Rhythmix Brings Rhythm to isms in the Schisms

Richard Bangert--“Uprooted" actors with Navy semaphore signal flags choreographed to the music of Edwin Starr’s Motown anti-Vietnam War hit “War” at Alameda Point last weekend.

Rhythmix Brings Rhythm to isms in the Schisms

On May 20-22 at Alameda Point, about 2,100 people experienced the talents of Uprooted, the third in the “Island City Waterways” series of free public cultural productions by Alameda’s Rhythmix Cultural Works. There were eight performances, plus a special presentation to 500 students from Alameda Unified School District.

The six-act outdoor program chronicled how early aviation following World War I suddenly went from traveling air shows and cargo delivery to a traveling Air Force. Actor Robert Paine told how public attitudes about the U.S. getting involved in World War II changed radically, from indifference to gung-ho, when the Japanese bombed the U.S. Navy fleet in Pearl Harbor. As he called out the names of ships being attacked, taiko drummers signaled the beat of destruction.

Jimmy Doolittle came out of retirement to lead the now-infamous air raid on Japan, people went to work in defense industries, citizens enlisted for military duty, while others of Japanese ancestry were unceremoniously rounded up as security threats and placed in internment camps.

One patriotic citizen who was drafted into the military in the mid-1960s and served as an engineer in the Navy was Ed Holmes. Holmes is the Rhythmix script writer for this production and also a narrator and a presenter of his own uprooted roots in time of war.

Holmes’ last port, after serving during the Vietnam War, was Naval Air Station-Alameda. The Bay Area became his new home. Not wanting to go back to Cleveland for a job in a power plant where his father worked, he found his passion in the stagecraft of mime at Laney College in the early 1970s. “I caught the mime wave,” said Holmes, who went on to spend 28 years with the acclaimed San Francisco Mime Troupe, along with other acting and directing gigs.

His writing and acting talents flowered in this marriage of choreography, musicianship, dancing, and spoken word. Not remaining silent as a mime, Holmes had plenty to say in this production, but the other actors rarely spoke. The spoken word came mostly from narrations by Holmes and Paine and voice-over recordings as the actors performed.

In the act called “May’s Letters,” performers acted out a series of themes about life in the Tule Lake internment camp for persons of Japanese ancestry, as the narrator read from letters written by internee May Okada. The setting for this act took place in a dry, dusty, field of dead grass near Alameda Point’s O’Club that felt as desolate as the Tule Lake internment camp in northern California.

A high energy swing dancing performance celebrated the end of World War II.

The Navy jet mounted on a pedestal at Alameda Point’s north gate served as poignant backdrop for the act called “Get in Line,” in which Holmes tells of his own uprooting and getting in line.

A litany of “isms” that are intertwined with war and conflict — activism, nihilism, nationalism, idealism, collectivism, patriotism, totalitarianism, communism, environmentalism, imperialism, utilitarianism, socialism, fascism — were read aloud over the speaker system and acted out by performers, eventually devolving into everyone on the set fighting each other.

Holmes stepped onto the set and called a halt to the fighting. “If you’re gonna argue all the why’s and what-if’s of global conflict, this is a good place to do it,” Holmes admonishes, looking toward the north gate entrance. “Four wars have marched through those gates in the last 80 years — Second World War, Korean War, the ongoing Cold War, Vietnam. But you gotta remember,” said Holmes, intoning the theme of Uprooted, “behind all your academic arguments are the personal stories of all those caught up in those political winds that blow through the world, through the country, through Alameda.”

As Holmes wrapped up his story of being sent off the coast of Vietnam “to settle some differences in isms” as he put it, he says, “But the differences of opinion about the ‘why’ of this war started to surface in the streets, in the news, in music, and in the ranks [of the military].” Holmes turns to a formation of sailors in white uniforms carrying semaphore signal flags and gives the order to march forward, whereupon he gives the audience a lesson in the origin of the peace symbol.

In 1958, anti-nuclear war activists in Britain combined the semaphore signal for “N” for nuclear, and “D” for disarmament to create the peace symbol, explained Holmes, “which further defined left from right.” An unexpected creative gem then unfolds, as Holmes morphs the political “left” and “right” into the cadence of military marching “left” and “right” into the cadence of Edwin Starr’s Motown hit and anti-Vietnam War anthem “War.” With the Navy fighter jet as backdrop, the yellow and red semaphore flags are swatted through the air with marshal precision to the beat of the music and lyrics, “War, what is it good for?”

Little did Holmes know when he left Cleveland that he would one day be performing in Alameda, in a manner of speaking, with another Clevelander — Edwin Starr.

This third in a series of Island City Waterways productions was ready to go in 2020 but was put on hold due to COVID. “Everyone pretty much stayed on call,” said Holmes. Coming now as it did during the war in Ukraine, its themes could not have been more relevant. Uprooted people with suitcases, today on wheels, the shouting “isms”, the resilience of people under fire, unbroken, speaks to the many layers of the human experience explored in this year’s presentation.