Summer Is Coming

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Summer Is Coming

Published in slightly different form in the Daily Record online September 14, 2017, print edition September 15, 2017

Staggering heat in the Northwest. Biblical deluges in Houston. Islands wiped out in the Caribbean. These are but tiny recent pieces of a discouraging and familiar story. Our coral reefs are disappearing: 90% of them are expected to die in the next third of a century, and they’re vital to the ecology of our oceans. Refugees from African conflicts mostly driven by the loss of arable land are overwhelming and destabilizing Europe. Miami flooded badly August and then much worse in the last week, but that is only a precursor: according to the National Academy of Sciences we have already passed a point of no return for saving either Miami or New Orleans from vanishing beneath the waves. The same can be said for the entire country of Bangla Desh, which will drown probably by the end of this century.

Like Westeros

I could of course go on and on and on, but any reader of this paper already knows all this, in outline if not in detail. In Westeros, as Game of Thrones fans know well, the existential threat is that Winter Is Coming. We here on Mother Earth face its contrapositive: for us, Summer Is Coming should be the watchword.

Should be. Yet there are staunch, resolute fools who refuse to look reality in the face, fools, many of them political leaders, who will not, even at this moment when Nature is screaming at us, pay attention and take action. We do not yet know, because a few episodes remain, whether Westeros will be saved from the threats that Winter brings, but at least everyone there now understands that the challenge calls for awareness and action.

Ourselves? Not so much. What needs to be done is obvious in outline. It must be governmental and it must be large, and it must do many things that will fetter and direct the so-called free market (heretical to some though the notion may be that the survival of the species should ever trump economic freedom). The necessary actions may threaten certain rich people’s wealth and certain unwealthy people’s livelihoods. The tyranny of the consumer, free to travel in whatever vehicle (no matter how wasteful or polluting), use whatever throwaway (no matter how long it persists in the environment), build over any terrain (no matter how necessary for agriculture or drainage), eat any food (no matter how carbon-intensive its production), generate power in any fashion (no matter how destructive of the atmosphere) – that tyranny will need to be overthrown.

Baby Steps

And we have only taken baby steps so far. Some governments have set targets for the substitution of renewable energy sources for the fossil-based ones that liberate carbon dioxide – but the targets tend to be labeled with dates that defer the pain of change. We continue to build by the water’s edge pretty much everywhere there’s water. We even maintain incentives to continue this insanity through our flood insurance program, which incentivizes unsustainable dwelling patterns.

And we keep doing things that diminish our ability to focus on and address the problems. We lower taxes when our governments need money for the very large public works and programs that would protect us all. We defer maintenance and cut off subsidies for public transportation, which is a very efficient way of lowering overall carbon pollution. We encourage urban sprawl, when we should be figuring out how to preserve arable land.

And we distract ourselves with foolish things: international conflict and political infighting and culture wars. We distract ourselves with a culture of political lies issued by demagogues and paid for by plutocrats who do not care what happens to humanity or to the other species with whom we share this planet. We arm combatants in some of the most ecologically stressed areas of the world, enabling them to fight over their countries rather than salvaging what productive potential has survived there. And we elect leaders who, when faced with the undeniable existential crisis we face, a crisis greater than mankind has ever faced before, and faced with clear explanations of how we ourselves are causing the crisis, deny, deny, deny.

A More Fundamental Fix

The most they will do is agree that the secondary problems caused by this rolling crisis must be addressed. But they will not admit what every honest intelligent person now knows: that we as a species have caused this, and that we need to go beyond fixing what the crisis destroys, and start fixing the crisis. It is true, of course, that relief will need to be sent to the areas our behavior has stricken with drought or with flood or with forest fire or with destructive winds. But that will not be enough, not nearly enough. Conditions will just keep getting continually worse, so long as we do not face how much we need to change – and make the change happen.

It would be nice to have the luxury of shrugging our shoulders at the folly of this denial, to withdraw into our own private concerns. But that is a luxury no one really has. The end times are already upon us, as we see week by week.

There will be many of us who, through wealth and/or luck, manage to live out their lives in relative comfort, in places where civilization will persist longest. But there are no guarantees for anyone – and most of us have children and grandchildren, who are almost guaranteed the opposite outcome.

When Resilience Is Spent

The reports coming out of St. Maarten this last week, a resort island I visited less than two years ago, suggest what our children and grandchildren may face. On streets I myself walked, something like 60% of the housing has been destroyed. Men armed with machetes and guns roamed unchecked robbing people and businesses; civilization had at least temporarily broken down. We can fix that, with time. This time. But over time, as the list of places in crisis grows, and it will, our resilience will shrink. If you want to see what the world looks like when resilience is spent, consider Somalia, where climate change on the land and overfishing in the sea has left the country almost ungovernable and almost ungoverned for the last quarter century.

When parts of our planet become too hot or too wet to inhabit, when starving and unemployed populations flee them for more temperate zones, less and less of the world will be governable or governed. Our children and our grandchildren may well live in the ungoverned zones; there won’t be enough gated communities or enough food left by then to protect most people. Or maybe to protect anyone.

We can see it coming, day by day, if we have eyes to see. Or, more accurately, if our leaders have eyes to see, because it is through them that the great mobilization must start.

Meanwhile, Summer Is Coming.

 

 

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Relearning Detroit

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Relearning Detroit

Published in the Daily Record August 10, 2017

Until I saw Dominique Morrisseau’s 2013 play Detroit ‘67 and Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s new movie Detroit, my understanding of the 1967 disturbance in Detroit was fragmentary, based on knowing a bit but not understanding the essentials of the story. This kind of surprising, considering that at the time it all happened I lived in Ann Arbor, only 40 miles away.

The fact that it has only finally swum into focus for me, fifty years after the event, is simultaneous testimony to how much has changed in the intervening years, and how little. The information environment is drastically different, or I would have learned more sooner. The underlying realities of urban policing and race are depressingly similar.

What I Heard at the Time

I found out almost nothing through my own social network at the time. Admittedly, I was out of town in New York the weekend the uprising started, during the summer between my high school graduation and college. But insofar as I or anyone I knew was concerned, the uprising might have been in another world. We had a family friend who canceled a visit to some party in Detroit; that was about the extent of the impact among those I knew.

That might be counterintuitive. Our college town, like so much else in southeastern Michigan, owed much of its livelihood to the economic engine of Detroit. But it was possible to grow up where I did without ever visiting the metropolis, or even knowing its basic geography.

And without the Internet or cable news, I was left to what I could learn from the newspapers and the broadcast media, which wasn’t much. Being in New York on the critical days, I would have read first about the uprising in my father’s New York Times. An op-ed there by William V. Shannon, entitled “Negro Violence vs. The American Dream,” which ran on July 27, was typical of the paper’s coverage: lots of windy theorizing, but not one word about the police. The picture I got instead was simply of a confusing mania driving a black population to burn and loot its own neighborhood. And when I got back and discussed it with others, that was the consensus as well. No way would that kind of superficiality have survived amidst today’s tweets, citizen cellphone photojournalism, and Facebook rants. But that was then.

After that summer, I was off to college in another state, and I missed out on the reassessment that Detroit and Michigan entered into, on the way that Governor Romney pushed through a fair housing law, and on the trials and acquittals of the policemen accused of murdering three black men in custody at the Algiers Hotel. I missed out on John Hersey’s book about events at the Algiers Motel, which also form the centerpiece of the new movie.

The Flawed Narrative

Then that memory was overlaid with so many other race-related cataclysms, including Newark, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots which ensued, and the Vietnam-related disturbances like Kent State, that it all blended together, and I never had reason to recall, let alone reconsider, my initial impressions.

Consequently, I can plainly remember the initial narrative I understood. And that narrative contained nothing about a white police force or white flight or unequal justice, the things that, when you read Hersey or see Detroit 67 and Detroit, are the obvious prime movers of the uprising.

It’s not that I and my friends were totally wearing racial blinders. Our parish priest had marched for voting rights at Selma. I can remember following his lead by personally taking photographs of slum housing in my hometown to assist in an effort by some folks at my church to agitate for a local fair housing law. I was aware of and sympathetic to the civil rights litigation going on around the country. But when it came to seeing the connection between black civil unrest and white policing, I never connected the dots.

The Real Narrative

I did not grasp how white police officers could become an occupying army. (Detroit was then 30% African American, but the police were about 93% white, 45% of whom working in black neighborhoods reported “extremely anti-Negro attitudes” according to the non-partisan Kerner Commission.)

I did not then grasp how the police’s behavior was or could have been the primary cause of the unrest. I think I’d heard about the police raid on the “blind pig,” the unlicensed after-hours drinking-and-gambling joint, had touched off the riot. I knew about blind pigs; my black next-door neighbors frequented them. But I did not understand how integral blind pigs were to African American culture in Detroit, or how raids on blind pigs were brutal and humiliating, and effectively acts of cultural warfare.

I did not understand the widespread abuse of stop-and-frisk. I had no idea about how the justice system had become a tool of oppression, leaving most young black men with arrest and/or conviction records that were often nothing more than artifacts of police harassment. It is easy to understand how coruscating community rage could result.

It has taken dramatizations to revive my attention – and I suspect the attention of lots of people who only had the contemporary media to inform them – to all this context.

All Too Familiar

Unfortunately, all this tells us is that a style of policing we’ve come to know all too well in today’s world, the world of Freddy Gray, of Walter Scott, of Michael Brown, of Eric Garner, and countless others, of the overuse of stop-and-frisk so definitively demonstrated in New York, has been around longer than we may have understood.

In Detroit fifty years ago, legal justification for police interference with black people was always at hand. At the blind pig, there were rampant administrative violations, unregulated drinking, illegal gambling, and prostitution – and there was more prostitution at the Algiers. Similarly, there are usually drug activity and weapons violations on today’s ghetto streets – though, as recent New York stop-and-frisk data has demonstrated, there’s even more in our white ones. But when so many people choose to engage in these activities, the laws forbidding them lose the perception of legitimacy, and police interference with just certain of the communities in which they occur is less law enforcement and more ritual dominance and stigmatization. And, as we’ve recently seen in Baltimore, in Ferguson, and in Baton Rouge, these rituals always eventually provoke counter-rituals of community outrage.

Thanks to these recent reenactments of what went down fifty years ago in Detroit, we can now understand, if we could not before, how long this has been happening. Time to fix those holes in our memories. And time to fix the police.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Confronting the Paradoxes of Faith in EVERYTHING IS WONDERFUL at CATF

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Confronting the Paradoxes of Faith in EVERYTHING IS WONDERFUL at CATF

Paul DeBoy, Lucky Gretzinger, Jason Babinsky, Lexi Lap, Jessica Savabe, and Hollis McCarthy

Paul DeBoy, Lucky Gretzinger, Jason Babinsky, Lexi Lap, Jessica Savabe, and Hollis McCarthy

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 16, 2017

Most religious communities are closed to some extent. Most religious communities preach benevolence toward fellow-humans. But the more closed a community is, the harder becomes for that community to live up to the benevolence it preaches, particularly towards apostates. Protection of the community boundaries and benevolence towards apostates are almost irreconcilable things. Not only that, but solicitude for community boundaries may lead to too-ready reconciliation with those who have violated its standards but stayed within those boundaries.

In Everything Is Wonderful, featured in this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, playwright Chelsea Marcantel has dramatized these paradoxes in the context of an Amish community. On the evidence of the play, the Amish are generally peaceful and forgiving; indeed, we are introduced at the outset to Eric (Jason Babinsky), a young outsider who through negligence has done a terrible wrong to the community, and comes seeking forgiveness and healing, and receives plenty of both.

The treatment we witness Eric receiving will provide a striking counterpart or counterpoint, as the case may be, to the community’s treatment of two other young violators of its standards, Miri (Jessica Savage) and Abram (Lucky Gretzinger). The difference in the treatment they receive is partly owing to the nature of Miri’s and Abram’s respective transgressions, but also depends upon how they relate to the community’s boundaries.

Miri’s transgression is the same as her status; she has become apostate, and, having left the community, she has been excommunicated, so that she cannot sit at her family’s dinner table or sleep under its roof or touch them, a penalty which is as keenly felt by her family as by her. Yet, as we eventually learn, she left only when those community boundaries failed to provide her meaningful protection or support in the light of a wrong done to her. Abram’s failing is not revealed at once, but he has always stayed within the group, and has in consequence received the community’s absolution in a way that seems far too easy.

In short, we are witnessing a situation where community sanctions, perhaps rational in the abstract, lead to irrationally unequal consequences that are also out of step with community ideals. Dramatically, this conflict cries out for someone to defend the community, to justify its ways. Yet for better or for worse, the community, the antagonist which has created this ethical mess, is not directly represented. Instead, there are only the three members of Miri’s estranged family: sister Ruth (Lexi Lapp), mother Esther (Hollis McCarthy), and father Jacob (Paul DeBoy). When we see the community meting out its inequitable justice, we see it happening only through them, and they too are victimized by it. They do what they do simply because it is what is laid down in the Ordnung, the group’s unwritten rules. It is a code as unequal to the tests presented to it as is the code of military justice which forces Captain Vere to hang a virtuous young man in Billy Budd. And the Ordnung is just as unapproachable and unchangeable in its abstractness as that code.

The story here is, thank goodness, not Billy Budd; the conclusion will not prove quite so bleak. However, that statement must be followed immediately by the acknowledgment that it is not easy to figure out what happens in the conclusion. I spoke with a number of members of the audience about it, and none of us could work it out. The script makes the obscurity a little clearer, but there seem to be limits. Throughout the play, there have been shifts back and forth between the present and the past, and part of the key to the end is that at that point present and past occupy the stage together. Things happen in that space that probably could not literally happen anywhere in the “real” fictional timeline. Those things create the feeling of resolution, but perhaps without the play having fully earned it.

