Congressman John Lewis is the only survivor among the ten speakers at the March on Washington, a turning point in the civil rights movement that occurred 50 years ago, on August 28, 1963. The march is most famous as the setting of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” oration, but Lewis’ speech that day, representing the movement’s radical youth wing, provided a different kind of call to arms. It is a message that Lewis has continued to voice as a movement activist and an elected official.
Only a handful of the 250,000 people at event – officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to reflect the link between economic justice and civil rights – knew anything about the drama taking place behind the Lincoln Memorial. Under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, the longtime civil rights and trade union leader, the march had brought together the major civil rights organizations as well as labor unions and religious denominations and women’s groups. The planning group agreed that a representative of each group would address the huge crowd. Bayard Rustin, the veteran organizer who was in charge of the event’s logistics, required all speakers, even King, to hand in the texts of their speeches the night before. The speech submitted by Lewis, the 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), criticized President John F. Kennedy for moving too cautiously on civil rights legislation. Rustin, Randolph and others considered Lewis’ text inflammatory, threatening the unity they had so carefully built for the event. It included these lines:
“The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the street and put it into the courts. Listen, Mr. Kennedy. Listen, Mr. Congressman. Listen, fellow citizens. The black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won’t be a ‘cooling-off’ period. We won’t stop now. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground – nonviolently.”
The evening before the march, Patrick O’Boyle – the archbishop of Washington, who was scheduled to give the rally’s invocation – saw a copy of Lewis’ speech. A staunch Kennedy supporter, he alerted the White House and told Rustin that he would pull out of the event if Lewis was allowed to give those remarks.
The next day, as the marchers assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the controversy over Lewis’ speech continued behind the stage. An intense argument, with raised voices and fingers shaking, broke out between Lewis and Roy Wilkins, the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Rustin persuaded O’Boyle to start the program with his invocation while an ad hoc committee battled with Lewis over the language of his speech. Finally, Randolph, the civil rights movement’s beloved elder statesman, appealed to Lewis. “I’ve waited all my life for this opportunity,” he said. “Please don’t ruin it, John. We’ve come this far together. Let us stay together.”
Lewis toned down the speech, but only slightly. His closing paragraphs no longer had the incendiary reference to William Tecumseh Sherman’s march, but the address remained a powerful indictment of politicians’ failure to deal boldly with discrimination. He criticized Kennedy’s pending civil rights bill, filed two months earlier, for not going far enough in protecting blacks from police brutality and economic exploitation and for not including provisions to overturn Jim Crow laws that denied blacks their right to vote.
“We need a bill,” Lewis said, “that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation. We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns $5 a week in the home of a family whose total income is $100,000 a year.”
“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now. We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient!’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now!”
Lewis removed his criticism of Kennedy for “trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it into the courts,” but he left in his attack on politicians in general. “By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromise and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. There are exceptions, of course. We salute those.”
Lewis’ skepticism toward the Kennedy administration was understandable. Lewis had risked his life as a Freedom Rider, but the White House had been reluctant to use federal troops to protect the protesters. Kennedy had referred to the SNCC activists as “sons of bitches” who “had an investment in violence.” His brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, told a reporter that the violence surrounding the Freedom Rides provided “good propaganda for America’s enemies.”
Lewis was lucky to survive the Freedom Rides without permanent injury. Indeed, that Lewis was speaking at the March on Washington at all reflected a remarkable personal transformation and self-discipline. Born in 1940 into a large family of sharecroppers in rural Alabama, Lewis was shy and suffered from a speech impediment. At 15, he heard King’s speeches and sermons on the family radio during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and decided to become a minister. He practiced preaching to chickens in his parents’ barnyard and preached at local Baptist churches.
At 17, after becoming the first member of his family to graduate from high school, he attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, which allowed students to work in lieu of tuition. He worked as a janitor and simultaneously attended the all-black Fisk University, graduating with degrees from the seminary and the university.
The Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, a local black minister and activist, introduced Lewis to James Lawson, a divinity student at nearby Vanderbilt University, who was conducting workshops on nonviolent social action through the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Lawson prepared his students intellectually, psychologically and spiritually, assigning the works of Mohandas Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The students debated whether they could learn to forgive, even love, white segregationists who might beat them. They wondered if they had the self-discipline not to strike back, especially if they were called “nigger” or other epithets while being hit.
Lewis attended a weekend retreat at the Highlander Folk School, an inter-racial training center for activists in rural Tennessee. There he met Myles Horton, Septima Clark and other veteran organizers who helped him visualize what could happen if thousands of poor working people – folks like Lewis’ parents – were galvanized into direct action.
“I left Highlander on fire,” Lewis recalled. The fire got even hotter in the summer of 1959, when Lewis attended a workshop at Spelman College in Atlanta and heard veteran organizers Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Glenn Smiley, and Lawson discuss what it would take to dismantle Jim Crow.
When Lewis returned to college in the fall, the number of students attending Lawson’s workshops had grown and included some white students from Vanderbilt. As Lewis wrote in his memoir, Walking with the Wind, “We were itching to get started.” They planned to launch a full-scale nonviolent protest campaign targeting the major downtown department stores that refused to serve black people.
But to their surprise, on February 1, 1960, four students from the Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, beat them to it, organizing a sit-in at the local Woolworth’s. The news generated excitement on Nashville’s campuses. Hundreds of students emulated their Greensboro counterparts and were threatened with arrest. Lewis wrote up a list of do’s and don’ts to help the students:
“Do Not: Strike back nor curse if abused. Laugh out. Hold conversations with a floor walker. Leave your seat until your leader has given you permission to do so. Block entrances to stores outside nor the aisles inside.”
“Do: Show yourself friendly and courteous at all times. Sit straight: always face the counter. Report all serious incidents to your leader. Refer information seekers to your leader in a polite manner. Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.”
Lewis was arrested at Woolworth’s for the first of many times in his life. So too were hundreds of other protesters at other stores. Day after day, Lewis and the other students sat silently at lunch counters, where they were harassed, spat upon, beaten and finally arrested and held in jail, but the students insisted that they continue. The protests continued, with Lewis playing a key leadership role, and eventually Nashville’s mayor and business leaders agreed to desegregate the downtown stores.
Lewis’ physical and spiritual courage would be tested many times during the next few years. Each time, he revealed a remarkable, calm discipline, galvanizing others to follow his lead. The success of the sit-in movement led Lewis and his counterparts across the South to start SNCC in April 1960.
In May 1961, the 21-year-old Lewis participated in Freedom Rides, organized by the Congress of Racial Equality to protest the segregation of interstate bus terminals. Lewis was on the first Freedom Ride, which left the District of Columbia on March 4 destined for New Orleans. When they reached Rock Hill, South Carolina, and got off the bus, Lewis tried to enter a whites-only waiting room. Two white men attacked him, injuring his face and kicking him in the ribs.
Nevertheless, only two weeks later, Lewis was one of 22 Freedom Riders – 18 blacks, four whites – on another Freedom Ride bus from Nashville to Montgomery, accompanied by a protective escort of state highway patrol cars. As they reached the Montgomery city limits, the state highway patrol cars turned away, but no Montgomery police appeared to replace them. When the bus arrived at the Greyhound terminal, several reporters approached Lewis to interview him. But they were quickly overwhelmed by a mob of angry whites carrying baseball bats, bricks, chains, wooden boards, tire irons and pipes – screaming, “Git them niggers.”
As Lewis wrote in his memoir: “I felt a thud against my head. I could feel my knees collapse and then nothing. Everything turned white for an instant, then black. I was unconscious on that asphalt. I learned later that someone had swung a wooden Coca-Cola crate against my skull. There was a lot I didn’t learn about until later.”
When he regained consciousness, he was bleeding badly from the back of his head and his coat, shirt and tie were covered with blood. Jim Zwerg, a white Freedom Rider, was in much worse shape. Lewis asked a police office to help him get an ambulance, but the cop simply said, “He’s free to go.”
Two days later, the battered Lewis was back on another Freedom Ride bus, heading to Jackson, Mississippi, but this time with National Guard escorts. When they arrived at the terminal, a police officer pointed them toward the “colored” bathroom, but Lewis and the others headed toward the “white” men’s room and were promptly arrested. Twenty-seven Freedom Riders were jailed. Lewis and others were later moved to the notorious Parchman Penitentiary state prison, where they were held for more than three weeks.
By the time he was elected SNCC chairman in 1963, Lewis had been arrested 24 times. SNCC was the most militant of the major civil rights groups, led by black college students, but involving white students as well. As its chairman, Lewis was invited to help plan the March on Washington and be one of the major speakers, alongside King, Randolph, Wilkins, labor leader Walter Reuther and others. (Another controversy that erupted in the weeks leading up to the march was the absence of any women – who were the backbone of the movement’s grass-roots leadership – among the speakers).
The march was designed to put pressure on the Kennedy administration and Congress to enact a civil rights bill and an anti-poverty bill, including a public works plan to generate jobs and an increase in the minimum wage. In drafting his speech, Lewis got input from many SNCC activists, including Julian Bond, Eleanor Holmes (now a Congresswoman representing Washington, D.C.), James Forman and others. They viewed it as a collective SNCC statement, not simply Lewis’ own views, which is why Lewis was careful not to water down the talk’s powerful condemnation of racism and politicians’ complicity.
The march brought sharecroppers and college students, housewives and clergy, factory workers and school teachers from every part of the country. It attracted big-name celebrities, including actors Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, Ossie Davis, Dihann Carroll and Charlton Heston, singers Harry Belafonte, Bobby Darin, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr., athletes Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell and writer James Baldwin. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, opera star Marian Anderson and folk singers Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Odetta, and Peter, Paul and Mary performed for the vast crowd.
It was the first time that the entire national media – including satellite television, which sent the broadcast around the world – converged on a major civil rights event. The major TV networks pre-empted other programming to broadcast the events. Although King was already a well-known public figure, his televised address was the first time that many Americans saw him speak.
In the 86 years since the end of Reconstruction, not one substantial civil rights bill had been signed into laws. The hundreds of local protests that preceded the march, the drama and visibility of the national march and the many local protests that followed it, pressured Congress members from outside the South to support meaningful legislation. When Kennedy was assassinated three months after the march, President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan, drew on his political skills and the civil rights movement’s momentum to get Congress to pass two pieces of civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the anti-poverty programs often called the Great Society.
Lewis played a key role in those struggles. After the 1963 march, he worked with SNCC to register voters, including in the Freedom Summer campaign in Mississippi in 1964. The following year, he and Hosea Williams led 600 protesters on the first march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. Police attacked the marchers, and Lewis was beaten so severely that his skull was fractured. Before he could be taken to the hospital, he appeared before the television cameras calling on President Johnson to intervene in Alabama. The day, March 7, 1965, came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
The Freedom Rides forced the federal government to implement laws and court rulings desegregating interstate travel. The voter registration drives, as well as public outrage against the violence directed at nonviolent protesters, helped secure passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The slow pace of change and the unrelenting attacks by Southern whites led some SNCC activists to question the nonviolent and integrationist tenets preached by King, Lawson, Lewis and others. Friction grew between various camps within SNCC. In 1966, Lewis lost his post as SNCC chairman to the more nationalist Stokely Carmichael.
For the next seven years, Lewis directed the Voter Education Project (VEP), which registered and educated about 4 million black voters. President Jimmy Carter then appointed Lewis director of ACTION, the federal agency that oversaw domestic volunteer programs.
In 1981, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council. Five years later, he was elected to Congress from an Atlanta district, and he has been re-elected every two years since. He has consistently ranked as one of the “most liberal” members of Congress, according to the National Journal.
After becoming an “insider,” Lewis continued to advocate for progressive causes regarding poverty, civil rights and foreign affairs. He was an early opponent of the US invasion of Iraq. In 2002, he sponsored the Peace Tax Fund bill, a conscientious objection to military taxation legislation introduced yearly since 1972. In 2009, he was one of several members of Congress arrested outside the embassy of Sudan, where they had gathered to draw attention to the genocide in Darfur.
Throughout his career, Lewis, now 73, has encouraged young people to participate in political action and crusades for social justice. He has been a strong ally of students involved in the immigrant rights movement and a key supporter of the Dream Act. At a 2011 rally, Lewis said: “We all live in the same house. If any one of us is illegal, then we all are illegal. There is no illegal human being.”
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of dozens of prestigious awards and honorary degrees bestowed upon the civil rights icon.
In 1989, Lewis returned to Montgomery to help dedicate a civil rights memorial. An elderly white man came up to him and said, “I remember you from the Freedom Rides.” Lewis took a moment to recall the man’s face. Then he recognized Floyd Mann, who had been Alabama’s safety commissioner. A committed segregationist, tough on law and order, Mann had been assured by Montgomery’s police chief that no violence would occur. Seeing the white mob attack the Freedom Riders as they got off the bus, Mann realized he had been double-crossed. He charged into the bus station, fired his gun into the air and yelled, “There’ll be no killing here today.” A white attacker raised his bat for a final blow. Mann put his gun to the man’s head. “One more swing,” he said, “and you’re dead.” When they met again, Lewis whispered to Floyd Mann, “You saved my life.” The two men hugged, and Lewis began to cry. As they parted, Mann said, “I’m right proud of your career.”
We should all be proud of Lewis’ career, which is a testament to the success of the civil rights movement and a challenge to America to complete the movement’s unfinished business.
There is little dispute that America has made major strides in race relations since the modern civil rights movement began in the 1950s. The poverty rate for African-Americans – 55 percent in 1959 – has been cut in half. African-Americans have broken barriers in every area of American society. They anchor the evening news, edit major newspapers and serve in the Cabinet, as college presidents and as CEOs of major corporations – achievements that many Americans considered unthinkable before the 1960s.
In 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court overturned state laws banning inter-racial marriage. At the time, 16 states still had anti-miscegenation laws on the books and 72 percent of the American public still opposed inter-racial marriages. In 2011, the most recent poll on the topic, 96 percent of black Americans and 84 percent of white Americans supported inter-racial marriage. It may be shocking to some that 16 percent of white Americans still disapprove of inter-racial marriages, but the shift in public opinion over five decades has been steady, irreversible and overwhelming. Equally important, 97 percent of Americans under 30 support inter-racial marriage.
One of the civil rights movement’s signal victories, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, not only increased the number of black voters, but also increased the number of black elected officials, many of whom had been active in the movement. In 1963, there were only five African-Americans in Congress – all from northern states. Today there are 45 black Congress members, many of them from the South. In 1970, there were only 1,469 black elected officials in the entire country. Today, that number has reached over 10,500. In the early 1960s, not a single major American city had a black mayor. In subsequent years, many major cities, including many with relatively few African-Americans, had elected black chief executives, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle and Philadelphia. And in 2008, and again in 2012, Americans elected an African-American as president of the United States.
Despite this progress, however, a half-century after the March on Washington, discrimination against African-Americans remains a serious problem in employment, education, bank lending and other sectors of society.
As the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman illustrate, stereotypes persist and our criminal justice system remains biased. A report by the Violence Policy Center, found that black males are nine times more likely than white males to be the victims of homicide – 29.50 out of 100,000 black males compared with 3.85 out of 100,000 white males.
A new Urban Institute study reports that when there is a homicide with one shooter and one victim who are strangers, a little less than 3 percent of black-on-white homicides are ruled to be justified. When the races are reversed, the percentage of cases that are ruled to be justified climbs to more than 36 percent in states with “stand your ground” laws and 29 percent in states without such laws. The insidious police practice of racial profiling has not disappeared. The outrageous fact that more than 2 million Americans (disproportionately black and Hispanic men) are incarcerated is further indictment of persistent racism.
So, too, is the reality that the poverty rate among African-Americans remains twice that among whites. Nearly half of poor black children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty; however, only a little more than one-tenth of poor white children live in similar neighborhoods. The black unemployment rate last year was 14.0 percent, 2.1 times the white unemployment rate (6.6 percent) and higher than the average national unemployment rate of 13.1 percent during the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1939. After adjusting for inflation, the minimum wage today – $7.25 an hour – is worth $2 less than in 1968 and is nowhere close to a living wage. In 2011, a full-time year-round worker needed to earn $11.06 an hour to keep a family of four out of poverty. But more than one-third of black workers (36 percent) do not earn hourly wages high enough to lift a family of four out of poverty, according to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute.
