Tony-nominated playwright Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people She’s nominated for her work on the hit Broadway musical ‘Ain’t Too Proud’

Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people, and she’s doing it by paying homage to her hometown of Detroit.

The 41-year-old playwright has been having a banner year. In October, she was one of 25 fellows to win grants from the MacArthur Foundation. Morisseau wrote the book for one of Broadway’s hottest shows this season, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. Now, it’s nominated for 12 Tonys, including best musical. There’s a possibility Morisseau could be taking home a statue for herself on Sunday night, as the show is nominated for best book (for spoken dialogue and storyline).

Oprah Winfrey (standing, center) poses with the cast and creative team backstage at the hit musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations on May 17 at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.

Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage

The jukebox musical tells the story of one of Motown’s most beloved groups as it soars to worldwide fame while balancing the needs and egos of a rotating array of singers. Founding member Otis Williams, played by Derrick Baskin, narrates the timeline from his beginnings as a teenage singer straight up to the modern day. At 77, the real Williams is still very much alive, and Ain’t Too Proud is based on his memoir. The musical briefly touches on issues that affected the group’s many singers, including being an absentee father, drug abuse and the pressure to avoid commenting on the Vietnam War, segregation or anything else that might pierce the melodic escapism they came to represent. But those issues are never allowed to overtake the tone of the show.

A big Broadway musical is a departure for Morisseau, and as her profile continues to grow, it’s something she’ll likely have to navigate more in the future.

“There are some things about writing a musical that are different than writing a play,” Morisseau told me. “The scarcity of language, how fast I have to convey an idea because we don’t have a lot of time between songs. The songs are really the story.”

Morisseau is married to musician James Keys, and music factors heavily in her plays. She figures they’ll likely write a musical together.

Before Ain’t Too Proud, Morisseau was a queen of off-Broadway, which is typically less commercial, racking up plaudits including a 2015 Steinberg Playwright Award and an Obie for her play Pipeline in 2018. Her work challenges audiences with complicated, interweaving social issues, especially when it comes to race. Pipeline, for instance, is about a black mother and public schoolteacher confronting her feelings of powerlessness in trying to prevent her son from getting sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Morisseau is a passionate advocate for her fellow black playwrights and actors, and for ways to improve the faults she sees in contemporary American theater, whether or not there’s a proscenium involved.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people.” — Dominique Morisseau

“I will say no to very shiny productions of my play if it does not feel like everything around it has the kind of artistic integrity that I want,” Morisseau said. “I’ve had to stand up to theaters several times around the curation of my work or my relationship with them. … I have a really great relationship with a lot of theaters in the city, but it comes from push and pull and us developing mutual respect, because I’m just not going to be the kind of artist that you can tell what to do.

“When it comes to making decisions about who’s going to be in my plays, who’s going to direct my plays, I take a strong stance. I collaborate with a theater. Sometimes they want to push a director on me. I have worked with directors that the theater has brought to the table, but those directors that they brought to the table have been African American women directors or African American directors. Then I’ll go, ‘Oh, OK, well let me meet that person.’ ”

She’s also vocal about calling for more black artistic directors, the people in charge of programming theater seasons who are responsible for maintaining an existing donor base of largely white patrons while courting new, younger and browner audiences. When Hana Sharif was named artistic director of St. Louis Repertory, Morisseau shared her huzzahs on Facebook.

“You don’t see artistic directors of color, period,” Morisseau explained. “And you don’t see women artistic directors very often. There’s a few white women artistic directors of a few regional theaters, significant regional theaters, but not enough. St. Louis Rep, that is a huge regional theater, so for Hana to run that regional theater, it’s a big seismic shift in our industry.”

Actress Simone Missick, who is best known for playing Misty Knight in Luke Cage, told me she considers Morisseau “one of the pre-eminent writers of our time in the theater world and in television.” Although Morisseau’s chief focus is theater, she was also a co-producer on the Showtime series Shameless, and she is currently developing projects for FX and HBO.

Missick starred in Paradise Blue, the middle play of Morisseau’s Detroit Project trilogy. Set in 1949, Paradise Blue follows a talented trumpeter named Blue, who is trying to decide what to do about the jazz club he owns in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. It’s not bringing in much money, and Blue wants to move on. At the same time, white speculators are buying up property in the neighborhood intending to gentrify it and pushing out the black residents. Oh — Blue also has a serious mental illness, and he’s troubled by the fact that his girlfriend, Pumpkin, wants to stay in Detroit even though he wants to leave. A mysterious woman from out of town, a literal black widow known as Silver, raises everyone’s hackles. Morisseau, who played Silver in the play’s original staging, describes the character as “Spicy. Gritty and raw in a way that men find irresistible. Has a meeeeeaaaannnn walk.”

“Dominique has a mastery which I wish more writers had,” Missick said. “When you read it, it reads the way that people talk.

“You could drop a microphone in Detroit or in Alabama, where some of these characters are from, or Louisiana, where my character was from. You could drop a microphone and those people would sound exactly the way that Dominique has written. And that is a beautiful thing because so often when I read work as an actor, you read things and you think, people don’t talk like that. … But she also gives her writing a musicality, and if the rhythm of it does not sync with her spirit, then she changes it.”

Within Morisseau’s story of gentrification and the upheaval it brings is another story about Pumpkin and the fights black women face battling racism and sexism. Morisseau chuckled when I referred to her in conversation as a feminist August Wilson. It turned out that I’d tripped over one of the things she hopes will change about theater, which is that the press compares every black playwright to Wilson, no matter how incongruous their styles may be.

“I laugh when people liken me to August Wilson in any way or shape or form,” she said. “They do that for so many of us young black playwrights. It’s like any of us that have poetry in our language and kind of capture this unapologetic rhythm of black dialect, we all are writing in the fashion of August.

“Some of us actually really are, and would own that. And I don’t think others are doing that at all or intending to do that. I think that they’re getting called that because that’s the easiest go-to reference for a lot of people.

“I can’t ever deny August’s influence on my work,” Morisseau said. “I started writing the Detroit [Project] because I was reading August Wilson’s work. I read his work back to back, and I read Pearl Cleage, who was from Detroit, I read her writing back to back. I was just so inspired by their canon of work. … I just thought, Wow, what his work is doing for the people of Pittsburgh, how they must feel so loved, so immortalized in his writing, I want to do that for Detroit.”

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters, gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect.” — actress Simone Missick

Like Wilson, Morisseau focuses on working-class black people, and her Detroit trilogy (Paradise Blue, Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew) shares some broad ideas with Wilson’s famous Pittsburgh Cycle.

Furthermore, Morisseau writes fully realized black characters who exist in a racist society without being polemical. The contours of white supremacy are very much part of the worlds she creates, but her plays are about people, not arguments. Detroit ’67 is set during the infamous riot that took place in 1967, and Skeleton Crew, set in 2008, examines the difficult decisions autoworkers face as their industry weathers storm after storm. All of them seek to portray a Detroit that’s more than a collection of pathologies, as evidenced in Morisseau’s dedication for Skeleton Crew, which is pointed and personal:

“This is for my Auntie Francine, my grandfather Pike, my cousins Michael Abney and Patti Poindexter, my Uncle Sandy, my friend David Livingston, my relative Willie Felder, and all of the UAW members and autoworkers whose passion for their work inspires me. And this is for the working-class warriors who keep this country driving forward.

“This is also for the politicians, financial analysts, and everyday citizens who echoed the negating sentiments, ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’ Yep, this is for you, too, dammit.”

