Compulsions, Secrets, and Ecstatic Polyphony: FUN HOME at Center Stage

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Compulsions, Secrets, and Ecstatic Polyphony: FUN HOME at Center Stage

Andrea Prestinaria, Molly Lyons, and Jeffry Denman

Posted on January 25, 2019

From its opening moments, Fun Home, now being presented at Baltimore’s Center Stage, provides an intricately-woven tapestry, a meditation on the various but related compulsions of the memoirist, the bric-a-brac collector, the artist, and the sexually-closeted individual, and the way these compulsions affect family lives and relationships. Shortly after the opening, another theme is added: the coming to self-identification and coming-out of a young lesbian, specifically a butch one. Much has justly been made of the landmark nature of this show as the first Broadway musical to center on the life of a lesbian and the first with both a female composer and a female lyricist/book author. Yet the magic of the show resides at least as much in the study of the compulsions explored from the opening number.

Consider what happens in the first two songs. In It All Comes Back (Opening), we first see Alison, i.e. the 43-year-old cartoonist Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic memoir that inspired the show (Andrea Prestinaria), at her easel, contemplating Small Alison, a pint-sized younger version of herself (Molly Lyons), commanding her father Bruce (Jeffry Denman) to come and “play airplane,” a game where she balances on Bruce’s feet. (This moment is also the beginning of Bechdel’s graphic memoir.) Summoning one’s parents is of course also one of the crucial tasks of most autobiographies – but here it is supplemented by the payoff of the game for Small Alison, which is that, supported by Bruce’s feet (once he responds to her summons and lies down on the floor), she imagines she “can see all of Pennsylvania.” In other words, Small Alison, like the older version of herself looking on from the easel, wants to take in everything about the state and the world that surrounds her. (This moment is pictured above.) Later, Small Alison will draw a cartoon of the State of Pennsylvania in which she tries to accomplish the same panoptic feat. So in an important sense, the summoning of the father and/or his memory is the same thing as trying to see everything.

In a moment, the scene shifts, and Bruce is sorting through assorted objects he hauled out of a neighbor’s barn. After tossing the “crap,” significantly including a dead mouse that Alison, who we already know wants to see everything, does not feel compelled to discard, he comes across some Irish linen and a maybe-silver coffeepot, and waxes rhapsodical on the “luster” that may be revealed when he polishes it, the object being to bring himself closer to the truth and the history of the object. He sings:

I can’t abide romantic notions
Of some vague long ago.
I want to know what’s true,
Dig deep into who
And what
And why
And when
Until now gives way to then.

This is not a casual pursuit for Bruce; this is what drives him. And, as Alison then admits, this is her compulsion as a biographer and autobiographer too. So, by no coincidence at all, the adult Alison actually still possesses these objects, which she is using to reconstruct her history. And to confirm this, she then sings, along with her father, a reprise of the lyrics just quoted.

Shortly thereafter, the scene shifts again, and in the song Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue we are now receiving an object lesson in polishing and its subtexts. The Bechdel house, it seems, embodies Bruce’s compulsions writ large: a gorgeous, shiny structure reconstructed by Bruce, largely single-handedly, but maintained with enormous labor by a team of scurrying conscripts, aka Bruce’s family, to wit wife Helen (Michelle Dawson), Small Alison and her brothers Christian (Liam Hamilton) and John (Jon Martens), all enslaved to Bruce’s vision of the place and the appearance it creates, what “he wants, he wants, he wants!” It seems that the rest of the family’s desires don’t enter into it.

What drives Bruce’s need to present a shiny surface? The lyrics cue us: “Everything is balanced and serene.)/ Like chaos never happens if it’s never seen.” So we now know there’s unseen chaos, and if we haven’t already figured out what it is, Alison will spell it out for us at the end of the number: “My dad … was gay…” At the same time, Alison tells us how all this relates to her: “… and I was gay … and I became a lesbian cartoonist.” As we’ll soon see, he’s trying to hide his gayness, and she’s trying to name and then publicize hers, and these diverging agendas will drive the action.

The compulsions to preserve, recreate, and get to underlying truths and beauties, shared to some degree by father and daughter, are the text, then, and homosexuality is the subtext, and the way these texts play out is what makes the show what Bechdel subtitled her memoir: “A Family Tragicomic.” I have gone to this length about the first twelve minutes or so of Fun Home (which runs about an hour and three quarters without an intermission) to underscore its thematic richness, even before the lesbian story comes to the fore.

And yes, there is a gorgeous coming-of-age lesbian narrative presented here as well. We follow as Small Alison chafes at conventionally girlish attire and is gleefully thunderstruck at seeing “an old-school butch” delivery woman with short hair, dungarees, lace-up boots and a ring of keys, and as Medium Alison (Laura Darrell), a freshman at Oberlin, figures out she’s gay, joins the gay campus group, and has her first, rapturous love affair with Joan, a fellow-student (Shannon Tyo). Of course, it’s hard but doable to tell her parents, but the really hard part for her will prove to be their failure to respond directly to her revelation. Blissed out as she is by her successful emergence into sexual self-awareness, Medium Alison will fail to respond directly and in timely fashion to the tragedy gathering in her family. It will be left to the mature Alison, summoning her memories at the end, to make a full, if untimely, response to her parents’ unhappiness. And, characteristic of the intricate craftsmanship of the musical, that summons, Flying Away (Finale), is a reprise of the opening number, returning to the initial musical and lyrical themes, in an ecstatic polyphonic trio of the three Alisons, singing together for the first time. (Composer Jeanine Tesori‘s music reaches its apogee here, but is beautiful and urgent throughout.)

The hard-fought five-year creative process that lay behind this show has been chronicled in various places, and seems to be reflected in the way that the show starts and finishes. Alison at the outset refers to herself as “forty-three and stuck,” but we don’t get to see Alison herself stuck; to the contrary, she seems to be luminously able to bring all the elements of memory back together to produce Fun Home, her memoir. And the polyphonic trio at the end seems ecstatic not because of what has happened in Alison’s life (we are shown and told nothing of what befell her in all the long years after the climax of her parents’ tragedy, so there’s nothing to rejoice or mourn over) but because of the success of Alison’s effort to pull her memories together and return amidst them to the joy of playing airplane with her dad.

We can certainly empathize with the creative rejoicing at the end; what Tesori and book-and-lyricist Lisa Kron had to do with Bechdel’s book, if not quite the kind of radical reconstruction that, for instance, turned James Michener’s collection of short stories into South Pacific, is still remarkable. Focuses changed; plot points were subtly altered; Bechdel’s wry commentary was mostly erased, as were extended critical dialogues with earlier literary works. Other things were added, notably a big comic relief number for the children in the style of the Jackson Five, mordantly if exuberantly advertising the funerary services that Bruce and the home provided. The adaptations were vital, resulting in a triumphantly tight work that deserved and won five Tonys, including Best Musical.

Center Stage’s current production has done the show proud, very nearly the equivalent of the Broadway show. In its Broadway run, the musical played at the Circle in the Square, one of only two Broadway theaters with thrust stages, with the action on the floor and the spectators ranged above it, with excellent sightlines from most seats. I was wondering how the show would come off on a different kind of stage. Center Stage has staged it in flexible space of the upstairs Head Theater, with a thrust stage that places the action above much of the audience. Sure enough, some of the sightlines are no longer as good, but in other respects the staging works as well. Director Hana S. Sharif and Choreographer Jaclyn Miller seem to bring out every nuance as the show briskly progresses.

