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The Anarchy Project: David Graeber’s Occupy Wall Street

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This article originally appeared in The Nation

In The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (Spiegel & Grau, 2013), David Graeber’s engaging new book on Occupy Wall Street, the author writes of the dismal culture in Washington during the summer of 2011, a few months before the occupation of Zucotti Park:

Republicans were threatening to cause the US government to default in order to force massive cuts in social services intended to head off a largely imaginary debt crisis…President Obama, in turn, had decided the way to appear reasonable in comparison and thus seem as his advisors liked to put it ‘the only adult in the room’ was not to point out that the entire debate was founded on false economic premises, but to prepare a milder, ‘compromise’ version of the exact same program—as if the best way to expose a lunatic is to pretend that 50 percent of his delusions are actually true…. This is how a ragtag group of anarchists, hippies, unemployed college students, pagan tree sitters, and peace activists suddenly managed to establish themselves, by default, as America’s adults in the first place.

Although OWS publicly had “no leaders,” it was obvious in those heady days that a few individuals held enormous sway on the anarchist presence in the movement. One name that invariably came up was David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the University of London (and formerly at Yale). He is one of several people who are credited with originating the phrase “We Are the 99%,” and he describes himself as an “anarchist with a small ‘a.’ ”

Graeber has a long affiliation with the Global Justice Movement and fondly recalls time he spent in Exarchia, a neighborhood in Athens “full of squatted social centers, occupied parks, and anarchist cafés where we’d spent a long night downing glasses of ouzo at street corner cafés while arguing about the radical implications of Plato’s theory of agape, or universal love.” But he has no trouble articulating the rationale for much of OWS: “Our government has become little more than a system of institutionalized bribery where you can be hauled off to jail just for saying so.”

Notwithstanding Graeber’s eloquence and moral clarity in describing the “mafia capitalism” of bankers and other oligarchs and the political system that further empowers them, he spends a lot of the book differentiating his brand of anarchism from other political tendencies on the left who share many of the same enemies. He rejects old-school communist and socialist radical groups, which he refers to as “verticals” to contrast their authoritarian hierarchies with the “horizontal” culture of anarchism. Above all, he wants to distinguish Occupy Wall Street from liberals. Graeber writes snarkily, “Liberals tend to be touchy and unpredictable because they claim to share the ideals of radical movements—democracy, egalitarianism, freedom—but they’ve also managed to convince themselves that these ideals are ultimately unattainable. For that reason, they see anyone determined to bring about a world based on those principles as a kind of moral threat.”

It is not at all clear whom Graeber is stigmatizing, since he uses the word “liberal” (or interchangeably, to Graeber, “progressive”) to describe both the Obama administration and some of its critics on the left. Over the course of The Democracy Project he singles out leaders of the groups Moveon.org and Rebuild The Dream and readers of DailyKos, but it seems as if he views any person or group not committed to anarchist “horizontal” process as inherently suspect, or to use the ultimate anarchist insult, “reformist.”

Graeber writes “For ‘small a’ anarchists such as myself—that is, the sort willing to work in broad coalitions as long as they work on horizontal principals—this is what we’d always dreamed of.” Of course, to limit coalitions to partners who work on “horizontal principals” guarantees that they will not be very “broad” at all.

Graeber doesn’t reflect on the fact that much of the emotional energy inherent in the liberal/anarchist divide boils down to tribalism and the narcissism of small differences. For various cultural and generational reasons, many people in these groups just don’t like one another very much, but they have more in common than many in either camp would like to admit. And they both have much they could teach each other, if they would listen.

For example, progressives are often smug and insular in a way that excludes exactly the kinds of activists who injected so much energy and fresh thinking into Occupy Wall Street encampments all over the world. At least briefly, OWS had a culture of inclusiveness that empowered thousands of people who had no previous way to plug into established progressive organizations, other than passively making financial donations or signing internet petitions. On the other hand, the massive publicity about OWS exacerbated a kind of anarchist exceptionalism. Graeber grandly proclaims that OWS represented the “first time since the civil rights movement in the 1950s, a success for Gandhian tactics in America.” This would certainly come as a surprise to anti-war activists like the Berrigans and anti-nuclear power activists like Sam Lovejoy, as well as many others. And of course, there is no “accomplishment” to date that OWS can point to that is remotely equivalent to those of the civil rights movement.

Graeber writes as if he believes that anarchists—and anarchists alone—had unlocked the door to democratic transformation and that all progressive efforts were permanently obsolete. But that is a delusion. Anarchists, like liberals, do some things that work and some that don’t; they both win some and lose some.

Many liberals were equally unfair in their assessment of OWS. There were hand-wringing pieces about the risk of radicals sabotaging President Obama’s re-election and comparing the protests to a cartoon version of the anti-war movement of the ’60s. In fact, despite a profound disappointment with many of the Obama administration’s policies, there was no disruption of the Democratic convention, nor any incidents that gave fodder to the right wing. Meanwhile the “1 Percent” meme clearly damaged Mitt Romney.

There was also overblown progressive anxiety about a supposed tendency toward violence in what was clearly a nonviolent movement. The anarchists support for a “diversity of tactics” allegedly gave those who engaged in “black block” tactics license to disrupt nonviolent demonstrations. Chris Hedges wrote a widely read essay referring to this alleged violence as a “cancer” that could destroy the occupy movement.

But Graeber persuasively points out that the actual practices of the movement should mitigate such concerns. “There are always boundaries, acknowledged or otherwise…. Just as ‘diversity of tactics’ is based on the tacit assumption that no one would ever show up at a demo with a car bomb or rocket propelled grenade, so assertions that no activist should be expelled from a meeting do assume certain parameters.” With very few anomalous exceptions, the occupations were free of violence except for the unconscionably rough treatment some cops gave to nonviolent protesters.

* * *

At the core of much of Graeber’s book is a dubious belief that process itself is more important than any particular issue. Graeber, a member of the OWS facilitation group, rhapsodizes about the general assembly, which operated by consensus with “at least two facilitators, one male, one female, one to keep the meeting running, the other to ‘take stack’…We discussed hand signals and non-binding straw polls or ‘temperature checks.’ ”

For many who were attracted by slogans like “banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” the fetishization of process seemed like bait and switch. Horizontal decision making at general assemblies and small groups could go on for hours. Far from being democratic, the time-consuming process discriminated against people with jobs, those who had to take care of children or sick people, those with health problems of their own and those unfamiliar with anarchist culture and jargon, among others. Just as is the case with liberal structures, horizontalism encourages democracy in some contexts and dampens it in others.

Then there is the “no leaders” concept, which is not without its virtues. Without designated leaders, there are no individuals who can be targeted for arrest, smear campaigns or even assassination. The lack of leaders also forestalls the creation of overnight movement celebrities who, corrupted by publicity and power, may develop agendas at odds with the people they are supposed to represent. But an absence of leaders also causes an opacity that is confusing and needlessly off-putting to those outside of the in-group. If no one has any authority, then no one has any responsibility. As Jo Freeman’s feminist essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” pointed out long ago, a lack of structure can disguise cliques or individuals who have de facto control without any accountability.

Graeber anticipates these critiques, and he describes various ways to ameliorate the flaws and excesses of consensus decision-making for larger social groups such as “lottery systems…something vaguely like jury duty except non-compulsory, with some way of screening obsessives, cranks, and hollow earthers, but nonetheless allowing an equal chance of participation in great decisions to all who actually do wish to participate.” That sounds nice, but it’s far easier said than done. Graeber declares “it’s hard to imagine” that the abuses of such a system “could actually be worse than the mode of selection we use now.” One would think that anyone who’d studied even a little history would have little trouble imagining societies much worse.

And Graeber doesn’t address the many areas of organized life in which expertise is indispensable. A series of public events in New York—including on Veterans Day 2011, Martin Luther King Day 2012 and a much-hyped May Day 2012—squandered the enormous hopes that had been raised for a new vision and made depressingly minor impact in large part because unwieldy committees bound by horizontal process made decisions that failed to inspire anyone other than those who felt therapeutic reward from the process.

Graeber is not clear about what happens when anarchists “with a small a” don’t like a decision made by a larger group of people via the consensus process. OWS at the outset announced it had “no demands.” For a few weeks this created an interesting space in which diverse voices could protest, but it also made it difficult to collaborate with sympathetic non-anarchist groups. While some in OWS were content with the horizontal process as both a means and an end, and some felt that anything other than a complete change in the political structure was counter-productive, many others felt an impetus to be a force for tangible democratization within the current system. Thus, on January 5, 2012,very soon after the eviction from Zucotti Park, the New York General Assembly, using the horizontal process, reached a consensus that “money is not speech, that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights…”

It was the closest thing to an issue specific demand that OWS produced and could have been a big deal if the movement had decided to work on a mutually respectful basis with reformist wonks advocating for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Yet Graber doesn’t even mention it. Only a small fragment of OWS participated in “money out” groups, and most anarchists chose not to focus on the issue, which was apparently deemed too reformist by the cognoscenti.

Graeber is absolutely correct in his outrage at the state’s overreaction to OWS, including evicting encampments that posed no threat to public safety and the arrests and beatings of nonviolent protesters. This repression represented a real erosion of American democracy and the policies that produced it should not be allowed to stand.

But in his most unfair anti-liberal inference, Graeber claims, “It’s also fairly clear that when the camps were cleared…the liberal establishment more generally made a strategic decision to look the other way. From the perspective of the radicals, this was the ultimate betrayal.” This is toxic and untrue accusation. It may be that many in OWS themselves made such a decision. Following the evictions, rather than focus on the right to protest, many occupiers concentrated on upcoming rallies like Martin Luther King’s birthday (J15 in OWS parlance) and May Day, with its ill-conceived call for a “general strike,” and on campaigns like debt abolition and preventing home foreclosures. Meanwhile, several non-anarchist civil liberties lawyers worked tirelessly to represent those who were arrested and who had possessions destroyed by the police. In April, Norman Siegel, the former executive director of the NYCLU, won a settlement for OWS against New York City for over $300,000 for property destruction of occupiers during the eviction.

* * *

Despite his anarchist provincialism, Graeber’s central thesis is very strong. With all respect to the Democratic party of Clinton and Obama for keeping the hounds of fascism at bay, far too often it seems like their message to America is, “This is as good as it gets, folks.” For progressives, as well as anarchists, this is simply not acceptable.

Graeber indulges in utopian rhetoric about “self-governing communities outside of any state” and “refusal to recognize the legitimacy of existing political institutions” and “complete reinvention of American democracy.” He uses the word “revolution” with no plausible explanation of what he actually means. In fact, many OWS anarchists have been involved in “reformist” efforts such as helping people hurt by hurricane Sandy and in efforts to reduce or abolish various kinds of debt. In the late ’60s, John Lennon encountered similar absolutist rhetoric from self-styled revolutionaries and memorably sung, “You say you got a real solution, well you know—we’d all love to see the plan.”

Graeber is no worse than most liberal thought leaders when it comes to insularity and hubris. He is right when he says that the liberal world in the early Obama years suffered from a “chilling” of the imagination and his very willingness to express ideas outside of the conventional progressive sphere, which he does repeatedly and engagingly in The Democracy Project will add important intellectual energy to both the anarchist and non-anarchists for years to come. Like OWS itself, Graeber is flawed and human and sometimes maddening, and like OWS he is also an important prophetic voice that the left ignores at its peril.

 

Danny Goldberg is the President of Gold Village Entertainment and author of the books “Bumping Into Geniuses” and “How The Left Lost Teen Spirit.”

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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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Concert for Martin Luther King Jr.

The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles’ Wednesday concert reflects on M.L. King Jr.’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

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Bobbi Murray

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Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

Today, April 4, marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by an assassin’s attack in Memphis. The social justice leader had traveled there to support a strike by sanitation workers, who toiled long hours in sweltering heat for abysmal pay — a workforce that was virtually 100 percent black and whose work status would later be described as “the lowest of the low” by a former Memphis city council member.

“Fifty years ago, Dr. King was organizing with sanitation workers demanding a decent living wage, safe working conditions and recognition of their humanity and dignity,” William D. Smart, a former organizer of Los Angeles port truck drivers and the current CEO and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Southern California, told Capital & Main.

“Today, we are organizing with L.A. Port warehouse workers and truck drivers with the same demands.”

Smart is part of an April 4 celebration at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion hosted by the SCLC and the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the largest African-American-majority orchestra in the nation. The Wednesday concert event reflects on King’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

It connects solidly with present-day events in the multi-choral work by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.

The piece is performed in seven movements to mark the final words of seven unarmed African-American men killed by police or vigilantism.

“As we commemorate Dr. King’s sacrifice,” Smart said, “it’s not beyond us [to know] that while some progress has been made, [it’s] not nearly enough, so the struggle for economic and racial justice continues.”

Event tickets are free but may be scarce now that supporting organizations have been distributing them for the past several days. Doors open 5 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles, with a silent tribute at 6:01 p.m. The program starts at 7 p.m. Contact ICYOLA for tickets at 213-788-4260 or www.icyola.org


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A Spiritual Mystery Play Fails to Enlighten

Yusuf Toropov’s drama, set in a contaminated, cancer-ridden community, involves a publisher and his brother — a priest struggling against the local archdiocese.

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Deborah Klugman

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Ann’Jewel Lee and Matthew Gallenstein. (All photos by Darrett Sanders)

Directed by Chris Fields, Yusuf Toropov’s An Undivided Heart, co-produced by the Echo Theater Company and the Circle X Theatre Co., is an aspiring work that aims to be deep but doesn’t get there.

The play, running at the Atwater Village Theatre, unfolds on several levels. First, it tells the story of a young Catholic priest who must decide whether or not to publicly expose the pedophiles among his fellow clerics. Second, the work deals with our human struggle to understand why bad things happen with seeming random cruelty (a conundrum whose answers are regularly dispensed by spiritual leaders of all faiths, not very satisfactorily). On yet a third level, the play seeks to express the paradoxical wonder and mystery of life, with an assist from the supernatural.

That’s a lot to cover in a little over two hours and, while the production is handsomely staged, its ambitious narrative is diminished by dangling threads, one major improbable setup near the end and too many bits of opaque dialogue.

Tim Wright, Alison Martin and Alana Dietze.

The setting is Holbrook, Massachusetts — a community whose residents have been exposed to contaminants, so cancer is rampant — in the summer of 1992. The story revolves around two brothers, both good guys: Mike (Matthew Gallenstein), a local priest who’s written a revelatory book that his superiors want him not to publish, and Max (Tim Wright), an editor, who’d like to help his brother proceed.

When Max arrives at some sort of civic facility (the background particulars of this scene are unclear), he promptly tangles with an angry pregnant clerk named Lynne (Alana Dietz). A few minutes into their altercation, she goes into premature labor, and he rushes her to the hospital — the beginning of a nurturing romance.

Mike, meanwhile, is having strange dreams involving a burning typewriter and a cryptic little girl (Ann’Jewel Lee) who appears to him brandishing a dead cat. The same young person manifests in the dreams of Janice (Tracey A. Leigh, alternating with Jennifer A. Skinner), Max’s Buddhism teacher, who is fond of posing riddles. Her favorite: If I am preparing to slice a cat in two, how would you prevent me from doing it?

The narrative shifts between Mike’s struggle with his archdiocese, personified by its Cardinal (John Getz, alternating with William Salyers) and Lynne’s problems with her dying mom Ruth (Alison Martin, alternating with Sigute Miller), a devout Catholic still in denial over her son’s abuse by a priest when he was a youth.

These two storylines are interposed with the baffling dream sequences and Max’s (and later Mike’s) sessions with the inscrutably smiling Janice and her eschatological brain teasers. One crucial scene that leads to the dramatic climax has Mike looking to entrap an abusive priest (Jeff Alan-Lee, alternating with Jesse Bush) by attending confession with him and pretending to be a pedophile himself. The interchange, in which the priest probes for salacious details, is awkwardly plotted and escalates into over-the-top melodrama.

Cricket Myers’ superlative sound design hints at the depth and scope that the playwright himself perhaps had in mind but was unable to attain. Amanda Knehans’ set is an effective arrangement of wooden beams, tables and chairs that lighting designer Rose Malone smartly shades with a reddish-orange chroma, like the hues of hell. Elsewhere, she spotlights the players well.

Wright’s warm and empathetic Max is highly likable, and he keeps you interested in the scenes he’s involved with. Getz is appropriately unctuous as the Cardinal, and Martin draws a richly textured portrait of a not terribly educated housewife, who, buffeted by adversity, still clings to her faith. Michael Sturgis steals the limelight as a singing, simpering cleric. A couple of the other lead performances need refining.

Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles; Mon., 8 p.m.; Fri.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through April 22. www.EchoTheaterCompany.com


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Recounting the Japanese-American Internments in a Musical

Stamped by their government as enemy aliens, the Kimura family is uprooted from their home and re-housed in a barracks-like setting where they are treated like criminals.

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Janelle Dote and George Takei. (All photos by Michael Lamont)

Produced by East West Players at the Japanese American Cultural Center, Allegiance features noted performer-activist George Takei, and draws inspiration from his personal experience in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.

One of the more shameful, racially-motivated episodes in U.S. history, the forced internment of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent commenced in February 1942 on the executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt, and only terminated seven months after Japan surrendered and the last of 10 relocation centers shut its gates.

The internees, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were stripped of their property and dignity, and required to fill out trick questionnaires to assess their loyalty. Failure to comply or give the politically correct response often resulted in imprisonment. Young men of draft age filled out a separate form, indicating whether they were willing to serve in the military — in a segregated unit. Some said yes, others did not. The questionnaire — how to respond and even whether or not to do so — further rent an already divided and disheartened community.

Allegiance aims to recount these injustices, and it does so in a stirring and entertaining way. Directed by Snehal Desai, with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, and book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, it’s a high-caliber musical melodrama that relays history as it impacts on the fictional Kimura family. Uprooted from their home, re-housed in a barracks-like setting where they are treated like criminals, members of the family are torn further apart when father and son bitterly fall out over whether to pledge loyalty to a government that has stamped them as enemy aliens.

At the top, Takei plays an elderly retired soldier, Sam Kimura, who receives news of the death of his sibling, from whom he’s been estranged for years. That prompts him to recall his youth as the son of a prosperous, widowed farmer (Scott Watanabe) in Salinas, California. Sammy (Ethan Le Phong) is his family’s first college graduate, and dearly beloved by his elder sister Kei (Elena Wang).

The scenario darkens as the family and their neighbors are packed off to Wyoming’s barbed-wired Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Eventually, Sammy joins the army and distinguishes himself in battle, while his future brother-in-law, Frankie (Eymard Cabling), angrily challenges the government and goes to prison. So does Sammy’s dad for his defiant answers to the questionnaire. Father and son never reconcile.

Kuo’s 26 songs are a euphonious mix of ballads, upbeat dance numbers (choreography, Rumi Oyama) with a terrific 1940s swing, and elegiac melodies. Despite the weighty theme, the show’s pace is brisk, as the music sweeps the narrative to its poignant conclusion. The vocals, solo and ensemble, are strong across the board, with Le Phong’s powerful lyric tenor soaring above others, especially in his rendering of the ethically-themed “What Makes A Man.” A live 11-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Marc Macalintal, lends superlative support throughout.

The non-musical aspects of the performances may not go deep, but like the story they’re telling, they never ring false. Special kudos to Jordan Goodsell, who so effectively portrays every nasty white bully and bigot the targeted Japanese-Americans encounter.

JACCC’s Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro Street, Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; no performance March 18; through April 1. AllegianceMusical.com.


