Monday, June 26, 2017

Black Lives, Interrupted

For most of the 1960s I spent my summers at a YMCA sailing camp in Rhode Island. It was a closed environment that was almost entirely male, extremely white, and relatively free from the pressures of daily life in the outside world. Back in those days cable television, the Internet, and social media had not even been invented. Boys could be boys (focusing mainly on sports) and the environment nurtured a sense of brotherhood and fair play that was almost idyllic. The only time we were allowed to watch television was on July 21, 1969 at 2:56 UTC, when those willing to get up in the middle of the night convened in the mess hall to watch Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the surface of the moon.

How I ended up in Rhode Island is an interesting story. For several years my father (a high school biology teacher) had been the recipient of grants from the National Science Foundation to attend summer institutes (I earned money by typing up his application forms). One year, he received a grant for a summer institute at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. The following summer was spent at Brown University in Providence, where my parents met Anne Schwerner (another biology teacher from New York City) and her husband, Nathan.

On June 21, 1964, headlines were filled with the news that three field/social workers from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had been killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi. At the time of their deaths James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and the Schwerners' son, Michael (Mickey), had been investigating the burning of a nearby Methodist church that had been a CORE Freedom School. However indirect, that was my first exposure to America's racist attitudes toward African Americans.

Since then, thousands of black men, women, and children have been the victims of racist attacks by so-called "real Americans." The recent acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez (the officer who murdered Philando Castile on July 6, 2016) by a jury of his peers in Minnesota was a bitter disappointment to many Americans. In his Op-Ed column in The New York Times entitled Sacrificing Black Lives for the American Lie, Ibram X. Kendi wrote:
"This blaming of the black victim stands in the way of change that might prevent more victims of violent policing in the future. Could it be that some Americans would rather black people die than their perceptions of America? Is black death more palatable than accepting the racist reality of slaveholding America, of segregating America, of mass-incarcerating America? Is black death the cost of maintaining the myth of a just and meritorious America? People seem determined to exonerate the police officer because they are determined to exonerate America."
"To diagnose police officers’ lethal fears as racist, juries and prosecutors would also have to diagnose their own fears of black bodies as racist. That is a tall task. It may even be easier to get a racist cop convicted of murdering a black person than it is to get a racist American to acknowledge his or her own racism. Racist Americans keep justice as far away from black death as possible to keep the racist label as far away from themselves as possible. And in exonerating the police officer and America of racism, people end up exonerating themselves."
While many have criticized the jury's verdict, few have spoken about the situation with as much eloquence, empathy, and common sense as Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.

Melissa Hillman (whose brilliant Bitter Gertrude theatre blog is a constant source of dramatic wisdom) offered the following insights in a post entitled Do Black Lives Matter At Your Theatre and In Your Films?
“It takes one generation growing up with a narrative trope to see that narrative trope as 'natural.' Spinning out from the narrative trope ‘Black = DANGER’ are the racist cultural notions that Black people are tougher and do not feel pain like we do; Black people commit more crimes; Black people ruin property values; Black fathers abandon their children. Our culture is saturated with these slanders, and they are quite literally killing people. We can actively fight white supremacy with the narratives we put into the culture, or we can continue to be complicit in creating the culture that leads to the deaths of people like Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and so, so, so many others. It's not enough to just cast Black artists and produce Black work (although that is an excellent start). White supremacy itself needs to be pulled up from the roots because we are hurting all people of color.”
Theatre artist Melissa Hillman
“Every cultural movement, for good or for ill, had a master narrative at the back of it, created by artists and writers. Examine the master narratives behind the work you produce, because they're there, whether you examine them or not. The dehumanizing tropes we create and disseminate through our plays, films, TV shows, video games, books, web series, music videos, fiction, and nonfiction are quite literally getting people killed. Examine what messages your work puts out into the culture, both in its processes and its product. My fellow purveyors of narrative, we can either work intentionally to disrupt these tropes or we can work to reinforce white supremacy. There is no in between.”
Bay area audiences were recently exposed to two stunning dramas about the black experience in America.
  • One cast a black man as the oppressor; the other cast the black man as the oppressed.
  • One had its world premiere 92 years ago, the other is receiving its world premiere from a small theatre company in Berkeley.
  • One featured a black matriarch easily taken in by a con man posing as a preacher; the other featured a black matriarch who had experienced more than her fair share of tragedy and was susceptible to any bullshit dancing on the silver tongues of men who would play her for a fool.
* * * * * * * * *
In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been highlighting the work of the groundbreaking African-American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux. This year's selection was 1925's Body and Soul in which the 27-year-old Paul Robeson made his screen debut as a pair of twins. As the goodly Sylvester, he portrayed a poor, but conscientious man whose inventions showed great promise. As the two-faced Rev. Isaiah T. Jenkins, he portrayed an escaped convict posing as a corrupt preacher intent on stealing the life savings of one of the congregation's most devout parishioners, a hard-working laundress named Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) who had kept her family afloat by ironing clothes and picking cotton.

Paul Robeson as Sylvester (the good twin) in Body and Soul

Paul Robeson as the Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins (the evil twin)

Although Martha Jane's daughter, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell), is in love with the handsome Sylvester, her gullible mother is an easy target for a charismatic swindler posing as a man of the cloth. While Body and Soul showcased Robeson’s dramatic versatility, it was the only film he made with an African American director. In supporting roles, Lawrence Chenault appeared as the reverend's former jailmate (Yello-Curley Hinds) while two elders of the church were portrayed by Walter Cornick as Brother Amos and Chester A. Alexander as Deacon Simpkins. Two pious ladies of the church (Lillian Johnson as Sis Caline and Madame Robinson as Sis Lucy) were seen as close friends of Martha Jane.

