Ever since the emergence of talking pictures, schools have been a major subject of both Hollywood movies and documentary films. One consistent theme of Hollywood portrayals of schools – from Blackboard Jungle (1955), Up the Down Staircase (1967) and Stand and Deliver (1988) to Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), October Sky (1999) and Freedom Writers (2007) – has been the idealistic teacher fighting to serve his and her students against overwhelming odds, including uncaring administrators, cynical colleagues, a stultifying required curriculum that crushes the spirit of teachers and students alike, dilapidated conditions, budget cuts, unruly and hostile students, or students suffering from the symptoms of poverty or neglect. The underlying message is that while occasionally a rare teacher can light a spark in a few students, our public schools are failing most of the students they are supposed to serve. Most documentaries about education – from Frederick Wiseman’s High School (1968) to Bill Moyers’ Children in America’s Schools (1996) – paint a similarly grim picture.
Grim, but not hopeless. All these films hold out the prospect that change is possible if society is willing to honestly confront the social, economic, and bureaucratic conditions that have made public education less effective than it could and should be.
In contrast, the two most recent high-profile films about public education – the documentary Waiting for Superman (2010) and Hollywood’s Won’t Back Down (2012), starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis – portray our public schools as beyond reform and redemption.
Waiting for Superman – directed by Davis Guggenheim, who made An Inconvenient Truth about Al Gore’s environmental crusade – portrays the public school system as a total failure. It follows several students as they attempt to get into a private charter school that is superior in every way. Guggenheim skillfully tells the stories of these children and their families so that we can’t help but root for them to win the lottery and get into the charter schools that, we’re led to believe, will unleash their potential rather than stifle their creativity. The film boils down the problems facing public education as simply one of bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by corrupt unions. The film demonizes teachers’ unions as the destroyer of public schools, while celebrating charters as the panacea for what ails American education. It reduces most teachers and their union leaders to one-dimensional, cartoon-like figures.
Not surprisingly, the film’s villain is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. One of its heroes is Geoffrey Canada, charismatic founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has raised millions of dollars from business, foundations and government to lavishly fund charter schools and social services in a small part of that New York neighborhood. Another hero is Michelle Rhee, who served for several years as the antiunion superintendent of Washington, DC,’s public schools and now runs StudentsFirst, which lobbies for the same free-market approach to education that Waiting for Superman extols.
In Won’t Back Down, Gyllenhaal portrays a working-class mother frustrated by her inner city public school’s unwillingness to place her dyslexic daughter in a class with a teacher who can help her succeed despite her learning disability. Gyllenhall eventually leads a group of other frustrated parents to utilize a “parent trigger” law that allows parents to turn their “failing” public school into a privately-managed charter school. Their efforts are opposed by the teachers’ union, which the film portrays as insensitive, thuggish, corrupt and the chief obstacle to successful schools.
In an essay in the New York Review of Books, educational historian Diane Ravitch summarized the major themes of Waiting for Superman. This mantra, which could also apply to Won’t Back Down, includes the following:
“American public education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money. Public schools already spend too much. Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers. They would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, which are mostly funded by the government, but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit.”
It is no accident that both films promote similar themes. Both were produced by Walden Media, which is owned by Phil Anschutz, a right-wing businessman who owns two of the nation’s premier conservative publications (the Weekly Standard and the Washington Examiner) and whose foundation has donated $210,000 to the antiunion National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund. Anschutz is also a backer of Americans for Prosperity, the political war chest founded by the right-wing Koch brothers and has donated to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has made dismantling labor unions a key part of his policy agenda. Anschutz also spent $10,000 in 1992 to promote Colorado’s Proposition 2, which let private property owners discriminate against gays and lesbians, $150,000 to the Mission America Foundation, which condemns homosexuality as “deviance,” and $70,000 to the Discovery Institute, which attacks the idea of evolution and proclaims that “Darwinism is false.”
Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates – America’s richest man, who has donated a substantial part of his fortune to various efforts to privatize public schools and appears in Waiting for Superman – helped fund the film and sang its praises at various film festivals. Discussing the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, he said that school districts should cut pension payments for retired teachers. The national PTA, which is supposed to be an advocate for public schools, has shown Waiting for Superman at its national convention and at its state and local meetings. Some have wondered if its decision to promote the film has anything to do with its receipt of a $1 million donation from the Gates Foundation.
Waiting for Superman, a slick and emotionally uplifting film, was praised by most movie critics as well as Oprah Winfrey and President Obama, whose education secretary, Arne Duncan (former Chicago school superintendent) has promoted an education reform agenda that aligns perfectly with Waiting for Superman and its conservative backers. (A similar documentary, The Lottery, released in 2010, paints an adoring portrait of a group of New York City charter schools founded by a former City Council member).
Won’t Back Down was distributed by 20th Century Fox, which is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation owns Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. News Corporation also owns Wireless Generation, a for-profit online education, software and testing corporation, recently rebranded as Amplify. Murdoch has long hoped to get a piece of the education system, which he once described as a “$500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.” To help Murdoch get a piece of that money, he hired Joel Klein, the former New York City school chancellor who runs Amplify. (Klein also is on the board of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.)
Won’t Back Down was heavily promoted by conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation, Freedom Works (which has close ties to the Tea Party), the corporate-(and Murdoch-)funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC, a major backer of parent trigger laws), and the Chamber of Commerce. The chamber sponsored a national six-month tour of the film in major cities, including Albany, NY, Indianapolis, Phoenix and San Diego, screening it for business groups and legislators to garner support for the parent trigger law and other conservative educational changes. Rhee hosted screenings of Won’t Back Down at both the Republican and Democratic conventions last year.
Both films were heavily promoted by the growing chorus of corporate foundations and conservative billionaires behind a particular version of school “reform” that emphasizes privatization – charters, vouchers, business-style management, high-stakes testing to evaluate both students and teachers, weakened teachers unions, and the “parent trigger” law that California and several other states have adopted that allows disgruntled parents to turn public schools into privately-run charter schools, typically with the support of corporate-funded front groups, like Parent Revolution. The films’ zeitgeist is part of a broader corporate and conservative attack on government in general, particularly taxes on business and the rich, reductions in subsidies to corporations and regulations that protect workers, consumers and the environment.
Not surprisingly, in both films, teachers are portrayed, with a few exceptions, as uncaring, unqualified, or simply burned out and their unions as too powerful and resistant to change, primarily a protection racket for uninspiring educators. The films’ mantra is that salvation is only possible by enlightened teachers and parents abandoning the desert of public education for the promised land of private charter schools.
Neither film points out that teachers’ unions have been the strongest advocate for more public school funding, smaller class sizes and improved facilities and resources. Nor do they point out charter schools’ uneven track record. A 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University discovered that only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional public schools. Thirty-seven percent actually offered children a worse education. In other words, on balance, charters make things worse, even though many of those schools “cream” the best students from regular public schools. The same Stanford center recently released a study that called for stronger monitoring and review processes for charter schools. Other research confirms that charters rarely deliver on the promises their backers make.
Welcome Antidote to Billionaire Boys’ Club Movies
Go Public: A Day in the Life of an American School District, by veteran documentary filmmakers Jim and Dawn O’Keeffe, is a welcome antidote to the bleak and misleading message of Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down. Go Public celebrates public schools without ignoring their troubles. It follows 50 people in 28 schools – teachers, students, parents, a school board member, principals, a baseball coach, librarians, a school psychologist, volunteers, and the district superintendent – during one day (May 8, 2012), from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed.
The O’Keeffes spent over a year assembling 50 teams of filmmakers, each of which followed one person. They included 10 student film crews (mostly high school students but also a sixth-grader) and 40 professional crews. Jim O’Keeffe trained the student crews, over two semesters, in conjunction with their media classes in documentary cinema verité techniques. Film industry professionals, as well as professors and recent graduates from the University of Southern California film program (where Jim O’Keeffe teaches cinematography) and Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara participated as directors and crew. USC and Brooks Institute also donated equipment to the student crews. Recent graduates served as mentors.
The O’Keeffes raised initial funds from friends, family and community members, and $25,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, to help meet their $150,000 production budget, but they are still raising funds for distribution, marketing and educational outreach. In contrast, Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down had big budgets funded by their billionaire backers.
The result of the O’Keeffes’ effort is a remarkable 90-minute film that examines the daily realities of an urban public school system – the Pasadena (California) Unified School District (PUSD), where two-thirds of the 18,000 students come from low-income families, where many parents are jobless, where many students live in homes where Spanish is the first (and in some cases only) language, and in a state where per-student funding ranks 47th in the country.
Go Public celebrates the small and large miracles that happen in PUSD classrooms every day. We see overcrowded classrooms, but we also see an elementary teacher who greets each student with a special word of support as he or she arrives in her classroom.
The film shows us students participating in a pioneering middle-school robotics program. An elementary school teacher gets students excited about science by explaining how blood flows through arteries that keep their hearts beating. A music teacher instructs a jazz band at a high school where parents have to hold fund-raisers to pay for instruments. An elementary school teacher instructs students to play part of the Brandenburg concerto on their violins.
We see a teacher patiently, persistently and lovingly instruct students with autism and Down’s syndrome. Special needs students, who require smaller classrooms and specially-trained teachers, but whose cost is not fully reimbursed by the state government, comprise a significant portion of PUSD’s student body.
We witness a third-grader speaking Mandarin in one of the district’s innovative dual-language program, where students become bilingual. At the end of the day, the Anglo father of another student in the dual-language Spanish program asks his son, “How do I say, ‘How was school?’ in Spanish. The boy replies without hesitation: “Como esta la escuela?”
We see a security officer at a middle school who also leads the school’s drum corps and choir, conducts the strings orchestra and sets up a mentoring program where high schoolers help younger students. In a middle school class, an English teacher compares the romantic feelings of a Shakespeare character with a Taylor Swift song. Later in the day, she teaches a drama class with kindergartners, encouraging them to use their imaginations to melt like snowmen and grow like flowers.
We see students rehearsing for a musical play, learning to play guitars, painting and practicing a choral number during lunch break. After school is over, we watch parents juggling making dinner and helping their kids with homework, kids explaining their homework to their parents who don’t speak English and a music teacher taking time out from preparing for the next day’s classes to feed his infant. On a bus on the way to a game, the coach of a racially-diverse high school girls’ softball team reminds them to avoid “mental mistakes.” A high school girl who won a state oratory contest gives her speech at a school board meeting, explaining that she wants to become a chemical engineer, “a field bereft of African American women.”
The film shows Superintendent Jon Gundry visiting a class where students are designing rockets in conjunction with scientists from the nearby Jet Propulsion Lab, run by NASA. That night, Gundry is the subject of a protest by teachers, secretaries, custodians and librarians at a school board meeting, angry about pending layoffs.
A teacher in the district’s culinary arts and hospitality academy shows students how to make chicken cordon bleu. A middle school assistant principal mediates a conflict between two girls. A teacher in an “alternative” high school for high-risk students meets one-on-one to help a student with his homework. A social worker at an elementary school works with low-income Latino/a parents to train them to help their children with homework. In a crowded high school biology lab, a teacher trains the next generation of scientists, one of whom might invent a cure for cancer or a way to bring clean water to remote villages.
A teacher describes how he spends most of his lunch breaks working individually with students who seek his help. Then we see him talking to a high-schooler who had been in prison but now wants to improve his grades so he can attend college. We cheer for him, even though the odds are long. In a school district where each high school guidance counselor is responsible for 450 students, we see one of them meeting with a mother and her twin daughters to plan their schedules so they’ll have the right courses to apply to college.
An elementary school principal calls the school custodian “the hardest working guy on this campus,” praising him for advising students and helping them get to class on time as well as keeping the school clean. A high school baseball coach, watering the infield with a hand-held hose after school hours, tells the camera: “I love my job. You’ll never be a millionaire, but you’ll be happy every day. I’ll take that.” A high school boy admits that sometimes he falls asleep if his teacher turns off the lights to show slides in class. Two boys walking home from high school debate the meaning of the word “ghetto.”
We watch a maintenance man repair the wiring in a light fixture while explaining that the school district has only four electricians for 39 buildings. Thanks to a $100 donation from the PTA, an elementary school teacher works with students to plant a garden, where they can learn where their food comes from. We see a high school principal fixing an ancient copying machine. Later we see him talking to a teacher about complying with the state’s disciplinary policies while, simultaneously, talking on both his cellphone and his office phone.
A middle schooler puts up a sign, “Save Our School Library,” which is targeted for closure due to budget cuts. She explains that the school library is “the only place where I can have an educated conversation with my friends.”
We know that a significant number of PUSD students will drop out before graduating from high school. We know that many of these students face violence in their neighborhoods and/or at home, a situation that, similar to combat, we would expect to result in students exhibiting the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The O’Keeffes don’t downplay these harsh realities. In one scene in Go Public, teachers, librarians, school counselors and their parent supporters appear at a school board meeting to protest yet another wave of layoff notices. Since 2007, the district has been forced to make about $50 million in budget cuts due to declining state funding. It fired dozens of teachers, librarians and security guards. Earlier this year, after the film was completed, 48 people – including a middle school librarian who appears in Go Public – were laid off. Even so, you can’t watch this film without feeling hopeful about public schools and the students and teachers that populate them.
There is no narrator to offer hints about what we’re seeing and what we should think about it. The O’Keeffes have no axe to grind other than to present a balanced exploration into the lives of these families and educators. The filmmakers know all the pitfalls and problems that confront public schools. They sent their own four children to PUSD schools – three graduated in recent years and went to college. One will be a high school senior in the fall. It was not always an easy road for the family, but they persevered during frequent budget cuts, teacher layoffs, inadequate funding for the arts and sports, the revolving door of superintendents and top administrators, and the ideological and personal battles among school board members.
In 2010, the O’Keeffes worked hard – alongside their friends, neighbors, fellow church congregants, teachers, and other PUSD parents – to persuade local voters to pass Measure CC, a $120 a year (per property) tax increase to increase funding for PUSD in the wake of state budget cuts. The measure received 54 percent of the vote, a victory in most elections, but far short of the 66.6 percent needed in California to pass an increase in local taxes. The outcome deeply disappointed and saddened the O’Keeffes, who believed that many of the voters – particularly middle-class families who sent their children to private school or whose grown-up children were no longer in school – fell for misleading stereotypes about public schools in general and PUSD in particular. It galvanized them to begin the journey that led to Go Public.
If Pasadena’s voters harbor misguided views about public schools – that they waste tax dollars, or that they do a lousy job of educating students, or that they serve students whose parents didn’t care enough to help their children succeed in school – that is certainly understandable. For years, the local daily newspaper, the Pasadena Star-News, fed readers a steady diet of negative stories about the schools, often initiated by right-wing public school bashers, while failing to report on the trends revealing significant improvements, including steadily rising test scores and national awards for some teachers, or to publish stories about the academic, athletic and artistic accomplishments of many PUSD students.
But it wouldn’t be fair simply to blame the Star-News for typecasting PUSD as a failure. That same misleading message has emanated from many of the nation’s most prominent politicians, business leaders, philanthropists and educators, and has been reflected in media coverage of public education. Indeed, America’s public schools have been under attack for more than two decades by education “reformers” who think that our nation’s education system is broken and needs a major overhaul.
In this way, Go Public challenges the growing chorus of hostility to public schools reflected in Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down and pushed by the corporate-funded advocates of school privatization.
Addressing the “Achievement Gap”
Almost 90 percent of American K-12 students attend public schools. Reports about the “failure” of public schools don’t focus much attention on schools that serve middle-class children. Our public schools generally do a good job of preparing these students for college and/or the job market. (Although our business and political leaders do a lousy job of providing enough jobs for those high school and college graduates). Middle-class parents generally believe that their kids’ schools are effective.
It is the schools that serve poor children that come in for most of the criticism and prescriptions for change. The major concern is how to close the “achievement gap” – the huge differences in test scores, graduation rates, college attendance, and other indicators of educational outcomes – between middle-income and low-income students, with the latter group comprised disproportionately of Black and Latino students in urban school districts, like PUSD.
In fact, we already know what is needed to raise the educational performance of most low-income students.
- High-quality early childhood care and education (from birth to age 3), along with universal preschool (from ages 3 to 6), where students can develop the vocabulary and thinking skills, and self-confidence, that will prepare them to do well once they reach kindergarten.
- High-quality summer arts, athletic and writing programs so that low-income children can have experiences similar to those that most middle-class children take for granted.
- Much smaller teacher-student ratios in classrooms with low-income students, which research documents makes a significant difference in learning outcomes for low-income students in primary grades.
- More ongoing professional training for teachers so they can expand their knowledge of the subjects they teach, improve classroom skills (including learning to keep up with changes in computer and other technologies), develop new curricular ideas and get re-energized for what is one of the toughest jobs around.
- Investment in a major upgrade of school facilities, especially in urban districts that too often include old buildings with leaky roofs, broken windows and outdated heating systems, and in up-to-date libraries, computers and science labs.
- Restoring and expanding those parts of the curriculum – particularly sports, school newspapers, music, and arts – that have been slashed over the past two decades in response to budget cuts.
Of course, all this costs money. Many school districts that serve the poor spend much of their budgets on transportation, breakfast and lunch programs and other ancillary efforts. Compared with middle-income districts, they also spend a disproportionate amount on students with special needs and learning disabilities. But when you look at how much they spend for instruction – for teachers, books, libraries, computers, and labs – the figures are woefully inadequate compared to what is needed to help low-income kids overcome the obstacles they face to fulfill their potential and help them contribute to the nation’s overall well-being and prosperity.
The United States has over 13,000 local school districts, often dozens of them in the same metropolitan areas. But within those metropolitan regions, students in well-off suburbs get a much different – and better – educational experience than those who live only a few miles away but who may as well be living on a different planet when it comes to public education. In wealthier districts, parents and other residents often supplement state school funds with private donations or additional local taxes, a luxury unavailable to poorer school districts.
Increasingly, local school district budgets depend on funding from state governments – which typically allocate money based on a per-student formula. The federal government allocates about 5 percent of all K-12 education funding, much of it targeted to schools with high numbers of low-income students. But spending in these schools is still woefully inadequate in terms of what is needed to overcome the well-documented disadvantages their students bring with them to schools.
In recent decades, as middle-class families have faced a severe economic squeeze while prices of basic necessities (housing, medical care, transportation, clothing) grow much faster than incomes, they are less willing to help pay for the education of the children of the poor.
So rather than do what’s obviously needed – mainly, improve the social and economic conditions that now bring children to school unprepared to take advantage of what schools have to offer, and then tax ourselves enough to spend to adequately educate low-income students – a growing chorus of corporate-oriented school “reformers” has crafted an agenda that says we can fix public schools and help students overcome the disadvantages of poverty, without spending more money. Of course, the billionaires and other affluent advocates of this view don’t think twice about spending $25,000 to $50,000 a year to send their own children to private schools.
In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch calls this group “The Billionaire Boys Club,” an interconnected network of wealthy corporate leaders and philanthropists who’ve joined forces to promote market-driven school changes. This educational ruling class is used to getting what it wants in business and politics, and they’ve created a web of organizations designed to persuade the public, other business folks and politicians that running school districts like corporations is the way to go. They’ve poured hundreds of millions of dollars into think tanks, advocacy groups and political campaigns to get their way. In Los Angeles, for example, the billionaires have bankrolled the Coalition for School Reform, LA’s Promise, Parent Revolution and the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education – all front groups designed to sell their version of “school reform.” Many in the media echo have become transmission belts for the corporate agenda. The Los Angeles Times editorial writers, for example, routinely call the billionaires, foundations, administrators and politicians who promote this agenda “reformers,” in contrast to the teachers’ union and its political allies.
Some of America’s most powerful corporate plutocrats – including Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Eli Broad and the Walton family (heirs to the Walmart fortune) – have invested heavily in this war on public schools. As Ravitch notes in her latest book, and as Joanne Barkan brilliantly dissects in her article, “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools” in the Winter 2011 issue of Dissent magazine, what they’re really after is not “reform” (improving our schools for the sake of students) but “privatization” (business control of public education). They think public schools should be run like corporations, with teachers as compliant workers, students as products and the school budget as a source of profitable contracts and subsidies for textbook companies, consultants and others engaged in the big business of education.
They want is to turn public schools into educational Walmarts run on the same model of corporate-style “efficiency.” They want to expand charter schools that compete with each other and with public schools in an educational “market place.” They want to evaluate teachers and students like they evaluate new products – in this case, using the bottom-line of standardized test scores. Most teachers will tell you that over-emphasis on standardized testing turns the classroom into an assembly line, where teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” and students are taught, robot-like, to define success as answering multiple-choice tests. Not surprisingly, the billionaires want their employees – teachers – to do what they’re told, without having much of a voice in how their workplace functions. That means destroying the teachers’ main line of defense against arbitrary management – their union. Rather than treat teachers like professionals, they view them as the hired help.
Much of the billionaires’ schools agenda is driven by ideology and hubris. They honestly believe, like the Divine Right of Kings, that their success in the corporate world entitles them to restructure our public schools. They think that making profits in corporate board rooms gives them credentials to make changes in classrooms.
For some of them, however, school “reform” is simply another version of old-fashioned corporate cronyism, sometimes called conflicts of interest. For example, Joel Klein, the former head of the New York City school system, now works for media titan Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify corporation. That’s the company that under its former name, Wireless Generation, created DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) – a student assessment tool – that has huge contracts with school districts. Is it any wonder that part of the corporate-backed school “reform” agenda is hyper-emphasis on standardized testing?
Michelle Rhee has become the public face and top salesperson of the growing corporate-backed effort to privatize America’s public schools. She seems to be everywhere – speaking at education conferences, profiled on television and in magazines (including devastating profiles by Nicholas Lemann and John Merrow), and appearing in Waiting for Superman. Rhee’s tempestuous tenure as head of the DC schools between 2007 and 2010 left behind a legacy of cheating on standardized tests, a demoralized teaching staff with high turnover and an increased achievement gap between low- and upper-income children. Soon after she left that job, she started StudentsFirst, which is now based in Sacramento (where she lives with her husband, the city’s mayor), and has operations in 18 states. Earlier this year, the Walton Family Foundation, led by heirs to the Walmart fortune, announced an $8 million grant to StudentsFirst. This grant came on top of the $3 million the foundation had already donated to the group since 2010. StudentsFirst recently donated $350,000 to LAUSD school board races, backing candidates who support its agenda of high-stakes testing, private charter schools and vouchers.
The Walton family became America’s richest family by creating a retail model built on ruthless cost-cutting, low wages and few benefits. So, it isn’t surprising that some studies show that charter school teachers are paid less than teachers at traditional public schools and have fewer years of education on average. Is this the right model for our schools?
Many studies show that parents’ own educational attainment is the best predictor of students’ academic performance, which results in a wide “achievement gap” between affluent and low-income students. Walmart contributes to this gap. It is not only the nation’s largest private employer, with well over one million employees, but it also has the largest number of poverty-level jobs in the country. If the Waltons, who still own half of Walmart, really wanted to do something to help improve schools, they could start by paying their employees a living wage. And if they really want to change Americans’ thinking about public schools, they could send DVDs of Go Public to all of Walmart’s more than one million employees in the United States.
“We want the film to trigger a discussion about the value of public schools. That’s where most of the next generation of workers, citizens, business leaders, volunteer soccer coaches and politicians will be educated,” said Dawn O’Keeffe. “Public schools are required to serve everyone. That’s a blessing, but also raises challenges. Public schools can and do work, but only if the entire community – and the whole country – is behind them. Even families who send their kids to private schools, or don’t have kids at all, have a stake in successful public schools. We have to overcome the pervasive cynicism about public education that we see every day in the media. Our schools need advocacy, commitment, compassion – and adequate funding.”
(This post first appeared on Truthout and is republished with permission.)
Philanthropic Sector Leader Aaron Dorfman Joins Capital & Main Board of Directors
Dorfman is a nationally respected leader in the field of philanthropy, with deep connections to foundations across the country, and has a long background in community organizing.
Aaron Dorfman, president and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), has joined the board of directors of Capital & Main, a nonprofit investigative news publication.
Dorfman is a nationally respected leader in the field of philanthropy, with deep connections to foundations across the country, and has a long and impressive background in community organizing. He has led NCRP for 11 years, building the organization into an influential advocate for increased philanthropic investment in long-term social change. NCRP defines itself as a “research and advocacy organization that works to ensure that America’s grantmakers and wealthy donors are responsive to the needs of those with the least wealth, opportunity and power.”
Danny Feingold, publisher of Capital & Main, described Dorfman as “a passionate champion of philanthropy that truly moves the needle on the biggest challenges facing the nation.”
Dorfman brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to Capital & Main’s board, along with a keen understanding of the critical role of investigative journalism in exposing the misuse of power. A thoughtful critic, he frequently speaks and writes about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in philanthropy, the benefits of funding advocacy and community organizing, and the need for greater accountability and transparency in the philanthropic sector.
Before joining NCRP in 2007, Dorfman served for 15 years as a community organizer with two national organizing networks, spearheading grassroots campaigns on a variety of issues. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Carleton College, a master’s degree in philanthropic studies from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and serves on the board of The Center for Popular Democracy.
Dorfman joins University of Southern California professor Manuel Pastor, entrepreneur and philanthropist Joseph Sanberg, alternative energy business leader Cole Frates, former L.A. Times business editor Rick Wartzman, author/journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan, American Prospect executive editor Harold Meyerson and author/journalist Alissa Quart, among others, on the Capital & Main board. The publication’s advisory board includes former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Vice President Joe Biden’s former chief economist Jared Bernstein and author Barbara Ehrenreich, among others.
Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports on the most pressing economic, environmental and social issues of our time. Winner of the 2016 Online Journalist of the Year prize from the Southern California Journalism Awards and a 2017 Best in the West award, Capital & Main has had stories co-published in more than 30 media outlets, from The Atlantic, Time, Reuters, The Guardian and Fast Company to The American Prospect, Grist, Slate and the Daily Beast.
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Stage Review: Workers Drown in Blood, Sweat and Beers
Sweat ‘s unflinching mission is to lay out the slow strangulation of the American Dream.
Most of the action in Lynn Nottage’s 2015 social drama takes place in a Reading, Pennsylvania bar that serves as the home away from home for local factory hands. Sweat opens, portentously enough, during the 2008 financial meltdown — Wall Street’s equivalent of the hollowing out of blue collar jobs that occurred eight years earlier, thanks to NAFTA and its progeny. Red and yellow stock market quotations scroll across the bar’s industrial-gothic walls as news of the crisis ricochets around the Mark Taper Forum. (Projections by Yee Eun Nam; scenic design by Christopher Barreca; sound by Paul James Prendergast.)
Two young men, Jason and Chris (Will Hochman and Grantham Coleman, respectively) meet with a parole officer (Kevin T. Carroll) after their release from prison. The revenants are little more than shadows from a more prosperous past that holds the secret to the crime that sent them behind bars. And yet our interest really doesn’t rest with their felony, which we’re only reminded of whenever designer Anne Militello’s lights go down cold and low, and other characters begin frowning at the two. The play’s true dynamic is the fraying, metaphoric friendship between mill workers Tracey (Mary Mara) and Cynthia (Portia). The middle-age women, mothers to Jason and Chris, and die-hard union members, have both applied for a single management position in their factory. When Portia, who is black, receives the promotion, white Tracey and others in the bar turn against her.
Toggling between boozy 2000 and penitent 2008, the story’s issues play out like a series of grievances: The betrayal that African-American characters feel toward both the company and a union that has kept them at arm’s length; the hurt that the dope-addled Brucie (John Earl Jelks) has inflicted on his wife, Cynthia; the resentment that bartender Stan (Michael O’Keefe) harbors against a company that threw him out after nearly 30 years because of a shop-floor accident. These wounds all become exacerbated — and the bar, a toxic debate forum — when the company radically downsizes and makes crippling demands of the union.
Sweat‘s strength lies in its unflinching mission to lay out the slow strangulation of the American Dream, as that dream was imagined by different parts of the country’s post-war working class — from self-entitled whites to stifled minorities to aspiring Latino immigrants. Under Lisa Peterson’s broad direction at the Taper, the play’s latent weaknesses become vividly apparent — the reduction of the ensemble’s personalities to colorful “types,” the lack of onstage villains and the fact that the pivotal Cynthia never seems in any kind of emotional conflict with her erstwhile factory buddies. (They’re pissed off at her, but she never really bites back at them, despite her announced desire to better herself.) The actors get loud enough but, with the exception of Portia, lack ensemble chemistry; a few actors even seemed to have difficulty pronouncing the word “ain’t.”
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Oct. 7. (213) 628-2772.
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‘Skeleton Crew’ Is a Play With a Moral Spine
Set in a Detroit automobile outfitting plant, Dominique Morisseau’s drama grabs you from the start with its focus on blue-collar men and women, and their struggle for dignity and self-respect.
Working-class men and women of color are rarely front and center in today’s media and, likewise, are presented all too occasionally on the American stage. So it’s buoying to see that trend bucked in playwright Dominique Morisseau’s percipient and well-crafted drama, Skeleton Crew. The play is the final installment in her Detroit Project Trilogy; the first, Paradise Blue, is set in the 1940s amidst displacement caused by urban renewal and gentrification, while the second, Detroit ’67, transpires on the eve of the 1967 Detroit riots sparked by a police action.
Directed by Patricia McGregor at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse, Skeleton Crew is a play with a moral spine. It takes place in 2008, when the shrinking U.S. auto industry is being further downsized. Morisseau’s engaging quartet of characters — Faye (Caroline Stefanie Clay), Dez (Armari Cheatom), Shanita (Kelly McCreary) and Reggie (DB Woodside) – are employed at an automobile outfitting plant. Faye, Dez and Shanita are workers on the line while Reggie (who has a wife and kids, and has pulled himself together after a troubled youth) is their supervisor.
The first three customarily mingle in their break room (designer Rachel Myers’ impressively cluttered, dingy and detailed set), trading the sort of familiar barbs and genuine concern for each other common among longtime co-workers. They also face off on philosophy: Upper-middle-aged Faye and the younger, pregnant Shanita take pride in their labor, while Dez, though a good worker, is a malcontent scornful of management and firm in the belief that everyone needs to watch out for himself. He’s a thorn in Reggie’s side, for while Reggie wants to be supportive of his workers, he must act at the behest of higher management. For his part, Dez resents Reggie’s authority, and a palpable unease exists between them.
Besides this male matchup, we’re made privy to Dez’s attraction to Shanita, who mostly turns away his advances, but every now and then displays a hint of interest. Most poignant is Reggie’s regard and affection for the lesbian Faye, which has roots in his boyhood when she loved, and lived, with his now-deceased mom.
These people’s various predicaments intensify when rumors spread of the plant’s shutdown — a disaster for all, but a particular calamity for the already near-broke Faye who, one year short of retirement, would lose her pension. The crisis forces each of these people to make a choice.
A sound piece of social realism, Skeleton Crew grabs you from the start in its focus on blue-collar men and women, and their struggle against odds for dignity and self-respect. Morisseau not only furnishes these characters a platform for their travails, she endows them with strong values, big hearts and the opportunity to choose between right and wrong.
Unfortunately, the performance I attended did not soar. Many exchanges lacked a fresh edge. The actors certainly had their characters down, but too often they appeared to be coasting on technique. (This seemed particularly true of Clay, who performed the role to great accolades in Washington, DC in 2017, also under McGregor’s direction). Additionally, some of the stage movement was not entirely fluid; in confrontations, actors sometimes would just stand and face each other in an artificial way. And Cheatom’s interpretation of Dez struck me as a bit overly churlish and depressive: I needed more glimpses of the intelligence and edge that would secretly attract the strong, self-directed Shanita.
The most compelling moments belong to Woodside, well-cast as a man trying his best in difficult circumstances to do the right thing.
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m. Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through July 8. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org
The Power of the Poster
Carol Wells, the founder of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, talks to Capital & Main about the enduring power of political art.
Carol Wells remembers the exact moment she discovered her calling. An art historian at the time, she was on a trip to Nicaragua with her friend David Kunzle, a UCLA art history professor, who was collecting political posters to add to his burgeoning collection. While staying with friends, Wells watched a neighbor’s 8-year-old son approach a poster on the wall, stare at it intently, and then start to silently mouth the words. Wells was struck by how engaged the boy was. “In that moment I became obsessed with collecting posters.”
Now over 40 years later, Wells is the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles. Wells has amassed approximately 90,000 posters, building one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. The Center shares its collection with the public in part through curated exhibits. This year the CSPG has produced Feminae: Typographic Voices of Women by Women and its latest is To Protect & Serve? Five Decades of Posters Protesting Police Violence, running through July 15 at the Mercado La Paloma in downtown Los Angeles.
Since that encounter in Nicaragua in 1981, Wells’ obsession with collecting posters hasn’t waned. In CSPG’s nondescript West L.A. office space, Wells pulls out poster after poster, lecturing passionately on the backstory and cultural impact of each, including one that superimposes text from a New York Times interview with a shocking image of the My Lai massacre (“Q: And babies? A: And babies.”). Recently, she managed to sit down with C&M to discuss her passion.
Capital & Main: So, you were an art history professor, you happen to see a kid on a trip, and suddenly your life was changed forever?
Carol Wells: Yeah, I’m in Nicaragua alone in the living room with this kid. He’s looking around, and all of a sudden, he sees the poster. It was pretty big, bright green, a thick outlines of a woman holding a big basket of coffee beans. And the text in Spanish said, “In constructing the new country, we are becoming the new woman.” I see him walk over to the poster and I’m watching him mouth the words. It was a pretty sophisticated concept, so I doubt he figured it out. But I literally had this epiphany: “Oh my God. That’s how posters work.” You’re going about your daily life, and all of a sudden something breaks through the bubble, and it grabs your attention. It’s the graphic, it’s the color, it’s the combination, and it pulls you out of your head and into that poster and it makes you ask a question. “Why is this here? What is this about? What does this mean?” And every time you ask a question, you’re a different person than you were before you asked the question.
How many posters do you get a year?
We get between two to five thousand a year donated from all over the world. The bulk of our collection is [from] 1945 and later.
I assume technology has probably hurt the art form, but has it helped get the messages out?
Most people think that, and it’s actually not true. Since the internet age started, there’s actually a poster renaissance of works on paper. Because you can’t walk with your computer monitor in a demonstration. You can’t plant your monitor on your lawn.
And you can’t put a laptop on the wall…
Exactly. You want to hear a really great story? Truthdig.org published a cartoon [made by] a political cartoonist named Mr. Fish. It was during the Arab spring, and he had superimposed Che Guevara with the stylized beard and King Tut’s face, but it had Che’s beret. And it [was titled], “Walk like an Egyptian.” So, it was a reference to the music, but [it was also] a reference to what was going on the streets of Cairo. I sent it out as our poster of the week to 9,000 people. The very next day, somebody took a photograph on the street of Cairo, with somebody holding a piece of paper with that image on it. A poster can literally go around the world and people will print it out.
What struck me in viewing your exhibits is how many of these posters could still be used today, not only artistically but also, sadly, in the timeliness of their messages.
We had this fabulous poster by Yolanda Lopez, a Bay Area artist, which she first did in 1978. It depicts a young man in Aztec garb pointing a finger like Uncle Sam saying, “Who’s the illegal alien, PILGRIM?” And it’s a great poster, it’s simple, not too many words, funny, provocative. So, we had an exhibit at UCLA in the mid ‘90s and there were 4 or 5 high school students standing around this poster saying, “Wow, you’ve got posters up to the minute.” And I went over to them and I said, “Look at the date. This is before you were born.”
Is that one of your goals with the exhibitions? To show the evergreen nature of this work?
Absolutely. I mean that’s why we did the police abuse exhibition now. It basically goes back five decades. It’s 50 years of posters protesting police abuse. Mainly in the United States, but also internationally.
What’s the goal for CSPG?
Well the aim right now is really to digitize the collection and get it online. We have 10% of the collection digitized. But the mission is to collect and to document, because stories get lost. All the exhibitions, they’re showing massacres, they’re showing genocide, they’re showing police abuse, they’re showing all of these horrible things. And people often ask me, “How can you look at this stuff all day long?” I said, “Because the poster artists are optimists. They believe people can change if they have the information.”
Yes, that’s the reason why they’re doing it, right?
That’s why they’re doing it, and that’s why I’m doing this, because I believe that people can change if they knew the truth.
And what happens 20, 50 years from now?
Well, my goal is to stay independent, because the other option is to become part of the university. Universities, for all the fabulous things that they do, they also censor. We did an exhibition at USC in 1992 on the 500 years since Columbus, and how the legacy of racism and exploitation and genocide continues. And one of the board of trustees was Italian and took [the exhibit] as an affront to Columbus. It really wasn’t about Columbus, it was about colonialism. And he ordered it down.
Do you have a favorite poster?
I’m always amazed at the creativity and vision of artists. Every week I’ll say, “Oh my God, how do they think of that?” But it’s always still going to be the poster I saw that kid trying to figure out. It has to be my favorite one because that one changed my life.
What makes a perfect poster?
The right balance between aesthetics and message. If you only rely on the corporate press, the New York Times and L.A. Times, for your information, you’re not going to get the side from the street, from the movement, from the activists. The posters are primary historical documents that are recording the issues that were at the time, and the passions that were at the time, and the divisions that were at the time. You’re not going to get it anyplace else.
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Blindfolds: Iranian Hostage Drama Offers Few Surprises
One of the play’s weaknesses is the surfeit of soap-operatic family exchanges that spill into melodramatic shouting matches.
On November 4, 1979, several hundred Iranians, mostly students, stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took 60-odd hostages — 52 of whom were held captive for 444 days. It was a humiliating event for the U.S. government and, in general, a wake-up call for Americans heretofore unaware of the antipathy of many Iranians towards the United States.
Against the wishes of the Carter administration, a mother of one of the hostages, Barbara Timm, flew to Tehran to see her son. Hostage, by Michelle Kholos Brooks, re-imagines the exchange that took place among Barbara (Tracie Lockwood), her captive son Kevin (Zachary Grant) and two of his captors: Tehran Mary (Vaneh Assadourian), a media spokeswoman for her cause and Ebrahim (Satiar Pourvasei), a rifle-wielding guard swift to anger. The drama, some of which takes place in Barbara’s mind, shifts between the embassy, where a handcuffed, blindfolded and barefoot Kevin has been doing his best to survive, and Barbara’s Wisconsin living room, where she struggles to cope with both a controlling ex-husband and an angry mob outside her home. The latter has gathered to protest a public statement she made critical of the failed rescue attempt to free the hostages — a statement interpreted by “patriots” as her having taken the side of the revolutionaries.
As the drama progresses, scenarios begin to overlap; Kevin, always on Barbara’s mind, is physically present onstage as she disputes with her former spouse about the latter’s parental responsibility — or lack of it — and whether or not he betrayed her when they were teens, salaciously spreading the word about their intimacy. An argument also ensues between Richard and Barbara’s current husband, Ken (Jack Clinton), who accompanied Barbara to Iran and has open-heartedly raised Kevin as his own.
Directed by Elina de Santos, Hostage aims to explain and garner sympathy for both sides, but it offers few surprises or depth. One of its weaknesses is the surfeit of soap-operatic family exchanges that filter attention away from more vital dramatic themes: how far a mother is prepared to go to protect her child and the distance its pivotal character, a Midwestern matron and a Republican, will ideologically travel before the play’s catharsis (the dynamic most interesting to us). While these threads, as well as the propensity for intolerance of people on both sides of the cultural divide, are clearly most central, they get obscured for long stretches by melodramatic shouting matches between Kevin’s two fathers or the past marital problems of Barbara and Ken.
Grant turns in a well-grounded performance as the palpably fearful Kevin, drilled in compliance and anxious for his mother to understand how precipitous his situation is. But other performances on opening weekend were less persuasive. Lockwood, usually an excellent actor, did not seem entirely comfortable as the maternal lioness the playwright aims to conjure. One problem is the script, which calls for her to assertively challenge Kevin’s captors’ motives and beliefs — a device for getting us to understand where they are coming from. Some of these confrontations appear as the artifices they are. None of the other actors were able to get past the polemical nature of their roles, either. One hopes they will evolve.
Designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s no-frills set features an American flag splayed across the back wall — albeit behind a scrim, an apt reference to the covert power wielded (this time not so successfully) by our government.
Skylight Theatre, 1816½ Vermont Avenue, Los Feliz; Fri.-Sat. & Mon., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 24; (213) 761-7061 or (866) 811-4111.
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Actress Speaks Out Against Lunch Shaming in School Cafeterias
When a student doesn’t have enough money for lunch, cafeteria staff in many school districts take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk.
Actress Debrianna Mansini (Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad) is a passionate advocate for ending hunger in America, specifically through ending the practice of “lunch shaming” in schools. She will speak about it during The Meatball Chronicles, her solo show that opens June 2 at the Broadwater as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. She and chef Hunter Long Fox, of the Hollywood restaurant Hunter & Charlie’s, will host a celebrity luncheon to raise money to assist poor families who cannot afford the price of a school lunch. Mansini spoke to Capital & Main by phone.
Capital & Main: What exactly is lunch shaming?
Debrianna Mansini: Lunch shaming happens when a child’s family owes money to the school lunch program, and a cafeteria worker has to refuse to serve the child a hot lunch. (I don’t want to disparage cafeteria workers. A lot of them don’t want to do it — they’re required to.)
I read about it in the New York Times and it just horrified me. Shaming kids about food and poverty? This will this affect them their whole lives.
How does lunch shaming usually work? Are children ever denied food altogether?
When a student doesn’t have enough money for lunch, cafeteria staff in many districts take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk. Some schools take away their lunch entirely. Sometimes the child gets a stamp on their hand. It’s kind of akin to having a scarlet letter.
How widespread is the problem?
An alarming number of American youngsters still can’t afford a $2.35 lunch. In 2016, 18 percent of kids were living in poverty, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the figure is 21 percent. The poverty rates are highest among minorities.
Yet anti-shaming legislation has been passed in New Mexico and California, has it not?
In April of 2017 New Mexico’s [Governor] Susana Martinez signed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which directs schools to work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance. And it puts an end to practices meant to embarrass children.
In October 2017, [California] Governor [Jerry] Brown signed SB 250. authored by state Senator Robert Hertzberg. It ensures that children will not denied a full lunch because of their parents’ debt.
Does that mean parents no longer have to pay?
The law specifically says that districts are not required to give parents a pass on not paying indefinitely. Instead it requires that districts do all they can to enroll families in the federally subsidized school lunch program and also to notify families – not bill collectors — of unpaid balances as soon as they are 10 days behind.
Is there a group or individuals spearheading a national campaign to abolish it?
NM Appleseed is a non-partisan nonprofit with a mission to create systemic change for the poor and underserved. The organization helped pass the bill in New Mexico and has since been in contact with 32 other states about passing legislation. On the federal level, Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham is carrying a bill in the House and Senator Tom Udall is carrying a version in the Senate.
Besides legislation, what are some of the ways groups and individuals are helping to deal with childhood hunger and lunch shaming?
The Community Eligibility Program, set up by the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] in 2010, has become a lifesaver. It gives free lunches to every student in a school where at least 40 percent of the families are extremely poor and automatically qualify for government aid. Another solution is the federal free meal program. But not every struggling family meets the income requirements, and those that do may have language barriers or fears over immigration status or fail to file the paperwork.
Rob Solomon, chief executive of GoFundMe, said it had about 30 active campaigns to raise money for meal debt. One man started Feed the Future Forward, which hosts crawfish boils and golf tournaments to raise money. It has wiped out more than $30,000 in food bills so far.
What’s the connection between your show and the cause?
The Meatball Chronicles is a love story centered around the power of food and family. When I heard about lunch shaming, I thought this is something I can actually speak about through my show, which is about our relationship with food. The piece is stand-alone, but I use the time before the audience to raise people’s awareness.
I believe food can heal not just our bodies but our souls. And what better way to bring all that together but through theater?
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Two Cousins and a Magical Ice Cream Truck Figure in Leon Martell’s New Play
Although not all of ICE‘s comedy clicks, Martell’s story has both weight and charm. The production’s overriding plus is its successful rendering, fashioned with humor and craft, of the difficulties immigrants face.
ICE, Leon Martell’s family friendly play, takes place in 1988 and follows the misadventures of two undocumented immigrants: Chepe (Jesús Castaños-Chima), an avid baseball fan who dreams of making a fortune selling gourmet tacos; and his cousin Nacho (Tony Dúran), whom the beleaguered Chepe summons from Mexico to assist him in setting up his business. Directed by Debbie Devine at 24th Street Theatre, the show displays plenty of heart, not all of it realized in this premiere production. Despite this, there’s enough political relevancy, moral truth and human comedy packed into the show’s 65-minute time frame to overlook its shortcomings.
The core of the humor is the difference in personality between the two cousins. The ambitious Chepe is bitter and frustrated about his experience in America, where he’s been cheated and lied to by bosses who exploit his labor and pay him next to nothing. Yet he’s bought into the American Dream of money and fame, and to achieve that he’s purchased a dilapidated old ice cream van to convert into a taco truck. It doesn’t run, though, and the secret family salsa recipe is with his kin in Mexico. So, he phones home and implores his mechanic cousin to head north, bringing the salsa recipe as well as his skills.
Cousin Nacho, by contrast, is a sweet old-fashioned guy. He wants success too, but making money isn’t the only thing he thinks about. He juggles tomatoes to make kids laugh and indignantly admonishes Chepe for his desperate inclination to do what it takes (steal tomatoes, for example) to score success.
Into the mix Martell tosses a blind, disgruntled priest (Davitt Felder), who plays guitar and wants to launch English classes for children in his parish (the archdiocese turns him down). Then there’s Chepe’s truck, which has opinions of its own. It breaks out in jingles at random intervals; later, it communicates with Nacho via blinking red letters that eerily appear on the side of the vehicle, furnishing the two men with simple directives and essential advice. When ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) shows up, it alerts them to run.
Although not all of the comedy clicks, Martell’s story has both weight and charm. The production’s overriding plus is its successful rendering, fashioned with humor and craft, of the difficulties immigrants face. Its main weakness is Castaños-Chima’s technically skilled but somewhat chilly depiction of his character, which leaves us wishing for more warmth and complexity. Felder appears awkward in his role of the blind priest, but proves versatile on video as Chepe’s various nemeses. Dúran’s naïve Nacho is a lovable presence from first to last.
Displayed on a monitor, Matthew G. Hill’s video slides add historical and social perspective, and his backwall projections, in tandem with Dan Weingarten’s lighting and Chris Moscatiello’s sound, help conjure a magical aura to this parabolic piece.
24th Street Theatre, 1117 West 24th St., Los Angeles; Sat., 3 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 10, (213) 745-6516 or 24thstreet.org.
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‘Ameryka’ a Biting Commentary on Our National Psyche
A new staging of Nancy Keystone’s award-winning political play comes to the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
In 2009, Ameryka’s writer/director Nancy Keystone was perusing a catalogue, Western Amerykański: Polish Poster Art and the Western, when she spotted a 1989 poster that celebrated the first democratic elections in Poland since World War II. The central image was a black-and-white-photo of Gary Cooper in the 1952 film High Noon. Keystone’s curiosity was piqued over the odd connection between Polish elections and classic American cinema, and her subsequent research helped spark this sprawling political piece that spans two countries — the U.S. and Poland —and several historical time periods.
A collaborative effort of Keystone’s Critical Mass Performance Group, the play speaks to the struggle of ordinary citizens for a voice in their destiny and the tactics and hypocrisy of the powerful forces that would silence them. Originally staged in 2016 at the Shakespeare Center Los Angeles, here it’s played out on a large spare proscenium (set by Keystone) at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of Center Theatre Group’s “Block Party” project, which supports smaller LA. Companies. The patchwork narrative shifts back and forth among the American Revolutionary War period, the 1950s under McCarthyism, the 1980s, when a two-faced Reagan administration fired striking air traffic controllers while supporting the striking Polish Solidarity movement abroad, and the early years of this century when the CIA, obsessed with the war on terror, established a base in Poland, sweetening its presence with American dollars.
These scenarios are peopled with both fictional and historical personages, including Tadeusz Kosciuszko (Jeff Lorch), a Polish military officer and passionate democrat who fought with the colonists against the British, his friend Thomas Jefferson (Curt Bonnem), who spoke against slavery but kept his slaves, and Kosciuszko’s military aide during the Revolutionary War, Agrippa Hull (Lorne Green), a free black man and soldier whose accomplishments inspired Kosciuszko to champion abolitionism, in contrast to Jefferson (who was charged by Kosciuszko to use his estate after he died to help free slaves, and promised to do so but never did). A scene where Kosciuszko and Jefferson dine at Monticello and discuss the evils of slavery, while being catered to by Jefferson’s slave (Ray Ford), is only one of the pungently ironical moments the play serves up.
Twentieth century personages include a pious William Casey (Russell Edge), who leads a prayer vigil with his underlings before plotting to implement a national directive challenging the Soviets through Poland (“Fuck Yalta”), Anna Walentynowicz (Valerie Spencer), a colleague of Lech Walesa, and Father Jerzy Popieluszko (Lorch), the pro-Solidarity priest assassinated in 1984.
After opening with the rough-handed arrest of Walentynowicz by Polish security agents, the play harks back to 1959. (Fictional) jazz musician Gene Jefferson (Ford) visits Poland, where he discovers that Poles love jazz and other things American, including Westerns and Gary Cooper. An African-American who steels himself daily against condescending racism (illustrated by his prior interview with a State Department official) he’s taken aback at their rah-rah America enthusiasm. That same cultural disconnect manifests in a scene from the ’80s; a gay American man named Ray (Ford) recounts meeting this terrific Polish guy in a bar, only to be put off when the Pole sings Reagan’s praises for supporting Solidarity. To Ray, Reagan’s legacy are the thousands of AIDS victims.
A complex entangled piece, Ameryka packed a punch when it was staged at the Shakespeare Center nearly 18 months ago (winning the Stage Raw award for Production of the Year) but loses some of its edge in the larger space at the Kirk Douglas. Less than optimal acoustics seem to be part of the problem. Many of the original ensemble members are reprising their roles; one exception is Lorch, recently brought in to replace the original actor. His work is fine, as is everyone’s, but I did wish for more distinctive and distinguished ardor from this character in particular.
Still, Ameryka remains a substantive, historically informative work, a biting commentary on the contradictions and illusions that bedevil not only our own national psyche but others. It’s the sort of drama we need more of.
Critical Mass Performance Group, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (213) 628-2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m;, Sun., 1p.m.; through April 29.
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A Woman’s Art Is Never Done: The Feminae Exhibition
A striking juxtaposition between the past and present courses throughout the small gallery. Celia Blomberg’s “International Women’s Day March 8” can’t help but make one think of 2017’s Women’s March, which occurred 37 years after the print’s first appearance.
Among the 50-plus works in the Feminae: Typographic Voices of Women By Women exhibit is Yolanda Lopez’s “Women’s Work is Never Done.” Lopez’s title is particularly ironic, given the exhibit’s gender-based subject matter. The show spans work from the past 50 years, making it easy to understand how much society is still grappling with its themes of gender inequality. Culled from the archives of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, the graphic images of protest, persuasion and empowerment are truly works of art in their own right.
However, political posters aren’t made to merely spruce up walls, but to help figuratively bring barriers down as well.
Two silkscreens from the 1970s, Liliana Porter and John Schneider’s “This Woman is Vietnamese” and See Red Woman’s Workshop’s “So Long As Women Are Not Free People Are Not Free,” are particularly powerful, underscoring, as they do, the fact that the subjugation and persecution of women crosses borders and cultures as an unfortunate shared global experience. These two pieces’ stark simplicity exemplifies most of the work in the exhibit. In the former, a New York Times photo of a distraught Vietnamese woman with a gun held to her head is centered above these basic words typed out in a typewriter font:
This woman is
By juxtaposing the photo with these words, the creators take the plight of this woman and immediately globalize her pain. In the latter, three female demonstrators are silkscreened in red onto a yellow background. They are marginalized by being stuck in the lower left third of the poster, but two of them are raising their fists skyward and their mouths are open, screaming in defiance. Its non-serif, eponymous type reads:
This piece’s message takes the global message even farther, making the plight of women a human one — a common theme in the exhibition.
There is also a striking juxtaposition between the past and present that seethes throughout the small gallery. Celia Blomberg’s “International Women’s Day March 8” can’t help but make one think of 2017’s Women’s March that would take place 37 years later. See Red Woman’s Workshop’s 1977 “Black Women Will Not Be Intimidated” could easily be repurposed to address the recent spate of blue-on-black brutality. Notable works by Barbara Kruger, Sister Corita Kent and the Guerrilla Girls are also included.
Ironically , while it can be surmised that most of these works were made as populist posters to be distributed at the time as banners of protest, their beautiful simplicity and nostalgic elegance probably have resulted in the originals (mostly now found in art museums) sporting hefty vintage-resale prices.
But it is not just the art that has stood the test of time. The fact that the issues addressed in the show — feminism, choice, gender equality, war, immigration, police brutality or violence against women — are all issues at the forefront of debate in 2018 ultimately engenders conflicting feelings.
On one the hand, it is inspiring to see a vibrant exhibit that showcases such diversity in artistic styles, no doubt spawned by the diversity of the artists’ own backgrounds. On the other hand, there is a realization that while there has been some progress over the past half century, there is so much work to be done.
Art Center’s Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography, 950 South Raymond Ave., Pasadena; through May 15.
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Award-Winning Reporter David Sirota to Lead National Investigative Desk on Inequality for Capital & Main
The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.”
LOS ANGELES — Capital & Main announced today that award-winning reporter David Sirota will lead a new national investigative desk for the California-based publication. His coverage will focus on the country’s historically high level of economic inequality, and the role of Wall Street, the private sector and government policy in perpetuating income disparity.
“I am thrilled to join one of the most promising young investigative publications in the country,” said Sirota. “There has never been a greater need for aggressive nonpartisan reporting that scrutinizes how corporations, lawmakers and the super-rich wield political and economic power. Capital & Main has established a reputation as an intrepid source of hard-hitting investigative reporting. I am excited to expand their capacity to shine a spotlight on how and why America now has the highest level of economic inequality in the country’s modern history.”
Sirota will join Capital & Main as a full-time reporter this summer, and prior to that will consult with the publication on editorial content and partnerships. The new position was made possible in part by a grant from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation in Oakland, CA.
Capital & Main is a non-profit publication founded in 2013 and its reporting has been co-published by (among others) The Atlantic, Time, The Guardian, Reuters, The Daily Beast, Slate, Grist, Fast Company, The Huffington Post and Newsweek. Capital & Main’s reporting has won recognition from the Society of American Business Editors & Writers, the Southern California Journalism Awards and the Best of the West contest. Its reporters have been featured on (among others) PRI’s The World, WNYC’s The Takeaway, as well as on programs on KQED and KCRW.
Sirota has reported extensively on the relationship between money and politics, and has gained a reputation as a journalist willing to scrutinize public officials of both parties. During his career, he has become one of American journalism’s most authoritative experts on complex financial systems including taxes, hedge funds, private equity and public pensions. He is a two-time winner of the Best in Business award from SABEW – most recently for his coverage of the 2017 Republican tax bill and its controversial “Corker kickback” provision. Before that, he won recognition from the Columbia Journalism Review for his reporting on how conflicts of interest shaped how Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy’s administration oversaw a proposed health-care merger. Sirota has also won Ithaca College’s Izzy Award and has been a finalist for UCLA’s Gerald R. Loeb Award and Syracuse University’s Mirror Award.
The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.” In one of its awards, SABEW said Sirota has produced “original, tenacious reporting that displayed a mastery of scouring documents, analyzing data and holding public officials accountable.” The legendary late columnist Molly Ivins said, “Sirota is a new-generation populist who instinctively understands that the only real questions are ‘Who’s getting screwed?’ and ‘Who’s doing the screwing?’”
“David Sirota is one of the finest investigative reporters in the country, and he promises to take Capital & Main’s reporting on inequality and related issues to a whole different level,” said Capital & Main board member Rick Wartzman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Los Angeles Times business editor and the author of four books, including The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. “David’s fearless approach to holding the powerful to account is precisely what we need at this moment in time.”
From 2014 to 2018 Sirota led International Business Times’ investigative reporting team, where he broke major stories on how President Trump’s top adviser evades ethics laws as he shapes policies that could enrich his firm; CFPB chief Mick Mulvaney’s ties to the financial industry — and how he pressured regulators to back off predatory lending rules at the same time he was raking in cash from payday lenders; how Equifax lobbied against consumer protection rules just before its huge data breach; and how chemical companies that spewed toxins after Hurricane Harvey had worked to reduce safety regulations in the lead-up to the disaster.
In 2014, Sirota’s investigative series for PandoDaily about public broadcasting compelled a PBS flagship station to return a $3.5 million contribution from a hedge fund billionaire. That same year, Sirota’s investigative reporting about pensions for PandoDaily and then for International Business Times led the New Jersey state government to open a formal pay-to-play investigation and to divest state holdings in a venture capital firm. Sirota’s reporting for International Business Times also led San Francisco officials to delay a proposed $3 billion investment in hedge funds.
“We have been longtime admirers of David’s work, and couldn’t imagine a better fit for our reporting on inequality,” said Capital & Main publisher Danny Feingold. “David will give us the capacity to break important national stories on one of the country’s great existential threats.”
Sirota is also the author of two New York Times best-selling books, Hostile Takeover and The Uprising, as well as Back to Our Future, which became the basis for the National Geographic Channel’s miniseries “The ’80s: The Decade that Made Us.” He appears frequently on MSNBC and CNN, and is the host of a podcast on economic, political and social issues.
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