Pemon Rami

Since the 1960s, Pemon Rami has been involved in the development of television production, films, music concerts, documentaries, plays, and multimedia designs for theatres across the country. From 1968 through 1970, he was Associate Director of the Joe Louis Theater; in 1971 and ’72, he was director of the Kuumba Workshop; and from 1973 to 1979, he was Artistic/Managing Director of the Lamont Zeno Theatre. As a casting director, Rami provided talent for the highly acclaimed feature films and television movies, including Blues Brothers, Mahogany, Cooley High, and The Spook Who Sat By The Door. A native of Chicago, Mr. Rami has directed over thirty theatrical productions nationally and numerous videos, documentaries, and commercials. He is currently Director of Educational Services and Public Programs at DuSable Museum of African American History.

Rebecca Zorach (RZ): When I started researching you I was interested to find a few newspaper articles about your participation in the school boycott. Was that a first moment of activism for you or had you been involved in things before that point? Because that was high school, right?

Pemon Rami (PR): That was high school, but in 1961 I became involved at the DuSable Museum, I lived a few blocks from the museum, and it was a very active area. So we had the museum there, we had the YWCA, or the YMCA on Wabash. So there was a lot of activism in the area.

Chicago Defender reports on a meeting for the student boycott, October 15, 1968

But I also had a chance in 1966 to hear Dr. King speak when he came down to Stateway Gardens, where I lived at the time. I was playing Little League baseball and beginning to become involved with theater. And I heard this man speak, and he was absolutely wonderful. But at the end of it he said something to the degree that we’re gonna march in Marquette Park, and I said, “I’m going home.” Because I understood what that meant. In 1959, the White Sox were playing for the pennant, and as a Little League baseball team we went to Comiskey Park with our uniforms on and we went to watch the game. And afterwards, there was a park that was directly west of Comiskey Park (in Bridgeport where the mayor lived), and my father, who was the coach of the team, took the seven or eight of us out there to throw balls around, play catch. And the community came out with bricks and baseball bats and ran us home. So as a young child, I began to realize the segregation of Chicago, and became interested in being involved. Even though I knew, or I believed at that point, that the nonviolent approach was not necessarily the way to go, especially in terms of violent influences. So, I was sort of saddled between my interest in culture and my interest, and necessity, to become involved with politics. And so in high school I started playing drums at the same time, percussion, at the same time that I became interested in theater and started writing shows. And so Montgomery Ward’s had a talent competition, it was called Battle of the Bands, and our group, which was at that point called The Exotics, performed. And we won the competition’s first level. And then we won the second level. But by the time we went back for the third level, we had changed from the Tom Jones shirts to African outfits, so they disqualified us. And said they couldn’t classify our music so we couldn’t go on any further. But two things happened simultaneously around that time. One was the establishment of a place called Ile Ife, which meant “our home,” it was a Yoruba temple that was located on 31st between King Drive and Prairie. So it became a center for the development and interpretation of African culture. So as a drummer, I went there as a young person and had became involved. Which is where I met Jim Harvey, who ultimately became one of the central leaders for what was then established as the Umoja Black Student Center. So, in the afternoons I was going between the Umoja Black Student Center and the South Side Center for the Performing Arts, which was established by Theodore Ward, who was one of the founders of the Negro Federal Theater, with Langston Hughes and Richard Wright and Ted opened the South Side Center for the Performing Arts around 1967.

Poster for Theodore Ward’s 1937 play  Big White Fog

And so all of these people took me under their wing. At the same time, I saw a show written by Oscar Brown Jr. and Phil Cohran, which was entitled Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows. And it was one of the first touring productions that went though the public schools. And when I saw that show it changed my life. Because it was an integrated form of music, drama, dance, and poetry that I had never seen before. And Oscar became one of my mentors and friends and it’s what he described as a DOME, a Dramatic Organization of Musical Expressions. Which in essence meant that you take this conceptual story of music and song and you weave it into a story without a book, without a script. And so when I saw that show I began to construct shows similar to that new philosophy. And I was sixteen, seventeen at the time. And we started going around to high schools, performing, so I had a performing group, similar to what was rap, because we used to do Langston Hughes  poetry to drum music. And when I was touring I discovered that Owen Lawson, who worked at Englewood High School, was fired for attempting to teach Black History. And when Owen was fired, I began to organize the other students that I knew around the city. So Rhonada (Maséqua) Myers, who had brought us out to Calumet High School to perform, I met her during that period of time, and we actually ended up going to the National Black Power Conference in Philadelphia and co-chairing the student workshop. Part of the manifestos that came out of that was that we were going to come back and try to get the schools to add Black History, allow Black businesses in schools, and so forth, so we created this manifesto, and went back out and we actually did it. And so what was kind of interesting is that I was in the evenings still doing plays, and doing theater, and sort of in the afternoons and early evening trying to organize the citywide movement. And so I did those things simultaneously for quite a while.

RZ: A lot of artists I talk to think of their politics and their art as sort of separate, working on parallel tracks that intersect only in the best moments—there are highlights they can think of where their art and their politics intersect, but a lot of the time they think of them as separate. It sounds from what you’re saying that your art and your political engagements grew up together.

PR: They did, I was very fortunate because during that period, some interesting things happened right before the early 60s, with the establishment of Kuumba and OBAC, a lot of those early groups I worked with. Before that, most of the groups that were established were established because of their lack of inclusion. There was no opportunity for them to work in theater. They were discriminated against at most of the major institutions and so a result they created cultural opportunities for them to perform, to have opportunities to be seen, to engage the public. In my group, we developed with the purpose of serving our communities. It wasn’t about being excluded, it was about creating for the group that we were growing up for. So my art and politics have always been synonymous. And it still is today. I cannot separate the looking at my community and understanding its needs with what I produce. So even though I’ve done feature films and television and radio and multimedia, it always comes back to me, when I look at what is this going to look like in a hundred years? When my great-great grandchildren have representations of me in my art and I’m no longer around. Do I make that movie? Do I create that piece of work? Because it’s going to be around a lot longer than I am. And so I’ve always chosen to stand by what I believe in first, and let the art come as a result of that.

RZ: You said to me in a previous conversation that you printed the first tickets for the Affro-Arts Theater?

PR: Yes!

RZ: Can you tell me how that came about?

PR: Theodore Ward, when he opened the theater at 35th and Michigan, a fellow named Russell Davis who was an actor and subsequently ended up going to a mental institution later, saw me on the basketball court one day, playing on 35th and said, “there’s a new theater that opened up on 35th, and I know you’re interested in performing,” so he wanted to take me down there. So he took me to the theater and he introduced me to Ted, and Ted took me under his wing. Now, at that point I had to be 16, maybe 16 or 17, so Ted Ward, Oscar Brown Jr., Harold Johnson, Okoro, the founder of eta [eta Creative Arts Foundation], Dr. Bobby Wright who was a psychologist, Dr. Anderson Thompson, Dr. Harold Pates, a fellow named Allen Collard, all of these men took me under their wing. And mentored me.

The Affro-Arts Theater

Now I was very fortunate to that degree. And so when I was at the theater, we were producing a play, someone came by and they said, “oh, Phil Cohran’s gonna be opening a theater on 39th,” and I had seen his work On The Beach, and some of my friends —one of them, Aaron Dodd, I went to high school with, was a member of the Artistic Heritage Ensemble that he had formed—so I was familiar with the music, and he said, they’re opening a theater on 39th. So it was walking distance from where we were, we walked over, and there was a fellow up on the ladder doing the marquee, his name was Prince No-Rah, and Prince No-Rah was the tech guy for the theater. When I walked up and asked them what they were doing, and he came down the ladder and told me that they were opening. And so I said, well, I had started doing printing at the high school, and the guy that was in charge of the print shop would let me come down at night and I would print up tickets for my shows, and posters, and he would just let me do it. So, I went over to Wendell Phillips, and I printed their tickets for their opening night. And I wish I had one, I’m sure my mother-in-law has one. I wish I had a copy of it, because it is a part of that history. And yeah, I personally printed, with the old …

RZ: Letterpress!

PR: Yeah, letterpress. I printed their tickets.

RZ: And did you go to the opening night?

PR: I did go to the opening night, and subsequently did a number of performances there and spent a lot of time there and Phil—Kelan Phil—and I spent a great deal of time together. And did some great work together.

RZ: So what performances did you do there?

PR: A number of plays, and you would ask me specifically which ones, but the Spencer Jackson Family did a couple of shows there, I can’t remember the name of them now but I worked with them on the show. I did a show called The First Militant Minister there. And we used to do a lot of dramatization of poetry, and so I worked with Kuumba Workshop and we did a poetry show that didn’t have a title, they were dramatizations of poetry and spoken word to music.

RZ: So you were already working with Kuumba Workshop at that point?

PR: Yes, I was, because I was a director first, and I was probably the youngest director around the city, most of them would call me to direct shows for them. Because I was a legitimate director. And when I called, what I mean, in terms of a “legitimate director,” I stopped acting when I was 17, and focused specifically on directing, so by the time I was 22, I had directed 30 shows around the city. So when the X-BAG (Experimental Black Actors Guild) opened on 67th, they asked me to direct their first play. When Kuumba opened and Val Gray Ward went to Southern Illinois University as their artistic director, she asked me to take over, and direct their productions. I was also invited as an actor even though I never really considered myself an actor. Whenever somebody needed someone to stand in or they lost a person, I would get a call. So I worked with eta, and with Kuumba, so I flew around the country with them and did some shows. But it’s primarily because more people considered me an actor than I did.

RZ: There are so many different organizations that you’ve mentioned, some I was familiar with and some I wasn’t, I’m having a hard time getting a sense of the landscape. It sounds like it was just an incredibly exciting time with all these different organizations starting up and theater companies—what were the highlights, what were the most important events or the most important organizations, do you think?

PR: You know, I did a lecture recently on seminal events in Chicago, and I would sort of put them into institutional development. So the first institution that I would talk about, in a strange way, would be Hull House. And it’s the Hull House specifically that was at 67th Street. And then the one that was at 22nd, inside of Ickes housing project. Because as an institution, it allowed for the development of theater. So some of the early work by the Center Aisle Players was done there, and the development of a lot of the artists came out of there. So X-BAG, though it developed later, they really worked in that entity before they established X-BAG. So the first would be around there. The next would be, as I mentioned earlier, Ile Ife, because it gave a center base for African culture, African-American culture, the development of philosophy, the integration of language. You know, they had classes on Yoruba, they had what’s called a Bembe every Friday, which was an African ritual, most of the drummers converged there, so the Sun Drummers and a bunch of those folks that ultimately developed drum companies came out of there. Muntu Dance, Alyo who was the person who was responsible for Muntu, actually did his first show with me and they developed out of that. And so I would credit a lot to Ile Ife. Then, the South Side Center for the Performing Arts, Ted Ward’s theater at 35th and Michigan. But you have to also couple within that the South Side Community Arts Center, and the DuSable Museum, because institutions are what allowed people to find the place to meet and to create. And the Black Women’s Committee, which was located around the corner from here on 43rd and Oakenwald. Kuumba Workshop met at the DuSable Museum first, then at the Black Women’s Committee, and then ultimately did performances at the South Side Community Arts Center before opening their own facility at 2222 S. Michigan. So we spent a great deal of time  at SSCAC, up in their largest space, doing performances and plays.

RZ: On the third floor?

PR: On the third floor, yeah. And so the development of those institutions, and then you have to deal with the Affro-Arts Theatre, which in many ways is responsible for the sound of Earth, Wind and Fire, the development of Chaka Khan, and they laid the groundwork for most of the African dance companies with Darlene Blackburn and the work that she did. And then if you couple with that the development of OBAC, OBAC and a lot of the works that they did when they opened up their space on 35th, again had a direct correlation with the Affro-Arts Theater. And when people were reading poetry, because most of the people that actually became readers, it was as a result of seeing the work of Val Ward and the work that she was doing dramatically. She did a much better job of interpreting their (the writers) materials then they ever did. And so the notion of them beginning to become readers had a great deal to do with the work that was being done at the Affro-Arts Theater.

RZ: So the different art forms were really cross-pollinating one another.

