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)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

At the end of the day everybody needs a little help

For 16-month-old Layla, the colorful Red Boxes piled high around the Queens Temple were just perfect for climbing. But for the 200 families and individuals who came to The Salvation Army’s center in Jackson Heights on December 22, the boxes had more meaning. They held all the nonperishable meal fixings to go along with the ham they received, plus some warm clothing. Nearby tables overflowed with two new toys for every child and, for the boys, Mets/Fox Sports backpacks containing a baseball mitt, T-shirt, toy car and a cap.

 “For them, it’s like ‘someone cares about us,’” said Captain Arlene DiCaterina, adding that this is the first year the center has offered full meals. In the past, only pantry items were given out.

 It’s no wonder Layla was attracted to the boxes. Volunteers had stacked them into a high pyramid, creating a Red Boxes Christmas tree beside the more traditional tree.

 Captain Guillermo DiCaterina said this distribution day was important beyond giving people a good Christmas dinner. The neighborhood is made up of 90 percent immigrants, he said, and most are unfamiliar with The Salvation Army. He wants to introduce them to all the reasons they should return, such as music and dance programs for their children and, of course, worship.

 “They don’t know we’re a church,” he said. “For many of them, this will be their first impression of The Salvation Army.”

Nelsito was one of these first-timers. He heard about the Red Box distribution through a friend.

 “I’m happy and thankful,” he said. “At the end of the day everybody needs a little help. It lets us know we’re not alone. There’s a community out here.”

Some already knew this. Gamelin, a young mother sitting with her children in the chapel, said she’s a regular shopper in the Temple’s flea market where she finds quality clothes for her little ones. She says she can’t afford clothes in the stores.

 “The staff here makes you welcome,” she said. “It’s so lovely.”

 While the Red Boxes of food are distributed during the holidays, the Red Box Campaign continues throughout the year, supporting the vast network of programs and services The Salvation Army provides to boys, girls, men, and women. To learn more or to make a contribution, please contact Sharon Smith-Ibello at (212) 337-7345 or sharon.smith@use.salvationarmy.org.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Turkey for the grandchildren

   Lieutenant Chaka Watch greeted guests, helped load their carts and even danced in front of the Christmas tree as 250 families and individuals received Red Boxes filled with nonperishable food and clothing at The Salvation Army’s Harlem Temple December 20.  Guests also received Perdue chickens and bags of toys for their children and grandchildren.
     “This is where we are making a difference in people’s lives,” Lieutenant Chaka said.  “The Bible says, don’t preach the gospel if people are hungry.  Feed them first.”
     On this day, the feeding also included a little reception with chocolate chip cookies, coffee and tea that Lieutenant Chaka and his wife, Lieutenant Emeline Watch, had provided for their guests.
     “We’re speaking to the people through our actions,” Lieutenant Chaka said. “They’re coming into an environment where they feel loved and appreciated.  They are a part of us and our community.  Army officers are not sent to buildings.  We’re sent to people.”
     Assisting with the distribution and offering their warmth and cheer were Lieutenant Grace Cho, Envoy Ken Burton and Cadets Peranda Fils-Aime and Olguens Fils-Aime, as well as volunteers from Gap, Inc.
     The festive giving was enhanced by Christmas carols played by Kenon Ward, an instructor for The Salvation Army’s Phil Ramone Orchestra, who played on a keyboard set up in the gym, which had been decorated with a large, brightly lit tree, a wreath and the Red Boxes piled high on either side.
     The efforts were much appreciated.
     “It means I can help my grandchildren.  I love them to death,” said Evangeline, who was enjoying the carols and conversation while she waited.  “It’s a blessing to get a turkey for the kids.”
     Desiree echoed that gratitude.
     “I’m very thankful for the things they give us.  I don’t know where we’d be without The Salvation Army.”
     While the Red Boxes of food are distributed during the holidays, the Red Box campaign continues throughout the year, supporting the vast network of programs and services The Salvation Army provides to boys, girls, men, and women.  To learn more or to make a contribution, please contact Sharon Smith-Ibello at (212) 337-7345 or sharon.smith@use.salvationarmy.org.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Nativity: New musical comedy tells 'The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby'

     When playwright Chris Cragin Day decided to write a Christmas play, she thought at first about adapting a Hans Christian Andersen tale, but then she went further back, all the way to the original Christmas story. She just knew the nativity would make a good musical comedy.

     She wasn’t the only one who saw the humor in the event.  She had no trouble convincing Don Chaffer to write the music and lyrics for her script.  Together they birthed an unlikely play based on an unlikely birth, The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby, which had a critically praised run in the New York International Fringe Festival in August and will be produced by Knoxville’s River & Rail Theatre Company in December.

     “It’s situation comedy at its finest,” Cragin Day says.  “You’d have to work hard to avoid the humor.”

     Cragin Day is a practicing Presbyterian and Chaffer a practicing Anglican, and both believe the Christmas story literally. But as an experienced playwright and an experienced songwriter, they could see the comedic advantages in the story of Jesus’ birth. Chaffer summed it up in their application for admission into the Fringe Festival, where their show was labeled a “must see”:

   “Every December, a bunch of people celebrate a baby, more specifically, a first-century Jewish refugee virgin’s baby. When people assemble their little nativities every year, they always also include a figurine of Mary’s Jewish refugee fiance, Joseph, who marries Mary even though she’s pregnant with someone else’s baby. While the laws of their time and religion would have had her stoned to death, Joseph opts for matrimony. Why? Because one night he has a dream “from God,” who explains the situation to him through an angel. Yep. And things just get crazier from there.”

     Cragin Day and Chaffer were so inspired by their idea that they wrote the show’s first draft in nine days. While they enjoyed the humorous undertones, they wanted to emphasis the human side of the story by imagining what Mary and Joseph’s marriage would have been like. The Christmas story is always told from the omniscient perspective, God’s perspective.  

      As a dramatist, Cragin Day was interested in what Mary wanted, since in dramatic structure the protagonist’s want determines the plot. She turned to her uncle, Daniel Hays, a biblical scholar whose scriptural interpretations are popular in evangelical colleges and universities.  She also mined the book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life by Lynn H. Cohick to learn about the standing of Jewish women at the time. Since little is known about Mary and Joseph’s marriage, she wanted to create one for them onstage that would be historically possible and show the everyday of life between the divine moments.  

     The two co-creators talked about their latest collaboration — their first musical together was Son of a Gun in 2012 — in Cragin Day’s office at The King’s College, a liberal arts evangelical Christian college in Manhattan’s financial district where she is an assistant professor of English and theatre. Climbing one wall were oversized colorful hand-written sticky notes on their next show, The Zombie Family Musical, an existential comedy about a dysfunctional family that all become zombies on the way to family time. 

     “I think the biggest challenge, and I’m still considering whether we nailed it or not, is that we wanted to be true to the divine moments of the story, but we also wanted it to feel like a human story,” she said.  “We don’t want the divine moments to not feel universally human.”

     This is Cragin Day’s second play to be staged this year.  Her Martin Luther on Trial had its world premiere to strong reviews in May in Washington, D.C.  It is being performed now through Jan. 27 at New York's Pearl Theatre.

     Chaffer is a recording artist, music director and producer and the co-band leader of Waterdeep, which he founded with his wife, Lori.  For Mary and Joseph’s Baby he wrote the music and lyrics, using a folk style, and adapted the Magnificat.

     Theatre is Easy critic Keith Paul Medelis was won over.  “The songs never reach anything preachy, rather we get a personal and careful look at the life of a couple coming to terms with this virgin birth and the enormity of their new, important place as impoverished people,” he wrote. “It’s enough for this godless pessimist to crack several smiles and even, impossibly, tap my feet. This folks, is one of Fringe’s best. It’s smart, it’s polished, it’s honest, and it has a bright future ahead of it.”

     Emphasizing the impoverished people angle Medelis mentioned was important to the co-creators because of what Cragin Day’s Uncle Dan had explained to them.  He said the word builder, as in a builder of houses, had long ago been translated as carpenter, but Joseph would have been a construction worker, and that is how he is portrayed.  The idea of Joseph as a middle-class carpentry shop owner is false, Hays said. The Jews weren’t middle-class; they were poor and oppressed.  Hearing that, the two creators knew they had found their story.

     “It was the biggest eye-opening moment for us,” Cragin Day says. “God gave his child to poor people. I hope the audience will see the beauty in the story, that the baby was given to the lowliest and what it means that he trusted them with that story.”

    Besides setting the record straight about Joseph’s profession and poking gentle humor at Mary and Joseph’s situation, the writers also wanted to show these two people of faith and their encounters with God. They used their imaginations and the Bible.  The Magnificat was a window into how Mary thinks of God, Chaffer says.  She believes God lifts up people.

     “It’s the most insight we have into her,” he said, explaining how the Bible offers only the highlights of the story, not “the days of feeling bored or uninspired.”  

     “The story is about faith, absolutely, but that doesn’t obscure the everyday doubts.  It was finding a way to tell the big human questions that emerge in the story.  It’s about human choice and human action.”