Monday, October 31, 2011

Taboo Or Not Taboo

Are you fully disclosed to your doctor?  Your boyfriend?  Your spouse?

I didn't think so. No matter how hard anyone professes to have no secrets, somewhere inside their head a tiny voice is screaming "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!" through a haze of denial.
  • If it's a financial secret, it's probably not as big or bad as Bernie Madoff's.
  • If it's a romantic secret, you're probably following in the footsteps of countless others.
  • If it's a secret about your health, it will eventually come out. (Remember the shock waves when the media learned that Rock Hudson had AIDS?)
  • If it's a secret about your identity, that too will be unmasked. Check out Billy Tipton's story.
  • If you're a closeted lobbyist or politician who thinks his secret is safe, just ask Larry Craig, George Rekers, Ed Schrock, or Roy Ashburn what happened to them.
  • If you're a homophobic religious leader who thinks no one would ever accuse you of having sex with another man, just ask Ted Haggard or Pastor Eddie Long about their falls from grace.
  • If you're a closeted politician doing dumb things on the Internet (or with electronic toys), think about what happened to Anthony Weiner, Mark Foley, James E. West and Philip Hinkle.
Think of all the people who appeared on "I've Got A Secret."  What's yours?

* * * * * * * * *
Hoping to make a good impression on someone causes more people to lie than imaginable. Sometimes it's a little white lie, at other times it's a whopper. Sometimes it's a nervous lie designed to position yourself as the kind of person a potential employer or a date might like to know. Sometimes it's a lie of omission.

That last type of lie tends to bite people in the ass at the most unfortunate moments. Lies of omission are the key plot points in The Last Romance, a sweet and tender play by Joe DiPietro that has been meticulously directed by Laird Williamson down at San Jose Rep, where it is receiving its regional premiere.

A tidy two-act dramedy that will have tremendous appeal to older audiences, The Last Romance features an ugly dog named Peaches and the ghostly memory of a naive young man (Joshua Jeremiah) who once had operatic ambitions.

Will Marchetti and Joshua Jeremiah in
The Last Romance (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Each of DiPietro's three main characters is hiding a painful and embarrassing truth.
  • Ralph Bellini (Will Marchetti) is an 80-year-old Italian-American widower living in Hoboken, New Jersey. He and his wife used to dress up and go to the Metropolitan Opera once a year but, ever since Anna died in her sleep, he's been pining for some female companionship and the touch of a loving woman.
  • Rose (Sharon Lockwood) is Ralph's sister, the stereotype of a overly negative, nagging Italian-American relative who, because she is miserable, thinks the whole world should be miserable. Rose moved in with her brother shortly after Anna's death and has been cooking, cleaning, and picking up after him ever since. A control freak whose husband left her 22 years ago, Rose is cut from the same cloth as Tony's sister Marie in The Most Happy Fella. Her closest friend, Annette, is a never-ending source of local gossip.
  • Carol Reynolds (Kitty Winn) is a wealthy 75-year-old woman whose husband, after suffering a stroke four years ago, became a vegetable. Forced to put him into a long-term care facility, Carol rescued a dog from the ASPCA to ease her loneliness

Carol (Kitty Winn) and Ralph (Will Marchetti) in
The Last Romance (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When Ralph tries to start up a conversation with Carol on a park bench, the former executive secretary is cold, wary, and not the least bit interested in getting to know the strange man who is so shamelessly trying to flirt with her. But Ralph is not the kind of person to take no for an answer. Slowly, but surely, he pierces through Rose's defense mechanisms.

By the time Rose arrives home one afternoon to find her brother necking with Carol in his easy chair, the audience knows full well that this affair has a limited shelf life. While she is quick to tell Carol that Ralph is a real catch "because he can still drive at night," Rose is clearly threatened by his demonstrations of puppy love.

Unwilling to confront the source of her own misery -- and deeply resenting Ralph's attraction to Carol --  Rose doesn't hesitate to ruin her brother's brief chance at happiness. For a play about geezers in love, one of the nicest things about The Last Romance (which premiered in Kansas City's New Theatre Restaurant in 2008) is that all three characters are still alive at the play's end.

Carol (Kitty Winn) and Rose (Sharon Lockwood) in
The Last Romance (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Kitty Winn, Sharon Lockwood, and Will Marchetti deliver solidly-crafted characterizations of three lonely souls. Joshua Jeremiah's appealing baritone adds a lyrical touch to the proceedings (the young opera singer has appeared in The Last Romance in Kansas City, San Diego, and San Jose). Karen Altree Piemme's program notes reveal how carefully DiPietro chose certain arias to mirror the action taking place onstage (or the thoughts in Ralph and Carol's minds).

The Last Romance is a gently teasing, but realistic play which is not merely about what happens when a person's most intimate secrets are betrayed. DiPietro asks audiences to consider whether anyone in the last stages of life is entitled to take risks, feel happy, have an adventure, and maybe even fall in love.

With a cast of four and a simple unit set, The Last Romance should have no trouble becoming a tidy and economical crowd pleaser for regional theatre companies. Its characters are easily recognizable and its moments of anguish and joy equally palpable.

Kitty Winn, Will Marchtti, and Sharon Lockwood
star in The Last Romance (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

* * * * * * * * *
There is nothing tender or gentle about the American Conservatory Theater's new production of Race. The West Coast premiere of this 2009 dramedy by David Mamet may take place in a sleekly angled law office designed by Christopher Barreca, but audiences should not be fooled. This play is about legal sharks swimming in very expensive waters. And these sharks smell blood. As the playwright explains:
"Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth. In each, desire, self-interest, and self-image make the truth inconvenient to share not only with strangers, but with members of one's own group, and, indeed, with oneself."
Smoothly directed by Irene Lewis, Race turns into a legal game about enticement and entrapment involving four characters:
  • Charles Strickland (Kevin O'Rourke) is a wealthy businessman, a smug "Master of the Universe" type who has been charged with raping a black prostitute in a hotel room.  Not yet willing to admit that his case has been declined by the first law firm he approached, Strickland is now hoping that a multiracial law firm will be able to win the case for him. Because money is no issue (and no one would ever dare to call him on his bullshit), Strickland's overwhelming sense of white male privilege makes him believe that the simplest way to put the matter to rest would be to go directly to the press and try to explain everything to them.
  • Henry Brown (Chris Butler) is the African American attorney Strickland hopes will be able to save his ass. Smart as a whip but streetwise in ways his business partner could never understand, Henry is deeply suspicious of the firm's new hire, a young African American female attorney who keeps her cards close to her chest.
  • Jack Lawson (Anthony Fusco) is Henry's law partner, a well-intentioned white man who took a chance on hiring the young African American attorney in question after thoroughly (and, in some ways, illegally) investigating her past. As a practiced lawyer who can find an excuse for anything, Jack is convinced that the victim's red sequined dress holds the key to winning Strickland's case.
  • Susan (Susan Heyward), the firm's new attorney, is nobody's fool. But, as an African American woman, she says things from a very different perspective than her male employers. From the moment she first laid eyes on Strickland, she was convinced of his guilt. Adept at sparring with Jack and Henry over legal and ethical trivia, she has a few interesting moves of her own.
Kevin O'Rourke and Chris Butler in David Mamet's Race
Photo by: Kevin Berne

The action is Mamet's play is quite secondary to the assumptions he puts in the hands of each character (as well as the audience). As I watched Race unfold, I was reminded of what an old leather friend once said to me. "The reason lawyers make the very best bottoms is because they'll do absolutely anything!" But as director Irene Lewis stresses:
"The language moves so fast that it doesn't give the audience a lot of time to digest what they've just seen. You've got these lawyers. Their weapons are words.  They annihilate whomever they're talking to."
Anthony Fusco and Susan Heyward in David Mamet's Race
Photo by: Kevin Berne

Much of Race resembles a high-stakes three-dimensional game of chess, with each new revelation shifting the advantage from one character to another. In the end, one likes or feels any sympathy for any of the characters onstage, which is exactly what leads to Mamet's brutal final statement.
  • It's not about whether Jack and Henry should have agreed to take on Strickland's case.
  • It's not about whether Jack and Henry should have investigated Susan's private life.
  • It's not about whether Strickland should have gone to the press, kept his mouth shut, or confessed to raping his mistress.
  • Nor is it about whether or not Susan sold out her employers.
As Susan tersely informs Jack at the end of the play, "it's because, White Man, he was guilty."

Susan Heyward  in David Mamet's Race
Photo by: Kevin Berne

Friday, October 28, 2011

Culture versus Counterculture

What happens to artists who found their voices and began their careers as part of the counterculture?
Two recent local events offered a fascinating opportunity to contrast the sights and sounds of the counterculture from distances of four decades and 10,000 miles. In each case, I found myself wondering if the old axiom -- "The more things change the more they stay the same" -- is true.

