Saturday, April 22, 2017

Remembering Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers is reported to have
said, "You can kill a man, but you
can't kill an idea."
My time in Jackson wasn't all fun and games. Mississippi, of course, played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson was home to Medgar Evers, the NAACP's first regional field secretary. He was shot in his driveway on June 12, 1963 by a white man who opposed Evers' work on behalf of African-American equality. Evers died later within the hour.

Evers' home is now owned and operated as a National Historic Landmark by Tougaloo College. I toured Evers' home with curator Minnie Watson. It was a sobering experience.

Ms. Watson shared Evers' story with me as we stood in his living room. Evers grew up in Decatur, Mississippi in the 1920s and '30s, a time of "outright, in-your-face segregation." His introduction to the facts of life as an African-American came at an early age. As a child, he played with other kids in the neighborhood, both black and white. But by the time he had become a teenager, the dynamic had changed. No longer was it acceptable for Medgar to hang out with his white friends. To add insult to injury, Jim Crow etiquette mandated that he call his boyhood chums "Mister" and "Miss."

The Evers Family
Evers was also exposed to violence at an early age. Before he was 12, Medgar had seen two lynchings. One victim was his father's friend. The other was a ten year old boy who had snuck into a state fair on a "whites only" day. (The fair was open to blacks only at the end of its run after many of the rides had been dismantled.)  After the victim's body was removed, his clothes remained hanging as a reminder to blacks to stay in their place.

At 16, Evers joined the Army and went off to WWII, where he fought in the Normandy invasion. Upon his return home, he finished high school, went to college, and began selling insurance. His solicitations took him to plantations where he saw first hand the abject poverty in which the workers lived. He began talking to them about the value of education and voting rights, urging them to join the NAACP. His work came to the organization's attention, and he was appointed field secretary in 1954.

"Medgar" by T.M. Dossett
Evers' work required him to move his family to Jackson. They built a home on what is now Margaret Walker Alexander Drive, a street on which houses were being constructed for middle class African-Americans. (The adjacent streets were populated by whites.)  Knowing his role as a civil rights advocate put him and his family at risk, Evers chose a lot nestled between two other homes rather than the more desirable--and more exposed--corner lot. Medgar made two modifications to the house plans to enhance his family's safety. The window sills were raised two inches to provide additional coverage in the event of drive-by shootings. And instead of a front door, entry to the Evers' home was through a side door that could be quickly accessed from the carport after exiting the family car.

Evers' concerns were warranted. On three separate occasions, shots were fired through the front windows of the home. While no harm came to the family, Medgar and his wife Myrlie took some additional precautions.The family's beds were dismantled, and they slept on mattresses on the bedroom floors. The children were taught to drop and crawl to the bathroom when they heard shots fired.

The family beds on the floor
On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy made an address to the nation in which he announced that he would be introducing civil rights legislation. Kennedy's words included the following:

"The heart of the question is whether all American are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"

Byron De La Beckwith
I don't know if Byron De La Beckwith heard President Kennedy's speech. But I do know that later that same evening, Beckwith lay in wait for Medgar in a yard catercorner to the Evers' house. Medgar returned home shortly after midnight and pulled into the driveway behind his wife's car. He went to the trunk to retrieve a box of t-shirts labeled "Jim Crow Must Go." Beckwith saw his opportunity and fired a single shot from a high powered hunting rifle. The bullet blew through Medgar and into the Evers' home, where it ricocheted around the kitchen before coming to rest on the counter. A neighbor who heard the shot fired his own gun into the air in hopes of scaring the shooter off. Myrlie yelled at the children to get into the bathroom and ran outside to find Medgar bleeding in the driveway. He was taken to a local hospital, where he died.

It didn't take long for the police to identify Beckwith as the killer. The evidence included the gun he had left behind and a number of cigarette butts from his brand of smoke. But two trials in 1964 resulted in hung juries. Not surprisingly, both juries were composed exclusively of white men. At one trial, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett was seen by the jury shaking hands with Beckwith. 

