The cast of Dis Ya Da Fruit Ob Da Spirit Restaurant, a MOJA play that tells the story of a struggling Union Heights restaurant, rehearses in whatever space they can find. From Charleston public libraries — where you can only rent out rooms twice a month — to a park on Concord Street downtown, the cast, led by producer Elder Carlie Towne, makes due with limited resources.
"Making due" is a theme that courses through not just the play's cast, but through Da Spirit Restaurant's main plot, as Chef Pringle (Adolphus Williams) tries to keep his restaurant afloat as the march of progress and development take over areas traditionally inhabited by African Americans. "It's stuff that happens every day. We lose land a lot in the community," says Towne. She's referring to real-life restaurants that have been lost to gentrification and development, like downtown's Ike's Hot Fish & Chicken, Huger's Place, Alluette's Cafe, and Mt. Pleasant's Gullah Cuisine, to name a few. As Chef Pringle, he must find the monetary resources to save his restaurant, asking both his local and Brooklyn-based West African friends for support.
Towne is no stranger to educating the community about the Gullah/Geechee nation. She has produced plays for MOJA for the past five years, with last year's Gullah/Geechee Conversation: Jes Wana Testify! serving as the prequel to this year's Conversation Part 2. The plays are performed in both English and Gullah/Geechee, a dialect with origins in West Africa.
The play, at a projected hour-long running time, features acting, musical performances, poetry, and African drumming and dancing from local group Wo'Se. As Towne says, "You get your money's worth."
Williams says that the songs of Oscar Brown Jr., a singer/songwriter, playwright, actor, and poet active during the Civil Rights era, play a significant role in his performance. "[Brown's] work has very much to do with us as black folk," he says. "Picture a dandelion and you blow on it and you're wiggling what's left. That's going back to the core. Oscar Brown Jr. goes all the way back to Africa."
Williams says that the music that inspired Brown — songs like "Work Song" and "Brother Where Are You?" — originated in the churches and fields where African Americans worshipped and worked. "They're getting back to the neighborhood," says Williams of the Gullah/Geechee's preservation of their community. He draws from the Union Heights neighborhood itself when he uses Warren Simmons, a saxophonist from the area, to accompany the songs he sings in the play.
There is a sense of resourcefulness when it comes to Da Spirit Restaurant. "We can't afford props," says Towne of the play's low-production costs. "Our greatest resource is our people," she adds. Williams admires this tenacity, saying that at 70 years old he doesn't plan to waste time on "worthless folly." "These folks have strong personalities. I call them the Gullah/Sneaky because they can outwit people," says Williams. He references Towne's slow but steady approach to influencing the minds of the younger generations, perhaps her own form of outwitting.
Towne, a producer for AC Fun Time, a cable-access show on Comcast C2, is also the mastermind behind the Tech-Up, Step-Up program that City Paper wrote about earlier this year. The bi-weekly sessions, designed to bring together several generations of the Gullah/Geechee community, host elders and young people teaching one another their respective skills — i.e. trading sewing skills for texting prowess.
When you ask Towne if the Gullah/Geechee people think outside of the box, she is quick to reply, "There should be no box. [The play] teaches us to work together. We have to be more creative with our world," she says.
The potential problem in the Gullah/Geechee community, according to both Towne and Williams, is that younger generations will abandon the culture and no one will be around to preserve it for future generations. "We old cats, we not gonna be around that long," says Williams. He says that the content of the play is interesting enough to get someone's attention and that the next step would be for someone to get more involved with the Gullah/Geechee community.
"Folks like us have failed to pass it on," says Williams of the Gullah/Geechee culture. "And I don't want it to happen on my watch."