A Voice

     Yesterday, while walking across UDC’s Dennard Plaza to get to a writing class in the College of Arts and Sciences building, I stopped to answer a call from my sister, a retired school teacher. She had just read something she said I had to read later for a good laugh, an article about the hilarious answers students have given to test questions. She read a few to me. They were really funny, some intentionally so, others given in complete innocence. One made me consider the ubiquity of irony. To the question, “Imagine that you lived at the same time as Abraham Lincoln. What would you say to him or ask him?”, the student wrote, “I’d tell him not to go to a play ever.” The irony was that the professor whose class I was on my way to when I stopped and listened to that story has been bringing Ford’s Theater to UDC and is doing so again in four days.

     The theaters in and around Washington, DC partner with local high schools and universities to provide and promote education in the theater arts (Woolly Mammoth with Howard University, Arena Stage with Georgetown University, etc.). Dr. La Tanya Rogers, a professor of English at UDC who is the former national vice president of the Black Theater Network, is the university’s go-to person for Ford’s Theater. She has been working with that theater’s arts education coordinator, Jennie Eng, to foster students’ interests and develop their creativity and skills. A couple of months ago, the two held an open workshop on campus to do just that.

     I did not attend. I thought I had escaped that exercise, but a few weeks ago, Dr. Rogers made the writing of a monologue an assignment for the students in her class. Only later did we learn Ms. Eng would be returning to campus and attending our class to listen to the monologues being read and to give feedback. That turned out to be an emotional experience for some students who had poured so much of themselves into their work. Some found it difficult to continue reading through their tears. My classmates had written impressive pieces, quite moving, and had left me wondering if mine was any good. I had gone in a different direction, had not placed myself in the work, and Ms. Eng had said early on that such work minus the self cannot be good.

     At the end of that class, we learned Ms. Eng would be returning this month to see students deliver their completed monologues in the school’s black box theater. I’ve already drafted a classmate to read mine in my stead, and have secured an understudy just in case. To the question, “Why won’t he deliver his own monologue?”, this student has no hilarious answer. See for yourself:

Eliza Speaks

     “Momma been prayin’ a lot, Pastor Anderson, prayin’ more than she always do. I can hear her when she think me and Lizzie are ’sleep, askin’ the Lord to save her two girls, save us and Daddy, but she don’t never say nothin’ ’bout savin’ her, too, so I always make sure to ask Him to save all ‘a us – if it’s not too much to ask. The Good Book says it’s not.

     “Lord knows we need His help. We need that and the other kind ‘a help her and Daddy been askin’ for, too. If the Lord got his hand in that – and why wouldn’t he – then I wish everything wouldn’t keep goin’ back and forth the way it’s been. One day we saved, the next day we ain’t. Momma say the same thing you say, Pastor, that we got to have faith, but she say that now we got to have faith in God and the gov’ment, too. She say the law is on our side, just like that last judge said it is, and that them Missouri Supreme Court judges is ’spose to set things straight. But I can tell the back-and-forth been botherin’ her, too, just like Daddy.

     “All Lizzie know is things ain’t right yet, thing’s ain’t finished, but Momma and Daddy keep on tellin’ her they will be. But you know Lizzie still a girl, Pastor, just seven, so they don’t see no need to worry her ’bout this. Momma talks to me about some of it, though, and Daddy do too, sometimes. I guess they finally gettin’ to see I ain’t a girl no more. Momma told me I was born in the year of 1838, so that mean I’m almost fifteen. She like tellin’ me ’bout how I came into this world, ’bout how her and Daddy was on the river Mississippi on a steamboat named Gipsy, and ’bout how I refused to wait ’til that boat docked. That was back when they was still with Dr. Emerson, back before he died and the Widow Emerson went back to live on her daddy’s plantation while she hired Momma and Daddy out and collected their wages. Momma say when they was on that boat goin’ down the Mississippi they was passin’ by a free state on one side and a free territory on the other. ‘Which mean you was born free, Eliza,’ she always like to say. What I wanna know, Pastor, is why — if I was born free and they was already livin’ in the free land – then why they got to keep tryin’ to convince judges that we ’spose to be free? Now, every night, I hear Momma tryin’ to convince God of that, too. She be remindin’ him that even the Hebrew children got free.

     “Momma do more than ask God to do somp’n, though. She said you was the one who told her ’bout how some slaves was going to court to get free ’cause slavery ’spose to be ’gainst the law in the free territory. She the one who got Daddy goin’. I remember when she first started talkin’ to him ’bout it. Daddy already had tried to do right and buy us from the Widow Emerson, but the Widow said no, so Momma said they had to do what white folk would do: sue. Daddy watn’t so sure ’bout the idea at first, said he didn’t see the gov’ment doin’ but so much for us in the first place and it could be just a waste ‘a time and might cause trouble just to ask. I knew Momma didn’t like hearin’ that ’cause she called him by his whole name, ‘Etheldred’, instead of just ‘Dred’ like she always do. She said, ‘Just how much trouble you think these girls and me is worth, Etheldred? How much trouble you think you worth?’ ‘Just let me think on it, Harriet,’ he would say. Watn’t too much of that or too long after that when her and Daddy started talkin’ to the lawyers ’bout going to court. But everything been back and forth, Pastor. One time we slaves, the next time we free. Now, ’cause the Widow is suin’ this time, we got to wait and see what them Missouri Supreme Court judges decide we are. Momma said if they go against us, there is nine more judges in Washington who get the last say-so. I wonder if they ever read that part of the Good Book in Matthew, 7th chapter, 2nd verse where it says, ‘For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged…’ They must ’a had, don’t you think so, Pastor? What good Christian man who can read ain’t read that? And Momma did say to have faith — same as you say.

     “But, you know what I don’t understand, Pastor? Last Sunday after church, folk was comin’ up to just Daddy, like Momma ain’t even had nothin’ to with it, and was tellin’ him how they was all prayin’ for him and prayin’ that those who got to decide things won’t just see what’s right but will do what’s right. Some said they thank God for men like him. I don’t think that was right to leave Momma out of it like that, but she didn’t say a word. She just smiled.”

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War

     Of course, we know some events begin beyond our immediate sight: the explosion of a star in a distant galaxy, the mutation of a gene sequence, whatever is happening right behind you right now. Some events also begin beyond our immediate understanding. In 1981, when doctors in this country began seeing the strange illness compromising people’s immune systems, they did not understand it to be the global health crisis it would become. On December 26, 2004, although the indigenous peoples of the lands surrounding the Indian Ocean were aware of what it meant to see the ocean recede from the shore, very few of the other inhabitants of those lands or the tourists understood it was a sign to run for the hills; nearly a quarter-of-a-million were killed that day when a tsunami struck eleven countries.

     There have been events that we did not understand were the beginning of war. It was not difficult for Americans to comprehend it meant war when the Confederates bombarded our army’s fort in South Carolina in 1861, or when Japan bombed our naval base in Hawaii in 1941. In 1914, this country did not understand it would mean the deaths of more than 38 million people – including more than 100,000 Americans – when a 19-year-old militant in Bosnia assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Even the war that ensued from that assassination was not seen to be the prelude it was; issues unsatisfactorily resolved left resentments that rose to the level of war again in 1939, just 21 years after the previous one had ended. Over 400,000 Americans were killed that time; over 60 million people died worldwide, 3% of the planet’s human population.

     Did we know it meant war following Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001? It is doubtful. 9/11, like Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbor, was an in-your-face attack; we knew there was a need for a response, but did 9/11 lead us to understand that, because of the actions of a nebulous organization, we would invade two countries that never attacked us? Did we realize American servicemembers would still be dying in those countries nearly two decades later?

     The concern here is not the wars we have fought or are fighting, but the one many Americans do not seem to understand we now are in. It is as if we are like characters in a science fiction movie where we are moving so slowly it appears time has stopped and we are frozen in place while the story’s villains move among us at normal speed, taking advantage of the fact that we are unaware not only of their presence but of our own immobility. Rather than have us watch aghast as Boeing 767 jetliners full of people smash into skyscrapers full of people, our present adversary prefers stealth. Using the subterfuge of cyberspace, they take advantage of our internal civic discord and division to sow more. We may be in a time when we will need the equal of Lincoln or a Roosevelt and we have Trump, a man who has been warned we are under attack, but who cravenly refuses to either adequately address or even acknowledge this fact. Trump is aided in this abdication of his responsibility by a political base that sees the enemy the same as he does, as no enemy at all, as maybe a political ally even. After all, the enemy did help get Trump elected.

     It was reported that the enemy’s leader once called Trump “brilliant.” Translators (and, therefore, Trump) initially thought he meant brilliant as in “bright” or “smart,” not understanding that the specific word he used was meant to convey the idea of bright as  “shiny” or “flashy,” an apt moniker for the man. The leader himself later clarified his earlier comment, stating that he thinks Trump is “flamboyant.” So, let us not assume or pretend that the enemy’s intent was to get Trump elected. No, putting Trump in place was not the goal. Generally, they simply wanted to weaken what threatens them: secular, democratic civil societies that have free and fair elections, independent judiciaries and an unfettered press. Specifically, the goal was the damage sought by the leader himself, a man whose vindictiveness set in motion a plan to do political harm to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton who – in her role as Secretary of State – had dared to point out the problems found in Russia’s presidential election, thereby seeming to question the leader’s legitimacy. Assuming she would win the White House, he was intent on having her legitimacy questioned as well. It was more luck than skill that made his efforts to harm us so spectacularly successful here, a place so entrenched in partisanship that the portion of the electorate enamored of Trump does not believe in or care about that success.

     Here is a thought experiment involving 9/11 that might give more of us more of a perspective on what has happened to us. Imagine if — on that fateful September morning – only one plane had felled only one of New York City’s Twin Towers. Would our outrage have been any less? Suppose, afterward, that circumstances began indicating the possibility there were Americans in the still-standing tower who may have knowingly or unknowingly aided the plane’s hijackers. To what level would our outrage have risen? If what American intelligence agencies have found is true, the intrusion into the 2016 campaign for the presidency seems little if any different from the scenario just presented. To play that scenario out, half the people in this country on 9/11 would have felt no outrage because they didn’t particularly care for the fallen tower in the first place – or for the people inside. If you can imagine the degree of disgust and distrust most Americans would feel about compatriots who either in some way assisted Al-Qaeda or were content with what it accomplished, you may have some idea of the feelings running through the citizenry following the attacks on our political processes and the lackluster response.

     Those attacks were not unique to us. The enemy has tentacles it extends wherever it perceives a need.  Today’s historians can trace the start of World War I to the murderous act of a Balkan teenager. World War II began when Germany attacked Poland. Can the genesis of the current, low-grade world war be so easily pinpointed? Could it have been in 2008 when the enemy invaded its neighbor, Georgia, or in 2014 when it invaded its neighbor, Ukraine? (Those were no cyber invasions; they were the old-fashioned kind). Will it be said that the war began in recent years with the enemy’s interference in the internal affairs of France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy and Germany?

     Those who know we are in a war are understandably reluctant to charge headlong into battle. There are no time-tested treaties or protocols in place governing the rules of cyberwarfare and, like the mutual destruction guaranteed by the use of nuclear arms, there might be formidable consequences resulting from battles fought in cyberspace. Ukraine got just a taste of this in 2015 when, two days before Christmas, the enemy took down part of that country’s power grid. Shortly thereafter, as was reported by David Sanger in The New York Times, the Obama administration “…warned the nation’s power companies, water suppliers and transportation networks that sophisticated cyberattack techniques… could easily be turned on them.”

     Because Trump publicly admires rather than admonishes the enemy’s leader, it leaves people hoping that others in government who understand what is happening are acting accordingly. But, in war or peace, governments need the support of the governed if there is to be any hope of success. Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, in an interview on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” pointed out that “…Russia has been, sort of, gathered around Putin, who has said Russia is at war with America and has been saying that for basically the last four or five years.” An overarching question for us is, “Can a war be won by those unaware they’re in one?” The answer to that is an easy “No.”

 

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.

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.