Sunday, December 13, 2015

Shout-Out to Congressman Rigell

“Read the Preamble!”

          In his last newsletter to constituents, my Congressional Representative, “moderate” Republican Scott Rigell, a wealthy Virginia Beach car dealer, discussed his reasons for supporting a debate and vote in Congress on whether the President should step up the war in Iraq and Syria against the renegade forces of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIL. (I refuse to dignify that group with the name “Isis,” mythic Goddess of the ancient Mideast.)
            His reasoning is that the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which gave the President the authority to wage certain acts of war without consulting Congress, has resulted in “executive over-reach,” meaning that the President is waging wars beyond the parameters set by the War Powers Resolution and therefore without the Congressional approval demanded by the Constitution.
            Leaving aside the politics of obstruction against President Obama, which has been Republican strategy for the past eight years, Rep. Rigell expressed a couple of common-sense points in his newsletter, given the sober reality of war and the disputable claim that it is necessary, if only as a “last resort”—whatever that means.
            He is certainly correct when he states that the Constitution requires Congressional authorization before the President can send Americans into war, though the War Powers Resolution relieves the President of that requirement under certain circumstances which Presidents have invoked since Vietnam and under which President Obama still operates in Iraq and Syria.
            He puts the burden on Congress for its inaction ten months after the President asked for an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Iraq and Syria.
            He notes that military commanders support an AUMF, which is an arguable point for authorization.
            But then, in his concluding point number 5, he says this: “The federal government’s number one responsibility is the protection of the American people.”

            This comment sent me back to the U.S. Constitution itself. Yes, I read the whole damn thing, and it’s not light reading. But in many instances it’s clear. And, indeed, Article I, Section 8 gives a lot of war-power authority to Congress, under the general principle in Section 1: “The Congress shall have pay the debts and provide for the defense and general welfare of the United States....”
            But Congress is only one branch of the federal government. There’s an Executive and there’s a Judicial. They each have their own sections under Article I, and I encourage the more studious to read them.
            My point, which I conveyed in an email to Rep. Rigell, is that his statement is inaccurate. The federal government is a combined Constitutional entity of three branches. And I argue that the purpose of the federal government is best expressed in the Preamble, one of our greatest founding documents, which, if you will, stands as the federal government’s mission statement:

            “We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, secure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

            To me this clearly says that defense is only one of the federal government’s concerns. There are five others. And, indeed, they may all overlap to some extent, and they all need clarification, which the Constitution attempts to provide in 27 subsequent amendments. It’s an evolving document. We, hopefully, are an evolving society.
            But too many in Congress seem to think, as Rep. Rigell does, that defense is the primary responsibility of the federal government, and I’m saying that’s just not so. The Constitution is broader than that.
            In my opinion, ISIL, the most recent cause of our current war fever, is a criminal organization like al-Qaeda before it and in many ways not unlike the Mafia. Why we always have them in society is a topic for philosophers to sort out. But these are no armies at our shores, and I think our representatives should calm down and reaffirm ALL our national priorities, not just our great military might. They are elected to do more than declare and oversee wars, and perhaps if they paid more attention to their other primary responsibilities there would be fewer reasons to go to war and less bickering over who gets to declare it.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Trump and Envy

Nov. 21, 2015--Journal Entry

            We’re coming into Thanksgiving week, one of my favorite times of the year. I love the sense of holidays approaching, and it all begins next week, or really now, the Friday night before.
            I watched a bit of Barbara Walters’ interview with Donald Trump on TV earlier. I think he’s popular because he’s a projection for most Americans of what they wish they could be—rich with a big family of attractive young descendants (to a few different wives) and a blunt way of speaking that ridicules all the people in power who nobody really likes and who half or more didn’t vote for. Didn’t even vote at all. Now Trump seems to be someone different. But mostly—my theory—they see him as an enviable figure. They identify with him through their own ambitions.
            Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe success in doing global business is the Aquarian model. I wouldn’t be surprised, actually. The world is always vulgar as well as splendid, and it may be that Trump is both. But if it’s Trump vs. Hillary next year, it will be hard for me to take the election seriously. Both are suspect in my mind. And unfortunately it looks as if Bernie is losing ground. That’s a shame because he’s the only one whose platform I really respect. For one thing, he’s clean. He comes from the heart, but he’s very up on the details. Soon I suspect his horoscope will become available, and more will be revealed. But his chances right now seem to be dimming.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Scamming Across Borders

Has This Ever Happened to You?

