A phenotypically white child is born into an African-American family. She's the last of four children; the rest are boys. On her thirteenth birthday, the daughter has a muscle memory of a lynching. That event opened a mole tunnel to the past, said poet-turned-playwright Chinaka Hodge, who developed the story under the auspices of San Francisco nonprofit Intersection for the Arts. Called Mirrors in Every Corner, it began as an odd idea — a white black girl — and became a full-length theatrical production. Hodge wanted to put the whole idea of racial authenticity into question, and make us decide whether "whiteness" and "blackness" are ingrained or constructed. It was a decidedly bold move for the 25-year-old writer. After a decade spent plumbing the depths of her own psyche, she's found ways to unsettle the rest of us.
The daughter of a computer engineer and former Oakland school board president, Hodge spent her childhood shuttling between her mother's house in the hills, and her father's home in West Oakland. She launched her poetry career in middle school, performing at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Fests. "Every year I'd go up and I'd do a 'phenomenal woman' or 'and still I rise' thing — like, you know, whatever," Hodge recalled. "At the end of eighth grade, I started writing poems for myself. I wrote the cover of the eighth-grade dance bulletin. ... Sappy little love poems."
The turning point happened when YouthSpeaks held a workshop at her freshman English class in Berkeley High School. "They asked me to write about what the dark looks like," Hodge remembered. "Which is kind of like the standard YouthSpeaks introduction, but for me, I still remember the poem." At that time, Hodge's father was going through a nasty divorce. "I wrote about what the police lights looked like in front of our house when they were going through their altercations. I wrote about what divorce looked like in the dark."
Over the next several years, she would work with YouthSpeaks, first as a summer intern, then as a youth board coordinator, then as a consultant for the New York branch while pursuing a nonprofit arts education degree at New York University. Upon returning home in 2006, Hodge took the reigns as YouthSpeaks' associate artistic director. Her organizational and managerial talents were deep-rooted. She's the oldest of seven children, the daughter of a local politician (Greg Hodge), and a consummate over-achiever. She spent four years in New York and dresses the part: knee-high boots, pencil skirts, dark blazers. Yet, Hodge also knows how to make an oratorical appeal. As a slam poet, she would dredge up events from her childhood, and present them as remarkable inner transformations. She used metaphor judiciously, and managed to balance her introspection with a healthy level of self-irony. Most importantly, she knew how to talk about social issues in a language of emotional terms.
And she came up in auspicious company. She was tight with jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, rapper-actor Daveed Diggs, and fellow slam poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, all of whom collaborated on Mirrors in Every Corner (Joseph directed; Akinmusire wrote the score; Diggs stars). She also kept close ties with the MC Ise Lyfe, who helped germinate the idea. It came about several years ago, Hodge said, when the two of them were debating the morality of interracial relationships. "He just kept pushing and pushing, and I was like, 'Yo Ise, this is what's gonna happen. You're gonna marry the blackest woman you can find. You're gonna be super happy. It's gonna be an amazing relationship, you know? She's gonna be Dark Nubian sis.'" Lyfe agreed. "He was like, 'Yeah, yeah, I'm down for all that,'" said Hodge. "Then I was like, 'Yeah, then you're gonna have a baby, and the baby's gonna come out white. And then what are you gonna do? You can't manage who you love. Your family is your family.'...We kinda laughed about it and that was the end of the day, but the thought kept rumbling in my head, you know?"
Both Hodge and Ise Lyfe had sought poetry as a way to resolve their personal traumas. Hodge had painful memories of her father's divorce. Lyfe came to spoken word after witnessing a homicide at age fifteen. As they got older, the two became interested in more existential questions — stuff about the meaning of race, and how physical traits congeal into power relations. Hodge's most powerful piece to date was a monologue about the murder of Oscar Grant, which she performed last December at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, with Akinmusire on trumpet and Kito Gamble on piano. The three had rehearsed for only a few hours — and spent some of that time engrossed in a philosophical debate about whether "talent" actually exists, said Hodge. As a result, she improvised huge swaths of the performance. "Ambrose hit these two high notes ... and I lost my breath," she said. "I started rocking back and forth." The piece was a welter of conflicted feelings: anger about racism, outrage at the police, condemnation of the bystanders who posted their footage on YouTube. But it felt immediate and visceral.
Such artistry has propelled Hodge to the forefront of Oakland's spoken-word scene, which, by many people's estimation, is in decline. It has lost the romantic cast it had eight years ago, when Saul Williams and Def Poetry Jam carried the day. Many of its principal characters have moved on to other media: Ise Lyfe makes hip-hop albums, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Sarah Jones do theater, Paul Beatty and Adam Mansbach write novels, Denizen Kane writes songs. Hodge writes plays. To her, it's encouraging to see spoken word pervade other media, and a sign that the genre is far from having one foot in the grave.
Perhaps that's just a natural transition for a scene whose pioneers are now adults. It's no longer satisfying to write about love, or divorce, or even inner-strength. Now, Hodge and her ilk are grappling with thorny social issues and bringing their work to a higher level of artistry. They're trying to enchant, but more importantly, they're trying to provoke. In true post-modern fashion, Hodge cast the African-American actress Margo Hall as Random, the white girl (or black girl?) who can't help her unfortunate biological circumstances. She hopes it generates a lot of discussion.