"Growing Up Black (and Happy) in New Orleans: The Life and Times of the Great Chakula." It's hard to read the title and not smile. That offbeat humor made Chakula cha Jua's recent original show a treat.
The self-proclaimed "great" one had an easy manner and, by the end of his monologue, had made friends with the audience. He was born in New Orleans and grew up in the Calliope housing project, which he revisited onstage with nostalgic tales.
Cha Jua — tall and slender with a mustache and shaved head — entered via the center aisle, walking among the audience. He wore casual slacks and a short-sleeved shirt with an African print. The narrative was organized according to stages of his life. It was not improvised, but it had an improvisational feel.
Cha Jua reflected on his childhood when he had a miniature red bean garden ("the size of a book") and his sister practiced arias while studying opera at Xavier University. It seems everyone at the Calliope housing project was busy trying to improve their lives one way or another. The Neville brothers, for instance, grew up and learned their craft in the same neighborhood.
People also socialized while sitting on their porches, and cha Jua read a poem called, "Sitting on the Porch on a Summer Night." With his typical sly humor, he pointed out that he was reading from a piece of typing paper. "If someone reads a published poem," he said, "they read from the volume in which it's published." Such quips were scattered throughout the show and set a delightful tone.
He recounted how, when he joined the U.S. Air Force, the training instructor (T.I.) barked orders at them. When they marched past an officer, the T.I. shouted "Eyes right!" and they all snapped their heads to the side — except one young man from Alabama who kept his eyes forward. Finally, the T.I. shouted at him: "Didn't you hear me? I said, 'Eyes right!'" "Yes, Sir," said the man, "You's always right."
Cha Jua read more short poems and dug into his grab bag of memories. When he reached the Black Power movement, he mocked the assertive fashions, hairdos and attitudes. He noted that many young black men changed their names to something more African — including himself; he was born McNeal Cayette.
He talked about the civil rights-era creation of Free Southern Theater in New Orleans, of which he was a staff member for six years. Free Southern was headquartered a few blocks from the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, where cha Jua mounted his retrospective. — DALT WONK