Lawrence Chenault as Yello-Curly Hines with Paul Robeson as
the Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins in a scene from Body and Soul

After Jenkins convinces Isabelle to take the blame for his theft of her mother's money, she flees from Tatesville to Atlanta. A desperate Martha Jane finds Isabelle who, before she dies, tells her mother that Jenkins had raped her after stealing Martha Jane's money.

As I watched Body and Soul certain overly histrionic patches seemed to strain credibility (partly due to Mercedes Gilbert's acting). However, after the audience learns that what they have witnessed was really a bad dream, the film ends with Martha Jane bestowing her savings upon Sylvester and Isabelle as a wedding gift. With live musical accompaniment by DJ Spooky and Guenter Buchwald, a restored print from Kino Lorber was screened at the Castro Theatre. As Susan Doll explained in her program note:
“Robeson’s twin roles represent two archetypes familiar to African Americans: Stagger Lee the hustler/trickster versus Booker T. Washington’s self-made man. In Micheaux’s view, they represent the two paths available to African American men. His mission was to point out the folly of the wrong path.”
Paul Robeson as the Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins (the evil twin)
“Complicating any assessment of individual films is the censorship Micheaux experienced at the hands of state and local censor boards. New York censors did not accept the director’s original nine-reel version of Body and Soul, rejecting it outright on November 5, 1925, for being sacrilegious and for inciting audiences to commit crimes. Micheaux resubmitted the film a few days later, making it clear through title cards and an insert of a news article that Isaiah T. Jenkins is an escaped convict masquerading as a reverend. The censors rejected Body and Soul again, prompting Micheaux to reduce the film to five reels, cutting it nearly in half. The worst behavior of the reverend was passed on to another character and most of the scenes involving drinking and gambling were eliminated. In February 1927, he submitted a seven-reel version to the Chicago censors, who rejected it for its scandalous depiction of a Protestant minister. He recut it for those censors as well.”

Body and Soul was pretty much unknown to white audiences for many years. In 2000, the New York Film Festival screened Michaux's film with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performing a new score composed by Wycliffe Gordon. At the Castro screening,I found the samplings by DJ Spooky to be a thrilling addition to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Thankfully, a restored print of Body and Soul is available on YouTube (see below).

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One of the rewards of being a theatre critic is to witness the birth of an exciting new drama that is rich in humanity, bursting with life, and has a voice all its own. Because of the economics of live theatre, such plays frequently receive their world premieres from small regional theatre companies.

Thanks to the National New Play Network's ability to encourage the sharing of resources and choreograph rolling world premieres among several theatre companies, a playwright's new work can be seen by multiple audiences in diverse cities within a relatively short period of time. On other occasions, a world premiere may be a stand-alone effort. Some of the more impressive world premieres witnessed by Bay area audiences in recent years include:
I first encountered Kimber Lee's work in 2016 when, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley staged tokyo fish story (which had been part of the company's 2014 New Works Festival). Thanks to the persistent efforts of Amy Mueller (Artistic Director of Playwrights Foundation), Patrick Dooley (Artistic Director of Shotgun Players), and the multitalented Margo Hall, this month's world premiere of Lee's new play offers further cause for jubilation. As Hall explains:
"I heard a reading of brownsville song (b-side for tray) in the 2013 Bay Area Playwrights Festival and fell in love with the play. The joy and pain expressed in the 90-minute run-time was a beautiful roller coaster ride that somehow left me hopeful. Hopeful that the audience that witnessed this story with me was reminded that the death of someone to gun violence affects everyone and everything around them. Hopeful that, after seeing this play, the people of these audiences will be motivated to do something to eliminate gun violence in their respective communities. Each individual who falls victim to gun violence has a name, a family, and a community. Kimber Lee gives us an opportunity to pay homage to all those families and communities who have been victims to gun violence. Lee reminds us that we are all a part of these concentric circles of death and love." 
David Morales (Tray) and Cathleen Riddley (Lena) in a scene from
brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Lee's protagonist is a hyperactive teenager (David Morales) and aspiring boxer from a broken family that has been held together by the tough love of his fearsome grandmother (Cathleen Riddley). After Lena's son was killed with four bullets to the chest and his second wife's alcoholism made Merrell (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) unfit to take care of Tray and his kid sister, Devine (Mimia Ousilas), the children came to live with Lena.

Mimia Ouisilas (Devine) and David Morales (Tray) in a scene from
brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

While Lena worked two jobs (often to the point of exhaustion) and made sure there was food on the table, Tray and Devine learned how to entertain each other while growing sensitive to their sibling's moods and needs. Tray's ability to charm Devine out of her moments of extreme shyness stays with her even after her brother takes "four to the chest" from a member of a local gang simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Working on a unit set designed by Randy Wong-Westbrooke (with lighting by Allen Willner, costumes by Katherine Nowacki, and sound designed by Joel Gimbell II), Margo Hall does a splendid job of eliciting powerhouse performances from Morales and Riddley, two magnetic performers who bring a surge of electricity to the stage whenever they are in front of the audience.

Cathleen Riddley as Lena in a scene from Kimber Lee's new play
brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

The two leads receive strong support from Mimia Ousilas as the shy young sister and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as the recovering stepmother who ends up being interviewed for a job at Starbucks by her own stepson (Tray). William Hartfield has some nice moments as Tray's baggy-pantsed childhood friend (Junior) as well as a black hipster ordering a complicated cup of coffee.

As she did so beautifully in tokyo fish story, Lee delivers moments of great poignancy and poetry through her words as well as her characters' actions. Tray's inherent goodness manifests itself in a beautiful speech in which he tells Lena why Merrell deserves a break and offers his grandmother a lesson in forgiveness as another form of tough love. Similarly, when Merrell freezes while trying to learn how to use an electronic cash register, Tray quietly comes to her rescue with fingers moving so fast and effortlessly that it communicates the difference in motor skills that come naturally to different generations.

Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as Merrell in a scene from
brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

This is an achingly beautiful and thrilling new drama, lovingly crafted and magnificently acted by a tight ensemble. While I look forward to future works from Kimber Lee, I have to admit that it has become frighteningly easy to take for granted the artistic contributions that Cathleen Riddley and Margo Hall make to the Bay area theatre scene. These are two highly gifted and deeply passionate artists who always set the bar for excellence at impressive heights. Rest assured that young David Morales is already nipping at their heels.

Erin Mei-Ling Stuart (Merrell) and David Morales (Tray) in a scene
from brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Performances of brownsville song (b-side for tray) continue through July 9 at the Shotgun Players in Berkeley (click here for tickets).

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Guardians at the Front Gate

As I rode a MUNI bus toward the War Memorial Opera House the other day, I witnessed a family situation that, alas, has become all too familiar. A young father was seated across from me, intensely focused on his smartphone. Strapped into a stroller in front of him was his young son, who kept trying to get the man's attention. No amount of touching or vocalizing caused the man to look up from his phone. After the toddler dropped his juice bottle (which rolled under the father's seat), the man kept his eyes locked on his phone.

As the bus traveled toward its next stop I debated whether to call the man's attention to his squirming son but decided to wait and see what would happen. When the bus came to a stop and several passengers filed by the stroller in order to get to the door, I waved at the man to get his attention. After I explained that the boy's bottle had fallen under his seat, the disinterested parent went right back to focusing on his smartphone.

I thought that would be the end of it. But I was wrong. Oh, so very wrong. An elderly woman a few seats away from me launched into a loud tirade against the man, demanding that he take action and asking why he wasn't paying attention to his child. The young father looked at her as if she had just escaped from a mental institution and immediately went back to staring at his phone (which just goes to prove that not all Millennials become helicopter parents).

It's no secret that many people have become phone zombies. We see them walking across busy intersections while looking down at their smartphones; some are too busy trying to take a selfie to realize they might be in imminent danger.

For parents who are not so disengaged, protecting their children from harm means placing the child's health and welfare above their own desires. Sometimes parents are forced to acknowledge that their child's happiness depends, in large part, on desires beyond a parent's control. Depending on the society and culture in which children are raised and learn how to assert themselves, what will make them happy can embody a parent's greatest fears.

* * * * * * * * *
I'm always fascinated by the films that the Frameline Film Festival selects for its Worldly Affairs program of shorts. Two stood out during the 2017 festival, giving the audience a fleeting glimpse of life outside the puritanical culture that infects much of these United States. Written and directed by Marco Leão  and André Santos, Pedro starts out as a young Portuguese man (Filipe Abreu) returns home from his night job as dawn breaks over the coastal city in which he lives.

Filipe Abreu stars in Pedro

Before Pedro can fall asleep and get some rest, his mother (Rita Durão) insists that he take her to the beach. She wants to get there early, before it gets crowded with lots of other people. Upon arriving, however, they discover a nearly empty beach. In the parking lot, Pedro exchanges a lustful glance with an older man (João Villas-Boas) who is obviously cruising.

Rita Durão, Filipe Abreu, and João Villas-Boas in a scene from Pedro

After Pedro and his mother return from a brief dip in the ocean, the stranger stops by their blanket to ask for a cigarette. Once again, Pedro's mother (who has been preoccupied with whether or not her boyfriend is going to meet her at the beach) is too distracted to notice the tacit looks exchanged between the two men. When his mother's date (Marcello Urgeghe) finally arrives, Pedro excuses himself and heads for a rendezvous in the bushes with the handsome stranger.

* * * * * * * * *
Co-written by Yudho Aditya, Dea Kulumbegashvili, and Barbara Cigarroa, the protagonist in Pria is a young man constrained by the cultural traditions of life in a small village in rural Indonesia. Aris (Chicco Kurniawan) is fascinated by the pictures his ESL teacher, Peter (Jacob McCarthy), brings into the classroom to help illustrate words for his students by relating them to pictures taken during his travels to America and other Western cities.

Peter (Jacob McCarthy) is an ESL teacher in a scene from Pria

Because he lives in a Muslim culture where arranged marriages are commonplace, Aris is about to be wed to a young woman named Gita (Gladhys Elliona Syahutari) who knows as little about men as Aris knows about women. That hasn't prevented his mother, Ros (Karlina Inawati), and Gita's father, Fausi (Otig Pakis), from negotiating a match for their children.

Gladhys Elliona Syahutari (Gita) and
Otig Pakis (Fausi) in a scene from Pria

With his entire life planned out for him by an overprotective mother, Aris struggles with conflicting notions of tradition, duty and his own personal idea of happiness. Yudho Aditya's film captures the fear, confusion, and helplessness Aris feels at being forced into a lifestyle he doesn't want (especially when he feels no desire for a woman). It doesn't take much for the viewer to realize that Aris is developing a crush on Peter, a very white man who looks every bit as exotic to the young Indonesian as Aris might to someone from Ireland.

Chicco Kurniawan (Aris) and his mother
(Karlina Inawati) in a scene from Pria

Aris's mother (who appears to be single) is determined to lay a foundation for her son's happiness within the structure and strictures of the culture they know. When Aris finally gets up the courage to visit Peter and ask for guidance, a solution is found which will allow Aris to remain single without shaming his mother. In his director's statement, Yudho Aditya writes:
“I’ve made films ever since I was 13. Never once have I ever considered myself a 'political' filmmaker (I’m never very good at playing politics). I initially started making films mainly for me -- for the kid in me that was ostracized, alienated and muted; the kid that never felt like he really belonged anywhere. Ironically, as with the case of making Pria, the deeper I tapped into these insecurities and the more I wanted to explore and understand them, the more I realized how universal these sentiments are.”
Filmmaker Yudho Aditya
“As people who identify as LGBT, we are already alone -- empty even -- lost within the sea of heteronormative exclusivity. Forging an identity that is embraced and celebrated within an inclusive community is something we dream of. While, in the United States, this dream is becoming more real (slowly but surely and not without its problems), in places like Indonesia it’s not even a concept that people can fathom. Whether you’re a gay black kid from Michigan or a gay Hispanic from Peru or even a gay American from Indonesia, your voice and experiences should still matter. They deserve to be told just as much as anyone else’s.”

* * * * * * * * *
While the plots of many operas include young women who have been promised in marriage to men they do not love (women whose fathers seem to have no qualms about using their daughters as bargaining chips in arranging a marriage that might bring them political as well as economic benefits), Rigoletto is one of the few operas in which an overly protective father desperately tries to keep his daughter's existence a secret in order to protect her from his political enemies. As the late Verdi scholar, Julian Budden, once wrote:
"What were the qualities that attracted Verdi so strongly to Victor Hugo's play, Le Roi s’amuse? First of all, surely, the 'divided nature' of the protagonist. Up to then his leading characters had been relatively monochromatic, actuated by similar impulses throughout. The court jester Triboulet gave him the opportunity of filling out a personality in all its human contradictions. The play is a drama of paternity, a relationship which never failed to evoke a deep response from a man who had lost both his children in their infancy; hence his long held but ultimately unrealized ambition to write a Re Lear. Lastly, there was his desire, expressed earlier on, to 'unite the comic with the terrible in Shakespeare’s manner.' The subject of a court jester would allow him to do precisely that."
Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

One of the most frequently overlooked factors in staging productions of Rigoletto is the unbridled hatred that many members of the Duke of Mantua's court feel for Rigoletto. The Duke's jester has, after all, used his acid tongue to lambaste and humiliate most of them but, because he is protected by the Duke, there is no way for anyone to get back at Rigoletto until they discover his carefully-guarded secret.

The Duke of Mantua (Pene Pati) seduces the Countess Ceprano
(Amina Edris) in Act I of Rigoletto (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Inspired by the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, Michael Yeargan used the artist’s juxtaposition of the ordinary with the fantastic (as well as de Chirico's skewed perspectives) as a basis for his set design for Rigoletto. As he explains:
“In the most simplistic terms, Rigoletto is about a father's curse that fulfills itself. De Chirico’s paintings have a surreal quality that suggests a world of impending doom: that unsettling, airless feeling one gets before a huge storm is about to unleash itself. So when this production was first conceived, we unapologetically used elements from those paintings to satisfy the specific needs of the libretto, while at the same time preserving that feeling of an impending storm -- when the father's curse is fulfilled."
Michael Yeargan's set for Act II of Rigoletto
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

As much as I love the physical look of the San Francisco Opera's 1997 production of Rigoletto, a recent performance surprised me by the way previously unacknowledged design elements sabotaged key points in the opera's plot. Although a pre-performance announcement indicated that the soprano singing the role of Rigoletto's daughter, Gilda (Nino Machaidze) was ill, that was no reason for the lack of electricity in the performance I witnessed.
  • No one at the Duke's court seemed to be the slightest bit afraid of Rigoletto (Quinn Kelsey). Instead, they clustered together clad in Constance Hoffman's mostly black costumes like a darkly lit blob, passively commenting on the Duke's misadventures and the humiliation of the Count Ceprano (Anthony Reed).
  • Although she seemed to get through Acts II and III with sufficient power, Machaidze's withdrawal from the performance was announced during the set change between Acts II and III. Maria Valdes stepped in and took over the role of Gilda in Act III, handsomely acquitting herself as the doomed heroine.
  • Much to my surprise, the strongest singing came from Count Monterone (Reginald Smith, Jr.) and the male chorus (a huge shoutout to chorus director Ian Robertson) rather than from Kelsey Quinn's hunchback or Andrea Silvestrelli's hired assassin, Sparafucile.
Reginald G. Smith, Jr. as Count Monterone in Act I of Rigoletto
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

This San Francisco Opera production of Rigoletto is now 20 years old. In its first two seasons (1997 and 2001) it was directed by Mark Lamos. In 2006 and 2012 it was staged by Harry Silverstein. While the physical production is holding up quite well (and Nicola Luisotti conducted with admirable passion), I have to wonder about the strength of Rob Kearly's stage direction, which seemed to hit all of its marks but was nevertheless sorely lacking in dramatic tension.

