Archive for September, 2016

Quote of the day: SCIENCE

September 29, 2016


We all know what a scientist looks like: a wild-eyed person in a white lab coat and utilitarian eyeglasses, wearing a pocket protector and holding a test tube. Mostly male. Usually white. [But when I was growing up in Hampton, VA,] the face of science was brown like mine. My dad was a NASA lifer, a career Langley Research Center scientist who became an internationally respected climate expert. Five of my father’s seven siblings were engineers or technologists. My father’s best friend was an aeronautical engineer. Our next-door neighbor was a physics professor. There were mathematicians at our church, sonic boom experts in my mother’s sorority and electrical engineers in my parents’ college alumni associations….I knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.

–Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures

Photo Diary: personal museum of obsolete devices

September 29, 2016

(click photos twice to enlarge)


Quote of the day: CLASS RESENTMENT

September 27, 2016


Liberals have long wondered why ­working-class voters support policies that (the liberals think) hurt the working class. Why would victims of pollution side with the polluters? Theories abound. Thomas Frank accuses the G.O.P. of luring voters with social issues but delivering tax cuts for the rich. Others point to the political machines built by ultra-wealthy donors like Charles and David Koch. Still others emphasize the influence of conservative media like Fox News. [Arlie Russell] Hochschild sees these as partial explanations but wants a fuller understanding of “emotion in politics” — she wants to know how Tea Partiers feel, on the theory that the movement serves their “emotional self-interest” by providing “a giddy release” from years of frustration….

Hochschild…assembles what she calls the “deep story” — a “feels as if” story, beyond facts or judgment, that presents her subjects’ worldview. It goes like this: “You are patiently standing in a long line” for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years. You are male. There are people of color behind you, and “in principle you wish them well.” But you’ve waited long, worked hard, “and the line is barely moving.” Then “Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you!” Who are these interlopers? “Some are black,” others “immigrants, refugees.” They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare — “checks for the listless and idle.” The government wants you to feel sorry for them. And who runs the government? “The biracial son of a low-income single mother,” and he’s cheering on the line cutters. “The president and his wife are line cutters themselves.” The liberal media mocks you as racist or homophobic. Everywhere you look, “you feel betrayed.”


Hochschild runs the myth past her Tea Party friends. “You’ve read my mind,” Lee Sherman said. “I live your analogy,” Mike Schaff said. Harold Areno’s niece agrees, and says she has seen people drive their children to Head Start in Lexuses. “If people refuse to work, we should let them starve,” she said. Actually, anger this raw may depart from the 1990s, when welfare critics often framed their attacks as efforts to help the poor by fighting dependency. The resentments Hochschild presents are unadorned, and they have mutated into a broader suspicion of almost everything the federal government does. “The government has gone rogue, corrupt, malicious and ugly,” one Tea Partier complains. “It can’t help anybody.”

Did welfare really “end”? Conservatives say no. Cash aid plummeted, but food stamp usage soared to new highs and the Medicaid rolls expanded. There’s room for debate, but the grievances Hochschild presents feel immune to policy solutions. As long as larger forces are squeezing whites of modest means, it’s going to “feel as if” people are cutting in line. In Lexuses.

–Jason DeParle, reviewing Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right in the New York Times

R.I.P.: Edward Albee

September 18, 2016

Edward Albee, the great American playwright who died last week at the age of 88, had one of the weirdest lives of any famous American writer. Adopted as an infant by a wealthy couple, Albee grew up in WASP splendor. He was driven to Broadway shows as a child in one of the family’s two Rolls-Royces, and every winter the clan decamped from the New York suburb of Larchmont to Palm Beach, traveling to Florida in his grandmother’s two private railroad cars hooked to the back of a passenger train. Lavished with money but emotionally frozen out by his pallid father and “dragon lady” mother, Albee fled the family at 20, spent a decade fumbling around Greenwich Village, and emerged at 30 a full-fledged playwright with 1959’s The Zoo Story, an existential encounter between two strangers on a park bench.

Over the next six years, he had four more enormous successes, none greater than the 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the play for which he will always be best known. This remarkable explosion of literary talent — all the more amazing for being dyspeptic, intellectually challenging, anything but warm and fuzzy — was followed by nearly 20 years of serious drinking and a string of increasingly mediocre plays. And then, just when it was time for him to die of an overdose or something, Albee zoomed back to prominence in 1994 with Three Tall Women, for which he was awarded his third Pulitzer Prize for drama. That play was an astonishingly gracious and poignant character study of the imperious, bigoted mother who insulted his friends, snubbed his lovers, and ultimately disinherited him because he is gay. This triumph launched a sweet late stage of Albee’s career, which included a number of minor playful new scripts, several major revivals, and one substantial new play, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, which won the Tony Award for best play in 2002.

