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- Interview with the Oscar Nominee Documentarist: Raoul Peck
- I Am Not Your Negro: Film Review
- The Many Costs of Racism
- Interview with the Emmy Award Winner actor: Shemar Moore
- Love Alibi featuring 80 Empire - Divine Brown Juno Award Winner
- Interview with the Oscar and Grammy Winner John Legend
|Exclusive Interview with the Great Authoress: Alexis Wilson|
|Written by Patricia Turnier|
|Thursday, 16 January 2014 17:49|
Alexis Wilson was born in the Netherlands. Dancing has always been part of her life. Actually, she started doing it as soon as she learned to walk. Her parents, renowned African-American director/choreographer Billy Wilson and Dutch prima ballerina Sonja Van Beers, were stars in Europe with The National Ballet of Holland (now called The Dutch National Ballet). In 1960, Mr. Wilson created the title role Othello of the highly respected choreographer Serge Lifar. This role made Bill Wilson into an international ballet star. Later, in the Sixties, Alexis Wilson’s parents went to the U.S. to found the Dance Theater of Boston. Years later, after the couple divorced, Alexis Wilson moved to New York City with her brother and father. At eleven years old, Alexis Wilson started to study classical ballet seriously at The New York School of Ballet. She became the youngest dancer, performing with their small company (The U.S. Terpsichore) in their adaptation of Giselle. Alexis Wilson benefited from a full scholarship to pursue a professional path as a dancer. At the age of fourteen, she joined DTH (The Dance Theater of Harlem) as an apprentice dancing in the ballets The Four Temperaments, Serenade, Swan Lake and Dougla.
Later, she swiftly moved on to become a featured dancer in the Emmy Award winning television special Blues and Gone. After appearing as a dancer in the Francis Ford Coppola film, “The Cotton Club”, she earned a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) in drama from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1985. Hereafter, she went to Europe where she was involved in concerts and dance festivals. She came back to the U.S. in the early 90s. She became a dancer in New York for the Essence Awards choreographed by Michael Peters (who also worked on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Beat It, and many others). In addition, she taught dance, was a choreographer’s assistant herself and the list goes on. Furthermore, she wrote a full-length musical, as well as a narrative homage to her father’s contributions for PBS television. She later made short story contributions to these books: Before I Got Here: The Wondrous Things We Hear When We Listen to the Souls of Our Children, edited by Blair Underwood and Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Community, edited by Gil Robertson. Ms. Wilson wrote poems and her work was featured in several published collections. More recently, she staged Rosa, danced by Joyelle Fobbs on January 26th, 2013, in Ohio at Columbus' Lincoln theatre in honor of the late Rosa Parks. In this performance, Grammy winning chanteuse Roberta Flack superbly sang “I Told Jesus”. Readers will be able to view the YouTube video after the end of the following interview.
After the death of Ms. Wilson’s father in 1994, she stopped performing. She started to work as a casting associate to Peter Wise of Wise & Associates, casting national commercials and theater productions including Twist and Broadway’s huge hit Smokey Joe’s Café. She has been involved in philanthropic projects both for people in need of food and those afflicted by AIDS.
Alexis Wilson wrote a memoir. Wilson’s autobiography is not just about a story of an individual. So, we will start by presenting her late father, who inspired in the first place the authoress to pen her book. Billy Wilson was a dancer, ballet and musical theater choreographer. He was among a handful of Black choreographers who created shows for Broadway. At the age of 7, he commenced to dance at Philadelphia Creative Dance Group. He had a wide range of talent: tap, tango, ballet, and so on. He worked with prominent people in the entertainment industry, such as Maurice Hines, who created a tango number for his daughter, Alexis Wilson, in the musical Harlem Suite. In Amsterdam, he mounted the musical Josephine, an homage to Josephine Baker and A Night at the Cotton Club. He danced in West Side Story in London. In 1976, Billy Wilson had two hit shows, Bubbling Brown Sugar and the all Black version of Guys and Dolls, running on Broadway at the same time. He also got three Tony nominations for his work and mounted several ballets for Alvin Ailey’s company. Hence, in 1992 he created a new ballet for The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, called The Winter in Lisbon, an homage to the late Dizzy Gillespie, one of Mr. Wilson’s most celebrated ballets. In addition, he directed Les Deux and Black Light for the Dance Theatre of Boston. It was performed before a studio audience. Prominent publications such as Ebony magazine and The New York Times featured him.
Overall, Billy Wilson was a highly respected choreographer who made more than 35 ballets for dance companies from The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Opus 1 in Amsterdam, Holland. Furthermore, he choreographed eight Broadway musicals, among other shows. Billy Wilson directed a famed Harvard troupe. He chaired Harvard University’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the most olden dramatic organization in America. Hasty Pudding shows’ graduates include prominent people such as Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also taught at Cambridge School of Ballet. Through this school’s program, he looked for talented kids in underprivileged neighborhoods of Cambridge and Boston. Moreover, he choreographed the two-time Emmy Award winning children’s television show Zoom. Wilson’s works are part of the current repertory of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Philadanco (Philadelphia Dance Company) and the Dance Theater of Harlem.
Ms. Wilson lost her father on August 14 1994, when he was 59. Her father’s mate, Chip Garnett, died at 49. They passed away six months apart from AIDS. The couple had been together for 18 years. Alexis Wilson felt the need, after these losses, to write about her non-traditional family and express her feelings about her upbringing. Not So Black and White is Alexis Wilson’s first book. The title of the autobiography evokes what Ms. Wilson is as a person regarding her mixed heritage and what happened in her life. In addition, the title reminds the public that there are grey areas in life and things are not solely black and white. The lovely cover picture of the book, where Alexis Wilson sleeps tenderly on her father, elicits her closeness with her dad. The diverse colors in the sky on this picture reflect the multidimensional life of the authoress and her father. The autobiography starts with a beautiful Negro spiritual quote, followed by a jaw-dropping preface penned by Blair Underwood—Golden Globe Nominee actor who received an award as best “Artist of the Year” from Harvard University/Harvard Foundation among other prestigious prizes. This thorough memoir brings to life many aspects of Ms. Wilson’s journey. It chronicles her love for dancing and other art forms with their history, her family, her joys, her sorrows—she saw her mother (who left the family since the divorce) three times in thirty years, her angers, the secrets and so on. The autobiographer has been courageous to explore uncomfortable places which give authenticity to her memoir. The book delivers an acceptance of the non-traditional family via parental care. Through it all, the love Ms. Wilson got from her father shined. Her story is really moving. Readers will cry, laugh, and be speechless at some passages. Hence, the book has the power to make the public go through all kinds of emotions. The memoir is very visceral and artistic with poetic proses: the readers can feel the music, the dance, and so on in it. The authoress brings us a fascinating world full of rhythm. The public can grow from reading this great story.
Overall, Ms. Wilson’s memoir is multifaceted and a terrific tour de force. Those who love the world of dancing and the bibliophiles will really enjoy the book. As a former semi-professional tap dancer of almost fifteen years, it was fascinating to read about Ms. Wilson’s experience when she was being mentored by Maurice Hines for the musical Harlem Suite, or when she encountered legends such as Sammy Davis Jr. Dance lovers will enjoy reading about pliés with all the hard work required to mount great spectacles with the lights of Broadway and in other prestigious settings. Furthermore, the readers will take delight in looking at nice pictures (Ms. Wilson as a dancer since her childhood, as a guest at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Gala, etc.) inside the book. The autobiography won’t leave the readers cold, especially if they lost loved ones in their own lives. Not So Black and White has the power to attract people from all walks of life.