Despite Gary Marder's superb lighting and Lawrence Pech's choreography, something was missing at the core of the production. It certainly wasn't the fault of Kelsey Quinn's robust Rigoletto or Zanda Švēde's lusty Maddalena. Could it have been Pene Pati's oversized but bravely sung Duke? Or a darker voiced Gilda without any semblance of a trill? I honestly cannot pinpoint the problem. All I can say is that I left the performance surprised by the way such a passionate opera could feel so mechanical. Meh!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Who Can They Turn To?

During his presidential campaign, a man with a long history of discriminating against minorities in his real estate businesses told African-Americans to trust him. "What have you got to lose?" he asked. Now that he's in the White House, Donald Trump wants loyalty. Bully for him.

A textbook case of what happens when someone tries to live up to their own publicity, Trump has no compunction about assuming that his celebrity and newly-acquired political power can keep him above the law. However, like respect, love, and a good reputation, trust must be earned over a long period of time and can be obliterated in an instant. As Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, "Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it."

For many people, the two factors most likely to rupture a good relationship are imbalances in power and earning potential. In some cases those inequities have been defined by traditional gender roles; in other cases by a culture of dominance and submission. While domestic partnership contracts, prenuptial agreements, chastity belts, and safe words are relationship tools that can be used to define the levels of trust between consenting adults, emotional betrayal come in all shapes, sizes, and can easily destroy the ties that bind people together.

Two San Francisco theatre companies recently hosted the world premieres of plays driven by a curious combination of micro aggressions, macro aggressions, and macho aggressions.
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On October 13, 1962, Edward Albee's controversial drama entitled Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had its Broadway premiere at the Billy Rose Theatre. While many were shocked by Martha's aggressive behavior and George's willingness to put up with her incessant humiliation, there was no doubt about the quality of Albee's writing. His drama went on to receive 1963's Tony Award for Best Play and the 1962-1963 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Although Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was selected to become the 1963 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, some of Columbia University's more refined trustees "got the vapors" and nixed the nominating committee's selection because of the script's profanity and overt references to human sexuality. As a result, no Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded in 1963.

While some may have found Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to be shockingly vulgar, few understood that it was way ahead of its time. Back in 1962, there was no way for people to know how miserably language would deteriorate over the following half century. We are now at a point where pre-pubescents call each other "bitches," the Real Housewives formula has been replicated in numerous countries around the globe, hip hop artists include all kinds of profanity in their rap lyrics, and the President of the United States has been heard boasting about how he loves to grab women by their pussies. In 2011, a new play by Stephen Adly Guirgis entitled The Motherfucker With The Hat premiered on Broadway!

What many people overlooked was the simple fact that Albee hit on a winning formula: Put two married couples together. Let them make nice when introduced. Then place them together in the psychological equivalent of a crucible, plant the seeds of suspicion and/or resentment, and let jealousy and doubt take over. Rob these people of their most precious delusions and expose their deepest secrets, stripping them of their defenses (with one couple covering up for their inability to have a child and the other hiding a mysteriously inconvenient hysterical pregnancy, Albee hit pay dirt).

The cast of You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin) 

As part of its Sandbox Series to promote new works, the San Francisco Playhouse recently staged the world premiere of Christopher Chen's lean, mean, and meticulously crafted drama entitled You Mean To Do Me Harm. Zoe Rosenfeld's handsome unit set is as symmetrical as a board game and bordered by tension-inducing right angles. Whenever two actors are not performing in a scene, they sit outside the set's basic square as if waiting to re-enter a wrestling ring.

Chen's characters are two interracial couples with interesting backstories. Lindsey (Lauren English) is a Caucasian woman whose success as a corporate lawyer is no doubt due to the fact that her mind is as sharp as a tack. Her Chinese-American husband, Daniel (Don Castro), works for a large tech firm based in Silicon Valley.

Don Castro (Dan) and Lauren English (Lindsey) in a scene
from You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin)

Ben (James Asher) has recently been offered a job at the company where Dan works. After having lived in China for several years, he's found doors opening for him simply because he's a white guy who has some knowledge of Chinese culture. While Ben may be a fairly laid-back kind of guy who doesn't sweat the small stuff, his Chinese-American wife, Samantha (Charisse Loriaux), has a habit of noticing petty details about the behavior and conversation of the men she meets. When Samantha and Ben interviewed for the same job, she didn't hesitate to sabotage her husband's chances of being hired because (a) she felt that, as a Chinese-American, she was better qualified for the position and (b) she was not about to be passed over for a key opportunity because of her husband's white privilege. How did Samantha and Lindsey meet? They work at the same company.

Charisse Loriaux (Samantha) and James Asher (Ben) in a scene
from You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin) 

The fact that Ben and Lindsey once dated years ago and that, during dinner, Ben fondly mentions a camping trip they took together, is enough of an irritant to Dan's fragile ego to generate doubt about Ben's motives and Lindsey's responses. Ben's simple throwaway remark at their dinner party causes Dan's insecurities to start spiraling out of control, making him wonder if Ben poses a sexual threat to his marriage.

