A Work Song Becomes A Play: BERTA, BERTA at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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A Work Song Becomes A Play: BERTA, BERTA at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Jason Brown and Bianca LaVerne Jones

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 12, 2018

The problem of the prison industrial complex lies squarely at the heart of Angelica Chéri’s Berta, Berta, now in a world premiere performance at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV. The phrase prison industrial complex is a relative neologism. But the phenomenon it describes is old news: the widespread incarceration of mostly nonwhite Americans, mostly for victimless drug crimes, motivated to a great extent by the economic imperative to run prisons which employ correctional workers and to provide the state or its private contractors with the benefit of the cheap labor of inmates. The play takes place in Meridian, Mississippi in 1920, but it is just an earlier chapter in the same story.

At the opening, Leroy (Jason Brown) appears before us, having been released some months earlier from Mississippi’s Parchman prison, a notorious place which figures in the writings of Grisham and Faulkner and in many a blues song, and was operated in 1920 (and today), as a great prison farm. Though freed, Leroy stands there doomed, knowing he will have to return. As Leroy tells it: “Parchman? That’s where they take the Colored man to kill him from the inside out.” He was committed to the system not because he had committed any crime, but basically to meet the system’s needs. But his being, as he puts it, already killed inside upon his release assures, if only indirectly, that he will return. The exact mechanism triggering his liability to be returned is only fitfully made known to the audience and to the eponymous Berta (Bianca LaVerne Jones), Leroy’s love until he disappeared three years earlier (into Parchman, unbeknownst to her).

So, upon Leroy’s sudden reappearance, Berta and Leroy have much catching up – and fighting and making up and laughing and living – to do. Much has happened in both their lives since fate separated them, and they have a great deal they need to share. They have one night to do it, spent in her home, a humble shack (in a beautifully-realized set by Luciana Stecconi, augmented by John Ambrosone‘s lighting, which comes in from unexpected but telling places).

The title, the playwright tells us, is the title of a Parchman-specific field work song she encountered when it was sung in August Wilson‘s The Piano Lesson. Some anonymous prisoner in the vast flat Delta fields of Parchman may have had an actual Berta to sing of while he toiled. But time has washed away all specific information about the singer and his love. Like most folk music, it is sparing of details, though rich in suggestion, and of course all the more intriguing for that. The song does implicitly communicate as a simple fact, not even necessary to remark upon, that Parchman is forever; it acknowledges that Berta should not wait for the inmate-singer, but should marry “a railroad man.” But apparently to playwright Chéri, that fragment of data is not nearly enough. Consequently, she describes the play as her attempt at an origin story for the song. Since neither Leroy nor Berta sings or composes the song, the phrase “origin story” can only suggest that the song was written about them, though by whom or how is not suggested, even in the play.

Jones gives us a Berta a man would want to compose a song about, however. Her face, her eyes, the modulations of her voice, like the song itself, communicate so much more than the lines she delivers. “Berta is a voluptuous, stately Black woman with a striking countenance,” say the directions. Just so. And if Leroy is unfortunately fated to be a prisoner, Berta is fated to be free; Jones makes us believe it, makes us feel that there is something indomitable about her. Berta, one feels, must and will go on. We have little idea what her future will look like, but that much feels true.

Jason Bowen makes what can be made of Leroy, although at some points the character feels more like an artifact of the plot and the message than a coherent personality. One feels that Chéri envisions him as simply a victim, but Leroy has an unacknowledged degree of personal agency and culpability in the reasons he must return to Parchman. Bowen must therefore play Leroy as a more admirable character than his actions justify. This is tough for an actor, and tough for an audience.

Not unbearably tough, though. Audiences will come away moved, and a bit more (to use today’s phrase) woke, for having been through this experience.

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

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Delicious Fun in THE CAKE at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Delicious Fun in THE CAKE at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Kelly Gibson, Erika Rolfsrud, and Monet

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 12, 2018

It would be pointless to discuss Bekah Brunstetter‘s delightful comedy The Cake without comparisons to Waitress, if only because the two shows start in almost the exact same way. In each, a woman whose creativity and self-expression has been poured into baking makes a statement that foreshadows the entire show, couched in baking terms. In Waitress, Jenna sings about what’s inside her pies: “My whole life is in here/ In this kitchen, baking / What a mess I’m making” – and of course we know that Jenna’s forthcoming struggle is to bring the mess of her life under control. In The Cake, Della forecasts a struggle of a different sort: to, in her parlance, “Follow. The. Directions.” To Della, recipes are sure guides to baking success: “If you’re not gonna give your time and your worship to directions that have been crafted by trial and error, you might as well do a darn cake from a box, which tastes like scotch tape dipped in Splenda if you’re asking.”

It does not take us long to learn what directions Della (Erika Rolfsrud), a 50s-ish cake shop owner, is going to be trying to follow. Through her bake shop’s front door come Macy and then Jen (Monet and Kelly Gibson), same-sex fiancees. Jen, we learn, is something of a niece to Della, and before Della twigs that Jen is planning to marry another woman, Della is overjoyed to be asked to make Jen’s wedding cake. After she gets that missing piece of information, however, she grows evasive. Della considers the Bible inerrant (she insists there were dinosaurs on Noah’s ark), and knows that her faith would frown. To her plumber husband Tim (Lee Sellars), there is no issue. “We know we can’t pick and choose the bible, honey. That’s when the edges start to blur. Fabric starts to fray.” But Della cannot make up her mind so easily.

It is plain that Della’s resolution of the issue will call for a gingerly reassessment of her faith and her life. Among other things, she can pick up the sexual current between Macy and Jen, and it contrasts with what goes on (or more accurately no longer does) between her and Tim in the bedroom. She takes some very funny steps to remedy that defect, topped by an even funnier riposte by Tim, and it appears that this problem will be solved. But the bigger problem, whether to bake the wedding cake or not, remains, and, realistically, it will not be solved wholesale by Della’s discarding of her allegiance to what Macy dismisses as “a book that’s thousands of years old.” If Della is to find a way, it will require more subtlety and compromise.

Along the way, Della’s travails are echoed and to some degree parodied by her appearances (real and imagined) as a competitor on the Great American Baking Show. At times, the comments of the host or judge (named in the script just THE VOICE) are the normal chivying of an MC on a contest program, but sometimes they become more inquisitorial, a kind of tribunal of Della’s conscience. “Well to guarantee your spot on next week’s show, just don’t make any mistakes ever!” Rolfsrud, being a natural comedienne, knocks these interchanges out of the park.

Della’s struggles are the main event, to be sure, but there is an undercard, the tensions between Jen and Macy. Jen has planned the wedding for her hometown (Winston, NC), and to the greatest extent possible she wants to affirm her Southern roots and her family ties with the ceremony, even though she knows that her late mother, whose wishes she is also trying to honor, would not have approved of a wedding with two brides. Macy, who is African American and from the north, and who does not even eat cake (to avoid gluten), has limits to her tolerance of homophobia even among those her intended loves. She even takes a step that has the potential to drive a deep wedge between Della and Jen.

This being a comedy, though, we know that somehow both faith and love (gay and straight) will triumph, that everyone will end up being affirmed, that gluten cannot be avoided forever, and that many folks in the audience will have lumps in their throats before the end.

I seem to find repeated reasons to compliment David Barber‘s sets, and this one is no exception – except that this time I applaud his willingness to quote. As I said above, this show cannot avoid comparison with Waitress, and this set has many elements, down to the store sign, the large window, and the color scheme, in common with Scott Pask‘s Waitress set. Sometimes imitation is the sincerest form of common sense.

Of the shows in this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival, this one is by far the most sheer fun.

