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. 

Whipped Cream

In mid-February, I received an e-mail from a friend, Gregory Ford, under the subject-line “Moonlight.” “I haven’t seen your thoughts and reactions to this phenomenon,” he wrote.
Ford is an actor, singer, and director. I was surprised he even would be interested in anything I had to say about the movie, given that one of his tasks is to critique plays eligible to be nominated for the annual Helen Hayes Awards. Later that day I wrote this to him:

“Phenomenon indeed. In addition to the movie being gratifying on so many levels, it is so gratifying to witness its reception. I can’t imagine what I could say about the movie itself to a critical viewer like you that would cause you to ponder, so I’ll tell you about something brought back from the depths of memory while I watched.

“What the movie made me remember is a story of machismo thwarted by compassion, all taking place one morning on the floor of a junior high school gymnasium. That school quarter, Physical Ed for 7th-graders included dance — not ballet or modern or jazz. We were learning how people danced in colonial times; from there we moved on to square dancing, then on to social dancing – waltzing and ballroom dancing and the kind of polite dancing we saw people doing at formal affairs in the movies and on television. The 7th grade homerooms were combined for this. Our reward at the end of that quarter was what we considered to be a “real” dance where we would get to play the records we played at home and dance the way we wanted.

“My memory of that day is what happened after the last dance. I don’t remember the record. I just remember I was dancing with Deidre, a dream deferred since elementary school — and I do mean deferred; I’d given up on any hope of her since 3rd grade. I remember the time our fourth-grade teacher turned to us seated side-by-side and asked if we were brother and sister; we both had a similar birthmark faintly visible just below the same eye. We were in different homerooms in 7th grade and I didn’t see her as much, so when the final record started playing I asked her to dance. I had no idea this would be viewed by some onlookers as a transgression.

“Two of those onlookers, Anthony and Nathan, watched the dancers from the bleachers; the gym teacher had made them sit there rather than participate because of some transgression of their own. Anthony watched his girlfriend, Theresa, dance with a boy named Julius; Nathan watched Diedre dance with me. They were not pleased.

“Why would I think Nathan would be mad at me – me, of all people? Nathan had been in the same class in 3rd grade and every other grade right along with me and Deidre. Nathan had given me the nickname I was called by close friends; he knew I had no designs on Deidre, whose attention he had won long before. Does any of this matter when pubescent peer pressure is involved?

“As it turned out, if Anthony and Nathan couldn’t dance with their girls, no one was supposed to. The fact that two had was a problem. More than anything, rather than a problem based on anger it was a problem of saving face. Both Anthony and Nathan had reputations to maintain, and to let this public humiliation pass without some sort of retribution would have been taken as a sign their pecking order might be wrong.

“So, as students and staff began to leave the gym, a group of boys were gathered at one end, Anthony and Nathan and Julius and I at the center of it. Anthony hit Julius, who did not hit him back. I had no aversion to fighting; my oldest brother had taught me to box years earlier. He and my second-oldest brother used that to their advantage, always coming to get me to fight any boy my age or size whom they had decided deserved to be pummeled. But, I didn’t worry about Nathan hitting me because I knew he wasn’t mad. He punched me in the chest. I don’t know if I’d ever heard or paid attention to the now-overused word ‘surreal’ at that time, but understanding its meaning now is the only way I can describe my reaction to the unbelievable fact that Nathan had hit me. Incredulity was brief, and the realization that he of all people had hit me felt like a huge betrayal that suddenly turned into immense grief. I burst into tears on the spot.

“How am I able to write those words and not feel any pangs of shame? It is because I felt none at the time. I didn’t have a chance because of the very next thing Nathan did. After having just demonstrated what was expected of him one moment, he threw it all away the next. Nathan — in front of everyone – grabbed me and hugged me, apologizing and asking for forgiveness. His efforts to soothe me continued when we left the gym. He walked me all the way to my next class with his arm around my shoulder, continuing to console me.

“Now, I know I might be fooling myself. Nathan could have been doing no more than covering his ass. Maybe he thought if someone saw a crying kid he might be in more trouble than whatever had put him on the bleachers. But just as he knew I wasn’t trying to make a move on Deidre, just as he knew I had no interest in fighting him, he knew I wasn’t a snitch. I like to think he was just as sensitive to what he had done as I. Whatever the case, the boys in the gym after the dance learned a lesson they didn’t expect.

“Probably one of the best pieces written about the movie was Scott’s review last year in the NYT – also gratifying. What stood out to me were two passages. Speaking of Jenkins, he wrote ‘He does not generalize. He empathizes. Every moment is infused with what the poet Hart Crane called infinite consanguinity, the mysterious bond that links us with one another and that only an alert and sensitive artistic imagination can make visible.’ The other passage was ‘To insist that stories about poor, oppressed or otherwise marginal groups of people are really about everyone can be a way of denying their specificity. The universe is far too granular and far too vast for any one of us to comprehend, and Mr. Jenkins is far too disciplined a filmmaker to turn his characters into symbols.’ That review was titled ‘Moonlight: Is This the Year’s Best Movie?’ Hell yeah!”

