Monday, April 21, 2014

Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical

Lots of gangland shootings take place in director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical, but the most tragic killing of all is her murder of Woody Allen’s hilarious 1994 movie from which this Broadway musical, at the St. James Theatre, has been adapted.

The humor of the movie is too often overwhelmed by the musical numbers, which interrupt this crazy story of an unsuccessful playwright, David Shayne (Zach Braff, left in photo), who gets the backing for a Broadway production of one of his plays from a mob boss, Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore), who insists his dumb-as-a-post girl friend Olive Neal (Helene Yorke), a stripper who aspires to be an actress, be given a part.

I loved the movie and was happy to see it peak through from time to time. But just when I got involved, Stroman, a five-time Tony Award winner, would bring on a flashy dance number, many of which were reminiscent of her choreography in The Producers. (More dancing weiners.) The choreography wasn’t just unoriginal, it was tedious.

I had this same objection to the Broadway version of Ghost. In that case, the musical numbers came barreling on every time a tender moment occurred, thus squashing the charm of the movie.

Set in New York City in 1929, Bullets features songs drawn mainly from the 1920s American Songbook — with adaptations and additional lyrics by Glen Kelly — but I felt two shows were vying with each other — a musical program and a funny play. They didn’t mesh. Included are "Tain't Nobody's Bus'ness," "Running Wild," "Let's Misbehave," "I Found A New Baby.”

The tap dancing gangsters number was the standout of the musical part, largely because it featured Nick Cordero (right in photo) who did the best job of recreating the movie’s humor as Cheech, Olive’s thug of a body guard, who in typical Woody Allen fashion, ends up giving Shayne advice on how to rewrite his play and turns it into a hit.

I also liked Yorke’s Olive, but I did not like Marin Mazzie’s portrayal of the stage diva Helen Sinclair. She has a beautiful voice, but I found her performance to be large without being funny. It would be hard to compare with my memory of Dianne Wiest in her Academy Award-winning role in the film.

Allen wrote the musical’s book, as he had written the movie (with Douglas McGrath).

With 17 Broadway shows opening in these few hectic weeks known as voting season for theatre critics, it stands to reason they aren’t all going to be good, but I was really disappointed in this one, being a huge (for the most part) Woody fan. I would have liked more Woody Allen and less Susan Stroman.

My advice, order the movie and stay home.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Denzel Washington Brings Another Powerful Performance to Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun

What becomes of a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
              -- Langston Hughes

Director Kenny Leon and his strong cast, headed by Denzel Washington, do a first-rate job of presenting the humor as well as drama in the well-paced Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play, A Raisin in the Sun, now through June 15 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where the original production opened in 1959. This tale of three generations of a struggling black family, the Youngers, on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, is still timely with its themes of the working class poor, racism, ethnic identity and the redeeming power of family love.

The longest held deferred dream in the play belongs to Lena, the family matriarch played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson. It was her great hope to raise her two children, Walter Lee (Washington, in photo) and Beneatha (an engaging Anika Noni Rose), in a house, but she and her husband could never make enough to get them out of the cramped, shabby two-bedroom, roach-infested apartment where she still lives, now as a widow, with her grown children and Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth (Sophie Okonedo, in photo), and their son, Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins). All share a bathroom with everyone else on the floor of this walk-up tenement. (Sets by Mark Thompson).

Lena sees a chance for her dream to finally be realized thanks to a $10,000 check from Walter senior’s life insurance policy. But she is not the only one with a dream. Walter Lee wants to quit his job as a chauffeur for a white man and open his own liquor store and Beneatha wants to go to medical school.

What will happen to this money is one of the dramas of the play. The other is the racism the family encounters after Lena puts a down payment on a house in the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood. Together these will be the breaking and the making of Walter Lee.

When Raisin premiered in 1959, it was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Hansberry died five years later of cancer at the age of 34. Author James Baldwin, who said he had never seen so many black people in the theater, wrote about the play’s importance, that “never in the history of the American theater had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them.”

But Hansberry captured the world as they knew it. Lena introduces the deferred dream theme early on, referring to her late husband: “Big Walter used to say, he’d get right wet in his eyes sometimes, lean his head back with the water standing in his eyes and say, ‘Seems like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams, but he did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile.'”

Unfortunately, Big Walter “just couldn’t never catch up with his dreams.”

Walter Lee shares this frustration. “Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me, just plain as day. … Just waiting for me, a big, looming blank space, full of nothing. Just waiting for me.”

His obsession worries Lena. “You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity too. … Now here come you and Beneatha talking ‘bout things we ain’t never even thought about hardly, me and your daddy. You ain’t satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don’t have to ride to work on the back of nobody’s streetcar. You my children, but how different we done become.”

The world hasn’t become that different, though. As the family members are packing to move to their new home, they are visited by a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, Karl Lindner (David Cromer), who offers them money to stay away. He assures them “race prejudice simply doesn't enter into it,” but that people there believe “for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.” Somewhat sadly he tells Walter Lee, “You just can’t force people to change their hearts, son.”

But the situations of the play do force Walter Lee to change his heart. Washington is at his best when he portrays a Walter Lee broken by his foolishness in losing most of the insurance money and the pain of his humiliation. The joking and occasional drunk Walter Lee of Act One is gone. Washington shows us a crushed Walter Lee and it is powerful. But he then creates a Walter Lee who rises to the challenge and leaves us cheering for his triumph.

The production also brings us plenty of comic scenes. Two of my favorites involve Ann Roth’s costumes. In one, Beneatha, inspired by her Nigerian friend Joseph Asagai (Sean Patrick Thomas), appears in colorful African dress and dances around the room. Rose is a joy to watch, as is Jackson when she models a gardening hat dripping in fake flowers given to her by Travis. Both actors are a delight in these scenes.

And all of the scenes are heightened by Branford Marsalis’s jazz and blues compositions that provide transition.

Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s husband and literary executor, wrote in 1988 about why plays like Raisin, which has been translated into more than 30 languages, continue to touch people, even if the circumstances portrayed have changed. “For at the deepest level it is not a specific situation but the human condition, human aspiration and human relationships — the persistence of dreams, of the bonds and conflicts between men and women, parents and children, old ways and new, and the endless struggle against human oppression, whatever form it may take, for individual fulfillment, recognition and liberation — that are at the heart of such plays,” he wrote. “It is not surprising therefore that in each generation we recognize ourselves in them anew.”

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Caring for the Caregivers

I wrote this feature for the March 23, 2014 issue of The Living Church magazine. Photo by Scott Wynn.

In a storefront office steps from Harlem’s legendary Appollo Theater in one direction and the Clinton Foundation in the other, the Rev. Gregory Johnson chats with Joel Rogers, who holds his year-old niece, Malia, while Malia’s mom seeks advice in an inner room. With life buzzing along outside on 125th Street, the community’s busiest commercial thoroughfare, Johnson is ministry in motion inside, though he doesn’t mentions the name of God, has no idea if Rogers believes and doesn’t need to know. In fact, few people know Johnson is an ordained minister.

Johnson’s “congregation” is one of the largest in the city, or anywhere else for that matter. Nationwide they number 65.7 million. Years ago they had no name, though they faithfully toiled long and hard. But for the last 13 years Johnson has made it his mission to make their identity known. They are family caregivers and Johnson wants employers, corporations and, most of all the caregivers themselves, to recognize that identity and claim it because, as he says repeatedly, they are “the backbone of the health care industry” and it is his calling to see that their physical, spiritual and emotional needs are met.

“It’s been a circuitous road directed by God,” said Johnson, 67, sitting behind his iPad in his tiny office in this EmblemHealth Neighborhood Care facility, one of three established by EmblemHealth in diverse New York City neighborhoods. Johnson serves as the creator/director of the company’s Care for the Family Caregiver Initiative.

It was an unlikely road for this Racine, WI, native who grew up Lutheran, moved to New York to study at Union Theological Seminary’s School of Sacred Music and The Juilliard School, knowing nothing about the health care industry, much less a major health and wellness corporation like New York-based EmblemHealth. But when a friend who was an executive of the company suggested Johnson help it establish an outreach to family caregivers, be they members of Emblem or not, he saw an unexpected pastoral opportunity.

“Talk about the gospel in action,” he said. “It’s a huge investment and I am so grateful.”

With three supporting staff members, Johnson gives caregiving workshops, lectures throughout the city, the region, this country and internationally. With his team he has compiled resource information booklets and an 80-minute DVD, all free regardless of membership through EmblemHealth’s Initiative has many auxiliary partners, one of which is the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

“Most people don’t know all the wonderful things that are available,” Johnson says.

But if he has a chance, he will tell them. Johnson jokes that his staff says he would show up at a garage door opening if he were asked to talk about family caregiving.

The joke may not be too far from the truth. Last year Johnson and his team put together 745 events, serving 213,000 people at civic presentations, health fairs and in faith communities.

“I would have never defined ministry in this way, yet it’s the core of it -- serving others.”

After beginning his day around 7 a.m. at EmblemHealth’s headquarters in the financial district, Johnson heads out for meetings, presentations, community gatherings, seminars, city, state and national committee meetings, the UN, the International Federation on Aging  and so many other adjunct partners where he brings the voice of the family caregiver. In addition, Johnson does many one-on-one counseling sessions for employees, members, partner associates and frankly anyone with family caregiving issues.

For all of his work he draws upon his Episcopal/Anglican spirituality. He was received into the tradition in the mid-80s and is a member of the Church of the Ascension in Greenwich Village where he is a devoted supporter of the music program. He also is a substitute organist at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in the theatre district. And although he was ordained as an interfaith minister, he identifies as an Anglican and says it was the prayer book that helped him get through his times as a family caregiver, for his son who died of cancer in 2005 and for his partner of 41 years who died of cancer in 2011.

As if all of that isn’t enough, Johnson also holds a dual membership at Marble Collegiate Church, which is probably one of the most famous Protestant churches in America thanks to its former senior minister Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who preached there for more than half a century. Johnson serves as the leader of Marble’s pre-service Sunday Prayer Circle.

He also managed to find time to draw on his Anglican spirituality for his just-released book, Peace, Be Still: Prayers and Affirmations: Inspiration for Family Caregivers, co-written with the Rev. Marion A. Gambardella. All of the 30 sections, each just a page and a half, include a prayer, affirmations and a scripture reading, covering such topics as Faith, Gratitude, Anger, Acceptance, Healing and Renewal. Only a few mention family caregivers specifically, so the book is helpful for anyone going through a trying time.

Recognizing the needs of family caregivers -- and family can be defined by blood relationship or through families of choice like friends, neighbors or a faith community -- is more important than ever, Johnson says, because people are living longer. The old concept of a family caregiver -- an adult child in charge of an elderly parent -- is still intact, except that now the child might be a senior citizen as well, caring for a parent who is 90 or older. It’s also tending to a spouse with a chronic illness, people caring for veterans and many other configurations as medicine has increased life spans.

These family caregivers represent a donation of services valued at more than $450 billion, Johnson says. They also can represent a loss of between $17 to $34 billion to corporations as their caregiving duties conflict with work responsibilities, which is why Johnson says it makes sense for a company like EmblemHealth to invest in their needs, bringing potential solutions, resources and tools.

“The caregiver is often the silent patient,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know a thing about insurance. My background was in theology and theatre, but I was given a blank sheet of paper and told to bring awareness to their needs. It has blessed me. I find great ideas in listening to others. It’s the great gift of sharing our weaknesses. That’s a great gift of life. It gives me more appreciation of the doctrine of the communion of saints.”

He makes sure the caregiver looks out for her or his own needs, and assures them that “it is not something you are going through, but something you are growing through.” That’s what he discovered during his periods as a family caregiver.

“I kept finding God in the journey,” he says.

Johnson’s next big effort is for a free day-long seminar on family caregiving, “Name It: Know Its Many Faces,” at the New York Academy of Medicine on April 30, sponsored by EmblemHealth, New York City Partnership for Family Caregiving Corp. Topics will include legal and financial issues as well as self-care. Details and registration are on the web site,

While the seminar will consider contemporary challenges, Johnson likes to keep in mind examples from scripture to motivate him. He mentions Jesus’s final words as he was dying, when he looked to John and told him to behold Mary as his mother.

 “That’s caregiving from the cross. Can I do less?”