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

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THE HOUSE ON THE HILL Revisits a Trauma in Tears and Anger and Healing at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

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THE HOUSE ON THE HILL Revisits a Trauma in Tears and Anger and Healing at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

Jessica Savage and Joey Parsons

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 12, 2018

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” T.S. Eliot wrote, in a phrase that could be the epigraph for Amy E. Witting’s The House on the Hill, the premiere of which is presented at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival. After one’s sense of the world is altered and embittered by an experience that divides life into a before and an after, can the bitterness ever be surmounted, and if so, how? Those are the questions that power this forceful play.

Before and after what exactly? Audiences of modern drama are all too familiar with the overused device of the dark family secret that every character knows but which will not be spoken of directly until the play is well along. This play also relies on that device, but here it does not seem hackneyed. The characters, Alexandra and Frankie (Joey Parsonsand Jessica Savage) are shown tacitly agreeing to steer clear of the secret not merely because such circumspection is calculated to heighten audience interest; once we understand what it is, we can see that the characters know that if they address it, a long-buried grievance between them will have to be put on the table, and worse, they will need to rip off the emotional scabs that have formed over a terrible trauma.

The two women were cousins and contemporaries, and in their adolescent lives the best of friends. Through their remembered younger selves (Sam Morales as Alexandra’s younger self Alex and Ruby Rakos as Young Frankie), we can witness part of the heyday of their relationship. Then, because of the day that marked a continental divide in their lives, they were separated, and have not been in touch for seventeen years until now, when Frankie comes to Alexandra’s house to pay an unscheduled call. And it is far from clear that if the thing that has gone on diminishing their lives and has separated them for seventeen years is mentioned, they will be able to resume any kind of relationship.

But of course, people’s needs being what they are, and this being the theater to boot, they will have to bring it up. And when they do, all hell predictably breaks loose. The unresolved anger, the shock and terror, the longing for forgiveness and reconciliation all explode in a complicated, tearful burst of emotion.

The tears seem to be at the discretion of the director, Ed Herendeen, since there are no stage directions in the script specifically commanding them. And while it is hard to read the play without sensing that tears would be appropriate, the extent and the power of them in this production of the play are amazing. Let me hasten to add that there is nothing maudlin or clichéd happening here, no reconciliation, for instance, based upon some kind of merger of the characters’ weeping. There is no definite reconciliation at all, in fact, though there appears to be some degree of forgiveness, and a definite change in the burdens each character will bear going forward. Instead, we observe two highly damaged people trying to become more whole, in realistic and hence realistically limited ways.

Which is not to say that there is not some welcome artifice in the piece. The way the earlier versions of Alexandra and Frankie are deployed is cunning. When the adult version of one of them leaves the room (e.g., to get food or visit the bathroom), the younger enters, and the reenactment of key scenes from the earlier time occurs with one adult in her memory replaying those pivotal moments in tandem with the juvenile version of the other. We see, in effect, each woman’s memories of the other as a teenager.

And the high point of Alexandra’s long speech letting loose with all her pain and fury occurs, by what is surely no coincidence, with Alexandria standing in a dominant position halfway up a very long staircase (pictured above).

What the floor at the top of that staircase is like, and what it means, is also revealed in due course. All I shall say here is that the eponymous house is a character in its own right, and the offstage second floor is an interesting and somewhat poetic touch.

I cannot end without remarking on the sheer power of the two actors who play the leads. I have already commented in a review of another show about the range that Joey Parsons demonstrates between this role, which necessarily evokes a nearly volcanic release of emotion, and the very buttoned-down and circumspect character she is called upon to play in another show at the Festival. And Jessica Savage was astonishing; in one day I witnessed her, in a different play, enacting with graphic realism the fate of a gunshot victim, and then going through the emotional wringer of Frankie’s part in this one. These were marvelous histrionics, using the word not as a putdown but in its root sense: the actorly presentation of emotion.

So, to summarize: Insightful, powerful script, and great acting. Not to be missed.

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

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Post-Apocalyptic, Classically-Imagined Tragedy: THIRST at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Post-Apocalyptic, Classically-Imagined Tragedy: THIRST at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 10, 2018

C.A. Johnson’s Thirst, receiving its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, feels a lot like a Shakespearean tragedy. In a Southern county, Terrance (Ryan Nathaniel George) has restored order after a national war over natural resources, and because of his command of the communal well, he is effectively the local warlord. It is good to be king, and Terrance’s community is on the verge of celebrating the first anniversary of the peace Terrance has restored. But there is a thing he can’t let go of, like Lear, like Othello, like Richard II. And if you’re a tragic hero and you can’t let go when you ought to, then bad things will happen to you and those you are close to.

In this case, what Terrance cannot let go of is his claim on Samira (Monet), his wife who left him for another. That the other, Greta (Jessica Savage) is female and white, while Samira and Terrance are black, is not of great significance to Terrance; that Greta stands in the way of an imagined reunion with Samira is the only thing that matters. Terrance should know that his pursuit is hopeless. His war minister Coolie (Justin Withers) tells him: “[S]he was gone Terrance. Even before she run off into them woods and leave you, she was long gone. Wasn’t nothin’ for you in her eyes.” But Terrance clings to the insane notion that the mere status of husband endows him with a right to her, even when there is no longer a legal system either to establish or enforce any rights, and when the trauma of losing their children in the apocalyptic times has fully severed Samira’s bond with him.

Nor is Terrance the only one who can’t let go. Samira, who has begun a new family at a clearing in the woods with Greta and an orphan named Kalil (Jalon Christian), clings to her notion that she can completely avoid dealing with Terrance, even though he controls the water and is the most powerful person in the vicinity, and is seeking a confrontation with her.

Terrance and Samira’s obsessions, and their separate failures to acknowledge realities and balance their obsessions with other considerations, will cost everyone, not just themselves, dearly. And though most of the play is in African American dialect, and the story numbers among its concerns contemporary things like race relations and same-sex relationships, the dynamics are pure classical tragedy. And the classics are the classics for good reason; they have discovered much of what works in the theater. Thirst‘s power largely derives from an underlying classical structure.

At the same time, Johnson has appropriated some potency from a more modern mythos, that of social breakdown. After a century or more of imaginings of a world where law and order have broken down, of Sarah Kane‘s Blasted and Lynn Nottage‘s Ruined and the Mad Max movies and A Clockwork Orange, not to mention the real-life example of failed states like Yugoslavia and Somalia, we expect that kind of breakdown to be accompanied by nearly meaningless violence. There is a good deal of that here as well, and it is the more horrifying because it and its consequences are graphically depicted (kudos to fight director Aaron Anderson and assistant Joe Myers), and because Terrance, the one who has the potential to continue protecting his entire community from it, is the one who brings it back in again with him.

Dramatic works about social breakdown generally incorporate a story about the efforts of individuals to restore or at least to hang onto the vestiges of civility and order, even if it is only on the family level, motivated by a yearning somehow to return to the way things were before. We see that here as well, including the efforts of Terrance’s brother Bankhead (William Oliver Watkins), an unexpected protector of human decency (pictured above with Jessica Savage).

There is much more to say about all of this, but it would require too many spoilers. I would merely observe that the resolution is credible and disheartening, but not entirely without hope. Audiences will find Thirst, like its classical predecessors, harrowing but also cathartic.

Naturally, a work of the ambition of this one will not come off properly without first-rate acting and direction (a hat-tip to Adrienne Campbell-Holt), and great technical support. The Festival, as is its wont, supplies all these things.

If you are not doing all of this year’s Festival, this is surely one of the shows not to miss.

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

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Great Recall During the Great Terror: MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN MAN at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Great Recall During the Great Terror: MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN MAN at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Joey Parsons and David McElwee

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 9, 2018

The reported genesis of D.W. Gregory’s Memoirs of a Forgotten Man, now at the Contemporary American Theater Festival on the first stop of a rolling world premiere, was serendipity. The playwright came upon a Russian neurologist’s report of a savant who possessed a limitless memory and was affected by a tendency toward one form of synesthesia, the perception of sounds in a visual way. Of additional note was that the case report concerned and was written during the era of Stalin’s murderous purges, when former leaders, now newly-minted enemies of the state, were not only killed but eliminated from the historical record. The savant, of course, would have remembered things and persons the State was trying to force people to forget. The play emerged from this notion.

In the play, the savant Alexei (David McElwee) is also afflicted with an inability to dissemble, a dangerous thing in a totalitarian state, where the power to lie is an important survival tool, especially if one is burdened by a recollection of the actions and words of erased enemies of the state. Alexei has sought help for his complex of problems with Natalya (Joey Parsons), a psychologist he enlists in pursuit of forgetfulness. (Parsons and McElwee are pictured together above.)

As it happens, Alexei is not the only character with inconvenient memories. A different sort of unwelcome obsessive memory afflicts Kreplev (Lee Sellars), a state functionary apparently in charge of politically vetting Natalya’s report on Alexei’s case before it may be published, meaning that Kreplev has the power to destroy Natalya’s career simply by denying approval.

Natalya ends up helping both of them and herself. It emerges that Kreplev’s painful memory is real although his relationship to the report has levels that are not immediately apparent. Kreplev’s memory, we learn, cannot be cured, though he may be educated as to come to terms with it. Alexei’s memory, on the other hand, may be an entirely different matter. In the world of the play, forgetfulness may be entirely possible.

As the two stories unfold, we meet Alexei’s brother (Lee Sellars again), his mother (Erika Rolfsrud), and a nosy neighbor, Madame Devidova (Joey Parsons again), whose intrusive curiosity may be as dangerous as memory in a totalitarian world where secrets are another survival skill. We also hear lyrical descriptions of synesthesia that have an almost poetic impact.

After seeing the show, I found myself engaged with numerous other attendees in a debate over whether this mix of memory issues cohered dramatically with the tale of state erasure of history. Few of us hewed consistently to any one position on this; it is difficult for some reason to say. If the two themes do synergize, then one would expect them to add up to some kind of whole greater than the sum of the parts. And obviously, the mere perception that erasures of nonpersons are terrible Orwellian things is not that greater sum, because it’s something everyone already perceives, not just intellectually but viscerally. But there may be something else; the themes feel as if they come together, though we couldn’t quite say how. We know this much at least: the Orwellian background serves as a plot device to motivate each of the two interrelated stories, akin to the Paris Commune uprising serving as a mainspring for plot developments in Les Miz. And everyone loved the synesthesia.

As is always the case at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, the production values are superb. The set, by the reliable David M. Barber, rose to the unusual challenge of taking a large space, the stage at the Frank Center on the Shepherd University campus, accommodating a large feature (a bank of windows through which back projections like Stalin’s Big Brother countenance or Soviet apartment block prospects could be seen), and still making the rooms in front of it feel small. Part of the trick was to turn the areas abutting those windows into openwork changing spaces, important since three of the four performers had multiple roles, requiring changes of costume, often followed by speedy returns to the field. In other words, the set made a virtue of necessity.

Joey Parsons and Lee Sellars by now also qualify as reliable. They have not only memorably acquitted themselves in previous seasons at CATF that I’ve witnessed, but each is holding down demanding roles in other plays in this season’s Festival. I think it would be overstating the case to say that their current parts in Memoirs posed the same level of challenge as these other roles, but I can say these parts demanded and showcased these performers’ range. Parsons, whose role in another play calls for her to be living a life of quiet desperation that degenerates into explosively tearful noisy desperation, gives us here a Natalya trained by life in a repressive world to be always controlled, and to give little or nothing away. And of course Parsons also does fine with the stock type, the babushka prying into neighbors’ business, apparently a fixture in every apartment house in the old Soviet Union. Similarly, Sellars, who in another current show portrays an agreeable working man with a marriage in slight disrepair, here provides a bureaucrat exuding a silky and sometimes brusque menace mixed with a slight note of vulnerability.

Festival newcomer McElwee probably faced the greatest demands, reconciling character traits not often found in nature, alone or together, and showing, along with those, a human face. His bewilderment and desperation were at times funny and at times moving. But because of the uniqueness of the character, you cannot call them topical.

The playwright openly announces her hopes for the topicality of the play in notes at the head of the script. The play, she writes, “forces the audience to consider the fragility of democracy itself in an era when facts are fungible and history is whatever you say it is.” I don’t think it actually does that. The constantly revised lies we hear today, for instance, over whether someone was fired for one reason or another, or whether a payoff to someone was known to someone else, do not rise to the level of affront to good governance that occurs when official government and media records are revised to give the appearance that former government officials never existed or spoke. The former lies may be on the same continuum as the latter, but the latter ones were parts of campaigns in which millions were slain. The current body count is not comparable. And numbers matter. Lethality matters.

If you come to this show, then, do not expect to participate in a truly topical think piece. You will witness instead a pair of entwined tales about a rare mental abnormality and a somewhat overexposed aspect of totalitarianism. It is the telling of the tales, the acting and the scenery and, oh, yes, the synesthesia, by which Memoirs will work for you, or not.

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

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Resurrecting Teflon Ron: A LATE MORNING (IN AMERICA) at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Resurrecting Teflon Ron: A LATE MORNING (IN AMERICA) at Contemporary American Theater Festival

John Keabler

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 9, 2018

It is a reasonable guess that most theater-goers who remember Ronald Reagan or have educated themselves about him will think of him as one who did great harm. Under Reagan, the Republican Party accelerated a drift toward racism and reflexive hostility toward all uses of the government to foster the common good; the Iran-Contra deal took place, a marquee event in a program of sponsoring of right-wing militarism and attacks on indigenous populations in Central America; steps were taken toward breaking unions, marking a decisive turning of national policy against the middle class; public health policy took a backseat to homophobia as the AIDS epidemic was ignored for as long as possible; and trickle-down economics, a destructive voodoo that never has worked but has remained Republican orthodoxy, was embraced. A show about Reagan that does not explore how his personality gave rise to such destructiveness is not going to satisfy any well-informed theatergoer.

Yet such a show is unfortunately what playwright Michael Weller has given us in A Late Morning (in America) With Ronald Reagan, receiving its world premiere at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival. An interview with Weller published in the CATF website makes clear Weller himself understands the dramatic urgency of the question.

Weller nonetheless re-creates Reagan’s well-known bland agreeableness without doing much to reconcile it with the dissonant malignance of Reagan’s political program. Through his careers in radio, Hollywood, television, and politics, Reagan and his backers fashioned a persona for him, a kind of Teflon shield down which all criticisms were intended to slide. The question that persona often provoked then, and provokes to this day, was and is the extent to which there was any true personality under that Teflon front. Weller seizes on one of Reagan’s most famous movie lines (“Where’s the rest of me?”) to encapsulate it. And it would be the right question, were Weller to ask it more fully – were Weller to ask where was the part of Reagan that allowed him to live with the sheer meanness and regressiveness of his politics.

Nothing prevented Weller from doing so. The show is structured as an end-of-career interview with Reagan. Interviews are by their very nature confrontations in which the interviewee is put to some kind of test. But there is no test here. Whether the interview (with an unseen interlocutor) is actually taking place or is merely an incident of a perimortal fugue state or a figment of Reagan’s disintegrating imagination as he loses his mind to Alzheimer’s or a combination of them remains open and not very important. But to the extent there is in the world of the play an actual interview, it is telling that the interviewer comes from the “Wyoming Horse Breeder’s Monthly,” a fictive publication whose very name amounts to an assurance that Reagan will not be challenged much by its emissary. The non-political focus of a narrowly-focused trade publication would render journalistic curiosity about the bigger and more important questions, particularly those going to the core of a subject’s personality and politics, most unlikely. Weller could have confronted Reagan with a (real or imaginary) true political journalist. As a result of his failure to do so, there is almost no room left for the important questions to intrude.

About the only place the Reagan character is asked about his actual policies, it concerns the one area in which audiences may be inclined to give Reagan credit: standing firm against the Soviet Union and wringing out of that country as it drifted toward dissolution a nuclear disarmament treaty and the end of the Berlin Wall. Whether these really were accomplishments or merely inevitable events that happened on Reagan’s watch I leave to others to decide. My point here, however, is that this is almost the only point in the play where Reagan addresses policy and connects it directly with himself. In other words, the character gets a pass on everything tough, and talks substantively only about the creditable parts.

Reagan is even allowed to let slide the tough parts of his personal life. Here he is on his first wife: “Yes, I married Jane Wyman in 1940. She was a contract player at Warners. Two wonderful children resulted from that union; Maureen and Michael. Jane Wyman was an ambitious Hollywood actress who put career ahead of family. We divorced in 1948. What more is there to say?” Obviously, this is a lie, because there is always plenty to say about any union that resulted in two children.

So, yes, the production surely gives us an afternoon with Ronald Reagan, as charmingly unilluminating as that might be. And the audience enjoyed it; tellingly, though the biggest laughs came when Reagan was making disparaging jokes about the Berlin Wall, calculated to evoke the Trump would-be wall. But audience enjoyment should not mask the lost opportunity; in faithfully depicting a person who provided so few insights into his character, A Late Morning disables itself from providing any insights of its own. That there was no “there there” (as Gertrude Stein put it) is, one supposes, an insight in its own right, but only a small one.

This is not perhaps the most animatronic Reagan possible. This production was originally supposed to star Tim Matheson, who has played Reagan in 2016’s Killing Reagan, and who looks a lot like the mature man who served as president. For some unspecified reason, Matheson dropped out of the project, and the much younger-looking John Keabler was swapped in. This was in keeping with the directions in the script: “The actor can be any age, and needn’t resemble the ‘real’ Ronald Reagan.” I’m not sure why Weller would put such a self-defeating direction in the script, but there it is. Still, Keabler, with his lanky body, does manage to remind us of the way the historical Reagan moved. When I saw the show at the opening official performance, Keabler still seemed a little tentative in the role, rushing some of his line readings and apparently stumbling on certain lines. But one assumes those problems will go away.

I cannot end without mentioning Luciana Stecconi’s masterly set design depicted above: a series of filmy screens that strongly evoke the veiled (even from himself) nature of Reagan’s character, and also accommodate projections.

I hope Weller will continue to work with this script, and will go ahead and try piercing Reagan’s veil.

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

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Venue Problems Aside, Stillpointe’s URINETOWN Flush With Possibility

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Venue Problems Aside, Stillpointe’s URINETOWN Flush With Possibility

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 1, 2018

Every so often a production comes along that has an enormous amount going for it, but you cannot enjoy it much because of technical problems that tend to overwhelm an audience’s capacity for pleasure. Unfortunately that is the story with Urinetown, a musical now being revived by Stillpointe Theatre in a space in the United Methodist Church at Mount Vernon Square. Here, at least on press night, both problems were consequences of the space in which the show was being staged: the acoustics were unspeakably bad and the air was almost unendurably hot.

In the high-ceilinged upper-floor auditorium, the voices of the performers could ricochet off hard surfaces, die out long before they reach the ears of the audience, and/or be drowned out by the orchestra, which was frequently too loud. There were whole minutes when I could confidently identify no more than one of three words sung. I checked with other audience members to be sure it wasn’t just my aged ears doing their aged thing, and I was assured that others were having the same problems. I greatly missed the soundscape of the room at St. Mark’s where Stillpointe’s Trouble in Tahiti played just a few months back.

This is not the first time a local company has confronted sound issues trying to play in unconventional spaces. Baltimore’s Cohesion Theatre Company had a similar stretch where it staged plays upstairs at Church on the Square, and all that can be said is it was a mercy they later found a venue without audibility issues. I suspect the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival went out of business because of St. Mary’s Church in Hampden, where intelligibility goes to die. Conversely, Compass Rose Theater in Annapolis, without its regular stage, recently put on A Chorus Line in a hotel ballroom and it worked perfectly.

Just as bad as the sound in this case, moreover, the room was stifling. We were assured when we came in that there would be air conditioning in the performance space. I don’t know whether there simply wasn’t any air after all (at one point there also appeared to be a power outage on the stage lights circuit) or whether there was some but it was just not remotely adequate. All I can say for sure was that the audience and the performers were all drenched in perspiration. It may or may not have been a coincidence that the programs came in the form of paddle fans. And it would have been even worse for the audience were the bar not selling vodka-infused lemonade.

Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, as the joke goes, how was the show? I think I would have loved it. Urinetown is a much-celebrated (three 2002 Tonys) riff on the conceit that in a water-starved future environment, the water supply might need to be protected by tightly controlling urination, which would be allowed only upon payment of a fee. Owing to an unholy alliance of politicians and plutocrats, “it’s a privilege” – no longer a right – “to pee.” Transgressors, those who eliminate in forbidden places, will be hustled off to “Urinetown.” This destination is only vaguely understood at the beginning of the action but is quite evidently ominous.

In other words, this could be an exploration of how evil corporations exploit natural resources and trample human rights in honor of the almighty dollar, and it would probably be quite effective as the vehicle for that simple message. It is something of a truism, however, that in a drama of ideas, the disputants should be evenly matched, so that at the end either party could plausibly be said to have won the argument. For most of its length, the “good guys,” the ones who regard peeing as a human right, seem to have the best of the dispute. Then, surprisingly, in the last ten minutes, the “bad guys” get a potent response, although it arises from the unique factual premises of the show. Still, the audience is left with more to think about than might have seemed likely through most of the going.

Not only was the premise intriguing, then, but the treatment, and particularly the talent Stillpointe brought to this performance, seemed quite promising. As hard as it often was to work out exactly what was being said and sung, the characters certainly had the capacity to intrigue us. We started out with Officer Lockstock (Danielle Robinette), who doubled as the narrator and the chief constable charged with maintaining urinary law and order, whatever moral compromises that might entail. Lockstock carried out exposition duties (“Too Much Exposition”) with the assistance of Little Sally (Caitlin Rife), a streetwise urchin with a comically sunny disposition given the grimness of the world depicted. (Comedy in the face of outrageous injustice, not to mention Kurt Weill-ish melodies, are the traits that quickly got this show described as Brechtian.) I could argue that the nontraditional casting of female performers as Lockstock and Lockstock’s sidekick Barrel (Meghan Taylor) and putting them in “uniforms” that somewhat resembled clown costumes, complete with fright wig hair, marred the also arguably gendered political message of this production, but there is no denying that Robinette especially had the physical and vocal wherewithal to convey Lockstock’s weary menace, and much of it came across despite the ludicrous costume. And she certainly could deliver “Cop Song.”

