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Michael Harrington's Other America: 50 Years Later

Peter Dreier

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Michael Harrington

Fifty years ago this month Michael Harrington wrote a book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States – a haunting tour of deprivation in an affluent society – that inspired Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to wage a war on poverty. This slim, 186-page volume became a best-seller and became required reading for social scientists, elected officials, college students, members of study groups sponsored by churches and synagogues, reporters and intellectuals, the new wave of community organizers and the student activists who traveled to the South to join the civil rights crusade. Harrington was soon in great demand as a speaker on college campuses, union halls and religious congregations. Reporters and television talk-show hosts wanted to interview him.

Harrington wrote that the poor were invisible to most Americans because they lived in rural isolation or in urban slums. Once they become aware of the situation, Americans should be ashamed to live in a rich society with so many poor people.

“The fate of the poor,” he concluded, “hangs upon the decision of the better-off. If this anger and shame are not forthcoming, someone can write a book about the other America a generation from now and it will be the same or worse.”

It is now a generation later and, thanks in part to Harrington, the poor are no longer invisible. The policies adopted as part of Johnson’ war-on-poverty (including Medicaid; subsidized housing; Head Start; legal services; raising the minimum wage; and, later, food stamps) — in combination with a strong economy — significantly reduced poverty. The nation’s poverty rate was cut in half — from 22.4 percent in 1959 to 11.1 percent in 1973. The decline in poverty was particularly dramatic among the elderly, thanks to Medicare and cost-of-living increases for Social Security.

The nation’s poverty rate has never returned to the level Harrington described in The Other America. But Harrington lamented that the level of spending for antipoverty programs (less than 1 percent of the federal budget) was never sufficient to make a larger dent in the problem. Since the 1970s, the poverty rate has fluctuated, but has persistently been two or three times higher than in most European societies, which have much more generous social welfare policies and stronger labor unions. Even Canada — which has a similar economy and distribution of wealth to the United States — has a much lower poverty rate and does not permit the level of sheer destitution and misery found in the United States, including hunger, slums and the growing army of homeless people sleeping on park benches and in vacant buildings.

In 2010, 46 million Americans — over 15 percent of the population — lived in poverty. Almost as many poor people live in the suburbs as in cities — a phenomenon that was unthinkable 50 years ago. About one-quarter (22 percent) of America’s children now live in poverty. The poverty rate is much higher for blacks (27.4 percent) and Latinos (26.6 percent) than for whites (9.9 percent).

Even more startling is the fact that 100 million people comprise what the U.S. Census calls the poor and the “near poor,” based on a new definition of poverty that measures living standards, not just income. Almost one-third of the nation, in other words, can barely make ends meet.

In the early 1960s, many Americans were ready to enlist in a war on poverty because the standard of living was improving for most families, inequality was shrinking and people felt hopeful about the country and its future. A growing number of American families were able afford to move to the suburbs, buy homes, install air conditioners, purchase a new contraption called a television, pay for a new car every few years, take a yearly vacation (and stay at a new phenomenon called a “motel”) and even fly on an airplane. They could send their children to college and save money for a comfortable retirement.

But those optimistic and generous attitudes began to change in the 1970s, as conservative politicians and pundits began their assault on government regulations, taxes and social programs. That steady drumbeat of anti-government blame-the-victim invective has contributed to public skepticism that anti-poverty policies can work. The most famous one-liner in this arsenal is President Reagan’s statement, in his 1988 State of the Union address, “My friends, some years ago, the Federal Government declared war on poverty and poverty won.” That cynical remark was intended not only to disparage government efforts to uplift the poor, but also to justify major cuts in social programs, which contributed to a significant increase in poverty during the 1980s — a trend repeated in the first decade of the 21st century, even before the current recession, while George W. Bush occupied the White House.

Today, concern about the poor is a harder sell not only because of the ideological attack on government as an instrument of economic reform, but also because ordinary Americans have experienced over a decade of declining wages, rising joblessness and an epidemic of foreclosures. It is difficult to elicit generosity of spirit among economically squeezed middle-class families.

But it is possible, that the country is now going through another political wave in which the fate of the poor is linked to the concerns of the broad middle class. The growing concentration of wealth and income has shifted attitudes and may have set the stage for a movement of middle class and poor Americans to find common ground.

Indeed, even many Americans who don’t agree with Occupy Wall Street’s tactics or rhetoric nevertheless share its indignation at outrageous corporate profits, widening inequality and excessive executive compensation side by side with the epidemic of lay-offs and foreclosures.

In a November 2011 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, 60 percent agreed that “our society would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal.” A survey conducted by psychologists at Duke and Harvard found that 92 percent of Americans preferred the wealth distribution of Sweden over that of the United States. In Sweden, the wealthiest fifth of the population have 36 percent of all wealth, compared to the United States, where the wealthiest fifth has 84 percent.

A Pew Research Center survey released in December 2011 found that most Americans (77 percent) — including a majority (53 percent) of Republicans – agree that “there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and corporations.” Not surprisingly, 83 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds share that view. Pew also discovered that 61 percent of Americans believe that “the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.” A significant majority (57 percent) think that wealthy people don’t pay their fair share of taxes.

In a December 2011 speech in Osawatomie, Kan., President Barack Obama sought to channel the growing populist outrage unleashed by the Occupy movement. He criticized the “breathtaking greed” that has led to widening income divide. “This isn’t about class warfare,” he said. “This is about the nation’s welfare.” Obama noted that the average income of the top 1 percent has increased by more than 250 percent, to $1.2 million a year. He returned to those themes in his January 24 State of the Union address. He called on Congress to raise taxes on millionaires. “Now, you can call this class warfare all you want,” he said, adding, “Most Americans would call that common sense.”

Thanks to the Occupy movement, the rhetoric of describing the nation’s widening economic divide as a gap between the “rich and the poor” has been replaced by outrage at the gap between “the rich and the rest of us” or, more precisely, the richest 1 percent and the “99 percent.” Whether the plight of the poor gets included or forgotten in that calculation will depend on what legislative remedies activists and policymakers push for in the coming years.

***

The commercial success of The Other America was a result of Harrington’s graceful writing as well as good timing. The book struck a nerve because America was ready to hear its message.

The Other America challenged the conventional wisdom that the nation had become an overwhelmingly middle-class society as a result of postwar prosperity. Harrington reported that almost one-third of all Americans — between 40 million and 50 million people — lived “below those standards which we have been taught to regard as the decent minimums for food, housing, clothing and health.”

Harrington’s writing style — informal, accessible and morally outraged, but not self-righteous — appealed to readers. Rather than relying primarily on statistics to make his argument, he told stories, humanizing the poor as real people trapped in difficult conditions not of their own making. He described people living in slum housing, people who got sick and lived with chronic pain because they could not afford to see a doctor, who did not have enough food for themselves or their children and lived with constant hunger.

“Until these facts shame us, until they stir us to action,” Harrington wrote, “the other America will continue to exist, a monstrous example of needless suffering in the most advanced society in the world.”

Harrington wanted the book to tug at people’s consciences, to outrage them and to push them to action. He wrote that poverty was caused and perpetuated by institutions and public policies, not by individuals’ personal pathologies. Although Harrington was a committed socialist, he did not argue that it was caused by capitalism or that the solution was socialism. The solution, he wrote, was full employment, more funding for housing and health care and better schools and job training. This, he believed, would create job opportunities for the poor, who were disproportionately African Americans, and rebuild the nation’s troubled cities without being as politically divisive as a federal program identified primarily as serving poor blacks.

As he campaigned for president in 1960, John F. Kennedy was shocked at the suffering he saw in West Virginia, where the poor were mostly rural whites. The southern sit-in movement, which began in February 1960 in Greensboro, N.C., put a spotlight on the intertwined realities of racism and poverty. As president, JFK was concerned that the exposure of widespread poverty and racism would embarrass the United States in the Cold War race with the Soviet Union for the hearts and minds of the world’s people.

JFK’s economic adviser Walter Heller gave a copy of The Other America to the young president. (Kennedy may have read the book or a 50-page review of the book by Dwight Macdonald, called “Our Invisible Poor,” in the Jan. 19, 1963, issue of The New Yorker — historians tell both versions.) As Maurice Isserman recounts in his biography of Harrington, The Other American, three days before he was assassinated, Kennedy told aides that he wanted to do something about poverty.

On taking office after Kennedy’s death, LBJ wanted to build on JFK’s unfinished agenda. He told Heller that abolishing poverty was the kind of big, bold program he could get behind. He appointed Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver (Kennedy’s brother-in-law) to head the new Office of Economic Opportunity. Shriver invited Harrington to join its war on poverty planning committee.

