Stage Review: “The Humans”

March 16, 2018


From left: Richard Thomas, Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Daisy Eagan, and Luis Vega in “The Humans.” Photo: Julieta Cervantes.


By Robert Israel

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy once observed. But when Tolstoy’s insightful remark is applied to the modern American Blake family, gathered in a New York City apartment for Thanksgiving, it’s not either/or. In Stephen Karam’s long one-act, today’s families are forced to sip on a potent cocktail of both.

The Blakes – father Erik (Richard Thomas, of The Waltons fame), his wife Dierdre (Pamela Reed), have driven from Scranton, PA to Manhattan with his mother, Fiona (Lauren Klein), who, mostly confined to a wheelchair, is having one of her “bad days” as she struggles with dementia. The family meal is being hosted by daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan), a bartender cum composer, who lives with her older boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega), a forever-student, in their rattletrap duplex apartment. Older sister Aimee (Therese Plaehn), an unemployed lawyer who has recently lost her girlfriend in Philadelphia and is struggling with health issues, joins them. The feast is served on throwaway plastic plates.

Shortly after curtain, the Blakes link arms to join in a burst of of happiness. Raising their plastic cups, they break into an acapella song. But underneath the notes of that sweet song sit dirges, as each over the course of the evening reveals how he or she are grappling with formidable issues of health, finances, and employment. Because they know and love one another, they soften that sadness with familiar banter, the kind that comes that with shared histories. But on the other side of that bonhomie is plenty of exasperation and heartbreak. They’ve arrived at their stations in life without long term support structures — there are no emotional or financial safety nets.

Such is life in American in the 21st century, where dreams seems of prosperity are increasingly elusive, where careers are as fragile as the plastic plates heaped high with Thanksgiving turkey and store bought pie. Love and family is what’s left to provide solace and warmth in the face of harsh realities. Playwright Karam – known to Boston audiences for Sons of the Prophet, staged by the Huntington Theatre Company in 2011 — serves up a tough vision of American today. The frazzled threads of our internecine lives are sometimes all we have — and that is often not enough.

As Erik, Richard Thomas gives a strong, understated performance of a man facing the end of his long career with chagrin as he comes to realize that his daughters cannot provide him with the generous comfort he provides to his own ailing mother. He is stretched thin, worn a hole in his flimsy safety net, in part because he has made a number of bad choices. Pamela Reed’s Brigid dig into her character’s fragility; she is a woman who  as  a wife, mother, and caregiver and deserves a better reward. She has worked at her job for decades, only to be upstaged by younger managers, who, she tells us, are now making more lucrative salaries. Reed’s performance carefully suggests  the psychological despair whose character has been needlessly diminished by society. In a telling final scene, she places a religious statue on a darkened windowsill, an icon of righteousness she hopes will bring luck that has evaded her. A gift to a daughter who also sorely needs it.

The set design by David Zinn deserves praise, a duplex apartment that is creepy and comes with all the trappings of boxed-in life in the Big Apple: bad wiring, noisy neighbors, and cockroaches. In Zinn’s capable creation, the actors ascend and descend a spiral staircase — a visual metaphor for the swirl of their rising and falling fortunes.

The family name – Blake – reminded me of the ironic vision of English poet William Blake whose 1789 book Songs of Innocence and Experience presents whimsical glimpses of paradise on earth, undercut with the harshness of darker, more demonic forces. By choosing to give this appellation to a modern American family, playwright Karam, who has earned praise and several Tony awards for this superb production, suggests that Americans are living in a kind limbo  — it is a Heaven that can flip, in a moment, into a Hell. By clinging together, mindful of the wayward spins of our wheel of fortune — we might just make the best of what we have.


This review appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston), March 16, 2018.


Stage Review: “Every Brilliant Thing”

March 13, 2018

Actress Adrianne Krstansky in “Every Brilliant Thing”

By Robert Israel

The subject of depression, anxiety, and suicide is widely misunderstood. Even though we live in a more informed society in the 21st century, we still have a long way to go when it comes to expressing compassion (and committing the resources) to help those suffering from mental illness. Yes, posters on the MBTA urge those struggling with mental illness to seek help at various Boston-area institutions, to reach out to the Samaritans, or to join a clinical study at MGH. But posters are easily ignored. It takes education and an intervention to hear a cry for help and a structure in place act on it to help the person to find support and/or treatment.

Thus the merit of Every Brilliant Thing, which deals boldly with the subject of mental illness. It is being given an insightful but uneven production at SpeakEasy Stage Company, where the evening stars the engaging and talented Adrianne Krstansky. The problem is that the demanding weight of the subject relies too heavily on its solo performer, in this case Krstansky, and her considerable ability to convince us that she is a person with a depressed mother. This puts an enormous responsibility on Krstansky to make a challengingly murky subject clear, particularly depression/suicide, which resists that kind of transparency.

The play revolves around a daughter who battles her mother’s illness in a home where that illness has sucked her and her (unseen) father into a maelstrom of pain. In an attempt at keeping things moving along, the script has her reaching out to audience members, who, having been handed slips of yellow paper beforehand, recount aloud from an endless list of seemingly arbitrary “brilliant things” that Krstansky has compiled as a therapeutic tool to help distract her mother from the depths of her hopelessness. These snippets are key to the protagonists’ journey from childhood to adulthood. They draw on humor, and sometimes we hear a snatch or two of music, designed to help move Duncan Macmillian’s lugubrious script forward.

The difficulty with this as a theatrical device is that there are far too many of these snippets. Often times, the audience, employed to be de facto members of the cast, do not deliver their assignments audibly. A puzzling aspect of the production is that a microphone is available — but it is used infrequently. Lightweight mics could easily be distributed to willing members of the audience who agree to participate beforehand. But that isn’t the approach. So, instead, we get a lot of mumbling, many bumbled lines, and a solo performer left to carry on despite formidable obstacles.

In Every Brilliant Thing‘s best moments, making use of the audience members in this fashion is an effective device: it creates a psychodrama, like those used by therapists to set up a safe environment where several people with assigned roles put a human face on members of the afflicted person’s world to help him or her visualize the source of their mental anguish. This device pops up when Krstansky seeks the help of a school counselor, for example, who removes her shoes and uses her sock by inserting her hand inside it, to speak to the child in an unthreatening and sympathetic voice. The night I attended the audience member was willing, audible, and compassionate – all three ingredients are needed – and it worked, splendidly.

But there needs to be more of these theatrically satisfying moments. As it stands now, Krstansky, a marvelous actress, understandably exhibits signs of the strain of having to carry the entire production on her shoulders.

A companion play, ‘night Mother, Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer prize-winning script about suicide, came to mind frequently while I watched this show (Norman wrote the drama about a daughter struggling with mental illness). Like Norman’s play, Every Brilliant Thing aims to bring us closer to an understanding of depression, to encourage our compassion for those trapped in the dark. In a sense, the script picks up where Norman’s play left off. But this production needs to grapple more seriously with how to more effectively assist audience volunteers to take on roles they are not trained to perform.


This review originally appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston) on March 12, 2018.

“Threepenny Opera” — A preview

March 13, 2018

David Angus, Music Director, Boston Lyric Opera

By Robert Israel

I asked David Angus, a British native and Music Director of the Boston Lyric Opera’s upcoming production of Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera if he’s familiar with the Americanized version of the show’s opening song, “Mack the Knife,” made popular by singer Bobby Darin in 1962. He pauses. “No,” he replies. After a moment, he asks: “Tell me, does that American version talk about slashing and murdering?”

Well, not exactly. First introduced by jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong in 1956, Bobby Darin’s 1962 recording of “Mack the Knife” is considerably more upbeat. There are references to murder and exsanguination, but they come by way of a swinging tempo, reflective of the groovy 1960s, and delivered by a tuxedo-clad Darin who finger-pops his way through the verses. Darin’s recording sold millions of copies, crowned the Billboard chart for weeks, and later earned him a Grammy award.

“The Boston Lyric Opera production remains faithful to the original, but it is sung in English, not German,” Angus says. “It features a small band of 11 players who double-up on additional instruments, so that the saxophonist also plays flute, for example. The production, directed by James Derrah, will reflect a troubling time in history, namely life among the lowly in Berlin in the 1920s.”

Freely appropriated from by John Gay’s (music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch) 1728 satirical composition The Beggar’s Opera, the Brecht/Weill version is “an angry piece,” Angus insists, “a sort of Oliver Twist meets Cabaret. It depicts the incredible poverty and squalor that existed in Berlin in the late 1920s. It captures the angry outrage among people who cried out to those who were wealthy and in power, ‘First of all feed us, and then you can judge us.’ It is socialist and anti-materialist. It is brutal in its honest depiction of people struggling to survive. It shows people who say, ‘If you don’t feed us and don’t look after us, then don’t judge us for trying to survive.’”

Angus explains that The Threepenny Opera is “more of a play with a gritty little jazz band” rather than a grand opera. In fact, it is meant to satirize the notion that opera is entertainment for the rich. “The piece says, simply, that the real world is more gritty, more shabby, more troublesome.”

Berlin in the 1920s, which saw widespread trampling of the underclass, gave way to the aggressive opulence of the wealthy, which assisted the rise of the murderous Nazis. This radical transformation was faithfully captured by author Christopher Isherwood in his Berlin Stories, which later became the source material for the musical (and film) Cabaret. The era has also recently been faithfully captured in a 2017 German language television series Berlin Babylon, now available on Netflix. One segment from that series depicts the August 31, 1928 premiere of The Threepenny Opera in Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm (now home for Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble). A cast member, in whiteface, is accompanied by a barrel organ. As he sings “Mack the Knife,” gangsters carrying tommy guns stalk the stage.

“We use a harmonium for that song in our production,” Angus says, stressing that the music, while initially sounding “banal and simple, is really rather brilliant. Kurt Weill knew how to get the music into our heads and into our hearts. And while, on the one hand, it is highly entertaining, it is also haunting, and it depicts how unfair life is for people. It reveals a darker side of humanity.”

Indeed, that was Brecht’s scabrous inspiration for the play. “In the dark times/ Will there also be singing?” he once asked in a poem. “Yes, there will also be singing./ About the dark times.”

Angus, who divides his time between Boston and his native England, insists this savage vision of inequity will be represented in the BLO’s production: “You can be certain that when the show begins and you hear “Mack the Knife,” the choreography will suggest scenes of slashing and murdering.”


This report originally appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston) on March 12, 2018.

Remembering Larry Coen, Boston Actor

March 8, 2018

The late Larry Coen

Actor Larry Coen died in Boston on January 31.

By Robert Israel

Whether walking down Commercial Street on the way to a matinee at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, or waiting in queue at Boston’s Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA to see a show, I’d hear his voice – the unmistakable sound of actor Larry Coen — who died on January 31 at the age of 59 in Boston.

Coen’s was a booming, rich voice. His presence was large and brash. He suffered no fools. He took nary a prisoner. With his rotund belly jutting past his suspenders, his round, jovial, and fiercely intelligent face, Coen could easily command a room or a stage.

He had talent to more-than-match his robust aura: Coen was a mainstay in Boston theater. He was best known for the vibrant precision of his comic skills, a genius for transforming humor, ranging from the farcical to the absurd, into a kind of inspiring transcendence. He performed just about everywhere with everyone: Huntington Theatre Company, Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, SpeakEasy Stage Company, the Beau Jest Moving Theatre, and myriad others. He was always working.

I first met Coen when he was one of the stars in an outrageous production that Ryan Landry’s Gold Dust Orphans troupe was staging at the Machine, located in a basement of a gay bar that hosts a performance space near Fenway Park. (Landry calls the place the Ramrod Center for the Arts). Coen appeared in over 35 productions there. In one particular Gold Dust performance — from about  a decade ago — he was made to waddle onstage in a shabby Santa Claus suit, an Old Nick who looked far more depraved than did jolly. Coen had to endure numerous gropings by the cast – I’m talking full frontal crotch attacks.

Some years later, I asked him how he managed to survive each night.

“Are you kidding me?” Coen boomed. “I’d never get through it unless I wore a baseball player’s cup underneath!”

Landry, in his Facebook posting on the performer wrote: “Dear God, we had such great times. So many years. So many wonderful, wonderful hours together. I am so thankful for that. Still, he is gone. My rock. I will never get over this one. Never.”

At the time of his death, Coen was working as artistic director at City Stage, a non-profit educational group that brings theater into the city’s schools. A co-worker found him at his desk; his death has been attributed to natural causes.

Born in Newton, Coen attended public schools there, graduating from Newton North High. He majored in theater at Brandeis University and, at the time of his death, lived in Boston.

Coen was fiercely supportive of other actors, and was a dependable resource for theater troupes looking to stage events as well as actors looking for work. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of performing places in Boston – he was friendly with numerous club owners, stagehands, and school program directors – and he kept his mental Rolodex up-to-date at all times. He had no patience with theater critics, particularly those who not prepared to see a show beforehand. Coen could be scathing about the anemic cultural coverage in Boston’s dailies, whom he accused of offering “paltry support” for the arts in general and the city’s theater companies in particular.

“They are doing less now for theater groups and they’ve even told out-of-town theater groups they won’t be covering them,” Coen told me. “More and more, you’ve got to make it on your own in this business.”


Ryan Landry is hosting a remembrance for Larry Coen on Sunday, April 1, at 5 p.m., at the Machine, which he promises will be a “joyous” (read: raucous) event.


This article is reprinted from The Arts Fuse (Boston), Feb. 3, 2018 issue.

Interview with Yvonne Lam, Violinist

February 1, 2018

Eighth Blackbird: Nathalie Joachim, flutes, Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets, Yvonne Lam, violin and viola, Nick Photinos, cello, Matthew Duvall, percussion, and Lisa Kaplan, piano.

By Robert Israel

I first happened on the provocative virtuosity of the Chicago-based sextet Eighth Blackbird — performing at Cambridge’s Sanders Theatre on Saturday (February 3), courtesy of the Celebrity Series of Boston — some years ago. I was tuned to All Songs Considered. This was in the days before our local NPR stations made the switch to almost all-talk format, back when you could actually listen to a piece of music — and if you liked it you would sit in the car until it was finished, and later purchase the album.

I do not remember the title of the composition I first heard, but I recall being impressed by the mastery of the players. With a spare array of instruments — violin, piano, cello, clarinet and flute — they created the roughly lyrical sounds of nature in extremis, complete with flourishes of commotion and the frictional scrapes of regeneration – in the mode of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” And I knew I had to learn more about the performers.

In an effort to do just that, earlier this week I talked with Eighth Blackbird member Yvonne Lam, who plays violin and viola. She reflected on the pieces she and the sextet will perform this Saturday, including Nico Muhly’s Doublespeak, a homage to Philip Glass’s 75th birthday and selections from the folk-inspired Murder Ballades by Bryce Dessner of the rock band The National. “Murder Ballades” is an eerie romp through the folk ballad tradition. Dessner, Lam says, has gone on to compose three additional “Ballades” that Eighth Blackbird hopes to record someday.

“The opportunities of discovering a new artist or a musical group through serendipity, by listening to them for the first time on the radio, is rapidly diminishing,” Lam says after I told her how I had first discovered Eighth Blackbird. “Our group relies heavily on social media to attract new listeners.”

But social media turns out to be a mixed blessing, Lam explains. She reflects that, while all of the group’s albums are available on Spotify and other social media channels, many of these channels essentially give away their music for free. Sales of Eighth Blackbird’s albums are flat.

The evening of the day Lam and I spoke the Grammy Awards were being televised. Eighth Blackbird – which takes its name from the stanza of a Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” – was awarded a 2016 Grammy for its album Filament. The group has been awarded three additional Grammys. Does being part of the exclusive Grammy award-winners club have any concrete privileges? Does winning a Grammy Award boost album sales? “Not really,” Lam insists. “It’s nice to be acknowledged. It’s nice to be recognized by our peers in the music industry. But we have not experienced the slightest uptick in sales as a result of being Grammy Award winners.”

Has winning Grammys led to more gigs? “That’s hard to say,” Lam considers. “It does give us cache, no question. But we get most of our gigs from personal contacts.”

Being a member of a sextet is a full-time job for the all the performers who, in addition to practicing their instruments, commission and compose new works, travel to gigs and recording sessions, and share administrative duties. For Lam, she had the added responsibility of being a mother to a young child.

“We’re all involved in running a small business,” she says, adding that the group had made the executive decision that it cannot afford the services of a public relations flak.

Part of the joy, Lam says, of being a member of Eighth Blackbird is the ongoing challenge and satisfactions of discovering new works and then taking these on the road and into the studio.

“We’ve traveled all over and we’re set to do more gigs in the coming months,” Lam says. “It’s an adventure I’m glad to be part of.”


This piece first appeared in the January 29, 2018 edition of The Arts Fuse (Boston).

E. J. Dionne, Jr. Discusses His New Book: “One Nation After Trump”

January 6, 2018



E. J. Dionne, Jr.
E. J. Dionne, Jr.

E. J. Dionne, Jr., is the William Bloomberg Visiting Professor for 2017–18, a joint appointment between Harvard Divinity School, the Kennedy School, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. A syndicated columnist for The Washington Post and a university professor at Georgetown University, Dionne grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, and earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1973. This fall, Dionne has been teaching two courses at HDS. He sat down in his Divinity Hall office with Bulletin contributor Robert Israel to discuss his new book.

The subtitle of One Nation After Trump—“a guide for the perplexed”—calls to mind the book by the same title written by Jewish philosopher Maimonides in the twelfth century. How do you and your co-authors hope to similarly enlighten readers who are perplexed—indeed, deeply troubled—by Donald Trump’s presidency?

We were very much inspired by Maimonides. Norman Ornstein, my co-author, is responsible for giving the book that subtitle. We do not wish to imply that we are reaching Maimonides’s level by any means. Rather, we discuss how we, as a nation, can get on a better path now that Trump is president.

We see the Trump presidency as a threat that goes beyond the normal situation that arises from a president you might disagree with. We see Trump posing a fundamental threat to our constitutional government and the norms of how our government operates. Trump has broken these norms one after the other. Examples include his financial conflicts of interest [not divesting himself of business interests while serving as president] and his pardon of Joe Arpaio [the Arizona sheriff who illegally profiled Latinos]. He is a threat because of his autocratic tendencies. And while the American system is strong, it is only as strong as the people who occupy important places in it. We think it is important to resist those tendencies that we find in Trump.

By autocratic tendencies, we refer to numerous instances when Trump declared [at the 2016 Republican national convention], “I alone can fix it.” That is not fundamentally a democratic way of fixing things. Historically, when you see autocratic regimes like Trump’s take over, they go after the courts, the media, and they try to render the opposition illegitimate. Trump has done this repeatedly—there is a long list—and he has demonized not only Democrats but also members of his own party.

In the first part of the book, we examine why Trump’s presidency happened and how much of his election reflected the developments in the Republican Party during the last fifteen to twenty years. We also discuss the racial/immigration divide, on the one hand, and the real economic difficulties faced by a lot of people in this country, on the other, and how these factors contributed to make Trump’s election possible. In the second part of the book, we offer a way forward for those who are perplexed by these disturbing trends.

What factors paved the way for Trump’s win?

Early on in his candidacy, Trump was never challenged when it came to claims he made, for example, that President Obama was not born in the U.S., referred to as “birthism.” Trump also made false statements that President Obama was a Muslim. The way Trump delivered these two fundamental untruths—and the fact that the Republican Party, other than Senator John McCain in 2008, did not call him out on these untrue statements—paved the way for more of the same.

There have been a lot of dog-whistle controversies around the issue of race in politics for many years, and Trump has turned these dog-whistles into a bullhorn. Once you start down roads like that, particularly with the issue of race, it gets very dangerous. Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” The fact that the Republican Party did not call Trump out on these and other statements he made gave rise to his election.

How do these factors apply to the issue of voter suppression?

It’s interesting that when you look, historically, at the Voting Rights Act, it could not have passed without the support of the Republican Party. So their abandonment of that act is disturbing. It takes us back to the pre–civil rights era, when such things as false literacy tests were mandated and respondents were asked to answer questions that no one could answer, and the example of poll taxes, which we got rid of. But now we have Trump’s false charge of voter fraud, for example, which was, once again, found to be untrue, and other examples of suppressed voting. We decided, as a nation, that keeping people away from the ballot box was fundamentally un-American when we passed the Voting Rights Act. Weakening that act also gave rise to Trumpism.

In a chapter titled “Our Little Platoons,” you discuss actions taken against Trump by religious leaders, such as being “at the forefront in battling Trump’s immigration policies” (230). Can you reflect on this?

In my Divinity School course, “Religion in America’s Political Conscience and at the Ballot Box,” I argue that you cannot look at the long American story without seeing how religious groups intervened again and again, at critical moments, on behalf of justice.

In recent years, we have tended to focus on the role of religious conservatives in American politics, which is not to say that they are not deserving of it, but, as a result of that intense focus, we have lost sight of what religious people historically did at other important points, including in the movement against slavery in this country. We’ve lost sight of what religious people did to form the original progressive movement. We’ve lost sight of the letter by U.S. Catholic bishops in 1919 on social reconstruction. We’ve overlooked the long history of Jewish groups and the role they’ve played in social justice. We’ve overlooked the civil rights movement itself, headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., who led this movement by quoting Isaiah, Moses, Jesus, and by citing the U.S. Constitution.

In the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy, four Jewish rabbinic groups protested President Trump’s lack of moral leadership by canceling their annual High Holiday conference call with the president.1 Are you seeing more examples of religious groups speaking out against Trump?

Yes, there’s greater clarity among religious groups to speak as one voice—for example, when the issue of immigration and deportation came up and the pope spoke out against that. And I think the example of Jewish and Muslim groups working together on behalf of justice is heartening for this country, too, by joining forces to work against prejudice. We’ve seen that when a Muslim site has been desecrated, Jews in many communities have stood up for the Muslims. It’s very heartening and very American. We will look back at this time in our history and ask, “When did people stand up?” or “Did they stand up at the right moment and for the right things?” In many instances, religious groups and leaders are leading by standing up against Trumpism.

What other instances can you cite in which citizens are coming together as a way forward against Trumpism?

During the town hall meetings that took place nationally during Congressional attempts to repeal Obamacare, many people came together to speak out against the Republican leadership, and many of these people voted for Trump, but they saw Obamacare as helping, not hurting, many people.

We see a coming together around the nation, for example here at Harvard, when the leadership spoke out against Trump’s decision to do away with DACA and voiced support to protect students brought here by immigrant parents from being deported.

In another example, we look at how corporate America, often reluctant to go against a Republican president, is speaking out. After Charlottesville, many corporate leaders said they could not identify with Trump’s lack of moral leadership. They did not say that Trump is not a good fiscal conservative, which obviously benefits them, but, rather, they stated that he is threatening the very foundations of American government. Many are even reaching out to the political center.

In the closing chapters of your book, you discuss a “restitching” of America—a word that evokes your hometown of Fall River, once a mill town. Do you believe we, as a nation, can “restitch” the gap that has widened under President Trump?

I like to describe myself as hopeful, despite the fact that there are many reasons now to be pessimistic.

We are divided as a country in many ways. There are times when it feels like we’re in a cold civil war with each other. In politics we are seeing that we are increasingly in opposing camps, more than we’ve been in a very long time. Economically, we’ve been pulled apart. There are some communities that are really hurting as a result. We almost look like a different country, depending on what community you look at. There is a lot of anger in politics, and I’m not talking about just our disagreements with one another politically, but increased anger against elected officials.

We can, as a nation, come together. In our book, we argue for a new economy, a new democracy, a new civil society, and a new patriotism. We explore some of the economic reforms we need to end this sharp division by region in the country over economics. We also insist that progressives should stand up for the whole working class and how we should worry about the white working class, but also we should worry about the Latino and the African American and the Asian working class and how we could bring those concerns together.

What signs are you seeing that this vision is taking shape in our nation today?

What gives me hope is that the Trump experience is so extreme that it is pulling people back and reminding them that norms in government really matter. It’s reminding people that when they say, “All politicians are crooks,” they are actually enabling the most corrupt politicians to succeed.

I see people coming together around the issue of immigrants, around issues of racial justice, and, in significant parts of the country, I see people reaching out to one another. I see these as positive signs. There is more willingness now than there was twenty years ago to deal with issues of economic inequality. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, a new civil rights movement is gaining ground. There’s more of a willingness to face real problems that exist in our country today.

And, last, because liberals tend to be more uneasy with patriotism, I see a re-embracing of patriotic ideas, rooted in our American values. This new patriotism that we call for in our book could be a way of getting excited again about the American idea.

Joni Mitchell once said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” I think we are becoming more mindful now that we are under threat to lose what we have in our country. We’re realizing how important it is to preserve and advance certain American liberties. Under Trumpism, we are not taking these values for granted.


  1. The four groups who took this action are the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
This article is reprinted from Harvard University Divinity School Bulletin (Cambridge, Mass., Autumn issue, 2017).

Review: Nikki Giovanni’s “A Good Cry”

January 6, 2018

By Robert Israel

A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter by Nikki Giovanni, William Morrow, 128 pages, $19.99.

Flashback, circa 1980s:

I’m on a field trip from Roxbury to Beacon Hill with students from my high school English class. They call me “Teach.” Several of my students confess that they earn cash by working as lookouts at “shooting galleries” on Boston’s Blue Hill Avenue. Bankrolled by drug pushers, the kids alert addicts, mainlining heroin in vacant apartments, if any Boston police are approaching.

“We make more money on the street than you do, Teach,” they say.

We arrive at Suffolk’s C. Walsh Theatre. African-American poet Nikki Giovanni reads from her poem “Ego- Tripping.” She urges us not to let our boastful selves get the best of us, to use our vitality for the collective good.

Returning to Roxbury, several students exclaim: “You know something, Teach? Nikki Giovanni — she’s really cool.”

Flash-forward, 2017:


Now 74 years old, a longtime professor of English at Virginia Tech, with over 27 books of poetry and prose to her credit, Nikki Giovanni remains “cool.”

Her new volume of poetry, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, draws on her life to lay bare the sorrows and joys of the human experience Her language is earthy, wise, and warm. There’s no gussied up iambs or flowery speech. Giovanni uses plain talk.

There is no central thread to the collection. With Giovanni, you get the myriad aspects of her life and meet various people she’s encountered along the way. She takes us on a meander, not a steeplechase.

She doesn’t flinch from describing abhorrent memories, such as witnessing her father beat her mother “every Saturday night.” Her mother concludes that she has only two choices: “Leave or kill him.” Giovanni acknowledges the influence of her grandmother, whom she adored, and the folks she knew in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she came of age. She registers the curse of poverty and describes her fight against racism. She insists that these challenges not drag down or muddy our spirits. She writes tributes to the late actress Ruby Dee, to her mentor/friend the late celebrated poet Maya Angelou, and to Big Maybelle, the famed blues shouter. A cancer survivor, Giovanni tells us about her illness and convalescence; she savors life with the gratitude of a survivor, thankful for her healers. She thanks a student who fetches her coffee from Starbucks during a snowstorm: she takes nothing, and no one, for granted.

Several of the poems exhibit a wry sense of humor: Giovanni muses about fancying a young man while an undergraduate at Fisk, comically dovetailing her appetite for food and his good looks. She also writes as an educator. It is in these poems that she brought me back to that long ago bus ride I took with my students from Blue Hill Avenue to see her read on Beacon Hill. In the poem, “The Tassel’s Worth the Hassle: An Introduction,” she questions the value of standardized education, and argues that schoolchildren might be better off if high school ended at the 10th grade. She advocates that an additional two years to be added on to the requirement for a baccalaureate degree. “Send the kids on to Community Service,” she writes. “Let them go abroad.”

The poem “Baby West” elaborates on the meaning of the book’s title; that we have to learn how to cleanse our spirits. “I am trying to learn how to cry,” Giovanni writes. “It is not that my life has been a lie/But that I repressed my tears.”

Giovanni has not repressed her activism. She’s gone from championing civil rights in the 1960s to leading a chant poem in homage to students gunned down during the recent rampage at Virginia Tech. A Good Cry suggests that underneath her commitment to community was a mission to achieve personhood — despite the odds: “Grandmother had to beg/ A White man to let me/enroll in Austin High,” she writes.

Reading Nikki Giovanni, one is inspired to never cower, to never beg, to never surrender.


This review originally appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston) on Dec. 31, 2017.

Best 2017 Boston-area Stage Productions

December 29, 2017

By Robert Israel

The most rewarding stage productions in 2017 conjoined set designs, lighting, acting, direction, and scripts to transform and entertain us. Here are my top three choices:

Sweet Bird of Youth, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Fred Abrahamse. Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, at the Wharf House, Provincetown, MA.

This superb South African staging of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, a tale of reckless ambition and love gone astray, featured Marcel Meyer as gigolo Chance Wayne and Fiona Ramsay as the tawdry Princess Kosmonopolis. The set and lighting by Abrahamse – a stage surrounded by a gurgling moat – cast a hallucinatory spell. The cast’s delivery of Williams’s poetic dialogue was achingly delicate. This troupe travels from Cape Town to Cape Cod each year. It should be booked at a larger Boston-area venue in 2018.

Oscar (Alejandro Simoes), Shelley (Melinda Lopez), Emma (Ally Dawson), and Frog (Thomas Derrah) in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Grand Concourse.” Photo: Glenn Perry.

Oscar (Alejandro Simoes), Shelley (Melinda Lopez), Emma (Ally Dawson), and Frog (Thomas Derrah) in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Grand Concourse.” Photo: Glenn Perry.

Grand Concourse, by Heidi Schreck. Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. SpeakEasy Stage Co., at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston, MA.

Playwright Schreck introduced us to men and women struggling to maintain dignity and faith in a church’s soup kitchen in the Bronx. The set by Jenna McFarland Lord accentuated the location’s shabbiness, heightening the desperation of the characters’ plights. The cast — Melinda Lopez, Alejandro Simones, and the late Thomas Derrah – were, by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking.

Ripcord, by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Jessica Stone. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company, at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston, MA.

Lindsay-Abaire skillfully avoids the maudlin (exploited by other playwrights taking on senior citizen material) in this drama, which takes us beyond the lime-green walls of a dreary nursing home by crafting a play-within-a-play that includes haunted house and a skydiving expedition. He displays a canny ear for barbed geriatric banter, delivered by two expert foils at the HTC — veteran actresses Nancy E. Carroll and Annie Golden.

R.I.P. – Sam Shepard, who died this year at age 73, once said: “I got into writing plays because I had nothing else to do. I started writing to keep from going off the deep end.” This author of over 55 plays and three short story collections peered over the edge of that “deep end” with rip-roaring artistry, winning a Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child, a harrowing, uniquely American play. His final book, Spy of the First Person, was completed while he was suffering with ALS.


This article originally appeared in the December 28 issue of The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Madonna of Sheafe Street

November 21, 2017


View of Sheafe Street, Boston.

by Robert Israel

The rain that began on Sunday kept the skies over Boston leaden all through the week. Garrulous peddlers at the Haymarket hurled insults at anybody caught lingering underneath their tents and not buying soggy produce. On Blackstone and Hanover streets the accumulated despair from all corners of the city seemed to settle onto the stooped shoulders of intoxicated men who huddled under leaky tarps.

I caved in to the gloom made heavier by the weight of my empty pockets. I trudged down Salem Street, no job prospects in sight. By nightfall, in the shadows of the illuminated downtown office windows that glowed like grinning teeth, I lay in bed waiting for another never-gladdening new day.


Donella raised the venetian blinds, squinting as the first rays of sunlight in over a week danced on laundry strung between tenements. Leaning on a pillow, a kerchief around her head, she tossed breadcrumbs to pigeons that flocked beneath her windowsill.

Lilly, who lived in the apartment next to mine, told me that our neighbor Donella moved to her flat thirty years before, pregnant with her daughter, Maria. She spoke no English. Weeks before the baby was due Donella’s husband announced he was stepping out for a pack of smokes. He never returned. Lilly said that she and her brothers suspected Donella’s husband’s disappearance had something to do with unpaid gambling debts, but no one knew for sure.

Facie brute,” Lilly called the vanished man. “I don’t blame her, she’s a peasant, from the mountains. But him!” She hurled a mouthful of spit onto the sidewalk. “If he ever returns and I get my hands on him, he’ll be dead before the spit on that sidewalk has a chance to dry.”

Lilly dressed in black that matched her dyed hair. She never married. She smelled of lacquer and perfume. Her voice was raspy from years of smoking. Her brothers visited her daily, their footsteps trudging down the long linoleum corridor to her rooms.

Once a week a van from the church parked on Sheafe Street. Two nuns trundled up the stairs to fetch Donella and Maria from their flat that was furnished only with a toilet and a kitchen sink. The nuns brought them both to the public baths at the North End Union on Parmenter Street so they could be bathed and groomed.

“Sometimes, when it’s cold outside the old lady can’t make it down the stairs, Maria boils water for her on the hot plate and washes the old lady’s hair, like she’s making pasta,” Lilly said. “I used to go over there to help them, to bring them things, but not lately. If I go over there now, it’s too much for me, it breaks my heart.”

Women from the neighboring streets would appear every now and again holding plastic boxes of food and spuckadellas from the bakeries on Prince Street. They’d rap on the windowpane. They’d call Donella’s name aloud, twice, maybe three times. Donella would raise her venetian blinds, pull back her curtains, prop open the window and smile her toothless grin. She’d lean over, and accept their food and then she’d hold up her rosary to bless them.


Most summer weekends the neighborhood prepared for the street-side festivals held in honor of the Saints. Crowds streamed down Salem Street beneath colorful lights strung between tenements and draped onto light posts. Vendors sold cream-filled pastries, meatball sandwiches, clams on the half shell, curbside shot glasses of homemade grappa.

At the Feast of Madonna della Cava, men from the social club on Battery Street displayed a banner depicting Mother Mary as she had appeared in a mute boy’s dream from a 13th century Sicilian folktale. They paraded the banner through the streets on a stretcher covered with plastic flowers. The crowd cheered, “Viva Madonna della Cava!” Greenbacks, tossed from tenement windows, cascaded over the procession like confetti. Alter boys retrieved the fistfuls of cash from the gutters and pinned the bills on the Madonna whose eyes stared heavenward in blissful reverie. A priest, crucifix in hand, led the throng. The Roma Band played “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Smoke from the grilled sausages and the steam from manicotti bubbling in aluminum trays blanketed the air like fog.

I had no reason to celebrate. Another month passed and still no work. Lilly wormed it out of me that I was skimping on food and threatened to give me a sciafo unless I stocked up. The next day, and every day thereafter, she “cooked coffee,” as she put it, delivering a canister to my apartment sweetened with sugar and evaporated milk. She’d leave stuffed peppers on my doorstep covered with foil paper or calamari with the squid’s tentacles and darkened eye sockets positioned on the plate so it looked as if they had just swum to the surface from a sea of red sauce.

Lilly clipped coupons from the newspaper and slipped them under my door, but I found other bargains: day old spuckadellas from the bakery, half-price; free pizzas still warm if I asked for the owner by name and showed up before the close of business; overripe fruits and vegetables at the Haymarket that had been left in crates on the sidewalks every Friday and Saturday evenings.


One Friday morning I spied Maria lumbering down Salem Street past butcher shops where carcasses of lambs hung from meat hooks and the shiny slaughtered pigs, their pink hooves tucked beneath them, looked as if they had just finished some sort of morbid ballet.

I caught up with Maria at the Haymarket’s open stalls. She poked tomatoes and argued over prices with the men at the pushcarts. I approached her, offered to carry her bundles back to the North End. She acted as if she didn’t comprehend. So I did a pantomime: I hunched over, swayed back and forth on the balls of my feet, pretending to be a beast of burden. She nodded consent.

We hoofed it back to Donella’s and Maria’s apartment. The old lady was waiting by the window. She waved to me. I waved back. Donella gestured, insistent I approach the window. Pigeons scattered. With Maria now beside her, she opened the window. She tried to thank me, indecipherable words spilling forth from her toothless mouth. I looked up, puzzled. She held up a rosary. I lowered my head to receive her blessings.


On the following Monday morning, a temporary employment agency telephoned with an assignment, to report the next day for work at one of the downtown office buildings.

Crossing into the city the next morning, I passed the corner of Blackstone and Hanover streets where the homeless men in Haymarket Square were sleeping it off in the chill morning air. I raced up the steps to Government Center plaza. The city was drenched in brilliant sunlight. The Madonna was smiling.



(dedicated to Robin Chase)

The Madonna of Sheafe Street will be be included in Robert Israel’s collection of essays, Light Upon the Roads, to be published in 2018.

Liam and the Woodpile

November 14, 2017


By Robert Israel

Liam telephones. His voice is whisper-thin.

“I can’t get to the woodlot today,“ he says. “I’m in the hospital.”

I ask if he’s all right.

“Nothing to worry about,” he says, and the call ends.

Two weeks later he telephones again.

“Might it be convenient for you to stop by today?” he asks.

Liam is seventy-three, with six grown children. He emigrated from Ireland as a teenager. I visit his woodlot each autumn to load firewood into my Honda. He employs two workers from South America, they wear overalls and thick round-tipped work boots and they never wear gloves: their hands are caked with grease so no splinters puncture their flesh.

When I arrive at the woodlot at our agreed upon time, Liam is stacking firewood alongside his helpers. Liam’s son Declan is scuttling about the woodlot in a Bobcat.

Liam has wracked up several vehicles over the years, including his beloved green flatbed, the one that had his name stenciled on the driver’s side door. This past winter, when over six feet of snow fell between January and February, he swerved onto a patch of black ice and hit a light post.

“It was mighty icy on the roads,” he says, “and I felled that post clean at the trunk. When the coppers came by they threatened to write me up with a hefty fine, but after we talked awhile they agreed to go easy on me, factoring in the bad road conditions and all. But I had to go down to Town Hall to settle up.”

He didn’t wait to be summoned. He arranged to meet the town controller the next day.

“He wanted twenty-four hundred, but I told him I would only pay twelve hundred on account of the ice and bad roads and all, and I said the cops would stand by that amount, so the controller accepted my offer so long as I paid it on the spot, which I did, cash money, and I went on my way,” Liam says.

Liam has had two surgeries on his shoulders. He survived a nasty bout of gastrointestinal cancer awhile back. He walks with a limp and he’s as skinny as a sapling. He never complains except to express chagrin that even after two surgeries he can’t quite lift his arms up above his head. He shows me, raising his arm, and when it meets the halfway mark, it shudders. He quickly lowers it.

I’m convinced Liam is a leprechaun who holds sway over people, what with his pale blue eyes that glow when he speaks in that soft, lilting brogue of his.

Declan is just as accident-prone as his dad. The day I visited the woodpile he tipped the Bobcat over. Convinced he was injured, we all ran to him across the wood lot — Liam and I and the two hired hands – and it took the four of us pushing on the opposite side of the Bobcat’s frame to right it up again while Declan sat, hands folded on his lap, pinned sideways. I offered him a hand so he could steady himself. He shooed me away. He dusted himself, his father inspected him and the Bobcat and since there was no visible damage to either, he nodded to Declan who cranked the Bobcat’s ignition and resumed hauling tree trunks, stacking them beside the hydraulic log splitter.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I was sawing a tree and my head got wedged between a branch and the tree trunk and forced my eye to pop out of its socket?” Liam asks. “I managed to get my head free and oh, let me tell you, it ached mightily, but my eye popped right back into the socket. I see just as good as I did before.”