The cast, like all Center Stage casts, is uniformly excellent. It is hard to quarrel with casting choices like Molly Lyons, who has the voice of the nine-year-old she is, but the pizzazz and presence of a veteran belter, or Andrea Prestinario, whose slightly weary tones, and engaged but wary way of looking at the action going on around her are so very reminiscent of Beth Malone‘s, who originated the role of Alison. Nor can I avoid mentioning Michelle Dawson‘s awe-inspiring delivery of Helen’s big song Days and Days. Still, let me repeat a frequent observation of mine in these pages, which I would omit were there not now a new Artistic Director at the company. It would be nice if more of the players were Center Stage veterans with local roots, in this, allegedly “the State Theater of Maryland” which, owing to casting, ofttimes feels like nothing more than Off Broadway South. There is a deep pool of talent in this area which Center Stage too often ignores. Once upon a time Center Stage nurtured a stable of professionals who, while never close to the exclusive source of performers, would grace its stage repeatedly and either had or developed local ties; it would be nice to see this pattern return, even at the possible cost of the foregone utterly spot-on casting choice from time to time.

One other thought. It is good to see Center Stage doing musicals. As jazz is to music, so is the musical to the theater: the particularly American contribution to the art form. It goes without saying that Center Stage should continue its primary focus on plays, but to leave out musicals would be neglecting something important, and Center Stage’s recent forays into the genre (including Next to NormalMarley, and SOUL) have been impressive and welcome.

In sum, this is a major work of art, in a quintessentially American genre, an important representation of an under-represented group that advances understanding and dialogue, and beautifully produced. Audiences should embrace this production.

Copyright Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Bill Geenen.

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A Rewarding and Ambitious JERUSALEM at Fells Point Corner Theatre

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A Rewarding and Ambitious JERUSALEM at Fells Point Corner Theatre

Ian Blackwell Rogers

Posted on January 20, 2019

Jez Butterworth writes big and with great talent. His play The Ferryman, now packing them in on Broadway, calls for 21 actors with speaking parts, combines a full domestic drama with a Jacobean-style tragedy that ends with corpses strewing the stage, and has some fairly profound things to say about Irish history. Butterworth is co-author of one of the best James Bond screenplays, which as a genre are the acme of sheer scale. And his earlier drama Jerusalem, now being presented at Fells Point Corner Theatre, features three full acts, 14 non-double-able parts, a set chaotically cluttered with enough objects to drive a props mistress insane – and it also delves forcefully into questions of English identity.

Because of its size and its intellectual heft, Jerusalem would be daunting material for any community theater, particularly any American one whose performers will not be as conversant as their transatlantic cousins with British geography, customs, politics, slang or accent, but Fells Point Corner, the best of Baltimore’s community theaters, rises well to the challenge. In particular, the company is fortunate to have Ian Blackwell Rogers (pictured above) to play the difficult central role of charismatic, iconoclastic roisterer, drug dealer, and incidental nurturer of youth Johnny “Rooster” Byron. The part was originated in London and New York by Mark Rylance, for whom it was written. I’ve seen Rylance’s performance only in video clips, but Rogers seems no less able than Rylance to convey how dissipated and irresponsible, and yet funny, unpredictable and magnetic Rooster can be.

Rooster is a lot of things: a gypsy, a bad father to his own child yet a good father-figure to lost teens from his own rural Wiltshire, defiant of authority yet unable to muster any power greater than poetry and a talent for outrageousness to back up his defiance, an inveterate teller of tall tales and a drunkard who unapologetically conceives of those traits as creditable and also representative of the better angels of Britain’s nature. He might be a modern successor of Sir Toby Belch of Twelfth Night(substituting vodka, marijuana and cocaine for Toby Belch’s “cakes and ale”). (And for good measure throw in a touch of the lower-class outsider status of Jimmy Porter of Look Back in Anger.)

Carrying the Twelfth Night analogy further, the Malvolios of this piece would then be Ms. Fawcett and Mr. Parsons (Heather Johnston and Justin Johnson), who represent the local government, coming imminently to bulldoze as an “unauthorised encampment” the trailer and environs where Rooster makes his home. These two may operate with comical officialese lingo and broadly telegraphed and perhaps hypocritical disapproval of Rooster and his doings, but they are not going to be as easily discredited as Malvolio; they are coming back the next day with the machinery and police constables needed to destroy Rooster and his way of life. They are going to have the last word. Nor are their complaints entirely superficial. Ms. Fawcett reminds Rooster that in one of his hijinks he locked a colleague of hers in a shed without food or water for a week, which strongly suggests the applicability of the old saw that it’s only funny till someone gets hurt.

Nor is it just official intransigence blocking Rooster and his friends. They are up against the broadest of social trends. Rooster’s woods are fated to be turned into an “estate,” i.e. a housing development. And the petition of a group of neighbors at an existing neighboring estate complaining about the drug-dealing, the partying, and the trash at Rooster’s trailer has given officialdom the excuse it seeks to move against him. He is not losing just his trailer and his home; his homes away from home, the local pubs, have also been turning their backs on him. His good buddy Wesley (Michael Salconi), who owns the last drinking hole from which Rooster had not been barred, tells Rooster (directly after the two had been sharing an extended intoxicated and sentimental but horny recall of various May Queens of years gone by, no less): “You’re barred, mate. I don’t want you near [my bar] till further notice. I can’t have that nonsense going on. It’s a family pub. We have standards. Professional standards. Have I made myself clear?” Rooster’s fundamental foe, then, is nothing less than the gentrification of rural England.

Nor is it only Rooster being displaced; his young pal Lee (Nate Krimmel) is decamping for Australia for reasons Lee can barely articulate. But Davey, a young abattoir worker (Terrance Fleming) spells it out for him: “That is the fat lady singing.” And Lee can articulate it in terms of Davey’s life if not his own: “You’re going to live your whole life with the same fucking people, going to the same shit pubs, kill two million cows, and die a sad, fat povvo.” It is to avoid that fate that Lee is leaving.

Butterworth has given the dramatic clash of cultures added heft by stacking on an enormous amount of symbolism. The play takes place on St. George’s Day, the feast of England’s patron saint, and the occasion of the local fair, complete with morris dancing and parade floats. In other words, on a quintessentially British day. To whom does this day belong? Perhaps in part to Rooster and his crew. Wesley the publican shuttles back and forth between the morris dancing he has been forced by the brewery to participate in and his mates at the encampment. But fair is officially “sponsored by John Deere Tractors and Arkell Ales,” so an unspontaneous commercialism is never far away.

To make the symbolism even heavier, the play’s title, Jerusalem, of course refers to William Blake‘s hymn which has become an unofficial English national anthem, the central conceit of which is the equivalence of the Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation, the providential divine kingdom that is to come, with the country as Blake hoped England would become. As the play starts, the song is sung by Phaedra, one of the teens Rooster has been sheltering (Molly Cohen) (in her case from a stepfather the script suggests has been sexually abusing her). Phaedra is dressed as a fairy with gossamer wings, as the fair’s outgoing May Queen. So again does the Fair and by extension England belong to her and to Phaedra’s protector Rooster? Or does it belong to her brutal stepfather Troy (David Forrer)? Before the play ends, Troy makes a rather convincing case that the country belongs to him and his ilk.

But if Rooster will ultimately prove incapable of (in Blake’s words) “buil[ding] Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land” he can at least become a martyr to the cause of doing so. It is not going too far to say that when, late in the play, he appears with stigmata of a sort, we are to recognize Christ imagery. But Rooster makes for a rather pagan Christ, ending the play with a powerful invocation of his Romany roots and gods and heroes.

A review of this length cannot mention all the riches of the play, or even of this production of it. Audiences will have to go and see for themselves. But it would be ungrateful not to say that the cast are all wonderful and convincing, including David Shoemaker as Rooster’s often-stoned friend Ginger; Sean Coe as the even-more-stoned Professor; Kelly Hutchison and Dylan McKenzi as youngsters who are somewhat under Rooster’s wing; and an extremely touching Carolyn Koch as Dawn, mother of Rooster’s son, who may carry a bit of a torch for Rooster, but who, like England, seems to have moved on. (And with one exception, the cast all maintained convincing British accents throughout.) It would also be churlish not to tip the hat to Chris Flint, the set designer; his realization of the complicated chaos Butterworth had in mind will definitely bring a smile.

Even though sometimes funny, even to the extent of farce, and filled with a manic vitality, Jerusalem is challenging, not only because of the accents and the cultural references American audiences may miss, but also because of the dense texture of Butterworth’s treatment of the symbols and the issues. It is not easy theater, but it is infinitely rewarding. It will be surely be one of the most ambitious shows local audiences see in this new year.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Shaelynn Jae Photography.

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“I Think Every Other Lawyer In Here Knows”

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“I Think Every Other Lawyer In Here Knows”

Published March 27, 2019 in The Daily Record

Republicans tried hard to discredit President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen when he appeared before the House Oversight Committee in February. One fascinating line of attack, particularly mounted by Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R. ND), focused on supposed deficits in Cohen’s lawyerly ethics. No one, including Cohen, would hold Cohen up as a professional model, to be sure. Yet in most instances, both those raised in the Committee and those discussed among the commentariat, Cohen seems to have avoided unambiguously unethical behavior.


Take the matter of Cohen’s tapes of attorney-client conversations made without the clients’ knowledge. No one disputes that the taping occurred in New York, which is a one-party consent state, so there is no question the taping was legal. But was it unethical? Armstrong, playing to the audience, commented “I think every other lawyer in here knows exactly where it is on the ethical standard.” Actually, not so much. The question was directly addressed by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility in 2001, which noted that the ubiquity of recording devices has degraded any client’s expectation of privacy, and that there are many legitimate reasons for a lawyer to tape a client, including “self-protection of the lawyer,” almost certainly the very reason Cohen made the tapes of Trump. If the taping of clients is unethical, the Committee concluded, it must be because the taping was accompanied by other circumstances that made it unethical.

Fine, but what about revealing those tapes to the Committee or repeating what was said on the tapes in testimony? It’s true that the tapes were all seized by a Department of Justice investigative team, involuntarily breaching to that extent the confidentiality that may have attended them. But that would not have freed up Cohen to testify about the conversations on them. As to the tapes of Trump at least, however, that confidentiality was waived, both by Trump and by Rudolph Giuliani, his lawyer. Trump claimed an advice-of-counsel defense in tweets on December 13. And Giuliani had publicly claimed in July 2018 that the tapes would vindicate Trump’s denial of involvement in the Stormy Daniels payoff, and prove “powerful exculpatory evidence.” It would have been hard to claim privilege after those statements. And indeed privilege was formally waived by the Trump legal team in early court filings.

The one point about the tapes Armstrong made which may have been right was that Cohen’s proffer to the Committee of tapes he had made of other unspecified clients violated their privilege; we have no reason to assume any waiver on those. Still, as of the moment Armstrong sneered about this, Cohen apparently hadn’t actually turned over the tapes.

Book Deal

How about Cohen’s supposed book deal about being Trump’s lawyer? Today that probably would violate the Rule of Professional Conduct that provides: “An attorney shall not use information relating to representation of a client to the disadvantage of the client unless the client gives informed consent…” But Cohen’s book deal project appears to have been scrapped – and when it was conceived of, back when he and the President were close, it was intended to be a paean to Trump, not something to Trump’s disadvantage, and hence clearly not proscribed by the rule.

How about Cohen’s advancing the funds to pay off Stormy Daniels? That would apparently violate the rule about “not provid[ing] financial assistance to a client” – except that the advance is only forbidden if made “in connection with pending or contemplated litigation.” The payoff, as we all know now, was made shortly before the 2016 election. If any litigation was pending or contemplated between Daniels and Trump at that point, nothing in the public record yet reflects it.

The Daniels Payoff

Perhaps participating in the deal itself was participating in a criminal violation of federal election laws? Conceivably. Cohen was not ethically permitted to “commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the attorney’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as an attorney in other respects.” Quite arguably, if the payoff was criminal, Cohen’s participation was both criminal and reflected on his honesty. But as we all know, whether the payoff was criminal is itself an unsettled question. In the first place, it would seem to depend on whether Trump had the requisite level of understanding of the criminality in the act, because one cannot criminally violate the election laws without knowing that the act that violates the laws is criminal. And since it was Trump’s money, not Cohen’s in the end, and absent proof that Trump had the requisite knowledge, it’s unclear that there could be a predicate offense to which Cohen would have been an aider and abetter.

Just to make the whole question even more complex, Cohen’s disbarment was announced the day he testified. Thus there is a strong argument to be made that he is no longer subject to the ethical rules any more. There is a 1989 Illinois State Bar Association Advisory Opinion that so holds. Hence, arguably he was and is now free to divulge client confidences and to write whatever he pleases about Trump, and profit from any book deal that monetizes what he writes.

What Every Lawyer Does Know

Because Cohen is disbarred, going to prison, and unlikely ever to practice law again, his ethics have only a theoretical bearing, except in the way the Republicans were trying to use them: as a way to cast doubt on Cohen’s testimony. Even there, though, the circumstantial and documentary evidence provide solid support for the truth of what Cohen told Congress. And on the other hand, even if he stayed within ethical boundaries, no one should want to be represented by a lawyer like Michael Cohen.

Every other lawyer in here does know that.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Running with the Hare and Hunting with the Hounds

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Running with the Hare and Hunting with the Hounds

A shorter version was published in The Daily Record February 22, 2019

As pretty much everyone knows by now, one photograph on Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page is awful: a white young man in blackface next to another person in full Klan robes and hood. Although Northam has given fuzzy explanations for how that photo may have gotten there or whether he was either of the figures it depicts, it is hard to doubt that he had something to do with the photo being on that page, especially in light of his undergraduate campus nickname “Coonman.” Predictably it has led to calls for him to step down.

Should he?

Lili Loofbouro of Slate has done a deep and perceptive dive into the image itself and what it signifies. “A yearbook page was a pre-Facebook way to present yourself as you wished to be seen…. Yearbooks are as aspirational as they are commemorative,” she points out. The image was situated with three other images on a page, each presenting a different face of Northam: “There’s a straight-on suit-and-tie portrait: serious, sincere. There’s the cowboy hat photo, leg up, shirt partly unbuttoned. There’s [a photo with a Corvette] with an easygoing Northam leaning against it in the shade. The elements this particular yearbook subject wished to convey are pretty legible: He wished to be considered a serious man, but also a country boy, but also a fun car guy, but also … and here we falter, because it’s hard to guess at what exactly the racist picture meant to this well-rounded self-fashioner.”