* * * * * * * * *
Recently screened at the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival, a new film by Laura Gamse and Jacques de Villiers entitled The Creators looks at some of the talent that has emerged from South African ghettos. Among the artists profiled are:

Blaq Pearl, a young woman who teaches creative writing to inmates in the same prison where her brother taught prior to his death. After her older brother, a hip hop activist named Mr. Devious, was murdered in their hometown of Mitchell's Plain by a rival gang, Blaq Pearl became a writer and performer specializing in the spoken word. Even though her brother's killer has been released from jail and lives in an adjoining neighborhood, Blaq Pearl continues to use poetry as a way to break free from the violence of street life.

Warongx, an Afro-Blues duo. Originally from rural Eastern Cape, Ongx (who won first place in a 2007 South African music competition) joined forces with his friend Wara to form the band Warongx. Together, they sing songs written in Xhosa while most other artists prefer to make recordings in English. Because the recording deal Ongx was promised with a large production company failed to bring him any income, he is forced to wash dishes and perform on streets and trains in order to get by.

Faith47, a subversive graffiti activist fighting for public art whose large message murals have been inspired by the African National Congress's 1955 document known to all South Africans as The Freedom Charter. Faith47 paints murals on walls in townships whose levels of violence are worse than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. Her artistically gifted and extremely bright son, 11-year-old Cashril Plus, is her biggest fan.

Mthetho, a young man with a big voice whose father left behind a CD of Luciano Pavarotti singing opera arias. Able to memorize and mimic the music on the CD, Mthetho helped support his single mother until she died from AIDS. Left on his own, he got caught up in a gang lifestyle that resulted in multiple stabbings and a large knife scar on his cheek. Determined to learn more music and support his family with his singing, Mthetho's optimism has yet to collide with the fact that he doesn't understand the words he is singing. Nor does he have a strong sense of pitch.

Sweat.X, a radical black/white performance art duo (Spoek Mathambo and Markus Wormstorm) from Soweto and Pretoria. The two musicians often take their style of performing ("pump up/get down music") out to poor communities in the Karoo region of South Africa.

Sweat.X (Markus Wormstorm and Spoek Mathambo)
performing outdoors in The Creators

Emile Jansen was active in anti-apartheid protests and and school boycotts in his younger days. Not only was he shot at by police, he witnessed the death of friends who were trying to overthrow South Africa's apartheid government.  A former breakdancer for the hip hop group Black Noise, he now tries to contribute to a more conscious culture among South African youths by leading breakdancing workshops and helping young men prepare for B-boy competitions.

* * * * * * * * *
Several things must be taken into consideration when approaching the touring production of Hair that recently arrived in San Francisco:
  • More than four decades after its premiere, the popular musical created by James RadoGerome Ragni, and Galt McDermott must now be seen as a period piece.
  • Because the Selective Service System stopped issuing draft orders in 1973, theatergoers born after 1958 have never known the white-knuckle fear of being drafted.
  • With today's military comprised of volunteers, the controversy accompanying one's identification as a conscientious objector has largely disappeared from society.
  • In her attempt to make Hair relevant to modern audiences, Diane Paulus (who was born while the original production was still a box office hit) has aimed her staging squarely at theatergoers with attention deficit disorder.
  • If the sound level for this production's amplification could be cut in half, not only would the resulting drop in sound distortion allow audiences to hear the words more clearly, people would get a better show (when every musical number is loud or louder, the sweet lyricism of a song like "Frank Mills" loses its charm in the resulting cacophony).
  • There is a perverse irony to be found in the fact that the cast of a musical celebrating the natural gifts of the human body should include a chorus whose men, for the most part, seem to have waxed their torsos in order to remove any signs of body hair.
Steel Burkhardt as Berger in Hair

Nevertheless, counterculture is still very much in today's news. Despite the presence of costumed "flower children" handing out daisies to the crowd in front of the Golden Gate Theatre on opening night, the performance I attended took place within 48 hours of police using tear gas and rubber bullets to break up the Occupy Wall Street protest in Oakland. As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of France's gift to the United States of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus's "tired and poor ... huddled masses yearning to breathe free" can be found in tent cities across America.

What struck me as truly remarkable about this production of Hair was how hard it has become to shock a modern audience.
Berger (Steel Burkhardt) and Claude (Paris Remillard) in Hair
Photo by: Joan Marcus

Ironically, some of the original production's wit and sassiness have disappeared in the new Paulus staging, replaced by Karole Armitage's "wild child" style of choreography.  Gone is one of Broadway's funniest costume tricks (the mammoth sequined dress spoofing The Supremes), which has been replaced by a clueless rendition of "Black Boys/White Boys" that completely misses the satirical point of the song.

This is very much a Hair for the digital age. The touring company's website proudly boasts "We've got merch" and audience members who dance onstage after the show can look for themselves in a video clip the following morning.

Unlike the original production (whose performers didn't wear body mikes), the touring cast of Hair has a video blog which includes backstage interviews with cast members as well as video clips of Steel Burkhardt and Paris Remillard answering questions from fans that were posted on the show's Facebook page.

Hud (Mike Evariste), Berger (Steel Burkhardt), and Wolf
(Matt DeAngelis)salute the flag in Hair (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Phyre Hawkins opens the show with a solid rendition of "Aquarius." Sara King's rendition of "Easy To Be Hard" takes on a more bitter irony than usual. Will Blum scores strongly as Claude's father and Margaret Mead, with Liz Baltes going for the guilt as Claude's mother. Corey Bradley and Nkrumah Gatling were among the more impressive members of the Tribe.

One thing is for sure. Unlike the original production (which moved from Joseph Papp's Public Theatre to Broadway), this ain't your father's version of Hair. Deafeningly loud, aerobically performed, and severely commercialized, this is a reworked Hair for a very different generation. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nature Calls

The news that Google StreetView recently started to film a 30-mile segment of the Rio Negro's tributary is a mixed blessing.  On one hand, Google's popular new technology will allow millions of armchair travelers to witness the natural beauty and native culture of the Amazon basin -- from Manaus to Terra Preta -- without ruining it with excessive tourism. On the other hand, one more area of unspoiled land comes into closer contact with the creeping force of civilization.

Think about how the following impact local environments:

With our planet's surface being ravaged for profit, three new films examine the toll civilization has taken on topography. Whether in documentary format or as a narrative based on a true story, each has its special appeal.

* * * * * * * * *
General Orders No. 9 is one of those films which defies categorization. Recently screened at the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival, it is a documentary that often seems to be posing as a nostalgic meditation. Written, directed, and produced by Robert Persons, it has been described by the filmmaker as "one last trip down the rabbit hole before it’s paved over."

Poster art for General Orders No. 9

Persons grew up in the American South when much of it was still rural (people still refer to Atlanta and "the rest of Georgia"). Using a combination of historical maps and poetry, he shows how what was once a deer trail became an Indian trail and eventually evolved into a county road that invited further civilization. As he explores the historical transformation of Georgia with computer generated graphics, he notes the symmetry of land development, stating that:
"The county's at the center of the state. The town's at the center of the county. The courthouse is at the center of the town. The weather vane is the center of it all."

Filmed throughout Georgia with a beautiful original musical score by Chris Hoke, many moments in General Orders No. 9 evoke memories of Godfrey Reggio's 1982 documentary/tone poem entitled Koyaanisqatsi. As one revels in the film's stunning shots of antiques, landscapes, highways, and architecture, one understands the filmmaker's genuine sense of grieving for the way progress has taken over and transformed the area's natural landscape with congested cities and urban blight ("The Interstate does not serve. It possesses").

Having never gone to film school, Persons took a very different approach to creating General Orders No. 9.  As he explains:
"Cosmology is an image of the world that exhibits a pattern of meaning, and has a center. It’s a primitive, Old World way of looking at things. Now we know there is no center. We don’t even know where the center of the universe is. So I started studying this kind of map called a Mappa mundi, which is a very old style of map that had all the topographic features of a map but also included the elements of the cosmology. These mapmakers were trying to create an accurate map on geographical terms, but they also imposed their metaphysical or spiritual beliefs on it too. These people were unclear about where was heaven, where was hell, where was the Holy Land? They would also include what the mapmaker himself was preoccupied by.
Sometimes when you’re excited about something you can exude a degree of charisma. I was trying to present a cosmology. I wrote this essay that pitched the vision of what I wanted and talked about the various influences that inspired it. I just stood there and talked off the top of my head.  I was mostly working with people who did a lot of commercial work, both in video and motion graphics. They were excited to work on something that was purely creative. They were excited to work on an art project."