Here is how Ford responded (but anyone who has not seen the movie and is planning to should take fair warning):

“Thank you so much for this. There are so many negative Facebook comments: heterosexual males and females feeling they were ‘tricked’ into seeing this movie (if a story is going to include homosexuality as a point of empathy, they should be warned so they can decide whether they want to see it); Christians dismissing the sin of homosexuality as a suitable subject; displeasure with seeing yet another movie about drug dealers, addicts and poverty. It was a surprise to me the depth, virulence, vehemence and frequency of these views. Why I should have spent so much time reading them is another question. I am through now.

“Barry Jenkins has mentioned that a colleague of his noted that his technique of directing the sequence where Chiron pursues his mother across the courtyard and she turns and talks to him — and she talks directly into the camera – was like psychodrama (role reversal). It feels like this work is an exercise in transformation that the viewer cannot avoid or remain passive about.

“Some favorite moments in which we audience members are put in confrontation with ourselves:

1. Chiron’s mother yelling at him in the hallway of her home when no sound comes out of her body but the color around her shimmers. This is a set up for when he has a flashback of this scene and the voice is heard intruding on his present experience.

2. Chiron’s wet dream. We are occupied with watching Kevin lounge against the outside wall smoking a cigarette and mugging for the camera – for us. The next thing we see, Chiron has ejaculated — thus fusing our thoughts and feelings (which up until that point were private thoughts of an audience member assessing an actor’s attractiveness) with those of Chiron so that we become co-conspirators in this moment.

3. The moment in the third chapter when Kevin recognizes Chiron and we (Chiron?) hear Kevin call out Chiron’s name but his lips don’t move so we hear/ feel Kevin’s voice inside our heads.

“It’s a special movie. It would truly be whipped cream on top if it won the Oscar for best picture. I think that “Lion” may win it. This will allow the academy to still pat itself on the back for having demonstrated its openness to diversity without giving it to the Black guy and at the same time avoid the criticism from a sizeable Black audience about only emasculating images of Black men being approved by Hollywood. It will also avoid the embarrassment of honoring a technically complicated but utterly bland “La La Land”. And, it will be just like how Donald Trump won the Presidency: no one was seriously considering him.”

Sometimes, you gotta

I.

Two days ago, I got an e-mail from The Daily Kos alerting me to a rally that was to take place that evening. Organized by Congressional Democrats, it was to be held at 6:00 pm on the steps of the Supreme Court to highlight their opposition to the new President’s executive order on immigration. I don’t go to marches or rallies often – at least not anymore. I’ve become less convinced of their effectiveness. Marching “into Hell for a heavenly cause” as some have done is one thing; those are the ones that can spur change. Then, there are those marches done simply to make a point; they may be massive displays of disapproval (anti-war) or of unity (Million Man) that sometime provide feel-good moments in the process. It seems evident that some of the problems we meet with marches require us to move in the direction of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). People walked in Montgomery, Alabama rather than ride segregated busses; countries pulled money out of South Africa rather than support apartheid.

I decided to go to the rally for two reasons. Just two days before, I had submitted an opinion piece about local matters to this city’s newspaper of note. Now, there I was two days later reading stories about the effects of the President’s order, and one article even seemed to challenge me by throwing back at me a few of the same expressions I had used in my piece. I also thought about what the Daily Kos e-mail had said: “Activism works. Throughout the weekend, tens of thousands of protesters came together to take an unequivocal stance: We stand united in defeating targeted attacks on our family, friends and neighbors. Your activism has forced Democrats to publicly condemn Trump’s executive orders. We must remain loud and unyielding in the face of fascism.” The second reason I decided to go was knowing how much the President hates numbers that don’t flatter him; if I could help swell a crowd – well, swell.

As the appointed hour approached, I took the subway to the Capitol South station and exited with others arriving for the rally. We walked up the hill along First Street, N.E. past the Cannon House Office Building, across Independence Avenue past the Library of Congress, then across East Capitol Street toward the Court steps. For some, the crowd already amassed was a barrier to getting close to the Court’s plaza. I and a few others managed to wend our way along a narrow pathway until Capitol Hill police came through politely telling us it had to be kept cleared, at which point I pressed myself into the wall of bodies and remained there. I still was not near enough to the steps to hear or see what was happening (the reason some people tell me they prefer to stay home; they can see more at these events by watching them on television). I soon learned I had positioned myself in a prime spot. As it turned out, that narrow path had to remain clear to make way for the event’s organizers. Soon thereafter, there they came, Congress members and staff in a long procession, squeezing through carrying small, battery-powered votive candles and singing “This Land Is Your Land.” “Sing,” said Nancy Pelosi as she noticed that I and the young woman standing to my right were not singing; I did not sing.

