IMG_1329Orson Welles as “Othello” in his 1952 film adaptation of the great work. Before this summer I had avoided seeing the film for a number of reasons, largely because of my at times uneasiness with the play–I have yet to see a great production that emphasizes Othello’s immense humanity–a sensitivity Iago counts on (after all, Othello trusts him) and exploits to his own and history’s ends. I should not have worried with Welles, especially given his interest in people of color and cultures not his own (cf his beautiful work on the unfinished “It’s All True,” the black maid in “The Lady from Shanghai,” not to mention the Chinese opera in said film, not to mention the women he dated, ranging from Billie Holiday to Lena Horne). One of the things I love watching when I watch Welles in “Othello,” has to do with the power of his flat feet; he can’t run so much as move swiftly from one corridor riddled with paranoia and misunderstanding to another. IMG_1319Unlike Olivier, Welles plays the title character less as a devious blackamoor than as a big dude infinitely in love with what he is not. He is powerful, but sad not to be that which he desires. At certain points and at certain emotional angles Orson Welles’ Othello looked not unlike myself, in and out of love.


Diane Keaton in “Looking for Mr. Goodbar”

1948168_10153087322852586_7083890080733025130_nThese photographs were taken during the final awful scene in “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” when the heroine dies by the hand of a closeted gay man. Hopped up on poppers and self-loathing, he first strangles and then stabs the young woman, Theresa Dunn (Diane Keaton) who has been our heart’s desire for the preceding two hours. No one can save Theresa Dunn because even before she’s lived her life the world has given her up for dead–she’s a woman. The tension and pathos of her character is her belief in her life force, and it’s constant defeat. In her life, drugs act as a kind of bridge between living and not living. When the film came out a number of feminists complained that Dunn was a moral downer, the work of another dude equating female sexual freedom with death, but I didn’t see it that way; to me it felt true to what is menacing and awful about giving up your body in a world filled with non-feeling–a kind of spiritual obliteration in an atmosphere of neon and crummy apartments. I knew girls like Theresa, now mostly dead, whose consorts were gay men who wanted to deny their sensitivity, and thus everyone else’s. It cost to much to “feel.” (If I were to program a selection of pre-AIDS era films that resonated for me when bodies started falling and disappearing, I would screen “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.”) Raised Catholic, Dunn’s body was never her own: it belonged to God, to the church. Promiscuity became her transubstantiation.  10610664_10153087323022586_1928646545048889177_nWhen she offered herself up her body became something else: owned, maybe free. Keaton’s performance is so hard to watch because she’s so physically relaxed in the part; when disaster visits her she rolls with it, and so much more, including the director Richard Brooks drawing obvious parallels between Keaton’s character and Perry Smith in his masterpiece, the 1966 film version of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” In both films Dunn and Smith are aspirin addicts who fear nuns and think of their bodies as a source of destruction and power and fantasy. In the end, though, they are only dreaming of themselves, and what the world can’t give them: themselves.


Reds (1981)

I cannot control my tears when one of the witnesses–an older man–says he will not be a “purveyor of gossip, no sir.” His inner integrity is so moving to me–and reminds me so of my uncle Edgar, whom I adored–that I fall in love with him in the truest sense of the phrase every time. In part my love has to do with the beauty of his aged face, his determination, and the fact that he is in a film, which exposes everyone, despite the privacy issue. I have now seen “Reds” several times and the layers become more interesting as I do, particularly when it comes to the documentary aspect in film in general. Since it was a Warren Beatty production it was a long shoot with many many emotional ups and downs and many takes, which, of course, frustrated the actors, and laid them bare. But built into the script was what he knew about some of the players, including Keaton’s intellectual insecurity (which “becomes” Louise Bryant’s) and Maureen Stapelton’s emotional directness (which “becomes Emma Goldman’s). These various cross currents of the actual, the historical, and the plain made up, is not only philosophically interesting to me, but what I respond to again and again when we talk about when we talk about art.

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James Merrill. Influence.

merrillHe was the first living poet I knew of who wove his queerness into the poem instead of making it the subject. The world was larger than who he loved, and he showed it by writing about a world we could not see. His masterpiece, “The Changing Light at Sandover,” showed me what life was like on the other side of so called reality. He lived in a sphere I was familiar with–the spirit world–but I had never known it effected others as it effected the obeah woman, dream book writers, numbers runners, of my youth. And if he could do that, then it was our job–the young writer’s job–to “persevere,” a word he uses in this poem. Also, how could one limit one’s writing to flat facts? The soul was not a fact. It moved, changed shape, became something else. Once, sitting in Indochine with the photographer Darryl Turner many many years ago or just a moment ago, I saw James Merrill, dressed as one would imagine a poet would–in something lavender, or blue. Darryl encouraged me to tell JM how much I loved him, and to get his autograph, you never knew. I didn’t. I was crippled by my humility, and writerly insecurity, too, which can be a kind of arrogance: Why was I not him? How could one achieve that on one’s own? He had done it all. Months later James Merrill died of AIDS, and, with him, the fantasy that I would thank him after I had become more myself. I have since become–I hope–more myself, but I have yet to finish thanking him, and, so, here we are.


