DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU’RE GOING TO?
Updated: Jan 26
I co-founded two educational theater companies during the late 80’s: Umoja SaSa! (Kiswahili for “Unity Now!”) and Actors Against Drugs (AAD). I imagined them to be like the Motown “Motor City” bus tours of the 60’s, when Motown took its acts on the road to perform at small venues across the country. My little Nissan Sentra hauled the actors, costumes, props, and sets of my theater companies up and down the east coast, stopping at schools, churches, festivals, businesses, and occasional street corners.
Vanessa “Peaches” Mack, a friend of mine from high school, was my partner in founding Umoja SaSa! She and I met in 1975 on the corner of Park Heights and Belvedere, after I had moved from Portsmouth to Baltimore and was attending my first day at Northwestern High School. Vanessa was stunning, and looked like the actress Vonetta McGee who played the character Thomasine in Gordon Parks’ 1974 film Thomasine & Bushrod. (The movie was a blaxploitation classic, intended as a counterpart to the film Bonnie and Clyde.) Vanessa had the attitude of Angela Davis, with an Afro to match, was outgoing and talented and knew just about everybody worth knowing. We were in the same drama class, and when we met she was stage-managing the school’s production of the Neil Simon comedy Plaza Suite. The cast of the play was wonderfully talented, and it was the first time I recognized several flamboyant gay students. I felt right at home with the group of young, passionate thespians.
Vanessa was my first real friend in Baltimore. She and I would get an all day pass for the city bus and ride everywhere. We became so close that we referred to each other as cousins; it was easier to explain our relationship that way, and prevented us from inadvertently cock blocking the other when we socialized. Vanessa was a party girl, and we drank my favorite Boone’s Farm Apple Berry wine and smoked weed. I got to hang out with her older friends in the senior class and became a part of the “artsy” clique at Northwestern. They loved to hear me shout out Nikki Giovanni’s poem Ego Tripping, performed like a Baptist preacher.
Vanessa left Baltimore after high school and moved to Virginia. But she returned to Baltimore in 1988, renamed as Nzinga Ama, (an African name meaning “warrior queen”), and wearing a beautiful head of strong dreadlocks. I was performing with the Children’s Theater Association (CTA) in Baltimore, and the company asked me to stage storytelling performances of African folktales for Black History Month. When I told Nzinga about it, she suggested that I take it a step further by forming my own theater troupe. She also suggested that we become partners in the company. “Incorporate and subcontract to CTA,” she advised. “We’ll retain all rights to the stories and productions we create.”
She suggested calling our company Umoja Sasa!, a name borrowed from her college dance troupe. Nzinga’s proposal was empowering and made good business sense to me, and it also allowed me the freedom to control my schedule so I could audition for movies and commercials. We became partners and the Umoja SaSa! Storytellers took off.
Nzinga and I were the perfect business duo; she was steeped in African culture and business, and I was about art and design. I created elaborate costumes for our troupe and produced a traveling set piece that provided the backdrop for our shows; I aged a bolt of canvas fabric and had a map of the world drawn on it, with the continent of Africa in the center. I began to market our company and arranged photo shoots, had our logo designed, created postcards and wrote press releases. Nzinga set about getting our business incorporated, securing a tax ID number and setting up a bank account. Our arrangement worked well with CTA for a while, but Nzinga felt that they tried to exert too much control over our creative choices. It was a white owned business and, in order to be loyal to our vision as African-American storytellers, we parted ways with CTA and Nzinga began to book us jobs elsewhere.
Soon, we added two more members to our company -- John Hall and Vell Wheeler. Vell was a gifted writer and a brilliant comedienne. John was just over all talent, energy, drive, and enthusiasm; he danced, sang, and studied drumming, and as an actor he could create the most amazing voices. Soon I was sewing for a family of four, and we looked like a regal, African family.
I will never forget when John, Nzinga, and I performed while ill with the flu. Vell was the only member of our group untouched by the bug. The three of us always made a big deal in teasing Vell about her Pepsi and cigarette breakfast. Ironically, we kept a strict diet of no pork or red meat, and drank lots of water and juice. John, Nzinga, and I would perform our stories for the audiences, then rush backstage to throw up. We laughed about it later, but it wasn’t funny at the time.
We worked steadily. Umoja SaSa! Storytellers traveled to most elementary schools, high schools, and colleges in the Baltimore area, as well as to local festivals. We appeared on local talk shows during Black History Month and, as a result of Nzinga’s tenacity, we had three or four bookings a week throughout the year. Each of our shows consisted of two to three African tales and ran about forty-five minutes long. Our stories ranged from traditional African tales, such as Anasi the Spider, to dramatic tales of black slavery in early America.
