Monday, October 6, 2008

Don't Fool With Mother Nature

After his incredible success on Broadway with Milk and Honey (1961), Hello, Dolly! (1964) and Mame (1966), composer/lyricist Jerry Herman turned his attention to a pet project: trying to create a musical based on Jean Giradoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot.  When I attended the first preview of Dear World at Boston's Colonial Theater, the show was an absolute mess. When we spoke in her dressing room after that performance, Angela Lansbury was quick to apologize for the fact that the show simply wasn't ready for public consumption.  

By the time Dear World lumbered onto Broadway in February of 1969, the show was much better but still quite problematic.  Although Lansbury would win the Tony for best actress for a characterization that became a theatrical legend, the show never quite caught on.  

In many ways, Dear World was out of sync with the moment.  Its relevance to the greed and corruption plaguing today's world is staggering.

The lyrics for the show's eleven o'clock number are as follows:
"One person can beat a drum
And make enough noise for ten.
One person can blow a horn.
And that little boom and that little blare
Can make a hundred others care.

And one person can hold a torch.
And light up the sky again.
And one little voice 
That's squeaking a song
Can make a million voices strong.
If one person can beat a drum.
And one person can blow a horn.
If one person can hold a torch.
Then one person can change the world."

You might think I'm using this lyric as a setup to discuss an aspect of Barack Obama's Presidental campaign.  But you'd be wrong.   The concept that "It isn't the size of the fist, it's the size of the dream," has a lot more to do with the story of a different community organizer -- a Kenyan woman whose simple approach to change earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

That woman is Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, whose story is the inspiration for a beguiling new documentary being shown at the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival this month.  The founder of the Green Belt Movement, Maathai made the connection between the deforestation of Kenya under British colonial rule and the rape of the earth in her native country.  Known by some as the "Tree Mother of Africa," her group has planted more than 40 million trees as a way of stopping soil erosion and reclaiming the land.

Taking Root: The Vision of Wangarai Matthai is the first documentary I've seen which explores the devastation caused by colonialism, connects it to today's environmental issues, and shows how one very stubborn woman -- using her wits and common sense -- managed to reclaim her country's soil against all odds.

Maathai's enemies included  famine, poverty, drought, rich white Europeans, and a native culture in which women were never viewed as people of wisdom.  And yet her intelligence, indomitable spirit, and subversively mischievious tactics have served as a model for community organizers around the world.

While Dr. Maathai's story is nothing less than jaw-dropping in its impact,  listening to the woman speak is an unexpected pleasure. Despite her time in prison (and any other injustices she has endured), this woman has a remarkable presence.   As friends and colleagues who witnessed her struggles against an oppressive Kenyan government regime describe her impact on Kenyans, Africans, and the world in general, you will marvel at the scope of her achievements and the wisdom and humanity which emanates from her soul.

For anyone interested in environmental issues, this documentary is as important as Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.   Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai is very much the story of how one woman can inspire so many who thought themselves powerless and, by doing so, change the world.  I can't recommend it strongly enough.

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