Tent Revival: Online Theater

Last Monday was the premiere of Tent Revival, a play by Majkin Holmquist directed by Teddy Bergman, as part of the series, Bard at the Gate. This is the third season for the series, which is co-curated by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel and McCarter Theatre Center Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson, and co-produced by McCarter. Its goal is to create an audience for groundbreaking new plays that are “ambitious, quirky, and smart.

Tent Revival takes place in rural Kansas, 1957. The strong cast is led by Robert (played by Michael Crane), a farmer unable to make a go of it who turns to preaching. He’s strongly supported by his wife, Mary (Lisa Joyce), injured in an auto accident a decade earlier. Daughter Ida (Susannah Perkins) is the most interesting of the three, because she’s the most up-front with her doubts. She isn’t sure she buys into all the professions of faith and “Jesus is sitting right beside me,” and spends her Sunday mornings roaming the farm fields looking for snakes to have as pets. When Mary, in a frenzy of defending her husband from doubters, rises from her wheelchair and walks again, Ida’s convinced. For a time.

Someone who doesn’t share these doubts is the extremely vulnerable teenager, Joann (Allegra Heart). Joann willingly fakes a stutter so Robert can “heal” her, in order to convince people he truly has a gift. In addition to the four cast members mentioned, a fifth actor (Amy Staats) takes on multiple roles, usually as a skeptic.

The crowds grow, the pressure mounts, the demand for healing intensifies. When Mary relapses and ends up back in her wheelchair, Bob tries to exile her from the show (bad publicity). But he has to produce something to satisfy the crowds of people coming to be healed, and he talks Ida into snake-handling—with rattlesnakes. Mary has other ideas and decides to test Robert’s faith. Is it real? The ending is ambiguous, but I think he does have faith, just not in the way the tent revival audience believes.

The performances were filmed in a particular way—in closeups projected side-by-side, in color and, when Ida is narrating rather than participating in a scene, in black and white. This gives a feeling of action in what is a minimalist production. You can access Tent Revival (video on demand) through Broadway on Demand.

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Wow! LC Tiffany Makes It!!

It’s easy to overlook the New-York Historical Society as a place to visit, with the massive Museum of Natural History looming over it, right across the street. Sometimes, though, the smaller museums produce just as much interest, without the exhaustion. I like the MNH, but it’s a lot to take in.

Founded in 1804, it was the first museum in New York City, but it’s not at all stuffy. Evidence for that is the current exhibition, “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” the story of Jewish Delis in New York. (The museum is missing a big fundraising opportunity by not selling pastrami sandwiches on the spot!) It tells how the delicatessens started with the Central and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Delis served foods that reminded them of home that was not only tasty, but affordable. As one of the longtime deli owners explained in a video, in the early days the customers were almost exclusively Jewish, but in succeeding generations, tastes widened. They didn’t visit delis as often, and at the same time the food became more widely popular. Now, he guesses, about 40 percent of his customers are non-Jews. There’s also a reel of clips from movies and sit-coms that have filmed in delis, including that unforgettable scene from When Harry Met Sally, filmed at Katz’s delicatessen.

The variety of exhibits, some small, some large appeals to a wide variety of interests. Like politics? You can see the working documents of Lyndon Johnson chronicler Robert A. Caro. Like fine art? There’s an exhibit of paintings of New York scenes, from Keith Haring to Norman Rockwell—including the theater curtain Picasso painted for Le Tricorne that originally graced the Four Seasons restaurant. Black history? You can see the stoneware of free Black potter Thomas W. Commeraw and an exhibit on Frederick Douglass’s vision for America. Decorative arts? An unexpected treat is a gallery of 100 Tiffany lamps. I didn’t expect to be so thrilled by this last exhibit, but the museum has done such a fine job of displaying these works that it’s truly magical.

Where: on Central Park West between 76th and 77th Streets.
When: 11 am to 5 pm

Van Gogh Still Makes Headlines

Over Christmas, we went to the blockbuster Van Gogh in America exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts—the DIA–focused on his works in the context of American art collecting. The DIA pulled out all the marketing stops, as the photo suggests. And it received an unexpected boost from reports of a $5 million art crime (more later).

The Detroit exhibit included 74 works from around the world, many of them rarely seen, because they are in private collections. But Why Detroit? Why now? The exhibit celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the museum’s purchase of this beautiful van Gogh self-portrait, painted in 1887. In January 1922, the DIA became the first public museum in America to purchase one of the artist’s works.

In fact, as the exhibit emphasized, it was museums and collectors in the middle of the country who initially were acquiring and exhibiting van Goghs, while the major museums on the coasts were still snubbing him. Not until 1941 was the first van Gogh painting purchased by a New York museum, when the Museum of Modern Art acquired “The Starry Night.”

