Sunday, July 24, 2016

Boy Camp 2016

A low-key first night, but not without activity. First order of Boy Camp 2016, the boy needed a haircut. From there we proceeded to BD’s Mongolian Barbeque. Why? Because the girl won’t step foot in that place due to her peanut allergy. The boy has always been curious about it.

We ate way too much, so after window shopping at Big Fun for a few minutes we dragged our back ends home to watch Believeland on Netflix, the “Happy Ending” cut.

Believeland, a film by Andy Billman, lays out the humiliating defeats of each of Cleveland’s three major sports franchises in painful details, against the backdrop of urban decay and despair and unfortunate 1980s and 90s Midwestern hairstyles.

We played poker for a bit and then made an early night because I needed to take a friend to the airport first thing this morning. Of course, “early night” this summer means before midnight. We still had to watch the final Cleveland installment of The Daily Show.

After a relaxing morning and taking care of a few errands, we set out for the rest of the day. First up, the U.S.S. Cod, our resident World War Two submarine, located pretty much in the same location as a World War One submarine during the Great Lakes Exposition.

Thou lumpish, hasty-witted maggot-pie!
Then we headed to the library to join two actor-teachers, Shaun and Will, as they began conducting a Shakespearean comedy workshop in Brett Hall.

Had we really performed Twelfth Night (As Told By Malvolio) right there in that space, at that time, only one week ago? Crazy.

Boy Camp traditionally (though not always) commences with bowling. It’s always been at that place in Solon, but since we were already downtown, we made a spontaneous decision to go to Corner Alley on East 4th.

Yes, I know it’s fucking expensive. This is not your son.

Souvenir vendors up and down Euclid Avenue we selling the last of their RNC booty, but otherwise, downtown looked much more like itself, without any security barriers or barricades and none the worse for wear.

From there we moved to the near west side for dinner at XYZ Tavern (Broccoli tempura is totally a thing) and knocking around at Superelectric, which is the coolee-coolest place to have fun, be stupid 1970s nostalgic, and really not spend a lot of money.

I wanted to try all the different pinball machine, but the boy had seen a “shuffle bowling” machine at Corner Alley that didn’t work and when he found they have one at Superelectric he didn’t want to play anything else.

Assassins (Near West Theatre)
The major event for our evening was Assassins at Near West Theatre. A community theater in Ohio City, they recently opened a brand new facility right on Detroit in the heart of Gordon Square. I was excited to see this "problem" musical of Sondheim’s (aren’t they all, though, after all) performed by a large cast of performers between the ages of 16 and 25.

Really. They produced Assassins during a national political convention. Word!

And the performances were delightful, the design was tremendous. My major issue, unfortunately, is with the show itself. I had seen it once before perhaps a dozen years ago, and am a great fan of the Off-Broadway cast recording starring Victor Garber. The recording by itself tells a tight and compelling tale, clearly playing out the American obsession with guns and fame. A couple things trouble me about the production presented in full.

One is all the scenes that don’t feature music. All the pre-Kennedy assassins, who all killed their targets (except Giuseppe Zangara) are treated to set pieces with great Sondheim songs. John Hinckley, Jr. and Squeaky Fromme get a duet as well, but Fromme also participates in a few scenes with Sarah Jane Moore which are goofy (women, what are ya gonna do) and Sam Byck has two rambling monologues which, though amusing, merely explain the mindset of a deluded murderer which is already and much more successfully communicated through the songs and  lyrics.

The show now seems awkwardly dated. We are living in a time when gun worship is a society endangering mental illness. It’s not enough to discuss these figures from history in the context of their megalomania. Also no longer relevant is the special significance given to the legend of Lee Harvey Oswald, as though that assassination was more elevated, more significant, more holy than the rest.

This is the point of view of someone who personally experienced the event in 1963. No one under fifty has that experience. The assassination of John Kennedy was no more devastating to the people of his time than that of James A. Garfield to his. I mean, don’t tell a Baby Boomer that, you’ll never hear the end of it.

"Time Of The Apes"
The addition of a new song after the 1990 Off-Broadway production, Something Just Broke, was new to me. The penultimate number, it expresses the horror and sadness that grips the nation in the wake of such a loss. However, as the rest of the show is so arch, so satiric, and so dark, dealing exclusively until that moment with the assassins themselves, it felt a little late in the game to present earnest, real world grieving from everyday citizens.

After the show we considered ice cream, but Sweet Moses was packed. Besides, we were totally exhausted. No, we did not get around to everything he wanted to do this weekend. We did not make bacon dippers or chicken and waffles. But that didn't keep him from telling me what a great day it was.

Sunday morning we watched Mystery Science Theater 3000 because that is what you should always do on Sunday morning.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

2016 Republican National Convention (Wednesday)

In the middle of last week, what seems like ages ago, this guy I know and I were watching the ball games at Jim Brennan Field in Forest Hill Park, Cleveland Heights. I was talking about changing up my exercise routine with a little cycling and he said he was thinking of riding his bike downtown during the convention, to check things out.

I thought this was a great idea, we’d be mobile in a way we could not trying to drive and park or by taking the rapid. I’d never ridden my bike downtown, though I have run across town when training for marathons. We made a date for Wednesday.

The first half was a familiar experience for me, only faster. Heading down Mayfield to Little Italy, I had my brakes on down the entire hill. I am not accustomed to propelling myself through the air with only a plastic helmet for protection. It has been a long time since I was a cyclist.

We took it easy through the cultural gardens and onto the Shoreway. I had suggested this route, rather than the more direct Euclid Avenue route he had suggested, because I noticed the city had just resurfaced North Marginal Road. I have run that road several times, and it is normally pitted and cratered. This day it was like like sliding on glass. Yay, public works!

Once we got to Ninth Street we had to figure out the best way to get to Public Square. Lakeshore was a Security Zone, and St. Clair. Passes only. Police officers were supernaturally polite in re-directing traffic. Superior was clear, and we rode past the library (did we really do a play there less than a week ago?) to the square, which was bustling with protesters, onlookers, officers, and a ridiculous amount of media.

The media were the sketchiest looking people, because everyone else was clearly identified as to who they were and what they were doing. Some reporters had stations ID'ed on their mics or cameras, but many did not, and any guy with a camera on a selfie stick and professional-grade mic attached could be broadcasting images to absolutely anywhere in real time.

We watched a few staged events. There is a platform stage surrounded by barricades in front of the statue of Moses Cleaveland, what some participants like to refer to as the Free Speech Pen, for scheduled performances. Code Pink presented the I Miss America Pageant in which contestants shared all the things they missed or would under a Trump presidency. Trump himself was present in the form of a participant in a suit made of money with an oversized papier-mâché head.

A team of protesters were handing out water, sports drinks, fresh fruit and handmade breakfast burritos, to everyone and anyone. We each had one of those, and though I would have asked for hot sauce had it been offered, they were really good, with a lot of egg, peppers and potato. They were also not poisoned or drugged. I know this because I am writing this blog post.

I witnessed one altercation which I had entirely misjudged, in which an organizer was getting into the face of a man in a suit, not exactly yelling at him, but he was heated. I have to admit, I assumed the protester was the aggressor, but when police intervened and quietly but forcefully walked away the man in the suit, I had to wonder just what the hell had happened.

However, while we were there, the events at Public Square appeared to be a well-organized, peaceful, if slightly disorienting event. People were getting their message out, would anyone care to hear them.

I needed to get back to take my son to an event back home in the Heights, and so my friend and I parted. He wanted to hang out a bit longer. I left just as a new team of participants in brick and chain link wall costumes were lining up to create one long barrier reading Wall Off Trump.

My friend recommended I try Euclid Avenue to save time, and I did and it was great fun. The bike lanes that start around East 30th Street are very helpful and though I made a few errors in timing I felt entirely safe. We took about an hour to get downtown, and it took forty-five minutes to get back -- and much of the last part was uphill. I wonder much more challenging the journey would be during a normal rush-hour commute. Perhaps I need to seriously take up biking for transportation.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

2016 Republican National Convention (Tuesday)

Waiting for Trevor at the Breen Center.
Weeks ago, when it was first announced that The Daily Show would produce their show in Cleveland during the convention, I didn’t think twice. I just got the tickets and then told my wife I had done it.

The tickets were free, tickets to daily television programs traditionally are. They need to fill every single seat, every single day. Also, they ask from audience members extraordinary things, and the price tag makes it difficult to complain. After all, you aren’t an audience there to be entertained, as in a rock concert or a play, you are expected to be a participant, a performer even in the proceedings, behaving exactly as they ask you to. They should pay you.

This is not to suggest that they take the audience for granted, heavens no. The day before the Tuesday taping we received an email explaining in detail what we would need to do to receive the real tickets, an exactly when and where to arrive at the Breen Center where the taping would take place.

You see, making a reservation didn’t guarantee a ticket. They need every seat filled, so when the camera pans the auditorium, it is packed with smiling, excited people, so they take reservations for far more people than can be seated. We made plans to arrive early, to make sure we got in.

It was a beautiful day, and we read books and chatted with folks on line before getting our tickets at 2 PM. In the meantime, staffers came out and again explained how seating would work, that those who arrived first would be seated first, etc. They also handed out as much bottled water as we needed.

