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Thomas Robert Simpson

Multicultural Tapestry
A long-running festival in San Francisco taps into the pulse of the African-American experience.
By Jean Schiffman /  re-printed from www.stage-directions.com

"I've always wanted AfroSolo to be a mechanism for artists to deal with issues important to the community," says Thomas Robert Simpson, the founder/artistic director of San Francisco's annual summer festival of black arts. This year, for the first time, the popular event has a unifying theme: health.

Begun as a 39th birthday present to himself in 1994—he invited nine actor colleagues to join him in a showcase of original solo works at a local theatre venue—Simpson quickly realized he'd tapped into something deep: African-American performers need to tell their own stories, and audiences want to hear them. The event grew rapidly from a modest, out-of-pocket venture to a funded, nonprofit extravaganza playing to multicultural audiences. Over the years the lineup—still mostly but not entirely in solo form—has included theater, dance, standup comedy, music, spoken word, rap, youth performances and visual arts, much of it by emerging artists, each with a personal story to share. Past headliners include such luminaries as activist-comedian Dick Gregory, actress Ruby Dee, poet June Jordan, singer Mavis Staples and others. No less significant are AfroSolo's workshops and panel discussions for both artists and audiences. It is the only such event in the country to regularly showcase African-American artists in a variety of disciplines and also to present scholarly symposia.

"In the past, the artists have addressed everything from race to civil rights to sexuality to violence in the community," explains Simpson, a tall, soft-spoken man with a shaved head, a shy chuckle and a self-effacing sense of humor. But this year, all participating artists will be asked to present work focusing on four medical issues that are crucial in the African-American community: breast cancer, diabetes, prostate cancer and AIDS. "I've been thinking about my own family and friends who are dealing with health issues," says Simpson. "You read about it every time you open a newspaper." He hopes the festival will help make black audiences more conscious of their health and more aware of available medical services.

Although kick-started by a free outdoor jazz concert at downtown's elegant Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (as part of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival), AfroSolo Arts Festival XIII largely takes place in the Western Addition, a district comprising San Francisco's first black neighborhood, at the African American Art & Culture Complex (AAACC). There, Simpson plans a free, one-day, outdoor health fair, where community residents can get basic screenings administered by health professionals at 25 to 50 booths. Simultaneously musicians, youth spoken word artists and dancers will perform on a temporary outdoor stage. Those who get screenings will also receive free tickets to "Black Voices," a solo performance series at AAACC's indoor Buriel Clay Theatre. On exhibit will be a 25-year retrospective of the work of visual artist Stephanie Anne Johnson, including a commissioned health-related piece by Johnson.

Says Ellen Sebastian Chang, a local director and solo-performance workshop leader who has been one of Simpson's advisors from the beginning: "I think it's really important that this festival is a springboard for work with an African-American and in certain cases, an African or Afrocentric perspective. There's an illusion that our multiculturalism has all melted into the pot. I think we don't have as many theaters focused on developing the work of African-Americans, or of Asian-Americans." Chang notes that Simpson and his associates curate from a different point of view than that of theaters with mixed or predominantly European-American perspectives. And for artists, she says, the opportunity to try out first-time work onstage in a festival environment is important.

"Being reinvited year after year, you're just going to grow as an artist," agrees solo performer Nena St. Louis, who has appeared at AfroSolo four times. "That's what happened to me." Since premiering her autobiographical one-woman show Schools, about growing up during the Civil Rights movement, she has been invited to tour local schools, which lead to a five-year residency at the University of Nebraska. Her colleagues, she says, have also expanded into the community because of their exposure at AfroSolo. "I've learned a little bit about grantwriting, arts administration and producing from Thomas," she adds. "He's such a boon to the community."

At the heart of the festival is Simpson himself, a quietly hardworking man and sometime actor who keeps busy raising funds, seeking talent, arranging schedules. He grew up in Nashville, the fourth among 11 siblings. His father, a butcher in a packing company, came from the hills of Tennessee; his mother was a domestic. In 1983, on the verge of getting his master's degree in psychology, Simpson followed his heart and left Nashville for San Francisco and a life in the theater. Working at places like Wendy's and The Good Guys, he pursued a commercial acting career and began to develop his own solo work, a series of 20-minute pieces called Still Headin' fo' da Promise Land, about the black male experience in America, each piece built around a historical incident. He has garnered attention especially for his vignette of a man with AIDS and his minister father, which premiered at AfroSolo.

"One of my consultants was concerned that I'm doing more than I can possibly do," says Simpson, of his workload. "Being male and African-American, I'm driven, trying to make a contribution. Once I had someone tell me when I was younger, that I'd never amount to anything. I think I'm still trying to amount to something."

He adds, "I initially thought of AfroSolo as a forum for social and political exchange for the African-American community. I think we've broadened it beyond that to explore what it means to be human through the African-American experience."

Comments Chang, "Thomas brings in people with particular stories to tell. It's really resonated. There's an audience base out there that wants to see someone tell his or her story. Sometimes that's everything."

AfroSolo Festival XIII opens August 5 with a free outdoor jazz concert at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. "Black Voices" runs August 10–13 with panel discussions running concurrently, at AAACC, 762 Fulton Street, San Francisco. A health fair is planned for August 12 or 19. For more information, call 415-771-2376 or visit www.afrosolo.org.

Jean Schiffman is a San Francisco–based writer who specializes in the arts, and is the author of The Actor's Toolkit.


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