PR: And they cross-pollinated because of a couple of reasons. One because they had to be integrated, and when you deal with culture, culture has an impact on music, it has an impact on dance, it has an impact on language, it has an impact on the way that you look. And so Erskine Coleman, for example, had the Golden Shears Barbershop, named because of the award he won cutting natural hair, which is a big deal among barbers. But he had a barbershop on 79th, he did the first major, you know, Afro haircuts. And we played with them when they did fashion shows. And then you had Ellis, Curtis Ellis and his black bookstore. So our drum company, Curtis Ellis, and Erskine would do these big cultural events, where Erskine would provide the models, he would do the hair, Ellis would do the books, and we would provide the music. And the other person that was connected with that would be Troy Robinson. Troy had a band and he used to have a place on 76th and Cottage. And so we would all get together and do these black cultural shows, and as a result of that it all started working together, you know, so the art became a part of this collective vision of what we had to create as a social movement.

RZ: And OBAC had a space on 35th?

PR: 35th and, I’m tempted to say Michigan, but it was definitely in between Michigan and King Drive. It was a storefront. That’s where they would do readings and we would play drums behind some of their readings of their poetry.

RZ: And then when did X-BAG start up?

PR: X-BAG started in around 1969, because I directed one of their first play, which was called Where’s the Pride, What is the Joy. And that was  Robert Townsend’s first play, he was involved with that.

RZ: And can you tell me a little bit about how it started up? Were you involved with them for a long time?

PR: I taught acting for a number of years, and I used that space before X-BAG opened, and so I would have acting workshops there. And Claudia McCormick, Clarence Taylor, and Jean  Davison, the three of them were members of the Center Aisle Players. And they came together to create what they titled as the X-BAG, which stood for the Experimental Black Actors Guild. And they created it in that space to start doing theatre. And I have to mention my dear friend Douglas Allen Mann, who ultimately became the artistic director and changed the name from X-BAG to the Chicago Theater Company, I met him while I was teaching acting in Cabrini Green, and he was cutting meat at the grocery store, and told me that he was interested in becoming an actor. And I sent him to X-BAG, and he became one of their best actors and ultimately the artistic director.

RZ: And the time period that you were the director of Kuumba, when was that?

PR: ’71-’73.

RZ: And were there particular things that you were interested in doing as director? Were there specific goals that you had?

PR: I’ve always been interested in the development of what I considered “ritual theater.” And one of the things that we were able to do during that period of time was to look at different modes of creating. And so your standard play, I had the opportunity to look at it differently, because if you look at African art, it’s defined around the principle of collective participation, so it’s more of a cultural ritual than it is of a play that you watch as an audience. If you go to a performance, like I saw Fela, the first 20 minutes or 30 minutes of Fela is a party. And the entire audience is up and they’re dancing and they’re singing with them and you get all involved. Well that’s what I wanted theater to be, and not something that had this wall as we were taught in acting, that you didn’t break the wall—the audience was out there and you were up here. And so one of the things that we were able to do with Kuumba specifically was to create more of a ritual theater, more of an experience that was more cathartic. And that’s what we were driving to do. Now, when I opened the Lamont Zeno Theater, a few years later, I opened that theater in ’73, it was more formal, traditional theater.

RZ: And why was that?

PR: It was, part of it was because I wanted to create more productions to travel, I wanted to do more things for children, and I wanted to explore, I had an opportunity to explore the development of more long-form material. And so that theater represented a different opportunity, and I think part of it had to do with my own evolution. Now, I did a couple of rituals there, I did a piece called Ododo, which was written by Joseph Walker, that is more a ritually designed piece, and I also did a piece that I created which was called Trilogy of Tragedy, which was an integrated form. And I did more than that: I also did Mainland Blues, which was an integration of poetry and song that was really uniquely different. So I guess in some ways I kind of did it, but I got closer to a book in doing both of those jobs.

RZ: And Lamont Zeno Theatre, where was that located?

PR: It was located on Pulaski, 1512 S. Pulaski.

RZ: Is that the Better Boys Foundation?

PR: That’s the Better Boys Foundation.

RZ: Oh, okay! Can you tell me about your association with the Better Boys Foundation?

PR: I was called in 1973, I was in LA doing a movie, The Spook Who Sat By The Door, and I was called by Lamont Zeno and asked if I was interested in directing the theater that they were going to build. And I originally said no, because I was at that time doing movies and I had my own theater company. And so I went to California to do the film, but when I got back, Lamont and four of the other board members had died in a plane crash. They had gone to West Virginia to look at a summer camp for children. So Lamont Zeno, Edison Hoard, who was the President of the Board at the time, Bill Smith, and the young lady Rita Cody, who was in charge of the girls’ program. And they had all died. And so, I really decided at that point that I wasn’t going to go. But I changed my mind because I felt that it might have been a sign that the door opened in a different way. And it did, because all the leadership had basically died, I was left to do whatever I wanted to do in the institution. So I actually built the stage myself, not understanding that you really should have permits, I did the wiring of the lights myself, and we opened the theater. And so I went in there part time at 5 dollars an hour for the first year, and by the second year we had either raised or written grants and our budget was 250,000, and by the third year I had, let me think, 15 people on my staff. And we did some great work. We had classes Ted Ward became my director of playwriting, Prince No-Ra, who I had met at the Affro-Arts Theater, I brought him in to do set design, and he built the sets and did most of the lighting for us. Tony Llorens, who now works for Muddy Waters and a bunch of folks, was our musical director, and Amina Myers, who played with Miles Davis and she worked with us, Chico Freeman played horns for the album that we produced, Don Myrick, who played with Earth Wind and Fire, worked with us and Masequa Myers directed/created the children’s theatre program. So I put together an incredible team, and it was, I think, one of the most outstanding experiences in terms of theater in its roundness that has existed.

RZ: Are there particular moments that you remember of transformation through the theater?

PR: I think Black Fairy was one. The Black Fairy was a musical, which was about a little black fairy that didn’t have any magic, and she goes to Johnny’s house and Johnny goes, “hey, you don’t got no magic, white fairies got magic.” So she meets a blackbird and the blackbird takes her on a trip throughout history and fundamentally at the end—because we wrote the piece, it was originally a play, we wrote it as a musical—at the end of it, it says, your magic is yourself, it’s you and your total being. It’s Ancient Egypt and the Middle Passage. And then there’s a song at the end called “Hey Black Child, Do You Know Who You Are, Who You Really Are?” And that show, we did on national tour, I received the key to the city of Detroit from Mayor Coleman Young because of it, I received proclamations. It is still being performed around the country by people. So that was a transformational period. The other which really has gone slightly unnoticed, is we formed what was called the Ajabu Children’s Theater, which Maséqua was the director of. And it was the first African-American theater that actually was run by children, and performed by children. Most of the theater that was going on at that time was adults performing. But these kids from the West Side of Chicago were actually trained to sell their own tickets, to do the marketing, to perform, to run the box office, to work with the development of costumes, to help to create their own shows, and it transformed their lives. A lot of these kids come to me now, and they’re extremely successful in their lives and credit a lot of that with what happened with that experience with them. So, those two things I think are absolutely incredible. And then I was able to get Mahogany shot there, you know, with Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, when we did that film, we shot some of the scenes there with them. And a lot of the folks that were there with us, a number of them went on to have incredible careers, I cast a number of them in Cooley High and Uptown Saturday Night, they got a chance to be in Blues Brothers, you know, a number of them got a chance to be in that. And so, yeah, that was part of it.

RZ: What about audiences, do you remember any particular moments of audience response that was especially powerful?

PR: Well, one of the things that was kind of powerful was the fact that we were sold out, all the time. That we were full. And I think part of it had to do with the notion that I had that we were community theater. And community theater typically is not defined as a community that you’re in, it is defined as less than professional. However, we defined it as “serving the community,” so we had a community ticket. And if you lived in that community you got in cheaper than anybody else who came from the outside. We went door to door and recruited people. The families and the people around that community not only supported us but protected us. They were the people that worked the box office, and helped us to distribute flyers, and helped to shield us from the gangs in neighborhood. And we were sold out all the time. And they were supportive, they loved what we were doing, and they cherished the fact that this cultural institution was in their community. I have not worked in another theater since that has had that level of commitment from the community or support. And I think it’s because we built it from the ground up.

RZ: Can you say a little bit about the gangs in the neighborhood? What the situation was like?

PR: Yeah, because I grew up in Stateway Gardens, okay, so, but I moved into the Stateway Gardens in 1957, it was an incredible community. There’s a lot of talk about Bronzeville. So, you really can’t get a handle on where Bronzeville is because that delineation really has more to do with people than it does with a specific neighborhood. But I lived at 56th and Prairie, well between Prairie and Indiana, that’s where we lived at first. And I remember one day my father coming into the bedroom and saying “we’re moving,” because there was a rat that had climbed into the crib where my younger brother was. So we moved—he had to be two, he was like two years old. So we moved to Stateway Gardens. And it was beautiful, it was absolutely incredible with the lawns and the new appliances and supplies, and for the first few years it was great. We all went to the same school our father ran the baseball team, I knew everybody, it was great. So, a few years after that, they decided that they were going to redistrict. So they divided the housing project in half—from 35th-37th went to Raymond, and from 37th-39th attended Crispus Attucks. It was like splitting North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Or India and Pakistan. And that’s where the gangs began to come into play in that community. So people that were even in families, that were cousins, that used to live together, became separated by these boundaries. And I began to at that point recognize that there’s just something to be said about demarcation. That’s how you separate people and how you push them off and what they feel in terms of value. And the west side was the same way. There were gangs that were there, but a lot of times gangs are based around need for survival. You know, I remember hearing a story at one point about Kevin Garnett and the fact that he was such an incredible basketball player on the west side of Chicago that the gangs would buy gym shoes for him, or they would pay for his mother’s rent, but they at the same time they ensured that he didn’t get in trouble, because they knew he was going to be successful. And they wanted to make sure that he was safe to attain the level which they wanted him to. But of course that wasn’t a period of drugs, not to the degree that crack became. So when you begin to look at the lack of resources, the infusion of drugs, and the elimination of the leadership of the gangs, it had a great deal to do with it. Because at one point, people respected the gang leaders, you know, Jeff Fort could organize all of his people and they could go down to the old Affro-Arts theater and they would all show up for the meeting, and he would give them their marching orders and they would go out and do what he said. That was a lot better than to have these fragmented groups that are just all killing each other because they’re trying to make some money. So there were times on the West Side where people would go up to the second floor of the Better Boys Foundation and the gang members would fight. But they would bypass the cultural arts program, because they had so much respect for the theater that was going on. And we let them in, you know, as long as they would come in and watch the shows and not be disruptive, they could get in any time and they would, they’d come in and they’d laugh and they’d enjoy the music and they would leave and we were all good to go.

RZ: In the late ’60s in particular the gangs were intersecting with cultural activities in interesting ways, and then some time in the ’70s that fell apart, and then when the gang leadership was taken out by the authorities, you got into this situation where the violence increased again.

PR: And I think that the infusion of drugs, and there had been a number of comments about the government being, participating in the drug trade in the inner cities, but you can’t ignore the impact of crack specifically. And I remember a woman telling me one day that she would have preferred heroin over crack at any time—this was a police officer—and I asked her why, and she said, because heroin addicts go to sleep. Crack addicts stay up. And so they’re out chasing their high on a continuous basis and you can’t control them. Where, a heroin addict’s going to nod out, and you won’t have to worry about them until they need another fix. And I didn’t understand the impact of that until you look at how devastated the community is and the impact it’s had on the families. That they cannot control themselves, it’s horrible.

RZ: So you worked on The Spook Who Sat By The Door?

