& IMPRESARIO VOZA RIVERS

by Gloria Dulan-Wilson

There are so many days when I am glad to be me, and Sunday, March 16 was definitely one of those days. Not only did I get the opportunity to cover the 44th Anniversary of Woodie King’s New Federal Theatre (NFT), but I got to witness one of my heroes and living legends, Voza Rivers, honored and feted in a way that was, to my mind, long overdue.

It was like old home week with so many stars, writers, producers, directors coming out to be a part of the festivities – Black royalty of the stage, screen and television all gathering together – it was like homecoming – only much more elegant. The program was held at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center.

What a wonderful way to tell a brother who has “labored in the vineyard” and produced much fruit for his efforts, “I Love You,” than to bring together his peers and an adoring, grateful audience. And who is more deserving that Voza Rivers, whom I’ve known now for 30+ years, but is not widely known by those outside the entertainment realm.

Actually, to many Voza on the surface, appears to be a very quiet, non assuming character. “Cool as a cucumber,” my mother would say. But make no mistake, he’s as powerful as they come. The perfect foil for Woodie King, Jr., founder and CEO of the New Federal Theatre (NFT), whom I’ve likewise known for almost twice as long (friend and former neighbor), who is as ebullient, and animated as they come. The only person this evening would not appeal to would be an automaton with no feelings, emotions or sense of theatre.

This was entertainment at its best, with us celebrating each other – not the Oscars or the Emmys or the Tonys – just us -we Black folks – a real family affair. It didn’t just honor these two wonderful men, and their accomplishments, was but a living lesson in Black history as well. The works of living legends, side by side, with the spirit of their forebearers, highlighting their best to a captivated and adoring audience. It’s something that Black children, and many adults, the world over would learn a lot from. These two are shining examples of triumph over trials and tribulations.

Now when the Black theatrical and entertainment community salutes, fetes and shows their love for entertainment Impresario, Voza “Vo” Rivers, and celebrates the NFT’s 44th Anniversary, which was founded in 1970 by Woodie King Jr. of course you’d expect the who’s who in Black entertainment to turn out for a gala cocktail reception. And they did. And our favorite caterer, Norma Jean Darden did the honors. It’s then that you know that they are not going to skimp on the entertainment – because she is caterer to the stars.

I pulled Voza aside as he was going into the theatre before the ceremony and got a special hug from him, and whispered in his ear that it was about time people knew how great he was. “Your superman cover has been blown, and you can no longer walk around incognito – people have to know that greatness and Voza Rivers are synonymous.”

The evening got off to a grand start with Cliff Frazier, NFT Board Member making the initial greetings. Of course, as he was introducing Co-hosts Debbi Morgan and Danny Glover, things begin to take on a different feeling. It had started off quietly dignified, with Cliff setting the tone, as is his nature, of proper decorum.

Co-Host Debbi Morgan

As Glover and Morgan stepped up to their respective podiums, pandemonium broke out in none other than the personage of Robert Townsend – who, apparently, didn’t realize that he was not supposed to be on stage until after Danny Glover had done his initial greeting and left for the airport to fly somewhere for something important – we never did find out what that was.

When Robert Townsend suddenly appeared at Danny Glover’s podium to also co-host the show, after being informed that he was not to come out until Danny had actually made his exit, Townsend appeared to be comically confused as he walked back and forth – in a combination perplexed Groucho Marx/Woody Allen fashion – trying to decided whether or not he should leave or just hang around on stage, until Danny actually left. And this comical charade kept up for the first portion of the program, keeping the entire audience in stitches – which, by the way, is the hallmark of Robert Townsend, the consummate comedian. Glover eventually made his exit, making it possible for Townsend to “settle down” into his role as co-host of the evenings festivities.

The opening filmography depicted the life of Voza Rivers, giving the highlights of his accomplishments. For those who are unfamiliar with his bio, Voza started in 1964, at age 19 working with the late, great Roger Furman, founder of the Roger Furman Theatre in Harlem. He did practically everything there was in the theatre, from hoisting lights, to cleaning stage to setting props, and has steadily risen through the ranks, eventually becoming the Executive Director of New Heritage Theatre, after Furman’s death, in 1983. The New Heritage Theatre was the first ever Black production company to bring the plight of South Africans to the stage starting with the two-person performance of Woza Albert, featuring Mbogeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa.

In 1988 Voza’s New Heritage Theatre collaborated with South African writer/producer, Duma Ndlovu, to present the stage production of Sarafina! in Harlem’s Aaron Davis Hall for two presentations; one for 750 Harlem students and the second for the community. Also in 1988, he received the FEDAT (Foundation for the Extension and Development of the American Professional Theatre, supported by the League of American Theatres and Producers) award for his work on Sarafina! That same year Rivers received the United Nations Medal for Peace, also for Sarafina! and in 1989, a banner year, he received a Grammy nomination, as one of the producers of the Sarafina! cast album and co-produced with Lincoln Center Theater a musical concert featuring Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela and the Sarafina! cast at Radio City Music Hall. More than any thing else, the play helped indelibly solidify the connectedness and the plight between African Americans and South Africans in a way no other history lesson or lecture could ever have done.

Voza Rivers, who is generally known for his activities behind the scenes has partnered with so many individuals and organizations over the past few decades, it would take more than a ceremonial program or a filmographical salute to truly encapsulate his impact. Though he softly goes about playing the unassuming man behind the scenes, he is truly the foundation and the glue that gets it started and keeps it together. Most people recognize Voza for the ever present smile he displays and his quiet, soft spoken manner when he is speaking with you. The epitome of speak softly, but carry a big stick – in which case Voza’s stick is that incredible creative genius of his to come up with concepts and them see them through to fruition. Generally speaking, if Voza’s stamp of approval is on an idea, production, concept, collaboration – it will not fail, and will be an inordinate success.

Congressman Charles Rangel, presented Voza with a Congressional Proclamation in his behalf, showing that Sunday March 16, 2014 was now in the Congressional Record. Of course while all this was transpiring, Robert Townsend was behind the Congressman exaggerating his gestures.

The presentation was followed by a Citation from the City Council of the City of New York, presented by Inez Dickens, who was likewise mimicked by Townsend. Try as she might, she couldn’t get him to cease. The audience was cracking up. Finally, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who had no award to present wanted to “acknowledge what a wonderful influence and impact Voza Rivers has had, and continues to have in the City of New York.” As each presenter was being mimicked by Townsend, the audience was in an uproar.

Townsend then decided that while all the presentations were being made, Woodie King, Jr. might just as well come to the stage and receive his as well.. King, who had been sitting in the back of the auditorium surveying the entire scenario, and had had no intentions of being part of the melee, was coaxed into coming up front to receive his accolades, as well. Also present and part of the photo opportunities, was awards designer, and acclaimed Black artist Otto Neals.

However, once the photos had subsided, all the presenters, including Congressman Rangel, as well as the recipients, were not allowed to leave. Townsend had come up with one last duty, and that was to be the doo-wop back up behind the music for none other than the great Chuck Jackson! Townsend had them mimic him as he did a few classic moves reminiscent of “The Five Heart Beats.” Again, the audience roared with laughter.

Artist and living legend, and still fine – I might add – Chuck Jackson, performing his updated version of “Any Day Now,” and looking as young and handsome as when had just started his career. The man does not age. A veteran of the music industry himself for more than 40 years, and his voice can still make you “swoon” (okay, so it’s an old school word, but it still works for me). He later performed a duet with the video of Dionne Warwicke playing in the back ground, their voices harmonizing perfectly.

Jamal spoke of how, after spending time in prison for his participation as a Black Panther, he had emerged even more dedicated than ever to bringing truth to Black people, was given his first break by Voza. Joseph had written a play that he was trying to get produced. Not only did Voza like the play, but he gave him $500.00 of his own funds to help him get stated. The impact of that act of kindness alone has led to a lifetime of friendship and collaboration between the two.

Both Rivers and Joseph believe that people should speak in their own voice, and the participants of Impact, who range in age from 6 years to young adulthood, write, produce, rehearse and perform their own original work.

They collaborate with each other to ensure that each artist is given respect and succeeds in whatever production concept they are working on. The results of their work have been phenomenal, and was more than adequately displayed in their stage presentations, which both opened and closed out the ceremony. Jamal concluded with a stirring speech, when he exhorted the audience, as well as his fellow actors and writers, “We must tell the story of our people, their work and their accomplishments. We cannot leave it in the hands of others to do so. Voza thank you so much for believing in me and for the advocacy of my work. I am because you are, and we stand tall from standing on your shoulders.”

Lloyd Williams, President and CEO of the Greater Harlem Uptown Chambers of Commerce and Voza Rivers co-founded Harlem Week, which initially started out as Harlem Day, in response to a request from the late Percy Sutton to focus on the highlights of what was good in Harlem. The concept, which started in 1974, on the corner of 138th and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd (aka 7th Ave), expanded from one day, to a week, and of course is now a month+ celebration of what makes Harlem great , with 109 events – from entertainment, to business, to commerce, to the people who live and work in Harlem. His collaboration with Voza has taken him around the world – from South America, to Africa to Asia, and points in between. Somewhere in the midst of all the other projects they collaborated on, Williams and Rivers managed to also start a clothing store called Fabinacci, which was highly successful at the time.

Duma Ndlovu’s message had been taped earlier for the presentation spoke of the long, and ongoing, collaboration with Voza, which will be further enhanced by a production they are currently working on about the Zulu nation and their impact on South African culture and liberation. (Duma Ndlovu is another one of my own personal hero/friends – we have had many a conversation, prior to the epoch making release of Nelson Mandela from prison, as to how to liberate South Africa for their oppressors, and how to educate Black people the world over to the fact that African people all over the world have to come together as one people. Duma returned to South Africa as soon as Mandela was released to help with the development of the New South Africa.)

Great performances included an excerpt from Debbi Morgan’s one woman play, “Monkey On My Back;” and a wonderfuly animated performance by South African/Lesotho vocalist Tsiidi (seedee) Le Loka (who plays “Rafiki” in the Lion King).

Valerie Simpson, of Ashford and Simpson, who performed a medly of songs in tribute to Voza’s accomplishments, invited the audience to sing along to “Ain’t no Mountain High Enough,” and “Reach Out and Touch,” – make this world a better place – which is exactly what Voza Rivers epitomizes.

Also on hand to round out the accolades to both Woodie and Voza were Andre` Robinson, who directed the evening’s event. “I thought that you had skipped over my part in the video (on Voza’s life); but you don’t know the depth of the life of caring and sacrifices that Voza has put into caring for the Harlem Community – and actually all of New York. He actually worked for that theatre for about 7 years with no salary.

He convinced me to do it for five years until I wised up. And then he brought Phyllis in and I moved on.” Stating that it has been an incredible journey with Voza, of more than thirty years during which they have remained friends and colleagues. Actually, it was Phyllis Stickney who brought them to the Roger Furman Theatre, according to Robinson.

Of course, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, comedic actress, activist, educator, writer, and one of the major underpinnings of the New Heritage Theatre, brought her own brand of comedy to the stage. Phyllis, who has been in collaboration, as well as front and center, from the time Voza came to the helm of New Heritage Theatre, has been behind the camera, in front of the camera, a mentor to rising talent, and of course a leader in her own right.

Her booming, yet feminine, quasi-street/Caribbean voice characterizations are unmistakeable. “Voza! He was Uncle Vo, to me!” asserted the beautiful Ms. Stickney – who has her own inimical comedic style. “I just have to take it back a little bit – do y’all mind? I just have to give a little history! There was a man named Roger Furman! Amen! That was who gave us opportunity, and this man was the head and the tail of the whole thing. He was Uncle Vo to me, because every time I climbed those three flights of stairs to do ‘whasonever’ I was supposed to do with Roger, I knew we were going to have a full house. I knew that somewhere Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were going to be somewhere in the house. I knew that somehow we were going to have everything that we needed. But when Roger became ill – we didn’t know how ill – Andre came in and took over the reigns and we continued to grow. Before we had Impact, we had Roger. And we had you (Voza), and we had New Heritage Theatre.” Phyllis shared a poem she had composed in honor of Voza, “Meaningful Magic, that’s what you create!” culminating with “Thank you for all the opportunity you have given us. And I love you!”

Then she spoke of Woodie King: “The King??? Well, any Black actor that is an actor, that lives in this city, works in this city or wants to work anywhere near this city, has got to have an experience with Woodie the King. Now in 1969, Woodie King, Jr. Founded the New Federal Theatre. He has been for 44 years – count them 44 – at the helm of the New Federal Theatre. And was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.” {After a glitch in the script – it does happen in live performances} – Phyllis continued, “no matter what you might think about him; no matter what you might have heard about him, he was and is integrally involved in the Black theatres in New York and Harlem.

Woodie King, Jr., founder/CEO of the New Federal Theatre CelebrCharles Rangel, Chuck Jackson, Duma Ndlovu, Five Heart Beats, Jamal Joseph, Japan, NFT, NHT, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, Sarafina, South Africa, Voza Rivers, Woodie King Jr., Woza Albert Voza Rivers, in expressing his appreciation for the accolades, admitted that he actually came across Roger Furman by “accident.” He was taking a course in public speaking at what had been at the time the YMCA, after having been inspired by so many Civil Rights leaders of the day, and wanting to overcome his shyness about speaking in public. He wanted to be able to make some contribution to the activities that were taking place around him, and be able to address people on the issues of the day. The first day of the class Roger Furman happened to have been the guest speaker. He spoke of how he got started at the age of 19 in the basement of the Countee Cullen Library – wrote their own material, etc., wring about social issues, dealing with politics, etc. “Jamal mentioned 1500 artivist – not artists, but artivists – in the spirit of being what we call activists, which is important, but also artists was well.”

He thanked his South African Group – Duma Ndlovu, as well as Mbogeni Ngema, continuing, “Hopefully, with the help of City College’s Karen and Sharon, we’ll be able to bring the history of the Zulu Nation, which Mbogeni has just written.” Voza, whose interests don’t stop with Africa, is equally well known – if not more so – in Japan, where, along with his corporate partner, Katsu Abe, has been packing Japanese theatres upwards of 32,000 people with his shows, plays, musical productions for the past 30 years. In addition to the above mentioned productions, other successes include: Township Fever, Third Rhythm, The tragedy of Macbeth, Bailey’s Cafe, Voices of Griots, The Huey P. Newton Story, Tierno Bokar, One Good Nerve, Resurrection, Mr. Joy, and Tearing Down the Wall.

Always planning ahead years in advance, Voza indicated, in closing, that in honor of Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday Celebration, he would be doing a series of productions of his most outstanding plays.

Lest I forget to mention, that no event worthy of its salt would be complete without the timely interjections of approval via playwright, artist and musician Rome Neal’s sekere` – a traditional African instrument that is played at most spiritual ceremonies and rituals. As Woodie King, Jr. noted, “Sekere – Rome Neal is in the house, all is right with the world.”

Rome Neal punctuated the event with his sekere` throughout the evening Cliff Frazier, life long friend and Fine Black Man, pulled me aside after the program, obviously pleased at the entire outcome, and said: “This is exactly what I’m talking about, Gloria. We have to do more of these kinds of events. We have to be the ones to tell our own stories, and honor ourselves and each others. They (meanstream media/racist whites) are never going to do it. They don’t want us to to know it. It’s so important that we keep each other informed and begin to respect and honor and learn from each other. That’s what’s going to make the change – we have to be the change to make the change happen.”

I frankly love being a witness to the wonderful things Black people do. I never tire of writing about us, and bragging about us, sharing who we are, and what we’ve done, what we can do, and continue to do when we work together.

The theme of NFT’s 44th Anniversary Celebration is “OUR HISTORY IS OUR EQUITY.” And judging from the presentation at the Tribeca Theatre, we are truly wealthy indeed.- GDW

Stay Blessed &

ECLECTICALLY BLACK

bullet Columnist Gloria Dulan-Wilson Is a veteran New York City Journalist. Her experiences, perspective & sense of history are an invaluable combination. “check out my blog:” www.gloria-dulan-wilson.blogspot.com