Ishmael Reed’s “The Conductor” Coming To Theater For The New City

In "The Conductor," satirist playwright Ishmael Reed attacks the race-baiting and divisiveness

Photo: Jonathan Slaff.

Above two of the stars in Ishmael Reed’s “The Conductor.” Brian Simmons (as Warren Chipp) and Kenya WIlson (as interviewer Melody Wells).

NEW YORK — In “The Conductor,” satirist playwright Ishmael Reed attacks the race-baiting and divisiveness that were widely seen in the recent, widely-reported San Francisco School Board Recall. Theater for the New City will present the world premiere of this play, offering both live and livestreamed performances, from March 9 to 26. Director is Carla Blank.

The San Francisco School Board Recall refers to a movement in 2021-22 to eject members of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education. Voters removed President Gabriela Lopez, who is Latina, board member Faauuga Moliga, who is Pacific Islander, and board member Alison Collins, who is Black. A number of issues were used to pump up local parental ire and to amass conservative political power. Beginning with anger over COVID school closures, it spread to other issues. An Ethnic Studies and Social Justice Curriculum was attacked as a politically biased, inaccurate portrayal of history. A shift at Lowell, the city’s elite high school, from “merit-based” admissions to a lottery process inspired fear in some quarters about losing opportunities for themselves or people similar to them. The Recall was heavily funded by fat cats who support right-wing policies on masking, charter schools and vouchers. Rhetoric in the controversy contained dog whistles that were common to national GOP campaigns.

Veterans of the fracas assert that the Recall was a micrososm of a national conservative effort that uses right-wing operatives, outside money and corporate influencers to prick public opinion. The game is to advance regressive policies, dismantle affirmative action and ban racial justice education by forcing vituperative confrontations about racial equality and LTBTQ rights at the school board level. Playwright Ishmael Reed adds that the Recall was promoted with talking points by fellows of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, and that throughout the brouhaha, Collins and Lopez were ridiculed by media sources that would ordinarily have backed them.

Rejected School Board president Gabriela Lopez and rejected board member Alison Collins will come to NYC during the run of the play and will attend performances.

Playwright Reed asserts that backers of the Recall used minority faces to front the effort while remaining in the background. In his play a character named Shashi Parmar, a hi-tech engineer and president of Citizens for Excellence in Education, is such a face. His role as a Recall leader is threatened when the downing of a US spy plane over Indian airspace is coupled with growing tensions between the USA and a nationalist Indian leader commonly known as Siraj ud-Daulah. As a result, anti-Indian sentiment rises on the West Coast and Indian Americans must hide or leave the country. A new Underground Railroad is established to convey Indian Americans to Canada, from whence they can get passage to rejoin family and friends in India.

But to get on this Railroad you need a conductor–like those who guided slaves northward before the American Civil War. So Parmar finds himself in the hands–and in the house–of the play’s main character, a progressive Black columnist named Warren Chipp, who has lost his job because he supported the Lowell High School admissions lottery. Ironically, Parmar signed the petition that led to Chipp’s firing. Chipp admonishes Parmar, “The sons and daughters of immigrants don’t know (white) people the way (Black people) do. They’re in primary school when it comes to racism. We have a Ph.D.”

Nobody is spared in the play, neither white suppression nor Black backlash. Though press accounts presented the conflict as pitting Asian Americans against Blacks, Asian Americans agreed that the elite school in question was the scene of anti-Black and anti-Latino racism. The play protests the right’s “divide and conquer” tactics and skewers what Reed views as any minority’s shunning of its own culture to “go Anglo.”

Ishmael Reed made his TNC debut last season with “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” a take-no-prisoners satire on the exploitation of Jean-Michel Basquiat by art world vampires. He is author of twelve novels, nine collections of essays, fifteen anthologies of criticism and eleven plays of which this is the latest. The New Yorker has labeled him “America’s most fearless satirist” and his exposés often attract bitter criticism. A firestorm of comments, often ferocious, appeared in The New York Times and Broadway World in response to his “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” (Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 2019), which deconstructed the Broadway play’s abolitionist portrayal of the founding father with incisive, impeccably-researched satire. Reed’s play portrayed a naive, defensive Miranda awakening to the sins of the Founding Fathers. Writing in The New York Times, Elizabeth Vincentelli characterized it as “classic activist theater” and “a cross between ‘A Christmas Carol’ and a trial at The Hague’s International Criminal Court.” Reed’s eighth play, “Life Among the Aryans” (Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 2018), envisioned a future when the downtrodden denizens of the Alt Right realize they’d be better off if they were Black. His latest anthology, “Bigotry on Broadway,” co-edited with Carla Blank, was published last fall by Baraka Books. His best-known novel, “Mumbo Jumbo” (1972), was recently released in a 50th anniversary addition with a new introduction by Reed. His newest poetry collection, “Why the Black Hole Sings the Blues: Poems 2007-2020,” was released from Dalkey Archive Press in November 2020. He is also a publisher, songwriter, cartoonist, public media commentator, lecturer, teacher, and founder of the Before Columbus Foundation and PEN Oakland, non-profit organizations run by writers for writers.

Reed’s honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, nominations for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, the 2008 Blues Songwriter of the Year from the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame, the 2017 AUDELCO Pioneer Award for the Theater, and the 2022 Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award. He was San Francisco’s first Jazz Poet Laureate from 2012-2016. He is also an accomplished pianist and songwriter; his lyrics have been recorded by Gregory Porter, Cassandra Wilson, Macy Gray, Taj Mahal and Bobby Womack. The Reading Group just released a CD, “The Hands of Grace,” in which Reed plays his compositions for “The Slave Who Loved Caviar” and other works.

Reed taught for over 35 years at the University of California, Berkeley and was honored as their Emeritus Professor Awardee of the Year 2020. He is now a Distinguished Professor at California College of the Arts. His online literary magazine, Konch, can be found at www.ishmael reed His author’s website is www.ishmael

Carla Blank is a director, dramaturge, writer and editor. After debuting as a dancer and choreographer as part of the Judson Dance Theater Workshop performances in the 1960s, she devoted a portion of her life to working with youth to aged adults in community arts projects. The performance arts handbook, “Live On Stage!,” that evolved out of this work was adopted in school districts throughout the US and Canada. From 2003-2012 she directed productions of Wajahat Ali’s “The Domestic Crusaders.” A collaboration with director Robert Wilson, “KOOL- Dancing in my Mind,” an homage for Japanese choreographer Suzushi Hanayagi, premiered at NYC’s Guggenheim Museum in April 2009. She directed “News from Fukushima,” a multimedia performance work by Yuri Kageyama, at La MaMa in 2015 and Z Space in San Francisco in 2017. A documentary film of the 2017 performance is receiving international acclaim. She directed Ishmael Reed’s “Mother Hubbard” in Xiangtan, China in 2016 and his “The Slave Who Loved Caviar” at TNC last season.

The actors are Emil Guillermo, Imran Javaid, Laura Robards, Brian Simmons, Monisha Shiva and Kenya Wilson; understudies are Ephraim Kofi Asante, Dimitri Dewes Jr. and Joy Renee LeBlanc.

Rome Neal, Director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, is Production Coordinator. Video production is by Zohair Zaidi. Set designer is Mark Marcante. Set decoration and construction are by Lytza Colon. Sound and Lighting Designer is Alexander Bartenieff. Costume Designer is Diana Adelman. Stage manager is Michael Durgavich. Video documentation is by Miles Shebar.

Ishmael Reed writes, “Carla Blank and I are delighted to be bringing a second production to Theater for the New City. We are most grateful to Crystal Field and her staff for supporting us with their all-encompassing expertise, so necessary to the realization of this work. We feel very lucky to be included under the storied umbrella of this forward looking community.”

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