I’m still digesting her album: Did You Know; Confessions (+); Black Vivaldi Sonata; Down On Me; Ballad of the Unhatched Twins; Green Eyes; Iceland Moss (+); Coming Up; House of Open Tuning II; Glorious; Stuck; Limitless (+); Honey, Pelicans in the Summer. (+ plus means those the ones that I think I know, the hook – – not necessarily what it means, what she trying to say).
She has an amazing array of videos, shot in locations like LA and apparently Africa. Her hair is amazing and variable, although in SF it was shorn; as it was also in the NPR tiny desk show.
I first noticed her in the NY Times story, which was triggered by the publicist for this cd. Also I was impressed that the label had a street team which put up a wall of posters in a storefront that was boarded up on Broadway in Oakland. Stones Throw. She is booked by Ali Hedrick of Arrival Agency, (who also booked NoName for a while). I put in an offer for that tour in February but they opted for a second Noise Pop show and I used the date for a Clarinet Thing Ellington program.
Still curious to read up and figure out where this act came from. And to see where it going. Up up up. I listened to the NPR interview and was struck by how humble she is — a contrast to the brash persona in her videos, it would seem.
Here is a snippet at end of her show, the applause (I have bits and pieces of three songs, maybe 5 minutes of material, some video, some audio only).
This is a weird segue and maybe unfair to Brit but I want to digress both into Maya Wiley, my Dartmouth classmate running for Mayor of NYC and Venus Opal Reese who I booked once into my brief series at an art gallery on the corner of Alma and Hamilton. Venus was getting a phD at Stanford and I just noticed for the first time in years that Robyn Israel wrote a preview of the show, and name checks Venus’ performance piece or play called “Split Ends”. To wit: (from August 2004 ie sixteen years back in PAW)
In the summer of 1999, Venus Opal Reese traveled to Paris, France and Dakar, Senegal, where she conducted research for her dissertation. Though she could barely speak the language of either country, she nevertheless found common ground with black women in both countries.
“The women who were of African descent, we could bond over hair, even though my French sucked,” Reese said in a recent phone interview. “Same thing in Africa. No matter where I went, I could have instant sisterhood through hair — above culture, above language. It was just about hair. It was amazing.”
The phenomenon is addressed in “Split Ends,” a solo performance piece in which Reese explores the relationship between women of African descent and their hair. She will perform segments of “Split Ends” — along with some “edgier” pieces — on Sunday at Art21 in Palo Alto.
“Some people know wines. I pay attention to hair,” said Reese, who earned her Ph.D. in directing and critical theory at Stanford. “I’ve spent a long time looking at identity formation through hair.
“I want women to be aware of how hair confines us, but at the same time is our liberation.”
Inspired by “The Vagina Monologues,” “Split Ends” was conceived at the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas in Seattle. It began as “The Hair Monologues,” but evolved into more of a multi-media, multi-disciplinary piece incorporating vocals, video footage, historical and contemporary hair facts, mime, character work and movement.
Written and directed by Reese, “Split Ends” draws from interviews she conducted with women of African descent (she prefers this term over African-American; “I’m through with hyphens” she said) in Seattle. She asked the women a variety of questions, including “When has your hair saved you?” ; “When has your hair betrayed you?”; “When has your hair set you free?”
What she discovered amazed her.
“It became apparent that hair — and this doesn’t just apply to black women or to women in general — is a world in which you know yourself. It means something. It’s not just an attribute. It’s a meaning-making phenomenon.”
One interviewee was an accomplished trial lawyer who was caught in the rain en route to court. She arrived with wet, matted hair. Noting her appearance, the client fired her. After that, the lawyer wore weaves and wigs.
Another woman had a boyfriend who loved her long hair. When she cut it, he kept making comments about how pretty she used to look. She realized he was more in love with her hair and dumped him — leaving him with clumps of her shorn tresses.
Reese had her own experiences coming to terms with hair.
“As a black woman, I’ve been mindful of hair ever since I was young,” said Reese, who was born and raised in Baltimore. “I’ve been permed (the black term for ‘relaxed’), braided and had extensions put in. I’ve had my hair done in every style you would associate with black women.”
A turning point came when she was cast in a movie short, and spent hours trying to transform her hair into a bob, complete with a wholesome “Brady Bunch” look.”
“I stayed up for four hours to do that work,” Reese recalled. “I thought to myself: I had all these degrees, but I didn’t have the self-confidence to go onto a movie set with my hair just the way it was. I only considered my hair pretty if it was arranged around my features in a particular way. I realized I was hiding behind my hair.”
The epiphany prompted her to shave her entire head (“Hey, I’m an artist, I go to extremes,” she said) and grow it back, this time embracing the natural curl that all women of African descent inherit.
“I thought, ‘If I can develop my mind, I can develop my hair.’ I learned how to condition it, to do all those things I had never learned. I had to be willing to look in the mirror and love me. I saw freckles, dimples, full lips, small eyes, a defined nose. But there was a freedom and an acceptance I didn’t have before. I could actually see the beauty. It was like breaking out of prison.”
