Wednesday, May 20, 2020
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.
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
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|
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.
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
|Cut paper maquette|
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.
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.
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.
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:
|Ink drawing of Susan B.'s drawing room|
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.|
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
|Path in Red Bug Slough Preserve|
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?"|
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.|
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.
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.
Monday, April 20, 2020
|Emily St. John Mandel with Amber Sparks|
"The Glass Hotel" defies easy description. GoodReads calls it "a captivating novel of money, beauty, white collar crime, ghosts and moral compromise in which a woman disappears from a container ship off the coast of Mauritania and a massive Ponzi scheme implodes in New York, dragging countless fortunes with it." And it skips around in time. Hmmm.
Mandel's interest in the Madoff scandal was the spark for the novel. Mandel said she's fascinated with the psychology of wrongdoing. How can you intellectually know you're guilty and caused the ruin of countless people and still believe you're an okay person? Her research for the book included reading "The Wizard of Lies" by Diana B. Heriques, "Too Good to Be True" by Erin Arvedlund, court testimony and witness impact statements. As she wrote about the Ponzi scheme, Mandel envisioned the fund employees who helped facilitate the fraud as a sort of Greek chorus, or a group of people operating as a single unit. Having worked as an administrative assistant for 12 years, she could relate to their camaraderie and understand -- kinda, sorta -- the trust they were forced to feel for one another as mutually dependent wheels in the cog of the massive fraud.
Her interest in "counter-factual lives" is a theme that runs throughout the book. It's something we all contemplate from time to time. How would our lives have been different if we'd gone to a different school? Married someone else? Decided not to take that job? Mandel said she "likes this idea of a counterlife and being haunted by the choices one didn't make." And so her characters occasionally linger -- sometimes for an entire chapter -- on visions of what their lives could have been.
"We had crossed a line, that much was obvious, but it was difficult to say later exactly where that line had been. Or perhaps we'd all had different lines, or crossed the same line at different times..."
Oskar, specifically, considers this line -- and the idea of a counterlife -- a bit later in the same chapter. And then the Greek chorus jumps back in.
"'I realized there was fraud going on,' he imagined telling an admiring future employer, 'and that was the day I walked out. I never would have imagined walking off a job like that, but sometimes you just have to draw the line.' Although the line, for Oskar, had been crossed eleven years earlier, when he'd first been asked to backdate a transaction. 'It's possible to both know and not know something,' he said later, under cross-examination, and the state tore him to pieces over this but he spoke for several of us, actually, several of us who'd been thinking a great deal about that doubleness, that knowing and not knowing, being honorable and not being honorable, knowing you're not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad. We'd all die for the truth in our secret lives, or if not die exactly, then at least maybe make a couple of confidential phone calls and try to feign surprise when the authorities arrived, but in our actual lives we were being paid an exorbitant amount of money to keep our mouths shut, and you don't have to be an entirely terrible person, we told ourselves later, to turn a blind eye to certain things--even actively participate in certain other things--when it's not just you, because who among us is fully alone in the world? There are always other people in the picture. Our salaries and bonuses covered roofs over heads, crackers shaped like goldfish, tuition, retirement home expenses, the mortgage on Oskar's mother's apartment in Warsaw, etc.
And then there's the part of the equation that could somehow never be mentioned at trial but that seemed extremely relevant, which is that when you've worked with a given group of people for a while, calling the authorities means destroying the lives of your friends. Our lawyers asked us not to bring this up on the stand, but it's a real thing, this aversion to sending your colleagues to prison. We'd worked together for a very long time."
Later, Joelle talks with Oskar about how they came to be part of the scheme. "You ever think about why we were chosen?" Joelle asked...."I mean, here's the question, and I'd be genuinely interested to hear your thoughts: How did he know we'd do it? Would anyone do something like this, given enough money, or is there something special about us? Did he look at me one day and just think, That woman seems conveniently lacking in a moral center, that person seems well suited to participate in a ---". Food for thought.
|Politics and Prose uses crowdcast for its online talks,|
a platform that allows viewers to ask questions of the author.
Thanks to Politics and Prose for making its author talks available online during this strange time. Click here to see what's coming up. You can also check out their YouTube channel to view past author talks, including the interview with Mandel. (Click on "Videos" to see what's available.) And don't forget to support your favorite indie bookstore!
Wednesday, April 15, 2020
|"Redheaded Girl in Evening Dress" |
by Modigliani (1918)
Each day -- more or less -- a new video becomes available on YouTube featuring a curator, educator or scholar talking about one of her favorite works in the collection. Each video lasts no more than 15 minutes, so it's easy to fit into my hectic (?) schedule. And with more than 3,000 objects on display in the museum, there's no fear of running out of art to discuss no matter how long we shelter at home.
