east village

JAMES ROMBERGER GOES FOR THE GOLD

  Greenport Station_smBy Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

“Dust”

Pastels by James Romberger

Dorian Grey Gallery

November 19 – January 3, 2016

James Romberger is the king of pastels, legendary for his gritty urban scenes of the Lower East Side. These new works signal a shift that began a couple of years ago in France, toward views of peace and prosperity while preserving a socially critical eye. In this show, Romberger has traded the city as a primary subject matter and returned to his roots on Long Island’s North Fork.

Homes around the town of Greenport are the focus of several pieces. Among these, the nocturnes will knock your socks off. Architecture, with its connotations of security, is presented as aloof and remote. In “Pink Dusk,” evening is presaged by a ribbon of pink. Situated behind a protective fence, a two-story home is silhouetted. The driveway is lit up triggering competing associations: is this a warm welcome or a security measure?

“Island Nocturne” is keenly handsome. A barn style home is seen from the street. Framing it on either side is the Long Island Sound, its Prussian blue surface matched by a band of equally blue sky. The porch is brightly lit up, as is one second story window. But no humans are visible. Romberger manages to imbue this scene of tranquility and domesticity with sublime intimations. While the picture is unequivocally beautiful, the excessive lighting on the porch and on the horizon is also foreboding, reminding us of global warming and rising sea levels.

The show includes five still lifes, representing another thematic shift for Romberger. It’s fitting that among the yard sale items depicted, is a copy of Mythologies by Roland Barthes, whose theories observe how we see things and what their multiple codes signify. The book is paired with cutesy kitsch figures and a bouquet in a vase, all placed on a folded cloth. The compositional elements harmonize with each other, their various shapes forming a fluid and dynamic tableaux.

“Still Life #2” substitutes the book with an I-phone. An old-fashioned lamp casts a homey spell on the scene. If it weren’t for the I-phone, this inviting picture would be an acronym, evoking a nostalgic flashback to Sinclair Lewis’s bourgeois character Babbitt and his seemingly cozy reading chair. Echoing Barthes’ critiques of archetypes, the objects that Romberger chooses to include invite scrutiny regarding taste, the popular imagination and aspiration.

“Greenport Station” is an unabashedly sentimental masterpiece. The colors have skewed slightly toward Fauvism. Purple and gold clouds appear on the horizon. A red caboose is parked at an angle by the terminal. Here at the end of the line, we’re primed and ready for a magical excursion — and James Romberger provides our conveyance.

Patricia Spears Jones reviews A Swarm of Bees in High Court

  Tonya M. Foster’s well-built house of words, A Swarm of Bees In High Court is a rather grand one with many rooms. Belladonna has placed these poems in a handsome volume with cover art by Wangechi Mutu. Max Ernst’s painting, A Swarm of Bees in the Palace of Justice at The Menil Foundation in Houston provided a jumping off point for her consideration of shape and color, colored by myriad experiences from an erotic encounter in which the speaker reflects while her lover sleeps his satisfied sleep to bullets and basketball. Bees argue in the rooms of this artful house. They question power. They find sweetness. Change direction. Upend expectation. Find the Queen imperious to pleading or lack of sweetness. Foster’s poems be like that.

In/Somnia is for this reviewer, the most emotionally compelling section of this book. The post coital lovers make for an easy apprehension, but then Foster is not interested in easy apprehension. “Again to t/his sweat. Now sleep./But not for her—sleep.” Words are cut up, punctuation is almost too precise. The speaker’s insomnia reveals or conceals depending on where one is in the poem, anxiety, anger, vulnerability, pleasure, like picking the cuticle—gross, but it’s your own finger.

Can running her

finger, like a hiss along

t/his clavicle trip up

parenthetical

affection? Full of sleep

 

This is a poet for whom sound is an important ingredient in the poem’s architecture. Finger . . . hiss—those short vowels and intense consonants. The sleepless lover is either remaking herself in her “dramas, get chased round the block/by rabid white dogs or “She’s come to take this/as survival gospel/for sub’urban souls”. In/Somnia is a great introduction to Foster’s formal structure—like many contemporary poets she uses tercets and word play is very important. The sounds, puns, how the stanzas are arranged on the page contribute to a holistic sensibility—one self-referential, but also abstract, a kind of first person/third person face off in which the reader is kept a discrete distance. We can see the figures, make out gestures, have an understanding the tableaux, but there is much I do see, hear, can’t make out. That wakefulness after love making is the blues in its greatest mystery—what did the lovers get, and what is always missing?

Color becomes a motif throughout the book, particularly red. Red for blood, for flower, for rage, for love. And with red, she explores couplets and quatrains (lyricism’s favored stanzas):

red culled from rubia or madder root lends the hermit majesty, (the woman infamy),

red culled from sawdust of the brazilwood tree primped a pope’s robes, pimped pus(sy),

red culled from clay, from crushed cochineal, kermes, from worms dried and ground,

red culled from cinnabar mined by the enslaved, the imprisoned, not-I’s,

(In/Somniloquies)

The color Black allows for an interesting contrast: “Blackity-black girl” who hears “Voice of a woman on tv offers her sick roommate medicine.” And another “Voice of a woman on a corner: “Stick your thumb up your ass. Smell it.” Black women as healers, soothers, aspirational shills (oh Oprah) in contrast with that “Blackity—black girl” who is simply tired of the shit, oh which will be that Queen? Who hears “the hive of sound/”As if beats blind us.”

Foster narrates the external anxieties meted out in communal theater—the streets, the basketball courts of Harlem, and other urban enclaves where Blacks mingle for good and ill. The “Bullet/In” section focuses on the missiles that meet too many bodies in urban spaces such as Harlem. Again, the poet effectively uses tercets. Her diction is high court street—one thing you learn living in this city is how well versed many young people are with the courts, with police procedure because all too often they have found themselves in court. As the poet notes, “bullets can/Blot a page, train an eye to/follow and often followed are “Bodies of young men—site specific installations—streets, stoops, corners, cells.” Black bodies male and female too often are found violated in this society. The ordinariness of this violence is enraging and Foster has found a way to explore that rage, “beats blind us.”

The Belladonna Collaborative is bringing out important work by African American women poets from highly diverse backgrounds including Latasha Diggs, TWERK and R. Erica Doyle’s proxy showing poets whose use of language is breathtakingly daring. Now, Tonya M. Foster’s A Swarm of Bees in High Court is added to this vital list.

Foster’s imaginative work glories in language’s ambiguities, discords, emotions and logic—she allows that imaginative thrall to explore race and gender and political dysfunction. Foster has taken from one work of art and found correspondences in a Harlem apartment, a New Orleans childhood, early morning television commercials, a lover’s sated face, the sounds of bullets and basket balls, bees, and the colors, red, brown and black to make a powerful debut collection that will be read and re-read for years to come.

 

 

 

Amiri Baraka's Play about W.E.B Du Bois, via Woodie King Jr.

 

Photo

The director and producer Woodie King Jr. at a rehearsal of “Most Dangerous Man in America.”CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

 

Even a relentlessly adventurous producer and director like Woodie King Jr. was bound to reach a breaking point when it came to Amiri Baraka.

For a half century, ever since Mr. King had his theater shut down and was nearly arrested in 1964 for presenting Mr. Baraka’s “The Toilet” in Detroit, the two men had brought to the stage a barrage of incendiary characters and themes. A middle-aged Tarzan, a Faustian Sidney Poitier, a slave ship, what Mr. Baraka called a “coon show”: These and many other theatrical Molotov cocktails found their way into works at Mr. King’s New Federal Theater and elsewhere.

But the last script that Mr. Baraka, who died in January 2014, handed Mr. King, “Most Dangerous Man in America (W. E. B. Du Bois),” was another matter altogether. The subject matter was no surprise: the revered African-American scholar and civil rights activist Du Bois, whose evolution from black nationalism to Marxism closely paralleled Mr. Baraka’s own.

Its size, however, was.

Photo

Amiri Baraka, who wrote the play. He died in 2014.CreditChester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

“This thing was 250 pages long,” said Mr. King, whose theater has provided an early theatrical home for notables like Ed Bullins, Ntozake Shange and David Henry Hwang. “Ossie Davis was doing the initial reading, and he and Baraka just got into it: ‘Look, you can’t give an actor no 250-page play!’ “ (Going by the page-a-minute rule, it would have run over four hours.)

That first reading was roughly a decade ago. Mr. Baraka came back a year later with a 90-page draft, having jettisoned reams of courtroom material and several characters, including Paul Robeson. Finally, at a 2013 arts festival in Atlanta, he gave Mr. King a lean but no less wide-ranging 50-page version.

This final iteration — or one very close to it — begins previews on May 28 at the Castillo Theater, the New Federal’s most recent home. It comes on the heels of a New Federal revival of “Dutchman,” the 1964 play that vaulted Mr. Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) to stardom.

Despite Mr. Baraka’s success as a playwright, Mr. King said the two men had bonded over music rather than theater. “We mostly talked about what clothes the jazz musicians wore,” he said. Having mutual friends like Langston Hughes also paved the way for a long-lasting friendship that would include collaborating on literary anthologies and documentaries.

“Most Dangerous Man” focuses on a period in Du Bois’s life with particular resonance for Mr. Baraka. Just as his Sept. 11-themed poem “Somebody Blew Up America” turned a fairly comfortable late-career job into a political firestorm, Du Bois, at 82, found his status as America’s leading black intellectual threatened in 1950 when he became chairman of a nuclear disarmament group and was accused of being an agent of a foreign state.

The ensuing indictment led to the confiscation of Du Bois’s passport and the rejection of many of his colleagues at the N.A.A.C.P. (a group he helped found). Mr. Baraka’s play, which still has a cast of 18 despite the trims, bounces between Du Bois’s trial and groups of working-class African-Americans reacting to the news of the trial on television and in newspapers.

Du Bois also steps forward on occasion to speak words from his speeches and writings. It was these rather sizable chunks of material that gave Mr. King pause. “In all of my conversations with Baraka, the hardest thing in the world was to find a Du Bois,” he said. “No 80-year-old can do that part.”

Photo

Art McFarland stars in “Most Dangerous Man in America,” as W. E. B. Du Bois.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

By the time he had raised the funding (in part through a Kickstarter campaign) to present “Most Dangerous Man,” a new Du Bois had surfaced in Art McFarland, who had retired from his decades-long newscaster position at WABC in 2014 and soon joined the New Federal’s board.

“My plan was to gradually ease my way back into acting,” said Mr. McFarland, who had trained as an actor before entering journalism and who had caught Mr. King’s eye during at least one of those early productions. “When Woodie called me about playing Du Bois for my first show, I spent the rest of the weekend with my jaw hanging open.”

Mr. Baraka converted to Marxism in the early 1970s, decades after he had inaccurately but presciently received a dishonorable discharge from the Air Force on suspicions of being a Communist. This conversion, Mr. King said, had everything to do with exposure to Du Bois’s writing.

And when Mr. Baraka was sold on something, he set out to convert friends as well as audiences. “Every once in a while,” Mr. King said, “Baraka would call you at 3 a.m. and say, ‘Hey, man, pick up “The Souls of Black Folk” and call me back.’ ”

This history reverberates through “Most Dangerous Man,” particularly as an elderly Du Bois looks back on his life. “I have been despised for so long for being black,” he says in the play, “that to tell me you will despise me because now I declare myself officially Red, does not faze me in the least.” (“I like to think Baraka had some fun sticking that line in there,” Mr. McFarland said.)

A continued commitment to Mr. Baraka’s work signals that the New Federal Theater, in its 46th year, hasn’t abandoned the hunger for experimentation and political inquiry that paved the way for works like “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” and “The Taking of Miss Janie.”

In fact, “Dutchman” has been the subject of periodic radical suggestions from Mr. King, including the proposed casting of the drag performer Neil Flanagan as the female lead in the 1970s, something its author never let him forget. “Amiri would stand up places and introduce me, ‘Here’s the man wants to mess up my play,’ “ Mr. King said.

Forty years after looking to take some liberties with Mr. Baraka’s first play, Mr. King is toeing the line with his last one. “These are the words that Du Bois gave, and these are the words that Baraka wrote,” he said. “This is real stuff.”

Tribes in the NY Times!

gaia01 (1)

It was 1970, a year after Steve Cannon’s novel, “Groove, Bang and Jive Around,” was published, that he used proceeds from its sale to buy a three-story townhouse on East Third Street, just east of Avenue C, with a brick facade and a hospitable stoop.

Over the decades, that stoop became a gathering spot where Mr. Cannon and friends, including many from the nearby Nuyorican Poets Cafe, held wide-ranging conversations that lasted all night. Those freewheeling discussions moved indoors in 1991, when Mr. Cannon turned parts of the building into a gallery and salon known as A Gathering of the Tribes. There, he and others published magazines and organized readings and art exhibitions.

“It became a center for poets, musicians and artists from all over the world,” Mr. Cannon said. “People realized they could be themselves there because it gave the feeling of being at home.”

Faced with debt, Mr. Cannon sold the building in 2004, with an agreement that he could continue living and holding events on the second floor. That arrangement began to fray in 2011, and last year Mr. Cannon, 79 and blind, moved out of his home of more than 40 years.

The photographer Gaia Squarci spent several weeks documenting life inside the Tribes gallery. Her images show Mr. Cannon’s comrades arriving for final farewells, helping to pack books and using saws to remove a section of wall that had been painted by the artist David Hammons.

Mr. Cannon moved into an apartment a few blocks away. He has continued to organize readings, but they are now held in other places. Friends still visit to work on an anthology of art and poetry that Mr. Cannon is putting together or to discuss their own projects. Sometimes, he said, they reminisce about the good times on Third Street.

“It’s the same spirit here,” he said, “Only there’s less room and fewer people stopping by.”

see it here.

Two Conversations by Jessica Slote

Two conversations, Friday, Dec. 12, late afternoon, dusk 1. Haitian cab driver, young man, beautiful

How are ya, thanks! This is terrific. Beautiful night…, where you from?

…I have two Haitian girls in my class—deux jeunes filles jolies, intelligentes, and ….how you say? funny!

Marant! Elles sont marant! …Been here since he was thirteen. Did some French school in Haiti. But here in New York he doesn’t speak much French. “I lost my culture.” Going to school again now. What are you studying? Oh he’s not studying in a school, just at the library. He goes there every day. Reads. So what do you study? Wanted to do criminal justice did two years in a school…. But realized there might be any jobs. Not jobs in courts, no jobs in police. Driving a cab now and studying on his own, not sure what, wants to learn something with his hands. He figures there’s always work for people who work with their hands. Tomorrow there’s a big march you know. Be terrible traffic. ? Millions March….. to protest the killing of black men by the cops…. He saw another march the other day, the traffic was stopped up and he got out of his car to see what was going on, he asked some people what was it about He doesn’t talk about that sort of thing with people…. you know I tell him I understand, he’s in the service industry Just yes sir, no sir….. I get it, that’s your business…. you make a living…. … So as we turn down 23rd st. at 8th Avenue he says, I gotta tell you a story. A friend of mine, my best friend, he drives a cab too and he was returning the taxi late one night to the lot in Brooklyn. There are so many taxis and so many cars of people who live there that often you have to park the cab far away, 10-15 blocks away. He parked the car and then he was walking to the lot. Two police cars pulled up one in front one behind they jumped out and one pulled out a gun. My friend he said, whoa like this he puts his hands up and the cops tell him to get up against the car. They ask him where he’s coming from and where he’s going and he says he parked his cab and he’s walking to the lot what is it what did I do? and they tell him that a store was just robbed in the neighborhood, they’re looking for a young black guy your age wearing jeans and dark coat. My friend he says something, whoa no that’s not me or something like that and they…. beat him. They beat him and they arrested him. They said he was resisting arrest. He was in jail for 6 weeks. At Rikers. I went there to visit him. Ohhhhhh that is terrible terrible place…. I was scared. They fined him fifteen hundred dollars. He had to pay. And they tried to take his license away, but the cab company didn’t do it. ….. OMG …. We pull up in front of the London Terrace Gardens. Thank God your friend is okay in the end thank God they didn’t take his license. He thanks me and says it was nice talking to you.

2. In the London Terrace Gardens visiting with Elsie and Teresa. We are drinking whiskey. Teresa tells the story of her son. Teresa: My oldest son he came here at 21 spoke no English nothing but he learn very fast and he study he went right into college today he is doctor, he is 40! But my younger son he was 12 when he came here. He real American guy. He study two years in the university but he didn’t want to do no more, so he decide he want to be a police. He want to help people protect them from bad guys. Now he a police! But Jessie, do you know anyone in police? My son he asked me, Mom I gotta get out of there. He work in housing project in Brooklyn. He only white face in whole place. All people hate him. He say he can see hate in their faces. He say everyone police get transferred out. But you got to know someone. He scared. I scared too. What he gonna do?

Text and photos: Jessica Slote, NYC, Dec. 12. 2014

Why Asian Americans Might Not Talk About Ferguson

Why Asian Americans Might Not Talk About Ferguson

by 

Two years ago, I found myself trying to break into my friends’ apartment.

I had coordinated their wedding a few days earlier, and they had since departed for their honeymoon.  A box from the wedding was supposed to go to one of the guests, only to end up in their apartment.  Now the guest wanted the box, and I, having a key to their home, needed to retrieve it.

My friends had warned me that the key had a tendency to stick, though that proved to be an understatement.  After 10 minutes of wrestling with it, my hands sore from twisting and straining, I gave up.  The box would have to wait.  But I thought about the maintenance man I had seen across the courtyard as I struggled with the door; surely he would have a functional key.

The request was ridiculous, I knew:  I had never seen this person before.  He had absolutely no reason to believe my reasons for needing to enter the apartment.  But I figured I had nothing to lose, so I waved him over and asked if he would let me in.

Much to my surprise, he did — no questions asked.  Even more shocking was the fact that he unlocked the door and immediately left, not bothering to wait around and make sure that I didn’t ransack the place.  He let a complete stranger into an apartment that wasn’t his and walked away.

As I entered the apartment and started looking for the box, I was incredulous — and I was never more aware of the privileges I have as an Asian American woman.

Would this person have ever let me into the apartment if I were a black man?  I’m not a betting person, but even I would put serious money on the answer being no.  I probably would’ve been asked to leave the premises, too.

Yes, I experience a host of disadvantages as an Asian American woman, but I can’t deny that I also have a number of privileges — one of which is that no one ever suspects me of wrongdoing.  Thus I found myself on my hands and knees in my friends’ living room, opening and closing boxes, let in by a stranger who was now nowhere to be seen.

****

Race is complicated, especially for those who don’t fit into the black and white binary that usually frames conversations about race in this country.  This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why I’ve seen such varied responses to Ferguson in my Asian American circles.  I’ve seen Asian Americans lamenting and protesting; I’ve seen Asian Americans declaring that no injustice was done; but more often than not, I’ve seen Asian Americans completely silent.

Race is complicated for us.  On one hand, we’re disadvantaged in many ways.  We’re perpetually seen as foreigners, as people who don’t belong here.  Our successes are often attributed our race instead of our own talent or hard work.  We’re overlooked for promotions, walked over in social and professional situations, openly mocked.  We’re reduced to stereotypes, our women hypersexualized and fetishized, our men emasculated.  Multiple laws have been passed to exclude us from immigration and citizenship.  Tens of thousands of us, in a stunning violation of constitutional rights, were forcibly removed from their homes, communities, jobs, and possessions and relocated to internment camps during World War II — and released back into society, years later, with nothing.  We’ve been the victims of hate crimes from vandalism to murder.  Like all people of color in the US, Asian Americans have been consistent targets of individual and systemic racism.

But as Asian Americans, we do have some privileges.  People generally assume that we’re smart and hardworking, which is reductive but infinitely preferable to people assuming the opposite.  We’re assumed to be good tenants, reliable employees, responsible citizens — not troublemakers.  Teachers and police officers — and maintenance workers — tend to believe the best about us and not to suspect or fear us.  The impact of these beliefs on how we experience the world cannot be overstated.  It’s not surprising that at 17, when I first heard in a freshman seminar that I was oppressed because I was Asian American, my first response was skepticism.

So when a conversation about race is framed in black and white terms — which, in this country, is the case more often than not — it’s not always clear who we should be identifying with.  We don’t have quite the same disadvantages or quite the same history of oppression as black people, but we aren’t fully accepted like white people, either.  Our experiences don’t always clearly dictate which side we belong on.

And then there are all the other cultural and social factors that influence how we respond to events like Ferguson.

For one, Asian cultures strongly value harmony and not creating conflict.  The American proverb says that the squeaky wheel gets the grease; the Japanese proverb says that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Thus, even in the face of controversial events, even when we ourselves are the victims of wrongdoing, many Asian Americans tend to remain silent.

This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that more than 90% of Asian Americans are immigrants or children of immigrants1 — people shaped by an immigrant mindset of keeping your head down and your mouth shut, even if the circumstances are terrible. Because you want to be welcomed and accepted here, and complaining usually creates the opposite response, even if those complaints are warranted.

Along with that immigrant mentality can come a need to survive at all costs — at least in my family.  My parents desperately wanted my brother and me to succeed in this country, and the only way to ensure that was for us to beat everyone else.  So they instilled in us a deep competitiveness, a need to be the best.  I grew up with a sense that I had to fight for my own success and not let other people or their problems drag me down, an attitude that haunts me still.

And then you have the anti-black sentiment that pervades Asian and Asian American communities. There are plenty of better-researched, better-written explanations for these attitudes, but in my experience, the human predisposition to stereotype and the fairly universal attitudes about light skin being superior to dark skin are exacerbated in cultures that are racially homogenous.  We see this in the US:  Communities that have very little diversity, where there is little contact with people of different races, tend to have the strongest stereotypes.  In Asian countries, where the overwhelming majority of people have black hair and brown eyes, it’s especially easy to generalize about those with different phenotypes, either positively or negatively.  And immigrants bring those attitudes with them to the States.

Once they’re here, they encounter the model minority myth, the erroneous belief that Asians have been more successful in America than other races because of inherent positive qualities.  Asians didn’t create this myth; it was created by a white sociologist who stereotyped Asians and other races without any sense of history.  But many Asian Americans have bought into it, and some propagate it themselves.  Because after all, it’s a story that serves us, at least on the surface.  It also aligns us with white people, the people with power, the people we want to accept us — and it can bring us comfort to think that we’re not at the bottom of the totem pole.  And sometimes we keep our distance from those at the bottom, consciously or otherwise, out of fear that others will lump us together.

So when you have all of these factors at play and something like Ferguson happens, it isn’t terribly surprising that many Asian Americans stay quiet.  People’s responses vary considerably, of course, but when you consider all of these factors — the cultural value of not causing a stir, the immigrant attitudes of looking out for ourselves and wanting to be accepted, not wanting to be associated with people lower than us on the social food chain — it’s almost remarkable that Asian Americans have spoken up at all.

Make no mistake:  I don’t think that any of these factors let us off the hook when it comes to speaking and acting against injustice.  I feel very strongly about what happened in Ferguson, the wider systemic injustices it reflects, and the need for people of all races to act.  But the events of the last few weeks, and the consequent responses (and lack thereof), have made me reflect on the many things that had to happen in order for me to become vocal about issues like these.

I needed to learn about the systemic racism that pervades our society, that manifests in things like the targeting of black men.  I needed to learn the ugly history that led to these realities, much of which I had not learned in school.

I needed to acknowledge my own biases and those of my family and community, to understand their origins, and to learn how to challenge them whenever they appear in my head, in conversations with others, in public forums.

I needed to learn that my only-out-for-myself attitude was ultimately not helpful for me or for anyone around me.  I needed to learn that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, as Martin Luther King said; that if one part of the body suffers, every part suffers (1 Corinthians 12.26); that ending injustice — all injustice — is a central part of what God wants to see in the world (Isaiah 58.6, Luke 4.18).

I needed to learn that some things are worth rocking the boat for — and that if I wasn’t proactive about fighting injustice, I was quietly perpetuating it.

So many things needed to happen in order for me to feel comfortable being vocal and active about issues of race; there were cultural and social barriers to overcome, things to learn, attitudes to examine.  And I still have a lot of work to do.  Again, I’m not excusing anyone for failing to speak up — but I acknowledge that being active about issues of race, for Asian Americans, often means swimming against a strong current.

So let me ask you:

What do you need to do?

———

1 Zhou, M., & Yang, X. (2005). The multifaceted American experiences of the children of Asian immigrants: Lessons for segmented assimilation. Ethnic and Racial Studies28, 1119-1152.  (Article available here.)

- See more at: http://thesaltcollective.org/asian-americans-might-talk-ferguson/#sthash.U14plIPf.dpuf

December 19th- Language Matters at Tribes

Happy Holidays from us and ours to you and yours!

 

One important event this month! Just one! Friday December 19th.

 

"Live From Steve's Couch" at A Gathering at the Tribes.
A Celebration of "LANGUAGE MATTERS with Bob Holman, A Film by David Grubin." This two-hour documentary will premiere on PBS (Channel 13 in New York, Sun., Jan 25 at 12:30 PM). Bob Holman will discuss endangered languages, and poetry in general, from the perspective of the oral tradition. With special guest Alhaji Papa Susso, Gambian griot, epicist/musician/poet, and keeper of the oral tradition in West Africa. Papa's poems appear in Bob's translations in Bob's newest collection, Sing This One Back to Me (Coffee House Press). Professor Steve Cannon will be on hand, to ensure that everything is on the up and up.Want to watch or be involved? you can stream it LIVE here from 6-8PM

The Stoop continues every Friday in November!

Every Friday of the month!!

on Gander.TV! 6-8pm

Prof Steve Cannon will be workshopping (Bob Holman will be in & out due to traveling this month). Take a gander at this geezers as they make poems out of air & give 'em away for free.

Stoop Poetry Workshop @ A Gathering of the Tribes
w/ blind professor Steve Cannon & non-blind professor Bob Holman, Artistic Director of Bowery Poetry Club((The Stoop was the MFA (Make Fantastic Art) writing workshop of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe from 1991-5. Founded and led by Professor Steve Cannon and Bob Holman, it aimed to give a free space for new work for the poets who were making a name in the heady days when the Cafe just reopened and Slam, Hiphop and Multiculti all settled in at the Friday night slams. Roll Call went something like this: Paul Beatty, reg e gaines, Tracie Morris, Willie Perdomo, Dael Orlandersmith, Ed Morales, Ra, Edwin Torres, Dana Bryant, Mike Tyler.
Tune in LIVE at www.gander.tv.com (We will post every weeks event the day of)

OR drop by live 745 E 6 St #1A, or phone in your poems 212-777-2038. )

This will be ongoing! 6 wks through November.
$125 prepaid for ALL 6 weeks, check/cash/money order/paypal (payable to A Gathering of the Tribes & tax-deductible)
Send all your poems to gatheringofthetribes@gmail.com with a letter introducing yourself. Workshop limited to six poets, so you'll get lots of personal attention. This workshop will be broadcast live on Gander.TV so you'll get plenty of public attention, too.

Tribes announces..... Tribes 2.0- Live from Steve's couch

We are announcing Tribes 2.0: Live from Steve's Couch ---as a way to keep the old Tribes spirit alive  -- and keep a flow of new energy into the 6th St space. So Gander TV put in a camera and mic in 6th St for us.

The working dynamic here is that since Steve left 3rd St and the open door, every night a performance policy there, there has not been the kind of flow-through energy that sustained him and Tribes for a couple of decades. This is an attempt to find a way to find some new Tribes energy, to enter the digital world, and to have some fun with art.

You don't need to do anything different than what you always do here at Tribes, shoot the shit, heckle and read to the blind guy. The only thing that will be different is it'll be taped for people to watch live! (And there will be future events which we are in process of developing)

We will be setting up times and dates for people who want to participate. If you're interested please send us an email at gatheringofthetribes@gmail.com

Review of Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980- 2012

Review of Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980- 2012 (Abriendo caminos: antología de escritoras puertorriqueñas en Nueva York 1980- 2012) for A Gathering of the Tribes By Adriana Scopino

Like the figure of the woman facing a blue web in the painting la on the cover, Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980- 2012 (Abriendo caminos: Antología de escritoras puertorriqueñas en Nueva York 1980- 2012), the Puerto Rican woman poet in New York City is both her unique self and creative expression and part of the web of social, cultural and economic realities of the city in which she finds herself.  Recent anthologies of Puerto Rican writing and poetry such as Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writings - An Anthology Paperback by Roberto Santiago, Puerto Rican Poetry: An Anthology from Aboriginal to Contemporary Times by Roberto Márquez, and two anthologies from the 1990s, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe by Miguel Algarín and Bob Holman and Puerto Rican Writers in the USA: An Anthology Paperback – May 1, 1991 edited by Faythe Turner, have included women writers or writers living in New York City, but none have set out to do what editor Myrna Nieves has done here. Each anthology is an artifact of a particular time and place. For Breaking Ground, Nieves assembled forty-six writers from twenty years of poetry readings at the Boricua College Winter Poetry Series to document a place and time in the evolution of Puerto Rican literature. Although the parameters of the anthology may seem narrow (the writings of Puerto Rican women poets and fiction writers who have lived in New York for at least ten years during the years 1980 to 2012), the results of the collection are panoramic: memoir, short fiction, spoken word, lyric, narrative poetry, erotica and use of both languages Spanish and English and powerful, unforgettable writing. Very well known writers such as Carmen Valle, Esmeralda Santiago (When I was Puerto Rican) and Sandra María Esteves, share these pages with writers not so well known to a wider American audience; well established writers next to up and coming writers.

While walking on Delancey St. this morning, I came upon a circle of five women on the sidewalk all facing each other.  It was like a football huddle where the team connects to a mutual vibe of purpose before they disperse to play in their separate positions. Breaking Ground gives the reader this feeling because all the women in the collection are multi faceted artists and devoted to their communities as healers. Some of these poets do so not only by being activists but also by working their art directly with prison populations, health clinics and youth groups.  And some of these women are healers as they broadcast the Puerto Rican experience of creativity- the producers, radio and television show hosts, playwrights, performance artists who bring their work to a larger audience or the teachers and professors who inspire in an academic setting, adding their voice to the literary canon.  The anthology has the effect of a very diverse group of women connecting to each other through their art.

Nieves writes in the introduction that the writers that read at the series engaged with the audience on a variety of issues.  This paradigm replaces the poet in the ivory tower for the poet on the frontline of social and cultural change.  In the anthology the poets confront the realities of racism, cultural and social issues and misogyny. Two poems describe the first experience of awareness of separation from other children because of their heritage and how that first pain of being thought of as “other” manifested. In Diana Gitesha Hernández’s “Poem for Mami” the different foods she ate from other children at lunch contribute to a feeling of being different, “the only Puerto Rican in a school where/none had heard of us, yet/and they would say…/”Hey, Puerto Rico...ain’t that in Africa or something!?”(p.206). In Lydia Cortés searing poem “I Remember,” the speaker says, “I remember the teachers who said, ‘You don’t look Puerto Rican’/expecting me to say thank you very much/I remember overhearing some say Puerto Ricans/don’t care about their children, Puerto Ricans/aren’t clean/I remember the heat of shame rising up/changing the color of my face/I remember praying no one heard what the teachers said,/ no one saw my hurt red as a broken heart” (p.130).

Some poets write about knowing that their community is at a disadvantage because of racism and the social and economic conditions perpetrated by its corrosive force on the social fabric.  Listen to the poem by Susana Cabañas “It’s Called Kings” “you know you are poor when you have to count your pennies in America to get high to forget how angry you can get in America in the land of milk and honey brother kills brother for a woman for a life for a piece of land we shoot each other up because we’re so angry we are so angry.” (p. 98). Magdalena Gómez, “A Colonization We Don’t Like to Talk About,” writes about the internalized racism of self-limiting beliefs in her description of what her women relatives in the Bronx felt they needed to do to survive. “These women are/the wheel inside/my forehead.” (p.200) .

Similarly, Cenén Moreno’s poem “El Pueblo Grita, Presente” is a kind of parable about the community at large responding to the devastating effect of racism, first by showing resistance to the government and then by organizing and speaking to each other, (quoting the column of the poem written in English) “The people speak to each other/ The Government becomes frightened/The people organize themselves/ The Government assumes/ a state of alert/ The people become/Responsible for themselves/ The Government attacks/ The People defend themselves/ The Government runs away/ The People create/ National Cooperatives/ The

Government cries out People/ The People Cry out/ Present. “(p. 284).

 

Many poets consider the impact of the White Culture and Latino Machismo on women. “Me robaron el cuerpo” (p. 245) by Nemir Matos-Cintrón is a devastating indictment of the patriarchy’s usurpation of a woman’s authentic experience of herself for images of what it can use and can control “ Me robaron el cuerpo y vendieron mi alma/a cosmopolitan/ a la alta costura a wall street/y  me tallaron a imagen y semejanza/  de la mujer femenina mujer virginal la mujermujer”.  Translated, these lines are: “they stole my body and sold my soul/ to cosmopolitan/ to high fashion to wall street/ and they carved for me an image and likeness / of the feminine woman the virginal woman the woman woman”. Similarly, María T. Fernández (A.K.A. Mariposa) in “Poem for My Grifa-Rican Sistah or Broken Ends Broken Promises” writes about the chemicals her and her sister put in their hair growing up to conform to an image of white beauty and how that made them feel. Thus the anthology shifts from macro to micro, the greater vision and how it is experienced on the individual level.  Sandra Garcia Rivera’s poem “La Loca’s Response” (p.186), seems to respond with power and self love, likening herself to a righteous force of nature, to the misogynist culture’s label of women as crazy. “I/respond /with melody as chilling/as a sword fatally engaged - /in honor of Mother, /my song’s breath,/the scent of fresh  burning sage…” (p.187).

Some younger writers look at racism in its new and subtle forms: Marina Ortiz’s gives a poetic answer to the question “what are you anyway?” in “It’s the Blood, Stupid!”( p.308). Raquel Z. Rivera’s “While in Stirrups” is about being interrogated by a white female gynecologist and the kind of sexual and cultural racism young women similar to herself experience (p. 345). Even the title of the piece suggests, through the vulnerability of the position, a power imbalance in the relationship to the culture at large.

Many writers take on the patriarchy’s distortion of relationships between men and women. Susana Cabañas “Oh man” (p.98) suggests that the abuse of women and the negative impact on families by men is also rooted in rage and a sense of homelessness in the new country.  Esmeralda Santiago’s poignant story “A fuerza de puños,” (p. 350) is about a woman trying unsuccessfully and without support to escape a relationship, showing how machismo, another facet of the patriarchy, leads to abuse and divides women, in this case mother from daughter.  “’Sister’ …Ain’t Nothing But” by Marina Ortiz shows the language with which Black and Latino men use to both put women on a pedestal and objectify women and see them only as things to be used (p. 309): “and when I hear you say come here sister/because you need to support your brother/because this is all the manhood we have left/because we have needs that must be met/”  and how in that opposition women must find their own fulcrum.  Nemir Matos-Cintrón meditates on how race enters sexual relations in “Revisiting Cuban Poet Nicolás Gillén’s Poem: “Todo mezclado” (p.247).

Related to this dilemma of division caused by the patriarchy, these women writers have written about how a kind of racism can pervade their own community.  María T. Fernández (A.K.A. Mariposa)’s poem “Ode to the Diasporican” (p. 169) responds to racism within the culture: being looked Ídown on for not being born in Puerto Rico, “¡No nací en Puerto Rico./Puerto Rico nació en mí!”.  Many of the poems in the anthology seek to unite differences in experience and creation that have formerly divided Puerto Ricans.

Many of the poems not only fight or oppose the forces of racism or the patriarchy but also seek to build bridges within the larger community.  “I, Too, Am Black” a dynamic spoken word poem inspired by Langston Hughes by Caridad de la Luz “La Bruja” is one such example (p. 153). Along the same lines, Ana López-Betancourt’s poem “Orígenes” writes proudly of ancestors African and Puerto Rican, “The women have history--that’s all - / They chant like their tatarabuelas/They’re neither africanas nor criollas/” (p.219). Many of the poems explore the mystery of culture and heritage that causes connections, Sandra María Esteves “Spirit Dance” (p.160), “When Spirits dance Mambo/Elegbá opens the roads,/carnival colors fly in circles/Ancestors call our names/through drums that speak/mixing cultures in rhythms of/Spanish Saints with African slaves.” This is a poem that connects black and Latino cultures through mysticism and music.  “Epopeyeas secretas” by Myrna NIeves (p. 298) looks at the matriarchy lines of Centroamérica.  A poem demonstrating how women navigate the different streams of Puerto Rican culture and religion is Prisonera-Paula Santiago’s clever, lighthearted poem on “Mi religión” “¡Espiritista hoy, santera, aché, manaña,/pero el domingo, a la iglesia sin falta!” (p. 325).