But many black women, Reese said, still reside in that “prison,” in which “good hair” means biracial hair. And straight hair equals beauty.
“It’s one of the unspoken benefits — long, straight hair is affiliated with whiteness. Look at Janet Jackson — her hair keeps getting lighter and longer. Beyonce, too. The ligher and the longer, the more beautiful you’re considered.
“Bad hair is called ‘nigger hair’: tight, close to your head, hard to comb through. That’s not all necessarily true, but we’re not trained to manage and cultivate natural hair that’s not chemically treated.”
This ideal of black beauty did not begin with “Essence” or “Ebony,” Reese said, but rather stretches all the way back to the early 20th century. Many black magazines and periodicals advertised hair-straightening and skin-lightening products. That discovery caused Reese to rethink the whole phenomenon.
“We sold this to each other. To me that’s very compelling. But it’s also empowering. My focus can stop being on the white people,” she said. “I’m sick of black people talking about white people. It’s a different world when we start being accountable for our community.”
Reese’s own background can be an inspiration to women of all colors. Her 13-page resume describes her as an artist/scholar, with a bachelor of fine arts from Adelphi University; a masters of fine arts from Ohio State University; and masters and doctoral degrees from Stanford University. She studied mime with Marcel Marceau; dance with Gregory Hines and (Alvin Ailey artistic director) Judith Jamison; and acting with Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Reeve, among others.
But her five-year experience at Stanford, she said, was “the best period in my life.”
“I was totally loved, appreciated and valued for what I brought to the table. I never had the experience of not being celebrated at Stanford,” she said. “My race, my gender, my economic background (were insignificant). And I come from an economic background that is not Stanford.”
She also learned a lot from teacher/actress/playwright Anna Deveare Smith, with whom she studied at Stanford.
“The political aspects of my work come from her, such as I how I use hip-hop as a historical framework. She inspired me to go beyond the topical level and delve into the social and psychological aspects of American culture.”
Reese had a far different experience at Harvard, where she spent a summer during her time at Stanford.
“You had to leave Stanford to appreciate Stanford. I just wasn’t related to (at Harvard). I felt like a second-class citizen. Getting into the library involved having to go through different people. I had money stolen from me, and a rumor circulated that I had lost it. I didn’t belong. I didn’t fit in.”
Adjusting to her new life in Dallas, where she now resides, has also been a challenge.
“It’s a whole new world! My first three, four months, were awful. Coming from the West Coast, which is so forward-thinking, to a place where people go, ‘How ya doin’ honey?'” There are still people with jery curls here — that was the ’70s!!!”
But the University of Texas at Dallas offered her a tenure-track position she could not refuse: assistant professor of aesthetic studies in the school of arts and humanities.
“There’s a lot of space for invention,” she said of her teaching job. “I can be an artist and a scholar. I can create my own classes. And I try to bring that same love and attentiveness I felt at Stanford to my students.”
So how does Reese, a self-described “committed, passionate person,” relax from her busy schedule?
“When I do my hair. I’ll listen to Erykah Badu, light candles and incense. I get in touch with my feminine side. I slow down and get to be myself. It takes me out of my world and I focus on me.”
Arts and Entertainment Editor Robyn Israel can be reached at email@example.com
Who: Venus Opal Reese. Reese will perform segments from “Split Ends,” as well as a medley of spoken word, vocal percussion and monologues. Presented by Earthwise Productions. (Opening act was Brad Johnson of Variable Stars who I admit I booked partly because he had nice, but very white, hair)
Where: Art21 Gallery and Framing, 539 Alma St. (corner of Hamilton Avenue) in Palo Alto.
When: Sunday from 7 to 8 p.m. Doors will open at 6:45 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $8 in advance and can be purchased at http://www.virtuous.com; $10 at the door.
Info: Call (650) 566-XXXX or visit (defunct website).
Venus Opal Reese will perform a longer version of “Split Ends” tonight and Saturday at Afro Solo Theatre , 762 Fulton St. in San Francisco. For more information please visit http://www.afrosolo.org.
and1: ok, this is not at all where I started at all but I just listened maybe for the first time to Brad Johnson from his recording with Allen Clapp shortly before taking his own life, in 2009 at age 31 — he was born in 1978. Lights Above Los Gatos (+). Maybe I can get Allen to let me stream on my bandcamp page Lions With Wings an alternate version of this or an unreleased track. Brad had swoopy hair, almost a pompadour. Or is that a cowlip? I had a friend, she was actually Rob Syrett’s friend who called Brad “the ska guy” for a while she claimed he was avidly following the Skalander (itself put out by a former Tennyson Student of Charlotte Gerstein, advisor of the Lancer Legend — tho not to confuse you Brad went to Homestead of Cupertino same school as Steve Jobs but later). Here