Saturday, October 13, 2012

Brutal Reality Checks

On December 23, 1776, Thomas Paine began an article in his series of pamphlets entitled The American Crisis with the statement "These are the times that try men's souls."  Barely six months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4 in Philadelphia, the country's founding fathers were wrestling with the task of defining and constructing a new government that could shape American society using the lessons they had learned from history and the dreams they imagined for the fledgling nation's future.

The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution were ratified on December 15, 1791. Known today as The Bill of Rights, they provide the legal foundation upon which American society has been built. Like many other structural concepts, they are the building blocks of an evolving concept, the blueprint for a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Like the Ten Commandments, The Bill of Rights could seem unassailable. But just as civilizations have evolved since Biblical times, so has our understanding of human behavior. Just as Galileo proved to the Vatican that the Earth revolves around the Sun (as opposed to the Sun revolving around the Earth), so has science revealed a wealth of information to us that could not previously have been imagined.
Answers to such questions are not merely "blowin' in the wind." They require a paradigm shift in one's acceptance of certain "givens." When those "givens" regard intensely personal matters of identity, the resulting conflict is often a source of inspiration for writers.

Three plays recently staged by Bay area theatre companies offer classic examples of how people cope with intense challenges to their core beliefs. Two were on a program of short plays presented by the Left Coast Theatre Company under the catch-all title of "Family Programming."  The third play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002.

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Residents of the Castro have been up in arms over the phenomenon of nude men walking around the neighborhood and posing for tourists while claiming to be exercising their freedom of self expression. While the reactions to their appearances range from titillation to disgust, from giggles to sighs of sadness and exasperation, the topic of sidewalk nudity provides the inspiration for James A. Martin's The Buck Naked Church of Truth. Directed by John Anderson Hamner, the play takes place in the outdoor seating area of Jane Warner Plaza.

Jeff (Chris Maltby) and Joy (Ariel Cohen) are visiting San Francisco from Kansas. Jeff, whose son is gay, is busily tapping away at his smart phone, proud that nothing anyone could do in the Castro could rattle his nerves. His fiancée, a good Christian woman who is eager to spend time with Jeff's son, is more than a little surprised when a homeless man wearing lots of make-up (Michael Erickson) approaches her with a crude drawing on a piece of cardboard and asks if she would like to purchase his "art."

Michael Erickson and Ariel Cohen in
The Buck Naked Church of Truth

When Joy finally spots Tony (Michael LeRoy), she's a bit unnerved by what she sees. Tony and his boyfriend, Evan (Louis Quiroz) are two of the Castro's happy nudists, calmly walking around the neighborhood as they enjoy the fresh air (the fog has obviously not come in yet).

Tony (Michael LeRoy) and Evan (Luis Quiroz) in a moment from
The Buck Naked Church of Truth

Upon looking up from his cell phone and seeing his son's naked body in front of him, Jeff quickly loses the battle to prove how tolerant he can be. As Tony describes the years of hard work and courage it took to finally accept himself as a gay man (and points to a long history of parental putdowns from his father), Jeff starts behaving more and more like a bully.

His transformation is quickly noticed by Joy, who is not at all happy with what she sees.  As she starts to hear Jeff spew more and more sexist ideas about gender roles (and witnesses how hurtful his words are to his son), Joy makes a startling move. Not only does she tell Jeff that he can leave and wait for her back at their hotel, she removes her blouse and bra and joins Tony and his friend as they parade around the Castro

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Written by Joseph Frank and directed by Scott Boswell, Cocktails With Maestro contains one of the nicest dramatic twists to be seen in years. Felix (George Duryea) and Sophie (Laura Espino) have recently moved into a new apartment complex. In order to start meeting people, Felix has invited their neighbor "Maestro" and his partner, Terry, over for drinks.

As he describes Maestro to Sophie, the audience gets the impression that Maestro has an extremely outgoing personality while Terry sounds far more mysterious. With an entrance that would make Paul Lynde seem sedated,  Rodney "Rhoda" Taylor's Maestro quickly fulfills every stereotype of a screaming queen. All fluttering hands, catty comments, and girlene gossip, Maestro is a preening piece of work.

Rodney "Rhoda" Taylor and Gabrielle Motarjemi
in Cocktails With Maestro

When Maestro's partner finally arrives, it turns out that Terry (Gabrielle Motarjemi) is a rather homely woman who worships Maestro and is convinced that she "married up." In addition to being active in her church, she is deeply involved in a campaign against same-sex marriage.