These writers expound on a sense of Puerto Rico’s sweetness: how the old ways have survived. An example of maintaining a strong connection to the homeland through tradition is Nancy Mercado’s “Homemade Hot Sauce” (p. 257). Myrna Nieves writes about how the writer approaches reality, their sometime tenuous relationship with it, and how that is affected by the remembrance of the homeland, as in “Nonconformist,” (p.297). I like in this poem the switching between the two poles of reality and imagination and how it ends on the imagination: “This star-filled womb I inherited from my mother”.  Another favorite for this reader is the final entry in the anthology by Anita Veléz-Mitchell (a writer born in 1916!) and her story “Aunt Lila’s Passion” which describes with great compassion the Puerto Rico of her youth and her aunt’s romantic and sexual suffering.

As Nieves says in the Introduction, the book seeks to inspire a greater understanding and appreciation of the variety of literary and cultural modalities that have emerged, “its hope of learning to value self and other.” She asks what is women’s unique experience of language that is found in this collection. There are Madeline Millán’s poems that bend, deconstruct and show the shifting ground beneath meanings, especially in a prose poem like “El Rastro” (p. 265), where words and feeling are slippery, “Si alguien que habla con palabras piensa por un solo momento ser dueño del sentido..” An example of a great lyric poem is Hilda R. Mundo-López “De que te quejas” (p. 292). There’s also a lovely poem by Lourdes Vázquez “Thalys” (p.404).  Another favorite is Giannina Braschi’s frenetic, ironic and playful poem to NYC as its own character that is confronted by the individual poet: “El imperio de los suenos” (p.84) (The Empire of Dreams, what a great way to sum up NY). The second section concludes, “He visto con mis ojos los ojos de mi ciudad.” (“I’ve seen through my own eyes with the eyes of my city.”) It expresses that blending of place and soul that can happen for someone relocated.  One of the writers I most appreciated was Sheila Candelario (p.104). In “Autoficción” she writes about the complicated relationship between herself and her unconscious and her art, “Soy el truco preferido de mi inconciencia.” (“I am the favorite trick of my unconscious.”) It clarifies how that makes her unknowable to others and herself.

I noticed how the selection for each writer can veer from lyric to politics. I am thinking of Alba Ambert’s “Habito tu nombre” (p. 37) a poem about the experience of love to the very political experience of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in ”El octavo continente (fragmento”) (p.40). Likewise, I am thinking of Maritza Arrastía’s “The World Guerillas Take the Front Page” (p. 53) to her poems on the spiritual connection to her mother and father “Poema a mis padres”(p. 48) or her poem to the mother goddess/Gaia principle, “Birth,” (p. 46).  Nieves’ editorial choices show the great range and flexibility of each writer.

The great value of this collection is that it does not conform to a narrow view of literature based on academic poetry and thereby releases the opposition between poetry that is written for the page and poetry that is spoken.  It demonstrates how the political anthems and lyric poems are part of one continuum. The writers in the collection seem to be speaking to each other. Raquel Z. Rivera’s thoughtful meditation on the history of her sexuality vibrates to Luz Maía Umpierre-Herrera’s poems celebrating her body, “my yellow margarita.”  Read this wonderful collection and see for yourself.

 

 

 

Adriana Scopino is a poet and translator living in New York City. She has an M.F.A. in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from DrewUniversity. Her chapbook, Let Me Be Like Glass was published by Exot Books. Her translations of Argentinean poet Fabián Casas have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, Great River Review and Mead: The Magazine of Literature and Libations.

Steve Cannon's poem in Live Mag! NYC

MAKE THE CUT

Listen to me What it is No goddamned excuses Yawn, yawn, yawn Ask for more Yeah, yeah, yeah Fuck that shit I said, “No…” Well, excuse me Back and forth Working out good The blue shirt Tell the truth With open arms

http://livemagnyc.com/about.html

_________________________Steve Cannon

 

 

Response to senior's murder recalls infamous case

Response to senior’s murder recalls infamous case

The Villager

BY GERARD FLYNN |   Although it has been 50 years since Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death near her Kew Gardens apartment, her brutal murder was evoked Monday evening at a vigil in the East Village, where another senseless act of violence recently took place.

Similar to the circumstances of Genovese’s death, Wen Hui Ruan — a retired garment factory worker, originally from China — was returning home alone at night Fri., May 9, when he was attacked on E. Sixth St. near Avenue D, just a block from his apartment.

A surveillance video shows his assailant approaching him from behind, then, in an extremely brutal attack, throwing the 68-year-old against a concrete wall, before viciously punching him once and stomping him three times on his head.

Ruan died the next day. Four days after the assault, on a tip, police arrested a local man, Jamie Pugh, 20, for the murder.

Provoking outrage among some in the community, however, the footage also shows passersby either witnessing the attack or its aftermath, but without offering assistance, as Ruan lies mortally injured.

Family members comforted Wen Hui Ran’s sobbing widow at the memorial. Photo by Gerard Flynn

Family members comforted Wen Hui Ran’s sobbing widow at the memorial. Photo by Gerard Flynn

Steve Cannon, the blind poet and longtime operator of A Gathering of the Tribes Gallery, was returning from dinner with friends and missed the attack by two minutes. He said he was appalled by what happened in the six minutes before police arrived.

After finally vacating his home / gallery in the former E. Third St. Tribes space due to an agreement with the landlord, Cannon recently moved to E. Sixth St. — right next to the spot of the murder. He sat at the vigil with Ruan’s family members, who sobbed uncontrollably, as well-wishers placed flowers before a makeshift shrine at the scene of the attack.

“By the time we got to the ramp he was coughing up blood,” Cannon recalled. He could barely contain his outrage as he recounted how a local woman, child in tow, screamed for assistance outside Cannon’s building, frantically ringing door bells, in vain. No one in his building came to her aid, or helped detectives in their follow-up investigation the next day.

“These mother f——- are so crazy they don’t know that s— can happen to them, too,” Cannon said.

Chinatown activist Karlin Chan also shared his indignation.

“This goes back to the Genovese murder,” he said. “This is a classic example. Maybe people didn’t want to get involved or were afraid, but at least you can go down the block and make an anonymous call to 911.”

Mourners were joined by local City Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin and Borough President Gale Brewer.

Community board representatives were also present, as well as staff members for state Senators Daniel Squadron and Brad Hoylman.

Brewer, who lost a family member to violence, said she shared the councilmembers’ outrage over the shockingly violent assault.

Despite Chan’s claims that the attack’s ferocity suggests a racial motive, Mendez said she has no reason to believe that was, in fact, the case. It doesn’t necessarily mean area crime is increasing, either, she added.

“Violence happens and it happens here but it’s not happening on a daily basis,” she said.

Recalling how people saw the beating and walked on, Chin reminded everyone that such an attack “could happen to anyone.”

“Any violence in our community is our problem,” she stressed.

The Two- Character Play reviewed by Carl Watson

In the Cage of Our Own Making:

The Two-Character Play by Tenessee Williams

At 292 Theater

(292 E. Third, NYC, April 2014)

With Regina Bartkoff and Charles Schick. Directed by Romy Ashby.

