Steadfast commitment: RIP RBG

Saturday 26 September 2020

The summer began with a viral video: a police officer in Minneapolis slowly killing George Floyd while others looked on helplessly. The video launched protests and invigorated movements, in some places leading to change, or at least talk of change. In many places, though, life marches on, seemingly unchanged.
The summer ended with another viral video, this time from Rochester, NY, of police killing Daniel Prude. This video, however, was suppressed for over five months in a likely attempt to avoid what eventually came to pass: multiple suspensions and a police chief firing, with perhaps even greater repercussions for those involved still to come.

But what happens when there is no video?

The Supreme Court famously refuses to allow video cameras in its courtroom, meaning all but a select few were able to see the recently departed Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in 2013, deliver a dissent from the bench regarding the opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, an opinion that invalidated key portions of the Voting Rights Act and has led to various new forms of voter suppression since. While her words were reported on generally and an audio recording was released months later, there is no video record of that moment.

In her remarks that June day, Justice Ginsburg invoked the familiar MLK quote “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, Justice Ginsburg continued to include her own important addendum: “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”

A viral video is great at sparking an immediate reaction, often feelings of anger, rage, disdain, incredulity. These feelings usually lead to short-term actions, such as sharing the video, taking to the streets in protest, even reaching out to a corporate leader or an elected official.

But Justice Ginsburg knew that change would not come only through the short-term, responsive action common to viral videos. Rather, it is continued, determined effort that is needed to achieve one’s goal.

In promising to seek a vote on a nominee to replace Justice Ginsburg, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is simply continuing his “steadfast commitment” to reshaping the federal judiciary, a cause that has been ongoing for at least the past five years. The task began in the slowing of then President Obama’s court nominees when Republicans took control of the Senate in 2015. It became intensely visible with the choice to hold a vacancy on the Supreme Court for more than a year to allow President Trump, rather than President Obama, to replace Justice Scalia after his death in 2016, and it has now led to the unprecedented number of more than 200 confirmations of Trump judicial nominees in less than 4 years.

There is no one moment of time to be captured on video, no easily digestible image, ready to be shared and consumed by millions, to quickly explain this significant change to the judicial landscape. Instead, it requires us to pay attention on a sustained basis, to not lose sight of the continual change taking place around us that will, if we’re not careful, lead us to wake up and realize that, while we were busy with other things, the world has become drastically different.

An Op-Ed piece can be like a viral video: short, often pithy, intended to grip its audience’s attention, often to move them to action around a certain issue or cause. Our country’s key issues, however—systemic oppression, climate catastrophe, the dismantling of our governmental institutions, to name only three—are not easily contained in 5-10 minute videos or a 640-word essay.

As we remember Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the coming days, months, and years, may her death be the impetus for millions across the country to make a steadfast commitment to bend the nation toward justice in a way not possible by even the most viral of videos.


Piano Gal (for Franca Vercelloni)

Saturday 19 September 2020

Since April, I’ve been joining online as Franca Vercelloni plays sing-a-long musical theater songs twice a week. I’ve gotten to know her and the other “regulars” who show up Saturdays 5-7:30 and Tuesday 7:30-10 (Eastern). It’s been a lot of fun! I was inspired to parody a famous song about a piano bar and make it about Franca and all her Francaphiles (what we call ourselves). You can watch her, too, in Maries Group on Facebook or her Instagram (@FrancaVerce). Friends in the group wanted me to share the lyrics, so I thought I’d put them up here. Enjoy!

It’s five o’clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd’s loggin’ on
I am broadcasting live from my living room
Cause the pandemic still hasn’t gone

I say “Let’s all sing musical theater
Please send your requests my way
Sir Andrew or Sondheim
We’ll all have a good time
Don’t care if you’re straight or you’re gay!”

