“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the making of bread.”
— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
All year we have been assaulted daily by the toxic fumes spewing forth from the mouth of the man who occupies the White House, infecting every sphere of public and private life. Aside from his flagrant disregard for law and preposterous lies, his mockery, bullying and hateful language has given permission to those who share his bigotry to express their own fear and rage both verbally and in acts of violence. From the rise of white supremacy movements to efforts at voter suppression, racism is once again unabashedly showing its ugly face in the daylight, no longer under cover. This comes as no surprise to African-Americans. It has always been there. We have yet to come to terms with the dark side of our history — that this nation was born out of slavery and genocide at the same time as the founding fathers drafted the high ideals and guiding principles for the democratic country they envisioned. And we have lived with that schism ever since, too often in denial of that painful fact. Some people believed that the election of Barack Obama was a sign that we had finally crossed to the other side. That illusion passed as the stench of hatred that leaked up from the depths rose into a rallying cry that fomented Trump’s rise to power. Even more disturbing is the self-serving hypocrisy of all the Republican politicians who reinforce his demagoguery.
And yet, in the face of all that two events in November have expressed the power of a bigger American dream. First, all the women of color we elected to Congress. And although she did not make it to the Georgia Governor’s Office, the brilliance of Stacy Abrams’ visionary voice will carry on far and wide. Second, are works of art being made by African-American artists that offer us another way to look at who we are. In particular the unexpectedly uplifting performance work Jack &, created and directed by Kaneza Schaal, with an all-black cast starring Cornell Alston, with Rucyl Frison, Modesto Flako Jimenez and Stacy Karen Robinson.
There is much more to this work than its engaging performers and great music. It draws upon a wealth of storytelling traditions, an inventive use of language and imagery, and complex yet accessible metaphors that reveal the deeply rooted spirit behind the words “we shall overcome.” It also illuminates an aspect of African-American life and culture that too often goes unacknowledged — a remarkable capacity for hope and the ability to dream and believe in those aspirations, in spite of centuries of oppression, incarceration, injustice and racism. In this moment that seems more astonishing than ever, and at the same time inspiring.
The performance consists of three parts. Part I. The Monologues: What happened was…. is a masterful piece of animated storytelling delivered with perfect comic timing, humor and style by Cornell Alston as Jack. The scene opens with Jack, dressed in a white T-shirt and black pants, peering into a goldfish bowl set on a stool. The lone goldfish trapped in the bowl, swimming round and round, staring out but unable to leave, becomes a repeating theme. It is not unlike the situation of being a black man in America.
Jack does a few hopscotch jumps in a prison community room where activities are suddenly interrupted by the news that Osama Bin Laden has been killed. This leads to Jack’s hilarious account of the conversation that followed amongst the men in the room. A heated discussion and debate about top secret Navy Seals parachuting out of helicopters and how they have their own dogs who also have parachutes, and how dogs at airports get breaks every two hours, and other convincingly argued misinformation. Jack tells them you can’t parachute out of a helicopter. You have to rappel. “Never argue with fools,” Jack informs us. Especially over things you don’t know, like radar and how it works. Or time travel. All this is delivered with vernacular and gestural gusto.
Jack, who is smart and sassy and very funny, returns to the goldfish metaphor that is as much about imagination as it is imprisonment. “We are goldfish,” he says, imitating one. He explains how the goldfish knows everything about the bowl and its boundaries, how long it takes to swim around it, how fast you can go. And after you have worked all that out “you’re gonna get bored (in the fishbowl which is like the prison) an start talkin about mad things you don’t know….. We were all goldfish. Brilliant goldfish.”
