TO ACCUSE OR NOT TO ACCUSE, PART 2a: Constitutional Predators

Hey, I was up writing Part 2 of this series until 6:30 AM, and, before getting to Part 3, I want to elaborate on something I wrote there: "This so-called populist champion [Trump] is actually there to roll back all of Obama's social reforms and consolidate a ruling class among the wealthy elite."  In true Trumpian fashion, I want to double-down on that statement.  The fact that Trump is now supporting child predator Roy Moore just reveals how devoid of moral values he really is, and how focused he is on one Priority.

So, at the risk of sounding like Tom Steyer's little brother, I want to state the obvious: that nothing else matters to Trump and his cohorts except their money.  It is the only thing they have that makes them special, it is the substance of their selves, their identities - take that away, and they are just a bunch of old farts who couldn't get laid by their own wives.  Proof?  Every single thing that Trump has done since siezing power.  Just look at the cabinet that he put together, comprised entirely of wealthy people, most of whom have zero expertise in their respective fields.  Just look at the rollback of all Obama's protections of individual rights.  Just look at the new Tax Bill, a blank check for millionaires and corporations.

This is NOT politics as usual.  Forget that I've been a voter in 12 Presidential elections, and before that I was active in protesting the unlawful War in Vietnam, getting tear-gassed in the March on Washington in 1969, getting locked up at Fort Knox for trying to help soldiers find out about their rights. I come from a political household, my mom was co-chair of the Liberal wing of the NYC Democratic party, I grew up with Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch and that entire cast of characters in my living room.  What's happening now is something else completely.  If you view our current situation as a play, then the instigating event was the near collapse of the world economy in 2008.

I believe that this was a wake-up call for a certain class of multi-millionaires, who looked in the mirror, saw their big paunches and small dicks, and realized that something had to be done to safeguard their power.  When Trump was actually able to bamboozle the underclass into making him their champion - like something out of Brecht's Threepenny Opera - then the power imbalance already happening here was expedited into full-scale class warfare.  All of this may sound very melodramatic - after all, how much has really changed in our daily lives since Trump's election?  Well, you see what's happened to the Dreamers, Mexican illegals and now the Haitian immigrants.  It's not a big jump from that to you and me.  The only recourse we have are upcoming elections. The majority of white men are a lost cause - they will sit in their Lazy-boys, stroking their guns and watching NASCAR until Hell has frozen over.  My hope is that enough of the 53% of white women who voted for the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief will have their own wake-up call and save us at the 11th Hour.  If Trump-Pence gets re-elected, they will have no incentive to play by Constitutional rules, and this will become a dictatorship - all undoubtedly in the name of protecting the Constitution.


TO ACCUSE OR NOT TO ACCUSE? PART 2: How We Got Here

Another day and another one bites the dust.

This time it's Charlie Rose, morning TV anchor and talk show host for the smart set.  Several women who worked for him have come forward to report what was apparently another "open secret" - that this "toxic bachelor" liked to employ young women as his assistants and then would try to seduce them after blurring their boundaries between work and life.  That is, serving the needs of the show would eventually mean serving the needs of Charlie.  But now there is no show - no morning show, no talk show, nothing.  And the bloom is definitely off this rose.

(There goes another dream - being interviewed around that circular table! Though honestly I gave up that one 10 years ago, when he interrupted the dying Harold Pinter one too many times, and I swore I'd never watch him again. And I didn't.)

Scrolling down the various articles about this latest downfall, I read the comments that readers left.  "It's a witch hunt, a goddamn witch hunt!" was a frequently repeated refrain, especially by men of a certain age.  Women tended to be either angry or sad about how many "liberal" men turn out to have abused their female employees.  Though honestly, the majority of comments seem to have been left by lonely men of various ages, with a somewhat bitter edge to many of their comments.

Many of them ask the question: where is all this going?

A better question might be: how the hell did we get here?

Anita Hill and Kerry Washington. While "Confirmation" is an entertaining movie, it doesn't come close to capturing the shock of the real thing.

"WHO PUT A PUBIC HAIR ON MY COKE CAN?"

It's all part of a 36 year cycle that began in 1991 with the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

The hearings were already a strangely public display of partisan conflict - definitely foreshadowing the current dilemma we find ourselves in - when Professor Anita Hill was introduced as a witness against Clarence Thomas.  She had worked for Thomas at the US Department of Education and then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she testified that he had sexually harassed her on numerous occasions, often using bizarrely pornographic images in his harrangues, including the immortal sentence quoted above in all caps.  The televised spectacle pitting an attractive and educated black woman against an educated and nominated black man whose white church-going wife was clutching her rosary beads just a few seats away was almost more than the psyche of the country could handle.  It sent out bolts of crazily repressed sexual angst into the atmosphere that came to an equally crazy fruition three years later with the arrest of O.J. Simpson for killing his white wife and the Jewish waiter returning her sunglasses.  A different case, yes, but once again with the racial and sexual component, with the violent imagery of the Thomas-Hill conflict now blooming into actual violence.

But to get back to the main question.  David Mamet's play Oleanna - written in response to the hearings - took that issue of male/female conflict and sexual harassment/abuse, and he dramatized its complexities in such a way that the play itself became a lightning rod for discussing the issue.  (The next play to have such a massive public impact, capturing that lightning in a well-made bottle, was Tony Kushner's Angels in America a few years later.  I don't believe there's been a single play of such magnitude since, unless one includes the entirety of August Wilson's 10-play cycle.)

Certainly the issue itself of male/female power plays had existed for centuries - the Trojan War itself could be seen in those terms, with the Greeks' abduction of Helen of Troy, she being "the face that launched a thousand ships."  Shakespeare had written a great play of sexual abuse of power, Measure for Measure, in the 17th Century, and August Strindberg had dramatized the psychic war for dominance between men and women 300 years later in such plays as The Father and Miss Julie.   But I believe that it wasn't until Mamet's play in 1992 - his last good play, by the way - that the issues of workplace harassment and sexual abuse of power were really brought together and crystalized for the American public.  (And oh what a great time Mamet had talking about it on the Charlie Rose Show - not that he could get many words in between Charlie's sycophantic paeans of praise.)

