Saturday, January 24, 2009

Monkey See, Monkey Do

"If you're so smart, how can you be so damned stupid?"

That's the question I often want to ask people in the medical field whose Christian faith gets in the way of their understanding the basic facts of biology and evolution. After all, if you've studied anatomy, you should have some idea about what makes one species differ from another. If you can greedily pump fossil fuels into your family's SUV you should have some idea of what a fossil is, how it was created, and what you can learn from its history. If you can use computers and other scientific instruments capable of calculating large numbers, you should have some understanding that the world was not made in seven days, that Adam and Eve did not arrive fully formed in the Garden of Eden and that the snake had to come from somewhere

Like many people, I am thrilled to finally have a President who believes in, embraces, and supports science -- a man who is crystal clear on the concept of evolution. Not Creationism, not Intelligent Design. but evolution -- the process of natural selection described in Charles Darwin's groundbreaking On the Origin of Species which, since it was first published in 1859, has become the basis for the branch of scientific study known as evolutionary biology.

I suppose I should admit to an obvious bias in this area. I come from a family of atheists. My father taught biology and general science in New York City's public school system. Still, I wasn't the only person in the audience at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Thursday night who was thrilled by the performance given by members of L.A. Theatre Works of The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial. Adapted by Peter Goodchild from the actual transcripts of the famous Scopes trial (which took place from July 7-21, 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee), the performance was a breath of fresh air after eight long years of forced idiocy from the Religious Right. 

Directed by Brendon Fox and starring 80-year-old Ed Asner as William Jennings BryanJohn Heard as Clarence Darrow, Matthew Patrick Davis as John Thomas Scopes, and with Shannon Cochran narrating, this performance of an old-fashioned script-in-hand radio drama crackled with electricity.  While it was riveting to watch such a curious moment in our history come to life on the stage of Kanbar Hall, it was thrilling to watch Asner -- as an aging Baptist blowhard -- wallow in Bryan's fatuous ignorance and religious condescension until he looked like a very smug and self-righteous idiot. The fact that the Judge in the Scopes trial insisted on addressing the prosecuting and defense attorneys as "Colonel" only added to the play's charm.

To understand the evening's powerful grip on the auidence, listen to Lou Harry describe what L.A. Theater Works is all about:

This performance was part of a series of lectures being presented by the JCCSF to celebrate the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth. Two more programs are scheduled for this spring. On March 24, anthropologist and historian Richard Milner will talk about Darwin's evolution as a naturalist.  Two nights later, Milner will appear in his one-man show: Charles Darwin: Live and In Concert.  You can order tickets online or by calling the JCCSF's box office at (415) 292-1233. Here's a teaser for your enjoyment:

* * * * * * *

If you're the kind of person who likes to whisper "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" to yourself -- or who lies in bed thinking about how much you'd love to stroke a big pussy, then Robyn Bliley's poignant documentary about Circus Rosaire is just the treat for you. Sadly sweet and sweetly sad, this film explores the lifestyle of a circus family that see its audiences dwindling, its income evaporating, and its beloved trainers and animals aging and dying off.  

The Rosaires have been entertaining audiences around the world for more than 50 years. Nine generations of the family have worked in various parts of circus life (whether as circus performers, animal trainers, stagehands, or ticket sellers). As animal rights activitists continue to have a severe impact on circuses -- and groups like Cirque du Soleil continue to redefine the art form -- the Rosaires find themselves at the end of a long and (sometimes less than glorious) life on the road. 

Intensely devoted to their animals, the Rosaire family tends to an aging population of lions, tigers, bears, dogs, goats and other creatures. One of the Rosaire women has the the only surviving chimpanzee act in the industry. With economic times being what they are, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus may be the only circus outfit that will survive the current recession. 

As the Rosaires formulate a plan to stop touring, settle down, and convert their animal acts to an educational animal sanctuary, the film captures the loving last gasp of a show business tradition that is quickly following vaudeville into oblivion. There are many poignant moments in this film (including the Rosaire family's tearful funeral for a beloved chimpanzee).

No comments: