“Fall” – Probing Arthur Miller’s Secret

May 13, 2018

39845222050_3960c00845_zJosh Stamberg and Joanne Kelly in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Fall.” Photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

By Robert Israel

American playwright Arthur Miller rests in an unquiet grave. Never a stranger to controversy or criticism during his lifetime, the sound and fury hasn’t waned since his death in 2005 at the age 89. Miller, who earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for Death of a Salesman continues to be praised and maligned under the glare of the media’s spotlight:

  • Miller’s personal journals – sold in 2017 to the University of Texas for $2.7 million — created a stir when it was announced the trove included an unpublished essay he wrote about his second wife, actress Marilyn Monroe.
  • A 2007 Vanity Fair article, by Suzanna Andrews, created even a bigger stir when she reported Miller and his third wife, photographer Inge Morath, kept a long-held secret: they had confined their son Daniel to an institution because he was born with Down syndrome.
  • Miller’s prolific canon – plays, essays, travelogues, teleplays, memoirs, screenplays — was summarily dismissed by critic Terry Teachout, under the headline “The Great Pretender.” Writing in The Wall Street JournalTeachout labeled Miller a “pop-culture footnote,” who “pretended to have big ideas and the ability to express them with a touch of poetry, when in fact he had neither.”
  • A 2017 HBO documentary film by Rebecca Miller — the playwright’s daughter and Daniel’s sister — portrayed her father as a doting dad, an adoring husband, and a literary genius.

Nestled among the various idolizers and besmirchers, casting his own distinctive perspective on the personal life of Miller, is Bernard Weinraub, a retired New York Times reporter. Bernie, as he prefers to be called, claims not to take a side in the debate about Miller. (Or at least he doesn’t want to wade into the current brouhaha.) Rather, he is in Boston readying a play that dramatizes the story of Miller’s institutionalized son, Daniel, and he insists that audiences are invited to come to their own conclusions about the relationship — or the lack thereof.

Weinraub’s play is titled Fall. And yes, the title is meant to remind us of Miller’s 1964 drama After the Fall. It is set for a May 18th world premiere production at the Calderwood Pavilion at Boston Center for the Arts via the Huntington Theatre Company, under the direction the Huntington’s artistic director, Peter DuBois.

Why has Weinraub chosen this secretive chapter of Miller’s life as fodder for his play?

“What interested me about Miller was that he was such a moral playwright, and he wrote a lot about the relationships between fathers and sons,” Weinraub said in an interview this week.  The latter “was a major theme in his work. In Salesman and All My Sons he expounds on this theme, particularly on the betrayal of the fathers by the sons. And what fascinated me is that here he is, in real life, behaving in stark contrast to what he wrote about.”

Weinraub, when researching the play, was impressed by the passionate reaction generated by readers of the Vanity Fair article – many of them parents of Down syndrome children. They expressed outrage that Miller chose to institutionalize his son and asserted that, because of that decision, they could no longer see him as an important American playwright.

“In the play, I do not demonize Miller for having made this decision,” Weinraub continued. “After all, during the time of Daniel’s birth, doctors routinely advised parents to institutionalize their children who were born with Down syndrome.”

But what struck Weinraub is that Miller went further than just placing his son elsewhere. “He deleted Daniel from his life,” Weinraub explained. “There is no mention of him in his official biography. Daniel is not mentioned in Miller’s obituary, except in the Los Angeles Times. Daniel became invisible.”

In Rebecca Miller’s  2017 documentary film about her father, Arthur Miller: Writer, she tells us that her father gave her permission to include Daniel in her film. But she chose not to, insisting her narration during the film that she made this decision “out of respect for Daniel’s privacy.”

“If you notice,” Weinraub observed, “she doesn’t ask her father a single question about Daniel. Other than mentioning that she, as his sister, has a relationship with him, we never learn what her father felt about him, or why he and his late wife chose to institutionalize him.”

Weinraub’s two act play opens just after Miller’s play After the Fall was produced, which took place around the time of Daniel’s birth. It follows Miller – and his son Daniel, who is being played by Nolan James Tierce, a Boston-area actor with Down syndrome – through to the end of Miller’s life.

“What I hope audiences experience from my play,” Weinraub said, “is that this is a story about a great playwright, a great artist, who went through his life grappling with weighty, moral issues that he faced fearlessly and eloquently, and that he chose, with his wife, to hide his son from public view. The play shows this dichotomy and explores the reality of his life versus the reality of his art. In the end, Miller realized that he may have missed something special from having deleted Daniel from his life.”

**

This article first appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston), May 11, 2018.

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IRNE @ 22: The Theater Bug, Renewed

April 26, 2018

By Robert Israel

Standing on the dais at the Holiday Inn for the 22nd annual Independent Reviewers of New England awards ceremony on Monday night, I surveyed a boisterous crowd of publicists, actors, set and lighting designers, directors and administrators, a diverse sampling that makes up the burgeoning Boston theater community. This lively group didn’t need the booze, available from two well-stocked bars, to fuel their enthusiasm, but they guzzled it anyway. There was an organic, infectious excitement to the event, the annual return of members of the theater community to Brookline each spring  to learn – from myself and the other judges – who has been chosen as the best.

But, amidst all this excitement, there was an undertow of concern in the crowd. Many were dressed in black garb out of solidarity for the victims of sexual abuse championed by the #MeToo Movement, one of the most recent exposures in the Boston arts community being the outing (in the NYTimes) of sexual predator Israel Horovitz at the Gloucester Stage Company.

This exposure hit home to the IRNE committee, too. An IRNE judge, Al Chase, who resigned two weeks before the event, was publicly exposed by Evan Gambardella, an actor now living in New York, who chronicled his abuse by Chase in a Facebook posting. To IRNE’s credit, a statement was issued condemning Chase’s behavior and urging Boston-area theaters to bar him from reviewing future productions. At the event, a representative from StageSource in Boston was on hand to direct those who may have experienced sexual harassment toward resources – including counseling at the Boston Rape Crisis Center.

Speaking for my fellow IRNE judges, Mike Hoban declared that “we support the brave action of Evan Gambardella in coming forward and sharing his trauma in order to shine a light on inappropriate and predatory behavior and the horrific consequences for its victims.”

This vital point made, let’s turn to the winners — the complete list is available here. Highlights included the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Merrily We Roll Along, which took home seven awards, including Best Musical in the Large Stage category, and SpeakEasy Stage’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, which earned five Small Stage (including Best Play) honors. Speakeasy’s Bridges of Madison County earned four wins in the Small Stage – Musical category while Merrimack Rep’s The Royale also won three awards for Large Stage, including Best Play.

There were also heartfelt tributes to the late actors Larry Coen and Thomas Derrah and a special recognition of achievement to Robert Eagle (who battled another alleged sexual predator last year).

For this particular IRNE judge (who has been reviewing theater for decades), the awards ceremony affords an opportunity to meet, greet, and thank many of the theater people in the Boston community who, like myself, are firmly enamored of the stage. While chatting with Trinity Rep’s Phyllis Kay we both realized that, as youngsters, we were “bit” by the theater bug while attending Project Discovery productions in Rhode Island. May that bug continue to thrive throughout New England.

**

This report appeared originally in The Arts Fuse (Boston), on April 24, 2018.

Stage Review: Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie”at Lyric Stage

April 9, 2018

 

AnnaNancy E. Carroll and Johnny Lee Davenport (Lyric Stage photo).

Anna Christie, by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Scott Edmiston, staged by Lyric Stage of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston, MA, through May 6.

By Robert Israel

The audience at Lyric Stage laughed knowingly during the second act of this terse, well-acted and directed play when the lead character Chris Christopherson (Johnny Lee Davenport) made a reference to Boston. But this was a rare moment of lightheartedness. This play, which received a Pulitzer Prize in 1922, is etched in darkness. It succeeds because it engages us to look at the murky layers within its characters, and to confront them within ourselves.

Eugene O’Neill — who was a seafaring man in his youth — wrote many of his early plays while living in Provincetown in a remote dune shack at Peaked Hill Bar. His early plays — performed by the Provincetown Players in a shack at the end of a wharf — invoke the sea’s deep magnetic pull on characters.

O’Neill’s characters are rough-hewn, salty, and barnacled. Chris is a man who labors on coal barges and drinks tumblers of whiskey. We find him, during act one, in a seedy saloon in New York’s South Street seaport, where he takes up with barfly Marthy (Nancy E. Carroll). Marthy (her name reminds us of the word “earthy”), can match him, toe-to-toe, for alcohol consumption. But theirs is not a union not meant to last. Chris is expecting the arrival of his daughter, Anna (Lindsey McWhorter), soon to arrive east from St. Paul, after a long estrangement. He tells us, and Marthy, that he wants to make up for lost time, to be a loving father to her.

As O’Neill spins his yarn – of Anna’s mother’s death and her abandonment at an early age by her roving seaman father – we learn of her descent into prostitution and how it has scarred her. She distrusts men, but does not dislike them. She has resigned herself to survive in a man’s world, even to use them for frivolous nights out on the town. Yet she will not relinquish her feisty spirit. She will not be bossed around by men.

It is this fighting spirit we see emerge in a winning performance by Lindsey McWhorter, who, by turns, can be tender when it comes to yielding to the advances of seaman  Mat Burke (Dan Whelton). But make no mistake: Anna intends to call the shots. Buffeted by the winds of misfortune, she knows how to sail the rough seas.

And while I commend the cast for their effective and powerful performances, the play succeeds mightily because it is performed in concert with the spot-on scenic design by Janie E. Howland, and the inspired lighting design by Karen Perlow. The sea permeates this set: in the walls, in the wooden planks, and in the eerie green glow beneath the planks and floorboards. The characters trod on the boards, but they do so while anchored to the shoreline of the sea, at the mercy of the changing tides. And we come to recognize that these self-same tides are within them, in their blood.

Director Scott Edmiston knows O’Neill’s work intimately (he directed a winning production of Long Days Journey into Night some years ago). He is masterful here at Lyric Stage. He pares back the scenes, giving them a new potency and urgency.

Looking down upon the set from my seat I felt as if I were in the rafters of a ship anchored off Provincetown or Boston. I was reminded of our seafaring roots, of how the busy towns and cities in the Commonwealth hug the coastline and how we are all at the mercy of the magnetic pull of the sea.

**

Robert Israel is a member of the Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE).

Stage Review: “The Humans” at the Shubert Theatre

March 16, 2018

TheHumansMP6

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 feature story 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.

Notes:

  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:

Extra-NIKK-GIOVANNI-BOOK-COVER_t180

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.