Sunday, October 02, 2011

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Importance of Comic Books

So I'm a big nerd. Here's my justification for it.

Reviving the Blog

So it's been a minute since I've blogged on this site. I've missed it, so I'm back. A lot has been going on since my last post in 2010. SOTRU is doing well, on over 200 stations. The shows keep getting stronger. Summer in Sanctuary opened off-broadway in March of 2011 and will be returning to NYC in November as a part of the "All for One Festival". In February of 2012, we will open at the New Jersey Rep. I'm happy with the progress of the show. More updates later, but since I haven't added anything substancial to this site in a while I thought I'd post some new video blogs I've been working on.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

We Count Too!

Rarely will I engage in the back and forth of politics on this blog. Actually, I’ve been so busy with my work on State of the Re:Union, that I haven’t had time to update this blog at all. Please forgive me, as the truth of the matter is that blog posts on this site will remain limited until September or so, when work lets up a little bit. I’m not going to whine and complain about the job because I asked for it and I love it. But it does have me working 12 hour days, six to seven days a week—not a lot of time to do any extra writing.
This post though, is somewhat a response to Tavis Smiley’s “We Count Summit.” For the record, I didn’t watch. I’ve watched Tavis’ State of the Black Union, and while I respect his idea, I didn’t get much more information or food for thought then I’d received when going to the barber shop to take my son to get a haircut, or at the hair studio where I get my dreds re-twisted. It’s good for black people to get together and talk about what’s ailing them and pose solutions. I get it. I engage it in. So while SOTBU is not for me, I understand its place in the conversation.
But my issue with SOTBU and “We Count” is simply this; do something. Period. While Tavis seems to be focused on making the government accountable, specifically the president, I haven’t heard an emphasis on black people and black communities making their own solutions. I agree that black people need to engage with the government to help facilitate change, but change isn’t something that starts from the top. In today’s highly politicized culture, how many of these proposals will actually gain fraction? We need to deal with reality.
In my opinion, forums like “We Count” or “State of the Black Union” should not be about creating an agenda for politicians, it should be about creating and agenda for black people. It should be about:
A) Examining the problems in the black community
B) Creating solutions
C) Creating strategies
D) Implementing those solutions
Respectfully, the other part of the problem with the “We count” forums are the participants: Cornel West, Valerie Jarrett, Michael Eric Dyson, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Barbara Lee, Tom Burrell, Marc Morial, Ben Jealous, Al Sharpton and others. An impressive panel filled with people I like and that should be a part of the discussion. But the thing missing from this group are the people who are making solutions to the everyday problems of Black America.
Who would I add? Glad you asked.
Will Allen of Growing Power. We tend to not think about food and dietary issues as a part of the issue for African Americans, but with so many of us living in the inner-city without access to good and healthy food, it’s no wonder our rates of diabetes and other ailments are through the roof. Will Allen has created a farm in the middle of Milwaukee, where there is a large low-income housing project just down the block. Not only is he providing jobs, but he’s giving people healthy food.
Kevin Gaye of Operation New Hope. The national recidivism rate is around 70% (the percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested.) Operation New Hope in Jacksonville Florida has taken the recidivism rate and reduced it to 5%, rather amazing results. In Florida in 2008, 93% of the inmates were African American. So recidivism is a huge issue in the black community.
Mrs. Codelia Taylor of Family House in Milwaukee. The Family House is a “residential long-term care facility and has served the community for over 20 years. It serves men and women 55 years and older or disabled in comfortable, clean, and cheerful conditions in a row of houses.” The residents of Family House pay if they can, but if not, FH will still take them in. Years ago, there was a lot of talk about the greatest generation. Well, here they are and they need our help. Mrs. Taylor does all this work with very little help from the government.
These three are just an example of the solutions to the problems that are facing African Americans. There are many more, if we don’t hear from them on a national level, if they aren’t a part of the solution, how will we ever know about them? Too much of our time is spent on pointing fingers and looking for the government to solve issues. If black people of earlier generations had waited on the government to solve issues, the civil rights movement would have never happened. It was the will of the people, the grassroots work that pushed the government to do the right thing.
I do not buy into the post-racial America. I am a black man, and will be treated as such in this country. My time on the road in various places, many times being the only black man for miles has proven that point to me clearly. I have no illusions about that, but to move people to create this “Black Agenda” Tavis is talking about, we have to include everyone. If you want movement in the political arena, you have to label it what it is: solutions for America. As Jack White said over at the “The problems blacks want to address are not different than those facing many other Americans. You can't fix our catastrophic jobless rate without reviving the entire economy or extending health care coverage to our uninsured without extending it to everybody.”
I’m not saying there is no value to forums like SOTBU or “We Count.” Clearly it brings the issues to the forefront. But we are missing the big picture when we focus on getting a black agenda into the White House. We need to bring people who are getting their hands dirty, who see the problems on a day-to-day basis, the unsung heroes who struggle everyday with making their communities a better place. Work the solutions, then watch the political tide catch on. Washington loves nothing more then to claim success for a good idea, after it’s been proven to work.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Valley of the Shadow

