DISCOVERING WHAT’S BEYOND EXPRESSION IN NICE FISH

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One unique part about attending a play at St. Ann’s Warehouse is the stroll down Water Street looking onto a lit up Brooklyn Bridge. Given New York generally bustles along so consistently it can feel soft and other-worldly; which is not a bad state to engage with when going to believe a piece of fiction come to life!

 

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In my attendance of the American Repertory Theatre’s NICE FISH at St. Ann’s Warehouse yesterday, a new play by Mark Rylance and a collaborator poet/playwright Louis Jenkins, I reserved best efforts to sit in my house left back row seat with quiet resolve to innocently spy on the work of a beloved actor that I’m dying to collaborate with one day.

 

Success!

 

As I was one of the first to slip away down the stairs after the 95 minute play I think I may have gone unnoticed (at least my obsession). I did notice that I was changed! I was specifically enthralled with the ability to “stitch together [poems and passages] like an old American quilt of beloved garments, each one bearing a piece of history, an experience.” (as Rylance put it in his A Word or Two of Welcome…)

 

This play is unique in that the text itself is comprised of a series of prose poems by Louis Jenkins who noted that putting this play together was like a “jigsaw puzzle… except that there were extra pieces and places continually shifted.” Being a person that is daily fueled by poems this play simply solidified my not-such-a-secret-anymore-and-I’m-not-the-only-one need to watch Rylance collaborate! As he put it:

 

This play is, truly, a collaboration between all the actors [Kayli Carter, Raye Birk, Mark Rylance, Bob Davis, Jim Lichtscheidl], a poet, a playwright, a director [Claire Van Kampen], the stage managers and designers, and now you, the audience and spectators.

 

In this playful show I was formally introduced to the prose poems of Louis Jenkins who described his discovery that his poems didn’t need to sit alone by watching a YouTube clip of Rylance humorously reciting one for a Best Actor Tony Award. And so the collaboration ensued… leading towards Nice Fish.

 

Now it’s not a conventional play. I’ll just put that boldly out into the blog-sphere. The characters make relevant conversations and thoughts that seem to swirl in and out of their consciousness far into a Midwest winter. In that sense an absurd quality surfaces throughout the play and even a fourth wall break give the sense that ‘all the world’s a stage’.

 

What struck me is that with prose poetry the language seems to fit within the characters’ world. Unlike the use of more metrical and rhythmic poems that would tend to become interludes and transitions (minus Shakespeare of course)… these prose poems became the characters’ own words and hence choices to communicate with each other and express their ideas, annoyances, senses of humor etc.

 

According to Van Kampen the “component” of time is noticeable in the play because there becomes a consciousness of the fact that there are things above the ice and hidden below the ice… “the fullness of [the characters’] psyche has time to emerge and confront them.” while confronting nature.

 

In using the poems as methods to communicate the activities of the characters such as fishing, building a tent or simply standing on the ice confronting nature the activities became secondary to the inner life of the characters. Possibly even obstacles to the characters being able to either talk about what they were feeling, or affect the other character in some way. Seemingly ‘ordinary’ lives of some Midwesterners became active through the prose by reminding each other of old crushes, debts due and by making each other laugh while avoiding the numbing sensation of the cold.

 

One particular moment where ice unexpectedly melted was when the young girl, Flo (Carter), who doesn’t seem to know much of loss yet recites a poem that effectively reminds everyone else around her that there is an entrance into a dark lake of feeling that normally must stay relatively covered up. It was like the characters around her could hear the ice creaking underneath their feet but didn’t want to show her that elaborating on their losses could result in them all slipping under the ice at any moment if not careful or quiet… instead her guardian pats her on the head to hint that she is loved beyond expression.

 

Beyond expression… it’s funny that poems and plays are elaborate efforts to express human experiences and yet it ends up being the moments where our language (spoken or non-verbal) is limited that are most interesting. Every so often there’s a collective pause and understanding of a mysterious connection to everyone and everything that is just beyond our expressions.

 

Except maybe the expression of Rylance’s character Ron as a talking snowman – a talking snowman reminding ice fishing humans about global warming captures it all.

 

Okay I’m off to use my gathered intelligence to figure out how to incorporate poetry of all sorts into my daily communicative efforts and expressions. Like maybe this free verse:

 

…but looking back

the memories

flash

bright and true

quick

transparent

and gone

but held onto

somehow intangibly… 

 

Signing off,

 

Truly Inspired!

 

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KEEPING WHAT WE LOVE ALIVE

 

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I AM MORE THAN INSPIRED… I AM PROUD!

 

It happened because I went to see an Off-Off-Broadway show that my classmates and friends staged last night!

 

Dolores is a one-act play shedding light on sisterhood and struggles with domestic violence. The play was written by Edward Allan Baker – whom I happened to meet last night- as I was helping out at the box office at The Playroom Theatre. (Yeah… so that was cool…)

 

Most importantly the play was raising awareness about domestic violence and violence against women. The beautiful and talented ladies Paulina Cossio (in my drama school grad year!) and Luisa Muhr (Artistic Director of the Fengari Ensemble co-producing this play) worked with director Kathleen McNenny to bring forth this story of sibling love and strive for healthy lives despite unimaginable, violent and cyclical circumstances.

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I learn by going where I have to go. – Theodore Roethke

 

I’ve shared this quote in a Thank You card that I once gave to the dialect coach of this play, Julia Lenardon, who was also one of my voice and speech teachers in drama school. I like it because it embodies what she instilled in me when learning about a dialect (she informed me that in this play the ladies are from Rhode Island). By taking the time to get very specific and learn how to speak and sound the way that another person speaks it can often give an actor insight into how to look through the eyes of that character.

 

I was reminded of the Roethke’s quote because I witnessed my friendly friends embody and transform into two characters (dialect and all) that have suffered and/or witnessed violent crimes. In doing so I began to be introduced to Dolores (Cossio), a woman currently compelled into retaliation and self-defense after years of domestic violence, and her sister Sandra (Muhr), who grew up watching Dolores enter abusive relationships and has journeyed into a marriage of her own that she finds comfortable and safe. These two contrasting personalities and experiences highlighted a journey from childhood until this very crucial point in their lives where Dolores has decided she can’t take the abuse anymore.

 

The play inadvertently helps the audience understand better what abusive and/or violent cycles of behaviour look like, how they disguise themselves into domestic life and relationships from an early age, and (if the cycles are not addressed or broken) how they will unfortunately resurface in adult relationships again and again.

 

We try to keep what we love alive. We do it by our daily living and by our work. My need to learn about other people’s lives through books and plays has been a need to make life more vivid as I am living it. Not to let the days go by unnumbered or without meaning. And the longer I have lived the more I have counted on the life force of work to keep me alive. – Marian Seldes.

 

I like, and was reminded of, this Seldes quote because as actors and theatre makers and participants we get to do exactly that – keep what we love alive. We can do it by learning about other people’s lives; women like Sandra and Dolores who can shed light on breaking cycles of violence. In doing so, even if we don’t share the extreme experiences of the characters by transforming into them we can recognize that some people do. We can recognize that these lives and these issues matter. We can work together to do what we love to do (embody other people) and it’s inevitable that we will touch other souls that way. Maybe even contribute to ending cycles of violence!

 

Our work, if we give ourselves over to it and support each other’s efforts, can keep stories alive! A tradition even older than Shakespeare himself! In following this tradition, and in focusing on doing our work well… it will in turn keep us alive in our love of working. I saw my friends do this last night – and they’ll do it again for the last two performances on Wednesday night. Oh and I’ll be in the box office helping out… I wonder who else will show up? Hehe

 

Tickets and information about DOLORES, the Fengari Ensemble and/or how to donate to SHEARED (an organization raising awareness about domestic violence): https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/dolores-fengari-ensemble#/ 


 “…[t]he most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself— or will use military violence against another country— is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy: it’s violence against females. It normalizes all other violence.” – Gloria Steinem, My Life On The Road

(photo courtesy of Rob Douthat)

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CONVINCING ME THAT NOTHING IS A FLUKE

Hanging out in New York City after putting in approximately six hours into the day job goes a little something like this for me: catch the afternoon cinema show of Suffragette at Times Square; text conversations with friend who is still at her day job to coordinate meeting spot for seeing theatre show, Allegiance, a few hours later; and, find familiar spot to wait it out.

I’m becoming convinced that nothing is a fluke and I happened to see the movie Suffragette and the Broadway musical Allegiance on the same day and so I’m going to tie my thoughts and experiences of the two different mediums and shows together now. I won’t be able to separate my experience of them completely since I saw them on the same day and the mind works like that – linking images and thoughts together finding patterns or stark contrasts as it goes along.

The front page of The Suffragette newspaper depicts Emily Wilding Davison, who died under the hooves of the King's horse at Epsom, as an angel, 13th June 1913. (Photo by Sean Sexton/Getty Images)

The front page of The Suffragette newspaper depicts Emily Wilding Davison, who died under the hooves of the King’s horse at Epsom, as an angel, 13th June 1913. (Photo by Sean Sexton/Getty Images)

Chronologically my experience started with a female-led cast of Suffragette recounting the path of women receiving the right to vote in the United Kingdom. The film was extremely well cast and it was very moving – being a woman myself and knowing that I was watching an account of historical figures who actually did fight for me to be able to exercise the right to vote, to hold property, to demand equal pay etc. It really says something that, for stories about women, it is very difficult to separate female relationships with their friends/family/coworkers/employers, and the motivations and actions that changed history. It might suggest that depicting women’s ability to carry their relationships has a lot to do with their capacity to infiltrate daily motivations and actions with what they fight for. It demonstrates that how women are forced to fight for their needs is an ability that proves much more difficult if society prescribes an unequal dynamic and voice in the home, the workplace and in political arenas.

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As for the history of how women suffragettes fought for equal rights – the movie reiterates that it was a fight that escalated into violence and self-sacrifice that is quite frightening (consequences of asking for an equal place in society resulted in police beatings, jail time, hunger strikes, loss of friends lives, breakdown of families etc.). These consequences were often inflicted on extremely over-worked human beings too. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to imagine what the world would look like if this level of conflict and scrutiny of the law had not occurred. The history puts into perspective that the past legislative discrimination still lingers on systemically and the leveling out of equal rights for men and women, and human beings in general, is necessary to pay attention to today! Prescribing equal rights in print requires an ongoing effort to infiltrate the effect of past discrimination into the every day lives of people. In effect it seems there is actually less violence and discrimination in the home, the workplace and in political arenas. (I’m all for that – less violence in all its forms – world peace yeah).

The film does indicate how women born or married into more privilege or class (Ramola Garai’s character) had a different level of safety and protection in fighting for equal rights than say… the protagonist ‘laundress’ (Carey Mulligan) of very low class and education. The only other craving for me in this film (being of mixed Algonquin, Scottish, Irish, Welsh ancestry) was to see some color – the experience of women of color who would have experienced a double discrimination of sorts (not being able to be ‘human’ due to being a woman and a non-Caucasian person). It could have been interesting to juxtapose that discrimination with the experiences of suffragettes who were Caucasian. Mind you – I saw myself and people I know in all of these characters in Suffragette regardless of their race or class – and that I appreciated and applauded the filmmaker and cast for. I’ve also recently studied a character, Joyce – a low-status laundress, in Carol Churchill’s Top Girls for a scene study class in the summer – so I couldn’t help heavily empathize with Carey Mulligan’s character learning to participate in society despite the severe limitations on her ability to do so.

Hmmmmmm…. so I went from that movie to watching the experience of Japanese-Americans that were incarcerated and placed in concentration camps on American soil during World War II. At my lovely day job… I’d actually greeted the famed George Takei in New York… which had caused me to Google him (LOL) and find out about this musical Allegiance in which he mainly plays, Ojiichan, a grandfather. I’m SO GLAD I DID!

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The inspiration and guiding light of this production was “Gaman”, a Japanese word that captures a principle of “endurance and dignity”. In fights for equal rights it seems many people have returned to this principle in order to stay strong through the vulnerability that accompanies a lower, unequal status in society. The Japanese experience of discrimination is also inextricably linked to the ability to carry their families with them. Having just seen Suffragette I started to see Caucasian women have this quality as well – it’s just not called “Gaman” all the time. The “Gaman” thread in Allegiance was intricately and invisibly woven by Takei’s character… the eldest/ grandfather to his children and grandchildren leaving an essence of strength and humor hand-in-hand wherever he went. In the musical he actually gardens and places chimes on the doorstep and these simple daily activities of fertilizing the ground and listening to the sound of chimes are symbolic of his effect on his family and his lingering presence. The embodiment of “Gaman” was in this old man, soon to become an ‘ancestor’, and had lightly folded his way into his family’s minds and on the very ground they’ll walk long past the horrible experiences of the concentration camps. I know people like Ojiichan, some of my ancestors – and my Vietnamese godfather in particular – was like him too, and I won’t forget Takei’s performance and ‘guiding light’. I truly believe that kindness can live on despite all odds.

