Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Mary Schmidt Campbell's "An American Odyssey"

Mary Schmidt Campbell is President of Spelman College and Dean Emerita of the Tisch School of the Arts. She served as the vice chair of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities under former President Barack Obama.

Here Campbell shares her treatment for a miniseries adaptation of her new book, An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden:
Netlfix would be my platform of choice for An American Odyssey: the Life and Work of Romare Bearden. A six part series would open with a middle aged Bearden hospitalized in Bellevue, having “blown a fuse” and suffered a nervous breakdown. His once moderately successful career as a painter has disintegrated. His efforts at becoming a songwriter and amassing enough money to return to Paris, the city that made him feel liberated, have failed.

The action begins with him sitting a table at the hospital, therapeutically making “arts and crafts” as a flashback returns the action to his coming of age as an artist in Harlem, “when Harlem was in Vogue.” The next two episodes recount his mother’s dazzling dominance among the Black middle class and his rebellion against this “respectability” and rising fame as a radical activist and race man. While his mother hosts salons and writes the social column for the Chicago Defender, Bearden immerses himself in his day job, casework with Harlem’s poor and spends his nights with the “Dawn Patrol” in the definitely anti-uplift scene of Harlem’s often transgressive cabarets.

Then his world falls apart. Episode three opens with the 1943 riot in Harlem, his mother’s unexpected death, and the dissipation of the Harlem community when the government shuts down the federal support for artists that sustained a community in Harlem. One artist after another departs. (The repeal of prohibition set into place the dissipation of Harlem night-life, as well). In episode four, World War II and Bearden’s decision to enlist in the army abruptly cast him into the unfamiliar territory, for him, of segregation. Life has pulled the rug of privilege out from under him. He becomes disenchanted with the idea of being a race man, takes up abstract painting, meets a glamorous and influential patron in the figure of Caresse Crosby and refuses to exhibit in “Negro” art shows.

Crosby gets him a New York Gallery dealer. Bearden is now a member of the New York Art world and for a few years, he enjoys a modest success. But he is on the margins. He is on the margins of other Negro artists, having boycotted black exhibitions. He is on the margins of his new avant-garde, mid-town gallery, the Samuel Kooz gallery where his colleagues are all white and all devoted full time to their art, while he still works full time as a caseworker for a living. When the gallery unceremoniously cuts him, he takes a leave of absence from work to sail to Paris.

Episode five takes us to Paris, where he has a brief but intense liberating experience. He returns to New York and his full time job as caseworker for the Romani community. In the meantime, he takes up songwriting and paints intermittently. He is on a path sliding downward fast into his breakdown. Episode five finds him meeting and marrying Nanette Rohan, a beautiful model, who rescues him. She makes him stop songwriting, disengage with some sketchy characters, and return to painting. He returns to painting as the Civil Rights movement is heating up and in a few years will explode onto the art scene with his groundbreaking Projections and collages.

Daniel Sunjata would play the young Bearden, Courtney Vance would play his father and Niki Noni Rose or Jill Scott, his charismatic mother. Angela Bassett would play Nanette. The big question is who would play the mature Bearden? The series would be a big hit!
Learn more about An American Odyssey at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue