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The first thing you notice about Queen Ayacodobae Ramkissoon is the voices. Without warning, she swallows her own lilting, singsong voice and her throat becomes possessed by the sounds of strangers. A screeching preacher emerges when she’s feeling powerful. A shy little boy whispers to convey innocence. A West Indian accent springs from her throat to deliver sermons of tough love.
It makes sense that Ramkissoon has an apartment complex’s worth of characters living inside her: The D.C. native, who was raised in Annapolis, Md., and now lives in Takoma Park, is often forced to act as more than one person on any given day. She has a slew of different business ventures—she is a musician, educator, and author—and each task she undertakes requires her to assume a different persona.
But recently, all of the voices that speak through her have become obsessed with a common topic. The doddering old man, the sassy British expat, the husky-voiced sexpot—all seem to be talking about the same thing: the penis.
For the past four years, Ramkissoon has been performing and refining an educational play she calls The Penis Dialogue (Penis Talking to You, Penis Talking Here!). She designed the one-woman show as a way to educate the public about sexually transmitted diseases, sex crimes, sex abuse, and HIV/AIDS, without demonizing the dick. During performances, Ramkissoon portrays not only everyday folks who have misused their various members, but also the penis itself, allowing the thing an opportunity to defend its actions.
“You cover my eye so I can’t see where I’m gonna shoot my shot!” says Ramkissoon in character, in a gravelly shout eerily similar to James Brown’s. “I am the father of civilization!”
Ramkissoon is constantly making changes to the performance, adding new characters, adopting new voices, and otherwise revising the hourlong collection of poems, songs, and vignettes to reflect whatever topic she’s presently obsessed with. “I have so many skits,” Ramkissoon boasts. “I do it anywhere. I can do it with no paperwork. I am so full of penis information!”
In her quest to share all of that knowledge with as many people as possible, Ramkissoon tries to vary the venues she performs in. The Dialogue has found an audience at comedy clubs, community colleges, and nightclubs everywhere from Arnold, Md., to Kingston, Jamaica. Sometimes Ramkissoon performs it as a free public service, sometimes for a fee. “I’ll do it for $10,000,” she says. “I’ll do it for two.”
Ramkissoon says that because of the racy subject matter of The Penis Dialogue, it has grabbed attention in a way that no previous effort has. “It’s sad, but because we’re talking about sex, we’re getting more popularity, publicity, and promotion than for the 40 or 50 different venues we’ve done just for education,” Ramkissoon says.
“People come up to me and immediately tell me about their personal sexual relationships—male and female. Then I’m able to give them advice, comfort, and resources specific to their situation.”
Indeed, there is just as much about sexual self-esteem in Dialogue as there is about disease prevention. Although Ramkissoon realizes that her act could be seen as risqué, she doesn’t see how it could be considered anything other than positive. “How could a message of high moral persuasion, conscientiousness, and human kindness be too abrupt in a world, a time so perilous?” she asks. “In a world of such chaos, how could it hurt?”
On her Web page for The Penis Dialogue, Ramkissoon offers this warning: “Note: The Penis Dialogue is recommended for ages 11 and older.”
Sometimes a lot older: Ramkissoon approached her now-80-year-old mother, Madeline McCray Johnson, with an outline for the project back when it was in the planning stage. The author was merely seeking feedback, but she ended up finding a creative partner.
“I told her that I was writing something that would make me the penis—that I would be the voice of the penis,” Ramkissoon says.
To her surprise, the family matriarch jumped right in, insisting that the play address senior citizens. “She said that [seniors] needed to get on a level where young people are in terms of understanding AIDS,” Ramkissoon recalls. “‘A lot of these old girls got young boyfriends,’ is what she said.”
The portion of Dialogue that the two women ended up creating together tells the story of Junior, an older church deacon who is playing sugar daddy to a young woman and finds out that she is HIV-positive during a party celebrating his twin daughters’ graduation from college. After learning that he may have not only contracted the disease, but also infected his pregnant wife, he is rendered impotent—a flourish of flaccidity that was all McCray Johnson’s idea.
“She described it, what it would be like,” says Ramkissoon. “‘The penis can’t get hard—his heart is beating fast. But not because of excitement. Because of anxiety, anticipation, and fear.’”
Ramkissoon says her family’s tolerant attitude about sex enabled her to make Dialogue as frank as possible. “[My family is] open because my parents base our lives on the truth—not covering up,” she says. “Being honest with yourself is the first key to a healthy life.”
Her parents also encouraged her early interests in storytelling and singing. Her mother even served as Ramkissoon’s costume designer when she began singing and simulating harmonica sounds in nightclubs as a teenager. “My mother would dress me in beautiful gowns when I was 15 or 16,” she recalls, “and I’d go into bars and pretend to play the harmonica, even though I was too young to be in a bar.”
That act was enough of a success that after attending college in Baltimore, Ramkissoon settled in Buffalo, N.Y. It was there, in 1979, that she founded her company, Earth Blessings Inc., and put together her first band, an early iteration of Earth Blessings Royal Court Orchestra, her current backup group. In the ’80s, Ramkissoon moved to Trinidad, where she immersed herself in both reggae and nature and met her husband, Emmanuel Ramkissoon. But in 1992, Ramkissoon decided to move back to Maryland. “I couldn’t keep sitting on a beach with children suffering and dying in America.”
Once back home, Ramkissoon busied herself with various educational projects. She spent time as an instructor at the Aris T. Allen Learning Center of Anne Arundel Community College, conducted workshops, and worked on building her company.
Earth Blessings has expanded considerably since Ramkissoon’s homecoming, turning its founder’s every talent—and even a few inklings of talents—into a marketable product or service: musical endeavors, curricula, books, and, of course, Dialogue.
Emmanuel Ramkissoon, who stayed behind in Trinidad, manages the company’s affairs there. Ramkissoon’s two adult sons, Darius Stanton and Messiah Ramkissoon, helped host her now-defunct Holistic Sexual Healing and Family Lifestyles radio show on WYRE-AM. Even her dog, Sporty, is part of the family business: The soccer-playing beagle/Jack Russell terrier mix is a favorite school-assembly performer and the subject of a proposed children’s book, Sporty for President: Let’s Put a Real Dog in the White House.
“People say I’m all over the place—it’s because I’m gifted,” Ramkissoon laughs. “I can’t help it. I’m not ashamed. People ask, ‘How do you concentrate on one thing?’ I don’t. I concentrate on all things.”
The idea of delving into sex-educational performance art came to Ramkissoon after she read an article about adolescent girls and STDs. “Girls 11 to 14 suffering from sexually transmitted diseases of the throat, larynx, and lymphatic system,” says Ramkissoon. “I said, ‘Good lord, they’re sucking the penis because they don’t think they can get a disease.’ That precipitated it.” She began devising ways to teach such girls to have better self-esteem.
“You have to know yourself,” she explains. “Especially if you don’t know your partner. But it would be good to know your partner, too.”
Cookbook author Jolynn Brooks, who caught a performance of Dialogue in Annapolis, says she found the show riveting. “So often, when we’re talking about sex education or anything dealing with gender politics, it’s done in a way that people don’t understand, or the presentation makes them say, ‘Oh no, they’re not talking about this!’”
But Brooks, who has worked with Ramkissoon on educational programs in the past, believes Dialogue is different, from the crotchety old character who refuses to have sex with women who have long fingernails to a scene in which a penile extension comes off in a rather inconvenient place. “The material was presented in an engaging way,” Brooks says. “The audience had a great response. It was really a memorable night of theater.”
Besides Dialogue, Ramkissoon’s current focus is finishing up her sophomore album, tentatively titled Don’t Stop the Reggae (Rush the Revolution), in time for a February 2005 release. Although it’s been several years since the release of Just a Little More Love Is All We Need, her 1998 debut LP, the mix of funk, soul, reggae, and African music is unchanged. The record is also filled with the shrill bird calls that Ramkissoon loves to make, as well as with words and phrases from the many languages she “was born speaking”: Portuguese, Twi, and Yoruba, among others.
The album, developed by Ramkissoon with help from members of the Earth Blessings Royal Court Orchestra, was recorded almost entirely in Jamaica. And when she wasn’t in the studio, the mogul was, naturally, pushing her one-woman show. “I performed and gave live interviews about the music and The Penis Dialogue,” she reports—so much so that even the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper picked up the story: “‘Penis Dialogue’ author embraces reggae.”
Unsurprisingly, one of the songs on the new album, “Whya Putcha (Coochie on the Flag and Wave It)?,” was designed as a companion to Dialogue. Like that work, it’s both funny and direct: “Whya putcha coochie on the flag and wave it?” Ramkissoon asks over a speedy reggae beat. “You’re doing nothing in the world to save it/You’re only acting like you want to slave it/And waiting for the bugs to engrave it.”
The tune sounds as if it were being sung by at least six different people, but every voice, from the lowest-registered to the most high-pitched, is Ramkissoon’s own. She loves it when listeners mistake them for backup singers. “I’m my own choir,” Ramkissoon says. “There are six tones—alto, tenor, bass, and three octaves of soprano.”
The woman with the British accent, who drops into the track to proclaim “It’s smelling/It’s swelling/And there just ain’t no telling,” is, of course, Ramkissoon, as well. Her first album was released in England and still earns her a few royalties, so the consummate businesswoman has decided to take advantage of what seems to be a ready audience.
“I’m going to release the single in England,” she announces. “All in their accent.”CP