‘Long Lonesome Road Blues

Tickling my thoughts these days is the expression of African American experience through Reconstruction Era during the massive migration of African Americans from the South into other parts of the country. In writing this week, I have been mostly sitting quietly and listening. On sheets of scrap paper in front of me lie many new drafts of a few scenes of Lala’s third play, her spiritual journey through the 1898 American West. I am contemplating the themes of the blues, and the feelings and experiences of a young woman, alone, in a world beyond her community, who has left it seeking more knowledge and wisdom to help not just herself, but her whole town. There is a great loneliness in this, but also a deep quest similar to the migrating African Americans seeking better work opportunities or towns with less deep-seated hatred and racism.

Ysaye Barnwell, in her week long “Building A Vocal Community” Workshop at Esalen told us that the Blues are an expression of solitude, loneliness, and the leaving of the African American from community and group setting. It is easy to imagine this as you listen to the songs of the Blues. And also to hear the struggle of those communities as they shifted, changed and adapted to living as free people in a still very discriminatory United States. Ideals and visions of freedom clashed with the realities of segregation, economic depression and inequality. And yet, generations struggled, fought, and sang their ways through those times into ours. And they keep on singing and working to resolve injustice.

I feel contemporary times hold great opportunities for the harmonizing of many voices, many people, and many perspectives. Sojourners and seekers from many ethnicities and cultures throughout the United States are reaching out to traditions from East and West, North and South to find wisdom that helps balance the perspectives of their own communities. This is an amazing time of cross-cultural pollination giving rise to a kind of human being that has never existed before. As a young person, it gives me great joy to watch this evolution and to be a part and participant to it.

Rivera Sun Cook


Worldview shifts through songs

Ysaye Barnwell, from Sweet Honey In The Rock, led thirty voices and hearts this week on an incredible cultural journey through song. As courageous as Sojourner Truth, she led her Building A Vocal Community Workshop back in time to the shores of Mother Africa, opening eyes up to the rich and diverse cultures and worldviews of the continent.

“Put your notebooks away.” Ysaye told us, “This week you will be studying in the oral tradition. . .which is what the African-American worldview is founded on.” And then she launched into song, demanding responses to her calls, and our bodies sprung awake, reading her face, voice, and expressions for clues.

Polyrhythms rolled through the rooms, and echoed into our bodies, slowly unwinding western-European cultural trainings, boggling minds, and triggering new movement patterns.

The five African-American women in the class added their knowledge of the African Diaspora proudly and shyly. One young woman clarified that “they (they slave ship captains) did not go to Africa to get slaves. They went to get Africans to enslave.” This small semantical shift reminds us that no human, or animal, or any being is inherently a slave. One being enslaves another.

It was small, yet profound statements like this that stunned and transformed me throughout the week. Early African-American spirituals are not Christian songs, Ysaye told us, and all at once, like a missing puzzle piece slipped into place, I saw it. The early spirituals are the songs of people coming from all over Africa, speaking many different languages, forbidden to practice their own religions, speaking through English and metaphor to communicate and express the challenges of living as slaves in America.

The call and response structure of communication threads its way through African-American folktales and early narratives, through sermons, and song. It underlies dialogue and thought process. As a writer, this understanding radically alters my work. Information flows differently through a scene, bouncing from character to character, interjecting and inserting thoughts from many different points of view. This is different from a singular, linear, logical narrative stream from one individual.

Lala fans can look forward to some rewrites and revisions, and of course, the new plays will reflect this powerful worldview shift. As the week rolls on, the ripples of my experience with Ysaye and the Vocal Community Workshop will reveal themselves. Already, Ysaye’s teachings on the Blues and the lone traveler are affecting my understanding of Lala’s journey in search of inner freedom.

Stay tuned. . . Rivera Sun

Smile. . .Smile. . .Smile. . .Hesitate.

For three weeks I have been watching my smile practice its acrobatics. It jumps across my face when I pass someone I know. It slowly stretches toward a stranger. Leaps up for a mom and her rascally kids. Turns somersaults for our elders. Then, just as it’s running for a triple handspring backflip, it hesitates and freezes.

Right there, I find my discrimination. It may be a tough looking man on a darker night when I’m walking alone. It may be an annoying woman from out of town. Maybe a slightly crazy seeming homeless person. The instant my smile hesitates, I’ve found the person I inwardly discriminate against.

So what do I do?  What any decent gymnast does:

Step back. Take a deep breathe. Release fear. And try again. Smile. Sometimes I don’t quite make it and a half smile twitches across my lips. I swallow fear and use spiritual wisdom to gain perspective before trying again.

“We are all one,” we new-age folks are fond of saying. “We are all brothers and sisters,” other faiths proclaim. And yet, who frowns at their brother as they pass on the street? Who ignores his own self? When we look in the mirror, don’t we meet our own eyes? The simple practice of smiling at each and every person I pass on the street has become my own version of ‘walking my talk’. And it is more ever-present and challenging than a week-long fast or all-day meditation.

But it’s working. New eyes meet mine. Unexpected, surprised smiles unfurl in reply to my own. One woman told me, “I always thought Santa Cruz was an unfriendly place. I’ll have to change that opinion now.” We can change the world. One smile at a time.

Stayed tuned. . .coming up next:  a week of studying with Sweet Honey In the Rock’s Ysaye Barnwell at Esalen.

Rivera Sun

One smile. . .one world. . .one people.

On a public stage, an African-American man urged minorities to build solidarity together in preparation for the upcoming elections through a simple method: smile at each other. A smile signals friendship, acceptance, and openness to connection. Hispanics and African-Americans, particularly, can use the smile as gesture of unity between them. This will be crucial, he said, as the empowered white politicos strive to divide minorities.

Hmm. . .my red eyebrows furrowed, white skin brow creased in thought, then these hazel eyes popped open and. . .I smiled. I smiled at the first person I saw, the woman with deep chocolate skin next to me. Then I smiled at the lighter brown kid next to her. Then the half-Asian, half-African man I walked by. Then a white lady. Then a Hispanic family. Then a homeless man. And on and on. I just smiled equally at every person I passed on my walk home. And I have not stopped smiling since.

It is a practice in equality. “We hold these truth to be self-evident, that all men (and women) are created equal.” It’s our American credo, a standard of ideology that we must practice and contemplate each day to meet. If all are equal, all deserve my respect. A smile and a nod as we pass each other on the street sends the message, “I see you. You are welcome here. You are my equal. And I am yours.”

Smilng is not just for minorites.  It is for all of us to build unity.   It is a practice so simple, so common, that anyone of any gender, age, or race can engage in it. A societal transformational tool that no one can sell or steal, only give. A freedom of expression that lies within your power every day. . .all day.

. . .and a practice that brings you face to face with your own discrimination.

(To be continued.) Rivera Sun Cook

The blessing of priviledge. . .and how to use it on behalf of all beings.

photo by Dawn Hayes


Everyday privileges. . .

In the fury over our impinged upon ‘rights’, I pause in a moment’s reflection on my incredible privileges.  To be privileged is an honor, a wonderful opportunity in the world of disempowerment and discrimination, inequity, and injustice.  As I meet these heart-breakers square in the face as a conscious citizen, the breadth and weight of my privileges becomes apparent. Some simple privileges I enjoy:

  • Free library access.  Books at home.  Internet.
  • Organic, pesticide free food.
  • A full-scholarship private college education.
  • Parents who loved me and never beat me.
  • Self-expression.
  • Unlimited long-distance telephone service.
  • A green mossy fern and stone garden outside my window.
  • Pu-erh tea.

The word “PRIVILEGE” evokes in me (and many of us) a hazy concept of white, wealthy elite, with multiple houses, political connections, tennis courts and Ivy League schools.  And yet, our every day privileges abound, and naming them, counting them, and acknowledging them with gratitude helps me see the phenomenal capacity at my fingertips for using these gift in service of all of humanity.  Some ways I use my privilege to help all beings:

  • Staying healthy, awake and alert.
  • Becoming informed of current events and issues.
  • Voting with the dollars that I earn
  • Giving a ten percent tithe to charity of all income.
  • Listening to friends deeply and creatively offering solutions.
  • Volunteering my extra time.
  • Smiling at each and every human being to convey how welcome they are in our community.

Health, financial stability, peace of mind, quality food, education, and self-expression are all privileges not to be taken for granted.  They are not guaranteed as part of every human’s life experience (unfortunately) and those of us who enjoy these privileges have a lot to offer to all of our community.  Today I give thanks for the small everyday actions that I can do to help our world.

Rivera Sun

Summer studying, deepening, researching. . .and sun-bathing!

Summer settling in, heat finally toasting us, this week has been one of gratitude, rest, and intense creative flurries.  Stories are bursting at the door to be written.  The best I can do is scribble down an outline, and hope for some quiet retreat someday.  Events in the news triggered a series of short story sketches, a response to ‘the end of the world’ mentality that seems to loom ever-present.  Keep your eyes out for these succinct dispatches.

