Thursday, October 27, 2016

44 Plays For 44 Presidents

Photo: Steve Wagner
The Hall of Presidents

In 1995 my (then) girlfriend and I took a drive across the upper Midwest and we stopped in to the Neofuturarium to see Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, (TML) an attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. They had recently unveiled their Hall of Presidents, which was at that time forty-two large modernist paintings which present not just the man, but the idea of each man who was once President of the United States.

The Hall of Presidents exhibit was originally conceived by Greg Kotis (Urinetown) and Ayun Halliday (No Touch Monkey) with each portrait executed by a different artist in a variety of media. Witnessing the Cleveland Public Theater production of 44 Plays For 44 Presidents, I was reminded of these paintings, and the way in which each of us views the distant past, our personal past, and the very, very recent past.

The Neo-Futurists cleave to the premise if not the fascist politics of the Italian Futurists and the aesthetic of TML can be neatly summed up by F.T. Marinelli’s Futurist Synthetic Theatre manifesto of 1915, to wit; It's stupid to write one hundred pages where one would do. TML consists of extremely brief plays about absolutely anything, making their point quickly and elegantly, and then moving on to the next.

Taking inspiration from their Hall of Presidents, five members of the company, Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnston and Karen Weinberg, set out to compose one brief play for each of the (at that time) forty-three men who had held that position.

Actually forty-two because we count Cleveland twice. It’s confusing.

Triple-A Plowed Under (1936)
Living Newspaper

I read the original script for 43 Plays For 43 Presidents over ten years ago, and there was an obvious resemblance to TML, very brief plays varying from the absurd to the sublime, only in this case not presented at random, and focused on a common theme.

In performance I felt the production less like TML, and more like a Living Newspaper, one of those offered by the Federal Theater Project in the 1930s. These plays, with titles like Power, Injunction Granted and Triple-A Plowed Under, relied heavily on research to present facts to an audience, often with a specific social agenda.

Like 44 Presidents, Living Newspaper plays were also meant to entertain, commenting - sometimes heavily - on the issues presented, and utilizing a wide and creative variety of performance styles, dance, music and technology to make their point.

Cleveland Public Theatre
Remember The Ladies

We brought the kids, age 11 and 13. I knew they would be entertained, but they were also educated and that’s nice, too. My kids do not normally have anything to say about a play immediately after a performance. We'll ask and they just kind of shrug.

We hadn’t even left the theater Monday night when my daughter said quite emphatically, “That was really good.” And I was hoping she’d say that, because there is one particular component of the Cleveland Public Theatre production which is unique among all those that have been produced in the past fourteen years.

In Cleveland all the performers are women.

I have commented recently about so-called “non-traditional” casting. Choosing actors of color for roles historically played by white actors, or even actual persons from history of European descent. It’s not actually new, Shakespeare’s women were played by boys, the Moor of Venice almost certainly by an English actor in blackface. Somehow going the other way has put people of privilege in a tizzy.

Watching a talented ensemble of seven women portray all of the American Presidents what impression did that leave on my teenage daughter? She hasn't expanded on that yet, only that it’s "really good."

1994 - President Clinton
by Jean Chernoff
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

The two acts differ considerably, and much of this is due not only to the writing, and decisions made by this production team, but also the considerable revisions the script has received since it first premiered. The entire play wears its political views proudly on its sleeve, but the events of the nineteenth century are handled with less gravity than those of the twentieth.

For example, in As Karma Sees Fit, William Henry Harrison’s life prior to his inauguration is summed up by his personal responsibility for the wholesale slaughter of native peoples. It is implied that his death thirty-two days after his having been sworn into office is some kind of “indian” curse. We laugh at the irony.

However, in The Not-So-Fair-Deal, Truman describes “the moon, the stars, and the planets” having fallen upon him by FDR’s demise (his words) then drops a symbolic heavenly body onto a war flag of Japan, and there is nothing funny about it. Which president was responsible for more death? Why is one darkly amusing and the other simply awful? Will time + tragedy ever = comedy in this case?

In fact, it is around FDR’s play that the production, as written and performed, veers into the hagiographic. The original version of FDR (simply titled FDR parts 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5) are much more poetic. The fourth part imagines a twelve-year old who had never known another President, and they ask, “what if the sun never shifted … and you could always find it just where you left it.” But then they ask;
When night fell
Would you know it was night?
Or would you think
The sun is gone?
The Honorable George Herbert Walker Bush, III
by Gregg Reynolds
In its present version (Character Above All) it is a candlelit vigil, and a straightforward recitation of his many actions, virtuous and those much less so. This is all well and good but the second half of the twentieth century goes on like that, the guilty condemned, the virtuous exalted. It does not always follow party lines.

George H.W. Bush has received the most significant reconsideration in the past fourteen years. In 2002 he was a moderate whose universally praised war victory couldn’t save him from the criticism he received domestically.

