Bay Area writer’s play confuses San Francisco school board recall – and sure to offend

Ishmael Reed sees himself as a rock-wielding David against the Goliath of disinformation, historical revisionism, and anyone he sees as a false idol in media, politics, or any other aspect of American life and culture. . He satirically skewered many of these idols in hundreds of poems, novels, essays and plays.

His targets have included the Broadway hit “Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda; writer Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Color Purple”; artist Andy Warhol; and President Biden’s inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman.

The longtime Oakland resident isn’t afraid to offend and does so frequently, as he certainly will with his most recent work, ‘The Conductor,’ which takes aim at the racial issues that arose during the recall of the San Francisco school board that led to the ousting of three board members in February.

Although the work is based on real politics, it quickly mixes with satire as Reed’s imagination and frustrations turn the story into a fever dream that, at its core, stings the billionaires who helped fund recall and racial divide between exposed communities of color. during the campaign.

For details on performances of “The Conductor”, visit

Reed saw the recall as misinterpreted by some in the national media who characterized the removal of board members as a rejection of progressive politics.

Referring to current events and naming names, Reed’s piece argues that a wealthy white ruling class uses its money and influence to pit racial groups against each other by offering the promise of white privilege to “model minorities”, then later betraying these groups.

Reed’s characters use the term “house n—s” no fewer than seven times in the play, a reference to recalled board member Alison Collins’ use of the phrase in a Twitter thread.

The piece confuses what it sees as any racial group’s abandonment of its own culture and people – which could include those of Irish or Italian descent or any other background – to “go white” or “go Anglo”. he says.

“It’s serious comedy,” Reed said as he sat at his dining room table in Oakland one recent morning, his two-story home weighed down by the thousands of books lining the shelves in every visible room. .

Recall supporters, among other critics, might not find it very funny.

They say the recall was a grassroots effort to focus an absent-minded school board on student needs and that the overwhelming vote had little to do with billionaires and outside political influence. Rather, he represented a diverse and overwhelming representation of frustrated voters who impeached elected officials. Voters expelled Speaker Gabriela Lopez, who is Latina, council member Faauuga Moliga, who is Pacific Islander, and council member Collins, who is black.

The piece also references some of the issues raised during the recall effort, which followed what school board critics called a focus on performative politics rather than student well-being amid the pandemic. . This included an attempt to rename 44 schools, a move to a lottery admissions process at academically elite Lowell High School, and a debate over the proposed removal of a historic mural at Washington High.

“The Conductor” dwells on the concept of a model minority, terminology that Reed attributes to white intellectuals who saw certain races or ethnicities as more prosperous or more law-abiding than others. Reed supports the idea that some within certain ethnic groups buy into it and play by white rules going forward. But he sees such status as transitory, dependent on politics rather than race.

The term model minority, often used in conversations about race and often applied to Asian Americans, includes perceived academic, economic, and cultural successes that minimize the effects that racism plays against other minority groups. .

A Harvard Law report says, “The model minority argument, however, is not without controversy and has earned the labels of stereotype and myth, as critics have targeted both its premises and its conclusions. Many point out that the objective of the argument is fallacious in that it seeks to drive a wedge between different disadvantaged groups.

Reed, accustomed to controversy, was pilloried by “Hamilton” fans after he penned a play criticizing Miranda’s success on Broadway. He argued the production glorified the slave-owning Founding Fathers, including the play’s namesake – despite its use of actors of color to portray historical figures. His piece accusing Warhol of being a leech who exploited black street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat also annoyed some critics.

“My most vivid memory of Ishmael Reed is his acerbic critique of black women’s literature in the specific case of Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’, which he directed against her and the developing genre of writing. African American who no longer camouflaged the negative gender dynamics internal to the black community,” said Carole Boyce-Davies, professor of African studies and literature in English at Cornell University. one of the last of a generation of black writers who had to find a niche in which their work could be celebrated.In the meantime, he pursued several experimental creative directions.

Despite his criticism, he can list dozens of praised works of literature and a 1998 MacArthur Fellowship, commonly referred to as the “Genius Grant”. He brushes aside criticism and accusations of being a racial provocateur.

“I am considered a conservative among black radicals,” he said. “I actually live downtown… That’s why my perspective can be considered abrasive. I see what black people are going through from my front porch.”

“The Conductor” explores the racial dynamics of recall, which was initiated by an American Indian and overwhelmingly supported by the Chinese-American community in San Francisco.

The piece, which is sympathetic to the three ousted board members, argues that historically maligned ethnic groups ignore how they can be integrated into white culture at the expense of blacks and browns.

Airing live in four virtual readings this week, the production centers on a conversation between fictional characters Warren Chipp, a former black columnist, and Shashi Parmar, an American Indian who leads the play’s encore effort. Chipp, ‘the driver,’ is part of an Underground Railroad helping Parmar and others flee to Canada amid a backlash against Native Americans, who are in danger and at risk of arrest after that a US spy plane was shot down after entering Indian airspace.

“The sons and daughters of immigrants don’t know these (white) people like us,” says Chipp, who once worked for the fictional newspaper San Francisco Chrysalis. “They are in primary school when it comes to racism. We have a doctorate.

Reed alludes to greater ignorance in society about various racial and ethnic histories. He would like to see a revised curriculum in California schools that teaches children their own history — not just for blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans, but also for those of Irish, Italian and Jewish descent, among others.

All of these groups were persecuted, punished or shunned at some point, Reed said, citing a 19th century example: One of the greatest mass lynchings in American history was the Chinese massacre of 1871, during from which 18 Chinese immigrants were tortured and hanged in Los Angeles. Angeles following the death of a white civilian caught in the crossfire of an argument.

Reed also takes aim at Collins’ use of the racist term “house n—s” in relation to Asian Americans in the 2016 Twitter feed before his election, which led to calls for his resignation and the abolition of her status as vice-president and of her seat on committees of the board of directors. She later sued other board members and the district for $87 million, alleging that she had been deprived of her free speech rights. The lawsuit was thrown out before the first hearing.

While Reed points out that the phrase is widely referenced among black scholars, Collins’ use of it in relation to Asian Americans was racist and drew broad condemnation across political, racial, and socioeconomic lines.

Backlash from Collins’ comments helped fuel the recall, leading 76% of voters in San Francisco to push her to resign.

Reed expects “The Conductor” to anger some in San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, he’s okay with that.

His passion does not come from anger, he says with a deep laugh, but from “hostility”.

“I think that’s where the playwright comes in, when the official line is messed up,” he said. “We need to fill in the gaps.

Jill Tucker is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jilltucker

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