How do we talk about race in contemporary America?
President Obama addressed the question in his historic campaign speech in March 2008. Others, like 25-year-old poet and playwright Chinaka Hodge, do it with their art. Her provocative play "Mirrors in Every Corner," which opens tonight at Intersection for the Arts, explores what happens to an African American family in Oakland after the mother gives birth to a Caucasian baby.
"Writing a play about race before that speech is very different than writing one after it," says Hodge. "It definitely changed my outlook."
What resonated for her was that Obama revealed that his white grandmother had some racist attitudes, yet at the same time prepared him to be the president of the United States.
"We all carry some amount of prejudice around with us," she says. "It takes love and active work to undo the centuries of brutality. He expressed a sense of disappointment that he even had to address this. I feel that disappointment, too, and anger."
While chatting at a cafe table on Lakeshore Avenue in her native Oakland, she is hugged by a former neighbor passing by, and another woman waves as she rushes past. "That lady's in my mom's Bible study group," says Hodge. Her roots are here, and they appear throughout her work.
Hodge says the idea for "Mirrors" came out of a discussion with a black male friend about interracial dating and marriage. She asked him, "What happens if you marry a black woman and your daughter comes out white?"
Started as joke
"It started as kind of a tongue-in-cheek comment," she recalls, "but it led me to think about what family means and how we construct it, the fictive quality of race and the way that we hold so fast to it, and how that's productive as well."
Hodge describes her family as pan-Africanist, with very strong political ideas, but "a true Bay Area blended family - there's been a number of marriages and it covers the full spectrum in terms of skin tone and color. In my extended family, all races are comprised therein."
She is the oldest of seven. Three siblings live on the East Coast, and three live here: One sister is a freshman at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School, another is a junior at St. Mary's High school in Berkeley, and her brother is a sophomore at Stanford. Hodge attended Berkeley High, where she studied West African dance and began writing poetry after members of the literary arts organization Youth Speaks came to her classroom. They had the class do a "free write" and asked her to stand up and share. "I got up and loved it," Hodge recalls.
She went on to win a National Poetry Slam in 2000 and has published two collections, "Know These Limbs" (2002) and "Girls With Hips" (2006). She received Dave Eggers' 826 Valencia young author scholarship and attended the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University.
She has appeared on two seasons of HBO's "Def Poetry Jam" and was named best poet by the East Bay Express in 2008.
Youth Speaks stint
Hodge spent 10 years working with Youth Speaks, and her play is being co-produced by its intergenerational theater company, the Living Word Project, along with Intersection and its resident company, Campo Santo. She co-wrote two previous plays, but "Mirrors" is her first solo outing. She also has her eye on screenwriting for film and television.
In her day job, Hodge is program director for Geneva Car Barn and Power House, a nonprofit that is transforming a 1901 building in San Francisco into a community art space with a restaurant, retail space, black box theater and classrooms to train youth in technical, culinary and literary arts.
She has also started a novel set in West Oakland, and she writes music and lyrics, sings and raps for an Oakland band called the Getback.
"But I don't think it satisfies enough of my dorky urges," she says. "I'm frontin' on the cool side, but I'm very comfortable in my nerdness. The iambic pentameter speaks to me. Learning how others have written poems over the course of history helps inform my meter and my structure. I definitely consider myself a spoken-word artist, but I don't think it's the only thing I can or should do."
Mirrors in Every Corner: Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., S.F. 8 p.m. today. Runs through March 21. $15-$25. (415) 626-2787, Ext. 109. www.theintersection.org.