Wednesday, January 18, 2017

brownsville song (b-side for tray) at Florida Studio Theatre

"Stage is a method of dialogue. It is a conversation the actors have with the audience each night." So said Kate Alexander, director of Florida Studio Theatre's upcoming production of "brownsville song (b-side for tray)."  The play, which was written by Kimber Lee, premiered at the prestigious Humana Festival for New American Plays in 2014.

FST believes the issues raised by "brownsville song" must be discussed in today's world. The show tells the story of an African-American boy about to head out into the world.  Tray lives with his grandmother and nine-year old sister in Brownsville, a rough area of Brooklyn. He is a good kid who's trying to get into college. But we learn in the opening scene that Tray was killed when he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Tray's grandmother Lena opens the play with a heartbreaking monologue that Ms. Alexander compared to the foreshadowing sometimes seen in Shakespeare's plays. This excerpt will give you a sense of the emotion that hits the audience from the start.  The words in parentheses are stage directions.

"Do not begin with me
Do not start your telling with me
Trust me
It ain't the way you want this story to begin...
I got words crowdin up from my belly
through my neck
shoving my mouth into the same shape
forming the same out loud thought over and over
He ain't been in a gang
He ain't run with no crew
He ain't beef with anybody
He was not
And what he is
(A jagged breath.)
What he was
(The rage begins to breach her control -- she struggles, gets it in check....)
He was going to college this fall
He was a Golden Gloves Champion...
He was goin to the dentist next week and get his first filling
Eighteen years old and never hadda cavity...
He was a terrible liar and semi-reliable bout everything but his baby sister and boxing...
He was not the same old story...."

Director Kate Alexander
While there are moments of lightness in the show, it is not an easy show to watch. "It will definitely be hard on the audience," Ms, Alexander said, "Which is fantastic." 

FST doesn't expect "brownsville song" to be a mega-hit like this season's "Million Dollar Quartet" has been. But that's okay. The hope is that the show will make people think about the cost to society of gun violence and, perhaps, gain some compassion for those affected.

Ms. Lee was driven to write this play after reading a blog post about the death of a real high school-aged boy in Brownsville.  In an interview with Seattle Repertory Theater, she said, "..It lodged in my gut and wouldn’t let go. I kept thinking about this boy’s family and loved ones. I kept thinking about the tremendous loss of life in some of our communities, and how easy it is in this soundbite world for these losses to disappear from our consciousness, and how that is especially true for a neighborhood like Brownsville, which only makes the news when something bad happens. Then everyone forgets about it until the next incident, and nobody bothers to look more deeply into the fact that Brownsville has been an under-served, ignored section of New York City since its inception. Often there can be this sort of head-shaking resignation–“Oh well, that’s just what happens there”–or an assumption that if you look a certain way and live in a certain zip code, your life is worth less, you matter less, and this sort of wall silence descends around the loss..." (To read the interview in its entirety, click here.)

To facilitate a conversation about the issues raised by the show, there will be post-play discussions following each Thursday night performance of "brownsville song." In addition, FST is hosting two special panel discussions that will focus on the issues raised by the play.  On March 6, Dr. Eddy Regnier will lead a discussion about the Social Status of the Young Black Male.  And on March 13, Michele Redwine will lead a forum on the topic of Mothers and Daughters for Black Lives. Each event will take place at 5 p.m. in Bowne Theatre.

"brownsville song (b side for tray)" opens on Jan. 25 and will play through March 26.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Stalking the Bogeyman at Florida Studio Theatre

Here's a clue. If you find yourself wondering why a play was set in a seemingly random location, the likelihood is that it's a true story. Last summer at EdFringe, I asked Wendi why she thought "My Eyes Went Dark" was set in Russia. "It's probably based on something that actually happened," she said. It seemed improbable given the storyline, but she was right.

So I should have suspected that "Stalking the Bogeyman" was fact-based when I asked myself why it was set in Alaska. This knowledge makes the play even more worthy of theatergoers' time.

