Same-old

     It was five years ago today that I began to post thoughts on this website, so it is fitting to consider the power of words and the ideas they express. What comes to mind are words spoken by hip-hop artist Chuck D a few weeks ago in an interview. The Public Enemy leader, sitting on the set of The Daily Show alongside his present-day collaborator, guitarist Tom Morello of the rock band Rage Against the Machine, had this to say: “We feel as musicians that we have the universal language and passport to tell the whole world to be accountable and responsible.” The idea of a universal passport is something we all should feel we have in our possession.

     Chuck D’s words had me thinking of ones written 61 years ago and recounted later by James Baldwin in his book, Nobody Knows My Name. Baldwin quotes W.E.B. Du Bois who is explaining by letter why he is not in attendance at the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956. “I am not present at your meeting because the U.S. government will not give me a passport.” Here’s the thing: Du Bois’s letter was read aloud at that conference; his words served as his passport. As you have just read a line from his letter, you can see that passport allowed him not only to cross borders but has enabled him to traverse time.  As another example of this, revisit his The Souls of Black Folk. Is it possible for someone today to read that 114-year-old work and not be struck by how timely it remains? If one has been paying attention to recent national news, it is difficult to imagine one could also enter Du Bois’s book and depart without thinking of the saying (best expressed in its original language), “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

     Consider the Republican Party’s ongoing attempts to place as many restrictions on voting as possible. As has been widely reported, some who are engaged in this endeavor have unartfully made known their true goal: to reduce the number of black voters. As if television news viewers had not seen and heard them say as much, they now insist on engaging in the charade known as The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity which is supposed to expose and to protect against the voter fraud they know does not exist. The Commission’s vice chair, Kris Kobach, made himself the poster child of voting restriction in his former role as Secretary of State of Kansas. In an interview this past May, Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said, “You can tell that this is a sham commission just by the appointment of Kris Kobach, someone who has devoted much of his professional life to suppressing the vote…”

     Why this war on black suffrage? One need only look to the words of Du Bois. “Thus, Negro Suffrage ended a civil war by beginning a race feud.” And, why this feud? Again, Du Bois sheds ample light. “…there was scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard Emancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification as a duty.” We know that feud was exacerbated 52 years ago with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. When President Lyndon Johnson, himself a son of the South, signed it into law, he knew the ramifications of what he had done. Just a year before, after having signed the Civil Rights Act, he later confided to an aide (as recounted by that aide, Bill Moyers, in his book Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times), “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.”

     Chuck D and Tom Morello have joined forces with Cypress Hill to form a new, super group named after a Public Enemy song, “Prophets of Rage.” Du Bois suggests something more: zeal. He writes that with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, “A million black men started with renewed zeal to vote themselves into the kingdom.” We, their modern-day heirs, should be so zealous. After all, Du Bois has warned of the consequences of complacency. “The power of the ballot we need in sheer self-defence [sic], —else what shall save us from a second slavery?” It remains a timely statement — and question. Hopefully, it allows us to see we have universal passports at the ready. We don’t have to be Chuck D or Du Bois to use them.

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Men on Horses

     We were little kids then, my sister, brother and I, four, five and six at the time. While playing outside one day in front of the rowhouse-turned-apartment building where our large and growing family occupied the fourth-floor flat, we discovered a dead sparrow. I, being the oldest of that trio, decided we should bury it. We walked up the block and across the street to the circle where we sometimes played, stopped under a tree, used a stick to dig a small grave, placed the bird in and covered it. The idea must have been something I had gotten from television; none of us had ever been to a funeral.

     That circle is one of a few in this city of circles, squares and triangles. Once known as Iowa Circle, historian Paul K. Williams writes that “…nearby Dupont Circle was lined with mansions and had become more popular with the city’s wealthy residents while Iowa Circle, surrounded by stately row houses, had become a middle-class neighborhood.” We lived there in the late ‘50s. Some of those houses had remained stately (Charles M. “Sweet Daddy” Grace lived on the circle then), some had seen better days.

     The most striking feature of the circle is the magnificent bronze equestrian statue at its center, a statue I longed to climb but was unable, a statue so large that, when it arrived in Brooklyn from Italy, it had to be transported to Washington by a two-masted schooner rather than by train. I knew nothing of this then, knew nothing of the statue’s significance. We are being reminded that we still don’t know enough about the significance of such memorials.

