Welcomed to L.A.

morro

I’m starting to write this on my way back home from Los Angeles in Morro Bay, a lovely town on Highway One  halfway between the northern and southern termini of this trip.

I want to mark what feels like a transformational few days. This was the first trip to L.A. I’ve made in over ten years, as far as I can figure. Since I cancelled my trip to China in March last year, I’d not travelled further than the East Bay. But, having been invited by the UCLA Cinema and Television Archive to participate in a tribute to the late filmmaker Robert Altman, I decided to stir myself and drive down to my former home town.

MASH

My former home town and site of my former career in “The Industry” as it’s called. That’s the movie/television industry, of course, which is in the process of becoming something more like the streaming-or-downloadable/on-demand/digital-content-industry. Before making his breakthrough film, M*A*S*H, Robert Altman had been an iconoclastic director of TV shows such as Combat and The Whirlybirds. A World War Two Air Force pilot from Kansas City, he was notorious for his outspokenness and rebellion against any cinematic conventions that he thought were clichéd or pointless. He’d been fired at least once from Universal Studios when he got hired by 20th Century Fox in early 1969 to direct the  irreverent comedy based on a novel about American combat surgeons in Korea in the fifties.

that's me (at age 24) on the far left.

A still from M*A*S*H (the movie).  That’s me (at age 24) on the far left.  Donald Sutherland is driving the jeep, Tom Skerritt is in the passenger seat and René Auberjonois, as Father Mulcahy, is blessing the jeep.

After casting three young up-and-coming actors as the leads – Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Tom Skerritt and Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, René Auberjonois and Roger Bowen in supporting roles, he began looking for actors who had improvisational experience to form an ensemble of surgeons, nurses and orderlies who would populate the MASH unit (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) that gave the film its title.

When I met him, Robert asked me about my work with The Committee, the San Francisco improv group that had started a second company in L.A. in 1968. I was actually working with a group (with the late-sixties name, “The Synergy Trust,”) that had grown out of the workshops in improvisation that members of the Committee were teaching. A couple of days later, my agent told me I was hired.

That began a two-year, three-film association with Altman that included Brewster McCloud and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which got me to Vancouver where I wound up living for a year. (That story needs a post of its own).

I took two days to drive down for the MASH screening, on the slower  highway 101 – the coast route – rather than trying to make it in one day on the brutal interstate 5 through the central valley. No question: it was the right choice.

Judy Chaikin

One of my oldest friends in L.A., Judy Chaikin, who had been in the Synergy Trust and is now an accomplished documentary film maker, invited me to stay at her vintage 1936 Studio City ranch house. I got there on Friday and was amazed by the abundance of olive and citrus trees, roses and wisteria surrounding her house. I hadn’t been there for nearly forty years, and in those days, I never paid much attention to landscapes or gardens. After I moved to the Bay Area,  China Galland, whom I married in 1987, taught me about such things.

Judy Chaikin's Wisteria

Judy Chaikin’s Wisteria

As soon as I arrived, Judy and I began a long, rambling conversation about the old days, improv, music, people, film, family and theatre that lasted until I left on Monday morning. Judy had been married for many years to her high school sweetheart, Jules, a musician, music contractor and producer who had worked with pretty much everyone in the L.A. music, TV and film worlds for more than fifty years. Though he died two years ago, his presence still permeates the house.

Shortly after his death, Judy completed a monumental documentary film called The Girls in the Band about the dozens of great women jazz instrumentalists who were central to the music in the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties but who have mostly been forgotten in that male-dominated world. It’s a world that Judy knows thoroughly. Using rare archival footage and new interviews with exceptional musicians, The Girls in the Band restores a vital part of American cultural history to our collective memory.

Judy also spent an afternoon listening to me play some of the songs I’ve been working on.  She gave me some valuable feedback of exactly the kind I need as I continue developing the solo music-theatre piece most of you already know about (from my last blog post).

Aftermash

The MASH screening was a new sort of experience for me. Now that I am truly a Hollywood outsider, I felt less alienated from the scene than I used to. Having nothing to prove at this stage of my life, having no ambition to be noticed by a producer, agent, star or casting director was a relief.

The former colleagues from MASH – actors Sally Kellerman, Tom Skerritt, Elliot Gould and Fred Williamson, editor Danford Green, Robert Altman’s son, Michael, and his widow, Catherine, were gracious and warm as was Shannon Kelley and the other Archive staff members.

from l: Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman and me

from l: Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman and me

I hadn’t seen the film in its entirety since its release in 1970. I was humbled to realize that I had been part of a project that did much to bring a formerly marginalized esthetic and political sensibility into the American mainstream. MASH was an unapologetic satire of U.S. military leadership. It used “Korea” as a transparent stand-in for the war in Vietnam. Its surprising success contributed to the confidence of the growing anti-war movement. Moreover it introduced a new, highly layered style of cinematic narrative to the world.

