Sunday, April 26, 2009

Count Your Blessings

A severe economic downturn can have a humbling effect on people. Many of us have been forced to reassess our past, present, and future fortunes. Sometimes, just being able to get out of bed and go to the bathroom in the morning can be cause for celebration. At other times, relinquishing a desperate grip on one's supposed entitlements can cause great pain and confusion.

Two recent articles demonstrated just how out of touch some people are with the school of hard knocks. On March 24th, Jake DeSantis (an executive vice-president of A.I.G.'s financial products unit) published his incendiary op-ed piece -- Dear A.I.G., I Quit! -- in The New York Times. In its May 2009 issue (which turned out to be its last), Conde Nast's Portfolio published the brazen Confessions of a TARP Wife, written by an anonymous author who thought she deserved pity for the financial sacrifices she was making while trying to keep up appearances. If these two authors failed to generate much sympathy for themselves, it could be due to their appalling lack of insight, their tone deafness to the abject pomposity of their whining, and the fatuously supreme lack of insight evidenced by their tacky, self-serving logic.

The irony of their pity party becomes even more bittersweet when one realizes that Wall Street sits less than two miles from Liberty Island. In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote a poem, The New Colossus, which was sold at a fundraising auction for the monument that would stand in New York's harbor. Her poem reads as follows:
"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
In 1912, the final lines of that poem were engraved on a bronze plaque that can still be seen on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. On a sad and grungy block of San Francisco's Eddy Street stands another great mother of exiles whose dark green front is nowhere as inspiring as the rusted copper encasing Lady Liberty. Yet many "homeless, tempest-tost" souls are steered to her in search of hope, warmth, and professional help while transitioning from a life spent on the streets to a path that, if they are lucky, may lead to permanent subsidized housing. 

A project of San Francisco's Department of Public Health, the Tenderloin's 90-room Empress Hotel offers supportive housing in an environment where residents have an opportunity to access social and medical services onsite as they struggle to reclaim their lives after suffering incredible hardship. Opened in October of 2003 under the auspices of the Department's Housing and Urban Health (HUH) section, the Empress Hotel is a single-room occupancy (SRO) facility. Many of the residents shown in Allie Light and Irving Saraf's touching new documentary, Empress Hotel, are battling mental illness, alcoholism, addictions to crack, and/or homelessness caused by a series of unfortunate coincidences. 

One woman (Lynn) holds a Master of Arts degree from San Diego State University and a Master of Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  After her skill at making holograms was no longer in commercial demand, she could no longer find work and became homeless.  A former publisher (Paul) had enjoyed an extremely successful career until, he claims, his body was invaded by spirits who took over control of his life.

Rene was working as a music teacher in the New York City public school system. But as soon as her diagnosis of bipolar disorder became known, she lost her job. Other residents of the Empress Hotel are dealing with suicidal ideation, crack addiction, or years trapped in a spiral of explosive anger and domestic violence.  The filmmakers note that: 
"Our two years of filming in the Empress Hotel was also our introduction to San Francisco's Tenderloin, a center of drugs, poverty, and mental illness. We are in our 70s now and so we traveled to the hotel on BART, carrying our camera in a shopping bag. In the Tenderloin, where we repeatedly walked for many months, no panhandlers approached us and no one tried to sell us drugs -- meaning that we looked like every other senior in the area. The hotel tenants trusted us and, for the most part, they enjoyed being filmed. The men and women told their stories well. When Paul moved out of the hotel, we filmed the park where he was sleeping. Standng in the night, in thick fog, we felt how it might be if we, too, were homeless."
Through candid interviews with ten of the Empress Hotel's residents, this documentary provides a much more poignant back story to a person's homelessness than one experiences in most news reports. The film also includes footage from the historic day in November 2005 when, accompanied by San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom, Britain's Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall visited the Empress Hotel to talk with its residents in their desire to get a better understanding of homelessness.  

Empress Hotel, which received its world premiere this weekend as part of the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival, is a probing, disquieting documentary that showcases one of our nation's greatest shames. Established in 1998, the HUH's Direct Access to Housing program has grown to the point where it is now managing nearly 1,000 beds throughout the city. While the San Francisco Department of Public Health continues in its efforts to help homeless people navigate the rocky road toward safe, subsidized housing (as opposed to shelters), mental illness and behavioral problems -- including medical noncompliance -- present formidable challenges. 

"There is nothing intellectual here, it's all drama," explains the Empress Hotel's manager, Roberta Goodman. "I don’t have anything to offer that’s better than the feeling you get (from what I’m told) the first time you smoke crack -- and everybody’s trying to get back to that first time." 

* * * * * * * * 

In a cruel twist of irony, the Empress Hotel is located a stone's throw from two San Francisco theaters dedicated to new works. Although the Tea Room Theatre has a policy of screening new releases of gay porn every week, it will never receive government funding for the arts. Still, this is the so-called pleasure palace where I once watched a porno film whose director, for lack of anything better, decided to use the overture to Mozart's opera, The Marriage of Figaro, to underscore a major sex scene (there's no need to pay royalties for music as long as it's in the public domain).

Next door to the Empress Hotel is the Exit Theater, whose four small stages host over 500 performances a year, featuring a wealth of new work ranging from magic shows to cabaret acts, from September's San Francisco Fringe Festival to April's Divafest. This year's Divafest featured a surprisingly entertaining and well-written piece by Lee Kiszonas entitled An Affair of Honor. Based on the real-life exploits of France's Julie D'Aubigny (you owe it to yourself to read up on this incredible woman), Kiszonas' play offered a rare chance for audiences to enjoy swordplay up close in period costume.

Michael Vega, Brian Trybom, Julia Heitner,
and Brittany Kilcoyne McGregor

If the residents of the Empress Hotel are trapped by circumstances over which they have no control, the characters in An Affair Of Honor are trapped in gender roles against their will. Julie is a talented young singer and swordswoman who has much more success getting what she wants when disguised as a man. Philippe is a young nobleman who is quite self-aware as a gay man and has a fetish for cross-dressing. Philippe found his young lover, Georges, working in a stable and basically taught him everything he knows. The only problem is that Georges, who has quite a jealous and possessive nature, hates it when Philippe wears women's clothes.  Nor does he believe that men should fight women in swordplay.

When Julie easily beats Philippe in an impromptu duel, he invites her to join him as he and Georges head to Marseilles. Her appearance onstage draws the amorous attentions of Bette, a young noblewoman whose naievete knows no bounds.

Julia Heitner and Brittany Kilcoyne McGregor

What follows is a grand romantic farce with lots of swordplay and gender confusion. When Philippe and Julie finally agree to a marriage of convenience, they do so with open eyes.  One kiss is all it takes to convince them that, while they may indeed be very fond of each other, there is absolutely no sexual chemistry between them.

An Affair of Honor was smartly directed by Kathryn Wood with the help of fight director Durand Garcia (who teaches Contemporary Theatrical Violence at the Academy of Art University). It is a play which could easily be mounted by college theater departments throughout the country with great success. If I have one piece of constructive criticism, it would be to specify the use of a harpsichord instead of a piano for those  moments that require musical accompaniment.

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