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New Play Brings Trump Campaign Rhetoric to Life

A new political drama from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan imagines a not-too-distant future where Trump’s anti-immigration policies have upended the lives of millions.

Bill Raden

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Playwright Robert Schenkkan

It was in the midst of the presidential debates of 2016, and Robert Schenkkan was alarmed. Though both the pundits and the polls seemed to assure that Hillary Clinton would soon become the 45th president of the United States, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist felt that the rabidly racist, anti-immigrant cant that spewed from the mouth of the Republican nominee had already brought familiar if discredited ideologies, supposedly long ago settled by war and safely consigned to the past, harrowingly close to the highest office in the land.

So Schenkkan, perhaps best known for The Kentucky Cycle, his epic nine-play saga of three Appalachian families’ violent and avaricious quest for the American Dream, sat down to write. One week later, he had the first draft of Building the Wall. The playwright believed that his taut political suspense drama, which fast-forwards Trump’s immigration policy of mass arrests and deportations to the incarceration of several million detainees, would be merely a dark cautionary tale of dystopian fiction, a national bullet narrowly averted. With November’s electoral upset, however, Schenkkan’s speculative chiller had suddenly taken a leap towards becoming real.

Building the Wall, which is set in the meeting room of a maximum-security federal prison in the Fall of 2019, tells the story of an encounter between two characters: Rick, a middle-aged, white manager of a private immigration prison who’s been convicted of an unspecified atrocity and is awaiting sentencing; and Gloria, an African-American history professor, who’s trying to understand what exactly happened to Rick and why.

With its opening on March 18 at Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre, the first of a five-production, five-city rollout by the National New Play Network, Building the Wall will mark the American theater’s first literary response to Trump’s polarizing and divisive presidency. Capital & Main spoke by phone to the New York playwright about his hopes for the play and its place in the growing cultural resistance to the Trump agenda.

Capital & Main: What was the germ of Building the Wall?

Robert Schenkkan: I was focused on Trump’s comments, his commentary about border security, immigration, and the implicit and sometimes explicit or racist demagoguery implying in all the above. I had read, months earlier, quite by accident, a rather extraordinary book called, Into That Darkness about several interviews with an individual who was high up in the Nazi death camp mechanism. And I was very struck by the story that was relayed there, and so I sat down, and what I did was take Trump’s rhetoric and extend it in quite a logical, and rational way, with an eye towards how might this not work out so well.

C&M: You wrote Building the Wall in a single week in October, which seems both extraordinarily quick as well as remarkably prescient. Did you at that moment expect Trump to be president?

Schenkkan: You know, I was nervous about it, but I thought that even if the election turned out in the way in which I had hoped and in which so many of the so-called experts had predicted, I thought the damage that he had done to the political environment —the operating rules under which we have functioned as a representative democracy for almost 200 years — was so extraordinary that it needed to be spoken to. We’ve been down this road before in this country, and certainly internationally, we’ve seen this before. The authoritarian playbook is pretty well established. And I think this play would be relevant even had he not won. Now that he has, it becomes more relevant and critical every day.

Read an Excerpt from Building the Wall

C&M: How much time do you usually spend on a play text?

Schenkkan: Well, typically, my plays require a fair amount of research and then there’s a great deal of sort of introspection and just sort of mulling it over. And then I sit down and it takes anywhere from three months to four or five months to knock out a first draft. In this instance there was almost no research, really.

C&M: What happened after November 8? Did you have to do a rewrite?

Schenkkan: I absolutely continued to revise the script. Structurally it’s virtually the same, but I continued to refine within those parameters. I’m very fortunate that the very first production out of the box with the rolling world premieres is the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles. We’ve got a fantastic cast and a wonderful director; it’s a great theater to be working in, lots of smart people. So I’m doing what I would always do in a situation like that, which is just respond to what we’re discovering in rehearsal, what the actors are bringing in, what the director’s observing.

C&M: What do you hope that audiences will take away from the piece that they might not have considered before seeing the play?

Schenkkan: The next 18 months are critical in the history of our republic. I think we are really at a crisis point and everybody — and I mean every body — has a part to play in this. You may feel helpless or isolated, impotent, without power, that’s not in fact the case. And everybody will be making critical decisions to act or not act, to speak or not speak. What I hope the play provokes is the recognition that we need to be very conscious about the decisions we make, and we need to make these decisions from a moral perspective. These may feel like very small choices that you make. They’re not. Cumulatively, they’re huge.