And hey – if I didn’t work my lovely day job I mightn’t have fluked out and ‘Googled’ him and been struck by this performance. I also might not have had the extra motivation to jet out of the day job to watch some female actresses I admire pave the way for really great female characters in cinema. So I’m now more convinced that nothing is a fluke.

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(here’s to kindness… and world peace…) 

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UGLY LIES THE BONE

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In the Roundabout Theatre‘s Ugly Lies the Bone a war veteran, Jess (Mamie Gummer), uses virtual reality therapy to recover from trauma and to manage her residual physical and emotional pain. In the process Jess leans on her older sister Kacie (Karron Graves), takes her anger out on her sister’s boyfriend Kelvin (Haynes Thigpen), searches for recollection of her beauty from a past flame Stevie (Chris Stack), and yearns for love from her aging mother (Caitlin O’Connell). Jess’ search for love and recollection of her former beauty is a heart-breaking task given the fact that she has become unrecognizable and is covered in physical scars from battle.

This play about the resilient relationship that is ‘sisterhood’ inevitably had me pondering. All of my siblings would agree that we have the ultimate big sister. A ten-year gap in age difference resulted in her taking me under her wing quite a lot. To the effect that when she first trekked off to university and left this kid sister behind… I wrote my very first poem. (It was also the first delightful time I can recollect being able to shock and dismay my parents with an inner life behind my pig-tailed, doll-like exterior – muhahahaha!). The simple sentiment was written:

My sister Jenn has gone away and I feel like a flower dying.

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I didn’t think much about the poem until recently although Jenn has it tucked away in some cupboard somewhere. I’ve since had ample opportunity to experience leaving my family to pursue my own dreams. Luckily my sister is so busy with her own children now that, save a few tears at the airport, there are no more depressing poems about parting. However, my life has a funny way of letting the meaning of my relationships sink in casually and intermittingly. I get caught up in the moments and sifting through the meaning of life’s moments tends to happen on nights like tonight. Tonight the meaning of sisterhood sunk in by virtue of watching a play about what & who helps a woman recover from pain and trauma.

Life can be quite painful at times and even normal occurrences, like parting with a sister from time to time, can produce poems and images of a six year old drooping over ‘like a flower dying’. In this play Jess’ pain is not only internal, but severely visible on the outside… all the time. The struggle to stand on one’s own becomes physicalized in Jess’ struggle to recover. I saw the right side of her body crumple inwards leaving the left side to pick up all the slack. This play begs the question if learning to stand on one’s own is a necessary skill – or if finding life’s compensation, like somebody to lean on, is actually more important?

In watching Jess’ physical beauty stripped from her due to skin burns I was forced to reconstruct my idea of the relationship between ‘ugly’ and ‘beauty’. The core of Jess’ humanity surfaced in a way that it might not have had she continued to stand on her own in her previously ‘beautiful’ state. The fading of her physical beauty forced her to face her fear and discover that the people she loved most in the world remember her for her true beauty. The letting go of her anger opens her up to the imperfect love that her sister and friends still have to offer. Leave it to Meryl Streep’s daughter (Gummer) to bring great vulnerability to a role such that I reflected on my own relationships and truly appreciate them. She contributed to a lifelong journey of mine to deconstruct the relationship between beautiful & ugly, dark & light, new & old, beginning & ending.

At times – and often in beginnings – we love the beauty that covers up the ugly, but at other times life asks us to love the ugly as it covers up true beauty – especially as we get closer and closer to endings.

Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone.

Beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own.

By the way – now I feel like a flower thriving:

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DRUIDSHAKESPEARE MARATHON

2 PM Richard II

3:35 PM INTERMISSION

3:55 PM Henry IV, Part I

5:25 PM INTERMISSION

6:10 PM Henry IV, Part II

7:10 PM INTERMISSION

7:30 PM Henry V

8:55 PM END

Sooooooo HERE’S THE CRAIC:

Clear plastic ponchos are optional in the ‘splash zone’ of the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre in New York City. The location of DruidShakespeare Company’s adaptation and amalgamation of the plays Richard II, Henry IV: Part I, Henry the IV: Part II and Henry V as part of the Lincoln Center Festival 2015. Mark O’Rowe was the writer and Garry Hynes the director.

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I wore said poncho and shared a few chuckles over it with the other poncho bearers. I am sure I looked HILARIOUS. However, it did shield my wardrobe from the blood, dirt and rain that risked falling off that stage during fight sequences. Nothing fell off the stage onto me except sound (although the stage floor was lined with dirt, there was a lot of blood and fighting, and some puking). I felt very ‘considered’ by the theatre though!

O’Rowe was capturing a “play about fathers and sons… leadership, honor, the question of which elements contribute most to greatness – birth or environment or both. It’s about class… affections a leader must quell or kill in himself… to be a leader – which relationships he must terminate, which to nourish. It’s about war – it’s origins, its workings, its consequences.” (Lincoln Center Festival 2015 Program)

An interesting thing to notice was the choice to gravitate towards the performers’ native Irish dialects rather than towards a more English sound or classical stage speech. I sadly did not attend the talkback, but just finished a rehearsal with a friend who DID attend and she TOLD me (*tisk*tisk* on the hearsay here…) that the company’s voice coach, Andrew Wade, encouraged this move. Two things to point out here regardless of debates over how to ‘speak Shakespeare’: 1. The actors felt very grounded and connected to each other while in their Irish dialects; 2. You can tell that Andrew still worked on making the language and sound production clear and consistent so it carried in the theatre. In this way I always ‘heard’ the story due to a clever use of consonant and vowel stress choices on the actors’ parts.

ACTOR LESSON for me was that whatever the dialect happens to be an actor’s muscularity of speech is an asset.

Another most interesting thing to notice (and I’d be a fool to not talk about) is Haynes’ gender blind casting. I LOVE IT! IT’S NICE TO SEE MORE OF IT. I ALSO WANT TO BE PART OF IT AS AN ACTOR.

The company of thirteen actors played over a hundred characters with some female actors playing men. King Henry IV (Derbhle Crotty), King Henry V (Aisling O’Sullivan), Lord Chief Justice (Marie Mullen) and others. Why am I so intrigued? I think it has to do with the human spirit, regardless of gender, and the getting to know what identity is all about including both the dark/bright, high/low, masculine and feminine parts of it.

As actors we are trained to use our bodies and voices as vessels to transform into another identity – that of another human being. It is so exciting to see where an actor is different and where an actor is similar to a character – and sometimes this can be scary. By shifting a center of energy from the head to the heart or even the hips in an actor’s body the character’s perspective can change. Moving through space differently can change the point of view of a human being. Moving through space in a traditionally ‘masculine’ way seems to afford O’Sullivan more freedoms as King Henry V. Even in the very simple manner of speaking louder and more boldly than if he were bound to the movements of a female, in high status, of the era. The transformation of an actor into a character is fascinating. More importantly the shifts in identity that a character makes on stage is the character’s story. If the character’s story is being told physically, psychologically, emotionally, vocally… then what difference does the gender of the actor make?

On the flip side a male actor has often been known to play a character that is a woman (original Shakespearean actors)… and up until present continues to embody effeminate male characters with often traditionally ‘feminine’ traits. I really enjoyed watching Marty Rae’s character (Richard II) transform from a fragile, emotionally stunted King into a bold, rascal of a usurped ‘cousin’ to Henry IV. A really interesting metaphor is used, a looking glass, when he is finally usurped by King Henry IV. Richard II opens the play in a more ‘feminine’, ethereal, goddess like state that is slowly stripped away with his power. As he ‘looks through the looking glass’ he finally transforms his identity towards a singular, more human, angry ‘masculine’ presence.

One thing that binds all my work and continues to interest me in performing… is this question of identity and the question of transformation and I am genuinely moved by the way in which all of us are… society circumscribes us and we play into this feeling that we have to pick one identity and stick with it and any natural transformation within our spirit is to be resisted at all costs and if there is some great shift in one’s life one’s to feel nothing but shame and failure. That’s the thing I’m constantly drawn back to.”Tilda Swinton

Swinton’s statement is certainly relevant when examining the transformation of the identities of Richard II and Henry IV and V. What circumscribes their greatness? How does that change as their identities are challenged and shifted? As ‘greatness’ is taken away symbolically by crown and duty – what characteristics and events cause a remembrance of ‘greatness’?

