Sundiata, who also teaches at New York City's The New School for Social Research, had been suffering for years from prolonged bouts of fatigue, which he thought would disappear after an extended vacation but never did. "Everybody I knew kind of felt that way," he recalls, chuckling on the phone from his home in New York. "So I dismissed it." Finally seeking medical help around 1996, he was diagnosed with hypertension. His condition had gone untreated for so long and become so severe that his kidneys were beginning to fail. Things began to look grim about a year later when he was placed on dialysis and on the transplant list in search of a new kidney that could appear in five days or in five years.
But five seemed to be Sundiata's lucky number. While none of his family members offered to help, five of his friends (four of whom were compatible) came forward, offering to do whatever it took. Only one of the possible donors was someone he had known for twenty years; the others he had known for five years or less. The identity of his donor, his eventual kidney transplant, and the complex aftermath is the subject of Sundiata's latest show, Blessing the Boats, opening this Thursday courtesy of M-DCC's Cultura del Lobo Series. "There's nothing you can really do to earn someone's kidney," he notes. "This story is about me, but it's also greater than me as well."
Although the show's title seems nautical, it is taken from a poem by contemporary writer Lucille Clifton, who had a kidney transplant herself. "And may you in your innocence/sail through this to that" says the poem's last line. One result of Sundiata's ordeal: He has become a spokesman on organ donations and transplant issues, participating in panel discussions while on tour. (A frequent visitor to Miami, he will have already spoken on the subject at press time.)
Helping people change their views about organ donation is one thing, but the intense Sundiata, a commanding presence with a compelling resonant voice, admits his difficulties haven't softened him much. "I don't think I've mellowed," he laughs. "In fact, maybe the opposite. I'm hungrier. There's more sense of urgency about me."
Being unable to read or write for about six months -- which Sundiata, plagued with tremors and unable to concentrate, says he was -- can do that to a person, especially a writer. "Sometimes we have these experiences and the stories of our experiences can be very valuable," he says. "It was trying, but I didn't think there was any cosmic thing going on other than just grace. Grace kind of explains my life. Grace and serendipity."