Faces were solemn at the poetry reading in the basement of the Martin Luther King Memorial Library last week. Only 10 people had showed up to hear the two published local poets, so the mood among the faithful few was low.
Reaching into her high-spirit bag for the last item on her program, Michelle Parkerson pulled on a pair of enormous, tacky plastic yellow glasses.
I'm kind of in a phase right now," she told the immediately hysterical group, "Where I like to experiment. So, please bear with me."
From there, she belted out her poem, which ended: ". . . so gimme 20/20 vision/(and the key to your heart) . . . Do you think I got a jones/ for Grace?/-(Shu wah)."
Irreverence and daring inspire everything the 27-year-old poet, performer, WTGG-TV engineer and, most recently, independent film producer attempts.
Those qualities will be on view in a double dose tonight when Parkerson unveils her second independently made film in City Council Chambers at City Hall. The movie is the first film portrait of jazz great Betty "Be-bop" Carter, for years an obscure nightclub singer whose own daring independence left her on outcast in a musical world that another woman of her talent would have ruled.
Mayor Marion Barry will not only introduce the film, ". . . but then, she's Better Carter" and declare today Betty Carter Day, but he will also end the long and difficult journey which forged the nexous between the studious young artist from Anacostia and the rebellious Detroit scat singer.
For Parkerson, the journey began years ago in the Southeast living room where she listened to Carter's records on her father's new hi-fi.
"My father was building a hi-fi, and every Sunday we heard Betty Carter records. I heard stories about how difficult she was, hw much of a maverick maverick, and how people wouldn't book her. I stored that away in my mind, and then you go on live, right?" she said, laughing.
She forgot about Betty Carter for a while. But in the course of recording the singer's life, Parkerson would have to fight similar battles herself.
Born and raised in Anacostia, the only child of a Defense Department employe and a fourth gade teacher, Parkerson donned a conservative Catholic schoolgirl's uniform for most of her first 17 years to attend class at the old Academy of Our Lady School. By night, however, she dreamed of acting, and in her senior year of high school she performed in a few minor roles at the Back Alley Theatre on Kennedy Street NW.
With the acting fever upon her, she enrolled in the theater arts program at Temple University, but soon found herself behind the scenes, working backstage.
"There was very little opportunity for black enrollees to express themselves, because all the leading roles went to whites. We were in the cast-of-thousands department," she said wryly. "So I wanted to get a skill, a behind-the-scenes skill, and in my second year somebody suggested television and film production.
"It worked out some pieces of things," she added, most notably her lifelong love of writing. Also, with a skill like that you can pay the rent, pay the telephone bill -- my mother stressed that to me."
Following her graduation in 1974, it took her a year to find a full-time job in televison. To her credit, she had independently produced among her college films a 10-minute short subject during her senior year which received a junior Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Her first work in television came as an intern at Channel 4 in the summer of 1975. When she found permanent work at Channel 5, she immediately set to work on another independent film.
"I had written a film treatment for LaBelle, who were just starting to be known at that time," she said, "and there I was trying to [depict] black women artists surviving in a competitive business over a long period of time, and to treat the personal side versus the public personal . . . When I got the rejection notice I said, 'Fine,' and my mind naturally switched to Betty Carter, who was even more fascinating.
"I think I was in a phase where survival, being black and a woman and an artist, was very much upon me, and I [had been] without a job. So, in a different place, and [with] the same history, was Betty Carter.
"People always knew about Betty Carter, but there always seemed to be mysteries and innuendos. Her music was genius, of course, but when it came to the person, well, there always seemed to be something wrong. How old is she? I'll tell you what she would give you: 40." Parkerson smiled, causing a slight lifting of the eyebrows, and continued:
"Her real name is Lillie Mae Jones, she's from Flint, Mich., and at 16 she started hanging out at the be-bop clubs with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and a young [John] Coltrane. She would sit in with people coming through Detroit which was, at that time, a very hot jazz spot. And she experimented with the flatted fifth, the scat, all of that that was in the vanguard of be-bop.
"Well, it's also a classic story," said Parkerson, turning to the brief period after Carter left Lionel Hampton's swing band to settle on her own in New York in the '50s.
"The agents want to take too much, they want to sleep with you, they want to give you an image and that's who you're going to be. And she'd have none of that. So tha agents and promotors boycotted her. But her music triumphed. She remained loyal to clubs like the Five Spot in New York, which feateured her. She's one of the few pure jazz vocalists out here. yshe formulated her own record company, Bet-Car, in 1971. It's still around."
To tell the Betty Carter story, Parkerson had to hurdle the same kinds. of bostacles, if not for the same reasons. Though she began her film in 1976, she has only completed it within the last few months, having spent two of the four years soliciting grand money.
In the course of the four years, the price of film doubled from $5 to $10 for a 100-foot reel -- about three minutes" worht of actual viewing -- her crew scattered, and the price of silver used for developing skyrocketed.
Armed with grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, she had to reassemble a new crew -- and rekindle Carter's faith in the project.
"I looked at the dearth of visual information on Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae," she said. ". . . It may not be the definitive document on [Carter], but it is the first."
Within the past few weeks, things hve begun to fall into place. Tony Gittens of the Black Film Institute of the University of the District of Columbia arranged tonight's invitation-only opening at the District Building.
The film will be available to the general public by the first of next year. The 53-minute film has been entered in the first Black Independent Filmmakers Festival in Paris, which begins tomorrow, and because an oil company representative called to invite Parkerson to accompany the film at their expense a few weeks ago, she will be there.
"You can see the footsteps of God in this, you really can," said the short, brown-skinned filmmaker, who may, before it's too late, do for Betty Carter what Berry Gordy did for Lady Day.
"I'm scared; I'm really scared. I have to be accountable because it's Betty Carter, because I feel the weight of grants. For a little colored girl from Southeast," she said finally, "this is all very much of a trip."