The Last Supper from MASH. I'm second from left.

The Last Supper from MASH. I’m second from left.

On Sunday and Monday I spent time with more close friends of my youth – Harvey Perr, Burke and Peggy Byrnes, Norbert and Tandy Weisser and Melissa Converse Ewing. Between these affectionate reunions and constantly coming across buildings, streets and names from the first 37 years of my life, I experienced a near-continuous flood of flashbacks, living in several times simultaneously.

Bill Mumy and Sunshine

The culmination of the trip was the extended jam Bill Mumy and I had on Monday afternoon. Bill is one of the most unusual people I’ve ever known. When we met he was nineteen years old and I was twenty-eight.

With Bill Mumy

With Bill Mumy

I had been living in Vancouver for a year, where I’d made my first original piece of theatre (Crow, based on a poem-cycle by Ted Hughes). Then I was cast in a TV movie, Sunshine, adapted from the journals of Jacqueline Helton, a young, single mother who was dying of cancer. It was the first “disease-of-the-week” TV movie, though I believe it transcended the genre it’s credited with spawning. I was cast in one of the more unusual and interesting roles I ever did on TV: a drop-out-rabbinical-student-guitar-player who was part of a three-man acoustic folk-rock group fronted by the guy who winds up marrying the single mom (who’s dying). My character performed a wedding ceremony, in Hebrew, in the heroine’s hospital room. Bill Mumy played the other guy in the band. Cliff de Young was the romantic lead. Bill and I were the comic relief and Bill was the musical center of it all. The cast included a lot of gifted actors like Meg Foster and Brenda Vaccaro. It was produced by George Eckstein, one of the most intelligent and generous people I’ve ever met in the world of commercial TV, and directed by the pioneering TV director Joe Sargent.

Meg Foster, me, Brenda Vaccaro during the "Sunshine" shoot in Vancouver

Meg Foster, me, Brenda Vaccaro during the “Sunshine” shoot in Vancouver

Bill might have only been nineteen, when we met, but he was already  the best all-around musician I’d ever met. He played guitar, banjo, harmonica, piano and sang beautifully. He also was – and is – a terrific arranger and producer.

Maybe one of the reasons we immediately bonded was that I was only vaguely familiar with his previous identity as the child star of the iconic TV series Lost in Space. Bill started working on TV when he was six, in 1960. He went on to play major roles in Papillon with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman and in Stanley Kramer’s Bless the Beasts and the Children. I simply knew him as a fellow guitar picker who shared my love of traditional music and quirky lyrics.

To our surprise, Sunshine, the TV movie, was followed by Sunshine, the TV series, which took up the story of the young widower raising his daughter and still struggling to make a living as a “folk-rock” musician. Though never made explicit, the show hinted that the hero, still played by Cliff de Young, was an American draft-resister living in Vancouver, where both the first movie and the series were set.  I made a point of making my character’s Jewish identity as richly detailed as I could and found ways to use a Yiddish expression or two in almost every episode. When Bill and I pitched an idea for an episode to George, he liked it and even hired us to write it.

The series was cancelled after thirteen weeks, though it had been lauded by critics. The ratings sucked  and that was all that concerned NBC. Unlike MASH, Sunshine was not able to pull the “mainstream” audience into its unconventionally populated world.

But the following year, we had another surprise when NBC ordered a second TV movie as a Christmas special. Two fine New York actors Pat Hingle and Eileen Heckart played Cliff’s parents and Barbara Hershey played his old flame.

During and after the Sunshine gigs, Bill and I played a lot of music together, sometimes on camera or in the studio (we made an “original soundtrack album” for the first TV movie), but most enjoyably, on our own. We collaborated on a few songs and I learned an enormous amount from young Bill.

I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years when we got together. I went to his house with my guitar, he took his Martin off its hook on his guitar-filled wall and we played old and new songs for each other. Bill remembered parts of several of our old collaborations, more than I did. His new songs are even lovelier that the old ones and have a depth that comes from many more years of living, marriage and parenting.

Driving home, I listened to several of Bill’s CDs which are gems of contemporary acoustic songwriting , singing, playing and producing. Reconnecting with Bill has been a heartwarming and inspiring gift.

Coda:

As I drove west on the Richmond Bridge, crossed the Bay to Marin County and caught sight of Mount Tamalpais, the Randy Newman song, Feels Like Home, began to play. My iPhone was on “shuffle.” Strangely I only have two Randy Newman tracks on the device, though I’ve loved his music since the sixties.