In this version, The Bargain: Prelude To The Great Divide, Bush père is pilloried as a decent man who sold his soul to the devil (personified in the character of Lee Atwater) to achieve high office and is here accused of single-handedly ushering in the modern era of conservative dog whistles, fear-mongering and race-baiting.

Surprisingly, the most recent play that did not receive reconsideration was that for Bill Clinton. He was the sitting President when the Hall of Presidents was created, and received a fine, attractive portrait, suitable perhaps for the White House itself, and in that way much unlike the others.

Consider, for example, his predecessor, whose own portrait is actually a large poster of Saddam Hussein, with a small, George H.W. Bush action figure in box sitting in his lap.

By 2002, however, the writers of this play were able to consider Clinton's entire administration, and found him wanting. In How The Left Was Lost, Bill Clinton is manipulatively charming and all too willing to sell out progressive ideals.

What's In The Box

The evening concludes appropriately enough with an election. The audience gets to choose which play they would like to see last, either the one for him or the one for her. The company makes it clear they do not judge; we were asked to select by a show of applause which play we want to see, not who we actually want for president.

Word has it they have, in fact, performed the Trump play twice already, but the evening we were there the vote was clear, we were with Hillary. And really, after watching a company of women lay bare the magnificent excesses of all our previous, exclusively male heads of state, it only seemed appropriate.

The rap, What's In The Box, describes the frustration you might imagine a woman might feel when everyone knows everything about them, and makes up even stories about them, and yet everyone says this is the most secretive and deceitful woman who ever lived.

The company received this script during the rehearsal period, before the debates began, before grab her by the pussy and such a nasty woman. 

My thirteen year-old girl has watched and listened while the first female candidate for President of a major political party has calmly endured the most hateful and anti-woman rhetoric. My daughter is paying attention.

She has also bought an HRC T-shirt with her own money.

In early September, Hillary's "box" of secrets may have been interpreted only tangentially by its sexual connotation. In late October, it is a metaphor for all of the private and public violations women have to endure every single day, and not only from the dumpster fire at the top of Republican ticket.

Closing argument; You get my public image, bitches / but this is mine.

44 Plays For 44 Presidents continues at Cleveland Public Theatre through Saturday, October 29, 2016.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Sparrow (book)

Driving to work I saw a woman at the bus stop wearing a sweatshirt reading, “Bad Choices Make Good Stories.” Mary Doria Russell’s acclaimed novel, The Sparrow (1996) tells the story of a man with the best of intentions who paves his own road to hell.


When radio signals are found to be emanating from the Alpha Centauri system, the Society of Jesuits send a team to explore this “new world.” As always happens when civilizations meet, mistakes are made.

Our protagonist is Emilio Sandoz, a priest and the expedition linguist. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Sandoz had a rough upbringing and through the intervention of the Church was one of the few in his family to escape a cycle of destitution and crime.

When the expedition reaches the source of the transmissions, the planet Rakhat, the once skeptical Sandoz comes to believe that God has indeed chosen him to first meet the natives of this planet and to unite His children.

Tragic misunderstandings follow and Sandoz eventually returns to earth; tortured, maimed, near death and in despair. He is torn between the belief that either there is no God, or that God exists and and that He is (as Jeb Bartlet would put it) a feckless thug.


The Sparrow was Russell’s first novel. The year 1992 was the quadricentennial of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. An anthropologist, she was unconvinced by all those who speculated that if the early settlers from Europe had only not been so ignorant, the Western experiment may have gone much less tragically -- that is was a mistake we would never make again.

The book was summer reading for me in 2001. My wife and I were taking a vacation in Britain. The trip was last-minute, we hadn’t intended to travel anywhere that summer. We intended to have a newborn child. Deus vult.

That fall I saw Russell speak at Wooster College. She said one of her inspirations was the tale of one who lost his wife in a traffic accident. He’d fallen asleep at the wheel and the passenger side of his car was sheared off by a truck. His wife was killed, he was barely touched.

It was entirely the man’s fault, you see. His wife had asked perhaps twenty minutes before the accident if he was tired, and suggested they stop, but he wanted to press on. After the tragedy he said he was grateful to be an atheist because while he could comprehend the senselessness and grief of this horrifying loss, he couldn’t imagine believing in a God who would have any reason for this to have happened.

At that time I was still reeling from our stillbirth, and I took comfort myself in that thought. Many had told us that God loved our son so much He needed him in heaven. Its is a sentiment I still find heartless and repellent.


John Carroll University
A twentieth anniversary edition of The Sparrow was released this year. The story moves back and forth between two timelines; the events as they occur and also as they are recounted decades later. Though we receive some biographic background on Sandoz, the action truly begins as he and another character meet for the first time in a coffee shop near the campus of John Carroll University in 2016.

Russell's tale begins twenty years into her own future.

She also set this important opening bit in University Heights, which is totally awesome because all great and terrible journeys begin in the Cleveland area. (Ms. Russell lives in Lyndhurst.)

Reading fiction set in the not-too-distant future can be challenging as certain technologies have or have not developed or come to pass. Fortunately this was composed just as the Internet was gaining prominence, an element which must be the most significant detail absent from most twentieth century works of science fiction.

We can’t all be Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game, 1985) or E.M. Forster (The Machine Stops, 1909) to name two authors who predicted the “world wide web” but Russell was keen enough to note that most if not all information and media was soon to be transferred through what is here commonly referred to as "the nets.”

Most prescient are the existence and everyday use of ROM-tablets which you and I today would actually refer to as simply a tablet.


The book has been optioned for a film on two previous occasions. Universal wanted Antonio Banderas to play Emilio Sandoz, and though I personally would have found him a bit too Hollywood handsome for a character I see as a slightly diminutive scrapper (he is described many times as being less than average height) theirs was a much better choice than the man Warners Brothers tapped -- Brad Pitt.

Pitt was looking for good projects for his new production company, and while I admire his work in practically everything I’ve ever seen him in, simply put he’s not a Latino. Ten years ago, and basically since the film industry began, this wasn’t an issue. Today it is, and thankfully so. People of color and their allies have made great inroads, pressuring film corporations who adapt novels and comic books to cast popular characters with actors who represent their ethnic heritage.

Just this week Disney announced they are scrapping a treatment of their live-action adaptation of Mulan which was told from the point of view of a white European sailor. Word is they are now looking specifically for an Asian director.

Russell’s description of Sandoz’s difficult childhood in La Perla is rich and significant, and deeply important to his character. The decisions he made, not the largest of boys or men, that he survived his childhood and stayed out of prison with his remarkable intellect and toughness. That this man joined the priesthood and his ability with languages took him around the world, and then across space. She created a proud Puerto Rican to be the hero of her story. Not Brad Pitt.


Javier Muñoz
Reading the book again in 2016, I had a very clear picture of Emilio Sandoz, of what he looks like. I cannot remember who I pictured fifteen years ago, but now I couldn’t think of anyone else. It was Javier Muñoz, who we had seen play the title role in Hamilton on Broadway last August.

Once the designated alternate for Lin-Manuel Miranda, Muñoz is now the star of the biggest show on Broadway. He has been praised for bringing a “cutting carnal edge” to the role and has gained the nickname Sexy Hamilton.

His comfortable sexuality combined with a fierce determination now drives the show in a way Miranda did not. Don’t get me wrong, Miranda’s ambition in the role is undeniable, but so is his inherent childlike sweetness which is even more apparent now that he has cut his hair after leaving the role. Did you see SNL last week? The guy looks like he’s 25 again. Sigh.

The defined line of his cheek gives Muñoz the look of hungry yearning and he has a wide smile that is both inviting and challenging. Sandoz has a habit of putting his hands to his head and pulling his fingers back through his hair, and Muñoz has that hair. In my imagination, Javier Muñoz became the face of Emilio Sandoz.

He and Miranda worked together on In The Heights, and Muñoz first took over the lead role in that show on Broadway from Miranda as well. It is my fantasy that Miranda would secure the rights for The Sparrow to adapt into a musical, but that he create the lead specifically from Muñoz to play.

Currently, however, the rights are held by AMC which may or may not eventually produce a series.


I remember the night I finished the book, lying in bed at my brother’s home in Battersea. I lie awake for maybe an hour in the dark, staring up into the starless sky through wide open window at the head of our bed, contemplating Sandoz’s loss, his feelings of abandonment, the destruction of his hope and his complete and utter sadness. I did not revel in the feeling, but it did provide a certain perspective. As the story draws to a conclusion we do believe there is the possibility of hope. There must always be hope.

The title comes from the New Testament, Matthew 10:29. The King James Version reminds us, "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father."

The Annunciation Triptych, Rogier van der Weyden (1434)
Hamlet also refers to this passage in Act V, scene 2, when he warns Horatio against acting to alter fate. "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow," he says. His audience would have known the verse.

Some say the same man composed both lines, but well.

The message is, nothing happens without God being aware of it. Without His knowledge. Without His knowledge and His implied consent.

To wit; “That baby was never meant to live.”

In I Hate This I recount a moment my brother and I had before "The Annunciation Triptych" at The Cloisters (in the Heights!) The vision of the Holy Ghost, tiny and white like a fetal baby Jesus, sailing down towards the unknowing Mary, the baby clutching a cross, heading into the womb “equipped with the means of his own death.” In this image I understood the verse in its Biblical context, with Jesus as the sparrow, in this painting falling to earth.

Why did Jesus need to die? Why does anyone?

Deus vult. God wills it.

In Hamilton Javier Munoz Puts A Different Spin On The Title Role, Ben Brantley, The New York Times 11/30/2015
'Mulan' Mania: Disney, Sony Hunt for Asian Directors to Helm Rival Action Pics, Rebecca Ford, The Hollywood Reporter, 10/12/2016