Jack gets released and has to consider the problem of re-entry into society after prison —where to go or not go and what to do. (Alston, in fact was incarcerated when Schaal first met him1 and this is very much his story.) Jack gets a delivery job which leads to an even wilder story about a man in Harlem living in a small apartment on 137th Street with a tiger, and how he feeds the tiger chickens he secretly gets from the Puerto Rican butcher. But the tiger (like the goldfish) is restricted to the too small space of his room, so one day he bites the man, which of course leads to questions about why anyone would keep a tiger in a Harlem apartment. A crazy idea, right? How do you rationalize that? It’s another analogy to think about not so far afield from the goldfish one.
Now working the night shift at an industrial bakery, Jack introduces the next metaphor — recipes and why they matter. Jack’s inner baker says one ingredient is wrong. The question left open is which one — man, the full-grown tiger or the too small apartment? “It is a bad recipe,” he tells us. But it is also a social conundrum.
Part II. The Sitcom: The Good Life…. expands upon the baking/recipe analogy within the structure of a domestic TV sit-com. The scene is set in Jack’s apartment where he is joined by his wife Jill (Stacy Karen Robinson), her friend (Rucyl Frison), and Jack’s alter ego also named Jack (Modesto Flako Jimenez). Jack does a little dance around his kitchen and dons an apron as he prepares to bake a cake. Enter Jill to the musical theme from The Honeymooners, the 1950s show starring Jackie Gleason as bus driver Ralph Kramden and Audrey Meadows as his wisecracking wife Alice. Jill sashays into the room, plops down in a chair and kicks off her high-heeled shoes. Jack tells her he is going to bake her a layer cake with pineapple filling to show how much he loves her. But this is a parody for Jack and Jill bear little resemblance to the Ralph and Alice of more than sixty years ago. It is hard to imagine Ralph, the man who raised his fist and threatened to send Alice “to the moon,” in an apron baking a cake as a gesture of love. But it is a useful trope that Schaal exploits to reveal contrasting cultures and values, as demonstrated by the repartee between Jack and Jill around the meaning of the cake and what it represents. And the difference between buying a cake (or flowers) versus the effort expended in baking one. Is it about money or love?
Jill goes off to change, while Jack consults a recipe accompanied by Louis Armstrong in the background. He’s never actually made a cake before but that doesn’t stop him. When Jill returns she’s all dressed up and going out for tea. What ensues is a debate about the role of cake as he accuses her of going out to have tea as an excuse to eat cake with someone else, while he is giving his all to bake her a cake. It’s the ultimate betrayal! But she insists on her love of tea alone, and finally promises not to have even a tiny taste of cake. At the same time, she establishes and maintains her independence. Cake now has come to symbolize not just love and commitment but a certain status in society. This sequence also counters stereotypes of black men, especially those who have served time in prison, by presenting Jack as loving and loyal and seeking a stable domestic life, as well as being very creative.
The first attempt at cake baking is a slapstick parody of the wildly popular Amos and Andy radio series that ran from 1928-1960. Set in Harlem, it followed the comedic adventures of Amos Jones, a naïve but honest, hard-working, dedicated family man, and Andy Brown, a gullible dreamer with overinflated self-confidence, who tended to let Amos do most of the work. Although the characters were black, the series was conceived and acted by two white men.2 Played out by Jack and his alter-ego friend Jack, the cake making turns into a farcical satire on the “virtues” of whiteness.
First Jack sends Jack 2 out for groceries, but he returns with the wrong ingredients. Despite the unlikely and unsuitable substitutions, Jack proceeds with the encouragement of his friend, not even bothering to measure anything. He pours flour “like snowflakes,”… “God’s dandruff,”… for a cake “whiter than cottage cheese on crackers,”…. “whiter than the Department of Corrections”….
It is of course a disaster, a complete failure. Still, Jack dreams, again turning the caricature inside out. He dreams of chocolate, the taste and feel in his mouth, “dark, creamy, comforting. Just chocolate!” And with a drum roll he starts over. Carefully measuring ingredients for a cake that will be “love, intimacy, resurrection, sunshine on a rainy day, bubble gum, commitment, coming home, walking with a kick, dancing…” He does a little footwork, pours the batter into the pan and pops it into the oven, confident that it will be a superb cake.
