Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Brian d'Arcy James investigates clergy sexual abuse in "Spotlight"

     Like many people, actor Brain d’Arcy James was aware of news coverage of sexual abuse by clergy in the Boston Archdiocese 15 years ago, but he didn’t follow it closely.  He had no way of knowing those events would one day be part of his life.

     “It was on my radar,” he said. “I received information wholesale and processed it as best I could.”

     It wasn’t until he read the script for “Spotlight,” the new film based on The Globe’s four-member investigative team that pursued and broke the story, that he understood its magnitude.  “For me it was an education in terms of the size and scope, and the ramifications of the reporting.”

     He saw the coverage as “a beacon of sorts” coming as it did from a reputable news source.  “People who perhaps had not been heard or believed prior to that could say, “‘This is my story.’”

   James, 47, discussed the film in his dressing room at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, where he is starring in the zany hit musical Something Rotten!  A practicing Catholic, James said portraying Matt Carroll, one of The Globe reporters, helped him see the cover-up as “an institutional problem with significant and widespread consequences,” but said he still finds spiritual comfort in Catholicism.

     “It’s not something to make me leave the church,” he said.  “I lost a lot of faith in the institution.  I’m still baffled by it, but it didn’t stop me all together.  I’d be lying if I said it didn’t slow me down.

     “My impulse is still to attend church and experience the ritual of the Mass.”

     The movie’s goal is not to make the church look bad, he said.  “It’s the responsibility of anyone in power to do the right thing.  When they don’t, they have to be held accountable.”

     It’s happenstance, he said, that the film is being released on the heels of the Pope’s American tour, which was largely a positive boost for the church’s image because of Francis’ popularity.  The film could certainly offset that glow, but James doesn’t think it will.

     “It’s a great thing because the Pope made comments about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.  He said, ‘God weeps.’  He said he will hold people accountable and I hope he does.  I wish he had spent more time on that subject matter, but he started a conversation.  That creates a space where dialogue can occur. It all comes back to accountability. 

     “Catholics can see this film without defensiveness.”

    Raised Catholic in Saginaw, MI., James attended St. Stephen School through high school. “The teachers taught us to value education in the way they taught us to think.  It was a great benefit.  My education taught me to toil the soil of a subject.”

    He also was influenced by how his parents drew “a great deal of strength and solace” from their Catholic faith. 

     “It allowed them to live lives fulfilling for them.  It taught them and me to live a life of thoughtfulness, generosity and respect for others, the Golden Rule.

     “My identity has been shaped and formed by my evolution as a Catholic.  It’s something I’m proud of.”

      He now attends Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Sherman, CT, with his wife, actress Jennifer Prescott, and their 13-year-old daughter, Grace.  Lately, though, he’s “been porous in my attendance.”

     Which is understandable considering the rigors of performing eight shows a week in a Broadway musical, portraying Nick Bottom, a struggling Renaissance playwright who consults a soothsayer who tells him that hit plays in the future will involve singing and dancing as well as acting — all in the same show! — so Bottom sets out to create the world’s first musical.  James is onstage for 100 of the show’s 125 minutes.  His efforts earned him a best actor Tony Award nomination. The show received a total of 10 nominations, including the one for best new musical. 

    Besides being a regular on New York stages, James has appeared in several TV shows, including “Smash” and “Game Change,” as well as many films, including the upcoming “Sisters” with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.  In mid-December he will be featured in the New York Pops holiday concerts at Carnegie Hall.  

   While James followed his heart into the theatre, with his background he could easily have moved into politics. His maternal grandfather was governor of Michigan and his father, a lawyer, served on the city council and was involved with Republican fundraising.  James heard stories of the political life and considered following in the family trade “for a few seconds” before heading to Northwestern University to major in theatre.  

     In preparing for his role in “Spotlight,” which also stars Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, James read Globe coverage and spent time with Carroll to understand who he was and how he worked.  Carroll’s work and research were James’ roadmap into the role.  Although he didn’t meet with any of the church abuse victims, people who had suffered abuse shared stories because of his role in the film.

     “It allowed people to speak, to say  ‘Let me tell you my story.’  The movie has the potential to do that.”  

     It’s also a “good, old-fashioned movie,” he says.