If the theater is going to remain relevant, if we are going to actually have this critical national conversation that we must be having, if we’re going to be a part of history and not just curate history, then theater needs to become much more flexible, much more rapid in its response. This play and the production of this play, the way it’s rolling out, is creating a new paradigm that other artists, theater artists certainly, but all other artists can potentially emulate.

Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in “Building the Wall” at the Fountain Theatre. Photo by Ed Krieger.

Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in “Building the Wall” at the Fountain Theatre. Photo by Ed Krieger.

C&M: So in a sense, Building the Wall is a rallying call to fellow playwrights?

Schenkkan: Yes, absolutely, it’s a rallying call to citizens, regardless of who they are and what they do, but certainly it’s also a rallying call to my colleagues and the art form that I love and have been a part of for 40 years. This is not a time to be silent. This is a time, especially, when storytellers, when playwrights, screenwriters, television writers, writers of all kinds need to speak up, because what we’re fighting over is the narrative, we’re fighting over the story of who we are as a people.

C&M: Much of Trump’s electoral victory has been attributed to his narratives of race, fear and economic despair that masked another narrative of extreme neoliberalism that, arguably, will be a disaster. Do you think that artists can address those kinds of underlying narratives in a way that journalists were unable to?

Schenkkan: I think we have to. Trump is a shrewd politician, who is for certain, with very conservable skills in terms of his ability to message. The populist tide that he correctly observed and astutely managed is driven by real economic and sociological issues that the experts from both parties have been ignoring for 20 or 30 years. It’s finally caught up with us and it has bit us in the ass in a very big way. What I’m saying is that those who supported our current president did so not because they were horrible racists, although some of them share feelings that you would describe as racist, but largely out of what they perceived to be their own economic interests and their own considerable frustration. I think that’s on us; certainly it’s on Democrats who have prided themselves on being the voice of the workingman. We took our eye off the ball, and we’re going to pay a terrible price for that.

C&M: Will Building the Wall be your last word on Trump?

Schenkkan: Oh no. And I have another new play that I was just working at on at Denver at the Summit Theater Festival called Hanussen, which deals with the Erik Jan Hanussen, who was the leading headliner on the Berlin stage in the last days of the Weimar Republic. It’s a wonderfully, theatrical, entertaining and very cautionary tale about the dangers of avoidance and denial … that’s expressing itself certainly in our presidential politics, but also in our politics regarding the most important issue facing the world, which is, of course, global warming.

C&M: Currently there are five theaters in the National New Play Network rollout of Building the Wall. Will more be added to that list?

Schenkkan: We put up a website just after the New York Times article dropped, and we’ve had over 200 requests for the play from the widest possible range of theaters — small theaters, big theaters, community theaters, political action groups — across the United States, but also internationally, from Canada, Mexico City, Belgium, Germany, Austria, France. So we have begun licensing all of those requests. I’ve put no [production] holds on the play, which again is unheard of. In other words if you want to produce this play, I’m going to say, “Fine, go produce it.”

 

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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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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.

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"In Solidarity With Standing Rock" by Josh Yoder, 2016. All images courtesy the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

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.”

Carol Well, executive director of CSPG

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?

From the Asociación de Mujeres Nicaragüenses Luisa Amanda Espinoza
Nicaragua, 1981

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.

“Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?”
by Yolanda M. Lopez, 1981

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.

 

“Push Back” by Art Hazelwood, 2015. The poster is part of the CSPG exhibit “To Protect & Serve? Five Decades of Posters Protesting Police Violence.”

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.

Deborah Klugman

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Zachary Grant and Tracie Lockwood. (Photo: Ed Krieger)

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.

Satiar Pourvasei, Zachary Grant, Tracie Lockwood and Vaneh Assadourian. (Photo: Ed Krieger)

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.

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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.

Debrianna Mansini

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.

Deborah Klugman

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Tony Dúran in ICE. (Photo: Cooper Bates)

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.

Jesús Castaños-Chima and Tony Dúran. (Photo: Cooper Bates)

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.

Deborah Klugman

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Photo: Lawrence K. Ho

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.

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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
northvietnamese
southafrican
puertorrican,
colombian,
black,
argentinian,
my mother,
my sister,
you, I.

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:

SO LONG AS WOMEN
ARE NOT FREE THE
PEOPLE ARE
NOT FREE

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.

Photo: Clifford Pun/HMCT

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.”

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LOS ANGELES — Capital & Main announced today that award-winning reporter David Sirota will lead a new national investigative desk for the California-based publication. His coverage will focus on the country’s historically high level of economic inequality, and the role of Wall Street, the private sector and government policy in perpetuating income disparity.

“I am thrilled to join one of the most promising young investigative publications in the country,” said Sirota. “There has never been a greater need for aggressive nonpartisan reporting that scrutinizes how corporations, lawmakers and the super-rich wield political and economic power. Capital & Main has established a reputation as an intrepid source of hard-hitting investigative reporting. I am excited to expand their capacity to shine a spotlight on how and why America now has the highest level of economic inequality in the country’s modern history.”

Sirota will join Capital & Main as a full-time reporter this summer, and prior to that will consult with the publication on editorial content and partnerships. The new position was made possible in part by a grant from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation in Oakland, CA.

Capital & Main is a non-profit publication founded in 2013 and its reporting has been co-published by (among others) The Atlantic, Time, The Guardian, Reuters, The Daily Beast, Slate, Grist, Fast Company, The Huffington Post and Newsweek. Capital & Main’s reporting has won recognition from the Society of American Business Editors & Writers, the Southern California Journalism Awards and the Best of the West contest. Its reporters have been featured on (among others) PRI’s The World, WNYC’s The Takeaway, as well as on programs on KQED and KCRW.

Sirota has reported extensively on the relationship between money and politics, and has gained a reputation as a journalist willing to scrutinize public officials of both parties. During his career, he has become one of American journalism’s most authoritative experts on complex financial systems including taxes, hedge funds, private equity and public pensions. He is a two-time winner of the Best in Business award from SABEW – most recently for his coverage of the 2017 Republican tax bill and its controversial “Corker kickback” provision. Before that, he won recognition from the Columbia Journalism Review for his reporting on how conflicts of interest shaped how Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy’s administration oversaw a proposed health-care merger. Sirota has also won Ithaca College’s Izzy Award and has been a finalist for UCLA’s Gerald R. Loeb Award and Syracuse University’s Mirror Award.

The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.” In one of its awards, SABEW said Sirota has produced “original, tenacious reporting that displayed a mastery of scouring documents, analyzing data and holding public officials accountable.” The legendary late columnist Molly Ivins said, “Sirota is a new-generation populist who instinctively understands that the only real questions are ‘Who’s getting screwed?’ and ‘Who’s doing the screwing?’”

“David Sirota is one of the finest investigative reporters in the country, and he promises to take Capital & Main’s reporting on inequality and related issues to a whole different level,” said Capital & Main board member Rick Wartzman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Los Angeles Times business editor and the author of four books, including The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. “David’s fearless approach to holding the powerful to account is precisely what we need at this moment in time.”

From 2014 to 2018 Sirota led International Business Times’ investigative reporting team, where he broke major stories on how President Trump’s top adviser evades ethics laws as he shapes policies that could enrich his firm; CFPB chief Mick Mulvaney’s ties to the financial industry — and how he pressured regulators to back off predatory lending rules at the same time he was raking in cash from payday lenders; how Equifax lobbied against consumer protection rules just before its huge data breach; and how chemical companies that spewed toxins after Hurricane Harvey had worked to reduce safety regulations in the lead-up to the disaster.

In 2014, Sirota’s investigative series for PandoDaily about public broadcasting compelled a PBS flagship station to return a $3.5 million contribution from a hedge fund billionaire. That same year, Sirota’s investigative reporting about pensions for PandoDaily and then for International Business Times led the New Jersey state government to open a formal pay-to-play investigation and to divest state holdings in a venture capital firm. Sirota’s reporting for International Business Times also led San Francisco officials to delay a proposed $3 billion investment in hedge funds.

“We have been longtime admirers of David’s work, and couldn’t imagine a better fit for our reporting on inequality,” said Capital & Main publisher Danny Feingold. “David will give us the capacity to break important national stories on one of the country’s great existential threats.”

Sirota is also the author of two New York Times best-selling books, Hostile Takeover and The Uprising, as well as Back to Our Future, which became the basis for the National Geographic Channel’s miniseries “The ’80s: The Decade that Made Us.” He appears frequently on MSNBC and CNN, and is the host of a podcast on economic, political and social issues.

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