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.