     “People love a David and Goliath story, especially when it comes to justice.  It’s a very compelling thing to watch.  Add to that the fact that it’s true, and it’s stunning.”

Photo: (Left to right)  Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Renzendes, Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr. and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll in SPOTLIGHT. 

Photo credit:  Kerry Hayes / Distributor:  Open Road Films

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Giving Voices to Women

          Like many a dutiful spouse, Pilate’s wife moved for the sake of her husband, but not happily.

     “I wasn’t thrilled about uprooting the entire household and moving to some place I’d never heard of,” she says. “After all, Judea isn’t exactly a household word in Rome.  But Pontius was elated.  It was his first important posting, and he saw it as the first step to bigger and better things.”

     How Mrs. Pilate really felt we don’t know, since she is little more than a one-liner of biblical history.  But to Katie Sherrod, the author who brought her to life in Women of the Passion, A Journey to the Cross, her concerns, and those of other women whose lives intersected with Jesus’, are all too real. 

     As Sherrod thought about them, she felt their presence as if “they were standing behind me at my shoulder urging me to write.”  When she would consider a station, she could almost hear a voice saying, “Here I am.  It’s me.”  She says it was the most powerful writing experience in a 30-year career.

     “I’m really reluctant to say I wrote it,” she said. “The women wrote it.”
     Sherrod, an independent writer, producer and commentator, always intended the stories in her book to be read out loud, but lately they have found their way into processions of the Stations of the Cross with women, and occasionally men, donning veils to tell the stories of the female followers behind Jesus’ passion.  This past Lent, composer Ana Hernandez created music for the performance at Sherrod’s Episcopal church, St. Luke’s in the Meadow, in Fort Worth, TX.

     Creating backstories and dialogue for these overlooked participants has quite naturally been welcomed by women, but Sherrod said men who have put themselves in the women’s places have been just as touched.

     “I’ve had men say is was the most meaningful thing they’ve ever done, that it opened the passion for them in a way that they had never experienced.” 

     In a telephone interview from her home in Fort Worth, Sherrod said the idea of letting the women speak came to her in 1996 while she was preparing Lenten retreats for Episcopal congregations in her city and Dallas. It was a time when the bishop of her diocese, following his two predecessors, refused to ordain women to the priesthood.  

     “For many women here, that was very, very frustrating, especially the women who felt called to ministry. It was very painful even for women who didn't feel the call, but felt a hunger to see women on the altar.”

     Sherrod didn’t want to attack the bishop, but rather empower women in the diocese and feed “that hunger women had here to hear women’s voices in the church.”

     “Of course  we all have ministries, whether ordained or not,” she said.  “The church is not in control of this, not really.  God is.”

     Growing up Roman Catholic in west Texas, Sherrod found the Stations could become rote, so she discerned a way to bring them to life and offer healing for the women of the diocese who felt ignored.  Using the first person, she would present the stories from the point of view of the women whose lives had been changed all those centuries ago.

     “They wouldn’t have been cured by Jesus and then say, ‘Thanks, see you later.’  They probably would have been hanging out with him and become followers.”

     She imagined what they would have been thinking.  Having  been to Israel several times, she envisioned the city going on around them with people stopping to stare as a criminal was paraded through the streets with his followers behind him.

     “They wouldn’t have left his mother, and we know she was there.”

    While she wrote the stories in 1996, she didn’t self-published them as a 43-page book until 2006 in response to requests from the many people who had heard them over the years.  To ensure performance accessibility, she grants free one-time copying privileges.  The book is available through Amazon.

     While little is known about Pilate’s wife, other women in the book are more familiar, such as the Marys. But Sherrod presented one of these, Jesus’ mother, with an anger we don’t read about in the gospels.  This Mary shocks some people, especially when, after touching the face of her son, she licks the blood from her hand.

     “This station often makes men uncomfortable,” Sherrod said.  “Of course that is what a mother would do.  Women are more accustomed to blood than men are.”

     She thinks such vivid portrayals might have been behind the rejections she received from the few publishers she approached.  But what Sherrod was hearing from Mary couldn’t be ignored, nor her story sugarcoated.  After writing about Jesus being placed into Mary’s arms, Sherrod was in tears. Her husband, the Rev. Gaylord Pool, a retired Episcopal priest, asked her if she was OK.

     “I said, ‘I am, but Mary’s not.’  I was totally unprepared for Mary’s rage, but when you think about it, of course she was enraged.”

     Women of the Passion is used mostly in Episcopal churches, Sherrod says, although it has also been read in Methodist, Lutheran, Unitarian and United Church of Christ congregations.  Her two most powerful experiences of its interpretation were with a group of women in their 70s, 80s and beyond who presented it as if they were reminiscing about their lives and by a group of teenagers, since many of the actual women wouldn't have been far beyond their teen years.

     This summer the Rev. Mary Janda, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in West Valley City, UT, will present a couple of workshops on Women of the Passion at the triennial meeting of the Episcopal Church Women during the General Convention in Salt Lake City.

     Sherrod said she has received no criticism for her fictionalizing of the biblical women, which she compares to midrash, the Jewish tradition of interpreting scripture.  

     As she was preparing the stories, she read some to her husband but didn’t seek out any scripture scholars for direction, relying on her impressions from her visits to Israel and the deep grounding in the Bible the Sisters of the Incarnate Word had instilled in the girls at her Catholic boarding school in San Antonio. She also did a great deal of research into the political and cultural ways of the era. She hopes one day to see professional actresses perform the stories.

     “I am very, very privileged to have had this experience with these women,” she says, adding that when people compliment her on the book, she gives credit where she thinks credit is due.  She tells people, “I didn’t exactly write it by myself.  I had a lot of help and you just heard them.”

Friday, September 11, 2015

Love and Death

     The Rev. Stephen Chinlund had an agenda in mind as he headed to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine for the diocesan convention about a decade ago, and it had nothing to do with church governance.  He was there to court a partner.

    And he found him, luring him across Amsterdam Avenue to the Hungarian Pastry Shop where the two men bonded over coffee and decided to cast their futures together.  The consummation of that union is about to be born.

     In a city where the unusual borders on normal, Brush Strokes may be the only musical conceived at a church convention.  Its birth will take place this month in that mecca to which so many in the performing arts aspire — New York’s theatre district. 

     The other proud parent of this collaboration is the composer Bert Draesel, known in church circles as the Rev. Herbert G. Draesel Jr., whom Chinlund, the show’s book writer, sought out because of his extensive experience as a composer of musical theatre. A third parent, Jim Semmelman, a long-time television stage manager of “The View” and “Today,” wrote the lyrics to Draesel’s songs.   

     Chinlund and Draesel, both now retired from full-time church ministry, discussed their musical, which will be produced Off, Off-Broadway by the Thespis Theater Festival at the Hudson Guild Theater, at Chinlund’s Garment District studio. Chinlund not only writes in this crowded space behind a canary yellow door on a floor filled with artists’ studios festooned with a rainbow of colorful doors, but he paints here as well.  His paintings adorn the wall, and shelves are crowded with books and photographs of his family — wife of 50 years, Caroline, two sons, a daughter and grandchildren.  It is a familiar setting in New York’s creative world, but it was actually the priesthood that brought Chinlund here.

     While rector at Trinity Church in Southport, CT, in the mid-1980s Chinlund counseled many older parishioners who felt that with their children raised and their careers behind them “nothing moved them.”

     “I thought, ‘Maybe if I wrote a play and they could see themselves onstage, they could think, ‘Maybe I could be like him or like her.’”

     Although he had only written one play, which was never produced, Chinlund gave it a go, creating a story of an older man and woman who meet at an art class, fall in love and marry.  When he showed it to friends, they were underwhelmed.

     “They said, ‘A play is about drama, and drama is about conflict.  You don’t have any.’”

     So he decided to introduce a topic dear to him — assisted suicided —something he champions heartily and which has put him at odds with his 54-year-old daughter, Sarah, now a Roman Catholic, who opposes it.  Chinlund’s position was shaped by his parents, founding members of Death With Dignity and strong believers in the right to determine one’s ending.  

     “They were terrified of being hooked up to tubes,” he said.

     Draesel said it was this element that drew him to the project.

     “It was something both of us wanted to say, and to say it as a musical would say something that mattered rather than doing Annie Get Your Gun one more time,” he said. “This is something the church should be discussing and grappling with.  What better way than as a show?”

     Chinlund hopes churches will produce the musical as a way to discuss end of life issues, but also to highlight positive aspects of aging, something he had been championing for years in his Happy Surprises in Later Life discussion groups.

     “It was the same idea as the play, that old age is not just a time to be denied or lamented, but could be the best time of life. That’s really counterculture.” 

     So is talking about death as a church topic.

     “It’s taboo,” Chinlund says.  “We don’t use the D word freely.  We’ve still got a long way to go.”

     Both men emphasize, though, that death is not the end of the love that was central to a relationship. The inspiration behind the joyful final song, “Always Together,” came from Chinlund’s sister who continued talking to her husband after he had died, making her feel he was still with her.  “Everyone in my bereavement group is doing he same thing,” she told her brother.  That line is now in the play.

     “That’s just how my sister felt about her sort of ongoing marriage,” Chinlund said. 

     “That’s not morbid,” Draesel said.  “It’s just natural.”

     While the September performances will be the first full production, the musical has been tested in public readings.

     “We got a lot of encouragement from audiences,” Draesel said.  “People were walking out crying, happy crying, and hugging each other.  But we were preaching to the choir.  I’d like to get beyond that and create study guides to be given out as they leave for people to think about these things.”

     Both men are hoping that the September production, which is being videotaped, will land them a producer who can take the show to an Off-Broadway run.  Draesel envisions a rotating cast of A-list perfumers, citing two he would love to entice — Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.

     “I pray,” he said.

     This foray into the performing arts is new to Chinlund who spent nearly five decades of his priestly years working in prison ministry, becoming the chairman of the New York State Commission of Correction. Draesel, whose time was spent in parish ministry especially in urban areas, can trace his artistic involvement to when he was 5 1/2 and listened to his sister practicing her piano lessons, which she hated.  When she was finished, he took to the piano bench and played her pieces by ear.  He wrote his first song at 7.

     “Faith and the arts have been a very happy coupling all my life,” he says. “Most of the things I’ve written have been labors of love and explorations of faith.”

     He cites his musical Walden, about the abolition movement and the underground railroad.

     “Those are issues dear to my heart from my years in urban ministry,” he says.  “The church is not always terribly responsive. It says it’s interested in the arts but there’s not a lot of expression.

     “When people think about religion they think about fundamentalists and people finding Jesus.  That’s not what I do.  What I’m trying to do is be a little more subtle.  We have to find God in the ordinariness of life and we have to celebrate at every possible moment.”

     Chinlund agreed.

     “I hope people will find in the play reasons to feel fulfilled in life that have nothing to do with a checked-off list.  I think we could do more in the church to encourage people.” 

Image: Joy Franz and Chuck Muckle are the lead actors in Brush Strokes.

Monday, August 24, 2015

New play explores the ambiguity of war

As a junior at Bucknell University, Ken Urban was only vaguely aware of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but that horror happening a world away would have a strong impact on his future. The trigger came years later, when Urban read Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
The book haunted him and prompted him to read more. Implications of the Roman Catholic church's involvement especially drew him in: Urban was raised in the tradition, with 12 years of Catholic education. The playwright in him saw dramatic possibilities, but it took many years and many drafts to bring him to where he is now, sitting on a stool at the closed bar in Manhattan's 59E59 Theaters, where his play "Sense of an Ending" will have its U.S. premiere Aug. 20 and will run through Sept. 6. 
"It feels like the right time to tell this story," he said. "It's not about race in America, but it's a story of race in the world."
At the center of the play are two Hutu Benedictine nuns, Sister Justina and Sister Alice, who have been in prison for five years, suspected of complicity with Hutu extremists in the massacre of thousands of Tutsis, burned to death in a church where they had taken refuge.  As the play opens, the sisters prepare to be send to Belgium for trial for war crimes committed during the genocide in Rwanda, a colony of Belgium’s at the time.
Sister Justina and Sister Alice were inspired by two real-life sisters, Sister Gertrude and Sister Maria Kisito, who in 2001 were sentenced to 15 and 12 years in prison, respectively. Urban said their story needed some tweaking.  
"They were so clearly guilty that it didn't give me many places to go as a writer," he said.
He found that the key to dramatizing all the tragedy he was researching was to release his adherence to the facts and blend them with fiction. "Then it crystalized."
"It was more dramatically satisfying to let go of the facts and make the truth more ambiguous."
Truth and its illusiveness are the dominant themes of the play, carried out through the main character, Charles, a New York Times reporter who has lost his credibility with his editors because of plagiarism. He needs to redeem himself and thinks a story proving that the sisters are actually innocent would do that. He arrives in Rwanda for an exclusive interview and sets about to write the story he wants rather than searching for the truth until a survivor comes forth to challenge his quest.
"Americans are really frustrated with moral ambiguity," Urban said.
In crafting his characters, Urban didn't consult any nuns, trusting instead in his Catholic background. Although he is no longer practicing, much of his family is, and his mother recently retired after teaching third-grade religion for more than 25 years at St. Mary of the Lakes School in Medford, N.J.
"The material kind of spoke to me," he said. "I felt I had been educated enough by nuns that I had a good feeling for them."
He said he also didn't consult experts on the genocide and didn't visit the country because airfare was too expensive.
"It was me alone doing lots of research," Urban said.
Part of that research included becoming intimately acquainted with a video interview of a survivor of the church massacre. "I would watch it over and over until I made myself physically sick."
He compared it to the way he remembers experiencing the Stations of the Cross as a child, putting himself in Jesus' shoes.
"I was walking through their steps. That's what theater does," he said. "It was a radical act of empathizing."
But it had its consequences.
"I found myself having terrible nightmares, waking up screaming. I felt I was being murdered by the Hutu militia," he said.
The play received good reviews in its London premiere in the spring, often drawing waiting lists of as many as 45 people for the 60-seat Theatre503. Some survivors told him he had truthfully captured their experience.
"That was gratifying because I haven't lived through it," he said.
As the play explores the role of faith and responsibility in the face of violence, no character is either completely full of blame or blameless.
"They're all deeply human," Urban said. "We would hope that faith makes you responsible to try to stop violence. Is killing people the same thing as not trying to stop killings? Are both morally culpable? It's because I didn't have the answers that I wrote the play."
In addition to writing plays, Urban, who holds a doctorate in English literature from Rutgers University, also teaches the subject, formerly at Harvard and now at Princeton. The London production of "Sense of an Ending" was the result of connections he made in 2011 as a fellow at one of the city's prestigious theatres, the Donmar Warehouse.
As a storyteller, he relates to protagonist Charles, who, as a journalist, is supposed to be a seeker after truth. But in the play, as in life, finding it is not easy.
"It's hard for someone to believe in the truth," Urban said. "The more he goes into it, the more it seems an illusion. The truth is not ever going to be clear. If truth is not possible, what does that mean about forgiveness?"
Charles, who moves from certainty to uncertainty as the play progresses, sums up the quandary well: "What do I do? Tell truths, tell lies, tell what I know, or what I think I know. Tell the readers, our bosses, what they want to know to save my own skin. Maybe the problem is these categories -- truth, lies -- they just don't make sense anymore. Maybe they never did."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Joni Mitchell song inspired Edinburgh-bound play

     More than a decade ago, the lyrics of a Joni Mitchell song called “Magdalen Laundries” struck a cord with Erin Layton. 

These bloodless brides of Jesus/If they had just once glimpsed their groom/Then they’d know, and they’d drop the stones/concealed behind their rosaries.

  Wondering what a Magdalen Laundry was, Layton did some research and found out about the Catholic convents in Ireland where unwed mothers, orphans, disabled girls, prostitutes and even merely high-spirited young women were sent to live and work in servitude to, as it was thought, atone for their sins. The commercial laundries operated from 1830 until 1996.

Layton was shocked by what she read, both by the treatment of the women from the nuns and that she had never heard of the laundries. The images stayed with her as she pursued her acting career. Then, in 2010, as Layton was hoping to develop a one-woman project, she thought of the dramatic possibilities of portraying the lives of those women. She booked a trip to Dublin, her first to the land of her father’s forbearers, to visit what was left of the laundries and try to find people with memories of those days.

Now, five years after that visit, she will be heading back across the Atlantic. This time she will be the one educating people about this black mark in Irish Catholic history with her one-woman play, Magdalen, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, the world’s largest arts festival. In August, she will join more than 3,300 performers, presenting her show 27 times. 

“My hope is to be a voice,” she said. “I want to put it on to the best of my ability and get people to wake up and listen.”

Layton, 37, talked about her journey from hearing a Joni Mitchell song — she jokingly calls Mitchell her co-writer — to preparing for the famous arts festival while sitting in the second floor lobby of 59E59 Theaters. She had been chosen as one of 19 performers to be part of this year’s East to Edinburgh series. Hosted each year by the Off-Broadway theatre as a way to help shows get on their feet before flying off to Scotland, East to Edinburgh simulates the same production constraints that all shows experience during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, while giving them a nurturing space to fine-tune their productions. New Yorkers also get the opportunity to see some of the most adventurous theater from around the city and across the United States.

“As an actress, the voice of the outcast has always been of interest to me,” Layton said. “I’m interested in people who don’t have anything. We can learn from them.”

An estimated 30,000 women were confined in these institutions in Ireland over the years. In 1993, a mass grave containing 155 corpses was uncovered in the convent grounds of one of the laundries. A decade later, following an 18-month inquiry that found significant state collusion in admitting women to the institutions, a formal state apology was issued, with a plan to compensate survivors. The Catholic church has not contributed to this fund nor apologized. 

For her play, which runs “a fast 60 minutes,” Layton drew from Frances Finnegan’s Do Penance or Perish: Magdalen Asylums in Ireland to help her create the 10 characters. She collaborated with director Julie Kline to develop a script. She also worked with Justice for the Magdalens, which has an office in Philadelphia, to get a listing of the sites in Ireland and listened to recordings of different Irish dialects so she could differentiate her characters as being from various parts of the country.

“Between 2011 and the present I’ve written at least 15 drafts,” she says. 

The play is set in a Magdalen laundry in North Dublin, transitioning in time between 1948 and 1998. It has been published by Indie Theater Now in its Best of Fringe 2012 (from the New York Fringe where her play premiered that year) and its Plays by Women collection.

Layton, who grew up Catholic and is now a Presbyterian, estimates she has performed the show nearly 40 times in the last three years.  She says audience response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People are stunned, shocked. A lot of people had no sense this had happened,” she said.

“The play could be about any oppression of women. We see it all the time. This is a universal issue, women incarcerated for being weak. The material sells itself.”

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Traveling Papers

     I traveled extensively last week, and I didn’t have to pack a bag, juggle reservations or wait at customs.  I journeyed with my imagination, which was fueled by the enthusiasm and talent of the seven cast members of Traveling Papers, a charming evening of storytelling that recently ended a run at the Lion Theatre.

     Like most people, I have enjoyed being told stories since I was a child, which is why it was so delightful to sit in the theatre and listen as the cast, under the direction of Barbara Bosch, presented writings that have explored our connections to travel through selections from novels, poetry, short stories, personal letters and other literary works by Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Anthony Bourdain, W. Somerset Maugham, Michael Clinton, Paul Theroux, Edna Ferber, Robert Frost, Rosemary Mahoney, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Alice Steinbach and Peter Mayle, among many others.  

     Using little more in the way of props than an occasional exaggerated mustache to transform women into men, Gwen Arment, John Camera, Kyle Doherty, Gwen Eyster, Peter Husovsky (in photo), Macy Idzakovich (in photo) and Jillian Stevens are the audience’s passport to the joys and frustrations of traveling. 

    “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”  This thought from St. Augustine was one of the many short quotes woven throughout the longer, acted out passages.  Others quoted in this way are as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Yogi Berra. 

     The longest selection was Somerset Maugham’s Winter Cruise, in which a spinster tea shop owner (Arment) drives her fellow passengers and crew crazy with her boring, endless talking until they fix upon the notion that what she needs is a lover, and they set about to get her one.  This is presented in three segments interspersed throughout the show, a nice way to build the suspense. 

     In another offering, Arment’s presentation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Letter from Venice is atmospheric and descriptive, as is the whole company’s recitation of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road.  

     Traveling Papers was conceived and adapted by Bosch and Martin Tackel, with lighting by Edward R.F. Matthews, sound by Brian Hurley, costumes by Lui Konno and graphic design by Maria T. Card. 

     The show’s 90 minutes with no intermission are just right for transporting an audience of 21st century New Yorkers to worlds far away in time and distance.  As another of the show’s authors, Lao Tzu, said: “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”  Traveling Papers is just such a journey, and perfect for an early summer evening. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek

     Playwright Athol Fugard has once again brought the pain and beauty of South Africa to life with his latest play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, which is having its world premiere under his direction at the Signature Theatre through June 14.

     As in his 1985 play The Road to Mecca, Fugard celebrates the healing power of artistic expression, a subject dear to him as a white South African writing about the injustices of apartheid in his country. When he spoke at Baltimore’s CenterStage many years ago, he said laws can change governments but only the arts can change hearts.

     The hearts that are changed in Painted Rocks belong to Nukain (Leon Addison Brown, in photo), an elderly farmworker, and Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin), the 11-year-old boy who looks to him for love and guidance. Nukain’s creative outlet has been painting colorful designs, which he calls his “flowers,” on the rocks on the estate of his employer, but now he is weary.  The first act is set in 1981 at Revolver Creek, Mpumalanga Province, where Nukain and Bokkie are the visible examples of apartheid’s evils — poor, black, uneducated and treated practically as slaves.

     One big unpainted rock, larger than Nukain, sits at the center of the stage, surrounded by smaller ones he has decorated over the years, amounting to more than 100, although this multitude is not seen. He tells Bokkie he is afraid of that one, that it has no eyes and is like the white rulers of the country.  

     “They got eyes but do not see us,” he says.

     But something in him clicks and he decides to give that rock eyes, instructing Bokkie to hand him his paintbrush with first white, then black and finally yellow paints. In creating the eyes, his passion grows and soon he is telling his life story to Bokkie in words while portraying it in symbols on the rock.  

     When he is finished, he stands back and proudly assesses what he has done.  He has expressed his manhood.  He feels heard.

     But his triumph is short-lived when the Mrs. arrives, his employer’s wife, Elmarie (Bianca Amato).  She looks at the rock with disgust at first but then horror after Bokkie tells her it is Nukain’s life story.  She instructs Nukain to return the following Sunday and paint over it.  

     With that, Nukain’s shoulders slump and, with bowed head, he assures her he will. Bokkie objects strongly until she silences him with her scolding, ending Act One.

     Act Two is set in 2003.  Bokkie has returned with paint to restore the rock and thus Nukain’s story as well. He is Jonathan now and a teacher; Bokkie is an Afrikaans term of endearment meaning little buck. He is met by a terrified Elmarie who points a pistol at him, not recognizing her former worker.  In this post-apartheid world she is now the one who is afraid.  A neighbor has been murdered by having a pitchfork driven into his throat and his wife was badly beaten and is on the verge of death. Elmarie’s land is now surrounded by a fence, but Jonathan had gotten in through a hole.

     Jonathan (Kevin Mambo) assures her he means no harm, that he is only there to repaint the rock.  At first she objects, but as they talk her fear gives way to weary resignation, the kind that had marked Nukain’s life.

     In a program note, Fugard said the play was suggested by the life of outsider artist Nukain Mabusa but that it is a work of fiction.

     All of the cast members are excellent and transported me  into that world.  Mambo deserves a special shoutout because he had to step in at the last minute for Sahr Ngaujah who was injured in a car accident and is unable to return. He was on-book but was totally in character anyway, especially in the highly emotional moments.  And McLaughlin is one talented young man, capturing Bokkie’s exuberance and what to me sounded like a spot-on South African idiom. 

   Christopher H. Barreca’s set portrays a sandy, hilly countryside, with that big rock dominating. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting bakes it in African sunlight. Susan Hilferty’s costumes portray the poverty and ruggedness of the land and its time. 

     It was interesting for me to see this play, which has been extended twice,  in the same week I saw the Jacob Lawrence exhibit at MoMA. In 60 paintings, Lawrence portrays the northern migration of southern blacks in the early part of the 20th century, and the reason for it.  Like Nukain, Lawrence used art to tell a story.  I would go back to either of these shows in a heartbeat.