Monday, March 13, 2017

Discomfiting theatre



    More than a decade ago, Bruce Graham read a newspaper feature about a transit bus whose destination was Rikers Island, a prison complex in New York City.  The playwright in him started thinking about the people who rode buses like that to the remote areas where prisons tend to be located. A self-proclaimed liberal, the 60-year-old South Philadelphia native was also pondering ideas about white privilege and “the slavery card,” topics he thinks other writers often avoid for fear of being politically incorrect. Out of his musings was born White Guy on the Bus, which will be produced by Off-Broadway’s 59E59 Theaters through April 16.

   “I usually start with stuff that gets me angry,” he said during a telephone interview from his home in South Philly. “That keeps me out of therapy.”

    White Guy had its premiere two years ago in Chicago and has since had successful runs in Oakland and Trenton. It is possibly more timely than ever, though, with the blatant racism that was expressed around Donald Trump’s campaign and election. Discussions of race have also been emphasized in Episcopal parishes around the country in the last couple of years, following incidents of police shootings of unarmed black men and the murder of nine black church members in Charleston, SC, by a white supremest.  

   “I’m sad and angry that it’s topical,” Graham said, adding that the timeliness is merely coincidental.  “I think about things for years and then write the play in a matter of weeks.  I’m a fast writer and slow thinker.”

    The play also was produced in January [of this year] in Los Angeles and is being published.  Set in the present, times and locations shift, as do the worlds of the five characters: Ray, a wealthy advertising man; his wife, Roz, an inner-city public school teacher, both of whom are white and in their 50s; Christopher, the young man for whom Ray has been a father figure as well as mentor at work; Molly, Christopher’s wife, both white; and Shatique, a 26-year-old struggling black single mother and nursing school student who works in an assisted living facility.  Their lives intersect in startling ways as the play unfolds. 

     When White Guy had its premiere in Chicago two years ago, the actress playing Shatique helped Graham develop the dialect and conversation. His students at Drexell University, an inner-city Philadelphia school where he teaches playwriting, were a sounding board who offered suggestions and rephrasing to make the play authentic.  

     When questioned about the appropriateness of giving the character such a black-sounding name, Graham had a question of his own: “What am I going to call her, Linda?” He said there were no black Lindas in his classes at Drexell and that the name is actually that of a former student.  Still, “no one in Philly would touch it.”

     “The things I think about aren’t said in the theatre.  Theatre has gotten so politically correct.  It’s boring. I work in the two most politically correct environments — academia and the theatre.  I go out of my way to shake people up.  I like to offend people.”

     Graham doesn’t see White Guy as a play about race, but rather about revenge, which is one of the play’s unexpected plot twists.  

     Before the feedback he received from cast and students, Graham  had worked to authenticate the play by riding the bus to Rikers and found himself to be the only white person and one of only two men.   All the other riders were women and children of color.  He went into the prison to get the experience of what is was like to be a visitor placed in a circle and having guard dogs sniffing him.  He wanted the smells, sounds and procedures of prison life. “Everything that’s in there I saw it.”

     Graham grew up in a blue color family in the segregated world of the 1960s in South Philadelphia, a city with a history of racial strife.  It was the place where Jackie Robinson received his most hated reception. “I saw it everywhere growing up,” he said, adding that without the internet, children of his era didn’t have the exposure that his daughter was brought up with. “Diversity when it happens organically is great.”

     Graham allows his characters to voice ideas some people may find difficult. Ray admits that if he has three equally qualified job candidates — a white man, black man and a woman — he wants to play it safe and hire the white man so he won’t be charged with racism or sexism if he has to fire the person. Molly expresses her belief that people prefer to be with their own. “We’re more comfortable on a gut level.”
   “I want to hold a mirror up there to make them (the audience) uncomfortable,” Graham says. "I love to go to the theatre and be surprised.”

    What he most hopes, though, is that his audiences will be entertained.  “I’m first and foremost a song and dance man,” he said.  “I don’t want to be preaching.  I want to tell a good story.”

Friday, March 10, 2017

Poem for a snowy day



Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon.
 
~ Ikkyu ~

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Your footsteps are the road




Walker, your footsteps
are the road, and nothing more.

Walker, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.

Walking you make the road,
and turning to look behind
you see the path you never
again will step upon.

Walker, there is no road,
only foam trails on the sea.


~ Antonio Machado ~

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Primary Wonder



Primary Wonder
 
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng's clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.
 
~ Denise Levertov ~

Thursday, February 16, 2017

One-woman play uses biblical Mary's life to tell story of black mothers, sons




      Angela Polite had little awareness of the Blessed Mother when she was growing up in the African Methodist Episcopal tradition in South Carolina.  Now, though, some three decades later, she is about to open Off-Broadway in Mary Speaks, a world premiere one-woman play inspired by Holy Mary that she has been developing over the last decade. 

     “We were not exactly in love with Mary as our Catholic brothers and sisters are,” Polite said during a telephone interview last week. “I knew she was a young girl and pretty special.  As I began to think of Mary more as a mother and modernize her voice, I started to fall in love with her.”

     Having Mary for inspiration isn’t the only unexpected element in Polite’s journey to Theatre for the New City in New York’s East Village, where Mary Speaks runs from Feb. 16 through 26. The “very proud native of Charleston and descendant of Gullah people” was a TV producer in Washington, D.C. She had been part of the drama club at school, played clarinet and sung in choirs but had never performed professionally until she took a sabbatical to study acting in England in 2004, which led to some television commercials and a part on “The Wire.”  Three years later she decided to “take the big leap”  —   quit her job, sell her car and moved to New York to pursue acting. 

     Newly arrived in the city, she joined the First AME Bethel Church in Harlem.  When the pastor, the Rev. Henry A. Belin III, learned she was an actress he remembered seeing her on “The Wire” and asked her to take part in the annual combined parishes Advent program, Caring and Sharing, for about 200 people. Even though she had never written a show and had little perception of Holy Mary, she decided to modernize the Mother of God as the prototype of all mothers who had struggled to keep their sons alive when their very existence was deemed a threat to society.  

     “I saw her as a regular mother.”

     Although she has no children of her own, Polite kept that image of Mary in mind as she appeared in several Off-Broadway plays, one of which had her as the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1941 for reportedly flirting with a white woman. At that time, 2012, controversy was swirling over the death of another African-American teen, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old youth fatally shot by the neighborhood watch coordinator for a gated community in Florida. Parallels were repeatedly made during audience talkbacks and Polite started thinking about how she wanted to respond as a performer.  She pulled out her old work from the Advent program and began fashioning her play.

     “It’s been a big journey, a very big journey,” she says.

   In addition to her Off-Broadway engagement, Polite has been invited to perform Mary Speaks on March 4 as part of the International Human Rights Arts Festival at Dixon Place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. 

  Polite set her “passion play” in Charleston so she could write authentically. It begins in the early 1900s when her Mary, an African-American of Gullah descent, is 13 and conceives and gives birth to a son after a spiritual encounter in the wilderness one night. It continues through the Jim Crow South until Mary is 46.

     “I wanted to look at a timeline of African-American women and their sons.”

    While her Mary is post-slavery, the girl’s grandma remembers those days well. Polite sees a connection between her character and the mother of Jesus, who was a Jewish girl and part of a special people, a group set aside. Through narrative, monologues, music and dance she uses the life of the biblical Mary to creates characters, black and white, to tell a story of black mothers and sons. Polite wrote the play’s final song after the 2014 death of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old African-American man who died on Staten Island after a New York City Police Department officer placed him in a chokehold while arresting him.  Her lyrics span the sorrows of the centuries:

     “A Saviour on a cross
     “A Man swinging on a tree
     “A Dead boy on the street.

    She wrote several songs as she developed the play.  “Telling a story in the African-American tradition, it would be unnatural not to have some music in it.”

