books, politics

the disbelief suspended

The British barrister and author John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole, defender of playwrights, the Sex Pistols, and free speech, is dead at the age of 85.

Doing these cases,” he wrote, “I began to find myself in a dangerous situation as an advocate. I came to believe in the truth of what I was saying. I was no longer entirely what my professional duties demanded, the old taxi on the rank waiting for the client to open the door and give his instruction, prepared to drive off in any direction, with the disbelief suspended.


books, politics

the watchful eye and patiently attentive ear

In politics, “realism” is usually just another term for pragmatism, or Realpolitik. But “Dreams From My Father” suggests that for Obama the word is rooted less in a political than in a literary tradition, where it has a far richer meaning. It signifies the watchful eye and patiently attentive ear; a proper humility in the face of the multiplex character of human society; and, most of all, a belief in the power of the writer’s imagination to comprehend and ultimately reconcile the manifold contradictions in his teeming world. It’s not much to go on, but, so far, naming his cabinet and organizing his inauguration, incorporating into the narrative characters and voices quite different from his own (like Hillary Clinton’s or Rick Warren’s), Obama has demonstrated an impressive consistency between his instincts as a writer and his performance as president-elect. He reminds us that novelists, no less than apprentice politicians, are in the business of community organizing.

– Jonathan Raban, “All The Presidents’ Literature,” WSJ

politics, theater


Terry Teachout, one of my favorite drama critics, and author of the influential theater weblog About Last Night, has weighed in on LCT’s choosing director Bart Sher to direct August Wilson’s JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE. He writes, in the WSJ on Dec 20th:

Sometimes nontraditional casting works, sometimes it doesn’t, and there are no hard-and-fast rules that are universally applicable. That’s the nature of theater: It’s an empirical art form whose rules are made up from scratch each time a group of actors comes together to put on a show. But as for the alleged institutional racism of Lincoln Center Theater, I don’t buy it for a second. My guess is that Bartlett Sher will do at least as well by “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” as he would by “The Iceman Cometh” — and if he doesn’t, I doubt that it’ll be because he’s white.

I don’t doubt that this is true, at least in the respect of Sher’s excellence. He is an extraordinary director. Unfortunately, I still wish Wilson’s wishes about having black directors direct his work were being respected.

I stand by the principle that copyright is not a good thing for playwrights, and that directors and producing institutions should have greater freedom in their productions. Now, here are the consequences of that principle. I have argued elsewhere against respecting playwrights’ wishes when it comes to all sorts of things – casting, edits, stage directions, even the text. It seems to me that the sooner that living playwrights become dead-and-uncopyrighted playwrights, the better for their plays. But Wilson is not long dead, and this conscious disregarding of his adamant preference simply doesn’t feel respectful. It’s too soon, and the American theater landscape still has far, far, far too few opportunities for directors of color. (Don’t even get me started on women directors…)

No matter how you look at it, by choosing Sher to direct this play, Lincoln Center is going against August Wilson’s explicit wishes, or what they were in his lifetime. That startles me, and I have trouble believing it’s true. On the other hand, to be fair, LCT and Sher have the approval of Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, in this choice. (Via BroadwayWorld.)

The remarkably small amount of outcry over this director casting means only one thing – August Wilson’s popular plays, which are frequently performed all over this country and the world, are going to be directed by more and more white directors from now on. Why? Because more directors are white, and more producers are white, and more successful, well-known directors are white. The easiest casting choice, when a white producer chooses a director, is – another white director. I have seen this proved over and over again in practice in the field.

Now that LCT has done this, anyone can. Where one of the country’s most prominent theaters leads, the smaller institutions will follow. This, more than anything, is what I wish wasn’t true, because there are many great black directors in this country who made their careers on August Wilson when they weren’t getting hired for Shakespeare and Chekhov.

Ultimately, this turn of events means that another avenue for black directors to advance in American theater has been narrowed.

Here’s another interesting article: Brendan Kiley’s take on the whole thing, in THE STRANGER’s SLOG blog.
If one has faith in Wilson’s work and theater audiences, one expects Beijing directors to be working with his scripts in 2687. So whey-faced Sher directing him is only a baby step in what will be Wilson’s long, universal legacy.
Kiley goes on to quote actor James Williams and agree with him that the most disturbing thing about LCT’s choice is “not the whiteness of Sher, but the blinding whiteness that surrounds him”: in other words, the fault is with what Williams calls “the dominant culture,” white culture, not with LCT and Sher in particular.

I suppose that’s true, but if the particular is not to be held as an example of the culture, then everyone can always blame the culture as opposed to themselves.

(Addendum: I was not aware of one fact mentioned in the Teachout article, which was that Gordon Davidson had recently directed Wilson’s JITNEY for the Kennedy Center staged reading festival of Wilson’s work earlier this year. )

Cali, politics

the face(s) of gay marriage in California

Now that prosecutor Ken Starr has filed a legal brief on behalf of the Yes on Prop 8 folks, to nullify the 18,000 gay marriages performed in California from May to November 2008, the pro-gay marriage Courage Campaign has pictures up now from many of California’s gay couples in a Please Don’t Divorce Us campaign.

It is a very heartbreaking stream of images, when you think about all these families being forcibly divorced. In another way, it’s quite uplifting to see the range of ages, races, the different backgrounds of the couples – the diversity of gay marriages across the state. To see their kids and families all around them in support.

I am still hopeful that Prop 8 will be overturned. In fact, as of yesterday, CA. Attorney General Jerry Brown has asked the court to move forward to overturn Prop 8, reversing his earlier stance on the proposition.

The quote from him is: “Proposition 8 must be invalidated because the amendment process cannot be used to extinguish fundamental constitutional rights without compelling justification.”

art, politics, theater

Bart Sher to direct August Wilson? Really?

I am very surprised to have to report that Bartlett Sher, artistic director of the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, will be the first white director to ever direct a Broadway production of one of August Wilson’s plays – JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE at Lincoln Center next spring.

All previous Broadway productions of Wilson’s work have been directed by black directors. The NYT and Playbill reports of this news failed to note this fact, focusing instead on Sher’s recent Tony for South Pacific. I got this news from ArtsJournal, who got it from the Pioneer Press, out of Minneapolis.

Some responses:

This is another way of saying that the dominant culture knows more about us than we know about ourselves.
Actor James Williams

I’m still a little troubled by the decision. Racial representation in theater (at least in New York) has not improved much since the Wilson-Brustein debates. Other than LaMaMa’s Ellen Stewart, there is not a single artistic director of color at a major New York theater, 80 percent of plays produced in New York are by white men despite the fact that white men account for roughly 15 percent of New York City’s population, casts remain segregated, and black directors rarely get tapped to direct plays by white writers.
– from critic Isaac Butler’s comments in the Time Out New York blog.

The issue, of course, is access — if Lincoln Center won’t hire a black director to direct an August Wilson play, what will they hire a black director to do? I get that Sher is the resident director, he’s on staff, he’s done big things for them before, and I get (and kind of think it’s great) that he’d want to direct a Great American Play to follow up his Great American Musical (South Pacific) — and it’s wonderful that Wilson’s work is considered to fill that role. But if the door doesn’t open for directors here, where does it open?
– playwright & blogger Kristoffer Diaz


beyond domestic partnership

Words on CA’s Prop 8 from my friend and former Stanford RA, Li Han Chan. She put this in an email and I asked her permission to quote it:

Some people say the right to domestic partnership is enough, but really, it isn’t. While domestic partnerships, in law, grant same-sex couples all state-level rights and obligations of marriage — in areas such as inheritance, income tax, insurance and hospital visitation, every step requires extra documentation to prove the union is legit, and that domestic partners in fact do have those rights (e.g. if you want to visit your partner in the hospital, you’ll have to do much more than just show a small credit card sized marriage license.) This is what the 21st century LGBT version of “Separate but Equal” is like. We’re not even talking about federal rights yet, such as immigration.


right now

Please help and sign the pledge to repeal California’s Proposition 8, which overturned the recently won right of gay couples to marry in CA, and made same-sex marriage illegal in the state, as of the 11/4/08 election.

We have to come together right now to say that we refuse to accept a California where discrimination is enshrined in our state constitution.

I have tried so many times to write on this subject and it keeps on stopping me – I feel so strongly that gay people should be allowed to marry that I am getting all tangled up in the emotions and not finishing the essay. But here are the notable anti-Prop 8 arguments, from

– “Our California Constitution–the law of our land—should guarantee the same freedoms and right to everyone. No one group should be singled out to be treated differently.”
– “Equal protection under the law is the foundation of American society.”
“Traditional Marriage” is a misleading term. Various marriage traditions, since abolished, have included: only allowing members of the upper class or nobility to marry; having marriages arranged by families without the couple’s consent; only allowing white people to marry; only allowing people of the same race to marry; and allowing one man to marry multiple women.
– Current statistics show roughly 50% of heterosexual marriages end in divorce. So-called “traditional marriage” is doing more to degrade the institutional of marriage than any expansion of marriage could ever do.
– Voter initiatives to amend the constitution should not be taken lightly; using them to take away rights from one group could open the door to voter initiatives to take away other rights, including religious freedoms and civil rights.
The institution of marriage conveys dignity and respect to the lifetime commitment that a couple makes. Proposition 8 would deny lesbian and gay couples the opportunity to that same dignity and respect.
– “The freedom to marry is fundamental to our society, just like the freedoms of religion and speech.”
– When domestic partnerships are held out as an acceptable substitute for marriage, this is misleading. Domestic partnerships are not a substitute for marriage. The doctrine of “separate but equal” has failed throughout American history.

a propos of nothing, politics

shout-out to 1968

I recently learned that some of my parents’ friends* from the glorious decade of the 1960s are reading my blog. Far be it from me to name-check – we here at SOS never drop anything, especially not names – but I strongly suggest that, in celebration of these folks and their groundbreaking era of struggle for civil rights in this country, without which** we would not have the political landscape that made possible the candidacy and the victory of our wonderful President-elect Obama, we all go to YouTube and watch Tim Armstrong and Skye Sweetnam singing “Into Action.” Not only does the song celebrate the general premise of Getting Stuff Done, it shouts out to the NorCal Bay Area, from whence these, er, mavericks came, where the ebullient dreamscape of my heart resides, where I will live again one day if I have to boil my cowboy boots and make a soup to do it. Well, maybe not my Portland cowboy boots. But you know what I mean.

*If any of these legendary folks are reading, they should comment. That’d be so cool. Davis, baby! Davis!

**I’m not saying that my parents’ friends, or the Sixties, are in any way directly responsible for Obama’s election. I’m just saying that the movement for change has a history and that that decade is part of that history, and I want to celebrate that history, this month, while we celebrate his election too. I spent many years feeling like we, my generation, had lost the spirit of the Sixties.
Now I know we never did.


from No on Prop 8 committee: “We achieve nothing if we isolate the people who did not stand with us in this fight. “

Dear Dara,
This has been an incredibly difficult week for Californians who are disappointed in the passage of Proposition 8, which takes away the right to marry for same-sex couples in our state. We feel a profound sense of disappointment in this defeat, but know that in order to move forward we must continue to stand together as one community in order to secure full equality in California.

In working to defeat Prop 8, a profound coalition banded together to fight for equality. Faith leaders, labor, teachers, civil rights leaders and communities of color, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, public officials, local school boards and city councils, parents, corporate law firms and bar associations, businesses, and people from all walks of life joined together to stand up against discrimination. We must build on this coalition in order to achieve equal rights for all Californians.

We achieve nothing if we isolate the people who did not stand with us in this fight. We only further divide our state if we attempt to blame people of faith, African American voters, rural communities and others for this loss. We know people of all faiths, races and backgrounds stand with us in our fight to end discrimination, and will continue to do so. Now more than ever it is critical that we work together and respect our differences that make us a diverse and unique society. Only with that understanding will we achieve justice and equality for all.

Dr. Delores A. Jacobs
Center Advocacy Project

Lorri L. Jean
L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center

Kate Kendell
Executive Director
National Center for Lesbian Rights

Geoff Kors
Executive Director
Equality California