Archive for October, 2012


Thelonious Monk: Born: October 10

Happy Birthday, Thelonious! I wouldn’t have known had I not become a fan of radio station WKCR, out of Columbia University, a station I maybe first heard at Sharifa’s place the other day as we talked about her almost here baby and mid-wifery over mint tea, it’s always so odd to talk about the future when it’s staring you in the face, a thing men cannot share since we don’t house the future, only move towards it. In any case, it was nice to see and hear Sharifa, her speech is Texas, it just lumbers along with a few jokes, and she asked me if the gongs and cymbals I heard in some unidentifiable music playing on the radio bothered me, and I said, no, no, I liked it, it actually added (I did not say) to the baby expectation and joy, wondering which bed she’d have her baby in, and then her baby himself, laying around and then toddling around and then running around, the baby as a world of cymbals and gongs in one presence! But for now the gongs were on the radio, specifically WKCR, and it’s the station I tune into during the day while I’m working now, it’s like having Sharifa near me, Sharifa and her little baby crashing cymbals of gurgling and laughter in the other room as I type, hoping the writing will get better but wanting them to stay just the same, perfect. In any case, there was Thelonious, how old would he have been had he not died in 1987, he wasn’t even seventy when he died, and I hope Sharifa and her baby live forever in a world of Elizabeth Bishop rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! In the old days the late Veronica Geng used to come to my little apartment for lunch, Ian Frazier introduced us, she was interested in writing about Ron Vawter, now also dead, and once she saw my blue box of Thelonious Blue Note recordings and Veronica said: He’s the greatest artist of the twentieth century! And Darryl was here that afternoon, I made a curry but burned it, I admired Veronica so, that afternoon we walked down to City Hall, and she talked about the writing she wanted to do, the writing I wanted to do, and we walked–where? It was all rainbow that afternoon, that little, funny woman by my side with that laugh–it went up! like a rainbow–and it’s so hard to imagine that I have that effect on the kids I meet now but I do and sometimes they’re shy of my effect on them and I don’t hear from them for a while but I don’t think I did that with Veronica, learning from people has always been the healthiest part of myself, I’m greedy about that, Valda was, too, people were our university. I wrote to Veronica later in the summer when she was in her little house…upstate? She wrote to me about blueberries, and the preserves she was making and would bring me back but then things got sad, she didn’t like me writing for someone she felt injured by, she never gave me the jam, and then she was sick and died, but nothing can take away the sound of her laughter going up! and Darryl not understanding why she had to leave at all. Happy Birthday, Thelonious. It’s hard to say how much more music you would have produced had you lived, or if you would have loved more people had you lived, but just know the Thank you! is always there, and that it’s filled with rainbow! rainbow! rainbow! And guess what, Thelonious? Just as I was laying down with a pad and pencil to start continue the work of the day, I received a text from Sharifa. It read, in part: “Emanuel…is BORN!” And on your day. Sometimes things are no less than right, and there are rainbows, and as Tennessee’s Blanche had it: “Sometimes there is God so quickly.” Time to watch over us, Thelonious, as we endeavor to make some music out of that.


At the Public

Like jazz musicians, theatre people tend to live at night. So, it was especially touching to find so many great actors, directors, writers, and producers up and at ’em by 10 a.m. yesterday morning to celebrate and honor the completion of the Public Theatre’s forty million dollar revitalization program. Plans to give the 158 year old building on Lafayette Street, near Astor Place, a makeover began seven years ago, under the stewardship of the Public’s Executive Director, Oskar Eustis, and took three years to complete–a relatively rapid transformation given that, “We wouldn’t know what we’d find when we opened the walls,” Eustis said, laughing. Before the city leased the building to Joe Papp for one dollar, the Public had been, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the city’s first public library, and then, a way station for Jewish immigrants. Taking occupancy in 1967, Papp and company put on “Hair,” and the rest followed: 1975’s “for colored girls…,” Meryl Streep and John Cazale in the 1976 production of “Measure for Measure,” and, the same year, Richard Foreman’s legendary direction of “The Threepenny Opera,” starring Raul Julia and Ellen Greene, 1980’s “Pirates of Penzance,” with Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline, not to mention “A Chorus Line,” Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Venus,” directed by Richard Foreman, Rosie Perez in “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot,” and on and on. In a way, yesterday’s event was just part of the continuum. Walking up the black granite steps to the theatre’s airy new lobby, one’s eye traveled to what one hadn’t seen previously, as well as what hadn’t existed before. Central to the lobby is a site specific instillation by Ben Rubin called “Shakespeare Machine.” The geometric scultpure acts as a kind of chandelier, which features 37 LED display screens with fragments from Shakespeare’s plays. The building’s designers, Ennead Architects, had cleared away the plaster from the central space to reveal beautiful archways, and the always hard to find box office was centrally located. Large letters had been stenciled into the white walls, giving clearer directives to the first floor theatres, and the bathrooms–for years now, just a series of funky stalls–had been replaced to maximize privacy and contemplation, which was essential if you wanted to take a break from events like the hours long “Gatz.” But back to the event, which kicks off eight weeks of celebration. ( The vigorous Patrick Willingham, the Public’s Executive Director, introduced Mayor Bloomberg, who made a couple of puns using Shakespeare’s text, but not before Luis A. Ubinas, the fifty year old head of the Ford Foundation, told a touching story about how, as a kid growing up, he and a friend had stumbled into the lobby of the Public, where they met Joe Papp himself. The late producer talked to the boys for a while, and told them they could stick around–the place was his.
Thirty-five years later, Ubinas helped expand on Papp’s dream. Taking the stage after Bloomberg, and Eustis, who stressed how the American theatre could be, and should be, a democratic forum, one where people from all economic backgrounds could converge, were a number of stars and associates and family members connected to the Public, who, in addition to several public officials, read a line or two from Shakespeare, commemorating the theatre’s past and present and future. They included:

Gail Papp:
I have lived
To see inherited my very wishes,
And the buildings of my fancy
(Coriolanus II.I.132-134)

Richard Foreman:
You shall find a benefit in this change
(Antony and Cleopatra V.2.127-28)

Liev Schreiber:
Do you hear,
let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief
chronicles of the time. After your death you were better
have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.
(Hamlet II.2.486-9)

Kate Levin:
There’s nothing ill can dwell in such a temple;
If the ill spirit have so fair a house,
Good things will strive to dwell in’t
(The Tempest I.2.457-9)

Jim Polshek, architect:
When we mean to build,
We first survey the plot, then draw the model;
And when we see the figure of the house,
Then must we rate the cost of the erection.
(Henry IV 1.3.42-45)

David Rockwell:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
(Henry V 1.Prologue.1-2)

Diana Son:
The most peerless piece of earth, I think, that e’er the sun shone bright on.
(Winter’s Tale V.1.2939-2940)

Colman Domingo:
‘Tis a lucky day, boy, and we’ll do good deeds on’t.
(Winter’s Tale III.3.138-139)

Vanessa Redgrave:
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.
(As You Like It II.1.12-17)

Suzan Lori Parks:
Nice customs curtsy to great kings.
You and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country’s fashion:
We are the makers of manners.
(Henry V V.2.268-271)

My story being done
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs;
She swore in faith twas strange, twas passing strange.
(Othello 1.3.158-60)

Amara Granderson, 16, and Amari Rose Leigh, 14, former participants in The Public’s A Midsummer Day’s Camp, a summer conservatory-style acting program developed for teens:
Merrily, merrily shall I live now,
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough
(The Tempest V.1.99-100)

Christine Quinn:
All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown,
Whate’er the course, the end is the renown
(All’s Well IV.4.41-42)

David Henry Hwang:
Let’s lack no discipline, make no delay,
For lords, tomorrow is a busy day.
(Richard III V.3.17-18)

Oskar Eustis:
I can no other answer make but thanks,
And thanks; and ever thanks.
(Twelfth Night III.3.1503-1504

Indeed, the most tear inducing performances were those of Levin and others who work behind the scenes. Like kids who had put extra shine on their Sunday school or synagogue shoes, they climbed onto the temporary stage in the lobby with a degree of pride and accomplishment that emphasized the hope that seeped out of the walls. Following Eustis’ valedictory gratitude, several casts from “Hair,” who had been standing on a balcony looking down on the proceedings, sang “Let the Sun Shine,” with conviction and force. At the close of their set, one observed Redgrave, tall and bespectacled, bending forward just a little as she chatted amiably with Granderson and Leigh. It was actor talk: about the speeches they’d read, how they’d come off, the difficulties. And as the performers, encompassing so much past and so much future, compared notes, Lafayette Street continued to wake up to its various street players, who were just starting their day.


Sarah Polley’s Mother

Dear X: You have been much on my mind, I’m terribly sorry I couldn’t make the birthday party, but it would have involved getting my head around another event in order to be present to you and Y, and I just didn’t think I would manage it in time. I didn’t do anything to “replace,” the situation, I think I just went home, praying that the work I have to get done got done, and I was free to have a drink with you…some time. But that time will come and everything will be in rightness again, and you will see how much I care about you, and how many times I think of how I met you, with your father, who you just learned was your father, and his immense pride in you, and how amazing it was, to see the physical similarities. I never asked why this was all kept a secret — every mother has her reasons — and I don’t think I would even ask you now had I not just watched Sarah Polley’s utterly extraordinary documentary about her late mother, Diane, a sometimes actress who suffered a devastating loss after her first marriage went awry: she lost custody of her first two children, who were raised by their father. After she fell in love with, and married Sarah Polley’s father, Michael, a romantic looking, very good British-born amateur actor whose shyness prevented him from living life on the stage (he became an insurance salesman) Diane had three children with him, Sarah being the last. Diane died, eventually, of cancer. It was revealed after her death that Sarah’s father wasn’t her biological father, that Sarah was the product of a love affair Diane had had when she was in rep, in Montreal (the Polleys lived in Toronto) with a young man named Harry, a shy filmmaker who was besotted by Diane’s presence on and off the stage. Diane was just over forty when she learned she was pregnant, and thought she would terminate the pregnancy for fear of a damaged child, but, on her way to the abortionist, she changed her mind, and Sarah was born, without whose critical, loving eye, we would not be watching the movie we we’re watching. All that said, Polley isn’t so much interested in chronology as a series of questions — proposals? — about the nature of truth, and the truth and imagination secrets can and do feed. As is often the case with children who feel they’ve been left, Sarah’s eldest brother and sister have different reactions to their mother’s affair; Sarah’s sister is besotted by her cast out Mum; she’s grateful that Diane was eventually loved, while her brother is angered anew by what he perceives as Diane’s recklessness; at the very least, he says, Diane’s pregnancy was a cautionary tale about how you should use birth control, particularly if you’re having an affair. (One gets the sense that this young man felt his mother left him three times, not only after her first marriage dissolved, but when she started a new family, and then died.) Polley let’s all her siblings and both fathers have their say — indeed, she is at pains to let them write their own familial tales; her siblings beautiful faces — they all have Diane’s eyes — are alternately and variously wide with humor and anger and tears as they talk about this ultimately unknown quantity: Mum. And it’s a measure of Polley’s power as a filmmaker that by allowing her “witnesses,” to have their say, she gets what she needs: a movie about layering, the truth dressed up as fiction, or fiction dressed up as the truth. It’s very odd, but it didn’t occur to me until the film was nearly over that the figures in the home movies were actors; they bore such an extraordinary emotional resemblance to the real life characters that the “real” people were discussing on screen, and off. I was so wrapped up in the various revelations–and the revelation that comes at the end of the piece — I almost forgot the various levels Polley was working on as a filmmaker. She’s very interested in the art that goes into artifice. (The opening of the movie in particular plays, through the use of ingenious camera angles and voice, with perspective in an intellectually and visually satisfying way, thus raising the stakes on the film’s various themes, and so on.) Polley was raised amidst fakery. The Dad who raised her was an actor. The Dad who is her biological father was a filmmaker. Diane performed. All of these elements went into Sarah Polley performing and directing — I very much liked her Alice Munro adaptation, 2006’s “Away From Her,” starring Julie Christie, another film about things not being what they seem — but how much of Polley the actress and director was nurture, and how much was destiny? As this film goes along, you see, in Diane’s “fake” face, and in the faces of both her lovers, a certain reluctance about performing (Polley films the mother who’s performing her mother through lots of doors, and as she’s putting on a coat, or walking away from the camera) or achieving greatly in the film world, that Polley cracks open with the clarity of her ambivalence: she would be seen, but she wanted to control it. That’s where her Diane DNA kicks in. Diane wanted the world to know who she was, even as she removed herself from it, performing the greatest role their is: mother. I can’t imagine what Polley went through to bring us this story, but how marvelous is it that Michael and Harry are there to largely not say what their relationship was to the largely unknowable woman who haunts the movie screens in their respective minds? This is the kind of filmmaking and writing that interests me: art that doesn’t pretend to objectivity, and so gets at a greater truth, beginning with how the women of Diane’s generation didn’t talk about their personal history and dreams so much as they kept moving ahead, hoping that they could keep skipping over their traces until the hard work of responsibility and romance paid off, and something like a better hope came along.