Ishmael Reed’s new satirical play, The Conductor, takes on the San Francisco School Board Recall

Ali M Collins
10 min readNov 29, 2022

I was no doubt the canary in a coal mine. As a parent organizer, educator, and former San Francisco school board member, I was on the front end of the wave of nationwide right-wing attacks against educators who have dismantled anti-discriminatory policies in our schools.

From the African American Policy Forum’s #TruthBeToldCampaign

Many folks who know me know that these past two years have been really difficult with attacks on me, my family, and our public education system. Many of the San Francisco initiatives I and my colleague Gabriela López stood for are currently being dismantled or reversed. Addressing persistent anti-Black racism at Lowell High School and throughout SFUSD, getting police out of schools, supporting Latinx students, giving Queer and Trans families a voice in our district, and many other initiatives.

And the right-wing narrative of “crazy San Francisco” is being used to justify the removal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ruby Bridges from the curriculum in states as far off as Virginia and Texas. It is being used to justify the dismantling of affirmative action at the Supreme Court of the United States. (In fact, some of the very folks fighting “woke indoctrination” from CRT and affirmative action are some of the very same people involved in promoting the school board recall.)

Along the way, right-wing political strategists have used disinformation to divide Asian American and Black and brown communities in SF and nationally. The mainstream media has been largely complicit in amping up fake outrage while erasing the true motives of the people behind attacks on racial justice education and public schools.

Ishmael Reed’s latest play offers us an opportunity to get outside of these narratives and talk about the way conflict is used to divide communities of color and maintain white supremacy in our schools and democracy.

I wanted to share a clip from a previous screening featuring Emil, Guillermo who is a media commentator and journalist. (He also has a daily show every weekday at 2 pm PST, Emil Amok’s Takeout.) What makes this performance all the more special is the fact that Emil is also a Lowell High School alum.

Emil Guillermo plays a right-wing commentator and Lowell alumn espousing the virtue of “merit”.

Please join this important conversation! See below for the official press release and for information on viewing the live screening this Thursday, December 1, at The Black Repertory Group or seeing the virtual screening Thursday, December 1 through December 4.

The Black Repertory Theater Group Inc.

Mona Vaughn-Scott, Executive Artistic Director presents

The Conductor — a virtual reading of a play in 2 acts by Ishmael Reed

A videoed reading of The Conductor, Ishmael Reed’s new play inspired by the recent San Francisco School Board’s recall of 3 board members, will be presented for four viewings, from Thursday, December 1 through Sunday, December 4.

Simultaneously available to audiences either present in the theater or via virtual streaming, a live Q&A will follow the reading on December 1, available to the in-theater audience only.

Who

Ishmael Reed, playwright / Carla Blank, director

Host

The Black Repertory Theater Group, 3201 Adeline Street, Berkeley California 94703

Ticketing Information

(Click the links to go directly to the Eventbrite site to purchase tickets.)

Thursday, December 1 @7:00 pm PST

Friday, December 2, @7:00pm PST

Saturday, December 3 @7:00 pm PST

Sunday, December 4 @ 3:00 pm PST

Tickets $17.00

Mask Policy

The Black Repertory Theater Group requires all audience members to wear masks.

Official Press Release

The Conductor, a new play by Ishmael Reed, is based upon the recall of three school board members accused of instituting a lottery system that would lead to a more diverse student body at one of San Francisco’s elite high schools. But their alleged proposal of renaming schools named for America’s most beloved heroes ignited hysteria in the West and among smug columnists who dominate opinion in the East. One of those recalled claimed that they had never proposed such a thing.

In Reed’s play, an Anglo Indian named Shashi Parmar is considered a hero for his leadership of the recall. It is then revealed that he might be working for a firebrand Indian prime minister who is anti-American. When the prime minister orders that an American spy plane be shot down, not only does Parmar go into hiding, but other Indian American and Indian citizens must return to India, except the darker-skinned Indians who can melt into the Black population, like the Indian seamen and peddlers who arrived here in the 1800s.