In some ways, Morisseau plays a role in theater similar to the one Ava DuVernay occupies in film. Both women are vocal about inequities in their fields and the way they affect whose stories get told and the budgets allotted to tell them. Just as DuVernay has been committed to creating a pipeline of female directors with her OWN drama Queen Sugar, Morisseau has pushed to work with black directors in theater.

Like DuVernay, Morisseau’s writing is ambitious, deeply researched work that focuses on characters surmounting challenges large and small stemming from racial inequality.

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect,” Missick said. “It’s not trivial. It’s not trite. There is no character that is used to push the story along. I very rarely see that onstage or on screen, that every single person has something that they’re fighting for. … It’s something that I think makes her writing something that actors for generations will want to perform.”

Morisseau wants to keep challenging audiences. And she wants artistic directors to internalize that approach. She told me that artistic directors too often underestimate how much white audiences are willing to be pushed. And their conception of potential audience members remains blinkered.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people,” Morisseau said.

‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ puts a new face on death from despair Movie from Brad Pitt’s Plan B is a tale of gentrification and loss

In 2015, a couple of economists coined a term to describe the decline in life expectancy among middle-aged white Americans due to elevated rates of suicide, drug use and alcoholism. They called these untimely deaths, which they tied to a lack of opportunity among whites lacking a college degree, “deaths of despair.”

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which opens in theaters Friday, is not about working-class white people. But it is very much about despair that’s not so different from that described by the economists.

The film, directed by Joe Talbot and written by Talbot and Rob Richert, tells the story of actor Jimmie Fails, who plays a version of himself in the film. Jimmie has been crashing on the bedroom floor of his best friend, Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), for some time as he tries to stake a claim on a multilevel Victorian house in San Francisco that his grandfather once owned. His father, Jimmie Fails Sr. (Rob Morgan), eventually lost it, and Jimmie Jr.’s childhood became pockmarked by lack and uncertainty.

Jimmie Fails as Jimmie in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Courtesy of A24

The house, now worth several millions of dollars, is occupied by an older white woman who doesn’t treat it with the regard Jimmie believes it deserves. So he makes surreptitious improvements — trimming hedges, touching up paint — to honor both the house and his grandfather, who supposedly built it at the turn of the 20th century.

Produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B with A24 and Talbot’s company Longshot Features, The Last Black Man in San Francisco joins Jimmie and Monty at a crucial point: The woman who lives in the Fails house is forced to move out because of family circumstances, and before it can go on the market, Jimmie occupies the property he believes is rightfully his, even though he has no money and no deed. Instead, Jimmie has righteousness and lore on his side — until he doesn’t. Capitalism holds no romance or respect for moral abstractions; only financial assets are revered, and Jimmie has next to none.

The Last Black Man appears to be a story about robbery via gentrification in one of the American capitals of income inequality, and it is. But it’s more than that. Stories about gentrification are also stories about the loss of identity, about the loss of the place a set of people once called home.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco has a scab to pick off a bigger wound.

Monty and the needy curmudgeon Grandpa Allen (played by Danny Glover in one of the best performances of his career) live across the street from Bayview-Hunters Point, an area that is a case study in environmental racism. The movie opens with a shot of a little black girl, no more than 6 or 7, in a dress skipping along the same stretch of street being traversed by a man in a hazmat suit. Jimmie and Monty are well aware of how race has affected their tenuous positions in society. Such inequality wallpapers their lives. Set off with a Greek chorus of neighborhood ne’er-do-wells who congregate outside the Allen house, the script for The Last Black Man in San Francisco dances with wit, tragedy and originality. It’s punctuated by the kinetic photography of Adam Newport-Berra, whose shots of Jimmie and Monty sharing a skateboard through San Francisco’s steep grades and curving blacktops simultaneously invite snickers and awe.

Jimmie isn’t mourning the fact that drunken tech bros in a chaperoned party trolley pollute the city he loves with obscene chants directed at a nude hippie waiting for the bus. (It’s one of my favorite scenes because of the way it cheekily illustrates how definitions of normalcy are relative.) Jimmie’s despair comes from realizing that the option to participate in a key aspect of the American tradition may have never really existed for him. He’s lost out on the opportunity to homestead a new existence, to create his own myth and live it until what’s true and what’s family lore blends into a triumphant, interesting-at-cocktail-parties truthiness.

Before he moved in with Monty and Grandpa Allen, Jimmie was homeless, and before that, he was a ward of the state. Jimmie’s mother is a former drug addict with whom he barely communicates. James Sr., also in recovery, is a grifter who sells bootleg movies to pay his rent in a single room occupancy building. No wonder Jimmie wants to look back a generation in search of a better story, one that puts him in the lineage of a builder of a Victorian masterpiece and injects some greatness into his veins.

Rob Morgan (left) and Jimmie Fails (right) in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Courtesy of A24

It’s a beautiful, unexpected sort of greatness too, because it’s wrapped up in antique furniture and sunlight streaming through lace curtains. Greatness, for Jimmie, is preserved in a time warp.

In this light, we can see all the complementary aspects of Jimmie’s friendship with Monty, the one man in the world fluent in Jimmie’s particular language of weird. Monty’s a playwright who copes with real life by pretending that he’s actually directing it, a man who hoards old playbills and dresses like an East Coast humanities professor. Once you see past Monty’s surface-level strangeness — and he is, by every objective measure, awfully odd — you see a man who worships the promise and magic of created worlds and their ability to transport as they tell the truth.

When tragedy rocks their world, it’s no wonder that Monty’s grand gesture as he tries to save his closest friend involves staging a play about their lives. It honors Jimmie’s current life but also reminds him that there’s still hope of creating a new one.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an exquisite dirge for the loss of a city, of home, of community. But most of all, it mourns the loss of possibility, and for some that load is just too heavy to bear.

A black neighborhood’s complicated relationship with the home of Preakness Baltimore’s storied horse race faces an uncertain future in the city

In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.

However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.

“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”

Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.

Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.

Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.

In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.

Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.

The 5100 block of Park Heights Ave is the closest thoroughfare to the race track. The area is in need of investment and redevelopment, and many shops are vacant or boarded up. The Preakness has not brought any significant opportunity to the area over the years.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.

If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.

Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.

City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.

Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.

Track workers prepare the track for the two weeks of racing to come as Preakness nears on the calendar. Pimlico race track is falling apart and the owners would rather take the historic race out of Baltimore than repair it. But who is left behind? The black community that surrounds Pimlico.

André Chung for The Undefeated

In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.

Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.

The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.

Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Melvin Ward, who grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood near Pimlico, is the owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food near the race track.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.

Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.

The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?

“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”

Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.

Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.

LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”

Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.

LaDonna Jones owns property near the track. Her cousin, Roderick Barnette helps her take care of it. Their views differ on whether or not the track should close. Jones wants it to stay but wants to see reinvestment into the community and Barnette would rather see it go because it’s never benefitted the community.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”

When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”

Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”

Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.

Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.

Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.

Gentrification encroaches on Howard and Texas Southern campuses It’s a clash of cultures, aspirations, history and money

Washington, D.C., apparently is the capital of the Gentrification Nation too.

Want to see the effects? Just take a stroll through the environs near Howard University’s main campus these days and you reflexively say, “My, how times have changed.”

Gone are many of the decaying structures and dilapidated blotches of disrepair. And gone are some of the small black businesses and shops that were the lifeblood of a once-vibrant community.

Look up and you will see high-rise thickets of fancy apartment complexes dotting the landscape around Howard, which in recent years has sold some of its properties near campus to raise funds. Look down and you will see the new cafes and coffee shops.

Those are signs of gentrification, not only in Washington but also in cities such as Houston, home of Texas Southern University, another historically black institution.

To understand the change of scenery around Howard, you must study the metamorphosis of Washington as a whole.

Gentrification sweeps through D.C.

Check the city’s gentrification numbers. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which advocates economic support for economically distressed locales, Washington had the highest intensity of gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States between 2000 and 2013.

Furthermore, Washington’s population was 71.1% black in 1970; in 2015, that number had plummeted to 48.3% during this new age of gentrification and black displacement. Also, the white population in areas surrounding Howard’s main campus was about 4% in 2000; by 2015, it had increased more than sixfold.

Of the eligible tracts for gentrification, Washington leads the nation with a 40% intensity rate; second is San Diego, double digits behind at 29%; third is New York at 24%.

Gentrification can mean new residents. With different cultural likes, dislikes, habits. And behavior.

Such as dog walking.

Howard students know this firsthand. And they don’t like it.

Because their campus has been a dog park for some area residents — white pet owners.

Students say it’s their grass and their walkways, regardless of the gentrification projects that have altered the landscape surrounding the university.

“Seeing dogs on campus isn’t an uncommon thing. I have seen them relieve themselves and the owners don’t pick it up,” Kenneth Fling, a freshman psychology major from Buffalo, New York, told The Undefeated outside on a breezy, blue-sky day at the main campus. “Here, we take the culture of our campus and our community very seriously.”

The first part of Fling’s comment is a key point of contention among many Howard students: non-student pet owners allowing their dogs to defecate and urinate on campus apparently without taking any responsibility.

The Yard on Howard University is located at the center of main campus, surrounded by public spaces where fraternities and sororities emblazon trees with their insignia.

John X.Miller

On “The Yard” — that priceless, grassy commons — which students consider hallowed territory, the pulse of their universe.

Call this situation Howard’s get-off-my-lawn moment.

It would be foolhardy to believe that Howard was the nation’s only historically black college or university in a dense urban spot feeling the effects of a culture clash that’s exacerbated by gentrification. Travel about 1,500 miles southwest of Washington to Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.

There, Texas Southern University is in the throes of its own challenges that, in some respects, are more problematic than the dog issue at Howard.

Houston’s Third Ward, where Texas Southern is located, is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation plan.

While the hot topic at Howard is about the pets, the concern at Texas Southern is about the pocketbooks.

According to the Houston Defender, a black-owned newspaper in the city, the number of black residents in the Third Ward, as of 2017, had decreased by at least 10% while the white population had doubled, as education and income levels have risen. Other effects of gentrification can include an increase in home and property values, an improvement in safety matters and a rise in credit ratings for residents.

However, on the other side of the ledger … well, let Sherridan Schwartz, a visiting professor in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern, tell it:

“In recent years,” Schwartz told The Undefeated, “luxury development and gentrification have made the Third Ward mostly unaffordable to the faculty and staff of TSU [except for a few executive-level administrators with higher incomes]. Now those employed by TSU have to find more affordable housing farther away, primarily in Houston’s suburbs like Pearland and Missouri City.”

To compound the gentrified problems, public transportation, especially bus service, can be affected in a negative way. Food and utility prices can skyrocket.

Also, in some neighborhoods around Texas Southern, similar to incidents in Washington, new residents have vehemently complained about publicly played music, lingering crowds, noise and block parties — often staples of many predominantly black communities.

Darnell Latney knows all about those staples.

For 48 years, Latney has been a part of Georgia Avenue, a street that directly borders Howard’s main campus. He’s seen the full scope of changes on this thoroughfare, which stimulate much-heated debate in the neighborhood, Latney said. A barber for 22 years, he works at Joseph’s Barber Shop, mere steps away from the university. And he is adamant about what he calls a disservice to a longtime predominantly black community encompassing Howard.

Darnell Latney stands in front of a building on the 2800 block of Georgia Avenue across from Howard University where he and other barbers cut hair for years. The shop closed last year, according to Latney, at the same time the condos (on the right) were being built.

John X. Miller

“It’s all about economics and raising the tax base,” Latney passionately told The Undefeated. “They are just using gentrification to get rid of black people in this area. We are not being displaced but replaced.

“At one time, D.C. wasn’t like this at all, from about the 1990s on back. Now everything is so expensive that the average black person can’t afford it. Georgia Avenue is a long street. It used to be an 80% black neighborhood that catered to 80% black businesses. Not anymore. I’ve seen a lot of black businesses close down in the past six years on Georgia Avenue — all because of gentrification. And this dog stuff is another sign of what’s going on around here.”

The tension regarding Howard’s dog controversy ratcheted up even more when dog owner Sean Grubbs-Robishaw, a white man who lives nearby in the Bloomingdale neighborhood, announced it was time to relocate.

No, not him — the 152-year-old Howard campus should depart, he proclaimed.

In an interview with television station Fox 5 DC, Grubbs-Robishaw, who admitted to traversing Howard’s various open patches of grass with his dog to reach a nearby reservoir that’s a popular spot for pet owners, barked, “So, they’re in part of D.C., so they have to work within D.C. If they don’t want to be within D.C., then they can move the campus. I think we just need to work together, and I don’t think it should be a he or there or here . . . it’s our community, and that’s how it should be.”

Yes, he jolted us when he said “move the campus,” the higher-education domain of such illustrious Howard alumni as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, singer Roberta Flack, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and California Sen. Kamala Harris. And note that Grubbs-Robishaw has since been derisively referred to by a hashtag on social media: #GentrifyingGeorge.

“They [dog owners] just don’t realize that this is sacred ground,” Hidaya, a Howard student who didn’t want her last name used, told The Undefeated.

The temperature of these dog days had gotten so hot that several media outlets, from Essence magazine to MTV News to The Guardian newspaper in England, have carved out space for coverage. And a petition has even been started to effect change regarding the dog debate.

Ironically, while students and dog owners on Howard’s main campus have been in the midst of a seemingly adversarial relationship, on the university’s so-called West Campus, located in a traditionally wealthier community that houses Howard’s law and divinity schools about 3 miles away, students and dog owners have maintained a symbiotic association.

“We do events each year when, during final exams, area dog owners bring their dogs over so we can pet them,” second-year law student James Walker III of Atlanta told The Undefeated.

For stress relief.

Does it work?

“I don’t partake in it myself, but I’m sure it helps, as the data has shown it works,” said Walker, whose parents both graduated from Howard’s School of Law.

Final exams are scheduled this week and next.

West campus students, neighbors get along better

Walker said it isn’t unusual to see dogs on the grounds of Howard’s West Campus, a predominantly white area off Connecticut Avenue, and added there’s a communal environment with the neighbors.

There doesn’t appear to be an antagonistic relationship with the surrounding West Campus community, he said.

There could be three reasons, besides the communal engagement:

  • The much smaller West Campus is a bit more isolated than the more open and sprawling main campus, which, of course, draws more foot traffic.
  • The dog owners on the west side appear to be very responsible in picking up waste material from their dogs.
  • The West Campus isn’t in the crosshairs of gentrification projects, unlike the main Howard campus.

The dog conundrum on the main campus became so polarizing that university president Wayne A.I. Frederick publicly announced that pet owners are prohibited from bringing their animals on the grounds.

He said: “We recognize that service animals are a necessary aspect of modern-day life and we will accommodate them as needed. We appreciate pet owners respecting our campus by not bringing pets on to the private areas. Howard is a private institution nestled in the heart of an urban city and we’ve shared a long-standing positive relationship with our evolving community for more than 150 years, which we look forward to continuing in the future.”

However, a few students indicated that they still have seen some non-student pet owners and dogs on the main site after the release of the president’s message, although freshman Fling observed, “I have seen a decline in dogs on campus.”

The animal regulations imposed by city’s Department of Health, in association with the mayor’s office, appear to be on Frederick’s side.

Alison Reeves, interim director and public information officer in the office of communications and community relations for DC Health, told The Undefeated, after consultation with the agency’s general counsel, that “the leash law applies to dogs off of their own fenced property. The pet waste laws apply to anyone off of their own property. Whether anyone is or is not allowed on Howard’s campus is a function of whatever rules Howard would have in place and provide notice of to the public. Any person on private property could be considered to be trespassing if not allowed on the property, but that would be up to Howard to enforce.”

Much of this issue between dog owners and students revolves around respect and reverence in the nation’s capital, which now doubles as the Gentrification Capital.

Howard freshman Ahzaria Garris, a criminology major from Norfolk, Virginia, told The Undefeated:

“It’s the principle behind the situation with the dog owners. They don’t interact with us; they don’t even look our way. They seem to keep tunnel vision, minding their business and just hurrying along. If they interacted with us and actually cared about the school, it would be different.”

Simply put, Howard students don’t want their main campus to go to the dogs.

Many believe Austin, Texas’ troubled racial history is behind deadly bombings Families of victims Draylen Mason and Anthony House are prominent in city’s African-American community

Three deadly bombings within 10 days in the Texas capital of Austin, victimizing three African-Americans and one Hispanic, have, shockingly and revealingly, peeled back the layers of a deep-rooted history of racial strife in a city considered, at least on the surface, among the most liberal and progressive in the state, if not the entire country.

“It’s almost like, ‘Do the bombings uncover another side of Austin?’ It’s that other side that people really don’t get that I think is a national story.”

The speaker is Joseph C. Parker, an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas and federal courts and senior pastor at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in East Austin. A longtime community activist whose father marched with Martin Luther King Jr., Parker drew parallels between the deadly bombings in Austin and the ones that terrorized his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, five decades earlier.

“When the bombings were happening when I was growing up in Birmingham, it was a segregated city and a racist city. When you contrast the image of Birmingham, which we negatively referred to as ‘Bombingham,’ there were killings all across the South. But now you come to the 21st century, and to have bombings in Austin, Texas, raises a different contrast than bombings in the 1960s in Birmingham,” Parker said March 16 after it was revealed that Austin police received 236 suspicious package reports in 24 hours and a total of 735 as of Sunday since March 12, when two package bombs exploded — one killing Draylen Mason, 17, and critically injuring his mother. A second explosion killed 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera. Authorities connected those bombings to the first package bomb that killed Anthony Stephan House, 39, on March 2.

The families of Mason and House are prominent in the African-American community. House and Mason both attended Wesley United Methodist Church, where Mason’s stepfather, Freddie Dixon, was a minister for more than 20 years. Dixon is friendly with Mason’s grandfather, Norman Mason, who operates a dental practice in Austin. A high school senior, Mason was a talented bassist who had been accepted to the prestigious Baker School of Music at the University of Texas. Mason’s grandmother, LaVonne Mason, is a co-founder of the Austin Area Urban League.

On Monday, interim Police Chief Brian Manley said, “We are clearly dealing with what we expect to be a serial bomber at this point.”

Austin police have been joined by more than 500 federal agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and a reward of $115,000 has been offered for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator. “It’s clear to everybody involved this is creating terror in our community, this is creating fear,” Manley said during a community forum on March 15.

After another explosion Sunday in a different part of Austin in which two men in their 20s were hospitalized but in good condition, officials didn’t know if the latest bombing was connected to the first three.

The race of the victims was not released. This time, a suspicious backpack was left near the scene of the explosion. In another incident during the weekend, police arrested a man early Sunday morning who they said emailed a bomb threat that forced the cancellation of a concert by The Roots at the city’s popular South by Southwest music festival.

Said Parker, who is among a group of attorneys who filed four landmark lawsuits last month challenging the winner-take-all method that states use to allocate their Electoral College votes:

“How does that happen here? I believe it’s race-based, but it may be disclosed later that’s not the real reason. People just don’t know. Who’s doing this? Why are they doing this? In my mind, my upbringing, coming up in Birmingham when bombings were taking place, this brings that back for me. When people speak of Austin, they speak of it being a progressive city, a Texas city different from any other place in the state. I love Austin. But there are still some race challenges here, and I believe it is because we have not dealt appropriately with the issue of race in this country.”

Austin acknowledged as much two years ago when Mayor Steve Adler formed a task force in response to racially motivated incidents involving African-Americans and police. One involved the fatal shooting of 17-year-old David Joseph that resulted in a $3.25 million settlement to the teenager’s family — the largest payout in the city’s history as a result of lethal police force. In another incident, Officer Bryan Richter’s forceful arrest of Breaion King led to an HBO documentary, Traffic Stop.

Headed by Huston-Tillotson University president Colette Pierce Burnette and Austin Independent School District superintendent Paul Cruz, the task force found in its initial report that Austin faces severe systematic and institutional racism as a result of racially motivated city policies and ordinances.

In 1928, Austin created a “Negro District,” which resulted in black residents being forced to move east of what is now Interstate 35. Whites took over property west of Interstate 35 once held by blacks. In later years, through gentrification, whites acquired desirable real estate held by blacks closer to downtown.

Much of the distrust and anger in the African-American community can be traced to that history.

Last September, statues of Confederate leaders were removed from the University of Texas campus near the state Capitol. Five months later, the Austin school board voted 7-2 to remove the names of men who served in either the Confederate military or government from five campuses. Trustee Ted Gordon, the only African-American on the school board, put forward the motion.

“Austin, Texas, is viewed nationally as a very prosperous city. But it’s also a white city, that’s very clear,” said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin region’s NAACP branch since 2000. “The policies here have never really treated black people right.”

“There’s an issue with the system continually justifying its behavior. The leadership is OK with always apologizing,” said Fatima Mann, executive director of the grass-roots organization Counter Balance: ATX, who attended the forum. “On top of that, how Anthony [House] was treated. Blacks never get to be the victim, even when we are victimized.”

Linder, who indicated the intended target was another person who might have been connected to House and Mason, said Austin’s poor race relations contributed to black skepticism about the police investigation into the bombings. It was days before police told the public that the explosion that killed House had been caused by a package, and more than a week before authorities warned the public to beware of suspicious packages.

“I’m asking people to keep an open mind. Let’s be willing to follow the facts and go where they lead us,” said Linder, who hired House to build and maintain the NAACP’s website a decade ago. “For me, being involved in the investigation, there’s a force out there targeting families who are connected, and they’re doing it in a very professional manner. We [can’t] be biased ourselves because the folks being killed are black. So while we have these issues of equity and racism, we have to have the ability to not let what we’ve experienced govern all of our ideas. Yet, knowing who we are and the history of what we’ve gone through, that’s a challenge.”

It’s showtime: The Apollo welcomes the Grammys back to New York Fat Joe, Doug E. Fresh, Elle Varner — Harlem’s iconic theater hosts an artist-studded luncheon

 

One doesn’t just see Harlem, New York. You feel Harlem. You smell Harlem. You vibe with Harlem. From the backseat of a Lyft, you pass the stalwarts of the community — the Duane Reade pharmacies, General Grant Houses, the countless delis — many of which will sell you a delicious “chopped cheese” sandwich — if you’re hip on how to order them. Black Panther promotional posters adorn nearly every bus stop, it seems. Even as the gentrification of the Harlem becomes more and more entrenched, the spirit of Malcolm X lives on in the creative, cultural and social melting pot where he stood as a titan on its street corners, and died as an icon.

