Saturday, June 30, 2007

On Isaac Butler's "Some Splaining to Do"

I am going to begin this post with the following paragraph. I will also end it with the same paragraph.

You don't have to like me, and you don't have to like my phrasing, and you don't have to like me not being as "measured and sensitive" as some of the precious and delicate flowers in the blogosphere expect me to be or wish I was. But when I was reporting, I didn't have to do those stories, regardless of what you think of them. I was in a position to raise awareness, and there is nobility in raising awareness, and I take second place to no one in my belief that dialogue, not the big gaping silence that greeted the Lee announcement, is what yields a better society.
Just got home from seeing Old Acquaintance at Roundabout and then doing the three-hour Accomplice: New York for an essay I'm doing for New York Press. Just read Butler's "Some Splaining to Do," and in the interest of fairness, I ought to do the same. But first:

I'm very amused by the commenter who feels my posts aren't "measured and sensitive"; I've been called many things, but never someone tightly snug in the mantle of "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." And I'm very dismayed that some believe, with a degree of piousness apparently unrivaled in churches across America, that my use of the phrase "What up yo?" in response to the Spike Lee announcement constitutes racism. As noted in the earlier post today, Jon Stancato and I had breakfast this morning, and I don't think he'll be upset with me when I tell you what he said: "But it's in the vernacular." Now, are you saying the vernacular is racist? Have you never used the word "yo" to communicate with someone?

Devore contacted me directly when this started, and since he has outed himself by posting a comment on Isaac's blog, I can tell you that he's the friend of Stewie that I referred to in my earlier post. I imagine a number of you folks would like to know what Devore said to me about your collective viewpoints, but I'm going to let him speak to those directly. He certainly did make me feel that I had not said or posted something terrible.

Let me go a little further with this. I am on record, at Back Stage and elsewhere, supporting the casting of Sean Combs in the Raisin in the Sun revival. If any of you read Larry Getlen's recent story on stunt casting, you would have read the passage where I am quoted thus:


"There’s a scene were Walter Lee Younger has to cry,” recalls Jacobs of the “Raisin” revival, “and Kenny Leon, the director, had Combs turn his back to the audience, because he understood that there is no way Sean Combs can believably fall into a crying jag and sustain it within the dramatic veracity of the play. Is that something you have to observe, note, criticize? Absolutely. Do you then say he should never be on a Broadway stage? Well, no. Because then there are other moments where he was very interesting to watch.”
I find it difficult to believe that a racist, or someone trading in the coinage of racism, would be looking for ways to find a silver lining in Combs' stunt casting.

With regard to what some of the commenters have said about the problem of the American theatre's very, very whiteness, are yours the voices I somehow didn't hear when Margo Jefferson was contributing regularly to the Times? Or did I perhaps miss your collective concern for the lack of critical voices of color in American theatre criticism when she stopped being the second-string critic, regardless of what you thought of her work, because your voices weren't raised at all? What are you doing about racism in the theater, if it is of such importance to you?

Why hasn't it occurred to anyone that part of the problem with persuading Spike Lee to direct on Broadway is that perhaps that opportunity, if the idea is to bring more people of color into the theater, ought to go to someone real and proven chops. For example, Robert O'Hara, the director of In the Contiuum, who I identified for the first time in my March 7, 2003 review of his Booty Candy, printed here in full:


Playwright-director Robert O'Hara is determined to push buttons. What they are seems unimportant—if the 10 short plays in "Booty Candy" don't prick results from the audience, drawing blood, he's unhappy. He needn't worry. He does.

An intermissionless romp, "Booty Candy" largely succeeds because so much playwriting fails to dare—or dares to fail. O'Hara, however, dares to dream: In "Dreamin' in Church," a pastor unmasks his sexuality during a sermon, donning wig and high heels before a higher power. In "Cluck," a Malapropping black woman, having misinterpreted a TV program, sues a white woman for slavery reparations. In "Genitalia," overlapping phone chats lambaste what a young black mother wants to name her child. And in "Scenework," a young non-black actress argues with a fellow actor over using Mama's monologue from "A Raisin in the Sun" as audition material.

Sense a trend? Quite so: O'Hara's best barbs are directed to black culture, history, and mythology, for which he is unapologetic. Yet this isn't self-hatred, but self-deprecation, and in that self-deprecation is an honesty and fearlessness that, however zany and zinger-filled, also transcends color and class.

That is not to say that all the plays succeed. "Dirt," about a college student who takes a commencement-day speaker hostage, is such an about-face tonally that it collapses under its political weightiness. "Movie," a Schnitzler-esque piece about five people on cell phones outside a cinema, is utterly unmoving.

Ultimately, "Booty Candy" (itself a scene about black genitalia) is rescued by "The Beauty in Queens (Jackson Heights)," which imagines a family awaiting a call from "Mr. Shubert" about a Broadway "house."

O'Hara's actors—Richarda Abrams, Melody Bates, Chad Beckim, David Bennett, Hasani Issa, Sam Marks, Maurice McRae, Tiffany O'Hara, Molly Pearson, Lloyd Porter, and Joey Rich—clearly relish executing his satirical savagery. And the streamlined sets and costumes (by Dawn Robyn Petrlik) and lighting plot (by Colin D. Young) make perfect partners.
Did any of you ever see it? Hello?

The point is -- yes, that's right, I'm a critic, and before that I was a critic and a reporter. I'm not in a position at the moment, like you, to write plays with actors of color in mind, or to hire a director of color, or to choose plays that speak to the diversity of American ethnicity. You are, and perhaps there are ways in which you address the racial issues in our culture, and in our theater. As a journalist, however, there are ways in which I can do my part. For example, who among you has heard of the Harlem Victoria? Anyone? If you have, you might wonder why it was on my radar. Here's one article from Back Stage, printed in full:


Harlem's Victoria Facing Dethroning?
March 10, 2005

Built as the United States was leading the way to victory in World War I, the Loew's Victoria Theatre, a former vaudeville house and movie palace on Harlem's West 125th Street, stands at the center of a civic debate: How should old theatres be redeveloped?

At stake is not just an elegant venue sporting a 1917 Renaissance-inspired design by Thomas Lamb, or a prime spot down the street from the legendary Apollo Theater. What is at stake is the kind of development preferred by Harlem residents as the area's economic revitalization continues unabated. Should a redeveloped Victoria once again serve the arts? Or should it be demolished, as some propose, in favor of retail shops, a luxury hotel, and/or new condominiums?

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and the Harlem Community Development Corporation (HCDC), its subsidiary, offered a walk-through of the Victoria last October to any real estate developer interested in taking a look. Two months later, a "request for proposal" (RFP) was issued, and seven proposals were received. While the RFP stressed that "interesting proposals that will contribute to the street life, cultural offerings, and economic health of Harlem are greatly encouraged," community concern—and organized opposition—is growing.

It isn't difficult to imagine why. Reportedly, only two of the seven proposals preserve the Victoria as cultural space, while the rest advocate everything from razing the structure to carving new, profit-centered uses out of its interior. Some community residents have become so alarmed that a grass-roots effort, the Haarlem Victoria Restoration Group (HVRG), is spearheading an opposition charge, including a petition drive, town-hall meetings, and the submission of a competing proposal.

Deborah Wetzel, an ESDC spokesperson, disputed published accounts in The New York Times and the Amsterdam News that the HCDC's chairman, Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright, is unhappy with the process: In the Times he called it "plantationism at its best," and in the Amsterdam News he warned that whatever happens to the Victoria, Harlem must have "a major, major stake" in the outcome. After a call to the HCDC was referred to Wetzel, she stated, "The HCDC is an equal partner in this process and their board has final approval" over which proposal is chosen.

The Times also reported that two of the proposals, by the RD Management Corporation and by a partnership between Integrated Holdings and the Related Companies, include the housing of a jazz museum. Another proposal, by Danforth Development Partners, aims to house performing-arts companies such as the Classical Theatre of Harlem, the Bill T. Jones Dance Group, and the Harlem School of the Arts, in addition to a 90-room boutique hotel.

The HVRG's proposal, meanwhile, claims to have access to a $40 million fund to purchase the Victoria. But, Wetzel confirmed, the HVRG's response to the RFP was not received on time and is therefore not under consideration.

Back Stage tried to contact Ethel Bates, the HVRG's project coordinator, but received no reply by press time. Yet statements on the organization's website offer insight into the group's focus on preserving the venue for cultural uses, including the group's "reaching out to the community and businesses to come together and save the Victoria Theatre from developers who want to destroy this historic building and keep just the facade" and the formation of "strategic alliances" with such entities as the New York City Landmark Conservancy.

