Ishmael Reed: Cultural Warrior
The East Bay Seer Battles for Truth
Once more Ishmael Reed, our most potent literary conjurer, has employed his formidable literary powers in defense of truth and justice, which are the pre-conditions for freedom. Some years ago he published a book titled “Writin is Fightin,” and his present play which opened Thursday at the Theater for the New City is true to the code. A brilliant work of absurdist agit-prop, Reed charges into the thorny terrain of the cultural wars raging around our public schools, a social landscape riddled with dangerous pitfalls of racism, gender bias, and class warfare.
Nationally, this increasing cultural conflict is symbolized by the fight around the teaching of “Critical Race Theory,” a transparent sham whose real objective is to arrest the development of any pedagogy intended to tell the truth about race and gender oppression in the US. In San Francisco, long regarded as one of the nation’s most progressive cities, this struggle centers around the recall of three elected members of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education in the 2021-2022 school year.
Two of those recalled were the President and Vice President Allison Collins, an Afro-American, and Gabriella Lopez – a Latina who in her fearless progressive stance resembles New York Congresswoman AOC. The issue that led to the recall of these two progressive educators was their advocacy of a lottery system to replace strict reliance on grades and test scores to gain entry into an elite high-school. The question of changing the names of public schools bearing the names of slaveholders, Indian Killers, and other odious characters also factored in. In the swell of opposition to their proposal, all the issues of race, ethnicity and class came to the fore.
In his unique and highly inventive method of storytelling, combining broad erudition with an unfettered imagination, the prophet Ishmael relates this complex tale through a series of monologues and a dialogue between Warren Chip, a black journalist who has been fired from a major newspaper for supporting the school Lottery, and Sashi Parmar, a brainwashed racist East Indian raised in the US who uncritically worships western civilization, hates black people, and has even adopted white supremacist stereotypes about India. He is a symbol for the likes of Nikki Haley, Dinesh De Sousa, and the Anglo-Indian writer VS Naipaul. He is also a stand in for the racist Chinese Americans who identify with the reactionary American lap dog Taiwanese regime.
In the dialogues between these two, and the extensive monologues presented by the other characters, along with the broadcasts of a white news anchor on White Lightning Television, “Buttermilk Dumphill,” Ishmael drops science on the audience with a torrent of complex kaleidoscopic word salads filled with erudite references to history, art criticism, sociology, political dogma, the illuminati, and even informs us that the influential Manhattan Institute is a “Nazi Front.” Hence, “The Conductor” is a continuation of revelatory masterworks by the East Bay Seer such as the novels “Japanese By Spring,” and “Reckless Eyeballing,” or his heroic plays “The Haunting of Lin Manuel Miranda,” and “The slave who Loved Caviar.”
The presence of the heroic San Francisco educators in the house engaging the audience in a Q&A session after the final curtain, plus a solo piano soundtrack, performed by Ishmael, adds to the immense power of the play. A tour de force! Bravo!