There’s not many things more authentically Harlem than West 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard — dubbed “the cultural heartbeat of the city.” And with the Grammys back in New York for the first time since 2003, the iconic Apollo Theater hosted a luncheon in celebration. “When you do something special in New York, you feel the vibration,” said pioneering hip-hop artist Doug E. Fresh said on the red carpet. “I’m glad they decided to do this at the Apollo. It’s Harlem. I am Harlem.”

Also in attendance is five-time Grammy-nominated Fat Joe, Rotimi, current Grammy nominees The Hamiltones, Dapper Dan, the Grammy-nominated Elle Varner and many more. These creative professionals understand the Apollo’s place in black culture, and know about the legends who stood on the stage – not 50 feet from the red carpet. “I wish I would’ve seen Lauryn Hill. They booed her,” said singer and Power cast member Rotimi. “Then 10-15 years later seeing she’s one of the greatest of all time, that’s the ultimate story.”

“Aretha,” Varner said without hesitation about who she wishes she’d seen, live at the Apollo. “Absolutely.”

An Apollo institution himself, Doug E. Fresh flips the script. “Me and Stevie Wonder was here one night. That was crazy!”

The energy was one of reverence. With celebrities and Harlem luminaries scattered through the stage and carpet, the collective perspective was one of privilege and respect. “The best night in the Apollo was when Ice Cube first came here,” Fat Joe said from the stage. “We gotta protect this. This our home.”

 

‘The Chi’ and ‘South Side’ go beyond the violent rep of Second City’s South Side Is television finally starting to represent the real Chicago?

In the premiere episode of the already critically acclaimed The Chi, a fresh-faced, precocious African-American teen is shot to death on the streets of Chicago’s South Side. After lifting a gold chain and sneakers from a dead body, an affable teen named Coogie, portrayed by Jahking Guillory later runs into the deceased boy’s stepfather, Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) — he’s racked with grief and looking for payback. Coogie tries to reason with the man, but it’s too late.

A gun goes off, and Coogie is left stretched on the pavement, bleeding to death. There are no heroes and no villains. It’s a devastating moment. And while it seems in line with all-too-familiar real-life headlines associated with the South Side, things are more complex and nuanced on The Chi.

Chicago has struggled to shake off a rep as America’s most dangerous city. According to a recent USA Today piece, 650 people were killed in the city in 2017, a 15 percent drop from 771 people in 2016. And for much of last year, the Windy City didn’t even rank among the highest murder rates in the country: St. Louis; Baltimore; New Orleans; Detroit; Kansas City, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; and Cleveland. Chicago did, though, surpass New York and Los Angeles’ combined murder rates for the second straight year. And most of these murders happen on the predominantly black West and South sides.

And yet The Chi, created by actor/producer/activist Lena Waithe, avoids being tragedy porn. Waithe portrayed Denise in Netflix’s acclaimed and award-winning Master of None and made history in 2017 as the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing for the show. A proud native of the South Side, Waithe grew up on 79th Street near Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway before moving to suburban Evanston, Illinois, during her preteen years.

There was comedic gold in the lives of everyday, hardworking, blue-collar black folk.

“[Chicago] is not a jungle,” she said a few weeks ago on CBS This Morning. “It’s not a bunch of hooligans with no hearts and no souls. Every black boy isn’t born with a gun in his right hand and a pile of drugs in his left. They’re born with the same amount of hope and joy as every other little baby in the world.”

Hollywood has had a long, complex history with regard to its portrayal of Chicago — and way before today’s gang issues, it’s very often been about the city’s infamous gangster side. Starting with 1931’s Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson as a not-so-subtle stand-in for the Chi’s Al Capone), it’s taken years for the city to transcend its image of a lawless town under siege by gunfights and political corruption.

There’s the beloved 1975 tearjerker Cooley High, the 1997 romantic poetry drama Love Jones and the Ice Cube-headlined 2002 box office hit Barbershop. “Black Chicago” has had an even more turbulent representation, particularly on the small screen.

The landmark ’70s CBS series Good Times is perhaps the most celebrated (and polarizing) television show about the Chicago black experience. Hailed as a game-changer during its initial run starting on Feb. 8, 1974, the groundbreaking Mike Evans-created series, developed by legendary television producer Norman Lear, took America inside Chicago’s poor Cabrini-Green housing projects.

There were struggles, but Florida and James Evans instilled family values and a strong moral code into their three children. But the controversial death of James, Good Times’ lone father figure, had critics crying foul. And it didn’t help when the catchphrase-wielding J.J. Evans — Dynomite!!! — was pushed front and center as the show’s reigning star.


The Chi is executive produced by both Waithe and rapper/actor Common, a fellow Chicago native. The 10 episodes are directed by Rick Famuyiwa of the film Dope, as well as behind-the-camera talent that includes Tanya Hamilton (Night Catches Us), Dave Rodriguez (TNT’s Animal Kingdom and USA’s Queen of the South) and Roxann Dawson (Netflix’s House of Cards, PBS’ Mercy and ABC’s Scandal).

This is not to say that The Chi doesn’t delve into hard-knock realities. There’s a distinct feel in its scripts and in the acting that you won’t find on such procedural dramas as the Dick Wolf-produced Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med — so vanilla, so pedestrian that they may as well have been set in Any City USA.

Showtime’s long-running Shameless (shot largely in Los Angeles) follows a dysfunctional yet tight-knit white family in the North Lawndale section of the South Side. And CBS’ formulaic “Chicago” sitcom Superior Donuts revels in the diversity of its black, white, Latino and Middle Eastern cast members. But it doesn’t aim for the idiosyncrasies of The Chi, filmed on the South Side, giving it a rich, textured feel, and the narrative is ignited by the murder of a promising young basketball player.

Frustrated law enforcement officers struggle for answers in a neighborhood weary and distrustful of cops. This is a city, in real life, that has been embroiled in a series of high-profile police brutality scandals. And everything about the series screams authentic all-caps CHICAGO, even down to the show’s sound, which included the homegrown genre of stepping music, as well as Chicago artists such as Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, Chicago Children’s Choir, Sir Michael Rocks, and Noname. On The Chi, there is life, laughter and even hope.

For the Chicago-born Sylvia Jones, one of the scribes behind The Chi, working on the series has been a revelation. “This is Lena’s baby … her vision,” said the former local news producer at WGN and WLS. She quit her job in 2016 and flew out to Los Angeles to chase her dream of becoming a television writer. “Very often, shows about Chicago show people either tragically poor or affluent. But there’s not a whole lot in between on television, and that’s what most of us are in real life. … The Chi tries to show black people in all their complexities.”

Indeed, Jason Mitchell (Mudbound, Straight Outta Compton) plays Brandon, a gifted, hungry chef with dreams of opening up his own restaurant with his ambitious girlfriend, Jerrika (Tiffany Boone). There’s the aforementioned Coogie, Brandon’s half brother: a wild-haired, unabashedly quirky kid who rides past murals of Chicago’s adopted son President Barack Obama on a canary yellow bike while listening to Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got.” And Mwine as the drifter Ronnie, a troubled yet loving stepfather who also happens to be a police informant. Alex R. Hibbert (Moonlight) dives into the show-stealing role of Kevin, a charismatic tween who has a crush on a cute schoolmate. And Jacob Latimore is Emmett, an obsessive sneakerhead and girl-crazy playboy living with his mother. The all-too carefree young man is finally forced to face the sobering responsibilities of fatherhood.

