(click photos to enlarge)
cultural commentary from the desk of Don Shewey
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Being aggressively, even unfairly, criticized isn’t remotely tantamount to being silenced.
The relentlessly brutal cold this winter has really gotten me down, to the point of contemplating some future when I spend winters somewhere warmer or even relocate permanently. What stops me? Among other things, I’m spoiled by the steady diet of rich, high-quality, and/or offbeat culture available in New York City. In the last three weeks, I’ve seen a motley series of nine extremely different live shows I could have seen hardly anywhere else:
Pretty Filthy, the Civilians’ docu-musical about the LA porn industry at the Abrons Arts Center;
Disgraced, Ayad Aktar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama on Broadway;
Pour Une Âme Souveraine—A Dedication to Nina Simone, Meshell Ndegeocello’s concert at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series;
“Love, Hate, & Comics,” an evening with Matt Groening and Lynda Barry at BAM;
Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country at Classic Stage Company, starring Taylor Schilling and Peter Dinklage;
Stockhausen’s trippy, ritualistic Stimmung performed by Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices at Zankel Hall (above);
Soho Rep’s production of An Octoroon, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s saucy adaptation of a Dion Boucicault melodrama revived at Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn;
a return visit to Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, with co-creator John Cameron Mitchell playing the title role wearing a knee brace after a recent injury, necessarily making the performance considerably quieter, less flashy, and more poignant than Neil Patrick Harris’s; and
All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, a banal play by Canadian novelist Sheila Heti overemphatically performed by Toronto’s Suburban Beast theater company at The Kitchen.
Once upon a time I would have written detailed commentary on each of these performances, but that’s not really what I’m doing these days. I will say that much as I admired the writing and the performances and the staging and the terrific, tuneful score (by Michael Friedman) of Pretty Filthy, I couldn’t help feeling that the show (above) was regrettably tame, both in its content and in its theatricality. I wanted it to be darker and stranger. I wish this company felt freer to color outside the lines. My taste for that kind of theater was happily sated by An Octoroon, an inventive, ambitious, imperfect show (below) not quite like any other show you’re likely to see anytime soon. I highly recommend it.
Looking for a picture I’d taken of Malcolm Boyd, I came across a bunch of great shots of the handsome men who attended the 1994 Gay Spirit Visions conference in Asheville, North Carolina. (click photos to enlarge)
I first heard of Malcolm Boyd in the late 1960s, when he was one of the politically active white clergymen deeply engaged in the civil rights and antiwar movements. His 1966 book Are You Running With Me, Jesus? spoke to the political moment from a spiritual perspective yet in the language of the people. He became even more heroic to me when he came out as a gay man, the first prominent Episcopal priest to do so. I met him because I was friends with Mark Thompson, the legendary writer who published many excellent books (Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning, Gay Body, Gay Soul, Leatherfolk) and edited The Advocate during its heyday. Visiting their house in LA, I found Malcolm to be exceptionally warm, unpretentious, twinkly, handsome, and — for all his church and activist cred — very much a Hollywood guy who loved movies and movie stars and gossip.
Hearing that Malcolm died on Friday at the age of 91, I thought back to the 1994 Gay Spirit Visions conference in North Carolina, where he and Mark were keynote speakers. Malcolm gave a talk that distilled his vast life wisdom into a speech that lasted about half an hour. I still live by some of these principles every day.
Cultivate simplicity. When you use words, have them say what you mean. If there’s a key to your mystery, let people have it so they can understand you. Act in fresh, spontaneous, freeing ways.
Break a heavy silence. Place on paper a letter that’s long been written in your mind. Speak to someone who appears forbidding. Ask the hard question. Even try to do what is clearly impossible for you.
Forgive. When you don’t, the loss of your energy in harboring resentment and hate is incalculable. Do not be destroyed by your own inability or refusal to forgive.
Risk everything. What is there to save? In this world of present shock and constant change, security is the most ironic illusion, so why sell your soul?
Understand the meaning of the failure of success — what appears to be failure often is the best teacher we have. Trappings of success have a way of masking unhappiness and absence of fulfillment. I know people who live in hell, but they have to get over the next three years of doing this for success, and then after that everything is going to be all right. But of course it isn’t going to be all right because they’re changing.
In your imagination, walk up the mysterious street you have long wondered or dreamed about. Imagine a lamppost and dream colors, forms, patterns.
Be open and vulnerable — it’s better than to close in on yourself. Don’t worry about what other people think — most of them are thinking about themselves. I remember as a kid, I’d have a pimple with pus in it on my face and think everybody’s looking at it. Nobody’s looking at it.
In love, hold nothing back. Give yourself completely, generously accept the other without reservation. Nurture love with kindness, spices and gratitude, and don’t limit love. Be sure to include friendship and cultivate it.
Find a quiet place, at least within you. Take three deep breaths, exhale them slowly, and quiet the mind. If you’re at ease with yourself, others can be at ease with you, too.
Since no one is an island, quit acting like one. Reach out for help, ask for it and humbly admit your need. When help is given, do not act as if you are strong. Accept it tenderly.
Recognize that personal and social spheres of life have been thrust together, forcing a new kind of wholeness upon us. We have the opportunity to make our lives, our common life, the best anyone ever knew. Even to become what humankind always wished and strove for through all the ages of darkness and all the epiphanies of light.
And finally, make a clear decision. Drop the other shoe. Strip and dive into the water. Get on with it. Our lives are brief, measured by a few decades. Do you realize how few decades we have? We don’t really start til we’re 20. There aren’t many decades. While we’re here, our lives can either be unhappy, self-destructive, unproductive and lacking fire, or celebratory, loving, creative, and filled with spiritual energy.
To life. To life. To life.