During the past decade, banks targeted African-American neighborhoods with risky predatory loans. At the peak of Wall Street’s reckless lending boom, almost half all loans to African-American families were deemed “subprime.” Not surprisingly, blacks (as well as Latinos) have borne the brunt of the financial meltdown. According to a 2011 report, approximately one quarter of all Latino and African-American borrowers have lost their home to foreclosure or are seriously delinquent, compared with just less than 12 percent of white borrowers. Between 2009 and 2012, African-Americans lost just less than $200 billion of wealth, bringing the gap between white and black wealth to a staggering 20-to-1 ratio.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that Lewis had worked so hard, and endured so many beatings, to bring to life. No longer required to seek federal approval before making changes in their election practices, some states, including Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina, already have introduced or restored policies that make it harder for racial minorities to vote and will weaken their political voice.
“The day of the Supreme Court decision broke my heart,” Lewis said during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It made me want to cry. I felt like saying come, come and walk in the shoes of people who tried to register, tried to vote but did not live to see the passage of the Voting Rights Act.”
It is clear that the dream of racial equality remains unfulfilled. Yet John Lewis does not despair. At a recent gathering in Washington, Lewis said: “Our struggle does not last for one day, one week or one year but it is the struggle of a lifetime, and each generation must do its part. There will be progress, but there will also be setbacks.”
Recalling the March on Washington, Lewis recently told Bill Moyers:
“You cannot lose hope. You cannot give up. You just cannot give in. You cannot become bitter or hostile. The way of love is a better way. Dr. King said that we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will perish as fools. I think that is still true today. That was the essence of the movement.”
(This post first appeared on Huffington Post and is republished with permission.)
There Will Be Blood: The Rise and Fall of Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes
Alex Gibney has become the filmic Freud of frauds, a master at dissecting sparkly but flawed personalities.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
Written and directed by Alex Gibney. HBO.
Tomorrow’s dreams are designed in Silicon Valley. And in the last 40 years some of those ideas have blossomed into riches and fame, and, sometimes, resulted in a better life for all. In Alex Gibney’s new feature documentary, Elizabeth Holmes personifies this quest for wealth and well-being. Her single-minded passion for a life-changing invention is contagious, but, in the end, it is a sickness that brings about her professional demise.
Holmes’ story is well known. A Stanford student who drops out in 2003, she unveils, in 2007, the prototype of a machine called the Edison that uses small amounts of blood, at a fraction of the cost of conventional needle draws, for early detection of diseases and infections. Decked out in black turtlenecks à la Steve Jobs and sporting a baritone voice (allegedly affected), the lanky Holmes is a real character: Olive Oyl reimagined by Modigliani as a tech hipster. Curiously, she rarely blinks, figuratively or literally.
Her company, Theranos, shoots into the zeitgeist and is suddenly a white-hot commodity in the venture capitalist world. Investors swarm Holmes, who appears on countless magazine covers. Partly due to her relationships with such influential private investors as Rupert Murdoch and members of the Walton family (and a board that included Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Mattis), Holmes raises over $700 million. She also secures a deal with Walgreens to open up Theranos wellness centers in its drug stores to service customers with her life-changing invention. By 2014, the company has a $9 billion valuation and Holmes is the millennial poster child for changing the world while also becoming rich.
There is just one problem. The technology behind Edison doesn’t exist. It never did.
There is a prototype, but, like the game Holmes was playing, it is a shell. The machine is useless in performing the vast majority of the promised tests because it is largely a figment of Holmes’ imagination (and presumably of her lover and co-conspirator, Theranos president and COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani).
Patients who give blood at Walgreens have no idea that when their samples are sent to Theranos labs they are secretly processed on standard blood-testing equipment. And because some of the samples are of inadequate amounts, the resulting data are often inaccurate, disseminating incorrect diagnoses to patients. Elizabeth Holmes has put the con in Silicon Valley.
* * *
One of this cautionary tale’s most fascinating aspects is just how long Holmes was able to deceive the world. It wasn’t until a 2015 Wall Street Journal article by John Carreyrou, acting on a whistleblower’s tip, that Holmes’ sham was exposed. It serves to underscore how gullible we all can be when offered a dream we want to be real.
Whether it’s the leaders of a church in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, hedge fund hucksters in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the eponymous doper in The Armstrong Lie, or the plethora of charlatans in his excellent Netflix series Dirty Money, Gibney has become the filmic Freud of frauds. He is a master at dissecting sparkly but flawed personalities and using their own archival material and words to crack open their dark, rotten cores.
The Inventor amalgamates a wide array of vérité tapes from Theranos’ lifespan, from internal video of staff meetings to footage shot by noted doc filmmaker Errol Morris (who was hired by Holmes to make Theranos commercials – as he had for Jobs’ Apple). Throughout the film, we see the wide-eyed Holmes expertly woo investors and try to placate a skeptical staff, as if trying to convince herself that the Edison really exists.
As it becomes clear that her scam is being exposed to the world, the delusional Holmes refuses to succumb to reality, steadfastly claiming (or perhaps idealistically hoping) that the Edison is not a work of fiction. But the gig is up, and as her dream is crumbling around her, the camera settles on a beleaguered Holmes. And she blinks. In an instant, her whole bloody invention has vanished, and the con is gone.
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Believe the Hype: A Promising Hip-Hop Drama Misses Some Beats
Idris Goodwin’s play revolves around two hip-hop performers, one black and one white, who have been friends since childhood.
By Idris Goodwin
Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat. & Mon., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 14. (323) 663-1525 or fountaintheatre.com. Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Playwright Idris Goodwin delves into the thorny issue of race in America with this incisive three-character play about two longtime friends whose artistic partnership is shattered after they fall out over the police shooting of a black teen. Touching on white privilege and the co-opting of hip-hop by commercial interests, it’s an imperfect but potentially compelling work, sabotaged by directorial missteps that render this production a disappointment.
A West Coast premiere directed by Deena Selenow at the Fountain Theatre, the play revolves around two hip-hop performers, one black and one white, who have been friends since childhood. Verb (Matthew Hancock), who’s African-American, and Pinnacle (Chad Addison) who’s white, are on the verge of making it big, with a gig on the Tonight Show that will boost their careers to the national stage.
But tensions are simmering. For one thing, the balance of power between these old pals is out of whack; Pinnacle, the headlining word guy, is in charge, while Verb, the hype man, is a subordinate player. And Verb has problems: irrational behavior, imbibing drugs, and creating havoc by inviting numerous friends and family to the studio to watch the group rehearse, some of whom eye the Caucasian Pinnacle with malignant intent. This spooks Pinnacle, and he wants it to stop.
The bright spot in all this is the group’s beat maker, Peep One (Clarissa Thibeaux). She’s a smart, lively person of mixed race who knows her stuff and doesn’t take guff from these men. Peep One is hardworking and ambitious — and the only one among the three who knows how to turn on the drum machine. The opportunity for national exposure is one she prizes as much as her male colleagues do.
So when the shooting of a 17-year-old boy enrages Verb and provokes him to suggest a protest on national TV, she’s as wary as Pinnacle, who firmly believes that musical careers and politics should not be mixed. Sure enough, after Verb goes rogue and flashes a “Justice for Jerrod” T-shirt in the middle of the Tonight Show performance, their manager freaks out and police unions begin protesting their performances.
* * *
Unlike Goodwin’s Bars and Measures, an unforgettably heart-stopping drama produced at Boston Court in 2016, Hype Man could use work. While there’s some backstory (especially one very telling anecdote about a time both men went to jail), we need more. And Pinnacle’s hard-ass take on the police shooting is hard to buy, given that he grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood where his best bud was black. It’s possible to have a clash of perspectives between him and Verb without Pinnacle’s view being so callously extreme.
But these issues are easily fixable. The main problems with the production are its staging and, by extension, the lead performances. For inexplicable reasons, Selenow repeatedly positions Hancock and Addison at opposite ends of the stage, where they toss dialogue at each other like so many catch balls. Neither character seems very bright; Addison delivers his lines with an almost deadening lack of affect, while Hancock’s Verb is sullen and defensive. Why couldn’t these characters have been played as dynamic and sharp? Instead the two are depicted with this patina of dumbness that summons stereotypes fostered on working-class people, regardless of race.
In terms of performance, the saving grace is Thibeaux’s smart and sunny beat maker, who lights up each scene she partakes in, and whose manifest joy in the music she helps create is instantly contagious. This actor brings an intelligence and esprit to her work that the production on the whole could use more of.
Copyright Capital & Main
HBO’s Realistic ‘O.G.’ Looks at Hard Time Behind Bars
All of Jeffrey Wright’s acting skills can’t quite elevate O.G. beyond being a solid and dignified tale.
Starring Jeffrey Wright.
Directed by Madeleine Sackler. Written by Stephen Belber. Currently on HBO and HBO Go.
From Cool Hand Luke to Papillon to The Shawshank Redemption, every generation seems to be captivated by the world behind bars. And with a spate of recent stories set in the slammer, orange really has become the new black. The genre has also become more realistic over time. Jenji Kohan’s breakthrough Orange series on Netflix featured a diverse cast of misfits and miscreants set in a women’s prison that punctuated the creator’s own stark experiences in the clink with humor and pathos. Then late last year, Showtime’s limited series Escape at Dannemora delivered a well-acted, arresting tale ripped from headlines. Now HBO, which revamped the genre two decades ago with its gritty Oz series, is in lockstep with O.G., taking this wave of “incarcereality” to a new level.
Director Madeleine Sackler and writer Stephen Belber gained unprecedented access to the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison near Indianapolis. They not only used real inmates and guards in supporting roles, but cast one of the leads with Theothus Carter, a con serving a 65-year sentence for attempted burglary and murder. Opposite Carter is the always fantastic Jeffrey Wright.
Wright is Louis, an inmate who is about to be freed after serving 24 years for a brutal robbery/murder. A former shotcaller in the joint, Louis now spends his last incarcerated moments staying above the fray while doling out wisdom. With freedom close enough to taste, Louis takes Beecher (Carter) under his wing, hoping to keep the young felon from making mistakes that could lead to more time or even bodily harm. As Louis tries to help Beecher navigate increasingly more dangerous waters, they turn murky instead – with fate potentially jeopardizing the elder con’s impending release. The film realistically reflects the daily struggle cons endure as they try to rise above endemic institutional dehumanization and corruption. That said, the film makes heroes of no one, and as a result resonates with authenticity.
O.G. revolves around Wright, whose remarkable talent allows him to bounce between the disparate Westworld and this world with ease. Wright is an actor who uses all his flesh and blood to embody his character, and because of it we are riveted to his every move, every inflection.
Carter is the opposite — he’s just serviceable as an actor, albeit bolstered by mad charisma. Consequently, his presence is greatest when he isn’t speaking, his evocative eyes saying better anything he could manage verbally.
But all of Wright’s skill isn’t quite enough to elevate O.G. beyond being a solid and dignified tale. While Dannemora had illicit sex and an escape to spice up its action (and the time a limited series affords to story development), O.G. languishes a bit due to routine and simplicity. Perhaps it’s a reflection of Sackler and Belber’s experiences. This is Sackler’s first scripted work after a series of documentaries (the acclaimed The Lottery among them). Belber’s day job as a playwright is obvious, with much of the film seeming like a filmed theatrical production. Some of this background may make O.G. a more realistic examination of life behind bars, but it ultimately makes time served watching it less enjoyable.
Copyright Capital & Main
Labor Party: A New Play Examines Birth Tourism
Playwright Boni B. Alvarez dramatizes the experience of six Filipinas temporarily inhabiting a one-bedroom flat near Los Angeles’ well-to-do Hancock Park neighborhood.
Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; Mon., March 4, 11, 18, 8 p.m.; through March 24. SkylightTix.
Birth tourism in the United States is a flourishing business. Each year thousands of women from foreign nations pay big bucks to birth their babies on U.S. soil, insuring that their children (courtesy of our Fourteenth Amendment) will become U.S. citizens. The women’s travel and stays are often facilitated by illegal for-profit intermediaries that promote their services in their clients’ local newspapers. The very wealthy pay for royal treatment and get it. Those with fewer means (none are poor) may instead find themselves housed with other expectant mothers in cramped apartments, their comings and goings monitored and restricted.
In America Adjacent, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera at the Skylight Theatre, Filipino-American playwright Boni B. Alvarez dramatizes the experience of six such Filipinas temporarily inhabiting a one-bedroom flat adjacent to Los Angeles’ well-to-do Hancock Park neighborhood. Overseen by a curt and condescending administrator (Hazel Lozano), they bicker away their days while waiting to go into labor. Those who have already given birth linger onsite just long enough for their child’s documentation to arrive before they fly back home.
Each has her own story. Roshelyn (Angela T. Baesa), more emotionally mature than the others, is a teacher of English. Paz (Toni Katano) is a socialite with attitude. Aimee (Sandy Velasco) is marked by her sunny disposition and an unusual blend of heated carnality and religious devotion. Divina (Arianne Villareal), the victim of her uncle’s sexual abuse, is resentful, deeply confused and defensive; when the others protest the wrong done to her, she’s still singing her predator’s praises.
Most of the narrative is driven by events surrounding Janelle May (Evie Abat) and Sampaguita (Samantha Valdellon). The mistress of a wealthy married man, Janelle May, suffering a postpartum disorientation, wants little to do with her new baby; breaking house rules, she sneaks out to rendezvous with a Mexican-American man that she fancies will be part of her future. Like Janelle, Sampaguita, young and recently arrived, refuses to stay inside but instead takes clandestine strolls through Hollywood to soak up the sights. It is primarily through her eyes that the women’s disappointment is chronicled and the playwright’s message — the thorny paradox that is the American Dream and its impact on people’s lives — is sounded.
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Part of the playwright’s intent is to raise our awareness of the Filipino community and give it visibility on the American stage. And in our observation of his characters, their likes and dislikes, their dreams for the future and their strong Catholic faith, he succeeds.
But while America Adjacent may be on track as a group portrait and cultural beacon, it misses the mark as a cogent drama. Some of the story threads are under-developed, even as the more prominent ones are too steeped in melodrama. The interaction among the characters often consists of petty squabbling (degenerating at one point into hair-pulling) and other scenes come across as too obviously aimed at our edification, while at the same time failing to propel the narrative forward (Paz refuses to eat a traditionally American birthday cake because it’s unlike the ones she’s accustomed to).
Some of these shortcomings might have been camouflaged with strong performances. Instead, they’re compounded by an uneven ensemble. Lozano (smartly outfitted by costumer Mylette Nora) is effective as the brisk, uncaring administrator, while Baesa depicts the household’s most sensible, nurturing member with surety and warmth. But Valdellon, though she has affecting moments, is often over the top. And Abat delivers a blueprint of the jaded Janelle rather than the rounded portrayal that might have us feel her pain.
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Steven Soderbergh’s Basketball Diary Is No Slam Dunk
The iPhone-shot High Flying Bird comes across as less a feature film and more like a pilot for a TV series. (Think The West Wing meets Ballers.)
Steven Soderbergh has always been a cinematic disruptor. His debut film, sex, lies, and videotape, is largely credited with revolutionizing the independent film movement of the 1990s while also signaling the emergence of a singular new talent. Instead of taking the easy way up, his prodigious career has seen him bounce between heading mass market pulp (Oceans 11 and its sequels and Magic Mike) to borderline masterpieces (Traffic and Erin Brockovich) to failed experimental fare (Full Frontal, which was the first feature with major stars shot mostly on digital camcorders.). His latest film, High Flying Bird, falls into the latter category.
The film starts with a sports agent, Ray Burke (André Holland), and his client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), who is the NBA’s first-round draft pick, at a moment when the two men are struggling to deal with a league lockout. Before Scott can collect his first paycheck or dish out a dime, he is caught up in the politics of the game — or as youth coach Spence (Bill Duke) says, “The game on top of the game.” As a result, Burke comes up with a scheme to upend the system, an ingenious attempt both to gain some control and swat the impasse away like an ill-advised cross-court pass.
Soderbergh is attempting to invent a game on top of the game cinematically here, as well. His film is about basketball with very little basketball in it, and was shot entirely on an iPhone. The filmmaker supposedly finished the rough cut three hours after principal photography wrapped – after shooting for only three weeks. The results are like those of a good three-point shooter: successful about 40 percent of the time.
Tarell Alvin McCraney (a producer/story writer on Moonlight) dishes out dialogue that, for the most part, is street smart (a few lines should be whistled for pretentiousness, though.) The acting is great, with everyone managing to deliver stereotypical roles that aren’t typical. Standouts include Duke, who brings soul and depth to his gruff hardwood Yoda, and Zazie Beetz (Atlanta), who plays Sam, a young but ambitiously crafty assistant. But despite the great players, High Flying Bird fails to secure the win.
Shooting on an iPhone is an experiment that here, unlike 2015’s Tangerine, does nothing to enhance or underscore the material. In fact, there are a few glaring shots that simply come across as though they were shot on, well, a phone. Lastly, the film dishes out both backstory and future plot points that are impossible to play out in the film’s 90-minute runtime, such as a secret package and the past death of a promising star. Nothing here is ultimately powerful enough to sustain a feature (although there is a hint of profundity with an allusion to the indentured servitude of NBA players and the garbage time appearance of both Dr. Harry Edwards and his seminal 1969 book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete).
