This week we'll meet activist/performer/impresario and historian Lenwood O. Sloan, a man whose extraordinary career has unfolded like a half century-long social change musical.
?What defines a "gunrunner for the arts?"
"I try to take things that already exist, and through positioning and repositioning to create magic, you know, to motivate, but performance and visual art, literature and writing, film, you know, whatever medium is the best catalyst or elixir for the magic, but I'm a gun runner for the arts"
? How does history become an art form?
"Well, you know, everything has a history, and everything has a story, and it's the human person that is the juice that brings the linear, sequential, chronological history, and oral tradition of storytelling together into art. It's not what happened in 1864, 1791, or 2018 you know. It's who were the people? What does it mean to you? What relevance does it have for your story today?"
?What can the historic struggles for the passage of the 15th and 19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution teach us as we navigate the Covid Universe?
"You know African American women, 1918 to 1920, who were trying to not only support to vote for women but to find a place for themselves and that they were doing that against the landscape of the 1918 flu. They were doing it in a pandemic year. You know, they were doing it with their men coming back from World War One having segregation in their communities. They, they were doing it on the eve of a national election of 1920, and they were doing it on the eve of the 1920 Census."
?Monuments have often been used to distort and obscure our complex history. How can a monument reveal and celebrate these buried stories?
"So I felt that it was essential that we do something old and big and exciting between the primary and the national election to call African Americans and women through the vote, and I felt that we needed to do something Bill that was not about ribbon cutting or confetti, but that we needed to do something bold and audacious"
Episode 2—Leni Sloan: A Gunrunner for the Arts
Bill Cleveland: Leni Sloan's father was an iron worker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He made his mark scaling and helping to erect the tallest buildings in that city's newly soaring post World War Two skyline. When he wasn't climbing iron, Leni's dad would wander local fields lovingly netting butterflies for his precious collection. When Leni was a teenager, his dad took a fall on the job that put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. When I met Leni in the late 1970s, he described a play he was working on. A tribute to his father called Wheels and Butterflies, which, in turn inspired me to make this song.
From the Center for the Study of Art and Community, this is Change the Story Change the World, a chronicle of art and transformation. I'm Bill Cleveland.
When I was a kid, I fell in love with the 1930s movie musicals that would often appear on late-night TV. I'm not sure what it was that attracted me. I suppose their airy predictability was reassuring, a little romance, a little drama all wrapped up in a comforting embrace of those inevitably over the top song and dance numbers.
"Hey, kids, listen up. I'm going to write a show for us, and we could put it on right here."
Now, my friend Leni Sloan grew up watching those old TV shows too, and like me, he took them to heart.
The first time I saw, Leni was on a Sacramento stage, starring in a musical played also written and directed called the Wake. The Wake also had a provocative subtitle, three black, and three white refined Jubilee minstrels. It had been commissioned by San Francisco's de Young Museum as a part of the 1976 us bicentennial celebration. The production I saw was in the middle of a three-year World Tour. The story was set in the backstage dressing room at the Ziegfeld Follies, where the ghosts of six famous minstrels, three black and three white from the past, were gathered for a week to lament the death of Bert Williams the last and arguably the greatest black minstrel. As the play unfolded, the minstrels sang and cakewalk, and argued the hundred- and 50-year story of minstrelsy. Looking back, the show was a quintessential Leni Sloan production, combining music, dance, and drama with a heavy dose of long-forgotten and often painful history. It was both a tribute to a great musical tradition and a condemnation of the brutal racism that helped define it.
In this week's episode of Change the Story, Change the World, we'll explore the life and times of activist/performer/impresario and historian Lenwood O. Sloan, a man whose extraordinary career has unfolded like a half century-long social change musical. Some see Leni as an artistic shapeshifter. I just think of him as a creative dynamo.
However you characterize him, he's certainly done a lot as a dancer with Alvin Ailey and the Joffrey Ballet; as an arts leader at the San Francisco Arts Commission, California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts; as a manager of cultural tourism initiatives in Pennsylvania and California and Louisiana: as a contributor to numerous award-winning television productions; and as a producer, director and performer of dozens of performance works, including Voodoo Macbeth, the Creole Mass, Her Talking Drum, Sweet Saturday Night and the show where we met, The Wake. [AN1]
Our conversation took place at the end of April 2020, a couple of months into this surreal strangeness of what I've come to refer to as Planet COVID.
So, I'm happy to be here talking to my friend and colleague, Leni Sloan. Let me start by saying thanks in advance for what I'm sure is going to be a great conversation. I'd like to start by scratching into your history a bit, given the many years we've known each other, I don't know that I've ever asked you, how do you define you work?
Leni Sloan: Well, as you well know, my nom de plume and my book is catalytic agent. So, my work is to be glue or yeast or baking soda or to cause things to come together and bond and bind them when they're not, so I have used whatever art form necessary. My spirit is as a dancer. For almost 40 years, when people said, "What do you do? I would say, “I am a dancer.”
I've come across at 1906 definition of magic, and The Webster's dictionary in 1906 says that magic is the manipulation of ordinary things in extraordinary ways. And so now I refer to myself as a magician. I try to take things that already exist, and through positioning and repositioning to create magic, you know, to motivate, but performance and visual art, literature and writing, film, you know, whatever medium is the best catalyst or elixir for the magic, but I'm a gun runner for the arts. It's really, I really am
Bill Cleveland: I really can't argue with that, but Leni, Tell me, how did you come to that? You know, as a young person growing up. How did you become this creative gunrunner catalytic healer troublemaker using art to ask hard questions and, and, move mountains?
Leni Sloan: I've always wanted to be a dancer. There was an elderly lady that lived across the street from my parents named Mrs. Jones, and she would call my mother up, and she'd say, your son is at it again, you know. We lived on a hill with 27 steps to the house, and I had seen I'll [AN2] Build a Stairway to Paradise. Whenever I had to take the garbage down the steps, I would go dance up and down the stairs. My grandparents were religious about watching Lawrence Welk, and I would see these guys dancing Lark Well, I was like, "You can make a living dancing. You mean, they actually pay?" Of course, I always wanted to be Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, depending upon which movie.
I chose early to be a dancer and an artist. My parents said, "No, you're going to be a historian". And so, you know, well, Cleveland, that I am a dance historian, you know? (laughter) …Yeah. I think that I finally found the amalgamation between work, history and performing arts, in the looking at social systems and social periods and trying to glean from them. Now,
Bill Cleveland: I'm a student of history too. I really do believe that if you don't know your history, you're very likely to repeat it, particularly the bad parts. As Leni points out. In the second part of our interview in Episode Three, that's happening right now in 2021 of the so-called pillars of democracy is that an informed citizenry is necessary for good government. It's not just a nice thing or an ideal thing. It's essential for our experiment in self-governing to function. Otherwise, it doesn't work, so being well informed about what has happened in the democracy laboratory before we put on our lab coats is pretty basic. But for most of us what passes for history in school is just a gray moment in the schedule when the minute hands on the clock on the wall seemed to go backward.
Somehow, though, after his parental course correction from performing arts to history, Leni Sloan not only fell in love with history, he also found a way to expand his universe to include not only his first love dance and theater, but also the added mission of changing the world. Needless to say, I was curious about how that all came together.
Leni Sloan: When I was in high school, we had something called the Student United Nations. High school was assigned a country in the United Nations, and for that entire year, every Saturday, you went to Carnegie Mellon, and you became the delegate from that country, following that country's position, it's history, chins on the floor. When I was in 10th grade, our school had Morocco, and so I would go to the meeting dressed in my mother's tablecloths, and you know, wrap my head with shawls and tablecloths. "This is not fair," they said, you know, I said, "Oh, no, all, all life is theater. All life is theater."
We advanced in my junior year we were Spain and my senior year we were Haiti, and each year the organizers would say you have to stop wearing costumes you know, and I'd say "but you told us to become" you know, this is what I saw that delegate wear.
Bill Cleveland: So, what is it about history? What is it about becoming immersed in the story of a place that so beguiled you that motivated you that captured your imagination?
Leni Sloan: I that's a very good question. I love studying gestures, stance, and attitude. And I felt that all of history is really the dates and the markers are not nearly as important as the culture, the language, the mores, the attitudes of the people. And so, in each aspect of history, I try not to capture the linear, sequential chronology of place and time, but the nuance, the texture, the emotion, that temperament, the fascia that really defines one people from another.
Bill Cleveland: Now, wasn't there a point back then when you came to that proverbial fork in the road where you're supposed to go one way or the other, and didn't you sort of end up taking both? How did that come about?
Leni Sloan: In my senior year, there was an incredible woman her name was Jean Gant, and I'll always remember Mrs. Gant. Billy, she wore huge hats like Jackie Kennedy hats, or breakfast at Tiffany hat and veils. And I didn't know at that time she had cancer, and that's why she hid behind the veils, but she called me to her side in my senior year, as I was entering my senior year, and she lifted her veil, and she said "You will never be a diplomat, but you're a damn good actor." And she gave me a scholarship in my senior year to the Pittsburgh Playhouse. That's how I entered theater in my senior year in the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
It happened to be the same year that WQED was doing Mr. Rogers and they needed kids on the set, and so, I was sent from the Pittsburgh Playhouse to be on the set. That won me a scholarship to Temple University for theater and I thought I was leaving history and entering the theater at that that time, but it was before the Civil Rights Movement, and I got the Temple and I was told there are no roles for you. There are no there were no plays written for black people, either. You can become a designer, you can become a set designer, you could be a lighting person, but you can't perform. And so I went back to the to the history department.
Bill Cleveland: Sadly, that's not an uncommon story, but it didn't stop you did it?