Amiri Baraka’s First Family

amiri-baraka-290We didn’t know the late Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), who died this week at the age of seventy-nine, as a famous poet who initiated the powerful Black Arts Movement in 1965, or as the man whose groundbreaking plays, ranging from 1964’s “Dutchman,” to 1969’s “Four Black Revolutionary Plays,” changed what was possible on the American stage; we just knew him as Kellie and Lisa’s father, and Hettie’s former husband. I remember the thrill of climbing the steps to their apartment in the East Village with my friend Kathy. It was a warren of rooms tidily kept and filled with books and papers and welcoming love—just the kind of haven burgeoning artists such as Kathy and my teen-aged self were learning to seek out in a universe, which, we could already feel, had few safe harbors for people like us.

But Hettie’s place was always a harbor; and what was better than listening to the women of the house laughing at what one said or was about to say? Actually, they didn’t laugh so much as trill, like three birds sitting on a branch in sunshine. And what was better than sitting near Hettie’s rooftop garden drinking lemonade (with honey!)—there wasn’t a grain of refined sugar in the place—and listening to Hettie talk about where food could be gotten at a fair price or good clothes marked down, and the business of art? She knew everything there was to know about style, and survival. After all, by the time we met, in the nineteen-seventies, she had been supporting her children for years by writing books. Hettie’s books were as tall in subject matter as she was small in stature, but you couldn’t tell anyone who loved her that she wasn’t the tallest woman in the room. She wrote books for children and teen-agers, studies of race and social life, like “Big Star Fallin’ Mama,” a series of short portraits of titanic, genre-changing singers such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. In those and other works, Hettie set a path so sensationally followed by artists like Jacqueline Woodson today: children needed to learn about diversity because we lived in a diverse world.

If you wanted to be an artist, Hettie treated you like an adult, no matter what your age. She wanted to prepare you and protect you from the hard work that was to come. Rejection had not dimmed her enthusiasm for anything—especially young people. And one of the chief pleasures of hanging out with the Jones girls was seeing how deeply they had each other’s backs; and, if they loved you, they had yours, too.

During those visits, certain names came up—names I’d have to run to the library to learn something about. The jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp was their neighbor, and he had a little boy named Accra. They were friends with Kali, the child prodigy poet. But none of these people were talked about in the hushed tones surrounding a “famous” person; they were just the people the Joneses knew, and that included the poet Diane di Prima and her daughter, Dominique—“our sister”—and any number of music critics and poets and novelists to be.

After a while we all called Hettie “Mom,” and why not? She was our mother in every sense but the biological one; she fed us good brown bread and said: “Guys! I’m working!” when the games and laughter got too loud in the children’s room. Working! Art was working, and that was real. Living could be hard, too, but sometimes, and for a long time, it could be play. There we learned from Hettie’s example: being an artist did not preclude being human. But Baraka wasn’t a ghost in the Jones household; Hettie’s daughters spent time with his other children, in Newark, on summer holidays and so on, and I often wonder what that was like for them, as their father and mother knit together those various worlds that had been disrupted by politics or, more specifically, Baraka’s ardent belief that your body—your soul—had to reflect your radicalism, no matter the personal cost.

Many people learned about Hettie’s life from her 1990 memoir, “How I Became Hettie Jones.” It’s a terrific book, because it is descriptive of social history—the Beats, the Five Spot jazz scene, etc.—without using those events to sneak in a little bitterness. The book is a love story without rancor. In it, Hettie describes the central romantic event of her young life: meeting, at a music magazine where they both worked, a young black poet named LeRoi Jones. Hettie Jones began her life as Hettie Cohen, a middle-class Jewish girl from Brooklyn who loved the lives she got to know in downtown Manhattan. In the mid nineteen-fifties, when she was barely in her twenties, she met Roi, as he was called. He was small, dark-skinned, large-eyed, and ambitious, and he wanted to be a significant presence on that scene. Hettie was drawn to his energy—and the tender love poems he wrote about her. Their attraction to one another was profound, and the Jewish girl and the black man became a couple. They didn’t think of their relationship as a political statement: for them, being together meant exercising their bigger and better selves.

Together Hettie and LeRoi started a literary magazine, and cultivated friendships with artists ranging from the painter Bob Thompson to the writer Frank O’Hara. In the meantime, they had two children: Kellie, in 1959, and, two years later, Lisa. (Kellie has gone on to have a distinguished career as an art historian, and Lisa is an author and scriptwriter.) As their children grew, so did Jones’ reputation as a poet.

More or less supported by Hettie, the young writer managed to produce a very personal, this-is-me-looking-at-that book of poems, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” and another, titled “The Dead Lecturer”; the still valuable nonfiction study, “Blues People” about the experience of making a culture in an alien world; and, in 1964, a masterpiece for the stage. Titled “Dutchman,” the Obie-award winning play was written in one night, as though in a fevered dream. Set in the New York City subway—a modern circle of hell—the play centers on two characters: Clay, a middle-class, black intellectual, and Lula, a somewhat loose, blond white woman who eventually does away with Clay and his pretensions and his rage towards his white seductress by violently killing him.

Writing in his 1984 “Autobiography,” Jones said that “Dutchman” was prompted by his desire to make his poetry feel more active; he wanted his plays to move. It was a brilliant decision. Between 1964 and 1967, Baraka wrote three plays of astonishing originality—and pain. Equal parts Living Theatre, spoken-word art, and raw, natural theatrical talent, the plays ricocheted between realism and surrealism, plain-spoken metaphor and dense, concrete riffs about various kinds of love: gay love, a fascination with power, blood lust.

Baraka’s work for the stage garnered a great deal of attention—he turned down a lot of Hollywood hack work—but after his first three plays were performed downtown and Malcolm X was assassinated, he turned his back on the “white” world that had fostered the first part of his career, moved uptown, to Harlem, and spearheaded the Black Arts Movement, the cultural equivalent of the black radicalism put forth by the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X’s early ideas about black separatism. He changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka—spiritual leader, blessed prince. I don’t remember Kellie and Lisa discussing their father specifically, but when his name did come up in the press, or if one happened to be carrying one of his many works, their pride was palpable, real, and true. Indeed, Kellie’s pride in her entire family is manifest in her outstanding 2011 book, “EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art.” As the poet Elizabeth Alexander points out, the book is a powerful act of family. In it, we not only have contributions from Lisa and Hettie about the role aesthetics has always played in their lives, but a beautiful one from Baraka, also about what art meant while he was making his first family. In his reminiscences, Baraka calls his eldest daughter Ms. Kellie.

The love and security one felt visiting the Jones girls was hard won: the dissolution of their family certainly mirrored what Kathy and I had experienced, too, but our own experiences had not taken place on the world stage. One was protective of them because they would not be left alone with their grief, and I want to leave them alone with it now. But the world does not work that way.

Over the years, Baraka became more and more of a public figure, a black-nationalist Marxist whose poetry—the best of it—was intoned at public events where he spoke like no one else. After he moved from Harlem back to the economically and racially devastated Newark of his youth, controversy continued to follow Baraka because, as a poet, his job wasn’t so much about espousing theories as articulating the subconscious, even when it and he were wrong, or misguided. The queasy remarks he’s made about homosexuality over the years, for instance, bothered me less than they should have, but I knew he was speaking from a certain vantage point that was not unfamiliar to me: many black men of his generation didn’t like who I was, certainly on that score, but that wouldn’t stop me from being myself.

Who could forget him at James Baldwin’s memorial service at St. John the Divine, where he said Baldwin was “God’s black revolutionary mouth,” and who could forget him in Warren Beatty’s underrated 1998 film, “Bulworth,” as an oracle who sees the truth through his own black revolutionary mouth? One got the sense though, over the years, that Baraka’s ego was at odds with his writing; that the early success of his poetry and plays irked him because he wanted the audience to see him, to connect with what he had to say on a more visceral level than mere paper and pencil could convey. I only met the grand elder statesman once, or almost met him. It was at Lincoln Center, at an event honoring James Baldwin. I had reviewed his “Autobiography,” none too favorably, some time before. But it was a young man’s review—a settling of old scores I wasn’t aware I had to settle. And there he was: small, intense, an athlete unsure of where to put all his energy, but it had to go somewhere. That night it went into defending Baldwin’s legacy, and as I listened I couldn’t help but remember his first family, the women who had made his life and ours completely different.

Above: Baraka with Kellie as a newborn in 1959. Photograph by Burt Glinn/Magnum.


Interview With Richard Maxwell


Richard Maxwell is one of the more adventurous theatre artists that this country has produced in decades. Born in 1967, he was raised in West Fargo, North Dakota. He comes from a theatrical background. His father had a strong interest in the stage; his sister is the Broadway actress Jan Maxwell. Although Maxwell’s work is driven by narrative, it is very different than the musicals that his sister appears in to such acclaim. Maxwell’s work is about distillation. “I never tell people to avoid realism or naturalism or what feels natural,” he has said. “It’s just that I’m saying you’re not obliged to pretend that you feel something.” In Maxwell’s work, the script and actor live together in a generally bare space; the director finds the drama in being. To consolidate his vision, he founded the New York City Players, in 1999; one of his stars is his wife, the performer Tory Vasquez.

Through April 26th, Maxwell’s New York City Players will be presenting “Isolde,” at the Abrons Art Center, starring Vasquez, in the title role, and Jim Fletcher, as her husband. The four-person drama is graphic and elegant, a prism filled with many ideas and fleeting or slow-moving figures that express them all with difficulty and precision.

I saw an early version of “Isolde” last summer, and I wanted to ask what the genesis was for your show: Were you inspired by reading Goethe? Or Wagner’s opera? Or just by yourself?

Just myself. And then I had a dream where a word presented itself: “Isolde.” I had already written about a couple hiring an architect to realize a dream house, and so the love triangle component was there—maybe I knew the story before that? But not that I recall. Then I looked up the story on Wikipedia and made myself available to elements of the Tristan and Isolde tale.

Have you ever directed an opera on the scale of Wagner’s “Tristan”?

I have no experience in the opera industry. Are they hiring?

Tell me something about your Isolde, and working with your wife, Tory. Is it hard to watch someone you love fall in love, even if it’s fictive?

Isolde is a famous actress who is losing the ability to remember her lines and pieces of her past. I think about Gena Rowlands in “Opening Night.” I think about Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” I think about Ibsen’s “Nora.” I cast against type with Tory. Tory has an innocent, awkward allure that feels pretty raw onstage. Combine that with the diva-like Isolde and it’s a potent mix, and interesting from a power point of view. Top-knot and heels will change a girl. And I’m fine with any fictive lovemaking between her and Gary. I went to high school with Gary. [Gary Wilmes, the actor who plays the architect.] I know that shouldn’t necessarily be comforting.

You come from a theatrical family. Does it just make sense to you that you would be interested in someone who shared your interest in theatre?

I suppose, but when I think about my family in regards to “Isolde,” it isn’t show business associations that come to mind. Maybe because I feel like I’ve spent my whole life inside a theatre.

You can see where these questions are going: I want to get your opinion about love.

I didn’t see it coming! I started this play to talk about realizing perfection, or a curated perfection, actually. Maybe thinking about desire, but not thinking about love. Maybe I can blame the old Celtic tale for bringing me back to love. But I write and write and keep writing, I also do a lot of cutting, like everybody else. But it seems as you whittle and scratch at the thing you’re trying to shape right, it’s always love that remains, in some form.

Tell me something about the script. How long did you work on it?

It’s something I shelved back in 2009, after a couple months of hammering away. It was painfully normal, I remember feeling that. Then the opportunity came to do a show at Theater Basel [September, 2013] and I thought of this play sitting on a shelf and found that maybe normal isn’t such bad thing. Anyway, the basic parts seemed serviceable and the writing seemed to come. Having a deadline helped, but maybe I wasn’t ready five years ago either.

How did the actors respond to the script?

I think they thought is was funny. But responses from these guys are guarded. And I don’t really solicit comments.

You often make a text as plain and poetical as possible. How do you reduce so many big ideas in your work? In rehearsal or purely through rewriting?

I try to listen to the room as much as possible. In writer terms, I know that can mean what other people think about the writing, but I mean how words are just like sounds and how they bounce around in the air. I also really care that things make sense, from a character point of view. Which doesn’t mean I’m always justifying the words psychologically. I like the tonal differences in how people communicate.

How do you cast? Based on looks or general feeling?

Yeah… I try to work with people who are genuinely curious and have the ability to forego what they know.

Can you talk about what’s coming up next?

My next show is called “Custodian of a Man,” and will premiere at the Walker Arts Center, in January of 2015, then The Kitchen/P.S. 122 will show it, in March. With “Custodian of a Man,“ I’ll enter into the darkness of the underworld in order to continue my exploration of myth and minimalism, drawing on the epics of Dante’s “Inferno” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to tell a contemporary American story chronicling the moral decline of a man.

The story, basically, is about a guy named Azzi. a convalescing martial artist, having been injured in a brutal match. He’s cared for by a thirteen year-old girl, trying to get his career back on track. Azzi instead gets himself involved in a series of terrible incidents with bad people. The girl remains his witness.

Photograph by Richard Termine/The New York Times/Redux.