Thursday, March 23, 2017

Look Back In Rancor

Ask yourself two simple questions. Have you ever said anything you've lived to regret? Have you ever wished you could travel back in time to undo a horrible mistake? If your answer to either question is "no," you're either lying or in a state of deep denial.

Some songs are written to capture a person's thoughts upon looking back at their path in life. Two of the 20th century's most famous anthems of defiance quickly come to mind:

Other songwriters have taken a more wistful, even regretful, look at past relationships. Consider two numbers written by Jerry Herman in the 1960s: "If He Walked Into My Life" (from 1966's Mame) and a sadly neglected song from 1969's Dear World entitled "And I Was Beautiful."

Two recent productions of "flashback" dramas were recently unveiled before Bay area audiences. One was a world premiere about a famous African American singer and cabaret artist; the other about a revolutionary filmmaker whose contributions to her craft were dwarfed by the politics of her colleagues.

Both of these women lived long lives and enjoyed success in multiple areas of the arts. One eventually came around to acknowledging the lover she had hurt so deeply while trying to maintain control over her career. The other showed no intention of yielding to criticism or showing any kind of grace.

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Back in my college days, I took a course in film appreciation which, unfortunately, began early in the morning. As soon as the lights were turned off, half the class went back to sleep. On rare occasions, the film or its soundtrack were compelling enough to keep people alert and focused on what they were watching. That course was where I fell in love with Ottorino Respighi's 1924 symphonic poem, "The Pines of Rome," and was first exposed to the cinematic art of Leni Riefenstahl.

Since I was just getting in touch with my sexuality at the time, it's no surprise that Respighi's orgasmic musical climaxes and Riefenstahl's softcore masculine eye candy left an indelible impression on me. As Wikipedia notes:
"She was one of the first filmmakers to use tracking shots in a documentary, placing a camera on rails to follow the athletes' movement. The film is also noted for its slow motion shots. Riefenstahl played with the idea of slow motion, underwater diving shots, extremely high and low shooting angles, panoramic aerial shots, and tracking system shots for allowing fast action. Many of these shots were relatively unheard of at the time, but Leni’s use and augmentation of them set a standard, and is the reason why they are still used to this day. Riefenstahl's work on Olympia has been cited as a major influence in modern sports photography. Riefenstahl filmed competitors of all races, including African-American Jesse Owens in what later became famous footage."

Born on August 22, 1902, Riefenstahl excelled at gymnastics, swimming, and dancing, in her youth. While remembered primarily for her work as a filmmaker and Nazi propagandist (she appeared on a 1936 cover of Time magazine), later in life Leni published several books featuring her pictures of the Nuba tribes in Africa. She also photographed celebrities ranging from Mick and Bianca Jagger to Siegfried and Roy.

Although her first film was 1932's The Blue Light -- and Olympia premiered on April 20, 1938 (Hitler's 49th birthday) --  Riefenstahl's labor of love was based on Tiefland (Hitler's favorite opera), which received its much-delayed world premiere in Stuttgart on February 11, 1954. Film critic Pauline Kael labeled Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Olympia as "the two greatest films ever directed by a woman."

Martha Brigham in a scene from Leni (Photo by: David Allen) 

Despite her friendships with such prominent Nazis as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, throughout her life Riefenstahl (who would later become a member of Greenpeace) denied having any true knowledge of the Holocaust. Some found her stance astonishing considering how, in 1942, she cast some extras from a group of gypsies in a detention camp while filming Tiefland.

Following World War II and while working in John Ford's film unit for the Office of Strategic Services, author Budd Schulberg (who wrote What Makes Sammy Run? as well as the screenplays for On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd) was given the assignment to arrest Riefenstahl in Kitzbühel, where she was staying at her chalet. As he later recalled, "She gave me the usual song and dance. She said, 'Of course, you know, I'm really so misunderstood. I'm not political.'" And yet, in the memoir she published in 1987, Leni described being deeply impressed by Hitler's talent as a public speaker when she first heard him address a live audience at a 1932 rally.
"I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget. It seemed as if the Earth's surface were spreading out in front of me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth."
Stacy Ross as Helene in Leni (Photo by: David Allen) 

The Aurora Theatre Company is currently presenting Sarah Greenman's intimate one-act drama entitled Leni in its black box theatre in a compelling production magnificently directed by Jon Tracy. With a simple unit set designed by Nina Ball, costumes by Maggie Whitaker, and highly effective lighting by Kurt Landisman, the production also benefits from Teddy Hulsker's sound and video design.

Greenman's play depicts a tug-of-war between the young Leni (Martha Brigham) and the older Leni/Helene (Stacy Ross) as they attempt to shoot, reshoot, and edit scenes from Riefenstahl's past. The script does an excellent job of capturing the filmmaker's youthful zeal in seeking the funding that will allow her to fulfill her artistic vision as well as a sense of artistic responsibility that demands total control over both her creative process and the final product. Young Leni's stubbornness is counterbalanced by the older Leni's uncompromising narcissism and insistence that her work was all about art and was never meant to be used as propaganda.

Stacy Ross and Martha Brigham in a scene from Leni
(Photo by: David Allen)

Sarah Greenman came up with a wonderful theatrical device that allows her to have old Leni and young Leni argue with each other as they try to work together. The play begins with Helene reading from her obituary in The New York Times following her death on September 8, 2003 at the age of 101. The play covers a lot of historical ground, including Leni's abortive trip to the United States (she arrived in New York five days before Kristallnacht, met with Henry Ford two weeks later in Detroit, and proceeded westward to Los Angeles, where she met with Louis B. Mayer and Walt Disney).

Martha Brigham and Stacy Ross in a scene from Leni
(Photo by: David Allen) 

While Greenman's plays offers Martha Brigham a chance to shine as the young Leni and Stacy Ross an opportunity to add another indelible portrait to her gallery of female rogues, the exquisite work by director Jon Tracy is what really anchors the piece. As Greenman takes care to note, nearly 80 years after the premiere of Olympia, Riefenstahl's aesthetic can still be seen in male fashion photography, Calvin Klein's advertising campaigns, and the tsunami of beefcake flooding the Internet.

Performances of Leni continue at the Aurora Theatre Company through May 7 (click here for tickets).

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In a collaboration with San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), New Conservatory Theatre Center is presenting the world premiere production of Jewelle Gomez's new play with music about the famous African American singer/songwriter, Alberta Hunter, entitled Leaving The Blues.

Michael Gene Sullivan, Desiree Rogers, and Matt Weimer
in a scene from Leaving The Blues (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Born on April 1, 1895, Hunter was raised by a mother who worked as a maid in a brothel. She began singing in a Memphis bordello and soon moved to Chicago, where her music first charmed audiences at a local whorehouse. As she continued to get bigger and better gigs from the Theatre Owners Booking Association, her fame continued to spread. Hunter's career took her into many different areas of show business, ranging from vaudeville to performing in world-famous concert halls.

Gomez's play adds to the roster of works inspired by Hunter's life. These include a 1988 made-for-television movie entitled Alberta Hunter: My Castle's Rockin' (written by Chris Albertson and narrated by pianist Billy Taylor) and a biographical musical by Marion J. Caffey entitled Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter, which starred Ernestine Jackson.

Leaving The Blues begins as Hunter (played by Desiree Rogers) is seen in a nurse's uniform by a patient's bedside. After being forced into retirement, she is visited by the spirit of the famous vaudeville comedian, Bert Williams (Michael Gene Sullivan), whose niece (Lottie Tyler) was Hunter's lover in the years when Alberta's career was taking off.

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong and Desiree Rogers in a scene 
from Leaving The Blues (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Back in those days, Hunter was managing her own career and didn't dare give the press any excuse to malign her. As a result, she remained strictly closeted, never giving Lettie (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) the acknowledgment she craved. Instead, she fed the press a story about being pursued by a European count and worked closely with the two tap-dancing Calvino Cousins (played by Paul Collins and Anthony Rollins-Mullens), who were also gay.

Paul Collins, Jasmine Milan Williams, and Anthony Rollins-Mullens
in a scene from Leaving The Blues (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

As directed by Arturo Catricala, the curious thing about Leaving The Blues is that everyone other than Alberta Hunter gets to shine until the very end when, as Rogers puts on full makeup for her comeback at The Cookery, the lighting and costume come together to put a sparkle in Alberta's eyes that has been missing throughout much of the performance.

Desiree Rogers as Alberta Hunter in a scene
from Leaving The Blues (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Although she sings snippets of the "Darktown Strutters' Ball" and "My Handy Man," Rogers is forced to underplay Alberta through much of the evening, frequently ceding the spotlight to Michael Gene Sullivan, Paul Collins, and Anthony Rollins-Mullens. Jasmine Milan Williams and Tai Rockett shine in smaller, supporting roles.

Desiree Rogers, Tai Rockett, and Michael Gene Sullivan in 
a scene from Leaving The Blues (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Performances of Leaving the Blues continue at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through April 2 (click here for tickets).

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