Sing us a song you’re the piano gal
Sing us a song today
Well we’re all in the mood for a Showtune
And we’re feelin’ more than okay

Now Jon in P A is a friend of mine
I’ve known him for many a year
And his wife comes along, they both love a good song
And I’m happy to see them both here

He says “Franca, your songs are a thrill to me
As I start my Famed version of Cats
“Whether songs that I know or from some other show
Your shift always helps us relax.”

Now eric and Adam are brothers
And Lisa is married to Chris
Also Calen and Marc, and Sonyl with some snark
And plenty more I’m gonna miss

And there’s Ellen describing her dinner plans
Matt, Jo, Peg, Anna, Meash and Katie
There’s too many to name but I love them the same
We’re all now an odd family

Sing us a song you’re the piano gal
Sing us a song today
Well we’re all in the mood for a Showtune
And we’re feelin’ more than okay

It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And my Aunt Donna seems to approve
‘Cause I sing more than speak, with the crowd at its peak
And the set list is starting to groove

And the neighbors are blasting their stereo
And my volume is often too low
Wish we were at the bar with my trusty tip jar
But this pandemic won’t let us go

Sing us a song you’re the piano gal
Sing us a song today
Well we’re all in the mood for a Showtune
And we’re feelin’ more than okay

Time For White People To Act Up For Racial Justice

Thursday 17 August 2017

As a teenage white boy in the late 1990s, learning about the Civil Rights Era in my Holgate HS history class, I remember asking myself, “What would I have done if I had lived during that time?” Would I have marched with Dr. King or others like him? Would I have stood up against racism, bigotry, and oppression where I lived? Or would I have sat idle on the sidelines, unwilling or unable to challenge the status quo of a white-topped hierarchy?

The unfortunate events that took place in Charlottesville this past weekend are a tragic reminder that I need not wonder how I would have acted had I lived five decades ago; my opportunity for action is now.

Violent actions by white supremacists and calls by white citizens to “Take Back America” are a stark reminder that we do not, as many claim, live in a post-racial society. These events, along with recent government actions that seek to restrict people of color from voting and claim discrimination against white students applying to college, clearly show that race is still a defining construct of our country.

And as such, each of us has the opportunity to stand up and act out against the same vile beliefs and actions many hoped were relegated to history books.

So what can we do?

We—white people—need to learn the history of racism and begin to recognize systems and structures that are still in place that continue to oppress people of color. These include an unjust education system; unequal policing and jailing practices; and continued banking and mortgage discrimination, just to name a few.

We need to take the lead in addressing policies and practices in our government and the organizations we’re a part of that perpetuate racism. We need to recognize that white supremacy has been baked into our country and most of its institutions and work to eliminate it.

We need to openly and regularly discuss issues of race and racism at our workplaces, schools, places of worship, and dinner tables so we can become more comfortable when it’s time to have the tough conversations.

If you’re a white person sitting idly by, avoiding taking action against the systemic and interpersonal racism present in your life and community, you’re complicit in allowing it to continue.

The time of action is now. What are you going to do?

Who Are You (Oscars 2017 Edition)

Friday 3 March 2017

First, you’re Warren Beatty.

A few moments earlier, someone handed you an envelope. You didn’t really inspect the envelope, but if you had, maybe you would have noticed that printed on it were the words “Actress in a Leading Role,” not “Best Picture,” the award you are presenting. The nominees have been reviewed, and now you’re opening the envelope. And now you’re a bit confused. Because the card inside says, “Emma Stone, La La Land,” and you know that doesn’t make sense for a Best Picture award. Those awards go to the producers. Emma Stone is an actress.

You know this isn’t right. You know something has gone terribly wrong; this isn’t the way the world is supposed to be. But you have the power to right this wrong. You have the power to avoid what is to come – a disaster, a situation that extends far beyond yourself. You aren’t fully responsible for this problem, but now you’re a part of it, and you have a part to play in fixing it. There may not be one right way to move forward, but avoiding the problem, choosing to ignore it, transferring it to someone else, hoping it will go away: that would be cowardice, and that is not you.

Now, you’re Faye Dunaway.

You don’t understand why Mr. Beatty is taking so long looking at the card and doesn’t just get on with it. The show’s been going on now for more than four hours; get it over with already.

He then turns the card to you.

And of course it says “La La Land.” You don’t think twice about the other words on the card, you just blurt it out. You voted for it, after all. And so did so many friends you know, white and older though they may be. But still. Who wouldn’t want to be taken back to the Hollywood of old, when everything was glamorous and golden? Who wouldn’t want to go back to the days before identity politics, before #OscarsSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter? Who wouldn’t want to “Make Hollywood Great Again?”

Now you’re Brian Culliman.

You hear Ms. Dunaway say La La Land – and you know that’s not right. That’s not right at all. In fact, you and Martha Ruiz are the only two people in the world who know the truth, who know that Moonlight, not La La Land, was voted Best Picture. You look in your briefcase and pull out the envelope for Best Picture. You realize your mistake: you had given Mr. Beatty the wrong envelope, a duplicate from the previous award.

But now it’s been a full minute, and you’re still not on stage. You’re still not using your body to shut this thing down, to correct this wrong. You’re implicated in this, big time, and you realize it now. You’ve discovered your place is the system, your role in the injustice, and you know you need to take action. But you don’t want to rock the boat too much, to cause a commotion. You don’t sprint out on stage with the envelope, call a halt to things right there and then, before the speeches can be given, while the rightful winners marinate in the sting of defeat. It’s more important for things to be proper—or as proper as possible, given the circumstances—even if that means extending the suffering of those who’ve already been suffering far too long.

Now you’re Fred Berger.

You’re holding a golden Oscar statue tightly in your right hand, a statue you’ve dreamed of winning your whole life. It’s been 90 seconds since Faye Dunaway called out the title of your movie, a movie you spent countless hundreds of hours pouring your time and soul into, a movie with six Oscar wins before this one. Your co-producer Jordan finishes his speech, and Marc, your other co-producer steps forward to begin his. And you start to notice the commotion next to you on stage. You try to stay in the moment, but it’s impossible. Someone in a headset comes up and inspects Jordan’s envelope, the one Mr. Beatty had opened just two minutes ago. You see Emma Stone’s name on it, and you know it’s all a mistake; you didn’t win at all. It’s the wrong envelope, obviously. But that’s not the problem, for if your movie had actually won, no one would be on stage, trying to fix this.

But then Marc says your name, beckoning you to take your turn at the microphone. You know you don’t deserve this moment. But you step up and start talking anyway. They called your name, your movie’s name, after all, and the show must go on, right? You’re caught up in the moment, sure, but you still know this is wrong. Why not sit back, for just a moment, to let things get straightened out? You’ve had you turn at the Golden Globes and too many other award events to count. Would it be so hard to step back and share the spotlight?


In the end, they got it right, but why did it take so long? Why didn’t Warren, or Faye, or Brian, or Fred – YOU – why didn’t YOU stop it sooner? Why didn’t you step up when you had the chance? You had the power and the opportunity. You have the power, and the responsibility to make change happen, to right the wrongs of the past and of the present, so they don’t continue to be wrongs into the future.

Now you’re you.

But who are you? And who are you going to be?

“Make ‘Too Much Light’ Great Again!”

Thursday 8 December 2016

On Wednesday of last week, an unexpected press release sent shock waves through the Chicago theater community: Greg Allen, creator of the Chicago staple Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, had decided not to extend the (Chicago) Neo-Futurists’ license to perform the show, letting the forthcoming New Year’s Eve performance mark the end of the shows 28-year run by the Neo-Futurists, a company Allen himself helped found.

The press release cites as Allen’s motive a plan to create a new ensemble that will use Too Much Light “to combat the Trump administration and all of its cohorts.”

And while Allen’s press release mentions the irony that the artists of Italian Futurism (of which the Neo-Futurist aesthetic is based) eventually supported Mussolini, it fails to recognize the much greater irony of the announcement itself: a white, cisgender male is declaring that only he can do Too Much Light justice in combating fascism and Donald J. Trump’s presidency—he alone can Make Too Much Light Great Again!