Wetzel disclosed that the winning proposal will be chosen "in two to three months" and further cautioned that "any substantial work on the Victoria will still have to go through the New York state Historic Preservation Office to determine the effect of the change and the appropriate mitigation if required." The building has not been granted landmark status.
And if I may, let me continue. How many of you have been to Harlem and know what's going on up there in terms of theaters being built and work being created? No, I'm not just talking about the Classical Theatre of Harlem. Here's this story from Back Stage, reprinted in full, from October 2003:


Building, Renovating, Surviving
Both Alive and in Planning Stages, Harlem Nonprofit Theatres Suit Up
October 24, 2003

To Gertrude Hadley Jeannette, the use of the term "Harlem Renaissance" to describe the upswing in uptown theatre is apt, but her guard is up. The award-winning actress, playwright, director, and producer—she received Actors' Equity Association's annual Paul Robeson Award in 2002—has seen it all during her many decades in the industry, ever since coming to New York from Little Rock, Ark. and studying with the legendary American Negro Theatre. If there's one thing she knows, it's not to take for granted the idea that a Harlem theatre renaissance—or one in any of the arts, for that matter—is underway and here to stay. Still, she's cautiously optimistic—and she has reason to be.

Jeannette—affectionately called Ms. G by her friends and admirers—created the H.A.D.L.E.Y. (Harlem Artists Development League Especially for You) Players almost 25 years ago. She is a true survivor in a part of town that has witnessed more than its fair share of socioeconomic ebbs and flows. She remembers when Harlem jazz clubs ruled the scene with their infectious, rhythmic √©lan; when such immortal figures as Duke Ellington, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes stood at the crest of a massive wave of creativity that energized every art form, including the theatre. She also remembers the years when urban decay took its toll—and all the years that politicians and community leaders promised a new Harlem renaissance would rise and how those promises, however well-intentioned, ultimately failed to live up to the dream.

But facts, of course, are facts—and with four not-for-profit theatre groups either up and running in Harlem, or on a fast-track to development, there is no question that this era is one of the busiest—and most promising—in memory. Besides the H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players (which just opened its silver anniversary season with a revival of Jeannette's play "A Bolt From the Blue" and a gala featuring Broadway songwriter Micki Grant and actress Rudy Dee), the Faison Firehouse Theatre, a professional performing arts complex being built by Tony-winning choreographer-director George Faison, is getting close to its grand opening. Nearby, a state-of-the-art proscenium stage has been announced by Ken Wydro and Vy Higginsen, whose long-running musical, "Mama, I Want to Sing," is enjoying a 20th anniversary revival, soon to be followed by a national tour. And also nearby, the Obie-winning Classical Theatre of Harlem has just begun its fourth season.

"You know, some people say I'm a pioneer, but I don't think so," Jeannette says. "Groups like the American Negro Theatre—those were pioneers. After it closed down, because they had done so much for me professionally, I didn't want the name to just go away, so I asked if I could take over their space and they allowed me to use their name for a while. Eventually I started the H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players, and from the day I started, I have felt we have been riding on the backs of those who really were theatrical pioneers.

"Back in those days—this is the Roosevelt era," Jeannette recalled, "Mrs. Roosevelt would come to Harlem and the press would come up with her. She had a newspaper column, you know, and she would write about what we did on a shoestring."

Jeannette is one of the last veterans of that tight-knit configuration of playwrights, directors, actors, dancers, singers, and designers, and she was one of those who helped to make it a real hothouse for talent. When producers set out in 1946 to mount an all-black revival of Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," Jeannette recalls how a casting director came to Harlem and "discovered" a young man named Sidney Poitier, who went on to make his Broadway debut. While downtown audiences were soon entranced, little did they know that Poitier had already appeared with the American Negro Theatre for two years.

Why the disparity? Because even then, she says, "It was hard to get audiences to come to Harlem. In the Depression, when we all started out, we had good people working with us—good teachers, too—and they came because although they had the knowledge, there were no jobs for them. They brought their expertise. Then, after Mrs. Roosevelt's era passed, people suddenly said they were afraid to come to Harlem." It took, she says, until the Clinton administration designated Harlem an economic empowerment zone—one specially created to encourage businesspeople to make uptown investments—for things to begin to change. So to her, the resurgence of theatre in Harlem is not so much news as it is the fruit of a long period of waiting, of disappointment, and of hope.

