AfroSolo Arts Festival brings artists together

In 1991, Thomas Robert Simpson threw a 39th birthday party for himself in an acting studio above what's now the Walgreen's at Sutter and Powell streets in San Francisco. He performed snippets from what would become "There's No Hatred Here," his multi-character solo piece about the Civil Rights Movement, and actor friends performed their solo stuff. The show was a hit with the small crowd and led Simpson to start the AfroSolo Arts Festival two years later. He's been its artistic director ever since.

Initially a forum for black theater artists, the festival expanded its scope to encompass music, dance, spoken word and visual art created primarily by African Americans and others of African descent. Over the years, the festival has presented big names like actress Ruby Dee, activist and comedian Dick Gregory and bluesman Charles Brown, as well as local artists and fascinating figures like Hope Foye, the jazz-singing operatic soprano and Paul Robeson protege who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

This year's festival opens tonight with a Commonwealth Club panel discussion on art as a medium for peace (speakers include performance artist Brenda Wong Aoki and choreographer Robert Moses). The shows get going next weekend, when pianist Jerome Clay's band and others play a free jazz concert at Yerba Buena Gardens on Aug. 6, followed the next day by free performances at Fort Mason Center by poet Joel A. Brown and the storytelling dancer Traci Bartlow (presented in collaboration with the San Francisco Theater Festival). The festivities include Jacqueline Hairston conducting a 50-voice choir singing her arrangements of spirituals on Sept. 25, and an exhibition of Nanette Harris' blue-people paintings. Simpson, 58, spoke about AfroSolo by phone from his downtown San Francisco pad.

Q: The theme of this year's festival is United in Peace, like last year. What's the idea?

A: It's about bringing the community together to think about promoting peace and harmony. The idea initially came about during the election of President Obama. There was so much acrimony from people opposed to him. I was also thinking about the violence in the African American community. I thought AfroSolo could do something to promote peace. Everyone who participated in last year's festival - which had multicultural performances - related to that in some form or fashion. This year, the artists will devote a segment of their performance to promoting peace. [Saxophonist] Ranzel Merritt might play something by Coltrane. Some may think of peace in terms of peace with oneself, or peace in the community or world peace. We mean it in the broadest sense.

Q: What was your original vision for the festival?

A: I wanted it to be a forum for African American artists to tell our stories from our point of view. A lot of things were happening at the time, like the Rodney King case, and drive-by shootings in black communities. As I read stories about those incidents, I thought, "If I were writing those stories, I wouldn't tell them that way." I felt that if we wanted to tell our stories, we had to have a place to tell them. At the time, there were no other solo events like this. Now there are many more outlets for black artists.

Q: Tell us about Jewelle Gomez's "Waiting for Giovanni," which premieres at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. It's about James Baldwin, right?

A: It's about a moment in Baldwin's life, when he had to decide whether or not to publish "Giovanni's Room." A lot of people didn't want him to publish it because it deals with homosexuality. Within the black community, and other communities, there was homophobia. Jewelle calls it a dream play. To me, it's about how people make decisions that can have a significant impact on their lives.

Q: Your sister Etta Ray Simpson was one of the original Freedom Riders who fought to desegregate the buses in the South. How were you shaped by segregation and the Civil Rights Movement?

A: I grew up in Nashville in the 1950s and '60s. There were "colored only" signs, certain places where we could go, and certain places we couldn't go. So I was significantly shaped by race. Part of my work is about dealing with these issues. Another sister - I have five brothers and five sisters - was involved in demonstrations in Nashville. Part of my piece "There's No Hatred Here" is based on stories my sisters told me about their experiences in the Civil Rights Movement.

Q: You haven't performed in several years. Do you have something in the works?

A: That's a point of contention for me. One of the reasons I started the festival was to perform my work. But then I got involved in all the administrative things, fundraising and making the festival happen. I don't have much time for writing or performing. I want to do a piece about Dred Scott. Was he an early Martin Luther King? Or was he a pawn of both the abolitionists and the slaveholders? I want to know more about the man. I'm also working on an ensemble piece about a theater company that's going broke.

AfroSolo Arts Festival: July 28-Oct. 20 at various venues in San Francisco. Most events are free, others $20-$50. (415) 771-2376.

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