Beckwith did not go unpunished, however. The investigation was reopened in the 1980s after journalists had uncovered new evidence, including numerous boasts by Beckwith about the killing. In 1994, more than 30 years after Medgar Evers' death, Beckwith was convicted of first degree murder. He died in prison.
Minnie Watson
But the story doesn't end there. Beckwith's son visited the Evers' home several years ago. He had called Ms. Watson first to ask whether he would be permitted in. While you might think this would indicate some remorse about his father's actions, he did not express such sentiments during his visit. Instead, he talked about how his father had been accused of many things he had not done. Ms. Watson responded that she wouldn't be surprised if this were true, since Beckwith was quite vocal about his opinions. I admire her grace and composure.

I'm glad to have had the opportunity to learn about Medgar Evers' life and death while standing in his home. It was a powerful experience, and I urge anyone traveling to Jackson to make their own visit.

To read more about Medgar Evers, click here. For a virtual tour of the Evers' home and more information, click here.To watch or read Kennedy's speech in its entirety, click here.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Five Things I Learned in Jackson

Walking around looking for art

It's still a bit of a mystery how one conversation with a friend about art in Jackson, Mississippi morphed into Maggie and me heading there for a bridge tournament, but that's how it went down. And while we didn't have any noteworthy art experiences, it was a fun time.

Read on for five things I learned during our adventure.

1) Mississippi is the Deep South -- and the people there have the manners and accents to prove it. In my four days there I was called "ma'am" more times than cumulatively in my life to date. But all that graciousness made me a bit nervous after my years in New York.  I kept recalling Celia Riverbark's books with titles like, "Bless Your Heart, Tramp!" Seriously, can people really be that nice?

With Maggie
But Southerners can be unexpectedly off-color, too. Without going into too much detail about the etiquette of playing bridge, suffice it to say that you shouldn't touch other people's cards. When one character laid his cards down overlapping, I reached over to separate them so we could see his holdings. "Keep your hands off my dummy -- until later," he said. 

Then there was the extremely crotchety old woman who spilled a glass of water while at the table. The director came over with paper towels and got down on the floor to clean the mess up. "If you're going to be on the floor," she muttered, "I'd rather have you in front of me doing something else."  Really, I could not make this up. 

2)  Jackson should be a culinary destination -- Maggie remarked to some people that she had hoped to eat healthy on this trip. They laughed, saying, "You're in the South!"  Sure, we had been expecting some good BBQ, but the deliciousness extended far beyond the stereotypic Southern meal. The tableside guacamole at Babalu -- not to mention the redfish -- was so yummy we ate there two of our three nights. And despite its name, Walker's Drive-In is a fine dining experience. My BBQ oysters with brie and slaw and BLT wedge salad with lump crab meat were to die for. And Maggie's redfish with lump crab meat was a dish to remember. 

3) Dining with "The Help" -- We were conveniently staying near the Fondren area of Jackson, which is full of cute shops and restaurants (including Babalu and Walker's Drive-In). While chatting with some locals, I learned that Brent's Drugs in Fondren was used as a location for "The Help." Needless to say, we stopped into the old style soda shop for lunch one day. (For people in the know, there's also a speak easy of sorts with hand-crafted cocktails through a door at the back of the diner.)

One of our parking lots
4) Watch where you're driving -- Jackson's streets must surely be among the worst maintained in the country. The potholes are ridiculously deep and could easily claim an axle on your car. Some of the first locals I talked to asked if I had lost any teeth yet driving around. Our waiter at Walker's laughingly said that people who've imbibed a bit too much drive straight on their way home from a night out while sober people veer all over the place. He also explained that the problems derive from a combination of underground water pipes perpetually breaking without being properly repaired and the yazoo clay ubiquitous to the region.

5)  Color me pink -- I have no explanation for the pink fountains outside a Jackson performing arts center. Nor could we figure out how the orange and pink dyes managed to stay separate or why they pooled in different areas. But I'm always on the look-out for the unexpected. Besides, how could I miss this photo opp given how well the fountains complemented my jacket?

While Jackson wasn't my favorite all-time destination, Maggie and I had a great time. It's always fun to explore a new place with a good friend.

Stay tuned for a post about a more somber experience during my time in Jackson -- a visit to the home where NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evars was assassinated.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Story of Mount Dora

Bruce and Dorrit, my trusty companions in fun
Once upon a time, a trio of storytellers made an appearance in Punta Gorda on their "Uncalled for Christmas Tour." It was a wonderful evening that planted the idea to check out the annual Florida Storytellers Festival in Mount Dora. Bruce and Dorrit joined me as part of their mission to explore our home state. It was a laughter-filled week-end.

Each evening of the Festival featured five storytellers representing a different aspect of the craft. Windell Campbell's stories were an animated version of folktales that reflected his many years as an elementary school teacher. A three time winner of the Florida Liar's Contest, Pat Nease told outrageous stories that had the audience doubled over with laughter. Lyn Ford is an Afrilachian storyteller whose tales tugged at our heartstrings.

Windell Campbell
The group was rounded out by Tim Lowry and Jessica McCune. Lowry is a South Carolina Southerner through and through (and wore a Mark Twain-esque seersucker suit and bow tie to make the point). One night he told a story in Gullah, a Sea Island Creole language. While creative, it required way too much concentration to appreciate despite his preparatory translation of "Mary had a little lamb."

McCune began each of her tales with a catchphrase that provided the moral of the story. I loved hearing her story about the danger of expectations. She shared her experience as a docent to a group of Webelos at the Dallas Museum of Art. (In case you don't know, Webelos are third and fourth grade boys in between Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.) She was dreading spending an hour with a group of rowdy kids who would have no interest in art. As it turned out, the kids had done their homework and were one of the must enthusiastic -- and well-versed -- groups she's ever led.

My favorite storyteller, though, wasn't one of the featured performers. Instead, it was the "young voice" of a seven year old who learned at the knee of Mr. Campbell.  I am not exaggerating when I say he had the audience in the palm of his little hand as he shared Mo Willems' "Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs."  It makes me smile to remember.

Of course, there's more to Mount Dora than storytelling. It's a very quaint lakeside village, with lots of shops to explore. Happily, I was traveling with my own videographer, who captured our travels.  (Click here to see the video produced by Bruce--aka Intergalactic Photography.)

We enjoyed walking around and taking in the sights. There was a regatta going on that day, and the lakefront was filled with small boats with colorful sails. There's a lighthouse and a boardwalk.  We stumbled upon the lawn bowling club (circa 1920s) whose members eagerly shared their love of the "sport" with us. And of course I liked the "Unity in the Community" arbor covered with tiled art. 

Not surprisingly, we ate well during our adventure. I was excited for our breakfast at the Magical Meat Boutique based on the name alone. Our friendly waiter had an authentic English accent, and the menu came with a supplemental page entitled "Our Breakfast Items Explained!"  When we got our selections, though, we remembered there's a reason England isn't known for its food. Still, it was fun. And any culinary disappointment was more than offset by our incredible dinner at the bar at The Goblin Market Restaurant, a great space that nestles you in an old style library.

At Magical Meat Market
In case you're wondering, Mount Dora got its name in a round-about fashion from Dora Ann Drawdy, one of the town's first settlors. Ms. Drawdy's hospitality was so enjoyed that the surveyors responsible for naming the town's lake called it Lake Dora. At the time, the town was known as Royellou, a combination of the names of the first official postmaster’s three children - Roy, Ella and Louis. In 1883, the town was renamed Mount Dora in recognition of the notable altitude of the town -- 184 feet above sea level. We are talking Florida, after all.

The end.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Little Foxes at Asolo Rep

When I heard that Asolo Rep's season included Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes," I emitted a sigh. Why stage a revival when there's so much great contemporary theater? But when I'm wrong, I'll be the first to admit it (at least in the context of theater). The production is riveting.

Dorrit and I had the chance to preview the production through the eyes of costume designer Tracy Dorman. It was a fascinating peek into the way one aspect of the show moved from the page to the stage.

Sketch for Regina
Dorman began, not surprisingly, with a careful reading of the script. But the way she read it is different than the way you or I would. Yes, she was looking for themes and paying attention to the plot. But she also created a breakdown of characters in each scene and kept track of how many costume changes would be required. Once that was done, she researched images and started creating a collage board of fabrics and sketches.

But designers don't go off and develop their work in a vacuum. The process is collaborative, with the director and the costume, set and lighting designers all working together to present an integrated performance. At each stage of the process, Dorman shared her work with the rest of the team (sometimes through the wonder of Skype). The end result was striking.

"The Little Foxes" is set at the turn of the 20th century. It was a time when women had limited options. All of the female characters' costumes are corseted, with their ability to move freely limited in a way that echoes societal constrictions. Dorman noted that the actresses wear corsets and bum pads during the performances rather than just looking as if they do. (She also shared that the women wore costumes during multiple rehearsals because negotiating stairs in the gowns was difficult -- as was sitting without tipping forward.)

