"The thing that gets me about his plays," says SpiritHouse founder Philip Shabazz, "is that he's able to capture black working-class people and the struggles they face. He's got his thumb on the pulse of the black working class. He can speak their language and he listens. Plus he's got a hell of a persistence."
Shabazz is talking about Howard L. Craft, a regional poet and playwright whose first full-length play, The House of George, won a new play competition at N.C. Central University in December 2001. The work received its world premiere there in October 2002, and the university chose it as its entry for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival the following month.
In our November 2002 review, we noted that The House of George documents the simultaneous transitions in African-American culture as a whole, in a particular African-American neighborhood, and in the life of the title character, an irascible ex-military barber whose barbershop (the "House" of the title) becomes an intergenerational meeting place for characters in conflict.
"The barbershop is a metaphor," Shabazz continues. "It's a nerve center in the black community, particularly for black men. Unlike the movie Barbershop, which was entertainment, Howard tries to get at real issues in the black male experience. These play out in conversations in a barbershop. Howard used the metaphor of the barbershop to bring to light different generation's different values, and the pressures of change in society."
Shabazz has had time to watch Craft mature and develop as a young artist. He sponsored him as an emerging artist in an artists' collective at Duke University's Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture in 1997. Craft helped with a performance series that brought writers including Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange and Wanda Coleman to the Duke campus between 1998 and 2001.
After that, Craft was one of the founding members of SpiritHouse, a nonprofit cultural arts education organization. By 2000, Craft was teaching creative writing under SpiritHouse's auspices in Durham public schools through a pilot program. Since then, he's been active in community education through a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, teaching at Duke's Young Writers' Camp each summer, and working as an artist-in-residence in regional schools through United Arts of Wake County.
"The teachers and the students really loved him," observed Becky Kirstein, cultural arts coordinator for Apex's Middle Creek Elementary School, where Craft conducted a week-long writing workshop last October. Craft's time with the children ultimately helped them produce a book of their own poems. "The teachers said he was fun and innovative," says Kirstein, "and looking at the work he did with the kids, he obviously inspired them."
In the past year, Craft has worked at Broughton, Millbrook, Durham School of the Arts, Ligon Middle School, Leesville and a number of regional elementary and middle schools.
In conversation, Craft starts off unassuming as he relates his classroom experiences. He laughs as he notes, "One advantage I've got over the regular teacher is that I'm not the regular teacher: If Mr. Jenkins comes in to talk about Mr. Tooth Decay, the kids are still excited because it's a break."
But the poet and playwright finds deeper water almost immediately when he describes the work he does. "I go in and teach them about images and about writing their own life. I tell them even at 8 years old you have something to say and what you do is important."
"They're really receptive to it," Craft says. "I think kids are really receptive to writing when it's not 'taught.'"
Which is one of the reasons Craft is critical about what he's seeing in the schools he visits each year. "This [end-of-year] writing test is really messing our kids up," he says bluntly. "When you see an 8-year-old with that kind of anxiety, it's sad. The kids are scared to death: 'If I don't pass it I'm a dummy, I'll never be anything in life'--this at 8 years old, right?"
But the most disturbing thing Craft encounters in the schools he visits is "the schools themselves."
"I go to schools that don't have a lot of money and schools that do, and the difference in the education that the kids are getting is enough to really piss you off," Craft says. "Especially what's happening with Hispanic children. I go into classrooms and the teacher says, 'She doesn't speak any English,' and they let the kid just sit there, with no help or trying to explain what's going on.
"I've been to schools where there are like eight computers in the classroom and I've been in schools where there might be eight computers in the whole school," Craft says. "And I'm not talking about going across the state, and then coming here: I'm talking about the difference between some schools in Durham and some schools in Chapel Hill. Schools where the mom is in the classroom and schools where parent involvement is nonexistent."
Sometimes he's the first writer the kids have ever met. Usually, he's the first male African-American writer they've encountered.
"Working with young people is just amazing," he says. "And if someone hadn't done that for me when I was that age, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. In order to be a writer you have to see someone who's a writer."
In addition to his public school residencies, Craft has been busy working on a play he's just submitted to the reading theater at the National Black Theater Festival, which will be held this August in Winston-Salem. The Wise Ones is based on research a colleague did on events which took place when SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee went to Alabama in 1964. N.C. Central University will give a staged reading of the text this fall and may opt to produce it as well.
And Craft now sees The House of George as part of a trilogy dealing with the same neighborhood. He's currently working on a play called The Break Room, a work about what happens to workers at a potato chip factory when the plant decides to downsize. The third play deals with a group of repo men in the same neighborhood.
"A lot has been written about the black bourgeoise and the black poor," he notes, "but not a lot has been written about the black working class and the working poor. That's where my focus is right now."
Another book of poems will be published this year by Chapel Hill's Big Drum Press, and Craft is working to establish a Saturday art academy at SpiritHouse for youth whose parents can't afford to send them to art classes. He's creating a creative writing course for a dropout prevention program in the works, and his work will resume in the schools in the fall.
Shabazz is encouraged by it all. "He's not only a really good writer, he's also a hell of a good teacher. He's raising consciousness and inspiring hope among the young people. That commitment is what he really brings to the black neighborhood."