Loofbouro concludes, though, with a canny guess about the intent. “The other photos on that page confirm him as serious, dreamy, outdoorsy. I suspect the final photo was there to round out the portrait of the physician as a young rascal. The response was supposed to be OMG I can’t believe he did that! This guy’s flouting the PC powers that be and having fun doing it. He’s taking a risk!” There wasn’t much risk, though, Loofbouro notes, because the powers that be generally do their bit to support “the suburban white boys whose future everyone protects.” In this reading, Northam becomes just another Justice Kavanaugh, practitioner of “toxic homosociality” with privileged peers.

The thing is, though, this doesn’t square with what else we have been told of the man. Two sentences from Northam’s campaign website[1] are particularly telling. “Ralph grew up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and attended local public schools. When his school desegregated, many families sent their children elsewhere—but not the Northams. Ralph’s called his parents’ decision to continue to send him to integrated schools ‘one of the best decisions of my life.’” Nor does it square with what we know of his career, that he served in the U.S. Army for eight years, rising from second lieutenant to major, had a distinguished career in military medicine, was chief neurological resident at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, taught medicine and ethics, and volunteered for 18 years at a hospice for terminally ill children.

This story differs dramatically from the career of self-aggrandizement Kavanaugh pursued, a career notable principally for its devotion to the interests of the wealthy and reactionary, exactly what the accusations concerning his past might have suggested.

At a minimum, the honor, idealism, empathy, and racially integrationist ethos suggested by Northam’s history tell us that he runs with the hares at least as much as he hunts with the hounds. The notorious photo signaled to a coterie of racist classmates that he was one of them – but his life suggests that there was much more to Northam than that.

Something similar could of course be said of Bill Clinton or Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, men whose public support for women’s causes did not turn out to preclude private sexually abusive behavior.[2] But the sexual predations of each of these individuals are accused of appears to have lasted well into their maturer years, while at present, the 1984 photo (Northam would have been about 25) and a contemporaneous blackface Michael Jackson enactment seem the most recent racist behavior by the Governor. Moreover, while Northam’s blackface performances were separately characterized as “painful” (and justly so) by three different African American commentators I saw,[3] these comments betrayed nothing like the degree of hurt we have good reason to believe Clinton’s, Weinstein’s, and Cosby’s behavior inflicted.

Were all our behavior and thoughts held up to a similar scrutiny, most of us would probably turn out to have spent some time with hares and some time with hounds in one hunt or another, at one time or another. Few of us are so internally consistent that our former behavior matched our ideals at the time, and even fewer whose former behavior perfectly matches our present ideals. What matters more is how injurious the inconsistency is, and also how current, because most of us grow wiser and kinder as experience and exposure to the world shape our views.

There is probably much more information coming about the Northam affair. But in light of what is known at this point, it seems premature to call for his head.


[1]. Quoted in , accessed February 7, 2019. The original website is now defunct.

[2]. Several of Bill Clinton’s actions in support of women and their causes are listed here. Harvey Weinstein’s long and public support of feminist causes is chronicled here. Bill Cosby’s well-known philanthropies included a $20 million donation to Spellman College, a historically black women’s college.

[3]. Senator Kamala Harris used the term; both host Gail King and guest Dwandalyn Reese used the term on CBS This Morning on February 7, 2019; also Harmeet Kaur, a commentator of color, of CNN did so.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Don’t Miss MISS SAIGON at the Kennedy Center

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Don’t Miss MISS SAIGON at the Kennedy Center

Posted on December 18, 2018

There are few entertainments as popular as Miss Saigon (36 million attendees worldwide since it premiered on London’s West End in 1989), and few that have occasioned as much controversy. Despite all that popularity, this reviewer had happened never to see the show until the current national tour surfaced this last week at Washington’s Kennedy Center. Miss Saigon‘s reputation for controversy had preceded it, however, and I was on the lookout for offensiveness. But what I saw was a well-honed crowd pleaser with spectacular stagecraft, excellent singing, a few catchy tunes, and a compelling plot. Some of the provocations complained of in earlier productions are no longer in evidence. In other instances, I would dispute that the material was ever objectively offensive. I’ll discuss all this below, but first, some basics.

Elemental Story

When artists in different media continually return to one story, we can be pretty certain there is something powerful and elemental about it. Puccini told the tale here before in Madame Butterfly, the tragic story of a Western military man and an Asian lover and the child they conceive. It is not insignificant that Butterfly was itself a reworking of a stage play, which in turn was adapted from a short story based on an 1887 novel. Miss Saigon, as is well known, moves the tale from late 19th Century Japan to the end of the Vietnam War. The resituated setting gave the show’s creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (the Les Misérables team) scope to explore additional concerns: war, prostitution, international boundaries, war orphans, and the history of the Vietnam conflict. Boublil and Schönberg take full advantage of this opportunity. In today’s environment, the show’s harsh focus on international boundaries, on the peril they pose to the excluded, and on humanitarian efforts to relieve that peril, seems especially poignant. But the heart of the story remains the tragedy of the Asian lover left behind.

With that said, what about the controversies?

No More Yellow-Face

I observed above that some of them are no longer applicable. In the original London and New York productions, there was much unhappiness over the white actor Jonathan Pryce donning prostheses and yellow-face to take on the role of the Engineer, so much so that when America’s Actors’ Equity refused to sanction Pryce for the role on Broadway, producer Cameron Mackintosh canceled the show, and only brought it back after Actors’ Equity relented. Since those original productions, however, all Engineers, including Concepción, have been of Asian heritage. Likewise, in the lovely number The Wedding Ceremony, the original production reportedly had the background chorus of bargirls singing nonsense syllables rather than authentic Vietnamese lyrics; that too has been fixed.

No Fair Blaming the Victim

No Appropriation

There has also been a palpable revulsion expressed by various persons of color, particularly those of Asian heritage, at – well, at what, exactly? I have now read through five separate critiques of this nature, none of them descending from very high and abstract levels of generality. I think what they mean to convey is that white theater-creators playing to a largely white audience and dealing somewhat inaccurately (for instance the nonsense lyrics) with largely Asian subject-matter and in the process foregrounding white characters – and in the same process not telling many other Asian stories – makes these commentators uncomfortable and/or offends them. These comments are sometimes coupled with complaints about “appropriation.”

No Fetishizing

Some of these comments complain about “fetishizing” Asians and particularly Asian women. This is another term with somewhat indefinite meanings. However, to the extent “fetishizing” means prominently featuring scantily-dressed Asian bargirls gyrating to the music in bars or sparkly Asian chorus girls in the Engineer’s big song, The American Dream, a Vegas-y production number, I can only say, that, equipped with a conventional straight male gaze, I did not find such tawdry spectacles a turn-on, and I don’t believe I was meant to. There is a dramatic distance from the depicted encouragement of lust which differs from similar spectacles in, for instance, Cabaret. We are not meant to buy into it at any level.

Some Bathetic Lyrics

My own critiques would go to more mundane matters, for instance the weakness in some of the lyrics. Take the otherwise moving song Bui Doi, about the illegitimate children of American soldiers left behind, which wears out its welcome by the fourth iteration of the bathetic description of them as “conceived in hell, and born in strife.” Or the thrice-repeated characterization of them as “living reminders of the good we failed to do.” Come on, exactly what unachieved good are they reminding us of? Winning the war (the principal good the American effort unsuccessfully pursued)? I don’t think anyone has ever needed to be reminded of that. Marrying the moms? If that were what’s meant, it would require a lot more explanation than an offhand phrase can provide, because the couplings of soldiers and prostitutes in wartime are not ordinarily the stuff from which actual marriages could grow. All that is really meant here, I think, is that we now have a moral responsibility to protect the children. And for that, the phraseology is inapt; the children are not “reminders” of that responsibility; they are its objects.

The “forest” is that this is an excellent contribution to the canon of operatic musicals, richly melodramatic, beautifully acted and sung, with outstanding production values (yes, there is a helicopter!), and intelligent about the effects of war, and – notwithstanding many of the comments I’ve mentioned above – intelligent too about the particular clash of cultures that the war in Vietnam effectuated.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

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Nana Ingvarsson and Dina Soltan

Posted on November 7, 2018

A Woman of No Importance (1893) is surely the least-often produced of Oscar Wilde‘s four comedies, and for good reason. In it, Wilde stages a conflict between a tolerance, if not admiration, of flippant and witty libertinage among a gentry ostensibly committed to strict sexual morality, and on the other hand a Puritanism (the characters’ own label for it) which takes that strict morality seriously. But Wilde commits the dramatically unforgivable sin of siding with the Puritans. In so doing he ignores the evidence not only of his own sexually-liberated life but of what he puts on the stage in this very play, forgetting that, as Billy Joel put it, “the sinners are much more fun.” It’s one thing in this kind of comedy to give the nominal villain a bit of a come-uppance, but another entirely to show him repudiated with heavy-breathing moral condemnation, and to revel in the way the virtuous characters break away not only from the supposed villain but apparently from his entire social circle. Northrop Frye long ago posited that at the conclusion of a comedy, society is knit back together, and as many characters at possible, including some or all who had earlier misbehaved, participate in the wedding dance. Perhaps Wilde’s Victorian audience truly rejoiced at a denouement which contradicted these principles, but it is hard to ask a modern audience to react in this way.

Rather, what a modern audience sees is the triumph of an unhealthy fetishization of premarital chastity, reinforced by uncharitable shunning and accompanied by gratuitous and injurious self-sacrifice. This becomes apparent in the revival currently being given the play by Washington’s Scena Theatre in a black box theater at The Atlas (convenient to Baltimore audiences, not far from the southern end of the BW Parkway). The production boasts of many innovations, some of which will be mentioned below, but in the matter of the grating denouement it follows Wilde with iron-jawed determination and adds no grace notes to soften it in any way. Lord Illingworth (Nanna Ingvarsson) is the chief libertine of the piece; twenty years before the action of the play, before he became a rich and influential man, he had seduced and then refused to marry the woman now known as Mrs. Arbuthnot (Sara Barker), leaving her with a son Gerald (Jen Bevarelli). In consequence, she had abandoned him to raise their son under an assumed family name to hide the “shame.” In the intervening years, Illingworth, in speaking style at least a true Wilde protagonist, has become a spouter of aphorisms that invert conventional views, a cynic, and a pillar of society. Nor has he lost his womanizing ways, being willing to dive into the shrubbery with society hussy Mrs. Allonby (Dina Soltan) (as shown above) and to accept her challenge to him to flirt with a virginal young American visitor Hester Worsley (Moriah Whiteman). It can also be argued that he goes to extraordinary lengths to attempt to make sincere amends to all whom he has offended, but he gains no traction with any effort to do so, and ends the play quite repudiated.

Apart from these design flaws, A Woman of No Importance is a typical Wilde comedy. What other playwright, for instance, would have a character utter a line like “The English country gentleman galloping after a fox-the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”? What other playwright would give his characters such ebullient flippancy at the expense of conventional morality – even if later on Wilde turns inexplicably heavy-handed and hard-breathing in defense of that selfsame morality?

One might expect that, in approaching a play like this, one with enough rough edges of its own, Scena and its director Robert McNamara, having decided not to blink at presenting these rough edges, would then leave well enough alone, and deliver the show with consistent straightforwardness, so as to maximize the Wilde-ness of the show. But that was not the choice that was made here. There were at least three decisions to jazz it up and stage it in a way that Wilde would not have anticipated.

First, as parentheticals above suggest, this production features an all-female cast. There was no reason stated for this course, either in the program or in any publicity material I have seen, and in this instance the reason is not easy to discern. One might, for instance, expect such casting in a production that was interrogating an existing classic from a feminist perspective; here, apart from its exaltation of Victorian Puritanism, which in my book was anti-feminist, the play is arguably quite feminist in its rejection of any effort to dismiss a woman as “of no importance.” One might equally expect all-female casting in an attempt to subject a classic to a queer critique or just a queering, such as an all-female As You Like It presented by Baltimore’s Center Stage a few years back. But I see no evidence of that in this production. Indeed, one of the reasons to like this show is that Ingvarsson gives us such a very conventionally male Illingworth. Not that we are ever induced to forget that it is a female actor performing the role; this is no male impersonator. But the whole persona Ingvarsson conveys somehow swaggers and blusters past the evidence of our senses, and we simply could not care less about the incongruity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the play before, so I have no standard of comparison, but from my perspective Ingvarsson sets a very high bar any future Illingworth will need to surmount to satisfy me. The other five male roles seemed more gender-disparate, but it made no difficulties.

The second odd choice was resituating the action in Golden Era Hollywood. Again, the reasons why were not readily apparent. We regularly set Shakespeare in what Wilde’s fellow-Victorian W.S. Gilbert dubbed “all centuries but this and every country but his own.” However there are many reasons why, foremost among them, perhaps, that most of Shakespeare’s settings are fantastic constructs anyway, Cloud Cuckoolands of Shakespeare’s own imagination. Shakespeare isn’t going for authenticity, so why should we? But Wilde? In a play in which he critiques contemporary politicians by name and compares the two houses of Parliament? A play which turns on moral scruples and social customs like country house parties which had only limited analogies in the world to which Scena has transported them? What benefit derives from that? Actually, I can partially answer that last rhetorical question: there is the benefit of outstanding period costumes, courtesy of Alisa Mandel. I especially liked Dina Soltan’s glittery black number complete with befeathered hat (pictured above), and if you need an excuse like a change of era and location to evoke that kind of creativity, well, maybe there’s something to be said for excuses. But a lot of my pleasure dissipated among rewritings of the script to include terms like screenwriter, Academy, Directors Guild, and screening room. Moreover, given that there was plenty of identification of the characters and the locale as British, one found oneself wondering whether this was an effort to pass off Hollywood as some kind of suburb of London. Oh, well.

The third choice was to have many of the speeches delivered in a way that surely went against the grain of the way original director H. Beerbohm Tree or most subsequent interpreters have done it. I call this form of delivery “voguing,” after the dance style: striking a fairly angular pose and declaiming one’s lines directly to the audience rather than to the other characters to whom the lines are theoretically addressed. The show emphasized this in the opening, exposition-heavy going by rotating three or four society ladies in a sort of video-game way with appropriate sound-effects for rotating avatars, so that whatever lady had the dialogue was always in front. Perhaps it was felt that the exposition would otherwise be too tedious, the way directors regularly play games with the exposition at the beginning of Henry V, which really is tedious and hard to follow. But Wilde’s dialogue can stand on its own feet (read it if you doubt me). Worse, Wilde’s dialogue is, to a large degree, verbal voguing on its own: taking outrageous, angular verbal stances, like the above-quoted line about a foxhunt. Most directors would – and I would argue this is the correct way to handle it – leave the poses to the lines, and even deliver them in as conventionally conversational a tone as possible. That actually makes them more shocking.

