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.)
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.
Copyright Capital & Main
‘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.
Concert for Martin Luther King Jr.
The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles’ Wednesday concert reflects on M.L. King Jr.’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Today, April 4, marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by an assassin’s attack in Memphis. The social justice leader had traveled there to support a strike by sanitation workers, who toiled long hours in sweltering heat for abysmal pay — a workforce that was virtually 100 percent black and whose work status would later be described as “the lowest of the low” by a former Memphis city council member.
“Fifty years ago, Dr. King was organizing with sanitation workers demanding a decent living wage, safe working conditions and recognition of their humanity and dignity,” William D. Smart, a former organizer of Los Angeles port truck drivers and the current CEO and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Southern California, told Capital & Main.
“Today, we are organizing with L.A. Port warehouse workers and truck drivers with the same demands.”
Smart is part of an April 4 celebration at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion hosted by the SCLC and the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the largest African-American-majority orchestra in the nation. The Wednesday concert event reflects on King’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
It connects solidly with present-day events in the multi-choral work by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.
The piece is performed in seven movements to mark the final words of seven unarmed African-American men killed by police or vigilantism.
“As we commemorate Dr. King’s sacrifice,” Smart said, “it’s not beyond us [to know] that while some progress has been made, [it’s] not nearly enough, so the struggle for economic and racial justice continues.”
Event tickets are free but may be scarce now that supporting organizations have been distributing them for the past several days. Doors open 5 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles, with a silent tribute at 6:01 p.m. The program starts at 7 p.m. Contact ICYOLA for tickets at 213-788-4260 or www.icyola.org
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