Monday, May 28, 2018
Aside from the nine hour train trip back from Chicago to Galesburg, our delightful sojourn with the Delaney sisters at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago Thursday afternoon was well worth the time spent. Director Chuck Smith proved once again he Is a master purveyor of the Black Experience.
Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters First Hundred Years is a true story and was adapted from an interview and book in the nineties. The play by Emily Mann appeared on Broadway in 1995. Those inimitable sisters have now passed away, but their message remains both poignant and pertinent. Their lives covered the minority experience all the way from their slave born father to the end of the 20th century. Each maiden sister had a singular personality and profession. Sadie was a school teacher and Bessie a Dentist. As they share their lives, you cannot help but admire their intellectual capacity, fortitude, humor, and above all their essential goodness in the face of two centuries of oppression.
Ella Joyce (Bessie) and Marie Thomas (Sadie) are just plain superlative as they putter about their immaculate home preparing dinner (for us the audience). Director Smith has full control of each minute domestic chore and has devised an efficient way to share the sister’s family background. A few family photos on the set suggest many more and they are depicted by a series of golden frames that creep up a wall behind the household setting. Several of the frames are used to show projections of African American history as drawn from a family album that the sisters look at and refer to. The empty frames also gave every audience member an opportunity to fill in photos from their own past.
The set itself is a tour de force of realism built upon a large turntable that moves the action smoothly from living room to dining room and kitchen. The overall palette (both the set and the lighting) emphasizes restful blue and peach tones. This is a calm, spotless, organized, and under control space that seems somehow isolated from the furor of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, protests, and all of the manifest horrors of the society’s struggle with racism. It emphasizes that these extraordinary women made lives anchored by civility, kindness, and gentle humor in spite of what was going on outside of their home. The key turning point for the Delaney sisters was the securing of the vote for women in the 1920’s. According to director Smith, this was one of his main reasons for remounting the show today. He and they point to the ballot as the final arbiter. If you do not use it you are selling out yourself and the cause.
Having Our Say is not an enduring masterpiece for the ages though it may be more profound than it appears. As a reminder that two fellow humans can endure a century of oppression and still retain a sense of protest, civility, and humor the performance is definitely worth seeing.
Thursday, March 01, 2018
Uneasy Street by Rachel Sherman
Have you heard of or read Hillbilly Ellegy by J.D. Vance? Did you know there is a book about the other side of the coin? Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street gives you a chance to balance the lives of Vance’s drug ridden coal miner community with the trials and tribulations facing a group of New York City Wall Street millionaires.
Sherman surveyed about fifty pairs of Gotham high flyers (stock brokers, hedge fund magnates, real estate moguls, etc.). The group was leavened with a few gay couples and some people of color. Most were in their forties and had children. They were all making ample six figure incomes and several had fortunes that were amplified by inherited wealth. None were going to challenge Bill Gates, but they were definitely in the upper two per cent of incomes in the country. According to Sherman, the high flyers were culturally aware, politically liberal, and not all that religious, which already positions them about as far from the denizens pictured in Vance’s book as they can get.
Not surprisingly none of Sherman’s sample admitted to making a budget much less having to live within one. There was no worry about having enough at the end of the month to pay the nanny or tip the doorman at their fifth avenue abode. Somewhat surprising though was that most of them reported worrying to some degree about money. For instance several had tensions about making sure that they kept their costs reasonable for their situation in life. Frequently their concerns centered on their efforts to be seen as average or normal rather than rich and privileged. The group was pretty universally opposed to conspicuous consumption. They felt that Kardashian style lives made hard working rich folks look bad and they had no taste for that.
These millionaire’s stated goal often, said Sherman, was to present themselves as morally worthy of their wealth. In pursuing this worthiness most felt that it was better to have worked for at least some of your wealth rather than inheriting it. Most of the subjects with inherited fortunes did feel some guilt about how they got their money. That group were also among the subjects particularly ready to emphasize their interest in giving back to society through high profile charitable donations and volunteer work.
Sherman isolated two main reasons used by her interviewees to justify (or if you are cynical) to rationalize their entitled states. The moderately rich (say lower six figure salaries and assets below five million) seem to look back or down-class more. They emphasize they have worked their way up and now can fairly characterize themselves as at the top of the middle class rather than at the bottom of the really rich class. Interestingly, the really rich (upper six figure to million dollar salaries and ten plus million in assets) tend to look upward more often. They talk about the large numbers of people (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett et.al.) who have lots more money than they do. This helps them to position themselves again as more average within the middling rich rather than the rarified realm of the super-rich. The problem is that both groups tend to overestimate the number of people in the classes above them and underestimate the number of people in the classes below them.
Most of the surveyed group had children and they were very concerned with how to make their kids see themselves as generally good normal people and not privileged. As one person put it she didn’t want her kids developing “into assholes.” Unfortunately this is a really tough sell as privilege defines almost every experience these children and their parents have. They live in bigger houses, reside in better neighborhoods, go to more prestigious schools, take more expensive vacations, and associate more with other wealthy parents and their children. It is nice that most of the parents do seem to realize that the best they can do is to teach their children a bit about how not to act entitled even though they are. Their attitude seems to be that since you can’t erase the privilege you should at least try not to advertise it and make attempts to live with it positively.
