Saturday, January 4, 2020

Watching history unfold in Baltimore

     The cover of the large picture book has a sepia quality, with a little girl waving from a carousel horse.  I sense a time long ago and, indeed, that is what the book is about.

     This little girl happens to be black and that is important because she represents the author on a historic day in Baltimore. On Aug. 28, 1963 11-month-old Sharon Langley became the first African-American child to ride the carousel at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park on the day it was integrated.  That day represented the end of an eight-year effort to desegregate the park.  It was for many a great day.

     I was there that day too.  Like Sharon, I was taken by a parent but my experience was quite different.  Sharon’s first day at the park turned out to be my last.  I was 8 and my mother took me not for the rides, but for the excitement.  I watched as a long line of mostly black people marched through the doors, never to be kept out again.  For me it would be just the opposite because I was a white child.  As we walked back to the car later, my mother said, “Well, you’ll never go there again.”

     And she was right.  I was never taken again nor was any child I knew.  A large part of white Baltimore abandoned the park. The racism that had kept the black children out now kept the white children out.  Sharing the park was unthinkable to a great many people in1963 Baltimore.

     Langley now lives in Los Angeles.  Unlike me, she was too young to remember that August day but it has always been a part of her life’s story, recounted to her by her parents and captured forever in a Baltimore Sun photo the next day showing a slightly apprehensive-looking baby in a dress with a lace collar and a tiny cardigan being held on the horse by her father.  

     Now, 56 years later, Langley has recreated that experience in a children’s book.  A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story is beautifully drawn by Floyd Cooper, a Coretta Scott King Award-winning illustrator, and co-written with Amy Nathan whose 2011 book Round and Round Together tells the story of Gwynn Oak’s integration in the context of the times. 

     I’ve never met Langley but in the last few years I feel I’ve come to know her.  After I wrote an op-ed for The Sun in 2015 about my experience of the park’s integration, I received many emails from people in Baltimore who fondly recalled their days at Gwynn Oak or their pain at being excluded.  One man told me a baby named Sharon Langley had been the first black child to ride the carousel.  A few days later I received a Facebook Friend request from Langley and, recognizing her name from his email, quickly accepted.  Our postings since then show we have a great deal in common in terms of our feelings toward politics, spirituality and the arts.

     After reading her book I asked to interview her about it and to discuss the day our paths crossed with such different results.  That day had been recounted to her as triumphant.  I didn’t need anyone to recount the day for me.  The images are strongly burned into my memory — a street lined on either side mostly by white people and policemen, a long wait and then a procession of mostly black people approaching, more black people than I had ever seen.  The tension was palpable.  I felt small and afraid of what was going to happen.  Fortunately the integration was peaceful but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood the significance of that day.

     Langley’s voice is warm when she calls me one Saturday evening in late autumn and once again it surprises me that we don’t actually know each other.  I tell her I love how she has told her story and that the illustrations are so lovely that I have the book on my coffee table.  She says she cried when she opened the box from her publisher and saw it.

     “I was a little concerned that people would think it was such a long time ago but it’s still important because of the times we live in now, especially with things that affect children.  There are still things we can do.  We can still care.  You need the corrective history.  You need to know.”

     Langley’s parents, who are deceased, had been planning to go to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, but they couldn’t find a babysitter.  Instead, knowing  Gwynn Oak was opening to all that same day, they dressed their only child for the occasion and walked into history.

     “I knew about my mom’s activism,” Langley said, explaining that she had been brought up on stories of how her mother as a high schooler in the 1950s helped end segregation in her small town in Kentucky.  “My thinking was that this is something we do.  Even though I was very little, they could have chosen not to take me.  They were making a statement. They were making a statement to me.  We can make a difference.  One family can.”

     She hopes her book will show this, written as it is from the eyes of a young black child asking her parents why black children had been kept out of the park.  The parents explain segregation and the Civil Rights Movement in a way the child can understand.  Langley wants children to know that they too can make a difference. 

     “‘Can you be a part of change?’  Sure you can.  We have an obligation to be part of change.”

     Nathan approached Langley about co-writing a children’s book nearly four years ago.  Langley felt her experience as an educator — she was an elementary school teacher for 10 years — would shape the book to make a strong impact on children.  She had taught her pupils about segregation and social change and knew how to frame the subjects in terms of unkindness versus kindness.

     “Even young children understand the idea of hurting people, of feeling left out, and that there were other groups who felt it was wrong and were motivated to make change.”

     This was the case at Gwynn Oak where quiet yearly protests began in 1955.  These protests gained steam before coming to a head in the summer of 1963.  The Forth of July brought the largest crowd yet to the park northwest of Baltimore City, just across the county line.  Hundreds of protestors were arrested, including black and white priests, rabbis and ministers from up and down the East Coast.  It was the first Civil Rights protest for one young white man.  Sadly, there would not be many more.  Michael Schwerner would be murdered by the Ku Klux Klan the following year, along with Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, as part of Freedom Summer in Mississippi.  

     Gwynn Oak closed in 1972 after being heavily damaged by Hurricane Agnes.  The concessionaire for the Smithsonian bought the carousel and moved it in 1981 to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. where it stands today, welcoming all children.  A historical marker on the gate surrounding it commemorates its civil rights history.  And on one of the horses, called the Freedom Rider, the names of civil rights heroes are inscribed, including the name of young Sharon Langley on a brass plate on its saddle and on one horseshoe.  That little baby’s experience is now a ride to remember.  When Langley knows friends are going to the nation’s capital, she tells them to stop by to see the carousel and they send her selfies in front of the marker and on the horse.  Langley and I agree it’s a shame her parents didn’t live to see this memorial.

     “If you look back, Gwynn Oak was not like Disneyland,” Langley said.  “It was a small mom and pop amusement park.”  But it’s now part of history, a history we share. 

     I asked Langley what she thought when she read my op-ed about my considerably different experience of that day in 1963. Her response surprised and intrigued me.

     “Don’t laugh,” she said, pausing before saying, “I actually think we should do a two-woman show about two sides of the same coin.”

     It’s nice to think that if we do this, we will not just be in the same place at the some time again, but we will finally be together.  

Sunday, December 8, 2019

In 'Gospel of John' onstage, actor takes on John's voice, telling his story

     When actor Ken Jennings was going through a rough patch two years ago he began to memorize St. John's gospel as a way to take his mind off of his troubles.  He saw this exercise as a form of prayer and a way to follow the guidance of the Jesuits who taught him at St. Peter's Prep and St. Peter's College in Jersey City, NJ.  They had said, "No matter what happens in your life, always remember to pray."  He followed that advice.

     "It was a process," he said.  "I started to memorize not knowing if I was going to complete the task.  I was not worried about a time frame.  Then I started to realize, 'I'm getting this under my belt.'"

     Reciting the gospel -- all 21 chapters -- was so healing he decided to offer it free to churches.  The reactions so moved him that he began to envision a larger forum.  In what he calls "a gift of the Holy Spirit," he turned to a priest friend to get connected to the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in Greenwich Village where he can now be found six or seven times a week through Dec. 29 presenting "The Gospel of John."  

     An award-winning Broadway actor who has performed alone in clues and poetry readings, Jennings, 72, had never done a one-man play.  And he doesn't consider that he is doing one now.  Other actors have taken the gospel to the stage, most notably British actor Alec McCowen who took his "St. Mark's Gospel" to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award.  McGowan called his work a play and took on the different characters with voices and accents as an actor would.  Jennings, who has watched the DVD of McGowan's performance, chose another approach.

     "I thought, 'What can I do that's different,'" he said during a telephone interview from his Manhattan home while the production was still in rehearsal.  "I memorized it as a prayer, not a performance.  I thought, 'I'm going to do this as a prayer, even now.’  John himself wasn't an actor.  He was a witness so he's not telling to entertain as an actor would.  He's saying, 'Look, I saw these things.  I was there.'  That's what I hope to do.  I just do it as if I'm John. The audience will realize they are seeing something different, not showbizzy at all." 

     Since he's being John, he doesn't use accents to distinguish the other characters featured in the narrative.

     "I let the story tell itself."

     But unlike in church performances when he had only "a chair and an old Bible," he now has a lighting designer (Abigail Hoke-Brady) and set designer (Charlie Corcoran).  Jennings told costume designer Tracy Christensen how he wanted to look.  "Normal street clothes.  I should look like I just walked in off the street.

     “All that's going to help me tell the story as well.  The lights have to be evocative to me and the audience to be the sights and sounds John is telling the audience about."

     The efforts have already made their mark.  DCMetro TheaterArts named “The Gospel of John” the No. 2 Christmastime show in New York, beating out such established favorites as "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker" and "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular Starring the Rockettes,"  which is interesting considering John's gospel doesn't include the nativity.

     Jennings turned to John's gospel in his time of need because it seems more first hand, eye witness than the other gospels.  He quotes from John's conclusion: "This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things and we know that this testimony is true."

     "This was really said by a guy who was there.  He's very specific."

     Using "an incremental process" over the last two years, Jennings read and pondered the first chapter and when he had committed it to memory he moved to the second and did the same thing.  Then he went back to the first chapter and added the second.  He proceeded to do the same with all of the chapters, always going back to the beginning. 

     "That's why it took so long.  I probably would have been able to do it faster if I knew I was going to complete it.  I just did it as daily prayer."

     In preparing for the theatrical run, he read nearly a dozen scholarly treatises on John, and incorporated some phrases into his script, used the Revised Standard Version and several other Bible translations and substituted some of his own wording to make it more conversational.  Realizing he would be on stage for hours if he used the entire gospel, he made some cuts to keep the show at 90 minutes with no intermission.  Rehearsals were intense -- just himself with a director and stage manager -- and unlike anything he had ever done in terms of breath and depth.  But he felt ready for the challenge.

     "So much of theatre can dominate your life.  This is different.  In essence it becomes the prayer it began as.  It flows around my life.  In some ways that makes it easier, but it's still tiring."

     Since he felt uneasy about cutting the gospel to fit to stage time, he showed the script to a friend, the Rev. Tony Azzarto, SJ, who gave his approval.

     "I thought, 'That's only one Jesuit."  So he asked the Rev. John Beddingfield, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity, the church in his Upper East Side neighborhood where he first performed this work.  Again he was given the go-ahead.  Expanding his base, he sought out the opinions of the Rev. Scott Stearman from Metro Baptist Church where Jennings now worships, and his friend Sr. Eve Kavanaugh.  He was told by both to proceed.

     Jennings said there has been some talk of finding a way to take his performance on tour, which he hopes will happen. Asked if he speaks or prays to John for help he offers a resounding yes.

     "I ask him to help me be more you.  To be a better person and to help me perform you."    

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Christmas Carol

     I have always been a sucker for A Christmas Carol.  Like many people, I first encountered this story of a drastic change of heart from "Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol," the 1962 cartoon that ran on TV every year, giving me the smarts to quote Victorian literature long before I was to ever hear of Charles Dickens. 

     Even if I didn't already like this story I would have fallen in love with the magnificent current Broadway production at the Lyceum Theatre.  Under the immensely creative direction of Matthew Warchus, with playwright Jack Thorne's new adaptation, every single element is theatrically perfect.  I walked out of the matinee Saturday and would happily have gone back for the evening performance.  It's a joy from start to finish. 

     The festivities begin even before the show starts, with musicians playing fiddles, an accordion and bass and actors distributing fruit and bags of cookies down the aisles while other actors toss clementines and small bottles of water to the audience in the middle of the theatre and even up to the balcony.  It's a good thing they have good pitching arms or the people below would have been in trouble.  They're in Victorian garb (costumes by Rob Howell) of long black coats and top hats or full-skirted long dresses, so we're put in the spirit from the get-go.

