‘Not Entirely Honest’ an Understatement in REP Stage’s Obscure But Funny THINGS THAT ARE ROUND

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‘Not Entirely Honest’ an Understatement in REP Stage’s Obscure But Funny THINGS THAT ARE ROUND

Thais Menendez and Beth Hylton

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com November 3, 2018

“I’m sensing that you’re not being entirely honest here,” says one character to the other in Callie Kimball’s Things That Are Round. That’s putting it mildly. The two characters in this play, receiving a world premiere performance by Columbia’s REP Stage (after a lengthy development process elsewhere), are constantly lying to each other and to themselves, and thus, indirectly, to the audience. Dubious statements prevent the audience being able to make up its mind about many important things happening throughout the play, either onstage or off, except perhaps in the play’s final moments.

We can be relatively certain of this much: Tetherly, a dentist (Beth Hylton), hires Nina (Thais Menendez) to babysit her four-year-old son Dylan, initiating an increasingly fraught relationship between the two women, based on what may be a series of delusions. How real is Dylan, for instance? Is Tetherly the world’s least entrepreneurial dentist? Is Tetherly really pursuing a doctorate? Does Nina actually have a claimed child of her own, or a husband, or a lover? Does Nina sincerely believe (contrary to what the audience has heard when she delivers a song) she has a ghost of a chance to become an opera singer? While these and similar basic questions about what the characters are doing or why are never fully resolved (nor do they need to be), the debatable and sometimes contradictory answers each character gives to these questions form the basis of a relationship that dramatically and comically changes as the play progresses.

It becomes apparent that at the outset the appropriately-named Tetherly is trapped, revolving around a set of pursuits and obsessions that bring her less and less comfort or happiness. Nina, younger, without clear loyalties or commitments except to being paid, represents freedom to Tetherly, who would like to find a way of getting closer to this intriguing domestic servant without relinquishing the authority of a boss. Given Nina’s restive nature and her penchant for schemes and ripoffs, Tetherly’s desires may prove impossible ever to reconcile. And they probably would be, were Tetherly left to her own devices. But Nina locates a way to break through the stalemate, making it possible, at the end, to classify this often very funny play as a comedy, and something between a love story and a buddy story.

REP Stage is giving it a very impressive maiden voyage. Beth Hylton, well-known to Baltimore audiences, delivers nicely her character’s sometimes hysterical loser-dom without evoking either too much or too little sympathy. And Thais Menendez is great at “talking arrows,” as the stage notes put it – when she does not just withhold, clam up, and allow Tetherly to twist in the wind. The difference in the textures of these performances is exactly what’s needed to make believable the symbiotic needs that draw the characters together despite themselves. Lola B. Pierson’s sensitive direction seems to capture the playwright’s vision precisely, leaving obscure only that which Kimball wanted to have left obscure. (Pierson also wrote Putin on Ice, just recently featured at Single Carrot; her comfort with that show’s high-spirited try-anything comedy makes her affinity with this work seem natural.) I loved Sarah O’Halloran’s composition and sound design featuring classical and classical-sounding music that had been altered to suggest the distorted and/or agitated thinking in the characters’ minds, and Jenny Male’s fight direction which yielded a confrontation at once funny and worrisomely dangerous-looking.

At this exciting moment in American playwriting, the role regional theater has taken on in developing and premiering new work has been a great thing. We need more of it in this region, and REP Stage’s commitment to the process (as in Susan McCully’s All She Must Possess last season) is to be commended. For audiences, stepping away from the tried and true, even into works as disorienting as this sometimes is, can be among the most invigorating theatrical experiences.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photograph. Photo Credit: Kate Simmons-Barth.

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How The Assembly Line Ended: SWEAT at Everyman Theatre

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How The Assembly Line Ended: SWEAT at Everyman Theatre

From left: Dawn Ursula, Kurt Rhoads, Megan Anderson, Deborah Hazlett

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 29, 2018

Lynn Nottage‘s Pulitzer-winning Sweat, which premiered Off-Broadway five days before the 2016 election and was transferred to Broadway the following year, was hailed by the New Yorker’s Michael Schulman as “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era.” Schulman pointed out that the play gives us a deep dive into the anomie of the Rust Belt workers so critical to Trump’s victory. The revival of the play now on display at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre confirms Schulman’s diagnosis, with two caveats: there is almost nothing there about the group’s electoral behavior, other than an articulated sense of pointlessness in voting, and the play ends eight years before the election, when the economic environment was significantly different from that of 2016. By the time the show premiered, the development central to the play’s action, deindustrialization, with all its closed factories and discarded workers with attendant ruination of lives, had already reached an at least temporary climax. Moreover, there had been the financial collapse of 2008, and a recovery based on furthering a conversion of our economy to one based less on manufacturing than on lower-paid services, which factory workers were not well-adapted to provide nor economically able to take on. Sweat focuses instead on the moments, mostly earlier, when the deindustrialization tsunami engulfed manufacturing, with all the profound human wreckage that wave caused. Nottage’s case in point, a Reading, Pennsylvania steel fabrication factory in the year 2000, is already history in 2008, when the play ends, let alone in 2016. If it’s a tale of Trump voters, then, it’s their backstory, not the tale of their votes.

But it’s a great backstory, if not a totally unexplored one. Baltimore audiences last year, for instance. saw the Center Stage production of Dominique Morrisseau’s Skeleton Crew, which premiered around that same time as Sweat, and like Sweat, focuses on the loss of a manufacturing plant and all the livelihoods that depended on it, using some of the same plot devices and symbolism. Michael Moore, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Barbara Ehrenreich, and many others have told the tale more than once in other media. But great minds think alike; there is plenty of room for more than one treatment of this important theme. And Nottage is magnificently up to the task.

She gives us, at the play’s core, three high-spirited factory-worker women: Cynthia (Dawn Ursula), Tracey (Deborah Hazlett) and Jessie (Megan Anderson). As the action begins, times are still good, and they and their fellow workers regularly resort to a tavern presided over by barkeep Stan (Kurt Rhoads) to celebrate birthdays and friendships. Two of the trio, Cynthia and Tracey, are even among the competitors for promotion to a supervisor’s position, which would be an anomaly, as the plant has no history of recruiting supervisors from the shop floor. Good times make even racial harmony achievable, as Cynthia is black while her two besties are white, and the races mingle effortlessly in Stan’s tavern. But we already know from a sort of prologue, in flash-forward, that Cynthia’s and Tracey’s sons will by 2008 have served time because of some still-unidentified common disaster connected in some way with the events of 2000 we are about to witness. In this way, Nottage warns us, if we needed any warning, that this industrial Eden will not end well.