 

The Two-Character Play (originally entitled Out Cry, 1971/1973) is a late play by Williams; it is also what we might call a meta-play, in contrast to his more famous tragi/romantic works. It is William’s version of a post-modern psycho drama—a play within a play within a life in which the characters are aware both of being in a play that seems to repeat itself, but also that the play is their life, and therefore they cannot escape it. They interact both as if they are on stage and as if they are not. They know the audience is there, or rather that the audience is possibly, perpetually arriving, but they are unsure if they should be concerned about it or not. (Sound familiar?) Despite being a departure from his normal style, The Two-Character Play is considered to be one of Williams’ most personal plays, with the characters Felice and Clare being somewhat based on Williams himself and his sister Rose, both of whom were at some time in their lives comitted to mental facilities. Therefore madness and confinement are part of the dramatic equation here.

 

The plot, such as it is, revolves round a brother and sister, Clare and Felice (played respectively by Regina Bartkoff and Charles Schick) living a reclusive life in their old family home, which is also “a decrepit state theater in an unknown state.” They are, of course, actors and believe themselves to be “on tour,” even though they never leave the house/theater. Felice and Clare can indeed seem “mad” as they argue constantly over their “confinement”—should they should leave the building? can they? and, more importantly, what has happened there that keeps them from leaving? This “what” is the murder/suicide of their parents, of which we never get a complete explanation. The brother’s and sister’s witness to, and possible participation in, this traumatic event serves as the elusive backdrop to their dilemma. Who is technically guilty in these deaths and/or why they happened, however, becomes less important than who feels the shame and guilt, and in this sense the idea of original sin makes its entrance, along with a whole slew of possible Oedipal concerns.

            The play may well be the thing here but the play is a mystery constructed around layers of theatricality and purposeful confusion. There is a performance scheduled, but it seems the producers have pulled out, so it is unclear whether the play is actually supposed to go on. The “two characters” seem to be unsure if they are performing the play or rehearsing it as we watch it. Or are they merely talking about it? In any case, they edit as they go, cutting parts and disagreeing about what parts they should cut or whether they indeed have cut anything (kind of like editing one’s memory). They argue about the props and what use they are and what they might signify. They argue about the audience. Is the audience merely the outside world, i.e. the world outside their enclosure, which is the house/theater they live in, or is it us? The Two-Character Play provides plenty of metaphysical and psychological grist for the analyst’s mill, with both Existential and Freudian overtones, as well as some philosophical commentary on “theater” itself—what is its purpose is and how it can be distorted? All of this keeps the viewer intrigued as they try to figure it out.

Back to the core of the story, which is the crime that took place once upon a time. The audience is led at first to believe that the father murdered the mother (for reasons unknown). But the children think they should spin the story so that the mother has murdered the father and they would therefore be eligible for an insurance payout (I missed the logic behind this figuring, but it doesn’t really matter). As the play progresses, who killed who grows more ambiguous, and it is also becomes possible that the children have something to do with the murder. They have the gun (stowed in the piano, under a print of the Holbein Christ). and it is sometimes used as a threat between them—an end to their misery.

The narrative tension of the play comes from the character’s need to get through the day/week/year, while planning their “production” and carrying this incredible burden of guilt that is never resolved. In any case, it is this increasingly complicated psychological web that keeps them trapped in the house. Consequently, the two characters have little to do but spin their wheels in an endless cycle of repetition. In fact, repetition itself could be considered a theme, or at least a source of therapy, grounding the characters in a comforting routine. I’ll return to this idea presently, but for now it is worthwhile to consider a couple of ways to look at this murder/suicide as the center of their paralyzing vortex.

1) The murder/suicide may be the product of incest or abuse, between the parents or between the parents and the children. These types of hidden family secrets are common undercurrents in Williams’ work. The audience wonders what exactly was the dynamic between the parents leading up to the event? Were the children involved? Was it self-defense, retaliation? We will never know, and may well be misguided in thinking along these lines. But the aura of incest is there and seems to color the brother/sister relationship. (I am reminded here of the movie Shame, 2011). Returning to the theme of repetition, it is worth noting here that trauma often has the psychological result of trapping its victims in repetitive cycles of either reliving the traumatic event or repeating an imagined “alternative” scenario—both of which can be considered forms of theater perhaps.

2) Another way to interpret the murder/suicide (which does not preclude the first) is in the realm of metaphysics—a metaphor for the death of God perhaps (or some form of ritual sacrifice). In a pious Southern context, such a loss of authority would leave the pair spinning meaninglessly through their repetitive lives. It may seem a stretch to go all cosmic on the plot like this but there are precedents to do so, and we will address those precedents soon. For now I wish to reiterate that we cannot escape the importance of the role of theater, and we can even think of its ritual re-enactments, and the double life it provides, as an answer to our existential dilemma. Theater establishes repeatable patterns for reality and in doing so it tames the obliterating nature of time, providing a semblance of mean ing in an absurd and meaningless void.

It helps to remember that The Two-Character Play arises out of the Post War Era, and a traumatized Western culture which has also recently gone through significant social upheaval. As a way of contextualizing the above-stated issues, and perhaps providing a framework by which to analyze The Two-Character Play (1973), I will now briefly examine some works that preceded Williams’ play and which treat similar themes: Sartre’s No Exit (1944), Becketts Waiting for Godot (1953), and Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel (1961). While I will not claim that there is a direct influence, these works all deal with issues (guilt, the possibility of murder, suicide, the impotence of religion, existential entrapment) that recur in The Two-Character Play. Indeed, Williams could hardly not know about these works; he even admits to an influence by Beckett in his later career.

No Exit dates from 1944, and this is the play about which Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” No Exit might easily be called “The Three-Character Play.”  Three characters, Joseph, Inès, and Estelle, who are dead, are introduced to a nicely appointed room in the afterlife where they expect to be punished for their previous sins but are in truth only confronted with each other. The play centers on the eventual confession each one makes as to their moral failings, all of which have to do with infidelity and the damage it causes. Joseph’s infidelity causes his wife to die of grief; Estelle’s infidelity leads to the murder of her child and the suicide of her husband; Inès’s infidelity causes her lover to murder her husband. When the three characters discover the door to the room is open and that they are free to leave, they cannot, as they still feel bound to justify themselves to the others. Not only are suicide and murder part of the characters’ past, but they become issues in the present. However, death is turned into a joke when Estelle stabs Inès and there is no result (as they are already dead). Then, in a parody of suicide, Inès even stabs herself producing fits of laughter amongst all three of them. They could kill themselves over and over again; it amounts to nothing but talk—there is indeed No Exit. We can easily see some of the themes we saw in The Two-Character Play as being prominent here: the hidden crime, the impotence of suicide, the inability to escape due to the need to justify one’s existence. Might as well pass the time arguing, as Joseph says: “Oh well, let’s continue . . .”

The second and perhaps more obvious possible influence on The Two-Character Play would be Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), wherein two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, live the same day over and over again waiting for someone named Godot to show up. If you believe, as most do, that Vladimir and Estragon are in fact waiting for an ineffectual God, or authority figure, we can see how this waiting is similar to Clare and Felice’s anticipation of an audience which would justify their existence as actors. And just as Felice and Clare confront the dilemma of to be or not to be in the play, the Godot characters are also aware of the theatricality of their plight. This is reflected in Pozzo’s and Lucky’s stagey “performances,” but also in Didi and Gogo’s subtle “awareness” of an audience (often more prominent in actual staged performances). Argument as an attempt to fill the endless time, is also a theme in Godot, as when Gogo says “That’s it, let’s abuse each other,” entreating Did to join him in a dialogue of insults which eventually peters out. Even the idea of some past unspeakable crime such as murder and suicide, is part of the Godot discussion, albeit on a fairly abstract level. The idea of murder comes into play when, early in the second half, Estragon accuses Vladimir of murdering “the other,” which quickly becomes the “others,” or all the others, the murder of humans in general. In Godot this could be a reference to the recent catastrophic World War, but it doubles as a reference to original sin, and not the sexual sin of Judeo Christian theology but the “sin” integral to all life—that it depends on death.

Albert Camus once claimed that suicide is the only real important question that an individual faces in life. In other words, faced with the meaninglessness of life, does one continue to live or not; it’s a choice each of us has to make. In Godot, Didi and Gogo challenge each other to end their misery by hanging themselves. In The Two-Character Play, the siblings challenge each other to end their misery with a gun.

In both cases the suicide does not happen. In Beckett, the characters use the flimsy excuse that they just don’t have the right equipment—no appropriate rope. Williams’ characters simply can’t do it. It’s worth noting that there is another similarity between these possible suicides. Clare and Felice would use the same gun that was used in the murder of their parents, therefore re-enacting the annihilation of authority/comfort that once structured their lives. In Godot, the two hobos would hang themselves from a tree, thus re-enacting the death of their God (Christ), a god who should have provided structure and comfort for their lives, and whom they have replaced with the ineffectual Godot. Beckett puts this Christianity front and center, but in Williams, if it is there, it is obscured.

Lastly I would briefly address Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, which came out in 1961, roughly corresponding to the time that Williams began to work on The Two-Character Play. The plot of the film is a group of people who find they are unable to leave a dinner party at the lavish manor of their host, Señor Edmundo Nobile. There is no reason they can’t leave except that they seem to be trapped by their interactions with each other. Over time the party degenerates and more animal instincts come into play.  The guests become hungry and hostile, even murderous. One young couple, Béatriz and Eduardo, commit suicide in despair. It finally occurs to one of the guests, La Valkiria, that if they analyze their conversations and actions from when they first arrived, they may be able to free themselves. In other words, the trap is to be found in the development of their relationships, their need somehow to justify their existence to the others. The web that keeps them in bondage is their conversation and once these ties are exposed and unraveled they are able to leave and, in fact, they do leave. However, the fate accompli of repetition expresses itself when, in a similar situation, some of guests go to seek repentance for their sins in a local cathedral. Suddenly all the people in the cathedral realize, for some reason, that they are unable to leave. In effect, the situation at the Nobile manor is repeating itself; they might have left one enclosure but they are then trapped in another. Just like the endlessly repeating day of Vladimir and Estragon or Joseph, Inezs and Estelle; just like the repeating play of Clare and Felice—all the drama we produce is not only a trap, but it may well be a welcome one. Do we really want to escape? Is there even an existence outside of these traps?

While the other works discussed above share similar themes to Williams’ play, we can feel that they they may not be nearly as personal. They tend to be abstract meditations on the modern problems of human existence. What makes The Two-Character Play unique is the way Williams brings those psychological and existential issues close to the heart. He combines the cerebral with the personal, the architypal with the quotidian. The viewer cannot remain at a distance, as he or she is in the living room of the dilemma, feeling the anguish.  So while The Two Character Play may have been negatively received as too great a departure from the Williams’ ouevre, it is in fact of a piece with his other works, only with a different focus, a different perspective, something that all great artists strive for, if only in trying to understand themselves.

Bartkoff and Schick are obvious fans of Williams, especially little-know Williams, as evidenced by their 2012 production of In the Bar of A Tokyo Hotel, and they bring great passion and detail to the production. The Two-Character Play is seldom produced and Bartkoff and Schick are to be commended for bringing it to life. Thanks to Romy Ashby, Brandon Lim and Michael Aguirre, the excellent set design is appropriately surreal and claustrophobic—a perfect match for the play’s psychological landscape—and the audience sits so close they are implicated in the actor’s emotions. The walls are papered with magazine and newspaper clippings of the era, which gives the room an aura of psychotic nostalgia as well as lingering OCD. (Incidentally, the paintings on the wall are the works of the actors themselves.)

            I would be remiss here not to mention the comic elements in the play, a kind of self-aware absurdity, that the actors bring to life, fluidly switching between comedy, tragedy and psycho-drama. In this sense it is, like Godot, a tragi-comedy. Williams himself used the term “slapstick-tragedy” to refer to some of his later works. Both Bartkoff and Schick are comfortable and accomplished with comedy and so managing the shift between comedy and drama here is a feat they pull off effortlessly. My only comment on the acting (at least when I saw it) would be this: it could afford to slow down just a tad to draw out the weirdness and dreamlike qualities. I felt sometimes they were too caught up in a rapid fire dialogue. This was something the troupe was aware of and as the play ripened over the course of its run, the dialogue did slow down to a more natural pace

            That said, Charles Schick as Felice, channels various southern smarmy psycho cliches but he does it with a sense of self-aware, even self-mocking irony that makes Felice seem a thousand years old, while at the same time a child, and justifiably disengaged from this absurd situation he finds himself in.

Regina Bartkoff plays the traditional Williams role of the very breakable but potentially violent female albeit with a slightly manic energy balanced by a comic self-regard. She too has a kind of worldly been-though-this-a-few-times-before knowing smirk to her character. They both bring their characters a contemporary edge without sacrificing the Williams’ aura. It should also be mentioned that Bartkoff and Schick are a real life couple augmenting the aura of intimacy to this very intimate play.

The 292 Theater is everything the East Village used to be: scrappy, visionary, experimental and intimate. It is run by dedicated artists who love the work and do it “for art’s sake.” All in all, this is a truly exciting presentation of a play that is unustly obscure and we can only hope that this production leads to others

 

 

 

 

 

End

 

 

Man caught for attack in East Village

The police arrested a 20-year-old man Tuesday in connection with the fatal sidewalk attack of a 68-old-man on Friday, the authorities said.

The police said they were holding the suspect, Jamie Pugh, on charges of murder, robbery and assault.

Surveillance video captured the attack, which occurred Friday evening on East Sixth Street. The footage shows a man cornering a smaller man, hurling him against a wall and then stomping on him as he lies crumpled on the ground. The assailant then walks away. Several people pass by the victim, Wen Hui Ruan, a retired garment factory worker, but do not come to his assistance. After several minutes, a woman kneels next to him; the police arrive sometime later.

Mr. Ruan was taken to Bellevue Hospital Center, where he died from his injuries on Saturday.

The Ninth Precinct detective squad, which covers the East Village, received a tip on Tuesday, not long after midnight, that the man they were looking for was in the neighborhood, the police said, adding that Mr. Pugh was taken into custody soon afterward.

Investigators believe that Mr. Pugh had sought to rob Mr. Ruan. In custody, Mr. Pugh did not give a statement to detectives, the police said.

The police have said Mr. Ruan was most likely identified as a vulnerable target for a robbery, but have provided no other details for why he was singled out. Mr. Ruan came to the United States from China 20 years ago. In his retirement he spent much of his free time playing Chinese chess on Mulberry Street. He lived on Avenue C, just around the corner and down the block from where he was attacked.

Mr. Pugh, who lives in a housing development on the Lower East Side that is also near the site of the attack, has been arrested numerous times, on charges that include criminal trespass; most of the cases against him, however, have been sealed.

Relatives of Mr. Pugh could not immediately be reached for comment. The Legal Aid Society, which is representing Mr. Pugh in a prior case, said the judge would assign him a lawyer during his arraignment hearing if he needed one.

One of Mr. Ruan’s daughters, Jenny, declined to speak to a reporter by phone. At a memorial on Monday, she was despondent, dropping to her knees and wailing that she had not been there to help her father: “So many people passed. They didn’t help, they didn’t call the police. Why wasn’t I here when you needed me?”