Lauren English (Lindsey) and Charisse Loriaux (Samantha) in a
scene from You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin)

As Chen's intricately-plotted 90-minute play unravels, the audience follows a series of two-character vignettes, starting with a discussion between Lindsey and Dan that transitions to a conversation between Dan and Ben. Likewise, a tense exchange between Ben and Samantha is followed by a surprisingly candid confrontation between Samantha and Lindsey.

Any assumptions an audience member may have made at the beginning of the play are shredded with clinical precision while revealing how the two women see very different things happening than their husbands do. The perspectives of those who grew up in a Chinese or Chinese-American family reveal startling insights into the privileged behavior of the Caucasians they encounter. As Chen has stressed in the past, “It’s my firm belief that the way to move through life is to constantly question and interrogate whatever so-called truths are put right before your face."

Don Castro (Dan) and Charisse Loriaux (Samantha) in a scene
from You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin)

The four-actor ensemble does some breathtaking work as they hack away at each other's deceits, analyze false assumptions, dissect easily overlooked micro aggressions, and manipulate their spouses and friends whenever they sense an advantage. Chen has always had a strong skill for crafting dialogue, but in this play he seems to have broken through to a new level. Although his characters' words may overlap, there is an underlying musicality to his dialogue (which is crafted and delivered with the effectiveness of nanotechnology).

James Asher (Ben) and Lauren English (Lindsey) in a scene
from You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin) 

You Mean To Do Me Harm went through a lengthy developmental process shared by the San Francisco Playhouse and the Vineyard Theatre in New York City. As its director, Bill English, carefully notes:
"Mr. Chen has given us a much-needed story about young urban professionals -- witty, brilliant, sophisticated, but still struggling to define themselves and find their place in a society lacking moral guidelines and infected by subtle and insidious forms of racism. A fateful dinner party ignites cultural misunderstandings and conflicts, embroiling two racially-mixed couples in a nightmarish series of events that spiral increasingly out of control, spinning them (and us) into a surreal landscape where we're never quite sure where reality ends and paranoia begins. Set against the backdrop of Sino-American political and business relations, You Mean To Do Me Harm focuses on the way racial misunderstandings and micro-aggressions are expressed in the microcosm of personal relationships. Mr. Chen pulls the rug out from under his characters (and us) by twisting the nature of the play's metaphysics so that we understand what it must be like to be an outsider in the white world where what one is led to believe can never quite be trusted. By throwing us into this Rashoman-like world of multiple unprovable truths, we are led to an understanding of how unmoored those from minority cultures can feel."
The cast of You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin) 

Performances of You Mean To Do Me Harm continue at the Rueff Theatre through July 2 (click here for tickets).

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I first met playwright JC Lee during the summer of 2010, when his rowdy comedy, Pookie Goes Grenading, was being given a reading at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. Since then I've reviewed the world premieres of Lee's This World and After trilogy (Into The Clear Blue Sky, This World Is Good, and The Nature Line) at Sleepwalkers Theatre and Crane (produced by the Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company) as well as attended a reading of Luce at the Aurora Theatre Company in February 2013. In addition to his work on such television shows as HBO's Looking and Girls and ABC's How To Get Away With Murder, Lee (a fast and facile writer with a special talent for using magical realism in his plays) is working as a screenwriter on film adaptations of Pippin and The Nutcracker.

Ed Berkeley and JD Scalzo in a scene from warplay
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

Lee's warplay (which was commissioned and developed as part of New Conservatory Theatre Center's New Play Development Lab) is the company's third world premiere this season. Inspired by The Iliad, warplay offers a vastly different perspective on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus than Homer described in his epic poem. While some have called this relationship one of the oldest love stories in Western literature, it is best known as one of the earliest published tales about a same-sex relationship that may not have been merely platonic.

In warplay, two men are identified simply by their initials. The Achilles character, "A" (Ed Berkeley), has gone through life convinced that he is a hero. Butch, brave, and built like a brick shithouse, he has always been an impressive specimen of male beauty who is completely comfortable in his own skin. "A" sees himself as a natural leader who has (naturally) been  chosen for this role by the Gods. With an unshakable faith in the kind of games that must be played in order to prepare for war, he is the very model of an ancient Greek warrior.

Ed Berkeley in a scene from warplay (Photo by: Lois Tema)

"A" is not, however, perfect. As his best friend from childhood is quick to point out, "A" is at least 34% sociopathic, oozes high levels of toxic masculinity and, throughout his life, has had everything handed to him on a silver platter. In short, "A" has never been challenged to earn anyone's love.

The Patroclus figure, "P" (JD Scalzo), offers a marked contrast to "A's" many manly virtues. Skittish, analytical, capable of feeling fear, and occasionally hysterical, he is riddled with conflicting emotions. "P" is first seen refusing to stone a rabbit to death if it will mean killing an innocent animal just to demonstrate his ability to engage with an enemy. While "A" finds it difficult to believe that he is capable of having free will, "P" is a man of intense passion who is sometimes consumed with worry and, at other times, radiant with love for his best friend.

JD Scalzo in a scene from warplay (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

warplay's scenes have titles like "In The Blood, "Small Thing," "Echoes of a Ticking Clock," and "Capture the Flag." As the sounds of a nearby battle fill the theatre, A & P (who should not be confused with the former supermarket chain) argue and fight with each other because that's what their culture expects men to do. Even if they have deep feelings of affection and lust for each other's warmth, it is often difficult for them to articulate their love ("A" clearly feels a responsibility to protect "P" but has never shown much curiosity about what "P" hopes to get out of their relationship).

