by Kimi Eisele
Rod Ambrose and Barbea Williams both came to Arizona from Chicago, Illinois and created lives as artists in the Southwest. Rod is an actor, director, and storyteller in the griot tradition and Barbea a dancer, choreographer and director working to pass on traditional African and African-inspired dance forms from Africa, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, and beyond. Their work encompasses artistic methods, forms, and public performance that celebrate the history and culture of the African Diaspora. Both are awardees of SFA’s annual Master-Apprentice Artist Awards: Ambrose in 2016 and Williams in 2017. While Black history is significant history all year round, I sat down with the two artists this month to talk about living and working in the borderlands, being Black in Arizona, and passing on tradition to younger generations.
Can you talk about being a Black artist in the Southwest, where the Black population is relatively small? What challenges and successes did you face?
BARBEA: Coming to Tucson was a real culture shock for me, coming out of the south side of Chicago in the early 70s at a time where there was a heightened time for Black consciousness, coming out of the Black and Proud movement. I didn’t feel like I was a leader, I was there listening and learning. When I came to Tucson, I felt like I had taken a step back into another generation where people weren’t pushing at the same level. It brought our family closer together. But it was a real culture shock. And sometimes it still is.
ROD: I came April 8, 1968 from the Midwest to the Southwest, from South Chicago to South Phoenix. I met the same cultural shock that Barbea met, because we both came from dense African American populations where there was access to all kinds of cultural ideas, principles, leadership.
When I got to Arizona, I came into a musical family. My uncle Johnny B. Ambrose was a blues and jazz musician and played nightclubs. I brought with me a passion for theater and almost from the moment I arrived I had access to some of the best mentors in the world. Helen K. Mason, the founder of the Black Theater Troupe, found me at Phoenix College during a lunch hour. I was one of two black students in the department. I was just a kid, 18 years old. She said, “We want to build a theater, want to help us?” I said, “Well, no ma’am, I just take courses. I got Theater 101, so I don’t know from making no theater. I’m just trying to be in it.”
My route was through what I consider informal theatrics, storytelling and poetry, on the street corner, in the park, in the night club. Besides Helen Mason there was Richard Harris, the juvenile enrichment director at the Urban League and the first African American to be hired by the Arizona Republic in the early 60s as a journalist. As Helen was my connection to understanding, learning, developing theater–along with John Paul and Larry Soller at Phoenix College and Dr. Daniel Witt at ASU—it was Mr. Harris who taught me how to get out and get stories. We produced something called the Youth United Newspaper. We were high schoolers and it was the first multicultural activity that I experienced in Arizona. We had Latino, Native, Navajo, Anglo, African American and Asian people, and all of us were on staff as stringers.
That newspaper led to something called the Black Writers Workshop. We had about 33 young writers between the ages of 17 and 30. Every month Mr. Harris would bring a special speaker. We heard from Nikki Giovanni, Sonya Sanchez, Al Freeman Jr., Morgan Freeman, and Alex Haley. Alex Haley was a very laid back, quiet, intensely intelligent man. Everybody showed up when he came because we had all read Malcolm X. At the end of his talk he said, “Well, you guys, if you liked my Malcolm X then you will love my Roots.” And he brought out of his satchel all these memo pads, about 40 of them, wrapped in big thick rubber bands, and put it on the middle of the table. We just looked at each other. I think it was Joe Sells who said, “Well, why you call it that?” And he looked over at Mr. Harris and winked and said, “That’s a long story, son” We had no idea what he was talking about. It was a few years later that we saw that thing as a special on TV. But what we’d seen was actually handwritten.
BL: Over time you both became leaders in your respective fields, and also cultural leaders. What was that process like?
BARBEA: I had to leave and go study and train. But I realized pretty quickly when people started addressing me as the go-to person. At first, I was uncomfortable with it. And then you realize you have certain visions and certain understandings about who we are as Black people and the need to address that, first and foremost in your own community and then in the broader community. Because I did not like the buffoonery—how high can you jump or shake your butt, you know?—all those stereotypes that go with African-centered culture. I felt I had a responsibility to totally eliminate that and to really show people that level of excellence and hard work and the research and study behind it.
