My Day: Yogi Berra

I like Yogi Berra for many reasons. But in spite of that, I have given up on page 62 of “Yogi….It Ain’t Over”. Just not that good of a book. It’s over.

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My Day: The Remains

Ken Urban’s new one act play, “The Remains”, is having its world premier at Studio Theatre. I’d give it a mixed rating, and call it still a work in progress.

A gay male couple has been together for 17 years, and married under Massachusetts law for 10 of those years.  Their marriage is falling apart, and they have decided to get divorced and to announce their decision when they have the parents of one, and the sister of the other, over for dinner.  The announcement is a shock to their families, and the dinner does not go very well…..at all.

Well, in the first place, it isn’t surprising that this marriage is falling apart.  It seems to have been an “open” marriage from the beginning, and each side had numerous small , “affairs” with male partners over the years.  For a while, this seemed to have been OK, I guess, but……..probably not.  Something led the one partner, who had trouble getting a tenured professorship in the Boston area, to flee the city and wind up in a small town in Oregon, which he hated, with a tenured university position, which he hated.  The man he left behind, a lawyer, quickly met a new man, who sort of moved in, something he kept from his west coast husband.

The lawyer’s parents, a theater critic mother and a retired Harvard philosophy professor father, like their son’s husband very much, and his mother is intent on stopping the divorce.  The young professor’s sister, twice divorced herself, with two kids, is abrasive and “struggling”.  The dinner table conversation, carried on in the accompaniment of burnt lasagna (which along with dropped salad greens seems to represent the marriage), let’s you in on a number of other matters, heretofore kept secret – especially involving infidelities by,  and past divorce conversations between, the parents.

Some of the conversation between the gay couple seems quite realistic, some of the conversation between and regarding the parents and the sister are clever and sometimes very funny.  But you wouldn’t call the play a comedy, and there are no heroes to turn the play into a tragedy.  In fact, I think the play has a little trouble defining itself.

And then, after the guests leave, the couple is still intent on divorce, how do you end the play?  Urban tries, in effect by going fast forward and having the future of each of the characters foreshadowed in an unusual sort of epilogue.  This adds nothing to the story and – you heard it here first – I bet that the second time this play is produced, the ending will be different.

So, as I said, my reaction was mixed.  If you have tickets, don’t throw them away, but if you don’t, don’t think that you are missing an essential part of American theater.  By the way, the acting, the directing and the set all worked fine.  And the reviews have been good, and the show extended and selling out.

My Day: Portraits of Cezanne

The National Gallery of Art’s exhibit of 60 Cezanne portraits is about to close.  But don’t despair – this will give you an excuse to go to Paris to see the exhibit at the Musee d’Orsay, where it is to open later this year. It’s a wonderful exhibit.

Cezanne was primarily a landscape painter, and a bridge between 19th and 20th century art.  Less than 10 percent of his known works were portraits, and about a third of them are included in this exhibit.  I always like to see where curators go to collect the works they want to show, and for this exhibit, they went everywhere, to major museums in the US and Canada and across Europe.  At least one came from Japan, and many from unidentified private collections.

Design, color and texture – those are the things that strike me about the work.  Details on the portraits themselves – not so much.  This is not what he was aiming for.  It doesn’t look like he was much of a commission portrait painter – the works include many self portraits, many of his wife, his one son, his uncle Dominique, his agent, his friends.  The exhibit points out that multiple paintings of the same person do not always show an identical looking person – that may be so, but that it not what struck me.  What struck me, in addition to the three facets of the work mentioned at the start of the paragraph, were the two-dimensionality of the works, the heavy layering on the paint, and the lack of expression or activity being portrayed in all but a few.

He was also not trying to flatter his subjects.  They wore bland expressions, looks of boredom, were dressed very plainly (Uncle Dominique of dressed in costume), and (except for a friend with a very large library) were not surrounded by much detail.  No one was smiling.  As one friend of his said (and I paraphrase):  every time Cezanne paints a picture of a friend, me makes it look more like an act of revenge.  This from someone who posed for him time and time again.

But Cezanne was a genius.  The portraits sparkle in spite of (or perhaps because of) all of this.  You should definitely fly to Paris.

My Day: More Emmett Till

Last week, we attended a Mosaic Theater reading of Ifa Bayeza’s “The Ballad of Emmett Till”, the first part of her trilogy about the Till tragedy.  I wrote a brief piece about it on the blog.

Emmett Till was 14 when he was killed.  He was a young, sassy, stuttering Chicago teenager who was visiting his mother’s family in the Mississippi delta, when he made the mistake of looking at, and whistling at, a young white woman who clerked a small general store.  Her husband, his brother and others kidnapped and brutally murdered Till, throwing his body into a river or bayou. They were arrested, tried and acquitted by an all-white jury.  “The Ballad of Emmett Till” told his story.

The second part of the trilogy, which we heard last night at Mosaic, told the story of two families affected by Till’s murder.  One was the family of Carolyn Bryant, the woman who accused Till of making unwanted (and in Mississippi of 1955, unheard of) advances.  The characters (played by two actors) included Bryant, her husband, her husband’s twin brother, and an FBI interrogator.  The characters were all products of a highly segregated, white supremacy society who acted and emoted based on their gut feelings.  Their intellect played little part in their actions.  (Shortly before her death, Bryant admitted she had lied at the trial – this is not mentioned in the play)

The second family were the Meltons, a young black couple with four children, having financial and domestic difficulties.  Melton was an auto mechanic, and he witnessed part of Till’s killing.  His wife, burdened by the four children, their financial problems, and her husband’s infidelity, told him to stay out of it, not to say anything.  But he couldn’t do that – he had to say something.  Within a few months, he was shot three times and killed, by a man implicated in the Till murder.  Less than a year after that, his wife’s car went into a bayou and she was killed.  Was it suicide? Was she pushed off the road?  No one knows for sure. In this story, the characters also included Medgar Evers, working for the NAACP, who investigated both the Till and the Melton cases.

All of Bayeza’s writing is based on fact and much research, and often on actual documentation or transcripts.  The third part of the trilogy, which we will see next Monday, is based on the Till murder trial.

Bayeza cannot be praised too much for her work.  But praise also goes to the four actors, and particularly the two female actors, who performed last night:  Betsy Helmer, Mia Ellis, Drew Kopas, and Christian Gibbs.

My Day: Trayf

Lindsay Joelle’s play “Trayf” is playing at Theater J.  We saw it last night.  I loved it, and laughed most of the way through (until the seriousness overcame the humor).

It’s late 20th century New York City – Brooklyn.  Shmuely and Zalmy are two 19 year old Lubavitcher Hasids who are on their first day in their Mitzvah Tank, and they set out to find non-observant Jews whom they will make more observant. Shmuely and Zalmy are extraordinarily engaging young men (the actors are terrific), friends for a decade, out to accomplish their mission.  But there are subtle differences – Shmuely knows who Elton John is; Zalmy has no idea.  In fact, the idea of even accidentally hearing “secular music” is anathema to Zalmy.  Listen to Elton John, and who knows where it might lead.

Well, it turns out that Zalmy might be correct, and when they meet Jonathan, a baptized Catholic who recently learned he had a Jewish father (his father, a German refugee remained quiet about his origins), and who is a music producer (or producer-wannabe) who believes he has a Jewish soul, Shmuely’s faith and his identity with his Lubavitcher community are tested. Will they survive?

It may be that this show is not everyone’s cup of tea, based on some of the conversations we had after the show.  Why that is, though, I am not certain.

My Day: The Welders’ Switch

The Welders is a playwrighting collective currently consisting of seven playwrights, including one of my daughters.  Each of them will create and produce one original play over a three year period, before handing the Welders over to another group of playwrights.  Currently on stage is Welder Brett Abelman’s “Switch”.

When I was young, I knew there were men and women.  Two categories, and never the twain shall mix.  Even through high school, I did not have any conscious contact with anyone who was gay, much less who was ambisextrous.  (I know that’s not a word, but maybe it should be.)  How times have changed!

“Switch”, had I watched it in 1960, would have been science fiction.  Perhaps it still is.  And I admit I don’t know.  Leila and Doug are fixed up by their mutual friend, Lark.  It’s slow going for a while, but they do take to each other and soon have sex.  That’s where the problems begin.  Not the usual problems, but one big one.  When they wake up, Leila is in Doug’s body, and Doug is in Leila.

I’m not going to tell you what happens or how they resolve their unusual circumstances.  Except to tell you that they appear to.  But one thing remains with me – with all of the sexual ambiguity floating around today, this play tackles something new.  Two individuals – straight individuals who find themselves in the body of another sex (of course, not only another sex, but another person – that adds an additional complication to be sure).  How do they react?  How would you react in such a circumstances?  Something to think about.

For some people of course, a variety of this circumstance is not only imagination.  I am not even thinking of people born with gender ambiguity.  I am thinking of people born either male or woman, who believed that in their heart of hearts, they were the opposite. My thoughts go to someone for whom I provided legal services over a period of time, who one day surprised everyone with an announcement that he had had some form of surgery, that he was now female, and had a new name.  He was not someone who had ever looked sexually uncertain, he had been married (twice), he had several children.  He told me that, when he was alone, for years, he had dressed as a woman and put on makeup.  How hard to believe it all was.

But at least he/she was the same person – his/her history was no one else’s. In “Switch”, entire bodies were switched – you remained internally your original sex with your original memories, but you looked like you were someone else.  How strange would this be? How hard to understand.

The star of the show, by the way, was Tyasia Veline, playing Lark.  What energy!

 

My Day: Abel Pereira and the National Symphony Orchestra

Sometimes, you attend a concert and it’s magical.  Last fall, we went to an NSO concert with Vera Wang playing Prokofiev.  Magical.

Last Friday, I attended the NSO Friday matinee, to hear the orchestra led by its Conductor Laureate Christoph Eschenbach, and featuring Abel Pereira, the orchestra’s Principal Horn, playing Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto.  Strauss is most remembered for his tone poems, not his concertos, but the Horn Concerto is an exception.  Written when he was about 18, and dedicated to his horn playing father, this concerto is a delight to hear, and even more delightful by the beautiful tones which Pereira gets out of his instrument.  What followed this concerto?  A long, long standing ovation.

The rest of the program was also strong – it started with Mozart’s well known Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and included Haydn’s 92nd Symphony (the Oxford) and ended with the prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.  Strange to end with a prelude, to be sure, but…….it worked.

I sat in the upper balcony at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.  Little known secret (?) – you can get day-of tickets for just $12.

My Day: Crossing Cairo

About six months ago, I met Rabbi Reuven Firestone of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion of Los Angeles when he came to DC to give a series of lectures.  Several months after that, while wandering through the used bookshop of the Montgomery County (MD) library system, I happened upon a book titled Crossing Cairo: A Jewish Woman’s Encounter With Egypt, by Rabbi Ruth Sohn. Her name meant nothing to me, but by chance I opened the book and saw that Rabbi Sohn was Rabbi Firestone’s wife, and that the book was the story of their six months in Cairo about ten years ago. Now ten years ago may not seem very long ago, but we are talking about Egypt, which ten years ago was still under the authority of Hosni Mubarak. Arab Spring had not yet taken place, the Muslim Brotherhood had not yet won elections, and the Egyptian military had not yet taken power. Egypt was obviously a different country than it is today.

And it was a different country than it had been in the past.  Within the 20th century, we have seen Egypt as, in effect, a British protectorate, as a republic, as a kingdom under King Farouk, as a socialist state under Nasser, and then as a republic under Sadat and Mubarak.  Much change.  And no Egyptians have been affected by these changes as much as have been Egyptian Jews.

Before 1948, about 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt, mostly in Cairo and Alexandria, and many of them were well integrated into Egyptian economic, professional, educational, social and political society.  The creation of the State of Israel affected this, as did the 1956 invasion of Egypt by France, Britain and Israel, and the 1967 Six Day War.  Today, there are virtually no Jews living in Egypt.

Reuven Firestone is a scholar of medieval Jews, including those who lived in Arab countries.  He was fluent (I think, fluent) in Arabic and wanted to have the opportunity to study Arab society and improve his language skills.  So he, his wife and their two teenage sons spent six months in Egypt.

They rented an apartment in the Mahdi, which seems to be an upper middle class part of Cairo which at one time had a significant Jewish population.  They met their neighbors and those who ran the neighborhood shops, they explored the city, they took Arabic lessons and hired a housekeeper, their sons went to a local private school, they met a number of American expats living in Cairo and they met Israeli diplomats.  They met a woman who was the leader of the remaining Jewish community (she has since died), and she arranged that they could visit four or five synagogues (some still in use, others in need of renovation), and the largest Jewish cemetery.  At first, they hesitated telling anyone that they were Jewish, but that changed over time, and they found that virtually everyone accepted their Jewishness without criticism, but that each of those people maintained very negative feelings about Israel.  This in part was the result of the education and the information which are fed to Egyptians.

Reading this book, you meet a number of Egyptians closely, including Rabbi Sohn’s Arabic teacher and her housekeeper, as well as some of the classmates of her sons. You see how otherwise rational people consistently doubt Israel’s right to exist. And you also travel around Upper Egypt, visiting Karnak, and Aswan, and Elephantine Island and Abu Simbel.  (You don’t visit Alexandria or the Nile delta, and you don’t visit the Pyramids or the Sphinx – but you can’t do everything in six months.)  And of course, you will learn a lot about Egyptian society (its strong and weak points) and about the history of its Jews.

It’s a terrifically interesting, low-key book, and you find yourself living in Egypt for six months, right along with the author and her family.  Highly recommended.  Published in 2013 by Gaon Books of Santa Fe.

 

My Day: “The Ballad of Emmett Till”

A year or so ago, I saw Prof. Timothy Tyson of Duke University speak at the National Archives about his then new biography of Emmett Till, The Blood of Emmett Till.  His talk was riveting and I assume the same about his book, although I did not read it.  He talked about Till’s murder in rural Mississippi in 1955, about the trial where his killers were exonerated, and about his interview with Carolyn Bryant, the woman whom Till allegedly pestered and who later admitted she had lied at the trial.

Tuesday night, we went to a reading (and singing) of the one act play “The Ballad of Emmett Till” at Mosaic Theater.  Equally riveting.

The play is the first of a trilogy written by Chicago playwright and director Ifa Bayeza, who was present and who provided some very interesting insight in her talk back after the reading.  The second and third plays will be presented later in June at Mosaic.  We have tickets to both.

Emmett Till was a 14 year old African American boy, born in the small town of Argo IL, but who lived in Chicago with his mother and grandmother, and who went for a two week summer visit to his uncle in northern Mississippi, the family’s home base.  What Bayeza did the best was reconstruct the personality of Till, from documents and books already in circulation or published, but also from interviews with Till’s living relatives and school mates who remember him well.  (Yes, he was killed a long time ago, but if alive, he’d only be 76 or 77, a year older than I am.)  She spoke to Till’s cousin who lived in Mississippi, he even spoke to a DOJ employee who, after Bayeza filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents, placed a call to Bayeza and said “I saw your FOIA request.  I went to school with Emmett.”

Emmett Till (played to perfection by Keith Royal Smith) was a bright, sassy young kid, whose main hobby was to talk.  And talk he did. But burdened by a stutter.  And while he liked visiting his Mississippi family, he didn’t understand Mississippi at all.  He didn’t understand the wariness of Mississippi blacks, and he had no conception of how many Mississippi whites thought.  He was the kind of kid who, when his white tormentors told him that white women were often molested by black men in Mississippi, could respond with “Then maybe we are cousins.”

Among other things, he was harmless.  He was a nice kid, out of place in a rough and tumble world.  He was a dreamer.  He didn’t need to be ambitious – he knew that life would turn out wonderful for him.  He had no clue.

Hopefully, this play, which Bayeza worked on for twenty years, will pop up here and there now and again, and you will get a chance to see it.

My Day: “The Conquering Jew” as of 1915

I’m not sure if it’s a flattering book, or insulting.  It’s John Foster Fraser’s (he’s a Scottish travel writer) attempt to describe the position of the Jews in 1915 based on his travels and his research.  He claims that neither Jews nor anti-Semites will be satisfied with his conclusions, and in this I think he’s correct.

His basic conclusions are (a) that Jews now have legal freedom in most places, (b) that anti-Jewish feeling is based mostly on jealousy, economic competition and fears, and otherness than it is on religious differences, (c) that Jews themselves are moving away from religion and traditions as they discover freedom and acceptance and that Judaism itself (as opposed to physical characteristics of Jews) will eventually disappear.  He also finds that Jews add tremendous value to the country’s in which they live, but that they have characteristics that are offensive to many others, but which are the results of centuries of discrimination. Jews are extraordinarily flexible – they blend into the country to which they immigrate, within a generation or two.  Jews don’t want to be farmers or manual workers; they don’t want to be employees, they want to be bosses.

The book talks about the Jews around the world, country by country.  Britain comes out best – absolutely no discrimination there.  What we think of as American, is really Jewish American. Palestine is an awful place, but Jerusalem is at least interesting.  Austria is very anti-Semitic, but the Jews are doing well.  Etc.  Etc.

It’s an odd book, easy to read, filled with statistics (mainly without citation) and with the undocumented conclusions of the author.  It paints a picture of a superior race of people, and – perhaps because of that – left me feeling very uncomfortable.