we are. And then, starting in the first week of November, as I begin in earnest to write a book about all of this, I invite you to keep up with me through this blog while I make my first trip to Ghana. Look for photos and video as I attend the annual Hogbetsotso Festival near our family's ancestral village, and then visit with clan elders (griots) to see if we can piece together enough information to identify that first ancestor on my father's side to come to this country as a captive. I'll introduce you to my long-missing family as I meet them - cousin Gideon, at the ancestral village in Tegbi; cousin Lawrencia at the school she runs in Kumasi... and cousin Lawrence, whose picture appears on this page, once he arrives in Accra a few days later on business for the U.N.

Stay tuned. I'm pleased to know you, and glad to have you with me on this journey.


lorraine teel said...

David -- what an incredible adventure! I am so excited to begin this journey with you. Can't hardly wait for the book!
All my best to you on this voyage through time and space.

xose3 said...

David proud to see you have started this project. Am still waiting for your visit when you are in london. Greetings to your wife. Continue the good works.
jerry xose kofi Agbemabiese.

mf said...

Hi David -- looking forward to the next installment of your adventure. Above all have fun!

bon voyage!


Larry said...

Hello David, Tror Na Foe is a brilliant move; congratulations! i very much share your motivations for embarking on this journey of discovery and reconciliation. And i have to say, man it is humbling to be part of this epic voyage "through time and space" (nicely put, Iorraine). May the experience deepen our appreciation of how 'small' the human family really is. Greetings to Celeste and the rest of the family. See you in Ghana!

DrJay said...

Hey David - I knew you were Tamil in spirit! Separation, travails, joyous re-union - all these are Tamil staples. Except that your stuff happens over generations:) All the best in Ghana. I hope you find 'em all. Peace.

Gideon G. Agbemabiese said...

Hi cousin David,
What a great reunion seeing you and brother Lawrence in that historical picture. Welcome back to your roots. Thanks for the initiative and vision to reunite and reconcile all of us.We're looking forward to meeting you in Ghana. We love you and proud of you. May God bless you.
Gideon Gameli Agbemabiese

Conversations with Al McFarlane said...

Hi David. This is great! Here's a gift for your blog. This is the draft of the interview I conducted with you and J.D. Steele for broadcst on KMOJ and KFAI here in Twin Cities. It will give your family, friends and fans another look at you and your work through eyes of a colleague and friend.

Conversations with Al McFarlane
Interview with J.D. Steele and David Grant
recorded 3/02/06

Al McFarlane: David Grant and J.D. Steele you both are master artists. One’s forte is music. The other’s forte is writing plays. You both can speak with eloquence and intensity about what you do and why you do it. Right now you’re working together to create and stage the musical play, Snapshots: Life in the City. David Grant, you wrote the play. Tell me about it.

David Grant: Ron Peluso, of the Great American History Theater, put this team of J.D. and me together to do this show. They had this idea to take writing from area young people and let them tell their own stories, with our help, within a piece that we collaboratively create.
The first part of this project, as somebody who has done a lot of community work with young people, was extremely interesting and intriguing to me because it gave me the opportunity to sift through the work of about one-hundred and fifty young Twin-Cities writers. It was an ethnically diverse group. We had participate Latino, African American, Native American and white youth of all classes, up and down the ladder. They handed in poetry, short stories, memoirs, all kinds of stuff. So job one was just to sift though it and see, “What kind of riches do we have to work with?” We winnowed it down to nine or ten pieces. One of those pieces was submitted by a young Somali woman, who, three years before she wrote the piece she submitted, hadn’t even been introduced to the alphabet yet. She was herding cattle with her family when they got caught up in the civil war. Her life was more than disrupted; it was destroyed. Literally half her kinfolk were killed. She ended up in Mogadishu, which she’d only visited before once in her life. There she was living on the street, on her own, cut off from everybody.

Al McFarlane: A kid.

