Saturday, October 24, 2020

Artists are essential workers


     Mario Sprouse is an essential worker in New York City.  Although he hasn’t had a day off since the pandemic struck in mid-March, he is full of energy.  His focus is to heal.

     The work that Sprouse sees as essential is that of an artist.  In his case, a composer, musician and musical director.  What he is passionate about healing is the commonly held idea that a career in the arts and a life of financial struggle go hand-in-hand.

     “I dislike the starving artist syndrome,” he said.  “It doesn’t honor God’s gifts to us.  I’ve dedicated my life to combatting any of those negative attributes about artists.  We are essential workers.  Always have been, always will be.”

     To spread this message he published Precious & Honored: A Spiritual Handbook for Artists, which grew out of discussions with members of his arts group at Marble Collegiate Church in midtown Manhattan.  The theme for one year was Whealth Management for Artists, combing the ideas of wealth and health.

     “For 50 years I’ve been dealing with artists,” he said during a telephone interview from his house in Queens, NY.  “Those who look at their skills as God-given don’t look to the world for employment.  They look to God.”

     Sprouse made these comments in mid-August, with all of the city’s entertainment industry — concert halls, theatres, dance studios — shut down since March 12, with no date scheduled for reopening.  Even in the face of this, Mario Sprouse seems incapable if despair.

     “Performing artists have a unique position at times like this,” he says.  “We are intuitive.  We are seers.  We see the present time and we project into what the future will be.  There’s a lot of no work going on but a tremendous amount of creativity just filling our universe.”

     While New York’s theatres have been empty, actors, singers, dancers, choreographers and directors have mastered video conferencing to present musical fundraisers and concerts, perform virtual plays with actors chiming in from their own homes, and costume designers have been pitching in to make masks.

     “We’re collaborative people.  It doesn’t matter if I’m on one end of the phone and you’re on the other.  I can collaborate with you and get something done.”

     One of his current examples of this is his work with playwright Glynn Borders to bring to new life Borders’ play The Dark Star from Harlem: The Spectacular Rise of Josephine Baker.   Sprouse, who graduated with a degree in music theory and composition from The City College of New York in 1970, wrote the music and lyrics for this show, which was seen in November and December in a full-length production at Off-Broadway’s La MaMa experimental theatre.  Borders is working on a socially distanced script.

     “We are creative people, imaginative and creative beyond measure,” Sprouse says.  “It’s always with you.  These times bring out our best.”

     Much of the work going on now is unpaid, but Sprouse sees that as a problem for performing artists at any time.  

     “People are not being paid because we give our work away for free so often,” he says.  “We, as artists, set that up.”

     Which is why he published Precious and Honored at his own expense in 2018.  It combines spiritual principles and scripture quotes with the experience of the members of the Marble Collegiate group now called Arts Ministry.  The material is presented simply and clearly through the use of the alphabet and divided into 15 empowering lessons, each fitting for one day’s meditation.  The ABCs of Driving Your Own Car sets the tone, establishing the underlying premise that people can live productive lives “and still make money as the artists we were divinely created to be.” The A is for Authority, with the reminder that “we need to take authority over the gifts, talents and skills that we were given.”  To back this up, Spouse quotes 2 Timothy 1:7:  “For God did not give us the spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-control.”  

     Similarly B represents Boldness and C, Confidence.  The handbook sells for $12 and is available at Sprouse was adamant that it would be available only in print so people can touch it, write in it, carry it with them or keep it by their bedside and send it to a friend in a letter-sized envelope.  The title comes from Isaiah 43:4:  “You are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you.”

     “We have these gifts, talents and skills as gifts from God so let God direct how we use them.  When you put the A to Z together it’s almost impossible to fail.”

     He plans this to be the first in a series, although he doesn’t know yet what the next theme will be.

     “I have to talk to God about that,” he says with a laugh, adding that he has decades of possible lessons.

     Sprouse has been part of Marble Collegiate’s ministry to artists since the fall of 1982 and now serves as coordinator of Arts Ministry, one of two part-time paid positions he holds there.  He is also the associate director of the live-streaming Marble Vision, from which he is furloughed.  

     Unlike most churches that began live streaming because of the pandemic, Marble has been doing it for more than two decades, attracting viewers from around the world.  The church is empty now but each Sunday at 11 a.m. worshipers see archival film of full pews and close-ups of the recently restored stained glass windows while listening to and watching the choir, considered to be one of the city’s most beautiful, as well as musicians and soloists.  The service is interspersed with prayers, a scripture reading and a sermon delivered live from the ministers’ homes.  Marble Collegiate is the oldest congregation of the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Church in New York City, organized in 1628 under the Dutch West India Company.  For a half century it was led by the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, with people lining up around the block to hear his sermons.  It is still widely thought of as the-power-of-positive-thinking church in reference to Peale’s best-selling book.

