Davis, Thulani 1948–
Davis, Thulani 1948–
ADDRESSES: E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer. San Francisco Sun-Reporter, San Francisco, CA, former reporter; Village Voice, New York, NY, began as proofreader, became senior editor, until 2004; Barnard College, New York, NY, part-time faculty; has worked as a performing poet. Artist in residence, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1996; Ralph Metcalfe chair, Marquette University, 1998; David Randolph Distinguished Artist-in-Residence, The New School, 1998.
MEMBER: Brooklyn Buddhist Association (cofounder).
AWARDS, HONORS: Gregory Millard Fellowship Award for Fiction, New York Foundation for the Arts; Special Award, Real Art Ways Video Festival, 1985, for Thulani; Writer in Residency Award, New York State Council on the Arts, 1987; Fannie Lou Hamer Award, Medgar Evers College Women's Center, 1987; Excellence in the Arts and Literature award, Manhattan Borough President's Awards, 1987; Gregory Millard Fellowship award, New York Foundation for the Arts, 1988; First Place, Howard University Communication Awards, 1988, for Thulani Davis Asks, "Why Howard Beach?"; Chicago Humanities Festival Award, 1992; Grammy Award for album notes, 1993, for Aretha Franklin: The Atlantic Recordings, and nomination for best new work, 1993, for X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X; PEW National Theatre Artist Residency grant, 1993–95; Lisa Wallace/Reader's Digest Writers Award, 1996–99; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1997, for Maker of Saints; American Institute of Graphic Arts Award, for Malcolm X: The Great Photographs; inducted into the Black Writers Hall of Fame, 1998; Paul Robeson Cultural Democracy Award, Chicago Center for Arts Policy, 1998; Legacies Award, New York Coalition of One Hundred Black Women, 2003, for excellence in the arts; fellow, Charles H. Reyson Fellows Program on the Future of the City of New York, Columbia University, 2003–04; named Admiral of the Great Navy, State of Nebraska, 2004; Maker of Saints, Malcolm X: The Great Photographs, and 1959 were all Book-of-the-Month Club selections.
(With Ntozake Shange and Jessica Hagadorn) Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon (play), produced at the New York Shakespeare Festival, 1977.
The Renegade Ghosts Rise (poems), Anemone, 1978.
Sweet Talk and Stray Desires (one-woman stage show), first produced in New York, NY, and the Chelsea Westside Theater Center, 1979.
(With Ntozake Shange, Jessica Hagadorn, Laurie Carlos, and others) Shadow & Veil (play), first produced in New York, NY, at the New Heritage Theater, 1982.
See Tee's New Blues (musical composition), music by Anthony Davis, first produced by The Kitchen, 1982.
Paint (play), performed as a stage reading in New York, NY, at the Basement Workshop, 1982.
Thulani (video), 1984.
Playing the Changes (poems), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1985.
(And coproducer) Fanfare for the Warriors (four-part radio documentary), broadcast on National Public Radio, 1985.
(Librettist) X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (opera; first produced by the New York City Opera, 1986), Nani Press, 1986.
(Author of text) Steppin' Other Shores (chamber orchestra work), music by Anthony Davis, first produced at the San Francisco Arts Festival, 1987.
(And narrator) Thulani Davis Asks, "Why Howard Beach?" (documentary), Paper Tiger TV, 1987.
(Librettist) The E & O Line, music by Anne LeBaron, first performed in Washington, DC, at the Carter Barron Amphitheater, 1989.
Without Borders (spoken word recording), music by Bernadette Speach, Mode Records, 1989.
(Adapter) Bertolt Brecht, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, first produced in New York, NY, at the Shakespeare Festival, 1990.
(Lyricist) Songposts, music by Anne LeBaron, Word of Mouth Music, 1991.
1959 (novel), Grove/Weidenfeld (New York, NY), 1992.
(With Howard Chapnick) Malcolm X: The Great Photographs, Stewart, Tabori & Chang (New York, NY), 1993.
Ava & Cat in Mexico (play), performed as a stage reading in Princeton, NJ, at the McCarter Theater, 1994.
(Author of text) Baobab Four (musical composition), music by Bernadette Speach, 1994.
(Author of text) A Woman Unadorned (musical composition), music by Bernadette Speach, first produced at the Lincoln Center, 1994.
Maker of Saints (novel; also see below), Scribner (New York, NY), 1996.
(Author of libretto) Amistad (musical; based on the film of the same title), music by Anthony Davis, produced in Chicago, IL, at the Lyric Opera, 1997.
(Lyricist) The Musical Railism, music by Anne Le-Baron, Mode Records, 1998.
