News: Who Says Washington Doesn’t Have Political Theatre?

Cast of ‘Hair’ 2010 National tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Not that Washington has ever been a hot bed for political theatre—Hair didn’t even come to the National until 1970, two years after its Broadway premiere in 1968—but in Fall 2012 there is a decided lack of almost anything political resembling a play. Sure, Molly Ivins and an utterly sanitized Janis Joplin entertain us at Arena and a little Government Inspector at Shakespeare makes us laugh our heads off, and Signature even claimed a bit of the political with its Whorehouse (no kidding, it did). Other than those token expressions, however, our theatre avoids political content almost as fiercely as Republicans and Democrats avoid each other.

And I’m happy about that. For in America today the political has become nothing more than theatre on a grand scale, played out daily in the world of pundits and competing 24-hour news outlets. So I’m happy for the respite that local theatre can offer. Yes, I’m thankful for a Jekyll and Hyde, for aDracula and Joseph and even a little Rocky Horror, for they provide a break from the constant barrage of political theatre swarming around Washington, DC, these days.

…it is a good thing that Washington’s theatre has decided to leave the political theatre to the politicians and their master strategists.

Now, I’ll admit to yearning once for more political content in plays, to hoping for an American canon that addressed the intense struggle in this country between the Right and the Left or the Federalists and the States’ Righters. After all, there is a place for theatre in the world of politics. Theatre during the French Revolution—and during our own 1960s—proved that the stage could play a role in the forming of public opinion. Even the imports that have come to town this Fall, Black Watch and theFamine, showed that when theatre does politics it could do a first class job.

This election cycle has, however, enlightened me to a greater truth. Theatre creates a world of illusion and mystery, which can temporarily suspend our disbelief and allow us to observe and emotionally engage in fictional people and events. Politics, on the other hand, creates a totally different kind of theatre; it creates a theatre that suspends our beliefs and allows us to fictionalize real people and events. In other words, within the theatre of politics, beliefs become truths and people and events become fictions. This inversion of fact and fiction allows the theatre of politics to trump anything the real theatres might produce.

So it is a good thing that Washington’s theatre has decided to leave the political theatre to the politicians and their master strategists.

Now, saying that, doesn’t mean that I don’t have a few criticisms of the drama that these political players have produced. However this script ends, I think we can all admit that it is a good thing that it is finally coming to an end—I’m also sure we can agree that this play was way too long and needed the last 10 acts cut. We’re all happy too that the climax has arrived, if not tonight, then hopefully early tomorrow. And we can only pray that this bit of politics-does-theatre doesn’t have a sequel, entitled “Supreme Court Decision II” playing for the next few months on stages everywhere.

Concert Review: Billy Collins and Mary Oliver at Strathmore

Mary Oliver and Billy Collins

Though not quite standing room only, the Strathmore was packed from its crowded orchestra to its fourth tier balcony; even some of the throwback box seats elevated along the sides of this enormous structure had audience peaking over the rails. The stage was empty, however. The chorus had not yet arrived. The orchestra was nowhere in sight. “Where were the instruments?” the audience might have asked. “The piano and the big bass drum?” Were the two performers going to sing a cappella?

As it turned out, poet Wallace Stevens’ famous line, “Music is feeling, then, not sound,” was more than apropos for this occasion, as our two performers were not singers, but poets; and the thousand plus eager ears in the audience were yearning not for the sonorous chords of an oboe or a lute, but for the small wonders of two of America’s most famous bards: Billy Collins and Mary Oliver (who is, by the way, of no relation to this critic).

As a poet and performer myself, I have long bemoaned most poets’ inability to engage a live audience, almost as if years of academia had trapped their voices within the books they are constantly reading. To be sure, with the emergence of performance poetry—slam and spoken word—that lack of a live voice is disappearing.  With the gain, however, comes a countering decline in poetry’s essential solitude—its ability to question the rawness of experience. Oh, how I hoped that Collins and Oliver would strike a balance or bridge a synthesis between those paradoxical necessities!

And did they ever, bringing to life on the Strathmore stage the sublime solitary of poetic expression while at the same time embodying its desire for community. By the end of the event, Collins and Oliver stood before satisfied ears to a thundering ovation.

To read more click here.

Quick Blurbs

The Politics of Mothers and Work

Much has been made of Hillary Rosen’s recent comment about Ann Romney never having “worked a day in her life.”  Even though everyone knew she was speaking of working outside the home for pay, the republicans made much of the comment, saying it was an attack on motherhood.

In January, however, in New Hampshire Mitt Romney said that poor mothers who get federal assistance should be required to go to “work”. Yes, “to work” to borrow that phrase used by Hillary Rosen.  Romney’s political approach (and now its the approach of the whole republican party) has become the theatre of lies. (And, yes, the democrats are only one step behind I must say.)