In 1964, Harrington, his friend Paul Jacobs (a labor activist and writer) and Labor Department official Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who later became a U.S. senator from New York, wrote a background paper for the committee. The memo urged, “If there is any single dominant problem of poverty in the U.S., it is that of unemployment.” The remedy, it said, was a massive public works initiative similar to the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps programs.

It was on this point that Harrington parted company from Johnson’s aides. Jobs programs were expensive; the WPA had cost $5 billion in 1936. Johnson insisted that the “unconditional war on poverty” had to cost less than a billion dollars a year. His strategy was to help the poor improve themselves — a “hand up, not a handout.” War on poverty legislation, passed in August 1964, included funds for preschool education, social services through community action agencies and legal services, but no major jobs programs and no major direct cash grants to the poor.

Harrington complained to Shriver that America could not abolish poverty by spending “nickels and dimes.” Shriver responded, “Oh really, Mr. Harrington. I don’t know about you, but this is the first time I’ve spent a billion dollars.”

***

Nobody was more surprised than Harrington about his sudden and growing fame and influence. In his early 20’s, he spent several years living in voluntary poverty in New York City as a member of the Catholic Worker movement, sharing living space with homeless men and winos in the Bowery district and writing for the movement’s newspaper. After several years, Harrington left the Catholic Worker. Instead of ministering to the poor, he wanted to abolish the system that produced so much misery.

Working for the Young People’s Socialist League, a group with no more than a few hundred members, Harrington traveled by bus and thumb across the country, speaking to small groups of students on college campuses about the emerging civil rights movement and the crusade against nuclear weapons, while talent-scouting for budding activists. Student activist Tom Hayden called him “easily the most charismatic of the political intellectuals” he’d met in the 1960s. In New York, he spent many evenings at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, hanging out with poets, writers, bohemians, folksingers and radicals. He began writing for small-circulation magazines about war and politics, as well as about movies and novels.

Harrington would have been content in this role of being America’s “oldest young socialist,” as he often called himself. But after he’d written a few articles about poverty, an editor at Macmillan suggested that he expand his ideas and reporting into a book. Harrington initially resisted the idea, but he was broke and the offer of a $500 advance helped change his mind. The book changed Harrington’s life and changed the country. It took him from the White Horse to the White House.

Though Harrington’s stint as an adviser to the Johnson administration lasted only one month, it gave him a platform as America’s leading poverty expert. Not since Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) about the appalling conditions in New York’s Lower East Side — which inspired progressive era activism to clean up slums and sweatshops — had a book drawn so much attention to the plight of the poor.

For the quarter-century after The Other America appeared, Harrington mesmerized audiences, especially on college campuses and in union halls, with his eloquent, funny and morally uplifting lectures. When he talked about democratic socialism, he made it sound like common sense — rational, practical and moral at the same time. He was also a talent scout, recruiting young activists and plugging them into different movement activities.

Harrington did not believe that the achievement of socialism was inevitable or around the corner. In fact, he told audiences, “you must recognize that the social vision to which you are committing yourself will never be fulfilled in your lifetime.” In the meantime, he said, socialists, radicals, progressives and liberals had to fight today for what he called the “left wing of the possible.”

Harrington admired the strengths of European social and economic programs, but he knew that Americans had to find their own way. Thus, on the lecture circuit in the 1980s, when France’s socialist government was tripping over its own errors, Harrington was fond of telling audiences that “any idiot can nationalize a bank.” Socialism had to be democratic, human scale and with as little bureaucracy as possible.

None of Harrington subsequent 11 books were as successful as The Other America. No matter how many books he wrote, he was always introduced as “the author of The Other America” or as “the man who discovered poverty” or as “America’s leading socialist,” or all three.

Unlike Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas — his predecessors as the nation’s leading socialists — Harrington never thought it was possible to create a radical third party that could succeed in electing candidates and gaining power. The task of socialists was to keep the flame of socialism alive while building coalitions among labor, civil rights, religious and intellectual liberals and others to form a left flank within the Democratic Party.

With his friends Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, he flew to Alabama to join Dr. King’s march from Montgomery to Selma in 1965. He worked closely with the leaders of the United Auto Workers, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Service Employees International Union and Machinists unions. He wrote speeches for Ted Kennedy and Martin Luther King, drafted a Poor People’s Manifesto for King in 1968 and influenced King’s growing radicalism.

Harrington pulled together the socialists and radicals within the labor, feminist, peace and environmental movements, to challenge mainstream Democrats to offer bolder solutions to underlying economic and social problems. In the early 1960s, that meant working with his union friends to mobilize support for King, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Later in the decade, it meant opposing U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but encouraging (without success) young radicals to wrap their opposition in an American flag and avoid a naïve and self-defeating hero worship of third world revolutionaries.

In 1968, Harrington campaigned for the antiwar candidates — particularly Robert Kennedy — against LBJ and Hubert Humphrey, and helped found the New Democratic Coalition to unite the antiwar and anti-poverty forces within the Democratic Party. In the 1970s, he pushed his labor allies to support environmental and feminist policies, like the Clean Air Act and the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1980, he organized progressives to support Ted Kennedy’s challenge to President Jimmy Carter.

In 1973, Queens College (part of the City University of New York system) hired Harrington as a professor of political science, a position he needed to obtain a secure income and health insurance for his family. It was the first and only “real” job he ever had.

***

Since Harrington’s death — in 1989 of esophageal cancer, at age 61 — there has been no significant socialist movement in this country. Harrington, who followed in the footsteps of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, did not groom a successor. Today, only a handful of visible public figures — including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, theologian Cornel West, sociologist Frances Fox Piven and writer Barbara Ehrenreich — publicly identify themselves as socialists. (Indeed, Ehrenreich’s 2001 exposé about the working poor, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, is the closest book in spirit, style and influence to The Other America.) Democratic Socialists of America the nation’s largest socialist organization, which Harrington founded in 1973, has only 6,500 dues-paying members.

Ironically, after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the word “socialism” started making a comeback. But it wasn’t because the socialists were gaining momentum. It was because Obama’s opponents — the Tea Party; the right-wing blogosphere; the Chamber of Commerce; conservative media gurus like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh; and the current crop of Republican presidential candidates — have labeled anything Obama proposed, including his modest health care reform proposal, as “socialism.”

But perhaps the conservative echo chamber’s attacks on Obama as a “socialist” have backfired — at least among young Americans. The Pew Research Center survey released in December 2011 uncovered this startling finding: More 18- to 29-year-old Americans have positive views of socialism than of capitalism. Among that millennial generation, 49 percent had a positive view of socialism, while 47 percent had a positive view of capitalism in a survey conducted in early December last year. Similarly, only 43 percent had a negative view of socialism, compared with 47 percent who had a negative view of capitalism. Moreover, support for socialism actually increased in the past two years. In 2010, 43 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds registered positive feeling for socialism. (This put it in a dead heat with capitalism.)

Today, Harrington is almost a forgotten figure. Contemporary historians and sociologists still cite Harrington in their studies of poverty, but few Americans under 50, including most activists with unions, community organizers and civil rights groups, have heard of him.

But his legacy endures. The past decade has witnessed successful campaigns for “living wage” laws in more than 150 cities and widespread opposition to Walmart’s employment practices. Polls reveal that most Americans think that people who work full time shouldn’t live in poverty. Today, Harrington would have been heartened by the upsurge of protest that began at Zuccotti Park, quickly spread throughout the country and changed the nation’s conversation.

Were Harrington still alive, he would inject himself into the public debate, clarifying what socialism is and isn’t and explaining that Obama is far from a socialist. Then, he’d urge liberals, progressives and real socialists to push the Democrats to be bolder, give Obama more room for maneuver and fight hard for the “left wing of the possible.”

(Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.)

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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.

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Elizabeth Holmes photo courtesy HBO.

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.

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Matthew Hancock and Clarissa Thibeaux. (Photo: Ed Krieger)
Hype Man
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.

Matthew Hancock and Chad Addison. (Photo: Ed Krieger)

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.


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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.

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Jeffrey Wright as Louis. (Photo: HBO)
O.G.
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.


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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.

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Samantha Valdellon, Angela T. Baesa, Sandy Velasco, Arianne Villareal and Toni Katano. (Photo: Ed Krieger)

America Adjacent
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.

Arianne Villareal, Toni Katano, Evie Abat and Sandy Velascoin. (Photo: Ed Krieger)

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.

*   *   *

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.)

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André Holland photo by Peter Andrews

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.”

David Sirota

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Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice.

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.


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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.

Deborah Klugman

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Medalion Rahimi and Jeff Marlow. (Photos by Ed Krieger)

 

Paradise

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.

*   *   *

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.

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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.

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Mary Mara, left, and Portia. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

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.

Deborah Klugman

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Kelly McCreary and Caroline Stefanie Clay. (Photo: Chris Whitaker)

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.

DB Woodside and Amari Cheatom. (Photo: Chris Whitaker)

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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