It would be impossible to cover it all. I caught some solo theater and spoken word, the photography exhibit, and the opening-night kickoff by Marcus Shelby's terrific jazz orchestra. Hearing Shelby and his 15 tight musicians is one of San Francisco's great pleasures, and the fact that a one-night-only concert by them was so underattended is one of the city's mysteries. "Our crowd is small but mighty," Shelby said between numbers, and he was right. The 15 or so people in the audience knew what they were hearing.
The orchestra opened with a few tunes from "The Lights Suite," written by Shelby for a Howard Korder play, The Lights. The Duke Ellingtonstyle music sounded like a rainy night in New York, circa 1959. Midway through the evening a vocalist named Tania Saedi came on for a couple of songs (like Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?"), and the orchestra closed with swinging Christmas music from Ellington's respectful tweaking of Tchaikovsky, The Harlem Nutcracker. But the highlight of the show, for me, was a version of the stately, melancholy (and rarely performed) "Northern Lights," which Billy Strayhorn wrote for a young Queen Elizabeth.
The solo performance night was spottier. A guest poet named April Martin Chartrand presented a clichéd protest poem called "9/11," which consisted of some easy jibes at America as an evil racist entity. Another guest poet, Hot Chocolate (aka Darlene Roberts), did a sweet, affecting paean to African-American music. Opal Palmer Adisa, one of the headliners, played a homeless woman in the sketch Bathroom Graffiti Queen, wearing an old-fashioned white dress and plastic jewelry. The Queen's self-appointed role was to answer the desperate scribblings of lost souls in the ladies' room stalls, with Dear Abbyesque morsels of advice. The idea was amusing, but Adisa's voice and timing were not quite there; she explained too much, and not enough of her funny lines landed.
Javier Reyes told a story called Block Monster, about a kid in a public school dropping out to sell crack. Reyes wore baggy satin shorts, a big T-shirt, a sweatband, and sneakers, and talked in loose rhyme -- hip hop storytelling. Some of the rhymes were forced at the expense of sense, like the introductory lines about "clouds of oppression": "We are born unlike any other mammal. We are born without in-stincts/ Oh yeah, except that they're tryin' to make all of us ex-tinct." And too much of the story was preachy; instead of just describing Omar (the "block monster") and his descent from cheerful boy down the street to gold-toothed neighborhood menace, which by itself would be a howl of protest, Reyes let the audience in on what to think. "The block monster's been hurt by society," he said. "And y'all are scared? But guess what? We done made these monsters."
Easily the strongest solo performer was a poet called Paradise Freejahlove, who did three subtle, musical pieces: one about love, one about white appropriation of black culture, and a "Black State of the Union Address." "Beloved: A loveletter to the goddess in every woman" was a singsong, minor-toned poem rising to a rolling, garrulous, minutes-long string of giddy words in divine and sexual praise of a woman. "I Love Everything About You, But You" was a smooth, jazzy rap about contemporary racism: "They want the black muscles, they want the black heart/ They want the black body, they want the black art/ ... They want the black neighborhoods, but not the black neighbor." And in "State of the Union" he made an odd modern observation: "The No. 1 golfer is a black man, and the No. 1 rapper is a white man." Freejahlove wore a loose jumble of clothes, a leopard-print shirt under a leopard-print hat, and kept his eyes closed most of the time; he seemed almost shy, but his delivery was open, vulnerable, and witty.
Afro Solo runs through mid-September, and a photographic series called "One Black Day," showing scenes of local African-American life on May 1, 2003 (from Willie Brown at work to a keen, anonymous portrait of a father and son in an Oakland park), is on display most afternoons at the African and American Art and Culture Complex on Fulton Street. The fiercely talented Will Power performs a new one-man show called Flow near the end of the run, and Omar Sosa's jazz quintet rounds things out on the final day. AfroSolo has a lot to offer, but it's grown diffuse and a bit disorganized; people aren't coming out to see the events. Maybe Simpson needs to throw another private party to re-energize the festival's verve.