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Sunday, January 31, 2016

FLY - A Theatrical Tour de Force

Picture a dark, empty stage. A faint light from a cloudy sky. The U.S. Capitol in the background. A man’s shadow. Then, the sound of tap dancing feet echos through the shadows. Lights up! A tap dancer stomps, hops, leaps, shuffles across the steps of the capitol.  Not just any tap dancer, but a real hoofer like Gregory Hines or Savion Glover -- a Tap Griot tapping staccato rhythms, his pain, his sorrow, his hopes, joy and dreams. Tapping his life.

That was the opening of scene of FLY at the Pasadena Playhouse.  The tap dancer exits and Chet, an elderly Tuskegee Airman, appears on the capitol steps and tells his story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a story we’ve all heard.  Yet, the story is brought to life by a stunning cast of talented young actors. Brooks Brantly (W.W), Ross Cowan (Shaw), Omar Edwards (Tap Griot), Anthony J. Goes (O'Hurley), Brandon Nagle (Reynolds), Desmond Newson (Chet), Damien Thompson (J. Allen) and Terrell Wheeler (Oscar)

Written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, FLY kicked off Black History Month at the Pasadena Playhouse with a bang. Brilliantly directed by Khan it takes the audience through the rigorous training, racial slurs, insults that these young men, some of the best and brightest minds of the country, endured when they were accepted into the U.S. Army's Pilot Training Program in July, 1941 at the segregated Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama.  It takes them on their first flights, bumpy and scary. Then as they became skilled aviators, on their first combat missions protecting bombers as fighter escorts over Europe during WWII. As the story unfolds, we learn about their personal lives, their families, their ambitions, their humanness.

According to a story in Performances magazine, the Red Tails as they were called, “flew over 15,000 missions and earned 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 8 Purple Hearts” and the admiration and respect of the white pilots whose lives they saved. Nevertheless, they returned to the U.S. to endure the same prejudice and discrimination they fought against in battles against the Nazis.

Still, the story is not so much about racism, but about courage, fortitude, endurance and achieving one's dreams in spite of adversity.

It is an American story. A theatrical tour de force. A performance you won’t want to miss.  FLY plays at the Pasadena Playhouse through Feb. 21.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Joys of Autumn

Leaves changing colors bright and bold
from green to brown, red, yellow and gold

Season’s harvest -- squash, pumpkins, persimmons
oranges, apples, pomegranates and lemons

Football games
Steelers, Raiders, Vikings, Browns
Crowds cheering when their team scores touch downs
Cups of hot chocolate, tea, or apple cider
whichever one you prefer
People buying Halloween candies and sweets
for ghosts and goblins who knock on their doors yelling
 “trick or treat”
Rains that cool and cleanse the scorched earth
Fires blazing on your hearth
Sharing turkey, stuffing and Happy Thanksgivings
May you enjoy all the wonderful things autumn brings.
Copyright, October, 2015
Hazel Clayton Harrison

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Whitney and Bobbi Kristina - An Inseparable Bond

As is the mother, so is her daughter. Ezekiel 16:44

Like Whitney Houston, I have an only daughter with whom I share a bond so strong that no force can separate us. Maybe that’s why the news of Bobbi Kristina Brown’s death, so close on the heels of her mother’s, touched a deep cord of sorrow in my heart.
I lost my own mother when I was thirty and the loss knocked me to the ground.  It took me years to come to terms with my mother’s passing and at times I still find myself groping in the dark for that wisdom and unconditional love that only a mother can give. So I can only imagine the force of the blow losing her mother dealt to the twenty-two year old Bobbi Kristina. 

Like the bond between Houston and Bobbi Kristina, my daughter and I share a bond borne from the trials of living in a world that seems to be spinning more and more out of control.  Some of the challenges I shared in common with Houston include holding down a demanding job while parenting my daughter (though, of course, my wages were considerably less than hers); going through painful divorces and break ups with husbands and boyfriends while trying to teach my daughter how to avoid the pitfalls of dating and marriage; attempting to resist the temptations of alcohol and illegal drugs in a world where they are so readily available.

