President of PEN Ukraine, Andrey Kurkov author of 19 novels and 20 movie and TV scripts is perhaps the best-known Ukrainian writer outside his own country. He is the author of the best-selling Death and the Peguin. Recently, I heard him speak at the PEN AMERICA World Voices Festival. (see part 1)
When Kurkov was 2-years old, Kurkov’s family moved to Kyiv where he lived and grew up under the USSR communist party during the time of the Cold War. That was a time of the Berlin Wall with Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev after Stalin died. Unbelievably, oppressed, propagandized, impoverished Russians wept to see Stalin go (according to Kurkov). Globally, it was a tense time of escalation of nuclear weapons, of shelter drills in U.S. classrooms, of the McCarthy debacle exploited by a sick alcoholic senator and his wicked puppet lawyer, of the erection of the Berlin Wall dividing the city of Berlin into East and West, of the Cuban missile crisis, and of improvident nuclear proliferation. Then thankfully, the iron curtain melted and tensions relaxed with Glasnost during the influence of Soviet politician Mikhail Gorbachev.
Glasnost reflected a commitment of the Mikhail Gorbachev administration, allowing Soviet citizens to discuss publicly the problems of their system and potential solutions. Gorbachev allowed a process of democratization that eventually destabilized Communist control and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union along with other factors, one of them the Chernobyl disaster. In 1986 Kyiv, USSR was impacted, as the nuclear power plant is located in the northern Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine, 90 kilometres north of Kyiv. The Kremlin’s lies about the danger to the populace finally were revealed as an embarrassment and failure of the technologically backward USSR. Over the years since Stalin died, the USSR relied more on its propaganda to keep it up with the West then technological advancement a situation that persists today. Oppression of the populace is extremely costly, when an open system curtailing corruption and rewarding research, development and progress is invariably prosperity producing to the culture and society.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the handwriting was on the crumbling wall that East Germans and Europeans took chunks of as souvenirs. One imagines that Kurkov and Ukrainians were as thrilled as Vladimir Putin was devastated, something Putin has admitted to and to which can be attributed his fury at failing to do the impossible, bring back a new Russian regime with his futile war against the democracy loving Ukraine.
When Gorbachev won the Novel Peace Prize in 1990 for his great leadership in bringing an end to the Cold War and signaling Russia would agree to peace, the USSR, like Humpty Dumpty fell. Ukraine officially declared itself an independent country on 24 August 1991 and proclaimed it would no longer follow the laws of USSR and would only follow the laws of Ukraine SSR. At that point in time, Kurkov was 31-years old and free to write as he pleased. Ukraine became “the space of my personal freedom.” Subsequently, he has worked as a writer for 30 years “without censorship, without political control, without pressure.”
To that end, he has embraced his freedom and his responsibility to speak out about Putin and Putin’s aggressor machinations in Ukraine. The Ukrainians since Euromaiden have rejected Putin’s puppets and rejected his hope to resurrect a Putin regime of which he expects Ukraine will become Russian, adhering to Ukrainian cultural and historical extinction.
Putin’s War in Ukraine is unfathomable without viewing it as a last push toward effecting a regime change by his own mandates, not God’s. Putin is not a religious man; he is a despotic hypocrite who worships himself. Review his behavior and his co-optation of the Russian Orthodox Church, appointing former KGB Patriarch Krill. Another Putin puppet, Krill gave a twenty minute justification for Putin’s War (and atrocities) to Pope Francis who would have none of it. Pope Francis called out Patriarch Krill and told him not to be “Putin’s altar boy.” With few exceptions clerics have called out Patriarch Krill and Putin. The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Istanbul (Constantinople) Turkey, Patriarch Bartholomew has also called out Krill and Putin.
Kurkov has been moved to write and give interviews about Putin’s War, and he has stated that because circumstances are so incredible, he can only bring himself to write non fiction. His latest work that he wrote before February 24, 2022, the date of infamy in the lives of Ukrainians, is a novel. Grey Bees takes place in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine which contained a “grey zone” a no man’s land between Russian backed separatists and Ukrainian soldiers where a few civilians lived their lives without electricity, water, etc. The circumstances returned these individuals back to uncivilized times before technology and industrialization created the rat wheel everyone wanted to jump off. In Kurkov’s novel, the grey zone is without rat wheels, a limbo of existence that has disappeared since Putin’s War and the shelling of cities in Ukraine’s South and East and the declarations of these regions to be separate Republics from Ukraine supported by Putin.
In the rest of the country Ukrainians are fighting for every patch of their soil until they are free. This is what Kurkov writes about to inform the West and encourage Ukrainians that they will win.
Selected to give a speech as this year’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, Kurkov afterward engaged in a Q and A with Soviet-born American writer Gary Shteyngart. Both in the speech and during the Q and A, Kurkov’s humor came to the fore. He spoke with authenticity about the truth, and Ukrainians. He said that the truth just is. What we attribute to it, whether it be inconvenient or ugly is ascribed by the individual viewing what is.
Execution style killings in Bucha? Mass graves? Rapes, the bodies of burned women? These are the effects of Putin’s “special operations,” his euphemism for war. To Ukrainians and the West and NATO countries these constitute war crimes. But for Putin to claim it never happened, that bodies are not in mass graves, nor women raped and their bodies burned? That is not truth. Those are lies of omission. One asks, “Why lie?” The answer is political. Like Donald Trump Putin refuses to be associated with the guilt or fear of his actions. He is not accountable. Lies which are cover ups exist so the audience, the Russian people, do not see what is. Indeed, Putin fears if they do see what is, they will demand he be ousted. To fear it in Putin’s mind makes it so, and thus, making it so, he has blanked out independent news stations, TV channels except all the news that’s “fit to hear” which is state media lies; that is Putin’s truth. None of the brutality is happening.
To counteract this narrative of his war’s none existence and reframing the war atrocities so he will not be held accountable, everything Ukrainians and the West see and hear about this war is chronicled. The truth is recorded. What is, must be shown, discussed, revealed as it is. Ukrainians are documenting the war crimes as they find them. They are telling the truth. During his speech/lecture, Kurkov spoke about the Ukrainian will
“Ukrainians are determined to win,” Kurkov said, “to defend the sovereign right to life in their own free and democratic country. Ukrainians in this war are united not only by a common enemy, but also by a common European vision of the future of their state. Ukraine doesn’t really have a choice. It will either win and remain an independent state, or, as President Putin wants, become part of the new Soviet Union or the new Russian empire.
Familiar with Arthur Miller’s work, Kurkov referred to the American playwright’s defense of free speech, free expression and the freedom to write when Miller served as president of PEN America from 1965 to 1969 and through his life.
“Arthur Miller has not been with us for 17 years, but his voice continues to resound in the world and continues to turn the thoughts of hundreds of thousands, and maybe millions of people back to the search for truth and justice. Because truth and justice cannot be separated. They are interconnected. A person who experiences the sharp pain of injustice, in whatever way, can become a champion of truth. Such a person is usually ready to fight for this truth and, if necessary, to die for it.”
Kurkov spoke the names of 20 journalists including those of US news organizations, who have been killed since Putin’s War. According to Kurkov: “Journalism remains one of the most dangerous professions, and during the war, it becomes even more dangerous. The inscription ‘press’ on a bulletproof vest or helmet is to the Russian military, like a red rag to bull.”
He also paid tribute to the Ukrainian citizen journalists who are being persecuted and imprisoned in Crimea and Russia, with criminal cases fabricated against them. And Kurkov spoke of the distinction between the Russians and Ukrainians.
“Ukrainians do not accept diktats or restrictions on their rights, especially the right to freedom of speech or freedom of religion. For Ukrainians, freedom has always been more important than money, more important than living standards, more important than stability. In fact, there has never been stability in Ukraine precisely because freedom was a priority. Unlike the Russians, for whom it seems, stability is more important than freedom and all individual freedoms and rights.”
Kurkov’s message to writers in the US, is that they must chronicle the truth. Kurkov, in measuring Ukrainian journalist’s intent, and comparing it to ours suggests the imperative is to get as much of the truth down as possible.
“Ukrainian writers, regardless of the language they write in, will never give up the freedom to write what they think and what they consider important. Ukrainians, writers or non- writers, cannot and will not learn to live without freedom. Without the freedoms that are included in the mandatory and inviolable ‘list’ of human rights.”
MENTORING KURKOV AS JOURNALISTS IN THE US
We can learn from Kurkov’s mentoring which cuts through the bullshit and runs to the heart of ideals of democracy. These ideals are being threatened by a party indulgently accepting fabrications because it garners them power and money. The MAGA party have been elected to positions in a democratic government. but to “tickle” the ears of the extremist right wing criminal supporters, they decry those very positions in an act of irrationality. To state that Biden lost and then not resign in protest is an example of the craven hypocrisy and untruth of QAnon Republicans like Mo Brooks, Jim Jordan, Kevin McCarthy and many in the Republican conference. If Biden is not president, then how can they be a part of a government that is a fraud? They can and will because they benefit from it by mouthing words (Biden lost) they don’t believe, and collecting their salaries and donations and kickbacks to run again and grift the American people some more.
If they really believe Biden lost and Trump won, en masse, they would have resigned and have been protesting ever since January 6, 2020, like Ukrainians did in the Euromaidan (See the film Winter on Fire). But these QAnon terrorists are happy to talk the talk and run away like cowards from the legitimate and authentic behaviors which would signal to the American people that fraud was committed. They can’t, they won’t. Instead, they will probably end up in jail or censured for lying on their oath of office, participating in the January 6th insurrection and not willingly resigning in protest or sacrificing their careers to alert the American people of the fraud. They won’t because they won’t sacrifice anything for the American people. Biden won; they know it and yet they complain like babies so they can collect their dark money donations and kickbacks and work to undermine democracy which is the mission of their new oath to communism, oppression, Putin/Trump and other foreign adversaries, who pay them to overthrow democracy in the US.
Has any QAnon Republican official resigned in protest with the courage of their convictions protesting the 2020 election? Look at the actions of the two prosecutors in the NY DA Alvin Bragg’s office, well reputed and respected individuals (Careynne, Mark Pomerantz). They investigated Donald Trump and they urged Bragg to indict Trump before the grand jury’s session expired because there was enough evidence to INDICT TRUMP FOR FRAUD and other financial crimes. (see this site) Bragg sat on the fence. They resigned, throwing away their careers. Why would anyone throw away their career because they simply disagreed with their boss?
Their career toss indicates the extent of the moral imperative involved as servants of the people to identify and whistle blow corruption is going on, Bragg’s corruption. In effect they would rather be employed elsewhere than work under a weak/corrupt DA. In his resignation letter, Pomerantz called Bragg’s decision “misguided and completely contrary to the public interest. Since then, Bragg has lied, saying the case was ongoing. But it has quietly been made to go away, so we hear nothing about it.
If the New York Post was up to its true mettle, it would do an investigation of this. The public welcomes investigative journalism. Oh, you say it’s an ultra right wing Putin-style communist Murdock paper that supports, lies for, and protects Trump? Then forget any investigative journalism, except into Hillary’s emails…they are still looking for cannibalism and her blood sucking or Cuomo’s sex crimes talked about by liars and Republican/Democratic shills. OK, then why isn’t the New York Times, or WaPo, or any other paper investigating, or Letitia James? Or the Attorney for the Southern District of New York? This is corruption in plain site; two prosecutors resigned in protest. This cannot be ignored. Bragg must be investigated if the case against Trump went away like pundits have suggested. Who is his boss? If it were Governor Andrew Cuomo, there would be an investigation. With the current governor. Forget it. She is busy giving money and jobs to her upstate constituency and preparing to run for governor.
Thus, the QAnon Republicans stay in their jobs, lie on their oaths and serve not the American people, but Donald Trump. So does Alvin Bragg, so does Hochel, so does the “FREE PRESS.” All are slaves to Trump, pretending they are uninvolved. QAnon Republicans refused to impeach traitorous Trump for leading an insurrection as president because like Putin, he can’t brook the truth. As a president who was supposed to uphold the constitution and people’s rights he swamped those rights to take them all for himself. Destroying votes by wiping out Biden’s win and declaring himself winner, vitiates the majority of the voters. For him it is an inconvenient truth that over 60% despise him and voted for Biden in a landslide and popular vote of nearly 8 million.
Currently, though the populace are not enamored of Joe Biden, they prefer Biden’s leadership to Trump’s negligent, botch job with COVID, his self-serving golf trips spending more than 130 million of taxpayer money, his abusing the treasury corruptly with giving jobs to friends and contracts to donors of his coffers, his lack of decency, his uplifting white supremacists as very fine people and his order of the military to tear gas and rubber bullet peaceful protestors at Lafayette Square after hiding in the basement for fear of his life hearing there was a BLM protest at Lafayette Square. With Trump comes communist oppressor and Stalinist channeling Putin, failure and incompetence.
Trump’s attempt to disenfranchise the landsliding votes of the majority of Biden voters is an act of a treason, perhaps if the DOJ investigates the evidence provided to it by the January 6th commission. In Russia, disenfranchising the Russian people? That is normal behavior for their Stalinist communist despot Putin. It is easy for him to put in puppet candidates, remove dangerous candidates like Alexi Navalny and put in himself and declare himself a winner in a sham election or leader of Russia until 2036. For Rudy Guiliani to suggest to Trump, to just declare that he won and persist until they terrorize the voting public or continually demanding Georgia Secretary of State find the 11,000 votes and give them to him to win Georgia’s electoral votes? Well, that is an act of Putin styling Stalinist communism and terrorism. To oppose Trump? Off to jail which he threatens if Republicans WIN THE HOUSE. And for lackeys to pile on and persist in the lie when they all know it is a lie? That is another act of Putin styled communism and Stalin’s terrorism.
What Stalin and Putin say is truth, is truth, despite its being a lie. The same oppression goes for Trump. Trump is continuing with this communist styled oppression by telling “his” candidate (Oz supports Trump’s lies) Memet Oz who is running in a tight race for Republican governor just to declare that he has won. Declare now, count the votes later, or make them disappear. This is what Trump did with the 2020 election. Before the mail ballots were counted, he declared himself victor. We were all supposed to go home, though the mail in ballots had not been counted. This is communism. This is Putinism. This is Stalinism.
It has been the rule of communists (for a while the oligarchs, which are now being sanctioned) to be guaranteed their mansions and high living lifestyles. Meanwhile, the Russian people barely scraped out an existence; the sharing was all on the side of the impoverished. The members of the communist party lived with all the technological advantages of the west that they could purchase from the West. They shared nothing. Hypocrites, self-serving, liars. The average poor person in the US has more than the middle class Russian. I know. I have spoken to individuals who came from Russia after the USSR crumbled. The government provided housing and they could get food, but little else. It is why the Russian soldiers are “acting crazy” stealing Ukrainian toilets, washing machines, etc. Meanwhile, when those living in the former USSR came to NYC, they had to hustle. They weren’t used to it.
Under Putin’s direction, declaring he won, though he hadn’t, Trump expected his lackeys to wipe out Biden’s landslide victory, rename and reframe it, and cover it up by any means necessary. In other words, he expects them to do as he says just like Putin and Stalin communism expects of their lackeys. In a conspiracy Trump fomented an insurrection with members of congress like Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Green, Mark Meadows, his family, willing outsiders like Ali Alexander, Steve Bannon, Rudy Guiliani and Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginni Thomas, supporter Clarence Thomas, Elise Stefanik of New York and Doug Mastriano to name a few. Trump watched TV with happiness as the KKK and white supremacists and militia men defecated, broke windows, stole beat up and gassed Capitol police and swarmed throughout the building ranging to “hang Mike Pence” and “get” Nancy Pelosi. To say they wrecked the Capitol is an understatement. Capitol police, members of Congress and their aides have PTSD to this day.
In Kurkov’s Ukraine, in Zelensky’s Ukraine, such actions by a president of a democracy are monstrous, because they are not freedom-loving. To proclaim such lies as truth is criminal, is unjust, is communist. Such lies by one occupying the highest position in government run against the oath of office the president is supposed to uphold along with the constitution. Trump’s lies become NEWSPEAK (out of George Orwell’s novel 1984 (which is about Big Brother COMMUNISM AND OPPRESSION). Newspeak is controlled language of simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary designed to limit the individual’s ability to think and articulate “subversive” anti-Trump thoughts. All of the Hillary cannibal memes in the smear campaign were example of Newspeak. Other examples of Newspeak chanted often by Trump, his son Don Jr., Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Michael Flynn Jr. are “lock her up,” “we’re building the wall,” etc.
Bannon made a lot of money on the “building the wall” NEWSPEAK meme. There was a collection for the wall and MAGAS were duped by their own xenophobia giving hundreds of dollars as Bannon took the money and used it for his luxuries. Such is the Putin/Stalinist/Trumpist communist grift; communist fraud. Stalin proclaimed abstemiousness and lived in an incredible mansion. Putin’s is even more luxurious and there are many more of them that dot Russia. Bannon a proclaimed Leninist is a joke. He is a thief, a liar, a criminal who got caught and belongs in jail, but crooked, criminal Trump pardoned him. Another communist tactic that Putin uses all the time. Pardon criminals, jail protestors or innocents, and kill journalists. Communism. It is what it is. We see what it is. We can’t lie about it. The QAnon party has become the party of Putinist/Stalinist/Trumpist communism.
To not record this truth, to run from this truth as Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell and the QAnon communist party do is a violation of their constitutional oaths. They are acting like Stalinist/Putin communists. They will not resign because they have lost their freedom to say “no” to Donald Trump. So they sit, in a grey zone as Trump’s slaves. They can’t serve two masters, be his slaves and be servants of the citizens in a leadership position anywhere in our government. So they are his slaves and serve him and they get paid their salaries by the American people for their treason, unjustly and unethically. They should have their salaries removed for serving a man who is out of office and his own unofficial head of the party of Putin and himself, the head of the QAnon Communist, anti-democracy party of terrorists and racists.
Chained to Trump/Putin and like-minded corporates, it is a truth that these QAnon communist party members can’t govern. To expect them to govern, compromise, or lead is preposterous. They must be removed by the DOJ. The line must be drawn. And Trump for leading others to overthrow an election must go to jail. It is unprecedented, but so was the insurrection by a president who refused to agree to a peaceful transfer of power. He claimed he won and fired Chris Krebs (Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency for the US Department of Homeland Security) for saying it was the most secure election in the history of the nation. Trump FIRED HIM. Just like communistic Stalin or Putin would do.
Krebs and Barr said there was no fraud committed. Barr got fired too. Krebs is a hero for chronicling the truth. Trump and his lackeys committed a monstrous, anti-democracy, anti-patriotic fraud. If I wanted Putin styled communism where there are no freedoms of speech, assembly, press or the right for every citizen to have the vote fairly counted as Krebs and Barr said occurred, I would ask to go and live in Russia or North Korea or China where my vote as a citizen means nothing. But to have Donald Trump declare my vote is nothing because he is a MAGALOMANIACAL LOSER? And he can’t bear the truth? I’m with Kurkov and the Ukrainian people.
I repeat what Kurkov said during the lecture, “Ukrainians, writers or non- writers, cannot and will not learn to live without freedom. Without the freedoms that are included in the mandatory and inviolable ‘list’ of human rights.” Our constitution upholds human rights. But under QAnon communistic Putin styled oppression and terrorism that Trump has insinuated with his enabling of white supremacists, our constitution is threatened, our human rights are threatened. And I call on the old Republican party to say NO to this monstrous bullying that is communistic, Putin-styled communistic and oppressive under Trump. Say NO to Trump. Say it loud so that the citizens of this nation can hear it from coast to coast. There is no place for communism, anti-democracy, anti-constitution white supremacist domestic terrorism in the US. No MAGALOMANIAC who declares he runs his own elections should be anywhere near any government position. He does not deserve one nickel from US citizens. Stop the GQP grift!
All of the “Republican” conference must say no. They must state why they stand for freedom. They must loudly oppose the NEWSPEAK LIES of Doug Mastriano and others like Elise Stefanik who say they are “patriots” and say they “stand” on the constitution, but support the insurrection and the overthrow of the constitution. Anti-democracy un patriots, they trample the constitution; that’s how they “stand” on it.
Both Stefanik and Mastriano and the others who proclaim they know more than Chris Krebs and William Barr are monstrous liars out of Stalinist communism;. Indeed, the 14th amendment forbids them holding office. The constitution does not allow them to overthrow an election and run for a government position. They are communists, then; they use NEWSPEAK to lie on the constitution and dupe citizens. Forbidden to run, as Hochal should remove Stefanik. Anyone in the QAnon party who supports such communistic Putin tactics must be called down by their own party, as liars and a Trump/Putin communist oppressors of freedoms written in the constitution. They all are anti-democracy. That means they are Putin styled oppressors. How many times have I repeated this?
Daily, QAnon Trump/Putin terrorist communist compromats live untruths, act untruths, speak untruths and violate the human rights of the citizens to be spoken to truthfully. They make citizens their whipping posts out of resentment. Instead of working with Democrats to benefit all Americans, like Stalinists Putin/Trump they benefit themselves. Consider dark money Citizens United donor dollars and dark money kickbacks. How do these politicians arrive in Washington from the middle class and end up with fat wallets and bank accounts? Mitch McConnell isn’t just wealthy because he married wealth.
The QAnon communists consider no-Trumpers to be combatants, and fight against them. Trump is against all who stood against him on January 6th. He is planning revenge against anyone who would manifest, investigate and speak out that he is a loser and always was a loser of 2020 and most probably without Putin’s illegal help in 2016, a loser against Hillary Clinton. In both elections he was unable to win the popular vote. The majority of citizens are against him because they recognize a criminal, liar and thug is not a good leader.
Of course, Cambridge Analytica owner Robert Mercer and Bannon and Jared Kushner had calculated what was needed to win the electoral college in 2016. Trump won that by a small number of votes in the swing states. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton won by the largest margin of voters in the popular vote ever in a presidential election at that time. Considering that Putin hated her and prevented her win and contributed greatly in the smear campaign against her, that she even got the popular vote is to her credit and not spoken about enough in the white male dominated and owned media.
Read up on the 2016 election and watch the film The Great Hack. Trump had to rely on Robert Mercer who wanted to make the government vitiate his 7.5 billion tax bill so he, through his company Cambridge Analytica with the help of Steve Bannon, effected a conspiracy to elect Trump. They, with FB data, Wiki leak emails of Hillary Clinton’s recipes spun into Hillary’s eating children and sucking their blood (taken from the Stalin effected starvation of Ukrainians in the Holodomor in 1932-33), millions of Putin bots of Russian Military Intel, Putin compromised Jill Stein, Gary Johnson and other targeted social media sites, were able to clamp more votes in swing states to gain the electoral college. However, the amount to effect the electoral college win is negligible. If Jill Stein did not run, Hillary would have won. Check out the photos of Jill Stein sitting at the same table as Putin and Michael Flynn at the RT Gala.
Considering that all the machinations and money the Trump campaign took (dark money is not recorded) would run a small country, Hillary winning the popular vote is a testament to her mission and the respect the majority of citizens had for her. If any election was stolen, it wasn’t the election of 2020. Putin and American conspirators and Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica, et. al. stole the 2016 election from Hillary. Trump lied, helped by a Putin’s Russian military intel, Mercer/Bannon and an incredibly dirty communistic-lying, NEWSPEAK smear campaign stoked by white supremacist terrorists, MAGAS and bots. These un- American, un-patriotic “Americans” trampled the majority of the 2016 citizen voters and the constitution with a foreign adversary, endangering our national security. (They still try to but it is near impossible with Putin’s war.)
Kurkov and the Ukrainians know the power of saying “I am free.” Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul and the rest of the communistic Republicans do not. In this article I hold the QAnon communistic white supremacist Republican Party to account: Stop being slaves to Trump and Trumpers. Say “no” to Donald Trump and his obeisance to Putin and white supremacist domestic terrorists. Be brave like the Ukrainians. Slava Ukraini! Slava freedom from communistic oppression Trump/Putin style.
