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Me and My BFF Go to See some High School Musicals

Me and My BFF Go to See some High School Musicals

If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed that a lot of my posts lately are about going to see high school musicals. What’s up with that?

In some ways, it’s just getting back to normal. Over the past decade or so, my BFF Aileen and I have been going see lots of shows – professional, community theater, and at schools. This was put on hold for a couple of years because of the pandemic. This spring season, theater is back! At most of the productions that we’ve seen lately, the director’s notes in the program or the curtain speech make a point that it’s the first live show in the space since 2020.

But there’s also a particular reason for going to all these high school shows. Starting this year, I am an adjudicator for the Philadelphia Independence Awards. That means that I’m not just watching, I am judging the performances and technical aspects of the shows, and providing constructive feedback. I am very grateful for this opportunity, which I’d like to think I earned through my excellent writing in the past, though I know that mostly I owe it to the recommendation of my friend Aileen.

In the years that I have been going to live theater with Aileen, I have learned that young people are just as capable and talented as adults. Seriously, we have seen some high school productions that were better than stuff we’ve seen on Broadway. As an educator, Aileen has always believed in teaching children that they can do anything they set their minds to, and the kids at the shows we’ve been seeing have certainly proved her point.

Looking forward to more shows in the weeks to come!

Theater as a Sheltering Space for the Young Generation

Theater as a Sheltering Space for the Young Generation

Last weekend I went to see a high school musical show – Shrek, to be precise. On the way in I was handed an LGBTQ pride flag and told it was my “freak flag.” I didn’t really know what this was about, having never seen Shrek before, but I eventually found out. “Freak Flag” is actually the name of a song in the show, sung by the fairy tale characters. It celebrates diversity and inclusion, and through it the characters resist how they are treated by the oppressive chief antagonist (you may recall the story from the movie).

It’s not a stretch to associate the unique fairy tale characters in Shrek with minority groups in real life who face discrimination and barriers to acceptance. So it seemed fitting enough to have these flags to wave while the fairy tale characters sang their “fly your freak flag” refrain. As I watched the kids dressed as fairy tale characters walking down the aisles of the auditorium, I wondered how many of them might experience discrimination in real life, given how kids on the fringe – whether gay, or neurodivergent, or just outsiders – are drawn to the arts and to theater.

This message of inclusiveness and acceptance was part of the show from the onset, as in the curtain speech (the speech made before the show to introduce it) the director spoke, as if assuring the parents, of how much he and the staff make sure all of the students feel accepted and valued. Everyone of them, like each unique fairy tale character, knew how special they were. To my mind, this was a perfect generational moment – this is exactly how I would expect Generation X (the director’s generation, as well as mine) to treat the children of the Homeland generation (to which all but the oldest of today’s high school students belong). Sheltering them in a protective bubble. Teaching them to be sensitive and considerate of others.

It was a moment that perfectly captured the zeitgeist of this era. I should have more such moments in the future, as the spring season is upon us and I will be attending a lot high school performances in the weeks to come.

History for Everyone

History for Everyone

We went to see SIX on Broadway recently (whole other story) which is about the six wives of Henry VIII. The point of the show is that the history of the King is really the herstory of the Queens, and that they are the reason why he is famous. Also, in the production, the actors cast in the roles of the six Queens are not ethnically accurate to the original wives. This is in line with the same trend as seen in Hamilton. “Color blind casting” is what some people are calling it.

Now you could argue that if the goal is to create cognitive dissonance by casting ethnic mismatches (“an African-American George Washington??!”) then the casting is not actually “color blind.” If Hamilton were truly cast “color-blind,” then there would be a white George Washington in one production and a black one in another. But that’s not how it’s being done in this new wave of theatre. A more accurate term which is also currently in use is “nontraditional casting,” to reflect a conscious choice of casting outside of ethnic expectations to make a point, or impact the overall piece.

Bridgerton: we’re here for the hotties, not the history.

You may have seen this kind of casting in some recent streaming TV shows like Bridgerton on Netflix or The Great on Hulu. The former is set in regency England (Jane Austen’s time period) and the latter is another version of the often told story of the rise of Catherine the Great. Both are completely fictional, and quite enjoyable and well done shows. But there’s something incongruous, absurd even, about the casting, in the sense that race relations in that time period were so much different than they are today, and therefore it makes no sense for a black guy, however suave and debonair, to be a Duke in a Russian or English court in the late 1700s.

I’ll just put it bluntly: in that time period, black people were not in high positions of power in Europe, and except for rare instances noted in history, not engaged in courtly intrigue with them, as their peers. In portraying black and white people together as equals, something which makes sense in a story set in modern times, you might say that these shows are erasing history – trying to cover up or forget the shame of the racial injustices of the past. These shows are creating a fictional version of history that ignores a glaring aspect of it.

Alternately, you might say that, since these shows are simply recreating history, then by incorporating modern values about race into the narrative they are promoting inclusivity and empowering previously marginalized people. Some of these old history stories are rousing stuff, and why shouldn’t black people get to play these amazing roles? Is it so different from a woman playing Hamlet, as happened long ago? George Washington is a towering figure of American myth – why should white people get to own him forever?

I fret about the erasure of history as I write this, but then I have to wonder: is it so bad if future generations forget about the racial discrimination of the past, so long as it never returns? Maybe it’s possible to take the old adage about forgetting history too literally.

Let’s say some young person in the future is watching Bridgerton and is completely unaware of the impossibility of black and white people all dancing together at an upper class ball in regency England, unaware that back then the races did not mix like that, or be treated as equals. It’s not like we don’t routinely botch history in our many recreations of other eras. If someone then made them aware that black people were treated poorly, as a lower class of human, in that time period, their reaction might be an incredulous, “Really??! How could people have tolerated that? That is insane!” Maybe we could achieve a future where racial discrimination seems absurd and an obscure fact that needs to be dug up in old history books.

The problem, though, is that racial discrimination is still a thing of the present. So a show which pretends that discrimination didn’t exist in the past might lure us into forgetting that it exists today. It might help us ignore a glaring aspect not of history but of our own time. It might just be a distraction on TV, posing as proof that we have finally ended racial discrimination.

We need our distractions, so maybe the best thing is to think of these shows as escapist entertainment, fun and playful. Meanwhile, we continue to seriously look at racial issues in our society. We have nontraditional casting on the one hand, and critical race theory on the other, both tools in our struggle to repair race relations. Wouldn’t it be something, if some day, a mixed race cast in a period piece was not a politically charged choice, but merely a curious anachronism.

Theater Breaks through to the Light

Theater Breaks through to the Light

Last weekend I went with the whole family to see a moving one-man show called “A Shadow that Broke the Light,” performed by Charlie DelMarcelle, and co-created by him and his brother Adam. It’s about their brother Joey, who died of an overdose, but really it’s about the overdose epidemic in our country that is impacting so many lives and families. We saw it at West Chester University, where the creators are workshopping it now, as it is undergoing some changes (more on that below).

The show was first produced by Simpatico Theatre at the end of 2019, as a performance installation that ran continuously for 24 hours at Troy Foundry Theatre in upstate New York. I didn’t get a chance to see it then, though my partner Aileen did, driving the 4+ hours to get there. She was excited to go because she has known Charlie for a long time, and worked with him before. He is a brilliant actor, as I got to see last weekend.

After Covid times came, the piece wasn’t performed again until just recently. And, because of Covid times, it had to change, so Charlie is actually workshopping it right now, at the University where he works. I don’t want to say too much about why it has had to change, but just consider how overdose deaths have increased since the pandemic began.

Charlie’s performance was strong. He engagingly told stories about his brother, but also about other people whom Adam has interviewed about their own experiences with loved ones dying from overdoses. Charlie really shows his acting chops when portraying other characters. There was a good deal of humor to leaven the serious, grief-stricken and sometimes angry tone of other parts of the narrative. When reminiscing about loved ones, even though they might have come to tragic ends, it’s heartening to remember the funny moments.

The short piece felt like it ended too soon, but there then followed a period where the audience was invited to share their own stories. I talked about my cousin Sammy, who died of an overdose in 2001. Then there was outpouring of stories from audience members. It seems that half the attendees must have come up to talk. It was amazing and painful to see just how many people have been impacted by drug addiction. Many tears were shed in a very emotional and revealing hour, and Charlie himself expressed amazement at the audience response.

The plan is to create a touring production of the show, but for now you can see it at West Chester University through Oct 29, 2021. There is no admission fee. If you can’t make it, maybe because you don’t live in the area, Simpatico Theatre has posted a few videos of Charlie telling some stories about his brother Joey (see links below). Though it would be better to see it live if you can.

https://www.simpaticotheatre.org/astbtl2020.

Our Recent NYC RETURN where We “Get Down” with SIX Wives

Our Recent NYC RETURN where We “Get Down” with SIX Wives

This is a post about going to see SIX on Broadway, a very popular musical which has just begun performances post-COVID. Tickets are in high demand and very expensive and it was only by good fortune that my partner and I were able to go.

GETTING THERE

Since the show opened in previews on September 17, I had been entering the Broadway Direct lottery to get tickets. I don’t know all the details of this program, just that tickets are offered for a very low price to certain extremely popular shows that might be priced out of the range of many theater goers. But it’s a lottery; you sign up for the next day’s show and some small number of winners are offered tickets at a steep discount. I had entered the lottery for Hamilton every day for a very long time, before we finally went to see the show in Chicago a couple years ago. Every day I would sign up in the morning, and in the evening would get an email wishing me better luck next time. I started doing the same for SIX, expecting the same fruitless results.

Imagine my excitement when an email came informing me that I was on the waiting list. If I was chosen (presumably because another winner had missed or passed up their chance to buy the tickets) I would get another email, after which I would have 60 minutes to purchase the tickets. I waited expectantly and not an hour later a second email came. I had won the tickets! It was two tickets (the most you could sign up for) and they were $30 each. I quickly paid for them, and bragged about it on social media.

Next I had to reshuffle my work schedule, since it was such short notice. I honestly never thought I would win and that this would ever come up. I had won the tickets for the Thursday, September 23rd performance at 8 PM, but I had obligations at work that would normally have kept me late. There was no way to keep these obligations and make it to the show. But I was able to get other team members to take them on for me, so I could work a half day and we could leave as soon in the afternoon as possible.

The next day Aileen and I left at about 3:00PM, driving to New York City. Parking had already been arranged. It was raining heavily, which slowed us down. It took us over three hours to get there, and by the time we parked and made it to the theater we were soaking wet, despite having thoughtfully brought umbrellas with us. We had hoped to eat some dinner first, but it was already after 7 and there just wasn’t anywhere appealing to even grab a quick bite. We decided to get in line and eat out of the concession stand in the theater.

SAFETY CONCERNS

We were concerned, of course, about COVID-19. This concern had kept us from attending other events, and generally limited our going out to do anything lately. But I guess the lure of getting such a huge discount on tickets, and of seeing a show that is the current hype, was too much. Plus they had COVID-19 protocols in place – you had to be vaccinated, had to have proof of such, and were required to wear a face mask in the theater.

In line, everyone was indeed wearing a face mask. Not much of an intersection between the anti-masker crowd and the Broadway theater audience crowd, perhaps. There was a friendly young man who had a badge on identifying him as a COVID safety officer, who examined our ids and our proofs of vaccination. I had the original card they had given me at the drug store when I got vaccinated, and Aileen had a photocopy of hers. We were given the all clear. We had to wonder, though, if anyone might have showed fake evidence. It wouldn’t be too hard to rig up a fake card, especially if a photocopy or a picture on your smartphone were acceptable.

Once in the theater, we discovered that our tickets were in the front row. This was another fun twist. It also made us a little more comfortable from a COVID perspective, because we had room in front of us. The extra room also helped with the drying off bit. I got us some very expensive pretzels and candy from the concession stand and we sat and waited for the show to begin.

THE SHOW

SIX is an hour and a half long show that is basically a rock concert ostensibly performed by the six wives of King Henry VIII. The idea is that they’ve come back from the dead to entertain the crowd with their stories. So since they’ve come back from the dead, they aren’t required to be historically accurate. Their costumes are kind of half way between renaissance dress and glam rock or pop from modern times. It’s an all-female cast, including the musicians, who are also on stage. It’s also cast color-blind, in that the wives are not cast with ethnic accuracy to the original wives: they are black, white, brown and one is Asian. Each wife sings a solo about her own story, and these songs are bookended by ensemble numbers that set up the show and wrap it up with a message of female empowerment.

The Broadway 2021 production is energetic and a lot of fun. The singing is expert, the lyrics catchy and clever (with a lot of historical facts mixed with anachronistic references to the present), and the boots, according to my partner, are “freaking sweet.” Sitting in the front row helped draw me into the celebrity worship aspect, as I sat (and later stood as requested), staring raptly at the performers. I even got a flirtatious glance from Katherine Howard during her number (I think).

Henry VIII is arguably one of the most famous monarchs in history. The play references his fame a lot, and the subsequent fame of his wives and their personal reputations. The wives spend the bulk of the play arguing with one another over who was most maligned by the portly Prince. SIX also questions whether it was Henry who made his wives famous, or the other way around. Although the play (at just around 80 minutes with no intermission) seems short for a Broadway outing, the snarking of the queens feels like it goes on a bit too long. But once it gets to the meat of WHY the queens are famous, it finishes well. These women are, after all, the original “Real Housewives of Hampton Court,” and just as much celebrities as their shared spouse.

Even though the musical is short, it has lingered with us long after those 80 minutes. Since last week, we’ve been really interested in the six wives and their impact on history – which is epic, really, when you think about what happened to England because of their relationships with Henry. The Tudors were arguably one of the most impactful families of that, or any time. So we decided to watch The Tudors Showtime series again, and I started reading a book Aileen has about the six wives.

Well, I can assure you from reading the book that the Showtime series is no more accurate than this Broadway production. But that’s not the point, right? These shows are fictionalized recreations of well known historical figures and events that use facts and invention equally, as convenient. These aren’t really the six wives of Henry VIII, these are celebrity rock star versions. The program for SIX even mentions the specific pop stars after whom each queen is modeled. We’re supposed to treat them like divas.

Is it weird or wrong to worship celebrities? If it’s an all-consuming part of one’s life, I would say that’s not healthy – but for the short duration of an 80 minute diva rock roast, it feels like silly fun to pretend. Theater is a mutual relationship between performer and audience. Each needs the other to generate the emotional tension and catharsis that is the heart of theater and SIX relies on it.

The celebrity worship aspect is also, I suppose, part of why the ticket prices for this show are so high. Young women everywhere are reveling in these empowering tunes right now. That and the simple fact that it’s the current hot thing. If you try to book front row seats for an upcoming performance right now, you’ll find they are going for $500. I can’t imagine paying that much; it’s not that good. I’m not sure that any show is worth $500 to me, frankly. But it was certainly worth the price we paid, even a bit more, and that’s with all the hassle of getting there in the pouring rain. I would love to see it again, but from the back where I could get a better appreciation of the choreography and blocking and those “freaking sweet” heels.

(Full disclosure – Aileen helped me a lot with this one, because she is a theater reviewer. Soon she will be uploading her own blog posts here, so look for that!)

Review: Heroes of the Fourth Turning

Review: Heroes of the Fourth Turning

I have been a student and fan of the Fourth Turning theory for over a quarter of a century. Imagine my surprise and delight when I learned that a play which incorporates the theory is running off-Broadway. It’s called Heroes of the Fourth Turning, written by Will Arbery and directed by Danya Taymor. I got a ticket for it as soon as I could, and luckily my BFF was able to come along as well. It’s premiering at Playwrights Horizons, which is basically a development house supporting playwrights and producing new works.

Since I am so interested in the aforementioned theory, I wanted to review not so much the play itself as how it presents and incorporates the Fourth Turning concept. So I will be looking at the play through a soda straw, so to speak. But I will start with a brief summary review from a general perspective.

The play we saw is an excellent production. It’s well written, well directed and well acted. It has one long act, entirely set on the back porch of a house in Wyoming, on a very specific night in the year 2017. It has great tech too, with the set design and dark lighting pulling you into a setting that seems very real.

There are only five characters, and the premise of the play is that four of them are from the same college class and are reuniting seven years after graduation. Their dialogue establishes their characters, the tensions between them, and reveals secrets from their past – good dramatic stuff. The fifth character is their former teacher/mentor, who arrives later in the play to add a little generational conflict.

The Fourth Turning idea comes into the script because one of the Millennial graduates is familiar with the theory. She explains it in detail in an animated monologue, which absolutely amazed me to behold, seeing as I’ve been interested in generational theory for so long. I certainly never expected to see it explained one day on stage in New York City.

Now this character knows about the theory thanks to Steve Bannon, which is possibly how many people first encountered it back in 2017. And she’s interested in Bannon’s ideas because she is a conservative Catholic and a Trump supporter. In fact, the college the four graduates attended is a conservative Catholic institution – so the play ends up being a kind of exposé of the Red State perspective. We can see why it is set in Wyoming.

The director’s notes mention that the play is meant to shine light on how people on this side of the political spectrum think, but not necessarily to empathize with them. Judging from their reactions, the audience did not approve of the characters’ beliefs at all (at least that was my impression). The conservative stances on abortion and LBGTQ seemed particularly upsetting. Of course, this is not surprising coming from an audience in New York. The promotional material makes a point about how this show is giving a perspective not usually presented to theater audiences.

The playwright, Will Arbery, actually comes from a conservative, Catholic background himself (though he makes clear in his notes in the program that he voted for Obama), which I guess is why he was motivated to write about the subject of conservative thought. It’s kind of a weird twist of fate that the Fourth Turning theory is associated popularly with the political right, seeing as it could just as easily be applied in a story about supporters of Bernie Sanders.

It’s understandable why a theory about a cyclic return to civic renewal would appeal to a minority group of beleaguered traditionalists. Kudos to Will Arbery for making that connection. He also incorporates the idea of different generations – one of the graduates is a Gen Xer, since he is ten years older than the others, who are Millennials, while the professor is a Boomer who was a Goldwater girl, like Hillary Clinton. It’s the Millennials who are ostensibly the Heroes of the play’s title, and whether or not they are ready for the challenge of the Fourth Turning is for you to decide.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a brilliant play. If you are interested in what a play could have to say about generational theory, or what it could reveal about conservative politics in the Trump era, or just want some good character drama, it is worth seeing. You’ll have to hurry, though – it’s only up through November 17. I hope it finds another venue because it is a wonderful work and very pertinent to our time.

What I Learned About The Constitution

What I Learned About The Constitution

They handed these out to the audience members.

Last weekend I went to Washington D.C. and saw the show What the Constitution Means to Me. That’s where I got this pocket copy of the Constitution of the United States of America, which I have been carrying around. The show was amazing, funny and sad, and thought provoking.

The play is kind of a stand-up routine, and kind of a biographical monologue, and kind of a lecture on political philosophy, and kind of a lot more. It ties in playwright Heidi Schreck‘s experience debating the Constitution in high school with the further evolution of her thinking about it, in light of later life experience and developments in jurisprudence.