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“Happiest Song” Stage Production Hits Sour Notes

Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes pays special homage to the folk music, food and familial culture of the Puerto Rican community, but her story winds through a mountain of prosaic exposition.

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Deborah Klugman

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Peter Pasco and Vaneh Assadourian. (Photo: Gio Solis)

The Happiest Song Plays Last ends happily for its pivotal characters —and also, perhaps, for discerning theatergoers, who can’t wait to flee this lemon of a production.

Produced by the Latino Theatre Company and directed by Edward Torres at the Los Angeles Theater Center, this is the final installment in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Elliot trilogy. (The two earlier titles were Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue and Water by the Spoonful, produced by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and Mark Taper Forum, respectively). Here, the playwright pays special homage to the folk music, food and familial culture of the Puerto Rican community. She also spotlights the current protest movements on the left (in the U.S., Mexico and Puerto Rico), tips her hat to the Arab Spring, critiques the American health-care system, and alerts us to the careless slaughter of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers and the problems of Iraqi expatriates. And that’s just the background stuff.

The story begins in 2010. As in Water by the Spoonful, it revolves around the fortunes of two cousins, who stay in contact via email: Elliot (Peter Pasco), an Iraqi war vet turned actor, and Yaz (Elisa Bocanegra), a music professor now living in poverty-blighted North Philadelphia, where she cooks for, and otherwise assists as many of her struggling neighbors as she can.

Elliot (who was played by a different actor in Water by the Spoonful) has undergone a transformation. In Spoonful, the character walked with a pronounced limp, the result of a war injury, and spoke with someone’s erroneous idea of how Philadelphians talk. Here, however, he’s been miraculously healed and is as spry as any athletic 20-something. Fortune has smiled on him; hired as a film’s combat consultant because of his military experience, he’s now starring in a movie about the Iraqi conflict, replacing the original lead who proved to be too truculent and unfit. His friends include Shar (Vaneh Assadourian), a young American actress of part Middle Eastern descent, and Ali (Kamal Marayati), a native Iraqi who’s emigrated with his family to Jordan for a better, safer life.

The three shoot their takes and chat about their pasts and news of the Arab Spring, which Elliot is itching to observe first-hand. Meanwhile Yaz, glimpsed in her kitchen amidst a pile of pots, is contemplating a fling with Agustín (Al Rodrigo), a guitarist and longtime married friend who wants her to have his child. She’s also playing mother hen to Lefty (John Seda-Pitre), a mentally displaced homeless person who addresses her as “mom” and relies on her for emotional support as well as for food and sometimes shelter.

Shifting between narratives, the play winds through a mountain of prosaic exposition as the characters talk about where they’re coming from and where they’d like to be (or in the case of Yaz, about neighbors and acquaintances whom we never see). The emails between the two cousins are about as exciting as the ones you may have received from your accountant cousin in Buffalo. Under Torres’ direction, the performances, which can often salvage and even elevate a so-so drama to great heights, lack texture and credibility. Only Marayati garners empathy as a kind and open man looking to bridge cultures and build friendships.

The staging (scenic design by Se Hyon Oh) does not help. The desert scenes are played out on the floor of the proscenium, without an effective backdrop to add ambience. The kitchen, always visible, is positioned upstage on a rise, in a cramped space that allows for little movement and makes for poor visibility. All I could see of Bocanegra much of the time was her back.

The best moments in the production are the musical interludes played by accomplished Puerto Rican guitarist Nelson González.

LATC, 514 S. Spring St., downtown Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; Mon., 7:30 p.m.; through March 19. Thelatc.org.


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The 2018 Oscars Are Woke, But Hollywood Can Get Woker by Recalling Its Past

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, producers knew that social issues sold tickets. It’s a lesson the film industry might be ready to re-learn.

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At first glance, this year’s Academy Awards ceremony and nominations seems as woke a lineup as the Oscars has ever offered. Films and actors honored touch on topics as varied and vital as LGBTQ love (Call Me By Your Name), veterans and overt racism (Mudbound), liberal covert racism (Get Out), police corruption (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and the importance of the press (The Post). Jimmy Kimmel returns as host, after a year where he eased into the working-class champion role his bro schtick always aspired to but never quite nailed until now.

Expect much self-congratulation for these Brave New Oscars during the show, along with shoutouts for #TimesUp and digs at Trump (even as the show’s producers want it to be “a giant commercial for the movie business” instead of anything political). But the nominees also show that Hollywood will practice punch-card progressivism until it realizes what the Louis B. Mayers, Jack Warners and other movie moguls of yesteryear never forgot: social issues sell.

The 2018 nominations show we’re in a golden age of African-American characters, stories, and talent, and that a purge of the industry’s toxic masculinity translates into better films. But it’s as if Hollywood feels that tackling those two longstanding problems absolves it of trying to address anything else. Just look at today’s pressing issues that big-budget films in 2017 ignored: homelessness, class inequity, the housing crisis, gentrification, climate change and more.

