The Christians – (Review, Jan 2019)

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If you’re reading this review, there exists a high likelihood that you are conscious of a seemingly devastating and divisive trend in America over the past decade or so that has pitted us against each other when topics such as faith and politics arise. Lucas Hnath’s play, The Christians, under the direction of First Presbyterian Theater’s Managing Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter, examines these exact issues and invites the audience to move toward a higher acceptance of one another’s beliefs in hopes of avoiding irreparable harm and division. In his director’s notes, Hofrichter focuses on a line from Pastor Paul during his shocking sermon: “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.” Clearly, the selection of this play is designed to encourage spirited discourse and discourage negativity or the outright abolishment of communication and debate.

Upon entering the theater, audiences are immersed in a church setting. Though there is no direct interaction with the performers, there is a distinct sensation of witnessing the internal and external conflicts among the characters. This unnamed holy house begins its service with a few verses of traditional songs which clearly serve as a welcoming device to that week’s parishioners. Once the music ends, however, the tone of the room drastically shifts based on the shocking rhetoric within the trusted words of the church’s pastor. The shock that the church’s attendees and audience experience force each of us to reflect on our own practices and beliefs, a common theme found in this year’s selections at First Presbyterian Theater.

Starring in this play is Austin Berger, an FPT mainstay who most recently appeared in last season’s production of Faith Healer. As Pastor Paul, Berger’s authentic rendition of a man of faith who is at a moral crossroads exhibits the inner turmoil that countless humans have likely wrestled with throughout history. His character has spent decades building the trust of his flock and associates, and Berger’s genuine performance as the chief pastor of what has become a mega-church provides an opportunity for viewers to understand more closely how even the holiest of us struggles with certain unanswered questions.

Riley Newsome, a graduate from Huntington University, plays the youthful associate Pastor Joshua, a man whose own checkered history is at the crux of the conflict between him and his superior. Newsome’s performance is equally convincing, especially as we see him evolve from the initial shocking sermon toward his role within religion in later scenes. Through long monologues, Newsome presents a firm counterpoint to the positions that Berger’s Pastor Paul creates at the outset.

Filling out the cast are David McCants, as a church elder named Jay; Alora Nichole, as an active congregant named Jenny; and Jennifer Poiry, as Pastor Paul’s wife Elizabeth.  Though a silent character during the church’s public services, McCants offers a stunning amount of impact with his deliberate and grave expressions of concern as a representative of the church’s board of directors. In one of the play’s most poignant scenes, McCants and Berger present one of the play’s most crucial themes: a challenge to traditional thought and practice found within the church. In her role as a faithful parishioner, Nichole does a beautiful job in vocalizing the concerns of Paul’s doubters and, perhaps, many non-believers in a succinct, yet genuinely nervous fashion. Lastly, Poiry’s tremendous exhibition as the loyal wife creates even more depth of conflict for the troubled pastor as the play unfolds.

Though there is no intermission, The Christians offers much to unpack in its ninety- minute running time. The mastery of this story is in its unique personification of our own concerns with communication among one another, and this cast offers a stirring amount of tension as the plot develops. Audience members of strong religious faith can gain just as much as those who have lengthy lists of questions and doubts. While placing the dilemma within the holy walls of a house of God, it seems clear that the play’s central message is not limited to those of faith. More significantly, the challenges and rhetoric exchanged on stage here can bridge our seemingly deteriorating and divided culture.

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November Fifth and It’s So Far Away

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Brittle leaves dance

Through Everytown and scatter

Little League infields

Where ghosts and memories steal signs and bases.

Gray takes over at First;

Charging Second, the first flakes drown mounds,

Rounding Third, the deepest snow

And lowest degrees,

And during all these months ahead,

Home is where we tend to be.

Highlights reel inside me–inside us–

That 2-2 count,

An insurance run in the ninth,

The unmatched tension of extra innings on the road.

The

fan-favorite

make-up

day-night

double-dip.

We strain to recall single games, plays, scores,

But it all seems to be a rushed mirage now,

A complex continuum

Where the wisest men around

are outfitted like the outfielders.

Each player, each team,

And each fan

From box seat to bleacher bum

Wringing hands for October rings.

Rookies–babies to some–

Will breathe

Big League Chew in their most dormant moments.

Our noses fill with the scents of old cigars and fresh popcorn.

The game hibernates

And the players and specatators–

All of us Brothers, Mothers, Fathers, Sisters–

Invoke the patience of a September call-up

And trust that their eyes will find the lush green,

The damp brown, and the crisp white lines

That must hoist us through this chilly half of the year.

 

Just Wait

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Her:  Phew!  I’m exhausted.  You wouldn’t believe my day.