I saw most of Albee’s work – the good, the bad, and the medium – and wrote about some of it. My one and only close encounter with the man himself came when I got the plum assignment to interview him for American Theater in 1992. This was, mind you, just before Three Tall Women zoomed him back to the forefront of the field. At the time I met him, he was teaching at the University of Houston and directing Shirley Knight and Tom Klunis in the American premiere of a tepid two-hander called Marriage Play. I was excited at the prospect – who wouldn’t want to meet the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – yet also wary. I’d spent a couple of days at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts reading every interview he’d ever done and noticed that he was always asked the same boring obvious questions and always gave the same boring pompous answers, practically verbatim. Having recently had a big success publishing an extremely cheeky Q-and-A with Madonna (see “The X-Rated Interview”), I was determined to make this conversation with Edward Albee something other than same-old-same-old.

edward-albee-1961-by-philippe-halsman                                              Edward Albee 1961, photographed by Philippe Halsman

The experience itself was underwhelming. My typewritten transcript begins: “Interview with Edward Albee in Houston, January 4, 1992, at his apartment in Houston House. Met me at the door wearing tinted glasses, familiar wrinkled leathery skin, dark blue knit shirt. A black cat (with white and orange trim) running around the house, a stray named Biscuit. The walls covered with art, most of it ghastly student work. Didn’t offer me anything to drink, just plunked down and started to talk. ‘I’ve been interviewed so much even in the last couple of years that I feel like everything’s been covered…’”

Later that day, I wrote in my diary: “Did the Albee interview at 11, talked for about two hours. Disappointing. What a frightened, tense, guarded man he is. I felt like I should have given him a massage before trying to interview him. Like the typical American man, he has a great deal of difficulty admitting to fear, weakness, self-doubt, vulnerability. Tyrannized by shoulds and imprisoned by his self-image. Deeply disingenuous — wants to have everything both ways. He shouldn’t have to give names to characters because it’s a waste of names — he likes that line and uses it often, ‘it’s a waste of names’ — but then he goes ahead and gives his characters symbolic names like Jack and Jill/Gillian, and then denies that they have symbolic value. He says Virginia Woolf is not about a gay couple but then says that gay and straight relationships are just the same. He’s never denied being gay but until recently he never made a positive statement either, which is like saying I’ve never voted Republican, therefore I’m a Democrat…

“When I came in, we sat right down and started –he didn’t offer me anything to drink, and he didn’t ask me what I thought of Marriage Play. I made cat chat and talked about living in Houston, otherwise there would have been no preamble to the interview. I was very diligent about thwarting him every time he went into one of his tape loops – ‘The purpose of art is…EJECT.’ He sat on the sofa, I sat on a chair, but he was so soft-spoken I moved closer, then partway into the interview I asked him to change places with me because the light from outside was reflecting onto his glasses and I couldn’t see his eyes. He was surprisingly at ease talking about gay stuff, and I got the impression that he would have been perfectly happy to gossip and chat about that stuff for hours. But he had rehearsal at 1, so I didn’t get to ask him everything I wanted to know. Don’t feel inclined to call him up and ask him the other questions, because he’s so clearly full of denial, self-deception, and forgetfulness that it’s fruitless to press for more self-revelation. He seemed to like me, though, and in a veiled way was somewhat flirtatious — asked me how long I would be in town, gave me his phone number. On the elevator he mentioned that Danny Kaye apparently had a love affair with Laurence Olivier.”

I went home, wrote the story, and handed it in to my editor, Jim O’Quinn. Besides being a legendary great magazine editor, Jim was an old friend and champion of mine who supported me wholeheartedly, gave me great assignments, and loved virtually everything I wrote. With the Albee piece, something unprecedented happened. Jim let me know that the publishers of American Theater magazine (Peter Zeisler and Lindy Zesch) objected to my challenging, somewhat bratty tone, thought I was badgering the artist in a way that was unseemly, and insisted that certain passages be cut. I’d never encountered this kind of interference from the upper echelons of Theater Communications Group, and being the stubborn Taurus that I am, I fought the cuts fiercely. In particular I had talked to Albee about his long relationships with composer William Flanagan and playwright Terrence McNally and wondered how come he never portrayed gay relationships like that in his plays. Apparently Peter Zeisler told Jim that “under no circumstances will the names of people Albee slept with 20 years ago, famous or no, appear in our pages.” I found this insulting and offensive and said so. Ultimately, though, I agreed to the cuts, and the piece was published to no big fanfare. Looking back at the correspondence now, it strikes me as pretty funny – I’m sort of impressed at how passionate I felt about these things. On my website, I’ve posted the article as it appeared in American Theater with the cuts restored. You can read it online here.

