Niece of Angela Davis is brains behind ‘Mixtape’

By Jerry Tallmer

Aunt Angela’s legend lives, and looms large 

Free Angela!  Free Angela! Free Angela! 

There was a time — the 1970s — when that cry rang around the world, or to be more exact, that part of the world that wasn’t white and terrified by the image of the gorgeous Black Panther with a huge Afro hairdo, who was in jail right here in the Village at the Women’s House of Detention for events that had occurred 3,000 miles west, where George Jackson, founder of the Black Panther Party, had been in prison for a $70 robbery since age 18. 

After searching for her around the world, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI geniuses had found and arrested Brandeis graduate Angela Davis — a UCLA philosophy professor fired by California Governor Ronald Reagan — at, of all places, the old Howard Johnson’s (remember it?) at 8th Street and Sixth Avenue, a literal stone’s throw from the women’s jailhouse kitty-corner on Greenwich Avenue. 

The “Free Angela Davis!” movement would become even more intense when murder charges were brought against her after 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson, younger brother of George Jackson, had “without her knowledge” (so says “Angela’s Mixtape”) used a gun of hers in a futile, chaotic Marin County courtroom attempt to rescue big brother George, only to perish in the process. Two weeks later George Jackson, at 29, would be shot dead by a guard in Soledad Prison. With it all, Angela Davis was finally tried and acquitted of all charges. 

“I was born May 5, 1971, when Angela was still in jail,” says her just as good-looking niece, playwright / actress / singer Eisa Davis, whose “Angela’s Mixtape” is now in its world premiere through May 2 at the Ohio Theater on Wooster Street. Or half a world premiere, the other half resting in the hands of the Synchronicity Performance Group of Atlanta, Georgia. 

The beauty of Eisa Davis is softer, slimmer, less flamboyant than that of her famous aunt. No Afro (that’s out of style now anyway, along with the politics of 1970), just a tuffet of ringlets atop a charming smile and stunning café-au-lait complexion. 

“I had just turned one when she was acquitted,” says Angela’s niece. Eisa is pronounced Eee-sa; it is, she says, a little bit Arabic, a little bit Swahili, a little bit Hindi. . . 

Her mother is Angela’s sister, Oakland, California, civil-rights attorney Fania Davis. In effect, Eisa Davis was brought up. Partly in Birmingham, Alabama, partly in Oakland, by those two sisters, each more radical than the other.

But she was also in large part raised and shaped by the mother of those two sisters, the late Sallye Davis, as strong-minded as all the rest of them put together. 

What you get in “Angela’s Mixtape” is, then, a grandmother-mother-daughter story with all its tensions wrapped in and around an aunt-and-niece story wrapped around a finding-yourself coming-of-age story wrapped around a finding-your-place-in-the-race story of a young woman whose schooling and dating and curiosities were often quite white. A young woman who grew up without a father anywhere on the scene. 

If you ask her, off stage, about those Mommy-daughter tensions, let-downs, declarations of war, Eisa just says: “That was then, we’re really close now,” and lets your question die on the vine. 

But the heroine, if you will, of “Angela’s Mixtape” is neither Mommy, played by Kim Brockington, nor Eisa, played by Eisa herself, nor Grandma, played by Denise Burse. It is, of course, Aunt Angela, played by Linda Powell, a friend of Eisa’s from other productions and, as it happens, the daughter of Colin Powell. 

In form, “Angela’s Mixtape” is, if you like, a pastiche, jumping from thought to thought, incident to incident, place and time to another place and time and relevance. Playwright Davis, a Pulitzer nominee for her “Bulrusher” in 2007, thinks of “Angela’s Mixtape” as an interlocking Rubik’s Cube — “trying to find the right sequence.” 

It is also quite knowingly and charmingly sprinkled with naiveté here and there: 

A swimming lesson. “Mommy got us in the water without delay. On weekends we go to demonstrations:” 

A driving lesson. Aunt Angela: “Remember to put the gas in before you let the clutch out all the way. Don’t ride it.” Eisa: “This is harder than Marx.” 

During a dance lesson. Eisa to Mommy: “What does rape mean?” Mommy: “It’s when a man takes sexual advantage of a woman by force. White slave masters did this to our ancestors daily. Keep your shoulders down! And chassez!” 

The earliest version of “Angela’s Mixtape” played at the New York Theater Workshop on East 4th Street in the Hip-Hop Theater Festival of 2003. During the six years since then there’s been a lot of trial and error, a lot of changes, says the show’s author. “Not only of form and order but the contents changed too, as a result of conferences with my family.” 

“Mixtape” means a kaleidoscopic mishmosh of whatever you like on audio tape or, nowadays, iTunes, but in this case it very definitely means something else also – a mixture of color, of race. Both Angela Davis and niece Eisa are firsthand examples of what once, in dark ages, were referred to as mulattos. 

And now, Ms. Davis, we have a president of the United States who is a little bit mixed himself. 

“He sure is,” she cheerfully replies. Then quotes “some German professor” who has said, with approval, that “the whole future of the world is now in the hands of mongrels.” 

Yes, sure, Brooklyn-based Eisa Davis campaigned for Barack Obama. “I was on the phone banks and canvassing like everybody else.” 

Does Angela’s niece ever get tired of hearing people say things to her like: “Your aunt is a very important person”? 

“No. What I love about it is that everybody has a story about her, even if it’s only: ‘I rode in an elevator with her once.’ I mean. J. Edgar Hoover had tons of FBI men looking for her all over the world, and dragging in women whom they thought were her. 

“In the lobby of the Ohio Theater we right now have a sheet of butcher’s paper on one wall where playgoers can write their experiences with or about her.” 

Well, what this journalist remembers of one such experience is the 5-inch metal hoops dangling from the ears of the Afro-topped flame-thrower he interviewed more than 35 years ago. And likewise remembers that the hoops had gone the way of the Afro when he interviewed her again, here in the Village, maybe five years ago. Gone also was the flame. But not — oh no, not ever — the ironclad radical conviction. Ice, says the poet, is also great, and will suffice.