Clearly, what the characters need is an overthrowing of the Ordnung, or at least the insertion of some exceptions to it, so that they can effectively forgive each other. Nothing short of that will earn the feeling that the ending strives for. And it does not seem as if that has actually occurred in the world of the play, notwithstanding a sort of transfiguration of the entire ensemble in the show’s final moments.

In reacting to the play as a whole, therefore, we need to take a step back from the conclusion. And fortunately we can. We do not need the last few minutes, or at least not this version of them. If the resolution enacted before us is wanting, the sketching out of the problem is beautifully done. We have been brought to the point where we can see clearly how religion has let its adherents down, and how the way past that disappointment lies in human connection, moral accountability, and forgiveness. Whether these particular characters achieve it is not that important.

The play may be set in an Amish world, but dramas with many similarities could be set in Catholic or Jewish or Muslim worlds, and probably among most other faiths. I do not read Marcantel as indicting religion as such; she shows us how much groundedness and understanding faith gives, and not just what faith frequently takes away. Every faith needs, and has, its own Ordnung, but in order to live fully and well, Marcantel seems to be saying, believers will always need to transcend it. And then, as the play hints, believers will also need to return to it. Every faith journey will thus be a work in progress, forever.

In keeping with the universality of this message, the action is played out in front of a sky-like scrim (see the picture above) that seems to locate the action as much in the midst of eternity as in Amish country. The costumes (by Therese Bruck) carry the burden of specificity. There is a pleasing contrast between the bright colors but simple lines of the women’s garb and those of the “English” characters, Eric and, at times, Miri. It may be a world we do not know but one most of us will find intriguing, and which, for a couple of hours, we are allowed to navigate imaginatively.

The performances, of course, are superb. I particularly appreciated DeBoy’s rendering of the father, conflicted but steadfast, and Savage’s Miri, steadfast in her own way, acknowledging the difficulty of her demand upon her family and her faith, but not backing down when it seems to be rejected. I did have a problem with Babinsky’s reactions; his character is partly written to provide comic relief, but at times it felt as if he was breaking character to laugh at his own lines, sitcom-style. But that, one assumes, was a directorial choice. And Hollis McCarthy did much to convey the mother’s heartbroken restiveness.

If I did not entirely approve of the way the play was constructed, and obviously particularly the ending, I think most viewers would agree with me that it was nevertheless thought-provoking, often beautiful and in a quiet way inspiring. Like every other play in this year’s Festival, it should not be missed.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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The Bronx is Up – and Dancing to Hip Hop – in CATF’s WELCOME TO FEAR CITY

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The Bronx is Up – and Dancing to Hip Hop – in CATF’s WELCOME TO FEAR CITY

Dyllon Burnside

Dyllon Burnside

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 15, 2017

Welcome to Fear City, premiering at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, shambles along amiably, looking as if it has no more greater object than to be a loose black family dramedy set forty years ago. That is, until it dawns on you that the play’s ambition is to be nothing less than a snapshot of a time and place where a lot of things happened, and one vitally important thing, hip hop, came into being.

The other things that happened, as depicted by playwright Kara Lee Corthron, included the tightening of the financial screws on lower middle-class black families in the Bronx, and the shutting down of economic opportunity, with attendant impacts upon living arrangements, health and emotional well-being. The other things included urban decay and what was euphemistically called urban renewal, which focused largely on the destruction of buildings, i.e. the cityscape within which black families were stiill trying to live their lives. The other things included the rise of aggressive policing of minority young men, via endless stops and searches.

We see all these things in the lives of: E, pictured above (Dyllon Burnside), a young man with underemployed mechanical aptitude, afflicted by gay impulses he does not want to deal with, and by the urge to make some kind of mark in a worse-than-indifferent world; his mother Wanda (Cherene Snow), who can’t safely take in her family because of Section 8 housing rules but does it anyway, and whose respiratory problems mandate a visit to the ER, but whose finances will not permit it; his sister Neesy (Adrian Kiser), academically gifted but not smart in love, who had followed a man to California only to be ditched, and has now stumbled home to support herself with topless waitressing; and his friend Cheky (Vincent Ramirez), whose distinction is that he has a “J-O-B” as a UPS deliveryman, but lives for the block parties where he serves as a DJ.

Their joint frustrations wind them all up tighter and tighter like the mainspring of a clock, until they must find release. We see E slipping into nefarious activities connected with “urban renewal,” as he is observed sardonically by a Rat (Yaegel T. Welch), and fighting to have his rap poetry attended to (his delivery is not very good). We see Neesy flirting with another potential Mr. Wrong. We see Wanda’s health declining. And we see Checky scrappily going on assembling his career, sparking dance parties with stolen electronic gear. Meanwhile, fire is literally consuming the neighborhood.

And in the midst of all this, we start seeing performances of this new rhyme chanted over rhythm tracks as the ensemble dances. We can feel how this new artistic form responds to the pressure building up inside each of them. The power of this then-aborning musical style is irresistibly conveyed at the end of the first act, in a performance that works especially well in the confined space of a small theater-in-the-round. This is a play, not a musical, but this proto-hip hop performance is recognizably a first-half closer.

The play would work fine if it stopped there. The second act is not as strong, and, comparing what was on stage with what was in the script, it becomes apparent that that act is still more of a work in progress. Among the defects is a lengthy transfiguration sequence, where the ensemble devolves first into a sort of enactment of white racist tropes, a minstrel show version of themselves, and then (if I’m understanding correctly) a sort of surreal essential version of themselves, confused by gibberish talk. Then there is a bring-to-date on the characters, who have turned out mostly all right after the scarifying events of 1977. Finally, there is a kind of flash forward in which subjects like Ferguson and Black Lives Matter are conjured up, leading to a moment where one character exhorts the audience to declare its solidarity with raised fists — and we do. And we walk out happy because we did.

Two observations about that raised-fist moment. First, as already described, it is the culmination of some sloppy playwriting. Second, it still works. The crowd with whom I saw the play, mostly senior and white like me, would not seem like an obvious target to be solicited for the gesture, nor an obvious demographic for cooperating and joining in, especially when (to convey the request) the fourth wall is broken (which in itself produces awkwardness). But even through the chaos, the show has built up a momentum and an appeal, especially through late iterations of song and dance, that transcends everyone’s identity. At that moment we all come from the Bronx. Also, we are crazy about those characters, and want to say a rousing goodbye to them.

I hope the sloppiness gets fixed, though; Corthron should lose the transfiguration and the deliberate gibberish talk near the end. I would also lose the Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter material, which is worthwhile but badly anachronistic in a play intended to capture a moment forty years back.

Instead, I’d urge Corthron to focus on her own title, or perhaps better on what lies behind it. There are two different kinds of fear referenced in the play. One is the fear that informed a 1975 pamphlet further described by Corthron in the program notes entitled Welcome to Fear City: A Survivor’s Guide for Visitors. It was handed out to airport visitors. As the Rat summarizes: “Some corn-fed meatball from Iowa is in Fear City limits just by goin’ to Broadway to see fuckin’ Annie.” Call it white fear for short. It is overblown and foolish. Then there’s the black variety: E’s fear of asking a boss for a raise, and his fear of doing too much in his questionable cooperation with urban renewal, and Wanda’s fear of going to the ER. Where exactly Corthron is going with this theme, however, is not clear, because black fear is not always unreasonable, and often responds reasonably to the objective situation.

If the play is going to aspire to be more than amiable family drama, it should head deeper into that subject – or perhaps into the subject that the label “fear” is a not-quite-successful-yet stab at naming. The four central characters all end up transcending something by the end. Maybe fear is the wrong word for it. The transcendence (not the word) is what matters and what we admire. I am certain that the characters’ refusals to give up on themselves or on the Bronx, expressed in but not limited to the music, is what the audience was identifying with when it raised its collective fist. (Not that most of us would have disagreed with the proposition that Black Lives do indeed Matter, I should add.)

So, yes, it needs work. But there are sometimes shows that need work that deserve your love already. This is one of them.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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A Gripping Struggle for Souls: WE WILL NOT BE SILENT at CATF

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A Gripping Struggle for Souls: WE WILL NOT BE SILENT at CATF

Paul DeBoy and Lexi Lapp

Paul DeBoy and Lexi Lapp

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 13, 2017

We have witnessed the scene in various ways at various times, but the essentials do not differ. There is always a table. There is always uncomfortable lighting. The inquisitor always has the full powers of the state at his back. The prisoner answering the questions is often restrained, sometimes under torture, usually in fear for his or her life. And, given the situation and the nature of the prisoner, the outcome is usually a foregone conclusion. The state will win the legal contest, and the prisoner will pay with life or freedom.

But on the stage in front of us, the prisoner and the interrogator are primarily fighting over something other than the prisoner’s survival, and for that reason the odds in the contest are not as lopsided as they may seem. The fight is over souls: not only the prisoner’s but the interrogator’s. And from a dramatic standpoint, this is the real struggle.

At the Contemporary American Theater Festival, that struggle is joined anew in David Meyers’ play We Will Not Be Silent, concerning the last three days of Sophie Scholl (Lexi Lapp), one of the leaders of the White Rose, a student group that opposed Hitler and leafleted in 1943 against Hitler’s war. Her antagonist the interrogator is named Kurt Grunwald (Paul DeBoy), although it would appear that he is based on a real-life Gestapo investigator named Robert Mohr. Like the historical Mohr, Grunwald apparently tries to save Scholl by having her inform on her brother. Perhaps unlike Mohr, Grunwald also tries to give Sophie a chance to go free by letting others take all the responsibility, though Grunwald fully and correctly anticipates that she is unlikely to agree to saving her skin in that way.

And this is the interesting twist: we do not know what kind of game Grunwald is really playing. On the evidence presented to this point in the play, when he offers these outs to Sophie, he might be serious or he might just be trying to provoke acts of self-sacrifice which will have the not-so-incidental effect of more firmly incriminating her. And that ambiguity as to Grunwald’s strategy betokens an ambiguity about his motives, indeed about what he is going through. He claims he is not in the Gestapo, but that cannot be correct, because no one but a Gestapo man could have had the authority to conduct this examination, and the interrogator upon whom he is based was in the Gestapo. So why should anything he says can be believed?

Is Grunwald nonetheless really a secret admirer of Sophie’s heroism, unwilling to emulate her simply because he lacks her courage, or are his professions of empathy with her situation just a secret policeman’s trick? Does he know the answer himself? The author does not tip his hand on this dilemma until the last three pages of the script.

The genius of the play is how this ambiguity is handled up until those last three pages. There is a certain progression in such dramatic interrogations. We know it from examples like the interrogations of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, and Cromwell’s examinations of Anne Boleyn’s doomed associates in Mike Poulton‘s dramatization of Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall, and the Mossad dialogues with Adolf Eichman in Evan Weiner’s Captors, Danforth’s interrogation of John Proctor in The Crucible, and a thousand movies. It typically if not invariably includes stages like denial by the accused, apparent exoneration, partial confession, attempts to win over the interrogator, self-doubt of the interrogator, promises of leniency attached to unacceptable conditions, existential crises on the part of the prisoner, and finally a reckoning, in which we learn which of the two has prevailed. The listed stages all occur here. And in every one but the last, the ambiguity is preserved and grows richer, because Grunwald pressing Scholl for either a confession or a conviction could plausibly stem from a desire to make an example of her for the Third Reich, or a martyr of her for those who find the Third Reich horrifying.

There are indeed moments when Grunwald is horrifying. DeBoy, a much larger and more mature actor, uses his stature to full advantage when shouting at Lapp’s Scholl; by contrast, she looks quite as young as the historical Scholl and quite a bit more fragile, a fragility that only increases as the character grows more isolated, dehydrated, sleepy, and confused. Even so, we cannot be sure whether Grunwald’s menace conceals a secret complicity, and if so, whether he realizes this himself.

Ultimately, just as the play establishes, Scholl went to the guillotine a day after a brief trial. But her memory has been kept very much alive in today’s Germany. So in real life she fulfills the exemplary function of martyrdom; in the world of the play, however, it seems most likely that her example will be forgotten. That risk of oblivion heightens the existential question confronting her: if by betraying her principles she could prolong her life, as opposed to adhering to her principles, dying, and having no impact at all, which choice should she make? And this is not just her existential question: It is his as well. It would appear that Grunwald has made the opposite choice. But has he? At the very end of the play, that question is reopened.

The theatergoer will not resolve these moral and logical dilemmas entirely, but will leave the theater breathless from identifying and working through them as far as he or she can. DeBoy and Lapp do an elegant job bringing them to life, and Ed Herendeen’s sharp direction keeps them alive.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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You Should Visit BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI at CATF

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You Should Visit BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI at CATF

Jason Babinsky and Jessica Savage

Jason Babinsky and Jessica Savage

Posted on BroadwayWorld July 12, 2017

In his recent memoir Dispatches from Pluto, British writer Richard Grant, trying to suss out race relations in the Mississippi Delta region, proposes this formula: “[I]n the South whites didn’t mind how close blacks got, so long as they didn’t get too high socially and economically, and … in the North, it was the other way around…” The town of Byhalia, a poor exurb of Memphis, lies one county over from the Delta, and the play to which Evan Linder has given the town’s name seems to reflect those same Delta racial dynamics. This might be surprising, because in the annals of civil rights struggles, Byhalia is mainly known for a traumatic moment in 1974 when a police killing of a young black man there ignited lengthy boycotts and protests, referenced in the play. But, at least in 2014, the time of the play, things are much more nuanced, and enough water has flowed under the bridge so that a white character does not even recognize the name of the young black man who was shot.

Byhalia, Mississippi, being presented as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, depicts instead a place where blacks and whites can be close friends or lovers without anyone commenting on it much except when things go really wrong. It’s not giving away a great deal to say what goes wrong here, since that cat escapes from the bag in the second scene: interracial adultery leading to an unexpectedly biracial child. And a good deal of the play is given over to what one might call the geographical question: whether the white mother should even attempt to raise such a child in Byhalia. But the bigger question is marital: can the white mother who cheated and her estranged husband (who cheated first) reunite despite all the hurt – and can that husband accept fatherhood under these circumstances? The comic tone throughout suggests how these questions will be resolved, but, as in most romantic stories, getting there is the main fun.

These are not generic romantic characters. The wife, Laurel (Jessica Savage), describes herself as a “redneck momma,” and the pejorative label certainly fits her husband Jim (Festival favorite Jason Babinsky) as well. Their story is race- and class-specific. Jim is a weed-smoking, not-really-employed guy who does not look like much of a catch, certainly not what his sardonic Jesus-loving mother-in-law Celeste (Hollis McCarthy) was hoping for for her daughter. Even with Laurel’s job as a schoolteacher, she relies on Celeste to pay the power bill. It is a situation Laurel summarizes this way just before the baby is born: “Things are not good Jim!… Things are never going to be good. And you know what?… I’m good with things never being good. I’m fine with it.” But of course the revelation of the baby’s race and history is bound to destabilize even this already unstable structure of a marriage. If Laurel is going to rescue it from complete collapse, she is going to require a great deal of centeredness and luck – and Jim.

The path back for this couple will bring Jim into uneasy reliance upon his black best friend Karl (Yaegel T. Welch), and Laurel into confrontation with her old black frenemy Ayesha, Laurel’s boss’s wife (Adrian Kiser). In these encounters, playwright Linder seems to be confirming but also refining Richard Grant‘s apercu. Face-to-face, the racial differences hardly need to be mentioned and play only a small role in how these characters deal with each other. But the social environment in which these pairs find each other matters a lot. There may not be room enough for someone like Karl to stay friends with someone like Jim. And Ayesha cannot either understand or tolerate the prospect of Laurel raising her black baby in Byhalia. Somehow the challenges posed by Karl and by Ayesha must be met.

It emerges that the strongest card Laurel has to play, with both Ayesha and Jim (and also with her mother) is simply her unflinching determination to stay put in Byhalia. There is no suggestion that there is any magic in Byhalia itself; there may be magic, though, in just staying put and going on with one’s life plan, not deviating because of changed circumstances. And of course there is comic magic in keeping the frequently raunchy jokes coming; Linder serves them up like a sitcom writer.

The virtue of Byhalia, Mississippi lies precisely in its modesty. It prescribes no rules, apart from loving one another and telling the truth, for getting through a marital and race-inflected social crisis in a small town; it simply shows how one not-overwhelmingly admirable couple does it. And at that, the true secret here may just be the jokes. Those, and the blackout line at the very end of the play, which just may bring a lump to the throat.

Given the heaviness of many of the other plays in this year’s Festival, a comedy was bound to provide a welcome respite. But it’s more than simply a respite. Byhalia, unlike most of the other plays here, has already established its bona fides, by going through a four-theater premiere (as well as three other staged readings) in 2016. Making so many different audiences laugh, it must have done so when the need for comic relief was not pressing. It can stand alone.

Some plaudits before departing. The cast, like every Shepherdstown cast, is uniformly outstanding. It was especially interesting seeing McCarthy and Savage playing a mother and daughter, having seen them two days earlier portraying a very different mother and a very different daughter in Chelsea Marcantel’s Everything Is Wonderful on the same stage. David M. Barber continues his run as a designer of amazingly detailed sets, with the two-bedroom house on a concrete pad that Jim and Laurel call home. And director Marc Masterson displays a rare talent for getting his cast to elicit laughs with every punch line; if there were any misdelivered ones, I missed them.

Bottom line: Byhalia, Mississippi is definitely worth a visit.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo Credit: Seth Freeman.

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A Clash of Perfectly Opposed Titans in THE NICETIES at CATF

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A Clash of Perfectly Opposed Titans in THE NICETIES at CATF

Margaret Ivey and Robin Walsh

Margaret Ivey and Robin Walsh

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 11, 2017

Every so often a play turns up that so challenges a critic’s premises that it is hard to come to grips with it objectively. Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties, or at least a character in it who may well be speaking for the author, vehemently questions the authority of those who were trained in elite institutions of higher education and became beneficiaries of generations of white privilege to say anything about race. Among those whose entitlement to speak Burgess challenges are critics like me.

But even if I feel targeted, I still must respond to The Niceties as a play, using a critic’s tools, and must and shall leave my reactions to the work as a polemic for some other time and place.

So let me start with what is usually the easiest part for a critic – and certainly is here. I can surely say that I was thrilled by The Niceties, now having its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherdstown, WV. A two-fisted drama of ideas, it may well leave you devastated, and will certainly send you out talking. It isn’t perfect, as I’ll discuss, but it will keep you thinking and probably angry, regardless of where you come down on the issues very articulately debated in it. To talk about the play, one must first describe it as one would a debate, summarizing the parties’ positions.

The disputants are Janine (Robin Walsh), a white history professor at an unidentified institution of higher learning that is transparently Yale, and Zoe (Margaret Ivey), an African American student. They differ, politely at first, over a class paper Zoe is writing for Janine. Zoe’s thesis is that the American Revolution was a moderate one not because of the statesmanship of the Founding Fathers but because those who waged it had no desire to right the wrong of slavery and fix the fundamental problems of American society.

Janine demurs. She argues that historians must work with the primary data available, and that everything not found in such data must be ignored. Because nothing that might support Zoe’s conclusions stands out in the primary data, she reasons, there is no good reason to subscribe to Zoe’s conclusions. Walsh’s delivery of Janine’s lines at this point comes across as measured, rational, and supremely composed. Zoe’s initial riposte, almost as measured, is that this neat construct consigns us to relying entirely on the voices of white men, history’s winners, who had a nearly exclusive ability to create the record and were unreliable narrators. To Zoe, Janine’s utter dismissal of her theory ignores self-evident truths of human nature, which should be evidence enough.