One of our most popular stories was our interpretation of the Virginia Hamilton folktale The People Could Fly. The story is about a group of slaves who fly to freedom upon reciting a secret African word. Our word was “kumbaya,” and we would have the audience hold hands and sing the song “Come By Here, Lord.” It was always inspiring and moving, like when Diana Ross performs “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” and her audience joins hands while singing in unison.
We ourselves had a favorite repertoire of tales we would tell, and any of us could play any of the characters, although I usually was the lead storyteller. Mr. Umoja and His Two Sons, The People Could Fly, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, Underground Railroad, The Story of Kujichagulia and How God Created Butterflies were some of my personal favorites. We read lots of books filled with African and African-American tales, and would adapt those stories, as well as some of Vell’s original stories, to fit our performance format. Our goal was always to teach a lesson by the end of each tale. Our performances incorporated song and dance, and John was always creating new character voices or playing a different instrument. We also included educational elements in our shows that teachers could use in their basic school curriculum, such as lessons about African culture or certain vocabulary words. Teachers were amazed at the study guides we provided to teach kids Kiswahili vocabulary.
There were moments when Nzinga and I struggled with how to share leads on a story. Our personalities were both aggressive, and sometimes we stepped over each other when we performed. When we were in sync, it was magic, but when she was on a personal mission to teach a certain lesson or give the audience as much information about our culture as possible, there was no controlling her. I met other griots who told me I could do well as a solo storyteller. Strangely enough, at the time I did not feel complete without the group performing alongside me. I think some of the same people were trying to fill Nzinga’s head with the same ideas, saying that she’d do well on her own. Unlike me, she was listening.
Umoja SaSa! became so popular that we received invitations to perform at griot events, Kwanza festivals, and Juneteenth celebrations. If there were black people celebrating something positive somewhere on the east coast, Umoja SaSa! was there. In 1990, Newsday, a New York publication, did a profile on us; we were highlighted in a story about griots all over the country. I was very proud to be included, considering we were such a new group.
Although we presented ourselves as one big, happy family, problems were arising behind the scenes. When you work in close quarters with a group, pressure builds over time and tension is bound to develop. Nzinga and I would often disagree on creative issues. I felt Umoja SaSa! was a cultural expression designed to educate people, not make a political statement. However, Nzinga was decidedly more militant. Although I was afraid of alienating our audience, I gave in on some things. When Nzinga felt we should use “AFRIKA” instead of “AFRICA” on our map, I went along with her reasoning, which was that the people on the continent spell it with a “k.” At other times, I put my foot down and said “NO.” I got tired of hearing about how “the white man” was always out to get us. During the reign of the Supremes, people called Florence Ballard the girl with the soulful voice, while Diana Ross brought the commercial sound that got the group into the racially restricted markets of their day. In Umoja SaSa!, Nzinga was the grittier, soulful storyteller, and I was the more commercial voice. Sometimes her style put off the white schools where we performed.
Things became intense one day after a performance at Bryn Mawr, a prestigious private school in Baltimore. The fight started backstage after two really good shows, then escalated in the parking lot. I am sure it had something to do with Nzinga’s overboard behavior. There were times it felt like she was making white people pay for the sins of their ancestors, for the atrocity of enslaving our people. Our loud cussing and fussing prompted a teacher to come out of her classroom and ask us to be quiet. She said there were students testing inside who could hear us, so she asked us to leave promptly and quietly.
It was so embarrassing for John and Vell, especially since they were not involved in the argument. We got in the car and Nzinga sat in the front seat next to me. After Vell and John plopped in the back seat, I peeled out of the parking lot. There was silence. Finally, I spoke.
“The goal, Nzinga,” I started, “ Is to have the school want us to return, not feel guilty about being white and privileged.”
“We’ll never return if you keep driving like a maniac,” Nzinga fired back. “We will all be dead.”
“Oh, you mean like you will be if you keep drinking the way you do?”
“Go to hell!” she screamed back.
I slammed on the breaks and balled up my fist. She slowly removed her scarf, stared me in the eyes and said, "Well, what are you going to do? Hit me?"
Vell and John were petrified, but so amused that they never let Nzinga or I forget the incident. After that, whenever an argument started brewing between us, Vell and John would look at each other and say, “Remember Bryn Mawr?”