Mount Tamalpais seen from the Richmond Bridge

Mount Tamalpais seen from the Richmond Bridge

I couldn’t believe the universe’s shameless sentimentality in coming up with that song at the very moment I saw the mountain that has become, over the last 34 years, the emblem of “home” for me. The chorus of the song says: “…Feels like home to me / Feels like I’m all the way back where I belong ...” And, yes, it did bring tears to my eyes.

 

Good News!

Yesterday I got word that I’d been awarded a “CA$H” grant from Theatre Bay Area, our tireless local advocacy and support organization for non-profit theatre and dance. Though the amount is modest, it will allow me to keep working on the solo (maybe with musicians, though) musical theatre piece I’m developing. But most importantly, it represents a huge validation from the community of fellow theatre-makers that is all the more meaningful now that I have no artistic home since TJT’s closing. Here’s how I described what I’m doing in the grant application:

I am increasingly aware of the historical layers in which my own lived experiences have unfolded. I came up during the cold war, witch-hunts, assassinations, riots – a time of great cultural upheaval. My life has been shaped in very direct ways by the war in Vietnam, the emergence of the “counterculture,” the struggle for Civil Rights for African-Americans and other powerful currents of history.

cf.epi

There’s only one generation between me and my Eastern European Jewish ancestors who immigrated here in the late nineteenth century. Though not religious, both my parents identified as Jews and embraced the progressive, inclusive, vital culture of the secular Jewish immigrant artists and intellectuals. It was no accident that I chose to base so much of my work in theatre on Jewish culture, history and imagination.

I’ve long been inspired by the notion, articulated most eloquently by the great African-American historian, Manning Marable, that people cannot have a shared future unless they understand their common past. It seems to me that Americans, especially the young, have a hard time even realizing that they have a history, much less one hared with people different from themselves.

The recent struggles over immigration policy, inequality and racism in the U.S., and current clashes between cultures, globally, often hinge on the question of who owns the narrative. But rather than remain caught between dueling narratives, I believe that it’s possible to discover stories of a common past that can offer alternatives to binary conflict. Doing this might be one of the most important contributions theatre can make to the world.

Two of the spoken-word pieces and one of the songs I’ll be incorporating into the work suggest the narrative arc I’m imagining. The first, The Dream of the Disappeared Immigrant, imagines the life of a great-uncle of mine with whom the family lost touch shortly after immigrating from Odessa at the turn of the twentieth century. In the story-song, Morris, the uncle, reinvents himself as an entrepreneur in the first years of the twentieth century, but feels he must give up his music and his language in order to become part of a new world. The second piece, Born in ’45 uses my parents’ biographies to tell the story of a generation that still believes in the ideal of a universalist, democratic, “modern” culture and fights to hold onto its fervor and ambition as America’s post-WWII optimism is eroded during the era of retrenchment that followed in the fifties. The third, 1976, a narrative ballad, tells the story of my decision to leave the life of a film actor in Hollywood and join an activist, ensemble theatre group on a long and arduous tour across the country – a decision that changed my life.

logic.screen

You can hear all of the eighteen pieces I’m using – at least for starters – in a playlist I created on SoundCloud. If you happen to listen and feel moved to share any responses, you can leave comments on each track at SoundCloud or hereon t
his blog. That always means a lot to me

Golden Lies

Video

n the airport
I knocked back a shot
That was my usual pre-flight routine

But I tried to believe
That love never dies
I tried to sing roses for you
To remember me by

Wrote you a postcard
Said just how I felt
Right there in plain sight for the whole world to see

But I hadn’t a stamp
I forgot your address
Left the card on the airplane
The clean-up crew found it I guess

One more false start
One more scar on the heart
Ah, but, those were the days, those were the nights

All we needed was love
But it helped to stay high
So we swallowed the sun
And we sang golden lies

1976: a song

nineteenseventysix. from Corey Fischer on Vimeo.

In 1976 I left off working as an actor in TV and film in LA to join an activist theater company called The Provisional Theatre that had grown out of the anti-war movement of the early seventies. My time with them was life-changing and eventually led to co-founding Traveling Jewish Theatre in 1978. You can find more music of mine on https://soundcloud.com/corey-fischer

Loving the Stranger: Wrestling Jerusalem a New Play by Aaron Davidman

[Originally Published on Tikkun, March 13. 2014]

Wrestling JerusalemThe first sentence that Aaron Davidman speaks in Wrestling Jerusalem, his new solo play at Intersection for the Arts, will have an all-too-familiar ring to anyone  who has ever tried to understand the sources of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “It’s complicated.”