David Grant: Yeah. And like a miracle, some neighbor of a friend of a friend of somebody else’s neighbor who knew her family, physically tracked her down and gave her a letter that someone had sent to an old family friend in Mogadishu, hoping to find her. And this woman scoured the city for months looking for her, found her, and pressed this letter into her hands, saying, “Thank Allah. We’ve found you. Please, come join us in the U.S.” So, just like that, she was on a plane to the U.S.
But, you know the way that story goes, with immigrants, especially from third-world countries. I crafted a line in the song which J.D. later put to music, in which she talks about:
“Further along there is a strange twist to this tale:
Got to the land of freedom
And they threw me in jail.”

You know, that’s exactly what happened to her.

Al McFarlane: And she wrote it like that?

David Grant: I translated some of what she wrote and created that rhyming line. That’s emblematic of what we did. J.D. had to make a further translation from what I had on paper. If a line “sang” to him, then he would write it right away. He would know, “Okay, I hear this and I know how this needs to be, as a song.” But there were many places where J.D. had to change a line so that the flow, the rhythm, the musical poetry was there to match the poetry that was on the page. He’d give it back to me and say, “Well here’s what I’ve done. If you have a better idea about this line or that line over here, let me know.”
So it was a really enjoyable collaboration on many levels. Here I had the work of very gifted young people. One thing that many of the young people had in common was that they are only beginning to think that maybe they have a gift. The fact that they do have a gift is something that needs to be strongly supported by us, acknowledged by us, and this was a good way to do it.
There is a whole other level. The writers whose work actually made it into the finished piece are all getting credit for it. They have a contract with the theater. For every one of them, this is the first money that anybody has ever put in their hand because they’re a writer. And I’m telling you, there’s something very magical.
I remember very clearly the first time I ever got paid --

Al McFarlane: First by-line.

David Grant: -- for my real work, which is writing, and it was very powerful.

Al McFarlane: And even if you don’t get paid, to see your work get produced, the by-line itself is something powerful, magical, transformative and addicting --

David Grant: It’s huge.

Al McFarlane: And to get paid, too -- that’s just the icing on the cake.

David Grant: And one of the young writers was in a juvenile detention center when he handed in his piece. Unfortunately, he has now graduated to the “big house” in St. Cloud, But he is keeping very close tabs on this from where he is.

Al McFarlane: Sure.

David Grant: And we’ll all be thinking about him the first night when this is performed for an audience.

Al McFarlane: He has to be told, has to learn and know… I don’t know what his situation is, but if he’s a writer and an observer… he has been given a unique and rare opportunity to experience life behind bars. If he has the talent, and is prison now, he has to say to himself that this experience is part of the gift: “I’m here. How do I develop this talent to observe, to understand, to interpret and to tell the story that I’m seeing and hearing in this environment?” There’s hope everywhere. Even behind the walls of prisons.

David Grant: Yes there is.

Al McFarlane: What universal idea did the young writers grappled with? What world did they bring to you? How would characterize the body of their work, the breadth of what they are seeing, feeling, and saying?

David Grant: Well, there are several interwoven themes. One of them is: “Here’s how I see myself. This is the people I come from. This is neighborhood I live in. This is who I am so far. This is how I see the world.” I mean it was pretty deep stuff. They understood that’s what we were looking for. That’s exactly what we got. Our task was to take that writing and see a story with a through-line that we can create from all of this writing. Does a story suggest itself? We knew from the writing submitted that that story was going to be about new immigrants coming to the United States.
How does it feel to be a first generation American? We have a poignant piece from a Vietnamese boy musing: “I came to this country when I was only three. I’m the only member of my family with no memory of the old country. So I’m trying to sort out what is Vietnam for me. What is it?” And he says, “It’s the stories from my elders. It’s the traditional foods we make at home, the sound of my grandmother’s voice speaking in Vietnamese, whether she’s cooing or swearing at me. Even if I don’t understand a bunch of it, it’s in my bones. It’s in my atoms. And so I am deeply Vietnamese, even though I’ve never been there, or I have, but I don’t remember it. And I’m also American. And I’m trying to sort that out.”
For the Somali youths whose work we use, there is one male and one female. We’ve got writing from a Vietnamese, a Chinese, and a Hmong. What we’ve done is weave all that into a tapestry in which young people are thinking about exactly those issues in the context of “How are we going to get along together?” And it is interesting to be dealing with issues of race between people of color. This is not just about white and black and brown. This is about brown and black and red looking at each other.