Epiphany at The HOC
by Jala Magik
            The first time it happened, my wife answered the phone. It was some guy from the IRS, he said, with a concern about some questionable reporting of our income which they needed to look into.
            This scared my wife—she does the taxes—which alerted me to pick up another phone and listen in. His accent was not American, but I couldn’t identify it. I heard him tell her that our difficulty could be resolved, he was sure, if we would go to the bank and put all our money in an account whose number he would give us. There it would stay until our records were cleared of suspicion, and we could have our money back. Possibly even in 24 hours.
            My wife was certainly not comfortable with this. Could she have the situation explained in writing? The man scoffed at her resistance, threatened reprisals if she wouldn’t cooperate. Did we want a law suit with the IRS?
            Now I was getting scared. I covered the receiver with my hand and called to my wife in the next room, “Hang up and call the bank.” She told him she was not going to cooperate any further. He seemed startled, said, “Who’s there? Why did you change your mind?”
            She hung up. We were both rattled and kinda pissed.
            We called the bank. They told us to rest easy, nothing like that was possible. The reassurance was soothing. But how did guy get her name and phone number?
            We considered reporting it, but to who? Police? This isn’t local, it’s possibly international.
            Our ongoing life soon covered it over. We had more interesting things to do than file a nuisance complaint.
            That was about two months ago. Today—Oct. 22 around 5 p.m. (EDT)—I answered the phone. A man with a non-American accent asked for my wife. I said she was not available. He said he was a technician from Microsoft with some urgent news about our Windows 10 computer. That’s my computer. He said it was in a dangerously vulnerable state which at some imminent moment would cause me irreparable damage, like massive identity theft, unless I followed his simple instructions.
            I was quite suspicious, but he was very insistent, and like most who use computers, I don’t know how they work. Yet I’m increasingly dependent on mine, and I know what it’s like when a computer crashes. It’s a hassle I don’t need.
            So I listened to what the guy had to say.
            He directed me to open some programs I didn’t even know were in my computer. It took awhile, because I couldn’t understand his accent very well, but he was very persistent and finally guided me to a small screen which had over 10,000 red-alert Error messages listed. This, indeed, looked dire to me, so after much back and forth on what I should click on, my friendly technician guided me to a screen where I was to type an internet address he gave me, and I typed it. Then he told me to click on open. 
            I should have written the address down. But it was like nothing I recognized, certainly not a Microsoft address. I saw him leading me to a website where he could get into my computer. He wanted to steal my information, not protect it, as he kept saying.
            I told the guy we were through, I thought he was a scammer, and I hung up. He called me right back, I picked up, and we had another short exchange of some heat, since it became obvious he didn’t know my name. He knew my wife’s name and assumed they were the same. But they’re not, and she has an iPad, not a Microsoft computer.
            Once I got all this clear in my mind, I hung up the second time and turned on the answering machine. Sure enough, he called again and threatened bad outcomes for thirty seconds until our machine cut him off with a beep. Good riddance to bad garbage, as we used to say.
            Later I looked more closely into what all those error messages are about. They seem like routine reports, a log of the machine’s actions when an error occurs in a program or online. I looked at a number of them randomly. They seem to be systemic, the result of unforeseen glitches in an increasingly complex technological environment. How does this put my computer at high risk?
            On the other hand, what is this information for? Who needs it, and for what?
            At least one thing is clear, though. My wife’s information has been breached. I don’t know enough about iPads to make a diagnosis, but she reminds me that her name is on the Verizon account. So if there’s a breach, is it at Verizon?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Job Well Done

A Conversation About Race 
Among Poets—Part 2

From left: DD, Judith, C.J., Maddie, Betty, and Jack

           I don’t know what moved me more, the ringing applause or the smiles of delight on the faces of my fellow poet-actors as we took our bows last Saturday night, May 16, after our second and final performance of “A Conversation About Race Among Poets.”
            (For background, see Part 1, below.)
            We’d attempted something difficult, and apparently we’d pulled it off. It was hardly noticed, of course, in the wider urban frenzy of things-to-do on a beautiful May weekend. I suppose over the two nights we attracted no more than thirty-five paying customers.
            But they stayed afterwards. They engaged with our poems, they understood the flow of the show, and they shared their perspectives, not just about the show but about race in America, in Ferguson, in New York City, in Baltimore. In Norfolk, Virginia.
            The conversation continued well beyond the last poem.
            And we’d done it. We’d accomplished something worthwhile.
            I find it hard now to put my script away. It’s loaded with nostalgia, after long hours spent compiling it, breaking it down into theatrical beats, finding the staging, learning my own parts, practicing and polishing and practicing some more, my script going with me to work, to the beach, to rehearsal. It was at the center of my life for the past few weeks, a living thing, with all its penciled notes and edits in the margins. I leave it lying on top of the pile on my shelf of current projects. Can it really be over?
            The freshness of this reminds me of some of the early successes I enjoyed when I first began doing plays in my hometown some 35 years ago. At that time I attracted a company of amateur actors, and we went on to surprise audiences with a new kind of communal theater which, however, could not sustain itself, emotionally or financially. 
            Yet it’s such a wonderful, life-affirming experience, that creative excitement, that spirit of selfless sacrifice which infuses the starving artist with exuberance far into the night! How quickly it dissipates as soon as the real world returns to focus. Then you realize you can’t really live on wonderful feelings. You have to have a practical, daily life to return to, where you can renew contact with the source from which that creative excitement sprang in the first place. You have to sit with that for awhile. You have to learn how to re-create as part of the process of creating.
            Boredom can set in quickly in the re-creating cycle, particularly for a white male who’s worked all his life, or at least for the better part of it. I always like to have a project going, and this last one caught me emotionally. That’s because it wasn't just about race. There was a message running under it, about women—women of all races.
            Realizing that, I began to wonder if gender inequality—males dominating females—is an even more deeply engraved habit in human consciousness than race discrimination, or racism. You don’t have to be white to beat your wife or rape your neighbor.
            Actually, you don’t even have to be male.
            Anyway, our project ended on a high note. Everyone was pleased. We got a great review on Facebook. And we fulfilled my criteria for the success of any production.
            First and foremost, we got along well together, making it easier to take creative risks by exposing ourselves to one another’s scrutiny.
            Second, the material was varied, interesting, often evocative, and the performances were well rehearsed and polished.
            And finally, the audiences were stimulated and supportive of our effort, and that made everyone happy.
            Three for three is as good as it gets.
            Now, reabsorbed back into my daily routine, reflecting on what was, scanning my mind for a clue to what’s to come, taking care of my daily chores and responsibilities—not too difficult in my relatively uncomplicated life—I sit, I breathe, I inflate my bicycle tires and bury some compost in the garden. Soon enough it will be time to do another show.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Coming to the Venue...

