Tag Archives: American Studies

Paula Vogel’s Indecent Brings the Theatrical Past Back to Glorious Life

Paula Vogel’s Indecent, now on Broadway after completing a run at the Vineyard Theatre, does something extraordinarily unique. While there have been plays dating back to Aristophanes that have celebrated the power of the theatre, this is the first play that I can recall where a play (in this case God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch) is the main character. Vogel’s play follows Asch’s as it is conceived in Warsaw, crisscrosses Europe on tour, comes to the United States where it encounters overwhelming resistance when it opens on Broadway, and returns yet again to Europe. Along the way, God of Vengeance intersects with the history of the Jewish diaspora and Western theatre.

Vogel created Indecent with Rebecca Taichman, the director, and the collaboration between the two has forged a compelling, indelible work of theatre. Working with a cast of seven (that feels much larger) and three musicians, Taichman gives the play an epic feel as it moves from continent to continent, and historical calamity to historical calamity. Asch’s play came out of the Yiddish Theater; Vogel and Taichman honor its heritage and avoid the hegemony of English. Utilizing a storytelling tool that Brian Friel developed for his Translations, Taichman depicts the trials and tribulations of characters trying to communicate across linguistic barriers. Asch’s achievement is only further highlighted by the challenges of language.

The heart of God of Vengeance is how an impossible love is found in the most trying of circumstances; the daughter of a brothel owner falls in love with one of the prostitutes. That love – that impossible love – brings down the wrath of, well, everyone else in the world. Vogel’s wonderful conceit is that just as that love is the hope of the world of God of Vengeance, so too is God of Vengeance the hope of the world of Indecent. It is the love of the play that drives stage manager Lemml (an excellent Richard Topol) to fight for the play even when the forces arrayed against it are overwhelming. Two poignant scenes – for vastly different reasons – stand out. First, after the company is arrested for indecency during the production’s Broadway opening night, Lemml has a conversation with Eugene O’Neill. The godfather of American playwriting bestows his artistic blessing on God of Vengeance; that endorsement speaks volumes to the power of Asch’s work. The second occurs after Lemml has returned to Europe, to Poland. Under the radar of the Nazi occupiers, he mounts a production of the play in an attic in the Lodz Ghetto. Vogel and Taichman have crafted a stunning moment in understatement here. The power and beauty of the play, the essential hope represented by the play in the face of adversity, becomes necessity. I am not ashamed to say that, after decades of theatre-going and developing the cynical persona of the New York theater-goer, I shed tears during this scene.

Taichman deploys the techniques of the Yiddish theater to tell Indecent’s story: music, dance, bare-bones sets, and tight ensemble work. The play moves seamlessly across the years and miles. There is not much in the way of star-turns for the cast of chameleons for together they bring God of Vengeance to life. Nonetheless, Tom Nelis (who has a mad number of skills including the ability to an Irish jig) and Katrina Lenk (whose character would go to prison for the play as written not for its watered-down commercial version) are stand-outs. If Indecent has a weakness, then it would be that it has three endings. The scene in Lodz, emotionally, feels like a fitting conclusion, but there are two codas that simply do not rise in power to the aforementioned moment.

One final thought: God of Vengeance, before it moved to Broadway, played at the Provincetown Playhouse following O’Neill’s Hairy Ape. This innovative and fertile time in theatrical history is currently being played out for New York audiences with Hairy Ape’s revival at the Park Avenue Armory. How fortunate we are to have that lighting caught in a bottle and given a second life here in 2017.

Nostalgia is a Disease

How much did I love Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s new play making its Broadway debut? I first saw it at The Public Theater about three weeks before the election. It made such a profound impact on me as an audience member, playwright, and American citizen that I had to see it again in its new digs at Studio 54. Even though I was fully aware of its gut-wrenching conclusion this second time, I still shed a tear when it arrived. Sweat should be required viewing for anyone living in our republic – it is that important.

The lion’s share of the play takes place at a bar run by Stan (James Colby fully embodying the moral conscience of the play) in Reading, Pennsylvania. This is a working class bar where Bud and Michelob are on tap, and the patrons come to unwind from long days on factory floors and to bitch about management. It move back and forth in time between 2000 and 2008, the advent and the twilight of George W. Bush’s administration. Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis) have done something that has landed them in prison in 2000, and in 2008 they are released. It is not until the end of the play that we find out what that something is. The inciting incident of much of the drama is the decision by management of the local steel mill to move operations to Mexico and play hardball with its employees (demanding severe cuts to pay and pensions, a lock-out when they refuse).

Much has already been said of Nottage’s compassionate and perceptive depiction of the Trump voters. Like Stephen Karam with The Humans, she chronicles the fall of working-class families from economic security into an ever-churning chaos. Nottage centers on the anxieties of those who once were prosperous and have since fallen on hard times. She shines a light on how quickly they can find themselves in poverty, addiction, and shame. We see how anxiety quickly transforms into anger and then into rage. The promises of a return to greatness – though clearly hollow – would have instant appeal.

And if that is all Sweat just did that, it would be a good play for the moment and fade from memory come 2020 (hopefully) or 2024 (not so hopefully). What Nottage has constructed, though, is an American play for the ages, a tragedy of the American dream that would be appreciated by the likes of Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets. “Nostalgia is a disease,” says Stan. Part of what is destroying these workers is their attachment to a way-of-life that, while it had some rewards when times were good, is ultimately destructive. Even before the troubles at the plant start, Chris desires to leave the line and study to become a teacher. For this, he is mocked by his friend Jason. What matters most is tribal loyalty. To want something better is seen as a betrayal – as contempt for the life they all lead. Adding to the stew is the racial mix. Jason and his mother, Tracey (Johanna Day) are white. Chris and his mother, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) are black. So long as times are good and everyone marches to the same drummer: all is well and good. Cynthia, however, is like her son and has ambitions for something other. She applies for a position as a supervisor. When she earns the new job, charges of the hiring process being rigged for affirmative action are inevitable. Outside from the start is Oscar (Carlo Alban), whose family is from Colombia. That he was born here does not halt the charges that he immigrated illegally to take our “jobs”.

The tragedy here is that many of the characters feel that they deserve a job at the plant, even though they hate it. They are limited by a lack of imagination, by shortsightedness, by a sense of entitlement. When the workers are locked out, Oscar is hired as a temporary worker. The $11 an hour he is paid is a windfall, but it is an insult to Tracey. Rather than direct anger at company management, Tracey and Jason train their fire on Oscar exclusively. Again, one of the historic tragedies of American history rears its ugly head: those who should be united against those in positions of power and privilege are divided along racial and ethnic lines. Stan tries to remind his friends of this, but that his voice of wisdom gets silenced points to greater tragedies that will overtake this community.

There are no monsters here, though we may despise many of the characters’ decisions and actions. Nottage’s genius is apparent in that it is possible for, say, Tracey, to be both right and wrong at the same exact moment. Yes, she is right to be angry and frustrated and to want to continue to work (she is no looking for handouts) as she always has. But she is wrong to place the blame on Cynthia and Oscar. She is wrong to think she is entitled to a place further up the line because her people have been in the country longer. She is wrong not to understand Cynthia and Oscar’s history. And, at the end of the day, despite the hostility both verbal and physical, it is Oscar who fares best. Again, it is part and parcel of American history, that more recent arrivals respond best to adversity, adapt, survive, and thrive. That Oscar is the ultimate voice of compassion further highlights those core strengths. It is a dazzling achievement.

Nottage is part of a Renaissance of American playwriting. At the end of the twentieth century, it seemed that playwriting dying as talented writers went to film and television. Plays seemed small, concerned with the inchoate longings of clueless yuppies. Nottage like a number of other playwrights is utilizing the stage to tell powerful, important, and provocative stories that will have enormous impact – both on the personal and political levels – far beyond their initial presentations. Nottage’s Sweat deserves to be in the same conversation with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America or August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.

For right now, though, see it. Simply see it.