Although Terry obviously adores her husband's flamboyant personality, she's totally clueless about the big swishing elephant in the center of the room. After the initial shock wears off and Sophie can no longer put up with Terry's homophobia, Felix's wife rolls out the heavy artillery by asking "Don't you know that your husband is gay?"

Beautifully staged, with another one of Rodney "Rhoda" Taylor's over-the-top characterizations, Mr. Frank's script contains some wonderful zingers. It also captures a shock of recognition that has been missing from the stage for far too long.

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Marin Theatre Company is currently staging Topdog/Underdog, an intimate play by Suzan-Lori Parks in a production blessed with searing performances by Bowman Wright and Biko Eisen-Martin as two brothers for whom much of life has been a cruel joke.

Bowman Wright and Biko Eisen-Martin in Topdog/Underdog
Photo by: David Allen

Born into a severely dysfunctional marriage, their father sarcastically named his sons Lincoln and Booth. Upon abandoning her children to run off with a lover, their mother handed Booth a woman's stocking and told him it contained $500 to be used only in an emergency (Booth never examined the contents of the stocking to see if the money was real). Upon deserting his sons several years later (when Lincoln was 16 and Booth 11), their father left Lincoln with a similar gift.

Following a successful run hustling gullible marks as the dealer in a game of Three Card Monte, Lincoln managed to let go of the game's addictive allure. Since then, he's been working in an arcade at a "real job," which even pays benefits. The bitter irony is that this job requires him to dress up in whiteface as Abraham Lincoln and get shot several times a day.

Unfortunately, the owner of the arcade has been shopping around for a robotic version of Abraham Lincoln which could be a cost-efficient replacement for the former card hustler. Lately, Lincoln (who has broken up with his wife) has been sleeping in the easy chair in Booth's rented room (despite his eagerness to be cool, the younger brother has no couch upon which a guest could "surf").

Bowman Wright and Biko Eisen-Martin in
Topdog/Underdog (Photo by: David Allen)

Of the two men, Booth is by far the more gullible. A proficient shoplifter, he would like nothing more than to team up with Lincoln as two con men working the streets and hustling people at Three Card Monte. With an impressive stash of porno magazines under his bed, his personality keeps shifting from that of a strutting young stud to an immature man-boy who is hungry for approval (Booth is eagerly looking forward to a date with a woman named Grace). In 1994, Parks wrote:
"Are Black people only blue? As African-Americans we have a history, a future, and a daily reality in which a confrontation with a White ruling class is a central feature. This makes life difficult. This reality often traps us in a singular mode of expression. There is no such thing as THE Black Experience. There are many experiences of being Black which are included under the rubric (just think of all the different kinds of African peoples). As there is no single "Black Experience," there is no single "Black Aesthetic." There is no one way to write or think or feel or dream or interpret or be interpreted. As African-Americans we should recognize this insidious essentialism for what it is: a fucked-up trap to reduce us to only one way of being. We should endeavor to show the world and ourselves our beautiful and powerfully infinite variety.

As a Black person writing for theatre, what is theatre good for? What can theatre do for us? There are many ways of defining Blackness and there are many ways of presenting Blackness onstage. For the Black writer, are there dramas other than race dramas? Does Black life consist of issues other than race issues? We can 'tell it like it is;' 'tell it as it was;' 'tell it as it could be.' In my plays, I do all three. I write plays because I love Black people. The writing is rich because we are not an impoverished people, but a wealthy people fallen on hard times."

Meticulously directed by Timothy Douglas, MTC's production does a beautiful job of showcasing each character's soliloquies and punctuating them with the sing-song rhythms of a dealer's hustle. While both actors shine throughout the play, there is a leaner, hungrier look in Biko Eisen-Martin's portrayal of Booth that, as it reveals his mental instability, can easily charm or frighten an audience. Bowman Wright's performance brings to mind an older dog who still has a few moves left, but is not as edgy or energetic has the more impulsive young pup beside him.

Bowman Wright and Biko Eisen-Martin in Topdog/Underdog
Photo by: David Allen

Topdog/Underdog is a powerful evening of theatre in which the love and loyalty of two brothers is shattered when their dreams and delusions of grandeur evaporate into thin air. MTC's production continues through October 28 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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