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Setting straight people straight

Mills College Weekly

Six eclectic characters inhabiting the small frame of one woman took center stage last Thursday at the student union.

In “Straight Black Folks Guide to Gay Black Folks,” Hanifah Walidah, 31, a north Oakland artist, presented the overall experience of what being gay encompasses in the black community.

She accomplishes this through a parade of gay, and transgender characters that speak about the nuances and emotional injuries inflicted from being gay and black. They invite the audiences into their thoughts, and evoke sidesplitting laughter. They live their lives in “Any block, USA.”

There is Dee, head wrapped, with toes separated by foam so nails could dry, running the neighborhood day care for all the hardworking mamas’ babies. Though there are no babies in sight, Walidah, as Dee, manages to inscribe the picture of fussy children in our heads. “Walk-on into dream land,” says Dee, encouraging the children to go to sleep. When that doesn’t work, she breaks out into Gerswin’s “Summertime” which finally yields her some peace from the babies.

We are then thrown into a lengthy heart to heart phone conversation between Dee and her kid sister. From this lively conversation imbued with natural comedic timing, Walidah reveals, a character that is constantly dealing with numerous political and social implications. “I am a dyke looking after your son…I teach them everything from tying their shoes to telling the time…”

Walidah reveals that Dee is probably one of the most important characters. Dee came to her when she met and interviewed a mother at a gay pride parade.

“Something told me to interview her to get a mother’s perspective- her own personal story about trying to raise four kids. She was married to different men and didn’t come out until later on in her life,” said Walidah.

Most of Walidah’s characters emerge out of people she grew to know in her community and through personal interviews. The lines she delivers so effortlessly, she said are not memorized, rather she lets them come to her.

“Lines come to [me] while walking down the street. Once you open yourself to the universe, they just come to you,” she explained. Besides not memorizing lines, Walidah also avoids the mirror as a guide to achieving convincing facial expressions.

“The mirror is the worst enemy in getting to know them [characters]. Once you get to know who they are the characters become you,” she said.

The play yields ample moments for Walidah to reveal her talent as skilled performer. But it was the spade-playing scene that truly illuminated Walidah’s skill as an orator and actor.

In this scene Walidah twists her facial expressions, changes her voice to inhabit the four Cheatam men who run the Friday Fish Fry as they play a game of spades. Emerging from this scene is Top Dog the elder, Brother Kwan, an inspiring MC, Uncle Hump who speaks only in poetic verses after falling on his head as a child and Cuzin’ Sweets, a social worker.

After this exhausting scene, which required the audience to be on their toes to comprehend the fast exchange of words between the four men, Walidah takes the audience across the street of “Any block, USA” to the Church of Love and Leviticus where Sister Preacher, Letma Reacha presides.

The student union with its usual coldness was transformed into a church exuding love and warmth. The audience became a congregation as Sister Letma Reacha testified on how it feels to be unwelcome. She asked the ‘congregation:’ ” Is there no such a feeling as feeling dismissed…not feeling welcomed because of things that cannot be changed?”

It is at this moment that Walidah’s reason for putting together “Straight Black Folks Guide to Gay Black folks” presents itself loud and clear.

“Shed what is suppose to be,” Walidah says as Sister Letma Reacha. “Turn to the person next to you and ask them who they believe themselves to be. Whatever they believe themselves to be, can you embrace that? Because it’s not that deep. It’s quite simple.”