Most birthdays are forgettable -- a perfectly adequate night spent with loved ones or a sorry evening spent alone with the bottle, marking another year down the drain. But for actor, writer, and producer Thomas Robert Simpson, birthdays are always exceptional. Ten years ago Simpson gathered a few of his artistic cohorts for an evening of performance to celebrate his 39th birthday. The party was so successful that Simpson decided to repeat it the following year -- and the next, and the one after that; in 1994 he christened the annual fete the AfroSolo Arts Festival. A showcase for African-American artists and a forum to air issues crucial to the black community through solo performance, the four-week fest has taken on a life of its own, encompassing a broad cross-section of cultural events such as dance, music, spoken word, theater, visual arts, and scholarly forums.
Though he recognizes the obvious financial advantages of mounting solo pieces rather than large-scale group productions, Simpson has always been drawn to the creative possibilities of the smaller format. On a typical AfroSolo night, several performers take turns on the stage, a process that highlights differing points of view. "The diversity of who we are really surprised people," he explains. "One person can only give a glimpse of what it means to be African-American, [but] with many people, a mosaic comes together to create a whole."
Although much of the work has a social or political bent, Simpson insists that AfroSolo offers "something for everyone." As he explains it, AfroSolo reveals "what it means to be human, but using the black experience as the medium to do that." Whether the festival does so or not, its lineup is impressive. This year's program includes famed local dancer Robert Henry Johnson's Letters to Jesus, an exploration of spirituality in four sections; spoken word artist Aya de Leon's Thieves in the Temple: Reclaiming of Hip-Hop, a character-based performance that addresses the homophobia and sexism of gangsta rap posturing; and Simpson's emotionally charged rumination on internalized racism in The Cleansing.
Admission prices vary
Visit www.af rosolo.org for a full schedule
The festival opens Saturday, Aug. 4, with an outdoor concert in Yerba Buena Gardens (701 Mission) featuring local jazz gurus Paula West, Faye Carol, Noah Griffin, and Cedric Brown. Like many of this year's events, the concert will be free, a goal Simpson pursued to make the fest more accessible. But with the recent downturn in the economy, fund-raising was particularly difficult, so donations wouldn't hurt. Other highlights include a mixed-media visual arts exhibit (opening at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Luggage Store, 1007 Market); a performance for teens blending spoken word, hip hop, and dance called "Slamming AIDS: Young African American Artists Against AIDS" (2 p.m., Aug. 11, at the Center for African & African American Art & Culture, 762 Fulton); and "wRiting About Race," a panel discussion with playwrights who create characters of a race different from their own (4:30 p.m., Aug. 25, at Z Space Studio, 1360 Mission). With such an impressive roundup of friends and acquaintances, Simpson barely needs usto wish him a happy birthday.