Friday, March 27, 2009

Hootenannies, Historic and Metaphoric

I got a phone call at work this week that made me happier than any other call I've ever gotten at work.

"Would you cover a hootenanny we're having in May to celebrate Pete Seeger's 90th birthday?"

The sun came out from behind the clouds (the ones that now glower perpetually over the offices of every print media company) and a chorus of angels sang "Guantanamera."

I didn't know anyone else in Richmond cared about Pete Seeger. A few years ago, I mentioned his 1963 Carnegie Hall concert recording to a left-wing, banjo-playing friend and got blank stares.

(As I type right now, I'm getting choked up listening Pete lead hundreds of people in "We Shall Overcome" as he weaves his harmony over and under the voices.)

To hear the news that some folks have organized a three-hour, multi-performer, honest-to-goodness, bring-down-the-rafters hootenanny, featuring many of the songs Pete Seeger made famous, in honor of his birthday warms my heart like I can't describe.

I don't have the details with me, but here are the basics: May 3 at The Camel , 8-11 p.m. Ron Gentry and friends, Cheryl Warner and the Southside Homewreckers, and many other musicians will perform.

A hootenanny, of course, depends upon a willingly participatory audience, and that is Pete's legacy, no matter what your politics: he showed people how amazing it is to be one singing voice among many.

Metaphorically speaking, a hootenanny is what I went to last night. About 30 people gathered for a guided "grassroots conversation" about Richmond and its future. I was one of perhaps 4 or 5 people who did not personally know the organizer and leader, blogger John Sarvay (sultan of consultin' with his business, Floricane). We moved among small, random groups and discussed the ways in which each of us and Richmond were alter egos of each others.

Hmmm... well, not really. But it was all rather abstract and subjective, with no clear purpose. Or, rather: no measurable purpose. I think most everyone who attended was challenged (challenged themselves) to act on whatever intersection of self and city they discovered.

For instance, one mother of a young child wants to send him to the local public elementary school, at which most students come from low-income homes. She has already joined the PTA, but now wonders how to reach out to neighborhood parents who probably will send their children to private schools or apply through open enrollment to other public schools. This reaching out requires an extraordinary level of energy and bravery (one which I wasn't able to muster).

Throughout the evening, I was reminded that personal, passionate actions count, no matter how small. One (white) man goes to (black) Mosby Court every Sunday afternoon with a friend and spends a few hours shooting hoops, or talking, or passing time. He said, "I had to learn that this wasn't about looking for results." Yet he is hopeful--certain--that his actions will have positive future consequences.

But back to the hootenanny metaphor: Pete Seeger helps people see that when they sing together--joyfully, un-self-consciously--they don't need to be afraid of being quiet, raspy, loud or out-of-tune. And then it's very easy to transfer this confidence into action.

Last evening, as we were all talking to (not at) each other about a city we all love, I felt in myself the growth of the same kind of confidence. Speaking for myself only, I'm not sure what, or when or even if, action will result from the conversations. But I believe these talkin' hootenannies are important to have.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Barksdale Theatre: Children of a Lesser God

I wrote this response on March 12, but somehow forgot to post it. "Children of a Lesser God" runs at Barksdale's Willow Lawn theater through Sunday.

Last night I fell in love with Sarah Norman. As played by Erica Siegal, she was so sweet and prickly and honest, I knew exactly why James Leeds (as played by Brandon Nagel) married her--and it wasn't to teach, protect or save her. As she pulled her anguish out of her heart, I wanted to grasp Sarah's shoulders and say, "Look, he LOVES you!"

But love--like anger, humor, courage, or silence--can't solve everything alone, no matter what I or any of the characters think. Sarah, by whatever twist of personal history, understood herself first as a deaf person and second as a lovable person.

The play begins with about 15 minutes of almost ridiculously fast-paced development. Between Sarah's entrance to her speech teacher James Leeds' classroom and his post-curfew entrance through her bedroom window, I had no sense of how much time had gone by. Days? Months? Did I miss something?

I understand the need for broad scene-setting and character-establishing strokes. Medoff's script accomplishes a lot without overexplaining (although James does have an awful lot to say about himself to Sarah seemingly within their first two days of acquaintance). I wonder if some visual cues, such as changed colors in lighting or costume, might have demonstrated elapsed time and slowed the pace. More moments of action without words would have also helped: for a play that deals with silence (at least in a physical sense), it sure has a lot of sound.

All the action takes place on the same set, with minimal movement of a few basic pieces (benches shaped, interestingly, kind of like the crooked fingers of an "air quote" mark)--and this keeps things moving along, too.

The pace of the script and the performance does slow as the play enters its most substantive territory, dealing with James' and Sarah's struggles to bridge, merge or separate their four worlds: external, internal, non-hearing, hearing. (No wonder there's no single way to solve everything.)

The four principal actors (including Richard Gregory as Orin Dennis and Michelle Mary Schaefer as Lydia) are wonderful together; I got the sense they knew each other as characters, not just as actors. I especially liked Schaefer's Lydia, who reminded me of a person or two I've known--assertive and brash, but still a vulnerable young woman, trying to figure out if she's desirable, measuring her desirability against the standards of others. Are some of those standards imposed by the hearing world--for instance, talking? Is the desirability of talking a standard to be rejected, as Sarah does, as James tries to?

"Children of a Lesser God" deals with these questions, and many more, without resolving them--thank goodness. Life's just not that tidy.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Richmond Shakespeare: Amadeus

I know "Amadeus" is all wrong, but I love it anyway. It's one of the movies I find myself thinking about at least once a year, one scene or another flashing across my inner vision.

I detest Salieri, and I understand him. I despair of mediocrity, and I revel in the ordinary. I can't agree that talent is a gift entire, doled out by a mysterious or capricious God, but faced with something like the "Gran Partita" Serenade ("high above it-- an oboe--a single note--hanging there, unwavering") , the alternatives seem unlikely.

I've been anticipating Richmond Shakespeare's stage production for months, and I finally got to go last night. Performances by the entire cast were strong, and I didn't notice the period-inappropriate "manners and nuances" that Style Weekly reviewer Mary Buruss remarked upon. (Anachronistic gestures are a pet peeve of mine, too, but either I'm not as nuanced as she, or RS cleaned things up.)

Salieri (Andrew Hamm) and Mozart (Mike Hamilton) and Constanze (Liz Blake) take bows at the end of "Amadeus," but they're not the only main characters. The music is a presence so massive it functions as a separate character, and this notion is encouraged by Shaffer's script, which likens Mozart's music to God's voice, or God incarnate.

In Richmond Shakespeare's production of "Amadeus," the music is problematic. What to do, when the house (in this case, the chapel of Second Presbyterian Church) has limited production capabilities? There's no precise sound control, no way to bring sound in at different source points--no way, in other words, to give this character the independence it deserves.

I don't know what Shaffer's stage directions for the music actually are, but I feel RS erred on the side of caution. The several instances when music overlapped speaking worked just fine, and there should have been more of this, and more music in general.

I also don't know what liberties, if any, were taken with Shaffer's script, but there should have been more of those, too. Liberties, that is; to be precise: cuts. It's almost a joke to complain that there were "too many words," but that's exactly how I felt, especially in Mozart's dying moments but also in Salieri's opening monologue and various of his narrative advances. Richmond Shaekspeare can do silence well (their "Hamlet" was an excellent example), but if the script contains unnecessary words, lengthening the spaces between them isn't going to help.