Monday, May 15, 2006

Suzan-Lori Parks beckons audience to listen in, find truth

Tonight, Suzan-Lori Parks closed the 2006 speaker series with an evening of personal stories, dramatic readings, and even some down-home blues.

The Pulitzer-winning playwright and novelist dressed simply in a black shirt and skirt with boots to match. Her overarching message for the evening was similarly simple yet elegant — follow your dream.

Each of us has the power to create, and through our creations to discover the truth. Parks warned it is difficult and sometimes scary to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of that truth, but she encouraged everyone to follow their creative spirit. "Now, right now, even when I'm speaking, is a wonderful time to take a step in the direction toward your truth."

Parks knows the difficulty of giving in to the spirit. She knew at an early age that she wanted to be a writer. But a high school teacher discouraged her from pursuing literature, so she instead focused on science. She was a biology major at Mount Holyoke College, content with her choice, until reading To the Lighthouse in a compulsory English course reignited the creative spark. "Virginia Woolf helped me remember who I'm supposed to be."

Shortly thereafter James Baldwin taught his first-ever college course at nearby Hampshire College, and Parks was among the 15 students selected for the class. She recalls reading her stories with frenetic energy — standing, pacing, gesturing. Baldwin temporarily disappointed her when one day he said, "Miss Parks, have you considered writing for the theatre?" But she soon recognized his comment was a suggestion, and not a critique of her storytelling skills.

Parks was no overnight sensation. After moving to New York City, she worked odd jobs and learned to type for temp agency work while still writing plays outside business hours. She staged her first play at a gas station–turned–bar, with little more than her family in the audience. But it was a start.

She learned to "listen in," or focus on her creative spirit. And she committed herself to becoming a writer — a process she continues today. "I wake up every day and say, 'I want to be a writer.' … Lots of wonderful things happen when you start making and remaking that commitment."

How can we learn to listen in? By reducing outside stimuli and carving out quiet time every day. By doing so, she says, we can discover our truth and explore it in our creations.

Parks is currently working on a number of projects, including a screenplay for Brad Pitt and a stage adaptation of the film Ray. Her ambitious 365 Days, 365 Plays will be staged later this year at 7 cities throughout the country.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Suzan-Lori Parks to speak May 15

The final speaker in this year's series is playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for her drama Topdog/Underdog.

The former MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant recipient also wrote screenplays for Spike Lee's 1996 film Girl 6 and Denzel Washington's forthcoming The Great Debaters.

KLRU will feature Ms. Parks in an encore presentation of Stage on Screen: The Topdog Diaries on Monday, May 8.

Join us at the Paramount Theater on Monday, May 15 for a lively discussion on writing, art, and society. Individual event tickets are now available, as are discounted subscriptions for 2007.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Leonard Pitts and Chuck D tackle race, youth, technology, and so much more

Tonight at the Spark speaker series, Chuck D, Leonard Pitts, and moderator S. Craig Watkins tackled sometimes thorny issues like race, hip hop culture, politics, and technology.

Race in modern America

The panelists opened with observations on how Hurricane Katrina illuminated race and class differences in American society. Racism may not be as socially acceptable today as it was 40 years ago in the Jim Crow South, but it’s still woven into the fabric of our society.

“We as a nation find that kind of stuff very difficult to talk about,” said Pitts. But he added that race is part of our everyday news, whether we recognize it or not. It’s in the crime statistics, the drug wars, and the unemployment numbers that mask a deep divide in American society.

Chuck D commented that the civil rights leaders of the 1960s acted with an “intensity of forwardness” that’s missing today. But we all share in the fault for letting the racial divide fester and grow. Through our government, our media, and other social filters we’ve been part of the “dumbassification” of America.

Both panelists agreed that we live in a society where anti-intellectualism is rampant, and where complacency isn’t just accepted, it’s expected. “Eighteen percent of Americans have passports,” said Chuck D, citing just one example of our insularity, “and that’s a damn shame for a supposedly international country.” [According to Yale Univ. the actual figure is 21 percent.]

Overextended hip hop culture

To many white Americans, rap music represents black culture. And Pitts noted that in terms of commercial success and cultural influence, it is the rock and roll of today. But he added that listening to rap can’t help one understand the black experience any more than watching “I Love Lucy” can help one understand the white experience.

Chuck D blamed major record labels and cable TV for over-commercializing rap music and overextending its place in contemporary black and hip hop culture. Today, artists are made “slaves to their contracts,” and sales quantity is stressed over music quality. “Big businesses introducing culture is bound to make mutants out of people,” he added.

Young people and politics

Watkins shifted the conversation to politics, and specifically why so many young Americans seem willing to tune out politics altogether. Pitts offered that perhaps it’s because young people need something to identify with. Recalling his first voting experience and all the elections since, he said that he can’t ever recall a scenario where he’s voted for a candidate so much as voted against their opponent.

Chuck D said that young people need to realize that voting is “like washing your behind every morning” — it’s something you have to do, not something you’re going to get credit for doing. While it’s easy to say schools should boost civics education in their curricula, he’s not so sure that’s the answer. Baby Boomers aren’t encouraging young people to vote because they don’t see 18- to 30-year-olds as their peers. So young people need to take it upon themselves to engage in the political process and make their voices heard.

Technology eliminates barriers

Where young people rule is in the realm of technology. Pitts said that no matter how hard they try, parents can’t keep their kids away from technology. “Once they start walking,” he said, “they start walking away from you.” So parents should instead concentrate on teaching their children how to use technology properly.

Chuck D agreed, building the case for increasing technology education in schools to help kids distinguish information from misinformation. He pointed to growing concerns over Internet predators using MySpace to contact the teens and young adults who constitute the site’s core audience. But from an artist’s perspective, Internet and mobile technologies are beneficial in helping eliminate the middlemen who complicate traditional music creation processes.

Where do we go from here?

So how do we improve our society? Not by taking on the establishment as individuals working in isolation, but rather by gathering together like-minded people and experienced elders in our communities and together building a vocabulary that constitutes a unified voice strong enough to challenge the system.

Also, we need to improve our critical thinking skills. Pitts noted that such courses are available at the collegiate level, but suggested that they should be included in compulsory core course loads.

Furthermore, we need to build on our cultural and racial similarities while learning to acknowledge and even celebrate our differences. And we cannot ignore emerging global issues that will impact succeeding generations, like global warming and our over-dependence on fossil fuels.

Join the discussion

How else can we as individuals recognize our diversity, yet strengthen our national and global togetherness? What other issues do you see affecting our society in the coming years?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Hip hop stars speak out on financial responsibility

Chuck D isn't alone when critiquing the state of modern hip hop culture. This past weekend, entrepreneur Russell Simmons kicked off a 5-city "Get Your Money Right" tour, a public forum on financial empowerment put on by the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.

LL Cool J, Nas, and T.I. were among the artists who joined Simmons in New York to stress the importance of financial planning and responsibility.

"The biggest misconception probably comes from the hip-hop community itself … that the money lasts forever," LL Cool J said Saturday. "You have to do the right thing with it." (from AP)

Future stops on the "Get Your Money Right" tour include Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Leonard Pitts makes wife's dream come true

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts just might be the best husband ever:

Got to be the wrong car, she's thinking. It's sure nicer than any car she's ever had. In fact, it's her dream car, the one she always told me she wanted to own "someday."

It's just a car, of course. Just metal and rubber and a lot of gadgets and doodads no car really needs. Just another material bauble that cannot follow you into the ground. But sitting there shining under the lights on the evening of my wife's 50th birthday, it feels like vindication and validation and I love you and thank you for persevering with me. Thank you for never giving up on us.
Read the full column.

Pitts will join Chuck D on Apr. 25 for a panel discussion on hip hop culture, race, and American society. Tickets are still available.