Costumes for Alexandra and Birdie
Each woman's costume reflects her personality. Regina--our protagonist--is ambitious and eager to leave the South for the sophistication and excitement of Chicago. But she doesn't have enough money to do so. Her parents left their wealth--and the family business--to her two brothers when they died. She views the prospective business deal we learn about in the first act as her opportunity to become truly rich. Regina's striving is captured by a wardrobe of tailored dresses that shows off her figure.  This is one way to get the attention of her prospective business partner.

Birdie, Regina's sister-in-law, is a free spirit who longs for the old days of the gracious South. Her dresses are less fashion-forward than Regina's and harken back to the styles of the late 19th century. Dornan noted the "fluttery quality" of the fabrics she chose for Birdie that mimic her flightiness.

Alexandra, who is Regina's daughter, is closer to her aunt than her mother. Her costumes blend the two women's styles.

Dorman with Addie's
costume
Dorman's attention to detail is meticulous. Addie, the family maid, plays an important role in the household. In some ways she is the moral center of the play, and Dornan wanted her costume to reflect her dignity and grace. She too is corseted and wears low heels to make her appearance similar to that of the people for whom she works. She also wears earrings, a reflection of the fact that she has some discretionary income.

Dorman commented that costume design at the Asolo is like "an old world craft." The costumes are all hand made, and Dorman likened each finished product to a jewel. She clearly relishes the time that goes into designing the costumes for a play compared to the "assembly line" of television. (Dornan worked for three years on "As the World Turns," winning an Emmy for her work in 2007.)  To learn more about Dornan and her work, click here.

As always, having some insight into the production made me enjoy "The Little Foxes" all the more.  The show runs through April 15, and I couldn't recommend it more highly. If you do go, get there early to peruse the program. It's full of great information about Hellman's play and the period in which it is set. Better yet, get there an hour before the show and you can get "the scoop" with one of the cast members. It's all part of the Asolo's desire to provide a deeper theater experience for its audiences.








Thursday, March 30, 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Here's a newsflash. Healthcare isn't the only political issue that's complicated. Immigration is a pretty complex topic as well and, I suspect, one that won't be resolved with the building of a wall.

Authors, of course, are often inspired by current events. In "Exit West," Mohsin Hamid envisions a magical way for refugees to escape an existence where devastation and risk confronts them at every turn. While the means by which his refugees travel is captivating, his real focus is on the stories of the people forced to leave their homes and how they adapt to their new environments.

We meet Saeed and Nadia, our protagonists, "in a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war." They are students still trying to pretend that their lives will proceed as planned.

Hamid contemplates the instinct. "It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class...but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does."

Mohsin Hamid
Hamid has brought his readers an interesting pair in Saeed and Nadia. Saeed is a traditional Muslim who lives with his parents and prays daily. Their family home was once enviable, with its tall windows and balcony. But now, "It was the sort of view that...would be most undesirable in times of conflict, when it would be squarely in the path of heavy machine-gun and rocket fire as fighters advanced into this part of town: a view like staring down the barrel of a rifle." 

Nadia is anything but traditional. While she dresses in an abaya that covers her from chin to ankles, when she leaves class she dons a motorcycle helmet and takes off on her ride. We later learn that she wears her robe not for any religious reason, but so men won't bother her. She has been irrevocably separated from her family due to her decision to venture out and live alone as an unmarried woman. The breach was "something all of them, all four, for the rest of their lives, regretted, but which none of them would ever act to repair, partly out of stubbornness, partly out of bafflement at how to go about doing so, and partly because the impending descent of their city into the abyss would come before they realized that they had lost the chance." 

Over time, Saeed and Nadia come together to form a make-shift family.When they finally decide to flee their country, it is with considerable regret.

I don't want to say much more about the story, which should unfold on its own for each reader. But I will say that Hamid's writing dropped me into Saeed and Nadia's world in a way watching the news never could. Yes, Hamid writes eloquently about the pair's physical survival. But he also envisions the impact their changed circumstances have on their identities and their relationship.

Nor does Hamid neglect the impact of the refugees' migration on the larger world. "The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away fron hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart."

"Exit West" is truly a novel of our time. Read it. 



