Composer, pianist, and director Samora Pinderhughes brings his expansive, multimedia project, The Transformations Suite, to the Atrium on November 21. In advance of the performance, he spoke to his mentor, the critically acclaimed writer, director, actor, and MacArthur Award recipient Anna Deavere Smith, about his vision for the project and the spirit of honesty and intimacy that informs it.
Anna Deavere Smith: Hey, Samora! So, just in general, give me the background of The Transformations Suite, and what you're trying to do with it.
Samora Pinderhughes: Yea, I started The Transformations Suite project in 2012, while I was still a student at The Juilliard School, with some of my colleagues there as kind of a way to combat what we saw happening around us at the time in terms of race and history. Specifically, we noticed on Martin Luther King Day that his legacy and the legacies of other important freedom fighters/leaders were changed a lot after their deaths. And we were kind of looking at this idea of—what histories are erased, what ideas are erased; and, by extension, what does that mean? Why does that happen? What lessons can we take from that for right now?
ADS: What would you say is left out of Martin Luther King's legacy that you wanted to pick up on?
SP: Essentially, the radicalism of it, especially the final 4 to 5 years of his life, which are pretty much completely ignored by most. First, his anti-war sentiments, and then also his problems with capitalism, his time organizing workers, and everything around class and labor. I think everyone pretty much just focuses on the March on Washington, the Selma period, the platitudes and blanket ideas of "Equality." They ignore all the big structural things he was trying to fight for that we still haven't addressed.
ADS: Spell out for us what some of those ideas are.
SP: One of those ideas is definitely the question of whether capitalism should be allowed to exist in the form that it currently exists. Dr. King was very critical of capitalism, and often talked about the three triplets of evil—militarism, materialism, and racism—and how they are tied to each other and all have to be dealt with. So he was tying capitalism directly to racism, and talking about how capitalism is essentially the "engine" for white supremacy in this country. A lot of people forget that slavery was created first for economic means—to enrich certain people through the use of free labor—and then race was used to justify those economic (and immoral) decisions. Same with the prison industrial complex.
ADS: What do you suppose is so appealing about MLK's "I Have A Dream" speech? And why do you think, in his martyrdom, have we as a country latched onto that—and not included the more radical things he said in our glossy ideas of him now? Why is that one speech so attached to American hearts and minds?
SP: That's a great question. I think there are probably a few reasons. Firstly, probably the context—the importance of the March on Washington in all senses. Another reason is definitely centered around the actual music of his language—you know, I think about that a lot based on the conversations you and I have had around listening to language as music, and what attracts people to the ways that certain people speak. So obviously, the music of his speech patterns really swell something in people.
And also, that speech is an easier one to twist. His later speeches, where he talks about the physical barriers that separate, basically, the 1% from the 99%—that language is much harder to twist, it is exactly what it is. Whereas the "I Have a Dream" speech is more about ideas, so folks can say, "Oh—the content of our character!," and they can pretend to know what that's about.
ADS: I see. They can claim it.
SP: Yea, exactly, they can claim it.
ADS: But it must have been radical in some ways, because he gave the speech in August of 1963, and then in September, four little black girls were bombed in the Baptist Church in Birmingham. So, there is definitely something radical in MLK's commitment to love and brotherhood.
SP: Yes, definitely, that's true, that's true.
"I always try to think about why exactly I need to be doing a project—not just why I'm called to do it, but how people can actually benefit from it. If that's not there, then I know I should be doing something else."
ADS: I've heard folks say, in terms of how people talk about MLK today—would MLK even be invited to his own birthday party (a.k.a. his holiday)? Would he be too radical for that?
SP: Yup. And in terms of his idea of love, MLK's idea of radical love—that's still a very different idea of love than what people put forth as what he was representing through that. This idea that love is about acceptance, blanket acceptance—that's not really what it was for him. It was more of a working love—it required work.
ADS: What is the work of love, in your experience?
SP: I think it's definitely not simply positive; part of that work means getting better. Telling others how they need to improve if they're doing wrong, or seeing how you're not doing right by somebody and owning up to that and doing better—that's got to happen.
ADS: You and I have talked a few times about song lyrics; and music is your language, the way you're getting your voice in the world and trying to make change. What would you say is the difference between a pop love song, and a song about this other kind of love which is the kind that you're describing? And could you imagine a love song that could make its way into popular culture that would be about the kind of love that you're talking about, Dr. King's kind of love?
SP: Wow, that's a good one, I gotta think more . . . because I think love songs have changed over the years, too. At least in popular culture, nowadays it's more about "carnal" love—what we would call love songs now, they're more about lust, and about what's in that moment in time, rather than the depth and breadth of love. Which is cool, but definitely different than, say, the Motown era. The interesting thing about that era to me is that it feels like those songs were about the idea of love: longing, etc. It was more about the idea of the person they were talking about, rather than the actuality of really loving them. And there's a certain type of real beauty in that.
ADS: What about an artist like Kendrick Lamar, or artists like that?
SP: Well, he definitely tests and stretches those types of ideas around love, he's definitely wonderful with that. There's a song ["Mortal Man"] where he says: "When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?" He's talking about this greater love between an artist and his fan base, and he's asking whether they'll still love him if he messes up. There are other artists too that I love for those types of ideas around the complexity of love. Frank Ocean definitely comes to mind.
