THE BLUES AND MOTHER WIT
Co-founder of the theater companies Afrikan People’s Art Continuum and the Hittite Empire, Ellis Rice migrated first from the small town of Kinlock, outside of St. Louis, Missouri, to Los Angeles in 1983. Prospects of lounge and Strip performances brought Rice to Las Vegas in 1990. A pianist, vocalist and advocate for the arts, he retired from the city of Las Vegas as a cultural arts director and is the owner of Blusoul Productions, a local studio developing initial concepts in television, podcast and radio.
I come from preachers. I come from storytellers. I come from old women and old men who sit you by their side and talk to you. That’s not two minutes. You better not be in no hurry. I have a section in one of my performances called “Mother Wit.” I ask, “Who were the people you looked up to, your mentors, the people you wanted to emulate? What did they tell you? Now that you are yourself, what would you pass onto shorty over there watching you?” Sometimes we don’t believe who we are. Myself included. Sometimes the babies will remind you. Kids will call you out. And old folks. They will ask you, “Why are you here?” Sam Smith was the first person in this city who did that to me. He knew all about the Hittite Empire. He’s the one who introduced me to Keith Brantley and the Poet’s Corner. The work I’ve done has always been community based. I’ve been to New York, but I wasn’t on Broadway. I’ve played D.C., you know, the different places. Atlanta. It has always been community-based work. I’ve been doing this some 40 years. I’m not famous. The things that I do, the stargazers will never know me. Laverne Ligon, she was the first person to start a black dance line for Donn Arden at the MGM Grand, brought my company the Hittite Empire up here to do a piece at the Moulin Rouge. This is when the Moulin Rouge was still functioning. That’s where I met Ramon Savoy, Frank Hawkins. I didn’t really live here then. We brought up the company. We did a piece. Part of the refrain of the piece, which was based on police brutality, was to sing, “Oops, upside the head. Say, oops upside the head,” and you could see the room split. The nature of the Hittites, you either loved us or hated us. Black or white. That’s the world we live in. Later because I worked with the city, I learned to program for everybody. I have to provide classes and see a broader vision than just a black vision. But because I am a black person, my whole lineage, the bulk of my life work has been producing and creating work for black people with the idea that this work is going to elevate us and help us sustain our stories and sustain our consciousness to move us forward. My mission as an artist is to see us begin to own our own art and to produce stories and preserve our history in our own words. I don’t only read the writing on the wall. I read betwixt and between. I’m a Las Vegan by way of Kinlock, Missouri, with a brief stint in LaLa land, but a Kinlockian at heart. You know, Missouri. Show me. Because we don’t believe nothing until we see it. My father, and when I say my father, it’s not only Rev. John or Uncle David; it’s like a conglomeration of the brothers who did the work of growing me. Tony Tolls, my first stepdad; Richard Taylor; Howard Alexander; Gus, who lived upstairs when I lived in LA; Jimmy Mosley; Bob Elliot; Mr. Mason — he whispered some things to me from time to time — Sam. These are the cats when I say my father, I’m selecting wisdom they done put on me to carry on to the next thing. And it’s been put on me to move forward.