I have had the pleasure of seeing over 20 performances of Too Much Light by the Neo-Futurists in the past five years, and they have never ceased to be socially relevant and culturally critical, and I have no doubt that, given the opportunity, they would have continued to use Too Much Light to combat all the forces Allen proclaims he is seeking to upend.

The idea that Allen would need to discontinue the Neo-Futurists’ ability to perform Too Much Light in order to move forward in his (stated) mission speaks loudly of a scarcity mentality, a stalwart of white people thinking. The proliferation of first-person storytelling in Chicago, with dozens, if not hundreds, of outlets across the city for individuals to share their stories and ideas, would serve as a great example of how a format like Too Much Light could serve as a vehicle for multiple ensembles to speak truth to power using the Neo-Futurist aesthetic. Instead, Allen had decided that he (like our President-elect) is the one and only (man) who can save us, and that his Baby, with none other Allen himself at the helm, is the way to do it.

Allen’s decision and plan to create an ensemble “comprised entirely of people of color, LBTQ+ [sic], artist/activist women, and other disenfranchised voices” is also patronizing to the very same “disenfranchised voices” he claims a desire to empower. Allen implies that these voices are incapable of using their own theatrical methods and outlets to impact change and need Allen to “[give them] space and voice” in the “predominantly white, patriarchal Chicago theater community,” of which Allen would seem to be a shining example. (Update: even if Allen says he will not be in the show or distance himself creatively from it, his need to pull the plug on the Neo-Futurists’ production is simply an exertion of white, male power at its best/worst.)

Megan Mercier, a former Neo-Futurist Artistic Director and ensemble member, in a scathing blog post (which was later verified by current Artistic Director Kurt Chiang), noted additional ironic, if not fully hypocritical, aspects of Allen’s announcement. Mercier notes that the current, active Neo-Futurist ensemble consists “almost entirely” of individuals with the identities with which Allen plans to fill his new ensemble. Additionally, Allen’s press release cites a desire “to combat the tyranny of censorship and oppression,” yet Mercier cites a specific example of Allen’s attempt at censorship as the reason Allen received a one-year suspension from the Neo-Futurists in 2012.

Mercier notes the incident that led to his suspension consisted of Allen trying to subvert the ensemble’s established policy to eject a piece of work “about child abuse, written by a survivor of child abuse” that he found “personally offensive,” walking out of rehearsal and refusing to perform if the piece, which had already been publicly performed, was included. While he could have petitioned to rejoin the ensemble, he never did and has remained estranged from the group since. (Update: as articles below note, this was simply an example of a cycle of domineering and oppressive behavior.)

As the press release also notes, “this change in Chicago” will not affect groups in New York City and San Francisco, who will continue to perform Too Much Light. Both of those ensembles showcase similar demographics to the current Neo-Futurists, yet they hold one key distinction: Allen still holds a sway in the productions happening there, making Allen’s revocation of TML rights from Chicago’s Neo-Futurists appear all the more disingenuous.

Theater has always been at its best when it can shine light on the realities of the world around us. In this case, it was not on-stage theatrics but rather behind-the-scenes antics which will hopefully teach us that the fight against tyranny starts within ourselves. We must recognize the great abundance that exists when we join as one to cry out against injustice and oppression, wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.

You can donate to the Neo-Futurists fundraising campaign to keep them going during this time of transition HERE.

And you can read about this story in more depth and context at the links below, including this Chicago Tribune article which quotes a lot of people and provides, I think, the most comprehensive information on this event and the history that brought it about.
End of ‘Too Much Light’ brings a longtime schism in the Neos out into the open

After a schism, casting a new light on Neo-Futurists

Former Neo-Futurists Speak Out Against ‘TML’ Creator, Charge Abuse Of Power

Neo-Futurists reject their founder’s attempt to blame Trump

Chicago’s longest running show will go on