As the play opens, David is studying a map to determine the best place to commit a murder. The man who raped him when he was a child has reappeared in his life. Never having told anyone about the rape, he believes there's a high probability he can get away with the crime. 

David at seven years old

The audience is then whisked back in time to 25 years earlier when seven year old David and his family moved to Alaska. His parents become friends with their neighbors, whose high school son is a star athlete. When they get together, the two "kids" hang out in the basement. Things get out of control quickly as the neighbor turns into a sword-bearing rapist.

The rapist (whom David calls the Bogeyman) assures David that if he tells his parents what happened, they will hate him. How could David know better? And so he kept the secret and vowed to never find himself alone with the Bogeyman again.

I don't want to give too much away about the story in case you're able to see the emotionally-charged show, which runs through Jan. 20th. I will, however, say that "Stalking the Bogeyman" isn't a play you leave behind when you exit the theater. In fact, Tina and I couldn't stop talking about the show on the way home. She noted that using the same actors to portray David and the Bogeyman as their child and adult selves drove home the point that whatever happens to you as a kid remains with you forever. (And here I just thought it was a question of economics!) 

Holthouse testifying before Alaskan Senate
in favor of Erin's law
We both were struck by David's comment that he didn't know who he would be if he hadn't been raped. Of course, a violent incident like this stays with you forever and can alter the course of your life. But neither of us had considered it from quite this perspective. The sense of lost possibilities was palpable.

The show continued to linger with me after I got home, so I decided to do a bit of research about its history. I noticed then that the playwright and the lead character had the same name. What?!!! 

David Holthouse is an investigative journalist who, in 2004, bravely wrote about what had happened to him when he was a child. The story begins, "This time last year I was plotting to kill a man."

The piece was published in Denver's Westword and picked up as a podcast in 2011 on "This American Life." (Click here to hear the podcast.)  This coverage gained the attention of some theater types. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Holthouse's story doesn't end with "Stalking the Bogeyman." There have been further developments in the case, which he shares on his website. (Don't read this if you are going to see the show.)

Although Holthouse may not know who he would have become if he hadn't been victimized, he can be proud that he's grown up to be an advocate for the prevention of child sexual abuse. In addition to raising awareness about the issue through his writing, Holthouse testified before the Alaskan Senate in support of Erin's law. The law, which passed, requires schools to provide age appropriate K-12 sexual abuse education. While the existence of such education might not have prevented David from being raped, it might have enabled him to share his burden instead of carrying it alone for 25 years.

Kudos to Florida Studio Theatre for producing "Stalking the Bogeyman" as part of its Stage III series. The programming focuses on "edgy" topics that might not appeal to broader audiences. Next up in the series is "Gidion's Knot," a show dealing with the topic of bullying. The final production will be "Grounded," which tells the story of a female fighter pilot who is reassigned to drone operation when she becomes pregnant. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Olga Hirshhorn Collection at the Baker Museum

Detail from Morris Broderson's
"Lizzie Borden with Clock"
Washington, D.C. is filled with wonderful museums. And while I've visited many of them, I've never made it to The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

It turns out a trip to D.C. isn't required to enjoy works of art from the Hirshhorns' collection. Joe and Olga Hirshhorn moved to Naples in 1969, where Olga became involved with the Naples Art Association and what is now Artis-Naples and the Baker Museum. When she died, she left 400 works of art from her eclectic collection to the Baker Museum.  The wonderful Olga Hirshhorn Collection is on display at the Museum through July 23. 

Olga wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her parents were Ukrainian immigrants who landed in Connecticut. In 1938, the 18 year old Olga married John Cunningham, her high school English teacher. The couple had three children. Olga ran her own employment agency to help support her family. Her career choice opened the doors to her later life.
Romare Bearden's "Salome, from the Prevalence of Ritual III Suite"

I had to chuckle at the tactful way the Baker Museum describes Olga's divorce from Cunningham and marriage to Joe Hirshhorn.  "After a number of years, her life changed. In 1961, Joe Hirshhorn, a Latvian entrepreneur and art collector, called her agency looking to hire a chauffeur. After many phone conversations, Joe invited her to visit his newly purchased mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut. They became friends and later married."