The book covers many topics: duality, abandonment, homosexuality, dance, love, resilience, anger, forgiveness, family, etc. Despite her wounds, Ms. Wilson narrates with insight her difficult upbringing as respectfully as possible. Aforementioned, there is a wide range of emotions in the book: sorrow, humor, delight and so on. The memoir also represents a tribute to those fallen from AIDS and to Ms. Wilson’s dad. Her beloved father is her muse, one who inspired her to write the memoir in a lyrically poetic prose. In addition, it is a legacy especially for her family, for the lovers of the art world and for the people who embrace diversity. The authoress dedicated the book to her late father, among the other males who supported her, including her husband, musician/trumpeter and jazz orchestra director Byron Stripling. Not So Black and White is a page turner. It brings us into the art culture and into myriads of worlds through the lenses of the writeress. The memoir was part of our top 20 for last fall: http://www.megadiversities.com/books/251.html.
Autobiographer Alexis Wilson is very articulate. She is bilingual, she speaks English and Dutch. Quite amazingly, Not So Black and White is her first book and a self-published one. Wilson is a truly gifted writeress. The memoir has the calibre to become a NY Times bestseller and represents one of the most beautiful autobiographies penned by a daughter in honor of her late father. The memoir was launched last spring in NY and the proceeds went to Equity Fights AIDS. Alexis Wilson spoke about her autobiography on PBS, NPR, 10TV, etc. The book should be translated in other languages such as Dutch, French, Spanish, etc. There is talk about adapting the autobiography into a film. It will be very interesting for the public to see how the memoir will be transformed into a visual construction to fit into a movie with amazing choreographies expected.
Alexis Wilson triumphed over her hurdles and has a lot of resilience. In spite of her vicissitudes, she managed to create a life for herself with a stable family. Currently, Ms. Wilson lives in Ohio with her musician/director of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra husband Byron Stripling and their two daughters. She also has a brother, Parker Wilson, who lives in the U.S. Here she spoke to us mostly about her memoir last September. Ms. Wilson was really generous with her time during our conversation, which is her first Canadian interview.
P.T. Talk to us about the figurative sense of your book’s title and why it was important for you to write your autobiography.
A.W. The process of my title is interesting because I originally had another one for a long time. It was “Life happens to everyone”. I realised with time that there was an element of victimisation in it. This is not the impression I wanted to give. A dear friend of mine, Anthony Barrile, who has known me for a long time—actually we practically grew up together in NY city, called me one day and suggested the actual title. So many things are attached to it: my heterogeneity in terms of cultures, and so on. In addition, things are not always what they appear to be. I mean, love does not come necessarily from the expected places. These are the main components that I tried to convey in my title and story. It was important to me to write my book because I felt ready to excavate my life and I guess it was a healing process for me to put on paper my feelings toward my beloved father after he passed away. Many anecdotes needed to come to the surface. I had never thought of writing a memoir. This was a surprise that life had held in store for me. I come from a generation where you pen an autobiography when you are in your older years. But things change; now, for instance, Justin Bieber has a memoir [laughs]. Seriously, the night my father died at St-Vincent in NY, we were outside his hospital room. My future husband Byron, Arthur Mitchell, my brother, and a very dear friend of our family, Lorenzo James, were there. Mr. Mitchell knew my father before I was born. He knew that I had recently stopped dancing at the time. He called me by my nickname saying: “Holly, what are you going to do now?” I replied saying that I didn’t know. He said to me that I should write my father’s biography, and I agreed. So, I later started to work on it and, along the way, it became my story where I also penned about growing up with my father and about the life we had. I wasn’t aware that I had in me the need to make my life into a book. It was the first time I gave voice to many things that I had never discussed growing up. It became a perfect opportunity for me to do this and the memoir represents a work of love. Overall, life has grey elements. I came to realize that life is not so black and white, but much more colorful.
P.T. Your book is also a tribute to your father.
A.W. Absolutely! It is like a long love letter. It represents my way of acknowledging him as an artist, a man and my father.
P.T. How long did it take you to write your memoir? Did you have a diary throughout the years that became the principal source for your book?
A.W. I gave myself ten years to write it because I knew that I wanted to start a family in the meantime. So, in total, it took me thirteen years. I started to use a diary since I was 11, after my parents’ separation. It definitely became an important source for my memoir including newspaper clippings and so on which I collected throughout the years.
P.T. Wow, writing a book requires a lot of work and I am not surprised to hear that it took you at least ten years because readers can see there is a lot of work behind it. I read somewhere that Toni Morrison worked for two weeks on the same paragraph. You do not become a Nobel literature winner just like that. High-quality writing demands a lot of work.
A.W. This is an interesting point. I have to say that after the end of my childhood, diaries were vital to me especially because I kept a lot of things to myself; I needed an outlet. In addition, the children of my generation were not having certain conversations with their parents. My daughters, who are 12 and 14, know about many subjects such as gay issues, the civil rights, etc. People now talk more overtly about all sorts of topics. I also discovered a great book entitled Wild Mind, by Natalie Goldberg, which served as an important tool to me. This book is about writing practice. I did it daily for two years at four in the morning before I started to work on my memoir. Her book Writing Down the Bones is also instrumental for authors.
P.T. Many difficult issues and your home life were kept a secret from your closest friends. Talk to us about the path you took to be in a comfortable phase to share your story with the world via your memoir.
A.W. As you said, there was a long period in my life where I kept my family situation very private. After my father died and when I was ready to begin a family, I knew that I needed to speak to someone in order to come to terms with some of these issues. So, I sought therapy in my late twenties because it became unbearable to continue to keep to myself my emotions regarding how I felt about the life I had with my father and his mate, including more importantly my mother’s abandonment. Therapy allowed me to give voice to my hurts that I kept to myself practically my entire life. It was a major step for me. My biggest challenge was to survive my mother’s surrender. It was important to find the right professional to feel safe. This allowed me to go forward and feel strong enough to share it on paper. This is how I learned with time how to navigate and overcome my challenges. Nevertheless, getting to the point where I was comfortable exposing myself publicly took me a very long.
I now enjoy sharing my background freely. I believe that the love I received from unexpected places has allowed me to feel good about sharing my story. Even if it was not the primarily reason why I decided to write the book, I realised that my life resonates with some of my readers who went through similar situations, such as being abandoned by their mothers. In this regard, without sounding clichéd, I felt that my story was larger than me and I was propelled to write my memoir.
P.T. I believe that your book is breaking a silence because there are a lot of taboos and misunderstandings surrounding mothers who leave their children.
A.W. I am still trying to understand this phenomenon. My children, especially the one who is 14, are more and more curious about my relationship with my mother. I have been very open about my background with them. I give them information, as long as it is appropriate to their age. They ask me how this happened, and I respond that I still remain in the process of comprehending it.
P.T. It must have taken a lot of courage for your father to come out of the closet during his era. Did he relate at the time to prominent figures such as Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, and/or Langston Hughes (you mentioned the two lasts in your autobiography)?
A.W. [Silence] I am almost certain that he did privately. We did not discuss these specific people in this context nor did we talk much about homosexuality in general. As close as we were, it still was not on the table. If I had known for how long he would be on this planet, I am sure that I would have made time to ask him questions like that. Unfortunately, the moment is gone.
P.T. There are different ways to know if someone admires other people. Did your father buy their books for instance?