"I DID NOT HAVE SEXUAL RELATIONS WITH THAT WOMAN"

It was only five years later that these two issues of workplace harassment and sexual abuse of power exploded into public consciousness again with President Clinton's sex scandal with intern Monica Lewinsky while wife Hillary was just a few rooms away in the White House.  Again, no matter how well any movie or TV series might dramatize these events, the shock of these revelations from the highest seat of power could never really be captured.  It was the tawdriness of this melodrama that boggled the mind, as captured in pedantic and smelly detail by The Starr Report.   And again, the issue of sexual harassment was all over the news, seemingly discussed everywhere, with a particular concentration on the corporate environment and the frequency with which powerful men used their positions to force women who worked for them into sexual subjugation.  Attention started being paid to the fact of "the glass ceiling," and how few women were being given the chance to lead.  But Hillary Clinton stood by her man, Bill survived (barely) the impeachment proceedings against him, and then George W. Bush was elected, signalling a return to a shaky status quo.

The Obama years looked like they were going to be about revolutionizing the system from within, which included reevaluating gender stereotypes and the inequities of workplace politics.  And some of that did go on.  More women than ever were appointed to positions of consequence within the administration, and the passage of health care reform was a major step in establishing the equality between the sexes - as well as between the classes and the races.  That is, if everyone's health was of equal value under the law, then, to some extent, so was everyone's importance as human beings.

"CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?"

Of course, Obama was primarily elected to save the country's financial system, which was brought to the brink of collapse in 2008 by the machinations of the banking industry and the white men who ran it.  And he did that - largely by bailing out the failing institutions, who then went right back to doing what they had done before, without a single investment banker being arrested for almost destroying the world.  As the patchwork solutions held up in the short term, the Obama years became about Acceptance.  Accepting people in their differences, in their quirks, in their excesses.  The prevailing ethos of the Obama years had been voiced many years before, in 1992 - that year again! - by another black man, Rodney King, with the words that supply the heading for this section.  And we did get along, and nothing fundamentally changed, and that was not necessarily a good thing.  It's possible that if this society had completely hit rock bottom that we might have had to make some major changes in how we viewed each other, how we depended on each other.  Or it could have been much worse, who knows?  As it is, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer and the improving technology enabled the greedy element of this society to globalize their assets while creating a permanent underclass largely consisting of the people who built this country in the first place.  An underclass who, ironically, did the bidding of the super-rich by electing Donald J. Trump as president.  This so-called populist champion is actually there to roll back all of Obama's social reforms and consolidate a ruling class among the wealthy elite.

"YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU WANT.  YOU CAN GRAB THEM BY THE PUSSY."

I certainly see this recent spate of sexual harassment and abuse allegations - as well as the @ME TOO movement - deriving directly from the now-infamous Trump Access Hollywood tape, in which he uttered the immortal words quoted above.   That tape aired only 11 days before the election, and its impact was muted shortly thereafter by the specious claim by FBI Director Comey that he was re-opening the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.  But its impact was and is huge - huuuuuuuge - spurring women everywhere into taking forceful action against such abusers, often with the help of men who were also outraged by the election of a man who boasted about being an abuser himself.

The scales had actually started to tip in Obama's second term, when the revelation of systemic abuse of students at elite prep schools brought a renewed understanding of the prevelance of such crimes at even the most sacred American institutions.

That is, if it could happen at Choate and Andover and Horace Mann - where I was among the victims who came forward into the public spotlight - then it could happen anywhere.  And anyone could be the perpetrator, even the most beloved TV dad of all time, Bill Cosby, Dr Cliff Huxtable.  These public recognitions of the validity of sexual abuse claims by victims who were too traumatized and powerless to speak their pain in the past were key events in clearing the way for other victims to come forward now.

Does this mean that all claims of sexual abuse are necessarily true?

And is there any acceptable definition of what constitutes sexual abuse - or is it simply anything that makes the "victim" feel uncomfortable or disrespected?

Well, I could tell you, but we've come to this lovely full circle from Clarence Thomas to Cosby, and you wouldn't want me to mess that up, would you?

 

 

 


What To Do About Trump? Laugh or Cry? 7 Fringe Shows Have an Answer

Donald Trump (Harry S. Murphy) and Barrack Obama (Joshua Wolf Coleman) in Ray Richmond's play Transition.

Donald Trump has been ridiculed for years. He is practically a caricature onto himself – like the most extreme example of the Ugly American come to life. We have seen President Obama's takedown of Trump at the White House Correspondents dinner, and Alec Baldwin's broad version of him on SNL – but since November 8, 2016, many of us haven't been laughing anymore.

Several shows at this year's Hollywood Fringe Festival were written as a cathartic release for artists who felt frustrated and depressed when Trump surprised us all and won.

Each show has different ways of satirizing the Trump phenomenon, and a few of them, like Too Many Hitlers or: The Decoy Decameron, were written long before the election – but all of them mock the powerful.

While they might differ on underlying themes or tone, the creators of each show say getting laughs is more important than making political statements. These are not grim thought pieces.

Satire uses ridicule and exaggeration to poke fun at our leaders, thus (hopefully) robbing them of some of their power. But when Trump is already so ridiculous and outlandish, won't even the most cartoonish and exaggerated version of him pale in comparison to the real one? And if anyone is laughing, so what? Ridicule hasn't exactly stopped him before.

Rick Cipes, who wrote and stars in Zombie Clown Trump: An Apocalyptic Musical, believes that an artist can comment on an already absurd Trump administration by being even more absurd.

"In Zombie Clown Trump, Sean Spicer is now played by a Sesame Street Puppet named Sean Sphincter, Melania Trump is now "Barbania" Trump and played by a Barbie doll, and Trump himself isn't only a clown, but a zombie clown who has triggered a world wide zombie apocalypse," he says.

Seeing an excerpt from the show at the Fringe Cabaret, I find the character more menacing than funny, and don't want to get too close to him. But clowns have always scared the shit out of me, even before Pennywise from It and Trump came along.

Cipes is a former journalist, and years ago he wrote an article called Trump du Soleil predicting that Trump's fifteen minutes of fame were nearly up – but as he says, seeing as how they aren't up quite yet...he still believes a combination of different forces, including ridicule and laughter, can help bring the man down.

He felt powerless after the election, but writing the show helped Cipes realize that the world won't end because of one creepy clown. The song that plays as the audience exits his show echoes includes this thought.

Transition by first-time playwright Ray Richmond approaches Trump differently than Zombie Clown Trump, but it is no less of an attack on him. President Barrack Obama and Donald Trump met in the White House 36 hours after the election and details about what happened during that meeting are still sketchy.

Transition imagines this encounter between two men who are polar opposites; Trump, loud and possessing an oversized ego, versus Obama, erudite and professorial. The media, with a bizarre sense of relief, reported at the time that the meeting had gone well (Obama has given hints in recent interviews that this was not the case.)

That post-meeting sense of relief didn't last long, not in reality or in this play. "Trump is only influenced by what shiny object is front of him and then 30 minutes later, it's something else." Richmond says. "Obama's optimism that he could influence Trump is lost when he realizes this guy really is a piece of shit, he really is an idiot."

Richmond, who like Cipes, has a background in journalism, wrote the original script in a two-week frenzy after the election. He says he didn't want just another takedown of the boorish image of Trump, or some kind of Saturday Night Live spin-off.

"We really wanted him to be taken seriously on some level," Richmond says, so Harry S. Murphy, who plays Trumps, dialed down his performance since the original run at the Lounge Theatre earlier this year. It was little too over the top before, Richmond says, and what we see now is scarier, even grim, but there are certainly comic flourishes.

"Trump is ignorant, but he's not stupid. He understands combat, verbal combat, and he understands winning. We think it's scarier if you take some of what he's saying and it makes sense and is intelligent," Richmond says.

Transition does an excellent of building tension – before deflating it with a well-timed joke, only to build it up again. One can only wonder how much this awkward encounter resembles what really happened in that room.

Richmond is not interested in, as he says, being Switzerland – taking some middle ground or balanced approach. For him, this is no time to be in the middle since he considers the election of Trump the scariest thing to happen to this country in years, rivaled only by cataclysmic events like 9/11.

"No, I really don't believe satire can really begin to change people's minds and hearts, I wish it could," he says. "Unfortunately, satire is constructed and almost exclusively supported by intelligent people. Trump's supporters are best in denial or living in ignorance. They are not people who appreciate satire – they'd just call it leftist crap, they'd say you liberals! They don't understand cleverness or irony or truth in humor, it's all lost on them."

In that, he is like Cipes who when asked if he wants to spark an awakening in people, says says he has no intention of doing that – he wants to preach to the choir, and alleviate their fears with a night of humor.

Trump may not have created the intense divisions in this country, but he certainly knew how to exploit them. Plato said we laugh at other people so we can feel superior to them, and so much of modern satire comes down to pointing at those idiots over there, but not implicating ourselves. The Rising and Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy couldn't be more different tonally – but their creators are alike in that they turn the lens on themselves as well.

"Jonathan Swift said satire is putting a mirror in front of you and looking at the world, except you're not in the picture" says Armen Pandola, the creator of The Rising. He laughs, and says "I try to do it and include myself in the picture."

He does believe it is possible to reach beyond the liberal bubble and doesn't want to be polemical at all. The Rising is really skewering social media, which the Trump campaign used so successfully against Hillary Clinton, and we are all a part of that world.

We talk about The Rising a few days before a gunman attempts to assassinate several G.O.P. congressmen practicing baseball. The play is about a shadowy revolutionary group that starts randomly killing one politician every day, but government insists they don't exist and that these reports are fake news. But the bodies keep falling.

"Hey, there's somebody being killed every minute, some of them are bound to politicians," says one character. The play is set in 2033, but it could happening five minutes from now, or as it's poster art says, in a world that is just an explosion away.

The title of course comes from that old Quaker tradition of a community coming together to raise a barn. "The idea of The Rising is that it's a community of people looking to change and build something, but of course the methods they use are not good. They're killing people, and I don't hide the consequences of that" Pandola says.

People are moving further into their own respective camps, and Pandola wants to show this highlight these divisions by making them even more extreme, showing us where we might be headed.

Gillian Belllinger, Landon Kirksey and Kevin Richards in Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy

Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy is a parody musical set 400 years in the future. It follows the adventures of Captain Natasha Trump, the great great great great granddaughter of Donald Trump, who has destroyed the planet leaving humans to find a new one.

The show's co-creators Gillian Bellinger and Landon Kirksey both hail from that strange, alternative universe called Texas. They are also huge science fiction fans, and they use Star Trek as the main inspiration – always in an attempt to be as overtly silly as possible.

"One of the things I love about sci-fi is that it gives us a lens to talk about things that are complicated but gives us the space, pun intended, to do so in a way that is less emotional and close." says Bellinger. This is exactly what Gene Roddenberry did on the original Star Trek – he created a show where unsettling and even taboo subjects could be discussed, cause, hey who doesn't like space? Or for that matter, science fiction parody musicals?

Early drafts did attack all those idiots over there, but after staged readings Bellinger and Kirksey got notes saying you need to point a finger at everybody, so they wrote jokes at their own expense.

"We didn't want to be just lopsided and obviously are political beliefs are very apparent, but it really is the polarization of this thing that is the problem, so where you shine a light on that you become more aware...of...how can I affect change by coming together as opposed to dividing," says Kirksey.

Another division I find is that many people don't want to laugh about Trump, or even think about him. When I tell a friend at Fringe Central that I am writing a piece about satire on Trump, he shakes his head and says, "I'm tired of hearing about him."

Jon Jacobs in Dreams in Overdrive

Dreams in Overdrive is a solo show that briefly deals with Trump, and it's creator Job Jacobs echoes this thought when he says, "I've seen one other show that included a little of political Trump humor, and I found myself completely turned off. It kind of makes me nervous for my audience. Do we really even want to laugh about Trump? Or would we rather just completely ignore his existence? Since Trump is already so absurd, any attempt at making fun of him also just makes me sick."

Steven Benaquist, writer and one of the performers of Too Many Hitlers

Which brings us to everyone's favorite punchline, Adolph Hitler. Too Many Hitlers is a farce about one of the most evil men who ever lived.

Nine of Hitler's decoys – one of which may be the real Fuhrer--are hiding in a bunker in Berlin during the closing days of World War II. The sight of multiple Hitlers on stage is funny, especially when they break into a song and dance number, or do an extended bit of dialogue taken entirely from the titles of Sylvester Stallone movies.

The song Nazi Me is Nazi You is funny too – a fatherly Hitler decoy is explaining to a more junior member that the essence of being a Nazi is what you are not...you're not old or weak or a cripple or black or jewish or whatever. This is when the laughter starts to sting cause now you've been tricked into laughing at something that is inherently not funny.

The humor is obviously very dark, and after testing the show against audience reactions, Steven Benaquist, who performs in and wrote the show, lightened some of it's aspects. But he stands by the dark humor of the piece, even if some audience member might be put off by the tone.

"The reason why some people don't like it is late in the show they grow attached to these Hitler decoys and they don't want to be reminded that they were fucking racists, they hated the jews and I don't want them to forget it," Benaquist says. He wants people to laugh, but also remember that the Nazis were and are evil.

Andra Moldav and Kate Rappoport in How to Love Your Dictator: Olga & Ludmila's Guide to Fascism.

If Too Many Hitlers is a farce that wants to remind you of the past, How To love Your Dictator: Olga & Ludmila's Guide to Fascism imagines a worst case future scenario; Trump is Putin's puppet and we have been annexed by the Russians.

The scene is set by loud Russian rock music, cold war era propaganda films and a complimentary shot of Vodka. Several people are shot. The audience is thankfully spared.

Kate Rappoport was born in Poland and Andra Moldav in Romania, but both moved to America when they were still children. The show is partly based on conversations about their experiences growing up in Eastern Europe, and how their grandmothers had such a negative outlook on the world. Originally a four-minute short they created with their sketch group Femmebot PhD, they expanded it after the election into a holiday show they called The Last American Christmas.

How to Love Your Dictator takes the outlook of growing up in an oppressive culture where you don't have freedom of speech, and cannot make fun of political figures. It plays like an episode of Access Hollywood or TMZ, only hosted by two depressive Russian ladies. They offer Americans helpful tips on living under a dictatorship. "Thank you for spending your last free days with us," they cheerfully tell the audience near the show's end.

""I just feel that in American society, satire and being able to express what makes you laugh is so entrenched in our society that it's funny that I don't even think about it too much or as some dangerous political statement because I know I have the freedom to do that." says Rappoport.

"We as Americans are used to laughing at people that are in power, and it's really cool that we are allowed to do that," she says. "It's crazy to think in other countries people can't laugh at what's going on cause when they do, it creates incredible changes in society."

So can we laugh Trump out of office? Of course not, but as Benaquist says, condemning mockery as useless is itself useless. Cipes still believes in the power of laughter because, as he puts it, Trump is a bully and bullies hate to be taunted – it throws them off their game. Authoritarian regimes want to create a culture of fear--but if if you ridicule the powerful, and take down the image of the glorious leader, perhaps you are one step closer to changing things. But first you have to laugh.


CARNAGE AND COMPASSION IN TRUMP'S AMERICA

HIPSTER TIPS OF THE WEEK

Faqir Hassan and Melissa Chalsma in Sharr White's THE SNOW GEESE

When Sharr White's play The Snow Geese opened in New York, Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times that "it is unlikely to stir any emotion except bewilderment as to how this lifeless play wound up on Broadway."  Such reviews are the kiss of death for any new play, and The Snow Geese was no exception.  But Mr. White's friends David Melville and Melissa Charlsma considered this unjust, and since they are co-artistic directors of the Independent Shakespeare Co. of Los Angeles, they were in a position to do something about it.  Sharr White revised his play for their actors, and the resulting production is unconventional and unpredictable in its examination of the classic American subjects of money and family.  Only four performances left of this fascinating play that you may never get a chance to see again - this Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2 in Atwater Village.      (CLICK HERE for tickets and more info.)

Harry Groener, Ross Phillips and Rebecca Mozo in "The Buttered Biscuits" cast of Antaeus Company's CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Photo Credit: Sally Hughes

Money and Family are also the preoccupations of the characters in Tennessee Williams's classic American drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, along with that Williams staple, Sex.  Sex as a subject suitable for drama was the new variable that Williams brought to the American equation (courtesy of Sweden's great dramatist August Strindberg), and it simply changed everything.  He unlocked the Puritanical Pandora's Box of obsession, repression and sexual/gender identity that helped create the modern world as we know it.  But very few productions of this masterpiece - which was clearly Williams's attempt at an American King Lear - are sexy.  Important, yes; but sexy, no.  The Antaeus Company  production that I saw at their new theater space in Glendale - performed by "The Buttered Biscuits" cast, who alternate with "The Hoppin' Johns" cast - was sexy.  Director Cameron Watson anchors the play directly in the bedroom of Maggie the Cat and Brick the crippled ex-football player, who have reached an  impasse  in their  relations.  Maggie needs a baby; Brick hates Maggie and vows never to have sex with her again.  In the long first scene, Brick intermittently exposes his nakedness to his wife, taunting her with what he promises never to give her.  And when Brick's father Big Daddy speaks with him in Act II, they do so in that same bedroom, where Big Daddy's  frank expression of lust for every woman who isn't his wife leads to his demanding an answer to why Brick claims to be repulsed by Maggie.  It's a brilliant reading of this play, which clears away the academic cobwebs and brings us back to the conundrum of lust and love that lies at the heart of Williams's dramaturgy.   (CLICK HERE  for tickets and info about the alternating casts performing through May 7th.)

"It's the single, solitary individual that's finished. The time has come to say, is dehumanization such a bad word?"  -- Howard Beale in the film Network by Paddy Chayevsky

The Donald and his Godfather, Roy Cohn; or "Can you find the Devil in this Picture?"   Courtesy of the Bettman Archives and Getty Images

The Twisted Hipster has been around for awhile, folks.  In fact, this is the 11th presidency that I can remember.  And I'm here to tell you that nothing about what is happening right now is "normal."  Yes, things were weird during Watergate and when Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky/Paula Jones  scandals were being revealed by Ken Starr.  And yes, at the end of Reagan's tenure too, during the time of Ollie North, shadow government agencies and the Iran/Contra hearings.  But those all have one thing in common: they came in the second term of those respective leaders.  No presidency has ever started off like this.  None.  This is insanity.

Sometimes it feels as if the wave of conspiracy theories that has been building for the last 55 years, ever since the  spilling of JFK's blood, has now reached a crescendo and threatens to overwhelm all of us.  Facebook and Twitter are one kind of crazy. but now every friend of mine seems to have his or her own pet theory.  "Oh, Trump is gone, we've already moved on to Pence, what's going on now is all a charade," one friend tells me.  While another says: "At the  end of Obama's term, this one psychic predicted that Obama was going to be the last American president.  When Trump was sworn in, I figured that was just b.s.  But now I think that Trump's regime may itself be b.s., and that the democratic order of things is about to fall apart.  I don't know what comes next, and I'm afraid to find out."

One thing is for certain: our collective perception of reality has been changed, perhaps irrevocably, by Trump's cynical manipulations.  His crudeness infects everything.  His invocation of "American carnage" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. His Narcissism threatens to undermine our sense of empathy, the compassion that we are able to feel for others.

Ann Talman in her one-woman show Woody's Order! at Ensemble Studio Theatre LA, the Atwater Village Theatre, through April 22nd. Photo: John Altdorfer

Ann Talman's one woman show Woody's Order! is completely apolitical.  Talman tells the heartrending story of her life as a caretaker, first for her older brother Woody, stricken from birth with cerebral palsy, and later for her dad too, afflicted with Alzheimer's.  Talman's beloved mom had died in a car accident when she was still in college, and there was no one else to turn to, no one else who could provide the love and attention needed to keep her family members alive.  The fact that Talman was a successful young actress who had starred on Broadway as Elizabeth Taylor's daughter in Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes - as well as in several other Broadway plays, movies, TV series and soap operas - well, her career was simply collateral damage for the dedication that her caretaking required.  As was her marriage to the actor Bruce MacVittie.  He wanted children, but how could she do this when she was already shuttling between her brother's care center and her dad's hospital bed while still trying to maintain a career?

Ann Talman blames no one for any of this.  She has no personal axe to grind, no religious point to make, no political legislation to champion.  In fact, her love for her brother is so deep and all-encompassing that she is simply grateful.  She completely loves and understands him, and he completely loves and understands her.  How many people can  make such a claim?  No words are needed between them - their spirits have merged.  The doctors gave Woody a life expectancy of 12 years when he was born; he is now almost 70.   Talman expresses nothing but gratitude for this.

Yet it was impossible for me to experience Talman's story and not think about Donald Trump's public mocking of the disabled reporter Serge Kovalevski of the New York Times during the primaries.  How could such a person be voted for by anyone for anything - much less for president of this great country?  How did this vile act not disqualify him  then and there as an emissary of the public trust?  And how could Meryl Streep's denunciation of such behavior yield anything but collective agreement and expressions of solidarity?

The fact is, actions have consequences, even if we don't want them to, even if we choose to deny them.  And the lack of moral action IS a choice that has consequences too.  Once we endorse an act like Trump's by there being no punishment for it - no consequences - then what does that lead do?  Once we give in to pragmatism and moral cowardice and decree that such behavior is acceptable, then how low can we go?  What else will we accept?

We have only to look at Nazi Germany to find an answer.  Adolf Hitler and his cohorts were not handed the keys to the kingdom in 1933, when Hitler was elected co-chancellor.  There was a gradual wearing down of outrage, a gradual compromise of moral values in favor of financial advancement and nationalistic empowerment.  Sound familiar?

Someone like Woody Talman would have been gassed at birth by the Nazis without a second thought, without even a tinge of regret.  In fact, they would have called it an act of compassion to put an imperfect specimen like Woody out of his "misery." But Ann Talman begs to differ.  And her voice must be heard before we grow so "dehumanized" (to quote Howard Beale) that we can no longer hear it.  (For tickets CLICK HERE or 818-839-1197.)

Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in Robert Schenkkan's "Building the Wall" at the Fountain Theatre, directed by Michael Michetti.

In his shockingly timely new play Building The Wall, Pulitzer-prize winner Robert Schenkkan has taken this analogy between Trump's America and Nazi Germany - based on the compromise of moral outrage in deference to financial and nationalistic self-interest (that is, money and family) - and he has woven a dystopian prophecy from it, of what could happen if we continue down this dark path.

The play takes place in a Federal prison in the near future of 2019.  Judith Moreland plays Gloria, a historian, who has come to see Rick (Bo Foxworth), a convict on death row.  Rick was the warden of a mass-detention center for immigrants deemed illegal by the Trump administration, and he has been convicted for the crimes committed under his watch.  Rick didn't testify at his recent trial and is now awaiting sentencing.  Gloria is here to give him the chance to tell what happened from his point of view.

Schenkkan was recently quoted in American Theatre Magazine as saying, "I think that the Republic is in serious jeopardy, and I think that artists need to respond to it now, immediately."  When I met with Schenkkan last month, he stressed this, adding: "The urgency that I feel right now as an American citizen and a theater artist cannot be overstated.  We no longer have a business as usual world.  We all have an individual responsibility to oppose what is happening.  My job is to get people interested in taking meaningful action, in asking themselves "What can I do?" and then doing it."

Bo Foxworth plays the warden of a mass-detention center under Trump's regime in Schenkkan's play

Judging from the audience I saw the play with last Saturday, Schenkkan's play is getting mixed results on that score.  The events related by warden Rick in the play are so horrific - so reminiscent of Nazi death camps - that the audience seemed reflexively to reject the possibility that such things could actually happen in their lifetimes in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  That is, they accepted the story on the level of a dystopian parable, a warning, but not literally as something predictive, even as a worst-case scenario.  Yet it's important to remember that Kristallnacht - the Nazi pogrom in which the windows of Jewish storefronts were shattered even as Jewish citizens of Germany were being herded into ghettos - took place only four years after Hitler's ascendancy to sole leadership.  Such an eventuality was not even conceivable in 1935, but by 1938 it was reality, and not just in isolated regions.  It was the law of the land, and there was nothing anyone could do to deter it.

The post-show discussion at the Fountain featured a Latina professor and the Latino representative of a group of immigrant day-workers, and it was fascinating - not so much for what was said, but for what wasn't said.  There was not a single question about or reference to Schenkkan's play.  Not one.  Instead, the many audience members who remained were asking questions about detention centers in Los Angeles, and what they could do to help - who could they give money to, what could they do to register their objections to how immigrants are being demonized, to how fellow human beings are being treated.  It was clear that their omission of any reference to Schenkkan's play had less to do with an aesthetic value judgment than an urgency regarding the play's message.

I have to admit that it did give me some hope that maybe "the single, solitary individual" wasn't "finished" after all, and maybe "dehumanization" is still a bad word.  But this is no time for patting oneself on the back.  "Complacency is a very serious problem," Robert Schenkkan told me.

Yes, and we are still going down that dark path.  Who can tell where it will lead?

(The show has been extended for more info and tickets CLICK HERE)


A Serious Talk with A Serious Man: Robert Schenkkan, Pulitzer-Prize Winning Playwright

"Everything Donald Trump is doing now is right out of the Authoritarian Playbook.  Right out of it.   Make people feel powerless and overwhelmed?  Check.  Attack the press as the enemy of the people?  Check.  Portray yourself as the only one who can save the day?  Check."

It's a beautiful March day in Los Angeles, 85 degrees and sunny, but here at the beach in Santa Monica, it's foggy and chilly.  Robert Schenkkan is saying this as he sits on a bench beside the Twisted Hipster, looking out at the rapidly-disappearing vista.

"What Trump is up to is nothing less than a full-out assault on basic American values and individual rights.  People need to stay very conscious about what is going on and need to keep asking: what can I do?  How can I help defend against this attack on our freedoms?  The most important thing - and I cannot stress this enough - is that we cannot cede moral authority to the State and allow them to let us feel irrelevant.  We have to reject the false narrative that this administration has been putting out there.  The decisions we make over the next 18 months are very important and may well determine the future of this country - and, consequently, of the world."

Schenkkan may well be the most important American playwright of our time.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Kentucky Cycle in 1992 - his cycle of nine connected one acts exploring American Mythology and identity -- his career went into overdrive last year with All The Way (about President Lyndon B. Johnson) receiving the Tony Award for Best Play and getting made into an HBO film starring Bryan Cranston (who also played LBJ on Broadway, winning the Tony for Best Actor), while his co-adaptation of the film Hacksaw Ridge nabbed  him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.  But anyone looking at him here would simply see a slight, aging man with a knit cap pulled closely over his scalp.  His voice is high-pitched, his tone is thoughtful and worried, like a dad terrified for his child's future.

"I feel like artists working today have a pressing responsibility to speak to these issues, and to the choices that we as a country are facing.  The urgency I feel right now as a citizen and as a theater artist cannot be over-stated.  This is a crisis like no other that we have faced in our country's history.  Yes, the threat of fascism and autocracy has been there before, certainly during both World Wars in the last century, as well as during the purges of Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee.  But there has never been a president like Donald Trump, who is using the highest office in the land to pose such a clear and present danger to everything we represent as Americans.  The hypocrisy of his doing this in the service of protecting us individually and collectively - well, like I said before, that's right out of the Authoritarian Playbook.  And that's why we have to keep pushing back when he tries to divide us and fill us with fear."

What Schenkkan has specifically done is to write a 2-person play called Building The Wall about the Trump Presidency that is currently in previews for its World Premiere at LA's Fountain Theatre.  Directed by LA's own Michael Michetti and starring local actors Bo Foxworth and Judith Moreland, the production will open on March 18th and is scheduled to run until May 21st.   ([email protected] or 323-663-1525 for tickets and information.)  Its opening here will be followed by productions at four other theaters across the country and possibly more - and there is great interest from theaters in Canada, London and elsewhere.

Building The Wall takes place in 2019, when the impact of Trump's current immigration policies have run their destructive course, rounding up and detaining millions of immigrants.  Now a writer interviews the supervisor of a private prison as he himself awaits sentencing for carrying out this federal policy, and they both look back at the time we are living in now, trying to figure out how such terrible violations of individual rights could ever have been carried out in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

"I think history will not look back at us kindly," he says with deep sadness in his voice.  "But we have to give the devil his due - Donald Trump spoke to people's anxieties in a way that the progressives weren't able to.  We took our eyes off the ball during the Obama years, and the result is the terrible situation that we find ourselves in right now.  Each of us helped in our way to create this situation, and each of us will have to account for our moral courage - or lack of such - in the face of such an assault on the values that we purport to represent.   The outcome is by no means decided.  And the choices that we make now will determine the course that this country follows, both in the near future and in the very long term."

Building the Wall previews tonight and tomorrow and plays March 18 - May 21. Visit fountaintheatre.com for tickets.


Lincoln Center Makes a Plea to Save the NEA

Lincoln Center, the world's largest performing arts center, released a public statement about President Trump's threats against the National Endowment of the Arts. By contributing $704.2 billion every year to the U.S. economy, the arts not only are a robust facet of American culture, but are also attract private philanthropy.
Lincoln Center is home to the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, New York Philharmonic, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. In an open letter posted to their website, the New York arts institution argued for both the human and economic benefits of continued federal support of the arts.
“Beyond our shores, American arts institutions are the envy of the world,” reads the statement. “In a unique public-private model, private sources provide the vast majority of funding for our artists and arts organizations. Government helps in targeted ways at pivotal moments, for example, by providing early funding to get projects off the ground or helping to create or expand promising initiatives to achieve greater reach and impact. Underlying all of this is the National Endowment for the Arts.”
“For more than 50 years, the NEA has provided leadership in the public arts arena,” reads the statement. “The total cost of the NEA is less than one dollar a year for every American. But because it is so successful and its imprimatur so prestigious, every dollar the NEA contributes leads to nine additional dollars being donated from other sources.”
Lincoln Center, which brings in six million people annually to its events, also made the strong case for how the arts serve a public good, while highlighting organization's work in arts education.
“A child's early introduction to ballet teaches strength and discipline,” the statement said. “A veteran's exposure to art therapy brings healing and hope. A student's participation in music class improves math scores and critical thinking skills. Art shapes achievement, with profound and practical effects.”
The statement does not mention President Trump by name, but in an echo of his “Make America Great Again” slogan, it states: “A great America needs that kind of return.”
You can read the full statement here.


In the Heart of America

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

Place: South Bend, Indiana.

Home of Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish.

We were 3.5 weeks into the LA Theatre Works national tour of “Judgment at Nuremberg”. It is a radio play about the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.

You know the one-where Nazi war criminals were tried for the crimes against humanity that resulted in the Holocaust.

Our play is specifically about the trials of the judges.

The trials that followed the first Nuremberg Trials. These trials were of the judges, doctors, business men, IG Farben whose chemicals were used in the gas chambers and so on.

It's Judges judging Judges.

It's a morality play about who is responsible and how far does that responsibility go.

Fun fact: War crimes and crimes against humanity came out of the Nuremberg Trials. It was the first time that people were convicted of carrying out the law. The first time that people were prosecuted for doing something that wasn't illegal at the time that they did it. That's how bad the crimes were. We needed to set a precedent so that it couldn't happen again.

It isn't a comedy.

3.5 weeks at universities all over the country, doing workshops and having talkbacks. Amidst an impending Presidential election. We find ourselves in the middle of America facilitating a conversation about fascism, nationalism and hate. The kind that makes us insulate ourselves from our neighbors.

Election Night.

No one was going to come and see a play about the Holocaust tonight-so we had the day off.

The first thing I noticed when we arrived at Notre Dame was it's swanky-ness. It is gorgeous, surrounded by trees of every color changing before our very eyes. We checked into the Morris Inn-clearly the place they put up donors to impress them.

changing-leaves

This is a place where dreams are made. This is a place where anything is possible.

The next thing that I noticed was the lack of color-everywhere except the trees and the staff at the college. The only students that I saw of any color at all were clearly athletes.

Did I mention I was in Indiana.

Mike Pence is the Governor of Indiana.

Rohr's-the fancy bar at the Morris Inn.

nd-morris-murph

In the middle are me and my castmates. 8 liberal actor tour-mates/friends. 8 of the best that there are to work with. The crème de la crème. 8 people going onto the front lines of truth and 8 people who have been bonded together through intention.

Across from us is a group of 40-50's something women celebrating a birthday.

At the end of the bar is a group of very large college athletes dominating the TV where the sound is on.

Sprinkled amongst us are several tables of couples that probably never look like they are having a good time.

We ordered food and drinks and waited for signs of how the night was going to progress. What the next four years would hold.

Our very smiley waitress, relatively young, particularly Mid-Western-but surprisingly, under further investigation, is a mother of 4. She looks around to see if anyone is watching her and secretly shows me a photo of her kids on her iPhone.

Smiley Waitress: This is a great job. If I stay-my kids will be able to go to college here and get financial aid.

She points to Murph, the grey-haired gentleman bartender.

Smiley Waitress: Murph has worked here for more than 40 years. They named a burger after him. It's really good.

Hillary has taken her first states. Our group cheers. We receive glowers from numerous guests. I feel obliged to remind our group that we are not in Kansas anymore. Kansas, actually would've been a problem as well-but to be conscious of the fact that we might not be in the majority.

Trump takes Tennessee and a middle aged white guy stands up at his table and obnoxiously cheers and claps and directs all of his energy at our table. He jeers at us.

Obnoxious White Guy: Yeah! That's what I'm talking about!

I am actually not sure why he would care that we didn't all vote for the same person-but he was successful at making a point. A point that felt like a threat.

I went to the bathroom and the front desk staff was peering into the bar TVs. They all jumped to attention as I walked past to look like they were working. I stopped and chatted with them-my way of letting them know I'm not the person who needs them to busy themselves.

Darlene the Front Desk Clerk: How is your night going?

Me: Good with the exception of the guy who just clapped for Trump in my face.

Darlene: Oh, yes. They get very aggressive if you don't do what they want you to.

Me: How is this for you tonight?

Darlene: Just a day in the life. This is a good job so I am getting through.

After I returned from the bathroom, the bar had emptied out quite a bit. It was that time in the night when it was looking pretty good for Hillary.

Gone was the obnoxious white guy. Gone was the group of women who I wished that I had asked how they felt about the election and being in Indiana-just to hear what they had to say.

And then about a half hour later-Trump takes another state. Hmmm.

The large athletes-couldn't tell if they were football players or basketball players or maybe both-were all white except one who was ethnically ambiguous. They cheered loudly and ordered more beer. I believe “Whoops” were involved. The ethnically ambiguous one looked like he was in conflict with himself as he tried to “Whoop” along.

One of my cast mates stands abruptly to leave.

Cast mate #1: This is how much they hate us. They had to make sure we knew just exactly how much they hate us. They are really that afraid of women that they would rather have him than her.

She refuses to watch anything further publicly and retires to her room for some kind of sanctuary.

I was feeling a little touchy. I went out for some air.

Earlier that week we were in Iowa. And Wisconsin. And Minnesota. And Arizona. But in Iowa, I was met with these stares. Not by the Quakers. Not by the Amish. Not by the students or the staff at the University. By the people who were just regular people that we'd bump into at the Culver's fast food joint (Frozen custard-check it out) or the lobby at our hotel. These people who stare-it is a look I've seen before-it is a look of disgust. Perhaps I don't look the way they think I should? Perhaps it's indigestion. It's the same kind of look that someone gets when they want to destroy something.

In the space of 3 hours going between Wisconsin and Iowa to return rental cars-it's a long story that involves a cancelled flight at Chicago O'Hare airport during the last game of the World Series when the Chicago Cubs won for the first time-

I was asked by 4 separate people in 4 different places:

“Where you from? You ain't from round here.”

One of whom was a toothless truck driver who thought I might like to see his bumper sticker that was an outline of a pin up girl holding a garden tool.

It read: Every farmer needs a good ho!

When he finished laughing and slapping his knee (really, he actually knee slapped himself) he invited me into the cab of his truck.

Toothless truck driver: Maybe you'd like me to show you other things you won't see out there in California. Maybe you'd like me to teach you a thing or two.

It was at that moment I assumed the person pumping the gas into our rentals was pumping diesel so that the car would stop in a half a mile and they could come “rescue me”.

People keep pointing out that he was just a trucker…and I keep pointing out that I am just a woman and it spooked me. I felt fear. The kind I haven't for a while. The kind that is intentional. The kind you can see in their eyes.   That they want to teach you a lesson. The kind that should be unacceptable in a modern society.
When I returned to the bar this time-

Trump had just been given Florida.

One of our cast mates hangs up his phone.

Cast Mate #2: My kids are in tears. They don't understand what is happening. I told them it was going to be fine and not to worry.

The bar was now mostly empty. Except for our group, Murph the bartender, a 21 year old blonde bartender who never smiled and a man who it turns out was speaking on the panel about the Nuremberg Trials before our show the next night. We talked about the precedent that Hitler set with his rhetoric of hate. We talked about his focus on how “others” were the problem and his meteoric rise to power. We talked about how quickly the tide can shift. We acknowledged how terrifying it is that his language is mirrored to a tee by Trump as we waited to see how Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin were going to turn out.

Dessert was definitely required.

The 21 year old blonde bartender who never smiled came over.

Me: I'll have the crème brulee with 6 spoons please. How is this night for you? How do you feel about this election?

She scoffs.

Blonde Bartender: I'm just getting through it. Is that it? The kitchen is closing.

Me: Yes, that's it.

The crème brulee didn't help.

States that had seemed to be locked up were changing from blue to red.

Another cast mate hangs up his phone.

Cast Mate #3: I don't know what to tell my son. He has a Muslim girlfriend. What am I supposed to tell my son?

It was 1 AM. I'd never been on the east coast for an election. I'm used to Los Angeles where you have a new President by 10.

The bar was closing.   It was me and 2 cast mates, the 2 bartenders and the staff of the hotel. All but the blonde bartender looked like they'd seen a disaster.

I felt like I had just watched the World Trade Center towers fall again. It felt as personal as that day did. An attack on our freedom. Our way of life.

We retreated to our rooms, in shock.

The next day-I felt like I'd been hit by a truck. And the morning news didn't bring a sudden miracle.

I walked to the bagel place on campus. It was cold, sunny and windy.

trees-theater

A very tall athlete brushed past me. I felt invisible. I felt like I had a target on my back.

On the sidewalk someone had scrawled in pastel colored chalk:

Love Trumps Hate

love trumps hate

Standing in line, I overheard 2 undergrads mumbling to each other.

Female Undergrad: I don't really get what the big deal is?

Male Undergrad: I don't know. Everybody always overreacts. I mean what can happen in 4 years?

I felt like a crazy person. I felt scared.

The show that night was the kind of show you dream about. And never want to perform at the same time. Our mutual shock over what had transpired in the last 24 hours had turned to anger. Purpose.

If we were gonna be in the good state of Indiana where Mike Pence is the Governor we are going to leave it all on the stage. We are not going to leave a stone unturned. We are going to tell the fuck out of this story and hold our heads up high.

We had developed a camaraderie that you can only find on the front lines. With the people you go to war with.

Fighting the good fight.

Fighting for right by showing the humanity of being wrong.

The show was tragic and terrifying as these words that we had been saying for the last 3.5 weeks were ringing true. These words took on a new meaning.

There is a monologue in the climax of the play.

The character Ernst Janning, the pre-eminent Judge on trial for war crimes, is confessing to his part in upholding the law. He paints the scene as to how these crimes could have happened.

“There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once the devils will be destroyed, your miseries will be destroyed…What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through…It will be discarded sooner or later.”

I and my cast mates were in tears in the wings.

It wasn't until I returned home on Thanksgiving Day that I actually felt the weight of reality. Everything has started to normalize. Everyone is getting on with their day. And after standing on stages across this country for the last 5 weeks, I feel impotent. On stage everything makes sense. I am doing something. I am contributing to the world. I am an ambassador for peace. What do I do now?

Politics are a mirror the same way art is.

It is easy to sit in Los Angeles and say “How could anyone vote for him?” I know I did.

If you want to know how someone voted for him, ask them.

And then listen to what they say in return.

If you listen to someone's fear instead of their hate-they will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about why they are the way they are.

We seem to live in a time where everyone has to agree to be respectful. It's actually the opposite. Respect for humanity is out of the sameness of us all being people. Not because we are all the same.

Fighting for the good of all includes all, even those we don't agree with. Especially those who don't agree with us, because those victories are the hardest won and lost.

Wiser people than me have said that dialogue is the only true path to peace.

There is work to do.