A Conversation About Race
Among Poets

 All last year and into this winter I kept reading and hearing in the media and elsewhere that America needs to have a National Conversation About Race.
            I was part of such a conversation several years ago, on a local level. It was called Norfolk (VA) United Facing Race (NUFR), organized and facilitated by Bev Sell, who now runs the Five Points Farm Market on Church St. downtown.
            In that conversation we dug a few layers beneath the veneer of polite society, to the point where I realized there was so much more to talk about. But the six weeks were over. I wished we could have continued that conversation for many more weeks.
            I finally got my chance this year.           
            Poets who frequent the Venue-35 Open Mic in Norfolk, including many of my Acting-for-Poets students and graduates, have strong things to say about race and racism. Some of that was aired in our Venue Voices show last November, when my students surpassed themselves in a moving demonstration of their skills as performance poets.
Maddie Garcia in "Venue Voices"
November, 2014
            But as the stories of police brutality and fatal shootings piled up in the media over the past year and more, I wanted to try facilitating a more ambitious project. I wanted to bring Venue Voices together into a multi-racial conversation about race in honest and fearless poetry, written back and forth in response to each other.
            Some friends advised against it. “No one will ever be honest about race,” my most cynical friend said.
            But I stubbornly plunged ahead anyway. In late January I began a workshop which, over the course of a couple of months, I hoped would produce enough material good enough to invite the public in to hear it.
            A lot of poets said they liked the idea, but in the end only five saw the project through to its final weeks. Six, if you count me.
            They are Betty Davis, Norfolk native and retired police officer descended from slaves; Maddie Garcia, Dominican descendant of white, black, and indigenous races; Jack Callan, of pure Irish descent, who recently retired as vice president of the Poetry Society of Virginia;  C.J.Xpression, a Venue-35 poet of Cherokee-Irish-Italian ancestry, and Judith Stevens, a native of the rural South and active member of the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment.
            My own background is in the rural North, son of a liberal mother, and white as vanilla except in the summer when I burn my face to disguise my race.
C.J.Xpression in "Venue Voices"
November, 2014

            We six, on May 15 and 16, will perform “A Conversation About Race Among Poets,” a staged reading at The Venue on 35th. After each show, we’ll invite audience members to add their own thoughts to the Conversation by responding to what they've seen and heard.
            It should be lively. We are a bit of a cantankerous bunch, though we agree on many things. We all condemn racism. We all realize that prejudice has long run rampant in our society. Every immigrant group has felt it, every minority movement, every new idea.
            But in America there is no question that race prejudice, or racism, is an evil promulgated by whites on all other races but falling particularly heavily throughout our history on African slaves and their present-day descendants.
            These are the people on whose lashed and bleeding backs America’s economic wealth was built, making the American South before the Civil War the acknowledged Cotton King of the world, as I learned in my research for our weekly project meetings.
            And cotton truly was king for Southern white plantation owners and Northern textile magnates, who became fabulously wealthy from the profits of world trade which then trickled down to many white workers but to no black workers. They couldn’t share the wealth because they were property, like horses and mules. However much money Massah made, the slaves got only what they needed to keep them working.
Betty Davis in "Venue Voices"
November, 2014
            To me, that sniffs heavily of karma. White people today, especially those whose  ancestors were in America before the Civil War, are certain to have benefited, directly or indirectly, from the ill-gotten gains of involuntary servitude, usually enforced with violence. Much is owed that has not been paid.
            So it’s an unavoidable conclusion that in America racism starts with whites. As the dominant American race—and for the record, my ancestors are overwhelmingly white—we institutionalized it when we wrote it into our Constitution. John C. Calhoun summed up the white patrician’s position most succinctly in the 1840s, arguing against emancipation. “We have never dreamed of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race,” he said.
            Using this “Calhoun doctrine” as the non-negotiable principle of traditional white male dominance in America, our group covered a range of topics in our meetings—the genocide of Native Americans, the horror of black and brown enslavement, the Civil Rights movement, white privilege and unconscious racism, the meaning of equality, the militarization of police, and the emotions—the anger, fear, hurt, despair, and sorrow—evoked by experiences of race and color prejudice.
            Here’s an edited sample of an exchange which appears in our completed script:

DD: Look through my eyes,
my grandfathers, all,
and see what’s become
of the world you've passed on,
from the street to the suites
of police-state reprisal.

JUDITH: Intolerance—
an ugly word that curls the tongue.
In Southern forests, bodies hung....

BETTY: The freedom of my heart has been denied for so long.
That is why I could never love in an earthbound way.

MADDIE: The time will come we will be so mixed
there will be no need to check ourselves into a box.

JACK: The last poets line up
To save America.
It’s not about black and white
It’s the story
And we’ve got to tell it right

CJ: Mental bombs explode,
clearing away gray matter
for thought construction.

            Thought construction—in poetry—is what Venue Voices is all about. Our Conversation About Race will be shared, live at The Venue, on Friday, May 15, and Saturday, May 16, at 8 pm. The Venue is at 631 W. 35th St., Norfolk. Admission is $10, all proceeds to benefit The Venue. Reservations may be made at 757-469-0337.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Non-Traditional Casting

Can a White Man Play Nat Turner?

            Back in the mid-1980s, when I landed my first living-wage job as an ensemble actor at the venerable Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, PA, non-traditional casting, as it was called, was encouraged in professional theater. There was an Asian-American in our company, for instance, who played parts written for Caucasians, and I myself played an Asian buffoon in one of the productions.
            Later, as a director myself, I cast African-American actors in a variety of non-traditional roles. Among other considerations—like availability and talent—I stood behind the policy of making more choice roles available to good actors who didn't happen to be white.
            But something I never considered before last weekend is how rare it must be for a white actor to be cast in a role written for a black. In fact, without a background in non-traditional casting, I might have shied away when Patti Wray called at 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 4 and asked me to play Nat Turner in “Nat’s Last Struggle,” her one-man play scheduled for a staged reading before a live audience at 7:30 that evening.
            She’d had a black actor cast, but she’d just found out that he was sick and couldn't make the gig.
            How could I say no? Patti is my friend, and she’s also my boss at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk, VA, where I’m artist-in-residence. I told her to email the script to me. We joked about doing the role in black face.
            The script came around 5 p.m. I printed it out and began reading. Though I’d seen the play before—in fact, written a review of it in 2009 in Thinking Dog Reviews—I remembered little about it or its protagonist except that George Davis, the black actor who played Nat, turned in a powerful performance.
            I read the script through carefully twice, making notes to myself in the spaces and margins. I dressed myself in somber shades, ate a slice of Jala’s nutritious, freshly baked quiche, and we set off for The American Theatre in Hampton, just across the water from Norfolk, where the reading would be held.
            We arrived around 6:45. Aside from artistic director Jeff Stern, Patti and her Venue co-owner Lucy White, and Kaitlin Koch, the sound operator, no one was there. I checked out the lecture room. Not many chairs were set up, but not many people were expected. The Lighthouse Series, as it’s called—this trial relationship between a well- appointed professional touring house and a local playwrights’ group—had yet to draw much audience.
            What chairs there were faced a playing area along one wall of the room, where props were arranged at different stations. The actor originally cast presumably knew when and how to use them, but I didn't. I asked for a music stand to be placed center stage, giving me a base from which I could expand—or not—as the spirit moved me.
            I got some notes on sound cues from Kaitlin, then I sat down in a chair on the set and began reading through the script again.
            It was about 7:15 by then, and two or three people had drifted in. As I read, still making notes, more people arrived. More chairs were being set up, more people arriving, still more chairs. By the time we started, not long after 7:30, the chairs had overflowed into the halls. Most of the people, by far, were black, and some of them were looking at me through furrows of doubt.
            Jeff introduced the evening, explaining, of course, what had happened with the original actor, though I don’t think he ever actually uttered either the words “black” or “white.” For my part—naively but fortunately, as it turned out—I saw no reason why I couldn't read the script with sufficient conviction and authenticity.
            The play begins with the prerecorded voice of a judge ordering Nat Turner to stand, which I did. My reading glasses in place, I moved to the music stand to hear the judge sentence me—that is, Nat—to be hanged by the neck until “dead, dead, dead.”
            I've always had a fascination with the whole process of execution. What would it be like, after committing some heinous crime, to hear that sentence, absorb the finality of it? Of course any of us could die at any time, and often do, but to know the date, the time, and the method, then be led away to wait until they come for you, gives me a very weird, primitive feeling of damnation and hell and longing for redemption. In that sense a death sentence offers the opportunity to enter a  sacred space where execution is transformational, the door to a delirious freedom.
            I tapped into that emotion as I absorbed Nat’s death sentence, and when I began to speak a voice I hadn't rehearsed and didn’t quite recognize in my repertory of voices boomed forth in an accent I wasn’t sure I could control, and I launched into the play—an approximately 40-minute monologue—feeling a bit like a white-water rafter shooting forward through unpredictable rapids.
            But my audience went with me, offering an example of the validity of non-traditional casting. In the talk-back, which customarily follows these staged reading events, a good bit of time was spent on the credibility of a white man playing Nat Turner, especially before a crowd who expected a black man and, whatever their reasons, were not so ready to accept non-traditional casting in this instance.
            But before it was over—in this instance—they did. That was the consensus, and added to it was the fact, surprising to some of them, that the playwright is a white woman.
            There was a full Moon that evening, culminating a holiday season of much sectarian and racial tension. But in the lecture hall of The American Theatre there was a palpable relaxation of that tension. Everyone was surprised, everyone turned on by an evening that started out as a predictable disaster.
            I don’t know what lesson to take from it. But I can say for sure that I’m glad on that particular night I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Unlucky Luck

A Reflection at Christmas, 2014

            It’s been a long time—not since the end of Lent this year—when I've had the urge to sit down and work an idea into a coherent essay.
            But now that it’s Christmas again, the mind finds time to give to itself, and with reflection comes coherence.
            I've just finished my ninth season of “The Concise Dickens’ Christmas Carol.” It was a rattling experience, to say the least, and led me to question many things. Like, what the hell am I doing?
            On December 1 I got hurt pretty badly in a bicycle accident. The first two shows of my 2014 season, on December 5 and 6, had to be canceled. The details are unimportant, except for their comic potential, but as my bike went down into a 10-foot-deep construction ditch I went over the handlebars and landed on my forehead on the street.
            I could have been killed. I could have been broken in countless places. But I only broke my nose and tore the flesh off one of my arms. It was ugly and hurt like a mother, but it didn't incapacitate me, though I did have to put off the show’s opening for another week.
            (The bike was undamaged.)
            So I could say I was lucky. But how lucky was it to ride into a ten-foot ditch in the first place?
            That’s a paradox that confounds me. Somewhere between having the accident at all and not getting hurt badly enough to cancel my ninth season lies a gap of ambiguity. Why did it happen that way?
            I've read—and tend to agree—that all any of us can do in life is follow our natures, wherever they lead. My nature, I’ll admit, has a certain reckless streak, a devil-may-care spark of independence. I try to follow the rules politely, but sometimes I just can’t. It’s not deliberate defiance. It’s my nature. I can’t do otherwise, and so I create experiences for myself, some pleasant, some not so much.
            Can I change my nature? Or at least alter it? Is my bicycle accident a message that I need to do that? If it is, where do I start? My life’s work, such as it is, hinges on that attribute and where it’s taken me. “The Concise Dickens’ Christmas Carol,” which has received spontaneous standing ovations from scores of audiences over its nine years, depends on that very same trait that plunged me into the ditch. On the one hand, it produced a bewitching hour of stagecraft for many people, and on the other a foolish wreck on my bike.
            There’s no separating good from evil, as far as I can tell. They are like Siamese twins, joined at the hip, with only three legs between them. Embrace them both, or neither—you can’t have one without the other.