Thursday, August 28, 2014

Attention: Sports Fans!

I've never been much of a sports fan. Over the years, however, I've noticed that in films and plays about athletes, the dramatic conflict usually falls into one of three categories:
  • The first is the most logical: competition. Whether the story involves one athlete competing against another, one team competing against another, or an athlete competing against himself i(n order to break his previous record), there's a definable goal that is visible to all. The story's outcome usually relies on who develops a competitive advantage.
  • The second type of story involves a lesson in good (or poor) sportsmanship. Is someone only out to win at all costs or is he aware that participation in a particular sport is aimed at bringing out the best in everyone.
  • The third (and often most incendiary) type of story involves a sudden upset to the status quo or expected result. Whether this is due to the use of anabolic steroids or bribery, the idea that a professional athlete could be juiced up or willing to throw a game for the right amount of money tarnishes the sport and can disappoint and disillusion many fans.
In 1955, George Abbott, Richard Adler, Jerry Ross, Bob Fosse, and Douglass Wallop (who wrote The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant), joined forces to update the Faust legend and set it against a background of major league baseball. With a little help from the Devil, the heroic Joe Hardy suddenly appeared out of nowhere to re-energize the dispirited Washington Senators.

Any form of corruption can taint a sport whose integrity is held sacrosanct in the eyes of its biggest fans. Two recent Bay area productions helped to shine a light on how difficult it can be to win simply on the basis of one's merit.

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Directed by Marcia Jarmel and Ken SchneiderHavana Curveball offers a fascinating coming-of-age story about a young man whose driving passion is baseball. As he prepares for his bar mitzvah, 13-year-old Mica Jarmel-Schneider comes up with the idea for a unique service project which will allow him to show his thanks to Cuba (where, as a child fleeing the Holocaust, his grandfather had spent two years during World War II) by raising money to send bats, balls, and gloves to young Cubans who share his love of baseball.

With a soundtrack that's heavy on klezmer music, Havana Curveball (which received its world premiere on August 3 at the 2014 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) shows how an innocently conceived project can run into one political obstacle after another --- obstacles that make no sense to a teenager who is just trying to do some good. As Mica's parents note:
"It can be daunting to point the camera at your own family. But when we first pressed 'record,' we thought we were making a little film about our son’s bar mitzvah service project. We owe a debt of gratitude to him and his grandfather for letting us observe and share their story. As the project grew in scope and complication, it became clear that a dramatic and entertaining story was unfolding in front of our lens. We couldn’t help but keep filming. Our unusual daily access made it possible to capture small details -- Mica’s first shave, intimate moments with his grandfather, the frustrations and small triumphs of his journey. He was gracious enough to tolerate our filming. We hope it will inspire and provoke."

While Havana Curveball allows viewers to follow Mica's misadventures in dealing with the U.S. Customs Services and the challenges presented by the embargo against Cuba, it shows a young man's growing awareness that his idealism may not be shared by the people he loves the most. Although Mica's grandfather is deeply grateful for the shelter Cuba provided during the Holocaust, he has no desire to anger U.S. government authorities by going back to Havana.

When Mica and his family finally arrive in Cuba (and learn that the athletic supplies he had shipped from Canada actually did reach their destination), Mica still has some lessons to learn. Perhaps the most poignant is that, in thinking of himself as a benevolent figure doing a good deed by bringing baseball supplies to Cuban youths, Mica is quite reminded of the contrast between his lifestyle in San Francisco and the hard reality faced by so many Cuban teenagers. As he recalls:
"I feared giving the equipment directly to kids. I feared facing the poverty, and recognizing my own privilege. Yet on my last day in Cuba, swept up in the moment, I offered my remaining gear to a group of kids playing street ball. They swarmed over me, grabbing and claiming the gear. In that moment, I understood that my 'huge' project was just a drop in their bucket. I felt both discouraged and vindicated. I had addressed the need (wasn’t that an admirable endeavor?) and yet I had helped only a sliver of the needy with a sliver of donations. My first reaction was to question the meaning of my 'positive work.' I understand its value, but much remains unanswered. Regardless, I seek the fulfillment that this work provides. I board the train to seek deeper truths, not knowing where I will end up."
After delivering 300 pounds of baseball gear, playing baseball with the young men on a Cuban team, and visiting the apartment where his grandfather stayed during World War II, Mica heads back to San Francisco a bit older, wiser, and more aware that the best of intentions can't always deliver the desired results. Here's the trailer:

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The Marin Theatre Company recently presented the West Coast premiere of Will Power's dramedy entitled Fetch Clay, Make Man in a co-production with the Round House Theatre of Maryland. With a unit set designed by Courtney O'Neill, lighting by Colin Bills, and video design by Caite Hevner Kemp, the action takes place in the days leading up to the infamous rematch between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali that took place on May 25, 1965 in Lewiston, Maine (an event which holds the dubious distinction of being the least attended heavyweight championship fight in history).

Power's play focuses on a unique chapter in American boxing wherein Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali sought out the advice of actor Lincoln Perry (who had once been friends with Jack Johnson -- the first African-American athlete to become world heavyweight boxing champion). Ali was hungry to learn the secret behind Jack Johnson's famous "anchor punch," which he describes in the following clip.

As directed by Derrick Sanders, Power's play is a curious drama in which each character (with the exception of the white Hollywood producer, William Fox) is trying to forge a new identity.
  • Muhammad Ali (Eddie Ray Jackson) is remaking his image from the brash, vain, and loudmouthed Cassius Clay into a more serious Muslim brother following his entry into the Nation of Islam. After the assassination of his former friend, Malcolm X, Ali wants to be taken seriously by the press.
  • Sonji Roi Clay (Katherine Renee Turner) is Ali's first wife, a former cocktail waitress who has tried to toe the line as a respectable Muslim wife but is rapidly losing patience with the intense levels of macho bullshit coursing through her husband's dressing room.
Eddie Ray Jackson and Katherine Renee Turner in a scene
from Fetch Clay, Make Man (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 
  • Brother Rashid (Jefferson A. Russell) is a former street thug and pimp who has undergone a radical religious conversion and is acting as Ali's chief bodyguard. Having become quite a bit "holier than thou," he looks down on Sonji because of her promiscuous past and has nothing but contempt for Stepin Fetchit.
  • Stepin Fetchit (Roscoe Orman) is, in fact, the famous African-American character actor Lincoln Perry, who was nobody's fool. A lifelong Catholic who resists Brother Rashid and Ali's efforts to convert him to Islam, Perry was the first black actor to become a millionaire. While Perry longed to branch out into other types of roles in film, his career was crippled by typecasting (his popular characterization of the lazy, shuffling Stepin Fetchit earned him the scorn of many African Americans who saw him as an Uncle Tom figure). The following clip from 1934's Judge Priest shows Stepin Fetchit appearing as Jeff Poindexter, Hattie McDaniel as Aunt Dilsey, Berton Churchill as Senator Horace Maydew, and Will Rogers as Judge Priest.

In the following set of clips from an interview prior to the McCarter Theatre's production of Fetch Clay, Make Man, the playwright describes what drew him to examine the backstory of the curious friendship between these two iconic African-American figures.

For all the testosterone filling the stage, it's curious to note that the most dramatic transformation (and most poignant performance) comes from Katherine Renee Turner as Ali's first wife. Robert Sicular appears as William Fox with Jefferson A. Russell portraying the self-righteous, combative Brother Rashid.

Eddie Ray Jackson continues to impress Bay area audiences with his fast-footed yet clearly serious characterization of Muhammad Ali while Roscoe Orman's portrayal of Stepin Fetchit seems more like the straight man who must absorb everyone else's anger and satisfy their needs. When his character finally explains the power behind Jack Johnson's knockout punch, one wonders if perhaps it should have been called the "anger punch" instead of the "anchor punch."  Here's the trailer:

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