     Lighting designer Hugh Vanstone conveys the mood of 19th century London with twinkling lanterns filling the heights over the stage and up the sides of the theatre.  They flash for emphasis at key scenes, such as when Jacob Marley (Chris Hock) enters in chains to warn his former business partner Ebenzer Scrooge (Campbell Scott, in photo) to change his mean-spirited ways and to foretell of the three ghosts that will visit that night.  Howell, who is also the scenic designer, furthers the atmosphere by using a nearly bare stage with little more than door frames that come up from the stage floor as needed, minimal furniture and what looks like piles of black plastic garbage bags on either side of the stage.

     A chorus takes the stage to advance the narrative and sing carols throughout and even play hand bells.  Scott hits every note right with his Scrooge.  Maybe it's in his genes.  His father played the role for a 1984 TV movie version of A Christmas Carol.  He seems to be enjoying himself to the hilt.  In fact, everyone on stage appears to be having a blast, including Broadway veteran Andrea Martin as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

     The role of Tiny Tim is alternated between Jai Ram Srinivasan and Sebastian Ortiz, who played the part at the performance I saw using a rolling walker.  Both young actors have cerebral palsy just as the fictional character has a physical disability.  (Thorne insisted that only disabled children would be cast.)  I'm sorry to say I couldn't always understand Sebastian because of his quiet voice.  I would have missed one of his sweetest lines if my friend Mary hadn't told me what he said.  Scrooge has arrived at Tim's house with a bountiful feast, telling Tim he is being invaded.  Tim's reply is: "We surrender."

     About that feast.  The interactive way it arrives onstage is so much fun and unexpected I was laughing out loud. This is a show that just gives and gives to its audience.  It's as generous with its entertainments as Scrooge becomes with his money.  God bless them, everyone.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Little Shop of Horrors

     I went to the Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors with an open mind. This quirky 1982 musical about a plant that demands human blood has a cult following and is even loved by critics, at least most of them, but I have never seen the appeal. The current production at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs didn't change my mind, even though the show, under the direction of Michael Mayer, is top notch in every way. 

     The silliness of the story doesn't feed me for two hours.  I use the term "feed me" because as devoted fans know and love, this is an oft-repeated line of the murderous plant, Audrey II.  She is brought to life by puppet designer Nicholas Mahon with Kingley Leggs's rich bass voice.  The musical, with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, is based on Roger Corman's 1960 film.  It spoofs old time horror movies and sappy ballads.

     While the show is tedious to me, this production's components couldn't be better.  It's always a joy to see Christian Borle, especially when he can fully exercise his comic chops the way he does here.  He pops on and off stage in a variety of roles, including the leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding, girlfriend-abusing dentist, Orin, and a Life magazine editor's wife in a pink suit and high heels.  He seems to be having a blast and it was fun to see who he was going to come out as next.  He certainly must have good dressers backstage transforming him from character to character so quickly.

     Not surprisingly, Jonathan Groff gives a strong performance as Seymour, the downtrodden clerk in a Skid Row flower show who becomes famous for the unusual plant he nurtures to enormous size, fed by the humans who get in his way.  Tammy Blanchard handles the role of Audrey, Seymour's fellow clerk and the object of his longing, with just the right amount of campiness and sensitivity, especially when she sings the show's funniest song, "Somewhere That's Green."  I was equally charmed by the chorus of Skid Row Urchins played by Ari Groover, Joy Woods and Salome Smith (pictured left to right with Groff) who do a great takeoff of 1950s girl groups with some nice Motown moves thrown in.  A nod to choreographer Ellenore Scott and to costume designer Tom Broecker for those shimmering red dresses they wear for one number.

     Scenic designer Julian Crouch offers a Skid Row that looks more like a set for "Sesame Street," which I liked.  Little Shop works better with this kind of simplicity that a small Off-Broadway stage provides rather than a full-scale Broadway production like the one in 2003.  

     Being able to give this much praise to a musical I don't even like is a tribute to all the folks reviving it.  True fans will be in heaven. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Play portrays post-war relationship between hero priest and jailed Nazi

     Kingfishers Catch Fire is a story about such extreme evil and amazing redemption that if it weren’t based on facts it might be hard to believe.  Robin Glendinning’s play, which had its world premiere this fall at Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre, portrays the soul-saving relationship that developed between two World War II adversaries in the years following the fighting. 

     Readers of J.P. Gallagher's 1967 book Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican will know these two historical figures.  Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty was an Irish priest who saved more than 6,500 Jews and escaped Allied POWs in Rome by sheltering them and arranging for their escape, using his role as Notary of the Holy Office and the cover of Vatican neutrality.  Lt. Col. Herbert Kappler was the infamous head of the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Rome.  The book was the basis of a 1983 TV movie, “The Scarlet and the Black,” starring Gregory Peck as O’Flaherty, Christopher Plummer as Kappler and Sir. John Gielgud as the Pope.

     The play’s director, Kent Paul, was unfamiliar with the book and movie but knew he wanted to direct the play after the Irish Rep’s producing director Ciaran O’Reilly gave him the script for consideration.

     "I was immediately attracted by the language of the play,” he said during a telephone interview from his home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  “I was intrigued by this preposterous friendship.  I knew nothing about these two people before I read the play.  It's been a voyage of discovery."

     While the book and movie portray the harrowing action of the war years, the play picks up in 1948 when O’Flaherty, saying he has been ordered by Jesus Christ, reluctantly makes monthly visits to Kappler, who is serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity in a prison on the western coast of Italy.

     In a running time under two hours, O’Flaherty, played by Sean Gormley, and Kappler, portrayed by Haskell King in a particularly strong performance, discuss questions of personal responsibility for actions taken during war, morality and the existence of God.  The play ends with Kappler begging O’Flaherty to bless him and the priest rising hesitantly to do so.  In actuality, O’Flaherty baptized Kappler into Roman Catholicism in 1959. 

     "The conversations are entirely imagined," Paul said, adding that it's a tribute to Glendinning "that the quality of the language makes you feel this is what these two men would have said to each other.”

     The 81-year-old Irish playwright, who lives in the small town of Comber in County Down, Northern Ireland, was unavailable for comment.  The play’s title comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem of the same name.  It was developed following a 2016 staged reading that was part of the Irish Rep Reading series.

     I haven’t read Gallagher’s book but I have owned a copy of the movie drawn from it for more than two decades.  It’s an exciting, action-packed drama with three of Hollywood’s greatest actors.  In contrast, the play is about ideas and existential questions rather than action.  When I asked Paul about the challenges of directing, he said he had to "make action"  and worked “quite meticulously” on ensuring every word is heard.

     Action isn’t needed to make this play compelling, especially in the show’s most chilling scene.  King’s anguished Kappler recalls his overseeing of what is now known as the Ardeatine Caves Massacre in which German forces executed 335 people in the caves near Rome in retaliation for the deaths of 33 German soldiers at the hands of the Italian resistance.  King powerfully recounts the slaughter slowly and in great detail, conveying Kappler as a man deeply haunted by the horror of what he had done.  

     To make all the details real, Paul and the actors did much research into who the people were, “read a great deal about the war” and even tried to visualize what O’Flaherty would have seen as he drove from Rome to the prison.  For that, they found a photo of a Fiat from the time to imagine a line the priest says about the long journey, ”I'm a big man in a small car."   

     Set designer Edward Morris created a bleak cell, with dingy stone walls containing nothing but a single bed, a table, straight chair and a toilet.  I found Matthew McCarthy’s lighting distractingly bright, though, for a desolate prison.  The atmosphere would have been enhanced by dim lights.