For the next eighty minutes Davidman seamlessly and thoroughly embodies fourteen characters – Arab, Israeli, American, Jewish, Muslim, male, female, old, young, religious, secular, left, right – who both prove and transcend that assertion.

At the end of this moving, provocative, exhilarating journey, I had to ask myself whether there had really been only one actor on stage.  There were so many characters, so many arguments, debates, dialogues, so many people with so much to say. Did all that really come from one person?

Aaron, an actor-writer-director –- in other words, a theatre-maker– has spent decades mastering the art of splitting himself into multiple characters.  Full disclosure: I am anything but an “objective” critic. In fact, I’m not a critic at all. I, too, am a theatre-maker. In 1978, I co-founded Traveling Jewish Theatre. Sometime in the mid-nineties, Aaron joined us, becoming the first new company member since TJT began. By 2002, he had become TJT’s artistic director and led the company until we closed it in 2012.  Aaron and I worked together as actors and co-writers and directed each other many times for about seventeen years. Though I’m more than twenty years older than Aaron, I’ve long  regarded him as a peer and have learned as much from him in our work together as he might have ever learned from me.

Given our history together, it’s no surprise that I’d recognizeWrestling Jerusalem as rooted in the intentions, concerns, sources and theatrical elements that animated TJT for 34 years.

Along with the weaving of multiple stories and timelines, the transforming from one character to another in full view of the audience, the juxtaposition of the personal, the political and the mythic, there’s the overarching theme of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which TJT explored in its 1985 Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon, (one of Aaron’s first roles with TJT was in the 1998 revival of that piece) and later, in the 2005 Blood Relative which Aaron conceived and directed.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Rob Hurwitt, Aaron mentioned Blood Relative:

“There are seeds and stories in this play that came from those first trips back to Israel when we were researching Blood Relative… when I started working with TJT, the wealth of material under the umbrella of the Jewish experience really opened up for me, personally, historically, culturally. Digging into Blood Relativemade me realize I couldn’t get all this topic into one play. And out of that came a commission from Theatre J in Washington D.C., which was the catalyst for this whole project.”

Another area of Jewish imagination that inspired TJT was the exploration of the Jewish mystical tradition known collectively asKabala.  Aaron frames the play with a seminal text from theZohar, one of the most important Kabbalistic books:

Once there were vessels of light that contained all that is good in the universe.  But this goodness was so powerful that the vessels, with their thin shells, could   not contain it. And the vessels burst. And the light of goodness was scattered.    Sparks and shards of light flew into all corners of the world. They’re hidden amidst all of us. And it’s the work of human beings, say the Kabbalists, to find those sparks, those fragments of goodness, and put them back together. It’s how we heal the world, they say. We gather the broken pieces of goodness and put them back together.”

Healing the world is called tikkun olam in Hebrew, and has counterparts in the deepest parts of every religion or spiritual path that I know of. Aaron’s evocation of tikkun olam lets us know, right away, that the reason he’s asking us to follow him to Jerusalem or Hebron is to try to gather those holy sparks, those fragments of goodness in order to heal – to heal the land, all the souls suffering at each other’s hands, the tortured history.

To do that, Aaron knows that you can’t ignore the “complicated” reality on the ground – at the checkpoints, bus stations, farms, on the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem or at the souk in Ramallah.  Aaron has the courage of a shamanic firefighter to walk into the hottest flames of the conflict and bring back all the painful truths he finds there, with no self-regard. This is theatre with remarkably little ego-investment. Which makes Aaron’s brilliance as a performer all the more compelling.

But, in a departure from TJT’s works, Wrestling Jerusalem  is based on interviews that Aaron conducted on trips to Israel and the “occupied territories” of the West Bank. Though he changed names to respect the interviewees’ privacy, most of the words he speaks are theirs.

The play contains several bouts of accelerating verbal combat in which Aaron leaps from character to character, performing a kind of linguistic parcours as he hurtles between arguments and points of view. The first of these is a discussion of “Where it all started.”