As the discussion grows more heated, leading to a crisis that leaks out of the professor’s office, it becomes both a proxy for and a microcosm of the larger disputes around race in our country. In the second act (I almost wrote “the second round”) Zoe accuses Janine of not being a suitable teacher. When Janine responds she earned her position, Zoe reminds Janine of all the reasons certain potential competitors may have fallen by the wayside on the way to earning that position: “[F]irst came 250 years of slavery, and then came a hundred years of segregation, and then came a deliberate and systematic attempt to exclude black people from good school districts and good jobs and to lock them up or hunt them down for doing things white people do every day. I need you to say that whatever else it stands for, America has systematically persecuted one part of its population, in a way that benefits the other part. In a way that has benefited you… You won fair and square cuz everyone else had lead boots on.”

The fight culminates with Zoe demanding that Janine make personal reparations for the illegitimate benefit she has received. With the positions of the parties so lucidly laid out, this rather shocking demand seems – less so. Whether it is convincing or acceptable may well depend on who you are.

The unwritten rules of the game for shows that are truly duels of ideas generally provide that each side will get enough good lines so that the spectator can reasonably come out agreeing with either. The dispute in Freud’s Last Session, for instance, could be called for either Sigmund Freud or C.S. Lewis. Burgess opts for the path less traveled and shows one of the women as the clear winner. Thus this ends up being more like the dispute in A Man for All Seasons between Thomas More and all the interlocutors More bests.

Because the playwright’s designation of a victor occurs within and because of what the characters say, there is no need to do it any other way. Nonetheless, Burgess puts her thumb on the scale, and has the losing party also act corruptly at two or three points. It seems inconsistent with this party’s character everywhere else in the play, and it is the imperfection I mentioned before. It would be better, I believe, if the winner had emerged on her own terms from the clash of views and identities, making this a contest of admirable people fated by skin color and history alone to be adversaries.

This speed bump, happily, about the only imperfection in the show. Not being a historian, I have no idea how accurate the play is as to the status of the scholarly opinion about our Revolution, or whether Zoe’s views are so much out of the mainstream, but the talk sounds right. What makes the achievement of this sound particularly remarkable here is that Robin Walsh, whom CATF audiences know from the memorable production of Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot five years ago, was brought in just in the last few days when the original Janine took ill, and performed with very little rehearsal or opportunity to learn her lines. In the performance I saw, she still had a script in front of her that she was using for prompts, but she covered for it beautifully, by giving her character a slight stammer which allowed her to dart glances downwards as needed. That same stammer also conveyed the meticulous care with which Janine crafts every armor-plated, nuance-laden sentence. I’m guessing that if Walsh goes on with the part long enough to be letter perfect with her lines, the stammer will stay.

And Margaret Ivey, seen to advantage in two CATF productions last season, delivers Zoe to us as a worthy foil for Janine. It might be a temptation for a less skilled performer to allow Zoe to get hot under the collar prematurely or too thoroughly. This Zoe keeps her powder dry until she sees the whites of Janine’s eyes. When Zoe finally does explode, she only grows more intelligent and telling in what she says, and still you sense that the character is holding something back. Ivey is, in short, expert at conveying rage behind a somewhat bluff exterior.

When these two get together, therefore, it is a clash of perfectly opposed titans. First Janine can deliver escalating provocation in a carefully modulated tone, and Zoe can respond with carefully modulated frustration, then Zoe can rain down well-considered condemnation which Janine can parry with sincere-sounding sophistication. It’s a great match of parts and performers.

As to Zoe’s ultimate challenge to any beneficiary of white privilege, as I have said, I shall not opine. But – fair warning – forcing each viewer to confront that question is the point of the exercise. If you see this show, when you leave, you will be thinking about that challenge.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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Incandescent Youth and WILD HORSES, a Heady Combination at CATF

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Incandescent Youth and WILD HORSES, a Heady Combination at CATF

Kate Udall

Kate Udall

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 10, 2017

The highly-stuffed, maybe overstuffed, play is definitely a thing today, if the selection of plays provided in recent seasons of the Contemporary American Theater Festival are any evidence to go by. This event, held each July in Shepherdstown, WV, provides something of a microcosm of the latest in American drama, and of this season’s six offerings, at least three try to deal with a perilously large selection of issues.

Exhibit A would certainly be Allison Gregory’s Wild Horses, a comically indulgent reminiscence of youth, a la Ah, Wilderness! or A Christmas Story, delivered as a one-woman show. But in the course of the intermissionless performance’s roughly hour and a hahttp://www.thebigpictureandthecloseup.com/blog/?p=6217lf of running time, during which the narrator principally recalls, as far as I could piece it together, two 24-hour stretches of her life as a 13-year-old, we find ourselves in the midst of eleven very distinct characters, and dealing with themes as diverse as first encounters with alcohol and sex, strains in a parental marriage, animal welfare, sibling rivalry, teenage friendships and what the passage of the years can do to them and most of all, the simultaneous wonder and danger of encountering, as Gregory summarizes in the program notes, a teenager’s dilemma of having “so many needs” and “so little power.”

This heady mix presents its own combination of wonder and danger, a novel’s worth of content shrunk to the size of a play, and presented through a single performer. That performer, Kate Udall, does a jaw-dropping job keeping all the characterizations separate, and making us fall in love with her character. It is a tribute to both Udall and playwright Allison Gregory that at the end of the show we do not want to let go of the acquaintance of this sprightly, adventurous, and incredibly true-to-life adolescent and her associates. Director Courtney Sale avoids steering Udall into either the longeurs of extended monologue or the distractions of excessive play-acting as the sole character’s yarn unspools.

A tip of the hat as well to set (and costume) designers Jesse Dreikosen and Sam Transleau, for providing a beautifully-functioning space within a theater in the (three-quarters) round. As the audience enters, it encounters not only normal raked seating on three sides, but also a few tables and stools in the middle where some of the spectators sit, and, at the far end, a camper van fitted out as a working refreshment stand serving audience members until the action begins. After Udall’s character, identified only as The Woman, enters, the camper becomes a Swiss Army knife of adaptability, serving in turn as basement bar, the side of a house, stash for props, and situs of a wild experiment in driving by the narrator’s earlier completely untrained self (see the photo above). Meanwhile, the space between the spectators at the tables becomes a range The Woman can freely roam rapidly changing orientation so that the great annoyance of theater in the round, speakers facing away from spectators, is minimized. And because the play is presented as an act of raconteur-dom anyway, which presupposes an audience, there is no fourth-wall problem when The Woman interacts with audience-members (asking them, for instance, to hold her purse or turning one of them into a quondam steering wheel).

Have any teenager’s real-life few hours really been so full of incident? Probably not, and the compression does take a toll on dramatic verisimilitude. One audience member I spoke with on the way out was clearly troubled by this. It did not bother me, because “turning the accomplishment of many years into an hourglass” is what theater does, and shoving some of those accomplishments closer together in the time represented is a traditional way to shove. What matters here is not the strictness of the account (in real life a raconteur putting a satisfying tale together is often apt to take just such liberties with the time-frame). The point is the group portrait of the youngsters (The Woman’s younger self, her partners in crime Zabby and Skinny Lynny, the callow young men who pursue them or whom they pursue, and The Woman’s big sister, aka The Favorite) in all their confusion, pain, and, most important, their exuberance and their desire to meet life head-on, even if they do not really know what that meeting will demand or entail.

