In a nod toward service to his community, noted actor/director Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter on Feb. 21 will host the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre West’s production of the play “Roots of the Soul” at Palmdale’s Legacy Commons senior facility. The production, set for 2 and 7:30 p.m., is part of Palmdale’s continuing Season of Service campaign as well its celebration of Black History Month.
Anderson-Gunter is a familiar face on stage, television and in motion pictures. He wanted to bring “Roots of the Soul” to his adopted hometown of Palmdale because of the play’s ability to elevate and renew the individual spirit, two healing properties he says are needed today in communities across the land. He’ll direct Toni Malone in the soul-stirring one-woman show that depicts the singular experiences of Susana Callahan, aka “Button,” who takes the audience on a 100-year odyssey from childhood in early-1900s South Carolina to the moment of her death at the dawn of the 21st Century. Love, loss, faith and transformation are revealed through gospel spirituals as “Button” rises from a voiceless orphan left at a small Black church to grow to a woman of strong character and unwavering faith at life’s end.
Anderson-Gunter, a native of Kingstown, Jamaica, wanted to help celebrate the “Season of Service” so popular now in municipalities big and small, and saw that the play provided a fortuitous opportunity to demonstrate the essence of the “life well lived” with a particular spotlight on faith. “Root of the Soul,” he said, is the perfect vehicle for seniors many of whom may be familiar with the early struggles of African Americans in the Jim Crow South and have lived to see a once-denied people rise to great heights both socially and spiritually.
“The play was brought to me by Toni Malone,” Anderson-Gunter explained. “She is an exceptional talent I had the pleasure of meeting through work at Target Sunday at the California African American Museum.” Target Sunday provides museums nationwide with funding to present free theatrical, artistic and musical events on weekends. “What I admire most about this play is that it is a family-friendly play while having direct appeal to the church-goer. Button is a real woman—a Black woman of strong faith—who embodies the characteristics of all of those before us who prayed, sacrificed and surrendered themselves to salvation and God’s promise of a better day.”
‘Button’ is a woman of faith
The generational aspects of post-slavery Black America is relevant in the play, Anderson-Gunter explained, but it is also geared toward youth. “Today our young people seem to have no idea of where we came from,” he said. “They don’t ask questions of their elders. We need to demonstrate to youth the consequences our forefathers paid in blood and sweat. A good example would be the Freedom Riders, persons like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. These were individuals who set aside their own ambitions and comforts to speak to a larger issue vital to their brethren and future generations. It’s a terrific opportunity during Black History Month to speak to the sacrifices our forefathers made so that we could reach our collective potential as a people.”
Button is reared in the church attic by the church mothers who teach her the stories of the gospel and instill in her the deeper, nurturing aspects of faith and family. The church mothers each had a story to tell—and a song to sing—and these tales and melodies become the root of young Button’s soul, nourishing her and helping her grow up and meet life.
Malone is a Broadway stage veteran with a powerful vocal range. She is known to combine entertainment and education and often uses her family’s stories and her love of Gospel music within her performances. Among her stage credits are “The Gospel Truth,” “Fame,” “The Beat Goes On,” “Menopause the Musical” and “Dreamgirls.”
Anderson-Gunter is also excited about his next movie project, “Revival,” scheduled for release this spring. It is a musical deconstruction of the story of Herod II (Anderson-Gunter) and wife Herodias (Chaka Kahn) taken from the Gospel of St. John. Although these two Biblical characters have not traditionally been considered historically transformative figures–when compared with contemporaries like John the Baptist, Jesus or St. Paul–Anderson-Gunter cites a “revival of thought” that may resonate among youth.
“Neither Herod or Herodias changed their view of John the Baptist, and the two eventually captured and executed him for heresy,” he explained. “It is through their actions that they become an important part of the Gospels. No matter what circumstance may confront a righteous person—such as John the Baptist—there is a transformation … a victory that cannot be overlooked. The youth today need such stories to see how the tormentor, the antagonist …the ‘bully’ as you will… is ultimately defeated in the presence of righteousness. This is a nice melding of a Biblical story that demonstrates how tyranny is always defeated by the indomitable spirit of love and the power of forgiveness.”
And Chaka Kahn? “Oh, she sings to me in such lilting tones … the film is a winner. It’s something for the entire family,” he said.
The Gospels and modern martyrs
A parallel could be drawn, of course, between John the Baptist and modern-day martyrs like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. During his boyhood, Anderson-Gunter and much of the Black community in Kingstown were inspired by the stories their elders told about the bravery and courage of the Maroon population. They were the original slaves brought to the Caribbean during the Middle Passage from West Africa, Portugal and finally to the Western Hemisphere. They escaped slavery in the Americas and formed independent settlements. Anderson-Gunter explained that Jamaican children have held this population in high esteem because of their willingness to “forgive and work with” their oppressors to help forge a lasting spiritual relationship.
The Black church in Jamaica, he said, is similar to the African American church in terms of its reach and scope in relation to the healing power of the Gospels. The Maroons did revolt against their colonial oppressors and fled to the hills of Jamaica, a move similar to that of the Zealots of the New Testament, who made their final stand at Siege of Masada in Judea. The Maroons plotted their independence, however, via reconciliation with the Anglican and Catholic churches and devised ways to live peacefully with the colonial minority.
The Zealots, led by Barabbas, never opted for a peaceful co-existence with Rome and continually plotted against the spiritually bankrupt Herod and Herodias and finally met a disastrous fate during the first Jewish-Roman War in 74 CE.
“We utilized the word and the Bible to give us a sense of overthrowing our captors,” Anderson-Gunter explained. “The Maroons established a community in the mountains and eventually would overthrow the colonial powers through faith and scripture. They were the vast majority in Jamaica, but had no weapons or means to wage a serious fight against the Europeans. They learned the ways of Jesus. They fought for justice for all persons in Jamaica—including White people—because the Bible was their mainstay. It goes back to what Bob Marley would frequently speak of—a release from “mental slavery”—which binds and ultimately confines the spirit. Hatred of your brethren can never loose the ties of oppression. You must talk to your opposition. You must work with your opposition. That is the initial step toward healing a racial divide.”
In healing the racial divide encompassing much of America today, Anderson-Gunter suggested that a focus on the great leaders like Gandhi, King and Mandela—as well as the spirit of the Maroon people—could provide a pathway to reconciliation. “But you have to communicate through peace, not violence,” he said. “The descendants of the Maroons are here today. I am one. There are many cultures and religions in Jamaica who were able to learn from one another and live peacefully. A good example are the German-Jews who comprise a sizable population in the Black community. Just look at my last name.”
Of the many parts he has played and/or directed, Anderson-Gunter points to “Speak Of Me As I Am,” the story of Paul Robeson, which was a production submitted to the North Carolina Black Film Festival that received rave reviews. Robeson once resided in Russia and like the famous Black expatriates of his generation (ex. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin), he returned to America during the formative years of the Civil Rights Movement to lend his voice to the cause of freedom.
Channeling Paul Robeson
“Paul Robeson was a true fighter,” Anderson-Gunter said. “This was a man who fought for his people within and outside of the United States. He was an early hero of mine.” Anderson-Gunter recalled his boyhood when Robeson had a performance engagement in Kingstown. “Most Black people could not afford to go and see him. Such performances were reserved for the rich and well off. But I’ll tell you what he did: After his performance, he jumped in a car and drove out to the countryside, and there on those dirt roads, he sang to the poor people for free. I’ll never forget that. He was a true hero to all of the youth.”
Anderson-Gunter gravitated to the performing arts when he saw his first movie “One Potato, Two Potato” at what was then the Rialto Theater in Jamaica West Indies. It was the story of a White family in crisis, held together by the nanny who appeared, to his young eyes, to be African American. Admiring the talent, class and sophistication of the woman portraying the nanny, he turned to his mother sitting with him and said “That’s what I want to do when I grow up … to be an actor and to be as good as that woman.” His first acting audition was for the Urban Arts Corps where he earned the role of a dancing witch doctor in a production of “Play Mas” by Mustapha Matura.
Once arriving in the United States, the Broadway stage became a regular locale for Anderson-Gunter and since then he has been seen in a number of motion pictures including “Predator II,” “Marked for Death,” “Don’t Be A Menace” and “Only The Strong.” Television roles have included appearances on “Hudson Street” and “Union Square.” Pop music fans will remember Anderson-Gunter from Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video where he was morphed into posterity.
Legacy Commons for Active Seniors, 930 East Avenue Q-9, is an award-winning recreation facility, designed especially for active adults aged 55 years and older. Visitors are welcome from 8 a.m. to 4: 30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 8 a.m. to noon on Friday. For more details about Legacy Commons, call (661) 267-5904.