     This being the capital of the nation that defeated the Confederate States of America, many of the bronze memorials that stand in this city’s public spaces celebrate the Civil War’s victors rather than the vanquished. Yes, there is one Confederate brigadier general standing, Albert Pike. As historian Kathryn Allamong Jacob writes, “When members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a fraternal organization of Union veterans, became aware of plans for a public memorial to be erected in Washington, D.C. in honor of a Confederate general, they contacted congressmen and told them it would be a disgrace to the memories of all Union soldiers.” Instead of being depicted as a soldier, Congress allowed the statue to be erected as a civilian and Mason by the Masons, but as Jacob notes further, “For many years, members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy would hold ceremonies at the site on Pike’s birthday…”

     The man memorialized at Iowa Circle in 1901, the man who had lived there in 1885 and for whom the circle was renamed in 1930 was Major General John A. Logan. Playing what has been called “…a significant role in the Union success at Vicksburg…,” he later served in the U.S. Senate and “…was considered one of the most vocal advocates for military veterans and was instrumental in the federal government recognizing Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) as an official holiday…” Leaving Logan Circle along Vermont Avenue, one of the circle’s four spokes, and walking a mere three blocks southwest, there is another circle and equestrian monument; it honors Major General George Henry Thomas. Travel another two blocks in the same direction along the same avenue and there is a square dominated by Major General James B. McPherson on horseback.

     After just one more block, Vermont Avenue leads to a square named in honor of the French aristocrat-turned-military officer who became a hero of the American Revolutionary War, the Marquis de Lafayette; he and a few of his compatriots stand in one corner of the square. In the other three stand statues of the Comte de Rochambeau, the French nobleman who left his homeland to help America’s Continental Army; Tadeusz Kościuszko, the Polish military engineer who served as a colonel in that army; and Baron von Steuben, the Prussian military officer who served in the war as a major general. At the square’s center, waving his hat in the air while mounted on a horse in mid-rear, rides Major General Andrew Jackson from his days in the War of 1812. Those familiar with the city will know that directly across the street from Lafayette Square stands the house now occupied by the man who compares himself to Jackson and who has recently lamented over the media “trying to take away our history and our heritage.” He should gather his security detail and take a simple six-block stroll.

     If anything, we don’t have enough such representations of our history and heritage. This may seem an odd thing to write from where I sit. A block away is a park with statues of Dante and President James Buchanan. In easy walking distance from here in every direction can be found the sculpted likenesses of Carter G. Woodson and Daniel Webster; Duke Ellington and Mahatma Gandhi; Brevet Lt. General Winfield Scott, Major General George B. McClellan and Methodist Episcopal Bishop Francis Asbury (all on horseback); Guglielmo Marconi and Martin Luther; Samuel Gompers and James Cardinal Gibbons. I could go on for a while and still not get to the ones that are just a little bit farther from here.

     These monuments are testament to a broader view of history and heritage, though a view that clearly shows the dearth of celebrated women. We do, at least, have the Virgin Mary and Saint Bernadette; Queen Isabella of Spain and 17th century Mexican philosopher and poet Juana Inés de la Cruz; American writer Olive Seward and Venezuelan novelist Teresa de la Parra; Princess Märtha of Sweden and civil rights activist Mary McCleod Bethune; and American Red Cross founder Jane Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt. That aforementioned park a block from here also is home to this city’s only equestrian statue of a woman, Joan of Arc.

     I am inspired to want more after reading a Daily Beast profile of sculptor Gabriel Koren, who moved to New York City from her native Budapest in 1978. She writes in her artist’s statement that, “In Budapest there are many sculptures of Hungarian thinkers, writers and historical figures in the parks and on the streets. As a child I grew up playing with these sculptures, climbing on them, while constantly asking my grandmother who these people were.” She says further that, after arriving in In New York, “For fifteen years I attended history lectures in African American churches and community centers. I learned from the most respected history professors in the community, teaching African American history. These lectures were the source of my inspiration to create sculptures of great African American historical figures.” The Daily Beast article quotes her as saying about her discovery of black history, “I caught fire…I said ‘What a story! What an incredible story!’” That fire led to her creating the statues of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X that now stand in Upper Manhattan. According to the article, “…she proposes to replace the likes of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis with African-American heroes such as W.E.B. Dubois and Fannie Lou Hammer and James Baldwin.” Imagine if those three could be encountered by kids on their way to bury a bird.

20 20 20

Hey, it’s Summer, so I’m taking a break this month. Instead of sounding off on some subject, I’m just going to be lazy and post an exercise from this past Winter when an assignment required that I write 20 sentences using a comma, 20 sentences using a semicolon, and 20 sentences that needed neither. (Yeah, you read that right.) Believe me, I thought about just taking the “F” rather than putting myself through that drudgery, but decided to try to have some fun by making the sentences a very short story. So, here are sixty sentences about a fictional Summer vacation.

     The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain; I am staying in the mountains. To anyone who ever considers doing the same, I suggest the little town of La Paz. There is an inn here that even I can afford. When I first arrived, I walked around the town for two hours before wandering into Patricio’s place. I hadn’t eaten since early that morning; the aromas wafting from Patricio’s open doorway lured me in.

     Patricio calls his place “La Comida es Amor” (“Food is Love”). He said this is what his great-grandmother used to say to him when he stood next to her in her kitchen as a boy. When he speaks of this memory, the expression on his face is that of delighted child. This can be both comical and poignant to an observer; Patricio is eighty years old. His only help around the place is Luis. Luis is a local teenager who serves as the inn’s busboy and dishwasher.

     Despite his age, Patricio always seems full of vigor to me. He’s up by dawn every morning. The fuel burning in his stove is the wood he has chopped; the chicken stewing in the pot is one whose neck he has wrung. Most times, he is on his feet cooking throughout the day. Patricio also takes pleasure in serving his “guests,” a term he prefers rather than “customers.” He makes us diners feel like guests; it is not unusual for him to sit with one of us during the whole meal and regale us with tales of his youth.

     According to him, he was a rambunctious boy. Because of this, he was nicknamed Cabro. He says this is the reason goat is never on his menu. No one would ever miss it; Patricio prepares too many other delicious dishes. My favorite is his version of the regional paella which combines the usual ingredients with a type of mushroom found only in these mountains. Of course, it would take a while to list the many other pleasures consumed while sitting at one of Patricio’s tables.

     As if a man of his age hasn’t done enough during the day, Patricio can be found on the patio of his place well into the night. Tales of his youth are replaced with stories of love won and lost. Guests and neighbors sit around downing bottles of wine while listening to Patricio recount amorous affairs in his booming voice as recordings of Segovia play on an old turntable. He says there have been times when he has had to carry guests up to their rooms after a night of drinking with him. Patricio has what the old folk in my life call a hollow leg; he can down copious amounts of wine without the attendant effect. If anything, you might sometime be able detect a bit more joviality from a usually jolly man.

     Even when Patricio speaks of his beloved Alma, he does not become wistful. They were married for fifty years; she has been dead for ten. There is a part of the kitchen that feels almost like an altar in her memory. He credits her along with his great-grandmother as having the greatest influence on his culinary skills. He says it was love the first time Alma prepared a meal for him in her mother’s kitchen; he says he could taste the love.

     La Comida es Amor is more than a restaurant. As I said before, it is an inn. There are only five rooms upstairs; one is Patricio’s. Mine is across and down the small hallway from his. The one next to him is never occupied by guests; he keeps it readily available for visits from his son who lives in Barcelona. Once, I asked Luis how often Patricio’s son visits. He looked at me and shook his head; it was evident from his expression that he did not think the visits were often enough. Patricio’s son is named Henriquez; he always speaks of him with pride in his voice.

     My room has furniture that looks as if it has been here since before the days my father-in-law came to Spain from Boston to fight against the fascist forces of Francisco Franco during this country’s civil war. The furnishings don’t bother me; I like antiques. The inn sits on a hill in La Paz; the view from the window in my room looks down the main street of the town and right out over the wooded valley below. Through the hills above the town runs a mountain stream; Patricio says I must go fishing there before my departure. I tell him I will if he promises to cook what I catch.

     What draws me to La Paz is not the fish; I am drawn by its rich history. Although it is not widely known about this town, its history includes hundreds of years of Moorish culture. When the Christians recaptured this part of Spain, those early rulers tried to erase as much of that culture as possible. This proved to be an impossible task; centuries of a way of life are not easily erased. I suspect anyone who appreciates beauty could not look at the artistry of the Moorish architecture and then decide to destroy it without a care.  Thanks to those softened hearts, I can walk the streets of La Paz and feel the same awe as those who came upon these sights long ago.

     I know I will miss La Paz when I leave. No matter where I travel, I know I will not likely find in one place all that I’ve found here. I don’t know if I can explain why; I don’t think that is unusual. I’ve decided to take Patricio’s suggestion and go fishing in that stream; I think having him prepare a parting dish of food provided by me would be fitting. After all, it was the scent of his handiwork that captured me in the beginning. Even though it’s a Latin-American dish rather than Spanish, maybe I’ll ask him to make ceviche. Some historians say it may have originated in Spain; they say it may have been based in Moorish cuisine. I know Patricio will come up with some wonderful way to please; he always does. He believes food is love.

 

Railing at the Post

I.

For years, I have been spoiled rotten by a man I’ve never known, a man who has made certain there is a newspaper on my porch every morning, usually right at the door. Now at an age when I appreciate that convenience even more, it seems someone other than my faithful delivery guy is performing that task. For the past couple of months, the paper has been landing farther and farther away. One morning, it never even made it into the yard, lying out on the sidewalk instead. My wife reflected upon the fact that the paper had remained there for us to find; she noted there was a time when it would have been taken, a time – not that long ago — when many more people still read newspapers. Most people who read them still do so in print (according to what I read in the Pew Research Center’s 2016 report on the subject), but even the growth in traffic to newspapers’ websites was not enough to prevent this assessment: “Overall, however, the industry continues to shrink…”

That has been going on for a while. I grew up in a time here in Washington when there were three major papers vying for readers. Two were evening dailies: The Evening Star (the city’s newspaper of note) and The Washington Daily News. The one morning daily had been two, The Washington Post and its rival the Washington Times-Herald, but the former had absorbed the latter and had become The Washington Post and Times Herald; the Post, in its continued nod to the Times-Herald, did so in increasingly diminishing typeface until the name disappeared entirely in 1973. The Star absorbed the Daily News in 1972, but ended its run in 1981 after 128 years. In the decade between 2004 and 2014, the nation saw the loss of 126 daily papers.

Growing up, it was the Post that was delivered to my family’s porch each morning, although it was not unusual in the evening to find a Daily News someone had picked up on the way home from work. The Post in those days was not delivered by grown men driving in from the suburbs in the wee hours. Boys served the paper, boys who periodically came around in the evening, ringing the doorbell and calling out the familiar “Collect for the Post!” and patiently waiting as their customers scrambled to gather the necessary change or told them to come back. My best friend had a Post route in Columbia Heights. I helped him in the dark of one morning just to see what it was like as he served the houses and apartment buildings along his way. I admired his tenacity; it was not something I would have wanted to do.

II.

I don’t recall when I began to take an interest in what newspapers had to offer, but I remember two lessons learned from having done so. One taught me that I could discover information useful to my personal benefit. I learned this in 1967 near the end of 10th grade, the end of my first year of what was supposed to be a mandatory three years in Junior ROTC. I had played the part of the dutiful member of the squad so well that the platoon leader told me to get corporal stripes for my uniform. To this day, I wonder if he could see the “You-crazy-if-you-think-I’m-doing-that-shit” thought I tried to keep from my face. I never went to get the stripes, and the matter never was raised again. I thought it was ridiculous playing soldiers and resented having to do so. Then, one day, there was an article in the paper explaining that Junior ROTC was – in fact – not mandatory. I learned also that the boys at the two high schools west of Rock Creek Park where most white students attended had been made aware of this while the rest of us had not. The ranks thinned the following year; I never took part again. No one ever could explain why I and others continued to get “Fs” on our report cards for a class we weren’t taking; we just were told not to worry because they wouldn’t count.

The other lesson learned from a paper had occurred a couple of years earlier. It taught me that the adult world operated on a level where the things a 13-year-old thought would be strictly taboo were not. This happened the day I stared in disbelief at an ad for a movie, stunned by the name of one of the film’s characters: Pussy Galore. I understood and appreciated the pun and its vulgarity, but wondered how it was possible that it could appear in a newspaper. That ad for the movie “Goldfinger” began questions about the nebulous boundaries of what grownups found acceptable, leading me to understand that certain proprieties need not always be observed — not quite “anything goes,” but some things.

III.

I have metaphorically travelled all the way around the barn by telling you all of this, as none of this is what I intended to write about. I had in mind something I recently read in the Post that highlighted the petty discrimination women continually face in a myriad of ways – even when it comes to reading the newspaper – and how I as a male have been a beneficiary.

Even though I wouldn’t want to be one, I have great respect for reporters (a profession practiced by my wife’s father). I prefer saying things the easy way, the way adopted by the rest of us to varying degrees. Rather than report, I prefer to opine (as evidenced by five years of blogging). Sometimes, I do that in The Washington Post, the very forum that occasionally drives me to voice an opinion. There are times I’ve read something there and thought, “Aw, hell nah! That shit cain’t slide.” Not wanting to seem like a crazy person writing letter after letter, I usually resist the urge by keeping in mind someone else will much more cogently respond. In those times when that effort fails me, I try to be as rational as possible — so as not to rail – and will whip up a missive to the paper’s editors. In the past decade, the Post has afforded me the courtesy of publishing nearly every letter sent, eight in the past seven years alone (two last year); the one this year was not quite three months ago. To me, this has been a sign of a local paper being responsive to its subscribers.

It was a letter that appeared two weeks ago in the paper’s Saturday “Free For All” section that provided a different perspective. Christine Lawrence, a reader in Bethesda, Maryland, wrote about something she has observed. Here is an excerpt:

I enjoy reading and writing letters to the editor because they reveal what thoughtful citizens are thinking as opposed to the online comments, which often seem dashed-off and angry. But male writers clearly dominate this section as well. Let’s look at who was published in the letters section in the past five days. June 3: James, Bruce, Robert, Tapio, Hamish and David. June 4: Richard, Patrick, Bradley, James, Peter, Michael and Jon. June 5: Doug, Ray, Robert, Keith, Peter, Henry and Nicholas. June 6: Robert, Michelle (finally!), Thomas, Anders, Paul, Warren, Bob and Chris. June 7: Alex, Herb, Michelle (yay!), Edward, Ted, Paul and Teri (yay!). Each day maybe one woman’s letter is published while five or six men are heard. I am beginning to think I should sign my letters as Chris, rather than Christine, in order to get them published.”

Of course, after reading that, I immediately turned to that day’s “Letters To The Editor.” There is no need to guess what I found: five letters, four by men. Today, two weeks later, I checked again: five letters, four by men. Wow. Is there any way to explain this as being anything other than what it appears? This thing quacks and waddles and should give folk at the Post something to seriously think about. If they can’t show it correlates with the volume of letters by gender, how else can they justify this pattern?

I am now disabused of the notion that I’ve had the luck-of-the-draw on my side, alerted once more to the ways, large and small, that I am served by the phenomenon of male privilege in direct proportion to how it underserves women. One bright side is that – in this particular instance – I and others have been reminded of this by something found in a daily newspaper.

“Who’s Afraid…?”

A headline from the Sunday, May 21, 2017 New York Times caught my attention. It was nothing momentous, nothing of concern on the national or international stage – although it did concern a stage. This news item, probably and justifiably inconsequential to most readers, was about what is not going to appear on the stage of a 35-seat theater in Portland, Oregon, and why. The “why” is what caught me.

The story, written by Times theater reporter Michael Paulson, was about the minor controversy that arose when a producer planning to mount a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” learned he would not be granted the rights to do so because a black actor was cast in the role of a character whose blue-eyed blondness is spoken of more than once in the play. Playwright Edward Albee, who died eight months ago, was notoriously protective of his work, so the denial of rights by his estate was in line with what he would have wished. As Paulson writes, “Albee, one of the nation’s leading 20th-century playwrights, was known for his tight control over professional productions of his plays, insisting on approval of casts and directors while he was alive; directors were often required to submit head shots of proposed cast members before receiving the rights to mount his plays.”

Before you get the wrong idea about where I’m going with this, let me say Albee’s (and his estate’s) objections are not without merit. Albee set his play in the 1960s, and the character in question, Nick, is married. Paulson writes that a representative of the estate noted that Albee himself, having previously considered the matter of nontraditional casting, had pointed out that a black and white couple in that period “’… would not have gone unacknowledged…’” Let me say also that Albee was not always consistent; a black actress played the lead without his objections in 2002. Paulson reports that, two years earlier, Albee assisted with a black-cast production of the play at Howard University. So, no, I see no need to view this brouhaha as racism extending its grip from the grave. What, then, is my interest in this story? Well, we’ll get to that.

First, let me share part of an exchange I had before beginning to write this. I asked a friend (Gregory Ford, and for reasons that will be made clear) what his thoughts were on the matter. He wrote “I don’t have any problem with the Albee estate’s decision. 1) It’s his work. If you want to do your interpretation, write your work; 2) August Wilson – again write your own works from your own people’s mythology; 3) I think Albee writes about whiteness and its repercussions on the world in a way that is similar to how Melville writes about whiteness and how its pursuit, spurred by capitalism, is destructive. I think casting Black actors in this situation allows white people in particular to avoid looking at the destruction their systems perpetrate and how they collude in the maintenance of that destruction.” My agreement was only partial. So strongly do I feel that artists should be doing their own thing that I once wrote a proposal and distributed it among theater friends questioning the efficacy of waiting for casting calls and other offers of work from theaters and producers. (I was young and idealistic). I entreated them to work collectively as their own producers, commissioning the writing of new plays, renting or leasing theater space, hiring directors and other personnel, and developing the criteria for casting members of the collective in productions.

My thinking varied from Ford’s in that I did not see Albee’s work as about whiteness. I wonder if Albee did. If so, he underestimated his own gifts as an artist. In Albee’s work, I’ve always found the human experience, as I have in the works of artists who may never have had “the other” in mind when in the act of creating. I’ve always been able to see the lives of black people reflected in the experiences of those who might never imagine such a thing. As if reading my mind, Ford later followed up with this erudite observation: “On the other hand, a large part of the survival of African Americans is due to the appropriation of the cultural conserves of other cultures and adapting them to forms that served to express and nurture the existence of Africans in the diaspora. Jazz, gospel and all that has come since. So why not appropriate Albee or My Fair Lady?” Exactly.

The question of my interest in this story can be answered by something else Ford said in his first thoughts on the matter, when his initial reaction to the Times article elicited admonishment for those who would do Albee their way. “My views have shifted since we did it, maybe. And maybe it’s different if it is an all-Black cast. I don’t know.” Twelve years before Albee reportedly assisted Howard University with such a cast, Ford, the late Gideon Ferebee and I attempted to mount such a production. What happened instead is the tale I now tell.

My interest began long ago on a Saturday night, sitting in front of a television, not prepared for the movie I was about to see, now eternally grateful. I guess I sat down to watch because of who was going to be in it: Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband, Richard Burton. The night ended with me being marked for life. Why the caustic relationship of the main characters left such a lasting influence on a high-schooler is something I have yet to figure out. Later, when reading Albee’s “The Zoo Story” in English class and learning the movie that had stunned me was a film adaptation of another of his plays, it was the beginning of an idea that stayed buried in the back of my mind for years: I would love to do that play one day and, if I ever did, all the characters would be black.

Those who have known me since those days already know the idea of my doing a play is not unusual. Theater, not academics, was the motivating factor for me in high school. In fact, by the time I got to be a senior, there were days when I only went to school after dismissal time and only for rehearsals of the play we were doing. Even my brief foray into academia following high school was curtailed by a lack of interest in school; among other non-academic pursuits, I was drawn to the black drama group on campus.

The idea of doing Albee’s play never left me, but – over the years — became more of a nice dream because of a dilemma I saw no way of overcoming. “Virginia Woolf” requires an actress of prodigious talents to play the lead character of Martha, and it had been more than a decade since I had seen one I knew could pull it off. She, too, had joined that college drama group, a girl so good it just didn’t make sense, a girl named Alfre Woodard.