If the compression did not bother me as a dramatic strategy, it did trouble me a bit as dilution of message (a problem I also felt in certain other plays at this year’s Festival). With so many themes wandering around in a single play, there are apt to be some underdeveloped issues and some tonal dissonances; the drama in the parents’ lives, for instance, seemed a bit too sketchy, lacking explanation or depth. And because of the dominant ruefully comical tone set by the narrator’s own adolescent experiences, it was not really possible to assess how we were supposed to respond to the parents’ separate trials, which could have been either tragic or not, based on the limited evidence presented. (We get it and can forgive, of course, that a teen’s self-preoccupied mind may tune out the pain among adults in close proximity, but a story-teller does not enjoy the same privilege; the audience’s curiosity about all the major characters should ordinarily be satisfied.) Likewise, the animal welfare piece came with too few explanations. It looked as if the protagonist and her friends had stumbled on a major piece of villainy, but maybe not, and in any event we did not learn much about the putative perpetrators.

This is the second year, and the second world premiere in a row for Gregory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. (I admired her show last year, Not Medeawhich, though not a solo show, was also something of a monologue delivered by a narrator to an audience, but I thought the purity of this presentation, mediating everything through one performer, worked even better.) Since this show is officially part of a rolling premiere, one can hope and anticipate that the overstuffing will be addressed as the project advances. But even if not a word were changed, the play would not be one to miss.

This year’s edition of the Festival, unlike some recent seasons, featured only hits; every single play is worth seeing. Still, this one was my personal favorite.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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The Offensive Offensive

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The Offensive Offensive

Published in the Daily Record, online July 13, 2017, print edition July 14, 2017

Even his biggest fans would probably agree that Donald Trump is the most incivil president in our history. The almost daily outpouring of venom, spleen, and gaucherie from the White House is both beyond dispute and unprecedented, and everyone knows it. Whether it be commenting on a news anchor’s supposed bleeding from plastic surgery, elbowing one world leader aside to get to the front of a photograph, refusing to shake another’s hand, or publicly threatening a witness in a congressional inquiry, to choose just a few examples, Trump and his team are clearly on a rudeness campaign that differs in both kind and degree from anything we have seen before.

Strategic Rudeness

No doubt there are psychological explanations, about which a rich if speculative literature has already sprung up.[1] And commentators have been quick to point out as well that Trump’s offensive offensive, as we might call it, may ultimately prove self-defeating, threatening his legislative priorities and indeed the survival of his presidency. But the survival of the presidency as an institution is of greater concern.

In the shorter term, a kind of rationale for the rudeness has emerged. At first there was a spate of pundit commentary marveling that Trump’s policies were bound to hurt, disproportionately, the very electorate which had put him in office, for instance the health care agenda which would result in the white working class being thrown off insurance, and that Trump seemed not to be paying a price in popularity among these potential victims.[2] More recently, it has been said that for Trump voters it was never truly about the policies, but about tribal animosities, and that by being so offensive towards media, liberals, gays, blacks, Muslim and Latino immigrants, and foreign dignitaries, Trump was producing feelings of delight in his voters that overwhelmed mere self-interest.[3]

Belittling the Messengers

But just as manners are a set of unwritten and largely unwriteable taboos, so too are the customs and constraints of the Presidency. And these are being affected on a daily basis. Take the attacks on and humiliations of the White House press corps. These started at the very outset of the administration, when Sean Spicer gave his first press conference, charging the media with underreporting on the size of the crowd at the inauguration the previous day,[4] which Spicer called “shameful and wrong” and announced the administration’s determination to hold the press accountable. In fact the media had accurately reported on attendance, so the press was effectively on notice that accurate reporting would be called lies and that reporters would be publicly singled out as liars for reporting the truth.

Since then the administration has seemingly lost no opportunity to belittle the White House press corps, be it Trump’s failing to attend the corps’ annual dinner, telling reporter Jim Acosta to his face in a February press conference that he was a purveyor of “fake news,” almost not holding solo presidential press conferences,[5] or tweeting a video showing himself wrestling CNN to the ground and pummeling it. Or it can be his team banning live coverage of press briefings, diminishing the time devoted to “gaggles,” or diminishing the stature of the established press at briefings, in contravention of long-standing precedent, by calling first on representatives of non-mainstream media and even on ones who are not present in the pressroom, in so-called “Skype seats.”

None of this seems to violate formal rules. The White House press corps is a self-governing association, and there is an absence of formal protocols forbidding anything just mentioned. It is not a crime to call accurate reporting shameful and wrong or fake news. No law compels a president ever to give a solo press conference or to avoid tweeting an image of himself pummeling a news network’s logo. No law compels a press secretary to give preference to mainstream media at press briefings or to allow cameras in the room when those briefings are given. It is, then, lawful to demean the journalists who cover the president, diminish their access to information, and disrupt the unwritten customs that establish precedence and credibility among them.

It’s just never been done before, and so no one thought to put the rules in writing.

The Threat of Markers

Yet once unwritten rules are broken, the damage can last. The George W. Bush administration laid down a “marker” in its pursuit of whistleblowers, by almost unprecedently using the 1917 Espionage Act as a basis for investigations of those who publicized American violations of national and international law with its warrantless wiretaps and interrogations under torture. And once the informal immunity of leakers under that law was breached, the Obama administration surged through the hole in precedent, and charged more leakers under that statute than all previous administrations combined. The Obama administration also set records for deportations (usually a heartless and heedless act of any government),[6] but built on the precedents laid down by Bush administration, which saw deportations increase in every year but one among its eight years in office.

Among those who dislike Trump, Obama is seen as an archetypal “good guy,” but his example suggests that bad precedents can lead good guys to do bad things. So there is good reason to fear that Trump’s discourtesies may pave the way for more of the same by his successors.

In days gone by, the presidency derived much power from acting in a non-coercive and non-abusive fashion: appealing to and harnessing disparate branches of government and constituencies in the electorate. This kind of power, in the context of nations, has been called “soft power.” But presidents had soft power too. Showing respect, even when it was merely ceremonial, was a vital part of it. Speaking temperately enabled presidents to avoid diplomatic gaffes, keep friends from turning into enemies, create wiggle room for compromises, avoid inciting demagoguery, and encourage national unity at times of crisis and grief. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, could never have been passed, had LBJ, though notorious for his capacity for coercion, not also been able to have respectful dialogues with Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle.

We may find in future, however, that trash talking at the White House is like negative campaigning, impossible to abstain from once the other guy has made it possible.

Reversible Jerkdom?

Maybe not. We don’t know yet. We’re in uncharted waters. And it looks as if we’re due to sail them for three and a half more years, because Trump and his staff show no signs of letting up. There are no rules that say they can’t act like jerks. And so, it seems certain, jerks they’ll be. It will be up to the next crew in the White House to re-set the norms to what they had been, if it can.

