Friday, September 19, 2008

It took a mere 80 years, but I think we've made it, Mr. O'Neill ... .

Unlike your ugly Broadway premiere in 1924 when bomb threats, angry audiences, and outraged theater critics spat upon your play, Black and White theatergoers sat together in a small village theater in a trendy suburban tree-lined public square and experienced your controversial "All God's Chillun Got Wings" without incident. In fact, we shared the evening without being either defensive or confrontational. And it wasn't because we'd cleaned up your dialogue or ducked the hard questions. It was because in our era we've reached a place where the social order has given way to possibilities unheard of ever before in history in this nation that rose from a shameful history of human slavery to the very serious possibility of an African American ascendancy to the presidency of these United States! And it all has happened within the lifetimes of just 3 women in my family, my ggmother, Leontine Breaux Allen; 1846-1948 and enslaved from birth until she was nineteen; my mother, Lottie Allen Charbonnet, 1894-1995; and me, Betty Charbonnet Reid Soskin, 1921-present.

Last night's modest small town evening of theater was a triumph; so much more than I'd dared hope for. Admittedly, it was a self-selected audience of those who have an interest in both O'Neill and Robeson so may be atypical of the general suburban population. Nonetheless, in some strange way we were all (those of color and not) witnessing events from the same side of the social barrier and that is new. We are, indeed, living in a new day. We've crossed into unexplored territory and from this place a new world is coming into view.

At the end of the one-act play the cast joined us from the stage to talk about what we'd seen. I was still not comfortable with the content. "Chillun" was not redeemed by moving into dramatic form. It was disturbing to me in the reading and seeing it performed did nothing to make it more accessible. All I could think of was the tragedy of Paul Robeson, a proud black man whom I'd had the honor of meeting close up and personal. In fact, I was a part of a small group of young people who picketed the Paramount theater with him at the opening of Walt Disney's Song of the South which he believed to be unforgivably racist; and I agreed, even as a late teen. He was tall and stately and proudly black! He was a close friend of Matt Crawford, an old friend and a political activist I knew through my involvement with the Berkeley Co-op Movement. That weekend a group of us young people had gathered at Matt's to meet Robeson -- prior to our picketing assignment. We sipped pink lemonade and played "Spin the Bottle" and I received an innocent kiss on the cheek from the great man. Visions of that Sunday afternoon came back while watching the pitifully submissive character of Jim Harris on stage last night.

I wondered how Robeson, that powerful man; that proud black Adonis could have ever crushed himself into the role of a meek and submissive character, ever? I'd had a chance some years later to see him act as the iconic Moor, Othello, against Jose Ferrer's Iago at the Curran theater in San Francisco. That's the way I'll always remember him. That role with its ornate costumes and regal settings was in keeping with the Robeson of my memory. I cannot imagine what it cost him to play the role of Jim Harris for 100 performances ... and how such roles helped to fuel his eventual anger against a system which produced such tortured people.

During the Q&A when the play ended, the cast was wonderful in expressing their feelings about the roles they'd just played. The candor they showed freed the audience to be equally open and honest in their responses. The actor who'd played Jim opened by telling us how much he hated Jim in the beginning, but of how much he'd gained in the process of learning to understand and accept this cowering man of little pride. The rest of the cast was equally as candid and I felt a deep and abiding sense of gratitude that the O'Neill Foundation had trusted us all enough to bring all this together and with enough blind faith that we could handle it. I'm ashamed that I lacked that kind of faith. I was prepared, last night, for anything other than what we found -- a readiness to have those long lost conversations ... finally.

The National Park Service, the O'Neill Festival Committee, and director, Eric Hayes, are to be congratulated for taking on this bold experiment in theater and bringing together the human elements that gave it the social and political significance that it deserved.

You may rest easy now, Mr. O'Neill. And you, Mr. Robeson, your uncompromising courage and painful sacrifices may have gone a long way toward producing our new political reality.

Sleep well... .

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tonight's the night ... and I'm so-oo-o on edge ... .

Eugene'O'Neill's "All God's Chillun Got Wings" will be staged at a premiere with reception this evening. I'm sitting here pretending that I'm not concerned. Not true.

It feels as if all that I could have done was achieved, but my fear is that it will be another missed opportunity to engage the Danville community in a meaningful dialogue that may bring the understanding that the great playwright and his star, Paul Robeson, were seeking.

The subtleties are easily missed. I'm not at all sure that I was able to adequately raise the awareness necessary for this to be anything more than either a polite exchange of niceties, or, a surface conversation that won't bring us (me!) past the "n word" utterances. I so want to see myself as sophisticated. Knowing. Erudite. Beyond hurt feelings over mere words. Down deep I'm not at all sure that's true. And if it isn't...what does one do?

Read a brilliant article today written by Tim Wise. It was carried in AlterNet; the subject being White Privilege. It was penetrating in its simplicity, and easy to toss off as something meant for those others. I'm sure that most of tonight's audience would deny the concept as applying to their lives in any way.

I may easily be one of a very few persons of color in tonight's audience.

By the end of the evening -- I will probably be firmly in the camp of "other."

Maybe that's what is so disturbing ... .

Tomorrow I'll let you know how we fared.

Photo: Eugene O'Neill in his study in Tao House where he wrote his most penetrating prize-winning plays. This is now a National Park site and one of the four parks within our management orbit.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It was Friday morning ... last ... when my office phone rang ...

It was program director, Sanjit Sethi, from the Richmond Arts Center asking if I would be willing to participate in a program involving teens; what did I recall about the first time I voted; would I be willing to be interviewed on camera, "... no more than 20-25 minutes." Did a quick mental calculation of just what commitments lay ahead for the rest of the day -- and, "yes" it was, of course.

The interview was scheduled for five o'clock. Never mind that it was the end of the day at the end of a long week and that energy was running on empty ... but I do love youngsters and a refusal just wasn't an option.

Arrived at the Art Center just as the program director was getting out of his car. My young interviewer was nowhere in sight, but arrived soon thereafter. It was Rodrigo -- and such a soft-spoken gentle soul he was. He was wearing an Amnesty International tee shirt and a jaunty leather hat. He appeared a little shy but open and direct with an earnestness that invited respect and suggested the seriousness of the experience. Fatigue magically dropped away and we were soon at work. We sat in straight-backed metal chairs with cameras aimed at each of us -- under intense lighting that served to blur the presence of the others in the room. They soon dissolved into the darkened background and then there was only Rodrigo ... and me.

Rodrigo's first question was "when did you first vote?" and I was surprised that I couldn't recall just which president that was. I stumbled and stuttered for a minute and came up with something. I remember now that my first vote had to be for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, surely. I was 21 and it was mid-WWII. It had to be. But I answered pretty tentatively. Since I have never ever in life missed an election, they've become not much of an event -- just what one does as a citizen. After all these cycles it is a non-event in my life despite the excitement experienced with each election.

In a few minutes the conversation began to flow as if rehearsed. The questions were real because his face told me that my answers were important to him. We talked with two cameras recording our conversation for almost a half-hour. The time flew by. The passion that underlies my civic life kicked in at some point and we connected, my young interviewer and me. I wanted him to know how much the electoral process meant to me and it was clear that he was interested in knowing. Would that it were always so easy to span time and generations. It comes rarely, but I felt it in those moments. I've certainly experienced times when the spark refused to ignite and words held little life. Not this time. This time the words met in mid-air ... .

I learned from the director as we were leaving that this was a community arts project that involves pairing adults and adolescents in these unedited conversations around the issues of the electoral process and that sometime in October -- prior to the November general elections -- under the sponsorship of the Richmond Main Street Initiative those interviews will be blown up and projected against the walls of adjacent buildings in the old downtown in a gigantic multimedia public art display.

I had no idea.

It was an memorable experience for me -- and maybe for Rodrigo as well -- an experience well worth sharing with the community.