The Nommo of Theater and Film: Art as Politics
Bashi Rose, TRNN videographer, editor, and veteran of Baltimore’s artistic community talks about his work and the cultural, political, and social movements from which that work emerged and is inspired
JARED BALL, TRNN: What’s up my man, Bashi Rose. Welcome to this edition of iMixWhatiLike here at the Real News.
ROSE: Well thank you brother, pleasure to be here.
BALL: So, as we know, you not only do most of the editing for this segment, you do a lot of videography for the Real News Network, but you also have, independent of that and prior to that, this fascinating career as an independent artist, videographer, playwright, actor.
First, let’s start off with this organization you cofounded, the Nommo Theatre. Let’s talk about that a little bit, and its history and what is it designed to do.
ROSE: Okay. Yeah, now it’s Nommo Theatre/Film. Initially it was just Nommo Theatre. It started in about 1994, and what happened was, in the early ’90s I was in a local Baltimore poetry scene and ran across this brother named Mitchell Ferguson. And even though I was in the poetry scene, I always felt like I was destined for theatre. That’s what I really wanted to do. But the open mic scene was really accessible. It gave you an opportunity to meet people and to just practice your writing skills, you know what I’m saying, in front of an audience and get critiques.
So I met this brother named Mitchell, and at the time I was reading about the Black Arts Movement, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez. So, I sat down, started talking to him. We were talking about different plays, playwrights, Wole Soyinka and others. And I mentioned Ed Bullins, and he said, I actually took a workshop at New York Shakespeare Festival with Ed Bullins, a monologue writing class. So, we just ended up talking for hours, so we just decided to start our own theatre collective called Nommo Theatre.
And we came up with the term Nommo, it’s loosely defined as the word, but during the Black Arts Movement some, a lot of theory that was attempting to define this new kind of art that was being developed, Nommo was a term that was used. So, one author and thinker from the time, Paul Carter Harrison, actually edited an anthology [inaud.] he had an extensive introduction called Nommo, where he defined what Nommo was, and some of it, you know, applies to call and response in African American Art, resistance, our spirituality, our African spirituality, our resistance to white supremacy, all these things combined make–
BALL: –And It’s a West African Akan term, just so people are clear, right?
ROSE: Akan, and it’s also associated with the Dogon of Mali–
BALL: –Right, that’s right.–
ROSE: –As well. So–
BALL: –The Dogon, by the way, another deep topic I just want to put out there real quick, we know they themselves call themselves the true descendants of the original Egyptians, or the people of Kemet–
ROSE: –Right. Kemet, right.–
BALL: –And carry on a lot of those traditions even to this day, see things astrologically that hadn’t even been seen.
ROSE: Sirius star system–
BALL: –Sirius, all that hadn’t even been seen by, you know, modern technology until much, much later.
BALL: So they, yeah, anyways, I just wanted to put that in there real quick, that these are some deep people that you’re connecting and deep traditions that you’re connecting yourself to. But anyways, please continue, yeah.
ROSE: Yeah, so basically we started out just taking poems that we had both written collectively, and I would read, and since he had more hands on experience in theatre I would read theory about theatre, different styles of theatre, acting, what have you, and he would actually, like, train me. So, we started out taking poems that I had written, and I started extending the poems to short plays, so eventually we had a whole play consisting of poetry and short skits, if you will, and the first piece that we did produce was called “Locks and Links,” and we produced it at the Arena Playhouse in Baltimore. And that’s, like, the oldest running Black community theatre in the country.
And then from there we just started, started getting gigs in high schools, middle schools. We did a lot of work in recreation centers, so the way I learned my craft was always hands on in a practical, functional sense, you know what I’m saying? It wasn’t art for art’s sake, you know what I’m saying? It was art in the context of community, and taking that history, Mitchell, who was influenced, he’s consciously influenced by our most resistant and revolutionary activists and artists, so that’s what influenced us and that’s how we practice our work.
BALL: Yeah, I mean, when you talk about the Black Arts Movement, and you mentioned even specifically Amiri Baraka, again, that call he once famously put out about, you know, wanting not just art for art’s sake, as you said, but art that would fight, art that would inspire aggressive, militant action in response to the conditions facing African-descended people in this country and other parts of the world.
So I’m curious, how have you been, I’m interested in this relationship you have with the community here in Baltimore, particularly the youth. I know that they are the subject and participants in a lot of the video that you work with, and the stories that they have to tell are integral to the work that you do, in terms of your cinematic work.
But, initially, I’m particularly interested in this question about how do they receive the theatrical piece? Because, you know, we don’t often hear a lot about theatre, in terms of Black youth in today’s world. We don’t hear a lot about theatre. And I know there’s a thriving scene nationally and of course internationally, but when you approach them with theatre and cinematic performance of art and poetry, how have young people responded?