To this mix add two characters apparently imported from The Cradle Will Rock, evil industrialist Caldwell B. Cladwell (Christopher Kabara) and corrupt politician Senator Fipp (Robert Harris), the love interests Hope (Sarah Burton) and Bobby (Brice Guerriere), and a sardonic keeper of the urinals who seems like a close relative of warden Momma Morton from Chicago, Penelope Pennywise (Caitlin Weaver). The creators of the show, Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, knew enough to take these intentionally stereotypical characters and still endow them with enough personality to keep us invested in them as characters (even without understanding every word they said). And, so far as I could discern, they one and all sang admirably to boot, especially Hope and Penny, who each had some belting to do, and did it well. Burton also impressed me by spending some of Act One and much of Act Two bound and gagged – and managed to churn out a steady stream of hilarious physical comedy nonetheless.

The production I attended, then, was one in which everything seemed to proceed swimmingly, except that it was inaudible and everyone was sweltering. If only a show with these possibilities had been in a better venue! I am sure director Grace Anastasiadis had much to do with the swimmingly-ness of it all, and that she deserved much credit. And I can only hope that when it comes to venue, Stillpointe will follow the advice of Bobby as he assumes control of a people’s uprising: “Run, Freedom! Run!” Where to run to for freedom from these problems might not be such an important question; almost anywhere else would be better.

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

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Straight Theatergoer, Closeted Plays

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Straight Theatergoer, Closeted Plays

Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 9.3 (Summer 2016)

I review theater in Baltimore. It recently came to me that the three productions I had most recently covered were all gender-bending or queer in treatment or subject matter. Specifically, over a one-month stretch I reviewed: 1) a somewhat lumbersexual all-female As You Like It; 2) Hick, a dramatization of the lesbian affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and newswoman Lorena Hicks; and 3) a revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, a memoir of life at ground zero as AIDS hit the gays of New York. I had not set out to focus on gender-bending or queer plays; these were simply what came around and hit this reviewer’s plate.

To put it mildly, it was not always thus.

Not At All, Or Very Carefully

I started my theatergoing on my seventh birthday in 1956, when my mother and stepfather took me to see The Comedy of Errors in an open-air production at the Toledo Zoo. I immediately wanted more. As fate would have it, I was growing up in Ann Arbor, a theater-besotted town. I was also fortunate enough to have a Broadway aficionado father whom I often visited in his apartment on the Upper West Side or at his Catskills vacation home near an old-fashioned summer stock theater. This all created a perfect setup to pursue my theater obsession, and I took full advantage.

Right from the start, I kept every program. Going back and reviewing each of them now, as I have recently done, I am struck not merely by the absence of explicit GLBT subject-matter but by its paradoxical abundance under the surface. In retrospect, there was a huge closet at work: a closet that obscured or concealed not merely gay theater creators themselves but also the work they did. But being a young straight boy in a society that granted scant official recognition to queer sexuality in any form, the emanations from the closet either did not register with me at all, or, if they did, they merely confused me.

Virtually none of the performers or creators in my youth self-identified as gay or lesbian. Even when it was really known to the cognoscenti, as in the cases of Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward (not the same thing as being known to a teenaged Midwestern boy, let me add), there was no explicit acknowledgment, at least not in the years I’m speaking of. (Williams, his guard perhaps let down because he was drunk at the time, finally sort of came out in 1970 on David Frost.)[1] But if you’re a creative soul, particularly a playwright, and you’re in the closet to one degree or another, how do you write without referencing a central issue of your life or showing where you stand with relation to it? Either not at all, or very carefully.

The “not at all” camp included Cole Porter, Noel Coward (in this period at least), William Inge, and Terrence Rattigan. You can see Anything Goes, Hay Fever, Bus Stop and Separate Tables and never once be confronted by even the thought that there might be such a thing as homosexuality. Some strange versions of heterosexuality surface in Bus Stop and Separate Tables, perhaps, but not homosexuality.[2] These then-omnipresent theatrical creators had completely erased the subject of gayness as such. There might be little things implicit in the margins of their work. For instance Porter in his lyrics is openly scornful of monogamy; that kind of unconventionality might imply openness to other things. Maybe.

Those who did decide to speak in any way to homosexual life or concerns did so with extreme care. There were various degrees and modes of careful.

Dog Whistle and Sleight-of-Hand

There was, to begin with, the “dog-whistle” technique. The classical instance for me is West Side Story. Like most kids my age, I got acquainted with the musical first via the 1961 movie. I caught a student revival of it at the University of Michigan in 1966. Much later, I came to understand it had been the product of four gay or bisexual men: composer Leonard Bernstein, book writer Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer Jerome Robbins. Given the era and my own naïveté and inclinations, I saw and was entranced by the updating of the straight love story of Romeo and Juliet. Someone I later understood to have been a budding lesbian in my high school class was entranced by something else: the character Anybody’s. I knew she wanted badly to play that role, and (so I heard) lobbied our school to stage the show. I just did not get it. To me, Anybody’s was a tomboy whose name implied heterosexual availability, and not a very interesting role. To my classmate, I’ve come to realize, Anybody’s was a young woman working hard to make sense of a sexual identity essentially opposite to what the name implied. The classmate was right, of course. Read the clothes and the hair and the mannerisms, and you get the message. But that was a communication in a code young men like me were expected not to be able to read. It was on a need-to-know basis only, then.

Times change.  A recent blogger refers to Anybody’s simply as “a pugnacious lesbian.” For that blogger it’s not even an issue today. (He also says, again as if it is obvious, that the choreography of the gang members is all about repressed homoerotic energy.)

Sleight-of-hand was a close relative of the dog-whistle. Here you showed a little bit of it, but in such a way that the audience probably didn’t register what it saw, and if it did could sort of ignore it. My mom and stepdad nevertheless chose not to ignore an instance of this that they did flag in a 1963 professional production of The Merchant of Venice at the University of Michigan, staged in light of the then-recent (1960) success de scandale of La Dolce Vita. At the conclusion of this rendering, with all the happy Fellini-esque newlyweds headed indoors, vowing to talk but making bedroom eyes, Antonio, the eponymous merchant, is left standing alone; then, in an instant before the final curtain, he crooks a finger at a handsome young bellboy. I hadn’t even noticed it, but my parents felt, correctly, that this clear indication that Antonio is gay implied the very real possibility that Antonio’s attachment to Bassanio, which is, after all, the mainspring of the plot machinery, might have been similar. That little gesture was therefore completely unacceptable to them. If Antonio was that way, then Bassanio would probably have been that way too, at least in part, and then what would that make of Bassanio’s newly-solemnized relationship with Portia? Instead of an all-consuming passion leading to “happily ever after,” it might be merely a lately-assumed half of a bisexual’s involvements, vulnerable to disruption by any resurgence of Bassanio’s very recent connection to Antonio. That crooked finger, therefore, killed my parents’ buzz. They wanted to believe in Portia and Bassanio.

My parents had taken similar umbrage at another professional production under the same auspices the year before called We Comrades Three (by one Richard Baldridge),[3] a look at the poet Walt Whitman at three stages of his life. So far as I can recall, no one ever said that the play explicitly acknowledged Whitman’s gayness;[4] but there was plenty of material there that was consistent with Whitman being gay and nothing there inconsistent with it. (I think not much was said to me about this because my parents had limits on what they felt appropriate to say to a teen regarding the whole subject.) Call this technique the I’m-not-saying-anything-definite-and-you-draw-your-conclusions approach. To be fair, it seems to have been Whitman’s as well.  That said, my parents’ indignation was more clearly misplaced here. Shakespeare may well have thought of Antonio as straight, no matter how strangely his passionate friendship for Bassanio chimes with modern understanding, but Whitman was indisputably, in real life, gay. And what’s more, my parents almost surely knew this about Whitman; they just weren’t comfortable with a depiction of gayness, however conditional.

