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

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

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.”

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Negro Ensemble Company celebrates its 50th anniversary with 'Day of Absence' revival

    I was thrilled when I learned the Negro Ensemble Company was reviving Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence, the play that launched this esteemed group 50 years ago. I have been thinking since the W. administration, with its anti-immigrant leanings, that this brilliant satire about a mid-20th century southern town that falls into ruin after one day in which all of its "nigras" have disappeared would make a nice reflection of what our country, especially New York City, would be like if all of our immigrants, and their labors, vanished.

   I never could have imagined a Donald Trump presidency then, but with his racist comments and large racist following, as well as his anti-immigrant rants, Day of Absence is as timely as ever. What a great shame the production at Theatre 80 St. Mark's, which opened Sunday under Arthur French's direction, plays like a show in early rehearsals rather than an audience-ready performance.

   In more than a half century of theatergoing, I have never seen an actor less prepared than Charles Weldon who plays the Mayor, the play's most crucial role. Not only did he drop lines throughout, he skipped one part of the script by telling a fellow actor he wanted to "move on."  I was shocked and left the theatre deeply disappointed.

     The next day I asked the press agent, Jonathan Slaff, if Weldon had been a last minute replacement.  "Not last minute," he said. "Just a big, difficult part to memorize within the rehearsal time that Equity allows, which is sometimes insufficient."

   I have never experienced such a shoddy performance in any other Off-Broadway productions, with presumably the same rehearsal time.  If Weldon, who is NEC’s artistic director, wasn't ready he should have been on book or the opening delayed so this extraordinary play could be appreciated by a new audience. I am grateful I got to see it in the powerful production it deserved at Baltimore's CenterStage in the 1990s.

    The play is a brilliant piece of satire.  With a twist on the old minstrel shows that featured white actors with black faces, Day of Absence features a black cast in whiteface.  In the speeded up nature of satire, the play shows a town decline into chaos by midnight on the day the white residents, who aren’t used to lifting a finger for themselves, wake to discover all the black residents have mysteriously vanished.  Not even “a little black dog” can be found.  Babies wail because their mothers have no idea how to change or care for them, garbage piles up uncollected, public restrooms are filthy and stink, old people are dying with no one to care for them and 75 percent of all productivity has been paralyzed. The town is on the verge of hysteria and turns to the Mayor to solve the problem.

     At first the Mayor feels confident in his power, ordering an extensive search.  When that turns up empty, he tries to borrow some nigras from surrounding towns, but those residents refuse, claiming they don’t have enough for themselves.  He then tries a television appeal, telling any of his black citizens who are listening that “the South has always been glued together by its relationship with its darkies” and that they should remember all the good times shared “singing those old coon songs” and come home because everyone misses “your cheerful, grinning, happy-go-lucky faces.” 

     By the end, he is on his knees desperately begging for them to return, promising to kiss the feet of the first nigra to come back.

     When this is well done, it’s a thrilling piece of theatre.  Even reading this part was life-changing for actor Charles S. Dutton, who told me his story when I interviewed him nearly a decade ago.  He said he discovered the play by accident while serving time in solitary confinement in a Baltimore prison. Known as “the hole,” solitary was a room with no furniture or windows, no sink or toilet – just a drain in the middle of the floor on which the confined person slept.

     Prisoners were allowed to take one book with them, although the only light came from the slit between the door and the floor. Dutton had wanted to take a book about revolution, a book to keep him angry, but in his haste when the guards came for him, his finger grabbed a book of one-act plays his girlfriend had given him. He didn’t realize his mistake until he was in solitary.  He had never read or seen a play and wasn’t at all interested in them, but with several long days and nights to kill, he started reading.  The Mayor’s monologue blew him away, so much so that he felt called to perform it at the prison talent show.

     He asked permission but was refused because a high school degree or equivalency was required.  So he worked to get his GED, memorized the monologue and, with no acting experience, delivered it to a room full of really rough men.  As they warmed to him, they began laughing and picking up on the satiric message.  He told me he realized he had them in the palm of his hand and he felt that power.  He realized if he didn’t follow up on this gift he would spend the rest of his life incarcerated.  So he went around to all of his gangs and told them he wouldn’t fight anymore and he worked to get his associates degree. 

     In two years he was released and completed his college degree in acting at Towson State University. In yet another amazing event in his life, he was awarded a scholarship to the Yale School of Drama, thus going from jail to Yale in two years.  When he graduated he earned a role in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  The New York Times called it the most unusual debut in Broadway history.

    So Dutton’s life was turned around because of Douglas Turner Ward’s play. Ward was one of the founders, in 1967, of the Negro Ensemble Company, which nurtured many of our great actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Denzel Washington, Adolph Ceasar, Louis Gossett Jr., Sherman Hemsley, and Phylicia Rashad.

     Day of Absence was first produced at the St. Mark's Playhouse in 1965. It was directed by the author, ran for 504 performances and won the Drama Desk Award for Playwriting in 1966. Scholars now consider the play an example of the best non-musical satire of its period.

     My personal experience with Ward dates back to the early 70s when I was in high school and ushered at CenterStage.  Ward was the first Willy Loman I ever saw when that theatre presented the first all-black production of Death of a Salesman, several decades before Broadway would mount its first all-black production of an American classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in 2008. Arthur Miller came for the opening.  Having not yet read the play, so not knowing the story, I was deeply moved by Willy’s death and couldn't stop thinking about the play. It was the first time I had been that touched by a theatrical experience.

     In the years that followed, whenever I read Death of a Salesman I always pictured that Baltimore cast and set.  It wasn’t until I moved to Brooklyn in 1985 to get my MFA in playwriting and read it again and discovered, Oh, these are Brooklyn Jews. It’s only the speech patterns that make them that way. Otherwise they are American characters regardless of race or religion. 

     I’m glad I have my CenterStage memories to overcome Sunday’s experience at Theatre 80 St. Mark’s, and I hope Day of Absence will have a worthy revival soon.