ADS: What's your strategy, as an artist? What are your tactics, so far? Dr. King was a warrior—do you see yourself as a warrior?
SP: Yea, I think I do.
ADS: So how do you go about facing your challenges?
SP: I think I'm definitely still figuring that out. But I definitely think a key is to find how to navigate different spaces with people at different levels of power who have different ideas, and to be unwavering in your principles. I always try to think about why exactly I need to be doing a project—not just why I'm called to do it, but how people can actually benefit from it. If that's not there, then I know I should be doing something else.
ADS: I read in this book by Harry Belafonte [My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race & Defiance] that MLK had a tendency sometimes to wander in his speeches; and during the Dream speech, MLK was wandering a bit, and so Mahalia Jackson said to him, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" And that's why he gave those words in that moment. Who is your Mahalia Jackson, in this moment in time?
SP: Well, that's super interesting for several reasons—makes me think of another of my strategies; what you said about Mahalia, that means she knew about King's dreams, he shared those with her, and she told him to make it public. And I think my other strategy is definitely around honesty/intimacy—if I had to have a thesis idea for myself, it would be to make the most vulnerable parts of myself public, in the hopes that people in the audience will do the same in their lives, be more honest and truthful.
ADS: I want to put a thumbtack in what you said about intimacy, let's go back to that—but in terms of the King speech, I think that King was probably autodidactic, had a photographic memory, something like that, and he probably told that story about the dream many times; and Mahalia, as an incredible musician, knows an audience. So she knew how that 'riff' would work, and that's why she told him that. It's like "Sing the hits, Martin!" So he has that at the ready, and it works, and she told him when it was needed. So who would know to do that for you?
SP: Wow! I never thought of it like that, that's amazing. I'm not sure who's my Mahalia! You're definitely one of those people for me; I think my sister Elena is probably the other one. And I guess, to be honest, I probably do most of that work myself, for now. But I do love The Transformations Suite ensemble for those reasons; they always know how to bring the music to a fever pitch.
"So many people who exhibit hatred, their whole identity is tied to that hatred of the other, whomever it is; and the reason they hold onto those identities so tightly is because they can't face themselves."
ADS: To go back to your intimacy idea—as you know, I've been thinking a lot about this whole idea of hidden hate/hidden love; thinking a lot about all these types of hate that have been creeping out, from Charlottesville to all the disrespect and violation of women that we've been hearing about—and yet, I've heard you more than once talk about your own desire to be more intimate and more transparent with the public. Why in the world would you want to be calling for yourself to be more intimate, more transparent in such a dangerous territory? What's that about?
SP: It is definitely a hard time for that—and I guess, for me, that is my rebellion. In terms of the internal—stealing thoughts from Baldwin, who, as you know, is my guiding light—there's so much psychologically around what people hide from themselves, and the results of that. So many people who exhibit hatred, their whole identity is tied to that hatred of the other, whomever it is; and the reason they hold onto those identities so tightly is because they can't face themselves. They lose so much in that process. If you had enough with yourself, you wouldn't need that hatred so much.
Additionally, when thinking about the situations around Harvey Weinstein and all these other men in power abusing their positions in immoral ways, there's this very American thing being exposed where someone can have an entire public presence that hides the basest parts of themselves. That's the exact opposite of intimacy. You can be a predator and just hide the whole thing, and have everybody venerate you and honor you—and people can know that it's B.S. behind the scenes, but do absolutely nothing. When this concept is combined with the realities of power, and patriarchy, and white supremacy, and all that, it can be exactly what we're seeing today in our society.
So for me, what I'm trying to do is like an uncovering—trying to bring it all to light. It's an act of uncovering. If I expose all the complexities of myself, then you have no excuse as an audience member not to do that. Like, what are you hiding? It's that type of confrontation. But instead of asking it as a confrontation, I just do it—I just put myself on the spot, and hope they see themselves in that and are inspired to do the same.
ADS: Well, maybe that's your Warrior move. It's a warrior move really, isn't it, in a way? To come forward with a truth, out of the vulnerable part of yourself, and if people want to stand up with a truth in response they will—and if not, you'll have to be ready to take the blow.
SP: Right. Right. That's real.
Anna Deavere Smith is a critically acclaimed writer, director, and social activist, who is also known to television audiences as Nancy McNally on The West Wing and Gloria Akalitus on Nurse Jackie. Smith is a Professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and is the founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, dedicated to supporting artists whose works address social issues and engender civic engagement.
Smith's latest endeavor is "The Pipeline Project," whose centerpiece is her play Notes from the Field. Using her signature form of theater, based on interviews with hundreds of individuals, Smith uses the play to shine a light on the lack of opportunity and resources for young people living in poverty and often suffering with regard to their physical and mental health, and how these circumstances often lead them into the criminal justice system.
Composer and pianist Samora Abayomi Pinderhughes is known for large multidisciplinary projects and for his use of music to examine sociopolitical issues. He has performed in venues including Carnegie Hall, the White House, MoMA, the Sundance Film Festival, and Monterey Jazz Festival, and has toured internationally with artists including Branford Marsalis, Christian Scott, and Emily King. In addition to The Transformations Suite, he has written music for artists including Kenny Barron and Common and is the composer for the film Whose Streets? He is also a member of Blackout for Human Rights and was musical director for their 2016 #MLKNow and #JusticeForFlint events.