‘Black Pearl’ celebrates artists’ optimism, hope

‘Black Pearl’ celebrates artists’ optimism, hope

New York-born Derek Lassiter, who arrived in the Bay Area in 1990 with a background in music and theater, was asked by the Red Poppy Arthouse this past summer to curate some of its programming. Having used the intimate Mission District venue many times as an incubator for his own work, combining music there with visual or spoken art to create singular experiences, Lassiter embraced the job with a sense of the possible.

“I had been thinking about how there’s so much going on in the world that’s either negative or a struggle, and as an artist, I think, to create we have to have this connection to a side of ours that (promotes) optimism and hope and love, even if we are writing about struggle and activism and things like that,” Lassiter said by phone. “So I was working on this idea of ‘love is alive,’ and the proof of that being that there are so many artists out there doing their work, and struggling even if they’re not making money, or anything like that. They’re still making art.”

Lassiter took that concept to the poet Arisa White (“Post Pardon,” “Hurrah’s Nest,” “A Penny Saved”), who — though Lassiter wasn’t expecting it — set out to write “a whole poem or a show around this idea.”

Lassiter also contacted acclaimed pianist Tammy L. Hall, with whom he had collaborated before, and though White and Hall had never met, they began to put a show together.

“Based on research I’ve done on family history and (the) history of the slave trade in Northeast South America, I found that slaves dived for pearls,” White said by e-mail. “There were some cases of slaves purchasing their freedom with the pearls they found. Also, too, Black Pearl was the name of a taxicab company in Brooklyn that my family would use, and so I combined these two realities to create a spiritual journey where the protagonist moves through her own lovelessness and alienation, guided by a Black Pearl taxicab driver, and arrives at a place where her sense of love is sustained by knowing her collective history and understanding that her spirit is nurtured by all those who came before.”

White shared the text with Hall, who composed the music. When the two decided they needed another voice, White reached out to Amber McZeal, whom she’d met at Goddard College in 2013.

“I heard her sing at cabaret and was absolutely taken by her voice,” White said. “Her voice is the kind of voice I often hear when I think of women singing. Amber’s voice has always been in my heart.”

White had been awarded a 2013-14 Cultural Funding Grant from the city of Oakland to adapt her chapbook “Post Pardon” into an opera; when she found out McZeal lived in Oakland, she invited her to audition, and McZeal got the part.

“Black Pearl: Eight Poems and a Poetic Drama” will be published by Oakland’s Nomadic Press in March.


Love is Alive: Black Pearl: 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7. $10-15. Studio Grand, 3234 Grand Ave.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Derek Lassiter

Additional listings

Poets Paul Hoover and Joseph Lease read from their work (7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St., S.F., free).

Flash Fiction Collective presents Heather Bourbeau, Meg Pokrass, Tony Press and Mardith Louisell (7 p.m. Friday,Feb. 5, Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St., S.F., free).

Rumi’s Caravan performs the words of Rumi, Hafiz, Mary Oliver and Rilke, with live music in the ecstatic tradition, in both matinee and evening shows — both of which include post-show tea and cake with the performers (2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6, Glaser Center, 547 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, $25-$35).

Featherboard Writing Series hosts Danny Thanh Nguyen, Sara Larsen and Zoe Tuck (6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6,Aggregate Space, 801 W. Grand Ave., Oakland, free).

Quiet Lightning and Radar Productions present a queer literary mixtape selected through blind submissions and published in a book featuring cover art by Ariel Dunitz-Johnson, handed out to the first 100 people (4:30 p.m. Sunday,Feb. 7, Eureka Valley Rec Center, 100 Collingwood St., S.F., free).

Editors Garrett Caples and Julien Poirier celebrate the publication of Frank Lima’s “Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems” (City Lights), with readings by Cedar Sigo, Donna de la Perrière, Joseph Lease, Jackson Meazle, Rod Roland, Brian Lucas and Chris Carosi (7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9, City Lights, 261 Columbus Ave., free).