Part III. The Cotillion: Goldfish with wings…. takes us to a new place altogether — Jack’s fantasy in dreamtime, or what it would be like when the goldfish leaves the confines of the bowl and goes out to find his place in the world. It is a beautiful dream that traverses the rich layers of African-American cultural traditions and ceremonies, rituals, pageantry and dance. These include the formal Cotillion ball, the colorfully costumed John Canoe, or Jankunu festival derived from Akan slaves once common in coastal North Carolina, and a modern soft shoe dance. And of course all the twentieth century music — jazz, bebop, soul, rhythm and blues, and more — that as a nation we have ironically exported to the world as uniquely American.
The formal cotillion ball is generally thought of as a debutante ball presenting privileged young white women to high society, but a parallel tradition has existed amongst black society with a slightly different emphasis. These cotillions were a way for wealthy and middle-class blacks to demonstrate their achievements, rather than merely showcase perfectly groomed, desirable mates, and young women and men alike were expected to display self-confidence and leadership skills. Jill formally presents herself in a traditional white ballgown to Jack in tuxedo, white tie and tails, in a ballroom dance sequence. In an interview with Charity Coleman, Alston elaborates —
“The dance for me is successful reentry—a celebration. It’s my first time wearing a tuxedo and I’ve always wanted to do that. Being able to do those things is liberating. I get up at 3am, I’m at work at the bakery at 4:30am, but I’m doing two things that I love. When I’m dancing I’m living out my dream. I’m performing in front of people, I’m learning, I’m teaching. I’ve arrived, so to speak. I count my blessings.” 3
Lying on his back on the floor, Jack dreams, a wall-sized projection of the goldfish swimming about behind him. A voice whispers, Jack, Jack… But what about the cake? Well it got overcooked. But this story still comes to a surprisingly happy and joyous ending proving the power of perseverance and creativity. Sisyphus can reach the top of the mountain, and plant that boulder as a marker for day one of the next endeavor. I cannot help but marvel at how that spirit of hope and possibility stays alive and even thrives, through so much adversity.
Although Alston as Jack is the central figure, much like the women in the recent film Black Panther that upended the superhero genre, the two women are independent personae on their own terms. Performance, sound and media artist Rucyl Frison is a coolly chic techno woman, ensconced behind her laptop, mixers, and effects gadgets producing the soundtrack, while Robinson’s Jill emanates strength and self-assurance as well as style, wit and wisdom.
Jack & concludes with Alston and cast coming onstage with a gorgeous, fully frosted layer cake held aloft by Alston who invites the audience to join them in the lobby for – what else! – CAKE! It is an exhilarating, shared moment of celebration. And I am reminded of two things — that night ten years ago when Barack Obama was elected President, and that we are all goldfish.
1Kaneza Schaal met Cornell Alston when he was performing in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Fishkill Correctional Facility, where he was serving a 33-year sentence. He was released a couple months later. Alston is a member of Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), a nonprofit organization that uses the arts as a tool for self-improvement for those currently and formerly incarcerated.
2 The original radio show, which ran from 1928 until 1960, was created, written and voiced by two white actors, Freeman Gosden who played Amos Jones, and Charles Correll as Andrew Hogg Brown. Gosden also voiced Kingfish, a third character. The majority of the scenes were dialogues between either Andy and Amos or Andy and Kingfish. Amos and Kingfish rarely appeared together. The Amos ‘n Andy Show was adapted to television, from June 1951 to April 1953 with 52 filmed episodes, and black actors in the main roles.
3 Charity Coleman. “Never Stop Dreaming: Q&A with JACK &’s Cornell Alston,” Brooklyn Academy of Music Blog, September 10, 2018
COVER PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER MYERS
Kaneza Schaal, Jack &
Text by Christopher Myers, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Keisha
Design by Christopher Myers
REDCAT, Los Angeles
November 15-17, 2018