And end badly it does, as Nottage tightens the grip of the catastrophe step by slow step. We all know the historical outlines of the story enough to have a general idea what to expect: management ready to break unions to exact wage and benefits concessions, scab laborers, jobs exported abroad, plant closures, mortgage foreclosures, destitution, opioids. But Nottage renders this familiar tale powerful and surprising.

And comprehensible. And honest. What makes the downfall of this Eden so especially heart-wrenching is the destruction of a vision of the place and the dignity of the manual laborer. That vision viewed jobs as a form of property, as a stake in the employer which the employer was bound to recognize and reward with lifetime employment and a decent retirement thereafter. It is a vision that undergirds the entire self-image of the play’s workers, expressed in various ways at the outset. From the standpoint of American law and 21st-century management, however, the only stake of more than rhetorical significance was that of the investors and lenders of the companies. We witness the frustration and disbelief of the workers as their claim is disregarded with prejudice by management, and we see how destructive of the lives of these workers is the force of their disillusionment, even more than that of their economic privations without regular factory income.

At the same time Nottage is honest enough to show how this vision of jobs as property was historically misused as well by the workers who harbored it, how it justified the resistance of white employees to admitting black ones into their midst, and, at the threshold of the deindustrial revolution we witness, it is being employed to prevent Hispanic workers from gaining a foothold in what had become black and white turf. When we find out the specifics of the event that lands the sons it prison, it proves to pivot on the misuse of that vision.

Nottage is onto a big story, and she gets it right.

In program notes, Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi notes that from the moment he saw the show, “I knew I had to produce it at Everyman.” I suspect that the reason for Lancisi’s instant determination is that he knew immediately when he saw roles perfect for the talents of Anderson, Hazlett and Ursula, members of Everyman’s repertory company. It’s a pleasure to see these three long-term colleagues, very familiar to Baltimore audiences, gobbling up juicy roles together. But then the entire ensemble is strong. Three of them are newcomers to Everyman, and probably to Baltimore audiences. I particularly admired Alejandro Ruiz as Oscar, a plucky Hispanic newcomer to Reading’s industrial scene, determined to be neither shut out from its job market nor morally diminished by the death of the vision that has animated and, it turns out, crushed those who were there before him. Although he represents a clear new ethos, Oscar gets the last line in the play, affirming the best of the solidarity of the bygone workforce.

And of course Lancisi must have seen the fun he would have directing this show. If there was anything he missed in realizing Nottage’s vision, I missed it too.

The sets at Everyman are usually a treat, and this one, courtesy of Daniel Ettinger, is no exception, a beautifully detailed tavern, fully realized, mounted on a turntable that facilitates various other less detailed settings on the verso. A tip of the hat is also owed Lewis Shaw for the choreography of a protracted and really dangerous-looking fight in the late going.

This is definitely one not to miss.

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

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Drinking from a Firehose with STICK FLY at Fells Point Corner Theatre

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Drinking from a Firehose with STICK FLY at Fells Point Corner Theatre

From left: JC Payne, Jared Michael Swain, Adrienne Knight, Shelby Sullivan, Barbara Madison Hauck

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 26, 2018

It’s easy to see why Lydia R. Diamond‘s Stick Fly has left critics of two minds. Writing of the 2011 Broadway production (an earlier version of the show premiered in Chicago in 2006), the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout called it “a mess, but a fascinating one.” Charles Isherwood of the New York Times described it as “overstuffed but lively.” And lots of critics have groaned a bit over the melodrama in the play. The critics’ reservations have their roots in various places: the multitude of issues Diamond takes on, the improbably high number of secrets the characters carry, the “well-made play” principles that Diamond has admitted pursuing conflicting with the play not seeming to go anywhere, as Roma Torre of NY1 pointed out. Yet almost every review (save for Hilton Als‘ excoriating takedown in The New Yorker) has admitted to finding the show fascinating.

Add this writer to the “of two minds” faction. My first exposure to the show has been the current Fells Point Corner Theatre revival, directed by Christen Cromwell, and there were moments I felt I was drinking from a firehose, trying to keep up with Diamond’s complicated and at times obscure interplay of racial discourse, class politics, and family melodrama. It is difficult to describe it further without dropping spoilers, but the setup at least can be broached. The play, which takes place in the living room and kitchen, and also on a porch, of the Martha’s Vineyard home of African American neurosurgeon Dr. LeVay (Louis B. Murray), chronicles a weekend when the doctor’s two sons, aspiring novelist Spoon (Jared Michael Swain) and older brother and plastic surgeon Flip (JC Payne), bring home their girlfriends to introduce them to the family. These newcomers are a black entomologist named Taylor (Adrienne Knight), from a less-privileged background than the LeVays’, and white inner city educator Kimber (Barbara Madison Hauck). Helping out is Cheryl (Shelby Sullivan), daughter of the LeVays’ usual domestic servant, filling in for her ill mom. Clearly, in addition to the racial divide between Kimber and the rest, there are multiple social class gradations at play – not to mention certain secrets concerning initially undisclosed relationships among those present (and absent). We see lots of exposition of all this material, and then lots of fireworks as the material proves combustible. So there is lots, perhaps too much, for the audience to keep track of, but also lots to enjoy.

It’s arguable – and I think this was the essence of critic Torre’s point that I mentioned above – that at the end of the play, for all the fireworks, the characters’ lives haven’t changed much, except for the spillage of secrets. That kind of change is not really a requirement, however. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf works fine with an end-situation a lot like the one prevailing at the beginning, and succeeds by virtue of exactly the same kind of middle: a party at which secrets emerge amid sometimes comic verbal bloodshed. This is not to say that Diamond is the same kind of playwright as Albee, but they each make use of the same dynamic. This director and cast do quite a tolerable job of mining this middle-material paydirt. I particularly appreciated Louis B. Murray’s paterfamilias, blustering and patronizing up to the moment an unanswerable revelation silences him; we’ve all known guys like this. And Adrienne Knight as the entomologist/prospective daughter-in-law can go on a lengthy rant for me any time she likes. The characterization that gave me the most to think about was Shelby Sullivan’s version of Cheryl, the temporary help, whose equal opportunity sullenness was perhaps the most challenging portrayal. At any given moment, is she upset about race, class or family issues? Hard to tell; and the trick is probably in keeping it obscure, not making the character too easy to parse or relate to.

Audiences should approach this play, then, and this production, with the expectation that they will not understand all of it, fully grasp any character’s motives or thoughts and/or the playwright’s position on many of the issues she aerates – and that that’s okay. The fun is in just watching it happen.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Trent Haines-Hopper/THsquared Photography.

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SPRING AWAKENING Well-Sung and Well-Performed by Stillpointe

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SPRING AWAKENING Well-Sung and Well-Performed by Stillpointe

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 14, 2018

For a winner of the Tony for Best Musical (for 2006) and seven other Tonys as well, Spring Awakening had a relatively short Broadway run (fewer than 900 performances), and was widely licensed for performance almost immediately thereafter, a boon to regional and community companies willing to take on the adult subject matter (adolescents coming of age sexually). There have been a number of productions in the greater Baltimore region in recent years, the latest arriving courtesy of Stillpointe Theatre at Area 405.

I suspect most readers are familiar with the show, but for the few uninitiated among you, it is an unusual updating of an old play, Frank Wedekind‘s Frühlings Erwachen [Spring’s Awakening] (1891), a cri de coeur against the repression German bourgeois adults of that era visited upon their young both by imparting and enforcing taboos against normal sexual behaviors and by restricting information about sex, most notably the way in which babies are made. The play was regarded as scandalous, banned in New York and London. Owing in part to its many ties to a particular time and place, the play is seldom performed today. It was the genius of the musical’s creators, Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music), to modernize Wedekind’s radicalism by setting the youngsters’ interior monologues to music. Those monologues, freed from any mooring to 19th-century Germany, were phrased with contemporary slang and awareness of today’s technology, and accompanied by music whose stylistic palette ranges from modernist composition to rock. Critic Adam Feldman wrote, accurately: “This is not the sound of your parents’ cast album; this is the sound of your iPod, of alt-rock radio, of late-night parties in a melancholy mood.” (Okay, references to iPods and alt-rock radio read as kind of 2006 today, but you get the idea.) The resulting work is powerful and moving, and, as I have observed at other stagings, resonates deeply with young audiences, even ones arriving with less-than-average familiarity with the theater.

Dealing seriously with provocative material like masturbation, incest, child abuse, masochism, homosexuality, abortion, sex education, homelessness and suicide, it is a fitting show for Stillpointe. Since I’ve been following it, the company has tended to embrace the challenging side of the musical theater repertoire, most recently with productions of Leonard Bernstein‘s Trouble in Tahiti and the somewhat Brechtian Urinetown, material too cerebral and/or edgy for most dinner theaters. It proudly pays stipends to its performers, unlike many community-based theaters, and uses live pit bands, not recordings. Perhaps as a result of these resource commitments, in other respects Stillpointe tends to be minimalist; stagings are not lavish, and the venues are not typical dedicated theater spaces.

These traits work both with and against this staging. The vocal talent on display is outstanding, and the performances are of professional quality, especially those of the principals: Jennie Phelps as Wendla, the girl whose erotic explorations bring both fulfillment and tragedy, Paul Kennedy as Melchior, standard-bearer for a more enlightened future, and Nick Fruit as Moritz, Melchior’s troubled young friend for whom sexual and intellectual development seem overwhelming. The two older performers tasked with portraying all of the adults, B. Thomas Rinaldi and Courtney Proctor, each convincingly sketch out a series of distinct personalities.

That said, Stillpointe still has not solved its venue problem. It was a positive move to take this production out of the space for which it was originally slotted, in the chapter house of the United Methodist Church in Mount Vernon which had made Urinetown so challenging, and bring it to Area 405. The new space, known for art shows and fund-raising events, has much better acoustics and accessibility than United Methodist. But, in keeping with its history as a converted industrial site, Area 405 also sports pillars partially blocking most if not all sight-lines, pretty much guaranteeing that each important part of the show will take place out of some audience-members’ view. Ryan Haase, the director of the show, announced at the outset that the troupe is still searching for the right venue for an upcoming production, and we can all wish Stillpointe success in this search, because it really is vital.

The move has also left unresolved another sound-related issue I have noted before, which is the volume imbalance between the band and the singers. The very competent instrumentalists, directed by Charlotte Evans, still frequently drown out the singers. (Other audience members I spoke with volunteered this criticism to me unprompted.) Unlike at United Methodist, this seems to be not even partly an acoustics problem but simply a sound design one; whatever the house in which a show is performed, instruments generally tend to drown out singers, which is one reason Broadway musicals mike their performers (and have since the 1970s). (Even brassy-voiced Ethel Merman was miked.) To shine as brightly as it deserves to, Stillpointe would do well to put amplification of the singers’ voices on its to-do list along with finding a venue more conducive to visibility.

None of these problems mean audiences should steer clear; with acting and singing at this level, and with such a strong, moving work, this rendering of Spring Awakening packs a punch, and will reward any evening’s theater-going. Unfortunately, next weekend is the last in this run, so dispatch will be necessary to catch it.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production artwork.

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Judith Ivey Enjoyably Gives Us CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF As A Love Story at Center Stage

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Judith Ivey Enjoyably Gives Us CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF As A Love Story at Center Stage

Andrew Pastides and Stephanie Gibson

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com September 22, 2018

Tennessee WilliamsCat on a Hot Tin Roof, an indisputable classic, did not attain that distinction on the basis of its clarity. It is notoriously one of the most ambiguous, most internally inconsistent works in the American dramatic canon, impossible to perform while simultaneously giving full faith and credit to every point established in the script and every interaction we witness among the characters. The ultimate question Williams poses is: Will Maggie, the indomitable wife of Brick, the drunkard scion of a Delta plantation manse, overcome the estrangement between her and her husband long enough to conceive a child and thereby preserve Brick’s claim to the family estate? And Williams leaves that even question far from definitively resolved.

Director Judith Ivey‘s version of Cat, now enjoyably ensconced at Center Stage, is described in a program note as being a “traditional interpretation” and a “love story,” which among other things must mean that the answer we are supposed to take away to the question whether Brick and Maggie will get together again is yes. Because Williams has so successfully gotten us cheering for Maggie, we in the audience want this. We would very much like to see Maggie triumphantly dragging Brick into coitus and conception in the final frame, and an interpretation like Ivey’s, which all but promises that, is bound to be a crowd-pleaser. But if a director chooses to make that easy initial choice, that will be about the last easy thing the director will find in this play.

To present this take on the piece, Brick (Andrew Pastides), must be thought to continue to love Maggie (Stephanie Gibson) in some way, shape or form, in the presence of repeated evidence she has repelled him since the moment he learned she slept with his friend Skipper, causing various unhappy consequences. And the audience must be made to disbelieve the interpretation that Brick’s own relationship with Skipper was an at least unconsciously sexual one.

As to the first challenge, Ivey lays the groundwork for showing the two of them in love as early as Act One, but it isn’t easy, as the Act ends with Brick’s question which sums up the problem: [H]ow in hell on earth do you imagine – that you’re going to have a child by a man that can’t stand you?” That’s strong language if they are supposed to be mutually in love at that point. Ivey, it seems, hopes to counteract the early evidence of Brick’s revulsion at Maggie by showing Brick and Maggie sharing a number of laughs at her catty observations about Brick’s family. But these mutual laughs are not commanded by the script. And it doesn’t work well; there is something uncomfortably sitcom-y in the way this Maggie laughs at her own jokes. Fortunately, the staging of Acts Two and Three (though there is only one intermission in this rendition) doesn’t continue to make her behave out-of-character this way. But there’s nothing much to work with on the other side. Until the very last moments, the script provides little other raw material for the argument that their relationship is improving. The best support – and it’s weak – is the material relating to homosexuality.

On that score, Ivey is struggling at least as much against what we know about Williams as against the script. It is common knowledge that Williams was a gay playwright itching to out himself (as he actually did on David Frost‘s show years later). That was not something he could do in 1954, when he wrote Cat. Brick certainly acts like a man with a secret he wants to act on but not to name – and that secret does not seem to be heterosexual desire for Maggie. True, we have Maggie’s lip-smacking account of making love with Brick in earlier days to contradict the accusation, but only her words. What we see, on the other hand, is that Maggie cannot now get a rise (literally) out of Brick.

There is a similar contradiction in the relationship between Brick’s father, Big Daddy (David Schramm), and his mother, Big Mama (Charlotte Booker). Big Daddy is one of the great characters of American theater, a demiurgic creator of a 28,000-acre plantation, profane, domineering, direct – but helpless against the cancer that will soon take his life. He claims to despise his wife, and maybe he does, but he seems more dependent upon her than he lets on. She is no slouch herself in the domineering department, and when she simply refuses to take him at his word as he rejects her, we have to consider seriously that her husband talks a better game of despising her than he plays. Maybe this too is a love story

Granted, there is some support for Ivey’s love story approach in the play’s last 200 or so words, but they are far from conclusive, and there is less support in the stage directions, which are crafted to foster ambiguity. This cast does not precisely follow them – although it hews closer to them than did a recent Broadway production I saw starring Scarlett Johansson which helped along the love-story reading by closing with Maggie actually climbing astride Brick in bed with sexual intent.

But as I say, we in the audience want to believe that Maggie and Brick have a future. She is honest (mostly) and poor and scrappy and, her flawed behavior with Skipper notwithstanding, she is admirable. And Brick is – well, at least he is honest. (With an asterisk about his failure to acknowledge even to himself his sexual orientation, if we read him that way.) So Ivey gives us the Maggie and Brick we want to believe in. And why not? As I’ve said, every other approach to the play is also fraught with land mines. This approach is at least as valid as the others.

And having chosen it and done about as well as one can do with it or any of the possible approaches, Ivey has helmed a really admirable production. Stephanie Gibson is everything one could want in a Maggie, determined and scrappy and smart and sexy. Andrew Pastides does what may be hardest for a Brick, holding fast to a comparatively flat affect, flat enough to render his thoughts and motivations mysterious, while everyone around him is acting up a storm. And – well, I’ve seen my share of Big Daddys, and I think Schramm is the best I’ve encountered. As I’ve said, it’s a monumental role. Schramm plays him with an enormous gut and an unrestrained id and he conveys the crudeness and impatience of a man who could assemble the largest farm in the Delta; he dominates every scene the way a Big Daddy should. (It’s very interesting comparing his performance to that of Burl Ives, who originated the role – albeit my only basis for comparison is the wretched 1958 movie. Ives, by contrast, comes across as tentative, vulnerable, and hardly believable as an empire-builder.)

The set, by Adam Koch, is handsome; one looks for little originality in the set of this play, constrained as it is by Williams’ fairly extensive prescriptions, but the execution matters greatly in a play where the world outside the room constantly encroaches, and the set must convey the vulnerability of Maggie and Brick’s privacy. And I was quite taken with Victoria Deorio’s sound design, from the clarity of each speech to the subtlety of the music cues.

Finally, as one whose own stage debut was as a juvenile in a Williams play, I tip my hat to the three youngsters who periodically erupt onto the scene as the “no-neck monsters,” a fine articulate little bunch of hellions: Leonardo Manni, Jack St. Pierre and Nina Brothers. (Though I wonder why a company with the resources of Center Stage cut Williams’ number of onstage monsters by one – and likewise the number of servants by one.)

Center Stage’s fans are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Stephanie Ybarra, the new Artistic Director, to see what unique stamp she places on the programming at this critical Maryland institution. In the meantime, this handsome production of an American classic serves as a welcome placeholder.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo. Photo credit: Bill Geenen.

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Mocking a Personality Cult: PUTIN ON ICE at Single Carrot

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Mocking a Personality Cult: PUTIN ON ICE at Single Carrot

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com September 17, 2018

In a short 2016 profile in American Theatre, Russian emigré director Yury Urnov expounded on the freedoms of theater: “You can hate people; you can do a hate show about Putin, for example, or about your ex-wife.” It seems that Lola B. Pierson’s Putin On Ice (That Isn’t the Real Title of This Show) is the hate show about Putin that Urnov, a close associate of Pierson through Baltimore’s Acme Corporation, had in mind. (That said, Genevieve de Mahy, the Artistic Director of Single Carrot Theatre, on whose premises that show, a joint production with the Acme Corporation, is now playing, claims in a program note that the idea came from Single Carrot.) In the same profile just mentioned, Urnov emphasized how important and liberating it was to laugh at the things that distress us. Putin On Ice is nothing if not funny, though, as my companion on press night pointed out, there was a risk, throughout most of the show, that the laughs would ultimately obscure the seriousness and the threat of its subject.

The laughs come in many different ways, but the common theme is that Putin’s now-notorious cult of personality assumes absurd proportions. Spectators will learn, among other things, that Putin influenced contemporary busts of Caesar, that he was a character in Shakespeare’s and Chekhov’s plays, participated in a famous historical assassination, and is the real subject of certain well-known classical paintings. They will participate in moments of interactive meditation on the sayings of Putin which, to the uninitiated, might seem a lot like jokes. They will witness a Putin game show and participate in a Putin survey that puts a familiar piece of office equipment to an unexpected use. The point being, it appears, that Putin’s ubiquity in his country makes not thinking of him, umm, unthinkable, no matter how detestable he is.

That ubiquity renders it unnecessary that any specific performer (out of a cast of ten) actually portray Putin, though all but one of them are identified with Barbie Doll-like variations on his name – hence Baby Putin and Religious Putin and Drag Putin, for example. What these characters really are, however, is the Single Carrot ensemble with members of the Acme Corporation, dressed in a sort of Village People-ish profusion of outfits, all unique, all a little outrageous, and none of them resembling Putin in the least. Putin, like the Deity, is nowhere and everywhere, while the ensemble members are just everywhere, and doing all sorts of things: riding a tricyle, playing instruments, using doll figures to recreate historical events, tapdancing on tabletops.