“You might say it all started in 1948 

Which you might call Al Nakbeh The Catastrophe 

You might say it all started in 1948 

Which you might call Milhamat HaAtzma’ut The War of Independence 

You might go back to World War I And blame the British 

Say they fucked up a thousand years of decent relations Between
Jews and Arabs 

You might say it was the 1929 massacre of Jews in Hebron 

You might say it was the 1994 massacre of Arabs in Hebron 

Or the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila 

Or the 2003 massacre at the Tel Aviv bus station 

No, no, you might say, It was 1967 The Six Day War 

That was when the real problems started 

No, you might say it was the Yom Kippur War 1973, that was it 

Or really, you might say, It was 1947  

The Green Line United Nations Resolution 181 

The Arabs should have accepted 181 

And they would have had a better deal 

Than they’re ever going to get now 

But, you might say, 

The UN never should have adopted Resolution 181 

Because it was a European land grab 

Look, You might say It was the invasion of Lebanon 

It was the First Intifada 

It was the Second Intifada 

It was the Withdrawal from Gaza 

It was the war in Gaza 

No, no It’s the Settlements 

Definitely the Settlements 

No, no it’s the terror attacks 

The bus bombs, the cafes 

No, it’s the wall and the check points 

No, it’s the tunnels from Egypt and the missiles in S’derot 

No, no, it’s Iran It’s all about Iran 

No, it’s  No, it’s the politicians 

It’s all about the politicians 

Golda blew it 

Peres blew it 

Arafat blew it 

Barak blew it 

Sharon blew it 

Olmert blew it 

Clinton blew it 

Bush blew it 

Obama’s blowing it 

If they just hadn’t killed Rabin 

If we just hadn’t killed Rabin 

If the Ultra Orthodox just didn’t have so much political power 

If the Arab League would just do more 

If the media just wasn’t so biased 

If the Right Wing Christians would stop funding Settlements 

If AIPAC would just be more critical of Israeli policy 

If J Street would just be less critical of Israeli policy 

If we just had a real partner on the other side 

If Netanyahu would just… 

If Abbas would just… 

If the Palestinians would just lay down their arms 

If the Israelis would just get out of the West Bank 

If the world would just step up and get more involved 

If the world would just back off and stay of out it 

If, if, if, if, if, if If!”

Aaron’s ease and power in these challenging sections – there’s little in the play that isn’t a considerable challenge for an actor – must be at least partly credited to the sensitive, intelligent, unobtrusive direction by Michael John Garcés, the artistic director of the legendary Cornerstone Theatre Company.  Later in the play, there’s an equally jaw-dropping dialogue between Aaron (that is the character, Aaron, a progressive American Jewish “everyman”) and a radically pro-Palestinian American Jewish doctor. The dialogue becomes a furious debate between two American Jews that takes place in the home of a Palestinian who works for an Israeli civil right organization on a hill above a refugee camp near Hebron.

DANIEL: Hamas is the lesser of two evils!

AARON: Hamas is a gang of fascist zealots!

DANIEL: Aaron, Fatah is on the payroll of the United States!

AARON: Fatah is upholding the rule of law in the West Bank!

DANEIL: They can’t be trusted!

AARON: You can trust Hamas?

DANIEL: They were elected!

AARON: So was your senator, but you don’t trust him.

DANIEL: He’s complicit with an Apartheid government!

AARON: Can you stay on one topic for more than five seconds! You gotta go to Apartheid?

DANIEL: Sue me!”

Like Aaron says, it’s complicated.  For one thing there are no villains or “bad guys”  in Wrestling Jerusalem.  Aaron finds his way into the fragile human heart beating inside each character, underneath any armor of opinion and self-righteousness. With him, we bounce between equally valid, mutually contradictory points of view. He describes these points of view as:

“…the sparks I’ve pulled from behind the eyes of every single person I’ve met. They smash up against each other. And I’m bursting. I’m exploding into a million shards.”

In one example, we hear an Israeli Jew point out that:

“What  transformed [Zionism] from an idea into a reality was the
Holocaust… a kind of wholesale change of the condition of Jewish life in Europe And its not a justification. I’m not waving the shroud of Auschwitz in order to
defend breaking the arms of Palestinians, I’m just saying, that something
changed in Europe which transformed Zionism from a rather silly idea, into a
state.”

And we understand what he means. But then we hear from a Palestinian farmer:

It’s not balanced. There is the occupier and there is the occupied. And what can we do? My family’s orchard was our life for five generations. Five. Yes, we were there for three hundred years, for sure, three hundred, probably more. Many more. And now my orchard is destroyed. They said for security. For this Wall.

“Let me tell you something, Aaron. Please do not be upset. The Holocaust was not my fault. You understand what I say? I am sorry for the Jewish. The Holocaust was…a terrible tragedy. But my grandfather was not Hitler. He was a farmer here, in Palestine. Three thousand kilometers away. And when the Jewish came he would not sell land to them.”

And again we listen and understand.

We have to pay attention to the uncomfortable realpolitik of an American Jewish expat in Israel:

“I got news for you: statehood ain’t pretty. It’s called realpolitik, kid. Look over your notes from Poli Sci 101. I’m not just being a rightwing hardass, Aaron. I’m not. I’m a Democrat, for god’s sake. I’m being realistic. Take Iran: Keep them from getting the bomb. Whatever it takes. And I mean whatever it takes. What are we waiting for? Some people think Jews have some higher moral obligation. Why? Why?! It’s us or them. That’s how it is. Us or them.”

