How Blak Kin Eye Bee?
Presented by Amun Ra Theatre
June 13-14 at the Ryman Auditorium
jeff obafemi carr is one of the finest actors in Nashville. He’s a member of Actors’ Equity Association, the union for theatrical professionals, and he finds enough work with companies such as Nashville Children’s Theatre and the American Negro Playwright Theatre to make a living. He considers himself lucky that way, whether he’s playing the role of a lovably goofy schoolteacher in NCT’s recent Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse or tackling something a little more serious in ANPT’s production of August Wilson’s Fences.
carr, 35, is also an African American artist in a theater town that offers few growth opportunities for a man of color. Taking matters into his own hands, he has spent the last two years developing and touring limited theatrical and college dates with How Blak Kin Eye Bee?, a one-man play that he’ll bring into the Ryman Auditorium for two weekend performances designed to showcase both his writing and his actorly versatility. “This production is more commercial-minded,” he says. “We want to show that quality theater can take place in Nashville with appeal to the urban market.
“We don’t have a lot of choices in the mainstream. With this show, many people have become involved as partners, and the Ryman has been supportive in many intangible ways. They’ve demonstrated some commitment to bringing diversity to the Nashville cultural scene. It’s a beautiful thing to have an event such as this going on in the mother church of country music.”
With its intentionally evocative, jazz-improv wordplay in the title, How Blak Kin Eye Bee? does not purport to be overtly political, but it is a reflection of the life experiences of a young black man who was born in old Hubbard Hospital (now Meharry General), bred in South Nashville and attended Hillsboro and Overton high schools, and later Tennessee State University, where he majored in theater arts. “The play looks into the lives of seven different African Americans,” says carr. “I always say they’re my ancestorsthere’s some kind of connection that I seem to have with them. These are average people that demonstrate the extraordinary attributes of average people, every one of them dealing with life situations. A lot of the material is satirical, some just purely comedic. If you ever wondered what kind of cultural 'isms’ go on in the black community and you were afraid to ask, then come to this show.”
A licensed Baptist minister, carr knows the difference between acting and sermonizing. “I think the way I perform and present things speaks to my desire to not preach. I think preachy art is some of the worst art you can ever put together. But if you speak from the heart and thoroughly explore people’s livesif you are a good storytelleraudience members will come to their own conclusions.”
Under the direction of well-known Nashville actress Penelope Felder-Fentress, carr’s performance piece remains a key ingredient in the launch of a bigger dream, his newly founded Amun Ra Theatre. “Our theater company is shooting for mounting three pieces in the next year,” he says, “including a co-production with NCT.” Like some Nashville theater artists before him, carr has a theater company, but no defining place to perform his works, though he’s been looking at some “nontraditional spaces.” More important, he’s been buoyed of late by the possibilities in what he sees as a previously untapped urban theatrical audience. In the course of one recent week in Nashville, carr attended all-black productions of Guys and Dolls (presented by Urban Ministries at the Ryman), Bring in Da Noise/Bring in Da Funk (at TPAC’s Jackson Hall) and Madea’s Class Reunion (an original touring comedy starring creator Tyler Perry at Municipal Auditorium).
“When I go into my neighborhood barber shop,” carr says, “people know about Tyler Perry. But when I bring up names like August Wilson or Suzan-Lori Parks, it goes over their heads. There’s got to be some kind of balance in the middle, where the depth and power of an August Wilson meets the grass-roots people who like theater that speaks more directly to them.”
With one foot planted firmly in more conventional theatrical arenas, carr increasingly finds his artistic ethos straying toward alternative modes of thinking. “I have a strange notion in my head that art should be independent, and that it should not be determined by the need for dollars all the time,” he says. “With Amun Ra, I’m trying to create a model that is a balance between the professional, by-the-book American theater company and the urban, community-based circuit. For example, there are unique patterns to African American spending. We like to walk up to a show instead of buying a subscription. And church remains a link to social events. Yet once again, our oral tradition is intact. Word of mouth is strong.”
Life has changed more than a little for carr since he got his first taste of performing with the Kayne Avenue Missionary Baptist Church. He learned a lot about his craft from local African American theater teachers Barry Scott, William Dury Cox and Stella Reed. He’s performed on stages large and small, in and out of Nashville. He’s steeped himself in religious thought. (His middle name was accorded him 10 years ago by a Yoruba priest; “obafemi” means “the king loves me,” a reflection of carr’s willingness to draw wisdom from his elders.) He has gained a daughter, Jumoke, now 8, and he lost his father a year-and-a-half ago. Things came maybe half-circle when he purchased a house on Paris Avenue in the 12 South neighborhoodright next door to his mother.
“Nashville today is different from the Nashville of 10 years ago,” he says. “Now we have pro sports. Major corporations have located here. People have moved here from the West and East coasts and overseas. I think we have to take some risks now and make things happen to build theater audiences for the future. There are conventions that need to be broken.” carr says this knowing full well that, as an Actors’ Equity-affiliated black actor in Nashville, he is performing for predominantly white audiences. “A union is very valuable,” he says. “It makes my living, offers me health insurance and a pension. But for black actors to really make it in Nashville going the Equity route, the other houses would have to open up.”
As if to demonstrate carr’s point, Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s recently announced 2003-2004 season includes the all-black musical Ain’t Misbehavin’. “I think that was the last show they did featuring African Americans,” he says flatly. “It was about 14 years ago.
“Real artists want to sell out a show,” carr concludes, “but they don’t want to be 'sellouts’ to their art. I have to be more concerned with the audience I want to reach.”
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