Everybody's Ruby: Story of Murder in Florida (play), first produced in New York, NY, at the Public Theatre, 1999.
(Author of story concept, and editor) I'll Make Me a World: Black Creative Minds in the 20th Century (documentary), Blackside, 1999.
(With Matthew Cirulnick) Paid in Full (screenplay; adapted from an original screenplay by A.Z. Alpo), Miramax, 2002.
Reflections (spoken word recording), music by Bernadette Speach, Mode Records, 2002.
The Souls of Black Folk (play), produced at the National Black Arts Festival, 2003.
My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Confronts Her Roots, Basic Civitas (New York, NY), 2006.
(And coproducer) Maker of Saints (screenplay), DCI Productions, 2006.
Author of foreword, Pearl Bowswer and Louise Spence, Rutgers University, 2000. Contributor to periodicals, including Ms., Washington Post Book World, Nation, Emerge, American Film, New York Times, Musician, Washington Review, and the Village Voice.
SIDELIGHTS: Thulani Davis's journalism in New York City's Village Voice ranges widely over the African American experience. While her first novel, 1959, sees black history from a small-town perspective, her poetry and second novel, Maker of Saints, expresses her urban sensibility. Of her poems in the 1985 collection Playing the Changes, a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that Davis's work is "vibrant," with "the immediacy of spontaneous composition." Her poems contain random impressions, violence, and well-known personalities that are part of city life, as well as the mistrust and danger that are part of racial, and, most frequently, sexual relationships from a woman's point of view. "Davis' style," wrote a contributor to Parnassus, "may reflect the fragmented psychological attitude of the poet herself and of the impersonal, alienating, dog-eat-dog forces operating on and within people living in big cities." In addition to verses and novels, however, Davis has also written opera librettos, radio and television documentaries, stage plays, movie screenplays, and music lyrics.
In 1992, Davis released her first novel, 1959, which Times Saturday Review contributor Lucasta Miller called "more readily sympathetic" in comparison to her poetry. Though it concerns an important moment in the civil rights movement, that national phenomena is seen through the feelings of certain citizens of a small town in Virginia: a barber, for example, who has a deep relationship with his Dexter Gordon records. The protagonist, Willie Turant, is a fairly typical twelve-year-old girl who changes significantly after being chosen, first to guide Martin Luther King Jr. around the local black college and, later, to be one of the first black children to integrate a white high school. Soon, college students stage sit-in protests at the lunch counter of the local Woolworth's store. The characters in the novel are soon reflecting the historic events of the civil rights movement. Despite the fact that the town's black neighborhood is eventually bulldozed and its residents scattered, Davis intimates that the movement has carried on.
"Ms. Davis has a masterly sense of time and place," wrote Beth Levine in the New York Times Book Review, "using the history of the town and Willie's aunt's diary to create a raw and moving testament to the power that rests within a community." Michiko Kakutani also commended Davis in her New York Times review and particularly enjoyed the "captivating heroine." Kakutani further remarked: "When she keeps the focus on her heroine … [Davis] demonstrates her gift for conjuring up a vanished time and place, her gift for characterization." Kakutani concluded that Davis had skillfully recreates an important moment in history: "By allowing the reader to experience … events through Willie's eyes, Ms. Davis is able to avoid sounding like a social studies teacher; she is able to show the consequences of integration on a single family and community with insight, sympathy and grace."
Davis's second novel, Maker of Saints, was published in 1996. The book is thematically very different from 1959. It is a contemporary murder mystery set in Manhattan and is based on the real story of artist Ana Mendieta and her sculptor husband, who was a suspect in her 1985 death. Maker of Saints tells the story of two friends, performance artist Alex Decatur and her best friend, Cynthia "Bird" Kincaid. When Alex is found dead after falling from the window of her eighth-floor apartment, Bird is not convinced that she committed suicide, as the police believe. Rather, she suspects Alex's lover, Frank, an art critic who effectively ended Bird's former career as a painter with a rabid review. Bird sets out to catalog the dead artist's work and to prove that Frank is a murderer. These tasks are complicated by Bird's feelings about her aborted artistic career and secrets in Alex's life that she uncovers, including the fact that Alex had presented some of Bird's experiences as her own.