In an interview about her life with Joe, Olga said, “I had to choose whether to learn about art or finance or mining, and  chose art.”  I suspect it wasn't a hard decision.

Olga developed a passion for modern art and began to collect on her own. The Hirshhorns became friends with many artists, including Picasso, Man Ray, Larry Rivers and Georgia O'Keefe. The exhibit includes several works with inscriptions by the artists to the Hirshhorns. If that weren't cool enough, there are works that feature the Hirshhorns, like this collage by Jimmy Ernst entitled "One Good Date Deserves Another."

In addition to two-dimensional works, the Hirshhorns collected sculptures of all varieties. Following Joe's death, Olga purchased a carriage house in Washington, D.C. where she spent a portion of her time.  She dubbed the 500 square foot residence the "Mouse House" and filled it with intimate works from her collection. The exhibit includes a number of sculptures from the Mouse House, and they are true gems.
Ella Tulin's "Female Figure in Two Pieces"

Olga embraced the idea that art is personal and doesn't have to be to one's liking to be worthy of consideration.  "...I feel art is something that does create an emotion, whether it's an emotion having to do with offensiveness, puzzlement or love, interest, any of those things. With it, you've created something. I think that's important.  I've looked at a piece of art, and I've been repulsed by it, I have learned that the artists are constantly searching and creating. They stimulate you...You are forced to look, think and wonder what the artist is trying to do."

While I doubt there are works in the exhibit that anyone would find offensive, the modern collection might not be everyone's cup of tea. I loved it, though, and look forward to more visits while it is on display. I'm also hoping to take in the talk by Stephane Aquin, chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, on March 29. Perhaps I'll see you there.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Nathan Hill's "The Nix," Part 2

Author Nathan Hill
Nathan Hill's "The Nix" is a book that stays with you long after you finish reading it. It's culturally relevant and funny and filled with memorable characters and situations. And having had the opportunity to hear Hill talk about the book has  made me even more enthusiastic about it (if that's even possible). 

The book begins with an incident involving Governor Sheldon Packer, a right-wing Presidential candidate. It's a slow news day, and the media grabs onto the event with the force of a hurricane. It doesn't take long for someone to come up with the catchphrase "Packer Attacker" to describe the woman who threw a rock at the candidate (who seemed a lot funnier before November 8th).

"While [the media] waits for new information to surface, they debate whether this incident will help or hurt the governor's presidential chances. Help, they decide, as his name recognition is pretty low outside of a rabid conservative evangelical following who just loves what he did during his tenure as governor of Wyoming, where he banned abortion outright and required the Ten Commandments to be publicly spoken by children and teachers every morning before the Pledge of Allegiance and made English the official and only legal language of Wyoming and banned anyone not fluent in English from owning property. Also he permitted firearms in every state wildlife refuge. And he issued an executive order requiring state law to supersede federal law in all matters, a move that amounted to, according to constitutional scholars, a fiat secession of Wyoming from the United States. He wore cowboy boots. He held press conferences at this cattle ranch. He carried an actual live real gun, a revolver that dangled in a leather hostler at his hip."

It turns out that Samuel's mother Faye is the Packer Attacker. He hasn't seen her since she abruptly left Samuel and his father when Samuel was a kid. This sets up an opportunity for Samuel to explore his mother's past in search of an explanation. It's an exploration that leads Samuel--and the readers--back to the time of the Viet Nam War and the 1968 protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

During Hill's talk, I commented that the book seemed to have its pulse on our current political state. Take, for instance, Sebastian's comments about the protest.

Picture from the 1968 protest in Chicago
"The more the cops beat us up, the more our argument seems correct....It's actually pretty brilliant. The protestors and the police, the progressives and the authoritarians--they require each other, they create each other, because they need an opponent to demonize. The best way to feel like you really belong to a group is to invent another group to hate."

But to Hill, the real themes of the book are polarization and the inability of people to communicate. The protestors versus the police/politicians. Faye versus Samuel. Bethany versus Bishop (twins who play significant roles in Samuel's youth). And then there's Pwnage, a 30-something whose only affirmation in life comes from his status as a master player in a video game called Elfscape. His worldview of seeing people only as enemies, obstacles, puzzles and traps puts him in a class by himself.

Hill noted that the Oxford Dictionaries named "post-truth" as the word of the year. The dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (For a great article about this, click here.) 

Hill commented that the concept of "post-truth" also captures our tendency to ignore data that doesn't agree with our own views. It's an idea that's relevant both to the story of "The Nix" and to today's political scene.

I could go on and on about "The Nix." It is, after all, 600 pages (or 22 audio hours) of wonderfulness. But you should discover "The Nix" yourself. I can't think of a better way to start off the new year. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Nathan Hill's "The Nix," Part 1

Nathan Hill
Author Nathan Hill likens the ten years he spent writing "The Nix" to tending a garden. It was a labor of love, something he says he did for himself rather than as "a widget to get popular."

But the endeavor has made him wildly popular as well. "The Nix" has a well-deserved spot on best of 2016 reading lists compiled by organizations from The New York Times to Library Journal to Amazon. It was the Audible book of the year. (Narrator Ari Fliakos is ridiculously wonderful.) It's been translated into 25 languages. And it's being adapted for television, with Meryl Streep in the role of the elder Faye.

Hill spent an evening at the Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers, reading from and talking about "The Nix." I was front and center to hear more about the book, which made me laugh out loud and risk near-death experiences as I jotted down passages too wonderful to forget that I heard while driving. (Note: The near-death experience part is a slight exaggeration.)

It's difficult to distill the story of "The Nix" into a sound bite. (It is, after all, 6oo+ pages long.) Hill's website describes the book in part this way:

"A Nix can take many forms. In Norwegian folklore, it is a spirit who sometimes appears as a white horse that steals children away. In Nathan Hill’s remarkable first novel, a Nix is anything you love that one day disappears, taking with it a piece of your heart.

It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson—college professor, stalled writer—has a Nix of his own: his mother, Faye. He hasn’t seen her in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s reappeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl, who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true?......"

But before Hill gets deep into Samuel and Faye's relationship, he fills us in on Samuel's current circumstances. In an excruciatingly hilarious chapter, we meet Samuel's English lit student Laura Pottsdam. Samuel and Laura are meeting to discuss the paper she plagiarized on the topic of logical fallacies in Hamlet's thinking. The college has a software program that compares essays written by students to its vast database of papers. Laura's paper was found to be 99% plagiarized -- in fact, "everything had been stolen except for the name 'Laura Pottsdam."

By request, Hill read this chapter at the Arts Alliance -- and I was nearly doubled over once again with laughter. Hill structured the conversation between Samuel and Laura as a series of 16 logical fallacies -- from circular arguments to false compromises to appeals to emotions. (Hill said he edited out another eight fallacies.)

The chapter starts with "the loaded question."  "I wonder what is wrong with the software?" says Laura..."I wonder why it's malfunctioning. Is it wrong a lot?" 

"You're saying it's a mistake?"

"It's like so weird. I don't get it. Why would it say that?" (One of the things I loved about Hill's writing was his ability to capture the voices of his characters.)

Hill goes on to describe his student's appearance. "Laura looks like she showered in a wind tunnel, her hair is so frazzled and disorganized. That she is wearing tiny frayed flannel shorts roughly the size of a coffee filter is impossible to ignore...On her feet, she's wearing slippers, Muppet-fuzzy...with a gray-brown film of dirt around the footpads from being worn too often outdoors. It strikes Samuel that she might have come to his office today literally wearing her pajamas."  (Note: Wearing PJs out is something my niece described doing at Emerson.)

Then there's the appeal to pity.  "This is so unfair," she said...."You asked for an essay on Hamlet. That's what I gave you."

"I asked you to write an essay on Hamlet."

"How was I supposed to know that? It's not my fault you have these weird rules." 

It turns out that Laura plagiarized the same paper in high school.  When Samuel brings this up, her response was, "But I can't be punished twice for the same paper. If I was punished in high school for plagiarism, I can't be punished again now.  Isn't that, like, double jeopardy?"

And on it goes. 

It turns out that Hill was himself a professor and that the conversation was based in part on his own experiences. He shared that one anonymous student gave him a low rating on " The student's comment was, "I asked him for help and he refused. He's a jackass." 

As you can probably tell, I was wholly enamored with "The Nix." My next post will share more of Hill's fabulous writing and his thoughts about the book.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

A Theatrical Point/Counterpoint, Part 2 -- Best of Enemies

Theater has the power to compel audiences to confront social issues. "Best of Enemies" at Florida Repertory Theatre made me consider not only where race relations in our country have been, but where they are going. The show was the yin to the yang of "Guys and Dolls" at Asolo Rep.

The play tells the true story of an attempt made in 1971 to desegregate the Durham, North Carolina public school system. Yes, the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 stated that "in the field of public education 'separate but equal' has no place." But nearly 20 years later, Durham had only succeeded in fully integrating its county-run elementary schools. Higher level county schools -- and city schools at all levels -- remained essentially segregated.

C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater
Enter Bill Riddick, the Department of Education's man on the ground. Riddick put together a steering committee of local leaders to spearhead an intense planning period (known as a charrette) open to the entire community. At the conclusion of the ten day charrette, the committee would present its desegregation proposals to the school board for consideration. It would have been a daunting task even if there were unanimous support for the objective of an integrated school system.

Riddick realized the necessity of including representatives of both sides of the desegregation issue. He enlisted Ann Atwater to speak on behalf of people of color in the community. Atwater was a divorced mother of two daughters who struggled to make ends meet. In her "spare" time, she fought for better housing for the poor in her community. She is full of spit and vinegar.

Riddick also persuaded C.P. Ellis, the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, to participate. No explanation is required about his views. Ellis was truly hateful, and it made me squirm to hear the language he used to talk about African-Americans. On the "human" side, Ellis was the father of four children, including a son who was deaf and mute. Like Atwater's household, his family was barely making it. His status in the KKK gave him an identity and a sense of belonging.

As the charrette progressed, it seemed unlikely that the members of the steering committee would succeed in overcoming their differences. At one point, Atwater proposed bringing her church choir into a meeting to sing. She felt it would lift the spirits of the people working hard to help their community. Ellis didn't like the idea. But he agreed to concede the point if an exhibit about the proud history of the KKK could be put on display. Surprisingly, Atwater agreed. She knew that in order to fight your enemy, you have to understand where they're coming from. And so we see--in juxtaposition--Ellis swaying and clapping his hands to the music of the choir and Atwater learning about the roots of the KKK.

As the days passed, Atwater and Ellis began to work together. Ellis' standing in the community rapidly fell as he veered away from the hard line of the KKK.  Both Ellis' and Atwater's children were ostracized at school as the offspring of traitors. Ultimately, they realize their commonality as poor, disenfranchised citizens.

The two became friends of a sort -- the "best of enemies." But that doesn't mean the community at large had suddenly become enlightened. The committee's recommendations were rejected in full by the school board. The audience is left to contemplate whether Atwater and Ellis' friendship provides a basis for hope.

My biggest issue with the play was the speed with which Ellis' conversion occurs. To go from leading the KKK to seeing eye-to-eye (on some issues at least) with an outspoken African-American woman seemed preposterous.  But truth can be stranger than fiction.  Some post-play Googling revealed that the timeline for Ellis' conversion is historically accurate.  (For an interview that Studs Terkel did with Ellis, click here.)

Florida Rep's production of "Best of Enemies" was top-notch. Both Graham Smith as Ellis and Mary Hodges as Atwater were excellent, and I look forward to seeing more of them. The multi-media staging was terrific as well. The screens on either end of the black box theater had the effect of enclosing the audience in the action. It was uncomfortable at times, but in an intentional way.

If you're interested in learning more about the unlikely friendship between Atwater and Ellis, the play is based on a book of the same title by Osha Gray Davidson. 

Postscript:  The Durham, North Carolina public school system did not fully desegregate until 1992. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Theatrical Point/Counterpoint, Part 1 - Guys and Dolls

'Tis the season. And I'm not referring to the holidays, although of course they are upon us. The Southwest Florida theater season is in full swing, and I'm putting the mileage on my car to prove it.

As Janice and I were leaving Asolo Rep's delicious production of "Guys and Dolls," she pointed out that the show was a great contrast to the serious--and unfortunately timely--production of Florida Rep's "Best of Enemies" we'd seen the prior week. Her comment has lingered with me. (It also prompted me to watch a YouTube video of the wonderful SNL Point/Counterpoint with Jane Curtin and Dan Akroyd. Jane is not, in fact, an ignorant slut.)

First, the fun. Like last year, Asolo Rep is kicking off its season with a crowd-pleasing musical. I sometimes take myself entirely too seriously. While I was looking forward to seeing "Guys and Dolls," I had found myself doing some advance eye-rolling about the light-hearted show. Isn't theater supposed to make me contemplate the world and my place in it, etc., etc.? 

Todd Buonopane (in plaid) killed "You're Rockin' the Boat"
The answer, of course, is a resounding "sometimes." With each familiar song, I found myself enjoying "Guys and Dolls" more. Frank Loeser's lyrics are as fresh and fun as the day the show premiered on Broadway in 1950. "Luck Be a Lady" rang out from the gambling den carved out of a New York City subway platform. Adelaide and her fellow "dancers" sang "Bushel and a Peck" from the stage at the Hot Box Nightclub. And Sarah got a break from proselytizing and sang "If I were a Bell" while in Cuba with Sky Masterson.

Great lyrics can be wasted, though, if the singers aren't up to the task. But Asolo Rep's production features a cast filled with Broadway-caliber voices. The resumes of the four leads (Cole Burden/Sky; Audrey Cardwell/Sarah; and Chris Hoch/Nathan Detroit; Julie Kavanagh/Adelaide) are filled with National Tour credits and a spattering of Broadway shows. Cardwell's voice had an operatic quality made for the stage. Burden and Hoch were terrific as well.

Burden, Cardwell, Kavanagh and Hoch
But it was Kavanagh who stole the show with her portrayal of Adelaide. We of course don't know what Kavanagh's real voice sounds like, as Adelaide has a baby doll feel about her and a voice to match. My favorite Adelaide number was not "Take Back Your Mink" (although I watched the striptease carefully after getting the inside scoop from costume designer Brian Hemesath).  Instead, it was "Adelaide's Lament," a number in which she sings about the physical toll a 14 year engagement can take on a person. (Sample lyrics include "In other words, just from worrying if the wedding is on or off , A person can develop a cough." You'd recognize the song the moment she starts singing.)

Kavanagh's non-musical moments were equally captivating. Her expressions were priceless. Her mincing steps as she walked around in her form-fitting dresses provided the perfect contrast to Cardwell's marching around the stage in her maroon "save your souls" outfit. (Poor Cardwell to have to wear this homely dress in the midst of the glamour.) 

I would be remiss not to mention Lee Savage's fabulous sets and Paul Miller's lighting for the show. The duo recreated the feel of Times Square circa 1950s (well before it had been Disney-ized). It's worth noting that Miller has done the lighting for many New Year's Eve celebrations in Times Square. (Click here to see some photos of his work.)

And if you (meaning me) want a more serious take-away from the show, here's an interesting tidbit. "Guys and Dolls" won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1951. It was also up for the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The book for the show (which was based on two stories by Damon Runyon) was written by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. Unfortunately, Burrows had gotten caught up with the House Un-American Activities Committee due to his association with some Communist Party members. This resulted in the Pulitzer nomination being vetoed. 

"Guys and Dolls" plays at Asolo Rep through January 1st. It's well worth the effort required to fit it into your holiday schedule. 

Next up:  The more thought-provoking "Best of Enemies."