About Last Night

In hindsight, it was inevitable.

We are a divided nation. Half of us dream of a world that’s more inclusive, where society is constantly evolving to be ever more welcoming of people of all backgrounds, faiths, and philosophies; the other half, apprehensive of the changes caused by such an evolution, seek refuge in an idealized world of the past. And so we dream of some event where one side or the other will emerge victorious once and for all, even though we are so deadlocked that no such victory can ever take place, and the contests we create for such a victory to occur wind up resulting in confusing, inconclusive fiascos.

Obviously I’m talking about the Oscars here.

I have to admit, given that I’m a struggling artist of limited means and free time, I haven’t seen most of this year’s nominated films. But frankly, that doesn’t matter – we naturally project upon movies our politics, our ideals, our sense of how the world should be, and come Oscar time these become our vicarious champions every bit as much our local sports teams. I’ve been watching with fascination these past few weeks as narratives were constructed around the films by people with strong beliefs about how our aesthetics should mix with our politics. And they really didn’t care for La La Land (in which the world’s prettiest white people bring back 1950s-style musical choreography in order to save jazz, or something), and rallied around Moonlight (a low-budget labor of love which takes the black LGBT experience and makes it a universal statement). And through a month’s worth of think pieces and status updates, it’s been amazing to see just how elaborate the narrative around these films and this contest has become. It’s as if the fate of the nation was at stake; as if the election of the current president, and all that represents, would either be triumphantly negated or tragically confirmed based upon who won a trophy.

So naturally, the Oscar victory came in such a bizarre fashion that neither of these narratives could come to pass. La La Land won – but no it really didn’t! And the insane circumstances by which we learned Moonlight actually won prevented that movie from having any traditional moment of Oscar triumph. And once again, a nationally watched election, while it had a definitive winner, ended on note of grotesque inconclusiveness, as we tried to figure out just what the heck happened.

Of course.

As I note above, this shouldn’t be surprising – we’re too fractious a people for any one competition’s outcome to decide anything, and should expect a long succession of contests instead as we try and figure out just who we are, what we believe in, and what movies we should watch.

(Incidentally, if you’re curious just how those future contests might unfold, I recommend paying closer attention to the truly significant part of any televised event – last night’s commercials. It’s one thing for celebrities to espouse liberal and multicultural values, but when major corporations take out expensive ad time at the Oscars to do the same thing, you know that something significant is occurring. The road to victory may be rocky and full of set-backs, but that victory is likely already won.)


I’m still slowly making my way through the rough draft of my current writing project, but it appears I’ve settled on a project after that. Recently, a friend of mine was at a musical audition, and one of the grizzled showbiz vets at said audition told him he looked like a young Vic Damone. (The grizzled showbiz vet wasn’t wrong – my friend does resemble a young Vic Damone, and boasts a similar old-fashioned baritone.) When once he shared this on Facebook, I replied with the jest, “well it looks like you found your one-man show!” (Actors are constantly on the look-out for these, after all.) A few google searches later, and it dawned on me that there actually was sufficient material for an interesting one-man show, to say nothing of an actor willing to play the part. And so, this yet-unnamed piece jumped to the head of my on-deck line of writing projects.

If I do follow through with this plan for the Vic Damone piece, it will mean that of my last four scripts, three will have had their genesis on social media. Bay Ridge Lotus was inspired by a similar back-and-forth with a friend of mine on Twitter; Blanketing Merillon Avenue is a dramatization of an Election Day status update of mine from a few years back. (My current script actually stems from a much older inspiration, one pre-dating even my first email account. But that’s another story.)

All of which begs the question; am I spending too much time on Facebook?

To those worried that online interaction is both supplanting and poisoning our real lives, it probably seems like I’ve just supplied anecdotal evidence to support their worst fears. But artists have gathered in cafes and salons for centuries, having conversations precisely like the ones I describe above and fueling their inspiration in the exact same way. Is there really a difference?

Perhaps not. But perhaps, by moving the conversation into a digital landscape, it all becomes a little more unreal, and it’s easier for these ideas to peter out as daydreams rather than turn into real scripts and other works of art. It’s all a little early to tell, and we’re all still painfully learning just what we’re dealing with now that Mark Zuckerberg has opened Pandora’s box for us all.

In other news, if you haven’t already, please feel free to like my Facebook page.

Saga Symphony

A blizzard shut the city down this Thursday, and holed up in my apartment, I resolved to get some writing done on my next play (I managed a rough draft of the first scene). To try and facilitate the old creative juices, I went through my CD collection to find some music. I found a comparatively obscure 20th century symphonic work to listen to as I typed away. A work by the Icelandic composer Jon Leifs, known as the Saga Symphony.

The story of Leifs and this symphony is actually an interesting one, and tragic. Though Icelandic, Leifs was employed as a conductor in Germany for much of his career, and was there as the Nazis came to power and World War II broke out – along with his wife, who was Jewish, and their children. Leifs was well-placed enough to protect his family; so long as he remained a member of Berlin’s Composer’s Council, and assisted in the broadcasting of Nazi propaganda aimed at his home country, he was able to shield his family from persecution. By remaining outwardly compliant, he kept his family safe. Privately, he holed up in his proverbial garret and composed the Saga Symphony, an intensely patriotic (and by extension, anti-Nazi) work, which harkened back to the legendary figures of the Icelandic Sagas for inspiration. Here’s how the composer Hjalmar H. Ragnarsson describes it in the liner notes of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra recording I have:

“He shut himself in with his ideas, losing himself in the world of the old Icelandic manuscripts, that to him, was more real than the terror outside his door. In this world the characters in the sagas became magnificent heroes that no adversary could defeat and no power could force into submission. Only death could vanquish them, which these heroes met standing erect with a smile on their lips.”

The music manages to live up to this description. It bypasses much of the harmonic language of Western symphonic music, instead invoking something more ancient, primal. Its melody lines are so rugged and craggy as to barely qualify as melody. It has sudden bursts of percussion over ever churning strings. It even has tuned rocks and Viking shields as part of the instrumentation. (Perfect to have playing in the background while wrestling with one’s recalcitrant muse.)

But what are we to make of this work of art, and its composer scribbling in secret with the Nazis outside the door? Clearly Leifs’ hope (and the view of his admirers) is that this would be heard as an act of secret resistance, its ancient heroes providing inspiration to the modern world. But the figure of Leifs himself, at least in this portion of his life, reminds one of a helpless teenager, shutting out a world he’s powerless to change and seeking refuge in fantasy. He had Njall and Kari Solmundarson; we have Captain America and Iron Man. Is there much of a difference?

And did he, in the end, make a difference?

The question preys on my mind because of what I’ve been holed up writing myself. I’ll go into the specifics in another post, but it’s a mock Shakespeare play. It’s an idea I’ve been toying with for a long time, but finally figured out how to make work recently. And I’d like to think, as I map it out, that the final result will have things to say about the frightening world we’re living in right now. But it’s just as easy to point at me, in my cozy apartment, away from the rest of the world, and say that I’m retreating into a fantasy world based on an idealized past.

So which is it?

Hard to say. I’m still working on the script. Events around us are still unfolding. And nobody’s written my liner notes yet.


I had such plans.

After a particularly frantic week at my day job, I’d meant to hunker down on Friday, and for as much of the weekend as possible, working on my next playwriting project. I’ve only just started the actual drafting, but I’ve been researching and planning it out for a few months now (and thinking over the idea for several years now). And this was to be when I made my first real push.

And then, Thursday evening, I felt it. The first tickle in the throat. A cold. And blossoming fast at that.

Not to worry, I thought to myself. I have off Friday anyway. Take care of a few errands, then sit down and write in between sips of herbal tea and chicken soup. Not a problem.

But this was one of the bad colds. One of those 48-hours of wooziness colds. One of those colds that make everything taste different, and makes it feel like you’re walking through jello. One of those brutal, mind-fogging colds, for which the only cure seems to be blatant procrastination.

So, a few clicks and keystrokes, and my internet was up, and a quick computer game was to be had. And while I’d thought I’d only distract myself for a few minutes, the fetid miasma rapidly enveloping my brain made it impossible for me to concentrate on anything else. Several hours passed by, with me as mindless as the undead creatures I was battling in Plants vs. Zombies.

I felt guilty. All the work I’d planned to do was going undone. And not just work on my own projects. Just about everybody I know is lobbying and protesting and engaged with our trouble world in one way or another, and any chances I had of doing so over the past few days was rapidly fading. But I had to face it – this cold was bad enough that I couldn’t do these things even if I wanted to.

Well, it’s out of my system now.

So I promise, Gentle Reader, this time next week you’ll be reading about new projects aplenty. Which is as much a promise to myself as anything.

Confessions of a Part-Time Semi-Professional Racist

If you look at my resume, you’ll see that I’ve worked with some regularity at African-American theater companies; I recently worked with Negro Ensemble Company, I spent many years working with Classical Theatre of Harlem, etc. If you then navigate over to my photo gallery, you’ll probably notice that I’m Caucasian. It’s therefore safe to infer that I’ve spent a good portion of my acting career playing the “white” roles in black theater pieces.

I play a lot of racists, is what I’m saying.

This isn’t a particularly hard thing to do. Oftentimes these roles are fairly small, there to provide a moment of menace and either provide context for the story or fuel its conflict. If you’re playing the corrupt policeman who busts the title character in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, or are menacing the lead as the second guard or third townsman from the left, you typically don’t have to do much besides shout, glower, or sneer. This holds true even with a more complex character, like A Raisin In the Sun’s Karl Lindner. I don’t believe there’s a more finely drawn miniature portrait in American dramatic literature than Lindner, and the essence of it is the contrast between the polite face he’s putting forward and the fear, resentment, and racial entitlement which is just below the surface. But it’s those negative emotions which are the character’s fuel, some version of which you’re tapping into in order to play the character.

