Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Till the Break of Dawn: Hip-Hop Theater Takes Us from Brooklyn to Havana

It’s not often that we get to listen to the voices of the artists, activists and young professionals that represent the idealism, thirst for social justice and contradictions of the hip-hop generations. TV, radio, magazines and newspapers are usually saturated by hip-hop’s most predictable and cliché products. That is why I enthusiastically recommend folks go see the play Till the Break of Dawn, written and directed by two time Obie award winner Danny Hoch.

The action takes place over the course of Summer 2001 and focuses on a group of young New Yorkers that travel to Cuba to participate in Havana’s hip-hop festival. Most of them are Latinos, the organizer Gibran (Jaymes Jorsling) is African American and the man in charge of financing the trip is Adam (Matthew-Lee Erlbach), the Jewish owner of a small record label that promotes politically engaged rappers. Their diverse ethnicities, races, educational backgrounds and political stances provide great opportunities for the playwright to explore some of the complexity of young urban voices.

(Image by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

The rest of the traveling crew includes foul-mouthed and ill-tempered Big Miff (Dominic Colón) and schoolteachers Rebeca (Maribel Lizardo) and Robert (Johnny Sánchez), a couple that is constantly at each other’s throats and fighting over matters ranging from the most trivial to the profoundly philosophical. Then there’s Nancy (pattydukes) a Dominican art curator and her boyfriend Hector (Flaco Navaja), a Boricua web designer who is equally passionate about revolutionary ideals and smoking weed.

Once in Cuba, the group meets characters that challenge their political naivete and fiery arrogance, schooling them about the constantly shifting terrain between idealism and reality. Among the characters they meet in Cuba are Dana (Gwendolen Hardwick), an ex-Black Panther and U.S. political exile who lives in Cuba, and Felito (Luis Vega) a young Cuban who is perpetually quoting U.S.-made commercials and rap lyrics.

This play is charged as much with humor as with political and social commentary. It provides enjoyment and insights for spectators coming from any angle. But I will put on my educator’s hat now and stress that the play is, in particular, a must-see for young hip-hop fans, their parents and teachers. It provides a rare opportunity at entertainment as well as tons of food for thought, written in a language and style that will appeal to young folks because it will strike them as their own.

The play opened September 13 and will run until October 21 at the Abrons Arts Center (212-352-3101) in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. 466 Grand Street (corner of Pitt Street).

Teatro Hip-Hop: Till the Break of Dawn

Haga click aquí para mi columna de El Diario / La Prensa de hoy, miércoles 26 de septiembre.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Who said ‘bitch’?

According to Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, if a white man calls a black woman a “bitch” it’s worse than if a black man insulted the same woman using the same word.

A brief recount of some of the coach’s court statements last Monday:

Thomas said he never called ex-Knicks vice president of marketing Anucha Browne Sanders a “bitch”.

He also said it is not right for any man to call a woman a bitch. But, for him, “bitch” directed at Sanders by a white man like former Knicks executive Frank Murphy would be much worse than the same insult from the mouth of a black man like basketball star Stephon Marbury.

On Tuesday, the New York Daily News criticized Thomas’ “double standard”.

Initially, as I read the article, it seemed to me that Thomas was being a coward by trying to deflect the accusations against himself and Marbury and, to top it off, using the loaded language of racial community and solidarity. I had just been reading Mark Anthony Neal’s excellent book New Black Man the day before and Thomas seemed to be making the classic “race trumps gender” argument that Neal criticizes.

But when I started reading the comments to the Daily News article posted on the Internet, I was puzzled that quite a few readers were accusing Thomas of having said that a black man has the right to insult a black woman, but not a white man. Something similar was erroneously reported on CNN and the New York Post.

That was NOT what Thomas said!

What exactly did the coach say? I found a partial transcription in Newsday and, though his statements are still highly questionable, they are not as scandalous as many are making them seem. Thomas did not pull the race factor out of a hat, but brought it up when he was asked about Murphy insulting Sanders. He brought it up to emphasize that he would not have tolerated such insults from Marbury OR Murphy… but especially from Murphy. Sure, that may be Thomas' manipulative tactic of eliciting sympathy toward himself for being a respectable black man who cares in particular about “his” people.

But if we’re going to criticize Thomas, let it be for what he said, not for what we misunderstood he said.

It seems to me that many media outlets and readers are much too eager to have examples to say: “See... black people are obsessed with race! Black people are even more racist than white people!”

Huh? Race IS still a big factor in this country… and definitely not because black people are imagining it. Is it really that shocking that, in a racist society, a black man would admit to having a more emotional response to insults directed against one of “his”—particularly when “his” is the group at the bottom of the racial hierarchy?

I’m not defending Thomas’ statements. More than anything, his words seem like the perfect example of what Mark Anthony Neal describes as African American men failing to own up to their privilege as males.

All I’m saying is lets stick to what he actually said.

Also, lets keep in mind these ridiculous scandals about who called who a “bitch” next time someone wants to attack rappers and reggaetoneros, as if they were the ones who came up with these dogly insults against women.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

¿Quién dijo 'perra'?

Haga click aquí para mi columna de hoy, 19 de septiembre de 2007, en El Diario / La Prensa. La columna se titula "¿Quién dijo 'perra'?" y consiste de mis reflexiones sobre las declaraciones del lunes del entrenador de los Knicks, Isiah Thomas, en el caso en corte donde la ex-ejecutiva de la NBA, Anucha Browne Sanders, lo ha demandado por acoso sexual.

Reggaetón en 'Nuestra América'

Haga click aquí para mi columna de El Diario / La Prensa del 12 de septiembre de 2007, titulada "Reggaetón en 'Nuestra América'".

Monday, September 10, 2007

Illegal Tender: Hispanixploitation?

(Haga click aquí para la versión en español, publicada en El Diario / La Prensa.)

In a short film review, the New York Times says Illegal Tender (released August 24) is the typical urban action movie, but with a new twist the paper dubs “Hispanixploitation.” The term is, of course, indebted to the “blaxploitation” films that first became popular in the 1970s and that have specialized in sensationalizing the African American “underworld.”

According to the Times, the same traffic in stereotypes (but with a Latino twist) is now available through this movie written and directed by Franc. Reyes, produced by John Singleton, and starring Wanda de Jesús, Manny Pérez and Tego Calderón. Now “Latinoness” is the lucrative seasoning for the crime and sex fantasies that have historically fueled much of the film industry.

Not that the formula is new. Scarface (1983) is definitely the most prominent example, but there are many others. What makes Illegal Tender different is that it was made with ample resource$, written and directed by a Puerto Rican, with Latino characters and actors, and uses as a commercial hook the growing global success of Latino urban music and culture. Neither is it common that in this movie the action goes way beyond ghetto borders and its protagonists move just as easily in university circles and in moneyed Connecticut suburbs. (A welcome change, according to me.)

Illegal Tender did not debut as a box office hit and it has not received great acclaim among critics. says the acting is weak and the plot is ridiculous; the Times describes the dialogues as “telenovela style.” (I have to agree on all counts.) So it remains to be seen if other directors, producers and film studios will follow this approach that at the same time shatters and perpetuates stereotypes. I’ll be happy if next time someone comes up with an equally Hispanixploitative film it at least has good plot, acting and dialogue.

And Tego? Tego did a good job. I say bring him back on.