In the minds and hearts of the people at the end of the play – most of the other characters on stage had known King Henry V as friend, comrade soldier, family member as opposed to Richard II whose choices reflected a more distant, shiny, hovering spectacle. This rendition of Shakespeare’s plays suggests that an indulgent, reckless youth can shift and grow into an adult, may become a leader, and it is what a leader does on behalf of the people (s)he leads that causes a remembrance of ‘greatness’ or of ‘honor’. Not only that… it seems to inflate a sort of self-esteem in a leader to also be considered a human being among people, not alone, regardless of symbolic duty and crown.

ACTOR LESSON for me was that I can initially look globally at a play and figure out who my character foils, if anyone, because it can give me clues on what the growth of my character could be, and the purpose it has to carry out themes… and to tell the story.

 

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SILENT CLOWNS

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Taking a closer look at the roots and origins of things allows me to understand the world better. In New York I’ve been lucky enough to stumble upon great opportunities to delve further into theatre and film history. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center has a Silent Clown Film Series – for FREE – and I wandered in this weekend. There was a crowd of regulars – this impressed me and they were very welcoming.

In seeing the words ‘clown’ and ‘silent’ and ‘film’ I was curious because, thanks to my teachers, I’ve discovered that clowns can blast open a tragic moment, trait or aspect of a person or of life to reveal real vulnerability, to share it, and make it okay for others to laugh at it. The Silent Clown Film Series presented a few famous clown ‘stars’ from the early 1900’s (Toto, Paul Parrott, Will Rogers, Marie Mosquini, Arthur Stone, Clyde Cook etc…) within Hal Roach silent short films accompanied by live piano compositions courtesy of Ben Model.

Inspiring?

Yes – but the reason why surprised me. I saw the value of the artist – the value of collaboration – I saw the value of humor – I saw that time is relative – I saw the value of an audience. I was one of the audience members taking a closer look at the origin of film and early film actors and filmmakers. There is one moment that I did not expect after a lot of silly moments that I did presume would occur in some form. It was one of those singular moments in your life where you’re presented with an image when you least expect it and can’t avoid considering its power. An image that is still relevant today – especially given our ability to glance back at history.

In the midst of a world war four soldiers walk into a tree (which fronts for a telephone in the battlefield). The opposition, ‘clowns’ featured in the film, escape some harm that backfires on the tree by fluke. The tree vanishes into thin air and four unharmed men scramble out of the roots and scatter off. The few millimeters of film begged a pause in my own reality and I considered the fact that physical conflict is one thing and communication/ knowledge can be larger things.

This really funny film, Somewhere is Somewhere, was made in a world that knew of World War I and was blasting its tragedy up to reveal the vulnerability people felt in it. It allowed the audience to make light of tragedy, loss, and mass physical conflict. Yet to make light just enough to face the relevance of what it was. Physical conflict rooted in world conflicts of communication and knowledge. On the flip side is peace – non-physical conflict – where communication occurs and knowledge of the roots of the conflict are understood. It was just a few millimeters of film, tucked away at the Library of Congress, brought to the public for free in the middle of many millimeters of laughter… and it inspired me.

It inspired me to laugh more, to be brave enough to ‘know’ more, to communicate more, to listen more, to use my knowledge and communication to build strength allowing me to seek peace more.

Artists have value. An old world’s ‘silent’ film’s relevance spoke in this new world because there are audiences who listen and who seek knowledge. I must admit I was having a bad day (my friends would find this amusing because I’m generally unusually content – especially when learning about film & theatre) but this film series really picked up what was a bad day. I’m carrying the experience with me because it made the work I seek to do as an actor, sometimes painter, maybe a singer, valuable – priceless – relevant. Being conscious of the effect of my future work on the world seems a very important thing to me now – no matter the scale.

The live piano accompaniment didn’t hurt!

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“If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.” – Napoleon Hill 

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EXAMINING GRACE a.k.a. elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action.