Not only had Nzinga been fighting with me, she had also been fighting her own internal battles. She had gone through several bad relationships and had suffered an ectopic pregnancy. She loved kids but was told that she would never be able to have any of her own. To cope with the sadness, she would often lock herself away for the weekend and drink.
We were so used to her behavior, it was not odd that she was a no-show for the next few performances. Then she decided to end her association with the group and took half the money we had in our business account. We only had four thousand dollars, and her actions left only two thousand of this to provide salary for three people, gas, and travel expenses. It was all we had in the world, and Nzinga just took a good chunk without so much as a face-to-face confrontation. Like a coward, she took her marbles and ran away from the game, all because we had refused to play it her way.
We hired a lawyer and filed charges against Nzinga. I hesitated, because I was still hoping we could work it out. However, seeing that she was not coming around, I had no choice. Serving her papers was a difficult task because she avoided us. Then we learned she was promoting herself as a solo performer and was to perform at an upcoming Malcolm X celebration. We showed up to the event, hid around a corner, and waited. When Nzinga appeared, our man sprang up and served her the summons.
Nzinga never showed up for the court date and defaulted. It was impossible to garnish her wages because she was self-employed. I had wasted my time and money, because by then I owed Andre’s sister legal fees. When Florence Ballard left the Supremes, Berry Gordy, Jr. made her sign away her rights to use the name “The Supremes,” ever. I wanted to ban Nzinga from ever using the name “Umoja SaSa!” I felt like I had gotten no justice. I was angry and disappointed, but I moved on. Nzinga moved to Jamaica and got married, and I did not hear from her for years.
Eventually, Nzinga sent John a letter and apologized for leaving the group the way she did. In 1999, she sent me a postcard of congratulations when I opened my one-man show in Los Angeles. My friends told me that she and her husband were operating an African themed restaurant in Baltimore, near Fells Point. Time allows forgiveness and, now that time has passed, I am glad that she had a happy ending. The last thing I wanted was to see her on the cover of Jet magazine, on welfare like Florence Ballard.
The company went on and things were fine. Eventually, Vell decided to leave to go teach school, so we found some talented performers to fill in. We traveled to New York and Virginia and had some great shows. When the opportunity came for me to work with QVC in 1991, I turned management of the company over to John. John hired two female performers, Nata’aska Hasan Humminbird and Valerie White, as new, permanent members of the company. John had to occasionally use other actors to fill in, and Tracie Thoms, who would go on to appear in the television series Cold Case and in the films Rent and The Devil Wears Prada, was a substitute Umoja SaSa! member at one time.
Unfortunately, Umoja SaSa! had no farewell performance like the Supremes did, to usher out its old members and introduce its new. Just as Diana left the new Supremes her old gowns, I turned all the costumes over to John. Diana Ross opened her first solo concert with the statement, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the let’s see if Diana Ross can make it on her own show.” It was time for the “let’s see if Dale can make it on his own show” too.
The other theater company I formed the year after the inception of Umoja SaSa! was called Actors Against Drugs. My partner in that endeavor was Kay Lawal, who I met while working as a singing trolley driver. Back then, there was a lot of downtown redevelopment happening in Baltimore at the Inner Harbor, and the trolley service gave tours of downtown Baltimore for only twenty-five cents. The service was supposed to bring out the “old charm” in Baltimore, and create a public interest in seeing all the wonderful locations of the city. In addition, the trolley service served at special events. The night I met Kay, we picked up various entertainers and shuttled them back and forth to different nightclubs across the city, so that they could do twenty-minute performances before shuttling off to another club. By the end of the evening, the performers had performed in at least five clubs. The purpose of the event was to get more nightclub patrons to support urban entertainment.
Kay was performing that evening with her comedy partner, Joyce Scott. They had an act called “The Thunder Thigh Review,” a hilarious show that celebrated lusciously large women. During the ride to each club, she and I started talking, and I found out that she was the director for a performance company called Family Circle Theater. She found out that I was an actor, nude model, and sometimes a stripper. I expressed an interest in working with her company, and she made me audition for her that night. However, I didn’t audition as an actor. I instead danced and stripped up and down the aisle of my trolley bus, showing her just one of my many talents. We bonded that night and, in a few days, we were working together at Family Circle Theater, doing educational shows targeting teen pregnancy prevention.