At least with the above approaches, what is being hinted at is definite. Either you pick up the hint or (like me then) you don’t, but if you do, you know what the playwright is talking about. More frustrating and self-defeating, I believe, were other playwrights’ mystifications. These sparked real confusion during my early theater-going years. Granted, this was an era of confusion, the time of the Theater of the Absurd, of Eugene Ionesco and N.F. Simpson and Samuel Beckett and adaptors of Franz Kafka, who in their various ways could generate obscure or impenetrable texts without there being a homosexual subtext. But those obscurities had a very different feel from the obscurities I’m writing about now, the obscurities about sex.

Mystical Twaddle and Indirection

Consider a play I actually performed in as a juvenile (with the now-defunct Ypsilanti Players), Tennessee Williams’ 1951 play The Rose Tattoo. Not a recognizably gay character in the play, even if you can read the coded signals; The Rose Tattoo ostensibly concerns heterosexual sexuality, that of the fleshy, sensual Serafina delle Rosa, a Gulf Coast seamstress. But even as a boy, I had a sense that the whole thing was overheated and unbelievable. In barest outline, Serafina spends much of the play in a three-year spate of hysterical mourning for a husband who has died, suppressing the recognition that he had cheated on her, and trying not to succumb to her attraction to an alive and available but faintly comic truck driver who would force her to live in the present. Ultimately the truck driver, and sex, win. The proceedings are drenched with symbols, including the eponymous tattoo, escaping goats, and a flaming red shirt. Serafina was not recognizably like any woman I’d ever known. Williams was not trying to deal with gay sexual issues here, but he was trying to talk about passion. But the unwillingness to address the subject in a context where he knew and understood it drove him ridiculously far afield. In consequence the play can only be called mystical twaddle.

Williams got much closer to what he did know about in later plays, most especially Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), which I saw in 1969. The engine that moves the plot is the memory of a homosexual relationship between Brick, son and potential heir of a Southern plantation-owner, and his dead friend and former football teammate, Skipper. But Williams cannot bring himself to posit that premise straightforwardly (so to speak). So he equivocates as to whether the relationship was ever physically consummated. Maggie, Brick’s wife, had slept with Skipper, and Brick has stopped sleeping with her, assertedly because of her “mendacity” concerning Skipper. These facts stand at the threshold of the dance Williams performs with what actually had happened between Brick and Skipper, and how Brick, Maggie, or the audience view it. To reiterate a highly ambiguous exchange I have quoted before in these pages:

BRICK:            One man has one great good true thing in his life. One great good thing which is true!–I had friendship with Skipper.–You are naming it dirty!

MARGARET: I’m not naming it dirty! I am naming it clean.

But in a Bill Clinton-esque turn, the meaning of the exchange turns on what “it” is. Is she saying she knows “it” was “clean” because nothing explicitly sexual happened? Or despite the explicitly sexual things that did happen? A huge – and censor-evasive – distinction. One interpretation makes Maggie trusting, the other makes her tolerant. Either way, Williams is not really talking directly about what most informs the play. As I’ve gone on to say in these pages, the play is full of critical and central ambiguities; Williams refuses to be pinned down, and this is the worst of it. It is completely understandable why the play continues to fascinate us, what with the titanic characters of Maggie the Cat and Big Daddy, but it remains a thematic train-wreck. It certainly left my 20-year-old self nonplussed.

Or consider Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice, a play I saw with my parents and our broad-minded young parish priest in 1966. It is a powerfully evocative piece, all right, and an intellectual puzzle that kept me, the priest, and my parents up till late at night arguing about it after returning home. The plot concerns Miss Alice, a fabulously rich woman, and what amounts to her purchase, in exchange for stupendous donations to the Church, of unlimited access to a fragile lay brother named Julian. She uses that access to compromise Julian’s sense of vocation, seduce him, marry him – and finally see to it that he is killed when he balks at a final level of sacrifice. This odd undertaking plays out in the presence of a scale model of Alice’s mansion in the mansion’s sitting room. But is the mansion “real,” or is it only a “replica” of its own scale model? (A fire occurs in the model, and only then in the mansion, for instance.) It emerges that “Tiny Alice” resides in the scale model, not the mansion, but that she is nonetheless the real Alice, the Alice of whom the Miss Alice Julian thought he was marrying is merely the visible and outward sign. Julian is informed that he has wedded the real Alice and must now surrender himself to her; his rebellion against this demand is the point where he is shot. He dies alone, but for the overwhelming and numinous presence of Tiny Alice, with whom it seems he is united at last.

Equipped with the hindsight of fifty years, I have come to see this as largely a disquisition on being gay in a straight world. Julian begins as celibate, something in which none of the other characters share, somewhat paralleling the nonconformist status of gays in a heteronormative world. And it is noteworthy that the leaders of that world, that is, Miss Alice, a cardinal, a lawyer, and a butler, conspire to make a sacrificial end to that celibacy. And organized religion leads the pack of sacrificers. They persist even after Julian has sought to bring his nonconforming sexuality more in line with conventional mores by marrying Miss Alice. For him, that effort proves a misconception, and a deadly one at that.

But this is very much my unauthoritative read. I do not for a moment maintain that the play is at all clear about this, or about anything else. In his Author’s Note to the published text, Albee declines to explain anything, despite what he acknowledges as “the expressed hope of many” that he would do so. Instead, he asserts that “the play is quite clear.” Uh, no, it’s not. With all the mystification about replica and reality and God and religion, it is very deliberately obscure. And what it obscures, I am now convinced, is Albee’s protest against heteronormativity, a rebellion I’m guessing he felt he could not wage openly.

Falseness and Implausibility

A musical that approached the same subject (gay nonconformity) in almost as deep disguise was Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company (1970), which I knew for many years only from its brilliant original cast album. But even from that, the contrivedness of the stated problem was evident to me, though not, at first, the nature of the contrivance. The central figure, Bobby, a New York bachelor, surrounded by married friends, does not join them in their married state. Why is he a bachelor? Not, the musical establishes, because he’s gay; au contraire, we meet some of the women he takes to bed, fully reaping the benefits of the Sexual Revolution (in full swing at that historical moment). Rather, his hesitancy to commit is owing in part to the jaundiced view of marriage he has developed based on what he’s seen of his friends’ marriages, and purportedly because of some obscure resistance to the sacrifices that true intimacy requires – a resistance whose overcoming constitutes the “happy ending,” though notably one without a leading lady to make it complete or concrete.

I loved and still love the musical, but there is a falseness and implausibility at its core. Straight single guys didn’t and don’t hang out, especially exclusively, with a crowd of married people the way Bobby does. And supposedly obscure resistance to heterosexual matrimony by agreeable and marriageable young men of that era usually turned out, in retrospect, to have been because the men were unwilling or unable to declare their true orientation. As screenwriter William Goldman commented concerning Sondheim’s suggestion that Goldman write a screenplay of the musical: “I remember seeing Company five times and I loved it, and I had a huge… problem which was that the main character’s obviously gay but they don’t talk about it.”[5]

Indeed, they affirmatively talk about the wrong things. The musical proffers a non-solution to a non-problem. In the real world, a straight guy who holds out against emotional and physical monogamy claiming to be motivated simply by the sight of the shortcomings in his friends’ marriages would justly be accused of rationalizing. Nor would we expect him to change, if at all, simply by having scales fall from his eyes, which I think is a fair characterization of what happens to Bobby at the end. Meanwhile, the real problems that must have inspired the show, how to be a gay friend to straight couples, given the blocks to free communication in such friendships, remained firmly unexplored.

The closeted nature of these shows made for needless and mostly artistically damaging obscurity. What if Williams had openly gloried in gay sex, or spoken out for its dignity? Or if Albee had felt free to attack religious hypocrisy on the subject of homosexuality? Or if Sondheim and Furth had addressed the difficulty of communication between gay and straight people about love and marriage? I think we would have had better plays. And I am absolutely sure that I, as a young theatergoer, would not have been unnecessarily mystified.