It’s a stellar cast, rounded out by Chicago native and Oscar-winning rapper/actor Common and the criminally underrated Sonja Sohn (The Wire) as Brandon’s protective alcoholic mother. The Chi is a welcome nuanced television portrayal of Chicago’s black working class shown through a complex lens that sidesteps the usual one-dimensional stereotypes. And The Chi is not alone.


This fall, Comedy Central will debut the workplace comedy South Side. It’s set in and around a rent-to-own appliances and furniture business in Chicago’s notorious section of Englewood. It’s a risk-taking premise for sure: finding comedy in the heart of an infamous neighborhood that in past years has claimed Chicago’s highest murder rates. But according to Bashir Salahuddin, who came up with the idea for the series with his brother Sultan Salahuddin and former fellow Late Night With Jimmy Fallon writer Diallo Riddle, humanizing the community of Englewood is priority.

Many of the actors and workers on the set of South Side are actually from Chicago. And Salahuddin says he hopes to show another side of low-income communities like Englewood, which is experiencing a noticeable upswing. From January to October 2017 there were 130 fewer shootings, a 43 percent decrease. And, even as conversations about gentrification swirl, openings of both Starbucks and Whole Foods have injected a sense of economic optimism.

“A huge chunk of our show is actually shot in Englewood,” said Salahuddin, 41, from his Los Angeles home. Like The Chi’s Waithe, he was born and raised on the South Side. Salahuddin, who also stars as referee Keith Bang in the breakout Netflix wrestling comedy GLOW, recalls hearing hilarious stories from his boy who worked at a Rent-A-Center in Chicago. That’s when the idea hit. Salahuddin knew there was comedic gold in the lives of everyday, hardworking, blue-collar black folk.

“I remember being shocked the first time I saw Friday because all I knew about the West Coast was Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society,” he said. “So to see the same ’hood backdrop where those two movies took place in, but with a strong black family where the mother and father are together and working and they are staying on their son to better his life, those values portrayed in that environment … blew my mind. We want people to experience the same thing with South Side and say, ‘Oh, there are other kinds of things going on in Englewood, and some of it is really funny and thoughtful.’ ”

For Atlanta native Riddle, also 41, immersing himself in the idiosyncrasies of Chicago culture as well as the city’s notoriously segregated history was an eye-opening experience bigger than West Side vs. South Side, Harold’s Chicken Shack vs. Uncle Remus or Chicago Cubs vs. White Sox.

“When I meet a white person from Chicago, I’ll often say, ‘Man, this person can be from anywhere,’ ” Riddle said. “But a black person from Chicago feels a lot more specific. It’s a weird mix of Midwest and heavy South. Even when I would talk to Bashir’s family or listen to Chicago artists like Kanye [West], there are little things that were tapped into their way of speech and culture that you don’t see anywhere else. For us, this was unclaimed territory. We knew we needed to do a definitive show that jumped into that specific culture.”

“Often, shows about Chicago show people either tragically poor or affluent. But there’s not a whole lot of in-between on television. And that’s what most of us are in real life.”

The emergence of The Chi and South Side come at a time of exceptional growth for the Chicago entertainment industry. According to the Illinois Film Office, which awards a 30 percent tax credit to film, television and advertising productions, in 2016 alone projects generated an estimated $499 million in Illinois spending, a 51 percent increase over the previous year. From 2011 to 2015, $1.3 billion was injected into the cities’ economy, bringing in local jobs and a much-needed kick to hard-hit neighborhoods.

One of the eight major television series filmed full time in Chicago is Empire. “Chicago has such a great pool when it comes to local actors,” said Joshua Allen, a supervising producer on the Fox ratings-fixture and himself a Chicagoan. “People have slept on Chicago forever as a theater town, because when people think theater, they usually think of New York. But it has a huge, vibrant theater scene, so we have a lot of actors we can pull from.”

Both South Side and The Chi offer fresh, challenging takes on the home of the blues. Perhaps that’s why The Chi in particular resonates so profoundly, and South Side, even before its premiere, seems full of possibility. Lena Waithe, and the trio of Diallo Riddle and Bashir and Sultan Salahuddin, are creating work that tells their truth: the good, the bad and the absurd. There’s a newfound black power and freedom that jumps off the screen — as on such other uncompromising shows as Donald Glover’s surreal Atlanta (FX), which returns in March, and Issa Rae’s fearless Insecure.

“There are millions of TV shows, so we have to stand out,” Salahuddin said. “Why do all this stuff and then not show people something authentic?” Indeed.

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ good run places him face to face with the president Kendrick Lamar’s ascension coincides with college football’s big moment and President Donald Trump

Fifteen-year-old Kendrick Lamar likely never thought he’d be performing at halftime of one of the biggest sporting events of 2018. Certainly not when he, as a teenager, was getting stomped at Compton, California’s, Avalon Swap Meet. But a decade and a half after the fight he references on “ELEMENT.,” from 2017’s Grammy-nominated album DAMN., here he is: headline performer at halftime of the college football national championship — the NCAA’s Super Bowl. The all-Southeastern Conference main event is Monday night in Atlanta.

College halftime shows traditionally feature marching bands. But in an effort to mirror February’s actual Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff and ESPN announced last spring that an artist would perform. Lamar’s résumé of course warrants his booking.

Forbes placed Lamar on its December 2017 cover, lauding the “antisocial extrovert” for his business decisions such as ending his long relationship with Reebok and launching a new collaboration with Nike. Lamar’s tour dates routinely gross more than $1 million per night. And in 2017, not only did he surpass even Beyoncé and Bruno Mars with more than 2 billion radio spins, but Lamar also had five of the most streamed songs of 2017. And while his 2012 “m.A.A.d city” (featuring MC Eiht) is featured in the next week’s Den of Thieves, Lamar recently confirmed that he and his Top Dawg Entertainment are producing the soundtrack for Black Panther, led by a collaboration with SZA titled “All The Stars.”

All the stars are expected to flood box suites to watch the Quavo-endorsed University of Georgia versus the crème de la crème University of Alabama. This VIP list reportedly includes President Donald Trump. From self-doubt to self-proclaimed greatness, Lamar’s ascension coincides and often collides with the United States’ 45th president.

Trump, a frequent sporting provocateur, has been an occasional target of Lamar’s lyrics dating to 2015. So speculation is swirling: What will this moment mean between the lyrically sharp MC and verbal live-wire commander-in-chief? Lamar’s fellow Comptonite, and perhaps hip-hop’s most famous Trump antagonist, YG, has at least one suggestion for Lamar.

There is drama leading up to the moment. What statement will Lamar make? Will outside forces — the NCAA, sponsors or even Disney — attempt to define the parameters of his performance? Will he even make one at all?


 

Tell me what you gon’ do to me / Confrontation ain’t nothin’ new to me/ You can bring a bullet, bring a sword / Bring a morgue / But you can’t bring the truth to me.

— “All The Stars” with SZA (2018)

Lest time forget, Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly is a fingerprint for an era defined by Black Lives Matter, police brutality and the final months of the country’s first black president’s administration. The record features a handful of Lamar’s most complex and analytical cuts: “i,” “Hood Politics,” “Mortal Man” and President Barack Obama’s favorite “How Much A Dollar Cost.” But undoubtedly, Butterfly’s star is “Alright.” It’s the generational equivalent to James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Presidential critiques aren’t foreign to Lamar’s catalog. Seven years ago, Lamar painted a picture of gangland Compton (decades before gentrification arrived) on “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils).” 1987, the children of Ronald Reagan raked the leaves, he said of the generation directly affected by the legacy of the 40th president’s Reaganomics, Your front porch with a machine blowtorch.

The Obama era, for Lamar, brought reverence and clarity. The reality of a black president inspired pride and accomplishment. But he wasn’t blind to current and past issues: Streets don’t fail me now, they tell me it’s a new gang in town /From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around/ Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans, he opined on 2015’s “Hood Politics.” Lamar understood Obama’s power as president was in constant opposition with forces that sought to derail, override and neuter. Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to f— with you / No condom, they f— with you / Obama say, ‘What it do?’

Later that same year, while then-candidate Trump was still seen by some as a political punchline, Lamar addresses growing right-wing hysteria on “Black Friday,” saying, I’m the son of the pioneer that near the sun /Play with him / B—- you better off voting for Donald Trump.

A year later, in 2016, as Trump-mania gained indestructible steam, Lamar again directed his attention to the candidate nearly two months to the date of the presidential election. Might stay in the Trump Tower for one week, he rapped on “What’s Wrong.” Spray paint all the walls and smoke weed / F— them and f— y’all and f— me. In 2017, as the reality of a Trump presidency set in, Lamar observed.

Donald Trump is a chump / Know how we feel, punk? Tell ’em God comin’ / And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin’, Lamar rapped on “The Heart Pt. 4,” a month before Robert Mueller was named special counsel for the ongoing Russia investigation. But for “XXX.,” on DAMN., the reality set in for Lamar. Donald Trump’s in office / We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again / But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.”

In the coming weeks we can anticipate an impending marketing avalanche for Panther, perhaps “the biggest and blackest blockbuster of all time,” with Lamar a critical component. Later this month, the seven-time Grammy winner looks to add more with seven new nominations, including going head-to-head with Jay-Z for the evening’s most coveted award, album of the year. I said it’s like that/ Dropped one classic, came right back/ ‘Nother classic, right back/ My next album, the whole industry on a ice pack, he vowed a week before DAMN.’s arrival. The promise has him on the doorstep of Grammy history on Jan 28.

Trump, in Lamar’s eyes, is the complete antithesis of what his much-loved music is about, but in many ways he is a source of inspired frustration. And the nature of Monday night’s halftime performance, even with Friday’s free-to-all dress rehearsal, is difficult to predict. Despite his undeniable star power, Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.” It easy to imagine part of Lamar’s performance being veiled shots: I know how you work, I know just who you are/ See, you’s a, you’s a, you’s a— / B—- ...

So, does Lamar feel the pressure to symbolically take a knee Monday night? I, for one, don’t think it’s wise to believe anxiety will play a part in Lamar avoiding The Elephant In The A. He and TDE are from Compton, a cultural ground zero where wearing the wrong hat, or walking down the wrong block with the wrong shoelaces, sometimes came with fatal consequences. A halftime show, by comparison, is a field trip to Calabasas, California.

Illuminating truth to power is daunting. Kanye West knew what would come of his comments about President George W. Bush, but he became a larger-than-life figure afterward. Colin Kaepernick understood that taking a knee would all but involuntarily retire him, but he is now the millennial Muhammad Ali. Lamar’s life has been one risk after another — a butterfly effect set in motion as documented in the mind-numbing odyssey “DUCKWORTH.,” DAMN.’s closing number.

Trump vs. Lamar is quite the undercard for Monday night’s main event. It could very well be a culture-shifting moment spearheaded by the man who has been bestowed with the heavy title of “voice of a generation.” Lamar is well-aware of the moment he occupies and times he’s become a voice for. His message to Trump could very well come in words, via actions or even purely via symbol. Does this mean halftime will be his Kanye West 2009 MTV Video Music Awards moment? Who knows.

Whether he decides to stir the pot, whether he fulfills YG’s wish, there is a reality evident about Lamar. Nothing looks to stop the momentum he’s built over the past year. Not even the president of the United States.

The Undefeated does 2017 The highs, the lows and the must-reads

Here at The Undefeated, we spent a trying 2017 attempting to cover the world through your eyes. We had the Colin Kaepernick saga on lock, the NFL protests covered. We learned from Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng that “the biggest misconception is people thinking Muslims are terrorists.” We reveled at Whitley Gilbert’s wardrobe and watched Tarik Cohen shine at North Carolina A&T before he was a rookie standout with the Chicago Bears. We showed you chic street style at Afropunk, brought back Drumline and demonstrated that love knows no color. 2017 was a tough year, but TU brought it to you, warts and all.

Hey, 2017, we’d hate to miss you but love to watch you leave.

Experiences

Collage of significant black Americans

The Undefeated 44 most influential black Americans in history A collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.

Sports

Artist rendition of LeBron James making his way to the court from the locker rooms

LeBron Is Crowned On a Detroit night, about a decade ago — via 48 points in double overtime — LeBron graduated from ‘phenom’ to ‘grown man’

Culture

Artist rendition of Whitley

Whitley’s World “You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

HBCUs

Photo of the Honey Beez performing

Alabama State Honey Beez bring positive plus-size attitude to HBCU dance scene “Where one of us lacks, the other one will pick up. We’re plus-size girls and we still go through bullying in college. But we’re more confident now, so it’s not as bad. But we have a real sisterhood, and this is our home away from home. The Honey Beez took me all the way out of my shell, and I love it.”

The Uplift

Serge Ibaka and his daughter in a pool

NBA standout Serge Ibaka is a standout single father too “Since I was young I always dreamed of myself traveling, envisioned at least three, four kids, five. And then, I’m living my dream right now and something I always love to do, and it’s fun. It’s really changed my life. It’s changed everything about me. The way I think and the way I live my life. It changed everything.”

Videos

Leon Bridges at his piano

Leon Bridges sings his rendition of the national anthem The critically acclaimed soul singer explores the themes of the anthem, creating a beautiful rendition that feels like both a hymn and a benediction

Original Photography

Woman with a wig made of pink flowers

Inside Afropunk “They’re just the ‘standard of beauty’ and here you can be what you want and THAT’S beauty.”

Podcasts

The Plug podcast logo

The Plug It’s the debut of The Plug, hosted by Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla Johnson, Justin Tinsley and Tesfaye Negussie. In episode 1, the crew dives into current events, discuss LaVar Ball’s latest news, NFL social activism and more. Plus, hip-hop icons Jadakiss and Fabolous join.

  • All Day – The Undefeated Podcast: Clinton Yates spent a day in New York profiling various parts of the culture, when news broke that a legend had died. After spending the morning with the creators of Jopwell, a startup helping students of color in the tech industry, the the afternoon with Nike for a new shoe release, he ends up in Queens to talk with a family friend and musician about the life and influence of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy.
  • America’s Black History Museum: 9/20/16 – Jill Hudson, Justin Tinsley and Clinton Yates talk about the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the 86th Emmy Awards. Plus, Mike Wise discusses his story about Joe Paterno.
  • Morning Roast – The gang is all together, talking national anthem protests, possible NFL players strike, potential renaming of Yawkey Way and latest Bachelor in Paradise drama.
  • The Morning Roast & Live at NABJ – Clinton Yates is in for Bomani, and in hour three he is joined by Marc Spears and Myron Medcalf to discuss all the happenings at the National Association of Black Journalists convention.
  • Rhoden Fellows: HBCU 468: 5/11/17 – Stephen A. Smith praised Isaiah Thomas’ compelling effort in the playoffs and explained Kevin Durant’s impact on Golden State. He also talked about attending a historically black university.
  • O.J.: Made in America: 6/11/16 – Domonique Foxworth is joined by guests Jason Reid, Raina Kelley, Ezra Edelman, Sarah Spain and Carl Douglas as they take a look at O.J.: Made in America.

