Monday, July 6, 2020

Hearing from Playwright Jireh Breon Holder

I'm sure it comes as no surprise to hear I'm in serious theater withdrawal these days. Sure, there's plenty of theater online, but it's no substitute for a live theater experience.  What I'm finding more satisfying are the virtual theater appreciation classes I'm taking.  They provide an opportunity to engage with other theater lovers and, when I'm lucky, to hear from playwrights, actors and others involved in the creative process.

Enter American Stage and Patrick Jackson's class on African-American Theatre Legacy.  A class I had thought would provide an interesting perspective on American theater has taken on a sense of urgency with the murder of George Floyd and the demonstrations that occurred in its aftermath. After all, art does provide a lens into the culture in which it is produced.

One of the highlights has been the class featuring playwright Jireh Breon Holder, author of "Too Heavy for Your Pocket." Quite coincidentally, I recently saw an excellent reading/performance of the play on Play-Per-View. (I know, I know, I just said these performances weren't doing it for me.  Still, there are some gems.)  But reading the play and having the chance to hear from Holder provided an opportunity to really think about the issues raised and deepened the experience.

Playwright Jireh Breon Holder
"Too Heavy for Your Pocket" features two young African-American couples living in Nashville in 1961. While the story is framed in large part around Bowzie, a 20 year old who gives up a full scholarship at Fisk University to go on a Freedom Ride, each character plays an important role. Evelyn, Bowzie's wife, is a former singer who's ready to start a family. Bowzie's childhood friend Tony is described as "a hard man with a soft smile." Sally, Tony's wife, is pregnant and just graduated from beauty school.

Holder shared that the story grew from two personal experiences. The first was a conversation he had with his grandmother about the Civil Rights marches. Why, he asked, had she not marched?  The answer was simple -- because her job was to raise her family.  The second was Holder's own conflicted feelings about not leaving school in 2014 to join the Black Lives Matter movement.  Participation, he realized, is a sacrifice in and of itself. Who can afford to take real time off from their lives to protest -- leaving their jobs and families behind -- and who is willing to do that?  In Bowzie, Holder found a character who was compelled to answer the call.

Still, the idea wasn't one that Bowzie came on by himself. At Fisk, he meets a wide array of Black students from across the country, including some with wealthy backgrounds. They persuade him to leave college and join the protests. As we learn, it's an entirely different situation for young people of means to go on a Freedom Ride and get arrested than for Bowzie. With parents who can easily make bail, the well-off students could protest and then return to their lives. Not so for Bowzie, who finds himself in jail -- and then Parchman Penitentiary --  for months praying Evelyn, Tony and Sally can somehow raise the money to get him out. Participation comes with different price tags.

Lunch Counter Sit-In
One student asked Holder about the significance of the clothes the characters wore. For instance, when Bowzie gets into Fisk, Sally pulls out a beautiful suit that she began making  as soon as he applied. The thought of wearing a suit to college might seem surprising. But Holder pointed out that Blacks often wore their Sunday best when doing something important, be it going to church or boycotting. Jackson and Holder reminisced about their freshman year at Morehouse College when they were required to wear a shirt and tie to class. As Holder said, "If you're Black, people see your Blackness first. So you wear a tie because that's what people see next. It sends a message."

"Too Heavy for Your Pocket" is filled with moments that provide a window into the Black experience. Still, it's easy to miss things when watching a performance that come into sharp relief when you have a script in hand. For instance, in the reading, Sally's complaint about having to leave a store to find a "box" to tinkle in passed me by as a colloquialism. I clearly wasn't listening closely enough. As it turns out, Sally was talking about an actual cardboard box set up as a place where Blacks could use the bathroom. Public restrooms were, of course, restricted to use by white customers.

Here's what Sally says about her experience, "I passed all those clothes. I passed the restroom, I passed the diner counters. I walked out of the store. I walked all the way down Church Street to the alley. To that box....  I wish there was a Freedom Ride for those boxes. They hopping on air conditioned buses complaining about where they get to sit when my daughter might have to watch her mama squat like a dog over a box 'cause ain't no Colored restrooms on Church Street. Like a dog. Without an ounce of dignity. That's what it was..." It's a shocking and sad piece of segregation history I'd never heard before. Holder himself only learned about this practice recently. And yet what facilities did I think were available to these citizens?  And that's just it -- I didn't think.

Thanks to American Stage and Jackson for introducing me to "Too Heavy for Your Pocket." And to Holder for taking the time to talk with us. May we all pay a bit more attention to the world around us.

Stay safe.

Friday, June 19, 2020

"Migrations" by Charlotte McConaghy -- BookExpo 2020 Buzz Book

BookExpo is one of my favorite events of the year. The books! The authors! The crowds!  Needless to say, the show -- in its usual format -- did not go on this year. But thanks to the technological age in which we live, I still had the chance to hear from editors from six publishing houses about the books they most want to shine a light on this year.  The bonus was that the authors participated as well, which doesn't happen in the ordinary course. Note to self: Be thankful for the small joys available in these times.

While it was interesting to hear about all the titles, the book I was most eager to hear about was "Migrations" by Charlotte McConaghy. Editor Caroline Bleeke (Flatiron Books/MacMillan) called "Migrations" an "urgent, gorgeous novel" and noted that the rights have already been sold in 20 countries. Then she quoted its opening lines... "The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here." She had the (virtual) audience's attention.

The novel tells the story of Frannie Stone's quest to follow one of the last flocks of arctic terns on its migration. And it is a quest. Each year, these birds follow the sun from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle and then make the reverse trip. Fun fact: A tern flies the equivalent distance of going to the moon and back over the course of its lifetime. But due to climate change affecting their habitat, the terns are dying off.  For a variety of complicated reasons, Frannie needs to learn if they make it to their destination. But who will take her on this impossible journey?

Frannie talks her way onto a fishing boat captained by Ennis Malone. In this near-future world, there aren't many fish left in our oceans. But the terns have to eat on their journey, and she persuades Malone that by following the birds he will find his catch as well. His crew isn't so sure, but they have a long history with the captain, so they reluctantly agree to take on the harrowing journey.  The story is propulsive and thrilling and devastating and a wake-up call to the impact of climate change on our world.
Charlotte McConaghy
It was a treat to hear from McConaghy about her work as a writer and what inspired this story. McConaghy, an Aussie, said she had always looked forward to the arrival of a flock of seabirds on the Australian coast. Amazingly, they arrived on the same day each year. Until they stopped coming. McConaghy learned there wasn't enough food along the way for the birds to make the migration to their breeding ground. It broke her heart.

Still, she didn't set out to write a book about climate change. Her intention was to tell the story of a woman on a journey in which nature plays an important role. But it didn't take long for her to realize she couldn't write about nature without climate change being a significant part of the story. As she did her research, she learned that 60% of the earth's animal population has died off in the last 50 years. She wanted to explore the emotional impact of this change in our world.

McConaghy said she becomes one with her characters when she's writing. Frannie's story is so emotionally difficult that she periodically had to set aside the novel, sometimes for months at a time. In addition to her empathy for Frannie's quest, McConaghy related to Frannie's constant search for a home. McConaghy was raised by a single mother, and she had lived in 21 homes by the time she was 21 years old.

If my enthusiasm seems a bit excessive for a book not out yet, don't worry.  I haven't gone totally crazy (yet) in my isolated state. For the first time ever, I'd actually read a book being promoted at BookExpo. What??? Through my subscription to BookBrowse, a literary newsletter, I periodically get my hands on an advance reading copy of a book to review for their website. The description of "Migrations" grabbed me, and it didn't disappoint. It's part thriller, part character study, part commentary on the state of our natural world. The story is original, and the writing is often beautiful.

"Migrations" will hit bookstores on August 4th. I'm betting you can pre-order a copy through your favorite bookstore. Just a thought.

To read a short article in National Geographic about the arctic tern and the impact of climate change on the birds' migration, click here. And to read about the decline in our animal population, click here.

Stay safe.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Chatting with Actor and Playwright Sam Mossler

Sam Mossler as William Kunstler
Sam Mossler grew up at Florida Studio Theatre. From ages nine to 18, Mossler participated in FST's Theatre for Young Adults program (TYA for short). It was there he learned to act. Local audiences have seen Mossler's talent on stage in recent years. In fact, Mossler had just finished a run as the controversial lawyer and activist William Kunstler days before the Theatre "paused" due to COVID-19. While Mossler shared the stage with one other actor, it felt like a one man show as Kunstler regaled the audience with stories from his colorful past, including his representation of the Chicago Seven and Central Park Five "member" Yusef Salaam. It was a remarkable performance.

Mossler also learned about playwriting at FST. When he was 13, one of his plays won the Theatre's "Write-A-Play" competition and was awarded a production. (If I have it right, the Beatnik musical was a romanticized version of "ET.") How thrilling that must have been for young Sam. Since then, Mossler has continued to write for both adult and young adult audiences. He's also worked as a Teaching Artist for FST's TYA program. With this background, it's no surprise Mossler was tapped to participate in the Theatre's Playwrights Project.

Sam Mossler in "How to Use a Knife" at FST
Unlike most of the playwrights penning work for the Project, Mossler didn't pitch an idea to the Theatre. Instead, he was asked if he could write a play about mythology for the TYA program. Why not? As a student in FST's Behind the Scenes class, I had a chance to read a draft of Sam's yet-to-be-named play. I laughed my way from beginning to end -- and learned a bit about Greek mythology along the way.

Mossler's narrator is Tiresias, mythology's blind seer.  From the outset, I could see the kids enjoying this unusual character introducing them to various Greek gods and bit players. Mossler explained the biggest "sin" of TYA is to talk down to the kids. But many Greek myths are dark and revolve around topics that aren't age-appropriate. Other myths contain lessons that don't fit with Sam's world view. Nobody said he couldn't take a little literary license, though.

Take, for instance, the story of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun. In case you don't recall, Icarus' wings were made of wax, so he fell to a watery death when the sun melted them. The message: Obey your parents and don't be too ambitious/greedy.

Sam Mossler with our class via Zoom
While Mossler thinks kids should listen their parents, he doesn't believe Icarus deserved to die for getting carried away and pursuing his dreams. Who among us hasn't taken chances to go after some shiny goal? So in Mossler's version, Icarus suffers only a near death experience, with Poseidon giving him an assist. After gathering his wits about him, Icarus says to his father, "I thought you were just being bossy and trying to cut into my good time. But that was insane. You were just looking out for me." Lesson learned.

Mossler's play is replete with cultural references that made me smile. The story of the weaving competition that pitted the mortal Arachne against the goddess Athena cried out to be treated like a reality show a la "Top Chef." The story even includes the countdown I associate with the end of a Quick Fire Challenge. (If you don't watch this show, check it out!)

I shook my head in appreciation at the setting Mossler chose for the throw down -- Fashion Week, complete with a correspondent whose gift for understatement rivals that of the commentators in "The Hunger Games." As Athena is ridiculously awarded the prize for The Most Beautiful Woven Tapestry, the commentator says, "And unfortunately that means we must say goodbye to our loser Arachne who will, from this day forth, never weave fabric again, ever, for eternity. We're taking away her loom. Bad luck, Arachne. But thank you for playing." No wonder Arachne consented to being transformed into a spider by Athena. At least in that manifestation she could weave beautiful webs.

The multi-talented Mossler is also writing some sketches for FST's vault. His team is working with the theme "Sarasota Vice." (Are visions of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas now running through your head?)  Mossler's contributions include sketches entitled The Rosemary District (think "Chinatown") and Pinecraft PD, a unique police department whose officers ride around on three wheel bikes.

Here's hoping we get to see some of Mossler's and the other participating playwrights' work on FST's stage in the near future. Stay safe!

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

"Valentine" by Elizabeth Wetmore

It took Elizabeth Wetmore 14 years to write her debut novel "Valentine." It wasn't that she was sitting at her desk every day at a loss for words. Life gets in the way of the work of an aspiring writer. She had to make a living and raise her son. But she also set the book aside for large chunks of time due to "lost nerve." The literary world is better for Wetmore's perseverance. "Valentine" is nothing short of remarkable.

I won't sugar coat it. The first chapter of "Valentine" is brutal as we are introduced to Gloria, a 14 year old Hispanic girl living in Odessa, Texas.

"Sunday morning begins out here in the oil patch, a few minutes before dawn, with a young roughneck stretched out and sleeping hard in his pickup truck...

Gloria Ramirez holds herself perfectly still, she is a downed mesquite branch, a half-buried stone, and she imagines him facedown in the dust, lips and cheeks scoured by sand, his thirst relieved only by the blood in his mouth...

She keep her eyes on the pickup truck and her fingers begin to press themselves lightly against the sand, counting one, two, three, four -- they are trying to keep her from making any sudden moves, to keep her quiet, to keep her among the living for another day. Because Gloria Ramirez might not know much on this morning, February 15, 1976, but she knows if he hadn't passed out before he sobered up enough to find his gun or get his hands around her throat, she would already be dead..."

Gloria does survive, literally dragging her beaten and bloodied body barefoot across the oil patch to a house in the distance. And so begins a story of the girls and women of Odessa whose lives intersect with that of Gloria, from the woman whose front porch she ended up on that morning to a recent widow who saw Gloria get into the truck with the roughneck to a young girl to whom Gloria is a cautionary tale.

Like Gloria, Wetmore grew up in Odessa. And while she left at 18, West Texas was where her mind went when she searched for inspiration. She went through old newspapers, looking for a different perspective than that of her own upbringing. She was struck by the violence of a place where oil ruled. With each boom, men descended upon the oil patch to make a quick buck. Crime rose, including assaults on women and girls of color.

In an interview at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, Wetmore said she "interrogated most deeply" whether the victim in the opening chapter of her book would be Latina or white. She realized that decision would yield two very different stories. Ultimately, she felt compelled by the "poison of racism" to make Gloria the linchpin of the story. (She noted that Odessa didn't desegregate its schools until under threat by the Justice Department in 1982.)

While the book opens and closes with Gloria, Wetmore's objective was to "give voice to the stories of women without a lot of resources and education." I was struck, if not surprised, by how young the women were when they became mothers. In one scene, an 18 year old Mary Jo and a 15 year old Ginny are expelled from school due to their pregnancies. These women, and their daughters, are just some of the characters we hear from in the book.

I developed a real soft spot for Ginny's daughter Debra Ann (D.A.) She's smart and kind and good-hearted but filled with a deep sadness since her mother recently up and drove away without her. D.A. befriends Jesse, a homeless veteran who's trying to make his way back into the world. They help each other, D.A. by providing Jesse with "borrowed" items from her home and those of her neighbors and Jesse by giving D.A. a purpose other than marking the days off on the calendar since her mother left.

In one short scene, D.A. sneaks into the widow's garage to take a frozen casserole from the freezer for Jesse. By all appearances, the coast was clear. But inside she finds Mrs. Shephard sitting quietly in her dead husband's running car. Corrine turns off the car to find out what D.A. wants. And while D.A. doesn't know what she has just prevented, we do.

"Valentine" is filled with almost throw away moments like this that devastated me. The cumulative effect is a powerful lens into a world I feel fortunate not to have experienced firsthand.

Read. This. Book.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Florida Studio Theatre Prepares for the Future

"It's not good or anything," Jason Odell Williams opined about the first draft of his new play America in One Room. "I just kind of blurted it out."

Williams is one of 32 playwrights, sketch writers and cabaret creators now working as staff writers under short-term contracts with Florida Studio Theatre. Funding for The Playwrights Project was obtained through the Paycheck Protection Program. (Try saying that three times fast!) It's a creative way to keep theatre professionals working while giving FST a stockpile of new work to produce once it's safe to go back into theaters.

Writing for the Project is different than writing for a commission. With a commission, the writer works independently on his play, making a multitude of revisions before sharing a draft with the applicable theater. It's a solitary process and months typically pass before the initial reveal. For the Project, Williams and his new colleagues are under a five week deadline to produce first drafts. But they aren't just sitting in their home offices writing away alone. They have Zoom calls where they can bounce ideas off each other. As soon as a draft is done, a reading is scheduled so they can hear their work out loud and get to work on revisions. While it would be impossible to develop a ready-to-produce play during the short tenure of the program, participants will get a good start.

FST has a strong commitment to education, including of its audience members. Why let a little pandemic get in the way of that mission?  And so the Theatre is continuing its series of talks with  playwrights about their works' development and their processes -- virtually, of course. First up was a conversation between Williams and FST's Catherine Randazzo about America in One Room. It was fascinating.

Jason Odell Williams
When asked where his plays come from, Williams said he just "lives in the world looking for the spark of an idea." In the case of his latest work, that spark came from an article in The New York Times last October with the headline "These 526 Voters Represent All of America. And They Spent A Weekend Together." Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Wrong!  It turns out when people are face to face, they can talk about their differing views about hot topics without getting all inflamed. Their perspectives might just even shift a bit. This sounded like an idea worth exploring.

Williams realized the play wouldn't be very interesting if a bunch of people just sat around talking about issues in a calm manner. Where's the drama in that, as unusual as it might be?  In addition, he wants to create a different audience experience than the equivalent of sitting at our computers watching a performance online. (Please, no more!!!)  And so he's adding an improv element to the show, with audience members joining the cast onstage. Think The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee or Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding. While the comparison might not seem wholly apt given Williams' serious subject matter, his plays always include a healthy dose of humor. America in One Room will be no exception, and with any luck the audience participants will enhance that element of the show.

Even with some safeguards built in, it's easy to imagine an unscripted political discussion getting out of control. Williams acknowledged the open-ended nature of both the audience members' comments and the actors' responses will make the show "unpredictable" and "dangerous." The opportunity for something really exciting to happen will exist, though, and each performance will be unique.

Without doubt, it's an ambitious idea. But Williams believes the return to a world in which we sit in a room together and watch a live performance is going to feel momentous. It seems like the perfect time to take some additional creative risk.

Students in FST's Behind the Scenes class are delving more deeply into the Project. Over the course of six weeks, we will read some of the work that's being created and hear from writers working in four different genres. Even as I sit here, Williams' first draft of America in One Room is waiting in my inbox for attention. He will join our class to talk further about the play and to get our feedback. It's the closest I've come to having a real theater experience in what seems like forever. Thanks to FST for making it happen.

To read the article that inspired America in One Room, click here. And to learn more about Florida Studio Theatre's Playwrights Project, click here and here. Kudos to everyone involved in the Project, and good luck.

And now I have some reading to do.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Robert Indiana Designs "The Mother of Us All"

Cut paper maquette
One of the many things on my "to do/see" list before our homes became our worlds was the "Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney" exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Pete.  Does that sound right up my alley or what? Happily, a bit of the exhibit was brought to me at home when the MFA's Margaret Murray Zoomed with Philomena Marano, former studio assistant to Robert Indiana.

Perhaps you, like me, flash immediately to Indiana's ubiquitous "LOVE" sculptures upon hearing his name. It turns out Indiana also had a foot in the theater world, as he designed the costumes and sets for two productions of "The Mother of Us All." Marano worked with Indiana on the Bicentennial production at the Santa Fe Opera, and she shared her insights as we watched a slide show of cut paper maquettes from which the costumes and sets were created. It was an enjoyable break from what has become a rather humdrum existence.

"The Mother of Us All" is an avant garde opera with music by Virgil Thomson and libretto by Gertrude Stein. It was their second undertaking together, after the groundbreaking "Four Saints in Three Acts" with its all-black cast. In "The Mother of Us All," Thomson and Stein take on the subject of women's suffrage, with Susan B. Anthony front and center. But her journey is anything but the one with which we are familiar, as Thomson and Stein created a non-linear work in which historical and fictional figures find themselves side by side.

Stein herself is a character in the opera, although that wasn't her intention. Unfortunately, Stein passed away before having the opportunity to see the opera performed. Thomson decided to honor her by adding her character to the show. But how, since she wasn't included in the libretto? Thomson turned to friend and lover Maurice Grosser for assistance. Grosser added both Stein and Thomson as commentators on the pageantry. It seems fitting.

Murray noted that Stein was quite fashion-forward and was fast friends with couture designer Pierre Balmain. In fact, Stein wrote a piece about Balmain for Vogue in 1946, complete with photos by photographers like Horst P. Horst. Stein herself was one of Horst's subjects. (Click here to see the photo.) This little tidbit about Stein's connection with the fashion world kind of blew my mind. I always envision her wearing the frumpy dress from the portrait by Picasso.

Stein made sure the opera included Pauline, her beloved Model T. (The car was named after Stein's favorite aunt.) It worked for Indiana, who spent a lot of time driving around with his parents when he was growing up. It was these travels that inspired his use of letters and numbers in his art, resulting in his referring to himself as a "sign painter."

Marano said creating the paper maquettes was like "drawing with an Exacto blade." ("Blades" would be more accurate, since she apparently exhausted dozens of blades when creating these near life-sized works.)  It was a multi-step process, as she would trace Indiana's drawing for each costume on velum and then on paper. (Apologies for missing why the velum step was necessary.) She recalled the painstaking work of cutting out the black pants for Daniel Webster's attire. Tweezers were a staple in her toolbox for placement of small embellishments, as were Q-Tips for the glue. The maquettes were then used to create the performers' costumes, which were oddly made out of felt. I can only imagine how uncomfortable those unforgiving outfits must have been for the singers.

Although the maquettes are faceless (in the tradition of silhouette art), Marano noted the audience could get a sense of the characters' personalities just by looking at them. From Webster's black hat, we have no difficulty identifying him as a bad guy in the story. (In the opera, he debates Susan B. to show the audience the type of opposition she faced.) Indiana Elliot has a much more easygoing temperament.

While it was interesting to hear about the design process, my curiosity was even more piqued about the opera itself.  With the centennial of women's suffrage upon us, it could hardly be more timely.  And so I went down a bit of a rabbit hole, reading Zachary Woolf's review in The New York Times of a production performed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in February. The four performance run featured singers from Juilliard and musicians from the New York Philharmonic.  Here's a portion of Woolf's review:

"With its stylized (almost abstract) interweaving of the romantic and public lives of its characters -- its account of personal and political achievement as both resulting from endless trudging struggle -- the piece remains as fresh as ever. Each time I see it, it feels like it's been ripped from the day's headlines.

Ink drawing of Susan B.'s drawing room
For example, Stein's Susan B. on male politicians: 'They fear women. They fear each other. They fear their neighbor. They fear other countries. And then they hearten themselves in their fear by crowding together and following each other.' And Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, writing in The New York Times on Feb. 5 about the impeachment vote: 'In the United States Senate, like in many spheres of life, fear does the business.'

This production's final image has that fear explode into sudden violence: In the silence after the serenely despairing final aria, a trio of men stomp a ballot box until it's crushed. Even after voting rights are extended to all, we see clearly that they're hardly secure. The fight is never over, though banners lowered from the balconies assure us that 'failure is impossible.'"

Photo from the Santa Fe Opera production. 
Powerful stuff indeed. To watch a performance of the opera by the New York Metropolitan Opera, click here. (It runs one hour and 45 minutes and has subtitles despite being in English.) To listen to the music from the final scene from the Santa Fe Opera production, click here.

Last, but not least, to see all of Indiana's cut paper designs and ink sketches for "The Mother of Us All," click here. The collection is housed at the McNay Art Museum's Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts.  (Note to self: Get to San Antonio when travel is safe.) "Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney" is scheduled to run at the Museum of Fine Arts through August 9th. Here's hoping the MFA will be able to reopen in some manner before then.

Stay safe, and don't forget to vote!

Monday, April 27, 2020

A Bit of Old Florida in Sarasota

Path in Red Bug Slough Preserve
In the good old pre-virus days, when I was out and about and spent a lot of time in my car, I'd occasionally drive by Red Bug Slough Preserve. I was never tempted to stop and check it out despite its location mere minutes from my home. Really, could any name be less appealing?  Happily, I relented when my nature-loving friend Deb suggested a walk in the Preserve (with appropriate social distancing, of course).  It's a bit of old Florida right here in Sarasota.

Before I get into what's nice about the Preserve, let's talk about the name. A slough (pronounced "sloo") is a broad, shallow channel filled with flowing water except during extreme periods of drought. In the case of the Preserve, a series of marshes was channelized to facilitate water flow into the Phillippi Creek Watershed, which in turn flows into Roberts Bay. So that's the "slough" part of the name. There doesn't, however, seem to be a definitive answer as to why "red bug" was included in the name of the Preserve. It's thought to be a reference to a tiny red mite known as a red bug that can found in dry, sunny, open areas. I guess it's better than "Skeeter Drain," a moniker locals are said to use from time to time. (No mosquitoes have yet to make their presence known during my visits.) Really, though, couldn't the people who created the Preserve come up with a name more reflective of its beauty?

"Anyone for a worm?"
The Preserve's 72 acres provide a playground for local wildlife and birds. It's not unusual to see freshwater turtles and birds like this anhinga, which cooperatively posed while enjoying its breakfast and airing its somewhat worse for wear wings. (The Preserve is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, so it's definitely worth checking out if you're a birder.) I haven't yet come across more exotic creatures like river otters and gators, but Deb assures me they're there.

Nor have I encountered four-legged animals like raccoons and bobcats that prowl the Preserve, and that's okay with me. Again, Deb verified that these animals frequent the area. In fact, one of her neighbors recently found a dead bobcat in her yard. Since it wasn't alive, dealing with the remains was outside the responsibility of animal control. The neighbor was advised either to put the bobcat's body in the trash or bury it. It received a proper burial. But I digress.

The Preserve features a small lake in addition to the slough. 
While it's nice to come upon a feeding bird or some frolicking fish (yes, fish do frolic), it's the peacefulness and natural beauty of the Preserve that makes me return. There's something majestic about the towering oak trees laden with Spanish moss (which I just learned is a type of bromeliad). Especially in this strange time, walking the trails makes my body--and mind--relax and say "ahhhh."

The Preserve was acquired for environmental preservation at the turn of the century (which was already 20 years ago!) through Sarasota County's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program. Other purchases through the program include Lemon Bay Preserve, Warm Mineral Springs and Old Miakka Preserve (not to be confused with Myakka River State Park). Since the Program's inception, Sarasota County has made 71 acquisitions totaling more than 35,000 acres.

The ESLPP is voter-approved and funded primarily through local tax dollars. But the State and other non-profit land protection organizations have contributed to the acquisition and improvement of some of these properties, including Red Bug Slough Preserve. Funding for the purchase of the Preserve was made available through the Forever Florida project. Forever Florida is the State's conservation and recreation lands acquisition program. The program is the largest of its kind in the U.S., with more than 2.5 million acres purchased under Forever Florida and its precursor, Preservation 2000. The Nature Conservancy was also tapped to provide funding for some of the Preserve's amenities, including picnic tables which I'm most hopeful people will be able to safely use again in the near future.

This is an unprecedented time in all of our lives. I feel fortunate to live in a place with plenty of opportunities to get outside and enjoy some fresh air and sunshine. If you're in the area, add Red Bug Slough Preserve to the rotation of places to walk. You won't be disappointed.

Hearing from Playwright Jireh Breon Holder

I'm sure it comes as no surprise to hear I'm in serious theater withdrawal these days. Sure, there's plenty of theater online,...