PR: I did, I did the casting for The Spook Who Sat By The Door and I also played Shorty Duncan, who’s the drug dealer who gets killed in the movie that starts a revolution. And so Sam Greenlee called me one day and said, “you know, I’ve written a book and now we’re doing a movie, and I’ve always seen you as being Shorty. And so would you do the part?” and I said, fine, and I went out to do the part. So we shot some of it here in Chicago, some in Gary, then in LA. And I really wanted to be one of the Cobras, the gang members so I could run around with them and jump out of buildings and shoot the guns and, but he envisioned me playing Shorty. There’s just a really interesting side note to that. When I got back from doing the film, Shirley Hamilton, who owned a talent agency, called me to ask me whether I’d be an extra in a movie, and I said, “Extra! I just came back from California and starred in a film.” And so she asked me again and I said fine. So I go to do a movie called Three Tough Guys with Isaac Hayes, Fred Williamson, and somebody else, Jim Brown, I think. So I’m standing on the corner, doing the scene with Isaac Hayes. And Isaac is walking back and forth and he stops at me and says, “do I know you?” and so we start talking. And first of all we find out we’re born on the same day. But then he says, oh, I know it, I just saw an advance screening of The Spook Who Sat By The Door. And so we talked about the film, we hung out that night together, and he left. So about four weeks later I get a call from Motown that Berry Gordy is coming to town to do Mahogany, and they asked me to do the casting for him. And so, that had a direct relationship to The Spook Who Sat By The Door, and that I did Cooley High around the same time, that’s another film. But Sam Greenlee is the other person I should also mention in my mentor list, and he took me under his wing on the film side and I have fortunately been able to evolve in a number of different mediums and it all has to do with these different mentors that kept pushing me through. As I tell young people now, I think they did it because they knew it wouldn’t be wasted. Someone asked me why I joined the DuSable Museum. And Oscar Brown, Jr. was at my house in LA and he asked me one day if I thought it was by accident that all the wrong people ran our institutions. And I remember when my father was ill with prostate cancer, I took him down to get some services done and the people were so ugly and they were so unprofessional, that I assumed that it was on purpose. To discourage people from coming, to discourage them from getting these services. So when Dr. Adams asked me about going to the museum, Oscar’s question kept ringing in my head. And I said yes, because at some point we have the obligation and the responsibility to make sure our institutions work to the degree that they should. And that can only be done by people that know what they’re doing who can make a difference. And that’s why I decided to take that step.

RZ: So what’s your sense of mission in your work at the DuSable now?

PR: I don’t have to redefine the mission, as the director of education and public programs I have to remind people what Dr. Burroughs said the mission was. And she wedged the mission between two documents, What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?, and What Should Your Legacy Be? And so I think we have to look at those two poems to define why we exist and what we ought to be doing in the future. Part of that is to give young people a reflection of what they have been in the past, which will then motivate them toward the future; the other part is to define the context of their legacy and their commitment to making the earth a better place to live on. And so I’m just trying to keep the notion of what Dr. Burroughs said in the first place going. Because too many times the staff and people come in, come in because they’re getting paid, and not because they’re living up to the original purpose or vision of why the institution was created in the first place. Dr. Burroughs was not a museum person. She was an artist first, a teacher, a poet, and a writer that happened to start collecting. So we can’t just deal with the collection part, without dealing with the teacher part and the art part and the writing part. Because it all works together. So we’re not and cannot be defined as a typical museum, because that’s not why she created it. And so I don’t have to do anything other than keep reminding people what she stood for in the first place.

RZ: That’s great. Can I ask you a little bit about Val Gray Ward also?

PR: Yes. Val Gray Ward.

Val Gray Ward in a Kuumba performance in 1974

I first met Val at A. J. Williams’ bookstore. AJ had a bookstore on 79th Street, and in the back of it he had a performance space. He would have people come in to read. And so I was invited there one night to hear this woman named Val Gray, and she did Between the World and Me, by Richard Wright. I had never in my life seen anything like it. When she gets to the end about the dry bones, you know you were in the grave with this person. And so Val first of all was an incredible actress—I don’t want to say that, I want to say, she was an incredible interpreter of the word, because I think that her interpretation skills supersede her acting. That’s not a criticism of her acting skills, but I think her ability to pick up a poem and breathe life into it is unparalleled. Now whether she can pick up a script the same way I think is really irrelevant. But she I think is the best friend the poets ever had, because all of them from Nikki Giovanni to Sonia Sanchez to Haki to Maury Evans to James Baldwin, owe Val Gray. Because it was her dramatizations that made people really understand and feel that material in ways that none of them could do then and still can’t do now. So that’s my first homage to Val, is her as an interpreter. Secondly, she was by far a person that had the ability to define purpose and objectives. So when she started Kuumba, her definition of Black Theater was defined as being by, for and about black people. So if it was going to be philosophically defined as a black theater piece, it was going to be written by black folks, it had to be for a black audience and it had to be performed by black people. So that context had a great deal to do with the kind of material that she created as an entity in terms of Kuumba, and also it gave specific direction to what we went there to do, and you understood it. Pushing that aside. The experience she created in the theater, because she opened every performance with a ritual and she closed it with one as well, and the ritual was a combination of blues, gospel, dramatic sounds of poetry, and it was all done in the dark. So you got this visceral cathartic cleansing—I used to call it de-crudding—at the beginning of her shows. And then she would always do that, and then at the end of it she would then start the play, whatever it was. So it set a different standard for her performances, which were uniquely different from anybody else, including mine. I mean she was, to that degree her integration of Nguzu Saba and Kwanzaa in her performances and her philosophy and the fact that she made a conscious effort to give 10% of all the money that Kuumba made to other cultural institutions. They gave to the museum, they gave to the South Side Community Arts Center, I mean, nobody else was doing that. And too many times if you’re doing theater, you’re only doing your stuff, you don’t go around supporting anybody else’s. And Val was one of those people who was instrumental in getting people to understand that you just can’t create, you’ve got to help the other components that are being created to go on. And she was the person who set that in place.