On they came, faces I had seen countless times on news shows, names I knew by heart. I stood mute, watching, unlike the woman to my left who did not have to yell to have senators hear her say “Stop voting for Trump’s nominees.” The political stars and heavyweights were cheered when spotted: Schumer, Warren, Sanders. Despite the 33° temperature, the only chills I felt were those induced merely by the proximity of John Lewis walking by. The woman to my right called out to Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who stopped and briefly chatted. “Where are you from,” he asked. “Boston,” she replied, informing him that she had not been in DC long.

Seeing Hillary Clinton’s former running mate coming near, I facetiously said “Mr. Vice-President.” Senator Kaine stopped, laughed, put his hand on my shoulder and said “You know, I’m exactly where I feel I need to be right now.” On he and the others went to gather before the cameras that awaited them at the Court steps, the woman on my left occasionally reminding them of their obligation to thwart the President’s agenda by denying him his cabinet picks.

Once the procession ended, people near me were at a loss to hear or see anything that was going on, other than the chants and signs all around us. One poignant plea read “Let my Iraqi intern’s mother come and visit him.” Another sign began by referencing Martin Niemöller’s famous poem, but took a defiantly humorous turn: “First they came for the Muslims, but we said ‘Not today, Donnie!’” There was a chant that took note of the number of days the President had been in office: “Welcome to your 10th day, we’re not going away!” One highlighted his aversion to reality: “No hate, no fear, actual facts are welcomed here.” The former First Lady got an acknowledgement with “When they go low, we go high,” a sentiment not reflected in chants like “Paul Ryan sucks,” or “Can’t build a wall, hands too small.”

Across First Street from all of this stood the Capitol. I couldn’t help noticing, while listening to the chant “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Islamophobia’s got to go,” that in the western sky beyond the Capitol’s dome was the perfect picture of Islam’s symbol: a crescent moon with Venus directly above it, shining brighter than any star.

I heard the woman to my right, the one who had called out to Senator Markey, tell the woman with her that the rally was much like the Women’s March when she covered it, in that she couldn’t see or hear much of the proceedings. Curious, I asked who she worked for. “The Boston Globe,” she answered. Because I sometimes read that paper online, I asked her name. “Victoria McGrane,” she responded. “Keep reading.” I began to squirm through the crowd to head for the subway station.

II.

Once back on my side of town, I stopped in an eatery on U Street owned by a friend. Mo is both an immigrant and a Muslim. Born in Palestine in the West Bank, Mo came to this country in 1982 to attend the University of Tennessee at Martin. For his fellow foreign students who discovered life here might not go as well as they had imagined, he had a running joke: “Welcome to heaven.” Mo says “some immigrants think this is an easy country, but it is a very tough country to survive in. They tend to be hard on themselves because failure is not an answer.”

I have seen him live this ethos first hand, working himself to the point of exhaustion in the business he and his wife have operated in the neighborhood since 2001. He met his wife, Ababa, a native of Ethiopia, when they both were living in Canada, the country in which he settled for a while after finishing school here. They both now have dual Canadian and American citizenship. They are the proud parents of an eight-year-old daughter. Mo says in Palestine children are an asset, but here they are a liability. His belief is difficult to square with his actions; anytime his daughter is in the shop, it is as though she is the princess of the realm, ruling over all she surveys.

The small restaurant is never without a loyal, longtime customer somewhere about the place passing the time in small-talk or hovering over a cup of chamomile tea while utilizing the Wi-Fi. Neighbors, family, friends and food-seekers come in and stay awhile, and conversations are overheard in English, Spanish, Arabic, Amharic and French. As any good businessman should, Mo gets along with everyone.

This was not an easy thing for him to do following the attacks on this country on September 11, 2001. He was called in and questioned by federal authorities because he had failed to register his name, as was required for some residents at that time. He explained that he had been informed by his attorney that it was not necessary for him to do so.

The government agents begged to differ. When they asked where had he come from to this country, he answered honestly “Canada.” That was not acceptable. They asked where had he been born. “Palestine,” he said. He was told there was no such place as Palestine, that the United States (and, at the time, the United Nations) did not recognize such a place. “Tell me where I am from,” Mo said, “and that will be okay with me. You say I’m not Canadian. I come from somewhere, but you say that place does not exist. I’m not a Jordanian, so what do you want me to say?” He was sternly warned not to make jokes, and told that his case would be referred to court. Ultimately, it was not, but Mo thinks this was due in part to the white agent, a woman who seemed to be reasonable during his interview. Mo remembers her supervisor, the other agent questioning him, was much more aggressive and menacing. That stays with him to this day because that agent was a black American, and Mo could not conceive of such treatment coming from him.

Mo says the cost of living (and of doing business) in the Washington area is too high. He sees himself relocating or retiring to Florida in future years. Once, in an earlier conversation, he mentioned a complaint I’ve heard from him before, this idea in some circles that Americans are living too long and, therefore, straining the social safety net.  He asked “Why must all those war ships be maintained?” It is a good question, posed by a truly concerned American.