DEHINO SMIN is track number 8 from the spiritualized EDM album Yoga on the Dance Floor (TGEE Records).The verses are in Sanskrit and the flavor is reggae dub. Reciting 9 out of the 33 core verses from the Bhagavad Gita As It Is translated by the devotional scholar Srila Prabhupada,the heady subject matter is Life, Death and how to reunite ourselves with the Supreme with one’s consciousness intact during the time of transition.I am writing this on Valentine’s Day 2015 on what would have been my dearly departed mother and cultural icon Lee Chamberlin’s 77th year. And it’s a struggle as there is so much to cover.Losing her has been extremely sobering. Being with her during her last hours was poignant and something I will never forget.In bhakti colloquialism,death is called a “disappearance”. Where do they go that person that we loved so dearly,that face we saw so often,the hand we held so tightly? This past week I found myself coming to grips with the fact that death is indeed a reality and that I am walking on the shifting sands of time. Fortunately God is Time. Now if only I could pay Him enough attention. What is not so readily grasped is the moving on of spirit to be housed in another body or if very fortunate,liberation from the cycle of birth and death completely.Lately, the realization I am having is that there are no shortcuts to self realization.I can’t pretend I am something or somewhere I am not and pivotally accepting this body,this vehicle,this yantra I have got is the first step to transcending it precisely because it is so particular. Denial or abuse in the form of repression of one’s physcho physical nature and negation just doesn’t work. This life is full on. I actually have to use it in service of the Supreme because that is where my realization will be found. And “I” can be “you”. As my mother used to say the greatest sin is neglecting one’s God given talents.You have to pass through them without shirking the austerities that go along with the job.
As the embodied soul continually passes in this body from youth to boyhood to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change. – BG 2.13.
Of course people die, you say but how do we die? It’s hit me like a ton of bricks:
I AM going to die and it’s going to be very PERSONAL.
I examine myself now.
How prepared am I for that occurrence?
While I certainly have the tools in the form of sound vibration, I’d say not so much really.They say forewarned is forearmed yet it has taken someone so close to me to sound the alarm in my heart and head beyond accepted philosophy.Mother as siksa guru. All the years I imagined I had to fritter away on my meandering garden path to my supposed goals is not that long anymore. Mortality is in sight and it surely is a feeling.This feeling is present with me day and night,unlike before when I was less sober. What do I mean by that? I was drunk on my youth. Intoxicated by the endless possibilities with no real grasp that my time in this form is finite.I will have to get off the bus at the end of the line but what time is the end of the line coming? The key word in this verse is sober or dhira. Sobriety is required so as not to become bewildered by a dramatic change from matter to less matter. How confusing it is having lived comfortably in the same “apartment” for years when the landlord suddenly appears somewhat unannounced telling you have a couple of months to get out.You can’t take anything with you and you have no idea where you are going. What are you going to do with that big mind of yours? I’ve been advised to focus on the Lord regularly and yet I fall short. On the upside my day to day interactions with others has been tempered, making me more mellow,less reluctant to jump to conclusions, more forgiving and also less inclined to put up with time wasting activity.There is a tenderness and a live and let live attitude that comes with maturity.These are improvements and I can only hope that with an open heart there will be more to come.The question remains will it be enough?
Where Do I Begin and Where Do I Stop?
There are so many ways to unpack this little homage to her. I have so much to say that it can’t be completed here. I can say that outside of her public role, she was a dedicated practitioner of kriya yoga following Paramahamsa Yogananda who first came to the attention of readers in the West though a book called Autobiography of a Yogi. For 26 years she followed this path of meditation assiduously morning and evening.Sometimes I would interrupt her by walking into her room too soon but she was always kind.Covered in a shawl,sitting facing her shrine with her beads she was a quietly aspiring sage.This helped her cultivate a faith and remain calm in the face of many a trying circumstance. She had an acceptance of circumstances of life that so many of us become unhinged by.She had an expectation that all would work out for the best with patience.Acceptance of our personal reality can provide peace.This is what I observed in a woman who was not short on artistic ambition, vision, or determination. She died peacefully although reluctant to let go of the life she knew with tasks she felt she had left incomplete. In the end she had no choice but to leave and this is the irony of life with the push me pull you of the soul in matter. The soul desires more time as its nature is timeless but matter has no more time left to give. This is difficult.
A Synopsis of Sorts
This is some of what I know of her. Lee Chamberlin was born February 14, 1938 in New York City,one of two daughters born to Ida Small and Bernando LaPallo. Raised in Harlem, she was educated at Convent School of the Sacred Heart. She graduated from New York University.For acting she studied at NYU, HB Studios and with Uta Hagen. She was a student at La Sorbonne in the late 1950’s where she received honors in French grammar both oral and written. France would be a country that she would return to repeatedly spending extended periods of time to write as she felt the atmosphere most conducive. It was in France that she would pursue her dream of establishing a non profit to nurture playwrights of color. An actress, writer,director and trail blazer she had a thorough respect for the sacred space that theatre is with first hand experience of how hard it was to get a play produced. She had razor sharp insight that I wish I could duplicate for you here in it’s entirety but I cannot. Part of it,however meant that on stage there was no place for false ego,cheap shots,pandering to the audience,undercutting another actor or a poorly constructed storyline starved for dimension.Lee was a story teller and very funny.She loved observing people and had a respect for the personhood of everyone.This really struck me and I think about it a lot. She had empathy and this is what made her such a good actress. One of my favorite childhood past times was watching her do a characterization of a personality she had encountered in her daily life.She would have the accent,the mannerisms,the attitude and “act the person out” in a little skit for me and my brother. Oh what fun. She was brilliant and how we laughed! We were so lucky to have this “in house” entertainment and she had fun with her captive audience.
My education by her in What Is Theatre began at age 6 when she took me along to see her in “Slaveship” by the late Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones).She told me in 2013 when I inquired about the dialogue of the piece that there wasn’t any.The “play” was really just an outline.There was no script as we would conceive of today. It was up to the actors who had been left a wide berth to improvise and expand upon with the help of director Gil Moses. The year was 1969 and if I recall correctly the show was staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when it was still a small experimental space but I could be wrong about that. The seats were placed around the stage which became the “ship”.The stage had an upper and lower “deck” built on pillars of wood. There was a “hatch” in the middle of the upper deck with a ladder the actors could climb up and down.The makeup for all the actors was white face,a riff on Greek masks which made the archetypes and dramatic turmoil more pronounced. My mother portrayed a Yoruba priestess who was raped by the slave catchers conveying human cargo. It’s an understatement to say that her character was upset. In spite of the serious nature of the drama, I knew my mother was well. She was “acting” so I wasn’t disturbed. I was fascinated by the stage craft. I was getting my first lesson in lighting design.The lights were extinguished or illuminated based on the action creating a back and forth between the “present” and “past”.The set design placed two actors on an outcropping “in the future” sitting in rocking chairs talking on a front porch. The concepts of time and dimension were created with simplicity and economy. Later I would see her in “The Believers” and “Do Your Own Thing” (1969) the latter being an adaptation of Twelfth Night performed at The Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue. I would see her play the role of the scorned “Medea” with fury and pain at Penn State and in 1973/4 as the tragic figure of Princess Cordelia in Joe Papps’ production of “King Lear” for his New York Shakespeare Festival at the Delacorte Theatre.
The Craft Of Acting
For Cordelia, she lay on the floor playing dead in our living room. Could I see her breathing she wanted to know? I asked her how long she had to be dead for.She replied for 20 minutes while James Earl Jones did his soliloquy. No, I couldn’t tell she was breathing. How did she do it?
“You breathe very shallowly from your diaphragm like a singer”. When I saw her performance I was satisfied.She did a great job playing dead and I told her so when I went back stage as she wanted to know.In this way there was a complicity that developed between us. Whenever we would go out to see a play or a ballet, a process of analysis would occur that we enjoyed. We would discuss how effective what we saw was or not and what could have been done to improve the presentation. She was the one who told me I should see everything I could and learn from it; Even a poor performance or staging would be instructive on how not to approach a problem.
Television and Hollywood
She gave me insights on what she called “cheap Hollywood tricks” or the techniques used to achieve certain affects when she began her career on television beginning with her multiple roles on CTW “The Electric Company”. She helped me and millions of kids sharpen their minds by helping them to learn how to read and learn punctuation and annunciation as Brenda,Vi, Gladys The Glow Worm or as a shadow annunciator with co- star Morgan Freeman.That show was her first big break and the original cast was stellar. In the span of her 40 plus year career she went onto co – star in movies “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Let’s Do It Again” produced and directed by Sidney Poitier.
She made innumerable guest appearances on many television shows including “ROOTS” the ground breaking mini series that finally acknowledged that yes there had been slavery in the U.S.A. and yes it had been brutal. What was more was the underwhelming lack of offers for those actors of color appearing in the mini series. It bothered her deeply and looking back I can see it was a watershed moment for her cementing the importance of creating roles of meaning and substance for actors of color. For many she is remembered as “the best Mom on television” in her role as Pat Baxter on the soap opera “All My Childen” TV mother to the troubled Angie. But Lee being Lee never rested on her laurels. She utilized her time off set to write and write and write. She wrote screenplays,novels,plays,and essays.She was a contributing author to an anthology published in 2009 called “The Face in the Mirror” published by Prometheus Books. She was very proud of being asked to write and contribute to that and would revise and revise multiple times. She would say that writing meant revision. She was always evolving her vision and her growth came through writing and directing. Her own musical “Struttin” (she wrote the book,the lyrics and directed) mounted in the 1980’s won half a dozen AUDELCO Awards for Excellence in Black Theatre. But that wasn’t enough for her. It was the stimulation of a thought process with a deep desire and commitment to see things change for the better for “writers of color” and by golly she was going to be a part of that change. She became concerned about the continued negative image of blacks being projected in American media with the concomitant damage that it was causing to self perceptions and perceptions. With all the distortions of being portrayed as thugs, thieves and junkies and knowing that this one dimensional image was serving no one,she wanted to establish a kind of writers colony.She also realized through her own life experience that mounting a play was just too hard. She reasoned if it was challenging for her who had a track record for quality work,how hard must it be for others? She had begun to influence perceptions of what a black person could be (human)and was (human) but she wanted to support other playwrights giving them a safe haven where they could develop their voice. She believed firmly that people and in this I speak of people of color – Must control their own images being projected otherwise they would be forever distorted. It was her next trying experience creating and struggling to mount her one woman show “Objects in the Mirror…Are Closer Than They Seem” that would seal the deal of her determination to establish her non profit Lee Chamberlin’s Playwrights Inn Project, Inc.in 2011.
In Lee’s Mission Statement she wrote: The Playwrights’ Inn Project develops work of diverse American playwrights, including women and people of color… Writers interpret the impact of external events on the hopes and dreams of individual lives. My vision is to foster development of plays by African-American playwrights that travel beyond reflections on the American “black experience” and reveal a shared humanity when touched by universally common events. The Playwrights’ Inn Project seeks to encourage playwrights to venture outside their comfort zone to challenge notions about artistic capability or scope of subject. The Playwrights’ Inn is poised to create an international platform for traditionally under served playwrights and encourages writers to roam beyond externally imposed limits of subject or preconceived opinion of what is artistically possible…”
This is my humble effort to preserve what she began.
p.s. Lee’s last essay is being published in a new anthology by Simon and Schuster FAITH: Essays from Believers,Agnostics,and Atheists. It comes out Feb. 24th, 2015 Edited by Victoria Zackheim http://books.simonandschuster.com/Faith/Victoria-Zackheim/9781582705026#
Bg 2.13 dehino ’smin yathā dehe kaumāraṁ yauvanaṁ jarā tathā dehāntara-prāptir dhīras tatra na muhyati Word for word: dehinaḥ — of the embodied; asmin — in this; yathā — as; dehe — in the body; kaumāram — boyhood; yauvanam — youth; jarā — old age; tathā — similarly; deha-antara — of transference of the body; prāptiḥ — achievement; dhīraḥ — the sober; tatra — thereupon; na — never; muhyati — is deluded. Translation: As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.