Persons spent more than 11 years collecting and editing images for General Orders No. 9.  Bittersweet images of  lost chapters in American history fill the screen as the film's narrator intones "You are not a witness to the ruin, you are the ruin to be witnessed."  At 72 minutes in length, General Orders No. 9 is such a visually rich and spiritually fulfilling documentary that viewers may find themselves wishing for more. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
In 2003, a superb Canadian documentary named The Corporation was based on a simple finding: the behavior of many corporations matches the character traits attributed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to a psychopath. In fact, during its filming the documentary's screenwriter, attorney Joel Bakan, wrote a book entitled The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.

Participants in Occupy Wall Street protests would be well advised to revisit The Corporation. Why? Since the United States Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, environmentalists and conservationists have a new perspective with which to examine corporate behavior by oil companies such as:
Unfortunately, oil companies are not the only culprits in environmental disasters. Following 2010's Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, the negligence of Massey Energy was identified as a major contributing cause.

In 2010, the San Francisco Documentary Festival screened Dreamland, a horrifying film about how Iceland's population got sold down the river when Alcoa's success at corrupting Icelandic officials led to the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant and the destruction of Iceland's formerly healthy economy. This year, the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival screened another documentary about a multinational corporation intent on building five huge dams in Chile that will have a huge (and potentially disastrous) impact on that nation's environment.

The yearly runoff from the northern Patagonian ice sheet makes its way to the Pacific Ocean via the Baker and Pascua rivers. Not only would the proposed dams across these rivers have a critical impact on the land and the people who live in Patagonia, the reasoning for the dams is a bit lopsided.

Lake Colonia lies at the foot of the Colonia Glacier in Patagonia

Endesa, a Spanish corporation, wants to generate hydroelectric power from these dams which can be used to supply the demands of Santiago, the nation's capital 1,200 miles to the north. This electricity would be transmitted over high-tension lines built by a Canadian company.

One of the Chileans who is interviewed in Patagonia Rising stresses that there is a much simpler alternative which will not ruin the land: use solar panels to capture the sun's rays as they reach Santiago. Between the smart use of wind turbines and solar energy, there should be sufficient power generated to service the region's energy needs. As filmmaker Brian Lilla explains:
"Fifteen years ago, I was in Patagonia and the place blew my mind. When I was approached to direct a documentary that could potentially impact the decision to not build the dams, I
immediately jumped on board. If we were living in prehistoric times, I would be the caveman who would volunteer to carve on walls after a hunt rather than skinning the beast. How I went from making Super-8 skate films to getting caught up in an international controversy over water and power still has me baffled. Before filmmaking much of my life was focused on having a good adventure. Directing Patagonia Rising allowed me to keep that adventure alive. Through the process of making the documentary, I learned so much in regard to the human relationship to rivers. My greatest hope is that this experience transcends to audiences and makes a positive impact on the choices we make regarding water and power."
Llamas grazing in Patagonia

Patagonia Rising is filled with beautiful footage of the Patagonian alps as well as bucolic scenes of Chile's gauchos, farmers, and ranchers who would become the victims of Endesa's huge power grab. Needless to say, Lilla's provocative film also has plenty of talking heads. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Think, for a moment, of some classic lines from movies that have become a common part of our culture:
Now, clap your hands and stamp your feet -- there's a new entry: "We're systematizing our pygmies." Granted, it doesn't have quite the same lilt as Butterfly McQueen's hysterical "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies," but I like it. I like it a lot.

Poster art for Oka!

I also like the movie it comes from: Lavinia Currier's African adventure entitled Oka!  Based on the real-life experiences of Louis Sarno (who recorded the native music of the Bayaka Pygmy clan in the Central African Republic (CAR) while living there during the 1980s and published a book with accompanying CDs entitled Bayaka: The Extraordinary Music of the BaBenzi Pygmies), Oka! is a visual treat. It also captures on film a style of music that Sarno believes is older than the pyramids and “one of the hidden glories of humanity.”

Sarno, whose first memoir was entitled Song From the Forest: My Life Among the Ba-Benjelle Pygmies (and whose second memoir is entitled Last Thoughts Before Vanishing From The Face of the Earth) is convinced that the intricacy of the music of the Bayaka Pygmies -- and its emotional content -- represents one of the world’s most significant cultural traditions. In the film, Kris Marshall portrays Larry, a tall redheaded ethnomusicologist from New Jersey whose liver is in failing health. Nevertheless, Larry defies his American physician by returning to Africa to live with his friends, the Bayaka Pygmies of Yamdombe.

Kris Marshall as Larry in Oka!

When it becomes obvious that a lumber operation is bringing jobs to the village (while decimating the nearby forest), the tribal shaman Sataka (Mapumba) comes to Larry in a nighttime vision to lure the American into the forest.

Knowing that a white man can't take care of himself, the villagers follow their redheaded friend  away from the corrupt local Bantu mayor (Isaach de Bankolé) and Mr. Yi (Will Yun Lee), the Chinese businessman who hopes to kill an elephant for sport. In the ensuing confusion, Larry finally learns the secret of the molimo (a mysterious instrument that duplicates the mating call of an elephant).

Bayaka Pygmies crossing a river in Oka!

Currier was initially researching a film about Ota Benga, a Congolese Mbuti pygmy who was captured and displayed at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri (he was subsequently displayed in the Bronx Zoo's "human zoo" exhibit).  However, she was persuaded by Sarno and his friends to abandon that project. As the filmmaker recalls:
"I first met Louis Sarno 12 years ago. His self-effacing humor and his experience with the Bayaka for 27 years made him the perfect antihero to take an audience into the forest and experience the magic world of the Bayaka. While I was in Yandombe (the Pygmy village) with Louis as my translator, a Bayaka asked why I was doing that story. I explained that it was instructive for us to learn from our mistake, so that kind of racism doesn’t happen again. But he told me that in Pygmy culture, they like to forget sad things and remember happy things, so I started to rethink that story from another perspective. Louis shared real stories about the life of the Bayaka, like the couple who lived deep in the forest, who were almost feral, sleeping in trees. People would bring them supplies and the couple would come out and greet them, but then vanish (they didn’t want to be involved in any of the village’s activities). This became the character of Sataka, who is not quite of the village. 
I wanted to make a film which celebrated a people who are perfectly adapted to their natural environment, and who, despite the extreme remoteness and dangers of their forest home in Central Africa, always find opportunities to express their humor, joyfulness and musical genius. Bayaka Pygmy culture is anarchistic and nonmaterialist, almost opposite to ours, and yet the experience of hunter-gatherers still resonates with us, having been human’s way of life for most of our history. All of the characters in Oka! were based on real people that Louis had known, or composites of people. In fact, Mayor Bassoun is based on the local area’s previous mayor -- who clearly recognized himself in the role played by Isaach de Bankolé, and was not happy about it."
Not only do viewers get a chance to witness African forest elephants in the wild, they also get close views of the black mamba (the longest venomous snake in Africa), the forest cobra, the Bongo (the largest and heaviest forest antelope) and the Western lowland gorilla. Uptight Christians and other prudes who recoil from the sight of bare-breasted women should definitely avoid Oka!

Oka! is hardly your typical "white man goes to Africa" movie. It is engrossing, entertaining, endlessly fascinating, and unique. It's well worth your while. Here's the trailer:

Monday, October 24, 2011

Step On It

Mae West liked to boast that "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful." But that's not always the case. While trapdoors allow actors to disappear beneath the stage, other traps can sink a performance with the slow but steady effectiveness of the Chinese water torture.
  • A playwright may have so tediously overwritten a script that it sinks under the weight of too many attempts to be coy, cute, and clever.
  • A director may become so in love with giving each line extra time to sink in that his staging of a tense drama contains enough pregnant pauses to populate an army of quintuplets.
These critical weaknesses took their toll on two recent productions by Bay area theatre companies. In each case I found myself wondering: Was this really necessary?

* * * * * * * * *
As part of the 2011 SF Olympians Festival, I attended a staged reading of GEMINI or Jim and I, or The Comedy of Veras by Tom Darter. Can you sense the overkill yet? The mythology of the Gemini twins informs us that:
"The constellation Gemini depicts the identical twins Castor and Pollux. They had the same (human) mother, Leda, but different fathers: Castor was fathered by the human Tyndareus, while Pollux was fathered by Zeus, King of the Gods, who visited and seduced Leda disguised as a swan. Therefore, Castor was mortal, and Pollux was immortal. When Castor died, his brother Pollux asked Zeus to let his brother share in his immortality, so that they could remain together. Zeus granted the request, and transformed them into the constellation Gemini."
Poster art for Gemini by Kelly McClellan
Twins have provided plenty of material for talented playwrights and screenwriters:
I don't doubt that Tom Darter had the best intentions as he attempted his first full-length play. As he explained:
"I was drawn to this mythological pair, and this story, because I am myself a twin. We were born almost two months premature. My twin lived only one day. As a teenager, I discovered that my name (Thomas) actually means 'twin.' I have thought about what it means to be a twin for most of my life.

