By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/11/22 – This past weekend of April 9 & 10 at the Robey Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles was the opening of new play A Heated Discussion, written by award-winning African-American playwright Levy Lee Simon and directed by Ben Guillory. In this two-act play, a trio of Yoruba Orishas or entities of the spirit world ponder the state of the world today and especially the treatment of African-Americans in the United States, as violence against unarmed African-Americans by police is escalating in ever-higher numbers. After some disagreement amongst themselves, the three Orishas decide to conjure up the spirits of famous departed Black personalities to see what they make of the situation and if they can offer any solutions. Among them are Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou, Richard Pryor, Tupac Shakur, Nina Simone, Nora Zeal Hurston, and more. A Heated Discussion plays April 9 through May 15 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Spring Street in Downtown Los Angeles. For tickets, go to: https://www.theatermania.com/shows/los-angeles-theater/a-heated-discussion_374199.
A Heated Discussion begins with a trio of Orishas high up above the main stage, worrying about the state of the world today and the fates of African Americans in particular. They are dismayed about the increasing racial violence against African-Americans in recent years. In two circular screens at opposite side of the stage are projected television video footage of the brutal beatings of white police that resulted in the deaths of many unarmed African-Americans – including Daunte Wright, Manuel Ellis, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. The burden of fatal police violence is an urgent public health crisis in the USA. Mounting evidence shows that deaths at the hands of the police disproportionately impact people of certain races and ethnicities, pointing to systemic racism in policing. Recent high-profile killings by police in the USA have prompted calls for more extensive and public data reporting on police violence.
The three Orishas are a significant part of the play, as they can intervene in human affairs – but only if asked to in prayer rituals. The angriest of the Orishas is Oya (Aronna Michele), the powerful Yorùbá Orisha of the winds who goes forth with her husband Shango during his thunderstorms, destroying buildings, ripping up trees, and blowing things down. Oya is known as a fierce warrior and strong protector of women, who call on her to settle disputes in their favor. Oya calls for violent retribution against the oppressive white people and raises her sword, as if to begin an attack. But Oshun (Charyse Monet), the river goddess, associated with water, purity, fertility, love, and sensuality, argues that love will heal the wounds of the past against her people. Yemaya (Tori-Ann Hampton), goddess and queen of the sea, considered the mother of all, takes the middle ground and wants to comfort her grieving African-American children and cleanse them of sorrow. Each represents an aspect of the African-American voices that they soon conjure up for the past to have a “a heated discussion” about what to do to address the present situation in the United States with its increasingly targeted racial violence.
As summoned by these three Orishas, onto the lower stage emerge a host of well-known African-American larger-than-life figures. Representing two ends of the political spectrums as civil rights leaders are Dr. Martin Luther King (Garrett Davis) and Malcolm X (David Bollar). King was an outspoken leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and believed in a Christian response to systemic racism and using non-violent protest as a means to get change in the laws of the land. On the other hand, Malcolm X, who became a Muslim under the influence of the Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam Movement, was a civil rights leader who came from a very different background with a background in prison and later became a vocal advocate for Black empowerment, the promotion of Islam with in the Black community, and a believer in the need to return violence with violence against the oppressive white power structure.
As we soon see, certain figures from recent African-American history tend to be sympathetic to either the views of King or Malcolm X. Clearly poet Maya Angelou (Kimberley Bailey) sides with Martin Luther King in asking for dialogue with white people. She believes that love can solve many problems, but her belief system is questioned by others because she was married to a white man. Nina Simone (LaShada Jackson), famous singer and songwriter, is the voice of revolution and argues in her music for radical change, but like James Baldwin, she did have relations with white men and eventually ended up in France, which she, like Baldwin, considered a happier place to be for a person of color).
There are some feisty personalities and their person differences, grudges, and romantic lives end up “discussed,” but generally avoid the real issue at hand – what to do about increasingly racist violence against African-Americans. Zora Neal Hurston (Vanjee Renee) show up fashionably late to the gathering of African-American celebrities. Being a major figure in the free-thinking Harlem Renaissance. Hurston was one of few Black women educated at Barnard College and later at Howard University and in the 1920s, Hurston befriended poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Married several times, she was a real beauty and a bit of socialite. Hurston, who was a conservative, was on the other side of the disputes over the promise of left-wing politics for African-Americans.
It is no accident that Hurston will soon be arguing with another very intellectual Black writer – namely Lorraine Hansberry (played by Tiffany Coty), most famous for her award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) which was huge success on Broadway. Her political beliefs were definitely leftist and she often lectured on the need for change. Although she married a Jewish publisher and political activist, Hansberry was a closet lesbian and her letters suggest that she was an early activist for gay and lesbian civil equality. A woman of intellectual confidence and remarkable beauty, Hansberry became increasingly involved in the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. A good friend of James Baldwin, Hansberry shared his concern with the oppression of African- Americans and especially African-Americans with same-sex attraction. Hansberry stated: “I am not worried about black men – who have done splendidly, it seems to me, all things considered…But I am very worried…about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of the white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.”
A major voice in the “heated discussion” is James Baldwin (played by Julio Hanson), the ever-articulate writer of essays, novels, plays, and poems. Baldwin’s work fictionalizes fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures. Themes of masculinity, sexuality, race, and class intertwine to create intricate narratives that run parallel with some of the major political movements towards social change in the mid-20th-century. Baldwin lost faith in the ability of the white-dominant society in the United States to deal with its ugly background of racism and ended up living in Paris for much of his life. He saw the center of the problem as the inherent racism and homophobia built into the Calvinist beliefs of Evangelical Christianity, more dominant in the South but a blight on all thinking in America.
It is the homosexuality of James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry that emerges as a secondary theme in A Heated Discussion – especially when they encounter the twisted arguments of a lesser-known but highly influential African-American psychiatrist controversial psychiatrist Dr. Frances Cress Welsing (played by Rosie Lee Hooks) who wrote papers in which she claims that the drive for white supremacy and superiority stems from a pervasive feeling of inadequacy and inferiority on the part of white males. Welsing claimed that “whiteness” was, in fact, a deficiency, evidenced by the inability of whites and other races to produce melanin which generates skin color. In short, white people in America could not cohabit peacefully with their black peers, according to Welsing, because of a deep-seated jealousy of people with melanin and their embrace of racial supremacy to accommodate these feelings. The essay was controversial and, according to Welsing, prevented her from not only gaining tenure at Howard but in fact losing her teaching post. In the play, actress Rosie Lee Hooks draws a picture of two penises and explains that white men have always been intimidated by the size of black penises. This creates a ruckus as James Baldwin and Lorrain Hansberry quickly descend upon her complete lack of evidence for such an absurdist argument in one of the funniest scenes from the play.
The large cast of A Heated Discussion includes a moving reminder of the treatment of African-Americans in the early 20th century by Ida B. Wells (played by Quonta Beasley), a Black investigative journalist, educator, and early leader in the civil rights movement. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and documented the terrible lynching of black men and women in the American South. She was born into slavery during the Civil War and became a teacher and journalist. She wrote about white mob violence and provides one of the most disturbing examples of white mob psychology and violence in the play.
Lightening the burden of the heavier thinkers in the play are Bob Marley (Alex W.S.T. Chumley), Tupac Shakur (Kyle Sparks), and foul-mouthed comedian Richard Pryor (Phillip Bell). Rapper Tupac Shakur is only too willing to share his own experiences more recently with police violence as experienced by himself and what he has seen all around him. Shakur’s music has been noted for addressing contemporary social issues that plagued inner cities, and he is considered a symbol of activism against inequality. He was killed in 1996 in a drive-by homicide. His attitude about sex and African-American women is that a gangsta rapper and his demeaning depiction of women blasted by the actress playing Maya Angelou, who thinks he needs to think beyond his crotch. Bob Marley offers insights from a Jamaican point of view, where the policemen who are all Black, are equally violent and corrupt. Philip Bell as Richard Pryor reminds the others that their high seriousness has its limits and they need to laugh a little at the absurdity of their own situation – especially in terms of duplicity of church-going folk who are so homophobic that they sound like white people.
The complicity of side issues that surface in the course of A Heated Discussion offer plenty to digest, but it is in the final scene that the Orishas return to ask for the answer to the on-going violence by the police against African-Americans and to wonder what can be done to show that “Black Lives Matter.” Heretofore not on stage, but descending from a staircase to the gathering is none other than Shango himself (played by the play’s director Ben Guillory), who remembers all the wars that included African-American men, from the Civil War to the present-day military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shongo rehearses the place of Black men fighting in America for the causes of the white population and its government. The magical windows of video installations at the sides of the stage dash through film and television footage of places where African-American men have fought on behalf of a “white” America. As the others on stage finally respond to Shongo’s call for retribution (“an eye for an eye”), the others wonder if there can be a solution anytime in the near future. Even Nora Zeale Hurston reminds everyone that she knows how to shoot a rifle. As the conjured vision of famous African-Americans walk away, the Orishas wonder if an answer is possible.
Acclaimed director Ben Guillory is the Producing Artistic Director of the Robey Theatre Company, which he co-founded in 1994 with Danny Glover. It takes its name from the pioneering Black actor and activist, Paul Robeson. For a quarter-century, The Robey Theatre Company has been known for its award-winning plays. Told from the lens of a global Black experience, the organization is dedicated to high-quality, socially-conscious, and authentic work. Levy Lee Simon is best known for his award-winning plays The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel and For the Love of Freedom: The Haitian Trilogy.