Sunday, March 26, 2017

Discovering Duncan McClellan Glass

Work by Richard Jolley

Is there a world record for the number of times someone has spontaneously uttered "oh my god!" in an hour?  If so, I surely beat it during my recent visit to Duncan McClellan Glass in St. Petersburg. This off-the-beaten-path gallery is chock-full of stunning, creative glass sculptures. 

The first portion of the gallery is dedicated to the current exhibit, which changes monthly. (If you happen to visit during St. Pete's Second Saturday Art Walk during the season, you can meet the artists.)  I methodically worked my way around the space, resisting my desire to dart from work to work that caught my eye. With 7,800 square feet of display space, this required more than a little discipline.

Work by the Salvadore Brothers
At the end of the gallery, there's an enclosed room that you enter through a door with handles made of blown glass. I have no idea how it's determined which works are displayed there, but each piece was brilliant. 

The work by Marco and Mattia Salvadore were ablaze with color. Coincidentally, Dorrit and I had recently marveled at some glass musical instruments blown by their father, Davide Salvadore, at Ringling College's Basch Gallery. I learned that the carving in these pieces is done by fellow artists Pietro and Ricardo Ferro, whose work is also on display. Perhaps not surprisingly, both the Salvadores and the Ferros are from Murano, Italy. For an interview with the Ferros by Eric Goldschmidt at the Corning Museum of Glass (and a demonstration of "cold work"), click here
"Floater Five Cosmonaut"
by Rik Allen

The work of Rik Allen blew me away with its creativity. It's fair to say that the last thing I expected to see when I entered the gallery was an astronaut blown and sculpted from glass.  Allen graduated from the prestigious Pilchuk Glass School in Seattle and worked for more than a decade on William Morris' sculpture team. But the vastness of space always appealed to him, not least of all as a means of inner contemplation. For a great article about Allen and a look at more of his work, click here

I would be remiss if I didn't share some of Duncan McClellan's own work in this post. By and large, his work made its home on the top of floor to ceiling shelves, so it was difficult to photograph. But the gallery boasts an outdoor area with an impressive sculpture garden where several of McClellan's pieces can be found amidst the greenery. It made me a bit nervous to see blown glass displayed in the elements, but I was assured the works were so heavy they wouldn't come to harm in the absence of hurricane-force winds.

"Tandem" by McClellan
McClellan studied the creation of glass art in both Italy and the U.S.  He exhibited his work for more than 30 years before converting an abandoned tomato packing plant into his gallery. In time, McClellan added a workshop where he and other glass artists create.

McClellan and his wife also call the gallery home, which explains the comfortable seating areas throughout -- and a shower hidden behind etched glass. The space is available for event rentals and was being set up for a wedding the day I was there. What an incredible spot for a celebration -- so long as you can count on your guests not to be clumsy!

Rogers' "Retro Trees"
Back to the sculpture garden, which includes a variety of non-glass works.  I was struck by the beauty of Mark Chatterly's sculptures and the whimsy of Dale Rogers' work, like these "Retro Trees." (I'm fairly certain I've seen Rogers' work before at the Marietta Museum of Whimsy.)  Rogers says he hopes his work will serve as a "mental postcard."

I'm thrilled to have discovered Duncan McClellan Glass which, in my opinion, rivals the contemporary collection at the Corning Museum of Glass. I can't wait to visit again. With any luck, I'll also have the chance to take in a demo.

To read more about the Gallery, the artists who show there and upcoming events, click here. Better yet, plan a visit of your own. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Introducing Ira Aldridge

Edmund Kean as Othello
Let me set the stage before launching into my story. Back in 1603, Shakespeare wrote "Othello." For those of you who (like me) don't have immediate recall of Shakespearean plays, here are the relevant points for purposes of this post.

Othello was a general in the Venetian Army. He was a Moor. His wife was Desdemona. During the course of the play, he becomes convinced that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio and, in the final act, kills her. (Belated spoiler alert.) 

Historically, the part of Othello was played as a light-skinned Moor of Arab descent by a Caucasian in blackface. One of the most famous Victorian actors to play the role was Edmund Kean. In an 1833 performance at Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, Kean collapsed on the stage. A new Othello had to be found--and quickly. Son Charles Kean was also in the cast, and it was assumed that he would step into the role. Instead, African-American actor Ira Aldridge was brought in by the show's manager.