Black American journalist Warren Chipp hides Parmar even though Parmar was responsible for Chipp losing his job at The San Francisco Chrysalis, a local newspaper. Ironically, Chipp is one of the conductors whose job is to ferry the hunted Indians into Canada safely. He has been assigned to harbor Parmar until it’s safe for him to journey there.

The San Francisco Recall election pitted Asians against Asians, Blacks, and Latinos against Asians, a divide and conquer event manipulated by billionaires and enforced by those who doxxed the three school board members with threats to them and members of their families.

Reed can always be counted on to explore new territory in film, theater, fiction, and non-fiction. For over one hundred years film, theater, books, and thousands of newspaper articles, which are often cliché-ridden, have defined the racial divide as being between Blacks and whites. Reed’s play, The Conductor, shows that Blacks and whites are not the only racial groups contributing to the racial divide.

About the Cast, in Order of Appearance, and Crew

Laura Robards

Laura Robards (Hedda “Buttermilk” Duckbill) is an actor, writer, and vocalist. She works regularly as a voice-over artist and has worked with theaters such as Nylon Fusion, Ten Thousand Things and Other Tigers Productions. Earlier this year, she premiered Ishmael Reed’s play, The Slave Who Loved Caviar, at Theater for the New City. She is thrilled to be collaborating with many of the cast and crew from that production on this show!

Brian Simmons

Brian Simmons (Warren Chipp) is a NYC based actor. He holds a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. He was most recently seen in Black Love at Black Spectrum Theater, Forbidden Fruit, and The Slave Who Loved Caviar. Currently he is touring with Living Voices, appearing as #63 at Comedy Sportz NYC and in Black Rain.

Imran Javaid

Imran Javaid (Shashi Parmar) is an actor, playwright, director, and attorney. He appeared as the father in several productions of The Domestic Crusaders by Wajahat Ali, including at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 2009, at MuslimFest 2010 in Mississauga, Canada, at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Hall in Washington, D.C. in 2010, and as part of The 9/11 Performance Project at NYC’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College in 2011. He wrote and directed the one-act play Glass, performed at the Nuyorican in 2010 and featured at the 2010 Downtown Urban Theatre Festival, and adapted, directed, and appeared as the father in Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon, performed at Theater for the New City in 2011.

Kenya Wilson

Kenya Wilson (Melody Wells) includes among her past credits: Liz Roussel in Reunion in Bartersville, directed by Marjorie Moon at Black Spectrum Theatre (winner of 2019 Audelco Award for Best Revival of a Play); Jennifer Blue and the Richard Pryor Shadow Dancer in Ishmael Reed’s The Slave Who Loved Caviar, directed by Carla Blank. She can next be seen in Picking up the Pieces as Lucy, written by Jeanette Hill at Black Spectrum Theatre, directed by Fulton C. Hodges.

Monisha Shiva

Monisha Shiva (Kala Parmar) includes among her past acting credits the plays The Domestic Crusaders by Wajahat Ali, News From Fukushima by Yuri Kageyama, and Life Among the Aryans, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and The Slave Who Loved Caviar by Ishmael Reed.

Emil Guillermo

Emil Guillermo (Gabriel Noitallde) is a media commentator and journalist. His daily show, “Emil Amok’s Takeout” can be seen on www.amok.com. He also hosts “The PETA Podcast.” As an actor and stand-up solo artist, he performs one-man shows around the country. His book Amok: Essays from an Asian American Perspective — won an American Book Award in 2000. His first appearance in an Ishmael Reed play was as a high-end car dealer in Hubba City.

Tennessee Reed

Tennessee Reed (Narrator) is a poet, memoirist, performance artist and photographer who has narrated staged and virtual readings of Ishmael Reed’s plays: Life Among the Aryans, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and The Slave Who Loved Caviar. Her most recent publication is Califia Burning, New and Selected Poems, 1987–2020 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2020).

Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed (playwright and composer/pianist) is the author of more than thirty books to date, receiving prizes in every category, including poetry, non-fiction, plays and novels. His third novel, Mumbo Jumbo, celebrates its 50th anniversary with a new edition published by Scribner in November 2022 including a new introduction by Reed. Reed has authored eleven plays to date; Backstage called him “a modern day Moliere.” This performance includes Reed playing piano on his original composition, THE CONDUCTOR. His author’s website is www.ishmaelreed.org.