Him:  Hi there.  Welcome home.

Her:  Did you get the mail?

Him:  ….

Her:  Can you put down your phone and answer me?

Him:  Sorry.  What?

Her:  The mail.

Him:  No.  I was going to–

Her:  I’ll get it.

Him:  …

Her:  What a surprise.  Bills, bills, and more bills.  What did you do today?

Him:  Hm?  Oh.  Not much.

Her:  Did you look for a j– C’mon.  I’m trying to talk with you.  Can you stop playing that game?

Him:  I’m not playing a game.

Her:  Did you find anyone hiring?

Him:  Um…I tried.

Her:  You’re lying.

Him:  …

Her:  You can’t even look at me, can you?  I know you’re lying and you just want me to stop nagging you about getting a job, don’t you?  Fine.  Ya know what, fuck this.

Him:  Did you hear something?

Her:  What?

Him:  I think I heard something.

Her:  Don’t you dare pick up that phone!

Him:  Just a second.

Her:  Goddammit!

Him:  Please don’t!  I just called–!

Her:  Who the fuck are you calling?

Him:  Oww!  What are you doing!  Stop it!

Her:  You love this phone so much, why don’t you fucking shove it up your ass!?

Him:  Wait.  Please!

Her:  We’re fucking done.  You know that?  I just can’t anymore with this bullshit!

Him:  Don’t leave me!

Her:  Don’t you dare try to fucking find me!

Him:  (into phone) Hello?

Voice:  Sir?  Yes, we’re here.  This is the national suicide prevention hotline, and we’ve been listening for several minutes now.  Can you tell me your name?

Twelfth Night – Theater Review (March 2019)

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There may not be a literal recipe for the perfect story, the perfect date, or the perfect performance, but there are instances when all three can mesh together on a single stage and come extremely close. This season’s installment of William Shakespeare’s plays at First Presbyterian Theater is the bard’s classic comedy Twelfth Night, a tale that centers on a love triangle, involves additional characters who seek companionship, and includes a laughable series of stumbling blocks that may allow or deny these relationships to reach fruition. Throughout the two-hour performance, audiences will enjoy the opportunity to watch love evolve from its origins and witness examples of the great lengths some will reach to find that certain someone.

Ranae Butler and June Rambo co-direct the performance, which includes the unparalleled Shakespearean verse coupled with a number of witty modern-day surprises. Though experienced Shakespeare readers and scholars will no doubt acknowledge the commitment to the script, Butler and Rambo adopt some fresh liberties that will entice viewers of all backgrounds and ages.  

Starring as the lovesick Duke Orsino is Kevin Torwelle, who appeared at First Prez last season co-starring with the theater’s Managing Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter in its January 2018 performance of RED. Once again, Torwelle masterfully displays a man whose journey toward companionship is hardly a seamless process. As Viola, Catherine Eichman submits a dedicated performance as she disguises herself as a man for a majority of the plot. Her whimsical take on the (fe-)male lead keeps the momentum high throughout this upbeat and clever love-triangle plot.  

Meagan Matlock-Vandelaar and Renee Gonzales (as Maria and Feste, repectively) shine in secondary roles within this large cast, especially after the short intermission. Matlock-Vandelaar’s character rallies some of the others and orchestrates a joke on another character in such a convincing manner that it was easy for the audience to believe they were in on the prank.  Gonzales, who was also responsible for the performance’s choreography, offers her stunning vocals in a timely song toward the play’s conclusion. Riley Newsome, who recently appeared this season in FPT’s The Christians, performs the clownish role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek with the robust, calculated energy required by any actor in a similar role found within the Shakespearean comedies. Malvolio, played by veteran actor Scott Rumage, potentially upstages his colleagues with his hilarious contribution as the snobbish servant whose own desires emerge in a comical sequence.

Rae Surface’s simple-natured yet distinguished set design serves as a perfect backdrop to this production, reminding viewers that the language drives the motion of the amusingly convoluted narrative in Shakespeare’s plays. Jeanette Walsh, the costume designer, succinctly drapes the major players in appropriate pieces in order for a particular set of shiny yellow leggings to surprise the audience at a key moment.   

In a comedic play replete with so many moving parts and plot lines, the cast and crew at First Presbyterian Theater have constructed a must-see show that features new faces and local theater mainstays. Surprise your love interest, your spouse, or your friend to an unforgettable production that bridges the past to the present through music and dance while reminding us that the giving and receiving of love pushes us to our most creative and spirited quests in this life.

First Presbyterian Theater has been celebrating its fiftieth season this year and will be hosting a celebration of its 280 productions on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

Why Is This Even a Fight?