The wife and I were #24 and #25, so that was cool. Shortly after 2 PM we were able to walk over to West 25th and got a late lunch. Slight digression: I am so proud with how chill my city has been during the Cleveland Summer of 2016™. One million people descended upon East Ninth Street, city government seemed a little unprepared for that, yet everyone was really cool and happy.

So far, there has been little unrest among the activists, the police have been really friendly (and effective, swift and non-violent when things get a little out of hand) and basically the only really horrible things happening this week are all on stage at the Q.

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (Comedy Central)
Now, I have no idea what it takes to run a daily comedy program inspired by current events. Twenty-four news channels just capture things on video and the describe what they think they are seeing and say what they think they should be saying about them. Comedy news shows have to watch all that crap and then make it funny.

After getting our seats (great seats, by the way) we waited around ninety minutes for the warm-up act to come out. The impression I had was simply that things were taking longer than usual, and in my imagination they were editing footage from that day on the fly.

Curiously, unlike the show they recorded for Wednesday night, Trevor Noah did not tell us who the guest interview would be at the top of the show. It turned out to be former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele. Perhaps he was late? Regardless, we all waited patiently. The air conditioning was not extreme and the playlist was upbeat and spirited.

The warm-up act performed a very funny Q&A with the audience (it took him a while to understand why so many guests sitting the the VIP section were priests, when it finally dawned on him that was hilarious) and taught us how to properly go nuts at the beginning and end of commercial breaks. He also expressed his love of Mitchell’s Ice Cream.

Seriously. I have never heard so many people talking about Mitchell’s in my life. On NPR, on CNN. When Trevor Noah came out for his pre-show Q&A the first thing he started talking about is that goddamn ice cream.

The show itself ran in sequence, the way you see it on TV. At breaks for commercials the host would confer with his producers, perhaps about what is going well, what needs to change, but the breaks were not much longer than actual commercial breaks.

If he wasn’t otherwise occupied by production, Noah would address us, the audience, thanking us, praising us for our contribution, and even continuing to comment on some of the issues raised in the previous segment.

And that was interesting, because it was evident that he, like Jon Stewart before him, is emotionally invested in the material he is presenting and commenting upon. Not just that it be funny, but that it represents a coherent worldview. In fact, the most startling moments of the program were when he would suddenly say something - scripted, on-air - which wasn’t intended to make us laugh at all. Where making his point was more important than being funny.

Michael Steele on The Daily Show (Comedy Central)
The appearance of Michael Steele as Noah’s interview subject was quite surprising, if only because I haven’t seen or heard anything from him since he stepped down as RNC Chair. I don't watch MSNBC, apparently he provides commentary for them now. The interview was long, nuanced and very interesting.

Noah began by asking Steele if he was black, which Steele confirmed, and then that he is a Republican, which Steele also confirmed, to laughs, but then Steele said something which passed without comment, “But I’m black first.”

Steele is no longer beholden to the party, and spoke freely about the things that concern him about Trump, about his own refusal to endorse prior to the nomination, the two spoke about many interesting things and Noah concluded by asking if he believed Clinton qualified to be president, to which Steele said reassuring, in a nutshell, of course she is.

That night, when we watched the broadcast, the interview was cut significantly for time, reduced primarily his introduction and this apparent approval if not outright endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Even I would find that disingenuous, though Comedy Central did something unusual, which was to flash a banner during Steele’s answer about Hillary, urging viewers to WATCH THE ENTIRE, FULL-LENGTH INTERVIEW ONLINE.

And you should, here is the link.

Throughout the program we were thanked for our excitement and enthusiasm, and generally praised by the host and all of his associates who addressed us for the wonderful treatment they were receiving as visitors to our city. Apparently, we were a little too enthusiastic, as they decided to edit one of the recorded packages and re-record ours and Noah’s reaction to it because our laughs and applause had made the show run long. At least, that’s what we were told.

Following the taping, it was odd to emerge into sunlight, but it wasn’t yet eight o'clock. A long day in Ohio City, the air now cooling, we chose to continue our day-long date by finding a place for a drink and appetizers, settling on the Black Pig.

We sat out on the sidewalk patio, taking our time, talking about the evolution of The Daily Show and the state of the nation in general.

I looked down the sidewalk and spied a squad of officers walking across the street as a mother and her two kids were headed the other way past them through the intersection. Yes, I noticed that she and her children were black. An officer exchanged words with her, I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I do know there was joyful laughter.

To be continued.

Monday, July 18, 2016

2016 Republican National Convention (Sunday)

"Life Is Sharing The Same Park Bench" (1969)
Six years ago I spent a lot of time at the library reading newspapers from 1936, which was the last time Cleveland hosted a national political convention. Technically, it hosted three the same year, for the Republicans, the Socialists, and also Father Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice.