Carla Blank

Carla Blank (director) directed and choreographed Reed’s play, The Slave Who Loved Caviar, at Theater for the New City Dec. 2021-Jan. 2022. Among her other directing credits are The Domestic Crusaders by Wajahat Ali (2003–2011), News From Fukushima, a multidisciplinary work by Yuri Kageyama (2015–2018), and a collaboration with Robert Wilson on KOOL — Dancing In My Mind, a multidisciplinary performance portrait inspired by Suzushi Hanayagi, the late Japanese choreographer who was a long-time collaborator and dear friend of both artists (2008–2010). Blank co-edited the anthology Bigotry On Broadway with Reed (Baraka Books, 2021).

Miles Shebar (Technical adviser) is an art director and multimedia artist based in NYC.

Rome Neal (project coordinator) is a director, actor, and jazz vocalist based in NYC. He also serves as publicist for THE CONDUCTOR.

Our thanks to:

Dr. Mona Vaughn-Scott (Executive Director of the Black Repertory Group Inc) Established in 1964, BRG exists as the forbearing theatrical griot group of its kind in the nation. The BRG has a history of providing access to the dramatic arts for under-privileged, under-served, and minority populations. Located in Berkeley, California, their #1 goal continues to be “Keepers Of The Culture,” by promoting and preserving our theatrical arts. Dr. Vaughn-Scott believes, “The theater is used as a means to uplift the individual and in turn uplift the community.” Ishmael Reed and Carla Blank thank Dr. Vaugh-Scott and Sean V. Scott for helping to bring these readings to new audiences, particularly those living in the San Francisco Bay area, where recent events inspired Reed to write this play.

Crystal Field (Executive Director of Theater for the New City), an off-Broadway theater which originally presented this virtual reading in October 2022 and will also present a full production in their Johnson Theater for 3 weekends in March 2023, premiering Thursday, March 9 and closing Sunday, March 26, 2023.

and our wonderful cast who virtually workshopped this script into its present form, and will appear in the NYC production

Audience reactions to THE CONDUCTOR’s October readings

“The recall unfortunately was something that right-wing Asian Americans had a hand in, as the narrative around Asian street attacks go mobilized by the right. Glad you’re challenging the moral panic!”

— Ken Chen, attorney and 2010 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award winner

“It was so cool to witness your direction. Really loved when a newspaper moved from one person’s square into another person’s square, when the news anchor/commentator appeared, when the conflict arose toward the end. Loved Tennessee’s steady, calm & confident narration. And I was thinking the play has that quality of getting the news, the insider scoop, like in the old Roman plays, a vibrant innovation of past & present w/ the livestream…. It was an awesome production & I’m still thinking about it.”

— Jillian Weise, poet, novelist, essayist, and performance artist

“The performances were animated and the ending was moving.

Congratulations to you [Carla], Ishmael, Tennessee, and the whole cast.”

— Rishi Nath, mathematician, professor and writer

“I enjoyed your latest production…. I like how you were able to make [the streamed video] seem like the actors were in the same room, with stage directions. There was a lot of material on major historical figures that is not known by average citizens.”

— Dr. Kim McMillon, editor of the anthology Black Fire This Time

“I very much enjoyed [THE CONDUCTOR] As always [with works by Ishmael Reed] I learned a lot.”

— Karla Brundage, poet, editor

“I caught [THE CONDUCTOR] last night. Brilliant and spot on of course. (I say this as a Lowell alum) and beautifully direct and narrated. What a triumph!”

— Dr. Mary Patton, health professional

“Congratulations to you [Carla], Ishmael, Tennessee and all the great actors on the play, which I really enjoyed. It is a dense, provocative and unique piece, as are all [Reed’s] works.”

— Yuri Kageyama, poet, filmmaker, journalist

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Ali M Collins

mom of twins. education nerd. public school warrior. reformed cat-lady. amateur urbanist. social justice addict. BLERD. & most recently Board of Ed Commissioner