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Can’t afford overwhelming medical bills? Bashfully or begrudgingly set up a GoFundMe. Your heart fills up as friends, family, and strangers chip in.

Not a problem.

It’s November and your school is doing a food drive to donate to the community food bank. Seems like the right thing to do.

Not a problem.

It’s now December and you see a Toy Drive box at a grocery store or Coats for Kids commercial. You can’t help this year, but you’re pleased to learn that others do.

Not a problem.

Someone at work has a kid who wants to raise money for a camp, trip, or some other educational experience. You toss in a couple bucks and wish them well.

Not a problem.

A company sets up a grant program so parents can be away from work in order to be home with their newborns since their employers does not offer any paid paternity leave.

That’s nice of them. Not a huge problem.

Each week, your church sends around a collection plate to the parishioners. The goal is for people who attend the church to donate, if it is within their means, to help fund the church’s planned expansion, to pay for the church’s bills, to continue a child-care program, etc.

Not a problem.

Your boss wants to raise your hourly rate by 25%. Your duties do not change. You can now save a bit more for upkeep, education, or even splurge on a short vacation with your family without adding to your credit card debt.

Definitely not a problem.

Some politicians explain that, though the federal minimum wage may have been designed at first to establish a base pay for entry-level employees, the growth rate of our nation and demand for that level of work has surpassed expectations.

“Holy $%#*! This is going to ruin the economy!!!”

They go on to explain that many people who cannot currently afford the education or training required for higher-paying positions willfully accept minimum wage positions in order to take care of themselves (and possibly any family members or dependents) and will work as close to 40 hours per week with no benefits.

Simple mathematics breaks it down as follows:

$7.25 / hour x 39.5 hours/week x 52 weeks / year (oh yeah, no vacation time) equals $14, 891.50 per year.

Before taxes, by the way.

To be considered living in poverty (as of 2017), a family of four’s total household income is $25,750.

“Oh. That’s…uh…”

So, these same politicians suggest that it’s time to raise the federal minimum wage in order to help these Working Americans out a little bit. These increase plans are usually progressive, meaning the minimum wage will rise in small increments over time. One model suggests that by 2025 (six years from now or so) the federal minimum wage would peak at $15 / hour.

Mathematics again:

$15 / hour x 39.5 hours / week x 52 weeks/year (still no vacation time) equals $30,810 per year. (Usually) no benefits. Before taxes.

HOORAY, IT’S POSSIBLE THAT WORKING AMERICANS WHO PROVIDE FOR THREE OTHER PEOPLE (IN 2025) WILL EMERGE OUT OF THE POVERTY LEVEL!!!!

That is, of course, assuming that the poverty income level does NOT change in the next six years.

Milk prices won’t become $6 a gallon (by the way, milk used to cost about 75 cents per gallon). You will still be able to eat McDonald’s (though I’m not sure why) at a reasonable price (and I believe that it can cost upwards of $25 to feed four people there nowadays. The first cheeseburgers were about 15 cents apiece). If milk or Big Macs do, however, become beyond your budget, there are a number of government programs out there that assist you in this dire time of need.

In all seriousness, your life will likely not change whatsoever.

If you believe that fast-food employees should not make more money than, say, first responders, please encourage your first-responder friends to fill out an application at Taco Bell. It’s a pretty easy job.

Side question: Did those friends become first responders solely because of the pay?

If all first-responders leave their positions, perhaps the companies or cities that hire them will understand that they should increase their wages in order to attract applicants.

Again, it seems highly unlikely that those of us who no longer have minimum wage positions will be adversely affected.

But it will for the millions of WORKING AMERICANS who want nothing more than to provide a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

Fighting against raising the Federal Minimum Wage is un-American.

A problem.

The Alliance (not a ref. to “The Office”)

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Last weekend, the Alliance of American Football (AAF) began its inaugural season. I had learned of the league approximately eight hours after the second game ended on Saturday due to a viral clip of a “hard tackle” that was spread throughout social media. I was intrigued.

I figured out how to stream a game on Sunday and, though I kept calling it the AAL and couldn’t remember the Memphis team name (It’s the Express), I continued to watch. With no connection to the city or any real bond with any of the players on either team, I found myself invested in game.

I’ve always loved watching American football. I once knew someone so well versed in the game that I began cultivating an ability to read defenses and predict offensive sequences. I can usually identify the reason for a flag before the announcers or referees reveal it. Not bragging…just saying….

Anyway, I wish this league the best. I can’t watch this weekend for two reasons. I don’t get any of the channels they’re on (and I am guessing they will restrict the livestream I found last weekend on YouTube). I have a lot of other things to accomplish this weekend as well. I’ll check highlights in the morning, I suppose.