It's a treat to focus on individual works of art in the collection. Barnes' ensemble approach to display means that each room contains literally hundreds of pieces. When you're in one of the galleries, the amount of great art around you is almost paralyzing. Even the most careful observer is certain to miss quite a bit. All the more reason to enjoy hearing from one of the museum's experts.
|"La Famille" by Henri Rousseau (between 1890 and 1900)|
Ireson was once again my guide for exploring this painting. Her sense of humor became apparent as she talked about the child who's front and center. "My goodness," she said. "It's not the most attractive of children, I think it's fair to say, and it's huge."
She then fills us in on Rousseau and the little known about the family depicted in the painting. Rousseau didn't begin painting in earnest until he was in his 40s. (He made his living as a toll and tax collector until he was 49.) So a painting like this was likely a commission from a local family in honor of a celebration of some sort, perhaps the baptism of the "rather large baby." It's probable that the family business was wine making, as the patriarch sits on a cask and the men all hold glasses filled with a rose colored liquid. Rousseau's primitive style seems just right for this type of portrait. Ireson was quick to point out this descriptor is not intended in a derogatory way nor would Rousseau himself taken offense.
|"Supper Time" by Horace Pippin (1940)|
Again, taking the time to really look at the painting with Perthes as my guide was highly rewarding. I appreciated his highlighting of details I might have only subconsciously noticed, like the "sputtering" frying pan on the stove and the sweat stains under the mother's arms. While we know it's winter by the snow outside the window, this cabin is toasty warm.
The painting was created on several pieces of wood bound together. Pippin allowed the grain of the wood to show through in several places, including the subjects' skin. But the tidbit I found most fascinating is Pippin's use of a hot poker to draw the outlines in the work. This unique technique is all the more amazing when you learn the artist's right shoulder was injured in battle in WWI, making use of the poker quite challenging.
|"Bird (Lobster Claw)"|
by Thomas Maling (1945)
Dr. Barnes and Maling met in Maine when Barnes and his wife were there on vacation. They became friendly, and Maling expressed an interest in Barnes' "little hobby" of collecting art. The 70-something old Maling had his own little hobby of creating small objects that reflected his environment. Maling reported seeing a claw hanging in a shop window and realizing it had a face; all it needed was a little paint. Voila! We have a bird. And in case you're wondering, his feet appear to be made from lima beans.
Barnes and Maling began corresponding when the artist sent Barnes some of his Creations to share with the Foundation's students. It was in one such letter that Maling told Barnes about the genesis of "Bird." Barnes wrote back, saying he appreciated the objects "not only for their intrinsic artistic value but because they are concrete proof of our teaching that art can arise in the most commonplace events of life."
To enjoy Barnes Takeout yourself, click here. Warning: It's addictive. Thanks to my friend Angel Hissom for bringing this project to my attention.
Saturday, April 11, 2020
|"I Have a Dream" by Shangxi Wu , an 11th|
grader from Pleasanton, CA
I tagged along on a virtual tour of the exhibit given by Embracing Our Differences' Education Director Ben Jewell-Plocher. We started with Shangxi Wu's "I Have a Dream," the work that won the Best in Show - Student award. (The student's school receives $1,000 for its art program.) A bit surprisingly (to me, at least) is that one of the selected quotes was perfect for this work. Marsha Danzig from Ohio had written, "Living life as an amputee is the ability to stand tall like a mountain, even when you have no feet." As we looked at the work, Ben asked us questions similar to those that would be asked of touring students. What do you notice first? What's the meaning of the rainbow? How do you know the man is homeless and an amputee? It's a clever way to promote critical thinking skills in young students.
|"Can I Touch Your Hair?" |
by Habib Hajallie from Dartfor, UK
As to the more obvious aspect of the work, Hajallie has in fact been subjected to requests from people to touch his hair. While recognizing these individuals' intentions are likely innocent, he is always struck by their racial insensitivity. Even worse, such a request makes him feel like an animal that they want to pet. To read his entire artist statement, click here.
|"Subway" by Yuke Li of Woodside, NY|
|"El Sueno Americano" by Clifford McDonald|
Ben also highlighted a work entitled "El Sueno Americano" (The American Dream) by Clifford McDonald from Sarasota. McDonald is a teacher at The Visible Men Academy in Bradenton; his subject is one of his students. While it's hard to see in this photo, hidden in the boy's eyes are the American and Mexican flags. Ben shared that the boy came to visit the exhibit with his class. Not surprisingly, he was a bit nervous. Any concern was assuaged by the enthusiasm of his fellow students when they saw the photo.
The image takes on even greater meaning if you're familiar with The VMA. The tuition-free charter school educates at-risk boys in grades K-5. As its website explains, "The VMA vision is to lead boys towards the realization of their innate strong character -- boys who are family orientated, community conscious and globally aware." In a world in which test scores drive many educational programs, it's inspiring to find a school that strives to create well-rounded and socially conscious kids.
If getting to Bayfront Park to take in the exhibit isn't an option, you can see more of the artwork and quotes by clicking here. One bonus to online viewing is easy access to the artist statements. The website also includes lesson plans that might come in handy if you know someone who is home schooling their child.
Thanks once again to Embracing Our Differences for sponsoring this wonderful exhibit.
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