Then, one evening, I saw my Martha. She was at the now-defunct Back Alley Theater which was in DC’s 16th Street Heights neighborhood. I had gone there to see the play “Bumps.” I remember an evening of energy and excitement and wonderful performances, and in the midst of all that talent stood a standout. Her name is Cathy Simpson (still doing her thing, having finished a run in “Seven Guitars” in St. Louis in April and another one in “Peaceable Kingdom” in Philadelphia in May). At the time, I didn’t know whether I ever would do Albee’s play, but seeing Cathy gave me hope.

Hope grew when I learned about Sanctuary Theater, a venue then in Columbia Heights where that neighborhood meets the communities of Adams-Morgan and Mt. Pleasant, right in my neighborhood in fact, but a theater I never had visited. That changed when the late Garth Tate decided to direct his play “Blood Moon” there and asked me to do the lights, something I regularly did for folk who needed it. At Sanctuary, I became acquainted with its founders and artistic directors, Michael Oliver and Elizabeth Bruce, and learned how accommodating they were with their space. Their co-founder, Jill Navarre, a director I had done lights for on a few productions, has written of the three of them that “We were crazy enough to think we could start a new theatre company in Washington which would present cross cultural, inter-racial, avant-garde theatre. And we did.” Following Garth’s play, the actor Clayton LeBouef asked me to do the lights for a play he was directing there, one he had written and in which he would be performing. Clayton would have been a perfect “Nick” for a production of “Virginia Woolf,” but that was still a dream.

The dream began to take form thanks to two colleagues and collaborators, Ford and the late Gideon Ferebee, both of whom – like I (and the aforementioned Garth Tate) – had been among the founding members of the Station-to-Station Performance Poets and Writers’ Collective. The Collective had run its course (another story for another day), and one of the things that had grown from it was Dream-Keepers Productions, an idea of Gideon’s that he had invited Ford and me to help make real. We saw the potential Sanctuary presented and decided to make use of it. As co-producers, we would rent the theater and mount two productions to run in repertory. Ford would direct “The Dozens” by Laird Koenig, and – finally — I was going to direct “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

There was no need to hold auditions for the role of Martha. In my mind, there could be no play without Cathy Simpson in the role. When asked, she said yes. That left me with the stark realization that the other cast members had to be able to rise to her standards. My first inclination was to also not hold auditions for the role of Nick, but to offer it to a young actor I had been strongly impressed by when he had performed at Sanctuary in Clayton’s play, an actor named Isaiah Washington; Isaiah said yes, which meant two down and two to go.

I booked space at the city’s Reeves Center and held auditions for the roles of George, Martha’s husband, and Honey, Nick’s wife. The character of George must be able to go toe-to-toe with the tornado/volcano that is Martha, able to slow her wind and douse her flame; the actor playing the part had to be able to hold his own with Cathy. That actor was Michael Mack, who stepped up to the plate at the audition and hit an out-of-the-ballpark homerun right-off-the-bat, causing me to have to disappoint a friend and neighbor who really wanted the part. I had encountered Michael ten years earlier, when I was running lights at what had been the O. Street Theater when I attended a play there in high school, but what had become the grandiloquently-named Paul Robeson International Center for the Performing Arts (again, another story for another time). Michael had wowed everyone who watched him the day he came to the Robeson to audition, but the Center’s artistic director decided that the then 15-year-old, who had been accompanied there by his father, was too young for the play we were doing at the time. Now, ten years later, here he was demonstrating he had only gotten better. The character of George is a middle-aged man, but the 25-year-old Michael had the voice, the presence, could the effect the carriage, and could evince the gravitas needed to pull it off. I gave him the part. The cast was complete when I selected an actress named Pamela Armstrong for the role of Honey. There would be a black-cast production of “Virginia Woolf” in Washington, DC.

Not knowing any better, we assumed that the fact it would be non-equity, community theater precluded our having to obtain the rights to the play, so we didn’t. The first line-reading rehearsals took place in my livingroom. Then, something happened that would fundamentally change not only the nature of the production, it would deepen a dimension of the play itself.

At this point, I need you to remember something essential to the story that Albee wrought, how it turns on acts of betrayal. Also consider that, in this society, the very nature of something as universal as betrayal can be wholly transformed when experienced by black Americans. Engendered by acts of betrayal intended to cut a soul to the quick, the rage and sense of emasculation Albee intended his characters to feel could – depending on the trigger — easily metastasize exponentially in a black Martha or a black George. Isaiah unwittingly provided that trigger.

My dream of an all-black “Virginia Woolf” died early in the process. One day when we still were in the line-reading phase, Isaiah informed me that – now that he was no longer studying drama at Howard University — he had decided he was leaving DC and heading home to Texas. Seven months ago, in an interview with Soraya McDonald, senior culture writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated, Isaiah spoke of his time here. “Once I realized I was splitting my time from the Sanctuary Theater, and D.C. Space, and George Washington University’s basement theater programs, I found myself quickly ready to make a move. I was like a year short of graduating. … I ran out of money, and, you know, tried to take side jobs here and there, up and down Georgia Avenue, at the Ibex [go-go club], working there, doing whatever I could. Odd jobs, moving people out of their homes, offices … whatever I could get. But just could not afford to remain, and could not qualify for any funding.” Well, it’s true that we could not afford to pay him much.