Lillian Lewis, writing for Booklist, pointed out influences from African American and Spanish traditions in Davis's writing, "including mystical and spiritual conventions." Lewis commended the book for being different from others of the "homegirl variety" and for having "engaging characters and complex situations." Critic Lise Funderburg did not commend the mystery elements of the plot in her New York Times review. She remarked that the "hapless investigation … is more tedious than suspenseful" and felt that the strongest points in the book were Bird's "melancholy musings," such as a poetic description of her father as a man who went through life with clenched fists. The reviewer regretted that "these rich pulses are too far apart to build a rhythm." On the other hand, a Publishers Weekly contributor declared the novel "a riveting crime story that enters some of the darker corners of the artistic soul." The critic also asserted that Davis "reveals truths" about being an African-American artist and concluded: "her narrative pulses with a multiethnic chorus of lively urban voices."
Davis's love for live theater began when she was still a girl. "I integrated the Washington Theater Club when I was 13," she told Jessica Siegel in American Theater. She went to Barnard College, but the school lacked a drama department, so she turned to writing poetry and criticism. Her first literary work, however, was a play: Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon, which she wrote with Ntozake Shange and Jessica Hagadorn, and she would go on to write many more stage works, which often deal with the African American experience. One of her more recent plays is Everybody's Ruby: Story of Murder in Florida, a drama based on an actual 1950s murder trial. The title character is a black woman who kills her lover, a white doctor. Davis approaches the tale from the viewpoint of author Zora Neale Hurston, who covered this story for a newspaper and whose documentation Davis researched. Davis not only addresses the racial issues involved in the trial, then, but also the racism Hurston experiences as a black female reporter.
As a screenwriter, Davis has shown she is not afraid to tackle the ugliest issues of urban life for African Americans. In a collaboration with Matthew Cirulnick, for example, she wrote Paid in Full, a film about a young man who is lured into cocaine trafficking; he becomes wealthy, but at a heavy price. Filled with violent scenes and language, the film was nonetheless praised by Stephen Holden in the New York Times as "an unpretentious, sociologically pointed slice of life" that illustrates the most degrading and horrifying side of city life "without becoming mawkish or preachy."
With My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Confronts Her Roots, the author explores black-white integration on a very personal note. Her original intention had been to write "a novel to be loosely based on the lives of my grandmother and great-grandmother," as she reflected in Black Issues Book Review. She had inherited photo albums from her grandmother back in the 1970s that included pictures of her great-grandparents: her great-grandmother Chloe Tarrant Curry had been a former slave, while the author's great-grandfather was a Scotsman named William Argyle Campbell who, though he never married, had children with Chloe and remained faithful to her for many years. Davis decided that her book would be better if she wrote a nonfiction work, rather than a novel. Along the way, she discovered many things about her family and herself. "Although dipping into the past may reveal more than a few unexpected truths, Davis suggests that we all take that journey," reported Essence contributor Douglas Danoff. A Publishers Weekly critic felt that Davis takes too long getting to the center of the story about Chloe and William, but the reviewer concluded that she "succeeds in conveying the precarious position of blacks in the South after the Civil War."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Davis, Thulani, My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Confronts Her Roots, Basic Civitas (New York, NY), 2006.
American Theatre, September, 1998, Jessica Siegel, "Thulani Davis: Keeping It Real," p. 57.
American Visions, February-March, 1997, Sharon Fitzgerald, review of W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography in Four Voices, p. 34.
Back Stage, April 2, 1999, David Sheward, review of Everybody's Ruby: Story of Murder in Florida, p. 48.
Black Issues Book Review, January-February, 2006, Thulani Davis, "The Face in the Mirror: A Writer's Search for the Confederates in the Family Tree Leads to Some Unexpected Discoveries," p. 44.
Booklist, September 15, 1996, Lillian Lewis, review of Maker of Saints, p. 219.
Essence, February, 2006, Douglas Danoff, "Thulani's Family Reunion: An Acclaimed Author Shakes Loose Shocking Secrets from Her Family Tree," p. 88.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2005, review of My Confederate Kinfolk, p. 1263.
Kliatt, March, 2002, Nada Elia, review of 1959, p. 14.
New York Times, February 11, 1992, Michiko Kakutani, review of 1959, p. C15; November 17, 1996, Lise Funderburg, review of Maker of Saints; October 25, 2002, Stephen Holden, "Film in Review, 'Paid in Full.'"
New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1992, Beth Levine, review of 1959, p. 18.
Parnassus, spring, 1985, review of Playing the Changes, p. 518.
Publishers Weekly, January 11, 1985, review of Playing the Changes, p. 69; August 26, 1996, review of Maker of Saints, p. 76; November 21, 2005, review of My Confederate Kinfolk, p. 42.
Times Saturday Review, August 1, 1992, Lucasta Miller, review of 1959, p. 33.
Thulani Davis Home Page, http://www.thulanidavis.com (August 29, 2006).