In this play I take the opportunity to explore the subject from many angles. The play Gemini is about three sets of identical twins: the Celestial Olympian twins of the title (and the constellation), who are very close; two male twins who hate the idea of being twins; and two female twins who are unaware of each other’s existence. Zeus gives the Celestial twins (Castor and Pollux) the task of reconciling/reuniting the two other sets of twins. There will be cases of mistaken identity throughout -- some humorous, some not so much.”
Playwright Tom Darter

As directed by Karen Hogan, Darter's clumsy script stumbled around the stage, getting stuck in dull moments of exposition while exposing far too many references to the SF Olympians Festival, the EXIT Theatre, and the denizens of the local theatre scene as having been crafted with a ridiculously amateurish approach to playwrighting. Because Darter had given his set of female twins (Vera #1 and Vera #2) a penchant for annoying word play, many of their lines became oddly counterproductive.

That didn't stop a boisterous claque of friends from laughing their heads off at material that wasn't very funny. The cast included Matt Gunnison (Castor), Nick Brunner (Pollux), Sara Breindel (Vera #1), Lisa Darter (Vera #2), Dan Kurtz as the angry male twin (Tom), and Travis Howse as the more likable male twin (Jim). Although Sarah Savage (Angela) and veteran Anne Hallinan (Hera) were able to score numerous laughs, this heavy-handed script needs severe tightening in order to become a workable comedy of mistaken identities.

* * * * * * * * *
The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, which has returned to health following a series of traumatic events (including the deaths of its co-founders, Stanley E. Williams and Quentin Easter), opened its 31st season with a curious double bill.  While in residence at London's Royal Court Theatre, Brazilian playwright Marcos Barbosa premiered a tense drama entitled Almost Nothing.

No doubt inspired by the work of Harold Pinter, Almost Nothing features four characters who have severe problems communicating with each other. Whether a cultural or personal trait, evasiveness seems to be their most common characteristic.
  • Antonio (Rhonnie Washington) is a successful businessman whose evening was ruined when a young man suddenly appeared next to his car window.  Feeling threatened, Antonio pulled out his gun and shot the young man. As Antonio and his wife try to compose themselves in their home, Antonio attempts to get playful as a means of defusing the tension. His wife is not interested.
  • Sara (Kathryn Tkel) is obviously shaken, but not stirred. A cool, calculating woman who plays her cards very carefully, she knows how to ask exactly the right question whenever words fail her husband. The fact that the couple has no children of their own makes it difficult for her to understand what the victim's mother must be feeling.
  • Vania (Wilma Bonet) is the mother of the murdered young man. Although she claims only to want to see the faces of the people who killed her son, Vania's rage slowly succumbs to Antonio's financial offer (which they both know is for a lot more money than she could get if she went to the police and had to hire a lawyer). 
  • César (Rudy Guerrero) is a local thug who knows enough to let his clients say what they want without ever saying too much himself. Having done sufficient research on Vania and her son, he hints that both might have been street people struggling to support their respective drug habits. For the right price, César is more than willing to get rid of Vania.
Kathryn Tkel and Rhonnie Washington in Almost Nothing
Photo by: Steven Anthony Jones

Barbosa's minimalist script (translated for LHT by Mark O'Thomas) pits society's "haves" against the "have nots" in an obvious class struggle over the price of a young man's life. The play's final scene takes place on the anniversary of the shooting when, after arriving home from a banquet,  Sara is the horny one.  The distracted Antonio, however, couldn't be less interested in having sex with his wife.

Unfortunately, director Steven Anthony Jones went way overboard on the use of drawn-out silences and introspective bits of stage business. Despite a powerful outburst from Wilma Bonet's Vania, most of the dramatic tension evaporated from the stage. Many of the pregnant pauses between lines began to feel silly.

Kathryn Tkel, Rudy Guerrero, and Rhonnie Washington in
Almost Nothing (Photo by: Steven Anthony Jones)

* * * * * * * * *
Thanks to the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the women's liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, and the growth of the hippie subculture, the 1960s was a decade of tumultuous social unrest. During that decade, mainstream theatre audiences got a new look at race relations in America.

For many, however, it was the 1965 double bill of two plays by Douglas Turner Ward (Happy Ending and Day of Absence) that marked an critical turning point. The Dramatists Play Service describes Day of Absence as:
"...a satire about an imaginary Southern town where all the black people have suddenly disappeared. The only ones left are sick and lying in hospital beds, refusing to get well. Infants are crying because they are being tended to by strange parents. The Mayor pleads for the President, Governor, and the NAACP to send him 'a jackpot of jigaboos.' On a nationwide radio network he calls on the blacks, wherever they are, to come back. He shows them the cloths with which they wash cars and the brushes with which they shine shoes as sentimental reminders of the goodies that await them. In the end, the blacks begin to reappear, as mysteriously as they had vanished and the white community, sobered by what has transpired, breathes a sigh of relief at the return of the rather uneasy status quo. What will happen next is left unsaid, but the suggestion is strong that things will never quite be the same again."

In 1967 Ward (along with actor Robert Hooks and manager Gerald S. Krone) formed the Negro Ensemble Company. As Steven Anthony Jones (the artistic director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre) notes:
"Day of Absence is the play that created a place in the American Theatre for every African American theater company that exists today. It began the black theatre movement and started the growth of the African American theatre canon that continues in the 21st century."
As Ward recalls:
"Back then, black people had no habit of going to theatre. We were pioneers in developing a majority black audience. That production had a black producer, a black author's play with a 99% black cast."
Playwright Douglas Turner Ward

What the playwright subtitled "a satirical fantasy" in 1965 has recently become a reality in America. Following the passage of new laws targeting illegal immigrants in Arizona and Alabama, minority families have been disappearing overnight, leaving many schools without students and many employers without workers. With the action for LHT's production set in Arizona, it was fascinating to read the playwright's production notes more than 45 years after Ward wrote Day of Absence:
"The time is now.  Play opens in an unnamed Southern town of medium population on a somnolent cracker morning -- meaning no matter the early temperature, it's gonna get hot. The hamlet is just beginning to rouse itself from the sleepy lassitude of night.
  • No scenery is necessary -- only actors shifting in and out on an almost bare stage and freezing into immobility as focuses change or blackouts occur.
  • Play is conceived for performance by a Negro cast, a reverse minstrel show done in white-face. Logically, it might also be performed by whites -- at their own risk.  If any producer is faced with choosing between opposite hues, author strongly suggests 'Go 'long wit' the blacks' -- besides all else, they need the work more.'
  • If acted by the latter, race members are urged to go for broke, yet cautioned not to ham it up too broadly. In fact -- it just might be more effective if they aspire for serious tragedy.  Only qualification needed for Caucasian casting is that the company fit a uniform pattern -- insipid white, also played in white-face.
  • Before any horrifying discrimination doubts arise, I hasten to add that a bona fide white actor should be cast as the Announcer in all productions, likewise a Negro thespian in pure native black as Rastus. This will truly subvert any charge that the production is unintegrated.
  • All props, except essential items (chairs, brooms, rags, mop, debris) should be imaginary (phones, switchboard, mikes, eating utensils, food, etc.)  Action should indicate their presence through mime.
  • The cast of characters develops as the play progresses. In the interest of economical casting, actors should double or triple in roles whenever possible."
Michael J. Asberry and Wilma Bonet in
Day of Absence (Photo by: Steven Anthony Jones)

LHT's production of Day of Absence is a lively farce which also reveals how much Ward's script might benefit from 20 minutes of cuts. With a pillow stuffed under his shirt, Michael J. Asberry portrayed the buffoon-like Mayor Henry R. E. Lee while Wilma Bonet (who had offered such an intense portrayal of Vania in Almost Nothing) displayed solid comic chops as Jackson, the Mayor's bumbling henchman.

Rajiv Shah and Kathryn Tkel in Day of Absence
Photo by: Steven Anthony Jones

In a city that celebrates the racial diversity in its pool of actors, LHT's casting included the beat-boxing Carlos Aguirre doubling as the Trickster and Rastus and the talented Rajiv Shah doubling as John and a courier. Carla Pantoja doubled as the announcer and newswoman Jackie, with Kathryn Tkel and Rhonnie Washington appearing in smaller roles.

Wilma Bonet and Carla Pantoja in Day of Absence
Photo by: Steven Anthony Jones