Sunday, December 31, 2017

Not a Patriot

My Goddaughter, who has dual citizenship with Canada, recently expanded her job search to our Northern neighbor. To her surprise she discovered she was a patriot. Just looked up the definition. Maybe that’s too strong a word because I’m not sure she’d defend America. But she realized that even though she could write a chapter, maybe a novella, on the ways she’s been screwed in her native land, she saw the US as her country.

I don’t. I’m not a patriot. I usually don’t say that because it pisses people off. But the why of this is something I’ve been examining since Obama became President. I watched he and Michelle, wondering how they got there, to the place that they could love a country that still exhibits so much hatred toward us. They’re not masochists. Is it because they’re Christians? I’m not but granddaddy was and it didn’t make him a patriot.

I come from a non-patriotic family. In the 50s, granddaddy was what they used to call a race man—family first, Negroes second. The U.S. wasn’t part of his equation. He felt he achieved, in spite of, not because he lived in America. I don’t know how he learned his trade. Maybe his father, who was born in slavery, lived on one of those plantations where the slaves did more than just work the fields. However he came to it, granddaddy was a master carpenter. And he was civil minded—he and his crew donated their time to build the first colored high school in Williamsburg, Virginia. (Members of the community, both colored and white, donated the money for materials.) Anyway, he never waived the American flag. He was against colored men serving in the military. I heard him say, more than once, why should we fight for a country that does not fully enfranchise us? And he said we were Africans living in exile in America. Not the language of a patriot.

I had learned my I-am-not-a-patriot lesson by the time I was six. I refused to pledge alliance in school until I no longer had to sit in the back of the bus. Let me give you context for this. The weekend before I refused to pledge, when I was sitting on one of the long seats in the front of the bus, an emaciated, stringy-haired white woman told me to get my nigger ass to the back of the back where I belonged. We didn’t ride the bus often. Mama went to the back but I always sat up there. Mama had never told me about the law, that coloreds had to sit in the back, but she was forced to that day. The following Monday, I wouldn’t pledge allegiance at school. Luckily I went to a private, colored school. I wasn’t putout or forced to say something I didn’t believe. They understood and worked out a compromise. I would stand, and put my hand over my heart but wouldn’t have to say the words.

I teetered on patriotism in my 20s and 30s when it looked like the country was moving toward inclusiveness. But we didn’t get there and I didn’t either—to patriotism that is.  I wonder if being a singleton has contributed it to my lack of patriotism. I don’t have siblings, a husband or children to anchor me to the States. Would immediate family have made me more patriotic? I don’t know. What I know is I am not, and I’m not afraid to say that anymore.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

All I Love and All I Hate

The theatre was freezing. I hadn’t thought about that possibility when I agreed to remount Building the Wall, a play Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Alan Schenkkan had written in response to Trump’s election. I’d thought I was done with acting when I relocated to San Miguel. The plays they were mounting didn’t interest me, didn’t ignite a burning desire to be on stage again. But Schenkkan’s play was different. It would allow me to participate in the resistance to Trump’s presidency, in Mexico, via one of the things I love most, theatre. And it was a happening. Several theatre companies in major US cities, including Austin, Denver, NYC, LA, Tucson, Chicago, and Louisville, mounted the show in this year.

Rehearsals, maybe the part of this process I love most, started in May. Director Alan Jordan reminded me of one of my favorite directors in the States, Ernie McClintock. Both were consumed by theatre and filled with innovative ideas—try this, try that. And David Galitzky, my partner in this two-character play, was a joy to work with. He absorbed Alan’s direction like a sponge. 

Unfortunately, my 67-year-old mind was having trouble learning lines. I hadn’t expected this. Learning lines had been a breeze for me before. Most of my lines had no narrative arch—I was the interviewer—and I found these more difficult to learn than those that told a story. A host of friends came over to run lines with me but they weren’t sticking. Two rehearsals before opening I was still blowing some but the theatre fairy waved her magic wand and on opening night I was fine. I’m sure I paraphrased a few, which drove Alan crazy, but I was cool with that. Some of my lines were awkward; their cadences didn’t reflect African American speech patterns.