In sum we must see that this group of wealthy New Yorkers, while they strive to locate themselves somewhere in the morally respectable and comfortable middle, are often managing to forget that they are still better off than 99% of their fellow citizens. They and their fellows fall victim to the fallacy of interpreting a structural problem as an individual or personal problem. The data remains clear and demonstrable. Unequal distribution of resources is a reality and the gap is increasing not closing. Today’s millionaires are the beneficiaries of that structural reality not just a group of average lucky folks who struggled and managed to beat the system.
Monday, February 26, 2018
The Illinois Theatre Association (ITA) continues on in Tucson, AZ. Jan and I spent an invigorating afternoon at the U. of AZ directing studio where John Muszynski directed a new play by MFA student Fly Steffens. Had a nice chat with[JDY1] John after the show and also ITA stalwart Donna Burke who was visiting. We may want to set up an AZ alum chapter for ITA.
The play was a mind bending contemporary retelling of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. In 95 intermissionless minutes it covers most of the Chekhov plot, but adds strange noises, recorded passages, interior monologues, multiple voices and a bear that erupts out of the birch forest with a primal sexual force that snares Masha and several other of the characters. Moscow is a myth and so is life in the burbs. That may be why the author extends the title to: Three Sisters, or: Insignificance is sickening and love means nothing at all; all it is is the strength to keep going on no matter what. No matter what, this was challenging stuff, excellently produced, and with a young and exuberant cast. Kudos all around.
Friday, February 23, 2018
It was serendipity that placed us at the Rogue Theatre in Tucson to see the Frank Galati adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath last month. The serendipitous part was that it was also my father’s birthday. He would have been 112 years old on January 27th 2018. As we watched the retelling of this iconic novel I kept thinking back to Dad’s own life. He was not an “Okie” and he had made it through the 1930’s without the kind of disruption that plagued the Joad family, but his early life in rural Wisconsin prior to and during the First World War did have a parallel that is hard to ignore. He came from a large family that had a peripatetic downward spiraling existence. Dad's grandfather owned a farm but his father had been reduced to a tenant by just before WWI. Then dad's father disappeared during WWI and left my grandmother with five children. Total poverty was the controlling factor until after the war and it forced my dad and his older sister to withdraw from high school to help support the family. Dad's dad and my grandfather did re-appear after the war, but the family never recovered economically. I apologize for this too long preamble on the Rogue Theatre production, yet what I was thinking about as the production began does have a bearing on my reaction.
The production just plain started out for me on the wrong foot. In the early moments several characters appeared bare footed and as they displayed their clean, smooth, lily white, unblemished extremities all I was conscious of was that these our actors were miles away from struggling hard scrabble farmers in the midst of walking to California. I am sorry for the bad pun but thank heaven most were shod fairly quickly and remained so for the duration. Yet the lack of grit and sweat of that early image continued to nag.
The chosen minimalist semi-Brechtian production style was understandable given the reasonably small wing space and the demands made by a large cast and multiples scenes. The stage was bare and backed by a full width cyclorama. A manual turntable dominated stage right. Benches tables, poles, and some cloth were piled up to be used to construct the truck and all other scene locations.
Musically the show continued the Rogue’s use of live instrumental accompaniment. A violin and guitar/banjo player provided pre-show music and this couple continued into the play to underscore and provide scene bridges.
Prominent for acting accolades was Matt Bowden’s appropriately smoldering Tom Joad-- all dark browed and bearded. I also liked the contrast of Cole Potwardowski’s Al Joad. There was youthful confidence along with the devilish sexuality of his uncontrollable glands. Cynthia Meier’s Ma, I am sorry to say, just never connected with me. Not always was I sure that she effectively played her own suffering aspect before she declared that keeping on keeping on is the only possible human choice. She told the story, but the challenge of the role is to also live it and at that point the Brechtian narration seemed to win out over the emotion of the character.
The company, even at 20 strong, was faced with constant doubling making it hard to accept the minor players as anything other than narrators and scene shifters. All but the most essential props were mimed and this choice also exposed us to differences in pantomime competency. The ensemble did attack their challenging role changes with vigor and it made no matter if they were in a character or manning the spokes to rotate the turntable. I did, however, feel for the girl who had to hold up a blanket in Act II. It seemed like an eternity and my seatmate commented on it as well.
Lighting and sound moved us effectively from scene to scene with scrim silhouettes and campfire flicker effects deserving of notice. The best technical kudo was saved for last and the combination of sound and lighting and actor sound and movement during the climatic storm proved to be a fitting highlight of the performance.
The costumes were clearly dust bowl and kept to a palette of umbers and blues, but many looked too clean and unstressed for folks who are making a long, hot, sweaty, physically debilitating journey. This may have been part of director Joe McGrath’s commitment to commenting on rather than submerging us in the grunge of the journey, but it also accounted for my feeling that some grit was missing in the production. Luckily, as noted just above, the ending met the challenge. The culminating image of Rose of Sharon striking a pieta pose combined with nourishing the starving man was worth the price of admission alone. Perhaps it was just the jarring start that kept me from involvement early on, but I can’t help feeling that in the early going the pace just seemed too relaxed and lacking focus. Act II provided redeeming action and dramatic tension, but it was not enough to turn a very good production into a great one.