And in an age where diversity matters more than ever, Hollywood’s depiction of Mexicans remain problematic. The touching Pixar film Coco (nominated for Best Animated Picture) notwithstanding, Hollywood still doesn’t seem to want to cast Mexicans as anything else than the maids, janitors and security guards that executives and screenwriters encounter in their public and private lives, and the criminals that the media and politicians obsess over. Chris Rock’s ruthless 2014 Hollywood Reporter essay on the lack of representation still rings true: Hollywood keeps Mexicans in a “slave state.”

The studios need to look at their own past to see that reflecting society’s people and problems are an easy moneymaker. Consider the films of the Great Depression, more relevant than ever. Films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Grapes of Wrath, Sullivan’s Travels, Gold Diggers of 1933 became beloved because they openly attacked the institutions that dared afflict the afflicted. Same with the 1970s: Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, Coming Home, Network and others harshly depicted the Me Decade all the way to the Oscars and massive ticket sales.

Two of this year’s most prominent Best Picture nominees show a way forward for producers. The Shape of Water (directed by proud Mexican Guillermo del Toro) used a supernatural parable to critique our federal government’s xenophobia. Get Out similarly used the horror genre to deliver its message. Both are in some ways the most Old Hollywood of the Best Picture bunch, as they recalled Universal Studios’ historic monster movies (imagine a ride based on Get Out? Actually, you don’t have to: it’s called South Orange County).

The Shape of Water and Get Out each grossed over $100 million worldwide despite tiny budgets. Couple that with this month’s record-breaking Black Panther, and the studios should realize that progressive films ought to be the norm, not a niche.

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A New Documentary Unspools the Life of Malcolm X

Most people know that Malcolm X began his public career by calling for black separatism. Lost Tapes: Malcolm X reveals surprising details that have not been seared into our collective view of the martyred activist.

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Photo by Ed Ford

At the end of the Smithsonian Channel’s Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, Ossie Davis delivers a stirring eulogy for Malcolm X, the fallen Muslim minister and human rights activist. “And we will know him then for what he was and is,” Davis intones, “a Prince – our own black shining Prince!”

The haze of history has obscured some of the finer details of this remarkable leader’s life, one cut short by assassination at the age of 39 in 1965. Schools go into far greater detail about the life and times of another spiritual leader, Martin Luther King Jr., but in the shadows behind King’s narrative lurk remarkable stories of a prince that have been largely ignored. That’s why this episode from The Lost Tapes documentary series rises above almost anything available in mainstream media.


Above: Malcolm X in Los Angeles, 1962

Most know that Malcolm, as the dominant star in the Nation of Islam, differentiated himself from King and other African-American leaders by calling for blacks to break off from, rather than assimilate into white society. At the outset, Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, which debuts tonight at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST, and repeats Tuesday, underscores how his incendiary speeches and philosophy sparked both outrage and fear by showing footage from The Hate That Hate Produced , a 1959 Mike Wallace-narrated documentary shown on New York’s educational WNTA-TV that introduced the Harlem minister and the Nation of Islam to a wider (and whiter) audience.

Much of this doc treads on familiar turf: His meteoric rise and popularity, which caused NOI membership to swell exponentially; how Malcolm’s philosophy deviated from other civil rights leaders’, the rift with NOI leader Elijah Muhammad that led to Malcolm leaving the organization. Filmmakers Tom Jennings and David Tillman weave a fine story, thankfully bereft of any narration, using never-before or rarely seen footage to tell Malcolm’s story, only resorting to simple white text on a black background to deliver essential information. The result seems more urgent and intimate, powerful and profound.

But where Lost Tapes really triumphs is in revealing details that have not been seared into our collective view of the martyred activist. First there is the matter of Cassius Clay. Few know that the boxer’s conversion to Islam was mired deep in the divisions between Malcolm and the “prophet” Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm had grown to overshadow his mentor, and became a close friend to the charismatic contender. But soon after Sonny Liston failed to answer the bell in Miami on February 25, 1964, and Clay was crowned heavyweight champion of the world, Elijah Muhammad bestowed upon the boxer a Muslim name (an honor Malcolm had not been given) under one condition. The new champion had to end his friendship with Malcolm (something that Ali later publicly admitted was a mistake).

Later, there is an interview in which Malcolm publicly exposes Elijah Muhammad’s fathering of eight children by six underage women who were his personal secretaries. This footage makes it seem more understandable why the NOI allegedly waged such a persistent campaign to kill Malcolm, first unsuccessfully by firebombs and then, purportedly taking down their target in a hail of bullets.

The documentary also chronicles Malcolm X’s personal transformation shortly before his tragic death, which resulted in a revolutionary change in his outlook. After leaving the NOI, Malcolm went on a global spiritual journey that included a pilgrimage to Mecca in April of 1964, where he had a profound epiphany. Malcolm speaks of seeing Muslims of all colors interacting as equals and how the whites he had met there were not like those found in America, that their dedication to God allowed them to believe in the oneness of all people.