“They say the goodness in life comes to people who believe…so I believe..”
- Mos Def

As always it’s been a minute since I had the time to update this blog. Thanks for sticking in there with me. It seems like every time I do write there have been some tectonic shifts in my life and career. Things are moving pretty fast, and at the same time pretty slow. That statement might not make a lot of sense so let me explain.

In July of this year I was told that my radio show, State of the Re:Union was going to be funded. Huge development. Problem is, the funding was coming from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB has been great and the people who work there have had so much faith in me and my vision, it’s been amazing. All that being said, CPB is a big ship, and big ships move slowly. From July to November we struggled to work of the details of a grant that would fund the show for a year, as well as set up the frame work for us to receive funding for two more years. The grant that CPB has given the show is substantial, and that’s great but there are a bunch of hoops that need to be jumped through in order to make it happen.

I sit here writing this now, a little shocked that it all worked out. There were months where I didn’t think it was going to happen, times when I had so much going on, juggling so many balls in the air, that I wonder what good was it all? Saying July to November makes it seems so insignificant, but it was huge because it wasn’t just those months. It was the culmination of the development year for the show. Prior to getting our current funding CPB gave us funding develop the show. This was tricky because it was a great opportunity, but I’ve never developed a public radio show before. To be honest, I learned a lot from the year I was in the contest which won me the opportunity to have a show in the first place, but that was like going to Elementary and suddenly being told that you were being promoted to college. My business partner Ian and I had to fight, learn, think, rethink, mold, burn, build, and start all over again to get us on the right footing. We have some great advisors, smart people who guided us into the right territories, but the work had to be done by the two of us. Of course we hired smart people to help, but at the end of the day, Ian and I were on the line.

It’s been a good experience and I wouldn’t change any of it, it all made me stronger but it was extremely tough. On top of all of that, in August I was performing my solo show at the Abingdon Theatre, and at the same time performing for the Lincoln Center with my boys Griot 3, (I mean literally at the same time, I had a show at the Abingdon, then left to perform at Lincoln center, then returned to the Abingdon for another performance). All this, and I was writing a new play “Crumbs” which debut in November and recording the final vocals for the Des Moines episode of State of the Re:Union. It was a nonstop grind. I’d stacked all these events together because that’s how you pay the bills as an artist. You line up as many gigs as you can in the hopes that one of them is going to be the one that pays the bills, or maybe little bits from all of them will pay it off. There were many nights when I laid in the bed after working 16 hour days (having no days off for three months straight) and wondered why I was putting myself through all of this. When stories broke down, when people didn’t live up to their expectations, when money ran out, when everything fell apart.

Two nights after “Crumbs” had opened in November, I could feel the weight of it all in my bones. I was working the play at night (every night) working the radio stuff during the day (every day) my bank account was negative 350.00 because I hadn’t had a paycheck since August. All my bills were behind, and if it weren’t for the kindness of some incredible friends I don’t know how me or my family would have eaten. I hadn’t seen my family in what seemed like months because I was working so many long hours. That night, it just all seemed too much and I just let go. Tears streaming down the sides of my face my body shook with the force of the emotion. I felt utterly lost, and alone. It seemed like everything I’d been working for was not working for me. I thought, God if you want to take me, now would be a good time. I went to sleep, praying I would wake up renewed. But when I woke up I felt like I was in a deep pit, and the only light I could see was above me, a mile away in the distance. That morning, I sat on the edge of my bed for a half hour, just wanting to curl up in a ball and quit. I thought back on this journey I’ve been on. The wins, the losses, the belief that so many people have in me. The sacrifices I’ve had to make financially and personally, all of it, and I stood up, and took a step, and kept moving from there.