Or to this Palestinian woman who works for the UN:

“Aaron. There is a man I always see at the Beit Jala checkpoint. He’s an old man. Every day he rides the bus, and everyday the soldiers make him get off the bus and he refuses! And he yells at them, tells them they should treat him better. Yells at them they should respect him. He does the same thing every day. And some days they beat him and some days they let him go and some days they just make him wait for hours. And every day he tries to teach them. Someone should make a movie about this man. You see how we live. No freedom to move about. It can take me hours to get to work in East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem! It’s ten minutes from Ramallah. And I have the permissions. I have the papers. If you don’t, forget it. You’re not going anywhere.”

In the achingly beautiful last part of the play, on a hill above the Dead Sea, Aaron meets an Israeli survivor of a piguah, a suicide bomb attack. Amir, as Aaron calls him, is suffering from PTSD, self-medicating with marijuana, listening to Bob Dylan and refusing to blame anyone for the tragedy.  He reminds Aaron that in the Torah, the Jewish bible, there are exactly three commandments to love. We are commanded to love God, to love our neighbor and, to love the stranger.

At the end of the journey Aaron takes all the pain and confusion he’s absorbed to the only place that might be able to contain it: the Kotel, the Western Wall, the sole remaining, millennia-old fragment of the Temple. I won’t try to describe what happens there. Certain moments in theatre are untranslatable to other media. This is one of them.  There are others like it in Wrestling Jerusalem. Though the play is brimming with talk, we are always brought home to the body and voice that supports it all. Aaron sings, whispers, dances, falls and even appears to fly without ever leaving the ground.

Wrestling Jerusalem  offers no solutions to the intractable conflicts it explores. But it fiercely insists on continuing to imagine that peace is possible, that it’s “not a fantasy.”   By embodying all these human beings so deeply, by fulfilling the commandment to love these “strangers,” Aaron allows us to fully experience that possibility. If the play is still running by the time you read this, I urge you to go. I don’t often find works of art that can generate an honest and well-earned sense of hope.  The last one was the 2009 novel by Colum McCann, Let the Great World SpinWrestling Jerusalem is definitely another.

Wrestling Jerusalem.  Opens 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 15, 2 p.m. Sunday, March 16. Through April 6. $20-$30. Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., S.F www.theintersection.org

 intersection_logo_small

For information about Wrestling Jerusalem on tour, visit wrestlingjerusalem.com

Review: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Petit

“… even though the book takes place primarily in 1974 – so much of it began for me very shortly after 9/11. I had read Paul Auster’s collection of essays The Red Notebook, where he wrote about Philippe Petit scribbling his name across the sky between the World Trade Centre towers. Then – when the towers came down in 2001 – the tightrope walk popped out of my memory, one of those eureka moments, and I thought, What a spectacular act of creation, to have a man walking in the sky, as opposed to the act of evil and destruction of the towers disintegrating. I certainly wasn’t alone in this. It was almost part of a collective historical memory. The same image ran true for a number of people, not least of course Philippe Petit himself. And I wanted to write a song of my adopted city as well, and maybe to confront some things that were on my mind about issues of faith and recovery and belonging.”

- Colum McCann,
from an interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

I’d been hearing about Colum McCann for a while but hadn’t read any of his novels. Then, at a friend’s house, I saw a copy of Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for fiction.  I asked my friend if I could borrow it. He’s one of my few male friends who has as much love for fiction as I do and probably reads even more than I. He has given me many books over the years, though sometimes his tastes run ahead of my own into the works of writers I find rather difficult and opaque, like Boltano.

I started reading Let the Great World Spin as soon as I got home. I didn’t devour it the way I once read novels as compelling as this one. I don’t know whether to blame my changing reading habits on the internet or on old age, but I don’t seem to be able to read for hours at a time as I used to. There were even some days when I didn’t pick the book up, though I never went very long without thinking about it.

The book’s central image is the 1974 walk by funambulist Philippe Petit on a cable suspended between the top floors of the World Trade Center towers.  He used no harnesses, nets or safety gear of any sort. He and his support team went to great lengths to get themselves through the building’s security, rig the cable (an archer was involved) and remain in the building until the following dawn when Petit began walking. His walk was, by all accounts, flawless, elegant, breathtaking. It excited the imagination of thousands – perhaps millions – of New Yorkers who stopped, wherever they were, and watched a man walking in the air a quarter-mile above.

McCann begins the book with a three page prologue describing the walk and returns to it several times later, either directly or through the peripheral vision of the several characters who all witness it. McCann never names Petit,  a choice that reinforces the walker’s distance from the other characters whose lives we come to know intimately. Yet, McCann’s funambulist is intensely corporeal, never an abstraction, a symbol, or a literary device. Here’s how McCann gives us the beginning of the walk:

One foot on the wire – his better foot, the balancing foot. First he slid his toes, then his sole, then his heel. The cable nestled between his big and second toes for grip. His slippers were thin, the soles made of buffalo hide… He played out the aluminum pole along his hands. The coolness rolled across his palm. The pole was fifty-five pounds, half the weight of a woman. She moved on his skin like water…

His body loosened and took on the shape of the wind. The play of the shoulder could instruct the ankle. His throat could soothe his heel and moisten the ligaments at his ankle. A touch of the tongue against the teeth could relax the thigh. His elbow could brother his knee. If he tightened his neck he could feel it correcting in his hip. At his center he never moved. He thought of his stomach as a bowl of water. If he got it wrong, the bowl would right itself. 

He felt for the curve of the cable with the arch and then sole of his foot. A second step and a third. He went out beyond the first guy lines, all of him in synch.

petit 2Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to his walk. He was carrying his life from one side to the other. On the lookout for the moment when he wasn’t even aware of his breath.

The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.

He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.

All the characters are struggling to awaken or to resist awakening. We meet the first  two characters as young boys being raised by a single, devoted mother in Dublin: John Corrigan, called simply Corrigan or Corrie, already in a constant dialogue with God, and his brother, Ciaran, who tells their story.  Corrigan becomes a radical Catholic monk and ends up in the Bronx, ministering to a group of African-American prostitutes who are on “the stroll” beneath the Major Deegan Expressway, across from his housing project. Missing his brother, Ciaran follows him to New York where Corrigan has become a sort of patron saint to the hookers, giving them round the clock use of his apartment for showers and self-care.  Corrigan, in spite of his vows, has fallen in love with a Columbian woman with whom he works at a nursing home. Later, in a section written in her voice, we experience that all-encompassing love from within the relationship, revealing everything that Ciaran struggles to understand about his brother.

Throughout the book, the narrative is handed off from character to character as McCann’s layered edifice gains depth and power.  Corrigan and Jazzlyn, an eighteen year old hooker he watches over, will not live past the first section of the novel. Yet, like the twin towers themselves, the space they occupied continues to shadow the rest of the book.

The other characters, whether they understand it or not, are affected by them. But to simply enumerate these connections does McCann’s talent a disservice. The book is in no way schematic. The relationships between characters are unforced and asymmetrical; as messy as life.

“Then came the moment when I thought that I could go backwards in time to talk about the present: that’s when the tightrope walk came in. And the deeper I got into the novel the more I began to see that it was, hopefully, about an act of recovery. Because the book comes down to a very anonymous moment in the Bronx when two little kids are coming out of a very rough housing project, about to be taken away by the state, and they get rescued by an act of grace. That’s it, not much maybe, but everything to me. And there’s hardly a line in the novel about 9/11, but it’s everywhere if the reader wants it to be. I trust my readers. They will get from a book what they want. It can be read in many different ways. In this sense I hope it works on an open poetic level: make of this child what you will.”

- Colum McCann,
from an interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

It’s worth noting that three of the most important characters are black women. Two of them narrate their respective sections of the book.  First, there’s Tillie, , the daughter and mother of prostitutes, a heroin addict, and, thanks to an eccentric Middle-Eastern client in her early days as a high-priced uptown call girl,  a reader of Rumi. Her daughter is the eighteen year old Jazzlyn, already a mother herself. Tillie narrates a long chapter from jail on Riker’s Island after Jazzlyn and Corrigan’s death. I’ve not been able to shake a certain discomfort with this section of the book. Interestingly, I had no discomfort at all with the chapter voiced by Gloria, an educated black woman from Missouri who is a neighbor of Corrigan’s and plays an important role in the second half of the novel. I was able to accept Gloria as a unique human who happened to be African-American, who was shaped, as we all are, by her experiences, and yet, like all of us, could not be reduced to her socio-ethno-economic profile.  So my discomfort isn’t merely a response to a white author writing in the voice of a non-white character.  After a lot of reflection, I’ve come to see my discomfort with Tillie as a sign of McCann’s uncompromising integrity. To follow McCann into Tillie’s world of sexual slavery, addiction and violence should not be comfortable.  Tillie can’t forgive herself for not preventing her daughter from becoming exactly what she once was, a heroin addicted, teen-age mother who sells her body. Though McCann never lets us lose sight of Tillie’s boundless love for her daughter and granddaughters, her internalized self-hatred remains devastating. For it to be anything less, would be false and sentimental.