Leni Sloan: It was important because it gave me the grounding for my historical approach my analytical approach to history, and it also gave me in my I belong to the theater clubs, and I eventually did get my minor in costume design and in choreography, and that led me to a scholarship with the Joffrey Ballet and opportunity to study at the Alvin Ailey School, so those two things have always been my grounding influences; my love of the art and my desire to decode and reconstruct historical events.
Bill Cleveland: So when was it that you realize that decoding and reconstructing history could be disruptive in ways that some people didn't exactly appreciate --- that pushing for change was not always going to win you friends?
Leni Sloan: I think I realized in my senior year We're in, at Temple University, when I challenged my professors in the theatre department to rethink character. I got kicked out of school for a semester for that challenge, but eventually won my first and only role in a play called Queen in the Rebel, by Hugo Betty, and Dr. Randall, who does theater building at Temple University is named after allowed me to play Malpa the sadistic soldier.
And so I studied every sadistic soldier in history and revolutions. And yeah, I was like, what made him what made him this way, you know, and I decided I was going to wear a hump on my back and a wooden lock in my shoes. He had only 12 lines, but I had to create what caused him to be sadistic. He created the narrative. So I took Malpa to a new place.
Bill Cleveland: I think one of the reasons that our history loses its vibrancy is that much of the color literally and figuratively has been drained from the body of stories that rise up from the dusty attics and archives in the past.
Ron Chew, the founder of Seattle's Wing Luke Museum understood this instinctively when he began considering how to best find and share the Hidden History of Seattle's Asian communities. Instead of assuming the traditional curatorial role as the authority as the teller, he turned to his neighbors in those communities and asked, "What stories do you have to share from your family's experience? What do you have in your attic? in basements that can animate those stories".
One of my mentors, the historian Paige Smith knew this too when he wrote his eight-volume People's History of the United States, he focused almost entirely on original First Voice sources from the times he was researching and writing about. The reason I'm mentioning this is that Leni Sloan seems to have followed a similar path, but with a slightly different twist. To me his way of exploring history combines both documentary and creative processes. As a result, most of his initiatives contain elements of research, making, and translating, as well as provocation and celebration. To probe this idea, I asked him how he sees the two characters, the historian and the artist showing up in his work.
Leni Sloan: Well, you know, everything has a history, and everything has a story, and it's the human person that is the juice that brings the linear, sequential, chronological history, and oral tradition of storytelling together into art. It's not what happened in 1864, 1791, or 2018 you know. It's who were the people? What does it mean to you? What relevance does it have for your story today? How does it resonate.
My current project which is about African American suffragists and the 19th amendment, is a project that I'm working on now. You know African American women, 1918 to 1920, who were trying to not only support to vote for women but to find a place for themselves and that they were doing that against the landscape of the 1918 flu. They were doing it in a pandemic year. You know, they were doing it with their men coming back from World War One having filed segregation in their communities. They, they were doing it on the eve of a national election of 1920, and they were doing it on the eve of the 1920 Census.
Bill Cleveland: Just like the spring of 2020.
Leni Sloan: All those conditions are happening today. You know, we have only to look at the history of 1918 to 1920 and figure out how did those women keep true Bill? Yeah, how did they maintain the integrity of their actions when they weren't being counted in the census, when they weren't being allowed to vote, when they were afraid that they were going to die of the flu, when their men were broken from the war. Well, that's, that's, that's yesterday's news, you know. So it's not an old inky dusty sepia-tone thing. It's a vibrant thing that if you if you take out and you hold the same way that a scientist or a doctor would use an X-ray to look at what's wrong with you and prescribe something, I'm telling my colleagues this day, do not be afraid of the corona virus, let us look at these women doing the influenza thing and see how did they survive and thrive and endure in their advocacy? There are lessons to be learned, looking backward to go forward.
Bill Cleveland: So, let's jump into that. looking backwards to see the way forwards because you have this extraordinary parallel universe of history repeating itself where the past has been both forgotten and ignored and what we're going through now is being seen as unprecedented. So, describe this project and how you're going to animate the historical record with these familiar elements, along with the passage of the 15th and 19th amendments, bringing the franchise to black men and women in a way that resonates somehow with the upside down world that we're experiencing right now.
Leni Sloan: Well, the project is called A Gathering at the Crossroads. A Gathering at the Crossroads is a new monument to be placed on the Capitol grounds of the Pennsylvania State Capitol. June 15th was supposed to be the dedication date. We will see, but, June of 2020 is simultaneously the hundred and 150th anniversary of the passage of the 15th amendment, and the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment. It's extraordinary that those two days, that those two events would cross each other at the height of the 2020 national election.
Pennsylvania was the fourth state in the Union to ratify the 15th amendment, and Pennsylvania was the seventh state in the Union to ratify the 19th amendment. So the Commonwealth has real ownership in the best sense of that of the legacy of voting. But there are two Pennsylvania, which is also the crossroads, you know, Pennsylvania was a swing state in the 2016 election of Trump, you know, and Pennsylvania, a...