Fortunately, my daughter and I did not have to go through these trials in the limelight of the public eye, which I’m told magnifies situations by quantum leaps.  We were also fortunate to be able to draw from the well of my mother’s and grandmothers’ wisdom which continuously guided us. The churches we belonged to were beacons of light which pointed us to higher ground. And we had family, friends and community members who counseled and encouraged us along the way. No one really knows why the traditional systems failed Houston and Bobbi Kristina. Maybe the lights of stardom are just too bright for some to endure.
In every human tragedy there are lessons to be learned.  Whether we like it or not, as mothers we are role models and examples for our young.  They consciously and subconsciously emulate our behavior. The best we can do is give them a strong foundation, teach them basic values, and reach toward our own higher selves. In doing so, we give them coping mechanisms that will help sustain them when they are faced with the ultimate reality.
I believe that Houston and Bobbi Kristina are together once again. Perhaps it was Houston who called her beloved “Krissy” home so she would no longer suffer. As we grieve their passing, the best we can do is appreciate the gifts of song they left us, honor their memories, and keep them in our prayers.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Father's Lessons on Aging and Dying

When I go down to the grave I can say I have finished my day's work. But I cannot say I have finished my life. My day's work will begin again the next morning. -Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
     My mother died at the age of fifty while still in her prime. So, although she taught me almost everything I knew about becoming a woman, she passed on before she could teach me about aging. Thus, I looked to my father for those life lessons. He died at the age of 80, but truth be told, that was not the end of his life. In many ways it was the beginning.

     My father retired at the age of 62 after working for 35 years in a steel mill.  Before his retirement he had been a heavy drinker and I worried that without my mother to nag him about his bad habits, he would drink himself into an early grave. But after his retirement, he sobered and ripened into a wise elder and respected community member.

Dad and me in 1980s after he retired 

     My father loved to garden and after he retired his garden overflowed with beans, tomatoes, and greens. In his youth he had joined the Freemasonry. After retirement he was elected treasurer of their local lodge.  He also assumed the role of caretaker for our dear Aunt Lily who was well in her 90s by then. In short, he lived a full life after retirement.

Dad and Aunt Lily

     I'll never forget the phone call I received from my nephew telling me my father had been stricken with lung cancer.  He was 79 years old and the doctors had given him only four months to live. Hearing that news was a blow to my stomach
     When I recovered, I had to accept the inevitable. My sisters, nephew and I went into action to assume the role of caretakers for dad who had been independent since he left home at the age of 18. There were doctor appointments, chemo and radiation treatments, medical bills, wills and estate plans - all the business of death and dying.

     Through it all, I observed my father's reaction to becoming dependent on his children. After getting over the initial shock, he assumed the role of a father and grandfather who was determined to live to the fullest whatever days he had left.

     There was his 80th birthday to celebrate.  His children and grandchildren traveled from all over the country for his first and last birthday party.  There were balloons, singing, picture taking, and plenty of food. He reclined on the sofa in his pajamas soaking up all of the birthday wishes, hugs and kisses, and even gathering up enough wind to blow out candles on the cake.

Dad at his 80th birthday party

     The ten months he lived after that birthday are forever etched in memory. The were hours spent playing checkers with him to ward off dementia. Trips to the local gym for physical therapy. And hours just sitting at his bedside in silence when he was too weak to talk. Once when I was helping him change his Depends, he joked, "Well the Bible says once a man twice a child. I guess I'm a child again."

     Through it all, I never heard him complain - not once! When asked how he was feeling, he'd always say, "I'm fine. I feel good."
     He passed away quietly at home in July 2005. At his memorial service and funeral, countless neighbors, friends, and family members expressed their condolences and spoke of ways he had helped them. Although he has left this world, I feel his presence now as strong as ever. Driving around in the old Buick he left me, I can still hear him guiding me, telling me to slow down and pay attention to the road ahead.

     I am forever grateful for a father who loved me unconditionally and taught me not only how to live, but how to age and die gracefully.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sonia Sanchez - Quotes from her Reading at 2015 Jean Burden Poetry Series (Cal State L.A.)

I have been a fan of Poet Sonia Sanchez's since my activist days at Kent State University in the late sixties. So when I heard she was scheduled to be the featured reader at the Jean Burden Poetry Series at California State University, L.A. on Thursday, May 14, 2015, I planned to be there, front and center.  It was a good thing I arrived at the Annenberg Lecture Hall early. By the time she arrived, there wasn't an open seat.  Throughout her lecture and reading, I hung on to every word and took notes. Here are some of her quotes.

"You should be pissed at the mess of the earth your elders have made."

"It is an obscenity for 1 percent of America's population to own 99 percent of the wealth."

"You must speak out against racism and sexism."

"Teach people how to breathe and you teach them life."

"Teach children haiku and you teach them life."

"Write peace haikus."

"Poetry is unconscious conversation."

Quoting Octavio Paz: "Poetry is a bridge between history and truth."

What has Professor Sanchez been doing lately?  Besides lecturing internationally on Black Culture and Literature, Women's Liberation, Peace and Racial Justice, she completed her most recent book, "Morning Haiku".  BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez, a new feature documentary about her life and work, is scheduled to be released in the summer of 2015.

