Community actors fighting the odds: West Oakland’s Playaz’ race toward opening night

Bertha Holly (Cat Brooks) serves dinner while Bynum Walker (Adimu Madyun) gives Mattie Campbell (Niko Buchanan) advice.

Bertha Holly (Cat Brooks) serves dinner while Bynum Walker (Adimu Madyun) advises Mattie Campbell (Niko Buchanan) on love.

Her eyes looked exhausted. Low blood sugar and lack of sleep were setting in. Outside it was still raining. With her play due to open soon, the situation did not look good for Director Ayodele “Wordslanger” Nzinga.

The founder of West Oakland’s only community theater, The Lower Bottom Playaz, Nzinga declined to give her age, but said, “I’ve been doing theater for 53 years.” For the first time, she was seriously questioning whether the show could, in fact, go on. Nzinga handed out the scripts for August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” the day after her last production, “Gem of the Ocean” closed in August. Some actors had missed rehearsals, many still struggled to learn their lines, a main character had dropped out two weeks before, and the production budget languished at zero dollars.

Now it was Monday, Oct. 3. Four days to opening.

“This has been the most difficult show we’ve had in 10 years,” Nzinga said.

That afternoon, on her way to one of her day jobs as an afterschool teacher at Markham Elementary in East Oakland, Nzinga’s windshield wipers stopped working on I-880. “I’m producing a play on no money, I had to go to work,” the weathered director said—so she toughed it out on the freeway. After her shift, she wound her way carefully back, broken wipers and all, using city streets. When she arrived early for 8 p.m. rehearsal at the Prescott-Joseph Center for Community Enhancement, a non-profit housed in a former convent, she still had not eaten.

Director Ayodele Nzinga critiques actor Stanley Hunt during an opening week rehearsal.

Director Ayodele Nzinga critiques actor Stanley Hunt during an opening week rehearsal.

Ayodele Nzinga established The Lower Bottom Playaz in 1999. Without a theater to house them then—“we were homeless,” she said—the group floated for two years, performing in venues around town. When Nzinga met Prescott-Joseph Center Director Washington Burns, she was feeding her children with food stamps. She had gone to the center “looking for something to keep me out of social services,” she said. After speaking with Nzinga, Burns was inspired to clear the century-old trees in the building’s back yard to make room for an open-air stage—the one that on this anxious rehearsal day was soaked by autumn rain.

Many of The Lower Bottom Playaz’ struggles are emblematic of small community theater, where adaptability and passion are the only stable currency. City of Oakland funding for non-profit arts programs fell by 44 percent between 2006 and 2011, with the deepest cut, 25 percent, occurring last year. For artists in West Oakland, broader economic problems collide with the daily realities of a historically impoverished black neighborhood undergoing gentrification. But despite shrinking resources, the group has managed to grow, surviving on Nzinga’s grit and the continued participation of a core group of artists.

There’s Adimu Madyun, a musician and community activist, who produced and directed the award-winning documentary “Operation Small Axe,” examining police violence in Oakland. There’s Tatiana Monet, a stage and screen actor who made her film debut in local director Baayan Bakari’s “Equinox;” Nzinga calls her a “stock member” of the troupe. There’s Stanley Thomas Hunt, II and Nzinga’s own son, Koran Jenkins, both recording artists and founding members of the rap group Turf Starz. There’s Nzinga’s grandson Nathaniel Hatton, still inexperienced, whom she is coaching.

And there’s Niko Buchanan, a 23 year-old who is paying her way through Laney College with a job at the 99 Cents Only Store in West Oakland while she dreams of attending Juilliard. Buchanan cut her work hours back to part time to make room for “Joe Turner” in her schedule. She had to miss a few days of rehearsal for school; then she missed a week to visit her mother, who was released from prison last month after serving a ten-year sentence in Oklahoma.

Buchanan is also six months pregnant.

“Actors have bills and have to make ends meet,” Nzinga said. “It becomes an even greater labor of love than it usually is.” She has managed consistently to find sources of funding that allow her to pay actors a small stipend. But on Monday—this rainy, exasperating Monday, as she tried to launch a celebrated play about race and struggle and economic hard times—that prospect was still uncertain.

Other problems loomed. The play calls for pigeons. Nzinga worried that using fake birds would be tacky, given the proximity of audience seating. “Do I have a minimum of 60, maybe 120 dollars for pigeons?” she asked, rhetorically.

Usually Nzinga falls back on optimism that is chiseled by experience. Putting on a show with no funding “is, of course, impossible,” she said. “People call us the ‘MacGyver Troupe.’” But she was also frank. “After a while,” she said, “that shit gets old.”

 * * *

“You’re gonna kiss her right here. Can you do that?” Nzinga’s voice is beginning to rise. Her grandson, 13-year-old Nathaniel, has shyly avoided looking at his scene partner, 9-year-old Alecia Williams, for several minutes now. Nzinga explains again that the stage kiss will be planted strategically on the chin, no lip-to-lip contact required.

“Mmm … no,” Nathaniel says.

Nzinga tries using reason: “I would have to rewrite the play.”

She tries coercion: “You’re going to kiss her on the chin, and you’re going to do it now.”

She tries reassurance: “The good thing about this is guys at your age, they’re not expert kissers … ”

Finally Nzinga resorts to beseeching: “Can you just kiss her on the chin for me now, please?”

Nathaniel continues to look away, avoiding eye contact with Alecia. Nzinga raps him lightly on the wrist with the back of her fingers.

Ow.”

“So kiss her chin!”

“Okay … okay. ” Nathaniel’s face moves in, hovers, then suddenly nose dives off course, missing Alecia entirely.

In a desperate attempt to prove how easy this should be, Nzinga asks Alecia to demonstrate first. The girl takes a half-step toward Nathaniel, looks down at the ground, rests her left palm briefly on the nape of her neck. She gives him a fast peck. She backs away.

“Good! The thing is to not think about it too much.” Then, looking at Nathaniel, Nzinga says it’s his turn. He takes a giant step backward.

 * * *

August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle is comprised of ten plays, one for each decade of the 20th century. “Joe Turner” is the second in the series. The story centers on Herald Loomis (Hunt), who has just been released from seven years of enslavement in an illicit chain gang operation run by the Tennessee governor’s brother, Joe Turner. In searching for his estranged wife, Loomis comes to realize that his search is really for something that he lost within himself, what freed slave and “conjure” man Bynum Walker (Madyun) calls his “song.”

Nzinga draws parallels between 1911 Pittsburgh and 2011 West Oakland. “Incarceration that tears apart the fabric of peoples lives is still present,” she said. “The gentrification of the hill area in Pittsburgh is like the gentrification of West Oakland.”

Nzinga likens her season program to a full metal jacket—a type of bullet made for piercing armor. That is precisely what she seeks to do, she likes to say: “Wound people with art.”

“If you have a sore that is filled with puss, you have to pierce it to heal,” she said. “There’s a lot of sickness in urban spaces. Sometimes the only way to get better is to wound yourself—looking at the problem and discussing it.”

When Nzinga talks about August Wilson’s work, she uses words like “magical” and “transformational”—words that describe the work itself, but also its personal effect on the actors, and herself, as they breathe life into Wilson’s characters onstage. It has something to do with “how Wilson captures not only history, but the current moment,” she said. “Somehow working that work, it moves something in you.”

She knows this might sound corny, she says. “But it actually is a spiritual experience.”

 * * *

Friday, Oct. 7: Nine hours and 23 minutes to curtain. The sun filters through thick rushes of palms hanging over the stage from behind. A man is using a leaf blower to clean and dry the set. A spider web across the front of the stage catches the morning light. Puddles pocket the blue tarps, which were flung over stage furniture several days before to protect against rain. The outdoor seating area is covered in a thick blanket of dried eucalyptus leaves.

Plastic covered wet furniture during last Friday’s open rehearsal.

Plastic covered wet furniture during last Friday’s open rehearsal.

“There’s not a lot of time between now and 7:30,” says 55-year-old David Anderson, a twelve-year volunteer at the Prescott-Joseph Center. His two-tone beard reaches his chest and a five-inch tail of building keys hangs off his belt loop—75 keys, by his latest count.

Anderson has been here since 8 a.m., trying to finish building the set in time to open tonight. “The rain didn’t help,” he said. “I’m about three days behind.”

On Tuesday, Anderson found a pile of free lumber about on a street corner ten blocks away. The faded Victorian sofas were also plucked from the side of the road. Actors would have to come up with their own costumes, it was decided. Still, no one knows if the play will go on tonight. Ayodele Nzinga is supposed to drop by to assess the set and make a decision. She’s running late.

Earlier in the week, Niko Buchanan developed a sty in one of her eyes, and had to practice her role with a towel wrapped around her head. Last night, her tire went flat on the freeway, preventing her from making it to rehearsal.

The stage lights still have to be tested to make sure they weren’t damaged by the rain—they were left in place after “Gem of the Ocean,” because the two performances were so close together. If they are turned on before they dry completely, they could short out with a sputter and plunge the whole production into darkness.

Worst of all, the troupe has just lost a second actor. The woman, who had played the minor role of Molly Cunningham, was grieving over the recent death of a family member. On top of that, “Now her housing is in jeopardy,” Nzinga says. “She has to find new housing.”

Nzinga’s daughter, Ayodele Jenkins, 23, stepped in last night to cover the role.  She stayed awake until after 2 a.m., learning her lines.

I’m kind of nervous,” Jenkins says. “But, you know, it’s nothing we can’t handle. We always pull off a good show.”

At eight hours and 34 minutes to curtain, Nzinga arrives. She glances around. “This is bad,” she says.

She stares at the half-built set. “It’s even worse than not being constructed,” she says. “It’s partially constructed.” The way she figures it, there is a 40 percent chance that she’ll have to call the show. It all depends on whether several critical tasks can be accomplished in time.

The to-do list:
·Come up with remaining props like a “bleeding knife,” or figure out how to improvise without them
·Piece together costumes that can pass for period wear
·Design and print the programs
·Finish building the set
·Test stage lights and hope that they work

“The theater gods love us,” Nzinga says. “But the universe likes to test us.”

 * * *

Five hours and 53 minutes to curtain. “We’re officially a go,” Nzinga says.

The performance will be called an “open rehearsal,” she has decided, instead of opening night. Saturday will be the dress rehearsal. The show will officially open on Sunday.

One hour and 58 minutes to curtain. Cat Brooks is pacing up and down the isle, reciting theater warmups. Brooks, trained at the Royal National Academy in London, acted professionally in Los Angeles for ten years before moving to Oakland.

One hour, 23 minutes. Anderson decides the stage lights are dry enough to test. Several people stop to watch. Gingerly, he flicks them on—and they work. There is an audible sound of relief. It looks like there will be a show after all.

 * * *

“A production is like giving birth,” Nzinga says the next morning.

The newly energized director, who has a propensity for extended metaphors, talked animatedly on the phone. “Sometimes the kids are kind of weird looking, you know,” she says. “Sometimes they’re born on life support. Thing is, once they are born, they are what they are.”

To be sure, parts of Friday’s performance moved like an awkward teen. Blocking was occasionally confused. Nathaniel lost his nerve when the kiss scene arrived, and after a torturous minute of foot-shuffling, Alecia stepped up to deliver the peck. Professional actor James Brooks, who picked up one of the play’s largest speaking roles with only two weeks’ notice, carried his script in hand. Impressively, he still managed to perform many of his lines from memory.

In spite of their many hurdles, the production has—more or less—fallen together. Nzinga received a commitment from the Prescott-Joseph Center to cover stipends for the cast just before the open rehearsal. And the show has real promise. There were moments Friday when the acting truly shone, and the magic of August Wilson’s genius could be clearly glimpsed onstage.

Once again, Nzinga and her Lower Bottom Playaz have overcome impossible odds to turn a backyard stage into a place of alchemy. “The people that end up on stage are messengers,” Nzinga says. “There were times last night when I could tell this is a really smart kid.”

 

Oakland North is giving away two pairs of tickets provided by The Lower Bottom Playaz for their production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” closing this weekend. To claim them, email dylan.bergeson@oaklandnorth.net with JOE TURNER in the subject line, and include your preferred dates.

Showtimes are as follows: October 14th and 15th at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday the 17th at 2 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at (510) 332-1319, or online at www.lowerbottomplayaz.com.

 

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