     The first reflects Mary’s Magnificat:

     “I didn’t choose this fate.  I was picked from among the girls
      “Not yet touched and not yet opened to the bruises of this world.”

     Polite relates to that openness to God.

     “She was a young, innocent girl with the level of faith to say ‘let it be unto me as you will.’  My life is guided by God in the things I do.” 

     As she worked on the show, which runs 65 minutes, she sought advice from one of her ministers, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary who offered a “womanist perspective,” and her pastor who counseled her on scriptural references.

     “It was very important to me to keep the story along the timeline of Mary and for the writing to come from scripture,” she says.  “Mary only speaks four times in the Bible.  I wanted to make sure I stayed true.”

     The final scene ties all grieving black mothers together with Holy Mary. 

    “It’s quite overwhelming to me,” she said, adding that pain and mourning are universal.

    “I hope mothers grieving in South Africa, India, China and any race can feel the same pain as Mary felt.  We connect it to the cross, to connect to the pain of others.  I hope people understand that that’s what we need to get back to.

     “In the last year, politically and socially, there’s been a danger that we stop looking at each other as human. It’s been Republican, Democrat, black, white, millennials, baby boomers.

     “I hope the audience will come away with the idea of remembering the humanity of us all and remembering we are one and should be one.  We are here to witness the pain of others and to be open to it and have more peace in the world.”

Saturday, February 11, 2017

National Black Theatre reaches spiritual self




     Transformation begins even before the curtain rises at the National Black Theatre. Incense and the sound of a waterfall greet audience members as they walk through the door of the building on Fifth Avenue at 125th Street in Harlem.  African art in the lobby and the stairwells leads up to the third-floor performance space, where a dramaturgical lobby exhibit tied to the current play helps visitors enter the world they are about to experience.

     “We present the magic of black theatre.  We’ll see you on the other side of the journey,” a recorded message announced before the start of an autumn performance of Sweet.  

     Magic and journey are two key words to describe the work and the evolution of this nearly half-century-old off-Broadway theatre complex, begun in 1968 by Barbara Ann Teer, a black actress disgusted by the roles being offered to people of color.  

   “My mother was always interested in the liberation of her people and community,” says Sade Lythcott, Teer’s daughter who is NBT’s chief executive officer. “She knew and knows that our highest self is our spiritual self.  We work very, very hard to create an environment that evokes a certain kind of peace and stillness.”

     Although Lythcott sometimes uses the present tense when talking about her mother, Teer died unexpectedly in 2008 at the age of 71. Lythcott gave up her career as a fashion stylist to carry on her mother’s legacy.

    “One of our founding principles was holistic producing,” Lythcott said, explaining that NBT’s plays and the related lobby exhibits focus on “something the community is wrestling with.”  Performances are always followed by a talkback so audience members can share their thoughts on what they have seen. Before they leave the theatre, they are encouraged to close their eyes and join in a unifying breath.  
     
   “Great art is meant to be discoursed and digested,” said Lythcott who shared her comments by speaker phone with Jonathan McCrory, director of the Theatre Arts Program, who sat at a table in the theatre’s crowded office space. “People are hungry for dialogue. Our aim with every show is to build community.  When you set that context, people want to stay.  It’s not academic.  It’s shared human experience.” 

    For the fall performance of Harrison David Rivers’ Sweet, a coming of age story about two sisters in an all-black town in western Kansas in the late 1960s, director Raelle Myrick-Hodges’ staging had clotheslines with laundry extended down the aisle to the entrance of the theatre space so audience members could immerse themselves in the characters’ world.

    McCrory said the intention is to dismantle the separation between audiences and the art they are experiencing.

     “People want to absorb as much as possible,” he said. 

     They are offered plenty to absorb at NBT.  Besides producing plays for its MainStage that tell “authentic stories of black lifestyle,” the company offers two opportunities for script development: the I Am Soul Playwright Residency Program and Keep Soul Alive Mondays, a reading series for black playwrights to showcase new work every second and fourth Monday.  