If this was a Hollywood story, that day would be a turning point where everything got better. But it didn’t for two more weeks I had to struggle, feeling like I was falling apart every couple minutes, reassessing, regrouping and marching on until finally I’d climbed out of that pit and felt the sun on my face. I don’t proclaim to have done it myself. I have a great team & family; a support network that would prop me up when I wanted to quit, and every step of the way I felt the presence of God pushing me forward. It’s funny, when I hear people reference God speaking to them they tend to use bible verses, and sometimes when I feel like God is telling me something I do hear verses, (usually when I’m doing something wrong) but mostly when I need it, my God sends me something more accessible to me. He comes in the voice of movie scenes, hip-hop songs, but for this time in my life he sung to me in Bono’s voice “It’s not a hill it’s a mountain, as you start out the climb, do you believe me our you doubt it? But we’re going to make it all the way to the light”

Today, I’m in the light. Our show State of the Re:Union, has been funded, I’ve got a paycheck, my solo show Summer in Sanctuary is being considered for an off Broadway run by a really excellent theatre in NYC, Crumbs was a success, still much work to do on the script, but it’s a great start, things are lining up well. When I talk to people and they ask for advise about how to make it doing what you love I always wonder if they are ready for the heartbreak that happens on the way to your goal? I know I will face these valleys again, hell, it’s probably right around the corner. But the fact that I got through this one is going to help me get though the next.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The end of Summer, a new beginning for Radio, and theatrical Crumbs

Usually after not posting in a couple months I start off with a promise to post more. Today I’m bucking the cycle. I’ll post when I can. I don’t want to write a blog full of useless information, and sometimes, I just don’t have the energy to pour it all out. Today is one of those days when I’m so tired but I can’t really sleep, or stop, so probably the best use of time is to write everything that’s going on. I know other people read this blog (four or five people who get bored) but this blog has always been a tool for me to write what’s in my head. An opportunity to write down the highs and lows of my career so I can look back, and understand where I’m going by knowing where I came from.

This has been an incredibly tough summer. How tough? Well I haven’t had a steady paycheck since July. So basically I’ve been living off my credit card since late August. Not having money, and having a family is extremely hard. Some days it feels impossible. I know there are a lot of families in America-in the world struggling like I am right now. But honestly, while it’s been hard I also feel blessed. I have the knowledge that in a couple weeks I’ll be financially fine. I just have to get to that point.

The radio show State of the Re:Union has been such a great unexpected endeavor. Three years ago, I never thought I would be here. An unexpected bi-product of the show is that it’s forced me to become a business man. I’ve always done the business of Al Letson, but honestly, that’s not that difficult. But the radio show- wow. I am a small business owner. Along with my business partner, in the up coming month’s I’ll be employing seven people. Pretty amazing. Also the reason why I’m so broke right now. We are in the midst of negotiating a contract with a funder, so we’ll be able to do the show. Things are working out, our funder is great but when they are giving a large check to a small company like mine it takes time. Apparently three months time. So after the last grant was over we have been in limbo waiting for the next grant to come along. Thus the hard nerve wracking summer. The good news is State of the Re:Union will be heard nationally and we'll be making full seasons whereas last year we were in development and only made three episodes. Time to do it big. I'm ready.

On the flip side, my work is never done. I’ve been on a hard press to write my new play Crumbs. It’s funny every time I sit down to write another play, I can never remember how to do it. I get nervous and wonder if the last play was a fluke. I try to rewrite the last play with a new name, then suddenly it comes. I don’t know how, but “It” comes. I calm down throw out most of what I’ve already written, and write the piece. Unfortunately for Crumbs my time frame was a little crunched. With all my activities in August, (see previous post) I couldn’t get started in earnest until late August. I didn’t finish writing until yesterday, and the show opens in two weeks. To be fair, I’ve had most of the play done for weeks. But still it’s unfair to the actors to give them final pages weeks before we open, but hey, that’s the way it is.

Summer in Sanctuary was my Spaulding Grey play. I was inspired by his work, and wanted to take what he did, i.e. telling stories about his life simply. Him, a glass of water, a desk and his words. Tough to entertain a crowd for 90 mins unless you got the skills. Spaulding had it in spades. I was inspired and wanted to do that myself. Thus, SIS. CRUMBS is my Lisa Kron play. I’ve been a big fan of Lisa’s work for years. She’s a monologist but she experiments with the form. I read her play Well and fell in love. It was essentially a solo show with help. Like Spaudling’s work it was a story from her past that could relate to everyone. After I read that piece I knew exactly how I wanted to tell Crumbs. I won’t go into it in this post but I plan to talk more about it as we pull the show together so stay tuned.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

90 Days of Summer

90 Days of Summer.

I realized with the last post I didn’t talk much about where I am and what I’m doing. So here we go……

In June State of the Re:Union hosted it’s first live event in Jacksonville Fl. It was a great little event. We got about 300 people to come out and check out the show. This was somewhat of a premier for the Jacksonville episode of SOTRU, we had three guest, and as we showed the multimedia clips we created, the audience was able to ask the guests questions about the show, the stories, and our process. Good stuff, and this event created a prototype of how we want to do live shows in the future.

In July SOTRU went to Des Moines for the next episode. Taki Telonidis, Zak Rosen, and I went to the heartland to work on the episode while our crew in Jacksonville provided logistical support. We came home with a ton of material and a lot of work to do to create an episode.

Coming up in late August Players by the Sea will be doing a reading of my new play Crumbs. The piece is in decent shape. But I’m still writing it. Tricky, cause I love the story, but the style is a little different then what I normally do. Which is what I want. I always want to challenge myself, and this piece fits that category. So all August I’ve been working this new play getting ready for the reading.

In early August I performed my solo show Summer in Sanctuary at the Abingdon Theatre. But to tell this story we need to rewind a bit. In April I applied for a grant from the Community Foundation. I applied to get money to fund a workshop performance of the play. The idea was to find a good director that could help me as an actor, writer, but also help push the play into theatres and production companies, someone with a track record and connections. I was fortunate that my friend StacyAnn Chin directed me to a director that she worked with on her solo show. The director Rob is incredible, everything I’ve been looking for. I’ve worked with a handful of great directors, and Rob is definitely in that category. The difference between him and the others is that he’s a director that lives and works in NYC, so he’s got the connections to the places I’d like to have my work performed.

When I got the grant Rob went into action and booked the theatre, and along with my friend/confidant/sorta-manager Bobby, and myself we put up the show for one night. Two performances free to the public. The goal was to get people out that could help move the play forward. Rob and I worked on the script for a couple weeks we did rewrites, rethinking, and blocking. It was a really great experience for me, because having someone from the outside look at the work, and help me clarify points of the story was invaluable. We were able to make tough cuts that moved the play forward faster, and in a solo show, that’s extremely important.

In the meantime, my group, Griot 3 was invited to perform as a part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors “La Casita Festival” a traveling festival that goes around NYC with artist who perform the spoken word and musicians. It was an honor, seriously, an honor to be invited by the Lincoln Center. Years ago my good friend Jimmy introduced me to Bill Bragin, who’s now at the Lincoln Center, and Bill introduced the curators to our work, and we got the gigs, four dates in one week.

Here’s where it gets tricky. I had La Casita, Summer in Sanctuary, writing Crumbs, plus finishing the vocals (an editing a story) for the next SOTRU installment, “Heart of the Heartland” all in the same week.

The last three weeks have been non-stop work. I would wake up start working on the radio stuff, then switch over to working on the Sanctuary script, then switch over to the Crumbs script, then go to rehearsal for SIS with Rob. I’d leave there, get something to eat then go back to working on radio, and scripts. Through all of this, I averaged about 5 hours of sleep a night. I was in NYC for two weeks before Larry and David joined me for the La Casita gig. Once they got there, I had to do the same stuff as before, but now I had to do gigs as well. On the day I performed SIS, @ the Abingdon, I also had a performance for La Casita. So on that day I performed 3 times. Crazy, but actually fun.

If I’m honest there where times when I wanted to quit. When I laid in bed and thought, “God if you want me, I’m cool, you can come get me tonight.” LOL, Like I have a choice in the matter or he needs my permission. I have a great support network, they all think I’m crazy for taking on so much, but they also help me through it. Without the good Lord looking over me and Ian, Stacie, Taki, Larry, and David I have no idea how I would have got through those weeks. But I did.

