Friday, August 26, 2011

Organically Speaking

With the economy in the toilet, it's no surprise to read that people are once again bartering for goods and services. As states desperately try to create jobs to replace those shipped overseas by outsourcing, no one should be the least bit surprised to learn that hemp is back in the news.

State Senator Mark Leno recently introduced a bill in Sacramento that would allow hemp farming for products such as hemp milk and food products as well as rope, cloth, canvas, and paper derived from hemp. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, some misinformed law enforcement officers still insist that it is impossible to tell the difference between hemp plants (which are tall, skinny, and planted close together) and marijuana plants (which are more stocky, dense, and planted at least four feet apart).

Of the various types of Cannabis, only Cannabis sativa (left) is
suitable for industrial hemp farming (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

When a lobbyist working for the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Narcotics Officers' Association insisted that "You cannot visually tell the difference. It means in every major trafficking prosecution, defense counsel will begin with the argument 'That is not marijuana, it's hemp -- prove it!" he was met with a less than sympathetic response. Leno wryly noted that  "Anyone with the gift of sight can tell the difference between hemp and marijuana."

While Deedee Kirkwood's play, Toke, is dedicated to tales of getting high around the world, has a grand finale celebrating the 2000 Hemp Festival, and is supposedly based on a true story, to call it anything other than a well-intentioned mess would be a disservice to potential ticket buyers. There is a noticeable difference between a stinkweed and a stinky read.

Co-presented by Swirl Media Group and the Berkeley Patients Group, the action in Kirkwood's play bounces between such locales as the Garden of Eden, a Vietnamese opium den, a German commune with an outhouse, and a polyamory workshop. Even though the audience at the performance I attended barely outnumbered the cast of eight actors, the giddy laughter and hearty applause at the end of each scene was a strong indication that some members of the audience were stoned and their friends were part of the production.

The cast of supporting characters includes Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Pot Fairy (played by Sister Pat n Leather of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence). In her director's note, Patricia Miller writes:
"Our era is defined by pop culture, slang, and signature looks. I live in San Francisco and I do not toke.  So why take on a raw play from an untried writer?  This is a story about America through the quixotic journey of an All American Mom.  
Writer Deedee and her stage avatar, Weedee, cannot be separated.  A big-hearted maverick who can't walk the straight and narrow path no matter how hard she tries, Weedee struggles to conform, to self define, and self accept. A Jewish girl in a WASP sorority, a lone 'Americana' traveling in the world, a lover of Mary Jane hiding in the shadows who finds herself in and through this play, Cannabis is her best friend, her ally, her helper, and ultimately helps her find her authentic voice."
I can't really fault the energetic cast of Toke (headed by Tenaya Hurst as Weedee), who all worked hard to memorize a ghastly, horribly overwritten script and entertain such a sparse audience. According to the show's program notes:
"Deedee Kirkwood perceives her life and work as a Performance Art -- structured, dynamic, ritualized, and continuously improvisational.  As a writer, producer, and artist, Ms. Kirkwood is driven by a sense of purpose that resists categorization, thriving on the intersection of music, personal adventure, and varied perceptions of art. The redemptive power of love and engagement is the overriding theme of both her life and work." 
If only Ms. Kirkwood could tap into the redemptive powers of editing. Toke holds the dubious honor of being second only to Dark Porch Theatre's execrable production of Eleanor ("a pseudohistorical musical comedy set in the afterlife of Eleanor of Aquitaine") in its lust to capture the prize for the most misguided, most ill-conceived, and most incoherent script of the season. What Toke does prove beyond the shadow of a doubt is that a playwright's thoughts -- which may have seemed brilliant while stoned -- most often are not.

* * * * * * * * *
One of the stranger and more eerily disturbing documentaries seen at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival was Detroit Wild City.  Written and directed by Florent Tillon, the film features some wonderful archival footage in addition to battered landscapes and local interviews recorded by the French filmmaker during his visits to Detroit in 2008 and 2009.

Poster art for Detroit Wild City

Formerly hailed  as "the Paris of the Midwest," Detroit's heyday as the home of the American automobile industry has long since come and gone. During the 1980s, while spending Hell Night (the night before Halloween) at the Dearborn Inn, I turned on the local news and learned that only 80 homes were on fire. Since then, the number of abandoned properties (industrial as well as residential) that lie in ruin has increased substantially.

In the past 25 years, Detroit's woes have similarly increased as manufacturers have fled the area, poverty has risen, and Michigan's political landscape has become more polarized. While it would seem that conditions on the ground have nowhere to go but up, optimism is easier to imagine than to find.

An abandoned home in Detroit (Photo by: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Two French photographers (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre) have posted an online gallery of poignant photos from their book entitled The Ruins of Detroit. And yet, where Marchand and Meffre smell death and decay, Tillon senses a resurgence of life and opportunity thanks to a small group of artists, squatters, and organic farmers he encountered who are trying to eke out a living in Detroit.

It's an extremely idealistic and uphill battle. According to estimates by The National Institute for Literacy, roughly 47 percent of adults in Detroit -- 200,000 total -- are "functionally illiterate" (meaning that they have trouble with reading, speaking, writing and computational skills). Even more surprisingly, the Detroit Regional Workforce notes that only half of that illiterate population has obtained a high school degree.

While I found Tillon's documentary to be both fascinating and depressing, it was obvious that the filmmaker had a critical blind spot: there was no mention of Detroit's bitter -- and often brutal -- winters (which would hardly favor organic farming). Here's the trailer:

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