Many have heard rumors of  the ‘other’ Lala plays.  They’re knocking at the creative door.  I’ve invited them in for tea.  We’re steeping now.  Slowly, I’m examining their structures, themes, inter-connections, like holding a cup of tea up to sunlight and watching the colors dance.

The Central Branch Librarians greeted me cheerfully yesterday, as I dug deeper into the stacks, researching African-American history.  Some amazing finds included “The History of English:  Black on White” a DVD detailing the evolution of the Southern Black vernacular, and “Unchained Memories: readings from the slave narratives” also in dialect and vernacular.  These are gems for me as a performer.  This summer I’ll be using the time and leisure to deepen each and every single character I portray, preparing for the touring work that is coming in, thanks to your connections and offers.  As an actress, (and a writer) my work is never done.  There are no laurels to rest on, just vistas along the journey, where you pause and take stock (and take in the view) of where you are.

Dariel, our company manager, is working diligently behind the scenes to prepare the next phase of Lala’s incarnations.   His research looks into other cities, other actresses, sound equipment, audio recordings, book versions, DVD’s. . .all the things you wonderful folks have been clamoring for.

We are also considering offering more classes, as the few we ran concurrent to the show enjoyed so much.  Stay tuned for more on Wordless Storytelling, Playwriting, Solo Performance, Changing Your Stories and more.

We wish you all the best in your summer adventures, with much thanks for this spring’s incredible ride.  As always, we welcome your thoughts and letters.  We enjoy them and learn a lot from them.

Glorious ending hints at an incredible beginning for Lala.

One flower on the stem of Lala’s journey has now passed into the earth of our memories.   The white silks are folded carefully away, the Pacific Cultural Center open for other beautiful performances, the brown boxes back with their other record-box companions along my living room wall, scripts piled up and resting -for a moment on the desk.  But only for a moment. . .

This glorious run of Lala’s -a freedom run- exceeded our expectations of depth and transformation.   Lives have been changed, deeply and powerfully, through sharing these stories of Lala.  Many viewers sought us out through email, phone, and person to tell us how the words and images of “A Star Called Love” became mantra, ruminations, catalysts for change, and keys to inner openings.  The World Cafe’s, workshops, and sharings after the shows revealed to us all the heartfelt stirrings the performances caused.

A whole sequence of gladiola-like flowers are forming, budding, and opening on Lala’s horizons.  The offers and invitations to bring her stories to  new listeners are stretching towards us like hands.  The work to train other actresses continues, and I will be spending the summer in another wave of research into the era, cultures, and embodiments of the characters.

Please do not be shy.  We always welcome your thoughts, reflections, and suggestions on any aspect of the shows.  In fact, as the next set of plays begin to emerge, your thoughts become crucial wisdom for me as a playwright.  And as a company dedicated to sharing Lala’s messages, we also welcome ideas for house concerts, school, church, community and theater-based performances.  You may have come to the Lala plays as a stranger, but you left as a friend.

Thank you.  Rivera Sun

By the way, here are two poems I enjoyed this week:

An Old Musician

Written by Hafiz


by Daniel Ladinsky



Those who know of God

Meet and


The way

An old musician

Greets his beloved


And will take special care,

As a great artist always does,

To enhance the final note

Of each



The Lute Will Beg

Written by Hafiz

Translated by Daniel Ladinsky

You need to become a pen

In the Sun’s hand.

We need for the earth to sing

Through our pores and eyes.

The body will again become restless

Until your soul paints all its beauty

Upon the sky.

Don’t tell me, dear ones,

That what Hafiz says is not true,

For when the heart tastes its glorious destiny

And you awake to our constant need

For your love

God’s lute will beg

For your


Over, and over, ovations rising

Twenty shows, nineteen standing ovations.  My heart has sung in response to hearing the enthusiasm, thrill, and emotions of each of those audience members as they leap to their feet for one of Lala’s shows.  This past weekend’s performance of “Imagine-a-nation”, “Education”, and “Emancipation” made me more aware than ever of the importance of these stories to people here and now.

In the sharings after the shows, many speak of ‘the darkness’ or ‘the dark times’ that are all around us.  They give voice to fears and worries, insecurities about what our changing planet and society has in store for us, and then, many breaking into tears, they say what a beacon of light Lala is, her message of love the exact remedy to our fears, and their hope that her stories spread like wildfire.