Using the vehicle of a recreation of her high school debates, Schreck specifically discusses the 9th amendment, and section 1 of the 14th amendment. The 9th amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, and basically says that the Constitution is not making claims about the limits of anyone’s rights; it’s not saying, “we’ve listed these rights, and that’s all you get.” So there is room in the future to define more rights of the people and limitations of the government in infringing upon them.

The 14th amendment was part of the Reconstruction era, and an important followup to the 13th amendment which banned slavery. Section 1 of the 14th amendment is clarifying that all States within the Union are bound to the laws of the United States; it is explicitly binding the States to the Federal system which is the genius of the government of the United States. For in the U.S., you are a citizen both of the State in which you reside and of the United States as a whole. And the government of your State of residence cannot deny you rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

That is why a gay couple can get married today, even in a State where the government in charge would like to deny them that right. And that is why, in my opinion, secession or splitting the country up would be a terrible, terrible idea. It would leave too many disadvantaged people without essential legal protection. I’ve thought about that before, and this play helped fix that belief in my mind.

Now Schreck is mainly concerned with the issues of reproductive rights and of violence against women. In discussing this, she pulls her family history into the narrative, going back to her mother’s experience growing up in a troubled household. As she relates this to the story of women’s rights under constitutional law, a depressing picture emerges in which women are underprivileged, lower-class citizens. Just consider that women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920.

The stark truth is that the law is in the hands of those who interpret it and enforce it, and these tend not to be women. Schreck’s disappointment at this state of affairs becomes the overarching theme of her play. And this raises some compelling questions – is the Constitution still working? Is it reformable? The show shifts formats at the end to address these questions in a fun and exciting way.

If you feel that the Constitution doesn’t work for you, well, you may well be in the majority, considering that many people today have tuned out of the democratic process. I mean, technically our President should be a dotted outline, considering how many people didn’t vote in 2016. But if the government is so corrupt or ineffective, does that really mean we should give up on it?

Heidi Schreck’s play doesn’t answer that question for you, but it will make you think about it. It sure did for me, and I’m glad I got a chance to see it. I hope you will, too. It is probably too late to see it in D.C., but it should be touring in numerous American cities next year.

The Hashtag Queen

The Hashtag Queen

Last weekend I watched The Baldwin School’s production of Marie Antoinette. It was a challenging play for a high school to put up, and they did so brilliantly.

The script covers the Queen’s life from her early years in the French court up until her fateful end, focusing on her character and attitude, and her reaction to how her adopted country perceived her – which is to say, in an unflattering light. Marie Antoinette was the victim of scurillous slander at the expense of her virtue, and scapegoated for France’s problems, particularly the country’s financial troubles and food shortages. She was blamed because, as an elite living in a bubble, she was unwilling or unable to appreciate how her actions looked to her poor and desperate subjects.

Marie Antoinette was known as the Butterfly Queen, but she might have been called the Hashtag Queen instead, as she was victimized by the same kind of mobbing that happens today on social media. Back then, they used word of mouth and the printed page to transmit information, instead of the Internet, but the effect was the same.

In fact, from what I’ve read about the French Revolution, there are many parallels with our time. France was divided into partisan factions, each seeing the other as a threat to society. The extreme left and right (the terms originate from this era) each enforced their own version of political correctness, making centrist politics untenable. Fake news was as much of a problem then as now, with rumors spreading across the country, inciting the factions against each other. Does it really matter how information is spread? It’s not about the technology, but about the social predilection.

The production I saw reminded us of current events, by dressing the revolutionaries and prison guards in yellow vests. How bad could it get today? I do think that the French Revolution was more violent than we are likely to experience now because the people then were so desperate – France was struggling to emerge from the feudal period, and people were literally on the brink of starvation, meaning they didn’t have much to lose.

In France during the time of Marie Antoinette, everyone eventually got tired of the extremism and just wanted law and order. That was how they ended up with Napoleon. How things will all play out in our time I cannot say, but it is always prudent to reflect on history.