How It Could Have Been Done

It’s not as if clarity had ever been impossible. In 1951, the same year as The Rose Tattoo, there was a beautiful example of what candor would have looked like. I speak of The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s novel about a lesbian romance, recently recast as the movie Carol. To move from the confusing, elliptical, ambiguous, unfathomable and just false works we have been considering and enter the world of The Price of Salt is to walk out into the sunlight. Highsmith tells the story directly and unflinchingly. Not only is there no obscurantism; there is no concession to melodramatic cliché resulting from moral condemnation. As Highsmith wrote in the Afterword to a reissue of the book:

The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters…. Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.

It is not that Highsmith pretends that everything is all right, and that everyone approves. The lovers, Therese and Carol, have to go through a lot because their love is regarded by so many as beyond the pale. And Therese has to work out her sexual orientation by hit and miss, and it is not clear-cut, maybe not even at the end. But the reader will understand everything as it is happening, and will be moved by things that can best be presented matter-of-factly.

Of course, The Price of Salt is a novel, not a play. It was originally published under a pseudonym, and doubtless sold largely in ways that allowed the sellers and the customers a degree of furtiveness. Given the forces marshaled for “decency” at the time, I do not know how possible it would have been in 1951 or even 1960 to mobilize investors, actors, and theater-owners to present anything as straightforward as The Price of Salt on the stage.

But the times did finally change, bit by bit.

First Out

I believe that it was when I was a newly-minted graduate student, in 1972, that I first saw on the stage a play that was explicitly and unambiguously about homosexuality. This was Staircase, a strange little British import about two barbers, one of whom shared a name with the playwright, Charles Dyer, the other’s name being an anagram of the playwright’s. In my misty memory, however, that play was affected by a certain degree of gay self-deprecation if not self-hatred. It was not possible for the protagonists to separate their self-images from the image that society had of them, expressed via a criminal proceeding against one of them for performing in drag. It was queens as a sort of freak show.

Much the same issues plagued Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968). I never caught it on stage, but did see the 1970 film on a campus screen shortly after its initial theatrical release. As critic Elyse Sommer justly summarized, it was full of “self-homophobic, low self-esteem characters.” I remember coming away from the screening, as I did from Staircase, with the feeling that, whatever one felt about gay people as a moral or legal matter, they sure did tend to be screwed up and bitchy.

We had already moved some distance from dog-whistles and sleight-of-hand, but there was still a lot further to go. Stonewall happened the year after The Boys in the Band. And little more than a decade later came AIDS. And what became possible to put on the stage changed irrevocably. I started this piece with The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about AIDS; let me end there. A lot of points get made in this very talky play. I wish to focus on two of them only. Ned Weeks, the character based on Kramer himself, makes them repeatedly. Gays must stand up and be counted, he says, because they cannot influence public policy from the closet (and public policy at the outset of the epidemic was informed by a fear of doing anything that might be perceived as helping gays, with the result that funding for life-saving research was shamefully neglected). Hand in hand with the imperative for gays to exit the closet is the need to exit what keeps them there: the perception on the part of both the rest of the world and also themselves that there is anything “abnormal” about homosexuality, that it results from pathology or psychological trauma. To the contrary, Weeks insists, it is simply another way of being human, and he breaks with his mostly supportive straight brother until the brother can embrace that perception, as he does very nearly at the end of the play.

Though of course it was not Kramer alone who made it happen (Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy was being created piece by piece in the preceding decade, for example), after everyone saw that a play like The Normal Heart could be a hit (294 performances off-Broadway), the playwrights’ closet pretty much emptied out. Increasingly, the thing to be ashamed of was not coming out; Kramer resoundingly won that argument.

This tectonic shift forever transformed, among many other and more important things, my experience as a theatergoer. It led to the new normal, the one in which, plays with LGBT creators, themes, performers, etc. were no longer remarkable. And it spelled the end of the weird indirection and obscurity that had marred or misdirected so many of the plays of my youth.

Where We’ve Arrived

After a spell of plays like the ones I mentioned at the beginning, there may even be moments when I wonder if we’ve reached the point where the love that dared not speak its name has become the love that never lets any other love get a word in edgewise.

But I would not go back for a moment.


[1]. There’s a very interesting discussion of this interview, in context, here.

[2].  It can certainly be argued that the misbehavior of Dr. Gerald Lyman in Bus Stop with young women and the similar misbehavior of Major Pollock with young women in Separate Tables are typical of the kinds of loitering and solicitation charges gay men were often facing in that era. But there is very little support in the text of either play for the notion that this was somehow a suggestion of gay behavior. In each play, the possible next involvement of each character is with a woman.

[3]. This seems to be Baldridge’s only play which has left any Internet trace that I can discern. I believe I heard that the playwright committed suicide shortly after that production, but I have not been able to confirm that rumor either.

[4]. The New York Times review of the production said not one word about Whitman’s sexuality as revealed in the show.

[5]. Quoted in Chris Gore, The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made, St Martins 1999 p. 186, according to a citation in the Wikipedia article on Company, reviewed March 5, 2016.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Living With What Lies Between Us

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Living With What Lies Between Us

Published in the Maryland Daily Record August 2, 2018

It seems that you and I have a problem communicating, my friend. You have been inspired by a man I and most of my associates regard as a demagogue, a racist, a religious bigot, and an enemy of treasured national institutions and of international order itself. And when I try to tell you why your hero and his policies are horrible, I find you and your friends are like the Terminator: You can’t be bargained with. You can’t be reasoned with. You cannot be brought to acknowledge obvious facts or relinquish obvious lies. When it comes to people your leader treats as the Other, you don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And when it comes to trying to persuade me that I am wrong, you absolutely will not stop… ever.

So, my Terminator friend, we have a problem. Unlike the Terminator of the movies, who is sent from the future, you are sent from the past. You are the classmate I went to high school with, my long-term colleague at the office, my fellow parishioner, a member of my social club, my cousin, my barber for a decade. We have a history, you and I, ties that bind us. And yet there is this … thing … between us now.

It does not help at all that your hero models such pride in offensive behavior. Based on his example, you are learning to be unapologetic for rhetoric that decent people had spent generations learning to be ashamed of. Despite the fact that your group’s current political preeminence comes from gerrymandering, voter suppression, non-majoritarian provisions of the constitution and foreign interference, you strut and gloat as if you truly represented the majority, going right back to the lies your leader told about the crowds at his inauguration. Your policies frequently seem to be motivated mostly by nothing more complicated than the desire to evoke “liberal tears,” whatever the predictable damage to our economy or our environment. Your gibes at those among us we regard as most desperately in need of empathy may be the worst of it. It makes talking with you quite difficult.

Yes, I know that you and your friends look on me and my friends as misguided and in need of correction. Your view of us evidently mirrors somehow our view of you. And so you should know that you have no chance of convincing us, either. Our view is we are the proponents of logic and reason, mental habits you seem to us to have abandoned, and of compassion, which your rhetoric seems to make manifest you do not possess. We shall not be convinced by people like you. We enrage each other, and our minds are not destined to meet. That is the thing that has come between us.

Staying civil

But the assurance we should each have by now that we are not going to convert each other should also be key to our coexistence. If only because of our shared past, I do not want to lose our connection to each other, and I sense that you do not want to lose it either, no matter how angry we make each other.

To that end, my plan is to go on being civil with you, even when you are not doing the same. This is not for your benefit but for mine. Incivil exchanges between us would do further damage, and to no good end. Frequently, to maintain civility, I shall not engage when you try to draw me out on the things that divide us; as I’ve said, we know we can’t convince each other. But you will also find that civility does not always mean passivity; when your talk “displaces the mirth” (as Lady Macbeth put it) of a social gathering , I shall say what needs to be said to protect the party from your incivility. I may even engage you briefly on the issues, where I judge it to be safe, not in the hope of convincing you, but just to make sure my side is represented. Mostly, though, I shall focus on the common things: the lives and deaths of our friends; our children’s accomplishments; our work; our travels, our businesses; our sports teams. And I would beg you to do the same.

I am not naive or patient enough to think that what we refrain from saying face-to-face will go away. In the public sphere, in the press, in social media, where we speak with our keyboards rather than our tongues, we can all be somewhat freer. And in our current straits, I am relieved to be able to outsource much of my anger to late-night comedians, who can articulate better than I the way I feel and the reasons for those feelings. But my resort to those comforts will remain a matter between me and my TV screen.

If there is to be a victory of my side over you and yours, I know it will not come from winning you over; we shall have to beat you, that is all, with what tools our faulty political system still affords us. Never doubt that my dollars and my votes and my pen will be at the service of my side. But I pledge that for my part, our struggle with you and yours will still skirt fratricidal tactics or rancor. I shall try to manage my actions so that at the angriest moments, you and I can still shake hands.

In time, perhaps common political ground will reappear; I cannot predict how that will go. But I am determined not to lose you, and I hope you will match my determination. As angry as we make each other, we must remain larger and more connected than our tribalisms would have us be. As long as we retain some connection, a vital hope will remain. So I intend to try to preserve it, and I hope you will as well.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Recalled for the Right Reasons

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Recalled for the Right Reasons

Published in the Maryland Daily Record online July 5, 2018 and in print July 9, 2018

California voters’ recent recall of Judge Aaron Persky has provoked a lot of distress among those worrying about judicial independence and the possible politicization of the judiciary. California voters are not often moved to remove their judges; the last successful popular judicial recall in California had occurred 80 years ago. Judge Persky had, however, given a shockingly mild sentence (six months, with only three actually served) to the so-called Stanford rapist. This drew the wrath of many concerned about sexual assault itself (the state dropped the rape charges because it could only prove digital penetration, although most non-lawyers would consider what happened rape and I shall continue to refer to it as such).[1] There was also an obvious concern as to the issues around it, including the credibility many judicial and administrative decision-makers give to men accused of rape, the burdens and standards of proof victims have to surmount, and the concern shown for offenders, as opposed to care for the victims, in assessing sanctions.[2]

Are We Really at a Point?

It would be a mistake to denigrate the sincerity or understanding of those horrified by the recall, who may well simultaneously share the recall proponents’ dismay about rape and the surrounding issues. The politicization of the judiciary is always a legitimate concern, and particularly in times like these, where judicial independence is under direct attack from the highest places. And Judge Persky’s defenders have pointed out that the choices he made in determining the sentence imposed on the Stanford rapist were within his statutory discretion.[3] Are we really at a point, they ask, where a judge operating within the proper bounds of his discretion is to be removed for doing so?

I would argue, however, that it is precisely the fact that the judge was operating within his discretion that made this particular recall appropriate. It is often within the margins of discretion that the most important decisions of a judge fall. And there exist few mechanisms to correct such decisions when they are wrong. Trial court decisions as to the law, if incorrect, may be reversed by an appellate court. But most laws authorizing sanctions set minima and maxima, and so long as a judge stays within those guidelines, appellate courts generally will not review the judge’s choices, on the basis that the decision rested within the sanctioner’s so-called “sound discretion.”[4]

Now it is of course possible to argue that as a result acts of “sound discretion” cannot meaningfully be characterized as wrong, and hence any such decision must be accepted as correct. But this is nonsense, and the Stanford rapist’s sentence proves it. Beyond any reasonable doubt the decision betrayed Judge Persky’s faulty understanding of the seriousness of the life-long trauma rape typically inflicts upon victims,[5] not to mention his excessive solicitude for the impact of sanctions on the life and career of the defendant.

No Other Sanction

No, “sound discretion” is not the absence of error, only the protection of a category of potential error from appellate reversal – and unfortunately in a context where no other reversal or review or sanction usually exists – as here, where Judge Persky had withstood complaints to the California Commision on Judicial Performance to censure him, the legislature had failed to impeach, and he had just won a retention election. In other words, without recall, Judge Persky would “get away with it.”[6]

The solution is not to broaden the scope of appellate review. Appellate courts should not be second-guessing such judgments because of (in the oft-used phrase) “an absence of judicially manageable standards” for them to apply. The concept may best be understood by observing its opposite: a clearly-worded statute which establishes the law in ways both trial and appellate courts can easily apply. Perhaps an intermediate point of comparison would be existing common law rulings; they may not be precisely on-point with the new issue a trial judge must confront, but they are close enough so that both the judge and the appeals courts above the judge can extrapolate from them, and the appeals courts can still intelligently determine if the judge was wrong in conducting that process.

But errors like Judge Persky’s, issuing a sentence that fell between statutory minima and maxima, lie more in the category of political choice. Appellate judges can’t manageably evaluate it, but the public can, and should. Most of the time, the ways in which the judge sentences will reflect the consensus of the community on questions that are inherently political, for example the extent to which drug consumption is a punishable criminal act as opposed to being a treatment-worthy manifestation of “drug abuse syndrome.” Frequent application of such inherently political community consensus is unavoidable, particularly at the trial court level.

The People’s Sound Discretion

Political choices in our society are generally effectuated by elected public officials and political appointees of those officials. But the legitimacy of those choices depends finally upon the public will, as expressed at the ballot box through the initial elevation of and later potentially forcible retirement of the officials and their appointees who make those choices. Such electoral accountability is attenuated or absent for most judges. But when judges make political choices that are out of step with the community, choices for which other sanctions are nonexistent or impracticable, is electoral accountability such a bad idea?

It could well be objected that the cure of a recall election is potentially worse than the disease. Voters at a recall election are not required to give their reasons; they could be voting to protest the law a judge applies, or because the judge is a nasty person or belongs to the wrong party or ethnic group. That may all be true, but where, as here, recall is already lawful, and the reason for the recall is obvious, namely a judge’s complete, and worse, apparently oblivious revolt against the political consensus of the electorate on the culpability of rape, it is hard to characterize the recall as an attack on judicial independence. The voters removed Judge Persky as was their right, where the system left it to their sound discretion, which at least in this instance seems to have been soundly exercised.


[1]. See the analysis in Michael Vitiello, Brock Turner: Sorting Through the Noise, 49 U. Pac. L. Rev 631, 636–37 (2018).

[2]. See, for example, many of the comments in the Voices section of the website for the Recall Judge Aaron Persky campaign, https://www.recallaaronpersky.com/voices, viewed June 16, 2018.

[3]. See California Penal Code § 1203.065, noted by the California Commission on Judicial Performance.

[4]. See, e.g. People v. Surplice, 203 Cal. App. 2d 784, 791, 21 Cal. Rptr. 826, 831 (Ct. App. 1962).

[5]. In the statement made by the victim in the Stanford case, the lasting impact is well-stated. Judge Persky cited and quoted that statement in his summary of the reasons for his sentence, but seemed unable to grasp its importance.

[6]. Michael Vitiello, in the article cited above at 650, citing Wilbank J. Roche, Judicial Discipline in California: A Critical Re-Evaluation, 10 LOY. L.A. L. REV. 192, 193-95 (1976) notes that California’s constitution contemplates impeachment of judges, as well as judicial removal in periodic retention elections. But only two state judges have ever been impeached, and Judge Persky had just won a retention election.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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