water runs through it

SATURDAY NIGHT a troop of friends and acquaintances (12 of us in all ) convened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre to take part in the DouglasPlus run of three one-act monologues —Trieu Tran‘s “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam”, Roger Guenveur-Smith‘s, “Rodney King” and Luis Alfaro‘s “St. Jude.”

It’s been decades since given myself over to an afternoon-into- evening set of performances and each of them conveyed deeply intimate stories about family, blood, place, love and belonging.

Threading through each is the metaphor of immersion — a baptismal or conversion. A cleansing.

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This cycled through my thinking as the day wore on and I continued to bump into even more acquaintances, contacts and connections from various corners of my past — my different beats at different news desks and posts over the years: Poets and actors. Journalists and teachers. Community activists and preachers. We all were reconnecting, it seems, with a past still to be reconciled. It brought up old business — riots and divisions and territory: wounds that had formed scabs, but never really healed correctly. Each piece struck so many in tender or forgotten places. I watched audience members emerge red-eyed or simply glassy. Not just out of sadness but, I think, feeling a deep sense of connection to the many tributaries of the stories — fathers and sons, the flow of family shifts and allegiances — and perhaps most significant of all what happens when you push outside of pre-perscribed lines.

What also hit home was the fact that two of the pieces are set here in Los Angeles, and the third, — with its immersion in the identity politics and the arm-wrestle of assimilation — could very well have simply swapped in L.A.’s physical coordinates and progressed without a disorienting hitch.

There is about another week to this run — and the Douglas is an easy and intimate spot to experience theater. See them if you can.

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— After the show with Luis Alfaro

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Voice (20)

As people get older they get more alike in character and appearance and could all be leading the same life. Or almost. Shut up in the little house opposite the fairgrounds, Aunt Jenny talks to the hot-water faucet that drips, and the kitchen drawer that has a tendency to stick. IMG_8503She also sings hymns mostly, in a high quavering voice: “That Old Rugged Cross” and “Art Thou Weary, Art Thou Sad” and “How glorious the mansions be/ Where thy redeemed shall dwell with the …” Without meaning to, she has grown heavy but she eats so little that short of starving to death there doesn’t seem much she can do about it. . . .When she gets into bed and the springs creak under her weight, she moans with the pleasure of lying stretched out on an object that understands her so well.. . . .She is full of fears, which are nursed by the catastrophes she reads about in the paper. The front and back doors are locked day and night against bad boys, a man with a mask over the lower part of his face, pneumonia, a fall. There is, even so, a something buoyant in her nature that makes people pleased to see her coming toward them on the street, and usually the stop to talk to her and hear about the catastrophes. She winds up the conversation by saying cheerfully, “Life is no joke.” What sensible person wouldn’t agree with her.

— William Maxwell
from So Long, See You Tomorrow

hearing/seeing the familiar

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I WANTED to add a couple of images to the Little Tokyo set just so that I could link to the walking public art tour. These images are from 2nd Street and Central Avenue, just up the street from the Japanese American National Museum. But what I always try to make time for is a chance to “read” the sidewalk, the chronology of nesting history of this place. The hotel shot from Sunday gives you a sense of the motion and feel of the street, the sidewalk, tells the history.

Click here and you’ll find a Community Redevelopment Agency with a walking tour outlining Little Tokyo’s layered history, told elegantly through various media — sculpture, in-laid photo-collage, etched into the sidewalk quotes and map-style legends..

Was nice to have a brief little window of time to walk back through it. I wish there were more spots in Los Angeles where the streets themselves were still able to tell their stories, if only small pieces of it.

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familiar

Incendiary Words: Banned Books Week

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MOST YEARS, I clear out time to purposely buy and read a banned book. This year though, I have to say, it caught me by surprise.

So, I didn’t make a plan. Even still, I want to mark this important week by pointing to a few interesting sites or activities I’ve been watching pop up the last couple of days. Most significantly I’ve noted several campaigns encouraging readers to buy and check out challenged or banned books. You can find a comprehensive list of titles and background and context information here here. A Pinterest board full of images and factoids here and for an interactive historical view click right here .

But my hands-down favorite this week is Powell’s Books’ lively un-scrolling tumblr which is a noisy visual conversation of history, comics, photography, video chats about the life-blood of literature. And of course you’ll find an on-going list enumerating singular titles with links to the books themselves. They are tagged “Read This Banned Book”: so if you need any ideas, Powell’s would be an excellent place to jump-start and find a community as well.

Official Banned Books Week site is here:
Oh, and the On the Road matches? (a contested book, too) They can be found at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena.)

Curating Community

MANY CHAPTERS ago, when I was first starting out as a journalist, there were a few kind people out there who helped pave the way in the community.

Los Angeles is a tough place to report in, particularly if you don’t have key people in specific communities who can vouch for you. Reporters often need a key source who can help them not only gain a better understanding of the territory, but who also can unlock the door to other worlds — voices, points-of-view different takes on things. Cecil Fergerson was one of those people for me.

I got news this morning that Cecil had passed away after a long illness.

Cecil had seen it all and because of it nothing, it seemed, fazed him. He dispensed his wisdom with a cool stoicism, tested you and wanted to know all about your intentions — but the light in his eyes told you what he loved the most — art and ideas and the moments he was talking about it.

There will be many remembrances that will float up in the next few hours and days about Cecil, but mine for now will be the feeling that came over me as I drove up to his house on South Ogden Drive, near the Los Angeles County Art Museum where decades ago he first began work as a janitor and later became a curator there.

The climb up, he’d told me over the phone, had made its mark.

Below is clip from an expansive and elegant profile Emory Holmes II wrote for the Los Angeles Times Magazine back in 1999.

Los Angeles was a very different city in 1948. For most blacks, it meant living in one of two residential pockets, in South-Central or Watts. Fergerson and his family lived in the latter community, which at the time was also home to working-class Latinos and whites. (Fergerson once mounted an exhibition of vintage photographs of Watts, which included a picture of the president of a local bank “running out, late for a Ku Klux Klan meeting, putting on his robe.”)

On that first day of work, Fergerson’s boss informed him that there were only two sure ways of keeping his job. No. 1: keep a broom in your hands at all times and walk fast. No. 2: always keep a white man white. Meaning–always make a white man feel superior. “Now, I can’t rewrite my history,” says Fergerson. “It’s too late. I was born in 1931! I became aware of the arts 17 years later, in a very hostile community, [with] no representation of my people, none in history, in the arts, in science, not even in California history. I’m 17 years old, and I gotta walk through the halls every night, sweeping them floors, mopping and cleaning up, and not seeing any representation. So I did get bitter.”

Bitter, but wise.

Just a few weeks ago, I found myself riding through Watts on my way to yet another reporting assignment and I saw Cecil’s face floating up. There he was, bigger than life, on a wall near the Art Center, where he’s been for years. Though this street was miles away from South Ogden and the hospital bed that I’d heard he was now resting in, fighting for his life, but still, there he was overlooking the old neighborhood.

I took it as a sign.

It had put me in mind of that day, so long ago, when I was making my way to his home for the first time on South Ogden. He had told me to look for the purple house. But when I arrived, I realized this “purple house” was beyond my imagining. It glowed purple — even the painted walkway, leading up to the entrance.

Purple, he told me, was the color of power. It was regal.

That was Cecil Fergerson talking not just about his house but about himself.

image Cecil Fergerson mural by Richard Wyatt via You are Here L.A.