One might think that with all these oddities (one-sex casting, gratuitous setting change, over-the-top declamation of lines that traditionally ought to be banked down for full impact) the overall effect would be catastrophic. But that isn’t the case. As long as one understands that this is an idiosyncratic production, and does not come expecting classic Wilde but rather something new and strange built on the platform of a Wilde play, the evening is actually a lot of fun.

One also has to take it in the context of Scena’s overall thrust. While a Baltimore critic does not come down to Washington all that much, this is at least the fourth Scena show I’ve seen, and all have been impressive in one way or another, including Wilde’s own tragedy Salome and a stark, Trump-era Julius Caesar. Scena does classics and contemporary drama in ways that appeal to the head as well as the gut. And I suspect that the choice to do more of a Wilde fantasia than a Wilde play was as carefully deliberated as any other. Perhaps, because the play is so defective in its conception, the impulse was just to mess with it and see what happens. Even Homer nods – and when Wilde does (as he certainly did here), maybe all bets should be off.

If you go expecting, as it were, wild Wilde, you won’t be disappointed.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Jae Yi Photography.

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Shedding the Bubble

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Shedding the Bubble

A slightly shorter version published in The Daily Record December 19, 2018

For a public act, driving my automobile is a surprisingly private thing for me to do. I control my climate, my music, my refreshments. I can make phone calls, hands-free, and speak at the top of my voice with the expectation that only I will hear what’s being said. And while I’m moving, that bubble of privacy is pretty much inviolable. Other drivers and I can make eye contact if it’s physically possible and we both choose, otherwise not. But, like it or not, I have to stop at intersections. And when I do, all bets are off. The intersection is the realm of the beggar with the cardboard sign and the young man with the squeegee. Their missions fail if they cannot breach my bubble and engage with me. So that’s what they try to do.


For a long time, their importunities never failed to annoy me. My explanation for this instinctive reaction was that these efforts to seize my attention and invade my space were bad manners. I just wanted to be freaking left ALONE. No supplicant ever got a penny out of me, as a penalty for his or her discourtesy in asking for a penny. And then, one day, my reaction became unsustainable.

I was filling up at a gas station, regarding myself as still within the bubble. A vagrant came up to me with a handout request, and I’m sorry to say I snapped at him. He snapped back. I cannot remember precisely what either of us said, but I do know that he said he was desperate and what else did I expect him to do? He didn’t get anything from me; I came away with as many pennies as I started with in my purse. But as I reargued it in my head, I could see the man had a point.

Now, obviously I had previously been over his point before in my head and in discussions with others. My response had always been that I made financial contributions to organizations that supported the welfare of the hungry and the homeless, and that if the man were in need, he should go to them, and leave me out of it. But on reflection this argument no longer measured up to the concrete situation before me.

No Other Immediate Solutions

There are hoops the poor must jump through to access the charities and the government agencies that see to them, and I’m not just speaking of stereotyped heartless bureaucracies, though there are some of those in the mix too. There may be multiple buses a client has to take to get to the shelter; there are usually guaranteed to be long wait periods for inpatient drug treatment and Section 8 vouchers; food pantries are not open round the clock; free clinics may require appointments. One must therefore be organized, foresightful and coherent to access these things. And I’ve been taught since that time that homelessness can make unmanageable the routines upon which a coherent life depends. In short, the odds were pretty good that the man shouting back at me actually did need help that none of the charities I donated to could provide as quickly as he needed it – if at all. Even if my money would go to buy a narcotic fix that would keep him from being in torment, he was most likely in urgent need. And there I was shouting at him.

And even if the need isn’t urgent, it’s probably real enough. Again, consider squeegee men; what are the odds that they undertake their risky, low-margin work without need of some kind driving them?

If I conceded the need was real, then, what of my feeling that there must be more appropriate times and places to ask for help with them?

No Other Intersection

Well, then I had to identify where those more appropriate places would have been. No one would have accosted me in my office or my bedroom or my gym; all of these places had locks on the door or guardians at the gate, and no one seeking a handout would ever reach me there. The only place my life and theirs would likely intersect was at the intersection. For me to say that I could not be solicited there was tantamount to forbidding any solicitation at all, even by those in urgent need.

I concluded that my former stance was untenable.

Since then, public discussion has raised at least two safety issues.

Being Real About Safety

First, in Baltimore, where I live, there has been much concern raised by a recent instance in which a curbside beggar was a stalking horse for a mugger who stabbed and killed a would-be donor. In the wake of that incident, more than one person I’ve chatted with has cited it as a reason never to make donations out the car window. To which my response is: It’s already established that you’re a risk-taker; you’re behind the wheel. Well, your odds of perishing in a traffic accident in the coming year are 1 in 17,625.[1]   Your odds of dying by assault with a sharp object are a paltry 1 in 138,834. And so far as I know, no one else in Baltimore has been mugged while donating to a panhandler. There simply isn’t much increased peril involved.

Second, a former public official pointed out in a letter to the editor that panhandling on the street is made illegal for the safety of the very persons doing the soliciting. And there’s no denying it’s not safe for them. But which of us doesn’t take health risks to satisfy immediate needs? (Smokers and jaywalkers, raise your hands!) And from what I can see, we have a lot of people with basic immediate needs out there. Perhaps no one enforces the law out of respect for poor people’s management of their own risks.

“Undeserving” Poor?

Back in the days when I didn’t let people breach my bubble, I also agonized over whether I should be subsidizing those who sought beggary over more productive ways of earning their daily bread. Effectively, I was employing a nineteenth-century distinction (referenced, for instance, in My Fair Lady) between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor. Again, I doubt that the distinction has much bearing when we’re talking about curbside solicitation; it’s such a hard way to raise money most lazy people would eschew it. But assume there are lazy beggars. Since there’s no way to administer an immediate field test of deservingness, a donor must trust. But it’s a no-brainer. A dollar or two through the driver’s window isn’t realistically enough to persuade someone to stay out of the workforce; most likely it only helps stave off some hunger pangs or dull a narcotic craving, or maybe helps someone find shelter for the night.

Pope Francis says we shouldn’t worry about what the money will be spent for, but “always” to give, and when we do, to look the recipient in the eye and touch their hand. Since I came out from behind my bubble, I’ve tried to follow that guidance. In those little one-minute encounters, there have been many touching moments and much laughter. I can recommend it to anyone. This holiday, don’t stop donating to charities that help the poor — but also give yourself the gift of shedding that bubble.


[1] In the published version of this piece, I placed the odds of traffic death as 1 in 77. But that turned out to be one’s lifetime risk. To make the comparison an apples-to-apples one, I needed to place the odds of traffic death in the same time-frame as the risk of stabbing death. I apologize to my readers for the error.

 A Note:

I’d previously talked about related subjects in an earlier post, but that concerned a small change of mind mostly in the context of pedestrian encounters which did not involve the driver’s “bubble” I am concerned with above. After the epiphany described in that earlier post, I did more frequently donate to people who encountered me when we were both on the sidewalk. But the bulk of solicitations that came my way were made when I was behind the wheel, and my change of mind on that is what I’m discussing here.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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The Exemplary Ms. Margolin

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The Exemplary Ms. Margolin

Published in The Daily Record November 12, 2018

I know it can scarcely be believed now, children, but there once was a time when the federal government actively intervened to protect workers by assuring they were adequately paid. A time when our leaders cooperated in international prosecutions of war criminals, rather than shaking their hands at summit meetings. Even – contain your incredulity! – a time when the federal government aggressively protected the right of women to equal pay and equal opportunity rather than merely paying it lip service.

Possible in the Government

Involved in all of these federal initiatives was Bessie Margolin, the subject of Fair Labor Lawyer, by Baltimore lawyer and author Marlene Trestman. I have written before in this space about lawyers’ ways of living good lives. I have highlighted Hugh L. Clarke, the easy-going Tennessee lawyer who did well while doing good, and was memorialized in Sleepy John Estes’ Lawyer Clark Blues, and I have mentioned Gilbert Roe, Wall Street lawyer who improbably also put his services at the disposal of leading radical spirits of the early twentieth century, and pioneered then-innovative First Amendment thinking. Both of these gentlemen lived their admirable lives in the private sector. Margolin’s professional life, by contrast, was spent almost entirely in the service of the federal government. Now (as one who spent much of his own career litigating against government lawyers but liked most of them), I can attest that such lawyers as a breed usually find creditable ways to spend their careers, but they can do especially great things at times when the government is doing important good work. Margolin was a case in point.

As Trestman recounts, it was Margolin’s good fortune to come of professional age at the very moment the New Deal began and also at the very moment it started to be possible for women endowed with a combination of great talent and extraordinary luck to become prominent official advocates of important legislation, of which the New Deal gave birth to an abundance. And Margolin made herself a candidate for extraordinary luck by virtue of great talent, which put her in the running for roles the legal culture of the time would normally have treated as male preserves. Raised in a New Orleans orphanage, she beat enormous odds to make it to an inferior position on the staff of Yale Law School, where she became a protegee of, among others, future Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, earning a doctorate in law (on top of her Tulane law degree) in the process. Then it was off to Washington, 89 days after Franklin Roosevelt took office.

TVA, FLSA, Nuremberg, Equal Pay

She soon found a way into government, at the newly-formed Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA’s authority to intervene in a marketplace to benefit consumers (by generating power and instituting flood control) was challenged on constitutional grounds by entrenched financial interests. Margolin worked with a high-powered legal team that beat back this and other challenges. Not all New Deal programs survived; Margolin was on the ground floor of one of the successes.

From there she went to the Labor Department, her home for almost all of her career. Another New Deal program was about to be tested there: the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the source of the federal minimum wage, overtime protections, and prohibitions against child labor. Differently from many federal programs, Congress passed this one without giving the administering agency, the Department’s Wage and Hour Division, the authority to promulgate interpretive regulations, meaning that the law, pockmarked with general terms and exceptions to coverage, was destined to be fleshed out in the courts. Whoever was in charge of the Department’s end of that process was foreordained to become, if she was not already, an experienced litigator and appellate advocate. And that person turned out to be Margolin. She would try cases all over the country, supervise a team of lawyers who answered to her nationwide, and argue in every Circuit and before the Supreme Court (27 cases there, with a win-loss record of 24-3). Largely thanks to Margolin, the FLSA remains a key protection for our nation’s workers.

After World War II, Margolin was seconded for a few months to the Nuremberg Tribunals. She drafted the rules for American military tribunals that would govern trials of 185 defendants over two years. It was momentous work, a piece of a civilization-defining event imposing international norms even on those who had acted under sanction of the national laws.

In later years back at the Labor Department, Margolin found herself in the midst of a different civilization-defining fight: enforcing the new Equal Pay Act of 1963. This time, in addition to supervising a hundred cases, she became a leading spokesperson for the Act, making it clear that equal pay and equal opportunity were serious Labor Department priorities.

Not Having It All

Perhaps her passion on this subject (she became one of the founders of the National Organization for Women) was informed by the discrimination she had herself contended with throughout her career, most notably in her determined pursuit of a judgeship, a goal that eluded her. It is likely that her dalliances, most notably with a married boss, known to the FBI and reported in her background investigations, were held against her in a way that a man’s similar behavior would not have been. Whatever the explanation, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson passed on numerous opportunities to elevate her to the bench.

I knew one of her female colleagues mentioned and pictured in Trestman’s book: Beatrice Rosenberg, a lawyer at Justice and the EEOC, one of the few attorneys, male or female, who argued more frequently than Margolin in the Supreme Court. Rosenberg was a close friend of a dear friend of mine, an administrative law judge at a time when there were few female ALJs. The three women had much in common: they were all Jewish, preeminent in legal fields where, when they started out, few women were allowed to compete, and single. That cohort is largely forgotten now. They had close-to-unsung roles in shaping the way the government intervened on behalf of citizens. To capitalize on their limited opportunities to do this, it seems likely they sacrificed the sort of domestic lives they might have preferred.

Tellingly, Margolin was engaged twice: the first, to a fellow law student, was broken off at the threshold of her legal career, and the second, which did not result in a marriage, after her retirement. One suspects these choices were tacit acknowledgements of the difficulties a woman would have had maintaining both a career and a marriage at that time.

Worth It

That said, by Trestman’s account, Margolin had a rich personal life. She dressed sharply, she gambled, she had affairs, she richly enjoyed her time abroad, and she reveled in being a favorite aunt. Coupled with her stellar career, it was a life many lawyers would aspire to.

Details may differ, but there will always be some kind of sacrifice involved in any effort to wield our profession for the common good. If, like Bessie Margolin, one is persistent and lucky, that sacrifice may well pay off.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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‘Not Entirely Honest’ an Understatement in REP Stage’s Obscure But Funny THINGS THAT ARE ROUND

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‘Not Entirely Honest’ an Understatement in REP Stage’s Obscure But Funny THINGS THAT ARE ROUND

Thais Menendez and Beth Hylton

Posted on November 3, 2018

“I’m sensing that you’re not being entirely honest here,” says one character to the other in Callie Kimball’s Things That Are Round. That’s putting it mildly. The two characters in this play, receiving a world premiere performance by Columbia’s REP Stage (after a lengthy development process elsewhere), are constantly lying to each other and to themselves, and thus, indirectly, to the audience. Dubious statements prevent the audience being able to make up its mind about many important things happening throughout the play, either onstage or off, except perhaps in the play’s final moments.

We can be relatively certain of this much: Tetherly, a dentist (Beth Hylton), hires Nina (Thais Menendez) to babysit her four-year-old son Dylan, initiating an increasingly fraught relationship between the two women, based on what may be a series of delusions. How real is Dylan, for instance? Is Tetherly the world’s least entrepreneurial dentist? Is Tetherly really pursuing a doctorate? Does Nina actually have a claimed child of her own, or a husband, or a lover? Does Nina sincerely believe (contrary to what the audience has heard when she delivers a song) she has a ghost of a chance to become an opera singer? While these and similar basic questions about what the characters are doing or why are never fully resolved (nor do they need to be), the debatable and sometimes contradictory answers each character gives to these questions form the basis of a relationship that dramatically and comically changes as the play progresses.

It becomes apparent that at the outset the appropriately-named Tetherly is trapped, revolving around a set of pursuits and obsessions that bring her less and less comfort or happiness. Nina, younger, without clear loyalties or commitments except to being paid, represents freedom to Tetherly, who would like to find a way of getting closer to this intriguing domestic servant without relinquishing the authority of a boss. Given Nina’s restive nature and her penchant for schemes and ripoffs, Tetherly’s desires may prove impossible ever to reconcile. And they probably would be, were Tetherly left to her own devices. But Nina locates a way to break through the stalemate, making it possible, at the end, to classify this often very funny play as a comedy, and something between a love story and a buddy story.