Raoul Peck Has Made a Work of Essential Viewing

Let me just get this out of my system at the top: I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s exemplary documentary on James Baldwin, was robbed at the Oscars. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t see the OJ documentary, and now I really don’t want to. I think OJ mania may tell us a lot about our media-saturated culture, James Baldwin’s life, work, and vision speaks to the entirety of American culture, history, and society. Peck brings that vision to the fore and expertly demonstrates how Baldwin’s analysis of American life, which he developed in the Civil Rights Era, still has application in our post-Ferguson time.

Baldwin famously states, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” In a nation that infamously “forgets” its past — how few of my students know when Pearl Harbor occurred — Baldwin is fierce in his argument (rightly) that the history of slavery and Jim Crow still is very much part of our present. This tenant serves as Peck’s thesis.

The film builds upon Baldwin’s notes for a planned but never completed book Remember This House. It rests on a three-legged stool of Baldwin’s friendships with three very different but significant figures: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Another important relationship touched upon is his friendship with Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Peck and Baldwin both are emphasizing the importance and synthesis of culture to politics. Baldwin again cogitates on the line between witness and actor (as in someone engaged in political activity); it is a blurred but fine line. And what emerges is how necessary Baldwin was to our changing perceptions during the 1950’s and 1960’s. As much as it was about bus seats and votes and marches, it was also about where those not white fit into the culture. Speaking of a John Wayne Western, the writer has the epiphany that he was the Indians.

I was struck by a clip from The Dick Caveat Show. Baldwin is joined by a saged academic from Yale University (a philosopher I believe). This professor challenges Baldwin on race, but invoking class! Doesn’t Baldwin have more in common with a white author than a black sharecropper? Firstly, I was amazed that this man would use class prejudice as a way of mitigating racial prejudice. Secondly, he — a learned and educated man — fails to grasp the truth in front of him in 1968: race is class.

Peck masterfully employs a large dose of Baldwin’s cultural criticism — particularly as race has been portrayed in American film — as part of his narrative. Why? Because legislative achievements are one thing, but that history Baldwin speaks of lives on in our attitudes and perceptions. It is present.

Samuel L. Jackson reads a number of Baldwin’s letters and essays. I knew going in that he was doing that, but still, I did not recognize — what is his usually distinct — voice. Jackson’s work adds to the power of the documentary.

I found the film so essential that it has inspired me to create a course exclusively on James Baldwin for my university.

Mardi Gras with Kermit Ruffins

Just a quick aside —

I had the opportunity to see Kermit Ruffins (performer and musical contributor to David Simon’s Treme) at The Blue Note in New York City. He was joined for three numbers by The Sleeping Giant, James Winfield. Just a reminder — a fun one! — of the importance of allowing New Orleans culture to live and breath and continue to contribute its distinct and vital voice to the American conversation.

Back from Southern American Studies Association Conference 2013

I am back from the Southern American Studies Association Conference in Charleston, South Carolina. I had hoped to have posted more from the conference in Charleston, but I became quite ill the second day there. The norovrius and blogging are not conducive to one another.

From what little I did get to see, the quality of the scholarship was quite good. William Black, a graduate student in the history program at Western Kentucky University, presented a particularly fine paper entitled “When Honest Abe Came Down South: Lincoln Sightings in African-American Folklore”. Utilizing oral histories preserved by the WPA back in the 1930’s, Black painted a very unusual picture of Lincoln, at least a mythopoetic Lincoln, from these tales dating back to slavery. Basically, Lincoln is portrayed as almost a trickster god, along the lines of Loki, who fools and humiliates Southern plantation owners. I don’t want to steal Black’s thunder here, but I am looking forward to his further research in this area.

The plenary speaker for the conference was Tiya Miles, from the Center of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. As with Black, I do not wish to steal her thunder. But her talk focused on so-called ghost and haunted houses in the Deep South. Many of the ghosts of these houses are the product of the often violent nature of the master/slave relationship of the antebellum period. These houses are becoming bigger tourist draws than Gone with the Wind style mansions. And, of course, that the need for these ghost stories to somehow revolve around this nature’s dark history with slavery is something of potential significance in a contemporary cultural context indeed. It certainly has me thinking about my own work concerning August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.

What is immediately clear on the surface, though, is that the Civil War — it still haunts, still defines us, still polarizes us.