Comparisons to Putin’s good buddy Donald are inevitable, and there is an audience exercise before we are even allowed into the auditorium that brings to mind Donald’s aspersions upon the veracity of the press – although, to be fair to Donald, Russian reporters who tell unwelcome truths about Putin’s government are far more likely to turn up dead than their U.S. counterparts engaged in similar tasks (so far). But still, there is an unpleasant and no doubt intentional frisson of familiarity.

Attendees at this theater piece are continuously reassured that they are free to leave at any time, but this is of course a mockery: as noted above, what is ubiquitous cannot be left behind. Trump Derangement Syndrome is probably child’s play by comparison.

That brings me back to the comment from my companion: given the oppressiveness of the subject, the relatively light-hearted treatment it receives is arguably inapposite. The job of more directly adverting to the seriousness beneath the fun is apparently delegated to Urnov’s wife, actress Tania Karpekina. I say “apparently” because she addresses the audience at the beginning and the end of the piece, almost exclusively in Russian. Most of us, this reviewer included, were able to understand only those few parts of her message conveyed by tone of voice, body language and the audio-visual accompaniments. I did recognize among the projections during her speeches a photograph of Russian anti-corruption crusader Sergei Magnitsky, whose at best criminally negligent death in custody was the subject of One Hour Eighteen at Theatre Project a few years ago and made him the namesake of a U.S. law sanctioning Russia and other countries for human rights abuses. Also photographs of some members of Pussy Riot, whose protest art netted them time in Russian prisons. I can empathize with the choice to employ the Russian tongue at the moments of greatest seriousness. Still, it would have been better, I think, to have delivered this material, probably the heart of the message, in the audience’s own language. We needed not merely to hear but to understand.

That miscue aside, the show is thoroughly entertaining in small ways as well as large. The familiar try-anything Single Carrot high spirits are on display, whether manifested in the employment of Beatles songs sung in Gregorian chant or in a reference to Ritz crackers in a manner doubtless unique in the annals of the theater. There is a subliminal eeriness in a set consisting mostly of a gold-trimmed red runner under a lengthy table in the center of the performance space that makes one think of Communist presidiums of old, while the walls are hung with banners that do not contain swastikas but clearly were meant to remind us of banners in history that did. And then there is the tonic release we receive from the parody of the Putin cult. As Thomas More put it, the devil cannot endure to be mocked. And this show proves More right: there is something empowering in being able to laugh at one of the worst men in the world. When we are empowered, Putin is to that extent disempowered, something he doubtless cannot endure with equanimity.

There were news reports this summer that Single Carrot was experiencing existence-threatening financial problems when a tenant company moved out of its space. It appears that SCT has gratifyingly survived the crisis. Baltimore would be much the poorer without it. This has also been my first contact with the Acme Corporation, a collective of which we should all hope to see more.

Come, then, prepared to laugh and shudder.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for promotional artwork.

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Literary Lovers, or Just Canny Operators?: SEX WITH STRANGERS at FPCT Makes You Decide

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Literary Lovers, or Just Canny Operators?: SEX WITH STRANGERS at FPCT Makes You Decide

Matthew Lindsay Payne and Kathryne Daniels

Posted in BroadwayWorld.com September 15, 2018

“What the heck was that?” is apt to be the question on many theatergoers’ minds as they file out of Sex With StrangersLaura Eason‘s two-character drama now at Fells Point Corner Theatre. Is the play a comedy? A romance? A melodrama? A play of ideas? A jeremiad against digital modernity and/or celebrity culture and/or bro culture? Eason’s script, a melange of all of these things, does not make it easy to decide which one predominates. It’s not even easy to say what is really happening. Is there a love story going on, or is this just the spectacle of two canny operators each trying to exploit each other? Do they know themselves?

This much seems clear: Ethan (Matthew Lindsay Payne), who has parlayed his success with a blog about his sexual conquests called Sex With Strangers into two New York Times Bestsellers but who is now seeking to become an author of literary fiction, stumbles into a rural Michigan B&B in the middle of a snowstorm and encounters Olivia (Kathryne Daniels), a published but so-far unsuccessful novelist and fellow-guest, whose sole novel Ethan just happens to know and admire. Sparks fly, and sex ensues, and then creative sparks fly too. Ethan introduces Olivia into the worlds of Internet and print-media celebrity. As the play progresses, and we get into the second act, Olivia, under Ethan’s aegis (and trickery) becomes somewhat adept at winning on Ethan’s playing field, but their personal relationship, however one characterizes it, hits troubled waters, in part because Ethan’s persona is irreducibly built on the shallow exploitation of women. He insists that there is a cleavage between that persona and himself, and that the women he had formerly involved himself with were in any case no victims, but eager participants in the quest for new-media stardom of their own. Olivia, who does not necessarily buy into the cleavage notion, seems unpersuaded.

Olivia, meanwhile, is wrestling with a problem endemic to writers of serious fiction: such writing tends to be autobiographical, and to do it well typically entails large amounts of self-revelation. How is a writer of the stuff supposed to maintain her privacy? And what are we to make of it when Ethan repeatedly overrides her privacy demands, ostensibly for her own good and with demonstrable good results? It leads to problems of authenticity for her that are almost as large as his.

In the end, because the mask each character wears contradicts what each claims is his/her true personality, and because the moral significance of what they do depends to a great degree on who is acting and who is acted upon, we cannot finally state with certainty whether there is any “there there,” in Gertrude Stein‘s phrase. The very last thing that happens in the play betokens ambiguity.

With such a play, directorial choices will loom large. It would appear that the play has been produced rather differently at different places and times, from its first developmental performances at Chicago’s Steppenwolf in 2009 and 2011 to Off-Broadway in 2014 and then onto regional and community theater. (Regionally, it has been put on by Alexandria’s Signature Theatre and Annapolis’ Colonial Players.) Along the way, however, most directors have cast Olivias who conformed to Eason’s description, “smart, sexy, outwardly strong but covering some fragility,” and Ethans who were, in Eason’s phrase “very charismatic [and] sexy.” For instance, Off-Broadway Olivia was played by the tall, willowy, and forceful Anna Gunn and Ethan by Billy Magnussen, fresh from playing the boy-toy Spike in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. The current director, Patrick Gorirossi, has gone in another direction, with an Olivia who is mostly about covering the fragility, wearing baggy sweatpants for much of the action, and acting ungainly in a slapsticky way, and an Ethan who is stronger in the comic timing than in the charisma department. Sometimes this matters. For instance, in puncturing Ethan’s self-justification at one point, Olivia mocks him: “You’re kind-of a modern day Mother Teresa! But instead of helping poor strangers, you bone them!” To this Ethan replies: “I do what I can.” That line will sound differently coming from someone with charisma who knows it than from a jokester.

This exchange also leads me to mention that the credits in the program list a specialty I have not encountered before, an Intimacy Choreographer (Emily Sucher). This designation seems like a great idea, especially in this era when performers are speaking out about harassment of all sorts, including liberties taken onstage that are arguably in character but which make the recipients uncomfortable. Here, in keeping with the jokiness I have noted in the overall direction, the sex usually seems to be deliberately fumbling, awkward and somewhat self-conscious. Video I have seen from other performances makes clear it is not always that way, and it is not called for in the script, which simply says, for instance, of the first bedding: “ETHAN kisses her. Passionately. She kisses him back. Passionately. Clothes begin to come off. Sex is imminent.”

In the end, then, the answer this production seems to provide to the question “Who are these characters really?” is that they are not the glamorous folk they pretend to be for public consumption. The problem this raises is that by the end, this couple kind of arethat way. And again, costume changes consistent with this reading and not called for in the script tell the story. The final appearance of each of them looks more put-together – and also more like their allegedly deceptive personas. It’s all very confusing, as I stated at the outset.

While I obviously would have preferred making them both more glamorous throughout, I thought the approach that was used with Olivia was not without its benefits. Kathryne Daniels gives Olivia a way of visibly thinking things through and of making intellectual and emotional connections that is convincing, and very appealing to watch. A more sophisticated Olivia would react differently. Ethan, I think, is a harder role to make real. He has built a career out of acting like an exploitative jerk, and the fact that he may have undiscovered fictional genius, even if one believes it (which I found hard to do), and possibly an inner monogamous boyfriend, still, in the here and now, jerk is as jerk does. His journey out of that predicament is not cleanly or clearly sketched. Matthew Lindsay Payne does what he can with this construct, but it’s very hard to pull off.

Because it is usually easiest to write about what one knows, writers do tend to write about writers a lot. There are times this phenomenon can give rise to a kind of inbred quality, and there is some of that in this play. For instance, I was wondering how many members of the audience got the reference to “FSG” in the publishing world. More importantly, the struggles of authors with the tendency to bare their souls and the equal but opposite tendency to maintain their privacy, no matter how fascinating to writers, are the kind of thing where a little bit goes a long way with the rest of us. Nonetheless, if the subject of writers is of interest to you, this play is a decent effort to come to grips with it. And the play will certainly keep challenging you the way a puzzle does. It begins, no doubt portentously, with a question that it never completely answers (Olivia to Ethan “Who are you?”) and it ends with deliberate lack of clarity over whether the characters have any future. In short, this is theater which keeps the audience on its toes, no matter what label you slap on it.

Copyright Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photograph. Photo credit: Fells Point Corner Theatre.

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Every One of Them White

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Every One of Them White

To be published in The Daily Record the week of October 28, 2018

“Enjoy glimpses reminiscent of traditional holidays gone by with this highly detailed Holiday Village Set,” says the ad copy on the Costco website.[1] For $99.99, Costco will sell you an assemblage of models of various snow-topped buildings, a skating rink, trees, and lots of merry-makers, including carolers and musicians and children putting the finishing touches on a snowman. The dress of these happy figures is, I’d guess, late Victorian. It is a Currier & Ives evocation of an imagined past, a bit of cute and harmless nostalgia.

What Genius?

Except: By my count, there are 35 merry-makers depicted in the set, every one of them white. (And I’m not counting the snowman.) What genius among Costco’s buyers missed the impact of a representation like this in today’s marketplace? How did it happen?[2]

My answer: There is a deep dynamic at work here, rendering what should have been obvious quite overlookable. When we white folks retreat into a happy recall of eras gone by, we regularly evict nonwhites from the world our imagination reconstructs. Take the classic nostalgic musicals Oklahoma! and The Music Man. As discussed by Warren Hoffman in his book The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical, each of these is set in what appears to just happen to be an all-white locale. But nothing “just happens” like that.

Oklahoma, the name of the territory whose newly-established statehood is celebrated at the end of Oklahoma!, is literally the Choctaw word for “red people.” The farmers and cowboys evoked by the show had historically displaced and were living, often illegitimately, on lands set aside for Native Americans, after the latter had been previously deported to Oklahoma during the notorious “trail of tears” ethnic cleansing of the American South. As Hoffman puts it: “Oklahoma! rewrites history by expunging the painful aspects of frontier history while celebrating the rewards of white American pioneer spirit, features that have helped solidify Oklahoma!’s place in the pantheon of beloved American musicals.”[3]

And The Music Man is set in “Hawkeye Iowa,” “hawkeye” being ironically a nickname coined to pay tribute to a Sauk tribal chief. Iowa was a state from which Native Americans were forcibly removed, ironically making it safe for the show to evoke them by having the white wives of the town perform an “Indian war dance.” And of course there is the famous lyric in which the con man tries to rile up the River City townspeople by warning them that their children may be becoming fans of “ragtime,” obviously coded as African American music. But of course that fear is groundless; River City is and will remain lily-white, its whiteness exerting a potent if unspoken part of its grip on our imagination as a piece of unspoiled Americana.[4]

There Is Harm

One could ask what is the harm in a fantasy retreat into an exclusively white world. It’s what we do, not what we feel, that matters, right?

But there is harm. As educator Robin DiAngelo writes in her book White Fragility: “As a white person, I can openly and unabashedly reminisce about ‘the good old days.’ Romanticized recollections of the past and calls for a return to former ways are a function of white privilege, which manifests itself in the ability to remain oblivious to our racial history.” DiAngelo reminds us of the facts that would make incorporating non-white people into this fantasy discordant – and forgive me for quoting at length: “Consider any period in the past from the perspective of people of color: 246 years of brutal enslavement; the rape of black women for the pleasure of white men and to produce more enslaved workers; the selling off of black children; the attempted genocide of Indigenous people, Indian removal acts, and reservations; indentured servitude, lynching, and mob violence; sharecropping; Chinese exclusion laws; Japanese American internment; Jim Crow laws of mandatory segregation; black codes; bans on black jury service; bans on voting; imprisoning people for unpaid work; medical sterilization and experimentation; employment discrimination; educational discrimination; inferior schools; biased laws and policing practices; redlining and subprime mortgages; mass incarceration; racist media representations; cultural erasures, attacks, and mockery; and untold and perverted historical accounts, and you can see how a romanticized past is strictly a white construct.”[5]  What does it say about us if we really want to fantasize a world exclusively populated by people who perpetrated these things?

Hollywood, the dream factory par excellence, has traditionally reinforced the fantasy as well. We need only remember the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of 2016, when there was not a single acting Academy Award nomination (out of 20) for a performer of color, to see how current the avoidance of nonwhites in our fantasy lives is.

Comfort Zones

The fantasy affects real life. In Baltimore, where I live, racially restrictive covenants for some of the “best” neighborhoods, i.e. ones approximating most closely our collective versions of the American dream, assured that those fantasies-come-to-life would be uncontaminated by the intrusion of nonwhite faces, except in the roles of domestic help. (Antero Pietila’s book Not in My Neighborhood tells the tale.) Those covenants have been stricken down, but “white flight,” the retreat of white populations to rural settings or suburbs, coupled with the mortgage redlining DiAngelo mentions (now officially a thing of the past but still sometimes practiced) which penned black homebuyers in urban cores, has continued to enable the fabrication away from urban centers of close approximations of the monochromatic racial culture the Costco holiday village so ludicrously evokes.

It is important to emphasize that the dynamic is at play even among those of us who do not bear any ill-will to members of other races. Most of us genuinely reject bigotry. The pursuit of monochromatic worlds is mostly fueled by the pursuit of comfort, not by hatred. Our residential and educational practices betray unconscious and unacknowledged comfort zones. The holiday village demonstrates exactly what makes many of us comfortable. We white people need to break ourselves of those mental comfort zones, though, because we are powerful, and our dreams greatly affect what happens in real life. And what happens in real life, mostly, is segregation. We’ve changed the laws, but those changes have not brought us all that close to real desegregation; changes in our dreams and fantasies of a good life would do more.

Happy Holidays!


[1]  https://www.costco.com/Christmas-Village-with-Lights-%2526-Music.product.100405000.html viewed October 12, 2018. I attach my own photo of the item as I saw it in the store.

[2] An earlier version of this piece read slightly differently. It assumed that the Holiday Village intended to depict an American scene and had erased all nonwhite participants in that scene. An astute reader pointed out that collecting Victorian (and hence presumably British) holiday villages is a common pastime. And indeed, upon further inspection, I note that among the figures in the Village are three urchins, presumably mailing requests to Santa, clustered around a pillar box of a design only found in the British Isles and Empire/Commonwealth. See the erudite Wikipedia entry on Pillar Boxes. While one could quarrel that the pillar box depicted is of a design that (per Wikipedia) premiered in 1905 and Victoria died in 1901, and that the dress of the villagers looks a little out of place in the 20th century — in other words, that there is some anachronism going on, my friend’s point is well-taken. This is probably an attempt to evoke a world that was predominantly white in a way that the United States of whatever era is being hearkened to was not, and so erasure of those historically present is not happening after all. My point about the tin ear of the Costco buyer in foisting this evocation upon Costco’s diverse customers in this diverse country and time stands, however.

[3] Hoffman, Warren. The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical (p. 66). Rutgers University Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] See the discussion in Hoffman’s book at 93-95.

[5] DiAngelo, Robin J.. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (p. 59). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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The New Campus Harassment Hearing Regulations: A First Look

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The New Campus Harassment Hearing Regulations: A First Look

Published in the Daily Record September 21, 2018

Three years ago in this space, I decried due process deficiencies in the way colleges and universities generally handle allegations of student-on-student sexual harassment and assault. No one is in favor of sexual violence, but due process matters too, and right now it tends to be dangerously inadequate. Pre-hearing discovery of evidence is often forbidden. Often the accused cannot confront or cross-examine the accuser. Academic tribunals are generally comprised of teachers and/or students without legal credentials, in a setting where proper application of legal rules is critical.  Because lawyers are generally barred from advocating on behalf of either an accuser or an accused, there may be no properly trained voice in the room when legal questions arise.

Dear Colleague

I was also concerned at the Obama administration’s directive, in a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter signed by Russlyn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, on how federally-funded educational institutions generally should handle allegations of sexual harassment or assault. Dear Colleague exacerbated these problems by prescribing an inadequate standard of proof and mandating pre-hearing treatment of the accused that basically presupposed his guilt. It also specifically approved of denying the accused the right to cross-examine an accuser because it “may be traumatic or intimidating,” never mind that it may also deprive the dishonestly accused of the only path to showing the tribunal that the accuser is lying.

While I am not a fan of Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education, I did applaud her decision a year ago to rescind Dear Colleague. At the time, DeVos stated that the Department would in due course issue new regulations. The New York Times has now seen those regulations in draft form, and its early report on them is mostly encouraging. Though they do not always require it, the reported new rules at least enable a better balance between the interests of the accuser and the accused.

There has been controversy, for instance, over when a complaint first triggers the institution’s obligation to investigate and respond. Bush and Obama administration rules in effect deputized all staff to receive complaints, and held institutions responsible to investigate and remediate as soon as a complaint was received, no matter who received it.[1] The Times reports that the DeVos Department considers the responsibility to be triggered only by a complaint “to ‘an official who has the authority to institute corrective measures,’ not, for instance, a residential advisor in a dormitory.” This makes sense. A complainant may wish to have her circumstances known to a dorm advisor but not to escalate the matter to investigation or hearing. Both the accused and the institution likewise benefit when the process is unambiguously initiated or not. (The Times noted that schools have complained that earlier departmental guidances had “held them accountable for allegations of which they were not aware.”)


The most important development is the change in requirements concerning the burden of proof. I was hardly alone in criticizing the Dear Colleague letter’s approach on this. Dear Colleague said that “in order for a school’s grievance procedures to be consistent with Title IX standards, the school must use a preponderance of the evidence standard” rather than the clear-and-convincing standard which is commonly used in cases where important liberty rights are in the balance. Here, the accuser has a liberty interest in continuing her education at an institution that enjoys federal support and not being driven out by trauma. But the accused, who may be expelled, also has that interest, plus a liberty interest in avoiding unwarranted and serious reputational damage (likely to be an impediment to obtaining any professional license, for example). There is not a comparable level of stigma for the accuser if the complaint is not sustained. The jeopardy to the accused’s liberty interests is high, even before taking into account the other problems I have mentioned, all of which increase the risk of erroneous adjudication. Given all these hazards, the accused should be protected by the more demanding clear-and-convincing standard of proof.

The DeVos regulations are reported to allow but not require schools to choose the clear-and-convincing standard. One can only hope that, particularly at schools which increase the risk of erroneous findings of guilt via the mentioned procedural shortcomings, there will be an embrace of that standard.