I began to really understand that I was here for a reason. I was not ready to leave. I will not leave this planet without understanding my culture. I mean a deep understanding. I’m not talking about a superficial Blackness. I got fired from jobs. People didn’t like what I had to say. It hurt a lot. I didn’t have those people around me to make me feel like, Well Barbea, you’re telling the truth. So, you have those real hurt feelings and that aloneness.
One school for example became very angry with me because there was a newspaper article where I was advertising for some Black people to be in a Black show. And I cussed them out. Why should I open it up to everybody? We’re talking about Mansa Musa, Marcus Garvey, Queen Nzinga. I’m not going to have white people playing those roles. I’m sorry. I mean, no, I’m not sorry. That’s the thing. I wasn’t sorry. I got fired from the job. I felt good about it—I said what I had to say. But at the same time, you’re crushed, I mean, you lose money, that was an income.
I had to get this toughness about what I was dealing with. It’s been a real challenge being here. But the longevity of my time here that what makes me feel good. Still working. Still learning. I’ll leave this planet learning. That’s the exciting part. Now, learning from young people who have new genres of African diaspora dance.
ROD: Barbea was talking about identity. You’re in the middle of not knowing exactly who you are but trying to find yourself, trying to find your space in yourself. You had people that could help, and many of them did.
We had an experience with the Black Theater Troupe. I was the youngest one, about 19. Helen said, “Rod we need a title for the theater because the Arizona Republic is going to give us $5000 so we could file for a 501(3)3.” I had no idea what she was talking about. But she said we needed a title. So, we put ideas on the board and voted on three of them and it was “Black Theater Troupe.” And that was it. We were so excited. Everybody was juiced up. Helen said we had to pull everyone together because the guy from corporate giving wanted to talk to us. He came in, a little white guy, and he said, “On Monday I’m going to be taking your paperwork and presenting your work and I got a little nervous because of your name.”
BARBEA: [Laughing] Why did I know that?
ROD: He said, “You can’t exactly say Black. Please understand.” That got everybody upset. “Well, there’s not a brown theater or a yellow theater or a red theater, it’s just theater. Can’t you think of some other title for it?” I’m like the kid in the bunch and I’m the most emotional and excitable, right? And I said, “We like our name. What’re you talking about, our name? We want a theater, black on black in black. That’s what we’re doing here.” He said, “I don’t know if that’s gonna fly.” I asked Helen if the man could step outside so we could discuss it, and he didn’t want to, he started looking at his watch. And over Helen’s objections, I told him he had to. But he left abruptly. Helen was mad. She was hot! She drove me home, and all the way there she was quiet. It was all intense. I felt terrible. I went in the house and cried to my Granny. On Monday morning I got a call from Helen. She said, “Rod, they gave us the money. And another thing,” she said, “Whenever you feel like you’re in the right, you stand on what’s right!” Of course, I was educated in the years that followed that there was indeed a “yellow” theater (Kabuki or Asian Theater), a “brown theater” (Teatro Campesino), and not only an Anglo Theater but something called “The Great White Way”!
I learned through theater, both conventional and community theater, which was more like guerilla theater. I’d get up and out on the street corner or wherever I could. I’d be at school learning how to direct and then I’d get over to the Black Theater Troupe and applied what I learned about directing and then go into the community and do something avant-garde, something they hadn’t seen, something probably more edgy, probably more radical, you know?
So that was my road. I wouldn’t have chosen any other way. I learned so much. I don’t have any regrets. I love the people that I’ve worked with for decades. I can’t say enough about people like Barbea, who came here and stayed. This was a difficult state.
BARBEA: That’s right.
ROD: It has been super challenging to stay here. Because we are constantly reminded that in other places we’d be supported, you will be loved. We got hooked on the idea that we needed to do all that stuff here. Don’t move, improve. So, it’s the activism that’s sitting in us. Activism is really underneath what drives us to do what we do, it is the love of community and love of the craft that makes us artist-activists.
BL: Who do you do your work for?
ROD: We didn’t expect at the Black Theater Troupe that we were going to have 70 percent white audiences. This is something you don’t imagine at first because of conflicting signals from society. We believed that nobody else wanted to see us. But most of my fans were white fans. We had plenty of Black folks that also came to the theater but over four decades our audiences began to resemble the population in the state. The majority are white. I’ve had some real fans. Many have become elderly and had been watching me since I was 18, and next year I will be 70. And that’s something we come to feel deeply. That applause, you really learn not to care who it comes from, as long as it comes! It’s a fascinating thing. Identity and how to codify that identity so that it dignifies your work.
Today, this creative work I do is for my grandchildren. I’ve worked with other people’s kids for over 40 years. So far, I have 11 grandchildren. I want them to have a world that reflects who they are, in the most dignified manner.
BL: And Barbea, what world do you want for your grandchildren?
BARBEA: I want a world where we don’t feel like we have to be validated by other people any more. That’s what I’d like to see. I know that this was a part of my struggle. I wasn’t looking for you to say who I was and what’s right for me and my community and my family. I don’t need validation from people. It’s a lot of what Rod was still speaking of, why you have that non-Black audience. Because we all came up not knowing about Black and African culture and people. People did not understand it.
But what we have to be careful with, too, is making sure that what we present is not, you know, the 50s or 40s. We need to have something contemporary that has a power-base to it for our children and our next generation. The big thing is that I don’t need people to validate me. I have validated myself. At this point me if you’re trying to do something Black and if you want me to do something Black then I’m validating you. What I want to see is Black ownership, Black empowerment, so that it can really take us to another level and sustain us into the future.
We want to be called who we are. I am Black. I am African Black, matter of fact. Why can’t I say that and who are you to tell me I can’t? I read something recently that said something like, “You know who controls you because they’re the people you can’t critique.” Really? Well, at this point I’m glad I’m an elder, because I’m going to say what I have to say. I’m going to say what I know is right.
We did a dance concert a few years ago called, “Courage: Stepping out of Fear.” And that’s really what we need more of. That courage, stepping out of fear. And for people to understand what their fears and phobias are, because we deal with so much of that. We’re still hesitant. Even when we have a power-base, we’re still afraid to speak, because again, who really controls that power-base? That’s what I want to get rid of. We need to be self-sustaining, where the money that funds our institutions comes out of our own community.
So I’m not worried about whether I say something that you don’t like because I really, personally don’t care, you need to get over it because if I say it, it comes from my heart, it comes from the truth, and it comes from a reality, and it comes from an experience and exposure and research and an understanding really who I am and what I’ve had to endure, being that pioneer African-centered woman, unapologetic African-centered woman here in the state of Arizona.
I’m really loving working with Rod with this African Diaspora family reunion. Talk about that, Rod.
ROD: This year is probably the most pivotal in the African American History. This is the 400th year anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade. First slaves landed in harbor in Virginia, August 20, 1619. On that day, we are planning the first known dialogue between Africans and African Americans of the Diaspora. It is called “I Am We: One People, One Culture, One Destiny”—the African Association of Arizona, the Afro-Caribbean Association of Arizona, and the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University.
We are also expanding the annual African Diaspora Reunion Event of Phoenix College into the general community through a festival, put on by the newly formed African Diaspora Advisory Council of Arizona (ADACA)—we meet at the state capitol every month. The African Vibes of Arizona Festival 2019 is scheduled to take place at Steele Indian School Park in Phoenix on October 5 and 6.
Barbea mentioned something that we both share: The real need to pass on skilled traditions in our craft to the Millennial generation. I think that is absolutely critical for all cultures right now. They’re the fresh, they’re the new, they’re the “We want this to be right” kids. I’m loving working with them. I tell them, “We’re guidepost people. We’re Baby Boomers. We want to shine light on your path, but you’ve got to walk the path and lead that way.”