When I go back and re-read the unedited transcript, I experience Albee’s personality with great vividness, both his brittle exterior and the tender person just beneath that. I frequently quote something he said to me that day: “I suffer from CRAFT disease – Can’t Remember A Fucking Thing.” And I’m amused at the exchange we had about the light reflecting off his glasses. He was in the middle of an oft-repeated stale commentary about how Broadway should function as the American national theater when I interrupted him.

Me: Could we change places? The light is shining against your glasses, and I can’t see your eyes. Thanks. Continue.

Albee: I’ve finished that one.

Me: This is much better. I can see your eyes and get the whole face.

Albee: I’ll have to be more deceptive.



Culture Vulture: Holy Body Tattoo’s MONUMENTAL and nora chipaumire’s portrait of my father

September 18, 2016

I love artwork that shows me things I’ve never seen before. It’s why I’ve always been drawn to the downtown and other-borough venues that showcase emerging and experimental performance. The BAM Next Wave Festival began with a solid commitment to that realm of contemporary live art, and I’ve seen tremendous stuff there over the years. Inevitably, as the festival has become an international institution, there has been a drift toward brand names and sure-fire programming. But every so often BAM makes a new effort to tune into cutting-edge work, most recently by introducing the new cozy BAM Fisher (Fishman Space). This week I saw two shows by artists completely new to me (endorsed by my friend Keith Hennessy, himself a cutting-edge performance-maker/curator/teacher/scenester) and came away challenged and invigorated.

The Holy Body Tattoo is a Vancouver-based dance company that formed in 1993 and in 2006 morphed into a new entity called Animals of Distinction. In 2005, the company created monumental with choreography by company founders Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon, poetic films by William Morrison, texts by Jenny Holzer, and recorded music by Montreal emo band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Last year the bright idea emerged to revive the piece and tour it around to festivals with the band (who recently regrouped after being on hiatus for several years) playing live. I had no file on any of these artists except for Holzer, whose work with soulful/philosophical aphorisms I adore. When I arrived at the BAM Opera House, the ushers were handing out earplugs to nervous middle-aged patrons, which alerted me that it was going to be THAT kind of show, which usually thrills my rock-n-roll heart. The show was indeed a  multimedia spectacle with separate movement, sound, and visual tracks intertwining in provocative and compelling ways.

For the first half of the 85-minute piece, the nine dancers confined themselves to standing on boxes (or plinths, as they call them in the program) — for my taste, they ran out of interesting things to do up there pretty quickly so this section ran long for me. But after that, when they left the boxes, the dancing/movement/choreography kept transforming itself in ways that I could never pin down and mostly found exciting to watch.


The Holzer texts were longer than her usual one-liners and faded in and out unpredictably, forming chapters in a non-linear narrative. And the music was indeed monumental, droney and sweet and slow-building at times and then sometimes dense waves of squalling sound as three electric guitarists at high volume generated spooky crying overtones. Not quite like anything I’ve seen before, which is always high praise in my book.

Same went, only double, for nora chipaumire’s portrait of my father at the BAM Fisher.  It was ostensibly an exploration of black African masculinity centering on the father she never had any real relationship with. But from the minute you walk in the door this is an extremely layered piece in a space that is highly alive in every way. The stage is set up as a boxing ring with chipaumire and Pape Ibrahimas Ndiaye (representing her father/sparring partner) continuously connected via lengths of stretchy straps with Shamar Watt circulating as referee/cheerleader/stage-manager, constantly rearranging the portable floodlights that serve as the show’s only lighting. (A witty touch: instead of earplugs, the audience is issued cheap sunglasses in case the glare gets to be too much — a courtesy never offered at Richard Foreman shows.)

041316_0303_Nora's Dress Rehearsalportrait-of-myself-as-my-father-nora-chipaumire-nyc-march-2016-5917-2-xlportrait-of-myself-as-my-father-_640x359
But the activities, the costumes, the gestures, the masks, the soundscore, and the movement pile onto the boxing metaphor numerous other frameworks: hiphop concert, voodoo ritual, club performance, shamanic trance ceremony, and Wooster Group-style mediated theater. There’s a lot of movement that rarely looks like dancing, speech that rarely emerges as coherent sentences let alone narrative, sound that almost never sounds like music — and the whole thing is pretty riveting. The three performers push themselves to extremes of physical ability, gender identification, and cultural cross-reference.  I was dazzled. 


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