By now it should come as no surprise that, following the tragic home-grown terrorism event in Las Vegas, the usual crowd of conservative cowards has been clutching their pearls while nervously cautioning that "this is not the time to talk about gun control." Fuck that shit! In Shakespeare's famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, the dying Mercutio cries out "A plague o' both your houses."
It's no secret that Republicans failed to show the slightest interest in doing anything about AIDS, Alzheimer's, or abortion until it affected members of their own families (e.g. Nancy Reagan, Tim Murphy). What's my response to their pusillanimous pleas for pseudo-patriotic politeness? I keep thinking about that scene in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 version of The Ten Commandments when the angel of death (represented by a mysterious green cloud) kills all the firstborn sons of Egyptian families. Substitute the word "Republican" for "Egyptian" and I think you'd see some pretty fast action on gun control measures.
Meanwhile, let no one suggest that San Francisco's theatre community shies away from controversial issues. In September, Taylor Mac held court at San Francisco's Curran Theatre while performing A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. As the production's costume designer, Machine Dazzle, explained:
"What emerges is a retelling of American history as seen through a gay, queer eye. It's the history that was never told. It just wasn't there. It's not in any of the books, so we're re-imagining that. There are all these creatives in history who might have been looked at as being crazy. There have always been people who think differently, and I feel like we're representing them."
October brought back-to-back world premieres at two Bay area theatre companies of new works by African-American playwrights trying to put a new spin on why black lives (and not just all lives) matter. Both plays dealt with uniquely American attitudes toward African Americans by humanizing the issue through a rarely-explored lens: interracial relationships.
- One was bursting with passion; the other merely talked about the passion one man claimed to feel.
- One was strikingly contemporary, with an immediacy that could not be ignored. The other tried to breathe life into a historical fantasy which (although it provided plenty of fodder for mental masturbation) continued to lose steam during the performance.
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As artistic director of the Marin Theatre Company, Jasson Minadakis is proud to have commissioned Thomas and Sally, a new work by Thomas Bradshaw who, in describing his work to the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, stressed that:
“Theater is not and should not be viewed as a simple, self-congratulatory form of entertainment. It should slap the audience awake with its audacity and rivet them with its electricity. A play should explode in one's mind so that all else is wiped clean, and what is left is the experience. Too many plays fail to inspire any response in audiences. Many plays simply regurgitate whatever it is that a particular audience wants to hear. These plays fail to move any societal debate beyond where it already is.”
“I write to challenge social norms and provoke audiences to question their deep-seated beliefs about the world. I believe it is the duty of artists to inspire audiences to question the world around them, to provoke them to interrogate what is true and what is illusion. When my audiences leave the theater, the debates on the sidewalk outside are not about coffee or tea; questions are raised, taboo discussions are had. This happens because people are presented with art that shakes their foundations. Some people are frightened by the radical and forceful way I present my subjects: race, class, sex, religion and society. My plays drag them from the comfortable shadows of their caves, kicking and screaming, into the blinding light of the sun.”
Working on a cleverly designed unit set by Sean Fanning with period costumes by Ashley Holvick and lighting designed by Mike Post, Bradshaw's play begins in a college dorm room as Simone (Ella Dershowitz) and Karen (Rosie Hallett) discover that one roommate has borrowed the other's dildo and failed to clean it before returning the sex toy to its proper resting place.
Following an excellent moment of expedient expectoration, Simone drops a little truth bomb: she is a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson (who, during this scene, looms above the stage like a Confederate statue looking down on modern civilization). With Karen struggling to find her way into a history assignment, the playwright has the red-wigged Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) come down from his lofty pedestal and two other figures from colonial days enter through the bedroom's closets.
The conversation is soon peppered with period-specific language describing the virtues of mulattos as compared to darker-skinned niggers and how they make life so much more interesting for Jefferson and his fellow slave owners. Jefferson's house nigger, Jupiter Evans (L. Peter Callender), brutally humiliates and physically abuses an innocent young slave named Robert Hemings (Cameron Matthews).
By the end of the first act, the audience has had a chance to see the nude Robert Hemings paraded across the stage while trying to hide his genitals and the heroic Jefferson standing buck naked in a bathtub as another slave washes him. A lot of information about pre-revolutionary life that is routinely omitted from textbooks makes its way into Bradshaw's script, including a comical scene suggesting how Jefferson ended up writing the Declaration of Independence.
This may just be the playwright's method of triggering the snowflakes in the audience with so much righteous indignation that they will feel compelled to leave the theatre following the first act. Bradshaw's plot is laden with a heavy mixture of historical exposition and fanciful speculation about how (and by whom) Jefferson's numerous children were born and whether he was as liberal as history portrayed him. What soon becomes evident is that the playwright may have shot the bulk of his dramatic wad during Act I. Following intermission, his three-act play (which runs at least 2-1/2 hours) seems to wheeze on down the road toward its denouement.
Late in life, after some laboratory tests continued to return negative, my mother would frequently complain that "the patient is dying of improvement." Sadly, Bradshaw's plotting becomes increasingly plodding as Jefferson keeps humming snippets of Mozart's music, introduces Sally Hemings (Tara Pacheco) to the joys of cunnilingus, teaches her how to play the violin, argues about the electoral college, and tries to convince his daughter Patsy (who is furious that Jefferson bought his slave a nicer dress than hers) that it's important for a man of his lofty position to appear wealthy to the French who, after all, are on the brink of their own revolution.
All this is window dressing for the sociopolitical issues this play tries to address (most of which involve the privileged status of wealthy white men who, as members of the aristocracy, always get to play by rules designed for their benefit despite the cost to others).
- The fact that Jefferson started having sex with Sally Hemings when she was 14 does not result in him being labeled a pedophile or sexual predator prone to statutory rape, but rather as a caring and benevolent landowner whose attention is something his slaves should feel "grateful" for. Thus, although women may think that the 47-year-old Jefferson is an old man (despite the fact that he has no problem achieving enough erections to demand sex 3-4 times a day), Jefferson's protestations of his love for Sally are always on his own terms. When he speaks of his passion for Hemings, her presence in his bed seems more like a sexual convenience. When Jefferson asks Sally to return to Monticello with him (where her child might be born a slave), her strong desire to remain in Paris -- where her child would be free-born -- is secondary to his wounded feelings and sexual desire.
- Jefferson's desire to have Sally's brother, James (William Hodgson), return to Virginia with him -- where local laws could once again classify James as a slave -- follows a similar pattern. Not only does the esteemed Founding Father promise to write his will in such a way that James would be emancipated following his master's death, Jefferson gets his cook to agree to return to Monticello by appealing to the younger man's belief that he, too, is "a man of honor." In truth, this tactic is merely the older man's way to coerce James (who is sorely tempted by the allure of freedom to stay in Paris) to bend to his master's voice. A wealthy plantation owner's triumph of the will, if you will.
As Bradshaw's play progresses it becomes quite clear that, despite the noble sentiments expressed in Jefferson's writing, the older statesman (like many men his age) acts on the premise that a stiff dick knows no conscience. This just shows that, in more subtle ways than the 45th President, the man who became America's Third President was not merely a master to his slaves, but a master manipulator.
In the final scenes, the action reverts to the dorm room where the audience is brought back down to earth by the realization that they have been listening to Simone's interpretation of her family's history (which the young woman stresses is not based on any known facts). To Simone's unenlightened mind (shaped by a youthful sense of willful ignorance), it's just not fair for people to brush aside the possibility that Sally Hemings might have sacrificed her freedom because she truly loved Jefferson --a form of twisted logic which is about as satisfying to an adult audience as Donald Trump's pathetic justification for "grabbing women by the pussy."
Although Bradshaw's script contains numerous laugh lines, his play paints Thomas Jefferson (like many contemporary Republican politicians) as being a conservative in the streets, but a liberal between the sheets. As Jefferson, Mark Anderson Phillips seems genuinely torn between his professional responsibilities and his more amorous affairs. Tara Pacheco is radiant as Sally, with Ella Dershowitz alternating between Simone, Martha Jefferson, and Polly Jefferson. Rosie Hallett portrays Karen, Abigail Adams, and Patsy Jefferson with Charlette Speigner maintaining a strong presence as both Betty Hemings and a French woman named Renee (whose father is determined to marry her off to some grotesque old geezer).
Elsewhere in the cast, William Hodgson shines as the obedient James Hemings (who had been planning to open his own restaurant near Versailles before Jefferson decided to return to Monticello). Cameron Matthews appears as young Robert Hemings as well as Hugo (a Frenchman who momentarily offers shelter to Sally and Renee when they flee Jefferson's Parisian abode).
In addition to L. Peter Callender's angry portrayal of Jupiter Evans and a foppish French tailor, Robert Sicular appears in numerous roles ranging from Benjamin Franklin and John Wayles to a French cook. Scott Coopwood has some nice moments as Lafayette and the kitchen helper, Jacques.
Under the direction of Jasson Minadakis, the company keeps changing costumes, periods, and time frames with a dream-like fluidity. Bradshaw's play clarifies that while it's sweet reverie to imagine that true love can conquer institutionalized racism, the rich white man who holds all the power in such situations has the deck stacked in his own favor.
Performances of Thomas and Sally continue through October 22 at the Marin Theatre Company (click here for tickets).
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The two qualities most lacking from Thomas and Sally are a genuine sense of passion and the kind of writing that keeps an audience riveted to their seats. While both productions use projections to amplify their timeline, the world premiere of This Bitter Earth (a blazing new drama commissioned by New Conservatory Theatre Center from the talented Harrison David Rivers) stands head and shoulders above Bradshaw's historical fantasy.
This Bitter Earth has only two characters. Neil (Michael Hanna) is a an extremely idealistic white trust fund baby whose financial security (and a master's degree in economics) allow him the freedom to pursue his passion for social justice. Jesse (H. Adam Harris) is a more cautious gay man who just wants to be able to live his own life; a black playwright whose father is a devout Baptist.
- Whereas Neil has no trouble following his passions (which currently focus on the Black Lives Matter movement), Jesse is resolutely apolitical, constantly wrestling with himself to understand his own feelings.
- While Neil may come from a family with liberal values, Jesse was raised by extremely conservative parents.
- Neil has rarely been attracted to other white men; Jesse has similarly shown little interest in dating other black men.
- Although Neil is the kind of impulsive person who will spring into action on a moment's notice, Jesse is more of a procrastinator who is content to spend long hours in front of his computer.
There's no doubt that for these two men, opposites attract. One of the playwright's strengths, however, is in being able to capture the combination of physical, emotional, and intellectual intimacy that so obviously feeds the love between Neil and Jesse and bring to life onstage. In describing his process for crafting a play, Rivers explains that:
“I write when I hear something: When I hear a voice. When I hear a line. When I hear a song. When I see a piece of movement in my mind. That's when the play begins. I just try to follow that and be as open and honest as I can. The challenge with the process for this play has been navigating how open/honest/transparent (in terms of transferring some of my own life experience onto the page) I’m willing/able to be -- and understanding that the more open/honest/transparent I am, the more affecting the narrative/storytelling will be.”
“This Bitter Earth concerns a mixed-race couple struggling to sustain their relationship in the midst of a sociopolitically charged moment in history: the present. Their struggles with race, with sexuality, with the everyday navigation of love/commitment, are very much in line with the rest of my body of work. I hope audiences (gay, straight, black, white) see themselves in Jesse and Neil and that seeing themselves gives them pause and maybe forces them to look at the world around them a bit differently. As far as I’m concerned, the ultimate goal is always empathy. More empathy. You can’t have too much empathy.”
Commissioned and developed as part of NCTC’s New Play Development Lab. This Bitter Earth was also worked on in the Twin Cities, where H. Adam Harris (who portrays Jesse) is the Education Coordinator at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, the Lead Facilitator at Penumbra Theatre Company, and a faculty member at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists. Working on Devin Kasper's simple unit set with lighting by Robert Hahn, projections by Sarah Phykitt, and sound design by James Hard), Ed Decker has done an exquisite job of pacing This Bitter Earth with remarkable energy as the audience follows Neil and Jesse through a series of flashbacks, triumphs, confrontations, and shattering setbacks.
A great deal of the production's success can be credited to the two actors who embody Neil and Jesse. Having worked together through a long process of artistic development, Harris and Hanna share the body language of a gay couple who can lovingly tease each other, yet be wracked with pain in moments of anger, frustration, and loss. One never feels as if these talented artists are merely taking their audience on a dramatic journey; Harris and Hanna come across as two acutely self-aware gay characters trying to protect and preserve their space in the world.
None of their fine work onstage would be possible without the superb script by Harrison David Rivers. I can't remember another play where, after the first three lines, I was convinced that I was in for one hell of a ride. Delivered with a naked simplicity by Harris as he sits before the audience, Jesse's opening monologue is every bit as powerful and moving as the speech, much later in the play, in which Neil forcefully explains to his lover that when he talks about how and why black lives matter, he is talking about how and why Jesse's life matters to him. That speech alone is worth the price of admission.
Rather than give away any spoilers, let me just urge people to rush out and purchase tickets to this exquisite memory play. Its running time is nearly as long as Thomas and Sally and yet This Bitter Earth gathers much more momentum as it carries its audience through time and space on a roller coaster of emotions.
Performances of This Bitter Earth continue through October 22 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer.