Response Paper #1 – Fall 2018

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Note:  This is the first of 9 Response Papers students in ENG 647 (African-American Literature) are required to submit.  Each week, I will post my submission.   More about my experience at Ball State University can be found here.

Shared Oppression:  Harper’s “The Two Offers” and Wells’s “from A Red Record”

The literature authored by African-American women in the second half of the nineteenth century generated a new platform of discourse to a undeterred, growing and audience of slaves, former slaves, and abolitionists.  Two selections from that era share one penetrating theme: that women have an obligation–one that is arguably stronger than that of men–to lift one another up from oppression. In Frances E. W. Harper’s “The Two Offers” (1859),  the advice given from one character was not heeded and was ultimately regretted by the other character, though this fictitious scenario is obviously presented as a warning to young female readers. Secondly, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in Part One of A Red Record (1895), highlights the white women of the post-Emancipation era who offered educational services for former slaves.  Both selections expose this natural bond and instinctive desire to assist those who are clearly at a social- or educational disadvantage.  Of course, writers highlighting benevolent actions was nothing new; however, women being on both ends of this benevolence emerged as a new trope in literature and social commentary.  Both of these writers address this in a forward-looking fashion and do not dwell on past generations where men held all of the power among the land and within the home.

“The Two Offers” presents a moral dilemma for a potential bride who has two suitors that, after the first few paragraphs, feels ordinary.  However, Harper’s exquisite narrative style siphons into the past and explores how each woman in the opening scene has developed and secured her stance on this dilemma.  By presenting a deep, detailed backstory to both Laura (the “bride”) and her cousin Janette, the reader is alloted enough background to grasp the two distinguishable perspectives on the immediate conflict of having two men offer marriage.  By relinquishing key pieces of information about each of these two characters, Harper directly points to their opposing views and expresses how one’s moral compass is a direct result of her upbringing. Again, while a child’s rearing resulting in his actions of adulthood had long been a common technique in literature, focusing on a woman’s girlhood had yet to become mainstream.   

Because Janette’s mother was uneducated about her deceased husband’s business dealings, Janette’s family status plummeted after her father’s unexpected death.  Here, Harper is cleverly exhibiting the backlash of ignorance in the sudden event of a husband’s absence. After her mother passed as well, this now poverty-stricken young woman lacked anything resembling a support system and was motivated to work harder than ever to emerge in adulthood as someone whose challenges in childhood led to her “position in the literary world”.  It should also be noted that skin tone was not at all the focal point within this story. Thus, Harper’s focus is not that of just black women lifting up and advising others about love and marriage; rather, her focus seems to be for all women to see their options clearly.  As opposed to Laura, who is described as being her husband’s “prize” and “title-deed”, Janette’s bold independence becomes the pummeling, inspirational theme for female readers and an obvious stance against standard gender roles for male readers.  

As one of the foremost post-Civil War black female journalists, Ida B. Wells-Barnett fully understood that presenting inspirational material to an audience was far more beneficial than focusing solely on the horrible negatives of the era.  A Red Record includes a short passage in Part One concerning the “divine sentiment” of white Northern women to go to the South and educate ex-slaves.  This motherly gesture was, to Wells, an act of “heroism” which was essentially ignored, or at least not worthy of being “cheered”, by southern white men.  Embedded within a series of supported facts and perspectives on how America has adjusted since The Emancipation, Wells applies the three tenets of effective rhetoric: ethos, pathos, and logos.  Sharing the bravery of white women traveling to the South for the sole purpose of helping raise the educational levels of ex-slaves is presented as honorable (though she notes these women were identified by Southern whites often with unkind terms).  Asserting that anyone’s advancement in life is the direct result of one’s education–especially one’s literacy–continues and supports that sympathetic- or empathetic bond. Lastly, laying out the raw truth that the long-standing fear and subsequent false accusations of rape by black men handicapped an entire group’s progress logically results in the ongoing disparity among the races and the genders.  

Prior to this era, women’s voices and roles in society were extremely limited in the home and in print.  Each author, in her own manner, clearly desired to instill in her readers a fresh perspective of opportunity.  No longer should any woman believe that her place in life is second to that of a man. By exhibiting a character who enjoyed opportunities and a report of how no woman should believe she is literally on her own, Harper and Wells-Barnett helped solidify a new era in woman readership: the independent female.  

 

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My Dead Clown (Review)

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Starting off the 2018-2019 season at First Presbyterian Theater in downtown Fort Wayne is My Dead Clown, an original play written by David Rousculp, a licensed funeral director from New Haven.  The story follows Bill, a funeral director whose most recent project is preparing the body of Dingy the Clown.  However, Bill’s reputation is in jeopardy because he’s shown a decline in job performance since the passing of someone close to him.  Once he inadvertently brings the clown back to life, his life becomes even more complex.

This premise offers a multitude of options for audiences to explore their own lives, which is what quality theater should do.  Of all the people in the world, funeral directors should be among the most seasoned individuals who have a firm grasp of the effects of our eventual death.  However, Rousculp’s script is evidence that even those who would presumably be the most accepting of our ultimate fate are susceptible to death’s ramifications on the soul.

Director and Stage Designer Rae Surface succeeds in creating the multi-level environment this play demands.  Surface’s chosen details found in Bill’s apartment exhibit the depth of character required to portray a troubled protagonist.  Throughout the two-hour performance, this large cast offers a story of how one’s faith can be restored from the most unexpected and unlikely sources.

Duke Roth performs as the overworked and increasingly cynical Bill, the protagonist who is rapidly drowning in work and sorrow.  Roth exhibits a strong handling of balancing the stressors of Bill’s professional responsibilities and a longing for his past while dealing with the consequences of the clown’s arrival–and unintentional re-spawning–in his workspace.

Dingy the Clown is played by Reuben Albaugh.  Albaugh’s energy and cheeriness are suitable for any successful clown.  Additionally, Albaugh succeeds throughout the play with his undying (ha!) desire to bring laughter to replace sadness and smiles to erase frowns.

Among the other “living” characters are Chuck, BIll’s boss; Nancy, his assistant; and Eric, his brother.  Tom Corron’s humorous role as Chuck serves as the embodiment of Bill’s profession demands.  Jennifer Netting’s performance as Nancy shines with an exuberant portrayal of youthful spirit, innocence, and loyalty.   Eric, Bill’s younger sibling who has yet to find any firm path in his own life, is played by Nathan Driscoll.  Driscoll’s comical presence counters Bill’s apparent stress while simultaneously portraying how inspiration can come from unexpected places and events.

This play, perhaps understandably, also features a few “deceased” characters.  Leonard, played by acting and theater veteran Scott K. Strode, humorously excels as a potential aspect of Bill’s consciousness.  Deborah Kerr’s small but impressive performance as Mrs. Sticklebush is suggestive of Bill’s devotion to his responsibilities as a funeral director.  Jennifer Poiry Prough excels as Bill’s deceased wife Mary, and, peppered throughout the performance, appears in flashbacks where she exposes those gorgeous moments that offer and explain the depth of despair Bill is experiencing in the painful time since her sudden departure.

Rousculp’s rather unpredictable script features many pleasant surprises, many of which are found in the roles of characters who rarely escape their longstanding stereotypes and stifled reputations.  Among the remaining secondary characters are strong performances by real-life married couple Robyn and Rod Pasko.  Robyn, who is performing in Fort Wayne for the first time after establishing herself on stage and screen in Chicago, turns in an animated and vivid performance as Lucy, a.k.a. The Devil.  Rod Pasko offers an unanticipated yet charming down-to-earth version of Death.

Jeanette Walsh’s costume design is poignant and effective, especially in the gimmicks and shenanigans of the title character.  Theater Manager Thom Hofrichter’s production and lighting succeed in creating the obvious balance of humor and despair when grouping a boisterous clown, a funeral home, and hell on a single stage.

Bill’s anguish is a direct result of a past tragedy.  However, that tragedy has impacted Bill’s faith and perception of humanity’s significance.  During the few glimpses from the past with his spouse, we see a jovial couple who epitomize the human desire for love and devotion.  Once that was stripped away, Bill became the universal version of humanity who is forced to question that faith.  From the moment the first corpse rises up and interacts with the protagonist, any audience member who sees My Dead Clown during its first-ever run will recognize that he or she is in for an amusing and introspective experience.

“The Gospel According to…” – A Review (2018)

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The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and the Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord (by Scott Carter)

A growing amount of the modern forms of entertainment lack that aspect that art and theater typically target and thrive upon: the demand for mental interaction and the inherent intuition on the part of the viewer or reader.  When Scott Carter was penning this impossible interaction between three of the world’s most famous and influential thinkers, he must have remembered that greatness comes from loss and mistakes; that it is also born out of perseverance and drive; and, perhaps most significantly, greatness stems from an absolute addiction to seeking and examining potential answers to the most cryptic questions of this world, regardless of the era in which one lives.

Luckily for theatergoers of First Presbyterian Theater’s final show of the 2017-2018 season, these cryptic questions are the crux of the exchange between Thomas Jefferson (d. 1826), Charles Dickens (d. 1870), and Count Leo Tolstoy (d. 1910).  Each man enters a solemn room with his most recent memory being the moment he died. Once they learn one another’s identity and general attitude toward religion and philosophy, the story shoots off in a flurry of intellectual perspectives mixed with light-hearted humor.  

Scott McMeen returns to this stage as Jefferson and provides an optimistic performance as the former president and framer of the Constitution.  This season, he warmed our souls as Ebenezer Scrooge in the modern take on A Christmas Carol.  Here, McMeen rations the widely accepted and respectable historic view of Jefferson with an introspective glance at a man whose morals on paper were, perhaps, not as sound in reality.  

Brian Enrnsberger treats us to a confident and quite humorously pompous version of Charles Dickens. While Ernsberger has performed with FPT and other Fort Wayne theaters in the past, his return to the Summit City stage fills a six-year void.  With occassional quips to “his” own works throughout the discourse among all three men, Ernsberger successfully captures the often-exaggerated aloofness of the British author.

Rounding out this tremendous trio, Thom Hofrichter enters as Count–but don’t call him that!–Leo Tolstoy.  With his convincing Russian accent, Hofricter exhibits his passion for language, philosophy, and religion in convincing fashion.  This play brings an end to Hofrichter’s twenty-first year with the theater as its Managing Artistic Director.

The story examines some of the most controversial issues of mankind, but the title is indictative of the premise of how each man had at one point in his life rewritten the opening four books of the New Testament.  The arc of this after-life summit of great thinkers examines how each man from his generation and region contemplated the biblical text and specific passages. Citations to exact verses are identified, but when some disparity and disagreement evolves, the action of the play ignites.  These men are humans after all, so even in death they find themselves desiring to be heard, wanting to be right, and verbally sparring over their points of view.

Director Chance Parker suggests that the play takes each character “on a journey through essential questions pertaining to life, truth, and faith in every meaning of the word.”   Parker, a recent graduate from IPFW, co-directed this season’s Red with Hofrichter.

Jeannie Pendleton’s resume in costume design is deep and respectable, and she brought her talents to this cast and performance.  Each character is not only distinctive in reputation and language, but each man’s clothing represents another facet of his personality and perspective.  

Rae Surface and Austin Berger return to FPT for this performance with positions as technical director/set designer and light board operator, respectively.  Surface’s simplistic set is suggestive of a cleared mind in the after-life. Though the props are minimal, they function appropriately throughout this dialogue-heavy performance.  

Bill Lane is the projection designer and operator, and Sara Ihrie–a freshman at Snider High School–returns to the sound board after a successful stint in the same position for the theater’s previous play, Hamlet.

One does not need to have a deep understanding or experience with each of these men’s accomplishments or publications for the story and its themes to resonate.  The universality of the themes shines through in each scene. Upon its conclusion, audiences are all but forced to contemplate the same issues for themselves and how the shared points of view apply to their surroundings.  This serves as a formidable end to another outstanding season from the various casts and crews who work tirelessly at the First Presbyterian Theater.

Paste Magazine’s Top 50 Albums of 2017

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Here are my quick takes on this year’s list (a slow work in progress)

Here’s Paste Magazine’s list, in case you want to read how professional reviews are written instead of what’s below.

#50 – #46:

#50 – JD McPherson- Undivided Heart and Soul.   I’m going with “upbeat modern rockabilly”. It’s not at all like modern country, but there’s a tinge of down-homeiness going on here.  

#49 – Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – Not Dark Yet.  This sister folk duo surprised me with the light lyricism and superb musicality.  A great listen to kick back to on a night at home!

#48 – Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings – Matter of Time.  I started off my treadmill action in 2018 with this beauty this morning.   Jones excels again with this record filled with positive vibes in a turbulent time in the US.   I highly recommend checking out this one when you need a boppy pick-me-up!

#47 – Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights – I’m a sucker for soft-toned female singer-songwriters.  If that’s sexist, I’m sorry.  I’m among the newest Julien Baker fans, however, after listening to this gorgeous album.  There are suggestions that this album is about the ending of a relationship, but I also caught a glimpse of satisfaction and renewal intertwined in the lyrics.

#46 – Weaves – Wide Open.  This one didn’t really grab me, even though it had all the normal pre-requisites to be right up my alley:  A Canadian band with some boisterous lyrics and heavy guitars.  I’m glad I gave it a shot, but this album felt too teeny-boppy (hints of early Weezer and Oasis come to mind) for my taste.  Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood when I listened.

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#45 – Wand – Plum.  This….was interesting.  There were 2-3 intentional lulls of sound that acted as preludes to a tune.  Some of the songs were catchy and probably become more tolerable with consequent listens.  I wasn’t hooked, but there were some bright spots along the way.

#44 – Sallie Ford – Soul Sick.  This is overall some easy-going, boot-tapping, gritty rock.  There is some dark imagery and lyricism, but there are other very moments where the upbeat tempo gets me outta my seat and bounce around the room.

#43 – David Bazan –  Care.  I did about five minutes of research, but I couldn’t place where I know this voice.  I was very confident it was on a soundtrack from the late 2000s–possibly starring Zach Braff or Jason Bateman.  Anyway, I can see this type of singer-songwriter on those sorts of higher-budget indie films about 30-40 year-old men going through some type of crisis.  This pinpointed identity may not appeal to all readers, but rest assured, Bazan’s album is still worth the listen.   

November Fifth and It’s So Far Away (Revised 2017)

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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?

Imagery and Repetition in Audre Lorde’s “Power”

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On an early Saturday morning in the spring of 1973, on-duty New York City Police Department undercover officer Thomas Shea shot ten-year-old Clifford Glover, who was walking with his father toward his father’s place of employment. Three years later, the jury–eleven white men and one African-American woman named Ederica Campbell–acquitted the then thirteen-year law enforcement veteran after a lengthy trial.  Black feminist Audre Lorde commemorates this moment in American history with her poem “Power,” and through the use of evocative imagery and repetition, she cements young Clifford Glover’s memory in the minds of every reader.

The opening four lines invite the reader to elevate his or her understanding of what power is and how poetry holds the opportunity to endure.  “The difference,” the poem begins, “between poetry and rhetoric / is being ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children” (642). This bold, uncomfortable imagery introduces the gut-wrenching saga Lorde suggests Glover’s mother had over the course of the three years that passed between the day of her son’s death and the acquittal of his killer.  Lorde, who had emerged as a highly vocal figure in the Black Arts movement, aggrandized her platform as an activist-poet by re-telling the narrative through terrifying, vivid images such as “blood from his punctured cheeks” and how, upon finding him, the mother was “thirsting for the wetness of his blood” (642). These visual portrayals reinforce the opening statement from the poem because they express how Lorde is, in a way, risking her own reputation (and, perhaps, her own life) by protesting the outcome of the case and deliberately detailing the child’s unwarranted death instead of justifying the jury’s verdict.  

Thematically, Lorde’s speakers throughout the poem are exasperated with the failed legal system and widespread racism throughout America.  Through the use of gory imagery, the reader is placed beside Glover’s bleeding body and can feel the mother’s kisses on her son’s head (642). This use of pathos is intentionally shocking because, it stands to reason, Lorde believes her readers will only genuinely care about the victims in crimes such as this if they too can experience what Clifford Glover’s mother experienced.  

Interestingly, the title word appears at three significant passages within the poem.  First, from the perspective of Glover’s mother, Lorde writes that she (the boy’s mother) is “lost / without imagery or magic / trying to make power / out of hatred and destruction” (642).  Lorde is vicariously demonstrating how any mother whose young child was stripped away from her would be inclined to use the emotional reaction in the most positive way possible to honor the victim’s legacy.  Secondly, the poem’s speaker–arguably Lorde herself since so much attention is paid to the potential influence of poetry–creates a tragic image of the diminutive black woman in the deliberation room being bullied by the other eleven jury members.  By being literally outnumbered and out-manned, Ederica Campbell succumbed to the presumed relentless emotional- and physical abuse though, for a short while in that room, she had with her a level of power. In the final stanza, the speaker returns to the vital necessity to be able to differentiate between poetry and rhetoric.  If she fails in this, her power “will run corrupt as poisonous mold / or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire” (643). This serves as a call to action to all poets–especially black feminist poets–to remind them that their powerful words truly can change the trajectory of the racial divide that has existed in this alleged “land of the free” if they are brave enough to produce and share them.  