Compellingly directed by Ben Randle on Devin Kasper's unit set (with costumes by Miriam Lewis, and projections and sound designed by Theodore J. H. Hulsker), the two men are seen as young adults ready to go to battle as well as adolescents attempting to model themselves on the Greek version of GI Joe. While there are parts of Lee's 75-minute play that could benefit from greater cohesion, the dramatic high point occurs when "A" returns to the banks of the river Styx, sees the spirit of "P" standing on the opposite shore, and asks if "P" still remembers him.

JD Scalzo and Ed Berkeley in a scene from warplay
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

Lee has written two extremely meaty roles for the actors who portray "A" and "P." Ed Berkeley and JD Scalzo rise to the challenge with a forceful display of blood, sweat, and tears, delivering remarkable performances that gain added impact from the intimacy of the 60-seat Walker Theatre. As the playwright explains:
“Television is about economy: what’s the most efficient and interesting way to tell the story. Film is about structure: how do you we tell a story in two hours in the most commercial way possible. Theatre is about language and action: what’s the most interesting vocabulary with which to tell the story. Writing a two-person play is fucking hard. It requires deeply mining the emotional journey the two characters are on and dramatizing the nuance. I was always impressed with Andrew Haigh’s ability while filming Looking to maneuver the camera into the most intimate moments that two people share (whether they be embarrassing, sexy, or horrifying in their revelations).

What you find in theatre is that you just don’t have that tool. You can’t move the audience in. You’ve got to make the moment bigger so everyone in the theatre can experience it. That’s a really hard thing to do without compromising the truth of the emotional moment. If you just write television for a long time, you forget how to let characters talk and breathe. If you write features too long, you don’t remember that structure isn’t the paramount concern of storytelling. If all you write are plays, you wind up hewing to a very small demographic of people, which limits the scope of what you can write about.”
Performances of warplay continue at the New Conservatory Theatre through July 2 (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Transforming Ugly Ducklings into Swans

People struggle to overcome physical and/or emotional obstacles for all kinds of reasons. For athletes (who may be competing against others) as well as opera singers (who may be competing against themselves), there is a constant goal of stretching one's talent and honing it toward perfection. For others, there may be a burning desire to overcome a speech impediment (like stuttering) or their fear of speaking in public. For some, the challenge is to prove their worth to those who had slighted or underrated them.

The payoff is often a deeply personal moment of triumph over seemingly impossible odds. Think of the scene in The Miracle Worker when Helen Keller is finally able to say the word "water" to her astonished tutor, Anne Sullivan. Or the decisive moment at the end of Act I in La Cage aux Folles when the emotionally torn Albin sings "I Am What I Am."

It's exceedingly rare for an audience to witness a character's psychological growth from the initial moment of being paralyzed with fear to triumphantly strutting one's stuff with confidence. However, in the 1959 hit musical, Gypsy: A Musical Fable, the creative team (Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins) found a way to telescope Louise's transition from ugly duckling to sex symbol through a series of blackout scenes.

Whether one performs on a diving board, an athletic field or a stage, it takes a lot of confidence to step out in front of an audience. While one's initial attempts may not seem remarkable, continued practice can help struggling amateurs draw closer to their goals. When that magical breakthrough moment occurs, it's a source of unmitigated joy which can nevertheless raise troubling questions about the challenges that lie ahead.

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Three famous quotes came to mind while watching the Bay area premiere of Matthew Lopez's riotously funny new play, The Legend of Georgia McBride, at the Marin Theatre Company.
Adam Magill as Casey in The Legend of Georgia McBride
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Lopez's play begins with Casey (Adam Magill) struggling to perform his impersonation of Elvis Presley for a handful of people in a tacky bar in Panama City, Florida. The proprietor, Eddie (John R. Lewis), is painfully aware that business sucks. Casey, however, is living in a complete state of denial. An affable man-boy who has been in a relationship for several years with a waitress named Jo (Tatiana Wechsler), he's been chasing his dream while Jo busts her ass for a diminishing number of tips.

Part of Casey's problem is that he has no concept of how to manage their money. In addition to using his ATM card to pay for things they cannot afford, his lack of attention to the balance in their checking account (coupled with his recent purchase of a new Elvis costume) has caused their rent check to bounce for the second time. Meanwhile, he's commuting nearly 80 miles a day to and from a job that costs him more than it pays. Although his close friend Jason (Jason Kapoor) is married to Casey's landlord, Jason's wife is on the brink of threatening eviction at the same time Jo learns that she is pregnant.

Jo (Tatiana Wechlser) and Casey (Adam Magill) in a scene from
The Legend of Georgia McBride (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In an odd way, Casey's plight is similar to Louise Hovick's at the moment when she discovers that her vaudeville act has been booked into a burlesque house. Both characters are flat broke with nowhere to go but up. So when a seemingly ghastly opportunity offers a temporary solution, there's no time to resist. Desperate times require desperate measures.

Louise's break comes when the lead stripper,Tessie Tura, walks out in a huff. Casey's is a little bit slower to materialize. Unbeknownst to him, Eddie has invited a distant cousin to come perform at his bar as a replacement for Casey's failing Elvis act. When Eddie's cousin turns out to be none other than Miss Tracy Mills (Kraig Swartz) who arrives with her drunken sidekick, Rexy (Jason Kapoor) in tow, Casey's only option is to tend bar until he can find another chance to impersonate Elvis.