Dear Colleague also sanctioned pre-hearing treatment of the accused as if he were guilty, for instance moving the alleged perpetrator (presumably involuntarily) to a different residence hall, and arranging for the complainant (but not the accused) to re-take a course or withdraw from a class without penalty. This differential treatment, not likely to escape the notice of student colleagues and faculty, would be stigmatizing to the accused – and there was no suggestion of any affirmative actions the institution might take to remove the stigma should be accused by exonerated.[2] The reporting on the new rules is somewhat unclear on the point in the proceedings at which the accused might be barred from campus, but conveys that this would only occur after “a safety and risk assessment.”

While the Times reporting does not make it clear what has become of the Dear Colleague abhorrence of cross-examination, it is to be hoped that fairness to the accused returns to this area once the new regulation is in place.

Location is Irrelevant

One reported aspect of the new regulations is discouraging. “Dear Colleague” placed schools under the obligation to respond to allegations of student-on-student harassment or abuse no matter where that allegedly occurred.[3] The new regulation would reportedly “hold schools responsible only for investigating episodes reported to have taken place within their own programs, or on their campuses, not, for instance, in off-campus parties.” Dear Colleague got this right, particularly in view of the legal roots of the entitlement of the federal government to intervene, namely Title IX’s requirement to make federally-assisted education available equally to all. If the focus is on availability, anything that interferes with that availability should come within the scope of the regulation, regardless where that interference occurs. When harassment by fellow-students can and no doubt does happen with, for instance, the receipt of a text when the victim reading it is halfway across the country, the geographic limits of a campus have no relevance.

Because we have not yet seen the text of the regulations, and the regulations have yet to go through notice-and-comment, this is only a nascent story. But it is mostly encouraging so far.


[1]. Dear Colleague Letter at 4.

[2]. Giving official publication to such exoneration might also violate student privacy rules.

[3]. Letter at 4.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Harassers as Comeback Kids?

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Harassers as Comeback Kids?

Published in the Daily Record August 27, 2018

As the outing of sexual harassers continues to bring down powerful and formerly admired men (it is almost always men), the question whether we give them second acts is bound to grow. It’s not a simple question.

A man does not lose his talent merely because a penchant for abusive behavior (or for looking the other way while someone else behaves abusively) has led to his downfall. He wakes up the day after his involuntary retirement just as able to do his job (CEO, director or actor, coach, archbishop, senator, you name it) as he was the previous day. Whether or not he has expressed contrition, there will be a large number of people who want nothing more to do with him, and who feel that his reemergence into a position of respect would be an affront. But he still has his skill set, and he would like another chance.

I am not addressing here whether the abuser morally deserves that second chance. I admit to being skeptical that there are many crimes, including those of violence, that merit permanent banishment from participation in our society. So I assume, if only for argument’s sake, that second chances are acceptable. And practically speaking, some are inevitable.


That said, there may be legal impediments. If the perpetrator worked in a regulated profession, he may well be confounded by a requirement that he exhibit “good moral character.”[1] Especially if his misconduct has resulted in convictions, readiness to meet the standard will probably elude him for a number of years. And certain kinds of jobs, for instance those involving a security clearance, probably will be out of reach even without convictions.

That still leaves a lot of jobs and ways of commanding respect that may remain open to such a man. The gatekeepers of those jobs and ways, and the consumers of the man’s work, will then have to choose how to respond. Case in point: the recent forays into public discourse by former federal appeals judge Alex Kozinski. As reported by the Washington Post, Kozinski, who resigned abruptly after accusations of various forms of sexual inappropriateness with employees, journalists, and colleagues surfaced, has recently sat for an hourlong radio interview and published a tribute to retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, dismaying Kozinski’s accusers. The Daily Journal’s editor responded to the dismay by saying the readers “understand that Kozinski is a complicated figure, a man who could be crude, grotesque and hurtful and also a towering intellect who contributed much to the law and to the legal community.”

And there you have the dilemma. In real life, some of the most insightful judges, most entertaining entertainers, most canny dealmakers, most effective politicians, etc. have also, in the editor’s words, been “crude, grotesque, and hurtful.” If we categorically shun them and all their works, we as a society are also cutting ourselves off from whatever they have to offer.

I think most of us have wrestled with this. We certainly want to stand with victims of harassment and end the long aversion of the eyes and disbelief that has greeted them. But we also understand that less-than-admirable people often do admirable work of which we may want to avail ourselves. There has to be a compromise between these compelling but competing principles.

No Opportunities to Reoffend

My suggested first principle would be that we always have to protect the potential future victims. An abuser should not be put in a position to abuse again. And we can be pardoned for not trusting him. It is striking how little insight appears in most public apologies. Striking but not shocking; true compulsions excepted, the sorts of things the abuser has done generally could not have happened had there been much insight or empathy in the first place. People don’t normally change much, either. So, while we should insist on therapy, we shouldn’t count on the abuser ever to change inside – and, for purposes of whatever second chance may be contemplated, we should not withhold that chance waiting around for a convincing show of change. Instead, we should just view the abuser as someone we cannot trust not to misbehave, but whom we may be able to use anyway in ways that afford his misbehavior little scope. And such use would be strictly for our benefit, not his.

Safety demands that whether we are acting as employers, gatekeepers of public opinion like the editor who published Kozinski’s piece, or as consumers of culture, we should not facilitate putting any proven abuser in a position where he gets to order around subordinates, have a say in anyone’s future, or assault people. But, even after we observe that rule, we may still be able to and want to avail ourselves of the abuser’s work.

This compromise may be easier to endorse in principle than to put into practice. But it isn’t always going to be hopelessly hard to apply. Take a standup comedian who has engaged in abusive exhibitionism offstage (you may have heard of such a person). As audience members, we may not want to see the man perform again, but then again we may. And if we do, all we are doing when we go to see him is facilitating a solo performance. As an employer, that is, as the owner of the venue where the comedian might perform, one would have a graver responsibility to assure the well-being of women around the performer, including backstage. And as a gatekeeper, particularly one who might be influenced by the comedian’s badmouthing of colleagues who may have reacted negatively to his misbehavior, one would have a responsibility to be vigilant to detect and discount it when it happened.

In like fashion, a professor who had abused his power to grade students might be restricted to research and publication only. An executive who had assaulted his subordinates might be allowed to telecommute. And a retired judge who like Kozinski had been credibly accused of gross behavior toward women might be allowed to continue pontificating in print without access to law clerks or litigants.

Unless we are prepared to deny all abusers a second act – and I doubt that we as a society are prepared to do anything so categorical – we are going to have to think about what second acts may look like. These are some of my thoughts.


[1]. I remain skeptical of “good moral character” requirements. See my June 2014 column on the subject.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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