As uncompromisingly bleak as Tillie’s chapter is, the book as a whole is anything but depressing. It fully earns its vision of reconciliation and recovery. Perhaps stories of descent, purgation and redemption are part of McCann’s Catholic spiritual and literary DNA. Dante’s spirit hovers nearby. We recognize that most of the characters are terribly lost in a “selva oscura,” Dante’s “dark wood,” and we can’t help but think of angels when McCann tells us about the man walking in the air. But in McCann’s cosmology, guilt and punishment are not imposed by a judging God. They’re part of the human story. I don’t think one has to be a believer to see the world humans have made as a fallen world, whether one bases that sense on the hundred years’ war, the ubiquity of slavery through most of our history, the holocaust or 9/11.

McCann has Ciaran describe Corrigan’s “theology” on the twentieth page of the book:

What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth – the filth, the war, the poverty – was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven. To him that was a dressing room for hell. Rather, he consoled himself with that fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light, all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism against all the evidence.

Without minimizing the unbearable suffering we create for each other and for ourselves, McCann has the courage to celebrate the love we are equally capable of giving. Though it may, indeed, transcend our understanding, in this author’s uncommonly generous view, it’s as much a part of us as our breath.

Colum McCann

Colum McCann

Storyboard Dances

StoryboardP-390x245

Earlier today I read an article in The New Yorker  about the street dancer, Storyboard P. and watched several online videos of his dancing. I was moved and deeply impressed by his astonishing virtuosity. He “pops and locks” in break dancing style but also has created his own vocabulary of extreme and precise isolations that he actually describes as a series of “charley horses” and that have the look of stop-frame animation. He and other “flex” dancers sometimes refer to their moves as “animations.”  He also uses moves from other forms of street dancing like “juking,” which mimics ballet en pointe foot work.

But more than his technical proficiency – which is more than enough to put him in his own category, it was the rawness of the impulse-life behind his movements that captured me. Strange to tell, I, a 68 year old Jew recognized the place from which this 23 year old African American found his intense physical expressivity.

It’s a place I’ve visited as an actor at certain special times, usually improvising without words, mostly on my own but at times with a partner, connecting to story or character that carries intense emotion, in a pre-verbal way. By “place” I mean an inner condition, a state of awareness that’s free of the controlling, dominating power of discursive, discriminating, utilitarian, hierarchical thought-language or judgmental self-talk;  free of any desire to please anyone or accomplish anything other than “tracking” the pure energy of the physical impulses – those minute desires to move this or that limb, make this or that sound, run, fall, shake or be still.

Perhaps this condition, not unlike states of mindful but non-discriminating awareness that can arise in Buddhist meditation, has something to do with giving oneself over to a distributed intelligence that’s different from the more familiar kind neo-cortex-associated intelligence.

For a while now, neuroscientists, plant biologists, computer scientists, information theorists have been talking about “hive mind” “swarming”  “distributed networks”  as a way to explain seemingly “intelligent” behavior among plants, animals, insects and computers.  Migrating birds, schools of fish, bees and ants, trees and sagebrush all partake of this phenomenon.

Perhaps humans do as well. When I watch Storyboard dance, it’s as if I’m seeing him deconstruct his body into an aggregation of nerves, muscles, tendons, cells and impulses that dance, argue and fight with each other, that support, block, push and pull each other, that coalesce for a moment and come apart again.

Watching him dance, I am reminded of both scientific and mythopoeic accounts of the origin of the cosmos. God contracting God’s essence to make a space for the created universe to exist. Energies so compelling they bend light and pull it into their dark core. Primordial beings giving birth to time and space.

This notion of a performer fragmenting herself into multiple presences isn’t new. It exists in some forms of South Asian narrative dance like Kathakali in which the dancer’s hand gestures, eye and torso movements, footwork and voice each have their own specific role in telling the story, whether it be to convey a mood or emotion, embody a character, evoke a landscape or change the point of view.  In the West, solo performers – mimes, storytellers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, performance artists, monologists – have split themselves  into many parts for centuries, playing multiple characters simultaneously.

But Storyboard’s performances, almost always improvised in the moment, would be difficult to parse in conventional dramatic terms. He might use narrative, but because he’s working so close to the bone – literally – we become witnesses to a shamanic journey rather than listeners to a story. Storyboard, though a dancer, achieves the Artaudian ideal of the actor who “signals through the flames”  that consume his identity, who reveals what remains after ego, social conditioning and self-will are burned away before our astonished eyes.