You’ve heard the saying before, so you know the show must go on, and on we went. The show, however, was to take a completely different turn, and the depth it added to the play was something that even went over my head initially. I already had decided I would keep the dialogue about George and Martha’s imaginary Aryan son; I wanted to use it to depict the self-hatred felt by some blacks. I didn’t realize until later how that would mesh so well with the dynamic introduced by the very presence of the actor who would be my new Nick, Matthew Bretz – who is white.

I cannot remember how Matthew came to me. Looking back, I think Cathy or Michael or Pamela may have suggested him. He read for the part, and I could see he would do just fine. Off-stage drama due to personality clashes led to Pamela’s departure, and she was replaced as Honey by an actress named Edie Kattlekopp – also white. So, now, there was the black, middle-aged couple with serious issues spending an evening entertaining the unsuspecting and alternately bewildered and appalled young white couple with issues of their own. It is not difficult to understand why Nick and Honey would endure such an ordeal when social and political maneuverings are involved; Nick, after all, is a college professor with ambition and Martha, his hostess for the evening, just so happens to be the president’s daughter.

I think it was when we finally moved to the theater for rehearsals that I finally saw what I had not seen before, the degree to which certain interactions within this racial mix might make the impending explosions and implosions seem even more certain, more consequential, more relevant. Watching the actors from the lighting booth, I began to understand what had been added by the change in casting, how – for some audience members – the feelings elicited by the proceedings of the night would not arise if watching a dissimilar staging of the play. When the betrayals that propel the play toward its conclusion begin, the severity of the resulting wounds would suggest the pain being borne by the characters is greater than even Albee could have imagined. Was it hubris on my part to think such a thing?

Consider the character of George alone. Albee puts him through the humiliating experience of having to observe his wife overtly flirt with the younger Nick, to watch as she dances with him in a seductive manner, to suffer through the realization that his alcohol-fueled wife and guest disappear for an attempted sexual dalliance. It is easy to understand how any man might feel in that situation; certainly, Albee did. My George, however, was not just “any man.” This was an accomplished black man in America being disrespected and dismissed in his own home by a white man, with his own wife as a willing accomplice.  How would black audience members respond? Would white audience members comprehend the magnitude of the assault on George’s senses and psyche?

Unfortunately, these questions never were formally answered. During the run of the play, I never thought to have an audience discussion after a performance, as is done at times. Comments usually centered on aspects of the staging or the affecting performances (or the wonderful set design by the late Robert “Bobby” Spirdione). Perhaps all that matters is that these questions were answered in the experiences of those sitting in a darkened theater.

Going back to the Times article that started all of this, reporter Michael Paulson quotes Tim Bond, the man who directed the black actress as Martha in 2002 (Andrea Frye, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). “I think the play would work beautifully with any number of approaches to cross-cultural casting.” For us, that proved to be true.

 

 

Help

Eighteen months ago, in November 2015, I asked for your help with a philosophical matter (“…earth’s sweet flowing breast”). I wanted to know whether you believe there is something special about the human species.  As I wrote at that time, “Some of you have deeply-held beliefs on the subject. Others have interesting and provocative theories. Help a brother out; share your thoughts…”  Some of you e-mailed me, writing that you would think about it and get back to me, neglecting to mention it might take a few years. So, although I suspect I may be wasting my time, I now ask you to consider helping me with a matter similar to that last one. Will I have better luck this time?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you there are some who already have helped. The matter once was put to four people three decades ago. Singer, actress and performance artist Brenda Files, dancer and choreographer Joseph ‘Ajax’ Drayton, painter and printmaker Joyce Wellman, and poet Rueben Jackson appeared in separate interviews as part of a short documentary titled “An Amnesiac’s Lament.” Produced for local-access cable television by Gregory Ford (see “Whipped Cream”) and the late writer and performance poet Gideon Ferebee, the program featured each of the four artists discussing their work. They also addressed the matter I now put to you; they did so by sharing the thoughts conjured by a poem they had read. That’s all I’m asking you to do. Just because others have helped doesn’t mean you’re off-the-hook. I can use all the help I can get.

I’m sure there have been plenty of times during the course of your life when you’ve spent quiet moments contemplating the things I ask you to think about now. I know I may be dreaming to think you’ll come through for a brother this time, but we’ll see. So, with that said, here is that same poem for you:

An Amnesiac’s Lament

I: Negation

I don’t know who

I don’t know what

I don’t know when

where

how

why

I don’t know where

how

when

why

I don’t know how

II: Affirmation

I am

I am

I am

I came from

I got here

I came

I am going from here

I am going to get there

I am going

I am going

to find the answers

 III: Lamentation

I don’t know who I am,

I don’t know what I am,

I don’t know where I am,

where I came from,

how I got here,

why I came.

I don’t know where I am going from here,

how I am going to get there,

when I am going,

why I am going.

I don’t know how to find the answers.

IV: Reflection

The voices of science and religion do not suffice.

We speak of Earth and sun,

of unique creatures inhabiting the one,

coveting the other.

We speculate on the natures of gods and ancestors.

We revel in the pleasures of the senses,

in myth and music.

We know our names, addresses, dates of birth,

our mothers’ maiden names,

our Social Security numbers.

We think we know each other.

We live our lives until our deaths.

We are encouraged to accept this

as the sum of our existences.

Resistance is a declaration

that what seems to be

 is not.

Resistance is a challenge

to define what

 is.

My thoughts offer no revelations,

my genesis not even a dim memory.

In this life, on this planet,

we call it amnesia.

 

 

Sleepers

Those of you who have bothered to spend some time reading this blog know I have no agenda. Whatever comes up comes out. My only goal has been to stop being so lazy that I can’t even manage to put thoughts to paper (or computer screen) at least once every thirty days. If there has been any method to this monthly madness, it has been the fact that what happens these days sometimes parallels what has happened before and prompts me to look for the possibility of new lessons in the old or old lessons that apply to the relatively new. What I hope I have avoided for these past nearly-five years is doing nothing more than engaging in pure nostalgia – recently described as “…being a tourist in your own memories.” Well, this time I am doing exactly that. So, what bit of nostalgia comes to mind?

These days, I sit in a university classroom and watch incredulously as students sit on the front row directly in front of the professor and go to sleep. A few do so regularly. Now, I know sleep happens, but if you knew sleep happens to you – repeatedly — would you continue to sit right up front? I don’t get it. One day, noticing a student beginning to nod, I remembered having to pretend to do the same.

I once was part of the cast and crew of a silent movie made by the students and teacher in a filmmaking class. The storyline was the teacher’s idea. Originally, he planned to cast the film with students from the acting class, so he had us sit in on one of them. The acting teacher asked us to join his students in some class exercises, so we did. I must have really gotten into it because, when we got back to our classroom, our teacher announced we weren’t going to use anyone from the acting class and that I was to play the character around whom the story centered. I believe his idea for the story probably arose from how he saw his students, who we were in relation to where we happened to be.

We were a group of black, white, and Latino boys from high schools all over the country; we were considered “underprivileged” students who supposedly showed signs of “potential”. We had been recommended and had applied and been accepted for a summer program called Yale Summer High School, held on the campus of that university’s divinity school. The juxtaposition of us being there most likely struck my teacher as an idea worth exploring, leading to the movie we made.

The story we told is about a student nodding off in a class during a teacher’s lecture and experiencing vivid dreams about everything the teacher is discussing. First up was cultural elitism and Western imperialism as personified by Yale itself. I walk up to what appear to be the gates of that august institution and as I am about to enter I am suddenly blocked by an embodiment of the Ivy League: a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed student wearing a navy-blue, monogramed blazer and a look of utter disdain. I remember how different the classmate playing the part was from the character; he was a kind, gentle kid.

The teacher moves on to other subjects, war being one. I remember that dream sequence involves my reacting to seeing President Lyndon Johnson go by me in the back seat of a black Cadillac; a classmate wore an LBJ mask.  That was one of the scenes we shot in downtown New haven during rush hour, and seeing Johnson’s face go by in that car made more than a few heads turn. The same happened when we shot another scene there, this one requiring me to run into the middle of rush-hour traffic looking bewildered. I do so wearing nothing more than a long, black wig and a loincloth. Why? Because the teacher is talking about the history of Native Americans, and in the dream I am a Native aghast at what the modern world has done to the land.

The greatest challenge for me was the fish scene. That’s right; I had to play a fish. I don’t remember if the lecture turned to the environment or endangered species or what. I only know that when I was told I would have to be thrown into a lake, I was not sure the movie would ever be finished. I told my teacher I couldn’t swim and he assured me I wouldn’t have to. He said the water was shallow enough for me to stand if I needed to, but he needed me to stay under for a while.

Students in the art class created the fish, making it large enough to cover my head and upper body. When we got to lake, I had second thoughts again. I was used to water that moved, waves crashing onto a beach. This was still-water, stagnant to me, and partially covered by pond scum. I was cajoled into being a trouper and carrying on with the task at hand. The scene starts off with me being my human character one moment and, in the next, I am a fish writhing on the ground. To save my life, my classmates pick me up, carry me onto a small pier, and toss me into the water.

I never saw the finished movie until months later when some of us returned to New Haven that December for a weekend reunion*. The movie was as weird as it sounds. I sit in class these days and wonder if any of the sleepers are dreamers having as much fun as I once pretended to.

 

 

*I arrived home from that reunion on the night of Sunday, December 10, 1967 and took a taxicab from the bus station. The driver was listening to news on the radio. Earlier that day, a plane had crashed into a lake. Otis Redding was dead.