Talkin' the Walk
Hip-hop theatre artist Zell Miller III speaks truth about radio, race, and fatherhood
In East Austin's Southwest Key Community Center – a strikingly new and vibrant building in a part of town that is not so much either of those things – Zell Miller III is rehearsing his newest play. Three actors move in and out of gesture and tableaux, from abstract movement to African dance, from children's games to yoga poses, all the while speaking in an easy hip-hop poetic that swings from passion to apocalypse to comedy and back:
"Dude was like 'Just breathe.'"
"Let it out, man, yeah, tell the story, man, let it out yo."
"This is the inner voice speaking – I see, all beyond, I see a heart, his heart ..."
"Hello, caller, yes, yes, yes caller, you are correct, the angels are restless, bound by conduct and code, at the thought of what could happen tonight – 144,000 poets inhale in unison."
"Man I hope my radio don't be on some Nazi shit."
Zell Miller III has been making poetry and theatre for more than 20 years, to the rhythm of increasingly loud praise from critics and audiences not just in Austin but across the country. Compact and endlessly energetic, Miller usually performs his own work, and some of its poetry springs from his own exuberant physicality. But with Radio Silence: a word opera, a hip-hop piece that cries out against the corporatized, segregated, racist, and sexist "trash that floods the airways," he is taking it further, bringing in not just additional actors but also choreographer Ananda Mayi Moss. What nudged him toward this stage in his artistic evolution?
"I was taking my 8-year-old to school one morning," Miller says, "and I left his SpongeBob CD, so I was like, 'Let's turn on the radio.' And all the stations we found were so offensive, from the song selection to the deejay's vocabulary – I mean, even the sports stations – all of them were sexist or racist, and it just hit me, when I was my son's age, how much the radio was a positive force for me."
Co-produced by Vortex Repertory Company and UpRise! Productions (the latter a relatively new group, of which Miller is co-artistic director), Radio Silence is written and directed by Miller, who also performs in it. You might call it autobiography-by-radio, but not just Miller's autobiography – it's a family's and maybe even a culture's. Radio used to be the great 24-hour channel of American culture, injecting African-American music into a main American vein, a thrilling jolt from which the country has never recovered, thank God. The memory-radio of Radio Silence recalls those days in a sound design that's a rich stew of song-fragments selected by Miller and edited by Lindsey Ervin. Within just a few minutes, you might hear Al Green, Bob Dylan, Lenny Williams, Billy Paul, and a little girl learning to spell from Aretha Franklin: R-E-S-P ...
"It was big for me to have all these different musical genres," Miller says, "because that's how I was raised on the radio. There were no black radio stations and white radio stations, it was just music." But times have changed; deregulation of the airwaves led to the rise of corporate-juggernaut radio, chopped up for maximal profit potential. "My radio used to bring us together – 'Hotel California' right next to Kool & the Gang," a character recalls in Radio Silence. "Now my radio is a separatist." These days, genres and formats are locked into separate armored bunkers. The only time we hear music that's Not Our Kind is when the car next to us has its speakers blasting. And we roll that window up pretty fast.
But that's only part of the problem. As it struck Miller on that drive to school, most of what comes over the air these days is lowest-common-denominator trash: "Consume to keep the machine moving. These channels ain't so clear."
The radio trash heap pains Miller not only because of his own children, but because of his work as a school-based counselor for SafePlace. Miller does a 24-week program with students from seven local high schools and junior highs, "young men who are exhibiting violence in their dating relationships, or they are coming from violence either in the home or their neighborhoods." He adds: "I had no idea how much this music seeps into their pores. They get their ideas about women and relationships based off this garbage on the radio."
Miller also teaches poetry at local high schools and middle schools as part of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Grant Program, and poetry is what launched him and still informs his theatrical work. It's a curious thing that "verse drama," which climaxed with the sequoia of Shakespeare and then slowly wilted away for the next few hundred years, is now sprouting lively new branches. But anyone who's been to a slam can verify that poetry and performance are tight today (and Miller was a member of the 2004 Austin Slam team that went to the national competition, although he now says, "My stomach turns at the very thought 'slam poetry.'"). Miller's aesthetic is hip-hop poetry plus performance, the two inseparable, an energized, physical, and musical theatre. His poetic is rooted in superb storytelling, sometimes angry, more often tender or sharply comical, sometimes lightly self-mocking, as in Radio Silence when he briefly lip-synchs a rap. But stories are what ground his work. "If I can tell stories through this vehicle of hip-hop theatre," he says, "that people can enjoy, then I'm doing everything I need to do as a writer."
"My pop said I chewed a pen for a pacifier, so I guess writing's in my blood."
– line from Radio Silence
Born in Mansfield, Ohio, the 38-year-old Miller has lived in Austin since the age of 4. He acted in a wide variety of local plays before finding a theatrical home and groove with Vicky Boone's Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre, appearing in shows such as blood pudding, Alaskan Heat Blue Dot, Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling, Polaroid Stories, and con flama.
But he was writing his own stuff as well, working as a performance poet (voted Best Author/Poet by The Austin Chronicle readers in the 2004 "Best of Austin" poll, he is featured in the documentary Slam Planet: War of the Words) and trying out one-man theatre pieces at the annual FronteraFest fringe festival. He broke through big-time with The Evidence of Silence Broken – nominated for several local awards, the play was developed at Hyde Park Theatre but had its critically acclaimed world premiere at the Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. The Star Tribune called it the story of "a mind coming into sharp consciousness," and added, "what makes the show so thrilling is Miller's passionate performance." And just last year, Miller won the Austin Critics Table's David Mark Cohen New Play Award for his one-man father-meets-son play, My Child, My Child, My Alien Child.
Although poetry is less of a focus now, Miller remains, as he says, "one of the voices" of Xenogia Spokenword Collective. He believes performing as a poet under tough conditions sharpened his writing skills. "I think it puts me at an advantage in terms of reading crowds and working within the ebb and flow of a script. I think sitting down to make a set list is very much like writing a play: You want the audience to be with you, so you try as best you can to anticipate. If you drop something really heavy, can you give them an out in the next moment?"
His other actors for Radio Silence seem tuned in to his style. Wanda Holland's rich and gorgeous voice turns over Miller's poetry like earth in a garden. Holland "was my mother in the first community play I ever did," Miller recalls. "It was A Raisin in the Sun at Capitol City Playhouse. She has been doing amazing work since then. I love her voice and her attention to detail." Ebony Stewart, a wide-eyed and physically fluid young woman, "comes out of the spoken-word family of Neo-Soldiers," Miller says, adding, "She is going to blow people away."
The text they speak incorporates children's games, especially red light/green light, and the choreography has picked up this notion. Mixing "recognizable movements [like] children's games with more abstract forms of 'trained' dancing speaks to a broader audience," says choreographer Moss, "and taps into a common place where we all can relate uniformly."
Incorporating formal choreography into his theatre work was a natural move for Miller. "I'm having a great time," he says of the dance work. "I'm not by any means a dancer, never called myself one and will never call myself one, but I do a great deal of movement."
Moss, a performer and choreographer for Ballet East Dance Theatre who also holds a master's in social work, agrees. "My movement always has an organic and ethnic tone, which is why I partner well with Zell, who is a natural 'mover' and was influenced by Laurie Carlos." But she also acknowledges that "choreography on actors and actresses is really different than choreography on people that are trained dancers. The approach is the same: Every time I choreograph, instead of putting movement on a performer, I try to draw it out of them. So it's similar; it's just going to be modified depending on how that performer's body moves."
Her choreography for this piece includes both abstract movement and representational movement – a fascinating and very American melting pot of gestural languages. "My style tends to be gesture-based and often tells a story," she explains. "My influences were Alvin Ailey, [Lester] Horton, José Limón, and Africa when younger." (Moss studied dance at Sarah Lawrence College.) "I love mixing the contemporary hip-hop with the older traditional art forms."
UpRise! Productions seems to be all about that kind of mixture, which is great news for this town. Austin theatre, as alive and wild as it is, has a little bit of rot at its center: Like Austin itself, it has not yet quite shaken the old, old segregation. There are African-American companies and Hispanic companies in town, certainly, many of them doing superlative work. But African-American, Hispanic, and white companies tend (with exceptions, of course) to live in scattered silos, closed off from one another – just like corporate-format radio, come to think of it.
UpRise! may be the beginning of the end of those bad old days. Led by two African-American men (co-artistic directors Miller and DaShade Moonbeam) and a white woman (Moss, who is managing director), its slogan is "the Root of Rebellious Creativity." The group seems intent on mixing things up – "things" in this case meaning races, genders, ages, and artistic media, just for a start. "We are going to produce work that will hopefully blow people away," says Miller. "We will mix genres; we will have pieces where there is only movement; we will mix poetry, dance, martial arts, stage combat. We also want to be agents of change for young people in this city through arts." Not surprising, given that all three co-directors are also social workers.
Asked what he's developing for the future, Miller mentions a fourth installment of the Hip-Hop Theatre Explosion next month in collaboration with Vortex. UpRise! is also developing two new pieces, "a heavy movement piece, dealing with voyeurism and fantasy" called Windows, as well as I Am the Collaboration, in which "we will get deep into race issues," Miller says.
But he also says that he's "trying first and foremost to be a good dad." He and his wife, Marcia, have two children, 8-year-old Zell Miller IV and daughter Blaise Marley Miller, "who is walking at eight months, by the way." Many, maybe most, artists either do a lousy job as parents or give up art altogether. Miller has managed to remain devoted to his art and to his family – a remarkable feat. In fact, his children help keep his art pointed.
"I think that once we started to have children ... I knew that I had to be more responsible as an artist, meaning I had to speak the truth, tell tough stories, and try to walk it how I talk it," Miller says. "Any time I find myself questioning what I put on the page or thinking I need to back off, I remember that I have to give my kids the biggest word in the human language, and in my opinion, that word is 'possibility.'"
Radio Silence: a word opera runs through Aug. 31, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. For more info, call 478-5282 or visit www.vortexrep.org.