‘American Buffalo,’ Explodes in its Third Broadway Revival With Phenomenals Fishburne, Rockwell and Criss
David Mamet’s American Buffalo, first presented on Broadway in 1977 with Robert Duvall as Teach followed with three Broadway revivals. The 1983 revival starred Al Pacino as Teach, the 2008 revival starred John Leguizamo. Eluding the Tony award each time, but garnering multiple Tony and Drama Desk nominations, the 1977 production did win a New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best American Play.
Perhaps Neil Pepe’s direction of this third revival of the American classic, currently at Circle in the Square will bring home a few Tonys. It is a sterling production of Mamet’s revelatory, insightful play about the American Dream gone haywire for a couple of wannabe criminals whose concept of friendship and getting over test each other’s mettle.
The cast is more than worthy to line up with Mamet’s dynamic, vital characterizations. The actors are seamlessly authentic in the roles of Donny (Laurence Fishburne), Teach (Sam Rockwell) and Bobby (Darren Criss). I didn’t want the play to end, enjoying their amazing energy and finding their portrayals to be humorous, poignant, frightening, intensely human and a whole lot more. Their depth, their interaction, their careful interpretation of each word and action that appeared flawlessly real is so precisely constructed in their performances, it is incredibly invigorating and a justification for live theater-why it is and why it always will be.
Mamet’s early writing is strong and singularly powerful as evidenced in American Buffalo. The play involves a string of events that happen over the course of a day in Don’s Resale Shop which is a hazard of incredible junk for the ages, fantastically arrayed by Scott Pask’s talents as scenic designer. The play opens at the height of drama (we think), when Donny upbraids Bobby about the right protocol to take regarding “doing a thing” as a preliminary action in a future plan they will endeavor. Then the developmental action sparks upward and never takes a breath in the crisp, well-paced Pepe production.
Immediately, we note Fishburne’s paternal and fatherly approach to Darren Criss’ innocent, boyish, “not too swift” acolyte into how to be sharp in business and not let “friendship” get in the way. Donny’s mantra relates throughout American Buffalo. As we watch his interaction with Bobby, we can’t help but see the organic humor in their characters which are contradictory and perhaps disparate from us in intention, discourse, values, initially, but are our brothers in humanity, whether we admit it or not.
At the outset it is impossible not to align ourselves empathetically with these acting icons, each of them award winners with a long history of prodigious talent over decades of experience in film, TV and stage. They are a pleasure to watch as they inhabit these characters, that are a few class steps above Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths‘ denizens. LIke Gorky’s underclass, these “higher in stature” nevertheless live in their dreams as they deal with the very real and shabby circumstances of their lives. Thus, junk doyen Donny is the wise businessman who, by the play’s end belies all of the instructions he relates to Bobby at the beginning. And Bobby who intently listens to show Donny how much he is willing to learn to remain in his favor, learns little because he has let Donny down at the outset when he is “yessing” him with wide-eyed reception.
As a counterweight to the teacher-pupil, father-son relationship and manipulation between Donny and Bobby, the manic, feverish Teach throws around his knowledge, experience, street smarts and volatile “friendship.” He is their foil, their activator, their stimulator, their inveterate “loser” with a talent for braggadocio and despondency, and clipped epithets about the other denizens in their acquaintance. He is an apparent backstabber and one to watch as someone who sees themselves as dangerous, but botches his self-awareness and presumption to greatness at every turn.
Rockwell knows every inch of Teach and performs him with gusto and relish. He is integral to this team of exceptional actors that Pepe directs to high flashpoints of authenticity and spot on immediacy. This is collaboration at its best. From the layout of their characters’ plans in Act I to the consequences of the plan’s execution in Act II, the still point of behavior is the crux of what Mamet’s Buffalo presents with crushing ruthlessness.
Examples abound throughout, but are particularly manifest in Act II. It is there that Rockwell’s Teach releases the anger within the character to reveal his self-destruction, self-loathing and disappointments. Rockwell’s Teach lashes out, only to be topped by Fishburne’s essentially kind and fatherly Donny, who erupts like a volcano at Teach in a shocking display of force. The drama in the second act is so alive, so expertly staged by J. David Brimmer as Fight Director, if Teach had moved an inch more slowly than he did, he would have been badly injured by the essentially good-natured but seriously, no-joke Donny. The altercation is a work of art, incredibly precise in its build up of the characters’ emotions, then release.
Likewise, Teach’s explosion against Bobby is devastating in another way. Brutal and exacting, Teach exploits Bobby as his victim. Using him as a backboard to release his fury and self-loathing, he redirects Donny to believe Bobby and another individual have double-crossed Donny and Teach in their plot to steal, undercutting Teach’s and Donny’s deal. Bobby’s attempt is feeble as he tries to verbally defend himself against Teach’s relentless onslaught, borne out by Teach’s years of inner frustration which have encompassed failure after failure. Teach won’t hear Bobby. Enraged at himself and his own assumed victimization, as he spews venom on the double-crossing Bobby and his “accomplice” to incite Donny, his violence crashes in a high, then a low.
Once again, the frenemies are tragic counterparts in a social class that is hurting. Teach’s rage is otherworldly. Bobby’s sorrowful reception of it without fighting back is heart-breaking. Criss is just smashing. I wanted to run up with alcohol and bandages to help stem the external wounds, knowing Bobby’s soul harm is irreparable. Through both brutalizations by Fishburne’s Donny and Rockwell’s Teach, the audience was silent in tension and anticipation. And then the mood breaks and here comes humor and apologies and I won’t spoil the rest.
The togetherness and human bonds displayed are as rare as the American Buffalo head rare coin Donny believes he had and lost. The coin lures the three who are governed by dreams of wealth, like iron pyrite. The resultant failure of their plans, emotional devastation and self-harm is never dealt with. Only Donny’s soothing of the situation is a partial rectification. Interestingly, whatever the type of friendship Teach, Donny and Bobby have will be strengthened by the thrill of the gambit, the crooked deal, the need to “get over” to salve lives that exist without purpose, overarching destiny or moment, except to move toward death, with “a little help from their friends.”
This portrait of Americana is particularly heady and current. Though the play is apolitical, it does speak to class, the macho bravado of making plans and screwing up, the lure of illegality as cool, and the consolation provided by the older wiser individual who the younger men are fortunate to befriend, though he is a subtle manipulator and user, as they all are in the game of “getting over.”
In American Buffalo Mamet suggests this game is as American as the American Buffalo, as American as apple pie, as American as the right to bear arms. Indeed, it is in the soil and the soul of our culture and we cannot escape it, though we may not embrace the ethic and ethos of the “art of the steal,” especially when law enforcement comes knocking. Nevertheless, the play suggests a fountain from which to drink and either be poisoned by the perspective, refreshed, nourished, but never bored. For that reason and especially these acting greats, this production should not be missed.
Kudos to Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design, Dede Ayite’s costume design and all the technical creatives whose efforts are integral to Neil Pepe’s vision for this third revival. For tickets and times go to their website: https://americanbuffalonyc.com/
Impressions Before and After Ukrainian Best Selling Author Andrey Kurkov’s Speech at PEN World Voices Festival (Part I)
When I was in London and Oxford, UK in 2019, I stopped in a bookstore, my favorite haunt as a writer, and saw on a display table Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I was completely unfamiliar with his work. I don’t know why I picked up the book. But in a bookshop’s interesting, curious world of uncertainty and adventure, something aligned. Perhaps because I was close friends with a Ukrainian women years ago when I lived in upstate New York and ruefully allowed time and distance to separate us. In recent years with Putin’s invasion of Crimea, that association often comes to my remembrance, so I bought it, flew with it across the Pond and forgot about it swept up in NYC activities and my writing career, such as it is.
The same curious uncertainty happened to me when I picked up C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters at the NYU bookstore when I was going for my Ph.D. Unfamiliar with the author, it was an association with his last name that prompted me to pick up the slim volume and read it, laughing aloud, then subsequently devouring everything else Lewis had written. (I will probably do the same with Kurkov after hearing him speak at the World Voices Festival). For me bookstore display tables are all about serendipity and whimsy picking up a book, briefly perusing its back cover, then taking it or putting it back.
Diverted from reviewing plays three or four nights a week when the pandemic shut down Broadway, I watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on my computer (I am not a TV watcher), then stumbled upon my forgotten copy of Death and the Penguin while looking for something else. I read it, and as with The Screwtape Letters, I found myself laughing out loud. Kurkov’s sensibility dovetailed with mine; his irony, inherent black humor and the existential plight of Viktor, the protagonist and penguin Misha his alter ego or avatar that Viktor takes in from the Kyiv Zoo evoked a mixture of emotions. In the novel the zoo gave away its animals to those who could afford to care for them.
Perhaps there is an alignment if we consider what was done with the zoo animals in the besieged northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, as officials attempt to evacuate large predators from the facility and are forced to put down others. Unfamiliar with what happened to facilities like zoos, right after the USSR collapsed, perhaps this was generally done, giving the animals homes. The US rejoiced at the USSR collapse; many did not; it was a catastrophe for those impacted. And what to do with the animals? The metaphor is incredible. Now, with Putin’s war, what to do with the animals in the zoo, especially the large predators? The Russians don’t even want the bodies of their dead soldiers. The Ukrainians are caring for them and for the big cats. There is something to be said for this truth. I’m not sure if it is ugly. It just is.
Though Death and the Penguin takes place in post Soviet Ukraine, in the 1990s, there is always the lurking darkness of the ethos of what “post-Soviet” means, the chaos, the vying for power between factions, criminals and thugs. My Ukrainian neighbor told me the moment the Iron Curtain was down he picked up his family and left. The Russian communists were hovering as were those schooled in thuggery from the KGB oppression units. Displaced, they were looking for a new way to employ their skills. Any moment they might pop up en masse in the future and pull their shenanigans. Turns out my friend was prescient; but he knows the history of Russia’s aggressions against Ukraine from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin.
A former member of PEN AMERICA whose membership lapsed, I still receive information. On Facebook I saw the advertisement for PEN America’s World Voices Festival at NYU, my old Ph.D. stomping grounds. The headline piqued my interest: Ukrainian Novelist Delivers Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture at PEN World Voices Festival. The stars aligned; I had to attend.
I wanted to hear Kurkov’s comments about Putin’s genocide of Ukrainians and his war crimes. Who doesn’t admire President Zelensky’s heroism in defense of his country, and his standing up to Donald Trump’s blackmail (javelins for dirt on Hunter Biden)? These are events none of us in the US should ever forget. Nor can we forget the hideous impact of Putin’s interference in the 2016 election and installing his US puppet which deceased Representative John Lewis believed was a Putin/Republican/Cambridge Analytica conspiracy.
Since April of 2020 as the pandemic raged, I have asserted in articles (on my The Fat and the Skinny blog) that Putin duped the US into making deals while he was dreaming of his new world order, a Stalinistic communistic empire (Russians have mentioned that communism is dead…yeah, well maybe not) with new gulag jails filled with journalists, protestors, freedom fighters, Alexei Navalny and others like him. Is Communism in Putin’s New Regime designs? Just because the word was “banned” in Russia doesn’t mean it ever left the mind of Putin who Kurkov suggests is so nostalgic for the “good old days” that state TV has even created a Nostalgia channel of old movies, etc. pleasantly reminiscing about the old USSR. Putin is not your kindhearted granddaddy; how Russians negotiate Alexei Navalny, the news blackout, millions of young Russians leaving, leads of Ukraine butchery is mindboggling.
As Kurkov said in his introduction Putin’s War and his truth lies are out of George Orwell. Of course, the puppet presidency of Trump, that no one in the nation was ready for except salivating billionaires, was the same hellish psyops war for the minds of the American people. As Putin does in Russia, Trump did to America. It was out of a surreal GRU playbook. Thankfully, Trump is gone, but Putin is screaming and kicking against the kicks of Biden’s presidency and sanctions. Putin’s attempt to conduct psyops through truth/lies reality to gather communist support for his new regime whether from French loser Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s winner Prime Minister Viktor Orban or other hyper right-wing governments is for truth watchers, a useless endeavor. Regardless of the lies told, the truth is about usurping then consolidating power.
At this point actions speak loudly; justifications are meaningless. Importantly, those who oppose Putin’s criminality and his criminal puppets like Belarus’ Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, the former Ukrainian puppet ousted in the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yanukovych, or orange puppet Donald Trump ousted by Democratic President Joe Biden are what matters. If Putin opposes the leader or individual, you can guarantee he/she/they are not backed by his criminal enterprise. Likewise, if individuals oppose Donald Trump’s attempt to run for President in the future, they are not supported by his criminality.
in keeping with my compulsion to understand and publicize Putin’s psyops and serial killer behaviors, I have reviewed plays about Russian journalists, like Putin assassinated writer, whistleblower and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya. Also, I am enamored of those who have the courage to speak out like Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina. I reviewed her in Burning Doors at La Mama (2017). I spoke to Alyokhina before her performance and praised her for her bravery. She looked at me like her courage was “nothing.” I interpreted her attitude to mean, if you are a human being, you stand for human rights against killers and oppressors. Her performance was riveting; she was amazing in 2017 and is even more amazing in 2022. She escaped from Russia, Friday May 13th, the same day that Andrey Kurkov delivered the lecture at NYU.
Alyokhina had been jailed in Russia six more times since last summer. They put her in for 15 days for truth lies, like Alexei Navalney’s made-up charges. The fabricated “crimes” get them off the streets and shut them up. That messages sneak out from prison is a testament to the fact that there are many who oppose Putin’s tactics, but can only stand against them surreptitiously.
Alyokhina realized the danger she was in when authorities announced that her house arrest would be converted to 21 days in a penal colony (gulag). She left disguised in a food delivery outfit to escape the “woman hunt,” and nearly didn’t make it out. She is 33 years old; she was 22 when Pussy Riot was formed as an anti-Putin protest band. She’s been at this for 11 years and will continue her activism from outside Russia, something devoutly to be appreciated by Putin who has blacked out all media, theater, anything that is a protest, as he vitiates the Russian constitution by dissolving it into tyranny and despotism.
Like Alyokhina, many journalists/activists (including an Independent news organization I covered, Rain) have been forced to flee Russia and continue their news activities from neighboring countries. Putin imposed a 15 year jail sentence for those speaking about the war in Ukraine which he lies about as a “special operation.” He doesn’t want to disturb the remaining passive Russian people into activism against the horror that has been snuffed out in Russian media about the butchery, shelling, bombing, razing of buildings, rapes, murders of innocent civilians: women, children, older men.
Thus, Putin is redefining his “truth” of his war crimes and atrocities. “Special operation” is a euphemism for Ukrainian extinction, cultural eradication, and cleansing. What does war mean for Putin that he truth lies about? Disintegrating Ukrainian’s freedom of choice. Dissolving their sovereignty. After all, they are Russians. So his acts are just examples of Russian brotherly love. Right is left, war is peace, hate is love in the “ministry” (it’s a religion of Putin worship) of Putin’s “newspeak” truth.
“Newspeak” is from George Orwell’s 1984. Its function is to “limit the individual’s ability to think and articulate ‘subversive’ concepts such as personal identity, self-expression and free will. Such concepts are criminalized as “thoughtcrime” since they contradict the prevailing Ingsoc orthodoxy. (English socialism-it should have been Ingcom for English communism).
When you stop someone’s freedom to choose, you are a tyrant; for that there is no justification, unless of course, individuals choose to intentionally or negligently kill you with their plague. Then that’s a consideration for National Security and at the least a charge of manslaughter or negligent homicide.
Interestingly, in his speech Kurkov discussed the curious nature of truth following Arthur Miller’s legacy in his writings standing against injustice and inhumanity to tell the “ugly” truth. With straight-faced irony Kurkov implied truth is without descriptors like ugly or pretty or inconvenient. Stripped away, it is and thus, must be recorded and chronicled. The descriptors are given by the one seeing it; the perspective of the one taking it in. Thus, one can be unemotional seeing or hearing about Russian soldiers’ rape, slicing off tongues, executing civilians, mass graves, burning of bodies, if one is Putin and those genocided are Ukrainians. That is Putin’s pretty truth, but it must be whitewashed, alchemized for the Russian populaces’ consumption, sweetening what is to make it easy to swallow.
I would add that since judgment comes from one’s upbringing and surrounding cultural influences (or brainwashing) in a culture where the ethic and law is “do no harm to others,” and “others” means any race, creed or color, then atrocities warrant censure. In Putin’s truth/lies, soldiers’ atrocities warrant rewards and medals.
Putin’s war and Kurkov’s being shelled the first few days until he left Kyiv, displaced him internally. Peter O’Toole, who was in London around the time of Germany’s bombings during WWII said something to the effect that there’s nothing like being bombed to set your priorities straight. The bombing and war dislocated Kurkov who said during the lecture:
“I could not have imagined a situation in which I would decide not to write a novel. But it has happened. Reality is now scarier, more dramatic than any fictional prose. In this context, novels lose their meaning. Now it is necessary to write only the truth, only non-fiction. All those who can write are witnessing one of the worst crimes of the 21st century. The task of witnesses is to record and preserve the evidence of the crime. Yes, now I am a witness in a future criminal trial. And even if this process takes place later than I would like, my testimony, like the testimony of dozens of other Ukrainian writers and journalists, will be claimed by the judges.”
“Ukrainians are determined to win,” he said, “to defend the sovereign right to life in their own free and democratic country. Ukrainians in this war are united not only by a common enemy, but also by a common European vision of the future of their state. Ukraine doesn’t really have a choice. It will either win and remain an independent state, or, as President Putin wants, become part of the new Soviet Union or the new Russian empire.”
The Russian people simply don’t have to think about it. Putin has whitewashed the truth, prevented recordings of it, news articles, commentary on Social Media, all of it. Russian state media doesn’t televise or podcast discussions or reports about the butchery and bombings of the dust of Mariupol again and again, as remaining Ukrainian soldiers and civilians still defy Putin by staying alive and resisting in various basements and the steel plant.
Russians don’t know this. My Russian neighbor in NYC doesn’t know this or swallows Putin’s sugar: the Nazis are being overrun. Thus, Russians are not upset by the “ugly” truth. It doesn’t hurt them. Is that moral? Well, Putin is protecting himself from their fury and protecting them from unspeakable pain and torment. It’s a “good” thing, until they realize when their sons don’t come home, the greatest betrayal in history has happened to them as they have been consciously or unconsciously, wittingly or unwittingly swept up in Putin’s national criminality.
Kurkov’s lecture should have been packed. It wasn’t. However, in the audience were Ukrainians and Russians familiar with Kurkov’s novels, screenplays and his writings as an intellectual and journalist. Kurkov was enlightening. IN PART 2, I comment on his lecture and quote from it.
The power of The Vagrant Trilogy, Mona Mansour’s incredible work, currently at the Public Theater until 15 of May, lies in the questions it raises. These concern the very real circumstances presented, especially in Act III. Mona Mansour’s connected one-act plays (that took the Public one decade to effect), ask us to empathize with the plight of the Palestinian characters Abir (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy) and Adham (Bassam Abdelfattah). We watch as their world shatters and they have to decide whether to remain in London or go back home to live in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
Before the play begins, the actors introduce the structure and events, explaining that Act I is the set up to explore a decision whose consequences offer two alternate realities. The two different outcomes that occur in Act II and Act III reveal a life of free choice versus a life where one’s every movement is controlled, monitored and limited, as the characters live in squalid conditions, and their upward mobility curtailed unless they escape.
Mansour asks us to consider the extreme consequences of a single decision to change one’s status from culturally displaced immigrant, who gives up everything to live in relative comfort, to that of a refugee who retains cultural identity and family but gives up his comfort and future. The director (Mark Wing-Davey), and the playwright with prodigious effort intend that we empathize with such decisions that the globally displaced are forced to make. These will only increase as wars and extreme events, like climate change created drought and famine destabilize nation states. These will uproot humanity, who will be forced to migrate to places of relative safety, if they can find such places.
Invariably, as we identify with Abir and Adham and walk in their shoes, we ask which sacrifice would we make if we were in their position to choose between Scylla and Charybdis? (Greek mythological monsters Odysseus faced on his journey home) Which monstrous choice would help us retain the most valuable part of ourselves? Or does the act of choosing wipe-out identity, regardless of outcome, as the decision-makers consign themselves to a life of regretful “what ifs,” every time they confront the dire obstacles which are bound to occur?
The refugee camp that Adham refers to throughout the play, is the camp where he and his mother escaped from while his father and brother remained behind. The camp was formed after the first Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 around the time that Israel was declared an independent state and Palestinians rejected partition and a two-state solution. As a result of the war, displaced Palestinian refugees were shuffled over to Burj El Barajneh, a camp in Lebanon that opened up in 1949. Once there, they were told that they would go home and be resettled, eventually.
One of many refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, the UN has stipulated that they have a right to return. The dictum is ridiculous; there is nothing to return to, nor can they receive documentation to readily return to the area they were forced to flee as casualties of war. Meanwhile, those in the camps wait for a resolution, generations have grown up and moved on. Indeed Adham’s father dies in the camp without ever returning to the homeland he lost. Sadly, the refugees are unable to work or obtain citizenship in the country that hosts them. There’s is a never-ending limbo from which few escape.
Time has passed since the camp was formed and Adham escaped with his mom. It is 1967 in Act I when Adham and Abir meet in their small village in Jordan (former Palestine), after Adham graduates from college. It is right before he goes off to a prestigious speaking event in London where he has been selected out of many talented candidates. Swept up in their attraction for one another, Adham takes Abir home to meet his forceful, prescient, ambitious mother (Nadine Malouf), who disapproves of Abir as a wife.
Not heeding his mother’s warning, he proposes, they elope, and travel to London where Adham garners success at the lecture and is accepted by the faculty (Osh Ashruf, Rudy Roushdi), who he schmoozes with at a party. Fortunately, the exuberant, friendly, faculty wife Diana, (Nadine Malouf’s versatility is smashing in all the roles she portrays), provides the social bridge to make Ahmad comfortable. However, Abir feels uncomfortable, a fish out of water which Adham admits to. But he feels grounded in his subject of literature in academia and he speaks English, which Abir does not.
During the evening of his success at the party, the 1967 Arab Israeli six-day war breaks out. The faculty suggests they stay in London. They will get the couple visas and work out an internship or something available and doable. Abir is distraught about leaving her family and accuses Adham of heartlessly leaving his mother who sacrificed everything for him. The argument intensifies and by the end of it, their emotional fury explodes. The fact is brought out that if they leave, they may never be allowed to return to London as Palestinians, who are now in a state of flux with Israel, the Arab world and the US. They must make their momentous decision and never look back
In Act II Adham’s life unfolds as a professor applying for full tenure. He is still friends with Abir whom he has divorced because of their irreconcialble differences, mainly that Abir blames Adham for staying, a convenient excuse because after the divorce she could return. However, we learn that Abir has it both ways; she accepts little responsibility for her decision to stay and blames Adham for it.
As this section unfolds, we understand Abir’s complaining to another professor friend about him, the same rants; he abandoned his brother and mother and is selfish. She is at the home of Ahmad whom she sees frequently. For his part, Adham’s teaching career is problematic and in limbo without a full professorship. He is neither here nor there culturally; he is like the vagrant he refers to in a Wordsworth poem he has studied and teaches.
Though he has made friends at the university, he finds increasing difficulty with students and faculty as a Palestinian. Act II resolves as he visits the Lake District, the setting of poet Wordsworth’s wanderings which remind him of what he has gained and lost. It is a respite that works in tandem with his discovery that his brother has died in the refugee camp, a casualty of the further escalation of the “eye-for-eye,” “tooth-for-tooth” machinations that occur in the Middle East. Thus, though he is in comfort, he is alone to pursue his career and writings and in a kind of a limbo, without family.
The set design of Act I and II is evocative, with music from the period, projections, and more, thanks to the following creatives: Allen Moyer (scenic design), Dina El-Aziz (costume design), Reza Behjat (lighting design), Tye Hunt Fitzgerald, Sinan Refik Zafar (co-sound design), Greg Emetaz (video design). However, Act III takes place in the refugee camp in the alternate reality that Adham and Abir would have faced, if they returned home.
The Act III set design, sound, lighting are wonderful as they reveal the difficulties and conditions in the camp (power outages, etc.). The two rooms where they live are more tent than shack. There, Adham, Abir, their children Jamila (Nandine Malouf is just incredible as the teen daughter) and Jul (the fine Rudy Roushdi) eat, argue, sleep and manage to survive. The cramped, impoverished, though decorative quarters (rugs and scarves adorn the walls), also hold space for Abir’s brother Ghassan (Ramsey Faragallah) and Adham’s brother Hamzi, (Osh Ashruf in a vibrant enthusiastic portrayal).
It is in Act III where we experience the full impact of their decision to go back “home” which is nowhere, a refugee camp where they wait and wait for a resolution of the Middle East conflict. It never comes. It is heart-rending, and the actors are magnificent in their portrayals which bring Mansour’s themes to their striking and tragic end-stop. What are we doing globally about this? Why? The misery is incalculable. And Ukrainian refugees in Europe and Syrian refugees, etc. and those from South America must be helped. But how? But when? Can the refugee crises ever be stopped?
This incredible production must be seen. The three hours speed by, but it is not for the faint of heart. While I sat riveted, the couple next to me walked out after Act I, while I couldn’t budge from my seat. For tickets and times, go to the website: https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2122/the-vagrant-trilogy/
A Strange Loop, awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for drama transferred to Broadway this year after an Off Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons. The musical steps into the psyche and being of fat, Black, queer Usher and unapologetically opens the door into his life, dreams and realities as messy and screwed-up and admirable and heroic and amorphous and yearning as they are.
With book, music and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson, directed by Stephen Brackett and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly, The Strange Loop is currently running at the Lyceum. The production is as particular as a feedback loop stuck on itself, rounding turns with robotic precision, speeding up and slowing down to begin where there is no beginning, and end, well, never. In a very weird and wonderful way, as we view the machinations of how a fat, Black queer deals with being a loathsome/cool fat Black queer, whether one is straight, white, 18-40 BMI female, age 20 and up, or 35- 75-year-old straight, white male 23-40 BMI, or slender Asian or Latina straight or gay male or female, 30-70 somethings, or any identifying LGBTQ individual of any age, shape and size, this satire about identity, sex, race, gender and inner self vs. outer self makes one belly laugh.
Maybe it’s the uber embarrassing put downs Usher sustains with hurt aplomb, reviewing “live” encounters in his imagination (i.e. with the wonderful Jason Veasey on the subway), which plays abusively cruel tricks on him and makes our souls beg for some surcease from the screaming self-torment in his raucous mind, which endears Usher to us. Though there is little to identify with physically, (there were very few fat, Black, queer men in the audience), if one strips away his exterior and listens to him, one identifies with Usher’s sufferings and the “rapid recyclying” thoughts that plague all of us in our incessant and irrevocable “glass is empty” humanity.
In this production, Usher stands before us naked without ego. Unlike us, he admits to humorous self-flagellation. Humorously, he actualizes it so we see his zany mania in all its immediacy, through the songs, gyrations, expansive gestures and verbal somersaults of his inner thoughts portrayed by six talented actors. These include: Thought 1 (L Morgan Lee), Thought 2 (James Jackson, Jr.), Thought 3 (John-Michael LYles), Thought 4 (John-Andrew Morrison), Thought 5 (Jason Veasey), Thought 6 (Antwayn Hopper). All are dressed to “kill him” with unkindness in various color coordinated costumes (designed by Montana Levi Blanco), switched up in the many scene changes. All of these crazies are humorous, exuberantly antic, wild, sassy, picky, aggressive, politically correct, negative, negative, negative.
What they are not is encouraging, uplifting, complimentary. Positive thoughts are not funny. Jackson is about funny insult comedy in A Strange Loop, which also, sometimes is not so funny. This is especially so when the self-humiliating protagonist Usher has the courage and raw desire to “let it all hang out,” including weathering insults about the size of his genitalia to garner LMAO laughs, as he trolls for sex partners on his phone apps (acted out by his thoughts, costumed for the occasion). It is also not funny when he attempts to sexually connect in a graphic, “sensual,” anal, sex scene (with Antwayn Hopper), evocatively staged with blue lighting (designed by Jen Schriever). The end result settles unromantically, poignantly, where he is left in an emotional void and alienating disconnect. We don’t laugh. We silently “take it in.”
The irony we are seduced by is that Usher is a creative who we watch in his creative process, writing a musical about a fat, Black queer-who writes a musical about a fat, Black queer…(continue the loop). Thus, it is an imperative that he embrace his inner wacko with relish, but is his own “straight man” in not cracking a smile as he undergoes his self-delivered smackdowns via his “Thoughts.” That insanity of six shouting manics is the foundation of his art and the subject humor of his misery with which he entertains. Thus, he must not psychoanalyze it away, meditate it away, zen it away or pill pop it away. His extremities of pain take precedence, so his comedic funny man stand-up, song-up can flourish. “Strange” is art, the weirder the better. And as we laugh at this clown, we salve our own inner hell.
In his Broadway debut, the superbly versatile Jaquel Spivey as Usher, whose funny bone is as large as his spirit, draws us in after the few minutes of chaos and boredom he experiences at his job as an usher at The Lion King, chiming the ridiculous miniature glockenspiel-ish bell to alert the audience to their proper protocol. But its Usher’s six soul derivations and tangling loopy thoughts, jangling against each other, ripping into him, bringing up his present condition of being nowhere in his career path as he attempts to write a “Big, Fat, Black, Queer Musical,” that will land him on Broadway. The irony here is absolutely mind-catching because the title of his musical is The Big Loop and here he is on Broadway.
Thus, not only is Jaquel Spivey’s Usher ushering us into a novel kind of weirdo that is all about the interior soul, it is also a joke on us, as Jackson wipes out every BS convention leveled by producers about why certain plays “won’t work” on Broadway or Off.
Well, this one does, with its themes and its representative musical score which is repetitive and driving, characteristic of a loop which Spivey’s Usher coherently describes and explains as he exposes his “bizarre” in real time. In all the commotion of his being, Usher, perhaps Jackson’s alter ego, is laughing the longest and hardest at audience members who are farthest away from the “EWWW fat, Black, gay” loser protagonist.
Spivey’s adorable portrayal is winning and likable because in presenting Usher’s extremely dire misery wryly and sardonically (with his imperfect, voice singing Jackson’s effervescent word crammed songs), we find ourselves tangled interactively in his loops. If we are as honest as Usher, we’ve been there, done that with our own six thought conveyors (maybe more), driving us nuts. And “dollars to donuts” the 20-something guys laughing like roaring lions behind me felt much of Usher’s pain and were thrilled to be able to laugh at him and themselves.
What Jackson gives us with his genius are the fantastic perspectives with which to view this character as he exposes his insults, slights, sword jabs in loopy repetitive three/four crescendoing note melodies that Usher internalized from the cultural, familial influences around him. In various scenes his thought posse, well dressed in appropriate attire shreds and pickles him as he rides the subway, checks out gay apps on his phone to get a boyfriend, visits his mom and dad who insist he write a religious Tyler Perry play, and confronts their censure about his gayness which they find unacceptable.
When the set changes into a Tyler Perry facsimile in a switch up from the neon boxes his thoughts move in and out of through most of the play, the moment happens at just the right time. Spivey’s Usher steps into Perryland, taking on various characters in Perry-type costumes and wigs to please his religious mother who he portrays in the Perry send up, as he sings her affirmation that “AIDS is God’s punishment for being gay,” rousing the audience to “clap along.”
Indeed, the loop has gone around once too many times into debasing self-destruction. Thus, eventually, Thought 4 (John-Andrew Morrison) who plays Usher’s mother in the play within a play, observing Usher’s religious Perry play, breaks the fourth wall and asks him something like, “isn’t this enough? When are you going to let these people go home?” (not the exact quote, but near the meaning)
However, it’s not done; the loop continues. There’s more laughter and amazement to come because Usher is a frenzy of pain and giddiness, with fragmented memories of his father, fearful that Usher might be attracted to him, and his mother telling him she loves him.
Usher can’t process it, but he can reveal it. And somehow that is enough. Perhaps at some point he will “get” that it’s OK, and all of this labyrinth need not be straightened out. Nor should he attempt to emerge from it to achieve “wholeness.” After all, this is his unique contribution and purpose to entertain. If we can laugh about “it” and “him,” then so can he, even though his thoughts may not quite be in the mood to laugh at themselves. But he is his own archetype, an “every person,” so he can bear with that, too.
Kudos to Arnulfo Maldonado’s flexible, seamless multi-faceted scenic design which brings fresh perspective to each, swift scene change, as supple as Usher’s thoughts. Praise must also be given to Drew Levy’s sound design, Cookie Jordan (Hair, Wig, and Makeup Design), Michael R. Jackson (vocal arrangements), Tomoko Akaboshi (music coordinator), Chelsea Pace (intimacy director).
You should see this well-deserved awarded play that has garnered 11 Tony nominations. This is especially so if you need to laugh at yourself. Who doesn’t? For tickets and times go to their website: https://strangeloopmusical.com/
First there was Lin Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire’s Hamilton which codified our founding fathers through a current lens and brought them into living reality with a new understanding of the birth of our nation. Now, there is the musical Paradise Square which brings to vivid life the embodiment of the American Dream during the Civil War, 1863, after President Lincoln instituted the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves.
The phenomenal, complex musical is nothing short of a heart-rending emotional shakedown for feeling Americans at this precarious time in our history. Currently, it runs at the Barrymore Theater creating buzz and furor through word of mouth. With Book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan (conceived by Kirwan with additional music inspired by the songs of Stephen Foster), music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Nalthan Tysen & Masi Asare, the production’s success is a collaborative effort, and that is a testament to the individuals whose creativity and flexibility brought the spectacular, dramatic elements together coherently with symbolic, thematic power.
With the actors, Alex Sanchez’s Musical Staging, Bill T. Jones genius choreography and the enlightened and anointed direction of Moises Kaufman, the demonstrated will and determination to make this production leap into the firmament cannot be easily dismissed or inconveniently dispatched for whatever reason. (reference Jesse Green of the New York Times)
The setting of this thematically current musical takes place in a slum of cast offs and immigrants who are making the American experiment their own and bringing equanimity to New York City like never before. On a patch of ground in the Five Points that is home to saloon Paradise Square, proprietor Nelly O’Brien (the incredible Joaquina Kalukango who champions the character and all she symbolizes), has created her own version of Eden with her Irish American husband Willie O’Brien (the superb Matt Bogart). There, all are worthy and respected.
Nelly exemplifies the goodness and hope of our American glory and opportunity through hard work, faith and community. Born in the saloon from the oppressed, her father a slave who escaped to the North via the underground railroad, her mixed race marriage is uniquely blessed. It is just like that of her sister-in-law Annie O’Brien Lewis (the superb Chilina Kennedy), married to Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (the equally superb Nathaniel Stampley), a Quaker and underground railroad stationmaster. Both couples have prospered, are decent and shed truly Christian light and love on all they meet.
Nelly, the principals and company present life in “Paradise Square,” in the opening song. This is the seminal moment; book writers establish the overarching theme, the hope of America, an Edenic place where all races and creeds get along without division or rancor.
“We are free we love who we want to love with no apology. If you landed in this square then you dared to risk it all, at the bottom of the ladder, there’s nowhere left to fall,” Nelly sings as the patrons echo her and dance. The opening moments clarify what is at stake for Nelly and all who pass through the doors of the saloon. It is a safe haven, where in other areas of the city, the wealthy uptown, for example, these “low class” immigrant whites, and blacks are unwanted and unwelcome. It’s a clear economic divide which grows more stringent as the war’s ferocity intensifies and money becomes the way in to safety and the wall that directs the Irish and other immigrants to the Civil War’s front lines; one more hurdle to overcome after surviving cataclysms and impoverishment in their home countries.
Of course, the symbolic reference is not lost and we anticipate that Eden achieved is not Eden sustained, though Nelly has managed to effect her safe place during the first three years of the war. What keeps her energized is her spirit of hope and her dream which she intends to promote throughout the war until her husband, Captain O’Brien of the 69th regiment of fighting Irish, returns once the Union army has won its righteous cause. Nelly and Willie’s touching song and flashback to their first meeting reveals that they are color blind (“You Have Had My Heart”), and move beyond race and ethnicity to the loving, Edenic ideal which uplifts spirit over flesh and lives by faith rather than sight.
At the top of the production Nelly shows a black and white projection of the modern Five Points and the place where her saloon used to be, as she merges the present with the past and suggests she is relating her story, a story that won’t be found in history books. It is a “story on our own terms,” that exemplifies unity in a community of races and religions bounded by love, concern and financial equality as all struggle to make ends meet, and with each other’s help, get through the tribulations of the Civil War’s impact on their lives.
The exceptional opening song and dance number resolves in a send off of Willie O’Brien and ‘Lucky Mike Quinlan’ (Kevin Dennis) to the battlefield. Both rely on an inner reservoir of faith and Irish pluck, knowing the prayers of the Reverend and all in Paradise Square go before them. The vibrant titular number is uplifting and beautiful as it highlights the American experiment which British royals doomed to failure and Benjamin Franklin ironically stated-our government is “a republic if you can keep it.”
Though the republic has been divided in a Civil War, folks like those who come to Nelly’s saloon believe in nation’s sanctity and are keeping the dream alive, if the South has abandoned it. Indeed, as the book writers suggest, the immigrants and those of passion and heart will hold the dream in their hearts and attempt to manifest its reality because freedom, respect and equanimity is worth dying for. With irony the book’s writers reveal this is something the wealthy do not believe because they don’t have to. Their world rejects the values and ideals of those who people Paradise Square. Without principles worth dying for, the hearts of the Uptowners are filled with greed for power and money. These are the passions that drive the rich, symbolized in the scenes with Party Boss and political strategist Frederic Tiggens (the excellent and talented John Dossett).
Complications develop when Annie’s nephew Owen (the wonderfully talented A.J. Shively), travels from Ireland at the same time that Washington Henry (the wonderfully talented Sidney DuPont), escapes with Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton). Traveling on the underground railroad from Tennessee, Henry arrives in New York City without his love, whom he waits for, braving the dangers of capture. Owen and Henry joined by Annie and the Reverend, a stationmaster on the underground railroad who receives Henry, all sing (“I’m Coming”). The young men, like hundreds before them, seek freedom and prosperity believing in the opportunities afforded by the shining city.
Reverend Samuel alerts Annie that Henry escaped from border state Tennessee which is not covered in the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus, when Henry says he can’t go to Canada, but must wait for Angelina Baker, the Reverend fears for all of them. Nevertheless, guided by faith and Nelly’s extension of grace to Washington Henry, their community stands together and Owen and Henry bunk congenially in a tiny room above Paradise Square saloon.
Additionally, stranger Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), arrives in their society to beg Nelly for a job. Moore, an excellent piano player with a drinking problem, appears legitimate, so Nelly makes a bargain with him and arranges for Owen, Henry and Moore to create dance and song entertainments to earn their keep. The dancing and singing to a cool multi-ethnic version of “Camptown Races” effected by Henry and Owen who are friendly competitors at this juncture, show the prodigious singing and dancing talents of Shively and Dupont. Guided by Bill T. Jones’ brilliant, energetic and enlightened choreography, the dancing in this production is thematic and symbolic, with unique stylized flourishes that shine a light on the exceptional talents of the principals and the ensemble.
Jones showcases the dances with ethnic cultural elements: for Shively and his group-Irish step dancing; for DuPont-Juba African American dancing that evolved from plantation life. Jones’ wondrous evocations are present throughout. When Henry sings “Angelina Baker” we revert to the plantation where both met. Profoundly rendered through Jones choreography and musical staging (Alex Sanchez), the ensembles’ stylized movements evoke the field slaves soul burdened and bowed, as two plantation overseers tap dance the repetitive torment and the beats of slavery’s oppression and pain. Just incredible!
Uptown Party Boss Frederic Tiggens (the excellent John Dossett) is the villainous snake, whose intent is to divide voters, secure political power and keep wages low by targeting the haven of equanimity, Paradise Square. As a disrupter, he focuses on a “divide and conquer” strategy. Stoking division when the opportunity arises, he is hell bent on destroying Nelly’s prosperous Eden which threatens his political power block. Thus, he foments resentment between the Irish and the blacks when he discovers that the Reverend doesn’t fire a worker to give a job to ‘Lucky Mike,’ a war amputee abandoned by the government he fought for. (“Bright Lookout,” “Tomorrow’s Never Guaranteed.”).
Enraged at the injustice of not being hired by Reverend Samuel who can’t do what he wants or he will be fired himself, ‘Lucky Mike’ becomes the pawn of Tiggens, who exploits his anger instead of helping him. Expressing the plight of many returning vets then and now, Mike’s anger grows into a raging fire with no outlet until it finally explodes in violence. Tiggens’ trouble-making continues with his connections serving financial writs on Nelly and Paradise Square that must be paid off. When she confers with family about raising money, Owen contributes his cultural grace, suggesting a dance festival competition like they had in Ireland. With the festival Nelly will raise enough to pay off the fines. Once again, Nelly and family resilience and hope shine through the darkness of Tiggens’ political machinations to overwhelm them.
Meanwhile, the Reverend is informed by his Quaker friends that Henry has killed his plantation master in Tennessee and is wanted for murder. The Reverend tells Annie who insists she will accompany him and Henry to the next station on the railroad. The song “Gentle Annie” is a humorous revelation of their marriage: Annie’s feisty character tempered by Samuel’s peaceful nature, their shared values and the closeness of their relationship. Kennedy and Stampley give authentic, spot-on performances that solidify one more link in the ineffable chain of love that helps make Paradise Square (the saloon and the production) a place of unity and grace.
A strength of this musical is that the dramatic tension increases and doesn’t let up for a minute. The arc of development in conflicts and intricate, complex themes shows Nelly’s Paradise Square, like Lincoln’s Union strained and stressed. As Tiggens tightens the financial noose on Nelly’s Eden, the announcement of the War Draft threatens the immigrants. Men between the ages of 25-45 must serve, unless they pay $300 dollars to exempt themselves. Lincoln’s conscription is a desperate attempt to revitalize the fight; the Union is on the verge of collapse and the American experiment is in grave jeopardy. Nelly’s dream and Lincoln’s hope of a democratic union run on parallel tracks along with the underground railroad.
For the blacks, the idea that people had inalienable rights and could live together with respect, dignity .and equanimity as a community, the idea that people themselves had the power to sustain such a republic, was keenly felt. Blacks wanted desperately to fight against the Southern oppressors, but were forbidden. (“I’d Be a Soldier”). The Irish, like Owen and the other immigrants, were looking for a better life not war (“Why Should I Die in Springtime?”), but they are ground down by their poverty and question the efficacy of dying for a cause they didn’t create and can’t afford to get out of.
When Owen and the ensemble of Irishmen/immigrants and Henry and the ensemble of blacks sing these numbers, the power of the lyrical music drives home the differences. Both groups embrace the American ideal but are being denied achieving it in reality. As the anger of ‘Lucky Mike’ gains advocacy, it fuels fear in Owen because, for him, the Draft is unjust; he doesn’t have the money. Nelly, for the first time tells ‘Lucky Mike’ to leave her bar as he tries to rally protestors for his (Tiggens propagandized) cause.
As Nelly inspires and encourages her patrons telling them they must not “let the draft break us, that’s what those Uptown bastards want,” an Irishman comes with news that does bow her, Captain Willie O’Brien’s death. But for the Reverend and Annie (“Prayer”), and Nelly’s moral imperative to maintain the saloon’s mission, Nelly would break. As she attempts to gain comfort and inner resolve, the Reverend and Annie confront Henry about murdering his master. In the incredible “Angelina Baker” sung by DuPont with the dancers evoking the Tennessee plantation terrors, we understand his justification for killing.
By the end of Act I, Nelly, Annie, the Reverend, Owen, Henry and the patrons stand on a precipice as the war and malevolent forces threaten to overcome them. Nelly sings, “I keep holding on to hope for a world just out of view, but that hope I have comes at a cost and the cost comes due.” But it is in the song’s refrain that Joaquina Kalukango sings for the ages. Nelly prays with grace and dignity: “Heaven Save Our Home.” Kalukango’s Nelly becomes the intercessor who has made the ultimate sacrifice. All those she loves in Paradise Square are in jeopardy. Her Eden hangs by a spider’s web. As we identify with her prayer, Kalukango’s Nelly stands in the gap for all who are threatened by war and oppression, or unseen forces that would trammel down the sanctity of life. In her portrayal, as she attempts to touch the heart of God, she enthralls our humanity. It is what live theater is all about.
In the transition to Act II, book writers take us to wealthy Uptown New York City. The set changes from the dark saloon, three level platforms, box cages and hard scrabble lines and angles to light, airy, plush furniture in a luxurious drawing room where the wealthy Mr. Tiggens, Amelia Tiggens and Uptown women are being entertained by Milton Moore. Moore presents new versions of songs he culturally appropriated from those he’s heard sung by immigrants and blacks in the Five Points. The scene brings heartbreak at the revelation that “Milton Moore” has been the cover for Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel).
In a fascinating and ingenious twist in the arc of development, Foster, revitalized by his time in Paradise Square, exploits its greatness, democracy and vibrancy. He brags to Tiggens about his inspired time and unwittingly reveals what Nelly and the others plan. The scene is another dynamo that spills over into chaos when Foster returns to Paradise Square and confronts Nelly, who is arranging to financially save her saloon, Owen and Henry with the dance festival. Foster’s betrayal is a stinging blow. Though he apologizes and attempts to salve the wound by telling Nelly she encouraged his reformation, the danger he reigns down on them is unforgivable. Too late, she ejects him; but the damage has been done. All that is left is to hope that the dance festival brings in enough money to save her saloon and Owen and Henry.
The dance comes off in, another incredible scene with Jones’ amazing choreography front and center as Shively’s Owens and DuPont’s Henry compete, this time not so congenially. There is a winner. You’ll just have to see the show to find out. But the competition doesn’t have the desired effect. Subsequently, New York City undergoes its own class war as the immigrants go uptown in a rage to protest. The NYC Draft Riots, a well documented catastrophic debacle (50 buildings burned, 119 people dead) with destruction, death looting and burning lasts for three days until the US army quells the rioting. As the rioters set fire to Paradise Square, Kalukango’s Nelly confronts them and delivers a message (“Let it Burn”) that defies description in power and spiritual glory.
“Inside this little building is a rare and special lot; we somehow found each other and look what that has wrought; a place you are afraid of, a world you’ll never know; you can take it in a flash; you can burn it down to ash and then out of ash we’ll grow; if you think we’ll run away, you’ve got a lot to learn we are stronger than your fire, and I say let it burn.”
Nelly realizes her Edenic dream continues in greater power without a building to house it. Thus, she gives up the one thing she worked incredibly hard to keep with the knowledge that Paradise Square and all it symbolizes to her is within her soul forever. It is for future generations to manifest and make her Edenic dream a reality.
How the creative team and Kalukango deliver this moment is miraculous. What the show kindles in those receptive to its messages and themes heals, strengthens and affirms. It is the glory of what our country can be in the resilience of the human spirit that uplifts freedom from the boot of financial, moral, ethical oppression and evil in all its forms.
As I watched this production, I couldn’t help but align its “dangerous” democratic themes to events around the world and in our own country. Nelly’s message is the Ukrainians’s message to Vladamir Putin in his unjust war and attempt to destroy Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities with his Stalinist communist terror which cannot succeed. Similarly, I thought of the ultra extremist right wing politicos in the U.S., who would make women heel to their oppression by criminalizing abortion to the point of making it tantamount to homicide, while sanctifying, legitimizing rape. (The rapist becomes a father, bonded to the child and mother.)
The Supreme Court in attempting to overturn settled law, effects a second insurrection more damaging than that of the coup conspiracy by Donald Trump and QAnon Republicans on 6th January. When Kalukango’s Nelly sings her cries for safety and freedom, affirming both by the conclusion, she intercedes for all Americans who still believe with Lincoln in government of, by and for the people. The lrich minority are incapable of hearing such cries from the spirit. They only want to rule like despots.
The values and themes heightened in Paradise Square are truly Christian, American and democratic. The production is a vital happening during a time when political terrorist forces inside our country conspire with foreign adversaries to nullify our constitution and foundations of government based on self-evident truths in our Declaration of Independence; that all are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. There is no musical on Broadway today which best represents the American spirit and ideals.
If this does not sound like something you might like, then especially go see it. For tickets and times see their website: https://www.paradisesquaremusical.com/
When you have contemplated suicide, the rainbow with all its Biblical and mythological significance is not enough. The pain is cyclical, repetitive and cataclysmic until you end it. However, in ntozake shange’s choreopoem, for the empowering community of black women shining through the clouds of history to speak an anointed truth that has been forged like gold over the centuries, the embodiment of the living rainbow of love is enough.
The revival, currently at the Booth Theatre is directed and choreographed by the anointed Tony award nominated Camille A. Brown (Choir Boys). Shange’s iconic tone poem was initially presented on Broadway in 1976 to great acclaim, transferring its success from the Public Theater. Brown’s re-imagining is a heightened elucidation, different from the 2019 production at the Public Theater which featured mirrors, a disco ball and other shimmering dance party effects.
Brown and her design team have removed elements of reflection in the 2019 production and worked toward an affirming strength in the divisions of light divided through a prism to become seven color bands whose hues are picked up in all the dramatic elements of theatrical spectacle engineered by the creative team. The team manifests the vibrant colors of creation and coordinates them with lighting design effects (jiyoun chang) and eye-popping emergent luminescence in a multitude of shapes projected on large panels on both sides of the stage (myung hee cho-scenic design, aaron rhyne-projection design).
To original music and Brown’s seminal choreography the team ingeniously relates Shange’s poetic story themes. Each monologue and bridge by the company reveal a prodigious conceptualization. As they relate theme to color, the actors’ dance and movement resonate the energy of the color they “wear” (sarafina bush-costume design), enhanced by the coordinated lighting and the projections as the music synthesizes all these elements with astonishing power and emotion.
The large panels on either side of the stage close in the central focus on the majesty of the bands of the rainbow embodied in the following marvelous and sterling actresses who sync exquisitely in choreographed unity. These include Amara Granderson-Lady in Orange, Tendayi Kuumba-Lady in Brown, Kenita R. Miller-Lady in Red, Okwui Okpokwasili & Alexis Sims-Lady in Green, Treshelle Edmond & Alexandria Wailes-Lady in Purple, Stacey Sargeant-Lady in Blue, D. Woods-Lady in Yellow.
As each of the Ladies announce their stories and receive encouragement from their fellow hues, an emotional progression and journey emerges from youth to motherhood to sisterhood, healing and self-love. The emotions from each of the stories move from revelation to relational love and devastation, to acceptance and self-affirmation, to empowerment, with the merging of all the colors to self love which of course is light. (The rainbow is refracted sunlight through moisture prisms after a rain.)
Some of the colors and stories resonate with great joy and the exuberance of youth: the story of graduation night, the beginning of adulthood and sex for the first time by Lady in Yellow (D. Woods). Others take on the hue of the experience described: abortion cycle #1 by the Lady in Blue (Stacey Sargeant), who trails with “& nobody came, cuz nobody knew, once i waz pregnant & shamed of myself.” In the bridges to the monologues the rainbow ladies add their encouragement and dance with superb breath control and conditioning.
I particularly enjoyed Tendayi Kuumba as the Lady in Brown who humorously expresses her inspired love for “Toussaint,” whose books she discovers by sneaking into the adult section of the library. As a first foray into the world of a love mentoring, and influence, she lifts up the Haitian freedom fighter and he becomes her lover (she is a precocious 8-years old), and confidante late at night as they conspire “to remove the white girls from my hopscotch games.” The resolution occurs when she meets a “real-live-boy” named Toussaint who is interested in her. When she considers the great distance she must travel to Haiti, she decides he’ll do fine.
In the brilliant “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” the Lady in Green (Alexis Sims when I saw it), identifies how the soul can be stolen. The outrage and anger belies the humor underneath as the audience realizes the Lady in Green’s outcry hits home. How many have subdued their inner voice and being for the sake of pleasing another and then didn’t process the identity theft until too late? When emotion and feeling end up residing in the power and confidence of another because of bestowment is this not a form of theft? As one of the more powerful of Shonge’s poems anger is appropriate because the theft is subtle and secret and must be watched or one loses everything.
Perhaps the most telling and dramatic is The Lady in Red’s monologue “a nite with beau willie brown.” Presented by the pregnant Kenita R. Miller, we understand the raw horror of a man who has gone over the edge with PTSD and who brings down everyone else around him. With three children willie brown is emotional, irrational and sly. He desires control and power over the Lady in Red and has beat and manipulated her. However, she has had enough. Miller’s performance builds and intensifies as she compels us to feel the real plight of trying to save the lives of children from their abusive biological father who doesn’t take responsibility for raising him; they aren’t married. Delivered with incredible empathy, love and force, Miller’s performance is breathtaking. Clearly, deeply she reaches the soul level, indicating what it is like to confront one who has learned to kill and can’t turn it off. Just dynamite.
Camille A. Brown has infused an emotional reality in the presence of these ladies of color that is felt and is experienced. Not only has she discovered the way of story telling through the actors’ rich performances, she has threaded their beauty through movement and dance, steady drum beats and lyrical notes of powerful, velvet femininity.
This is emphasized throughout, but perhaps most in the “laying on of hands” in which all of the hues anoint each other and the Lady in Red expresses in the beginning of the segment that there was something missing. But by the end in the company of the rainbow women, she states, “i found god in myself & i loved her/i loved her fiercely.” Only then after the expurgation of all that is ill in the culture to receive and distinguish all that is loving and graceful, the Lady in Brown concludes, “this is for colored girls who have considered suicide/but are movin’ to the ends of their own rainbows.”
Cookie Jordan’s hair & wig design speaks out to individuality, empowerment and self-confidence. This especially resonates in a world where women’s rights and “colored” women’s rights have been dismissed by white men who intend to rule like demented, genocidal lords over us if we let them.
The original music, orchestration and arrangements by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby flow seamlessly in and out of the gorgeous mosaic of Brown’s dance and movement choreographed to perfection against Shange’s poems, backdropped by sustained flashes of scintillating color projections. Drum arrangements by Jaylen Petinaud provide the beating heart of Shange’s work, pulsating energy and life. The music and drums electrify the actors who in turn electrify the audience in felt, authentic moments. Tia Allen as music coordinator and Deah Love Harriot’s music direction provide further grist to this intense team work that brings such memorable force to Shange’s masterwork.
This must be seen by every woman as it is an incredible, uplifting production that explores the secrets in every woman’s heart, unexpressed, felt, experienced. The production’s currency aligns with the recent Supreme Court draft to turn down Roe, an abomination of desolation, un-Christian, indecent, genocidal. Juxtaposed against wickedness, Camille A. Brown’s production is an affirmation of hope and the glory of womens’ empowerment to throw off the darkness. Indeed, as Shange shows us the way; the rainbow in the full representation of a unity of all colors in self-love is the light.
For tickets and times, go to their website: https://forcoloredgirlsbway.com/
The beauty of Tracy Letts’ The Minutes, directed by Anna D. Shapiro is that there is no hearty mention of political parties in Steppenwolf’s “very American” production whose patriotic music blares as the audience takes their seats at Studio 54. The music (Andre Pluess), and the City Council’s meeting room set design (David Zinn), remind us that it is in the small towns and cities of our democratic government that the American Dream comes to fruition, as it moves toward the hope that in our country, all men and women are created equal and are guaranteed their inalienable rights stated in the Declaration of Independence as under-girded by the constitution.
During The Minutes, the veil is lifted so we may watch democracy in action, vaguely referenced by Big Cherry’s Mayor Superba (Tracey Letts). What occurs on this momentous rainy night, when the city council gathers in a quorum to conduct its business, is a bludgeoning reminder of our blind hypocrisy regarding our pretensions to democratic self- government. When uncontrollable atavistic compulsions in our natures arise and dominate the best of us, is it even possible to govern with equanimity, Lett’s and the creative team ask?
This question appears to be at the heart of Letts’ rich and profound exploration of an Everyman/Everywoman city council, one of whose members we discover toward the last twenty minutes of the play is a whistleblower. What happens to him reveals the power of what America can and should mean vs. what America is revealed to be, in its local governments which often usurp our nation’s lofty principles and subvert them into governance by raw, destructive emotions born out of traditions of fear and hatred.
The point is made that the elected officials that govern Big Cherry, the central focus of this fascinating production, are neither Republican or Democratic. Nor at first do we anticipate that this council is anything but a representative democratic institution that functions as a proper governmental council should, with an emphasis on doing what is “the best” for the constituents who elected these men and women. In addition to Mayor Superba the board members include a bi-racial, gender appropriate, non-ageist group who look to be inclusive and bring inclusive issues to the fore as presented during the meeting.
The officials include Ms. Innes (Blair Brown), Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain), Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman), Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy), Ms. Johnson (Jessie Mueller), Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy), Mr. (Austin Pendleton), Mr. Peel (Noah Reid) and Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still). Note Letts’ clues of character with the particular, irony weighted selection of names. The names push the envelope of belief to convey the play’s sardonic tone at the beginning.
Vitally, the tone and humor increasingly morph toward revelation of the mystery of the previous week’s minutes that end in the shocking banality of evil at the play’s conclusion. As the production devolves into atavistic horror, we understand the city council’s cultural appropriation of the Sioux’s tribal dance. Incredibly open to interpretation, it symbolizes how they approach their concept of city council government. They attempt to empower themselves as warriors of their mission which they take to a radical extreme, defying the national, constitutional mandate while wickedly, hypocritically posing to uplift it.
The play drives to the heart of the dangerous atavism in this nation on both political divides without stating “Democrats” or “Republicans;” the party is not the point. Human nature is the point. Whether its book bannings, “don’t say gay,” Southern botch job of COVID as politicians and QAnon representatives scream “my body my choice,” then turn around and reverse “my body my choice” women’s rights with abortion bans, or the smear job screamed out by rabid #metoo pretense, pushing the ouster of former Governor Cuomo, equanimity and rationalism aren’t to be found.
Letts’ drives this home…revealing how the mundane often cloaks the dark, emotional abyss underneath. If only Satan sported horns, chains of diabolism and wore a name tag hailing his identity. Too often the sweetest people are the most malevolent, especially if they are working for your best interests in government. Ah, “something wicked this way comes and it’s the human heart.” BEWARE!
Without going into the specific plot points because there is no spoiler alert, at the top of the play, Letts introduces us to the EVERYMEN AND EVERYWOMEN city council members who are “average” individuals of a cross range of the “middle class.” At the outset, as they arrive, they move into their friendship groups, to elicit support from each other for their proposals that they intend to present at this evening’s meeting.
Throughout the play Mr. Peel questions what happened at the previous week’s meeting which he missed because his mother passed away. Mayor Superba and Mr. Hanratty casually dismiss Mr. Peel’s questions at the outset. However, Mr. Blake suggests that he will be rebuffed roundly and warns him that Mr. Assalone will lead the others against him so he won’t get anywhere with finding out what occurred.
Lett’s cleverly sets up the conflict focusing on what happened, why no one wants to discuss the previous meeting and what happened to Mr. Carp (Ian Barford in a profound dramatic performance) who is absent and apparently is no longer on the council. With a weird dismissal of Mr. Peel’s questions which under the law must be answered, we and Mr. Peel are set to wondering whether this is a cover-up and who and why the previous meeting cannot be easily discussed. We also wonder, along with Mr. Peel, what happened to Mr. Carp and why the duly elected official is no longer on the council. Was it Mr. Carp’s choice, Mayor Superba’s choice or the council’s choice that he left?
This relatively new council member Mr. Peel, who we discover a bit later had become friendly with Mr. Carp and supported his cause is no wiser about the circumstances as the meeting comes to order with the typical prayer and pledge of allegiance as all governmental meetings follow with sleepy, traditional protocol. Thus, we forget Mr. Peel’s questions and concern and with the demonstrated banality of what we’re familiar with, settle into regularity until Mr. Oldfield presents his case for an important consideration, an empty parking space.
Oldfield portrayed by the esteemed and wonderfully LOL, on-point Austin Pendleton conveys much of the humor in Lett’s The Minutes. In whatever he does Pendleton is a standout of authenticity and moment. Once Mr. Oldfield and his subtle request about the parking space is dismissed, the business at hand is presented.
Mr. Hanratty and Mr. Blake have their pet projects which eventually are objected to and voted down. Interestingly, the figure on the fountain that Hanratty wants to renovate gives rise to how the figure represents the foundation of the city. The members who are in the know provide the dramatic re-enactment of the mythic Battle of Mackie Creek that the figure’s heroism is dedicated to in the fountain. Only Mr. Peel is not familiar with the history of Big Cherry because it is his wife’s birthplace, not his. Thus, he does not take part and watches as Big Cherry’s history rises up from its past in a re-enactment.
All take part, even Mr. Oldfield, who provides the horse hoofs’ sounds. Their “theatrics” are humorous and the actors, as their council counterparts really ham it up appropriately to audience applause. Thus, we are reminded of such mythic re-enactments that traditionally dot the nation as harmless fun. However, the Civil War re-enactments are perhaps more than that for those who take part yearly (before COVID). Letts and the creative team call into question their significance and symbolism. To what end do those go to the trouble to show up and fight with accurate replicas of guns, cannons, outfits, and some even living on the fields for a week or more to “remember.” Curious.
Letts opens one’s eyes to conceptual meaning made physical. With regard to the Civil War, the devastation and destruction…one questions why re-enact it yearly? How can bloodshed (the greatest number of casualties in a war before COVID) and violence be fun? (Interestingly, COVID will have killed twice as many in the same time period. Thus far, there are a recorded number of US deaths at over one million twenty thousand on Worldometer in a two-year period.) However, the re-enactment is relished by the council members because it manifests glory in their history. It binds them in community and makes their lives as council members meaningful. Of course, the further symbolism and importance of this act blossoms by the conclusion.
Mr. Peel, with knowledge of what the previous meeting was about but with an inability to attend it and give support to Mr. Carp who was making a presentation, wants to discover the resolution of Mr. Carp’s petition. It is revealed in the minutes of the meeting which Mayor Superba has refused to release. However, a way is made. Eventually, in a flashback, we get to see why Mr. Peel wants to know what happened. And we also discover why Mr. Carp is no longer on the city council. The question remains with this revelation and the solving of the mystery of the minutes Mr. Peel has sought, will he stay on the council which his deceased mother never wanted him to be on in the first place?
Criticism has been made of Letts’ leaps in plot, sometimes illogical notions, etc. I would put it to those critics. This is not a play about linear logic, refined judgments and profound political moment. It is about us. and what we have to fear in ourselves. In that the play should make you weep. It won’t. It is not only about this nation, it is about human nature. In that it is timeless. Like most theater that attempts to get some of who we are down, it is irreparably flawed. Thus, it should be left as is.
Kudos to all the actors for their strong performances in this ensemble piece as well as the director who aptly shepherded them so you could hear a pin drop from the audience the last “minutes” of the play. Kudos to Ana Kuzmanic (costume design) Brian MacDevitt (lighting design), Ty Defoe (choreographer), Tom Watson (hair & wig design) and see above for the other designers mentioned.
You need to see this a couple of times to let it sift your soul, or not if you hate that kind of thing. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.studio54theatre.com/events/the-minutes-25/#.YnLPLNPMJPY
Thorton Wilder’s Pulitizer Prize winning The Skin of Our Teeth currently in revival at Lincoln Center’s Viviane Beaumont, presents the fate of the human race in three segments when the human family represented by the Antrobuses (Greek for man or human) faces extinction. The first debacle is the ice age; the second is the great deluge; the third is a seven years war. The play leaves off in uncertainty for surely humanity will continue to face threats of extermination and will continue to shake these off, repair itself and scientifically progress to greater heights and lower depths in its struggle to survive as a species. Though Wilder leaves this conclusion uncertain through the character of Sabina (Gabby Beans), the very fact that the characters make it as far as they do is a witness to human resilience and tenacity.
The production, one of spectacle and moment, whimsy and humor is acutely directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz for maximum effect. It succeeds in various instances, to be poignant and profound as the Antrobus family (James Vincent Meredith-Dad, Roslyn Ruff-Mom, Julian Robertson-Henry, Paige Gilbert -Gladys) and their maid Sabina (Gabby Beans), one of the narrators who breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, claw their way through history to survive. These “every men” and “every women” archetypes experience representative cataclysms, all the while confronting the questions about the human race and their place in history until the end of time.
Though Wilder references Bible figures like Cain, suggests Adam, Eve and Lilith (Lily Sabina) and the disasters that have foundations in tribal religious mythology (the great flood myth is recorded in most indigenous cultures), other cataclysms are scientifically and historically referenced (the ice age, dinosaur extinction, seven year’s war between England and France). Wilder is intentionally out of chronological order, suggestive, melding various historical/cultural documents of literature and religion with scientific discovery. Throughout, the vital thread is humanity’s survival.
The questions the characters raise which float throughout each act are philosophical and moral. For example is the human race worth saving from the struggles, trials and horrors which will continue to threaten both people and their environment? Should humanity just throw in the towel, lay down and refuse to repair itself or evolve technologically, artistically, scientifically? Given the rapacity and murderous ruthlessness of son Henry (aka the Biblical Cain, the spirit of murder in humanity), will the human race just exterminate itself with weapons of its own making? Or as humanity’s mother, Mrs. Antrobus suggests, will the family unit sustain the human species, enabling it to succeed in each progressive and evolving era?
Given the latest foray into extinction by Vladimir Putin as he attempts to obliterate Ukraine into the dust bin of history, bully democratic countries to heel to his genocide, and bribe apologist lackeys in the extreme global radical right, including the QAnon Republican Party, Wilder’s overriding questions are current. This is especially so in the last segment when Mrs. Antrobus and daughter Gladys emerge from the basement where they’ve been sheltering for a seven years war to reunite with Sabina (Gabby Beans) and welcome the new peace. However, they consider how they will rebuild as they view the burned wreckage of their bombed out home.
As the curtain of the last act rises on the devastation, one can’t help think of Ukrainian towns (the Russian soldiers have since left), and Mariupol, where Ukrainian families and soldiers shelter in basements and in a steel factory, as they suffer Putin’ inhumane starvation, while bombs blast above, uselessly pulverizing dust. The irony is so beyond the pale; Putin bombs dust in helpless fury while every minute the heroism, bravery and resilience of Ukraine’s “Antrobus” spirit thrusts into the heavens forever memorializing that Ukraine will never capitulate to the likes of Putin. It is a forever humiliation of Russia for allowing such a cretin serial killer to usurp power, genocide women and children and bomb dust because the Ukrainians embody the slogan, “live free or die,” and refuse to bow to one man rule and an abdication of their human rights to Putin.
Electing to die honorable Roman deaths, rather than submit to Putin’s vengeful, psychotic temper tantrums, they shame those officials who pretend to uphold democracy but, like Putin, vitiate human rights with lies. Uncannily, what’s happening in Mariupol dovetails with Wilder’s prescient theme, that the human race will never capitulate to fires, floods, and its own murderous instincts.
Though Sabina grouses that she’s sick and tired of being sick and tired as she begins the first lines at the top of the play again, the wheel of irrevocable change and life goes around once more with new things for humanity to learn in a new way that is never a repetition of the past. However, Sabina doesn’t see that human history is a spiral and not a circle. She is blind to the human experiment, which Wilder suggests we must understand beyond her limited vision.
Indeed, no human being desires going into survival mode. But cataclysm squeezes out benefit from humanity’s collective soul during great trials. Wilder suggests it is worth the price. Human tenacity and hope propel the human race to make it to the next day evolving its wisdom, strength and efficacy. Wilder suggests, this is confirmed again and again and again with each debacle, each disaster, each cataclysm, each deranged maniac that would make war on his brothers and himself.
Some scenes in this enlightened production are particularly adorable. The representative sentient beings of the ice age, the dinosaur and mammoth are the most lovable pets thanks to the brilliant puppeteers (Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr., Sarin Monae West).
Unfortunately, Antrobus (James Vincent Meredith) tells the dinosaur and mammoth to leave the warmth of their Jersey home so he has room to take in refugees like prophet Moses, the ancient Greek poet Homer and the three Muses: Melete, “Practice,” Mneme, “Memory” and Aoide, “Song,” who would otherwise freeze to death. The dinosaur’s and mammoth’s expulsion is heartbreaking; the ice age destroys their kind. However, Wilder ties their extinction to necessity. Humanity gave up some unique, particular species and from that arose incalculable value. In this instance the preservation includes the foundation of human laws of civilization, timeless poetry and the spirits who inspire art to soothe the collective human soul and inspire its hope and creativity.
The sounds of the ice shelf moving, the projection of the towers of ice and the smashing of the home are particularly compelling, as the Antrobus family and their maid and sometime object of Mr. Antrobus’ affections escape, “by the skin of their teeth.” Likewise the sounding of the alarm of the impending storming deluge is scarily effected with a huge crane-like device.
Wilder’s zany, human account has the same setting of bucolic New Jersey throughout. In Act II it’s still New Jersey, but it’s the wild equivalent of sin city in Atlantic City and the boardwalk that has a carnival atmosphere with a lovely gypsy fortune teller (Priscilla Lopez) who warns Antrobus that she can tell him his future, but his past is lost and incomprehensible. It is an interesting notion because one then thinks of the adjuration, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” However, this doesn’t quite follow for the Antrobus family who are forward moving in progress.
The Fortune Teller predicts the great deluge. Terrifying warning sounds rendered by a huge mechanism register the wind velocity and impending storm ferocity. Warnings are all ignored by the tourists and those who enjoy the fun, dancing, drugging and alluring lights of the Atlantic City boardwalk. As doom approaches, they party. Of course the Antrobus family flees to a boat after pursuing their natures (Henry has killed someone else). Sabina follows them, a veritable member of the family in her seductions of Antrobus manifested in Act II, hinted at in Act I.
A powerful scene in Act III occurs after the war is over and the Antrobuses convene at what’s left of their Jersey home. Henry confronts his father, for he is the enemy and Antrobus senior threatens to kill him. Of all the characters, the murderous Henry is the most useless. The daughter is the golden child as was the child they no longer speak of, the beautiful, gifted Abel who Henry resentfully killed. But in Act III, after Henry expresses his feelings of isolation, loneliness and desolation being insulted and demeaned by his father, there is a breakthrough and resolution which is heartening. The scene beautifully rendered by Julian Robertson who is in his element as the enraged and hurt son and James Vincent Meredith as the father, suggests hope and love are possible through communication.
Director Lileana-Blain Cruz shepherds her fine, spot-on cast with aplomb to performances that never appear off focus or muted for Wilder’s unique characterizations.
The fun of this production also is in the set design, aptly configured by Adam Rigg, effervescent and vibrant in the first two acts, symbolic and moving in Act III. The colorful costumes by Montana Levi reveal the time periods Act I suburban housewife and family and children happy-go-lucky flowery, and the appropriate fur coat and appropriate wear for Homer, Moses and the others. Act II the 1920s flapper style and for the men the orange pin stripes typically emotive for officials of the Convention for Mammals. The lovely Fortune Teller outfit is glamorous, as she is like a Hollywood celebrity and Sabina is the seductress in shimmering red. Act IIIs the outfits and back to the housewife/mother and maid look similiar to Act I are all exacting.
With Blanco, Yi Zhao’s accompanying lighting, Palmer Hefferan’s sound design and the integrated projections by Hannah Wasileski, the artistic technical team provides the canvas which sets off the events and the performances making them more striking. Even more fun are the expert puppeteers who made me fall in love with the animals and shed a tear at their demise. I am calling out these individuals again, BRAVO to Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr., Sarin Monae West.
I’ve said enough. Go see it. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.lct.org/shows/skin-our-teeth/