The Why for Wydro
"The backstory of our new theatre really starts with 'Mama, I Want to Sing,' particularly after we lost our lease at [Off-Broadway's] Heckscher Theatre," says writer-producer Ken Wydro. "In the story of 'Mama,' in one of the final speeches, the narrator says that the girl, the lead character, did what so many people say they are going to do—she went back, she gave back to the community. And that's what we're doing. It also crystallized in the mid-'90s when we did 'Mama' at The Theater at Madison Square Garden with CeCe Winans and we realized that we really needed a home. We really needed—and wanted—a space in which we could create the next 'Mama, I Want to Sing' and, more than that, a place to teach, promote, present, and preserve African-American music from the mid-20th century."

This dual mission led Wydro and his wife, Vy Higginsen, to use some of the profits from "Mama, I Want to Sing" to create a nonprofit foundation that would serve the Harlem community. At around the same time—"either by design or by cosmic design," Wydro says—a West 126th Street brownstone came on the market that just happened to be the very structure that Higginsen grew up in, the site where so many of the scenes in the show take place. Then the adjacent brownstone came up for sale, and through the auspices of the foundation, they bought them.

It was not a moment too soon, for Wydro and Higginsen had been looking in vain for pre-existing Harlem spaces only to learn that the community is, "while receptive, too cautious in its approach. We tried retaining spaces like churches and auditoriums, but we could never get a real commitment. Some boards of directors were slow, and they were uncertain whether they should have theatrical work or musicals in their church. We would ask them in January if we could come in with something in October, and suddenly it would be August and we'd still have no answer."

The brownstones now acquired, Wydro and Higginsen "ran the idea of building a new theatre inside of them by a couple of state agencies, and everyone from the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) to the Chase Foundation felt it was a great idea to build and create what we believe will be the only true Off-Broadway theatre in Harlem. An ESDC grant enabled us to do a feasibility study, and we learned it would be possible to knock down the walls between the brownstones and extend a theatre into the backyard—that we could, indeed, create a modern, state-of-the-art theatre and lecture hall, a community event space seating between 250 and 300 people."

The venue's projected dimensions are impressive by any standard, beginning with a flexible stage spanning up to 45 feet wide and extending nearly 100 feet deep. Raked seating that goes below grade will ensure that "every seat is a great seat," and of course there will be classrooms for the teaching of music—gospel ranking high on the priority list.

Part of Wydro and Higginsen's "honest and authentic desire to give something back to the community and to create an opportunity for artists" is to respect the economic buying power—and limitations—of their audience. "Our revival of 'Mama' lets you sit in the front row, center seats, for $35. Or, if you have a group of 20 or more, you can sit in those same seats for $30. You can go across the street to a restaurant and have a full meal for $11. This theatre will be like that—a place you can bring your mom, your kid, to a show that is simpatico with your culture, a place where you can have a good time and not be broke when you get back home."

While Wydro sees the activity in Harlem as a kind of renaissance, he thinks this one will ultimately outstrip the last one. "I think what's happening now is much more than the old Harlem Renaissance because the old one wasn't a renaissance, really. It was more of a literary or cultural banner that was waved. With George Faison's place, Ms. G's company, our new place, so many other places—like Jimmy's Uptown, which has a Sunday gospel brunch, or the Lenox Lounge, which is hip and hopping—this is a time when everyone can be here. Has there ever been a time when someone like our 19-year-old daughter can find an open mike somewhere every night of the week?"

Faison Sees the Future
Unlike the Mama, I Want to Sing Foundation, which has received tens of thousands in grant money from private and public sources, George Faison has spent nearly $1.5 million of his own money to convert a four-floor 1909 firehouse—which had been abandoned for 30 years—into a 12,000-square-foot, six-story performance and rehearsal facility.

Officially, the Faison Firehouse Theatre is a project of the American Performing Arts Collaborative, a nonprofit organization the director-choreographer created in 1997. But in practice, he says, the laborious process of getting city and state agencies to come through with their financial commitment to the space—here he names Gov. George Pataki and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel—has left him with little choice but to not sit on his hands.

Quibbles notwithstanding, the names of the individuals behind the project read like a who's who of contemporary African-American culture and philanthropy, from Maya Angelou, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and Bill and Camille Cosby to Roberta Flack, S. Epatha Merkerson, Phylicia Rashad, Oprah Winfrey (through her Oprah Winfrey Foundation), and Sue Simmons. Their largesse is being put to especially ambitious use, for the Faison Firehouse will be loaded with features: one 140-seat theatre and one 80-seat cabaret theatre; three rehearsal studios (of 500, 950, and 1,200 square feet); conference, training, and dressing rooms; an artist/student lounge; outdoor terraces; two floors of administrative space; a guest artist penthouse apartment; a performing arts library; and up-to-the-minute wiring for high-speed telephone and Internet as well as digital cable.