     Outside of his church work, Sprouse has been involved with cataloguing the massive music/media collection of the late Gordon Parks, the photographer, musician, writer and film director for whom he was the musical assistant for more than 20 years.  He performed at Parks’ funeral at The Riverside Church in 2006, was the music supervisor for three of Parks’ films and produced Parks’ first CD of original classical music.  He has provided musical arrangements for several other short films and musical direction for a number of theatrical events.  Carmen McRae, Hubert Laws, Cornell Dupree, Buster Williams, Freddie Hubbard and Grover Washington Jr. are among the jazz artists who have recorded his musical arrangements.  Orchestrations and original songs written by Sprouse have been performed live by Gregory Hines and Phylicia Rashad. 

     Sprouse developed his love for the arts growing up in the Bronx, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.  He was surrounded by the sights and sounds of art and music from a variety of cultures and these influence his work today  He attended St. Augustine Presbyterian Church where he learned to play the piano. 

     “This was the melting pot in which I developed my firm belief that spirituality and the arts are inseparable.  If anyone thinks the arts are not necessary try going through a time like this without music.  Someone recorded it for you.  This pandemic has focused the world internationally on the importance of the arts.  It’s an opportunity.”

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Stabat Mater

     The gift of a new CD arrived in mid-March just as the coronavirus hit New York City full force.  Businesses were closing, I was told to work from home and news reports of rising hospitalizations and deaths were frightening.  I was anxious about whether grocery stores would remain open and how I would get food.  And if I would have a job to go back to.

     What a blessing it was that with all of that trauma swirling around me the CD I found in my mailbox was from my favorite choir, the Cape Cod-based Gloriae Dei Cantores (Singers to the Glory of God).  I put “Stabat Mater, Choral Works by Arvo Part,” in my CD player and there it remained for days.  When it finished I pressed play again so that the exquisite voices of the choir filled my apartment with prayer.  I no longer listed to NPR.  I wanted my mind to be clear.  “Stabat Mater” became the sound track of my life for hours and hours day after day.  

     In time I changed CDs, but not choirs.  The sacred choral music of Gloriae Dei Cantores has healed my spirit for probably at least two decades now.  As I have many times, I turned to “Shining Like the Sun: The Chants of Transfiguration,” “The Chants of Mary,” “Prism” and the more recent “All-Night Vigil, Op. 37.”

     Now, nearly four months later, New York is reopening, I’ve been back at work for six weeks, the grocery stores never closed or ran out of food and I am back to listening to NPR and WAER, my jazz station from Syracuse University.  “Stabat Mater” (Richard K. Pugsley, Conductor) has joined the choir’s other CDs for now on my bookshelf.  They will be there for me when I need them, just as they always have been. 

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Boy That Could

          During her seven years of working in Harlem with children and teenagers, Laura Fernandez heard and saw a lot of their pain and struggles.  She did what she could to assist those children until she was inspired to help on a much larger scale.

     She was taking a writing class in 2018 when “God put in my heart a desire to write a children’s book,” she said by phone from isolation in her Manhattan apartment.  “The story of Leko came to me and I went from there.”

     Leko is the lovable little boy Fernandez brought to life in The Boy That Could, which is illustrated by Katharine Ward.  It’s the story of a sweet-natured child who is bullied.  Looking for a way to become more popular, he trains for a 2K race to beat the bullies at their own game.  But a terrible accident puts him in a coma, sending him on a spiritual journey that changes his life.

     Fernandez chose to make her main character a boy in the hopes of reaching a wider audience.  Studies show that girls will read books about boys but boys are unlikely to read books about girls.  And while she knows from experience what’s it’s like to be a little girl, she had plenty of opportunities to observe the boys’ side.  She has four brothers, one of whom is her twin.  She’s the only girl in the family.

     “They used to bother me all the time,” she says.  “Nothing serious.  Just sibling stuff."

     Boys also are more often the harsher bullies.  Interestingly, Fernandez made Matilda Leko’s cruelest tormentor and Willa his new friend and spiritual guide.  

     Although the name Leko sounds foreign, Fernandez intentionally kept the story free of any identification with place or culture so it would be universal.  She chose Leko from a book of names because it means lion/one chosen for his strength and Willa means valiant protector. 

     Through the trauma of his accident and his struggle to come through the dreamlike world of his coma, Leko realizes his own strength.

     “It’s like that with all of us,” Fernandez says.  “It takes us awhile to see our true value and the difference we can make.”

     Fernandez is currently making a difference as the Lifestyle/Activities Director at EastView Independent Senior Living Residence.  This new venture is own and operated by The Salvation Army, which makes it a good fit for Fernandez, the daughter of two Salvation Army officers who set the example of service for her and her siblings.  She was born in Argentina and lived there for 10 years before moving around as her parents were reassigned.  Stops included a year in Columbia and one in Puerto Rico.  She came to the United States in 1994.

     Before deciding on becoming a children’s book author, Fernandez had been working on a devotional book.  She had written 65 entries before she dropped her computer and the material was lost.  Now she posts twice a week to her Late Bloomers Blog and is mulling a couple of ideas for another book, one possibly for adults.

     Fernandez hopes young readers of The Boy That Could will see that struggles can be an opportunity to show them who they are and to discern their worth.

     “Leko learns what his purpose is through his pain.  Children need to recognize their creator watches over them and sees their pain and struggle.  They will find themselves with God on their side.”

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Going Through It Together

     An elderly woman sits alone at the back of the now-unused Activity Room working on a jigsaw puzzle.  On a normal day she and her husband would be taking a tai chi class here.  Other EastView residents would be stopping in later for painting, sculpting, candy making or cupcake decorating. 

     But this is no ordinary day.  It’s part of the second week of restrictions put in place to keep residents safe during the coronavirus pandemic.  All activities have been canceled and residents take their packaged meals to their apartments. 

    This is the opposite of what EastView is about.  EastView Independent Senior Living Residence is The Salvation Army of Greater New York’s latest venture.  Like all of the organization’s residences past and present, the focus is on building a strong sense of community through shared meals and activities. 

     While the residents miss spending time with each other, they express gratitude that all of their needs are being met and that they don’t have to go out for anything.  And they are finding other ways to pass their days, ranging from online chat groups to reading the Bible.

     “In my room I’m doing programs on my computer through the virtual senior center,” said Arlynn Page, who came to the Activity Room to sit at the far side of a table to talk about her experience during this time of global crisis.  “They say, ‘Oh, you look so happy.  You look good.’  They only see my face.  They don’t always know I’m in my pajamas.” 

     Through the virtual center she is taking a course on using the internet for shopping — quite appropriate under the circumstances — and spends Monday nights from 6 to 8 in a chat group with people from around the country.

     “I get to see other people.  We have to be alone in our rooms and we’re not supposed to congregate.  Being able to chat online, it helps.”

       Evidence that life at EastView has changed greatly is everywhere.  Signs posted throughout the building and in the elevators tell residents to keep six feet apart and to tell a staff member if they have a cough, fever or trouble breathing,  Common areas are deserted and the cafe’s seating section is surrounded by yellow caution tape.  The Salvation Army has had more than 150 years of experience in meeting  a crisis with precision and caring.  Safeguarding EastView residents is just one of the efforts being undertaken during the coronavirus pandemic. 

     These efforts are greatly appreciated. Residents express gratitude that they don’t have to face the pandemic alone.  The friendly staff they have known for years at The Williams Residence is still cooking their meals, cleaning their apartments weekly and giving them fresh linens.

     Still, the uncertainty is hard, especially since the pandemic followed closely after the majority of the residents had made the move from their long-time home at The Williams on the Upper West Side to the new state-of-the-art EastView facility in East Harlem.  That was traumatic enough.  Add in a global pandemic and the challenge to keep going became harder.

     “The move nearly destroyed me,” said Joan O’Donnell (in photo) who had lived at The Williams for 13 years and at The Salvation Army’s Teneyck Troughton residence for 40 years.  She said she had been through many difficult times, such as the deaths of her twin sister and her husband when he was only 34 years old, but the trauma of the move was so great she began using an anti-anxiety drug, which she still takes.  “If I can get through the move I can get through this.  I realize I’m lucky to be here.  My problems are so negligible compared to what’s going on.”

     She said she isn’t living in fear, she washes her hands often and even went out for bananas.  Although she misses dining with friends, she finds enjoyment in the comfort of eating in her recliner.  But it is still stressful.

     “I don’t feel good mentally, physically or emotionally,” she said.  “I know I have nothing to worry about.  I just have to control Joan.  What about the people losing jobs and retirement accounts? I am very, very fortunate and I know it.  I just miss my friends and my activities.  I miss going to the movies, but I have my TV.”

     She also misses being in the audience at the New York-based TV talk shows — she’s been to all of them — and is concerned she won’t be able to make her annual summer visit to her native Toronto to see family.  Since she can’t be with her friends she connects with them through WhatsApp and phone calls.

     And she praises the EastView staff for all they are doing to keep the residence running.

     “I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for us.  They’re keeping us alive.”

     With awareness of the danger of social isolation for the elderly — an AARP study compared the effects of prolonged isolation to smoking 15 cigarettes a day — EastView’s leadership is making every effort to meet the emotional needs of its residents.  Heather Foreman, EastView’s Social/Resident Services Manager who lives onsite, reports on life there during the crisis.

     “All of their needs are being met far beyond what would be required in an Independent Living Residence.  I have sent out a letter to the residents offering emotional support through the EastView staff.  The officers from our Corps Community Center are also available to talk to any resident who is in need of spiritual and emotional support.”

     Laura  Fernandez, the full-time Lifestyle/Activities Manager who lives onsite, is also available to address their concerns.  

     Foreman put together a packet of information for residents that included mental health resources that could be accessed from home and she had  gifts for them as well.

    "We are purchasing puzzle books, adult coloring books, colored pencils and puzzles as gifts for the residents so they will have things to do to occupy their time while they are isolating.

     “There is only so much we can do at this point to help them feel less isolated when the reality is that isolating is exactly what they should be doing.   As far as meeting the challenges of caring for the residents, we are providing everything they need, including food and housekeeping services as always.  We are being extra diligent in cleaning the facility and educating residents about the coronavirus and social distancing.”

     Ingrid, who asked that her last name not be used, is taking EastView’s new normal in stride.

     “There’s no sense in complaining,” she said, seated, like all of the residents interviewed for this feature, across a table from the reporter in the Activity Room.  “It makes me feel better to just go with the flow.  The people here are making a difference.  Everyone is very helpful.  We’re lucky to be here.  I feel secure.”

     She is doing a lot of walking indoors, going out occasionally while being careful to keep her distance from others and “reading trashy novels.”

     Anita Chenoweth is feeling peaceful by “spending time with the Lord.  I try not to watch a lot of stuff about the coronavirus.  I want to keep my mind clear and ready for God’s word.”  

     What bugs her, though, is having to miss another passion — basketball.  She had a ticket to see Butler University play in the Big East college basketball competition at Madison Square Garden and was then going to take a two-week trip to Florida to see the NCAA tournament.  Having to go without college basketball is torture.

     “I’m in basketball withdrawal,” she said. “Basketball is the hardest thing to lose.  It couldn’t come at a worse time.  I grew up in Indiana.  It’s called Hoosier Hysteria.”

     She also misses singing with her choir at the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church for three services on Sunday and Wednesday night practice.

     “We are a family.  At least we keep communicating through many phone calls.”

     Robert Loch also misses his church, St. Luke’s Lutheran on Restaurant Row in the Theatre District.  Like Chenoweth he keeps in contact with friends through phone calls.  He, too, relies on his faith because he is feeling anxious.

     “I’m worried,” he said.  “I really am. I’ve been through the crash of ’82 and 9/11.   This is the worst I’ve ever seen.  I don’t know what the outcome will be.  I’m worried about my finances.

     “Our health is what I worry about the most.  How easily can you come in contact with the virus?  Can you handle a credit card and not realize it’s on it?  I worry being 80 years old.  I don’t know what level of care will be given.  I don’t know if we are prepared at all for what is going on.”

     Fear doesn’t get the best of him, though.

     “My faith is in God.  I pray more.  I say, ‘Lord, it’s in your hands.’  There’s nothing more we can do.”

     He also draws on the memory of a miracle he witnessed during a trip to Montreal in 1972.  A man named Henri who had been blind for 25 years was on a tour Loch was taking of St. Patrick’s Basilica and its beautiful carved wood.  Henri said since he couldn’t see anything he wouldn’t go in.  The bus driver encouraged him and took him by the arm into the church.

    Loch said Henri prayed to have sight for an hour to be able to see the glory.   When the group moved on to visit Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Henri told his wife he could see light.

     “He looked at me and said, ‘Robert, I see your eyeglass case in your pocket and your pen.’  His wife was hysterical.”

     Loch and others on the tour gave written testimony to the Roman Catholic Church of what they had observed.

     “I wish I had kept in contact,” he said.  “It was really an awakening.  God was saying to me, ‘There is hope.’  I always thought I’d been blessed to be a so-called witness to a miracle.  It was really an eye-opener to me at the time.”

     Remembering that experience helps now.

     “It gives me perspective.  Why was I called to witness a so-called miracle?  Whenever I look to the Lord I have a feeling he’s there for me.”

     One thing that is clear to the residents is that they are all going through the same thing, and they are going through it together, even while practicing social distancing and isolation. 

     “We’ve never lived through a time like this,” Chenoweth said.  “We’re all learning together.”

Photo by Laura Fernandez

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

'72 Miles to Go. . . '

     The Unitarian pastor at a desert church in Tucson is delivering a retirement sermon, starting with a string of corny jokes before getting to the moving message that will be his parting gift to his congregation. It is also the gift playwright Hilary Bettis gives to the audience at the Laura Pels Theatre in the world premiere of her play 72 Miles to Go. . .

     "The older I get, the more I realize that it's not the grand events that give our lives meaning and purpose," says Billy (Triney Sandoval). "It's the small everyday moments we take for granted."

     After mentioning the first time he saw his wife, the sound of his three children's small bare feet pattering around the house and the five of them sitting around the table making small talk over dinner, he says he regrets not paying enough attention to every little detail.

     "And now that I'm standing here in front of all of you, I can't help but ask why we don't realize how profound and beautiful and sacred these everyday moments are until they're gone."

     Over the course of an engaging 90 minutes we go back in time eight years from 2016 when the sermon is delivered to witness many small moments and their significance for this family because one member is missing, present only as a voice over a cell phone on speaker or an outgoing voice message. Anita (Maria Elena Ramirez) was deported to Nogales, Mexico -- 72 miles away -- and her husband and children live on the hope they will one day be reunited. It's a credit to Bettis's script, Jo Bonney's direction and the excellent ensemble cast that this show is not a downer but rather a little slice of love and humanity. With Rachel Hauck's set of a small apartment consisting of a kitchen and living room sparsely filled with inexpensive furniture, I felt a part of this world. The family was real to me and I cared about them.

     Christian (Bobby Moreno) is the oldest child; in the play he goes from 23 to 31. He was just a little boy when Billy found him and Anita hiding in the desert where Billy had been leaving water bottles for people crossing the border. Billy married Anita and raised Christian as his son, although their relationship is severed for years as the adult Christian tries to find work and lives in fear of being deported. He dreams of being a Marine but, being undocumented, this is impossible for him.

     The youngest child is Aaron (Tyler Alvarez), who ranges from 14 to 22. He's into science and is the one who does become a Marine. He loves his older brother and worries about him when he is late. This is a family well aware of the constant threat of deportation.

     Eva (Jacqueline Guillen) is the center of the family. Starting as a 17-year-old and continuing until she is 25, she is the caretaker, cooking and running the home and putting her life on hold until her mother returns.

     Anita tries to stay a part of their lives through her speaker phone conversations and the admonitions she leaves on her outgoing message, which tells them to eat vegetables. It's her way of being a good mother. She also tells Eva, "Don't wear too much makeup. All that blue eye shadow makes you look cheap." That's typical of what a mother would tell her daughter. It's just usually done face-to-face.

     The most moving of the phone exchanges is when Billy and Anita celebrate their wedding anniversary. Billy sits at the table with a candle lit and a vase of red roses, sharing with Anita by the cell's speaker phone the kind of loving conversation they would have had if they had been together. Then she says she wants to dance so Billy, a bit awkwardly at first, holds the small phone between his encircled arms and talks with Anita as he slowly dances around the room. It is heartbreaking and touching.

     The play moves in time to where it began, with Billy's farewell sermon. He suggests if we can just get over our our fears and egos, "then maybe, just maybe, we can treasure the people we love, the places we love, the everyday moments with every ounce of our existence.

     "Believe me, I know it's easier said than done. But that's what I'm going to try and do with the rest of my life.

     "Because this moment, right here, right now, is all we have."

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

New play uses song, dance and story to tell tale of 16th century slave rebellion leader

     The empty rehearsal room was quiet in late afternoon, a peaceful contrast to the hustle and bustle of buses, cars and people visible through the windows looking out on 125th Street, one of Harlem's busiest thoroughfares. Darrel Alejandro Holnes had come here to talk about his latest play, Bayano, which two weeks later would have its first public exposure in a workshop presentation upstairs at the National Black Theatre.

     It's been a two-year journey to get to this point, from first applying to NBT's I AM SOUL Playwrights Residency program, through acceptance and writing and rewriting the play. Using The Odyssey as inspiration, Holnes wanted to tell the story of Bayano, a 16th century enslaved African king who led the largest slave rebellion in Panama against the colonial Spanish.

     "He was the Harriet Tubman figure of Panama," Holnes says. "He was the greatest colonial liberator anywhere in Latin America."

     Throughout the creation of Bayano, as he has with his other work and his life, Holnes has been strengthened by his Catholic upbringing and the African spirituality that mingled with it in Panama. He wears a silver cross containing sand from Jerusalem, a gift from his mother, over his cream-colored sweater, an outward sign of his faith. This faith is needed now more than ever, he says, when he has trouble finding anything hopeful in the news.

     "Faith is ultimately where I find my optimism," he says. "It's helped me move forward through this process despite many setbacks."

     Born in Houston, Holnes was raised in a suburb seven minutes outside of Panama City. He returned to the United States at 17 in 2005 to attend Loyola University in New Orleans but never completed the first semester because Hurricane Katrina left the school under water. He transferred to the University of Houston, then went on to the University of Michigan for graduate school.

     It was his grandmother, "the spiritual center of our family," who influenced his faith formation. She moved to Panama from Costa Rica in the early 20th century.

     "The church gave her pride, place and a sense of community. So much of her life was shaped by her commitment of faith."

     But Holnes is also aware of the church's role in protecting the institution of slavery in Panama. Portraying this along with creating a theatrical drama of song, dance and story around Bayano's life was important. Holnes had first learned about Bayano in elementary school, but mostly it was in relationship to news of rebellions and slave escapes. He wanted to explore the history, spirituality and liberation of this man.

     "The story was well documents but never from his perspective or a black perspective. I've done my best to try to honor what his perspective was and give him a voice. It's the story of a great liberator and also tells the story of the struggle with faith."

     And he's worked to understand both sides of the church in colonial Panama.

     "The church's role in faith helped Africans get up in the morning but religion was also used to explain and use slavery."

     In addition to a solid body of work and awards, Holnes also has the distinction of being the first Panamanian-America to receive a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship -- in 2019 for his poetry -- and is one of only two artists of Panamanian descents to ever receive the honor. In addition to writing, he teaches at New York University and Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.

     "In a lot of my plays the characters are always struggling with their faith," he says. "To believe is to ask questions. My characters are always asking questions about life and its responsibilities."

     While he still sees Catholicism "as part of my community" and worships at Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic Church when he is in Panama, he now attends Middle Collegiate Church on Manhattan's Lower East Side because its practices of service are much closer to those those he experienced as a child.

     "I grew up with a community of Catholic churches that were incredibly active in social justice. I grew up thinking that being Catholic is volunteering in a soup kitchen. I felt the Catholic Church was to be a voice of the poor and needy. I feel the Catholic Church in the United States has a different dynamic. Middle Church is very activist-oriented and really lives by faith."

     Throughout the 45-minute interview, Holnes holds a hand-carved wooded staff with the head of an African man that he bought in Cuba.

     "It makes me feel close to this project. I think what it would be like to be someone enslaved. They take everything from you so you own nothing. You would want something of your own so you go out and make it."

     After Bayano's March 11 through 15 workshop presentation Holnes will work toward getting the show into a fully staged production, which he hopes will make people feel empowered.

     "What I admire about Bayano is that he really took his freedom into his own hands. We should be able to do even more. We can break from things that oppress us. I hope people will try hard to feel they can free themselves from anything they feel is holding them back."

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Blues for an Alabama Sky

     Spending Saturday afternoon on Theatre Row at Blues for an Alabama Sky was a thoroughly pleasant way to pass a couple of hours.  This 1999 play by Pearl Cleage doesn’t break any new ground or hold any real surprises, but under LA William’s direction I was transported into the Harlem Renaissance of 1930 and the world of five likable and human characters.

     Produced by the Keen Company, this play is being staged in New York for the first time, which seems strange because it’s so evocative of the city at that time and in that neighborhood.  It’s the story of Angel (Alfie Fuller, right)), a past her prime nightclub singer in Harlem joints who, as the play opens, has just been dumped by her Italian mob boss sugar daddy and fired from her job.  She’s taken in by her second cousin Guy (John-Andrew Morrison, center) who, like Angel, has migrated from Savannah to Harlem to pursue a dream.  An openly gay costume designer for marginal neighborhood performers, Guy longs to move to Paris to create for Josephine Baker, whose presence is felt in a large poster in Guy’s apartment and in his always hopeful attempts to get her attention by sending her his designs. Baker is a strong motivator for his dreams but Angel is more pragmatic.

     “I don’t see her share of the rent,” she says dryly. 

     Angel doesn’t have Guy’s natural optimism but she pushes on, going on auditions and keeping a fighting spirit.  Unfortunately, more often than not, she proves to be her own worst enemy.  Regionally she been portrayed by Phylicia Rashad, Robin Givens and Jasmine Guy.  It’s a good, well-developed part for an actor and Fuller fully brings her to life.

     But her realism can’t dampen Guy’s spirits, even after he’s attacked and beaten for being gay.

     “If you see me in a fight with a bear, help the bear,” he says.

     Their next door neighbor and friend, Delia (Jasminn Johnson, second from left), works in a Margaret Sanger family planing clinic.  Sam (Sheldon Woodley, left) is a doctor who will end up playing a key role in both women’s lives.  Leland (Khiry Walker, second from right) is a recent widower from Alabama whose wife died in childbirth along with their son.  All of their lives become closely entwined.  I felt I was inhabiting their world for two and a half hours with this excellent cast.  Thanks also to Lindsay Jones for the mood-creating original music. 

     In a program note, Williams says he discovered the play about a decade ago and was drawn to it by the humanity of its characters and their faith and persistence.  I felt the same way. 

     Williams faced a series of rejections in his quest for a New York premiere but he persisted.

     “I refused to believe that a story about real people living on the precipice of a renaissance and a depression, while also grappling with homophobia, religion and women having agency one their own bodies, didn’t belong on the New York stage,” he wrote. 

     A big shoutout needs to go to costume designer Asa Benally. The play may be set at the start of the Depression but these characters have great wardrobes.  Scenic designer You-Shin Chen created a simple but effective set for the side-by-side apartments, with that large poster of Baker representing the striving of these characters. 

     But striving becomes hard for Angel.

     “I’m tired of Negro dreams,” she says.  “They don’t come true.”

     In Blues, some do and some don’t.  Head to Theatre Row to find out the fates of these engaging characters. Performances continue through March 14.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

A Soldier's Play

     Investigating a murder is challenging under any circumstances, but for a black Army captain looking for answers on a segregated base in 1944 Louisiana, the level of racism and hate he uncovers force him to reexamine his own identity and question his beliefs.  From this core, director Kenny Leon spins a fast-paced Broadway debut for Charles Fuller's 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, A Soldier's Play, a Roundabout Theatre Company production at the American Airlines Theatre through March 15. 

     Blair Underwood (in photo) as Captain Richard Davenport and David Alan Grier as the murdered black officer, Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, give fully committed performances, as does the entire ensemble.  The story, which was considered too revolutionary for Broadway in the early 1980s and so played Off-Broadway, was inspired by Fuller's own Army experience.  In a tension-filled two hours Davenport observes multi-level racism, and not just from white officers unconcerned about the shooting of a black man to begin with, and certainly not respectful of a black officer.  He also learns that motive goes beyond the usual southern white hatred.  Waters, whose contempt for many of his own people is as hideous as that of the white racists, has given his own men strong motives of their own.

     Derek McLane's simple set consists of little more than the outline of a wooden two-level structure connected by an onstage staircase and cots that roll out for barracks scenes and away to open the action.  Lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes nicely conveys the foreboding and darkness of the play.  No fancy set is necessary.  These two artists create the perfect atmosphere. 

     The knee-jerk reaction to the shooting death of a black man in the woods in the deep South had been to chalk it up to the Ku Klux Klan.  That was fine with the white officers until the NAACP began calling for an inquiry and Davenport, a driven Washington-based self-described "lawyer the segregated Armed Services couldn't find a place for," is brought in.

     He isn't on the base five minutes before he gets a taste for what he's up against.  The first words out of the mouth of the unit's white commanding officer, Captain Charles Taylor (Jerry O'Connell), are: "Forgive me for occasionally staring, Davenport.  You're the first colored officer I've ever met."  It gets worse from there.  The racism is so ingrained that Davenport can't question a white suspect without a white officer present.  This is a culture that has thrived on suppression.  It will take a strong man to uncover the truth while retaining his self-worth.  That is the drama that plays beside the obvious search for the guilty.  Although this theme has been played out many times over the years, I found this telling to be involving and meaningful. 

     A Soldier's Play was originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company and made into a 1984 movie re-titled "A Soldier's Story." 

This Weekend—Original Sacred Solo Drama at the Church of the Transfiguration, Cape Cod

Jan. 31 & Feb. 1—Turmoil. Injustice. Uncertainty. Is there any hope? The wild Oaks are still standing—the secret keepers. Strong promises are held in their deep roots, and ancient wisdom in their bark. Will there be an end to the struggle? Embark on a journey and witness the struggle for peace in a seemingly hopeless situation.

Elements Theatre Company presents Oaks of Mamre: A Retelling of an Ancient Story at the Church of the Transfiguration, Cape Cod. The production is the fourth original solo sacred drama presented by the company’s Artistic Director, Sr. Danielle Dwyer, and is part of the Sacred Drama Series Exploring Transfigured Lives. This gutsy story will be enhanced by originally composed percussive music, as well as a massive set featuring a big Oak tree over twenty feet tall.
“We commend this theater group for seeking to be agents of change through art.”
—AMERICA Magazine
Under the direction of Sr. Danielle Dwyer, Elements Theatre Company has stirred and inspired minds and hearts of audiences through dramatic storytelling and imaginative stagecraft of both classical and modern works, both nationally and internationally. The Company's commitment to integrity and intensity of language and context, devotion to the transformative work to become the text, and courage to delve into the scope of humanity has resulted in high acclaim for their performance authenticity and honesty.

For Tickets: Call 508-240-2400, purchase online at, or at the door.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Watching history unfold in Baltimore

     The cover of the large picture book has a sepia quality, with a little girl waving from a carousel horse.  I sense a time long ago and, indeed, that is what the book is about.

     This little girl happens to be black and that is important because she represents the author on a historic day in Baltimore. On Aug. 28, 1963 11-month-old Sharon Langley became the first African-American child to ride the carousel at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park on the day it was integrated.  That day represented the end of an eight-year effort to desegregate the park.  It was for many a great day.

     I was there that day too.  Like Sharon, I was taken by a parent but my experience was quite different.  Sharon’s first day at the park turned out to be my last.  I was 8 and my mother took me not for the rides, but for the excitement.  I watched as a long line of mostly black people marched through the doors, never to be kept out again.  For me it would be just the opposite because I was a white child.  As we walked back to the car later, my mother said, “Well, you’ll never go there again.”

     And she was right.  I was never taken again nor was any child I knew.  A large part of white Baltimore abandoned the park. The racism that had kept the black children out now kept the white children out.  Sharing the park was unthinkable to a great many people in1963 Baltimore.

     Langley now lives in Los Angeles.  Unlike me, she was too young to remember that August day but it has always been a part of her life’s story, recounted to her by her parents and captured forever in a Baltimore Sun photo the next day showing a slightly apprehensive-looking baby in a dress with a lace collar and a tiny cardigan being held on the horse by her father.  

     Now, 56 years later, Langley has recreated that experience in a children’s book.  A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story is beautifully drawn by Floyd Cooper, a Coretta Scott King Award-winning illustrator, and co-written with Amy Nathan whose 2011 book Round and Round Together tells the story of Gwynn Oak’s integration in the context of the times. 

     I’ve never met Langley but in the last few years I feel I’ve come to know her.  After I wrote an op-ed for The Sun in 2015 about my experience of the park’s integration, I received many emails from people in Baltimore who fondly recalled their days at Gwynn Oak or their pain at being excluded.  One man told me a baby named Sharon Langley had been the first black child to ride the carousel.  A few days later I received a Facebook Friend request from Langley and, recognizing her name from his email, quickly accepted.  Our postings since then show we have a great deal in common in terms of our feelings toward politics, spirituality and the arts.

     After reading her book I asked to interview her about it and to discuss the day our paths crossed with such different results.  That day had been recounted to her as triumphant.  I didn’t need anyone to recount the day for me.  The images are strongly burned into my memory — a street lined on either side mostly by white people and policemen, a long wait and then a procession of mostly black people approaching, more black people than I had ever seen.  The tension was palpable.  I felt small and afraid of what was going to happen.  Fortunately the integration was peaceful but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood the significance of that day.

     Langley’s voice is warm when she calls me one Saturday evening in late autumn and once again it surprises me that we don’t actually know each other.  I tell her I love how she has told her story and that the illustrations are so lovely that I have the book on my coffee table.  She says she cried when she opened the box from her publisher and saw it.

     “I was a little concerned that people would think it was such a long time ago but it’s still important because of the times we live in now, especially with things that affect children.  There are still things we can do.  We can still care.  You need the corrective history.  You need to know.”

     Langley’s parents, who are deceased, had been planning to go to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, but they couldn’t find a babysitter.  Instead, knowing  Gwynn Oak was opening to all that same day, they dressed their only child for the occasion and walked into history.

     “I knew about my mom’s activism,” Langley said, explaining that she had been brought up on stories of how her mother as a high schooler in the 1950s helped end segregation in her small town in Kentucky.  “My thinking was that this is something we do.  Even though I was very little, they could have chosen not to take me.  They were making a statement. They were making a statement to me.  We can make a difference.  One family can.”

     She hopes her book will show this, written as it is from the eyes of a young black child asking her parents why black children had been kept out of the park.  The parents explain segregation and the Civil Rights Movement in a way the child can understand.  Langley wants children to know that they too can make a difference. 

     “‘Can you be a part of change?’  Sure you can.  We have an obligation to be part of change.”

     Nathan approached Langley about co-writing a children’s book nearly four years ago.  Langley felt her experience as an educator — she was an elementary school teacher for 10 years — would shape the book to make a strong impact on children.  She had taught her pupils about segregation and social change and knew how to frame the subjects in terms of unkindness versus kindness.

     “Even young children understand the idea of hurting people, of feeling left out, and that there were other groups who felt it was wrong and were motivated to make change.”

     This was the case at Gwynn Oak where quiet yearly protests began in 1955.  These protests gained steam before coming to a head in the summer of 1963.  The Forth of July brought the largest crowd yet to the park northwest of Baltimore City, just across the county line.  Hundreds of protestors were arrested, including black and white priests, rabbis and ministers from up and down the East Coast.  It was the first Civil Rights protest for one young white man.  Sadly, there would not be many more.  Michael Schwerner would be murdered by the Ku Klux Klan the following year, along with Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, as part of Freedom Summer in Mississippi.  

     Gwynn Oak closed in 1972 after being heavily damaged by Hurricane Agnes.  The concessionaire for the Smithsonian bought the carousel and moved it in 1981 to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. where it stands today, welcoming all children.  A historical marker on the gate surrounding it commemorates its civil rights history.  And on one of the horses, called the Freedom Rider, the names of civil rights heroes are inscribed, including the name of young Sharon Langley on a brass plate on its saddle and on one horseshoe.  That little baby’s experience is now a ride to remember.  When Langley knows friends are going to the nation’s capital, she tells them to stop by to see the carousel and they send her selfies in front of the marker and on the horse.  Langley and I agree it’s a shame her parents didn’t live to see this memorial.

     “If you look back, Gwynn Oak was not like Disneyland,” Langley said.  “It was a small mom and pop amusement park.”  But it’s now part of history, a history we share. 

     I asked Langley what she thought when she read my op-ed about my considerably different experience of that day in 1963. Her response surprised and intrigued me.

     “Don’t laugh,” she said, pausing before saying, “I actually think we should do a two-woman show about two sides of the same coin.”

     It’s nice to think that if we do this, we will not just be in the same place at the some time again, but we will finally be together.