    Still, the tight space of a prison cell is perfect for putting the focus on the sharp interchanges.  A line of Kappler’s stood out for me as he tries to squirm out of his culpability: "For a crime to be committed there has to be both action and intention,”  he says, explaining that he took action because he was ordered to but he had no intention.  It’s an interesting parallel to O’Flaherty’s claim that he was disgusted by the idea of visiting Kappler but did so because he had been ordered by Christ.

     I was also struck by a line of O’Flaherty’s.  Although a man of God, he is aware that questions of morality don’t always have easy answers.  “Colonel,” he says, “I know that good and bad exist but in this world they are often so mixed up we can't tell the difference.  It's a world of grays.  I think it's the Devil's work to persuade us that it's easy to decide in matters like these."

     Paul passed on the opportunity to comment, saying O’Flaherty’s words speaks for themselves.   "It's so beautifully put.  I agree.  I couldn't possibly say anything better."

     Then he added, ”In a certain sense the play is about to know all is to forgive all.  I think of Monsignor encouraging Kappler to continue his search for God.  He makes it clear he doesn't forgive Kappler for what he did but he can't live in the past.  He has to move on."

     He said it was rewarding "to see a play of language and ideas come to such vivid life.”

     The show has sold-out many nights and has been extended for a week, closing now on Oct. 27.  Paul said the producers are exploring possibilities for future productions.  This should be possible based on the simplicity of the needs — only two actors and one minimalist set.  

     I hope the play’s timeliness, with the rise of anti-semitism in Europe and America, will help it to be brought to life again soon.  This story of devastating hate followed by extraordinary grace needs to be told often.

   "The play speaks for itself so eloquently,” Paul said.  “I dread and hate the anti-semitism that has been developing in Europe.  The play is about, if we want to live, we have to embrace each other.  I think the play reveals to us the necessity of telling our stories because only in telling our stories do we accept ourselves.

     "It's one of the finest things I've done.”

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Elizabeth Patterson & Gloriæ Dei Cantores Receive an American Prize for their Performances of American Music

Congratulations to Director Emeritus, Elizabeth Patterson and Gloriæ Dei Cantores, who have been awarded the 2019 American Prize Ernst Bacon Memorial Award, recognizing Maestra Patterson’s conducting and leadership, as well as the ensemble’s performances and promotion of American Music. The award-winning American Psalmody collection premiered twenty-three first and only recordings of works by 20th Century American composers including Adler, Neswick, and Rorem. The American Prize is the nation’s most comprehensive series of contests in the classical arts.

“Ms. Patterson is a true choral alchemist, and never fails to draw truly golden sound and beautifully nuanced singing from her hard-working musicians. Sacred illumination is their mission, and they achieve it with spiritual sincerity and power.”

—American Record Guide

In addition to championing new American composers at home, Maestra Patterson led Gloriæ Dei Cantores on numerous international tours, using music as a bridge between Americans and other countries and nationalities. From New York to San Francisco, London to Venice, Prague to Moscow and Siberia, Gloriæ Dei Cantores and Ms. Patterson brought not only American music to foreign countries, but also the music native to the countries in which they were performing. Elizabeth Patterson has overseen the development of a repertoire incorporating over 2,400 works including world premieres and commissions by American composers Samuel Adler, Dominick Argento, Gerald Near, and Mark O'Connor. Maestra Patterson’s dedication to international understanding and cultural integrity have won her critical acclaim in concert halls throughout Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, England, France, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Wales.

Critical Acclaim for Gloriæ Dei Cantores
“Superb!”    BBC
“They sing with absolute fluency and authority”    GRAMOPHONE
"Seamless ensemble, seductive phrasing"   LOS ANGELES TIMES
 “A world-class concert choir”    WASHINGTON POST
“Beautiful, affecting music”    CHICAGO TRIBUNE
“Expert renditions of Gregorian chant”    NEW YORK TIMES
“Perfectly captures the exultation in every note”    FANFARE