REP Stage is giving it a very impressive maiden voyage. Beth Hylton, well-known to Baltimore audiences, delivers nicely her character’s sometimes hysterical loser-dom without evoking either too much or too little sympathy. And Thais Menendez is great at “talking arrows,” as the stage notes put it – when she does not just withhold, clam up, and allow Tetherly to twist in the wind. The difference in the textures of these performances is exactly what’s needed to make believable the symbiotic needs that draw the characters together despite themselves. Lola B. Pierson’s sensitive direction seems to capture the playwright’s vision precisely, leaving obscure only that which Kimball wanted to have left obscure. (Pierson also wrote Putin on Ice, just recently featured at Single Carrot; her comfort with that show’s high-spirited try-anything comedy makes her affinity with this work seem natural.) I loved Sarah O’Halloran’s composition and sound design featuring classical and classical-sounding music that had been altered to suggest the distorted and/or agitated thinking in the characters’ minds, and Jenny Male’s fight direction which yielded a confrontation at once funny and worrisomely dangerous-looking.

At this exciting moment in American playwriting, the role regional theater has taken on in developing and premiering new work has been a great thing. We need more of it in this region, and REP Stage’s commitment to the process (as in Susan McCully’s All She Must Possess last season) is to be commended. For audiences, stepping away from the tried and true, even into works as disorienting as this sometimes is, can be among the most invigorating theatrical experiences.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photograph. Photo Credit: Kate Simmons-Barth.

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How The Assembly Line Ended: SWEAT at Everyman Theatre

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How The Assembly Line Ended: SWEAT at Everyman Theatre

From left: Dawn Ursula, Kurt Rhoads, Megan Anderson, Deborah Hazlett

Posted on October 29, 2018

Lynn Nottage‘s Pulitzer-winning Sweat, which premiered Off-Broadway five days before the 2016 election and was transferred to Broadway the following year, was hailed by the New Yorker’s Michael Schulman as “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era.” Schulman pointed out that the play gives us a deep dive into the anomie of the Rust Belt workers so critical to Trump’s victory. The revival of the play now on display at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre confirms Schulman’s diagnosis, with two caveats: there is almost nothing there about the group’s electoral behavior, other than an articulated sense of pointlessness in voting, and the play ends eight years before the election, when the economic environment was significantly different from that of 2016. By the time the show premiered, the development central to the play’s action, deindustrialization, with all its closed factories and discarded workers with attendant ruination of lives, had already reached an at least temporary climax. Moreover, there had been the financial collapse of 2008, and a recovery based on furthering a conversion of our economy to one based less on manufacturing than on lower-paid services, which factory workers were not well-adapted to provide nor economically able to take on. Sweat focuses instead on the moments, mostly earlier, when the deindustrialization tsunami engulfed manufacturing, with all the profound human wreckage that wave caused. Nottage’s case in point, a Reading, Pennsylvania steel fabrication factory in the year 2000, is already history in 2008, when the play ends, let alone in 2016. If it’s a tale of Trump voters, then, it’s their backstory, not the tale of their votes.

But it’s a great backstory, if not a totally unexplored one. Baltimore audiences last year, for instance. saw the Center Stage production of Dominique Morrisseau’s Skeleton Crew, which premiered around that same time as Sweat, and like Sweat, focuses on the loss of a manufacturing plant and all the livelihoods that depended on it, using some of the same plot devices and symbolism. Michael Moore, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Barbara Ehrenreich, and many others have told the tale more than once in other media. But great minds think alike; there is plenty of room for more than one treatment of this important theme. And Nottage is magnificently up to the task.

She gives us, at the play’s core, three high-spirited factory-worker women: Cynthia (Dawn Ursula), Tracey (Deborah Hazlett) and Jessie (Megan Anderson). As the action begins, times are still good, and they and their fellow workers regularly resort to a tavern presided over by barkeep Stan (Kurt Rhoads) to celebrate birthdays and friendships. Two of the trio, Cynthia and Tracey, are even among the competitors for promotion to a supervisor’s position, which would be an anomaly, as the plant has no history of recruiting supervisors from the shop floor. Good times make even racial harmony achievable, as Cynthia is black while her two besties are white, and the races mingle effortlessly in Stan’s tavern. But we already know from a sort of prologue, in flash-forward, that Cynthia’s and Tracey’s sons will by 2008 have served time because of some still-unidentified common disaster connected in some way with the events of 2000 we are about to witness. In this way, Nottage warns us, if we needed any warning, that this industrial Eden will not end well.

And end badly it does, as Nottage tightens the grip of the catastrophe step by slow step. We all know the historical outlines of the story enough to have a general idea what to expect: management ready to break unions to exact wage and benefits concessions, scab laborers, jobs exported abroad, plant closures, mortgage foreclosures, destitution, opioids. But Nottage renders this familiar tale powerful and surprising.

And comprehensible. And honest. What makes the downfall of this Eden so especially heart-wrenching is the destruction of a vision of the place and the dignity of the manual laborer. That vision viewed jobs as a form of property, as a stake in the employer which the employer was bound to recognize and reward with lifetime employment and a decent retirement thereafter. It is a vision that undergirds the entire self-image of the play’s workers, expressed in various ways at the outset. From the standpoint of American law and 21st-century management, however, the only stake of more than rhetorical significance was that of the investors and lenders of the companies. We witness the frustration and disbelief of the workers as their claim is disregarded with prejudice by management, and we see how destructive of the lives of these workers is the force of their disillusionment, even more than that of their economic privations without regular factory income.

At the same time Nottage is honest enough to show how this vision of jobs as property was historically misused as well by the workers who harbored it, how it justified the resistance of white employees to admitting black ones into their midst, and, at the threshold of the deindustrial revolution we witness, it is being employed to prevent Hispanic workers from gaining a foothold in what had become black and white turf. When we find out the specifics of the event that lands the sons it prison, it proves to pivot on the misuse of that vision.

Nottage is onto a big story, and she gets it right.

In program notes, Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi notes that from the moment he saw the show, “I knew I had to produce it at Everyman.” I suspect that the reason for Lancisi’s instant determination is that he knew immediately when he saw roles perfect for the talents of Anderson, Hazlett and Ursula, members of Everyman’s repertory company. It’s a pleasure to see these three long-term colleagues, very familiar to Baltimore audiences, gobbling up juicy roles together. But then the entire ensemble is strong. Three of them are newcomers to Everyman, and probably to Baltimore audiences. I particularly admired Alejandro Ruiz as Oscar, a plucky Hispanic newcomer to Reading’s industrial scene, determined to be neither shut out from its job market nor morally diminished by the death of the vision that has animated and, it turns out, crushed those who were there before him. Although he represents a clear new ethos, Oscar gets the last line in the play, affirming the best of the solidarity of the bygone workforce.

And of course Lancisi must have seen the fun he would have directing this show. If there was anything he missed in realizing Nottage’s vision, I missed it too.

The sets at Everyman are usually a treat, and this one, courtesy of Daniel Ettinger, is no exception, a beautifully detailed tavern, fully realized, mounted on a turntable that facilitates various other less detailed settings on the verso. A tip of the hat is also owed Lewis Shaw for the choreography of a protracted and really dangerous-looking fight in the late going.

This is definitely one not to miss.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Clinton Brandhagen.

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