"Red Velvet" by Lolita Chakrabarti tells the story of how this historic event played out. The announcement that someone other than the younger Mr. Kean was given the role caused a bit of a stir among the cast. Most were not familiar with Mr. Aldridge's work. One actor had a friend who had acted with Aldridge, so was aware of Mr. Aldridge's color. (He rather gleefully kept this tidbit  to himself.) Actress Ellen Tree, who would be playing opposite Aldridge as Desdemona, had heard of him, but did not know any personal details.

Portrait of Ira Aldridge as Othello
by James Northcote
When Aldridge was introduced, the shock was palpable. Aldridge's attempts to shake hands with the cast were generally rebuffed. The actors were not used to interacting with blacks as their equals. The cast also had to contend with the tradition of the lead actor taking charge of the production. (Theater companies at the time didn't have directors.)  So not only was the cast asked to quickly adjust to Aldridge's ethnicity, but also to the tweaks he wanted to make to the performance. (The suggestion that he and Desdemona should look at each other with passion in the scene when they are reunited was met with audible gasps. You can imagine the reaction when he kissed her hand.) 

After Aldridge left the room, the conversation became heated. Ellen Tree was fine working with Aldridge, but did comment that "When I read 'black' in the reviews, I assumed it was the mood."

Charles Kean was much less sanguine. His view was that because Aldridge was black, playing the role of Othello wouldn't be acting; instead, he would just be letting his true nature be seen.  "Acting is an art. Transformation is an art," he said. "My father, a small, physically challenged ageing man, to see him become a warrior Moor is an art, isn't it?  People come to the theater to get away from reality. And...what I mean to say is...he will prevent them from escaping reality..."

Aldridge's performance as Othello was met with standing ovations from the audience. The critics, however, had a different response. 

The Spectator was quoted as having said, "An African is no more qualified to personate Othello than an huge fat man would be competent to represent Falstaff...English audiences have a prejudice in favour of European features, which more than counterbalance the recommendations of a flat nose and thick lips....It is superfluous to enter into any detailed criticisms of such a performance as this. It was upon the whole a failure..but the applause bestowed on his performance induced the Manager to announce it's repetition." 

Another critic was reported to have said, "...at Covent Garden they have brought out a genuine n***r to act Othello. This gentleman is the colour of a new half penny, his hair is woolly, and his features, although African, are considerably humanized. But owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English in a manner to satisfy even the unfastidious ears of the gallery." 

After two nights, the show closed due to the political backlash.  At the end of the play, we see Aldridge 30 years later preparing to play King Lear -- in white face. 

Britta Ollman
The play raises all sorts of questions that continue to be relevant to theater today. I was the only one to show up to a pre-show talk with Britta Ollman (who played Ellen Tree), and we had a lovely conversation. It was great to have the issues queued up for me so nicely. We chatted about the topic of colorblind v. color conscious casting. (For an interesting discussion of color conscious casting from a director's perspective, click here.)

We talked about the role of women in the theater. Britta noted that women had been acting onstage for a century by the time this event took place, including in "pants roles" (i.e., playing men.) Tree herself had been lauded for her performance as Romeo. Still, it was exciting for Tree's artistic opinion to be solicited by Aldridge.

And, of course, we touched on the overarching issue of racism, both on and off the stage. An interesting note is that students of theatre history, even those who study the Victorian period, rarely learn about Ira Aldridge. As the playwright notes, "His achievements had tragically slipped through the cracks of my theater history and Shakespearean studies, and it was as if he had never existed." This is despite the fact that Aldridge was internationally famous for his dramatic portrayals and helped translate Shakespearean plays into Russian, German and Polish. His accomplishments were not wholly unappreciated, however. Aldridge was awarded the Prussian Gold Medal for Arts and Sciences from King Frederick William III, the Golden Cross of Leopold from the Czar of Russia, and the Maltese Cross from Bern, Switzerland.

To return to "Othello," it was nearly 100 years before another black actor took on the part in London. Paul Robeson was cast in the role in 1930; he reprised the role on Broadway from 1943-1945. American film continued the tradition of casting Caucasian actors in the role of Othello as well, among them Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier. It wasn't until 1995 that a movie version came out with a black actor--Laurence Fishburne--in the role.

All in all, "Red Velvet" was a wholly satisfying evening of theater. Kudos to freeFall Theatre for bringing the production to our area. 









Remembering Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers is reported to have said, "You can kill a man, but you can't kill an idea." My time in Jackson wasn't a...