By the second performance, we were sold out for the run, a rarity in San Miguel. Rather than extend the play, Alan decided to re-mount it late November when our town would have a different group of tourist. This November was colder than most. The Shelter Theatre, like most buildings in San Miguel, has no central heat and it’s a black box, no windows. No sunlight to warm the building during the heat of the day.

When I got home, I immediately lit the fireplace and warmed myself in bed under the electric blanket until the fireplace heated the living room. As I warmed up in bed, I remembered a similar situation. In my 30s, when I was working with Ernie’s 127th Street Repertory Theatre, the furnace died. It was the middle of winter; my costume was a thin cotton dress and because it was the 60s only two inches below my butt. That night when I wasn’t onstage, I was bundled up backstage in my thrift shop fur and long woolen scarf. The forecast for the following day was low teens so the cast and crew decided that the show would be cancelled the next day if they couldn’t get the furnace running. No one had called to tell me not to come to the theatre so I assumed the furnace had been repaired. It hadn’t. The building was freezing when I arrived at half hour. Ernie had talked with the other cast members and convinced to do the play in the freezing cold theatre. I refused. And because I didn’t have an understudy they had to cancel the show.

I was livid on the cab ride home. Why did directors expect actors to perform under hideous condition? Didn’t they respect us? Did they think we didn’t respect ourselves? And what about the audience? How could you ask them to pay money to watch a play in a building with no heat?

When I got to the Shelter Theatre the next day and nothing had been done to make me more comfortable, I was tempted to walk out. But I sucked it up. This might me the last time I was onstage and I didn’t want walking out to be my swan song. By the third rehearsal, our assistant director, David Johanssen, had brought in a powerful gas heater that we used on stage for the balance of the rehearsals. Performance days it heated my dressing room. The Shelter Theatre is small so once the audience got in the theatre it was warm enough.

Alan wasn’t around when I left the dressing room after each performance. He never said thanks, didn’t speak to me after the last show. Was this arrogance or just bad home training? I laughed and sloughed it off. I’d worked with directors like him before.

I was glad I did these last five shows. People I knew who couldn’t get tickets before got to see the show. And I had a better understanding of the character. My performance was stronger, more nuanced.

After a twelve-year absence from the stage, this production of Building the Wall reminded me of everything I loved and everything I hated about theatre.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Why So Long?

Finally, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s article in the The NY Times, brought the sexual assault that women have been experiencing for years to the forefront. Their article chronicling Harvey Weinstein’s decades long sexual harassment of women started a maelstrom of me toos—first against Harvey, then spreading to others in the entertainment industry, finally moving like a rapidly spreading flame to other segments of our society. The numbers were astounding—and I’m sure this is only the tip of the iceberg. I was stunned by some who were accused, paramount among those was Charlie Rose. I had perceived him as someone who was too comfortable in his own skin to need to prey on women. Likewise Russell Simmons even though the hip-hop community is known for being an exceedingly misogynistic environment. I thought these two men were above that. In both instances I was wrong.

Many in the movie industry claimed they didn’t know about Harvey’s behavior but there were too many “me toos” for me to believe that. Like Bill Cosby, I’d heard rumors about him since the 70s, Harvey in all likelihood was another well-known secrets. Respected screenwriter Scott Rosenberg cosigned on what I thought. Everybody fucking knew, he wrote in a near novella-length Facebook response to those shrinking away from responsibility in enabling Weinstein's behavior. As a society, we have looked the other way. We’ve maintained a boys will be boys mentality. As a teen, a woman that I both loved and respected was bragging to my mom about her son’s sexual exploits. Her Casanova son had humiliated girls that I knew and caused them heartache. I never looked at her the same way after that day. She lost my respect.

I am elated that women are finally speaking up but I wondered why had it taken so long for them to speak out. I voiced this at a gathering of several women and one said, Cynthia if you spoke out your career was ruined. She didn’t think I knew this? I spoke out about a director who had been sexually aggressive with me at an audition and never worked for him. But I was willing to pay that price. The next time I voiced this opinion I got a feminist lecture on the history of the female domination by men. So I decided to keep this opinion to myself. But I couldn’t. The numbers of women speaking out about their sexual harassment has been astronomical.