Simple, right? Racism is just the most negative elements of our psyche, which we turn against people who look different from ourselves. If you’re playing a racist, just tap into your own inner reserves of anger and hostility – we all have them, so you might as well put them to constructive use. You get to purge them from your system by performing the character, the audience gets a timely reminder to keep their own worst impulses in check, and the world grows steadily more progressive and enlightened.

Evidently not.

Not only is racism on the rise in a way I’ve never seen in my lifetime (seriously, read a paper or look around you, it’s freaking terrifying), but the folks we once would have dismissed as racists are demanding that we begin taking them seriously. Insisting that they have legitimate grievances informing their world views. Building whole edifices of political, economic, and social philosophies atop their beliefs. Stating with a straight face that the act of calling them racists is itself racist and therefore something only racists would do. And underneath it all, insisting that we empathize with them, and saying that our refusal to do so proves they have the moral high ground after all.

Well, fine.

A few weeks ago, I took part in a developmental reading of a new play. It’s called Class, and it’s about a frustrated young student confronting a professor whom he believes, not without reason, to have sabotaged his academic career. The professor is African-American, while the young white student, a lifetime of his father’s bitter rhetoric still ringing in his ears, has embraced the most feverish elements of white rage and racialist nationalism. The playwright herself is African-American, and constructed the play as a sincere investigation into the phenomenon, giving the student legitimate grievances and allowing him to expound on his beliefs in detail while giving the professor serious flaws of her own. The play functions as a debate between two equal participants – precisely the sort of respect and consideration these disaffected white voices say isn’t being afforded to them.

I played the student (since it was a developmental reading, we’ll conveniently ignore the fact that college was a loooooong time ago for me). I read that rhetoric allowed, used every tool in my arsenal to empathize with this lost soul, allow him to speak for himself. And in whatever official capacity I may have as professional empathizer, let me say this. A good faith effort to understand the hurts, frustrations, and grievances fueling this portion of our society doesn’t excuse them, doesn’t ameliorate the racism at all.

It makes it a thousand times worse.

I have never been more physically pained by the words I’ve been asked to speak. No cathartic bursts of anger here, no – this was a gnawing, poisonous ugliness that I’m still having trouble shaking. Providing a rationale for his behavior, providing a context to humanize him, did nothing to mask that ugliness. It only amplified it. I mentioned “edifices of political, economic, and social philosophies” above to describe this sort of rhetoric, and that may be how these people see their ideas, but the foundation on which those built is too twisted to be stable. It is, instead, a funhouse hall of mirrors, with their own ugliness endlessly reflected back at them.

Again, look around you. Look at the damage these people are causing to our society, our institutions, everything we say we hold dear.  We’re past the point where we need to wring our hands over whether calling them “racist” is hurting their feelings. Empathy and understanding may be critical, but only insofar as they help the rest of us to figure out how to defeat this ideology. And we have to be willing to say that defeat is indeed the ultimate goal.

Because I’m getting tired of playing these jackasses.

Once More Around the Sun

Today is my birthday. This planet has gone around the sun (redacted) times since first I appeared upon it.

I must admit, that (redacted) number gives me a little pause. Not for the reasons you might think, though. Unlike some actors, I’m not particularly worried about how that (redacted) number might make people think I’m old – I am old, dammit, and if I do say so myself I think I’m in half-way decent shape for a man aged (redacted). It’s not the number of the years itself – I’ve lived through, hell I’ve earned, every one of them. No, it’s the content of those years that weighs upon a person every time they know they’ve taken one more trip around the sun. Or more accurately, what we perceive as the lack of content.

One more trip around the sun, and I still haven’t booked a Broadway gig.

One more trip around the sun, and I still haven’t had a professional production of one of my scripts.

One more trip around the sun, and I still haven’t been published.

One more trip around the sun, and I’m still in the same place.

And this is just my own private, personal insecurities here. The whole planet takes the trip around the sun with me, of course. And looking at this world of ours after (redacted) years is an even more depressing prospect.

All these trips around the sun, and economic inequality is worse than ever.

All these trips around the sun, and racism and sexism still exist.

All these trips around the sun, and we haven’t found a better way for powering our lives than burning everything we can possibly dig out of the ground.

All these trips around the sun, and we still haven't realized that despotism is not a good thing.

All these trips around the sun, and now the corrupt real-estate tycoon we all used to mock is…well, you know.

Looking back can’t help but be depressing. And yet, we move forward anyway. Our hopes and dreams have merit, and there is but one way to realize them. Taking the leap of faith that each fresh chance might be the one that actually changes the outcome – for ourselves, our communities, our country, our planet.  We can never know how far we are from our destination, but we can still do what we can to head towards it.

And so, once more around the sun.