Inspired by this trip he started the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism, and promoted internationalizing the plight of African-Americans. This broadening of his views also made him make amends to those he criticized in the past. We see footage of an interview in which he not only forgives black leaders for having attacked him, but also apologizes to all he had ever attacked, culminating in him preaching solidarity and cooperation between leaders.

It’s a huge moment that seems to have been lost as the years have passed, and it makes this venture all the more invaluable.


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Weak Stage Production Mars Drama About Returned Vet

The second drama in playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy juxtaposes one soldier’s post-war tribulations with stories generated by a group of recovering drug addicts.

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Deborah Klugman

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Luna Lauren Vélez (All photos by Craig Schwartz)

A 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, Water by the Spoonful is the second in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy revolving around Elliot, a young war veteran from a Puerto Rican family living in Philadelphia. The first play, Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue, is an interweaving of several narratives that relays the experiences of war from the standpoint of the working-class soldier. It’s a strong, lyrical work (although the production, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through February 25, doesn’t fulfill that potential).

In this second, less compelling installment at the Mark Taper Forum (yes, I know it won a Pulitzer, but that goes to show how subjective literary prizes can be), the playwright juxtaposes Elliot (Sean Carvajal)’s post-war tribulations with the stories generated by a group of recovering drug addicts. The play’s fractured narrative proves a liability, with problems related to the writing compounded by Lileana Blain-Cruz’s lax direction, weak performances, and an unimaginative scenic design (Adam Rigg) that drains the show of whatever dynamic a couple of the performers manage to scrounge up.

The story takes place in 2009, six years after Elliot, haunted by a ghost and nursing a pronounced limp from a war injury, returns from Iraq. He’s working at a Subway and hoping for a career as an actor, while maintaining a mutually supportive friendship with his cousin Yazmin (Keren Lugo), a music professor. Elliot is struggling with his PTSD but managing to cope until his world spins out of control when his adoptive mom Ginny, much loved by her family and the community, nears death.

Keren Lugo and Sean Carvajal

These scenes involving a family in crisis alternate with others that depict the online squabbling of the members of the recovery group, who bear the pseudonyms of Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison), Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan) and Fountainhead (Josh Braaten). Haikumom (Luna Lauren Vélez), the site leader, is (we later discover) Elliot’s biological mother, Odessa, and she also is in recovery. The play takes its title from a recollection by Elliot of an event in his childhood: He and his baby sister were ill and needed a spoonful of water every hour – something Odessa failed to administer, with tragic results. Elliot has never forgiven her.

Much of Act 1 is taken up with the repartee among the group, but these characters never physically interact, and these “online” sequences are long-winded and static. It doesn’t help that the actors are positioned willy-nilly about the proscenium, fronting a drab living room interior unrelated to their dialogue. Why these scenes were not mounted in a separate area of the stage and with a different lighting design is a puzzlement.

The play gets more interesting in the second act, with Elliot’s emotional crisis intensifying and brought to a head in his confrontation with Odessa. Unfortunately, the drama is done in by subpar acting. Carvajal, employing a weird pseudo-street dialogue (it’s as if he has marbles in his mouth), sounds an unconvincing one-note. (As someone born and raised in Philadelphia, I can personally testify that that is not how residents of Philly speak.) Lugo’s Yazmin lacks personality of any sort — she seems to be there just for Elliot to play off of. Vélez’s performance in a linchpin role projects neither charisma nor clarity.

The best work is by Addison as a 50-something white collar guy emotionally invested in the group and with a growing attachment to Orangutan, a much younger woman, and Braaten as a well-heeled cokehead, desperately trying to hold his life together. These actors bring a certain heft to their roles that the other performances are missing. It’s too bad we don’t get to see them perform at their best.

The third play in the trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, opens at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Feb. 22, with an entirely different ensemble. Here’s hoping they can do better.

Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sunday, 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through March 11. Centertheatregroup.org.


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Young Marx in Love

A revolutionary buddy film from the director of I Am Not Your Negro.

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August Diehl as a 20-something Karl Marx. (All Photos by Kris Dewitte.)

Actor August Diehl’s Marx is part revolutionary, part young Mick Jagger.


 

Among the best films about revolutionaries are 2000’s Lumumba, which documented the life of the Congo’s murdered independence leader, and last year’s I Am Not Your Negro, a brilliant reintroduction to James Baldwin’s revolutionary writing. Now the director of those acclaimed films, Haitian Raoul Peck, has once again trained his lens on revolution, but this time in a largely unexpectedly way.

While Peck’s past work has been marked by intensity and grit, The Young Karl Marx instead relies less on invention and on more conventional tropes. That approach is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows the filmmaker to make accessible the seemingly daunting challenge of documenting the young life of a philosopher/writer whose work takes place mostly in his head and on paper.

Dynamic Duo: Marx (August Diehl), right, and Engels (Stefan Konarske).

Written by Peck and Pascal Bonitzer, the film begins in the mid 1800s, when Europe’s Industrial Revolution has underscored the economic disparity between the ruling class and the working poor, or proletariat. This inequality has spawned a slew of young writers and thinkers who are circling philosophically, individually and collectively, what they hope will become a better society. Among them are journalist Marx (August Diehl) and his wife (Vicky Krieps), who live a meager existence–escaping creditors and cops, sleeping in and screwing when not discussing socioeconomic theory. The couple is soon exiled from Germany to France, where they meet Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), a factory owner’s son who has been the first to study and write about the plight of the working class. An instant bromance Between Marx and Engels ensues.

Most of the film follows the duo as they argue and pontificate their way through Europe, honing their philosophy until it can all be memorialized in 1848’s The Communist Manifesto. Diehl has incredible charisma and his Marx is part revolutionary and part young Mick Jagger. With Konarske’s Engels as his more grounded Keith Richards, they aren’t quite enfants terribles, but they do shake things up, quickly rising as leaders of those trying to understand the world around them. And what a glorious world that is. Production designers Benoit Barouh and Christophe Couzon have fashioned a stunning representation of 19th-century Europe. What emerges is a costume buddy film, as if Merchant Ivory produced Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Ultimately, though, viewers’ personal views of Marx, and their political views in general, will probably decide whether they enjoy the film. By focusing on the genesis of Marx’s ideological oeuvre, Peck avoids having to deal with the man’s ultimate mixed legacy. Regardless, some will undoubtedly find the filmic fuss over Marx misplaced. But for many, The Young Karl Marx will be a fulfilling view of a time when young idealists were trying to make sense of the world in a far more robust way than the current political spewing of modern-day television pundits.


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A Combative Immigrant Fights Her ‘Ironbound’ Destiny

Born in Poland and brought up in New Jersey by an immigrant mom who cleaned houses for a living, playwright Martyna Majok has fashioned her experience into a compelling feminist work.

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Bruised and bleeding in America: Marin Ireland's Darja. (All photos by Chris Whitaker)

In American theater, as in life, not all voices receive equal airtime — one reason why Martyna Majok’s pitch-black dramedy about a Polish-born factory worker/cleaning lady is so poignant and arresting. The play, first produced by New York’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in 2016, is currently running at the Geffen Playhouse under Tyne Rafaeli’s direction.

Majok’s insightfully written, unabashedly woman-centered tale is set at a bus stop in a squalid industrial neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The central character is a hardscrabble female survivor. We first meet combative, down-on-her-luck Darja (Marin Ireland), an immigrant, in 2014, as she confronts her live-in lover, Tommy (Christian Camargo), over his sexual liaison with the wealthy woman she works for. Vulnerable beneath his swagger, Tommy pleads remorse and begs Darja not to leave him, to which she responds with an unsentimental demand for hard cash — money she needs to track down her missing wayward son, a drug addict. The pair negotiate; in the end, sexual attraction and codependence best rage and resentment, and they lock in fierce embrace, each extending a finger to the intrusive honks of passing motorists.

Marcel Spears and Marin Ireland, as Vic and Darja.

Scene 2 flashes back to 1992 and a more tender exchange between Darja and Maks (Josiah Bania), her Polish first husband and the father of her child. Maks is a musician, and the conflict between the couple revolves around his desire to relocate to Chicago to pursue art and fame — a move that makes Darja fearful (better the hell you’re living in now….). So, Maks departs on his own, leaving Darja to an uncertain and, and as it turns out, far more purgatorial future.

That fate manifests later, in 2006, when (in this production’s finest, most memorable scene) a teenage hustler, Vic (Marcel Spears), happens on a bruised and bleeding Darja, lying under a bench after a beating from her abusive second husband. A rich kid out at night sowing down-and-dirty oats, the youth is appalled by Darja’s appearance and wants to help. But Darja, who doesn’t know how to say thanks, rejects this offer of assistance, though she desperately needs it — till Vic points to the moon and offers a gift of surprising generosity.

Ironbound, which claims its title from a slum area in Newark, offers an illuminating portrait of a vulnerable, volatile woman most middle-class Americans would probably never look twice at. Yet Darja is no fool; despite being a stranger in a strange land, with limited language skills, she understands how the capitalist system operates to her disadvantage, and what she must do to get by. Her actions and choices, made in anger, fear or frustration (she sets fire to her fornicating employer’s clothes), work against her.

Ireland, who commanded the role to accolades in New York, performs with energy and commitment (her character never leaves the stage) but without the fresh edge that must have brought down earlier houses. Some of that may have to do with Camargo, with whom she has the most stage time. As with Darja, Majok has drawn Tommy as a complex ambivalent figure, but instead of exploring why this two-faced lothario still needs Darja to be his woman, the actor storms about, relying on heated dialogue and comic gesture to define his role.

Bania, who also reprises his role from the original production, is warm and likable — and especially on target in moments when he pleads with Darja to let him have his dreams. Spears’ glowing performance as a compassionate youngster determined to aid an abused, beleaguered stranger is the evening’s highlight.

Born in Poland and brought up in New Jersey by an immigrant mom who cleaned houses for a living, Majok has written about what she knows, fashioning her experience into a compelling feminist work.

Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., West Los Angeles; ; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through March 4.


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