For historical purposes only, I’m going to include this news: Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid settled for an undisclosed amount this week. We *may* never know how much the NFL agreed to pay them for the alleged collusion to keep them out of the league. Based on the success of the AAL…er, AAF’s first week, there is speculation that Kap might sign with a team. I think he might, but I would also not be surprised if he waits for that season to end and the NFL owners to have a chance to offer contracts this summer.

“The Reading” – Improptu Poem

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“It’s like we’re on

a train,” someone says.

There is four feet

of thin worn carpet

in the northernmost aisle

of this narrow bookstore

Where the local poet,

A published, prolific professor,

Prepares a Power Point

presentation prior to performing.

~Those P’s wrote themselves~

In this single aisle,

A woman has collected

seven seats, six stools

to serve as satisfactory

sitting options squarely secured

~Those S’s were stretches~

for the incoming anonymous

manifest of friends, colleagues

who conduct themselves like

strangers or companions on

a metropolitan commute or

lengthy return to relatives

whom they see less

and less each year.

We’re trained from youth

to be still, civil,

engineered from our childhood

to be polite. Always.

As the bookshop’s car

fills with late arrivals,

We shed our layers

and peel away ourselves

To become more comfortable.

And those who arrive

before the poet’s departure

from real life realize

that they are suddenly

seatless. They’ll see less

with coats draped over

their arms like towels

or plain white bedsheets

that danced in backyards

of our grandparents’ youth.

2012 Review, or Most Cliche Blog Title Possible

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Another year is ending.  2012 has been pretty awesome to say the least.  We learned of our pregnancy in early December 2011, but we didn’t say anything to family members until after we’d been to the doctor.  In January, Katy was around 10 weeks along, so we made the tour of family’s homes to relay the exciting news.  During these visits, two things happened:  most people stated their previous suspicions of the upcoming addition to our family, and my mom gave me a high-five coupled with her pleasure with the fact that I was going to become a father before I turned 40.

 

Prologue to This Journey

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*Note: I’m moving the material from my Google Pages Blog to this blog. It turns out that it’s senseless to attempt to maintain two types of blogs.

February 20, 2018

I’m struggling already with the best way to start.  This is the exact issue I discuss with my students and their writing assignments.  “Don’t worry about how it begins yet,” I say. “Write the body first.” That might be useful for formal academic writing, but this is not exactly that style of prose.  No. I’ll be posting a lot about teaching, I’m sure, but this blog is meant to be about my decision to begin a doctoral program at the age of forty-two.

So, here’s the background that I feel is relevant.  No names have been changed, as far as you know. I finished my bachelor’s in December of 1998 and began teaching in a public school in August of the following year.  For a couple years, that was my life. I got married somewhere in the middle, but that’s for another discussion. I began a master’s degree in 2001 or 2002 and eventually finished in December of 2007.  Near the end of my coursework, I took a class on American drama with [unnamed professor]. He was one of the best instructors I ever had, but one evening–I think prior to our two-hour discussion and evaluation of A Streetcar Named Desire–he answered a classmate’s inquiry about her consideration of applying for a Ph. D.

“Why the hell would anyone want to get their Ph. D. in literature these days?” he scoffed.  

Scoffed.  Yes. He was a scoffer.  

I can never know if his voice inflection was meant to be advisory, sarcastic, or some confusing combination.  I will tell you, famous reader, that I took it to my aortic pump.

Mentally, I shut down the notion of a doctoral program around that time of my life.  I was inching toward completing the master’s, anticipating a meager raise, and was set–at 28 or 29–to do the same job at the same school for the next thirty to forty years.

The question I ask myself now is, “Why the hell would I not seek out a Ph. D. in literature?”

You may be reading this and you can hear my voice in it.  You know me, and you know how much I truly loved Shakamak, even though, like any school or job, it had its flaws.  But my time was done there. I taught for seventeen years, and I cannot continue typing without reminding myself and informing you that they were the school that chose me.  They started my career.

 

[Activity 2] “The Hell is This?”

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The following is just Steps 1 and 2 from the previous writing activity. We did this in my graduate fiction writing workshop this week (Jan. 16, 2019).  Here’s what I came up with in my 5 minutes:


Shiny. That’s what drew me close. And as I approached it, my own image enlarged – me walking, reaching toward my own outstretched hand. Two gaping depths at the top. My investigative fingers soon found sharp metal strips along the inside. I withdrew them and peered in to discover thick metal rods–one in each slot, parallel to the tabletop.  Carefully, I dip my fingers in again to learn that each rod is bouncy. I turn the reflective round box and find a black spindle encircled with miniature lines and symbols.  Finally, I see a lever on the side’s center, which I learn enables me to lower the metal rods inside to a locked position.