Saturday, July 30, 2016

Anchors Away

In the mid 1970s, as the Gay Liberation movement continued to blossom, one disco group gained notoriety for their costumes as well as their songs. Following the response to a casting call that required "Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Moustache," the Village People's performers were dressed as a cowboy, leatherman, soldier, construction worker, and Native American. Two of their biggest hits were "Macho Man" and "Y.M.C.A." As noted on Wikipedia:
"In 1979, the United States Navy considered using "In the Navy" in a television and radio recruiting campaign. Henri Belolo offered them permission if the Navy would help film a music video for it. The Navy provided them access to the San Diego Navy base, where the USS Reasoner (FF-1063), several aircraft, and the crew of the ship would be used. This song was also performed on the TV series The Love Boat and in the 1995 Navy comedy movie Down Periscope."

The recent announcement that the United States Navy plans to name one of its new John Lewis-class oilers after gay activist (and former Ensign) Harvey Milk made me think about how much this man's memory has served as an emotional and psychological anchor for the LGBT community, both at home and abroad. When asked to comment, Milk's close friend, Cleve Jones, replied “If there’s a heaven, Harvey is laughing. He’s probably up there cracking jokes about oiling sailors.”

While many people think of an anchor as a device meant to keep a boat from drifting (or, in retail terms, the largest store in a shopping mall), the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary also defines an anchor as "a person or thing that provides strength and support." Sometimes an anchor's presence can be taken for granted. Whether it fails to hold a ship in position during a storm or is suddenly removed from its position in a community, an anchor's influence is often felt long after it is physically gone from the neighborhood.

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For Jews around the world, matzo plays a key role in the Passover ceremony. Although matzo brei, matzo farfel, and matzo balls (along with egg matzo and chocolate-covered matzo) are eaten throughout the year, for religious families the matzo served during Passover (which symbolizes the unleavened bread eaten by Jews as they fled Ancient Egypt) must be strictly kosher. Made from grain that has been under rabbinical supervision from its harvesting until the time it is baked (in order to guarantee that fermentation has not occurred), ShÄ•mura matzo is suitable for consumption on the first night of Passover.

Ever since Jews began migrating to the United States, matzo has appealed to a loyal niche market. For decades, the four largest domestic brands were Horowitz Margareten (founded in 1884), Manischewitz (founded in 1888), Streit's (founded in 1916) and Goodman's. Over the years, the two dominant brands have been reduced to Manischewitz (which began manufacturing and distributing Goodman's matzo products under a 1981 license agreement and acquired Horowitz Margareten in 1984) and Streit's.

Early delivery trucks for Streit's Matzos

One of the more poignant documentaries screened at the 2016 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream. Written and directed by Michael Levine (and timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the company's founding), much of the film is devoted to the 90-year history of Streit's 47,000 square-foot matzo factory which, for many years, was located on Rivington Street in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

The Streit's Matzo Factory on Rivington Street

In terms of productivity, the Rivington Street facility had become a manufacturing dinosaur, struggling to remain competitive in cramped quarters formed by combining four five-story tenement buildings. Although its daily output was approximately 16,000 pounds of matzo (and as much as 30,000 pounds per day in preparation for Passover), for several years the family firm had considered relocating to a property near its distribution warehouse in Moonachie, New Jersey or building a new facility near Rockland County, New York (whose large Jewish community would welcome its presence with open arms).

In May of 2015, the Rivington Street factory was sold (and will probably be razed to make way for new condominiums in a heavily gentrified neighborhood). Streit's will soon relocate to Orangeburg, New York where it will be able to produce more matzo more efficiently.

However,  Levine's documentary tells a much more poignant story involving a closely-held, ethically-run, fifth-generation family business. In candid interviews, some of its long-time employees (who have worked for the company for 30 years or more) discuss how the neighborhood has changed and how working for Streit's has changed their lives.

As for the men who grew up in the family business and went on to become its senior management, their reluctance to leave behind the old neighborhood (where Streit's, Katz's Delicatessen, Economy Candy, and Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery have been anchors of the local Jewish community) and a loyal extended family of customers and employees is palpable as they sit in offices on both sides of the Hudson River and talk about the company's future.

Streit's: Matzo and the American Dream is very much a documentary about resilience and respect. The heartbreak involved in the decision to relocate a cultural icon and community anchor known for its high standards and attention to tradition is much more personal than corporate decisions about opening a new Starbucks outlet. In addition to the film's trailer, the following 30-minute clip includes a wonderful fact-filled interview with Michael Levine (conducted by Judy Gelman Myers) in which they discuss the effects of gentrification on small, family-owned businesses in a changing community as well as the filmmaker's astonishing crowdfunding success using Kickstarter to finance his documentary.

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Whether it's a steel mill or a matzo factory, when a manufacturer with a well-established community presence ceases operations (or moves to another city, county, or country), its departure can leave an aching hole in the hearts of the people who worked for it, bought its products, identified with its brand, and relied on its charity. A similar phenomenon can occur when a charismatic individual who has spearheaded a valuable nonprofit operation moves on to greener pastures.

The Shotgun Players is currently presenting Grand Concourse, in which a hardworking Bronx nun who has managed a soup kitchen for nearly 15 years finally accepts the fact that her "guests" aren't the only people who need help. Touchingly directed by Joanie McBrien (Shotgun's resident dramaturg and Director of Development), Heidi Schreck's play unfolds on Nina Ball's simple unit set, which focuses most of the action within the kitchen while allowing characters to enter from the street, a dining area, and another part of the building.

Shelley (Cathleen Riddley) prays before the microwave
oven in a scene from Grand Concourse (Photo by: Pak Han)

Determined to help others, Shelley (Cathleen Riddley) is a tough cookie who understands that many of the soup kitchen's clients have needs she cannot meet -- and that well-meaning volunteers frequently chicken out of their responsibilities when confronted with the harsher realities of life. Although she played basketball in her youth, Shelly has learned to channel her energy into chopping vegetables, fighting germs, and feeding the poor before returning to her apartment to seek solace from her beloved cat, Pumpkin.

Shelley's backup help is a young man named Oscar (Caleb Cabrera), whose chores include lifting heavy pots of soup, doing janitorial work, and scaring away the neighborhood kids whenever they start throwing things against the kitchen's walls. Although the two have a strong rapport, Oscar is very much in love with his girlfriend, Lydia, whom he hopes to marry.

Cathleen Riddley and Megan Trout in a scene
from Grand Concourse (Photo by: Pak Han)

One day, a young woman arrives at the soup kitchen asking if she could work as a volunteer. Although Emma (Megan Trout) starts off in low gear, her behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Over time, Emma's emotional neediness causes her to act out in strange ways, such as painting herself as a failure who is dying of cancer or giving Oscar a surprise blow job. When compared to the genuinely disturbed behavior of Frog (Kevin Clarke), one of the soup kitchen's mentally-challenged regulars who is battling a variety of imaginary demons, Emma almost seems normal. But she's not. As the playwright explains:
"I grew up working in soup kitchens with my parents. It was such a big part of my childhood, but I’d never written about it, and I thought it would be an interesting place to set a play. I was writing about people seeking help from one another, what our responsibilities are to offer help to each other, and also how sometimes offering help can also be a way of seeking help. I also worked for a lot of social justice organizations when I first moved to New York. I found it fascinating that the people who came to volunteer (including me) were looking for nourishment and sustenance as much as the people who were coming to receive the services. And, like in the play, they can be kind of crazy, screwed up environments. People have very complicated motives for doing good. And I wanted to explore that."
Caleb Cabrera and Megan Trout in a scene
from Grand Concourse (Photo by: Pak Han)
"The problem of forgiveness was also on my mind as the play started to take shape (or at least my problem with forgiveness). I realized that I wasn’t sure I understood it, at least not in a practical, real-life way. I respect it as a concept and have certainly been in need of giving and receiving it -- I’ve been a Mr. Hornby in certain situations -- but I wasn’t sure I actually knew how to do either, not without a certain amount of pretending. And so, the thorny relationship that forms between Shelley and Emma became my way to work that out, to test out the possibilities, and hopefully begin to navigate a kind of path toward grace."
Kevin Clarke as Frog in a scene from
Grand Concourse (Photo by: Pak Han)

Schreck's drama reminds audiences that it isn't just the impoverished, visibly unstable, and socially marginalized members of a community who are at risk of erupting. Overworked, stressed out, do-gooders can also be pushed to a breaking point from which there is no return. When Shelley is forced to travel to California (where her estranged father has entered hospice care), the strict discipline she has maintained at the soup kitchen starts to fall apart. Without the woman who has been their emotional rock and who provided people around her with a semblance of stability, their self-destructive behaviors start to blossom until, following her return, Shelley comes undone.

Shotgun's production benefits from Christine Crook's costumes, Heather Basarab's lighting design, and, as always, the excellent sound design by Matt Stines. What may be most impressive, however, is the strength of its four-actor ensemble. Veteran Kevin Clarke scores strongly as the volatile Frog while young Caleb Cabrera continues to impress Bay area audiences with his lanky portrayal of Oscar.

The cast of Grand Concourse (Photo by: Pak Han)

The bulk of Schreck's play, however, rests on the shoulders of two exceptionally strong actresses who have proven their mettle on a wide variety of Bay area stages. Cathleen Riddley and Megan Trout tackle complex characters with a range and versatility that continue to stun audiences as the play progresses. At the end of the evening, the shocked audience is left wondering if they can still believe in themselves without feeling any impulse or need to forgive people in their lives who have selfishly betrayed their trust. Here's the trailer:

Performances of Grand Concourse continue through August 14 at the Ashby Stage (click here for tickets).

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