Al McFarlane: J.D. Steele, musician, composer, you had the assignment in this collaboration with David to set these ideas, these themes, this vision to music. How did you approach it? What have you produced?

J.D. Steele: I like classical, gospel, soul, hip hop, and all music genres. I tried to include all of that in the music.

Al McFarlane: And so how, for example, in the story that David Grant just told us about the young Somali woman,, did you musical-ize that? What music did you put to her experience?

J.D. Steele: Well, kind of an African feel, because I’ve been to Africa over the past year and half. And I felt the story in my soul. I wrote from that perspective. That was very unique for me. It was very special for me.

Al McFarlane: And did the same thing happen then with the Latino or with the Chinese?

J.D. Steele: Yes, the same thing.

Al McFarlane: And what did you get the music from? Where did the feelings or the thoughts come from?

J.D. Steele: From everything I’ve heard, from all the music I’ve heard, from all the music I’ve experienced.

Al McFarlane: Okay, and well let me ask you guys to kind of recreate a conversation between the two of you. I’ll make myself the writer. I’ll be the student. And I’m telling you about sitting in a village in a Ghana, maybe even a town called Kumasi. And I’m looking at the weekly meeting of all the elders of the tribe. It’s called the Apatakesie. This is an arena, a traditional court in which all the chiefs sit. If people have an argument or a dispute they come and they present their side of the story and the court finally decides what happens. I tell you guys about my home culture in this story. It’s a story about the old justice, about how in my village in Ghana we revered the elders. Now, here in Minneapolis, I miss that reverence for the elders. I miss the respect tradition. I’m telling the story because as I walk around my neighborhood in Minneapolis, when I get on the bus, I see kids my age cursing without regard to or respect for the old woman sitting on one of the benches on the bus. And so that hurts me. But I also know that I’m connected to these other young people who use this swearing, braggadocios language. I’m part of the hip-hop generation. So that’s the story I’m giving you. What do you guys do with that? How would that story end up?

J.D. begins making beats as David responds.

David Grant: That’s a great example you’ve thrown out. See J.D. -- I haven’t written word one and J.D.’s already got a hook for it. And that’s exactly what we would do. I mean, I’d be sitting there looking at J.D., and he’d be sitting there playing all the instruments in the band with his hand and singing all the vocal parts for what he’s got in his head, and I’ve gotta quick get on the stick and start crafting some lyrics. But, see the first thing I would do would be to listen to you. And I heard something very important that made me think of, “You know what, this probably has to be titled something like, ‘We Don’t Come FromThat.’”

J.D. demonstrates a beat to accompany title.

David Grant: It may be a scenario I’d create then. We know we’ve only got three, three and a half minutes to tell a story here, because that’s about how long a song in a musical is going to be. So, we have to get right to the heart of it very quickly. So a situation that has inherent drama in it, like this young Ghanaian brother getting on the bus, encountering some behavior that just alienates the heck out of him, “I don’t understand what I’m seeing. I can’t get with this. What is this about? I mean these are people who could be my cousins, in my village back home. They look like me, but the feel that I’m hearing isn’t familiar to me. This is not our people. This is not what we’re about.”

J.D. singing “Can’t understand it” as David narrates.

David Grant: And so, J.D. may say, “This has to be part of the chorus, ‘I can’t understand it.’” Maybe what the brother is gonna do is he’s going to get a number of people on the bus involved in it. So that the first time we hear the chorus, it’s just gonna be him, just his voice, his lonely voice. But people who will feel the message he’s trying to say, will pick up on it. So the second time we come back to the chorus, two or three other people, elders on the bus, will have picked it up. So by the time we’re done with the song, it will be an ensemble piece and everybody will be singing and dancing’ and grooving’ on that line, “Hey I can’t understand this. What is this?” So that’s kinda how it goes, Al.

J.D. singing “Can’t understand it. Why you do that to me?”

Al McFarlane: I applaud this. This is awesome. Now I see how it’s done, and it’s a wonderful thing.
What other stories are being presented in this play, Snapshots: Life in the City?
David Grant: There was a very gifted Somali brother named Jamal Hashim, who now is over in London, doing his work at a Somali and pan-East-African cultural center.. He submitted a poem called, “A Tear for Somalia,” which we worked together to turn into what I think is one of the most powerful pieces in the whole show. And it’s going to be a little controversial, because I’m sure there are going to be members of the Somali community who will very much appreciate the piece, and there will probably be others who will feel like, “Wait a minute, ya’ll are airing our dirty laundry outside of our community.” But if the brother felt strongly enough about this piece that he very much wanted it out there, we felt we should facilitate that and help him get it out there.”

Al McFarlane: Let me take an aside. A European editorial cartoonist, in the minds of many in the Muslim world, is defaming the Prophet Mohamed.. How do you avoid crossing a line? Are you sensitive to -- even though you want to respect an individual’s right to say how he or she feels about the world, but you also have culture and culture itself demands a certain amount of respect, I think.

David Grant: Oh it absolutely does.

Al McFarlane: And if you cross that line, the culture produces a reaction. Does that come into consideration as you work with young people, in this story in particular?

David Grant: Always.

Al McFarlane: Did it come up?

David Grant: Oh yeah, of course. I think we have been extremely respectful and cautious in terms of how are members of this community likely to respond. Even though this is not work that came out of our heads, this is work created by members of those communities. The only filter we had in operation was the quality and the depth of the writing and the power of the message as it came through to us.

Al McFarlane: How old were the writers?

David Grant: That’s another great thing about it. I would say the youngest writer whose work made it into the show was ten,. I actually had work from seven and eight-year-olds too, that I looked at. I mean, very young. And it was tempting to dig that deep, to go that far down the age ladder, but I would have had to invent so much, to work with that, that I said, you know, nah. So the youngest work that we included was from a girl that was ten at the time of the submission. She’s eleven now. I’d say the oldest person was twenty.

Al McFarlane: Did you have any language issues, like profanity issues? I’m presuming that particularly in rap culture, in Black American culture, a lot of stuff is expressed in profane language.

David Grant: It’s true. But we got surprisingly little submitted. And there was a little bit of swearing in a couple of the songs and a little bit of the dialog but I noticed that one of the actresses, a wonderful person, who comes entirely out of the church, she’s a gospel singer, that’s how she came to the show. And I could see she was struggling a little bit, so I pulled her aside at the end of the rehearsal, just a quiet moment at the end of a rehearsal and said, “Baby sister, listen here, are you havin’ some issues with some of this? I’m a change every one of those words for you.” And she blushed a little bit and said, “Oh thank you Mr. Grant, I’d appreciate it. I’m just a little church girl, you understand.” And I said, “Yes, I do understand and respect that.” We crafted a very family friendly show that people need not fear bringing kids to.

Josie Scantlon a young Anglo-American girl wrote a piece about how life seems to her, based on the classroom of the 21A bus. It’s about how much she has learned about the world and been able to observe, just by being quiet and being fully attuned to what’s going on around her as she rides the bus back and forth. We used probably two-thirds of that piece that she wrote. And she has performed it at spoken word events around town. Her classmate Ashley Gilbert has also developed quite a rep for herself. She has a lot of street credits as a spoken word artist with a piece she calls “Baby girl’s Destiny.”
“Baby girl’s Destiny” we had to edit to make it fit where we’ve got it in the show, but we’ve used about two-thirds of the poem as she performs it, and we’ve written a musical piece that kind of gets us into it. We’ve written another musical piece that takes us out of it into something very deeply spiritual and quite beautiful. J.D. crafted a piece about seeking your destiny as a human being and not letting yourself be defeated by negative life circumstances. “How do I see my way through this and rise above it, and how do I develop the faith in myself that I can rise above it?” And I would say that the piece has a lot of spirituality in it, but “Spirituality” with a capital “S.” So if you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Humanist, you know wherever you come from --

Al McFarlane: It connects.

David Grant: --You will find spiritual food in the show, because there is a very hopeful, very positive spirit that underlies everything that happens. In “Baby girl’s Destiny” Ashley Gilbert talks about being a survivor of domestic abuse at home and seeing her mother abused, and, about dealing with the anger and the bitterness and the loneliness she feels from having been basically abandoned by her biological father at an early age. There’s a gripping scene that involves a character based on Ashley, in which she gets on a city bus with her partner Josie.
What J.D. and I did with the story, was say, “Look, the way that we’re going weave all of these children’s stories together is that we’re going to have two characters, two female characters, one of them is Vietnamese and one of them is African-American, who are best friends, and have been best friends for a long time. They attend the same mythical street academy, which is designed for kids who were real marginal in school and are one step from being out of school altogether. So these girls are in this street academy. And they’re one half-step from even being put out of the street academy, teen dropouts.
But they’ve got a very creative teacher who sees their potential and says, “Girls, you’ve been skipping class. I haven’t been seeing you. Let’s take a time out and do this for me: I’m going to give you each a camera. I’m going to give you each a notebook. For the next week, don’t come to school. Okay, you win. Don’t come to school. But here’s what you do: I want you to go out into the community, photograph things that are of interest to you, and then interview with every person that you photograph. What’s their story? What are they about? What brought them to this point when you met them on the street and you photographed them? And then you have to take your photos, all of your notes about your interviews, and put it together, the two of you, into a book and present it to me and the class. That’s your assignment. So that is the glue that holds this whole thing together and makes it move.
Al McFarlane: Developing energy, vision, stories from young people from a lot of places around the world who are here now, and who are meeting in the community, in the streets, and in school is important because through them we gain a sense of the world that lies ahead. It’s in them. It’s theirs. We gain a sense of our successes and our failures as mothers and fathers, as neighbors, as human beings.

J.D. Steele: This Somali piece, “A Tear for Somalia?” by Jamal Hashim, really sang to me. It goes like this: (sings) My eyes were teary for a moment in time / Looking at my people standing on the front line / Too long without food, bones showing through their chests / Eyes weary with worry, all weary from no rest / I asked my dear Allah / If somehow this is a test / And if it is, how do we pass through? / How do we overcome and make it through the storm? / How do we know which path to choose? / So I let others do the worryin’ when it comes to Somalia / We’re all blindfolded when it comes to Somalia / A lost cause in the land of Somalia / A human rights disaster in Somalia.

Al McFarlane: You feel it. You feel it. You see it. I’m closing my eyes as you’re singing it, J.D. and I’m transported to it, and I feel the pain, the energy of the writer. Are the writers also the actors?

David Grant: No. No.

Al McFarlane: So the writers did what they do, and then you took this as a production and did the casting. Tell me about the cast. Who do you have? What are they doing?

J.D. Steele: We auditioned about eighty-five people, I think, and cast about fifteen people. And they’re fantastic young singers and actors.

Al McFarlane: Any new people then, or people that are known?

J.D. Steele: Very new.

David Grant: Yeah there are a couple of faces Twin Cities audiences will recognize --

J.D. Steele: Like Amy Bryant.

David Grant: People who come to the previews have said, “Good God, where did you find these people?”

Al McFarlane: We simply fail to recognize all that’s there right in plain view, in all of our lives. And either we’re anesthetized or we simply are ignorant to the fact that what we posses in our daily dew is really rich, a rich gift of creativity.

J.D. Steele: But you kind of have to look for it, too. You look for it, and you find it. I think this is kind of the most diverse cast I’ve ever seen on a Twin Cities stage.

Al McFarlane: Do we, as adults, tend to downplay that ability to be creative when our kids come home rhyming in hip-hop type tunes? We marvel on one hand that kids can repeat lyrics from records all day and all night, complex, long long lyrics, but they can’t seem to get the homework done, or they can’t seem to understand the English class assignment. And so the school then tells us that our children have attention deficit disorder, or they have a difficulty understanding English or they’re not up to speed, they’re not intelligent. But we see these kids have volumes of information committed, not just words, but cadence and rhyming and sensibility and the ability to project that in a way that is true to the original presentation. So that’s genius to me.

J.D. Steele: Right, I agree.

Al McFarlane: So, what’s going on?

J.D. Steele: Well, my son, fourteen years old Jason and I debate all the time about the hip-hop culture and music. I listen to all of it. We talk about the lyrics and the content of the music. It’s a constant dialog about what it means and how it relates to how he’s living his life. And that’s very important to me to understand that. And I would encourage any parent to listen to the music. I mean listen to the music, because they’re saying a lot. And to understand your child you really need to listen to the music and understand the culture to relate to that child in that language. It’s very important. So, I do that all the time. It’s a very deep sequential understanding of what they’re saying and what’s being said in music and in the culture.

David Grant: There’s an awful lot of rap/hip-hop out there that has a deeply positive message too, and that needs to be recognized. But with young people, as an occasional teacher, someone who will come in and work with the class on creative writing, just for three or four times, and that’s the kind of thing I do, rather than teaching on a daily basis, the challenge is to say to the kids that’s great that you can spit Common or Mos Def or Kanye West back to me, but --

Al McFarlane: They call it spitting, right?

David Grant: But let me hear something that comes from your heart. And the kids can and do. In fact I was listening to a story on Public Radio just yesterday, in which some young kids, we’re talking about thirteen through fifteen-year-olds, a group twelve kids, mostly African American, Katrina survivors in a room, we’re talking about how they had been emotionally surviving, since the storm. And it was this one young brother who said, “Well, me and my buddies, I don’t know, the community center doesn’t exist anymore, the things we used to do, we can’t go do. We’ve written a lot of songs . . .” you know? And that’s very profound., that cut off from TV and your usual amusements, what do you do?

Al McFarlane: So they write.

David Grant: And they write. And that’s very powerful -- that’s a deep part of our culture. Nobody else in this world would have come up with rap, but us. Which is a testimony to that very strong poetic and verbal side, language-loving side of our culture. The show is, in a way, a celebration. I mean, wouldn’t you say, J.D.?

J.D. Steele: Yes

David Grant: That’s part of what this teacher does, is he recognizes the gift that these children barely recognize in themselves yet, and makes them go exercise that muscle. And part of is, they get out there and they realize, “Well, shoot, everybody has a story.” You can stop anybody at random, and if you can get them to open up, you’re going to learn something really interesting and worthwhile. As you begin to understand that, it makes you begin to see the world a little differently, and it makes you begin to see yourself a little differently.

Al McFarlane: So then, how do you think, through this collaboration, do the young writers, the ones who submit stories, do they get to know each other in this production? Or are they just dealing with you and not each other?

David Grant: Yeah, the most recent song that’s been crafted, well, second most recent, that I’ve had to write and J.D. put to music, is one called “The Buddy System.” “Life on the Buddy System.” These girls are friends at the beginning of the piece, but their friendship is even tighter and stronger by the end, because they’ve learned so much out there, on this quest for knowledge and for information. And the project that they’re doing has been proposed to them as probably their last best chance to still make graduation. And so that’s part of what drives the story too. The song says, “Hey you push me and I’ll pull you. And that’s how we do this thing, because I’m not always the strong one everyday, Sometimes that’s got to be you.”

Al McFarlane: “I need some help.”

David Grant: “You’re pushing me, and we’ll get to this end goal,” and by the time the play ends, we know they’re firmly on the path to graduation, and they’re even closer and deeper friends than they were at the beginning of the piece. So, it’s a celebration of a lot of things, including that.

Al McFarlane: But, so the twelve or thirteen pieces made it into the play. Do the authors of those pieces actually get to know each other?

David Grant: No. You know, I wish that during this process we had had time for a real workshop. That we’d had time to get everybody in the same room, under the same roof, have them meet each other, have them learn each other’s stories, but unfortunately, we really couldn’t do it that way.

Al McFarlane: So they know you, and you’ve sort of mediated their association as the producer of the play?

David Grant: That’s right.

Al McFarlane: Are they’re going to know each other when they come to watch the play?

David Grant: Some of them have met because we’ve invited them to rehearsals, so they’ve had the chance to, you know, “Okay, so that’s who did this piece.”

J.D. Steele: I think they’re surprised when they hear the music and the book done,

David Grant: And thrilled.

Al McFarlane: And what do you imagine will be the impact on their lives? I mean how does this set of soliloquies or dialogues, how do these conversations, these stories that they’re presenting, when they’re lined up and interwoven in a body of work -- what kind of impact is it going to have on them, J.D. Steele?

J.D. Steele: They’re going to be proud to see their work like that. I think that’s a great impact when you see your work put to print like that.

Al McFarlane: Are they going to sense different relationships between African Americans, Chinese, Somali, and Latino kids? What do you guess?

J.D. Steele: They’re all going to be encouraged to do more work, to keep going,

David Grant: They’ll all feel called, to some degree, to continue this broader conversation with each other, as members of communities of color. That we have to avoid being at each other’s throats. In fact, I live near Washburn High School, on the South side.
I was walking down the street one day, and I witnessed a really ugly incident between an African American driver, a woman, and a group of Somali kids who were trying to cross the street in front of her. It was as mean a moment of ethnic friction as I’ve ever seen, between anybody. That really made me think. It was that that went into and fed an incident in the play, in which a can is thrown at this Somali youth, right before he sings the song “A Tear for Somalia.” He talks about the hell that he and many of his folk have caught in this country, and that a lot of it has not been at the hand of White folks. A lot of it has been at the hand of…

Al McFarlane: Black folks.

David Grant: Yeah, and that’s been a very bitter and hard to understand thing. And so, I think the kids who contributed writing, who now know, “Okay so this is part of the play,” you know, they’re thinking about it. We hope that young audiences who come will walk out of there thinking about it, and that we will have done something good, because it will spark and foster, in a really low-key way, the conversations that we need to be having with each other, in our communities, so that we don’t have to go on that path of continuing friction and play into that divide and conquer that has been an unfortunate part of our history here on these shores.

Al McFarlane: I wanted to get a sense of how you think the messages in this play are affecting the messengers and the earlier questions ask your estimation of the impact of this work on the lives of these children. Well you’re also messengers in this collaboration, and so how does it affect you? David and J.D., what are you seeing as the fruitful potential of contact between African, Latino, Asian, American Indian, Somali, cultural, ethnic entities in our community? Is there a gold mine there? Are there dangers?
J.D. Steele: We live in an increasingly global society. I would love to see young people really being creative about understanding the world that they live in, and the fact that we’re all connected, through telecommunications. It’s important to me that young people really understand the total global perspective of life. And I think this play can do that. By doing theater like this, we can connect young people.

Al McFarlane: So theater, you’re saying, is an educational experience, it’s a very good way to move people toward reflecting a global vision, attaining it, and reflecting it in what you do.

David Grant: Theater, and the arts in general, are a different way of having a conversation. It’s another way of thinking and experiencing and being able to communicate something on a deep level with somebody. The first part of that just comes from the experience of sitting in a room together, in the dark, and not only seeing on the stage, but on some level, participating in this creative experience that’s been going on in the room for a couple of hours. All these people from diverse communities hear and see the same message, at the same time, in the same room. It gives us an opportunity -- just like planning a scene, to encourage the conversations that we need to be having. They may not happen immediately, but some very important groundwork that will enable those conversations to happen has been laid by attending this piece together.

So, I’m seeing it play out in my life in an interesting way right now because I went in to grab some lunch at a Mexican restaurant in my neighborhood and the owner of that restaurant, who happens to be an actor and storyteller in the Twin Cities, walked in and we had a conversation about what we’re doing right now. He and I both agreed that we have an immediate need to communicate, since there is so much talk going on about anger and distrust growing towards, especially Mexican immigrants right now. And he and I had a freewheeling long conversation about the old history between Black folks and Mexico, and the fact that both of us were just floored at reading the same news reports that there are African American folk in border states like Arizona and California joining right in with White folks in the minute-men organizations to patrol the border and keep Mexicans out, you know? And that there is huge friction in places like Los Angles, which just elected a Mexican American mayor, and a lot of Black folks voted against him.
Cynical politicians were able to drive a wedge between Mexican immigrants and native-grown Black folk in that area on the basis of a very short-sighted view of their own economic interests, when in fact there are many more things that unite us and give us common ground that we share, common interests, than there are things that divide us. And so pieces like this encourage people to think about things and to reach out to each other across lines that often are not real comfortable for one another, and to make common cause, and to be stronger for that.

Al McFarlane: When I see a public school in Minneapolis, St. Paul and the student population is Black and Asian and Latino, these children are five years old and ten years old and thirteen years old, and they are a community in and of themselves.
And so what do you see will come of the relationships that are simply classroom relationships between five-year-olds today?

J.D. Steele: Well, I think they’re going to be much more understanding of each other, culturally, globally.

Al McFarlane: David, you said early on, one of the features of this relationship is that it allows our culture to see other cultures without being filtered through White culture. What’s the evidence of that in this play?

David Grant: Well, I think the fact that the perspectives that the stories share are very much from young people of color and then from J.D. and I, who are on the cusp of becoming elders in our community -- I say it with a wink and a nod -- I think that perspective shines through all over the place. I mean, there is no question, as you come in, that you are in the hands of storytellers that truly do represent voices, legitimate, authentic voices from these communities, and we have interpreted and, for creative purposes, and for quality purposes, tightened certain things up, but we have stayed out of the way and let those authentic voices shine on through.
I’m very confident about this piece.
I think it does a good job of standing on its own two legs and saying what it is and saying it loudly and clearly. And the nice thing about it, too, is that it’s not just a piece of theater that teaches, and it certainly doesn’t preach, it’s thoroughly entertaining, and it has the side benefit of being -- you know, as you leave the theater you realize, “Man, I saw some things I haven’t seen. I’ve heard some things I haven’t heard. This feels good.”

Olivia said...

David! I get tears and goosebumps and tingles as I read of this voyage of yours. A voyage that began so long ago, with the very first story you ever heard about "relatives buried long before your birth". I am so very happy for you and this culmination/beginning. We keep you in our thoughts and prayers. Liv

goe-goe said...

Hi David,
my friend olivia suggested to have a look at your blogg. I admit I am highly impressed and deeply touched about your story and your vision I feel related to.
So I thougt you might like to know that there is a stranger from Germany who feels with you and wishes good luck.


Kayva said...

Thanks for sharing this journey with all. Knowing so much of our pasts, our histories, and families' rich stories are waiting to be heard through our own voices, this is a truly powerful story to tell.

Noreen said...

Hello David,

My friend Karoda provided this link on her blog - Seamless Skin. I am deeply moved by your words, and like "goe-goe" I wanted you to know that there is now a stranger from Canada following your story.