A trio of art scholars from the van Gogh museum in the Netherlands described some of the myths surrounding the artist. For example, the myth that he sold only one painting in his lifetime—a “The Red Vineyard,” now in Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum. In fact, van Gogh sold several other paintings, their titles unknown and details lost. He also sold drawings, and he sometimes exchanged paintings for food or art materials. By the time of his death, his fame was growing in Europe. He was on the verge of a breakthrough.

Another possible myth is that he didn’t commit suicide, but was accidentally shot by some children and kept it a secret, so as not to implicate them. It is an attractive theory, but the van Gogh Museum experts don’t buy it. They believe he was simply worn out by his mental health problems.

Bringing his work to this country depended on many forward-thinking individuals, especially Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, widow of Vincent’s brother Theo, who worked tirelessly to gain attention for her late brother-in-law’s work. And many of his other collectors, purchasers, and advocates were forward-thinking women.

The painting below, which you’ve probably never seen in person, because it’s privately owned, is “The Novel Reader.” According to federal court documents, Brazilian art collector Gustavo Soter purchased the work for $3.7 million in 2017. Today’s value is an estimated $5 million. Soter transferred possession of the painting (but not the title to it) to a third party, who absconded. The owner learned the painting was in the DIA show and sued to recover it. A federal judge has ordered the museum not to move the painting until this dispute can be resolved. They’ve given it its own security guard.

Do you subscribe to the foreign television streaming service MHz? If so, you might enjoy the fun series, The Art of Crime, in which an uncultured Paris cop is teamed with a spacey researcher from the Louvre.

To Warn or Not To Warn

Author Jamie Beck has written an excellent post for Writer Unboxed summarizing the arguments for and against putting trigger warnings on novels. Does the novel deal with crime, violence, bad childhoods? If so, some people feel potential readers should be warned. Does the warning need to describe so much of what happens in the book (airplane crash, page 73; dog dies, page 159) that it gives the story away? Surely not.

But where’s the middle ground? And, is there one? There’s no single answer that can possibly fit every case, much less every reader. To customize their approach to the actual text of a manuscript, writers (and their publishers) have come to employ “sensitivity readers” when a book is about a culture or a disability that is not the author’s own (and sometimes even if it is). The goal—to avoid stereotypes, mischaracterization, bias and other problems—seems laudable. This issue blipped loudly onto my radar during the dust-up over Jeanine Cummins’s 2020 novel about Mexican migrants, American Dirt.

But authors have been quick to point out that the issue of “standing” can be a slippery slope. Can ONLY a Black person write about Black characters? Or ONLY a person with a mental disability write about a character with one?

In Nita Prose’s excellent mystery The Maid, the protagonist, Molly, has difficulty reading people, can be overly literal, and has more than a touch of OCD (not a totally bad thing, if she’s cleaning your hotel room). Some readers thought the author should have spelled out that Molly is on the autism spectrum. But is she? Should Prose have given Molly an actual diagnosis, one freighted with a lot of extraneous stuff? She didn’t, instead merely describing Molly’s thoughts and reactions in a very straightforward way.

I sympathized with the approach Fabian Nicieza took in his first highly comic mystery, Suburban Dicks. His acknowledgements express thanks to his multicultural reading group, by name, “for providing their thoughts on the cultural portrayals contained in the book and their understanding that its intent was to be an equal opportunity mocker.” An intent at which he most certainly succeeded. A reader would have to be extremely thin-skinned indeed to take his jibes seriously, but then we do seem to be in such an era.

Jamie Beck lays all this out, then reveals the conclusion she came to for her own recent book. Not only is her essay thought-provoking in itself, it’s prompted excellent comments from a range of other writers and readers. Take a look!

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David Crosby, RIP

Truthfully, though I loved the CSN and CSNY music, I never paid too much attention to the personalities behind it, I never traced their peregrinations from one band to another, their spouses and romantic partners, their breakups and reunions, their drug busts and recoveries.

This state of unknowingness lasted until a spate of movies came out in the last decade or so about these personalities. Yes, I’d seen the concert film where Neil Young talks about his near-death experience with a cerebral aneurysm. (I think that was the film Heart of Gold), but in general, I didn’t know about Big Pink, the Laurel Canyon scene—you name it. These were documentaries that benefited from compelling on-screen interviews of interesting subjects and extensive archival footage. And, by resurrecting the music, they drew on their audience members’ deep well of musical nostalgia.That I certainly do have, in abundance.