Kings’ Garrett Temple and George Hill adopt Sacramento high schools ‘The education gap in this country is something that is not talked about anymore because there are so many other problems’

SACRAMENTO, California – What do you think about the Colin Kaepernick national anthem protest? How do you handle losing? How do you deal with adversity off the court?

Those were a few of the questions Sacramento Kings forward Garrett Temple fielded during his first day as a student-athlete mentor at Sacramento Charter High School.

“At first, they started asking about basketball,” Temple said before the Kings lost to the Toronto Raptors 102-87 on Sunday. “But then they started asking great questions, life questions. It was a good start. I want everyone to know this is not a one-time thing. This is something I want to continue to grow and I plan on building a relationship with that school and those athletes.”

Temple, who is African-American, said he began thinking about adopting a school during the offseason because of the race issues in America. He ultimately decided that he wanted to become a mentor to student-athletes as well as offer financial assistance to a local high school that primarily included underprivileged kids of color. Sacramento Charter High fit Temple’s criteria.

Sacramento Charter High is a predominantly black school that also includes Latino and mixed-race students. It is in Sacramento’s challenged Oak Park neighborhood, and the school’s alumni includes former NBA star and former Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. Temple credited Galen Duncan, vice president of the Kings Academy and Professional Development, for doing research that identified Sacramento Charter High as a solid choice. Temple also plans to donate money to the school for computers, which he expects the Kings to match.

“Sacramento High felt like a place that could really use some help. That is why I chose it,” Temple said.

Temple’s town hall meeting at Sacramento Charter High on Dec. 6 was the first of several he plans to have with students playing basketball and other winter sports. He plans to attend a boys basketball tournament at the school to show his support and perhaps even talk to some teams individually.

During the first meeting with the Sacramento Charter High kids, Temple mostly answered questions about life off the court. He was impressed that he received strong attendance of about 100 enthusiastic student-athletes.

“With Colin kneeling and other things going on bringing awareness to police brutality of that nature, I thought about things I can do to actually help,” Temple said. “The education gap in this country is something that is not talked about anymore because there are so many other problems. I read a statistic that said we may be more segregated in schools now than we were in 1954 because of the private schools. All the white kids are going to private schools while the black kids are going to public schools that are very underserved.

“Education is important to me and my family. I wanted to try to help [make a] change.”

Temple said Kings veteran point guard George Hill also decided to choose a local school to mentor after he heard what Temple planned to do for Sacramento Charter High. Temple wasn’t surprised that Hill yearned to get involved, because of his previous charity work.

George Hill (No. 3) of the Sacramento Kings.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

“George is basically a humanitarian,” Temple said. “Every game there is a veteran [military] crew that he talks to and takes a picture with. He went to Haiti right after the earthquake. He is just a great guy.”

Hill’s reasons for participation were similar to Temple’s.

“I have always been big on the community stuff, especially as crazy as the world is today,” Hill said. “More guys of our stature and more guys that are successful need to really try to give back and take some of these young men and women right underneath our wings and just guide them a little bit.”

Hill chose Sacramento’s Encina Preparatory High and is scheduled to meet with their student-athletes Monday in the first of what he hopes to be a monthly meeting this season.

Hill said it was important for him to be in a school environment that had black and Latino students because “most of those schools are looked over.” Hill’s fiancée, Samantha Garcia, is Latina, and he is African-American. Racially diverse Encina meets Hill’s criteria as it is 37 percent Latino, 29 percent black, 21 percent white and 6 percent Asian, according School-Ratings. Moreover, 93 percent of Encina’s students are eligible for free lunch.

Hill plans to talk to the students about his challenges growing up in a tough neighborhood in Indianapolis, leadership and working hard to meet their dreams and goals.

“I’m more about being a better person than a better athlete,” Hill said. “I’m going to touch base on helping others. Not judging anyone over the cover of their book. Get to know people, respect others, respect your classmates, your teachers and your peers. Teach the fundamentals and get the love back in the world, because that is something that we are missing.”

Hill and Temple also could offer kids motivation with their far-from-easy roads to the NBA.

Hill starred in college at little-known Division I mid-major Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) , which has made the NCAA tournament just once in school history. Despite scholarship offers from Temple and Indiana, he chose IUPUI to stay close to home with his ailing great-grandfather, Gilbert Edison, who died before getting a chance to see him play. The 10th-year NBA veteran was drafted 26th overall in the first round of the 2008 NBA draft by the San Antonio Spurs.

“Anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” Hill said. “Believe. Hard work pays off. I wasn’t one of the nation’s top players coming out of high school. Everything we had to do had to be earned. It wasn’t given to us. With some of this new generation, people give them so much that when they have to go on their own, they are misguided. They don’t know how to work for it.

“I’m trying to touch a different audience saying, ‘You have to work for what you get. Don’t expect nothing. Have fun doing it.’ But at the same time, you being a better person on and off your sports life is the biggest thing that we want them to contribute to.”

Temple grew up in a stable home in the suburbs of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, led by his father, Collis, the first African-American to play basketball at Louisiana State University. Garett Temple, however, faced adversity when he went undrafted out of LSU in 2009 while his former teammates Brandon Bass, Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas were all selected in the first round. Eight years later, Temple is the only one of the four former Tigers still in the NBA.

Temple’s well-traveled basketball career has included four stops in the NBA’s G League, a season playing for Associazione Sportiva Junior Pallacanestro Casale Monferrato in Italy and time with the Kings, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards. The National Basketball Players Association vice president is in the second year of a three-year deal with the Kings.

“I credit a lot of [my success] to my faith in Christ and my ability to withstand things,” Garrett said. “There have been times where I’ve been cut. Things have happened when there has been really no explanation for them. I just trust in the Lord and everything happens for a reason.”

The Kings’ roster includes nine players with two or fewer years of experience in the NBA, including standout rookie point guard De’Aaron Fox. Sacramento also has veterans in Temple, Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph, who have made it a point to mentor their younger teammates.

Kings rookie guard Frank Mason and injured rookie forward Harry Giles shadowed Temple at his first town hall meeting at Sacramento Charter High. Mason and Giles served the student-athletes a dinner that included chicken, jambalaya and greens. They also sat with the student-athletes as Temple addressed them, engaged with them on social media and took pictures. Temple hopes that Mason and Giles can do something similar for a school in the future. Kings rookies Bogdan Bogdanovic and Justin Jackson are expected to be on hand when Hill makes his first appearance on Monday.

“I was kind of looking at the bigger picture,” Mason said. “Garrett did a great job speaking about the future and the past, being a role model to those kids and telling them what he’s been through. With what we’ve been through at a young age, we just want to help them to not make those mistakes, take advantage of opportunities and work hard every day.”

Said Temple: “Mentoring [teammates] isn’t just on the court. It’s showing them off the court how to impact people.”

Temple’s and Hill’s meetings with the Sacramento high school student-athletes could offer life-changing inspiration. Temple isn’t underestimating the impact it can have on him, too.

“I probably will get more from it than the kids,” Temple said. “It continues to keep you grounded. It humbles you. It reminds you that at one point you were in the same shoes as these kids and had a dream of playing professional basketball. To get here, you need to understand that it’s a blessing and you’re very fortunate.

“But other people don’t have this chance. You have to pour in to the kids that won’t be [in professional sports] that athletics isn’t the only way to make it out.”