Having Our Say

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Based on the lives two delightfully wise and accomplished African American sisters, both of whom are over 100 years old, Having Our Say lays out the history of racial matters from the Gilded Age all through the 20th century. Sadie and Bessie Delaney recount their rather unique heritage as their mother was 25% black and never tried to pass as white. Their white grandfather and Black grandmother couldn’t marry as it was illegal in the south until the late 1960s. Still they raised their family and attended a church that came to agree that okay the only reason you aren’t married is that you can’t be so we’ll welcome you.

The play is structured as a long conversation with a reporter, who’s represented by the audience. The stories range from charming and fun to raw depictions of injustice. Yet at all times the sisters are victors not victims. Neither married and both attained professional status in an era when few African American women could. Their father was a bishop and insisted his daughters go to college, though he stipulated that they work first because he had no money for additional schooling and would not allow them to obtain scholarships because he believed that would make them beholden to whoever supplied the scholarship. Both met his challenge without complaint. Sadie became the first colored* (sic) high school teacher in her all-white high school and Bessie became the first colored woman to be licensed as a dentist in New York.

The women recount their experiences and heritage from family stories of slavery to their own experience with Jim Crow and Civil Rights. Throughout we hear their family stories, wisdom and witticisms.

This production had an inventive set that featured picture frames which would show old photos of the friends and family Bessie and Sadie were describing.

The acting was superb and I’d love to see Ella Joyce (Bessie) or Marie Thomas (Sadie) in another play. The pair brought great energy and chemistry to the play.

My only wish was that the play had more of a plot. As it stands it’s an adaptation of a memoir. So it’s a chronological telling of lived experiences. While these second and mainly first hand accounts are interesting, they aren’t as dramatic as a play that uses Aristotelian principles to give a story plenty of momentum.

I’d prefer a structure like that of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a former slave who recounts her memories on up to the 1960s. Such a play requires more characters and sets, hence more money, but it offers more suspense. Nonetheless, this is a good production, well worth seeing.

*The women didn’t feel Black or African American were terms that described them well. They were American. They felt “colored” was more accurate than Black.

An Enemy of the People

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The Goodman’s production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People wasn’t the “timely classic” the ads promise. While the cast was good, except for one who stumbled on his lines a couple times, and the sets and costumes were creative and fitting, the play was dated and  the hero was egotistical and clueless.

They say group therapy works because while you can brush aside one person’s opinion or insight, when a bunch tell you you’re wrong, you realize you must confront your short comings. Too bad the hero of An Enemy of the People, never considered that. Factually, he was right, but otherwise he was so wrong in how he treated and disrespected his community.

The play opens at a doctor’s house as he and his wife are entertaining two young revolutionary journalists. In the middle of the party, the doctor receives and important report on the toxicity of the spa water for which the town is known. The doctor’s thrilled that his hypothesis is true. It was odd how happy he was because he was right. He had no ability to sympathize with people who would be hurt by the news. Throughout the play the doctor fights to get the bad news out. He never grows or cooperates with his brother the mayor, the printer who’s afraid of losing his livelihood, the journalists who get corrupted and side with the mayor. The hero never become a leader and never shows wisdom. He’s vain and right and will be damned if he has to take another approach.

The culminating scene is when the doctor calls a town meeting to reveal the toxicity. However, he changes his mind and instead gives a tirade about how stupid everyone else in society is. He’s the only one with any brains, which of course, the scene calls into question. His wife and daughter look on passively as their breadwinner and head of the family destroy their prospects. He goes on and on haranguing about how everyone else is brainwashed because of their bad schooling, never mind that he’s a product of the same school system, never mind that the rich probably were tutored, never mind that there are always some who’re born with a healthy skepticism and they have always questioned their teachers.

The play added a lot of needless swearing to make the production “modern.” That doesn’t say much for our times, does it?

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Speed the Plow


Another David Mamet play seemed a fitting read as I’m currently taking his MasterClass online.

I’d seen the play at the Remains Theater in 1987.

The play is a satire of show business. Charlie Fox brings a movie deal consisting of a hot star and a blockbuster-type script to his long time buddy, Bobby Gould, who’s career is on fire since he’s gotten a promotion. He’s got till 10 am the next morning to get a producer to agree to make it. So he trusts his pal to make the deal, which will earn them boat-loads of money.

They talk about the business and their careers.  They dream of what they’ll do after this life-changing film is released. In the background a temp secretary bungles along with the phone system. Eventually, she comes into the office and winds up having to read a far-fetched novel as a “courtesy read” meaning she’s to write a summary of a book that’s not going to be adapted to film.

 
After she leaves the office, the men make a bet, a bet that Bobby Gould, whom Karen is working for, will succeed in seducing her. Karen’s not in on this but she agrees to go to Gould’s house to discuss the book she’s to summarize.

Karen finds the book about the end of the world life-changing. Like many 20-something’s She’s swept up by its message. What’s worse, when she goes to Gould’s house she convinces him to make the crazy book into a film and to leave his pal in the dust. The book and play are brisk and, as you’d expect, contain rapid-fire dialog. I enjoyed this book, but can see how some would find problems with Mamet’s portrayal of women. I think he portrays Hollywood quite realistically.

Victoria, Season 2, Week 3

Entente Cordiale

This week Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and her court journey to France. She hopes to convince her cousin Louis Philippe not to marry his son off to a French princess, which would bring about a terrible political alliance as far as England’s concerned.

A corny subplot was the Duchess of Buccleough complaining about all things French, the baguettes, the people, the lack of toast. I feel sorry for Diana Riggs as this role is something of a poor man’s Violet of Downton Abbey.

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Château d’Eu in Normandy where Victoria et al visited the Louis-Phillipe

Albert pouts and broods a lot as he’s carrying the secret that he might be illegitimate.

Victoria feels insecure about being unfashionable compared to the French ladies. She asked Skerret to get her some rouge. Skerret delegates the task to Miss Coke, who speaks some French and we all learn that French women not only wear more make up than the French but they take veal, put it on their face and then put a leather mask over their faces while they sleep. And you thought K-Beauty had some strange products!

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Painting from this event, by Eugene Lami

Victoria is well received at the French court despite her qualms. When she wears rouge, it creates a bit of a stir. Albert chastises her for that later. He’s disgusted by the artifice of French society. He is out of place there. However, midway through the show, he’s walking in the woods with the French prince and some British nobles. He spies a waterhole and is compelled to disrobe and skinny dip! Soon all the men except the French prince are in the water. Then Victoria and the ladies happen by. Victoria is amused to glimpse Albert frolicking. There’s a rather overdone camera effect with all this diffuse sunshine on Victoria. A more natural effect would have been more fitting.

Back at the castle, Victoria teases Al for his skinny dipping. Then he confides to her how he fears he’s illegitimate and she responds by telling him she doesn’t give a hoot about his pedigree. She loves him.

Albert moves on to another success when he uses a grape metaphor to illustrate how politically bad a marriage between the French prince and a Spanish queen would be for England. King Louis-Philippe concedes and promises our royals they have nothing to worry about.

Back home, the duchess is happy to tuck into some boiled mutton or toast. (She’s far from a foodie.) Albert’s relaxed. And as absence makes the heart grow fonder, Victoria embraces her children with joy. There’s a bit about how Mr. Francatelli’s received a perfumed love letter. Mrs. Skerret feigns indifference.

Then da da da daa, Lord Peele announces that That tricky Louis-Philippe is hitching his son to the Queen of Spain. Seems the trip was a failure. All that seasickness for naught.

As Victoria had nine, count ’em nine, children the episode ends with her telling Albert is is pregnant.

All in all, the episode, which was based on history, was good. I didn’t expect the double cross. I didn’t miss the usual storylines with Skerret’s ungrateful cousin.

Next week we’re to see the Irish Potato Famine.

 

Blind Date

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Lucky for me my friend’s husband isn’t a theater lover. That’s how I got invited to see Blind Date at the Goodman Theater. Blind Date shows us how Ronald Reagan convinced Mikhail Gorbachev to attend a summit meeting to talk about the weapons race. My understanding of this page of history was foggy, but the performances brought clarity and interest. The play opens with a monologue by George Schultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State. Due to his education and experience in economics, Shultz was able to figure out how Russia would struggle and what the consequences would be. Thus he realized this was a key time to contact Gorbechev, Russia’s youngest General Secretary.

Next Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze, shares his thinking with the audience before sharing cocktails with Shultz. (In their conversation, which begins awkwardly Shultz tells Shevardnadze about a cocktail called The Kangaroo, which most of us know as a vodka martini.

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We see a lot of negotiating and one step forward, one back action as the two governments and two men figure out whether they should meet and where. It’s quite a chess game and quite interesting. Both powerful men are married to driven women. Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev have some of the plays best scenes and lines. These women know their minds and masterfully can read situations.

The play has humor but adroitly manages not to canonize or lampoon Reagan. The playwright Rogelio Martinez was born in Cuba and lived there till he was 9 and came to the US. Hence Martinez is fascinated with the ideologies of democracy and communism and has written a series of plays about events like the ping pong competition between China and the US where communism and democracy intersected. It would be easy to make a play that bored or had the wrong tone, but with Blind Date Martinez entertains and enlightens. The play’s pace is good and I could see this show on Broadway. I could see watching this again, which I think is the ultimate goal of a good play.

Kudos to Director Robert Falls and all the performers. Bravo!

Red Velvet

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Dion Johnstone as Ira Aldridge, CST

Chicago Shakespeare Theater presented an excellent production of Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. The story of the first African American to play Othello on the London state in 1833, the story explores racism. As we know, abolition was a hot issue in the mid-1800s. In England there were protests against the slave trade.

When Ian Keen, who starred as Othello, fell ill the manager of the Covent Garden Theater chose Ira Aldridge, a black actor from America to play Othello. Some in the cast were excited and supportive, but Ian’s son and another actor were strongly opposed.

Aldridge was a fine, thoughtful actor, whose goal was to work in London. He takes his art seriously and gives a passionate performance the first night. However, the critics were shocked to see an actor of African heritage on stage and their reviews were venomous. The manager, Pierre LaPorte is a good friend of Aldridge and he counsels the actor to tone down his performance. Yet we can see that Aldridge can’t rein in his perfectionism. His desire to bring Othello to life as he reads the play leads to disaster. A consummate professional, Aldridge pushes the edges of his performance.

The performances were all pitch perfect and the play was compelling as it showed a chapter of theater history, I wasn’t aware of. The play has been produced in London and New York. If it comes to your hometown, I highly recommend you check it out.

King Lear

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This month’s Great Books read was King Lear, a play I’m not all that fond of because I think Lear was foolish for coming up with that contest which pitted his daughters against each other to publicly state how much they loved him. Then he acted like he knew nothing about these women and put his future in the hands of the two most selfish adult children I’ve ever seen.

So after reading the play, rather than rereading it, I watched the 2008 BBC/PBS production of King Lear starring Ian McKellen. Wow! This masterpiece gave me a new appreciation of the play. The acting highlighted the lust Regan and Goneril had for Edmund, as well as Poor Tom’s (a.k.a. Edgar’s) status and his parallel status to Lear. When reading I can confuse characters like the sons-in-law, but viewing a production eliminates that.

I still think Lear –

  1. should have kept ruling since he didn’t want to completely relinquish his power, no matter what he claimed and shared power wasn’t going to work and
  2. should have thought about his daughters’ personalities for a minute or two and realized how this game of his would end badly.

As usual Shakespeare created intriguing characters, most of whom are flawed. He creates parallels such as Glouster’s literal blindness (in addition to his figurative blindness towards Edmund his conniving illegitimate son) and Lear’s blindness towards his daughters.

I still wonder:

  • Why Kent didn’t take leadership with Edmund acting as a mentor? It seems that he chose suicide instead.
  • Are we really to believe Gloucester, though blind, believed he had fallen off a cliff, when in fact Edgar had tricked him and protected him? That wasn’t believable. When a person’s falling there’s a certain sensation independent of sight.
  • What was Shakespeare’s aim in writing this play? Some argue its a look at old age because a lot of families have difficulty when elders retire. However, while I can see this applying to elites from Queen Elizabeth to Prince Charles (though I think she’s assured of a roof over her head no matter what and her holding on to the crown has to do with Charles’ marriages and his personality) or a CEO and founder of a business empire, I don’t believe it applies to middle class families.

Even though I don’t buy the premise of the story and found so many characters unlikeable, e.g. Regan, Goneril, Oswald and Edmund. While I can understand their motivations, they’re so loathsome.

Here’s a discussion of Lear from the BBC’s program “In Our Time.”

Some favorite quotations:

King Lear:

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is To have a thankless child! Act I, Scene 4

Kent to Oswald:

A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition. Act II, Scene 2

Lear to Cordelia:

“No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.” Act V, Scene 3