These are two of a handful of loose ends that are never tied up. As a result, High Flying Bird comes across as less a feature film and more like a pilot for a TV series. (Think The West Wing meets Ballers.)
Soderbergh should be commended for trying to invigorate the game because you can’t score without taking shots. Unfortunately, his latest attempt rims out instead of being a cinematic slam dunk.
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Filmmaker Adam McKay Talks About Dick Cheney and the Imperial Presidency
“Our democracy at its root is about the throne,” says the creator of Vice. “But what Cheney tried to do was bring the power back to one person on that throne.”
Vice President Dick Cheney quickly faded into the background after leaving the Bush White House in 2009. But while many may not remember the ins and outs of Cheney’s record, the recent film Vice argues that he was one of the most powerful and influential architects of the current world, and that Cheney intensified the emergencies facing America today.
Capital & Main reporter David Sirota spoke with Vice screenwriter and director Adam McKay, who had taken on the project after winning an Academy Award for screenwriting on his previous movie, The Big Short.
Vice has been nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture — but has also generated its share of controversy. McKay discusses some of the criticism of the film here, along with the twists and turns of the life of Cheney, who rose to become arguably the most potent vice president in American history. The following interview excerpt has been edited for concision and clarity.
David Sirota: Do you believe that we are today living in the world that Dick Cheney created?
Adam McKay: Without a doubt, yeah. Trump is a force of charisma, but not in a good way. He’s perfect for the 24-hour news cycle — no one knows how to dominate it better than him.
But the actual structural changes that happen to our government, to regulations, to the way we view democracy, to the way the American people interact with government … those changes happened under the hand [of] a grand master of bureaucratic knowledge, Dick Cheney. You look at the Middle East. You look into visions that were widened. I’d definitely go to that period and I say at the center of it, expanding executive power, was Dick Cheney.
There’s a scene in the movie where a young Cheney is depicted as not all that partisan — it almost made it seem like him choosing a job with a Democratic or Republican lawmaker was completely random. Is that true to life?
It’s not that far off. Cheney’s dad was an FDR Democrat. [Dick Cheney] had no interest in politics at all through high school…The first time he really started getting any taste for feet-on-the-floor politics was when he was getting [his] master’s up in the University of Wisconsin. He did intern for a Republican, handed out buttons and stuff. We interviewed some people from his early days. He was not an ideologically driven guy.
What he knew was that when he went to D.C. he needed a rocket ship. He needed to get something going. Lynne wasn’t entirely happy about him taking this fellowship. She wanted him to get a Ph.D. and become a professor. That was what she always pictured that they would do. So he had to get something going quick when he got to D.C. because he wasn’t making any money. And if you wanna get something going quick in the late ’60s in Washington, D.C., Donald Rumsfeld was your guy.
What do you think radicalized Dick Cheney and made him such an ideologue?
The first radicalization was just the environment he kind of came of age in, which was the Nixon White House and the Ford White House, which were all about executive power — the imperial presidency. And then his conversation about the unitary executive theory with a young [Antonin] Scalia, who was a lawyer in the Justice Department.
Everything that I found with Cheney goes back to the unitary executive theory. You look at his minority opinion that he wrote on the Iran-Contra affair with David Addington. They actually have several lines in it where they say the president has monarchical-like powers.
The radicalization of Cheney, to me, is two steps. Number one is the political environment he grew up in, [and then] introduction to the unitary executive — [which] was weaponized by 9/11. Especially when he said, “Give me all the unfiltered intelligence.” A lot of Washington insiders said, “Anyone who would do that — [it] would drive them crazy.” One guy described it as like “listening to Led Zeppelin full volume, 24 hours a day.”
So I think he was already an extreme right-winger who then came into collision course with this very traumatic event, 9/11.
Your movie depicts Cheney as motivated by the acquisition of power — but do you believe he had specific policy goals beyond that?
As far as policy goals go, war is the key to being able to use these sorts of unparalleled powers. Some legal scholars would call [these] insane powers. So I always felt like Cheney was putting together these pieces of power to expand his own power … which I do believe made him a power addict … His wife’s desire for power, and by extension, America’s desire for power, which did fit neatly with the neocons.
But I also think invading Iraq did two things. It activated the unitary executive theory — [if] writings from the DOJ [Department of Justice] that came about at that time were filled with references to the unitary executive theory.
And yes, the oil too, was a part of it. Cheney also is an oil guy. He grew up in an oil state, Wyoming That was his whole life. All his friends are oil guys. I always look at Cheney as a right-hand man, and I think that he serves power: Sometimes that power is oil barons, other times that power is a presidency — the notion of a powerful presidency.
So I think Iraq was sort of a mishmash of ideas. I think it was unitary executive and I think it was definitely oil, and I think it was most of all expansion of executive power and a show of force to the world.
What are the most significant and lasting parts of Cheney’s legacy?
I would just say in general, those eight years of Bush and Cheney were so dispiriting that they made a lot of people kind of give up on government. And the fact that we can’t fix something that really can be improved pretty easily and pretty quickly, like the opioid epidemic or like gun safety laws. Those are things that 30, 40 years ago we would’ve had bills passed on the issue. We would’ve seen fewer deaths within a year, within two years. Even the assault weapon ban, you saw deaths go down after that…
Then, obviously, the Middle East is just a wreck. Our friend, Adam Davidson, had a friend of his, a journalist, go to Iraq recently and come back and just say, “It’s awful. It’s completely undone.” And obviously, with what happened in Syria, ISIS, all that kind of stuff. Those are the clear, kind of bad effects of Cheney and I would say the rise of this particular form of the Republican Party.
Much of your film resurrects events that have been forgotten in the American psyche, because we have this tendency to venerate leaders the moment they leave office. It’s as if presidents and their administrations suddenly get immunity from retrospective scrutiny. Why do you think that is?
I feel a lot of this goes back to the pardoning of Nixon. That’s a bad, bad thing. I think he should’ve done some time. I think it’s important to not imbue these leaders with king-like mystical properties. Do you remember Jerry Lewis saying, “We should never criticize the president”?
I think we just like the idea of powerful people. We like the idea of a king. We like the idea of these celebrities that get treated like kings. Why did the Bushes keep getting elected to office? Why did the Kennedys keep getting elected to office after several of them did pretty terrible things? We just like that idea. We like the idea that some people’s blood is more special than ours. I don’t know why. It’s really deranged…
Our democracy at its root is about the throne. What they tried to do with the Constitution, the original people that wrote it, was break up the power so you don’t have one crazy guy sitting in the throne. But what Cheney tried to do was bring the power back to one person on that throne…
I guess my answer is democracy is still really new, and clearly it’s not going well right now. And I think we’re going to have to have a whole moment where we look at it and fix a bunch of stuff because parts of it aren’t working too well.
Many people say Donald Trump’s administration is the worst in American history. After doing a movie on Cheney and the Bush administration, do you agree?
Everyone wants things to be ranked and compared to each other. The real answer is that there is a safe that was filled with diamonds that represent our democracy and checks and balances. They couldn’t get a goon like Donald Trump to go in and crack the safe because he doesn’t even read books. Like he’s not an educated guy.
So they had to go get an expert like Dick Cheney to go in there. Dick Cheney went in, he cracked the safe, he took all the jewels out of the safe, he exited the store, he left the front door wide open. Then after an hour some stray dogs wandered into the store and started crapping all over the place and peeing everywhere. And then when the owner went in, one of the dogs bit him and he said, “These dogs are the worst.”
That, to me, is Cheney versus Trump. Yeah. Cheney cracked the safe, Trump is the strange bizarre dude who wandered in (and) took a crap in the store…The police arrest the street guy because look, he took a crap. He’s in the store. Meanwhile, Cheney is across town giving W. Bush one diamond while he takes the other 99 and W. Bush is delighted with the one diamond.
Even Paradise Has Walls in This Topical Drama
Laura Maria Censabella’s play focuses on the difficulties of young women whose career aspirations are thwarted by cultural expectations.
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.; through February 17. (323) 960-7724 or www.Plays411/Paradise. Running time: Two hours with one intermission.
Paradise, by Laura Maria Censabella, has a lot going for it. Drawn from the playwright’s experience as an artist-in-residence in the New York City school system, it builds around the relationship between Yasmeen (Medalion Rahimi), a 17-year-old Yemeni-American student, and her biology instructor, Dr. Royston (Jeff Marlow), who supports and encourages her new-found passion for learning and experiment. A West Coast premiere directed by Vicangelo Bulluck at the Odyssey Theatre, the play features multidimensional characters, fluid dialogue and meaty conflicts involving culture, science and religion, but a one-note portrayal by Rahimi under Bulluck’s lax direction sabotages what might have been an intriguing production.
Marlow, in a topnotch performance, plays a once well-respected scientist who’s been barred from his profession for making threats to a colleague, and now teaches adolescents in the Bronx. After Yasmeen fails a test, she comes to his classroom to plead for an opportunity to make it up. At first Royston refuses, but the more he talks to the girl, the more he realizes how bright she is, and that her failure on the exam may have explicable roots. Soon he learns that Yasmeen has an interesting idea for an experiment involving adolescents and their emotions, a field of inquiry that relates to Royston’s former research. The two begin to work together with twin goals: Royston’s redemption among his scientific peers and Yasmeen’s securing of a scholarship to Columbia University.
Though he tries to be respectful, Royston more than once offends Yasmeen by commenting on her headscarf and what he perceives as Islam’s restrictions on women — and she hits back with observations about the violence against women in American society and other sexist norms. Despite these differences, a bond develops between them until, not unpredictably, Yasmeen’s family sets up an arranged marriage for her that would surely torpedo her dreams. An observant Muslim, loyal to her family, she’s desperately torn. How this conflict plays out — not straightforwardly but with several challenging complications — is the relatable dynamic that drives the drama to an ironic, compelling catharsis.
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One of the play’s commendable features is that it provides a platform for dialogue about the Quran and Islamic beliefs and traditions. There are a few moments where this registers as too teacherly (reasonably educated audience members will be apprised of much of this information already), but on the whole Censabella avoids being didactic because her characters hold our attention. For example, Royston, a hardcore nonbeliever, is a refugee from the Bible Belt; he’s chilly and sardonic when we meet him, but his personality becomes more involving as his checkered backstory is revealed.
The play’s main focus remains the difficulties of young women (regardless of their backgrounds) whose career aspirations are thwarted by cultural expectations, who are expected to sacrifice themselves for the good of their families. Into this vital issue Censabella successfully weaves additional dramatic conflicts — tensions spurred by ego and ambition.
Marlow inhabits his role completely, and his work is all the more impressive because Rahimi (whose program bio indicates limited stage experience) is so disturbingly limited. Instead of aspiring to the complex, exceptional young woman the playwright has conjured, she reduces Yasmeen to a gushing wide-eyed teenager, whose ability to process scientific discourse seems questionable at best. All the complexities of Rahimi’s character disappear behind this shallow façade. Sadly, the production suffers.
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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
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