Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Nevertheless, They Persisted

Many toddlers have been stopped in their mischievous tracks by a mother's stern reminder that she's got eyes in the back of her head that can see what the child is doing. A frequent complaint made by insensitive, insecure men is "Dammit, women remember everything!" So it should come as no surprise that a new article by Daniel Samuelsohn is entitled "Hillary Clinton’s Zombie Impeachment Memo That Could Help Fell Trump." The fact that Politico published the article immediately following the recent New York Times report questioning the validity of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings has reopened a festering wound the Trump administration considered to have completely healed.

What may have been easy to sweep under the rug (or ram through the aforementioned Senate hearings) is now re-emerging on a vastly different field of battle. Since Trump moved into the Oval Office, Americans have witnessed a toxic sludge of sleazy grifters, privileged and incompetent Presidential appointees, and rampant corruption eating away at federal resources, government integrity, and institutional memory.

Meanwhile, the outrage from women's marches, the #MeToo movement, and the collective dethroning of powerful men like Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose has had a strong impact on American society (polling has also witnessed a dramatic shift in how the public feels about gun control). Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has told reporters in no uncertain terms that, instead of asking her silly questions in an attempt to force the Speaker to redefine a single word, they should really be going after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (a/k/a "Moscow Mitch") for his steadfast refusal to do his job.

In addition to such fiscally-focused members of the House of Representatives as Maxine Waters and Katie Porter, four outspoken new minority Congresswomen (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayana Pressley, and Ilhan Omar) have proven to be tough interrogators during Congressional hearings. Three female Senators now on the campaign trail are vying for the Democratic nomination in 2020's Presidential election. And every Tweet gets echoed and magnified by social media.

Anyone who watched Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren meticulously slice and dice a stonewalling witness has every right to believe that, in addition to their academic achievements and mental acuity, they may have practiced their technique at a Benihana restaurant. In a recent post on, Senator Warren referenced the President's sister (Federal Appellate Judge Maryanne Trump Barry) for her recent resignation from the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in order to deep six an inquiry into her involvement in the Trump's family’s notorious efforts at tax evasion. Meanwhile, Senator Harris has been quite forthright about her desire to prosecute Trump for a wide variety of crimes.

As more women gain political power (and inspire other women to feel similarly empowered), Nina Simone's rendition of "Feeling Good" (from the Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley musical entitled The Roar of the Greasepaint -- The Smell of the Crowd) takes on a much greater depth than the song originally demonstrated on Broadway.

With a gathering storm of female outrage and fierce determination, it's interesting to consider two recent theatrical offerings focused on 20th-century women whose stubbornness was an integral part of their strength. One was a lesbian journalist who took advantage of a unique opportunity to land a surprising place in American history. The other was a divorced, hard-working 39-year-old maid in Lake Charles, Louisiana determined to feed and care for her children regardless of the brutal insults hurled in her face.

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Due to a scheduling conflict, I was unable to catch a performance of Terry Baum's play entitled HICK: A Love Story, Based on Eleanor Roosevelt's Letters to Lorena Hickok, when it was presented last year at the Berkeley City Club. Thankfully, Baum and her friends brought the show to the 2019 San Francisco Fringe Festival where (considering the range of subject matter presented during that festival) I was amused to see the words "WARNING: NOT FOR CHILDREN, FOR PEOPLE 12 AND OVER" accompanying its description.

Terry Baum stars as Lorena Hickock in HICK: A Love Story

It's no secret that Eleanor Roosevelt had a female lover who was one of the more famous journalists of the day. If, indeed, opposites attract, then the ongoing romance between a woman raised in refined society and a butch lesbian reporter offers plenty of material for the stage. The fact that Roosevelt's position in the White House often made it difficult for the two women to spend time together (and that President Roosevelt was always curious about and valued Hick's political insights) adds a new dimension to the story of their love affair.

Lorena Hickock and Eleanor Roosevelt

Baum portrays Lorena Hickock as a gutsy woman who relishes life on the campaign trail but, having been dropped from the usual press gaggle, lands herself an incredible position as best friend and confidant of the First Lady. With Loretta Janca as Eleanor Roosevelt and Tara Ayres as the Narrator, Baum makes it crystal clear to the audience that the words attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt in her play are taken directly from the First Lady's love letters with permission from Mrs. Roosevelt's estate. How those letters ended up as a matter of public record offers fascinating insights into the mind of a fearless woman whose courage and vision helped her build a long and proud track record of breaking with tradition.

Terry Baum stars as Lorena Hickock in HICK: A Love Story

Presented by Lilith Theatre (in association with the San Francisco Fringe Festival), the action in HICK (which has been ably directed by Carolyn Myers) mostly takes place between 1932 and 1934 as the two women fall in love and then segues to 1968 in Hick's New York apartment.

Terry Baum as Lorena Hickock in HICK: A Love Story

Hickock (who, in 1928, became the first woman to get a byline on the front page of The New York Times) was always trying to create jobs for other female reporters. She helped shape Mrs. Roosevelt’s public persona by giving her the idea that only female reporters should be invited to the First Lady’s press conferences. She also encouraged Eleanor to write a daily column entitled “My Day,” which Mrs. Roosevelt did every day for more than 30 years.

Hick wisely concluded that if newspapers needed to send a women to Mrs. Roosevelt's weekly press conferences, they would need to keep a woman on staff. No men were ever allowed to attend her press conferences (except for King George V of England, who demanded to be in attendance). As the First First Lady ever to hold a press conference, Eleanor continued to have a press conference every week during the 12 years she lived in the White House.

After FDR died on April 12, 1945, Mrs. Roosevelt was appointed to the United Nations, where she chaired the committee that wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was responsible for getting it passed by the U.N. General Assembly. An interesting side note is that, after June 2, 1953, the two most respected women in the world (Eleanor Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth II) shared the same initials: "ER."

During the 30 years that they were lovers, Eleanor wrote over 2,336 to Lorena Hickock, expressing such tender sentiments as "I can't kiss you, so I kiss your picture good night and good morning," "I would give a good deal to put my arms around you and to feel yours around me -- I love you deeply and tenderly," and "Oh dear one, it is all the little things, the tones in your voice, the feel of your hair, gestures, these are the things I think about and long for."

Not only did I find Terry Baum's play (co-written with Pat Bond) and performance delightful and enchanting, I thought it offered a perfect demonstration of why LGBT history needs to be included in school curriculums.

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Over in the Mission District, Ray of Light Theatre is blowing the roof off the Victoria Theatre with an outstanding production of Caroline, or Change. With book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, this ambitious 2003 musical begins in 1963, just prior to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Cadarious Mayberry, Majesty-Pearl Scott. and Elizabeth Jones
as The Radio in Caroline, or Change (Photo by: Nick Otto)

Working on Kuo-Hao Lo's cramped set, with lighting by Kevin Myrick, and costumes by Bethany Deal, director Jenn BeVard and choreographer Angel Adedokun have done a stunning job of incorporating the magical realism which gives powerful voice to the moon, a radio, a bus, a washing machine, and dryer in a complex tale about race relations, vanquished dreams, income inequality, and the survival skills that get a beaten-down black woman from one day to the next. As Kushner explains:
“I don’t know what power it is in human beings that keeps them going against indescribable forces of destruction. I don’t know how any African American and person of color in this country stays sane, given that the whole machinery of American racism seems designed to drive them crazy or kill them. I don’t know why it is every woman isn’t completely consumed all the time by debilitating rage. I don’t know why lesbians and gay men aren’t all as twisted inside as Roy Cohn was. By means of what magic do people transform bitter centuries of enslavement and murder into Beauty and Grace? Something, some joy in us refuses death, makes us stand against the overt and insidious violence practiced upon us by death’s minions.”
Jasmyne Brice (Caroline) and Leslie Ivy (The Washing Machine)
in a scene from Caroline, or Change (Photo by: Nick Otto)

Although Caroline, or Change first premiered on 2003 at the Public Theatre in New York (in a venue which seats approximately 300 people), when I first experienced it at the Curran Theatre in 2005, it was obvious that this musical needed a more intimate environment. The 480-seat Victoria Theatre feels like a perfect fit, which brings the audience close to the performers and helps to intensify their performances.

Christopher Apy delivers a breakout performance as Noah
in Caroline, or Change (Photo by: Nick Otto)

As with the 2005 production I saw, there are moments when it becomes extremely difficult to understand Kushner's lyrics. However, in revisiting the show nearly 15 years later, I realize that much of this is due to the complexity and overlapping elements of Tesori's score (in which blues, gospel, and klezmer are often vying for first place).

Jacqueline Dennis appears as The Moon in Caroline, or Change
(Photo by: Nick Otto)
Though scenes may shift from the basement of the Gellmans' middle-class home to the other-worldly Moon (Jacqueline Dennis) -- and from a Chanukah celebration rife with family tensions to the busy kitchen in which Caroline (Jasmyne Brice), her friend Dotty (Phaedra Tillery), and Caroline's daughter Emmie (Markaila Dyson), are preparing dinner -- there is no doubt that the audience is witnessing a family plagued by confusion and depression.

Jasmyne Brice (Caroline) and Phaedra Tillery (Dotty) in a
scene from Caroline or Change (Photo by: Nick Otto)

Young Noah (Christopher Apy) is obsessed with the family's maid, who toils in the basement and lets him light her cigarette every day. With no friends his own age and little understanding about segregation, the 12-year-old boy wishes he could play with Caroline's younger children, Joe (Antonio Banks) and Jackie (Royal Mickens). Any daydreams he has about Caroline becoming the next President of the United States are easily dampened by the labored attempts made by his stepmother, Rose (Katie Pimentel), as she struggles to fill the shoes of Noah's recently deceased mother.

Michael DeMartini (Mr. Stoponick) and Katie Pimentel (Rose)
in a scene from Caroline, or Change (Photo by: Nick Otto)

Noah has also developed a careless habit of leaving loose change in his pants pockets, which Rose aims to fix by informing Caroline that any change she discovers while doing the laundry is money she can keep for herself. Meanwhile, Noah's grieving father, Stuart (Roy Eikleberry), showers more love on his clarinet than his lonely son.

Markaila Dyson (Emmie), Christopher Apy (Noah),
Royal Mickens (Jackie), and Antonio Banks (Joe) in a
scene from Caroline, or Change (Photo by: Nick Otto)

Working with music director David Möschler, sound designers Jerry Girard and Anton Hedman have tried to overcome the Victoria's tricky acoustics. While some moments fare better than others, the raw talent onstage pushes past any auditory challenges with blazing determination. Martin Bell (The Bus), Anthone Jackson (The Dryer), and the high-spirited trio of Elizabeth Jones, Cadarious Mayberry, and Majesty Scott as The Radio, deliver high-powered vocals while, as a super-voluptuous Washing Machine, Leslie Ivy brings the kind of oomph to her rinse cycle that neither Kenmore, Whirlpool, or Amana could ever hope to deliver.

While Matt Beall, Judy Beall, and Michael DeMartini bring the love and emotional baggage of an older generation of Jews to the Gellman residence, the show rests on the seething shoulders of the talented Jasmyne Brice, who conveys a palpable sense of the walking wounded to her portrayal of Caroline. While Brice's performance (both vocally and dramatically) is amazing to behold, she is almost bested by Christopher Apy as Noah -- a young talent to watch. Indeed, the overall quality of ROLT's production is so strong that one would be foolish to let the venue's acoustical problems dampen its brilliant theatricality.

Performances of Caroline, or Change continue through October 5 at the Victoria Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer: