Tuesday, May 4, 2010

K. Curtis Lyle stages an operetta for stroke-stricken Zimbabwe Nkenya

Music, migration and healing
K. Curtis Lyle stages an operetta for stroke-stricken Zimbabwe Nkenya

By Chris King
Of The St. Louis American

What is a poet to do, who wants to heal a musician friend?

How about stage a little multimedia opera about his personal journey, seen at once in terms of the poet’s own family, Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela?

“I’m trying to establish a narrative for Zimbabwe’s recovery,” says poet and elder K. Curtis Lyle, speaking of his friend and former collaborator, the musician Zimbabwe Nkenya. “If we can set an example for him, maybe it will bring him out of his paralysis and depression.”

The example will be set – and staged – 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 11 at the Kranzberg Studio, 501 N. Grand. The performance piece is entitled BARACKUTOPIA: Housecleaning and the Pursuit of Happiness: An Operetta in Seven Scenes. Admission is free, although donations will be accepted toward Zimbabwe’s rehabilitation and recovery from a massive stroke suffered last November.

Curtis will present his own poetic text, with live sound design by musician and multimedia artist David A.N. Jackson. Jackson will accompany the poet, along with bassist Josh Weinstein, and sing seven songs composed by the poet as part of the piece. Baikida Carroll has composed a musical score that knits it all together.

The performance also will have a visual element, consisting of photos representing the poet’s life from childhood to the present. The Kranzberg has a drop screen on which these images will be displayed; these photos will introduce each scene.

“My story is a story of migration,” Curtis writes in an artist statement.

“My parents migrated from the Deep South – Tennessee and Mississippi – to the West Coast – Los Angeles – during World War II. They have remained together for 69 years: he’s 95, she’s 94. They benignly govern a clan that extends over more than 24 states and four foreign countries. One was born in a black town in Mississippi, Mound Bayou. The other was born on the Choctaw Reservation, in Senatobia, Mississippi.”

In BARACKUTOPIA, he weaves the story of this intact, loving family with the larger fractured culture in which they and their people have evolved. The poet is a scholar of post-colonial Africa and of Africans in the Americas. He sees the rise of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and of Barack Obama in the United States as emblematic of a cultural healing that is possible with courageous leadership.

Whether performing this narrative of personal journey for a stricken friend will help bring that friend back to his strength remains to be seen.

Zimbabwe Nkenya’s wife, Deborah Mashibini, tells the story of his stroke.

“Sometime in the night on November 5, Zimbabwe had what the doctors referred to as a ‘massive stroke.’ He was air-lifted from Alton Memorial to SLU Hospital, but the stroke had already done major damage,” she relates.

“After five days at SLU, he was transferred to Jefferson Barracks Rehab Hospital – and was there until December 18. He has come a long way from where he was those first weeks in rehab, but he still has significant disabilities.”

She describes them.

“He is paralyzed, head to foot, on the right side of his body. He also has both aphasia and apraxia, which affect his ability to communicate. He understands everything that is going on, but is only able to say four or five words consistently and has the same difficulty with writing as with speech,” she says.

“While he was at Jefferson Barracks he developed an adverse reaction to a medication, and was sent to St. Anthony's Hospital. There they discovered that he had a large – and potentially life-threatening – abdominal aortic aneurysm. He had surgery to put a stint in for that in late February.”

Recovery for the stricken musician has been slow.

“The speech therapist tells us that he is making progress every week, but we find it difficult to be encouraged because it is so slow. He may be in speech therapy for years,” Deborah writes.

“Physical and occupational therapy were both discontinued in January because they weren’t seeing any improvement in his ability to move.”

“His ability to move”: nothing could be more important to a music, or a migration. Zimbabwe Nkenya, K. Curtis Lyle and BARACKUTOPIA certainly have their hard work cut out for them.

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