Vern E. Smith

Independent Journalist & Author of "The Jones Men"

“Armageddon Mixed With Hope”

People were gripped with wanting to “do something” as the dimension of the losses  in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon began to crystallize in the days following the events. My friend, the soul singer G.C. Cameron, former lead singer of the Spinners, had just rejoined his old group after a 30-year separation when the terrorists struck on September 11, 2001.

An ex-Marine and twice-wounded Vietnam veteran, G.C. was convinced he had to perform a song  that was calming and healing, and needed to be heard by large numbers of people. He had decided on recording his friend Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as a tribute to the 9-11 victims, and he wanted to do it as fast as possible.

Armed with a limited license to perform the song, G.C. got on the phone with Greg Crockett, a former Motown producer and musician, and told him his idea for a jazzy track with horns, that could reflect what the country was feeling right then.

“What are you looking for?” Crockett asked.

“I don’t know, give me something like Armageddon mixed with hope,”   G.C. said in musician-speak.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cl5nv9PcVvM

Two days later, Crockett had come up with the track, and a day later G.C. was laying down the lead vocals and cutting backing tracks, over-dubbing himself like Marvin in a three-hour session in a studio in North Jackson, Miss. That this video exists of his only performance of the song was due to a confluence of fast-moving developments following a national tragedy. The song wasn’t intended to be sold, only  performed in a non-commercial venture, to assist in some small way with the national healing.

Fund-raising concerts and telethons to support the victims and their families cropped up around the country, and when a group in Atlanta called “Atlanta Unites,” put out word for entertainers to perform in  a concert and telethon broadcast over all of Atlanta’s TV stations, I saw an opportunity. I knew that G.C. would be flying through Atlanta to rejoin the Spinners on the East Coast that weekend. The organizers of “Atlanta Unites” were able work out the logistics.

This seems like the perfect time to hear that song again.

“The Jones Men”: From Novel to Screenplay to Stage…Movie?

Original Cover of “The Jones Men” circa 1974

When I first suggested to my editors at Newsweek that we take a look at the devastating  impact of heroin on Detroit’s urban landscape back in the early 70s, I knew it was a subject that would draw attention. But I could not have fathomed that I would turn the essence of my reporting  into a novel, “The Jones Men,” or that sometime after that a determined producer–and Detroit native–Woodie King Jr.–would convince me to write a screenplay  based on the book.

Screenwriting is something I’d had an interest in since college, seeing it as a different kind  of narrative storytelling. After a series of drafts and rewrites, I completed the version of the story I’d like to see as a film, and moved on to other orojects.

Over the years, Woodie would  share his attempts to set up a production on the script from time to time.  I admired his tenacity and belief in  my work , but..

We hadn’t discussed the movie idea in more than five years, when  a month ago I received an e-mail from  Woodie that was  short, sweet and surprising: “I’m doing a staged reading of your screenplay  with about 20-25 actors.”

I watched rehearsals today for Sunday’s special staged reading of that screenplay at the Castillo Theater on 42nd Street in the heart of New York’s Theater district, marveling at the staying power of a piece of writing, and one man’s dogged belief in it.

King directing the actors

Needless to say, it was a thrill ride to hear your dialogue uttered by the likes of veteran film and stage actor Anthony Chisholm, described by Woodie as “August Wilson’s go-to guy.”

As the driving force behind New York’s New Federal Theatre, (NFT) Woodie has helped launch the careers of some of the most famous faces in the movies, as well as nurturing writers like playwright Ntozake Shange (“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow was Enuff.)  The NFT special play reading series, sponsored by the Gurfein-Merine Family is named for Shange. “The Jones Men” cast of 24 is the largest in the Reading Series.  Several of the actors flew in from Los Angles on Woodie’s call, and one more joined them tonight after completing a film out west: Jamie Hector, memorable for the role of Marlo Stanfield in HBO’s “The Wire,” will read the part of Lennie Jack, the main character in my story.

Will a “The Jones Men” film ultimately be produced?  “Timing is everything,” as Ralph McCain, the actor who does such an outstanding job with the character called Goattee. told me I Hope  he’s right, but the journey so far has its own reward.