 

Hurston’s Janie: Changing the Narrative of Black Female Protagonists

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In a novel replete with striking imagery, revealing dialect, and weighty themes, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God features an unprecedented protagonist whose integrity and will eventually carried her through three marriages and various instances of verbal- and mental abuse.  Though each husband has a distinct function in her life and in the novel, the manner in which each marriage concludes exhibits a slightly different facet of the main character, which escalates how female lead characters continue to abandon the long-standing gender roles and social expectations of black women, especially those in the American South.  

By characterizing a woman whose insistence of being respected by her husband leads her to shake free of her first marriage, Hurston introduces a character whose self-respect outweighs the apparent social norms of her time.  Logan Killicks was far from romantic. Their marriage was nothing short of an arrangement where Janie served far more as an employee than as an equal or a lover. Thus, as Janie is offering this stage of her life to Phoeby, the scant details focus solely on Killicks’ comparison of Janie’s apparent laziness to his “fust wife” who “never bothered [him] ‘bout choppin no wood nohow” as well as how Janie “done been spoilt rotten” (26).   In rapid-fire narrative style, Janie meets Joe Starks and shares their flirtatious tryst with Phoeby. During Killicks’ final scene, Killicks is described as overly tired–something many men in this book have in common–but Janie pushes forward with the notion of leaving him for someone else. He downplays her idea as a waste of time because “‘[t]’ain’t too many mens would trust yuh, knowin’ yo’ folks lak dey do” (30). Arguably, at that precise moment in her first marriage, Janie could envision her future with Killicks and more than likely resolved to leave him at the earliest opportunity and accept Joe Sparks’ offer.  This clearly demonstrates how Hurston intentionally clashed Janie’s self-respect with the complacency of black characters presented before her. T

Janie’s relationship with Sparks displays a new set of roles and opportunities for her.  As the wife of someone whose initiative and ability to build a black community is unparalleled by any other resident, Janie’s social status escalates, even though Joe never affords her the opportunity to speak publicly.  However, to say Sparks simply duped her into this marriage to legitimize his social status in a town full of strangers might overstep the truth. Both men so far had previously cooed rhymes to her, a gesture that Janie values and clearly wished had continued.  Like Killicks, any romantic feelings Joe held toward Janie are quickly suffocated by his selfish desire for power and raising the town’s level of respect for him.

Throughout the twenty years they were together, Janie rarely challenged Joe and settled into her slim pocket of the store and home while her husband enjoyed a career of being touted as a great leader.  When she did publicly confront his misogyny and attack his manhood, he shunned her by sleeping in a different room. Hurston describes this short phase of their relationship as the “sleep of swords” and directly challenges the hypocrisy of Joe’s insults: “Why must Joe be so mad with her for making him look so small when he did it to her all the time?” (81).  Here, Hurston launches from her predecessors’ descriptions of this imbalance and bullhorns to the reader that this uneven trajectory simply cannot continue as women struggle to achieve equality.

What is vital to the closing of this chapter of her life was how Janie maintained respect for the man who used her throughout her early adulthood.  Her loyalty toward Joe up to the bitter end of his life exhibits how Hurston sees women as respectful and selfless. Upon meeting Tea Cake, however, Janie is challenged by the townspeople because starting a new relationship after the passing of a husband is, to them, a clear sign of disrespect.  Janie refuses to fall into that social trap, however. By exhibiting a believable, multi-faceted woman in this novel, Hurston dispels the limited roles for black women and clearly instructs them to abandon these social norms and live the life they want.

Tea Cake’s selflessness is apparent by putting himself between the dog and Janie.  Later, she demonstrates reserve and respect toward her dying husband and even regrets how his illness is affecting her ability to tend to him (182).  In the horrifying moment of their final battle, Janie’s self-defense leads her to shoot her husband, which reinforces Hurston’s desire for women to balance altruistic loyalty and self-preservation.  The faceless, nameless jury excuses her from punishment, which also suggests that all of Janie’s actions–from escaping a slave-like marriage to Killicks to killing a diseased Tea Cake–have become universally accepted.  The fact that Janie has outlasted three men, two of whom succumbed to death, further emphasizes that women who strive for self-improvement while shifting out of the pre-established social norms can and will live much longer, fruitful lives.

 

Gwendolyn Brooks and the Unknown

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Upon winning the Midwestern Writers’ Conference poetry award in 1943, Gwendolyn Brooks pieced together what became her first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville (325). In it, her gritty view of the south-Chicago neighborhood offers an unfiltered look into the lives of the area’s inhabitants and focuses on the domestic clashes between generations, social classes, siblings, and lovers.  On the heels of The Harlem Renaissance and World War II, Brooks deposited a unabashed reality of an American community whose stagnant state was the direct result of a government who provided virtually no assistance to returning black soldiers or their families.  A sense of identity and the unknown world is prevalent throughout a majority of this early published work. Two of the poems from A Street in Bronzeville carry with them a recurring curiosity and appeal toward the unknown.  A third poem, also published in 1945, continues her philosophical attention toward the unknown through the actions of a suave young man.  

This attention to the unknown appears in “kitchenette building”, a poem that juxtaposes personal ambition and personal obligation.  “Dream”, Brooks writes, “makes a giddy sound” which indicates how exciting aspirations can be. Immediately thereafter, however, she contrasts that with “strong” terms such as “rent” or “satisfying a man” (326).  This suggests that one’s dreams must come secondary to the daily obligations, especially for those in neighborhoods such as Bronzeville who are limited to living within tight quarters and represent a socio-economic reality for post-World War II readers.  The ambitions and advancements of the Harlem Renaissance artists should not be dismissed, but Brooks’ image of a family struggling to retain housing and the bare necessities such as food strike down the lofty goals of equality and immersion in white culture.  This speaker, the poem suggests, will be satisfied if there is enough “lukewarm water” remaining after the last child has bathed (326).

In “Sadie and Maud” Brooks exposes how two sisters’ different paths into adulthood sharply contrast the implied wisdom and direction of their parents or predecessors.  Sadie did not further her education and ended up with two children and no husband, which led to her sister and parents being ashamed of her (328). The final stanza, however, suggests that Maud’s conservative, academic route might have fulfilled her (and, presumably, her parents’) goals, but doing so also left her without a family of her own.  Maud, possibly on the advice of the previous generation, is falling in line with the politics of respectability in that furthering her education is the sole opportunity to enjoy a more fruitful existence. Yet, the implication with the final image of being “all alone/In this old house” is that Maud’s decision was the poorer of the two because she is left in an isolated state (328).  Presumably, Maud is the first of her lineage to qualify and attend college, which becomes the unknown presence in this poem. With no other details to apply, we are left connecting Maud’s academic aspirations with her lack of a family with whom she can enjoy the fruits of her scholarly labor. Brooks, thus, suggests a cautionary tale to her modernist readers because they may not wish to make the same sacrifices as Maud does in the spirit of gaining social acceptance in the educated world.  

Thirdly, the dense poem “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” offers a different spin on the unknown.  The entire poem details the minute-to-minute actions of a local ladies’ man whose entire existence is based in mystery and materialism.  Throughout the verse, the man’s previously unknown actions are delivered by an omniscient speaker. The previously unknown doings of Satin-Legs are suddenly now paired with this much broader announcement about humanity: “People are so in need, in need of help/People want so much that they do not know” (330).  Brooks is commenting on the ever-present magnetism toward instant gratification in the modern world by suggesting “they do not know” about the voids in their lives. Sexual satisfaction–unlike a healthy, more conventional intimate relationship–simply cannot endure. Brooks vocalizes this warning to her readers that abandoning traditional values and replacing them with satisfying selfish desires will ultimately doom the moral code of society.  

Though Gwendolyn Brooks was clearly inspired by the art and writings of Harlem Renaissance giants, she establishes a less abrasive morality in her poems by orchestrating recognizable individuals and painting cautionary images of black community members who have inched closer to forgetting or abandoning a traditional moral compass.  

Nanowrimo 2018

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Below are this year’s suggested warm-up writing prompts to get ready to be in writing mode throughout November!  Have a great month, everyone!

Mon.    10/15 Day 1 – 100 words short story with anagram name, age, “…was just found”

Tues.   10/16 Day 2 – 200 words character commenting on a news item from 2018

Wed.    10/17 Day 3 – 300 words   description of someone at a surprise party

Thurs. 10/18 Day 4 – 400 words   story told from a criminal’s point of view

Fri. 10/19 Day 5 – 500 words   description of a personally significant place

Sat. 10/20 Day 6 –  600 words story based on a picture of street art found online

Sun. 10/21 Day 7 – 700 words “autobiography” of a parent (in 1st person POV)

 

Mon. 10/22 Day 8 – 800 words a short story that includes a found heirloom

Tues. 10/23 Day 9 – 900 words two or three “super-short” stories

Wed. 10/24 Day 10 – 1000 words an evil character is avenged in a bizarre way

Thurs. 10/25 Day 11 – 1100 words description of an inspiring teacher/coach/neighbor, etc.