__________________

[1]. See, for example, here and here and here.

[2]. See, for example, here and here.

[3]. The only self-interest Trump and for that matter Congress have seemed to be genuinely promoting of late belongs to tax-averse extremely wealthy individuals.

[4]. On this occasion Spicer also (accurately) complained that a Time Magazine reporter had inaccurately reported that Martin Luther King’s bust was gone from the Oval Office, although the report had been retracted – and the Trump administration later went on a concerted effort to dismantle many of the civil rights enforcement mechanisms within the federal government, supporting the underlying perception that the Trump administration is actively hostile to the African American civil rights for which King gave his life.

[5]. According to the American Presidency Project’s website, as of July 2, 2017, after half a year in office, an eighth of his entire term, President Trump had held exactly one solo press conference. By contrast, at the end of his first year in office, President Obama had held seven solo conferences.

[6]. See my earlier column on the subject.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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And I Kinda Like It

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And I Kinda Like It

Taking the Long Way

Not Ready to Make Nice, by Dan Wilson, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Marlie McGuire, performed by the Dixie Chicks 2006, Encountered 2006

Buy it here | Watch here and here | Lyrics here | Sheet music here

“And I kinda like it.”

Those who remember the pop, country, and political scene in 2003 to 2006 will recognize that tag: the affirmation by the Dixie Chicks (Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Marlie McGuire) of Maines’ costly but liberating decision in 2003 to state her views on the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. At Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theatre in London, Maines commented: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

The House Musicians Rise Up

At that time, the Dixie Chicks were about the most popular country music act. Their resultant loss of status in that community was instantaneous. Their then-current hit Landslide fell from No. 10 down to 43 on the Billboard Hot 100 in a single week. Country is and does a lot of things, but no one is likely to dispute that among them, it serves as the house music of the religious, socially, and politically conservative among us. For these audiences, country music fits into a constellation with fundamentalist faith, football, and the military – and all of them were aligned behind George W. Bush’s war in Afghanistan and incipient war in Iraq in 2003. The reaction to the Chicks’ apostasy against this cultural combine was fierce: death threats, denunciations, a demonstration where their CDs were destroyed. They rethought their identity, stated they no longer considered themselves part of the country music community, and rebranded themselves as rock-n-rollers.

Three years later, the Chicks came out with a powerful meditation on what they had done, what the reaction had been, and how they felt about it. It is an anthem of anger at the anger directed at them, acceptance of the consequences for them, and affirmation of the course they had set out on: they kinda liked it. And if you go to the Chicks’ website today, you’ll see their “Causes” listed, and you’ll see that they have gone right on with the liberal course: Planned Parenthood, democracy, LGBT rights.

As the Chicks proclaimed, it is always liberating to shake off constraints and speak one’s truth.

I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell, and I don’t have time
To go ‘round and ‘round and ‘round
It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could
‘Cause I’m mad as hell
Can’t bring myself to do what it is
You think I should

This song spoke to me about as directly as any chronicled in these pieces. This blog is rooted in that very moment. From sometime in the previous decade, I’d been part of the Lawyers’ Editorial Advisory Board of the Maryland Daily Record, a business and legal newspaper. This was a group of fifteen or so lawyers who combined to write editorials in that paper on matters of legal interest, sometimes intramural within the Maryland community, sometimes broader. I served as principal author of a number of the pieces, and was finding it an increasingly frustrating task. I wanted to say some things that were startling and direct, and collegial authorship was making that close to impossible. There were always colleagues who disagreed with my point, or who counseled mushy compromises. Some wanted us to focus on municipal boosterism, while I wanted to talk about the big political issues, public policy, constitutional legal issues, and things that affected me as a practicing member of the profession.

But it went beyond subject matter. I was spoiling for fights that not everyone on that board wanted to have. And as long as I had to work with the board, I wasn’t going to have most of them.

The Column Begins

Thank goodness for our handler from the newspaper, Barbara Grzincic. One day in 2003 after a meeting of the board she pulled me aside and offered me a monthly column of my own. I think I said yes on the spot. You can see the entire result in this blog starting here, as I have taken all republished all my columns in the Big Picture section of the blog.

Of course it took me a little while to find my feet. One of my early pieces, for example, I later had to retract: I had addressed the Intelligent Design debate with insufficient facts. I also focused more than I should have on being a lawyer. My pieces were too long – something a colleague eventually poked fun at when we were presenting a continuing professional education seminar together, and he assured the audience that in my segment, which came next, I would speak for several hours.

But I knew I had something to present, and a way of presenting it that I had to work out.

I started hitting my stride when I started to write about Afghanistan, Iraq, surveillance, all the lies pouring out of Bush’s White House, and the history of presidential constitutional violations and dishonesty that had enabled the current abuses. The core material was some research I had done nearly twenty years earlier, for a talk to the League of Women Voters, during the Reagan years. Bush, I now saw, was a logical extension of the Nixon and Reagan lies and the Johnson and Reagan overreach. That earlier work gave me a grounding, and my anger at the way things were going pushed me forward. Eventually, my War Powers, War Lies series within my column came to twenty-five columns, a small book.

Over the two years I was producing my War Powers series, I started having fans. People I met on the street, some of them strangers, mentioned that they read me regularly. I also acquired a few detractors, most of them being, however, opposed to what I said, not to me personally. I’m pleased to say that I never had anyone challenge my facts, however. I tried really hard to get them right.

Of course my little brush with local fame had at least one drawback. I knew from the start that any ambitions I had ever had to become a judge would vanish because of my outspokenness. The people who choose judges generally shy away from those with controversial viewpoints, particularly controversial ones from my end of the political spectrum. Luckily, I had never been prey to that ambition in anything but the vaguest daydream.

The ambition I had had, I’d already achieved: I was a name partner in a good law firm. Better yet, as I quickly realized, neither my clientele nor my partnership was going to put any appreciable crimp in my ability to be outspoken. I did not alienate any clients that I was aware of by what I said, nor did I confront what lawyers call issues conflicts (where a position you take in some public context is inconsistent with an argument you’re making on a client’s behalf), forcing me to silence myself or even moderate my views.

One’s Own Voice

The greatest gift, though, was finding my voice. I was expressing my distrust of the powers that were, my awareness of the evils wrought by the powers that had been, and my bitterness about the whole situation, with all the honesty and erudition at my disposal. I had never heard myself talking that way before. And I kinda liked that sound.

The first time I heard Not Ready to Make Nice I snapped to attention. The Chicks were singing exactly what I was feeling. Of course they had been playing for much greater personal and business stakes than I. But the exaltation at breaking through, at saying what they felt, at liking how they sounded: that was what I was feeling. That song was my anthem.

Even now, a decade later, I still get a glint in my eye when I hear it.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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