Now, it wouldn’t matter whether the Republicans or Democrats chose to have their convention here this year, I did not anticipate getting involved. Not that I am not political. Of course, I am. But I am not a delegate, and political tourism is not my thing.

In fact, as it became more evident that Donald J. Trump would be their nominee, Cleveland’s moment in the sun began to look harsh and bleak. The kind of people who support Trump are angry people, and wilfully ignorant people. They admire him for the way he talks, which doesn’t make any sense because what he says is dull, obvious, arrogant, steeped in unearned entitlement and a braggadocchio that can only be appreciated by one who feels eternally at odds with perceived enemies.

There were rumors of hate groups from across the country, descending on Public Square, and legions of officers, and anarchists to oppose them. Downtown would be an unwelcoming police state. As the security fences began to go up, to keep all but those authorized from the convention venues, this possibility was appearing more evident.

Offices downtown declared they would be closed for the week, mine one of them. I would work at home and avoid this spectacle, which was a pity because the summer had started with such strength and hope. It seemed a shame to miss out on this historic moment, even if it was shadowed by an angry, orange cloud.

Can you imagine? In 1936 baseball games were happening in that great, new stadium on the lake (and yes, also League Park) adjacent to the Great Lakes Exposition, through which thousands of tourists passed daily, and the Republicans were able to accomplish their business in the Public Hall, which was within walking distance, and still take in, for example, the Marx Brothers performing live in a stand at the Palace Theatre. Everything! Downtown!

Sisters with different parents.
Yes, yes. I know. The good old days. What a simpler time.

As it has turned out, however, we have not stayed home. We have not even stayed on the east side. Since just before the convention began, we have been out, in the city, and all because these things are happening in our midst.

Sunday morning the entire family headed to the Near West Side to join thousands of others for a demonstration of peace and hope, called Circle The City With Love. Put simply, we were to span the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, hold hands and be silent for thirty minutes. And we did. The moment was not without drama, as it was over eighty degrees and a few members passed out or nearly did so. But it was a surprisingly effective event and left me feeling a bit more optimistic.

Everyone who participated was invited to a free concert starring The Roots at the Wolstein Center. We didn’t know who the sponsoring producer was, it turns out to have been the AIDS Health Foundation and Keep the Promise USA to raise awareness and funds to combat HIV/AIDS around the world.

Keynote speaker was Dr. Cornel West, which was a major attraction for the wife. Early in the proceedings, however, I saw Brother Cornel and his associates fill out a row near the rear to enjoy the powerful gospel performance of Mary Mary. He was accompanied by a gaunt woman with a severe, silver cut.

Yes. It was Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party candidate for president. I was worried we had been punk’d into attending a Stein rally, but the AHF is a real thing, and though the good doctor introduced her, he didn’t say anything about her other than she is a candidate, and she said nothing at all. Anything perceived as campaigning would have violated FEC rules.

There were numerous acts, including B.O.B and Raheem DeVaughn, Teyana Taylor, and Questlove and The Roots played for about an hour. They were truly spectacular, a powerful, energetic musical ensemble. Their singer (I can’t find his name, not the lead rapper, he was like a special guest and I can’t find him online) sang a beautiful rendition of John Lennon’s Mother which was truly moving. It’s a powerful song, but I have never heard it performed by someone with a beautiful, clear singing voice. And in light of recent events, it was chilling.

I was surprised by my children. It was a long day, but they were awed by the event on the bridge, and thrilled by the long afternoon's concerts and speeches. It was quite an overwhelming day. Walking back to our car, down Prospect and through Playhouse Square with my family in tow, we could see black liveries with tinted windows veering down the streets, and there was a definite stillness in the air, a Sunday evening calm perhaps, or a calm before the storm?

Regardless, we were ready.

To be continued.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Twelfth Night: The Final

Photo: Catherine Young
The Great Lakes Theater touring production of Twelfth Night (As Told By Malvolio) in celebration of the First Folio has concluded, the set and costumes packed away until such time as they are required again.

There were high school teacher colleagues in attendance these past two weeks expressing interest in having the show visit their school. Why not? The duration (less than forty-five minutes) fits neatly into most school periods. If all four of our actors weren’t already booked as members of the residency program, that would work out quite easily. If the show is wanted, we’ll make it happen.

Transporting the play to sites on the near east side last week, to Shaker Heights and to Tremont were great fun, each a different experience in how the performance conformed to the space. Best of all, however, was when we produced a three day stand in Brett Hall this past weekend in the main branch of the Cleveland Public Library.

This has as much to do with time as place. You may have heard there’s lotsa stuff happening in Cleveland this week. That was part of the reason the Folger Library chose to send us the First Folio in July, for maximum visibility and impact, the arrival of the Republican National Convention.

What the RNC has also provided, however, has been an opportunity for the city to engage in the kind of public works which might otherwise be shouted down as a waste of money or a diversion from issues that might better be addressed. I do not agree with these opinions, they are the kind of argument people are always using to prevent progress.

To take one example, the redesign of Public Square was completed a few weeks ago and the park (I keep referring to it as a park, is that all right?) has opened to the people. It’s beautiful, and folks are coming and they are enjoying it.

Photo: Catherine Young
For most of my life, Public Square has not been a destination for anyone. There was no there there, it was a site for demonstrations and for people to congregate who had little else to do. Yes, there was always the Soldier and Sailors Monument, and following its renovation in 2010 has itself been a glorious and historic site to visit.

I remember this thing that happened once. For a fee our high school marching band was part of a parade to gain a certain radio station broadcast rights to the Cleveland Browns. The station's plan was to start at Public Square and march down to Municipal Stadium and harass Art Model as he met with the interested parties at the stadium.

The entire event felt sketchy to me, our marching band for rent like this. I recall observing the dozens of people who had gathered downtown for the parade. It was the early 1980s. “It’s cool to see so many people out here,” I said, out loud. I was a sophomore. One of the seniors told me, “Hansen, don’t be an dupe. Look at them. None of these losers have a job.”

Just this past Saturday I sat with my kids on the steps at the large field watching guys plays Frisbee, my daughter sat in the shade of a tree and drew in her sketchbook.

Public Square
Earlier, we sat with my mother at a table at the recently opened Rebol, a cafe located right there on the Square, having lunch. My mother has lived on the West Side her entire life, primarily in Lakewood. She remembers the golden days when families walked Euclid Avenue for shopping, my father worked for Cleveland Trust, working in the tower which is now The 9. She knows downtown. But Public Square?

Mom looked up from her dish, on this cloudless summer’s day, kids a few yards away splashing in the fountain, the boy and I playing ping-pong at their outdoor table, and mused, “I never pictured myself eating lunch right here.”

She had just attended the final performance of our Twelfth Night. She took a bus downtown, saw a play at the library, met us on the corner and walked to the park for lunch, like you do, downtown in any major city.

Mom was one of three company mothers at the play on Saturday. Chelsea’s mom was also there, and Shaun’s folks. Each of Chennelle’s and Luke’s parents were at Shaker last Saturday. It was an exciting close, to be presenting the play so close to the actual book, the reason the production had been commissioned.

It was great fun to create this particular production, inspired not only by the John Hughes teen comedies and dramas of the mid-1980s, but also, for example, Just One of the Guys -- which is itself based on the plot of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Orsino & Viola
Photo: Catherine Young
During the pre-show speech I claimed that despite the abridgment, every word is from Shakespeare … well, most, uh, almost every word is from Shakespeare. There were also references to and song cues from Robert Palmer, Dream Academy, The Hooters, The Cure, Level 42, The Smiths, Duran Duran (two songs), Bronski Beat, Prefab Sprout, Whitney Houston, Spandau Ballet and Prince.

Why so 80s? Do you know that often as a warm-up, introductory exercise our actor-teachers wil ask, “What is your first name and what era from all of world history would you choose to live in if you could?” And when they do, a startling number of today’s high school students say they wished they lived in the 1980s.

I know, right?

Then there’s me. I graduated from high school thirty years ago, in 1986. It seemed auspicious to set the play a neat thirty years ago. It wasn’t a great year by the standards of popular culture. Science recently determined 1986 to be the worst year in the history of pop music, by which they mean that never before or since have so many songs in the Top 40 sounded so alike, or relied so entirely on electric keyboards.

That was also the summer the movie Howard The Duck was released. I saw it in the theater, twice, because I wanted to like it (see also: Lea Thompson.)

Whatever, okay? Just bogus. Time periods make me focus, and when I focus I can tell a coherent story. Fortunately, as I had intended, a great deal of our audience was in my age cohort -- or teenagers, and would you believe the kids today totally know the song Notorious and who Madonna was.

Interestingly enough, fall 1986 - my first semester in college, mind, I was not longer a high school student myself - was right when fashion turned to a darker palette, when those artists who were wearing white in 1984 were suddenly wearing black.

Malvolio & Olivia
Photo: Catherine Young
I was so excited when I saw this reflected in Zack’s costume design. A hipster like our Malvolio may have been wearing colors a few years earlier, but here he is almost monochromatic. The “yellow stockings” would not have been as out of character in 1983.

And poor Shaun. Zack crafted the perfect early-mid-late eighties ensemble for him, with pleated pants and a sweater vest festooned with geometric shapes. I, too, had a sweater vest then. Teenagers in sweater vests, like we were all about to have breakfast at Denny’s with our senior discount. That would be perfectly ironic today but we didn’t know what irony was.

