Maverick Intentions: Remembering As an Act of Protest

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It was a time of maverick intentions, passions born out of necessity and visions of a future we could make on our own terms. Late 90’s, pre 9/11 New York City. Man, the names still ring in my head like it was yesterday. Louima, Diallo, that Giuliani time New York. I was approaching my early years of manhood when by chance I linked up with Dennis Leroy Kangalee not knowing this union we would make would direct the course of my existence forever, design my artistic pathway as well as my manhood, citizenship and outlook as a Black person in America. So to be frank with you even though As An Act of Protest may be Dennis’s personal explosion of his trials as a young Black socially minded artist struggling to find a solid ground to build on, I can’t help but feel this is also my story being told, cause truth being a whole lot of As An Act of Protest, I lived. Its characteristics of high powered text, stellar acting performances coupled with low-fi camera and sound work make sense to me, it has kinship to how Dennis and I made theatre, in the trenches, with nothing but our desire to storm the barricades, thats how we made stage. As an Act of Protest is trench warfare, cinema By Any Means Necessary, it’s late 90’s afro-punk revolt. True guerilla cinema is ignored not because it lacks technical prowess – no that’s merely an excuse when people can give praise to crap like mumblecore – its ignored because of what it says. Make no mistake about that.

Dennis and I met as theatre students when we were quite young, Dennis being a little older than I – those age gaps always feel pronounced in your early years then they do when you get older as now Dennis and I exist very much more as peers – but back then Dennis was someone I highly admired and looked up to. He had wisdom beyond his years, a grasp of art that even his largest foe had to at the very least acknowledge and respect, I mean how could you not admire a 16 year old who was reading The Theatre And It’s Double and singing Curtis Mayfield at the same time? A few years later we found a bond as colleagues – he started the Theatre company Dionysus 2000 in 1997, I knew I had to join up. I, like he, was already frustrated with the prospects that being a young Black Actor in NYC afforded me. You know its funny, being young, of color and talented is a great novelty for many, until you begin to have your own ideas, god forbid you even begin to question the structures around you. They will pageant you around, shower you with compliments and visions of bright futures, even promise you support, until that front line moment happens, that youth they raised to be sharp gains that bit of extra sensory perception, can see through the fabric, the tall tales, false promises and lies all around them and start to do the one thing they should never, demand answers. This is As An Act of Protest, it a result of the doors that were closed on us because we desired to mount forgotten Black classical plays like The Toilet or Blues For Mr. Charlie because frankly we were tired of being upset, depressed, banging our heads against the wall cause we knew things just aint FEEL right! For 3 years, under Dennis’s lead we mounted plays all around New York City, aiming to start our own theatre revolution, we spent all our money, got critical acclaim, packed houses of highly inspired audiences but then found shut doors from the same theatres that’s housed us because of the ruckus our pieces caused, hired actors who touched heights they never previously achieved while in another moment fired actors who thought we were crazy to want to do Black revolutionary theatre in an actual revolutionary way – no I am not exaggerating. Got up close and personal with some of our idols only to see many of them so broken by the turbulence of their trials all they could offer was their inability to give us proper guidance, nothing left for us but disappointment. We were truly a band of misfits without a home, too scary for them all, but yet we kept going. So in August 2000, I remember like it was yesterday Dennis presented to me the script for As An Act of Protest, I sat and read it in his apartment in Harlem – where most of Cairo’s “home” scenes were shot – it felt like I was reading the life we had been living the last 3 years and also – speaking mostly in terms of the later part of the film – the life that we all deep down inside wanted to live, the Actor who TRULY acts! To be honest, the script for As An Act of Protest is one of the best I ever read, I still hope one day Dennis decides to publish it because it’s a tour de force in screenwriting, Paddy Chayefsky would be jealous. A true NY piece, with the same – if not more – relevance than scripts like Schrader’s Taxi Driver or Jules Feiffer’s play turned film Little Murders. I remember my blood pumping through every page, Dennis had written the myth of our times, we had been troubled that the Theatre we wanted could not be achieved, we had to many disappointments to continue down that road. Dennis had become impressed and inspired by the Dogma 95 movement – I remember him recommending I see Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” which pleasantly shocked us both – in it Dennis saw an opportunity to make a raw piece of art that was in kinship to his theatrical focus. After having read the script I desired the role of Cairo but I even felt deep down inside what Dennis already knew, I was too young and too bright eyed to enter the cage of that role yet and truthfully, the cosmos had their Cairo, my brother Che Ayende.

I had known Che for a few years, been an admirer of his work, I knew I had to take my ego out of it link those two up. I was not there for their meet up, but I remember Dennis giving me a call telling me he knew he had his man, his Cairo Media, that will always be the contribution to As an Act of Protest I am most proud of. I was in school at the time fighting my way through Purchase Acting Conservatory while they were shooting so, unfortunately, I missed the vast majority of its production – though I did make a cameo as Cairo’s fallen brother George. So when I finally saw the final product it floored me, I saw our lives on screen, I knew Jimmy the theatre manager, Professor Eastman the not so bout it revolutionary scholar, I knew Karen the frustrated loving girlfriend, I knew Abner, hell I knew him the best, made theatre with him for 3 years and I also knew Cairo who was all of us, or maybe who all of us HOPED we could become? I’ve always wondered was Cairo the Actor Dennis hope he would find one day? Or the Actor he was before he became disenchanted with it? Was he an Actor he knew? Or did he believe this was an unachievable archetype that haunts us?

As an Act of Protest went on to have less of life initially then I thought it would, I was happy for the self validation that it gave me and us who were in the artistic and racial trenches of NY in that time, but heavily disappointed that many of the points the film made came true, the Jimmy’s of the cinema world ignored it, as well as the Professor Eastmans of scholarly world. Why? Cause it exposed them, held them accountable. The whites who viewed the film were not ready to be the Charlotte’s and give their endorsement of it. I guess I should not be surprised cause it ended up having a life much like our plays, audiences were deeply moved by the film but no one with influence had the guts to be its champion. It was the roadblocks of Post 9/11 America, Giuliani became a hero, was morphed into Rudy The Rock and all the terror he spread throughout the City of New York was swept under the rug by an incident that had nothing to do with him, talk about a bouncing backhanded slap in the face. 9/11 changed New York, it took the focus off the real terrorists, grew patriotism in ranks it never before existed and then all those calls of “41 Shots” and the screams for ABNER and AMADOU became a footnote on a Wikipedia page. Much of what I have seen the last nearly 15 years since the release of “Protest” is  a degrading of our spirit as Black people, New Yorkers, Americans,  Human Beings. That is why As an Act of Protest is now as important as ever. It now exists like an old tape signal bursting into your screen, that sketchy memory you try to forget, but can not cause it haunts you – its inescapable truth. It still haunts us, I remember Dennis saying to me a few years after Protest he would never make cinema again, but – thankfully – he is back at it as he embarks on his next film Octavia: Elegy For A Vampire. Protest has followed me in my consciousness, it had a major influence on my upcoming film Spit, in many ways they are cousins. But it haunts all us when now nearly 15 years later the we hear names like Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin and Aiyana Jones and countless others. It asks us, very strongly, when are we going to ACT???? And it stays with as a reminder that we, still, have not answered that question….yet.

Mtume Gant

NYC, November 2014

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