Stories are powerful mediums for changing our concepts of what is possible.  The epics of our times work into our psyche, influence the way we perceive the world and our actions within it.  Heroes become role models, offering us a path to follow. As a writer and a performer, I try to remain acutely aware of the permutating culture I work for.  Lala is an unconventional, poetic, expressive, love-filled African-American heroine from another turn-of-a-century.  She intends to inspire the passionate courage in all of us to throw off our fears and allow our incredible compassion for life rise.  We need such indomitable, boldly creative, awake human beings in the midst of this transformational time.

I hope you will join us for our final weekend of “A Star Called Love; The Freedom Stories of Lala”.   It has been a magical run, and the ending of this leg of Lala’s journey comes with sweet intensity.  Every moment may be our last.  But then again, it may also be our first.  We invite you to join us for a free World Cafe Style Discussion of the deeper themes explored in the series.   This is an opportunity to discuss the shows with many people, hearing the thoughts and concepts hidden within us all.  Please come.  Sunday June 12th 1-3pm Pacific Cultural Center, 1307 Seabright Ave.

Rivera Sun

Whirlwind Trilogy Weekend spurs torrent of dialogue, expression, and experiencing

Three standing ovations, four and a half hours of performing, three more hours of discussion and sharing, a beautiful story-changing workshop, and hundreds of vegan cookies later, a whirlwind weekend of all three of Lala’s stories has ignited the wildfire of community discussion and growth that we always dreamed it would.

Conversations this weekend have ranged across spiritual transcendence, political correctness, racism, discrimination, meditation, personal transformation, death, loss, grief, the importance of expression and listening, hope and empowerment, and “loving, living, and leaving this world”.  Lala’s messages have reached into kitchens and coffee shops, workplaces and yoga studios, giving us the fuel and fire to have conversations we desperately yearn to engage with.

As playwright/performer, I listen  as deeply as I can to all characters (fictional and here in every day life. . .as we are all ‘characters’!) to hear the messages and truths each one carries to me.  I search beyond and through the externals of race, gender, age, and class, to seek out the perspective of the speaker as clearly as I can perceive it.  This listening is a blessing as it opens up my understanding and comprehension of the diverse, complex and extraordinarily beautiful world we inhabit.  This listening forces me beyond my own fears and insecurities, and the desire to protect this ego-self and ‘be right’ all the time.  I step into a place where each story is valid.  Every speaker is true from his or her own perspective.  And I feel who I am expanding immensely from simply listening.  Thank you to all who shared their stories with me this weekend.

And the journey continues.  Two more weekends of all three shows.  Please tell your friends.  And keep reaching out.  Your emails and stories via facebook, or phone call are treasures to us.  June 12th is our community discussion of “A Star Called Love”, a World Cafe style dialogue with tea and snacks, open to all, 1-3pm.  And next weekend is the play writing workshop from 1-4pm, also at the Pacific Cultural Center. I hope to see you all there.  Rivera Sun



Liberating, purifying, transcending. . .”Emancipation” is unveiled.

Over the last weekend, “The Emancipation of Lala” debuted at the Pacific Cultural Center.  I’m hoping our reviewers will find the words for their experience, because most of us lost all capacity to speak.

It was a “meditation”,  a “ritual”, an experience transcending space, time, and many versions of reality.  The sharing of thoughts and feelings after the performance revealed the depth to which viewers were moved, as tears sprung in eyes as people struggled to express what seeing this show meant to them.  A young boy said,

“It was amazing.  There were some parts I didn’t understand, but I could FEEL how important it was.”

Up until this weekend, the adjective “amazing” was the most common phrase used in conjunction with the three Lala plays.  Now, “thank you”  is the most frequent expression.  And we return it with the same spirit and heart with which it has been offered.   One woman shared her poetic feeling with us,

“I feel more like love than a human being.” (after seeing the show.)

To be a part and participant in the telling of these stories has been an incredibly humbling journey.  I am awed by the grace and beauty that emerges from our audience, and their sincerity and willingness to share it with each other, the production team, and me.  I get goosepimples up my arms when I walk into a coffee shop, and people come up to me to say how affected they are, or that someone had just come in raving about the Lala plays, insisting that everyone in the room go see them.  It is humbling, because I know this is our viewers honoring ALL the hard work, talent, and inspiration of so many people who have contributed to the incredible nature of these plays.   I wish that one day we could all be in a room together, seeing the light of the ‘star called love’ that shines in the hundreds of eyes that made these shows possible.

Thank you, Rivera Sun