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Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

Questions to risk posing include when does the ‘sweet sound’ of grace become necessary… useful… inevitable… and why? How can it be ‘heard’ or ‘herded’ by people? When is it rejected… and how… and why? Where does grace come from? How is it generated? Who possesses it and can it be transferred to another? Does grace have the capacity to ‘find’, ‘unblind’ or ‘save’ another? Can grace inspire social change? These questions arise and are outlined by the famous Amazing Grace song, which is funnelled into Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron’s new musical, Amazing Grace, on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

One manner in which grace seems to be transferred to another is through sound. I first experienced, was teased, with Chuck Cooper’s musical gifts in snippets of him singing to demonstrate a sound, an experience or a manner of singing when he taught me in my conservatory. Chuck helped me to realize (although he doesn’t know it) that singing is a valuable thing. A thing that can release and express my true voice and can connect me for better or worse to others. The problem with having been in a class with Chuck is that you don’t get to hear him sing nearly as much as one might hope for. At the risk of being biased he is the reason that I was inspired to buy a [rush!] ticket, to tell a friend, and make my way to this musical. In my pursuit I was not let down – not only is his singing superb – his storytelling is on another level – graceful – the kind that brings forth the belief that people are equal regardless of the color of their skin. Enough about Chuck – what about his character (a highlight of the musical for me)?

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It is not just sound that inspires grace in this musical… it is what the sound carries within it. It can carry unconditional love – which in the context of this musical about slavery and the subjugation of one race under another is very difficult to allow. Chuck’s character is introduced as Thomas, a slave charged with looking after the every need of John Newton (Josh Young), a rebellious, young slave trader who regularly disappoints his father Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt) and childhood love Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey).

It is not Thomas, or John’s father or Mary’s love that inspires him to use his resources and privilege to correct societal wrongs on behalf of other people. It is when he is challenged to grow beyond his own difficulties and prejudices and to face his own actions that he decides to free slaves and to look at equality among races. A true understanding of love enlightens John when Thomas forces him to confront the fact that John’s spinelessness allowed him to betray one of the only people that showed him unconditional love – to torture Thomas and abandon him. It is Pakuteh who demands John’s respect and finds it in himself to forgive John despite all odds.

What struck me most was the efficiency of resource that Pakuteh, and the other slaves, possess throughout the play as compared to the more privileged characters learning how to utilize their resources more efficiently – especially in the arena of social change. Even in the face of his own daily survival and in the face of utter cruelty Pakuteh chooses to protect, to love, to keep safe, to have dignity, to educate, to see a larger picture at every turn. Simultaneously I witnessed Mary’s Nanna (Laiona Michelle) discover that she could help the willing Mary advocate racial equality despite all fear. The stakes are so high (life or death).

Pakuteh and Nanna, when backed into a corner, choose to allow and wield their meager resources towards a long road of racial equality. It spurred the utilization of John Newton’s abundant resources and influence to begin affecting racial equality and social change. In real life John eventually joined with others in campaigning to abolish the slave trade leading towards the Slave Trade Act 1807. He also wrote the song Amazing Grace, which has been tied to anti-slavery sentiments ever since. It seemed that somewhere along the line he began to believe that grace saved a wretch like him.

It still makes me pretty upset – to trace the mistreatment of people, to glimpse at both sides of prejudice, to understand what a tool forgiveness might be in the face of ignorance – but studying the evolution of social change while enjoying a musical on Broadway is definitely my cup of tea. I was educated and enlightened too.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home…

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

This famed song, this musical, all demand a belief in a higher power. At the very least an interest in examining where grace comes from – be that a Creator (God) or a confronting of prejudices and classes. What sort of resources are actually necessary to achieve joy and peace? Who gets to judge whose misery (be it physical, mental, emotional or spiritual) is more worthy to counter a ‘life of joy and peace’?

We’ve all got our takes on what that looks like post-mortality? Watch Pakuteh and he’s got a convincing point of view towards the belief in eternal life and light. A belief that may have been transferred to John Newton – a ‘resource’/ a young person that Pakuteh chose to protect and to forgive. He forces him to remove the ‘brand’ of Thomas the slave and, not only to look at him as a human being, but also to reciprocate his consistent and powerful love.

This musical is an example of the culmination of many experiences and influences that led to the conversion of one man, John Newton, towards the belief that redeeming his wrongs on earth will lead him towards an eternal resting place, a ‘home’. The cold hard facts are that this belief led him towards action, to a feeling of grace… to affecting social change leading towards the abolition of slavery and racial equality within a system that he happened to hold privilege in. It became irrelevant that he had been convinced for a certain period of time that he had more of a right to be considered a human being than the other people surrounding him.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

Some people, and some music, just has that way about them/it that lets one unknowingly shift the light on different areas of one’s life and others’ lives – regardless of how one’s belief system or socio-economic class causes one to interact with the world.

How relevant indeed…

Oh and this was the line… OY!

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