A.W. My father loved Hughes’ poems and he was a prominent artist in our house in terms of work. The audition monologue I chose to perform when I applied to Carnegie Mellon was a poem by Hughes. James Baldwin is among my favorite authors and likewise for my dad. We had all of his books and these men lived such parallel lives in so many ways. I always thought it was unbelievable that their paths never crossed.
I have to add that while I was still a young teen, I worked with my father on a PBS special called Blues and Gone. It was a collection of dance vignettes to the music of Duke Ellington, among others, inspired by the poems of Langston Hughes, who was especially musically influenced by Jazz and Blues. The special earned my dad an Emmy. My father and Chip conceptualized and wrote it. Moreover, Chip, my brother Parker and I performed in it, along with five other dancers.
I am sure that my father revered and must have looked up to the Black men you named in your question in terms of their homosexuality. They were fearless and led an authentic life as much as possible. They had the courage to come out in a time when homosexuality was not tolerated and accepted. They had to navigate in a world of stigmas and were triumphant. Blues and Gone was a way for my father to pay tribute to not only Langston Hughes but to all of the other Black artists acknowledged (Ellington, etc.) in that special he created. Hughes was a highly respected poet from the Harlem Renaissance who knew how to capture the essence and richness of Black America with its nuances. His poems had lyrical aspects that could be easily transformed into music.
P.T. During the Civil Rights Movement, your father never said anything about Rustin?
A.W. Honestly, I don’t recall that he did. [Silence] I became hungrier for my history much later in my life. When I was about 13, African-American history was nearly erased from my textbooks so, this situation did not help. However, I gained most of the wealth of knowledge from my father and other family members, our friends, our Black theater and dance community. My learning was not about Mr. Rustin in particular but anything else related to Black History. I have to admit that I was angry to see that my history was so largely absent from the academic world. I had a negative reaction toward this. Instead of looking for the information elsewhere, my anger made me react oppositely. In other words, I did not seek the knowledge when I was much younger. I chose to learn about any history BUT American.
P.T. Your father had as authentic a life as he could, which takes again a lot of courage. Do you think that not truly leading the life that someone is meant to is at the core of most human heartbreaks? If so, why?
A.W. I think it is definitely one of the reasons. As much as possible, one should be able to lead the life he/she envisions for him/herself. It is important for our spirit. When it is suppressed or taken away from us, it often results in a cruel heartbreak. In fact, I believe that there are all kinds of wounds. It was very important for my father to have a life as authentic as possible. He had the same approach professionally. He avoided being involved in projects where he would be put in a box. He behaved the same way with the interactions he had with people. I believe genuineness creates a rich life.
P.T. As mentioned, the title of your book transmits the perceptions of not being pigeonholed. Nothing is black and white in life which has grey areas.
A.W. That’s right! From my conception, I was out of the box [chuckles] and I feel very fortunate for my diverse heritage.
P.T. Since an early age, you have been exposed to art. How did this experience prepare and shape you as a dancer?
A.W. [Silence] I think, as a dancer, you remain a child in the way that kids are sponges, always craving for things that can feed your soul and heart. You pull from all of that to create your own artistry. Through my travels, the music I listened to, the museums I visited influenced me and broadened my scope. I never limited myself to one genre. I am passionate about eclecticism. As a dancer, all the exposures that I just described made me feel that the sky is the limit and I became determined to push boundaries. I try to force myself out of my comfort zone.
P.T. It is highly interesting to learn in your memoir about the legends you met during your youth such as Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson, Gregory and Maurice Hines, etc. What was it like for you and how did they inspire you in your own professional path? In other words, what did you learn from them?
A.W. You know it was absolutely delicious to be exposed to these giants [chuckles]. My father made a point to my brother and me that we were in the presence of extraordinary people. We didn’t take it for granted that we had the opportunity to observe them during their rehearsals and so on. This was dazzling! We were mesmerized by them. It definitely shaped me as an artist in my journey. I learned through them the process behind the shows to create the magic which can come through sweat, tears, joy with tremendous dedication. I observed all the discipline and determination it takes to create great spectacles and build strong careers.
P.T. Why was it important for your father to join the revolution in America instead of staying in Europe, where many Black artists, especially since the Harlem Renaissance, left to have a more peaceful life overseas?
A.W. It is true that several Black luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance went to Europe especially France. Because my father led a peaceful, carefree, and wonderful life in Europe—where he was not persecuted or prevented to do what he loved, I think he felt that he had the duty to come back and support the movement which was happening here on American soil. My father didn’t exile himself because he could not find work in the States. He felt compelled to be a part of what he knew was an important change going on here. He never forgot where he came from, wherever he was. He remained in his heart a Black American whereve he resided even if he was living a very traditional European life. When he came back to the States, this allowed him to emerge again with the richness of the African-American art as well as the European flavour. I guess that presenting his artistry to the world represented a mean to integration for him. Going back to his roots at that time helped him to create Bubbling Brown Sugar, which was his most successful commercial work on Broadway.
P.T. What you are saying about your father makes me think about Angela Davis who was in Montreal (my hometown) during the last Black History Month in February. Someone in the audience asked her: “Why did you come back to the States when you were studying in Europe?” The person questioned also why she decided to stay in America after her imprisonment. We observe an attachment of African-Americans toward their country.
A.W. It is almost like an umbilical cord that you cannot cut because it is part of you in spite of the hurts. Since my father remembered his journey, he had to come back to be present. I also think that he wanted to push the envelope for himself. He may have had great reservations to return home, especially being married to a White woman but obviously his need to go back overrode those apprehensions. Unfortunately, I was too young at that time to talk about this.
P.T. How was it for you growing up in Netherlands? In addition, how was your parents perceived as an interracial couple in Europe versus the U.S. during their epoch?
A.W. I didn’t really grow up in Netherlands. I was born there and a few weeks after, we settled in America. It was years later that I came back to Holland when I got married the first time.
P.T. It is funny. I went to Amsterdam just for a few hours in 2004 but unfortunately I saw nothing because it was a stopover in the airport on my way to Tunisia.
A.W. Oh, I see. When my parents came to the States, they felt something very different here compared to the treatment they had in Europe.
P.T. This aspect was part of my previous question. Your parents’ marriage started to disintegrate when they arrived in America. I was wondering if your father thoroughly assessed all the implications of his return, including the personal aspects of his life.
A.W. I don’t know if my father was aware of all the consequences that he would have to face, but I believe that the cause was greater for him than the personal implications.
P.T. This shows courage because there are people who prefer to lead their own lives and won’t bother to advocate for social issues.
A.W. In Europe, my father enjoyed his freedom. My parents were seen as an exotic and an exciting combination. Here, in the States it was a completely different story. The adaptation was more difficult for my mother. She did not speak English and probably felt isolated with a scarcity of support. In addition, the climate of the time didn’t help with the anti-miscegenation sentiment—between 1883 with the case Pace v. Alabama and 1967 with the Loving v. Virginia’s decision interracial marriages where forbidden in many states. It took a toll on my parents. The Civil rights and voting rights were bestowed to the Blacks before the anti-miscegenation laws were removed.
P.T. Did your parents live more in the northern or southern part of the U.S.?
A.W. As a couple, they were in Boston but at the time it was a very racially hot place to be. I can only imagine how it was for my parents. It probably was really scary for them. I would not be surprised that there were moments when they asked themselves: “do we really need to stay here?”
P.T. Later, your mother moved back to Holland.
P.T. I am from the Generation X. I know several people from my generation and even from the Generation Y who had serious difficulties coping with being mixed (mostly Black and White but also Native/Latino, etc.) during their childhood because the mainstream society didn’t accept them. Some even attempted suicide (others unfortunately succeeded) or had other mental health problems such as anorexia. You have a mixed heritage: Dutch and African-American. You touched lightly but you did not elaborate in your memoir if you had a racial identity crisis at some point in your life. As a biracial individual (in fact you wrote in your book that you consider yourself African-American and at the same time you pointed out in your memoir that your parents produced biracial children), did you go through an identity crisis and/or racism when you were younger, given that you had to live between two worlds? If so, how did you overcome it and how have these experiences shaped you on a personal level? Furthermore, in your artistry, how did you incorporate your diverse origins in your dancing career?
A.W. This is a big question [laughs]. I believe I do mention a little bit in my book that growing up, I didn’t struggle with an identity crisis. My challenges were more about interracial couples. As a child, my parents’ divorce misguidedly represented for me a concrete example that this combination doesn’t work. When I became older, I got a broader view toward this. Again, to be honest with you, I don’t think that I went through an identity crisis like other biracial children experienced. This does not mean that I didn’t have to deal with racial issues because I surely had to at school, where some people said I was not really Black or it happened that some individuals asked me: “what are you?” I went through all of those things. Fortunately, in my case, it didn’t shatter me. My father provided me and my brother with a sense of being proud about who we were. In the seventies, when your father was African-American, his children were Black. Today, the option to check the biracial box on forms is possible. Then, it wasn’t the case.
Overall, you are right that I had to grow up between two worlds. I was raised with a proud sentiment of being an African-American woman. On the other hand, my father was adamant about not letting us forget where we came from. He wanted us to embrace our entire heritage. It is my dad who made sure that we kept our European roots by taking us to Holland. So, I learned Dutch despite the ugliness of the divorce. My father always kept in our living room a beautiful photograph of our mother dancing, because he got the larger picture.
P.T. This showed a lot of maturity from his part.
A.W. Absolutely! Again, about your question I didn’t shy away to speak my mind to people who were challenging me regarding my roots. I could be direct and let people know about my diverse heritage. My father instilled in me the sense of not sugar coating these issues and prepared me to feel confident to talk openly about these topics. He was certainly not an advocate of lip service and I didn’t mince my words.
About the last part of your last question, I believe that my miscellaneous culture brought richness to my dancing. I began classically with ballet. It seemed natural to me to take that road from the start because I was practically born into it. Later, I gravitated toward musical theater and I began to work for Maurice Hines. It allowed me to utilize my African-American roots with its artistic history in my choreographies.
P.T. In my last question, I said that you had to navigate between two worlds. Actually, you had to live between three worlds. How did you cope as a child with the fact that your father lived with another man in the seventies? How did you deal with the rest of your family and the community about this situation, especially at a time when homosexuality was not tolerated and accepted in the society as a whole? Moreover, how was it perceived by the society that two African-American men were living with young children?
A.W. [Sigh and silence] I guess at that age (ten/eleven) I was unable to deal with it. Again, the main tool I used was writing about it in my diary. This is how I discovered the importance of expressing myself through composition. I sort of became addicted to that form of expression. I felt the need to practice this daily. It was like oxygen for me as well as dancing. Later, it was not enough to put my wounds on paper. I had to seek professional help. My father’s situation was not talked about overtly. He introduced Chip to everyone (even to my brother and I) as his “friend”. Sometimes, the word “uncle” was used. They slept at home in separate rooms and didn’t behave as an overly affectionate couple in our presence. I always believed, and probably people who knew us also thought that there was something more. As a child, I didn’t understand the physical terms of what their relationship meant, and the same happened with my brother, who is a few years younger than me; although, I knew that my father cared deeply about Chip and that the feeling was mutual. They were in this arrangement together and it was about loving us. They raised us the best way they could. About the family, it wasn’t discussed, and this is how things went during this epoch. Paradoxically, we were in the safest community, which is show business. So, in some ways, we were protected against homophobia.
P.T. What was your experience with the Black community, which is perceived by some as more homophobic than the others, even if that is not necessarily true?
A.W. I think a kind of status quo remained since the ‘60s-‘70s. We deny or pretend that it does not exist in our community and we do not talk about it. So, when I was growing up there was a silence hanging over the reality of my father and his mate. So, I navigated my way until I became old enough to get a better understanding of what everything meant. Since my parents’ separation, when I was 11, I spent my adolescence fighting with Chip. This shows that it took me years to accept my family situation. It wasn’t until before my college years that I had another idea of who Chip represented in my life. I realised that he was not the enemy. Actually, I finally grasped that the roots of my pains were connected to the absence of my biological mother. I am still trying to make sense of what happened. One of the only ways that helped me survive this situation was writing in my diary. As mentioned, this type of expression became oxygen for me just as dancing. In other words, these means were my outlets.
P.T. How do you explain that your brother didn’t have any problems bringing his friends home compared to you when you were growing up?
A.W. This is another complicated question [chuckles]. I can explain this by saying that my brother was five years younger than me. I believe this played a big role in the dynamics that took place in our family situation. When he first met Chip, he was five years old and didn’t understand what was happening. At the time, my brother Parker, a loving child, embraced him with open arms from the beginning. He was genuinely comfortable to a large extent. His confusion about the couple was delayed compared to me. I questioned the relationship from the start, even if I didn’t grasp the complexity and the implications of the situation in its entirety.
P.T. Do you think your brother denied the situation when he was old enough to seize what was happening?
A.W. Maybe. I think that his awakening came perhaps from the comments he was receiving from some of his peers. It made him realise that his father’s living situation was probably not right by the conventional standards. He said a terrible comment to Chip which I wrote in the book. He used the derogatory f* word utilized for gays. This incident made me realise that he was not so okay with our family situation. This was one of the first times he started to verbalise his sentiments. And then, years later, after my father’s passing, I finally had a moment with my brother where we brought the issue up. I told him that for a long time I thought he was fine with the situation because he brought home his girlfriends and his male friends. People were constantly in the house. I never brought anyone except some of my girlfriends. He looked at me with a pause and said: “how could I be okay?” I was shocked and I felt so presumptuous to think that my super macho brother at the time [chuckles] would not be affected by our living arrangements. My father kind of joked, later, about my brother’s machismo. Again, Parker struggled more silently about our marital status; although he had a deep love for our father and Chip.
P.T. You seem to be very grounded and resourceful in spite of the hardships you had to face since your childhood. Where did you find your strength?
A.W. I believe that my strength comes from my father. He used to say that things can always be worse.
P.T. This statement makes me think of a popular quote: “I used to complain I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet.”
A.W. Right! I guess the love that I received from my father and Chip compensated for what was lacking. It allowed me to not feel victimised. As mentioned, I later also used other tools to help me go through my grief, such as doing therapy.
P.T. Socrates used to say: “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being».
A.W. Interesting! I have to say that I think growing up with a community of artists was beneficial to me. I learned to know a great number of individuals from all walks of life. It made a big difference. In addition, my dad was a voracious bibliophile. He loved to read biographies of people who had hurdles and thrived despite them. This inspired him and he passed that on to me. In this regard, it influenced me when we had discussions about these topics.
P.T. Are you religious also? Was faith a source of strength for you to overcome your obstacles?
A.W. No. I think I have to write another book just for that [chuckles]. I am not religious, I am more spiritual although I have been exposed to different religions. I love the diverse aspects or options of religion. I have more of an eclectic approach. At its core, I believe it is wonderful to be part of a community that provides support. For my part, growing up I noticed so many contradictions and it became convoluted to buy into an organised religion.
P.T. There is talk of adapting your book into a motion picture. If this materializes, who would you like to direct it, to write the script, to play yourself and your father? Moreover, please share with us why.
A.W. The director that I have happens to be an old friend of mine, Kasi Lemmons. She is among the most gifted directors we have today. She is a gorgeous story teller. You might know her through her work like “Eve’s Bayou” that she also penned. She did “Talk to Me” with Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor. In November, her film “Black Nativity” with Forest Whitaker and Mary J. Blige will be in the movie theaters.
P.T. Yes, I know her work. I enjoyed her movie “Something New”. I think it is interesting that you named a female director, actually I should say directress [laughs] for the adaptation of your memoir because we need to see more of the woman perspective in the movie industry, which is lacking. In addition, she is an African-American female, and I believe it is important to be further exposed to Black women perspectives in the film business.
A.W. Absolutely! I have known Kasi [Lemmons] since at least the early eighties. We met through auditions. I observed her growth and evolution from being an actress to a moviemaker. I reached out to her, she read the manuscript when it wasn’t even published yet. She said my autobiography was a movie and she wanted to direct it.
A.W. In terms of casting, of course I thought about this [chuckles]. I know you asked for my father, however I could see Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing my late godfather Karel Shook who was dear to me. He was the cofounder of The Dance Theatre of Harlem with Arthur Mitchell. I think Don Cheadle would be interesting as my father because he has the great capacity to bring different emotions including angelic warmth in complex and strong characters. Even when Cheadle plays a killer, there are likeable traits within him [chuckles]. For myself, I can envision Zoe Saldana or Thandie Newton. All these actors have a superb and powerful presence on screen. But I have to write the script first.
P.T. So, you are the one who is doing it.
A.W. Yes. I talked about this to Kasi [Lemmons] before, since she is also a screenwriter and she said that I should put on paper the script first. She will assist me if I need help.
P.T. It is really original that an author writes the script. It will be very riveting for the public to discover how your book will be adapted visually, how the characters will be brought to life, and which parts of your memoir you will choose to highlight in your screenplay. In addition, it will be interesting for the audience to see if flashbacks will be used in the screenplay or if you’ll give it a more chronological/linear approach. It is the first time that I am talking to a female screenwriter, this is really cool. By the way, maybe I should say instead screenwriteress [chuckles].
A.W. So far, I set the mind map, in other words the storyboards. The next step will be to start writing the script. So, the project is still in its infancy.
P.T. You included your mother in the acknowledgement part of your book. Do you know if she read your memoir? If so, what came out of it?
A.W. [Silence] I don’t know if she read it. I got no response from her. My brother is in touch with her and I have to assume that she must have read something at least just out of curiosity because she is a very curious woman. My brother scoured at least half of the book and seems to like what he read. Although, seeing that it is close to home it may be difficult for him to read it more quickly in its entirety. He listened to my first radio interview and really enjoyed it.
P.T. Are you talking about the NPR interview?
P.T. I watched it on the Internet and I thought it was great.
P.T. You wrote this in your autobiography: “While watching the Oprah show one day, it occurred to me that we seldom hear about the mother abandoning her children. Perhaps it doesn’t happen as often as a father’s departure, but it does happen, and I can assure you the consequences are devastating. I have a suspicion that because the concept is often inconceivable, we’d rather not bring it up. I am also quite certain the complexities concerning my mother and her choices are such that several lifetimes would not unearth my myriad questions. Nonetheless, I continued to ask the questions and privately hoped that continual conversation with her might change things or at least spark the memories I buried when I, figuratively speaking, laid her to rest so many years ago.” What are your thoughts about this now, and how do you think the issue of maternal abandonment can be better brought to the public attention?
A.W. [Silence and sighs] I don’t think I have a different view about my statement. At the end of my speaking events, there are people who approach me and tell me: “what you wrote is my story” in terms of their mothers’ role or absence in their lives. So, I guess that in my ways I am helping to break a silence and maybe more people who went through this will be able to give voice about it because, unfortunately, this very important issue is still a taboo. A safe haven is required to allow more individuals to share their journeys related to this topic. There is not a platform for it. I am also aware that it constitutes a long process. The mother figure is where everything starts.
P.T. You were very detailed about how your father passed away, but you didn’t elaborate on how Chip died six months before your dad, and how the funeral went. Why did you make that choice as an authoress?
A.W. [Sighs] I was not really there during the end of Chip’s illness because I was dealing with my father. My brother was largely present for Chip. Although, there was a time when my dad and Chip were in the hospital in the same period, but on different floors. So, I had to go to and fro. When Chip was dying, my father became very ill and I needed to be close to him. Regarding Chip, we didn’t have a funeral but a memorial for him in New Jersey. I wrote a poem for him. Since it was so inconceivable for my father to be so sick, I guess I only had enough energy to deal with his situation.
P.T. Who supported you the most during your father’s illness and after his passing?
A.W. This is an easy question. It was my husband. He is my rock, the incredible Byron. During my father’s illness, we became friends after Maurice Hines brought us together. At that time, I practically lived in the hospital. Every evening, he picked me up from St-Vincent’s Hospital to take me out to dinner. It is strange to see where people are in your life at certain times. I am not saying that my friends were not there for me but a couple of them were outside the country. And there was this man Byron Stripling who sort of became my best friend, the greatest support during the most difficult period.
P.T. It is often during hardships we know who really cares about us.
A.W. Absolutely, and it represents a true thermometer for a relationship development! On top of that, his mother became ill with breast cancer. She died at 59, a year after my father’s passing. So, we both went through these hardships together, and Byron was completely there for me. I realize how lucky I am to have a beautiful man by my side to inspire my desire to lead my life more fully, more fearlessly, and more happily than ever.
P.T. This is a blessing!
A.W. A huge one! Lorenzo James was another man who really gave me a lot of support during my father’s illness. In fact, he took care of Chip and my dad at the hospital. He is a living angel! In addition, there was a great lawyer Phyllis Sager who gave me a lot of support regarding the legal issues that occurred after my father’s passing.
P.T. Some parts of the book are like a eulogy to your father. It was too painful for you to make one during his memorial. Was it a cathartic experience to put your story on paper? What does it mean to you to present your father to the world with your book?
A.W. It definitely was cathartic. I call it blood work where I’ve vented my wounds, although there are lighter places in the book. It was not always easy because working on a memoir requires you have to constantly revisit parts of your life, and not all of them are joyous. It takes strength and fortitude. As mentioned, this process allowed me to give voice to my hardships. Sharing my father through the book and via interviews with the media makes me feel fortunate. I just wanted to do my best in giving homage to such a wonderful father and man.
P.T. Well, you definitely succeeded. If you want you can write a complete bio on your father and I will post it on Mega Diversities. You are the best one who can present your father to the world.
A.W. I will do it!
P.T. You said to the media that everybody needs someone on their corner. In your memoir, you did not narrate that any female family members (an aunt, a grandmother, a cousin, etc.) were involved in your life. Is it because they rejected your father’s lifestyle?
A.W. No. I have to say that my paternal aunt, Yvonne was very important to me. I mentioned her in my book but maybe I didn’t elaborate about this. The family members that I know are from my dad’s side. I didn’t have an opportunity to be well acquainted with the extended members of my mother’s family. My first paternal cousin, Ernest, with his wife Francille, are close to me. As mentioned, the lawyer Phyllis Sager who assisted me for my father’s finances has been the closest to a mother figure. Before I became the executrix of my dad’s estate, there was a legal battle. The jurist supported me, and she is another important woman in my life. However, men have in large part been my heroes along my journey [chuckles]. They were the ones that I felt had my back. I dedicated the book to them. That was important to me because we don’t hear enough about how Black men in the community are supportive toward women.
P.T. Your father died of AIDS in 1994 and his partner passed away six months before from the disease. The couple was together for 18 years. It remained a secret in the family how the first member of the couple got HIV. Why was it not important for you to find the entire truth about this?
A.W. [Silence]. First of all, when we found out about the disease it was in a really unusual and peculiar upsetting way. It happened during one outburst of Chip’s manic episodes. At the time, I couldn’t think about how all this occurred because the focus was on dealing with what was happening in the present. Throughout the years, I never heard of the disease being caught via blood transfusion or drugs regarding my father and Chip. So, this doesn’t leave many other possibilities for the contamination. Honestly, it was not interesting to me to find out more about the situation. I can live with the fact that I don’t know the entire truth. The most important thing to me was to be there for them.
P.T. What are the most important things you learned from your father and that you would like to transmit to your children?
A.W. I would say moving through life with love and embracing difference. Even if I had great schooling and education, I feel my father was the steerer and my most important teacher when learning about life lessons. The love showered by my father and Chip made me strong, and I consider it my duty to pass this on to my children.
I see my dad in my daughters’ small expressions, in their smiles, etc. I saw his gifts in my first child's dancing performance. It is just as if she captured his essence. I see him in my younger daughter's clear, upright look at the world and in her fierce tenacity. My father gave me an artistic legacy that I am transmitting to my children.
My dad also shared with me the gift of loving nature and relishing the sumptuousness of the tiniest happenings, in a big, overwhelming, and often gross world. He taught my brother and me the brilliance of color with its versatility. It was through his inexhaustible appetite to rediscover and evolve that I was touched. I like to think that I am steeped with my father’s wisdom and wit that has rubbed off on me. He gave me wings because he nurtured the strength of my character and endowed me with the power to love. I would like to think that my daughters will inherit these qualities.
P.T. Historically, Blacks have been excluded from ballet. Your father became a prominent choreographer and dancer in this field. How did he break the glass ceiling as an African-American and as a male during the segregation era? In addition, was it one of the reasons he went to Europe?
A.W. I think that any barriers or glass ceilings he broke happened because of his fearlessness in spite of his doubts and insecurities. He found a way not to become a prisoner to them. He made choices based on what felt right to him, whether it was popular or not, politically correct or not for a Black man to undertake. He was limitless in pushing the envelope and felt comfortable in different settings: in prestigious academic environments (for instance in theatre departments), etc. In this regard, his vision for his professional pathway was boundless. He learned a lot from his diverse experiences in Europe and here. That served him in his career and made him more unique in his artistry. His greater hunger for being better and using his gifts spurred him on. He was bold in his choice to dance at a time when little Black boys weren’t doing that or were not allowed to. He made a grand life for himself here—where for example, he entered the world of Broadway and took it consistently by storm, and overseas. With each new opportunity, he rose to the challenge and succeeded.
About the second part of your question, my father went to Europe because he was dancing in the London company of West Side Story, starring Chita Rivera, even if he had opportunities here. At the time, someone from The Dutch National Ballet saw my father’s performance and offered him to join their troupe in the Netherlands as a soloist. My mother was a ballerina and my dad danced with her. As they say, the rest is history. My parents stayed in Europe for over a decade.
P.T. You wrote this sentence about your father in your book: “Bubbling Brown Sugar was the show to revolutionize the representation of Black performers on Broadway. This was the hit to put him permanently on the American map.” Can you elaborate on how this show changed forever the representation of African-American performers on Broadway for our worldwide readers?
A.W. In my opinion, we saw Black representations on Broadway with Shuffle Along in the twenties, in Carmen Jones and Porgy & Bess in the fifties. However, I think up until that point, there was nothing or a scarcity where Black performers were presented in such an elegant and stylish way. My dad took ownership of the African-American’s artistic richness. He made a conscious choice to showcase—in a timeline which travels in Harlem from 1910 until the present days—a much more glamorous depiction of us. In other words, he wanted to create “a sense of Black chic” and propel it into higher levels. In addition, a variety of artistic elements were shown. It was not just about tapping, singing, or dancing. My father introduced the eclecticism of art and it was followed later by Sophisticated Ladies, Dreamgirls, and so on. I would like to add that in 1994, my father re-staged and updated Bubbling Brown Sugar which, once again, enjoyed a very successful run throughout Europe.
P.T. What is the most valuable piece of advice your father and Chip gave you in the dancing field?
A.W. Wow, I got a lot of advice from my father. I didn’t receive as much from Chip. He was a dancer but primarily a singer. So, I looked more to my father for dance advice. He used to say if there is anything else you would rather do, take that road [laughs] because dancing is too hard. He mentioned this to me so many times and it stayed with me. I had struggles in the artistic world. My 14 year old daughter is going through her own challenges with dancing.
P.T. So, she followed your footsteps as a dancer.
A.W. I guess it is somewhat inevitable at least with one of my children but who knows where it will lead [laughs]. One of the best recommendations that my father gave me is there will always be someone prettier, smarter, and more talented than me, but I should not focus on that: I can do my best by capitalising on my uniqueness.
It may sound harsh, but my father also wanted me to be warned by reminding me that in the art field you are always replaceable. He meant it, and I realised this more when I was involved in musical theaters. The competition in this field is different and fierce. There is more pressure; many are called, but few are chosen.
My father also paid a lot of attention to the integrity of the work. I try to carry that on. Moreover, he told me about the importance of losing yourself in dancing and almost breaking yourself by spending everything while not saving anything. In other words, it is important not to be too much in control. It took me a long time to get to that point. It is crucial to work towards a state of abandonment in dancing. For instance, you are daily at the bar perfecting your technique, but when you are on stage, your performance has to look natural, in other words it has to take flight. You cannot work purely as a technician on stage by thinking about your steps because it will show, and this is not what the audience wants. The public doesn’t demand to see the work but the magic. As a dancer, you have to bring your richness on stage with your artistic interpretation and creative expression. In other words, you ought to live on stage.
My father taught me about the importance of professionalism. He explained to me never to bring drama or other problems to work. It always has to be only about work with a bona fide approach. Furthermore, I understood that I had to learn not only about dancing but also about everything surrounding it: its history, its composers, etc. My father believed that by diving into the subject, you could bring much more to the table as a dancer. Overall, I learned from him that to be a great dancer, you must be hardworking, disciplined, committed, and willing to grow steadily. In addition, you need to accept that at times it can be uncomfortable. I also realised that setbacks provide wonderful opportunities for an artist to evolve and develop.
P.T. In your book, you talk about the variety of dancing you did throughout the years: tap, tango, ballet, etc. What is your favorite style and the one you master the most? What does your favorite type of dancing mean to you on a personal level and historically speaking? In addition, how would you like to see this style evolve in the future?
A.W. I feel that the dancing field I mastered the most was classical. I am talking about ballet, which was my base. It is definitely my foundation. However, I must say my favorite style is tango. I love its flavor with its music, elegance, sensuality, and passion. I only had the opportunity to do it once. It was a really special experience because Maurice Hines created the number for me in Harlem Suite. Tango has a place for me historically because this Argentine dance is rooted in a combination of African and Native Argentine cultures, and it traveled to Europe where other instruments were added in this dance form, such as the accordion and mandolin. Actually, there is a connection between ethnic dancing – African dance – and ballet which are parts of my history. Tango was very challenging for me and was different from the type of dancing I was trained to do. In ethnic, jazz and even tango you are grounded, in ballet you are on your toes, but tango is a lot about expressing yourself with passion, danger and heat!