To believe anything that is said these days in the political sphere requires such a huge “suspension of disbelief” that it can not longer be “willing”.  Kool Aid is needed–two doses!

Beware Americans: We’re Entering the Twilight Zone

The Trayvon Martin case has made me aware of one simple fact.  America has entered the twilight zone. Why do I say this?  Because despite all the media coverage of this case, the most important issues that the case demonstrates have been swamped by the hype.  Instead of focusing our attention on the failure of our criminal justice system (or in this case Sanford Florida’s criminal justice system) and the law that allowed a killer to temporarily go free, the media has focused totally on George Zimmerman and the cases racial component.

The case involves Trayvon Martin, an unarmed seventeen year old, killed by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, while walking back from a convenience store.  Mr. Zimmerman confesses to killing Trayvon, but claims that it was self-defense, under Florida’s so called Stand-Your-Ground law.  Apparently, the law allows people not to back down from a fight.  In this case, it also seems to have allowed him to claim self-defense even when he was the aggressor.  In any event the police believe Mr. Zimmerman’s version of the event (Trayvon could not tell his version, of course, because he was dead) and within hours the police release him, even giving him back his gun.

George Zimmerman

After Trayvon’s parents are informed of the circumstances, including one assumes that Mr. Zimmerman confessed to the killing, they begin to protest that the killer should at least be charged with some kind of crime.  After all, they must have asserted: “our son has been killed by a stranger; he was unarmed at the time, and only carrying skittles and a soda pop.”  After the Sanford police ignored the parents’ protests, the parents sought a larger audience and, eventually, the story went national and international.

Then the Governor of Florida appoints a special prosecutor and eventually Mr. Zimmerman is charged with 2nd degree murder.

I assert that those are the essential facts thus far.  If you know something about the case, you’ll notice that I left out facts about race and ethnicity, and I did so, because at an essential level they are unimportant.  An unarmed person was killed by an armed person and the killer was not charged with a crime, even a misdemeanor.  Something is clearly wrong with this picture.

Being a parent myself I can understand the Martins’ grief and dismay.  When your child is killed, you most assuredly want justice.  What I don’t understand ,and what made me finally realize that America has entered the Twilight Zone, is why other people don’t understand this most basic of human needs: justice.  Why are some many people in America making excuses–not for George Zimmerman (he did what he did, what ever it was)–but why are so many people making excuses for the Sanford criminal justice system?  Or if the good people in the Sanford police department were only following Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground law, why are so many people making excuses for the insane politicians who pass a law that legalizes murder?

Now one could simply say that a lot of people are racist, and thus made a lot of excuses for why Zimmerman would kill Trayvon.  Because he had a hoodie, which is apparently a sign of thuggery (despite the fact that a lot of non-thugs wear hoodies), or because he was a teenager and today teenagers don’t have morals (as opposed to earlier eras), or because black young men don’t respect the law and thus Trayvon didn’t respect the law, or because blacks are killing blacks and not complaining — the list goes on and on as to why, according to certain people, George Zimmerman was justified in killing Trayvon Martin.

For me, however, racism does not explain why we’ve entered the Twilight Zone.  Oh, no, to enter the Twilight Zone requires a meeting of many vectors, a convergence if you will of a worm hole, an 11th plague, and a Reality Show with real people.

But seriously.  Although racism–both its long history and its current manifestations–is a factor driving the media insanity, several other factors are equally important.  An important factor is America’s other long history–gun ownership and violence.

John Wayne

The Stand your Ground laws that are sweeping the country right now are returning Americans to their Wild West roots.  We don’t need law enforcement any more.  We can just enforce the laws ourselves, or–if the job is too big for one man–we can hire a posse.  A product of the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the stand your ground laws have given many gun-owners the legal confidence to shoot first and ask questions later–or not at all.  Americans of all races and ethnicities have been killed by other well intentioned Americans with a hair trigger and perhaps more than a little paranoia.  If you add up all the things that make Americans scared these days–from drugs, disease, old age, teenagers, debt, mental illness, African-Americans (not to mention violent crime)–the stand your ground laws with their liberal interpretation of one’s perception of fear make them a disaster waiting to happen.

The Trayvon Martin case plays right into the vortex of American psychoses.  It has the gun element, the race element, the crime element, the hoodie element; plus, there is also a black president running for reelection, who a good number of people still think is a secret Muslim, socialist Kenyan.  If you add all those factors together, you enter the Twilight Zone, where everything you say or think comes out ass-backward, looking more like an episode of Amazing Videos than anything resembling serious thought.

Creativist: Writer, Performing Artist, Educator