VAL GRAY WARD TURNED THE CHICAGO UPSIDE RIGHT
by Kai EL’ ZABAR
The return of Val Gray Ward to Chicago was well received as she graced the stage at Logan Center Performance Hall housed at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. The stage was open with clean simple lines with only a chair flanked to the right of the Robert ‘Baabe’ Irving lll Quartet; Baabe on piano, Rajiv Halim on woodwinds, Emma Dayhuff, on bass and Charles ‘Rick’ Heath IV, on drums. A stage length striking photo of Val Gray Ward stretched from stage right to stage left showcasing her magnificent eyes, peering out over the un seen as the audience followed the stare mesmerized.
Warm and welcoming the drums sounded throughout the auditorium beckoning our undivided attention as Baba Atiba ‘s hands played the words that summoned all to take attention and give to the performance to come.
Greetings from Logan Center for the Arts provide insight regarding the relationship between Logan Center and the community in, which it is established and in particular the association with the Black world of arts and culture.
Remarks by Pemon Rami, producer and director currently at the DuSable Museum provided the back story to Kuumba Theatre of which Val Gray Ward is the founder. He spoke of her tireless spirit and adventuresome nature youthful and always creatively expressed through everything that she does. He spoke of Val as the brilliant genius that she remains to be this day at age 83 years young. Pemon, an original Kuumba Theatre member at one point succeeded Val’s directorship.
Next entered Julianna Richardson of The HistoryMakers, who took her place at the podium and shared her ‘back story’ as one having a background in theater but had pursued law because it was the career her father wanted for her. After graduating from Harvard law School, she jumped at the opportunity to go to work for Jenner & Block as the attorney for Kummba Theatre as a pro bono case, which for a law firm is at the heart of any Responsible Business program. For Julianna, she knew that the gods had answered her prayer. Going to work for Kuumba was the beginning of a fabulous friendship, which has spanned over three decades. And as Val has been to many she became Juilanna’s second mom.
Juilanna introduced the delectable Val Gray Ward who entered stage right singing and walking the pimp walk with cane-in-hand used as a prop more than a crutch then espoused Langston’s Hughes, “Notes on Commercial Theatre.” To open the “First Half.”
Beautifully coiffed dressed in a Damali original in black the dramatist queen set the tone of the evening with powerful overtones of the voices of Black people from James Weldon Johnson’s The Creation to Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” to Jessie Redmon Fause’s “Lions of Africa” and “I think I see her,” to Countee Cullen’s “Incident,” back to Langtson–“Little Brown Baby,” to Gwendolyn Brooks, “We RealCool,” to the “Ballad of Birmingham,” by Dudley Randall to two fabulous poems by Margaret Burroughs, “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black.”
As the audience sat and witnessed her transition from one character to the next morphing one into the other seamlessly as if a conversation amongst her interpretation of the characters that spoke in the poems, she brought each to life. Often exhibiting more exuberance for life then the youth. . . and the audience was spellbound held captive.
The authentic Val at one point paused and spoke to the audience directly stating, “These transitions take more than they used to.”
And the audience in traditional call and response Amen(ed), applauded, screamed and laughed in acknowledgement. To close out the first half was original Kuumba member, sexy, sultry, songstress Joan Callaso singing her rendition of Nina Simone’s “Four Women.”
Joan was followed by the Robert Irving lll Quartet sounding music that touched the inner spirit soothing the audience into a soulful crescendo leading us to a ten minute intermission.
The “Second Half,”was kicked off with Chicago Blues man Billy Branch on harmonica and voice in tribute to Ms. Val followed by Ms. Val’s efficacious delivery of “Sylvester’s Dying Bed,” by Langston Hughes and a sequence of elegant words by Walter Bradford-“Luuuv”, “The profile on the Pillow,” by Dudley Randolph, “Parting Love, A Closing,” by Haki Madhubuti, and “Between the World and Me,” by Richard Wright. Joan Collaso rejoined Val on stage and sung a tribute to Ms. Val and the Ms. closed it out with more of the illustrious Gwendolyn Brooks– “Sermon On the Warp Land,” an excerpt.
The performance brought the audience to its feet.
Welcome home Ms. Val Gray Ward, welcome back!