In terms of evolvement, I like eclecticism. In other words, I enjoy seeing versatility with a combination of different elements. I definitely want more of that on a global scale. These days, I am working on CMH Fashion Week where they wanted to use some dancers. I am planning to incorporate classical ballet with hip hop dancing.
P.T. This makes me think of the jaw dropping choreography I saw at the end of the movie “Save the Last Dance”.
A.W. Yes, I love to see a marriage between past, current, and future styles.
P.T. Besides your father, who do you think was the best African-American choreographer/dancer of all times and why?
A.W. [Laughs]This is really a tough question for me. My goodness! There are so many wonderful artists: Alvin Ailey, Gregory and Maurice Hines, Louis Johnson, Talley Beatty, Michael Peters, George Faison, etc. I don’t think it is fair to choose one because they are all so different; without one something is missing, and I adored my father.
P.T. You only named males.
A.W. This is because I mainly gravitated around them. In all honesty, I worked primarily with male choreographers. It took longer for women to break this ground in a commercial way but we’re getting there.
P.T. Did you have the chance to meet Debbie Allen and Katherine Dunham?
A.W. Quite a few times. Actually, I met Debbie [Allen] the first time when my father was directing her in a show called Louis and he always loved the way she worked hard! In addition, at one point there was talk about me auditioning for the TV series Fame in L.A.
P.T. Wow and I thought about that! I wondered how come you were not part of this show! What happened?
A.W. I didn’t pursue it because I was just a silly teenager at the time [laughs out loud]. However, I later had the opportunity to work with her for a TV special that she was filming with her sister Phylicia Rashad. Moreover, Maurice Hines was involved in a project for her ballet school, and I assisted him. Soon, I am hoping to get in touch with her to speak at her wonderful school in L.A.
Again, about your question, I cannot name one dancer/choreographer because they all played a vital role in so many levels. I would like to give you one name [chuckles], but I don’t think I can. This includes my father. I loved his choreographies. You told me I cannot choose him.
P.T. It would be biased [laughs].
A.W. I guess you are right [chuckles]. I am grateful that we have so many dancers/choreographers. So, I am sorry but I cannot choose one [Laughs].
P.T. You said to the media that you think your father would probably not join the marriage equality movement if he was still with us. Can you elaborate on that?
A.W. I am happy to elaborate on this because it is an example of how sometimes my answer can be misconstrued. I actually had this conversation about marriage with my dad one day. I meant that my father would not be opposed to the equality movement but would be just happy to enjoy the life he had. He eloped twice and since it did not work out for him, he felt he was done with marriage. However, I know he would have been very excited to observe the growth of the equality movement with its legal options because it reinforces the importance of acceptance.
P.T. Who is your book addressed to and what do you want the readers to take in from it?
A.W. My book is multifaceted. It covers the abandonment by my mother, the same-sex parents, AIDS, Broadway and the ballet world, etc. Overall, I believe there is something for everybody in my memoir. My book speaks about the humanity in people and hope. This is what I learned from the responses I am getting. The love and the human connections resonate for my readers. There are fundamental elements that speak to families. It also concerns embracing differences, and in our society we are still working hard on this. With time, I hope that there will be an improvement in all of us to espouse diversity.
To conclude, my book is for children who have same-sex parents, for the HIV-AIDS community, the Broadway and ballet worlds, people who have trouble with their mothers, individuals who have a wonderful father-daughter relationship, and so on. It all comes down to the human emotional connection, which is universal. It is my sincerest desire to inspire more family understanding and support, in all its versions and variations. I want to celebrate our many differences with bravery and love!
P.T. What message of hope can you give to the children and teenagers around the world who are struggling and growing up in a non-traditional family not easily socially accepted?
A.W. [Silence] My life experience brings to mind what the writer James Baldwin once said, “Love is like the lightning bolt. Love is where you find it.” I was born with this perspective; I came into the world because of it and I grew up being immersed in it. So, I think that I would encourage those children to trust the love they receive whatever the marital status. It is important to recognise that family comes in many forms. This is more and more the reality especially in Western countries. In spite of the difficulties, it is important to be brave and to believe that love, and certainly not division, is the greatest answer to diversity in terms of religion, race, sexual orientation, etc. There are people who asked me what my secret is and how I survived the situation of being in a non-traditional family. The answer is simple: I navigated through my hurdles and overcame them because of love.
P.T. You definitely have a lot of resilience. My question focuses on children and teenagers because, at that age, young people often want to conform by avoiding to be marginalised by their peers.
A.W. Definitely! As mentioned, there was a point in my youth when I was struggling and kept my family situation a secret. My challenges came more from what I was feeling toward my circumstances, and not because I was being persecuted or judged even if I knew that these perceptions existed. What helped me lies in the fact that my father never gave up on us and constantly reminded us of how much he cared about us. He made me realise with time that nothing is perfect or idyllic. There will always be a situation with flaws, and this the youth should acknowledge. Your parents can have different religions, diverse backgrounds in terms of social class, and so on, that may bring complexities in the family dynamics. Although, if love reigns, you will survive and thrive in spite of the challenges. You have to hold on to what uplifts you. If it is your community of friends, use it, if it is church, hold on to it. In other words, focus on finding something constructive that you can grab as a safety net to help you along. For children, because of their age, they have even less control over their environments. So, it is up to adults who have their interest at heart to make sure that they are exposed as much as possible in positive settings and give them hope.
P.T. You recently produced a two-day run at the Lincoln Theater of a music and dance performance entitled Suite Rosa, dedicated to the civil rights pioneer, Rosa Parks.
Can you talk about this and are there similarities with the spectacle of your father’s show that was part of the dance tribute created by him titled Rosa in 1990? Furthermore, what does Rosa Parks mean to you?
A.W. [Silence] I collaborated with my husband Byron as the artistic director of the Columbus Jazz orchestra, a seventeen piece big band. In addition, the brilliant and world class arranger/bassist John Clayton was commissioned to create some special music for us. Clayton created, conducted and played his music. We had a choir and a performer who danced on the piece choreographed (many years ago) by my father entitled Rosa. We also had a young spoken word male artist who acted as our “red thread” to help move the evening along. It was a wonderful experience because it gave me the opportunity to restage the work of my father. So, it had a double meaning. We were honoring this great woman, her vision and her movement while it was a tribute to my father. In fact, the piece was originally done as an homage to my paternal grandmother. When my dad came back from Europe, it was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. He was very moved by what was happening here and decided to write a love letter (in the form of dance) addressed to his mother called “I told Jesus”. Years later, The Kennedy Center approached him to create a tribute for Rosa Parks in the early nineties—unfortunately, Mrs. Parks was unable to attend but she wrote a lovely letter to my father which I still treasure to this day. Instead of creating a totally new piece, he thought that it would be a great idea to adapt his mother’s piece for Rosa Parks. In this regard, he changed the title. He introduced a Caucasian woman character who is on the bus and looks at Rosa Parks as if she were crazy when she decides to sit in the front. It is out of this frustration and weariness that "Rosa” proceeds to dance her solo. The story surrounds that. At the end, of course “Rosa” defiantly and with her head held high sits down. This is how the piece ends. I used the same concept, synopsis and choreography that my father had.
Rosa Parks was a gentle woman who created a tsunami movement. We still talk about it and we continue to give it homage. When I think of her, the words strength, courage, grace and intelligence come to mind. It is magnificent how she conducted herself on that day which changed America. Her gesture is a testament to the word grace. I am not convinced that I would have behaved with such dignity that day.
P.T. « Choreopoem » is a lemma used by Ntozake Shange referring to the fusion of dance and poetry that defines the stage performances of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. Did you use the “choreopoem” style for Suite Rosa? In other words, what was your artistic vision behind it?
A.W. There are similarities between Shange’s literary material and Rosa Parks’ activism in terms of the will to question the socio-political limitations imposed on people of color. As you said, Shange wrote For Colored Girls, a beautiful piece of work, but I did not use the “choreopoem” form. We knew that we would use the piece choreographed by my father, so we already had this in mind. Outside of the music, we wanted another element with spoken words. Speak Williams worked on the original words that would be utilized for the show. Our vision was to combine different elements of music, song, dance, and prose.
P.T. What are the future projects that you can share with the public?
A.W. I am planning to attend to speaking events in L.A about my book. I am also preparing to create a solo adaptation of my memoir that would be performed on stage in NY. It would be a one woman show with multimedia and choreographic elements. We will need to incorporate different periods of time from the sixties until the eighties. I already have my original producer and directress. My other “baby” is the screenplay. I am really excited about this.
P.T. Your book is a jewel. It is a labor of love and a work of art. Thank you for giving it to us and it was an honor to interview you. I wish you a lot more success with your memoir and beyond. In fact, I wish I had written your book [Laughs out loud].
A.W. [Laughs] I am also honored and excited. It was a total joy to speak with you and answer your terrific questions. Moreover, I wanted to let you know that your website is really unique. I loooove it, I think it is fabulous and I love its message. The quality of what you are sharing is really wonderful. I wish you a tremendous and continued success.
P.T. Likewise again and thank you! English is not my first language but I looove tongues. Moreover, I am passionate about art as a whole and dancing more specifically, so doing this interview was like a gift to me.
A.W. Merci! [Laughs]
P.T. [Chuckles] You pronounced it right.
The official website is www.notsoblackandwhite.com.
To learn more about Ms. Wilson’s story, readers can click on this link http://www.10tv.com/content/stories/2013/02/11/columbus-black-history-dancer-alexis-wilson.html
SELECTED QUOTES FOR ALEXIS WILSON'S BOOK:
“ Alexis Wilson invites us into her inner most thoughts and memories of her family with such profound eloquence, the reader is left both devastated and uplifted. Her story, exceptionally written and deeply expressed, is many things; not the least of which is a glimpse into a father/daughter relationship. As a father, it is my prayer that my daughter will one day hold me with such high esteem, as Alexis does hers. NOT SO BLACK AND WHITE is an inspiration!” -Blair Underwood- Actor, Producer who also wrote a jaw dropping foreword for Ms. Wilson’s book
“NOT SO BLACK AND WHITE is a stunning memoir about an unconventional childhood. A poignant meditation on life, death, art, love and commitment that goes to the heart of what it means to be a family. Both heartwarming and heart-wrenching, Alexis Wilson’s book is ultimately a mirror in which we see our own humanity and the enduring power of love.” -Kasi Lemmons- Filmmaker (of “Eve’s Bayou”, “Something New”, “Black Nativity”, etc.), Producer and Actress (“School Daze”, etc.)
“NOT SO BLACK AND WHITE is inspirational! Alexis Wilson is a beautiful writer. This daughter honors her father, shares her life and love for that father, whose path I was fortunate to have crossed. Billy Wilson taught his daughter the love she now fully understands. Through her writing, she has done this with eloquence and passion. Her father is beaming that handsome smile and dancing wildly among the stars. Fly Billy!” -Chita Rivera- Dancer, Broadway icon and 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient
“As Mayor of Columbus, Ohio, although many requests and written words cross my desk, I am not always struck emotionally. However, this memoir written by Alexis Wilson is positively compelling. The work warrants strong encouragement and support. Her journey has been brave and inspiring!” -Mayor Michael B. Coleman-
“NOT SO BLACK and WHITE is imperishably mesmerizing. Cinematically written, it effortlessly pulls you into the most intimate, heartrending of spaces between father and daughter on and off stage. From Harlem to Holland, it is a beautiful testament and tribute to unshakable love.” -Victoria Rowell- Award Winning Actress, NYT Bestselling author, child advocate AECF.org
Another compelling interview to watch: http://www.ohiochannel.org/MediaLibrary/Media.aspx?fileId=136525
An excerpt of Not So Black and White:
“As the wash of blue now coalesces into a palette of reds, oranges, and yellows in a sunset sky far above my smaller worlds, I am given grace to float away and think about much. I slide into reverie, remembering the cast of characters who have played the important roles in my life: my mother, my father, my brother, Chip, Chi-Chi, and a select few others. They visit me with laughter and sadness as I try to put all the pieces together in my head. In what way have all these souls rubbed off in making me who I am at this moment? I decide then and there, with an almost suffocating desperation, to figure it out before I land where I was born. The burning sky beckons an inner excavation, a rewind, and I travel back in time in my mind. As usual the comforting voice of my father comes to mind:
“I shall always be foolish but I shall be alive until the end. I want to leave my children a legacy of life. They will know that they sprang from the loins of a living and vital man. Not free from mistakes but free enough to make mistakes. Lusty and alive. No apologies, only a guideline constructed from the best stuff I’ve got—me.”
(Taken from my father’s diary December 10, 1972: Boston)
For the first time, I saw my world in such tremendous terms. A blaring, blinding white light flooded over me. The planet was suddenly so large. I can recall the day, soon after he died in 1994, when the permanence of my father’s absence hit me in the stomach so profoundly and acutely that I thought I might float away.
I was running around doing errands on that bright and sunny day, along with men in their comfy faded moss green tees, mothers in walking shorts shuttling their newborns and contrary three-year-olds into the Giant Eagle grocery store. It dawned on me, clobbered me, that my father was not coming back. He was really gone. Not only was he gone—gone from his house, from his work, from picking up the telephone, from New York and New Jersey, from this country and Europe—but he was also nowhere else on Earth. Nowhere on this entire planet would I run into him. No longer could I summon his wisdom, feel the security and comfort of his always-right words and count on the reassurance that everything would be okay. He had always been here, sometimes miles, oceans, states and countries away—but always here.
God, how I loved him, admired him, was frustrated with him, and inspired by him. That familiar pain in my heart revisits me yet again. I hope it never ends. Loss is painful, but I never want to lose the impact of his memory upon me. On that sunny day, doing my errands and trying to go about my normal activities, life caught up. It does that. It snatches you unaware and says, “Did you think I forgot about that? You haven’t forgotten about it, have you?” It does it sometimes at the most difficult and lonely times ... grinning. On that day it grabbed me by the jugular and shook me around. I was flailing for an explanation and a little mercy. Then grief slowly let me down and loosened its grip. I heard my father’s voice, as I often still do, saying “This too shall pass, Holly. It will get better. Keep moving forward; there’s work to be done. You have a great and exciting journey ahead of you. It’s just part of the process, darling. Life happens to everyone. And don’t be discouraged when you don’t find all the answers. Look for answers in the grey. Life’s not so black and white.”
Rememberings nudge me further and more deeply. I’m suddenly struck by the need and uncomfortable urge to travel in my mind to where all of our stories begin. I adored my father but my mother is the one who brought me into this world.»