The results better then expected. SIS was a success at the Abingdon. I can’t talk specifics, but if things work out, the show might be off-broadway in the future. The La Casita, were great performances, we rocked every crowd we saw and I’m pretty sure the Lincoln Center was pleased. While I was in NYC I found out that SOTRU had passed a significant hurdle in it’s quest for future funding. Nothing in stone, but we are almost there. “Heart of the Heartland” will be the best episode of SOTRU yet. Hands down. I finished the vocals in my hotel room. Recording them under the comforter on the bed to get the best sound. Taki was able to take the audio and make it work. As I write this I’m tired, tired, tired. But I feel like this was all for something. It was all worth it and I’d do it again, and again, and again. In the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness” Will Smith says to his son. “You want something? Go get it. Period.” I’m going to get it. Period.

After I came back from New York in Feb from the reading of JX. I felt like I’d failed. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. Either way, it was good for me to feel that, cause for me, that emotion just pushes me hard. Makes me get up and work longer. Because there maybe people who are more talented, smarter, prettier, but no one is going to work harder then me. I’m never going to settle for a loss. I’ll take it, and learn from it and then watch out, cause I’m going to get it.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Letters to a young poet/writer/actor/artist/dancer/fill in the blanks….

Dear Blog readers.

Forgive my absence. It’s been a minute since I had the opportunity to sit down and write another post. I don’t really have a lot of time these days to blog, but I got tired of looking at the old post “Failure”. That was a little too depressing. LOL. Today I’m feeling much more optimistic but at the same time, much more tired. So far this year I have nothing to complain about, I feel like I’ve been burning the candle at both ends, because opportunities have presented themselves, and I’ve tried to jump on every one. Lately a couple people have written me and asked for advice as far as their career is concerned. That seems a little odd to me because I have had the most unconventional career path, and I am very much still working hard to bring all of it in focus. Still, after receiving four such emails in the past two months, I figured maybe it’s worth blogging about. So I’m turning this into an occasional series,which I’m calling “Letters to a young poet/writer/actor/artist/dancer/fill in the blanks….” I’ll be posting on this topic from time to time.


I always start with this rule because it’s the hardest to tell people. No Plan B. This goes against everything we are taught at school, from our parents, and society as a whole. They tell you to dream, but then always advise you to keep something in your backpocket, have a career you can rely on cause trying to make it as an artist is a crap shoot. And they are right. If you need that security, then go get it. Be a banker, a lawyer, a policeman, but don’t be an artist. If you want to create for a living then do it. No plan B nothing to fall back on. Because this life is hard, and uncertain. You will fail. You will be rejected. You will want to quit several times and if you have a plan B, you will do it. Save yourself the heartbreak make Plan B your path, and do art as a hobby. (Which is totally acceptable.)
People have told me how “brave” I am to go out there and keep doing what I do. “It takes a lot of courage” I couldn’t disagree more. It would be courageous if I had options. I do not. This is all I have. If I’m not making art, performing, writing, creating, then I have nothing. In the next 5 years I’ll be over forty, and all I’m really good at is my art. Because I have forged ahead with no Plan B, I fight for everything, I think my moves through, I work as hard as I can, because for me, it’s survival. I’ve worked several jobs, and been okay at them, and I can always find some side work to pay the bills. That is not a plan B however. That’s just filling in the blanks between gigs, it’s never an alternative career. I know a lot of writers and artist that teach, and I guess technically this is a plan B, but I think it depends on the individual. I think there are a lot of artist who teach to pay the bills. They enjoy teaching, but art is where their passion is. I think there are a lot of teachers who do art. They enjoy creating, but teaching is where their passion is. I believe it’s an individuals choice as to how to look at whether you are engaging in a plan B or just doing what you need to eat.

Disclaimer 1: If you sign up for the no plan B, chances are you will be broke, A LOT. Art is a whole is not a very financially rewarding endeavor. It can be, but most times not. Therefore if money is your goal, make a really good plan B.

Disclaimer 2: I am in no way sittiong in judgement of people who choose path B. Not at all. I think it’s an individual choice and making that choice does not mean that you have nothing to contribute. On the contrary, some of the most incredible art comes from people doing it part time. I am only stating what I have done, and why it works for me.