Cast Members

Alcide Richard Barboza Michael Basile Kirsten Benjamin

Anthony Chisholm Rony Clanton Jimmy Gary Jaime Hector

Kene Holliday Thomas Jefferson Byrd Khalil Kain Ka’ramuu Kush

Clinton Lowe Jamil Mangan Ralph McCain Marcus Naylor

Rob O’Hare Nathan Purdee JoAnna Rhinehart Roger Robinson

Thyais Walsh Charles Weldon Michael Wright

“DECORATION DAY” AND BLACK CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS

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Today’s Memorial Day celebration honoring America’s fallen military servicemen and women will include a most unique parade to the National Cemetery in my hometown of Natchez, Miss.,  involving mostly African Americans and dating back to the forming of one of the first regiments of black Civil War soldiers–the United States Colored Troops(USCT) in July 1863.

Growing up in Natchez in the ’50s and ’60s, I looked forward to the “30th of May” celebrations, blissfully unaware of its historical significance. The parade kicked off early across the Mississippi River Bridge from Natchez in Vidalia, La., through the downtown district. Flags waving, ex-servicemen, church society women in their white uniforms, and regular citizens swelled the ranks as the marchers streamed into the National Cemetery. Vendors with food stands lined the street, and inside the grounds, the marchers placed flowers and flags on the headstones under the sound of a brass band and military gun salute.

Why it seemed  like the “Negro military cemetery,” wasn’t much pondered as I recall, everything else being legally segregated at the time.

But what might have seemed like an odd wave of patriotic fervor by black Mississippians during the height of Jim Crow, actually dated back to a Civil War battle involving the Union Army’s 2nd Mississippi Heavy Artillery, African Descent and 1500 Confederates in February 1864. To digest that notion, consider that 50 years before the Civil War, Natchez, oldest settlement on the Mississippi, had been the site of Forks of the Road, the second largest domestic slave trading center in America.

Two years after the firing on Fort Sumter, S.C. launched the War between the States, Congress enacted a law that created the formation of the United States Colored Troops(USCT) on May 22, 1863. Soon after the Union Army began its occupation of Natchez in July 1863, thousands of newly emancipated black men flocked to the former slave market site to enlist. Union forces in Natchez grew to 5,000, over 3,000 of them black men, according to records.

In his 2001 book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” Yale historian David Blight traces the first events of what became known as “Decoration Day,” and later Memorial Day to May 1865 after  the first Union troops, including the Twenty First Colored Infantry, entered Charleston, S.C. At a planter’s race track that had been converted into an outdoor prison for Union soldiers in the war’s last year, a group of black workmen descended on what had been an impromptu mass burial ground for hundreds of Union dead, re-buried them properly, and built a high fence around the compound with the inscription “Martys of the Race Course,” Blight recounts. Thousands of black schoolchildren, black women carrying baskets of flowers and wreaths, and regiments of black and white Union soldiers joined in a march to the former slaveholder’s race course on the first “Decoration Day.”

When the Grand Army of the Republic(GAR), a fraternal organization comprised of Civil War Union veterans, white and black, began the national tradition of Decoration Day in 1868, Natchez’s war casualties, nearly all black, were interred on the site that is now the Natchez National Cemetery.

Most Southern states would not officially recognize Decoration Day because it had been established to honor those who had served the Union during the war, says Darrell White, director of the Natchez NAPAC Museum for African American History and Culture. But in Natchez,where the literal transformation of black people from slavery to freedom and citizenship was stark, the pilgrimage to the National Cemetery became a lasting tradition.

According to historical records compiled by White, of the initial 3,075 known and unknown Civil War Union soldiers interred in Natchez, 2,484 were black. They include Wilson Brown, a Civil War Medal of War Recipient. It was not until after the Korean War that survivors of white veterans began to bury their fallen soldiers in what had begun as the “black military cemetery,” says White.

In the aftermath of the war, the nation’s need for reconciliation and reconstruction coupled with the lingering vision of white supremacy, “delivered the country a segregated memory of its Civil War on Southern terms,” Blight writes. In the sesquicentennial of the war, perhaps that distortion can finally change.

“Decoration Day” parade images  courtesy of NAPAC Museum. USCT Re-enactors at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

ODE TO A GRANDSON

My youngest grandson, Malcolm, is a peach of a guy, and I want the whole world to know it!

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