Kraig Swartz, Jason Kapoor, and John R. Lewis in a scene from
The Legend of Georgia McBride (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When Rexy passes out in a drunken stupor, the show must go on. Although Casey's first instinct is to warm up his old Elvis routine, the hysterical Eddie (who suffers from migraine headaches) insists that the bar's sold-out crowd is expecting a drag show and they'd damned well better get one. Following the old theatrical tradition that "the show must go on," Georgia McBride is born out of little more than sheer panic and burning necessity.

Thankfully, Miss Tracy Mills has guided lots of aspiring gay boys down the yellow brick road to fulfilling their dreams of becoming successful drag queens. The difference here is that Casey is straight and much too embarrassed to tell Jo about his new persona. As he blossoms and begins to thrive in his new identity, the money he and Jo have so desperately needed starts to materialize and grow. Even as Georgia McBride gains a loyal following, Casey retains a slight awkwardness in drag (like a white basketball player who can't jump or a straight man who lacks rhythm and panache when wearing a dress).

Miss Tracy Mills (Kraig Swartz) prepares Casey (Adam Magill) for his
drag debut in The Legend of Georgia McBride (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Directed by Kent Gash on Jason Sherwood's unit set (with lighting by Kurt Landisman and a splendid array of costumes designed by Kara Harmon), The Legend of Georgia McBride is filled with delicious surprises, including a drag name I'd never heard before (Freida Slaves). While some members of the audience may be suspicious about a play centered around a straight man who finds a career in drag, it should be noted that plenty of straight men (including Jack Benny and Milton Berle) had a great time dressing up as women.

However, Lopez's script has a few novel surprises. In a scene where Rexy lectures Casey about needing to know and understand why gay men get up in drag (as opposed to just putting on a dress as a way to earn money), the audience gets a sobering account of the night a young Rexy was the victim of a brutal fagbashing. Later, as Casey tries to convince Jo that his performing in drag is not necessarily a bad thing, he explains how it has led to much more than just the money he's been bringing home to support his family (which will soon include twins named Elvis and Priscilla). For a man who had been chronically irresponsible with money, working in drag has helped Casey to find the better part of himself and become more like the person he would like to be.

Adam Magill in The Legend of Georgia McBride
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

It's a beautiful monologue for Adam Magill, who delivers it with convincing sweetness and a sense that Jo's husband/man-child is finally growing up. As in previous productions around the Bay, Magill proves himself to be wonderfully skillful in moments that call for extreme physical comedy. While Kraig Swartz tears up the stage as Miss Tracy Mills, Jason Kapoor (who doubles as Jason and Rexy) offers an impressive performance notable for its slapstick drag moments as well as his tender proof of friendship as Jason confesses to Casey that he's known a few drag queens in his own life.

Both John R. Lewis and Tatiana Wechsler do some impressive work as their characters evolve toward a happy ending which sends audiences home with goofy smiles on their faces. The musical numbers are aided by Chris Houston's sound design and original music.

At the end of the opening night performance (this was the final production of MTC's 50th anniversary season), Adam Magill gave a touching fundraising speech in which he told the audience how, as a child who was diagnosed to be within the autistic spectrum, an early exposure to live theatre helped him overcome a lot of obstacles that might have prevented him from becoming the man -- as well as the actor -- that he is today. The audience (which had been primed for an exciting opening night) embraced him in a tidal wave of well-earned applause.

Jason Kapoor, Adam Magill, and Kraig Swartz in the musical finale
to The Legend of Georgia McBride (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of The Legend of Georgia McBride continue through July 2 at the Marin Theatre Company (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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For its opening night, the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival chose Harold Lloyd's 1925 farce, The Freshman. With its famous football game (filmed at UC Berkeley's Memorial Stadium), the screening also debuted a new score performed by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra that had been composed by seven students from the Berklee College of Music's film scoring department under the guidance of Professor Sheldon Mirowitz.

This marks the third year that the BSFO has traveled west to perform in San Francisco, which has proven to be a win-win-win relationship for the festival, the college's young composers, and the audience. Congratulations to this year's talented composers: Vincent Isler from Zurich, Esin Aydingoz from Istanbul, Bernard Duc from Lausanne, Andres Gutierrez Moreno from Guadalajara, Jeffrey Gaiser from Cleveland, Vinicius Pippa from São Paulo, and Victoria Ruggiero from Lancaster, New York for a job well done!

In The Freshman, Lloyd stars as Harold "Speedy" Lamb, a gung-ho college freshman whose life-long dream has been to join Tate University's football team. One reason why his loyal friend, Peggy (who is described in a title card as "the kind of girl your mother must have been") does not run with the rich kids is that her mother is Harold's landlady.

Speedy has lots of quirks which make him an unlikely choice to be a big man on compus. He's laughably eager, goodhearted to the point of being extremely gullible, and easily mocked by the cool crowd who prefer to hang out with the College Cad (Brooks Benedict). To his credit, Speedy is willing to put up with the extraordinary amount of humiliation and physical abuse doled out by the team's coach (Pat Harmon) in order to gain acceptance.

Whether hiding a kitten in his sweater or trying to hold his pants up as his tuxedo comes apart during the Fall Frolic dance, Lloyd is a master of physical comedy (keep in mind that The Freshman was filmed at a time when stars like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd performed their own stunts). Watching the set-up for each sight gag is like a master class in farce. Although not as crisp as the print that was screened at the Castro Theatre on the festival's opening night, the following video contains the entirety of 1925's The Freshman.