An ABC Pool published on October 17th found that more than half of all American women—54%—have experienced unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances at some point in their lives. Thirty percent of women have endured such behavior from male colleagues and 25% identified men with sway over their careers as the culprits. Why didn’t women speak out sooner? Newscasters said that before the environment was not safe for women to speak out. Why did it need to be safe?

I grew up during the Civil Rights movement. Nothing about that was safe. Then the danger wasn’t about jobs and careers, it was about lives. And many people put their lives on the line. To gain you have to be willing to risk. Anita Hill is a few years younger than me but she also grew up during the Civil Rights movement. Did watching people risk their lives for Black equality give her the courage to testify against Clarence Thomas twenty-six years ago. Four other women were supposed to testify after Hill but, according to the Los Angeles Times, a deal between Republicans and the Senate Judiciary Committee Chair, Democrat Joe Biden (who I generally think of as a good guy) stopped their testimony. But what stopped other women from speaking out then? All were silent as they watched the press destroy Anita Hill. Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against Present Clinton eight years later did not start an eruption of me toos. Scores of women shared their Cosby sexual harassment stories but it did not progress beyond him.

I’m glad the women now feel that the environment is safe enough for them to share their stories. In this new safe environment, scores of men have lost their jobs because of their sexual harassment of women, and in the case of Kevin Spacey men. But it pisses me off that they waited until they felt safe. This went on for longer than it had to because of their silence.

Monday, July 31, 2017

July's Racism

Each month since Trump won the election, I’ve experienced racism from an unexpected source, racism the startles me. Racism is familiar—I’m 67 and was raised in the south—but since the early 70s I’ve experienced it less and less. It still happens, the everyday slights, the little ways that some people still need to let you know that they don't think you're as good as they are. But I’m accustomed to those. I’ve developed a thick skin. Those incidents don’t suspend my breath.

But since Trump won the presidency things are different. We’re peddling backwards, rapidly. Each month there is at least one personal affront that hits me in my solar plexus, a “naw, he didn’t say (do) that” moment.

The standout, everyday racist moment in July was interrupting the regular programming of every network channel and CNN to broadcast O.J. Simpson’s parole hearing. I watched as newscasters referred to O.J. as a murderer, he was not convicted of that crime, and one of the most notorious defendants in American history. Really? You’re putting O.J. up there with Jeffrey Dahmer, Dylan Klebold and his partner in the Columbine Massacre Eric Harris, and Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber)? Let’s be real, the reason the media was following O.J.’s car down the highway in 1994 was because they thought he had murdered a blond. If he’d killed his first wife, high school sweetheart Marguerite, trust me there would have been no news coverage. But that’s the everyday racism, the kind that doesn't penetrate into the soul.

The take my breath away racist moment happened at a potluck. Four of us had gotten together at a friend’s house for lunch. One of the women mentioned that her sister had recently received surprising DNA results from Ancestry.

Matter of factly I asked, “did she find out she had a different father?”

“I guess being African-American,” her husband responded, “you would know something about that.”

I felt my blood pressure rise. I wanted to blow up the spot but we were in the country and my ride back to town wasn’t coming for more than an hour. I sucked it up and after counting to 100, twice, said, “Their marriage wasn’t always happy and sometimes when people are unhappy in a marriage they stray.”

Later he made another racist comment. I don’t need to detail it; what I wondered was why? This was a man I’d thought was progressive—an active member of the Unitarian Universalists, Jewish by birth. How had shit like that spilled out of his mouth? If that’s what he felt, it was better to know than not know. But it made me sad. This was a close friend’s husband and I couldn’t be around him anymore.

Monday, July 17, 2017

On Stage Again

When Alan Jordan emailed to see if I was interested in working in a play he was directing, I gave my standard, last 10-years answer, “I’m not doing that any more,” and wondered why a director in this community who choose a play that required a Black actress. Alan persisted and sent me information on the writer, Robert Schenkkan. His credentials were impressive—a Pulitzer prize, Tony Award, and Writer's Guild Award winning playwright and screenwriter. Building the Wall was Schenkkan’s response to the Trump presidency—written in what he described as a white-hot fury that imagines a not so distant future in which now President Trump’s racist campaign rhetoric on emigration and border security has found its full expression. I couldn’t just walk away from this. I asked to read the play.