Most enjoyable, I believe, was the opportunity, the challenge to take a play as richly complex and funny as Twelfth Night, to edit it without losing the color of the language, to streamline the story without losing the emotional impact, to be able to eliminate certain beloved characters without feeling you were really missing them, and most of all, to create a romantic comedy that made people both laugh and applaud the efforts of all four protagonists.

In adapting the piece to a playful, high school setting, we could make the emotions high while keeping the stakes relatively low. In the end, four paired off into two, and it was at once surprising and also made complete sense. Everyone has a date for Homecoming!

Like Joe Barnes said, I am such a fucking romantic.

First Folio - The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare is in residence at the Main Branch of the Cleveland Public Library through July 30, 2016.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Garrett Morgan

Version One
This large banner (seen right) posted on the side of the Six Six Eight Building on Euclid Avenue, was one of the larger banners popping up around Euclid Avenue in the past month, exhibiting civic pride prior to the Republican National Convention.


Destination Cleveland, the visitors' bureau, created this and the several other banners, denoting the impact of important figures from Cleveland history, including Eliot Ness, Alan Freed, Bob Hope and many other men. (Yes, they are all men.)

Unfortunately, as we learned, this banner is not accurate. The first “traffic signal” is credited to James Hodge, at that is the one which was installed on Euclid Avenue on August 5, 1914. This banner in its original version (which is very large, about five stories high) was posted prominently and for several weeks before being edited.

Be edited, I mean that a flap of plastic with the word “Cleveland” was placed over the words “Garrett Morgan.” The inventor’s name had been literally covered up.

Version Two

The city itself had been credited with inventing the electric traffic signal.

Now, if that banner, if all of these banners, have been posted to induce civic pride, they have succeeded. I enjoy seeing them. I have even made a point of showing them off to visitors, and there have been many, many visitors these past few weeks.

I had drawn particular attention to the Garrett Morgan sign. I even took that picture of it. Because, you see, like a lot of local kids I had been taught that this was true, that Garrett Morgan had invented the first electric traffic light. It’s one of those you learn growing up in Cleveland; we invented the rock concert, Superman, the traffic light -- the traffic light invented by Garrett Morgan.

Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr. (March 4, 1877 – July 27, 1963) was born in Kentucky, the son of a formerly enslaved person. He first moved to Cincinnati, and then to Cleveland in his late teens. His greatest accomplishments were in making things function much more successfully. He improved upon the sewing machine, the traffic light, and most notably the gas mask. These last two developments saved lives, though it was the first which led to his fortune, for his experiments with anti-scorching oils for use in electric sewing machines led to his developing products for the straightening of Afro-textured hair.

Just the weekend before the sign featuring his name was altered, I had indicated the sign to an old college friend who was visiting Cleveland for the first time, and her son, he of North African heritage. They were impressed. Her son knew about Garrett Morgan, but he didn’t know the inventor was from Cleveland.

My Version
I first noticed the change in this banner a few weeks back, just walking down the street, I looked up and saw it. It made me confused, then unhappy, and then kind of pissed off. I still had my previous photo in my phone, and so created a photo meme of before and after pictures (at right) with the hashtags #blackhistory and #whitewash.

The response was immediate. People first expressing the kind of wtf? that you find on social media. Very soon this turned to questioning the intent of those who first created and then edited the sign, and shortly thereafter emphasis on the fact that what was stated was not accurate in the first place.

Morgan did not invent the first stop light in 1914 (as stated on the sign) but improved on the original design with his version, which he patented in 1923.

As the meme I had created was widely circulated, I was accused of jumping to conclusions, that I was seeing racial injustice where none was present. Most galling to me was use of the incriminating hashtag #knowyourhistory because, mister, you know I know my history.

However, that huge banner had been up for over two weeks. It was already in place during the massive parade to celebrate the Cleveland Cavaliers on June 22, hundreds of thousands had the opportunity to read it featuring Garrett Morgan's name. I cannot be the only person who noticed the change. By merely covering the name of an historic, African-American inventor as a quick fix, they neutralized the intended power of the sign. Was the idea to celebrate the stop light, the city in which it was invented, or the man who invented it?

After all, there is an argument that the very first electric traffic signal with light was actually installed in Salt Lake City two years earlier.


Did they edit the sign to say that? No, of course not.

Regardless, if I have not already made this obviously clear, Morgan’s name was also the only one on any of these banners commemorating a person of color. Surely the design team who created the original banner could create an alternate phrase to honor this important Cleveland inventor.

Well, today I had a very pleasant surprise.

It is true that the huge, edited banner remains in place at Six Six Eight. The Republican Convention has technically already started, there are too many last minute things going on, it's too late to change that now. I get that.

However, now placed amidst those other signs I mentioned, those touting the fame of Ness, Hope and Freed, decals which fill the vacant windows of the Cleveland Athletic Club at the intersection of Euclid and East 12th Street, a new sign had been put up in a doorway.


Thank you, Destination Cleveland. Best wishes for a successful convention.

#ownyourhistory #blackhistorymatters

Sunday, July 10, 2016

America Hurrah! (1966)

There’s that episode of Mad Men where Don’s second, younger wife, the aspiring actress, takes him to see an Off-Broadway play. The play is very modern (his wife is very modern), the actors are in contemporary dress, but wearing clear, plastic masks which make them appear uncanny.

They are not telling a traditional narrative, they are not recreating a scene from life on stage, there are intercut monologues, stories told with direct address, describing perhaps a single incident from many points of view. The set consists of featureless blocks. The actors sit, stand, turn, fall to the floor, roll over.

Don is either unimpressed by or made unhappy by a monologue by one of the actors about how he likes to drink beer while watching television commercials. This character talks about commercials, and he makes commercials sound awful. They make him ill. Don makes commercials for a living.

The play depicted on this episode of Mad Men (season five, episode nine: “Christmas Waltz”) is a real play. It is America Hurrah by Jean-Claude van Itallie, which opened almost fifty years ago in November, 1966.

"America Hurrah" on Mad Men
Admittedly, I would not even know about this particular play (we didn’t read it in college, it was not something produced when I was at school) had it not received a twenty-fifth anniversary revival at Dobama Theatre in 1994. America Hurrah was first produced in Cleveland at Dobama in 1969.

We have a paperback of the script on the shelf, and I was delighted to find it includes photographs from the original production at the Pocket Theatre. The design team at Mad Men, whose efforts to authentically recreate the time period have been exhaustively discussed, did a picture-perfect job of presenting the play for the program.

It was startling, almost touching. When do we see that, a theatrical moment painstakingly reproduced to be incorporated into an alternate narrative? First thoughts include the "Rocky Horror" scene in Fame (1980) or the "Sleep No More" episode of Gossip Girls.

I mean, we are talking about plays here.

The wife recently shared with me a collection of books on playwriting, books she has incorporated into her high school curriculum. I have been feeling a bit stuck this season and she thought they might help. I was curious to see one was written by van Itallie (The Playwright's Workbook) and so that’s the one I started with. After all, it features a highly impressive quote on the cover;
“Jean-Claude is the only playwriting teacher I ever had.” - Tony Kushner
Well, if he’s good enough for Kushner.

When I was at Last Frontier last month, I was struck by the quality of the work. Almost exclusively I was interested in the stories being told, by their plot and to an even greater extent their emphasis on good structure. And I was reminded why theater. That watching a profound event play out in real time by living, breathing people, capable of error or change, right in front of you, remains and will remain a necessary thing.

The works read and performed in the Play Lab during the day, and those we saw as fully-produced productions onstage in the evenings, were a healthy mix of the realistic, absurd and dreamlike, satiric and poetic, historic and fantastic. Above all I was impressed by the words. The words were all very good words. I felt the present and future of American theater is in good hands.

The Fantasticks (2016)
However, I have also recently been thinking about the kind of playful insanity that struck many theater creators mid-century, and the manner in which they intentionally threw off long-standing traditions of realism to embrace the artificiality of theater in a very obvious way.

This past spring, Great Lakes Theater produced the musical The Fantasticks. As was the case when GLT produced The Mousetrap a few years earlier, many I spoke with assumed they had seen this play somewhere, at some time, only to discover they only thought they had. The Fantasticks and The Mousetrap are each titles which hover just above the eyebrows, and about a half-inch back, nestled in the post-forebrain like some in vitro memory. You can picture it, but you were never actually there.

The Fantasticks tells a very simple story, which can easily be described as a tale where a young Romeo-and-Juliet-type couple are permitted to get married and start a life together and discover how challenging that can be. The production is intended to be highly presentational, with a set that resembles a nearly-bare stage, and modern dress. In the Off-Broadway production (still playing) that means the original early-1960s modern dress, at the Hanna the design was gently influenced by the present day, reflecting a geeky, retro charm.

Clare Howes Eisentrout & Pedar Benson Bate
The show has a narrator, who (as Shakespeare’s Chorus might describe, “prologue-like”) lays down the ground rules so the audience understands that what they see is a representation and in no way meant to be taken as literal. Perhaps in 1960 this was shocking. By 1970 you would find it a bit dated and by 1980 downright condescending. Today it is merely a quaint convention, mellowed by time. Oh, I remember this, I love this kind of stuff. Please go ahead.

I was delighted by the GLT production. Previously only familiar with that one song (you know the song) I was surprised to find there were a couple others which I really enjoyed, most notably They Were You, which is a lovely, lovely song. Having said that, I am not sure I would have been impressed with the text had the performance been in other hands. When you decide to present a play without a representational set, and your costumes are designed to resemble every day street clothes, it truly pushes the performers to be the central focus. And the words.

Twelfth Night (As Told By Malvolio)
This month we are presenting a forty-five minute adaptation of Twelfth Night, a production designed to be presented in area libraries. The library itself is meant to be the set, the only additional piece of furniture is a high school desk. Our four actors are in familiar dress (it’s set in the 1980s) and while they have been tasked with sharing teenage emotions, their primary goal is to present the poetry of Shakespeare with speed, passion and clarity.

Those up for a good time and a brief entertainment have been enjoying these performances very much. Anyone longing for Shakespeare sung in languid, mellifluous tones in Mid-Atlantic accents and draped in Renaissance-era costumery will be disappointed.

Which brings me back to Mad Men. Don was offended by the content, which he took as a criticism of his business, or of his character. Additionally, he may have been unimpressed or even uninterested in sitting in a chair for two hours only to have to watch people dressed exactly the same as he (a suit, a tie, leather shoes) just saying things directly to him, and not presenting an active story he might get lost in.

But then, as the camera cuts from the stage to the audience, we the viewers are also seeing the people on stage and also the people in the audience watching them. The audience in the television program is dressed the same as the actors on stage. The actors on stage are performing a play as part of a television program, performing the role of actors telling stories of modern life (from fifty years ago) as actors from today are sitting in the audience, performing the roles of people (from fifty years ago) whose own fictional stories are part of another story that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner chose to write about and comment on and that we watch on television today, just as the stories of real people (from fifty years ago) are what the playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie chose to write about and comment on in his play America Hurrah, which premiered fifty years ago.

Well played.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Twelfth Night: On Tour

Martin Luther King, Jr. Branch Performance
We tour! Yesterday and today we celebrated the wit, wonder and words of William Shakespeare with some wonderful audiences, and look forward to more performances this next week.

On Friday, Great Lakes Theater opened it’s mini-tour of Twelfth Night (As Told By Malvolio) at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Branch of the Cleveland Public Library. The MLK Branch is on Stokes Blvd., adjacent to University Circle and the Cleveland Clinic, and yet I was curious as to just how many would choose or decide to enjoy Shakespeare at 1:00 PM on a weekday.

The company with the ArtWorks Team
Well. Word got out and while we were surprised and delighted to see many familiar friends and supporters in attendance, it was also delightful to see the library staff not only chose to bring their squad from day-care, which composed half a dozen or so kids in the Kindergarten age-range, but had prepared them all week by talking about stories from Shakespeare!

Also, I had the good fortune of running into Ray McNiece that morning at the art museum, as he was leading teenage members of Young Audiences’ ArtWorks art-based job training program, and suggest they join us, and they did - some dozen or so students, several of whom were already familiar with members of our cast from GLT’s School Residency Program.

Our set.
We also had at least one audience member who walked over from their office at the Cleveland Clinic on their lunch break.

I had great fun editing Twelfth Night, shaving the work down to the central love triangle of Orsino, Olivia and Viola, and also working to incorporate the Malvolio storyline without adding additional characters. I pulled speeches from the First Folio to further illuminate the (personal) emotions of Olivia and Malvolio and also to give them more stage time -- my first cutting was merely thirty minutes long and most of it was Orsino and Viola.

Today we followed up with an afternoon performance at the Shaker Heights Public Library, and even though it was a gorgeous summer day, we still had a large turnout of folks who came indoors for a little bit to enjoy our program.

Unlike the MLK Branch performance, which was in their second floor gallery space, or even the reading last month in Brett Hall (where we will return for regular performances at the end of this week) the gig at the Shaker Heights Library best represents my original concept for this production of Twelfth Night.

Don't You (Forget About Me)
Once it was decided that the tour would be Twelfth Night, and that it would be presented in libraries, I began thinking of it as a romantic comedy which takes place in a library. The library itself would be the set. And what is the best-known story which takes place almost exclusively in a library? Well, that would be The Breakfast Club.

I mean, really. What other story takes place entirely in a library?

So I conceived of a version of this play which was modeled after a 1980s John Hughes movie ... though it's really more like Just One of The Guys, which was itself inspired by Twelfth Night. And today's performance, with a backdrop of actual books and bookshelves, was just what I'd imagined.

Twelfth Night (As Told By Malvolio) will next be performed at the Tremont Farmer's Market on Tuesday, July 12 at 6:15 PM.

Complete calendar of  events presented by Great Lakes Theater in partnership with Cleveland Public Library for First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare.