In Lieu of Reciprocity, A Recipe For South Dallas

an essay adapted for this Dallas Morning News piece on Tisha Crear and her juice bar, Recipe Oak Cliff:

It’s a Sunday night outside Oak Cliff Cultural Center last year, jacket weather in March. Dallas artist Lauren Woods is sipping wine from a plastic cup. A circle of women surround her with a warm greeting.

One of them I have never seen before. She is tall, her ebony skin glowy, her hair closely cropped; there’s a knowing look on her face that makes her seem older, though her smile is young and kind of mischievously playful. She’s low-key in the group, which feels big for the early part of the night. “How do you know Lauren?” I ask Tisha, who I assume is there to support Lauren while she emcees a show.

Tisha pauses, shy; Lauren laughs, disbelieving. “More like, how do I know Tisha,” she says.

Lauren starts to explain Reciprocity with wide eyes, a poetry spot - the poetry spot - in the ‘90s. Turns out Tisha's also the Cultural Programs Coordinator for the Oak Cliff Cultural Center and has quietly worked for the City of Dallas in some capacity almost all of her adult life. She founded a cultural business incubator called SuSu, and shares with makers and merchants her education in business; she earned her Masters at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Tisha’s not the one to tell me any of this, however. Before slipping out early that night, she does mention there’s something in the works, a kind of sequel to Reciprocity. I take her to mean that it’s another poetry venue. This excites me to no end, and I tell anyone who might care until we speak again and she clarifies that no, no poetry yet. First, food.

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The desire to create a place of health and becoming with Reciprocity came from a need for that place she herself felt - and, later, found outside of Dallas.

“Growing up an African in Grand Prarie, you get a lot of different ideas about who you are. A lot of the times they’re very negative,” Tisha says. “Even though I was broken in a lot of ways as a child, I always came off as very confident.

“Back in the day, I used to hang out with the little punk rock kids. At the punk rock clubs. I used to run into Deep Ellum when there were nothing but skinheads. I didn’t give a damn.  I would go down there and kind of try and challenge the skinheads, when Theatre Gallery was still around. Later I would ride my skateboard in New York - (“A  longboard?,” I ask) - “not a longboard, a shortboard, like a skate Betty! I would be at those little punk shows in Dallas, like Loco Gringos,” Tisha laughs. “But there’s still this identity crisis, of your blackness. So being in New York resolved that for me because I began to understand historically, you know, I come from a legacy, from a lineage, of all kinds of greatness, and weirdness and coolness and rebellion-conformity - all that stuff.”

Though her move to New York in 1989 wasn’t really about school - “school was to the side,” she says, her voice smiling - she concedes that an African Studies course taught by Cheryl Keyes was a turning point.

“She showed a film, it was showing some black folks in the South building the railroads, she was an ethnomusicologist - she made us listen to old black people sing in the South and then played somebody in West Africa, and we would be like, ‘OH MY GOD IT’S THE SAME SOUND,” Crear remembers, getting loud on the phone. “And it just blew my mind - hums - and it was the same tone, oh my God it’s amazing,” she says.  

“This was crazy to me, and to bring it all home, she was asking the people, all the students about singing devotion. Now my grandfather was a Baptist preacher out in East Texas. I grew up in the church. She was asking them, do y’all know about the devotions - none of them knew! I knew exactly what she was talking about. I was way in the back of the class. So the devotion is like - [sings] “Guide me, oh guide me,” - the deacon would usually call it out:

Guide me oh God, great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land

and the whole congregation would sing, on their note -

Gu-ide, Me-e-e, oh guide me oh God ...

So that call and response, they didn’t know it. I KNEW IT. And I was like, ‘Wow, I’m culturally rich!’ That was a type of transformation I wanted to be able to provide for others to experience.”

Ashley Wilkerson was 14, in the second semester of her 9th grade year at Booker T., when she started hanging out at Reciprocity. Ashley's 20 year-old sister dropped her off most every Friday night at Reciprocity for three years, where she listened to poets and performed her own work. Except for children of the attendees who were there sometimes, she was always the youngest.

Ashley Wilkerson with Erica Wright, who became known as Erykah Badu. Baduizm, her debut album, came out in 1997, the same year Reciprocity opened. (c/o Ashley Wilkerson)

Ashley Wilkerson with Erica Wright, who became known as Erykah Badu. Baduizm, her debut album, came out in 1997, the same year Reciprocity opened. (c/o Ashley Wilkerson)

Ashley Fly and Mama Teetah at Reciprocity. (photo c/o Ashley Wilkerson)

Ashley Fly and Mama Teetah at Reciprocity. (photo c/o Ashley Wilkerson)

“It was like a library - when you walked through the door it was kinda smoky, incense were burning, there were all types of essential oils, the smell of Emmanuel [Gillespie’s] ‘s vegan cookies,” Ashley remembers. “Reciprocity was more than just a poetry venue where people read and performed, it was a place where you came and studied. You were taught - you were students, in addition to being performers, artists and activists and entrepreneurs,” she says.

Ashley refers to Tisha by her nickname, “Mama Teetah,” when remembering all the time she spent with her. It was Tisha who first showed her the work of poet Sonia Sanchez, which changed her. Ashley stopped caring so much about the competitive aspects of slam poetry culture and focused on refining and deepening her work. At 15, she changed her diet, eating only whole foods, and threw out meat altogether. (Crear was 14 when she became a vegetarian.)  

Now an actress based in Los Angeles, Ashley says she owes her confidence in the city, and in her career, to Tisha and Reciprocity.

“Teetah set a standard, she’s pretty regal. So there was a standard of excellence when you walked in that door. She taught us about ownership- the artist as a businessperson, the artist as a healer.”

Reciprocity was born when Tisha finished school at NYU and returned to Dallas. A poet herself, Tisha's theatrical performance art became leaner and more direct as friends from Booker T. Washington High School For The Performing Arts who’d stayed connected as Soul Nation took separate paths. Anyika McMillan helped Guinea Price found Soul Rep Theatre Company. Erica Wright became recording artist Erykah Badu.

In 1997, the same year Wright released her debut album Baduizm, Tisha opened Reciprocity with her partner Emmanuel Gillespie. Third World Press founder Haki R. Madhubuti, natural health expert Queen Afua, and other internationally renowned artists and thinkers brought poetry and politics, healing and business knowledge to Tyler Street at the height of performance poetry in the United States. The venue was one of many for poets in Dallas at that time; it was distinct for its open mic nights, holistic health program, and market co-op. And if you ask the thriving performers and teachers who sat on the floor in that space what made Reciprocity different, they’ll tell you about Tisha.

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I’m so jazzed to meet Tisha Crear for our initial interview on Earth Day last year that I wear a long dress, and listen again to her speak about leadership in a Womanar video on the drive to Oak Cliff.

 

She calls me, says we need to meet instead at the city permit office on Jefferson Blvd., near the cultural center where she’s working. She tells me she’s had the flu for a month. She can barely speak above a whisper, still feverish in business attire. But this can’t wait. She has to get her building permit amended so she can get a full kitchen for the juice bar.

Her architect has already been to the office three times, her contractor three more. We sit and wait at the first desk she’s called up to. People with rolls of drafting paper enter the space behind the desk and reemerge, on other projects.

Finally, she’s told there is no building permit and nothing to suggest anyone has been to the permit office to talk about 1831 S. Ewing, though Tisha has the documents to prove the application for the amendment and revisions to it.

We watch one city employee hug a woman carrying her paperwork on a clipboard.

“I wish somebody would hug me like that!” she says, laughing. “Just, you know, put their arms around me and that would be that.”

We go from desk to desk for four hours, and every single time the person sitting across from us addresses me while speaking. Not once does anyone ask why I am there, though I’m sometimes mistaken for a teenager at bars; meanwhile, Tisha is asked repeatedly to clarify that she is, indeed, the building’s owner. Which, she does, calmly, each time.

Arborist Clay Walker strongly suggests that Crear sue the original owner for selling the building to her without a completed permit. Crear asks again and again what she can do to repair the baseline problem - which is a needed 4 additional feet of concrete between her building and the parking lot next door - and is told that the board of adjustments is out of town, that it will take too long, that it will be too expensive.

It’s not until Crear arrives at the desk of Senior Green Building Plans Examiner Eddie Small that someone seems interested in her succeeding.

“We’re supposed to be pro-development,” he says, and smiles.

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With help from the Real Estate Council, Tisha was able to call a meeting and get past that initial hurdle. There were many more; Earth Day was just one day in Crear’s ongoing journey to opening the juice bar. That day, though, was also the 17-year anniversary of a hit-and-run accident in New York, after which she received a large settlement and returned to Dallas. Doctors told her she would never walk again. She took the money and, in conceptualizing Reciprocity as a larger development, tried to find a block to buy, much like the proprietors of Kalachandji’s acquired space for a restaurant, temple programs, and a school in East Dallas.

“Imagine being 28 and jumping out of a Land Rover saying, ‘I want to buy your building. I can pay cash,’” Tisha says. “And they look at me, saying, ‘Who are you?’ And this isn’t just white people. This is black people too who give you the same look, in our city.”

This round, for Recipe, Crear got a loan from the Embrey Family Foundation after they heard her speak at a Dallas Faces Race event. It’s a loan she’ll have to pay back. This will be the challenge: to make the shop profitable by also drawing patrons from other parts of the city, to this neighborhood where Recipe is the liveliest business for miles. But the area won't be sleepy for long, as the mayor's Grow South initiative edges further southward, promising economic development in untapped areas. 

“I’m doing this to build - to show … I’m hungry. Like right now, over here, I’m hungry. It’s a food desert and I want to be able to build the neighborhood - clears throat - the way we want it.”