Why would Faison, who in 1975 became the first African-American choreographer to win a Tony Award (for "The Wiz") and who has run theatre companies, dance companies, and worked all over the world, want to take a ramshackle structure—that didn't even have floors when he first stepped into it—and build a performing arts complex in an economically sketchy part of town? Because Faison, like Wydro, like Ms. G, aims to give something back. After all, when he came to New York from his native Washington, D.C. in the late '60s, he worked first in Harlem and has maintained his ties to the community ever since.

"The theatre has been good to me—if it hadn't been so good to me, I wouldn't have the ability to spend what I have spent to create this space," Faison says. "Also, I wanted to create this place because I feel like there just is no place for theatre anymore—no vibrancy, no life, and we can't have that. Our kids today are totally out of sync with who we are, with where we've been as a people—they just don't know. Nobody cares about these children culturally. Where do we get this perpetuation of who [we] are? At a community-based professional theatre. I think people are entitled to theatrical projects that are relevant to them; young artists are entitled to a place where they can hone their craft, a venue where we, as minority artists, can be employed and where we can make a living."

Faison's ambitious philosophy is more than matched by the list of projects currently lined up for production. There's "The Awakening," a musical adaptation of "Cinderella" set in the Caribbean; "Tilt," a musical adaptation of Faison's own ballet of the same name, but with songs written by Ashford and Simpson; an original theatre piece taken from the speeches of Frederick Douglass; and "Trucker Rhapsody," a new play by Toni Press-Coffman about Reginald O. Denny, the truck driver whose beating, live on national TV during the 1992 L.A. riots, shocked the nation. A hip-hop/soul adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," a two-hander about James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and a celebration of the songs of Irving Berlin are also in the works. And as the theatres get ready to open, Faison is especially proud of the institution's community outreach program, which brings in students from the tri-state area.

"I'd like to bring the world here, and I intend to," Faison concludes. "I want to bring our words, our music, our literature right here." Referring to the Frederick Douglass project and to other works-in-progress that illuminate chapters in African-American history, he calls it "an honor to start with the past and then grow. And if it seems like a tall order, it's because a tall order is what we need, especially in Harlem. I don't know if we ever own up to our history—to the traditions we remember but don't really practice. This is our time to do so. And we will."
When Isaac said "we still live in a society that is racist, sexist, homophobic and deeply class striated," he is, of course, quite right. But, you know, it goes both ways. Everyone seemed to just accept Stewie's use of the phrase "prissy horrified purist," but might it not be equally offensive to a big, screaming, flaming homosexual like me? (Oh, wait -- am I self-loathing now, too?) But I didn't find it offensive, in fact, because while I think the phrasing has a homophobic ring to it, I don't think Stewie was thinking in those terms. "What up, yo?" ditto.

And I don't think it's helpful for everything we say and everything we think and everything we post to fall under the microscope of the political correctness police. Even when Stewie printed his famous "religion is bad theater for stupid people" rant, I didn't question his constitutional right to say it or believe it, I merely questioned the positioning of such a comment in a review in which the thought would not be germane.

Isaac, if I offended you, I am sorry. For me, enticing Spike Lee to direct Stalag 17 on Broadway is just not good enough if we all believe there needs to be more representation by artists of color in the American theater. And I expect that we all agree on that.

I encourage you all to read my review of The Last Year of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta when it comes out next week, in which I wax rhapsodic about Rodney Gardiner in the title role.

GThanks to Matt Freeman for expressing concern over whether the racism label might hurt me in terms of future employment. That's very kind and much appreciated.

And now, I'll end this post as I began it:
You don't have to like me, and you don't have to like my phrasing, and you don't have to like me not being as "measured and sensitive" as some of the precious and delicate flowers in the blogosphere expect me to be or wish I was. But when I was reporting, I didn't have to do those stories, regardless of what you think of them. I was in a position to raise awareness, and there is nobility in raising awareness, and I take second place to no one in my belief that dialogue, not the big gaping silence that greeted the Lee announcement, is what yields a better society.

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1 comment:

Alison Croggon said...

Go Leonard!

If that was what you wanted to say, don't you think that you could have said it better? It was by no means clear in your original post. And isn't that the point?