Author Hazel Clayton Harrison with Distinguished Poet Sonia Sanchez

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Black Madonna - Symbol of a Mother's Love

Black Madonna Photo by Ramon FV Velasquez

With Mother's Day right around the corner, I've been thinking a lot lately about a mother's love. Not that I don't think about that every day. After all I am a mother of two beautiful children and am blessed to have had an extraordinary mother to raise me.

Although motherly love (what the Greeks call Storge) is one of the most powerful forces on earth regardless of the mother's ethnicity, I believe that a Black mother's love has a strength greater than the earth's gravitational pull.  Why? Because a Black mother's love has been fired in one of the hottest kilns on the planet - the kiln of slavery and its horrific aftermath.

During slavery a slave mother's children were literally torn from her arms and sold to the highest bidder. Yet, stories abound about slave mothers who stole away at night to find their children on other plantations. To this day, a Black mother's children are often torn from her arms by a system that denies her basic human rights such as decent housing, education, and food. Her children are too often easy pickings for rogue cops who use them for target practice.

My mother (center) and Great Aunt Lily
Black mothers and fathers have been criticized for spanking or whipping their kids. Now Toya Graham, the African American mother who went off on her son for throwing rocks at the Baltimore police, is being applauded. Finally, psychologists, social workers, and parents are seeing what black mothers and fathers have always known - if we don't firmly discipline our children, the system will maim or murder them.

My mother showered her five children with love but had a firm hand, and I am better off for it.  Despite the many whippings we got, we knew she loved us and woe be unto anyone who tried to harm us. She was a fierce protector of her young.

Edna Crutchfield

When I left home and moved into the larger community, I was adopted by surrogate mothers. There was Minnesota Artist and Poet Ginny Knight of Guild Press, Edna Crutchfield,  a founder of International Black Writers and Artists (IBWA), and  Los Angeles Artist and Community Activist Edwina Gaines who mentored me in writing and public speaking. I am eternally grateful to have had such remarkable maternal figures in my life.

Black Madonna Plate
One of my favorite images is that of the Black Madonna or Black Virgin.  According to mythologists, the Black Madonna symbolizes the archetypal dark goddess. Marian statues and paintings of her have existed since Medieval times and hundreds of her forms still exist in artwork all over Europe and South America.

For me, the Black Madonna personifies all that the Black mother suffers, sacrifices and endures.  Though hidden in the shadows of cathedrals, shrines and museums, she is revered and honored by many who view her as a representation of the great Earth Goddess who provides for all of her creatures and yet is often neglected and abused.

Today and every day, I honor all mothers, and in particular our Black mothers and grandmothers who came before to lay a foundation of love, courage, and faith on which we can stand.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Epic's Spring 2015 XGM: A Space Odyssey

Look! Up in the sky! It's a space shuttle! It's a school! It's a farm! It's a museum! It's Epic!

Epic System's new corporate headquarters in Verona, Wisconsin sparks the imagination and challenges software development companies to think outside the cubicle world when it comes to the development of electronic medical record (EMR) systems.

At this year's Expert Group Meeting (XGM), Epic's campus was as much of an attraction to the over 600 participants from 193 healthcare companies across 44 states and 3 countries  as the conference itself. Sitting on 1,000 acres of farm land in Verona, about a 30 minute drive from Madison, the Epic farm as it is fondly called is a showpiece in and of itself.

Designed in a spaceship-like configuration, Epic's learning center is made up of three main halls: Voyager, Epicenter, and Deep Space. Each hall transports visitors to a different world. In Voyager Hall we admired artwork from Indiana Jones' Lost Ark, the Greatest Show on Earth, an Epic Trek and 007. In Epicenter we strolled past images of the Wild Wild West and rocked it with Elvis and the Beatles.  My favorite was the caves of Deep Space where we explored rock, cave, dirt, magma, and sky layers of planet earth.

In its enormous hallways, every nook and cranny is filled with artwork that titillates and teases the imagination. On a tour of the campus, my colleagues and I were taken through halls decorated to look like everything from New York's Times Square to jungles of Africa. 

There were conference rooms overlooking duck ponds and waterfalls and halls designed to look like heaven.  There was a door to hell too, but our tour guide whisked us right past it.

The XGM offered sessions on a wide range of topics including demos on Epic's newest software. Also offered were presentations on e-learning, distance learning, and traditional classroom training methods.  Judging by the buzz in the dining halls and training rooms, the XGM was a huge success.

My guess is that even more Epic customers will be wowed at Epic's User Group Meeting (UGM) which is usually held in the Fall.