RZ: Did you also work closely with [Useni] Eugene Perkins?

PR: Yes, I directed his first three or four plays he wrote. I think even if you ask him he will credit me with him being a playwright. I did his first productions—The Black Fairy, he wrote—John Henry, I did his first production of that, and then there was another one, I don’t remember what the other one was, but I did his first three productions. In working with us he really became a writer. He also was at the Better Boys Foundation with us. Along with Warner Saunders, Warner was [the director] first and then Eugene Perkins. Again I had a lot of latitude, so when he wrote The Black Fairy, he wrote it as a play and I decided to turn it into a musical, and got the music done, and had him rewrite a lot of it to have it become the level of show that it became.

RZ: So it was really a collaborative experience?

PR: Well, he will probably say that it was a dictatorship. I was young enough to not collaborate, you know. And to sort of force my will on folks, so. It wasn’t until later that I became aware of the fact that collaboration was important.

RZ: One final question. You’re incredibly generous in giving credit to mentors and people who’ve inspired you, and I wonder if you might have some thoughts about people who have been inspired by you?

PR: Well, since I’ve been back in Chicago, Maséqua and I have mentored over 600 teenagers. Some years ago we decided that our focus would be 14-19 year olds, and a couple of reasons for that, but the main one is that if we could give them an opportunity to see the world differently, then as artists they would then find their own voice. Because ultimately that’s what it comes down to, can you not be persuaded by what the mainstream culture tells you that you ought to be or by what you see on television? But can you find a way that you understand that you have something to say? It doesn’t necessarily have to be political, but it has to be something. So if you’re going to write anything you should have a reason for writing it and you should have a purpose for doing it. So we’ve tried to focus on a number of young people to that degree. There’re a lot of them, you know, we have…well, I’ll just talk about two. That are really special, Lennell Davis, well, I’ll have to make it three, Lenell and Terrell Davis who are brothers, and Ricky Robinson. They met in our teen program, and they both lived on a street that was divided by an alley, and they both came from gang families, separate gangs. They met here as part of our teen program and started working with us and worked with us for about two and a half years. About two weeks ago they opened up their recording studio on 34th and Halsted and they’ve been working together ever since they met here. They were able to put aside the issues of the community, now they have people from both sides of the tracks that understand that they can work together, so just that alone. And Lennell and Terrell have both won Emmys for films that they’ve done, they won the high school Emmys for those. And so we’re both really proud not only for the work that they’re doing, but how they were able to come together and they keep producing. And they’re growing and they’re producing albums and they started their own creative business and we think we can take, you know, a little credit for some of that. One of the other people that I would mention is probably Ja’Mal Green, Ja’Mal is now 16 and he led a youth march of 3,000 kids last year against violence. And he’s also producing and we met him at 10, as a little knucklehead boy running around here giving everybody the blues. And were able to take him under our wing for a period of time.  We have tons of kids that are in college, that are doing well. We got about seven in Columbia, we have two in Missouri State, the gentleman that just came in is one of the folks that’s coming back that was part of the program. We take great pride that a lot of them are not only are they doing well, but they’re committed to something, and that’s what’s always great.

3 thoughts on “Pemon Rami

  1. I enjoyed reading the interview. It was a snapshot of the rich cultural history of Chicago ‘s African American community in the 1960’s and 70’s.

  2. I grew up with Pemon Rami (formerly known as Anthony Ray) in Stateway Gardens, a housing project on Chicago’s South side. I enjoyed reading this story. It took me back to the early 60s when his father and my father ran the Roy Campanella Little League. He is a great American institution.

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