Friday, September 16, 2016

Mr. Big Stuff, Who Do You Think You Are?

I still have the remnants of last Monday's skinned knee and other tales from middle aged bohemia.

Walking over to Rappahannock to meet a friend for quality time, a car rolled around the corner at First and Grace, blaring "Mr. Big Stuff" like it was 1971. Crossing the street at Third, I heard church bells begin to ring, my signal that I was going to be just a tad late.

Inside, my friend awaited me, a mixed drink and Prosecco in front of her, but it was orgeat lemonade I wanted with our two dozen Old Saltes and marathon storytelling session requiring that we trade the spotlight to get it all in.

We swapped beach memories (hers trumped mine with an evacuation) and testosterone tales (sometimes there's nothing to do but explain women to a man) while slurping bivalves, rolling our eyes and kvetching.

A couple sat down not far from us and when the woman asked about a particular beer, the barkeep was good enough to pour her a taste. She wasted no time in finishing every drop.

Do you like that beer?
Yes, can I have one of those but in a bigger glass?
Well, yes, that glass was just for you to sample. 
Yea, yea, I know.

Well, if you knew, you should have known that when you order one, it arrives in a full-sized glass without having to stipulate that.

Yes, we mocked her mercilessly.

After a couple of hours that included our gloating over having seen the William Merritt Chase exhibit before it goes to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (her New England chums are pea green with envy), ticking off the myriad pleasures of retired life (hers, not mine) and listening to one of the bartenders as he did a show and tell lecture of the ink on his right arm (planets and geometry, oh, my), we parted ways.

She admitted to having lost her mojo for a cultural evening and mine was non-negotiable: the kickoff of the first Afrikanna Independent Film Fest, tonight at the Valentine, a short eight block walk away.

The party was just getting going in the garden, although before I even made it that far, I waited in the brick corridor to use the bathroom, only to find myself in the lens of the festival photographer.

Reminding her that they've already got far too many shots of me from past events ("Oh, look, honey, it's the same middle-aged woman we saw in that earlier slide"), she was quick with a retort.

"Because you've been a supporter since the beginning," she claims, snapping the shutter a couple more times for good measure.

The Valentine's charming brick garden space was made cozier tonight with a canopy overhead, plenty of tiny lights and a band warming up to entertain us.

Meanwhile, the singer, clad in a red turban with matching shoes, black tank top, a yellow skirt lively with purple, red and green zigzags (such a '70s pattern!) and armfuls of silver bangles that provided accompaniment when she danced, stole the spotlight.

But it wasn't just her ensemble because her fabulous voice was what really mattered, as she bade farewell to our mutual favorite season with Gershwin's "Summertime," even pulling a willing young man in a back-zippered t-shirt from the front table to execute a sinuous pas de deux with her.

During a bass solo in "All of Me," she said it made her want to do "the old missionary church walk," which she then demonstrated, followed by a Caribbean-infused cover of "At Last."

One of her own songs had been inspired, she said, by a two-month relationship that hadn't worked. "But we're friends now because grown folks can do grown folks stuff and still be friends afterwards and go to the movies and hang out," she explained for the record.

The evening moved indoors for the first screening of the festival, which was preceded by creative director Enjoli entreating us, "It's our first year, y'all, so don't go killin' us on Twitter. We're learning as we go."

In truth, from my vantage point, everything had gone off without a hitch tonight.

One of the most exciting things she shared was that the city of Richmond's tourism department had come on board as a new sponsor, a fact that speaks volumes about how far this city has come.

Tonight's film was actually a series of shorts by director A. V. Rockwell strung together under the title "Open City Mix Tape," and represented both documentaries and narratives based on black life in NYC, covering such topics as kids, women being objectified and, one of the most powerful called "B.L.B.," as in bad little boy.

Except of course, he wasn't bad, merely dealing with life as he knew it, even at a tender age. Many audience members reacted out loud to the ending of the film, feeling for the kid.

Shot in black and white to echo the bleakness and other-worldliness of these parts of the city, some of the shorts staged and others simply capturing real life, the vignettes were extraordinary glimpses into other lives.

As each would end, the audience was left to gasp or take a deep breath to restore equilibrium.

Afterwards, the petite Rockwell was introduced - with Enjoli saying that she looked like she was 12 - and took the director's chair for a Q & A, sharing that the film was her first after she finished her undergraduate film studies.

It had been the rapid gentrification of the city that had inspired her need to express what she saw happening and changing around her and the snippets felt like the equivalent of a visual mix tape. Pointing out that her favorite albums had an arc, she said she'd been going for the same thing in her films.

Confidentially, I strive for the same in my life.

After assorted questions about film-making and particularly film-making as a young black woman, Enjoli asked her how old she was, a question that caused her to demur ("You don't ask a woman her age") but not half as much as when a guy asked, "Do you have a man...or a woman?"

Now, my mother taught us that you never ask a woman her age or weight, but she said nothing about nosing into somebody's relationship status. Still, I would think there are subtler ways to discern a woman's status than in front of a roomful of people.

After all, grown folks should be able to ask other grown folks what they want to know. In theory, anyway.

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