ROSE: They’ve responded well. Theatre allows them to open up, know what I’m saying? To be themselves. At the same time, theatre also, you know what I’m saying, because you have to read, obviously, you know what I’m saying, and you have to work collectively and you have to perform, so it gives the students the opportunity to learn without learning, if you will.
So, for example, there’s a program that I work with called Dancing Many Drums, I partner with Sharayna Christmas. We have students travel throughout the African diaspora. They’ve been to places like Jamaica, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, what have you, and they focus on the history of those countries, but they also focus on the presence of Africans in those different places, and the history of resistance. And they choose whatever artistic discipline they want to express their experience in the country and the history of the country.
It culminates in the performance of them presenting a theatrical performance, where all these experiences are included. So theatre allows them to have this large scope on what they’re learning and to actually physically practice it and to feel it, you know.
So, a lot of times in the black arts movement they did these plays called Rituals, the [inaud.] movement. A colleague of mine, Rosiland Cauthen, recently just produced Slave Ship by Amiri Baraka, and most of that play is actually movement and sound. So, I think that’s an excellent way for us to learn, it’s how our ancestors have learned for centuries.
BALL: Sure, sure, sure. I mean you talk about even the traditions of the griot, or as one of my former professors Dr. Ayele Bekerie said, you know we should use the word jali, because he thought the French were being disparaging by putting the term griot, meaning just wandering poet, on these deep and powerful African traditions. You’re saying the Halla is a better way of approaching that, not only the term but the definition of what the people were doing, and carrying on the traditions and the stories and the rituals of their communities.
But you talk about this tradition and the importance of it. I’m struck immediately in terms of this theatre piece by the negative comparison I would have to what Tyler Perry has blown up with. What people don’t always realize is that Madea and all that nonsense started on theatre, on stage, and then was brought to the big screen, and those who are aware of the theatrical piece are not always aware that there are other forms of black theatre, that there are other more deep and more powerful and, from my interest, radical forms of art and traditions that don’t get automatically swooped up by Hollywood and bought onto the big screen for, I think, somewhat obvious political reasons.
So, I’m interested in that tradition, of how you see your function as a griot, and how you see yourself functioning in the twenty-first century in reviving and maintaining certain traditions and perspectives and art and performance and history. Could you say a few words about that? And what, maybe, you are finding yourself competing against. And again, using Tyler Perry as a straw argument here, but you know you are operating in a media environment that’s hostile to a lot of the work you’re trying to do, so I’m just asking how you see yourself functioning as a twenty-first century griot or jali.
ROSE: Right. Well, in the most practical sense, I see myself functioning hands-on with the community whose attention I’m competing with the major media. It’s not enough to just have abstract theories or what-have-you on how people or youth are affected by the media or blah, blah, blah. We have to work with them in a hands-on fashion. That’s basically my main approach, you know what I’m saying?
So yes, a lot of students I work with, their first experience may have been Madea, Tyler Perry, that’s how I relate to it, you know what I’m saying? But by them working with me consistently, establishing a family environment, they’re organically exposed to what I’m influenced by, and because they have the connection with me they naturally are drawn towards what I’m drawn towards, Black arts movements, so that’s why we’re able to have 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds, doing excerpts from the “Dutchman” by [crosstalk] Amiri Baraka and understanding–
BALL: [interceding] –Right, right, right, right, right.
No, that’s deep. One of the things that I, you know, only slowly been catching up with your work and some of the pieces you shared with me in preparation for todays interview are, I think, amazing. And I want to come back to the Nina Simone piece in a minute.
But I wanted to start it with the one you were using, you had young people sharing their poetry and some of their stories about growing up here in Baltimore, and you had done some, what I thought were amazing things with the color in the shoot, in the video, in the editing. I mean the way you went from black and white, to pulling out some, and I don’t even, it looked even like at one point you were, I don’t know what the terminology would be but sort of hyper, superimposing new color onto the people and I mean, I thought it was so aesthetically, it was just brilliant and beautiful.
But I thought it was also powerful in the way you brought in, you had some Coltrane playing, you had people reading poetry and telling their stories. Talk a little bit about that work if you would.
And in another piece you had a family dealing with the issues of police brutality, and just even the drama that is created in the family of a son saying I just want to go to the store at night to get a quick snack, and the parents being worried about police violence and he might suffer just in that small act. And being misidentified, you’re dealing with a lot of stuff, so tell us a little bit about some of this work that you’ve done and that you look to be doing more in the future.
ROSE: Yeah, that piece you’re referring to, that’s called “U Thought I Was Him.” So, I worked as the cinematographer and editor on that piece. I collaborated with some other artists. A local theatre here, Center Stage, to commemorate the birthday of Trayvon Martin. They decided to gather local artists from Baltimore, different genres, and have them come together and create pieces that were shared with the community. They had different forms and discussions, revolving around the art that was created.
So that piece that you saw was directed by Troy Burton, who actually directs the Eubie Blake Center where we’re at now, and so we took monologues from some plays that he had done with some actors, we also took poetry that some other poets had written, and he organized, he structured it. He had a basic, loose structure of what we wanted to do and just found the different locations where we shot out.
What I did, since it was Trayvon Martin, and it’s called “U Thought I was Him,” a lot of it dealt with men of African descent being misconceived, being seen as someone else. So when you see the piece you also see these veves, so you see Ogun veves, and you see Legba. So, Legba represents the crossroads. Legba is also known as a trickster who can be seen sometimes, you know what I’m saying, in different alter egos, changers. So, I use that in the context of Trayvon Martin and the complexity of men of African descent, how we carry that thing.
Wherever you go in the African diaspora, men of African descent, and women, have this certain swagger about, this cleverness about them. It’s universal you know? So, in that piece, I wanted that to be the undertone. And then, the other thing with film is you’re able to, especially our ancestors who have been filmed, you’re able to capture their spirit and fuse it with now, the contemporary. So, at a certain section of the film, I took a piece by Amiri Baraka, and imposed it over when a young man is in the store and he has a hood on, hoodie on, and–
BALL: –and you had that over John Coltrane’s Equinox.
ROSE: Equinox, right.
BALL: Which is just, happened to be my favorite Coltrane piece which was just dope as I don’t know what.
ROSE: And it’s funny how that works. So, while I was editing the piece, Baraka had made the reference to the equinox, with you know, a section of his poem, he was just like, kinda like harmonizing. So I said, okay, that makes sense that you’d throw in Coltrane right there.
BALL: And it worked out.
ROSE: It just worked out.
BALL: So, before we wrap up, I gotta ask about this Nina Simone piece you shared with me too, because she’s one of my favorite artists and I reference her all the time, particularly in an attempt to inspire my daughters who at various times express interest in various aspects of the arts, so I’m saying, if you want to be an artist, if you want to be a singer, you need to know about her.
BALL: And how she approached it. And in the piece you created, as I said to you off-camera, you included aspects of her analysis, her thought, and her reflections on the civil rights struggle that have always endeared her to me but don’t always get talked about when people make reference to Nina Simone, which was her expressions of support and solidarity with armed struggle.
BALL: And her rejection of nonviolence, and her desire, she said at one point, if my husband hadn’t stopped me, I’m going down south with guns and we’re arming everybody and we’re just going to war and none of this other stuff. People don’t talk about that as they reference her, so that’s what spoke to me. But obviously, as the person behind the making of that piece, what was it about Nina, or what is it about Nina, that inspires you, that made you want to create this little tribute film to her–and I don’t mean little to be dismissive, but short is what I’m really saying, tribute to her, and what were you trying to draw out about Nina in that piece?
ROSE: Well I know for millions of young artists Nina Simone was like a boulder falling on their head, when I was exposed to her. I mean, just the beauty of her art, period. You know, said this is an artist, that’s pure artist. But then, to couple that, you know what I’m saying, with that sense of resistance, and that devotion to change and willing to sacrifice, and then, at the time, when she put in history when she was an artist coming out, the fact that I think one of her first releases, was bootlegged, that she had to deal with that kind of exploitation, and still come over that and still devoted her time.
In that piece, I wanted to deal with the raw Nina, the human Nina, the vulnerable Nina, and then juxtapose that with the Nina that you described, the Nina that was willing to go down south and pick up arms. You know what I’m saying?
And then, in that particular piece, before I had shot and edited that piece, I wasn’t aware that Backlash Blues, her song Backlash Blues, was actually an interpretation of Langston Hughes’s poem. So then I was lucky enough to actually find some footage of Langston speaking, her actually reading the poem, and I was able to fuse that into actually performing it live. And again, the beauty of film, I was able to fuse Nina’s recorded performances with choreography by some young women that we work with in the program.
And when the youth saw that, like, to this day, they, Nina Simone is just part of their lingo. Nina Simone is just part of their casual knowledge. And that’s the way it should be. Through the greatest extents possible, education should be organic, as organic as possible. I feel like film is a medium to help you do that.
BALL: Well, Bashi Rose, thank you for stepping out from behind the camera and the editing booth to join us for this segment of iMixWhatiLike.
ROSE: You’re welcome, thanks for having me,
BALL: Real quick, how can people follow up with Nommo Theatre and Film and other work that you’re doing? How can they catch up with you?
ROSE: There’s a Nommo Theatre/Film youtube channel, and I have a website www.nommotheatre.com.
BALL: Well, thanks again to Bashi Rose, and thanks to you for watching this segment of iMixWhatiLike here at the Real News Network. Peace, everybody.
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