     NBT’s Entrepreneurial Arts Program provides small theatre companies, organizations and more than 300 individual artists affordable subsidized space to cultivate and develop their audiences and production skills. The Communication Arts Program offers educational opportunities in numerous ways. 

     So the performing arts are well represented at NBT, but so are the visual arts.  With the help of a Ford Foundation fellowship, Teer took her first trip to Africa and ended up commissioning and bringing back to Harlem seven traditional and contemporary Nigerian artists from the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove to carve interior and exterior artwork using tools and methods spanning seven generations. This art collection is the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere and is open free for all to view during the theatre’s operating hours.  It is popular with New York school groups and tourists as well.

    All of these efforts are maintained by city, state and foundational support and individual donors. Teer bought the property in 1983, helping to secure the theatre's future.

  Over the years the theatre’s demographic has shifted significantly from its original nearly 100 percent black audiences to the current level of between 50 and 60 percent black. This has occurred partly because the neighborhood has been gentrifying and also, Lythcott says, because the theatre’s shows are consistently reviewed by the New York Times, which is a major way to be singled out among the many, many off-Broadway companies in the city.

     Because of all its hard work and creativity, NBT’s recognition extends beyond New York City. Curators of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture visited the organization’s archives for information to include in the new institution. 

     When NBT began in the late 1960s, it was one of maybe a thousand black theatre communities around the country.  Now it is one of the few left. McCrory attributes this in large part to the security provided by owning their own space.

     “It was our founder’s vision,” he said.  “She understood that if we own our land, we can weather whatever comes.  We attract loyalty from the community with our unique pedagogy.  People find out who we are.”

     Lythcott said people have taken “spiritual ownership” of the organization. 

     “We look at ourselves as a service organization,” she says.  “It’s a reciprocal flowing benefit to all parties on either side.  That’s where the healing starts.  We are for the community first.  There’s spiritual energy and healing in everything we do. Our space is like a church. Audiences feel like they matter.”

     Looking ahead to NBT’s 50th anniversary next year, Lythcott expects that exciting new works lie ahead, even in what she calls “the scariest of times now for our generation.” She compares the racism surrounding Donald Trump’s candidacy and election to that of the Civil Rights era in the 1960s.

     “I’m super hopeful now.  This time feels so dark, but I know the response from artists will shift into a new consciousness.  We’re always pushing the envelope about what black culture looks like.”

     McCrory said people in the black community aren’t at all surprised by the hatred being expressed.

     “It’s not bad or worse.  The veil is gone, the protective veil.  Now we’re having to reckon with the muck.  It’s been like that ever since our people came to this country.  Now the chickens are coming home to roast.  We, as an institution, meditate on freedom inside oppressed systems.”

     Lythcott sees an enhanced opportunity to respond to the community’s needs.

     “After the election happened everybody was reacting.  Our instinct was to be quiet and listen.  Now more than ever theatre can be a safe haven for all that is possible. We can be a sanctuary for artists to express themselves within that friction.”

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Happy Groundhog Day


 
Groundhog Day
 
Celebrate this unlikely oracle,
this ball of fat and fur,
whom we so mysteriously endow
with the power to predict spring.
Let's hear it for the improbable heroes who,
frightened at their own shadows,
nonetheless unwittingly work miracles.
Why shouldn't we believe
this peculiar rodent holds power
over sun and seasons in his stubby paw?
Who says that God is all grandeur and glory?
 
Unnoticed in the earth, worms
are busily, brainlessly, tilling the soil.
Field mice, all unthinking, have scattered
seeds that will take root and grow.
Grape hyacinths, against all reason,
have been holding up green shoots beneath the snow.
How do you think spring arrives?
There is nothing quieter, nothing
more secret, miraculous, mundane.
Do you want to play your part
in bringing it to birth? Nothing simpler.
Find a spot not too far from the ground
and wait.
 
~ Lynn Ungar ~
 
(Blessing the Bread)