Reed Magazine Feb. 2001
Art in the Iron TrianglePage 1Page 3Page 4  

While the San Francisco shootings grabbed nationwide headlines, the other deaths barely merited mentions in Bay Area papers. In response, students at EBCPA produced a series of multidisciplinary shows that not only examined the tragedies themselves, but the disparity in the reportage. The series packed the center’s theatre, made the local press, and eventually earned a notice on CNN.

As a result of its work, the center has more awards than a week of Oscars reruns. In 1999, for example, it received the prestigious Coming Up Taller Award by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, one of only 10 groups nationwide to earn the honor.

Given the practical emphasis, I ask if he had intellectual aspirations in applying to Reed. “I don’t think I thought of it that way,” he smiles. “I just wanted to read books.” During summer vacations, Simmons returned to Richmond to earn tuition by working in the city’s shipyards. “I think I blew their minds at registration, because I paid in cash,” he says. “But that was how you did things in the yards. It was a big deal to walk around with a big wad of money.” After a year, he dropped out in order to bum around Europe, a stint that included writing his first novel. After two years, he returned to Reed and majored in American studies.

“Now I think that it’s important to have that classical background, the intellectual grounding,” he says. “But I don’t think the abstract, intellectual view is necessarily superior to other experiences. I think that we can learn a lot from the ivory tower—but the ivory tower can learn a lot from places like us.”


Simmons outside theatre

“We do have the mentality of a collective; we try to achieve a certain synergy from all the different artists and collaborators. On the other hand, we also try to let people try new things and to express their own vision.”

After Reed, Simmons spent several years at Indiana University, where he took a variety of courses, especially in music and anthropology. He traveled extensively as well, and it was during a stint in Brazil with Olodum, a seminal Bloco Afro (a group that promotes social empowerment through culture), that he decided that he could be of most use back in Richmond. He began working at the center in 1981.

If it’s an exaggeration to say that Simmons and the EBCPA are nearly congruent today, that wasn’t the case until fairly recently. “In the early days I was trying to do everything—fundraising, teaching, administration, writing proposals, mopping the hallways,” he says. “For a long time I carried most of the numbers around in my head, plus schedules, names, curriculae. I was just juggling too much stuff. I nearly burned out.”

Eventually, as the budget broke a million dollars, the paid staff was expanded and professionalized. This growth brought a renewal of purpose for Simmons, but so did another event: the birth of his daughter, Genevieve, in 1995. “I’m very lucky,” he says. “I’ve taught thousands of young people, and yet I never imagined how intellectually stimulating a two-year-old child can be. One day Genevieve was watching a sunflower float to to the bottom of a bottle of water, and she pointed to it and said, ‘Papi, Papi—goldfish.’ That’s artistic vision right there.” Most days Genevieve has the run of the place, and as he works she’s liable to climb over most objects in the room, including him—to his obvious delight.

Simmons insists that he is planning on cutting back on his administration duties to devote more time to artistic pursuits and his studies on perception. After 20 years of 70-hour weeks and 15-hour days, he claims he can finally relax a bit. But although I think he’s sincere, I don’t quite believe him. This guy is having too much fun.

Back in the theatre class, Simmons solicits suggestions for themes for its March production. “Making it through high school,” offers one girl, “getting into college.” In a tiny voice, another student suggests, “Getting through depression with a friend.” Simmons pursues the proposals with gusto, offering several possibilities on how these abstract notions could become artistic works. After a while the proposals become pretty elaborate.

Finally, one boy challenges him. “This is a lot of stuff,” he says. “How’re we going to do all this just meeting here on Saturdays?”

A beatific smile effloresces across Simmons’s face.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Right now, we’re just dreaming.”

Now, that’s cool. R

Matthew Burtch ’82 is a freelance writer in San Francisco. He wrote about Henry Franzoni ’82, “In Search of Bigfoot,” in the August 2000 issue.

And—have I mentioned this?—it’s the coolest place on the planet. From the outside, the Winters Building may look like any dowager building squatting in an urban renewal zone, but on the inside it’s a true multimedia experience. Stand in a central hallway, and from above you hear the thump of West African dancers and the scales of a trumpet; to one side, the sounds of Mexican son pour out of a rehearsal room; from another streams a line of elementary schoolchildren in leotards. Particolored posters and photos of past gigs line every wall. It’s a far cry from the sedate halls of most performing arts academies; in fact, it’s a cacophony, a barely controlled chaos that is entirely irresistible. If you can spend 10 minutes at the EBCPA without tapping your toes, you are, as far as it is within the powers of medical science to ascertain, legally dead.

For all its staff and resources, it’s hard not to think that Jordan Simmons is the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. “This place definitely reflects Jordan’s personality,” says Miko Lee, the center’s arts education specialist. “Not only his. There are a lot of other people here who’re really important. We all work hard. Really, hard. But Jordan’s the driving spirit. The fact that the center is very multicultural, for example: that reflects his diverse interests.” She laughs. “Probably the reason it’s so crazy here reflects Jordan, too.” Drama teacher Fleurette Fernando agrees. “I have a lot of background in community arts programs, but the center is the kind of place I’ve always dreamed of working,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard—we do everything. It’s very hectic. You get thrown into it headfirst; you’re learning and doing at the same time. But Jordan is very inspiring. I think a lot of people are here because of him.”

Typically, Simmons is self-effacing about his role, pointing to the input made by staff, teachers, and artists. “We promote a consensual ethos,” he says. “We do have the mentality of a collective; we try to achieve a certain synergy from all the different artists and collaborators. On the other hand, we also try to let people try new things and to express their own vision. The main thing is to find out what the needs of the students are, and to fill it.” He calls the center a “think-and-do tank” and says that the idea is to use art to allow people to “retool their bodies and minds. To trust themselves, and to regain powers of discrimination, of creation. When we evaluate an art project, we look both on its effect on the students, and also on its value as art itself.”

Reed Magazine Feb. 2001
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