Jesus, MLK, and How to Close One’s Mind

Twice in the past week I’ve come upon some artwork that some people have considered controversial or disturbing.

First there was the story on NPR about the “homeless Jesus statue”. A Canadian artist created a statue of a man, huddled under a blanket on a public bench. Upon closer inspection he is identified—primarily by the bloody holes in his feet—as Christ. In a North Carolina town where the statue sits in front of the church that purchased it, the article states “some loved it; some didn’t.” That’s a remark that can be said about any piece, but it seems the reasoning behind those responses was less about art appreciation and more about disturbing one’s perception of iconic figures or possibly disrupting the cleanliness of their town.

The second instance was my recent attendance to the current Penumbra Theatre production of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall. It seems that Ms. Hall’s play has received some mixed reactions since it premiered in London in 2009, and this production has seen some of that itself. The play, in part, reveals a very human and even flawed rendition of Martin Luther King, Jr. with which some audience members have taken umbrage. From what I learned, during their run in a Charlotte, NC numerous audience members left part-way through the play, and often in a not-so-quiet manner. It seems to some the play offended their senses by making MLK less than perfect and thereby tarnishing the image of their idol.

Is it just a North Carolina thing? Hmmm…I’ve been there a few times. It’s a lovely state, with some lovely people. Some backwards people, too. Somehow I doubt NC is alone, and I doubt these things reflect the whole state anyway.

In both instances though the artwork has made people uncomfortable. It’s challenged their perceptions of the world, or of these men, as they know them or as they want them to be. By altering, even ever so slightly, these two men, it seems to have…what? Called everything in to question and thereby shaken up their world to such a degree that the only response is to flee or contact the proper authorities?

I love artwork that’s challenge—that presents an image or a concept or a tale that challenges the norm and questions the moral or ethical compasses in the room. And these two instances are tame by many comparisons. You want controversial visual art? Homeless Jesus has nothing on Serrano’s Piss Christ.

Apologies: I’m hard pressed to come up with a  controversial play that includes Jesus, MLK or a modern day prophet at the moment. 

I’m disappointed to hear that people were disturbed by these things. (I’m actually more disturbed that some people in the wealthy neighborhood were bothered by what they thought was a real homeless person, but that’s another issue.) In many ways, isn’t being disturbed (or moved) the thing that art is supposed to do? Shed light on topics, set up a mirror for us and make us think? Evoke a response.

Some people have used that element—evoking an emotional response—as what differentiates it from craft.

MLK was human and flawed, but he was passionate about social justice and strived to do something about inequalities. Who’s picked up the baton he dropped?

I’m sure for some the meaning or messages we could see in the homeless depiction of Christ were lost. Homeless as in he has no place in our homes, as well as that adage “whatever you do to the least of my brothers….”

I think this is just what art is supposed to do. What’s being presented is not necessarily presented as truth or ideal or even just. But whether people embrace it, applaud it on their feet or walk out in a huff, it seems to me there must be something there.

And by walking away, from either of these pieces, those witnesses gave up the opportunity to learn something new, and to expand their (closed) mind a bit further. 

Whispers in the Dark

Last night I ventured out to see a play and meet up afterwards with a friend who was in it. I see many shows a year so I tend to not think of going to a play as anything special – or at least not more special than the production calls for. As far as theaters go, last night’s venue was unique – it was at the Guthrie, a space I really enjoy. The mere fact that they have three stages, and that two of them share a two-story lobby, makes the place feel like it’s bubbling with energy. It’s like a busy stretch of theatre goers along a busy city street, except it’s indoors with mood lighting, chairs and a bartender every 30 yards. It’s an excited pre-show atmosphere like few others.

Some people like to dress up and get all fancy for a special occasion, while others….don’t. Last night I saw people in their Sunday best, with expensive bags and pearls, sitting next to some guy in jeans and a hoodie.

I fell somewhere in between.

It probably sounds judgmental (I’ll own it) that the way one dresses at a show like this tells me how often they attend such things. The guy in the hoodie = not often; the lady with the pearls = season ticket holder. Of course, these are ridiculous things for me to assume, and while they may be my first thoughts (i said I’ll own it) I almost immediately rescind the notion.

But what I cannot ignore and take back is the judgement I express in my head when it comes to poor theater behavior. You know….the talkers, whispers, fidgeters.

Drives. Me. Nuts.

Last night there were about four family members sitting directly behind me that talked almost as much as the actors on stage, even if not always as loudly. Lots of whispering and explaining things to each other (or perhaps to one person?) and several unnecessary comments.

Ex: At one point a character steps off stage to a bathroom, moments later there’s a sound of flushing, followed by the guy directly behind me saying, “He’s fast!”.

Really?

I realize this is an old topic, not really worth hashing out…and no one’s going to find the solution. Why are people so selfish? Why are they not considerate of others around them? I guess I should appreciate that most of it was whispered, and rather quietly whispered, but it’s still rude.

This may be the only way I think the theatre is dying. Because some people don’t know how to behave when their living room becomes a public space and the people on the TV can actually hear them talking. Maybe that’s part of it. Which would also explain why we need to do an audio announcement to a) turn off cell phones and b) don’t take pictures.

I’d like to think that for these people the theatre-going experience is new, so perhaps they’re not familiar with what they should or should not do? But, somehow that doesn’t explain it all.

There’s something about our culture that has shifted the acceptable decorum in public, and even as I write this….I realize it makes sound like I’m getting old. But even if I am, I’ve never been the rude one in the house. And I’ll continue to give the necessary over-the-shoulder glare to quiet the heathens.

No. Not judgmental at all, right?

 

 

Caroline, or Change (or keep it simple)

This past Friday night we jumped back in to the pool of Tony Kushner at the Guthrie. While the buzz around town last year about Kushner-fest was all about the world premiere of his new play, the buzz around town for the past month has been about his other show – Caroline, or Change. It’s a musical, or more accurately, an operetta, as there are no truly spoken words. I wasn’t expecting that (the operetta part) but it gives the whole show an imaginative and playful quality, almost as if it’s all in the head and mind of Caroline. Or, actually, possibly, Noah. (That could be argued, I guess.) It’s a quality in sharp contrast to the harsh realism of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide....

One of the most striking things about this piece is that after watching approximately nine hours of Kushner’s work over the past few weeks, this was an incredibly simplistic and straightforward plot. There weren’t multiple story lines and overly complicated relationships.

There was a black maid working in a Jewish home in the South at the time of the Kennedy assassination. And both families (the maid’s and her employer’s) were struggling with their own griefs and challenges and family dynamics.

But just like much of his other work this show has imaginitive elements like the fact that the moon, washing machine and dryer all sing! (They were awesome.) And, even more so, as he’s wont to do with his people, these are deeply rooted characters.

After the show, the more I thought about it, the more we discussed it all, the more I realized and the more I loved this show. This was a very moving piece of theatre with some truly shining performances. There’s overwhelming desire and despair, with a glimmer of hope peeking around the corners….I cared about all of them.

That’s something, by the way, that didn’t happen with that new play.

On a side note, even though the big G’s been open in its new space for….two years now? Somehow this was the first show I’ve seen on the thrust stage. Of course, it’s virtually identical to the original theater, with few exceptions. Nonetheless it was kind of eery to walk out to a completely different lobby – and a lobby that has no comparisons.

The Intelligent Homosexual may be smarter than me

A few other thoughts on this new work by Kushner occurred to me.

Tony Kushner’s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide… has a truly serious subject at its core. Suicide. Or rather, attempted. Still, it’s a tough subject. Particularly for anyone who has known someone to have tried such a thing. Or worse, succeeded.

This subject also contains a problem with the script, which is that as an audience member I’m not sure why this person would’ve attempted it. I mean, I can conjur up a reason, or even two perhaps. But they don’t feel compelling enough. They weren’t presented sharply enough to justify—if that’s the right word—such a thing. 

As someone who has had a family member commit suicide, I of course thought of that person, that circumstance and those relationships, all while watching the show at certain scenes. I don’t know if my personal knowledge actually colored the show for me one way or another, outside of one particular moment that struck me strongly. I think there’s just as good a chance I’d have had that same reaction had I never known someone to kill himself.

I digress. My point is that this was one of the issues we talked about on the way home that night. I walked away from the show thinking about how I really wanted the character who had attempted suicide to show me, give me, hint at a reason as to why—it occurs to me that so often with suicide, we don’t know the real reason why. We can assume. We can guess. We can deduce. But finding out why is something we may likely never truly know, and our only option is settle on that reason within our own selves in order to move on. 

Perhaps that truthism tells me that just because I wanted something from a character in this new play doesn’t mean I should get it. In fact, had I gotten it, it would’ve been a very different play and likely less interesting. When everything is handed to you in theatre, and nothing is left to mystery or wonder, it’s might no longer be theatre. Or it might no longer be good theatre. It might be a sermon or and academic lecture or a documentary or even journalism. But it may pull itself out of the art.

Yeah, I guess that Tony Kushner guy knows how to write a few things.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide

It’s only been about 10 hours since curtain call so my mind hasn’t quite yet figured out what Tony Kushner’s new play is really all about, but I know it deserves some thought and discussion. I’m not sure how to wrap my head around it all.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures is a long play. Yes, longer than its title. It’s also a work in progress, as made evident by the uneven production we saw last night and a script that repeats itself and stagnates as it traverses a muddy patch. There were moments when I felt like I was watching actors about half-way through a rehearsal process. None of it ever completely fell apart or became unpresentable, although there were actually a few time when I thought actors were wondering whose line it was. Those moments were followed by someone flicking a switch and the whole scene coming in to focus.

There’s one such scene that really stuck out to me. An aunt and niece are having a conversation in the attic. The aunt sits on the floor, the niece is pacing, the scene goes along fine, and then….the niece stops where she is, kneeling on the floor at this point, and the whole thing becomes…paced…and less nuanced, mined, explored. Suddenly it feels like good actors who are off book and still working out the ways of the scene. No one moves from their place. No one acts with her whole body. And even though they’re discussing a tragic thing that will likely happen the next day, revealing something horrible—it all feels a bit emotionally detached. This must be the newer material. Perhaps some of the stuff that actors were holding pages in their hands for previews.

Then suddenly, it all comes to life again, clips along, emotionally and purposefully charged.

There are a few brilliant scenes where the entire family, and I mean all 8 or 9 people on stage at once, are fighting. I thought this sounded perfectly normal—it’s how my family fights. There were 2 or 3 or 4 arguments happening at once, all talking over each other. But after about 5 or 6 or 7 or…minutes, it all starts to be a bit much. (This needs some shaping, Mr. Playwright and Mr. Director. I mean, it’s effective but only if the audience’s attention is drawn to the right thing at the right moment, to make it effective. And only if this technique isn’t overused.)

Being mired down in the mud is what this play does at times. Later there’s a long, repetitive scene between the father and daughter…it’s well done, but it really goes nowhere, doesn’t teach us anything new, doesn’t move the story along, doesn’t reveal anything…..However, it does bring us to one of the best and most riveting moments and lines that the play offers. For me, it was one of those moments where I realized I just audibly gasped in my response to the beauty and truth and honesty expressed.

Then I immediately thought: “Wow, that whole long drawn out scene just to get to that.” and pondered if it was worth it. I decided it may have been, but I think there’s a shorter path there that would cause less audience squirming.

This deserves more thought. The play and my experience of it. I almost want to see it again. I can’t possibly regurgitate and process it all at once.

It’s epic in its scope, and excruciating in its ideological and philosophical theorization and expression.

Yes, that too.

Tony’s Angels

I need to make a new resolution. I need to see more movies. This isn’t news, but I was reminded again this evening, because I have just finished watching HBO’s version of Angels In America. Finally. That only puts me about….what? Five or six years behind schedule? Turns out it’s a pretty good film, with a damn fine cast. It also didn’t feel like the three or so hours it ran.

I watched it in part as preparation for experiencing some of the Kushner “festival” at the Guthrie. It seems as if everyone who has seen its current production of Caroline, or Change has thoroughly recommended it, saying how amazing it is. I’ll catch that when I can. Later this month I already have tickets to see Kushner’s world premiere: The Homosexual’s Guide to…. to something or other. I understand the title is about as long as the show. Apparently, like Angels, it runs just a bit over three hours.

Three hours?!

I mean, come on. The Guthrie is a brand new theater, and even still, it’s not so comfortable that I want to sit in those seats for three hours. It’s one thing to be in my own living room. With a stocked refrigerator and a remote control. It’s another to be squeezed in crowded theater, usually behind someone who finds it necessary to discuss the show during the show, rather than at intermission like they should.

Wow. That sounds crabbier than it should. Sorry.

But I’ll go anyway, because I suspect it’s going to be good. Probably very good . I suspect it’ll be better than the last world premiere that theater did. (Ugh.)

So the questions will be:

Does it need to be that long?

Will it not feel that long?

Kushner’s done it before. Maybe he can do it again.