Dr. Maisha Baton [July 2, 1938 - Dec. 27, 2009]
Friday, January 01, 2010
By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A poet, playwright, therapist and teacher, Maisha Baton had the gift of making connections that nurtured a host of artists and activists. The only female to perform with the Centre Avenue Poets Theater workshop -- and the last of them -- Dr. Baton died Sunday. She was 71.
Diagnosed with lung cancer in February, she spent her last months at the Park Place home of her daughter, Tracy Baton, who brought her back to Pittsburgh this summer from New Mexico.
The artistic communities she encouraged also gave her emotional sustenance to promote the poems and plays she wrote.
"Her living room was a salon of creative and passionate and interesting people" -- jazz musicians, activists, dancers, writers and poets, said Tracy Baton. "She had always written poetry. I have her notebooks. She always said she wrote because she couldn't help but write."
Playwright August Wilson, Chawley P. Williams, a poet and director of the Kuntu Writers Workshop, and playwright Rob Penny, who chaired the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Africana Studies, established the Centre Avenue poets group. Not only did they invite Dr. Baton to perform with them, they collaborated on projects with her.
With Mr. Wilson and Mr. Penny, Dr. Baton co-founded the Kuntu Writers Workshop, where she taught children's literature and playwriting. She studied psychology and eventually earned a doctorate.
Raising her daughter alone, she made her living here as a therapist, an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh and an administrator at Carlow College.
In 1981, she took a teaching job at the College of Natural Medicine in Santa Fe, N.M. It closed shortly afterward, and she returned in 1983 to Pittsburgh, where she worked as a private therapist, wrote and edited.
She returned to New Mexico in 1988 to teach at the University of New Mexico. Her courses included women's history, black literature and the black experience in the Southwest. She wrote on the theme for the New Mexico Council for the Humanities, the Albuquerque Museum and the New Mexico Historical Preservation Society. She also collected and recorded a number of oral histories of elderly black New Mexicans.
Vernell Lillie, founder of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre and a long-time friend, described Dr. Baton as "diminutive and gentle with penetrating eyes. She would put out just a few words and people would talk. She drew you out.
"Maisha was in a group I called 'the gang of four' [including] Bob Johnson, founder of the Pittsburgh Black Theater Dance Ensemble, August Wilson and Rob Penny. "Every day, you could walk by the Burger Chef on Fifth Avenue in Oakland and they'd be in there together, eating lunch and solving the world's problems."
A native of Harrisburg, Dr. Baton got a nursing degree in New York and spent her early adulthood in communes in New York and Vermont. According to her daughter, "She was a hippie before that was a fashion statement."
One of her jobs was to type up a storm in a Macy's display window -- 200 words per minute -- to entice people to buy typewriters.
In 1969, she came to Pittsburgh, where a cousin lived. Here she earned an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh, a master's degree in existential psychology from Duquesne University and a Ph.D. in counselor education from Pitt.
Dr. Baton's plays, "Mitote"
and "Kate's Sister,"
both stories about the black experience in the West, have been developed and performed in New York and North Carolina by Yaffe Productions; the Crossroads Theatre Company of New Jersey; the Jubilee Theatre of Fort Worth; Borderlands Theater of Tucson and the Detroit Repertory Theatre.
For more information about, and to read, her work, visit www.maishabaton.com
Besides her daughter, she is survived by three granddaughters, Nia, Thandi and Maisha, all of Park Place, and half-brother Sylvester Baton, of Trenton, N.J.
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Jan. 9 at The Pittsburgh Mennonite Church in Swissvale.
Contributions can be made to the family to defray their expenses at Pittsburgh Mennonite Church, 2018 S. Braddock Ave., Swissvale 15218.
Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10001/1025172-122.stm#ixzz0bPgABRDZ