The Pollyanna piece of me wanted to believe Schenkkan’s scenario was inconceivable but I knew it was plausible. I’d known that Obama’s Presidency would unleash long-suppressed racism in the U.S. but it was much worse than I’d anticipated—three to four times worse. And internationally people were moving backwards, wanting to retract from rather than embrace globalization. Internationally racism, intolerance and isolationism are on the rise. Something as dark, as apocalyptic as Schenkkan imagined could happen. Did I want to live with this darkness for the next two months?

I like being blessedly removed from the turmoil in the U.S. and am glad that I don’t live there now. But I still want to add my voice to the resistance of Trump’s presidency in as many ways and as loudly as I can. Building the Wall would provide another vehicle and was ultimately the reason I decided to do the play. That and the need to shake things up—life in San Miguel was beginning to feel ho-hum. Plus I liked being part of the Building the Wall movement, being one of the cities, and the only one in Mexico, to participate in this rolling 2017 premiere. Two cities, Los Angeles and Denver, had already mounted the play and fives others had also committed to produce it.

We had our first read through a month before rehearsals started and Alan wanted us to be off-book (lines learned) when rehearsals begin. This was different from what I preferred—I liked to learn my lines with my blocking and the first read through was usually the first day of rehearsal, not a month before. But I was glad we did it early. It got me excited about being on stage again. I had a great rapport with David Galitzky, the actor playing Rick. I felt that little jolt, almost electric, I used to feel when I was on stage.

This was a different kind of role for me. Gloria was the interviewer; mostly she asked questions. There was almost no narrative arch to her lines, which I was catching hell trying to learn. I’d sloughed it off when a couple of people I knew joked about how my memory must be much better than their since I’d committed to do a two character play. It had always been easy for me to learn lines. I hadn’t considered the possibility that it might be different now at 67. The words weren’t sticking and Alan wanted us to be word perfect. He didn’t get what he wanted but they were 95+% there by opening night. I loved the directorial choices Alan made—Rick wasn’t a monster and Gloria wasn’t a passive interviewer. This play had the potential to be deadly dull but Alan created on-stage excitement.

There’s nothing like working in front of a live audience. It’s not just the interplay between the actors but that third live component that creates the electricity. We were sold out every night which means we’ll probably reprise the play in late November.

I’m looking forward to it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sally Hemings

About a week ago a friend forwarded an article from the Washington Post, “For decades they hid Jefferson’s relationship with her. Now Monticello is making room for Sally Hemings.” I threw my head back and laughed, glad that I could now. For years, I couldn’t.
Almost 40 years ago I developed a one-woman show about Sally Hemings. A close friend, Saundra Franks, had developed a piece on Harriet Tubman and I copied her initiative. It appealed on several levels—exploring a Black woman’s life, creating a vehicle that showcased my acting range, and control. An old boy friend labeled me a control freak. I called him a liar but he was probably right. Having my own show, something that I could market without waiting for someone to cast me was equally as important as the creative aspect. I started to search for someone whose life I might want to recreate.
A friend suggested Sally Hemings. I had never heard of her. But my friend said her name off-handedly, like I was supposed to know who she was so I didn’t confess my ignorance. This was pre-Internet so I went to the library. What I discovered fascinated me—a slave who moved from Virginia to Paris and back. What did that feel like—both the going and the coming home?  Did she fit in either world?  And what did Sally, a slave and Jefferson's dead wife’s half sister, and Jefferson, one of the most dynamic men of the 18th century, share? I wanted to explore that, wanted my one-woman show to be about her.
Sally was a bitch to develop. The few Jefferson historians who mentioned Sally denied that she’d had an intimate relationship with the President. Like Jefferson’s oldest daughter Martha, they claimed Jefferson’s nephews Samuel or Peter Carr, or both, fathered Sally’s children. What was written about her could be summarized in one page. There was no Sally Hemings’ story. I’d have to invent her life.
Finally I had a script, one that I wrote after my attempts to collaborate with writers failed. I got a grant from the Atlanta Arts Council to produce it, and landed my first gig. I started to fantasize. Soon I’d be booked solid like my friend for most of February and March (Black and Women’s History months). Make enough during those two months so I could coast between acting jobs and not have to do temp work. It was a great script but life didn’t follow it. I couldn’t get a booking agent. Everyone I contacted, and I contacted plenty, had the more or less the same response—what proof is there that this relationship existed? I knew Sally was controversial. Knew most historians didn’t agree with Professor Fawn Brodie who methodically documented Jefferson’s relationship with Sally in her biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. But I didn’t think controversial meant un-bookable. If anything I thought there would be more interest, you know salacious and all. But people weren’t ready to be salacious about Jefferson, one of the founding fathers.
Doing Sally of Monticello stretched me, in a multiplicity of ways. I wasn’t scholarly when I undertook the project but became an excellent researcher. I’d never written a play. I’d never done marketing. As an actor, I had a dream role, a character that ages 15 to 56. I learned plenty but didn’t get many bookings and that pissed me off, for years.  So I was glad that I could laugh. No longer angry that I’d been ahead of the curve but amused by it.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Movie Mania