It was later on that I learned about Kay’s drug problem. She had hit rock bottom while performing at the International Festival of Fools in Amsterdam. It should have been the high point of her career. When she sought help for her addiction, she came up with a brilliant idea -- “What if drugs could talk? What would they say to seduce you?” This idea became the basis of Actors Against Drugs. Our performance troupe brought drugs to life by showing the tricks they use to hook people. After our performances, Kay and other former addicts would share their real life drug experiences. We got contracts with several companies that were trying to help their employees with substance abuse problems. Because of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No!” drug awareness initiative, we got contracts with organizations like the United States Postal Service and the Baltimore City Health Department. We also secured a lucrative contract with the Social Security Headquarters in Baltimore, and the company mandated that all their employees attend our shows. That contract alone kept us busy for a long, long time, and covered over three hundred performances. We also did a national broadcast on their satellite network.
Kay and I incorporated AAD, as Nzinga and I had done with Umoja SaSa! Then I created publicity materials, set up photo shoots, and duplicated the process that had gotten Umoja SaSa! off the ground. With AAD, I went a step further and secured 501(c)3 status for us as a non-profit organization, which made us eligible for grants and tax breaks. We did several shows for the IRS, which in turn guided us through the lengthy and cumbersome process of becoming a non-profit. We traveled to schools, churches, businesses, colleges, drug rehab treatment centers, and just about any place where we could attract an audience.
My two theater companies kept me extremely busy from 1988 through 1991. I was my own little Berry Gordy, Jr., with two acts on the road. Mondays and Wednesdays were dedicated to African storytelling, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I played the character of “Alcohol” and taught people about substance abuse. John and Vell also joined, taking on the characters of heroin and amphetamine.
What I failed to realize during that period was that, although Kay had beaten her drug addition, other members of AAD were still active drug users. It reminds me of the naïve innocence Mary Wilson says the Supremes had when they met the Beatles and smelled pot for the first time. I was naïve to assume that since we were Actors Against Drugs, none of us abused drugs. I was sadly mistaken.
I was quite proud of the costumes I made for AAD. My wild imagination inspired me to create some bizarre fashion statements. For our big show for Social Security, we hired three actresses to play coke, crack, and freebase, the cocaine trio. They danced and sang an evil version of “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” seducing the audience with Supreme-like movements. I made white, stretchy gowns for the ladies. We dusted their bodies in white talc, and created fake blood to drip out of their noses.
AAD evolved with the times by addressing relevant health issues, and we created an HIV performance piece since we were losing so many of our friends to AIDS. We immediately got another big contract with the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the Baltimore City Health Department contract called for us to create a traveling show that dealt with HIV testing.
Our AIDS shows were even more powerful than our drug shows, and our prison AIDS shows were my favorite. It has always been half a joke, half a fact that some of the hottest, sexiest men can be found behind bars. Our sexy audience was literally “held captive,” and this turned me on. Wortham Tinsley, our technical director, claimed he was worried about a prison breakout, but I later discovered he was more nervous about running into some of his former drug dealers. They locked us inside for two performances, with a break in between shows. Upon arrival to the facility, I was searched, which I loved. In fact, I secretly felt like a star of a Baltimore version of the HBO series Oz. It was a neurotic, kinky, and erotic experience I shall never forget.
One of the last gigs I did with Kay was during a summer when the Baltimore Family League contracted us to participate in the East Baltimore Domestic Violence Prevention Project. We taught kids how to use stories from their lives to create theater that would teach audiences about the impact and pain of domestic violence. The kids used a number of creative devices to express themselves, including rap, dance, poetry, and song.
After leaving Baltimore to work for QVC, I continued making occasional appearances with AAD. Kay eventually restructured the group into another company called Womb Work Productions, Inc. She partnered with two other positive women, Nata’aska Hasan Humminbird, formerly of Umoja SaSa!, and Rashida Forman-Bey, and today she continues to use theater to educate audiences on important health issues. She also continues to stay clean and sober. Kids call her “Mama Kay.”
As the years have passed, new generations of performers have picked up where AAD left off. Womb Work birthed another company called Nu World Art Ensemble, and Kay’s children, (my God -- we’ve grown old enough to have children!), Ola and Kola, now perform in that company. My niece, Danielle, and Vell’s nephew also perform with the company from time to time. Having passed our torch on to our talented youth is one of my proudest legacies. In April 2007, Womb Work hosted a 10th Anniversary Gala celebrating the achievements of Nu World Art Ensemble, its premiere youth performing arts company.
“Never forget the games you play as a kid, it could become your job as an adult. Never forget the friends along the way, they are there for a reason.”