Blog


BARBARA LEE SPEAKS FOR ME (AND FOR THEE)

I am just now sitting down at the computer after having watched the new film Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, and I confess to being a bit awestruck. Lee has been my congressional representative much of my politically aware life. In 1998 She succeeded the iconic Ron Dellums as the 13th district representative to congress  and has since become an icon herself. What I took away from the film was not so much information about her life or her ideas, but a sense of the experience of the woman herself.

I was treated earlier in the week to some biographical information via Joe Garofoli’s It’s All Political podcast on the subject. Before that I knew next to nothing about her early life, about her struggles with poverty and an abusive relationship. And, happily, there was her recent joyous wedding. If anyone deserves that, she absolutely does. Certainly others will glean much from those facts; but  for me, who was here during all of her political life (though I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have), it was the  experience of vicariously reliving her growth amid enormously challenging  circumstances, that I found so compelling.

From her courageous and unique vote against the much-abused post-9/11 war powers resolution (And hasn’t that been proven right over and over and over again on that one?) to her tireless work on behalf of her constituents– especially the unfranchised (children) and the disenfranchised (women and the incarcerated) and pandemic (Aids) victims, she has been a champion of values that represent everyone and everything American.

Shirley Chisolm

When she took her seat, she was virtually the only black woman in congress past or present. Dellums had his own challenges, of course, but at least he was male, and he was not a single parent. Lee had her own (to overuse the word) iconic predecessor in Shirley Chisolm, but Chisolm was gone by the time Barbara came along, so hers was a lonely position to say the least. Not that she started from exactly zero. Her work as a staffer for Dellums gave her some Washington D.C. presence, but not at all a prestigious one.

So what we have here is a hard working politician with compassion and integrity who has become a premiere voice for the downtrodden, one who can take her remarkable life and integrate her experience into legislation and actions that benefit us all. And she did it without seeking the star-power publicity and status that could easily have been hers. But then she wouldn’t be Barbara Lee, would she? She’s almost an anti-politician in perhaps the most political of eras. How fortunate I feel to be one of her followers.

WELCOME BACK TO MURDER, RAPE, AND GORGEOUS MUSIC

 

EUN-SUN-KIM SF OPERA MUSICAL DIRECTOR

For the first time in two years we yesterday evening entered the San Francisco Memorial Opera house for a banquet of that spectacle known as Grand Opera. I won’t say it was worth the wait because the wait seemed interminable and we are still in the midst of the surrounding danger and chaos. Nevertheless, there’s no denying OUR euphoria that we and–judging from the volume of cheers and number of standing ovations–the rest of the crowd floated in on similar emotions and sustained them throughout. It’s the first time I can recall when the chorus got a curtain call at the conclusion of Act I. Maybe it’s the way it always goes with this opera, but it was still a treat.

 Ailyn Pérez in the title role and Michael Fabiano as her ill-starred lover, Cavaradossi in our estimation tore the roof off the place. I’m sure it will be repaired forthwith.

Most notable, however, was the performance of SF Opera’s new musical director, Eun-Sun-Kim. I am no judge of such things, but it seemed to me that the energy and vibrancy she brought to her new role had every bit as much to do with the success of the production as did the voices and authenticity of the performers.

It’s a truncated season, so this is the only show we’ll see till the next round, but my lord, as they way, what a morning.

[FOOTNOTES: The main safety precaution was a requirement to show proof of vaccination. A guy patrolled the incoming lines, checked cards and i.d., then issued a sticker to be shown along with the ticket for admittance.

There were no programs. Whether that was a safety or an economic measure or both, I don’t know. I suspect the latter. There were easels here and there where you could download a program using a QR scanner on your “mobile device,” something we were ill-equipped to do. But there’s always next time.

****TO PETER IMMORTAL****

Hi, Peter.

I was in the process of entitling this piece “requiem,”  but a requiem is a composition  for the already dead, and you aren’t and won’t be. Not allowed. Then I thought of “World Without Peter”, but that wouldn’t do either. As long as  those who love, admire and remember you are walking the earth, you will be with us and there can be no world without

PETER IMMORTAL

Not so very long ago, you came into my life as a ninth grader when I was teaching drama at Berkeley High (Well, it was actually West Campus, not Berkeley High proper, but, lordy, you know the rest of the world doesn’t want to hear about that.) You recall we were to do a musical with a cast made up of ninth graders only. Elliott and I settled quickly on Cabaret.  Kind of juicy for ninth graders (you probably didn’t think so), but the male vocals aren’t too demanding, which you know is a major criterion for youngsters. Plenty of female parts. Also a major criterion. And as for you? Even then you could play show piano like nobody’s business.

Well, we did that show to loud applause, and in the process discovered a whole troupe of singers, dancers, actors, and outstanding human beings who went on to perform one show biz miracle after another from Pajama Game to Company and beyond. And you were still the center of the whole group. And come graduation, it didn’t stop.

Many of you in that sterling group went on to higher ed. and professional theater careers. I was privileged to share in all that by virtue of directing most of the Berkeley High shows and becoming friends with many of you. It was an experience richer than most college and many professionals ever touch. And you were still at the center of it all. Whether at the piano or singing or acting, if you touched it, it turned to gold.

Somewhere, in the midst of all this, the way I remember it, you and I decided to create a show of our own. I was the writer, having done some playwriting and song writing. (You’re no slouch at lyrics yourself, of course.) The idea of working with you, an already accomplished musician even at that young age, was heady. How to choose a project, though?

I don’t recall the process we went through to decide on a play about Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper? A musical? Yep. I’m sure the choice had something to do with your adoration of Stephen Sondheim. I’m sure as well that the influence of Sweeney Todd came to bear. All that matters not, though. We finally came up with a show we called Whitechapel, after the hard-knocks district on London’s East End where Jack the R. did his bloody work.

To my surprise and gratification, after you matriculated at Yale, you eventually arranged for Whitechapel to become a senior project not only for yourself, the composer, but for a number of other Yalee’s as well. Set design. Costume design, etc. You assembled a marvelous company. Me, I stayed back in Berkeley teaching and communicating with the production as best I could while everyone else was in New Haven creating and rehearsing.

Then came production time. I flew east for a week or so. The performance venue was a dining hall, but we uninitiated needed to toss out any images we might have had of a typical college cafeteria-style eatery. This is a stone, high-ceiling, Gothic Revival space entirely evocative of the late nineteenth century atmosphere of poverty and violence our play demands. One slight problem was that people insisted on eating there. Daily. No respect for us artists. Thus, each day we moved furniture and scenery back and forth and created our Victorian hell. Then, rehearsal over, we put it all back together for the next day’s feast.

You, of course, had been the main inspiration for the whole project. As the music director, you had enormous responsibility, and you had garnered enormous respect from the entire company from crew to orchestra to cast. Looking back, I marvel at what a stupendous achievement it all was. And, oh, we had those dreams of skipping off from New Haven to Broadway. That didn’t happen, but what did happen was the creation of what the hundreds of those of us involved in creating it, and all the spectators privileged to see and hear it, remember as a perfectly splendid piece of theater. More important, it was and will always be one important aspect of my life with you,

PETER IMMORTAL

My eternal love to you

Carl

 


DIVE INTO THE POST-PANDEMIC WITH TWO FINE FILMS

It’s been a long drought for us moviegoers. Although the lack of big-theater experiences can’t be compared either in inconvenience or pain to the horrors of Covid-19, if I’m honest (and I occasionally am) I still admit missing walking up to the box office, settling back into a darkened house, and watching large people play out their dramas on the silver screen. Now, it’s easily as important to me as the opportunity to go maskless (almost) without fear or to rub elbows in a crowd to return to that somewhere over the rainbow world.

Lin Manuel Miranda shown sporting a jacket from my granddaughter’s (and his) alma mater

I’ve done it only twice so far. Early on, we took in IN THE HEIGHTS, set in (of course) NYC’s Washington Heights. The name that dominated the whole production was  Hamilton’s Lin Manuel Miranda, though he had much less to do with this one than he did with that historical tour de force. It’s a multicultural, multiracial production that shows fault lines between two dominant groups of the heights–those of Puerto Rican heritage and those from the Dominican Republic. The conflict, predictably, is as the line from the pop song (not from the show) says, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Same conflict as in West Side Story’s “I want To Be In America.” You’d think the theme would be played out by now, but unfortunately not so. I must say the whole thing is Broadway-derivative and a bit too heartwarming and sentimental if you examine it too closely. But if you accept it for what it is and enjoy the return of movie magic, it’s a winner.

From the urban America of IN THE HEIGHTS, we take you now to rural Italy and the adventures of a bunch of old–and I do mean old–guys and their canine companions as they scrabble through the forests in search of the rarest and most expensive fungi in the world.

THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS refers both to the humans and their doggie partners who labor mightily to bring this delicacy from their near-poverty dwellings  to the plates of the hoi polloi worldwide.

I’d always thought of truffle hunters (when I thought of them at all) as pigs, but apparently dogs are really good at it also. The film centers on the close relationships between the men (and their families) and the animals who scour the woods in search of this apparently exquisite treat. We see not only the hunt, but the ridiculous attitude economically upper class humans bring to the whole enterprise. Hunks of truffles are ensconced in wine glasses and passed from nose to nose as people make pretentious noises every bit as pompous as those which  sommeliers spout over vintners’ artistry.

As heartwarming and lovely as the truffle warriors themselves are, it is hard to ignore the sense of class oppression and exploitation that comes along with an enterprise that plunders the labor and pain of the workers and transforms it into huge profits for the fat and sassy. But that’s an old story and one certainly not limited to the world of high-class fungi, and it’s certainly not what the  The old guys feel about themselves. They and their dogs are the center of the story, and they are as genuine and honest and touching as they can be.

The film is undoubtedly too slow for some, but I found it overall endearing and a great testimony to the capacity for human happiness even in the face of what from the outside looks like adversity and disadvantage.

 

 


HEART OF FIRE– MAZIE HIRONO’S BURNING MEMOIR

“What the fuck happened?” Not a quote I expected to find in a memoir from a petite, modest, and soft-spoken Asian lady. Said lady, Senator Mazie Hirono, was explaining to Hillary Clinton what she thought was missing from the title Clinton’s recent memoir of the 2016 elections entitled What Happened? It’s a moment that typifies both the spirit and the evolution of this shrewd and fiery Hawaiian as she battled her way from her poverty-filled and a non-English-speaking childhood to a seat in the U.S. Senate, sitting among the highest elected officials in the land.

Hirono’s parents labored in the cane and pineapple fields of Hawaii in conditions that approached slavery. Her father made things worse with his drinking and philandering. It was a situation scripted for failure. What happened, indeed? I have a friend who contends that if you want to change a culture and economy, forget about the men. Support and educate the women. That’s where strength of the family, and by extension, the society, lies. Hirono’s mother proves the point. I won’t catalogue the times and ways that she saved that family. How? Certainly not with a $200 million gift from daddy. Daddy was mostly absent and drunk. In fact, there was no money at all most of the time. So little that one of the children had to live apart from the rest in his earliest years, and everyone paid a high price for the separation. That circumstance fostered her all-out assault on Trump’s child separation policy. But Hirono’s story does raise in my mind an even bigger question. How do you go from a semi-literate Japanese speaker toiling in the fields, married to a useless and even destructive husband, to an English language typesetter and raise and educate three kids at the same time? Read Heart of Fire and find out. However, if you’re like me, even after reading the story you might still wonder how such a thing is possible.

But I guess the how of it is not as important as the fact of it, and the fact is that one of the strongest and most authentic voices for compassion and liberty in the country is one we can hear and treasure regularly in print and on the small screen. From her finding ways to change the lives of her constituents to her skill in helping shepherd the Affordable Care Act through congress, her story is one that defines the idea of public service. Public service, not self-service. She became one of Trump’s fiercest critics not because she wanted to make headlines but because she was one of his “others.” A woman, first of all. A woman whose family were immigrants. A woman who knows from personal experience what it means to be poor with all the demonic forces of a hostile society arrayed against you and yours and still come out on top.

Mazie Hirono

 Heart of Fire is an astounding story, and once you read it, you’ll understand the title and it will give you hope.