One of the things I missed most when I came to San Miguel was film. Movies were always part of my life.

I was a little girl, maybe five, the first time we went to the movies to see Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones. We went right after church, dressed in our Sunday best. We couldn’t go see our Negro movies stars in everyday clothes. That would be insulting. Dorothy slithered and strutted so that even Granddaddy, who was as straight up and down and they came, ogled her. She strutted across the screen singing, “I go for you and I’m taboo.” All three women, Grandma, Aunt Hazel and Mama, transferred Harry’s seething desire for Dorothy to themselves. They vibrated at a high frequency during dinner that night.

The movies I watched were light fare until I took a foreign film class in college freshman year —once a week at the theatre on 6th Avenue, opposite West 3rd Street. Our class met in the morning before the theatre opened to the public. These movies were slower, had less dialogue. Directors, not the actors, were the stars of these films: Kurosawa, who showed me that perspective is everything; Fellini, blending seemingly discordant elements; Godard, who mixed popular American culture with Marxist ideas; Truffaut, who exposed my na├»ve seventeen-year-old self to a tragic love triangle; and Bergman, my favorite, who coaxed the most amazing performance I’d ever seen by an actress from Liv Ullmann in Face to Face. Movies take me to other worlds, something I’ve needed to do more and more since Trump became the president. Thank God we have them now in San Miguel.

When I arrived almost twelve years ago there were none—well not exactly. There was one movie theatre in the old Gigante mall that primarily showcased blockbusters, a hotel in Centro, the Jacaranda, which projected classics on a pull-down screen, and a poorly stocked Blockbuster store. I caught as many movies as I could when I was in the States, friends sent bootlegs from New York but me, the woman who saw everything, had seen less than a quarter of the films nominated for Globes and Academies my first year in San Miguel—something else that made me feel disconnected from old life.

Then the bootlegs came. Initially I resisted. I wouldn’t buy them in the States because I thought it was fundamentally wrong to profit from someone’s creation without paying them. And lots of my friends were actor and musicians who needed their royalties. But I quickly abandoned my scruples. I remembered something one of my aunts said when she was in her 80s, “Cyn, you trade-in some of your righteousness for pleasure when you get older,” and made that my rational for abandoning my principles. Movies bring me pleasure and I need all I can get now that this misogynistic, ego manic is running America.

Daily I vacillate. How do you categorize what’s happening? Is it a farce or a nightmare? Ben Carson to head HUD (because he’d grown up in a housing project), Scott Prutt, an anti-climate control guy, in charge of the EPA, and Trump’s constant interference with President Obama’s last months of governing.  But regardless of how you label it, I need something everyday to adjust my attitude. A steady dose of alcohol at Christmas parties got me through December. Movies took over in the New Year. In January, the for your consideration DVD copies of Golden Globe and Academy Award nominees started to make their way into our community and my intense movie binge began. The behavioral pivot I was hoping for after the inauguration didn’t happen. My movie consumption doubled. Once the awards season ends bootlegs slow to a trickle and the movie house seldom screens anything I want to see. How will I assuage my soul in February?