Fri. 10/26 Day 12 – 1200 words dialogue-only skit between two people in an argument

Sat. 10/27 Day 13 – 1300 words  dialogue-free prose depicting someone having a bad day

Sun. 10/28 Day 14 – 1400 words a completely new short story involving a domestic animal

 

Mon. 10/29 Day 15 – 1500 words  a room where something incredible or sinister has taken place

Tues. 10/30 Day 16 – 1600 words  short story including someone getting hired/fired

Wed. 10/31 Day 17 – 1667 words  two speeches from people arguing a hot-button issue

-or-

Wed.    10/31 Day 17 – 1667 words four “super-short” stories (~400 words apiece) that intertwine

“Shaw Out Loud”: The Doctor’s Dilemma (Review)

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There are those who look at a night out at the theater to be an escape from the daily grind, the pressures from work, and the stress that often accompanies political discourse.  Then again, theater often upends this expectation and arrests our attention by offering, within the confines of a couple hours, a glimpse into different perspectives from past eras.  When director Thom Hofrichter selected The Doctor’s Dilemma for this season for First Presbyterian Theater, he did so by purposely connecting a modern-day moral debate with the thoughts of one of history’s finest satirists, George Bernard Shaw.  Though it was originally published over a century ago in England, Shaw’s play posits questions that force the audience to examine their moral compass and challenges its notions of empathy and compassion.

Hofrichter, who is in his 22nd year at FPT as Managing Artistic Director, elected for this performance to be a staged reading, which means that the actors carry scripts with them on stage.  This technique, he notes, allows for Shaw’s dense language and rhetoric to become the focal point. The experienced cast at FPT chosen for this “Shaw Out Loud” performance succeeds in an innovative and enjoyable manner.  

Over the course of five acts, five physicians are faced with the inability to cure all who are sick and must determine the fate of two local individuals.  Boomeranging throughout the play are the contrasting thoughts and perspectives, not of the actors or even the characters, but rather of an entire society, which is even more reason for a contemporary audience to examine Shaw’s suddenly relevant work.

With a dialogue-driven play set up in this manner, the performers become vessels of philosophical debate.  Theatergoers may notice how they will find themselves noticing less and less how each character is holding the very words he or she has been tapped to recite. This cast gracefully directs attention to the attitudes and rhetoric embedded within Shaw’s words.  By the final act, I would be surprised to learn that any viewer was acknowledging the scripts in performer’s hands. With drama, we are conditioned to identify a protagonist and track his or her progress toward becoming a more morally sound individual. Shaw’s play, however, puts this expectation on its proverbial ear and forces the audience to internalize their own beliefs and actions.  This is a testament to the combined efforts of a cast and director who share the notion that the attention should be on the essence of the play’s thematic focus and not the fate of a single character.

The chief man of medicine from the group is Dr. Ridgeon, played by Larry Bower.  Bower excels at capturing Ridgeon’s bedside manner, especially in the presence of the sick and their loved ones.  Kate Black as Dr. Walpole offers many humorous jabs that lighten the weighty plot. Rounding out the quintet of doctors are convincingly aloof performances by Orion Toepler, Brian Ernsberger, and Tom Corron.  Together these five actors succeed in exposing the audience to the disparaging egos of those whose careers hold human lives in the balance.

I particularly enjoyed Billy Hofman as Louis Dubedat in his arguably antagonistic role because he successfully presents valid arguments that eat away at the stuffy doctors and, perhaps, the preconceived notions of the audience.  Finally, Robyn Pasko, in her return after an outstanding performance in FPT’s My Dead Clown earlier this season, submits a stirring monologue toward the plays conclusion that, at least for this reviewer, instigated goosebumps.

While the first- and second acts may appear to spend a little too much time establishing the distinctions among the five doctors, the three remaining acts deliver a powerful payoff.  Among the most impressive features of this cast’s performance is how each one clearly establishes an identifiable trajectory of his or her character’s own morality.

Rae Surface’s set design is appropriately bare with its simple arrangement of metallic props serving as a subtle reminder of the sterile, callous environment often found in a doctor’s office or surgeon’s arena.  This purposeful void further reinforces the attention that Shaw’s dialogue demands.

The mastery of this early 20th century play perhaps lies in its unlikely relevance to a 21st century audience.  Shaw’s cutting language has evolved into the basis for a present-day ethical debate. The performers convincingly shuttle the audience back to 1906 and leave them impassioned about the reality and tragedy of modern morality.

 

Present Laughter (2018) – A Review

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“Alas, poor Yorick.   I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest….”  Above the fireplace within stage actor Gerry Essendine’s late 1930s flat in London is an image of the actor himself, holding a skull, which is no doubt one his own favorite images of himself from his performance as Hamlet.   Essendine’s past, present, and future are all explored in the First Presbyterian Theater’s run of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter.  Surrounded by a vivacious and eccentric cast, this play delves into the life of a celebrity within the performing arts and reminds us of how the human heart desires companionship far more than it does material wealth and momentary satisfaction.

Gerry Essendine is played by the highly talented and expressive Todd Frymier.  In capturing this self-centered, witty character, Frymier also achieves a convincing level of self-loathing.  As the play progresses, we can see how a playboy lifestyle eventually has worn on him to the point of near madness and despair.

Making her Fort Wayne stage debut is Shelby Lewis as Daphne Stillington.  Though her resume includes a number of lead Shakespearean roles, Lewis excels as a young woman who is clearly ready to shed her girlish naivete and is anxiously desiring to enter an adult relationship.  In her vibrant performance, Lewis convincingly captures a young woman whose obsession with Essendine has clouded her take on reality. Susan Kahn plays Lady Saltburn, whose perfect moniker creates a tense and incredibly awkward moment in the life of a man whose private life and desires are unravelling far faster than he cares to admit.  

Essendine’s employees include a secretary, a butler, and a cleaning woman, each of whom shape Essendine’s complex lifestyle and bitter flaws.  As the secretary Monica Reed, FPT mainstay Nancy Kartholl delivers a consistent, no-nonsense performance as a woman whose own adulthood has been devoted to working for a man whose career is framed by becoming someone different.  Kartholl’s character has, it seems, evolved as maternal, and the two of them exhibit how the balance some people have with one another can result in a lifelong friendship.

Gary Lanier plays Fred, Essendine’s personal butler.  Lanier’s jovial presence counters many of the high-anxiety moments, especially those involving Essendine’s lovers.  Lastly, Pam Karkosky delights as the chainsmoking Miss Erickson. Karkosky’s character is perhaps the truest ‘yin’ to Essendine’s ‘yang’ in that her completely unabashed views on the situations withing the apartment suggest that raw mentality most of us withold behind a filter.  

On a secondary level, Suzan Moriarty and Jim Nelson further complete the turmoiled main character.  Moriarty plays Liz Essendine, Gerry’s ex-wife, though they apparently never took the time to make that dissolution of marriage official.  Though her scenes are sporadic, Moriarty shapes our picture of Gerry Essendine by inserting a limited amount of intimate details of the famed actor.  Jim Nelson glowingly performs as eccentric Roland Maule. Maule’s desire to be near Essendine is similar to that of Daphne Stillington’s, though it is much more professionally than romantically driven.  Throughout this comic drama, Nelson excels as a quirky bystander within a deeply complex romantic web.

The remaining cast members further intensify the story, especially the latter scenes.  Andrew Gross and Jim Matusik play Gerry’s friends and colleagues, Henry and Morris, respectively.  As with every other character, these two men shape a dimension of the main character whose life seems to be crashing down with each ring of the doorbell.  Finally, Gloria Minnich performs as Joanna Lyppiatt. Minnich counters Frymier’s Essendine exquisitely through biting dialogue and a flirtatious, yet bedeviling presence. She accelerates the comic tension that had been building the entire time.  

Director Christopher Murphy selected this play after catching a performance led by film and stage legend Kevin Kline.  He notes that the plot is, perhaps surprisingly, not outdated. It seems apparent that exploring the life of an ego-centric performer is just as timely as ever, given modern society’s obsession with the privated lives of its idols within the arts.  Murphy and Rae Surface coordinated the set design, and the Essendine-as-Hamlet portrait was no accident. Hamlet, upon finding the skull of the deceased clown, reflects on his boyhood innocence, which, for this play, is a direct correlation to how Essendine longs to grasp his own true life back after having spent years being other people on stage and only a small, witty version of himself with close company off stage.  Through a balanced amount of tension and humor, Present Laughter reminds us to simply enjoy this short life we have together.