Saturday, January 23, 2016

Incendiaries

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This holiday season, WVIZ ideastream broadcast a program called The Way We Shopped. Because I had time on my hands and had a nostalgic impulse, I decided to watch it. I have an interest in Cleveland history, don’t you know, and as I watch my children grow I am reminded of those moments I experienced when I was their ages.

Cosmic Comics in the Colonial Arcade. Visiting Mr. Jingeling at Halle's, when he was portrayed by Earl Keyes. Staying up late to watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman because you knew you were in the middle of a blizzard and there was going to be no school the next day and that guy was going to read that day’s edition of the comic strip version of Howard the Duck out loud from the Plain Dealer when the show was over.

However, something struck me as I watched The Way We Shopped, and that was that it was not recently made. The way each of these individuals described their experiences downtown, dressing up to go with their parents to experience the capitalistic glories of Euclid Avenue … these people were not the right age to have been children in the 1940s and 50s.

Most striking was the account of H.W. Beattie and Sons. People of a certain age can recall the window displays at Beattie’s, which included mosaics of loose gems. According this program (which was actually produced in 2000) this legendary store is still in business at 1117 Euclid Avenue, one of the enduring legacies of old downtown.

Of course, it’s not. I walk past that empty storefront every time I walk from my office towards Public Square, be it to shop at the new Heinen’s or meet a friend for lunch on East Fourth. In fact, not only is Beattie’s closed, but the engraved stone facade which bears it’s name - prominently featured in the TV program - has begun to deteriorate.

It was at that moment, this past December, that I finally realized something very important. That city is gone. Not as in the Pretenders song. My city isn’t gone, because that was never my city, or if it part of it had been, it has been gone so long it is as though it never was. Cleveland may be on the rise, but what it is now has little or nothing to do with what it was then.

Ageing Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation lament the loss of the May Company, Halle’s and Higbee’s. But why? They were department stores. Who shops like that anymore? Who has the time or the money? I can’t be bothered to miss a fucking store. I believe I am done with this kind of nostalgia.

Last night I was standing in the lobby of the Gordon Square Theatre, having a (free) beer following a Cleveland Public Theatre performance, engaging in small-to-big talk with two guys in their late 20s I had just met. One was raised in Lyndhurst but now lives in Ohio City, the other from Connecticut but had recently moved to town and lives just up Detroit from the theater. I am of course from Bay Village, but have lived my entire adult life in Cleveland Heights.

The space in which we were standing was, some twenty years ago, an appliance warehouse. Cleveland Public Theatre was still only renting the single black box space which is now named the James Levin Theatre. The Gordon Square District was called the Detroit Shoreway and I recall there being not much there there. It was a neighborhood, a depressed Cleveland neighborhood with a two-lane highway running through it. You can debate whether gentrification has been a good thing or a bad thing. All I know is that there were two theater spaces playing to near-capacity in that complex last night, and the bars and restaurants were filled with people.

And the movie theater. And the pinball emporium. And the bookstore, the ice cream parlor, and all of the additional bars and restaurants.

Incendiaries (Photo: Steve Wagner)
The play we were talking about was Incendiaries, created by Pandora Robertson and produced in collaboration between CPT and Ohio City Theatre Project. That was my kind of show, an emotional, hour-long, research-based, ensemble performance piece about a significant moment in Cleveland history.

The subject is Hough. Call it a riot, call it a disturbance, call it an uprising. Fifty years ago this summer the Hough neighborhood burned. In this blog I have written about 1936, 1954 and even for a brief moment 1976, neatly leap-frogging over the 1960s, that decade which culminated in the largely symbolic fire on the Cuyahoga.

What I knew about Hough was from the outside. Even Mark Winegarder in his historical fiction Crooked River Burning failed to adequately tell the story. Most of that book successfully tells the story of the Cleveland's decline from 1948 to 1969 from the inside, his fictional protagonists in the same room for important events and crossing paths with historical figures with great detail and realism.

When it comes to matters of race, however, the story takes a big step back, holding some of the most consequential events in Cleveland history at arms length. The Hough disturbance is told dispassionately, as an essay for a newspaper, perhaps. From the outside. Carl Stokes has a chapter which has no bearing on the main plot of the novel. It’s a subplot which any editor would have suggested be cut, except its absence would of course be historically conspicuous.

Incendiaries is chaotic, and it took me some time to catch up with the dialog it flew so fast. When it did I was entirely engaged and distressed. So many overlapping narratives, but clearly defined, never repetitious. Fascinating characters. It made me want to get back into the library and look up the articles listed in the program.

Also, too: I have been making plans to return to some of my unrealized historical work. There will be time for that. None of it has the fierce urgency of now, not like this piece. During the fifteen minute post-show discussion several, including some young men from Hough, who heard these stories from their parents and grandparents, were very open in their comments, their happiness that this story was being told in this kind of forum. They also lamented that little has changed.

Because they're right. While Halle's may be gone, systematic racism is not.

The Crucible (Photo: Roger Mastroianni)
The audience was majority white, because anywhere I go the audience usually will be. But only a slight majority. Because this is an American fact: we like to see ourselves on stage. This is why non-traditional casting of Shakespeare irritates some people. This is why I had an interesting exchange with a guy in a lobby downtown about the recent Cleveland Play House production of The Crucible, in which he took issue with the fact that John Proctor was played by a black man.

“I have looked it up,” he said, “and the historical John Proctor did not look like that.”

“The historical John Proctor,” I said, “was 70 years old in 1692, and Abigail Williams was 11, would you prefer to see that production of The Crucible? Because that's creepy.”

“The whole second act was about a black man arguing with a white man,” he said. “I am sure that is not what Arthur Miller intended.”

I cannot recall Arthur Miller ever writing any roles for people of color (except Tituba, of course) so I couldn’t argue that specific point. But this guy insisted the play was about religious persecution, and I said it was about persecution in general, and we agreed to disagree.

However, it is not enough to cast productions based on the content of a performer’s talent, rather than the color of their skin, though I entirely support doing that. Everyone wants and needs to hear their own stories told from the stage. Black stories matter.

As we see today, white people feel threatened by the increasing advancement of narrative from non-white peoples. And non-white, non-male peoples. We see it in backlash to the #OscarsSoWhite movement, I see it in Facebook groups for playwrights. White dudes hate being criticized for being white dudes.

Me, I am not troubled by this controversy. I will keep writing what I write and if it's good enough, I'll find a home for it. I am not threatened by a deeper talent pool. Meantime, I am engaged in absorbing as much of the conversation as possible, because that is where the future is and I for one would prefer to be part of it.

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