Two of the CSNY documentaries were especially memorable. David Crosby: Remember My Name by AJ Eaton focuses on the eponymous musician. In the film, Crosby said he was 76 years old, had eight stents in his heart, and numerous other serious medical problems. As to the repeated breakups and reunions of the group, in interviews by Cameron Crowe, he didn’t spare himself or hide his regrets, especially the time he wasted as a junkie. Time, he said, is the ultimate currency: “Be careful how you spend it.” If you want to see Joni Mitchell and her contribution to the group, this is the documentary to see. Available for streaming on YouTube.

Echo in the Canyon is Andrew Slater’s documentary about the brief years in the mid-1960s when Laurel Canyon was home to an astonishing number of California-based rockers. Jakob Dylan is the interviewer. Again, David Crosby fesses up. The Byrds booted him not for “creative differences,” the euphemism of the time, but “I was kicked out because I was a ‘glass-bowl.’”Having seen these two films, I’d agree with that, at least in those years. Still, there’s the music . . . Available for streaming on YouTube.

In a heartfelt tribute to Crosby, Washington Post staff writer Pamela Constable explores her unexpected sadness at his death last week. She says, it “feels to me like the death of harmony in a new age of rage.”

Travel Tips: Central Michigan’s Cops & Doughnuts

Are you interested in crime, policing, food, or colorful roadside attractions? You’ll want to know about Cops & Doughnuts bakery in Clare, Michigan. Yes, it’s for real!

For many years, the bakery was a favorite stop for the members of the Clare Police Department. But, in 2009, after 113 years in business, the bakery was within weeks of shutting down. And it would have closed, if all nine members of the Clare Police Department hadn’t come to the rescue. They saved it, expanding the business to a second store-front, The Cop Shop, and now a third, with outposts in Gaylord, Bay City, Mt. Pleasant, and Midland, Michigan.

Named after Ireland’s County Clare, the town contains Lake Shamrock, as well as a branch of the less salubrious-sounding Tobacco River. The town (population 3,254) is pretty near the geographic center of Michigan’s lower peninsula. The largest nearby city is Mt. Pleasant, 15 miles south. As it’s located on a main route to the popular year-round Michigan vacation spot, Houghton Lake, Clare seems like it would be an attractive stop for a leg-stretch, bathroom break, and chocolate glazed.

Even more to the point, Clare has underworld connections. Reportedly, Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang occasionally hung out there once upon a time. In the Prohibition era, this criminal mob of mostly Jewish bootleggers and gangsters was the principal gang in the city of Detroit. Some 25,000 illegal saloons in the city created a large market for bootleg liquor. Rumor has it, gang members would hide in the bakery’s basement coal bin when the heat was on.

Cops & Doughnuts today? It’s reportedly very safe.

The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave

What I like about the two Paul Cleave thrillers I’ve read is how he ties social behavior into the story of a crime and investigation. In his work, Internet frenzies make bad situations worse, leaving me thinking, “Oh, yeah. I can see that happening.”

In the first book of his I read, The Quiet People, a couple suspected of harming their child is besieged by angry would-be vigilantes camping out in front of their home. Suspicions inflamed by social media are enough to produce a crowd edging toward violence. The Pain Tourist touches on people’s fascination with true-crime stories and their willingness to believe they are competent and informed enough to become investigators themselves. You’ve seen this in action if you watched the discovery+ channel’s 2021 series Citizen P.I. In the official confusion and near-vacuum of information after the recent killings at the University of Idaho, the amateurs stepped in.

Amateurs have provided helpful information in a number of instances. They’re good at code-cracking, occasionally find missing persons, and willing to delve into cold cases. But more ambitious self-assigned tasks, such as identifying pedophiles and targeting presumed perpetrators can get dangerous for both the citizen and the accused, who may, in fact, be innocent. This is particularly so when accusers decide to take action.

Authorities worry they can jam up an investigation, overwhelming police with “tips” that need to be checked out (more than 6,000 in the Idaho case in the first three weeks after the crimes). In Cleave’s writing, these true crime devotees are pain tourists.

Taut. Twisty. Propulsive. You can trot out all the cliches regularly used to describe thriller fiction and use them with abandon for The Pain Tourist.

A home invasion leaves Frank and Avah Garrett dead. Nine years later, their 19-year-old son, James, remains in a coma with a bullet wound to the brain, and their 14-year-old daughter, Hazel, is trying to piece a life together. The three men seen running from the Garrett home have never been identified.

While Christchurch Detective Rebecca Kent investigates a serial murderer case, alternating chapters provide insight into what’s going on inside James’s head. A lot, and it’s fascinating. His mind is constructing an alternative reality – one in which his parents don’t die and he and Hazel carry on their lives as they would have been. Eight years and 10 months after the attack, in the now of the novel, James wakes up.

As he describes his memories during those years, Hazel and his doctor see correlations with real-life events. James calls what’s in his head Coma World. In Coma World, he had adventures that drew from the books Hazel read to him. The dates he believes certain events occurred match reality. Naturally, the police want to talk to him to find out whether this amazing memory contains clues from that fatal night. He agrees to try. It’s an intriguing possibility, with loads of implications.

Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent is assigned to James’s case, and because her old friend, retired Detective Inspector Theodore Tate, worked the original case, she gets in touch. He’s now working as a technical advisor for true crime television shows, and Cleave nicely portrays the rise in true crime ‘entertainments’, the dark side of the audience obsession and the shamelessness of the media.

Cleave has a special talent for misdirection, which you don’t fully appreciate until near the book’s end, when several investigations start to come together most satisfactorily. Kent and Tate share one serious concern, that the men who killed James’s parents will come back to finish the job.

Rebecca Kent and Theodore Tate are solidly written characters. Hazel and James’s relationship is especially close, a cup of kindness in a vat of cruelty. James and his prodigious abilities form a completely believable, highly sympathetic character. And, along the way, numerous minor characters are given enough detail for plausibility. Maybe the bad guys are a bit too irredeemable, though that merely raises the stakes. This is a fast-moving, engaging story that has something to say and is hard to put down.

Read more:
The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, by Deborah Halber – “Part whodunit, part sociological study . . . The result is eminently entertaining.”

The Lie Detector’s Big Lie

The fascinating American Experience documentary on the checkered history of the lie detector reveals that three separate men figure in the development of this flawed technology—ubiquitous in mid-century crime stories, television dramas, and still a staple of law enforcement and the intelligence community. Nevertheless, the physiological measures the polygraph records have not proved to demonstrate untruthfulness, the technology is easily defeated, it has failed in numerous significant cases, and it never met the objectivity test, either, as the behavior and skill of the examiner also influence the results.

Like so many disastrous inventions, the development of a machine that could tell truth from falsehood began with a laudable purpose. In the early 20th century, the brutal methods the police used to get information, known as the 3d degree, made a safe, “scientific,” and presumably objective way to obtain information seem like a good idea. Certain physiological measures (breathing and heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) had been put forward as markers of truth-telling, and medical student John Larson created a machine that would combine them. Each might be weak by itself, but together, they could create a powerful tool. Working for the Berkeley, California, Police Department, along with a high school student, Leonarde Keeler, Larson developed his prototype.

Larson’s first case revealed what would turn out to be his invention’s biggest flaw. Valuables were disappearing from a women’s dormitory on the Berkeley campus. Larson tested all of the residents, identified the culprit, and she left campus. Later she wrote Larson saying she was innocent, but had been abused as a child and feared his machine would betray her secret.

A second researcher, William Marston of American University, created a cruder machine, but convinced prosecutors to use it during a trial. Even today, some jurisdictions allow polygraph results to be used in the courtroom, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1998 conclusion that they are “little better than could be obtained by the toss of a coin.”

Interestingly, both Larson and Marston ended up in Hollywood, where motion picture moguls wanted to measure how their films affected audience emotions. Neither lasted there. Today, Marston is best remembered as the creator of the comic book character Wonder Woman, who readily solved her creator’s shortcomings with her golden Lasso of Truth.

Later, Larson’s former assistant, Keeler, promoted his own machine, which he called the polygraph. He touted its infallibility to banks and retail outlets, who grabbed the opportunity to screen their employees on a regular basis. Eventually, hundreds of thousands of American workers were subjected to polygraphs, until most private employer screening was outlawed. Screening of national security and public safety personnel continues in some jurisdictions. (Note that polygraph use, certainly on such a widespread basis, is an almost wholly American phenomenon.)

When Congressman Richard Nixon challenged Alger Hiss to take a lie detector test, it wasn’t because Nixon believed in the technology, it was because he knew the public did. Hiss’s refusal sealed his fate and helped launch an era of using the polygraph as a tool for intimidation. With this development, Larson believed his invention had become a “Frankenstein’s monster.” This scene from The Wire, perfectly demonstrates how the unquestioning faith in “lie detectors” can be a tool for manipulation.

The truth is that, even though the polygraph is next-to useless in detecting lies, people harbor secrets. And they fear the technology will reveal them.

Art by George Pérez

Big Easy, Big Stories

The familiar traveler’s dilemma—what books to pack?—was easily solved for a recent trip to New Orleans. I had already set aside two ideal reads: my friend Tracie Provost’s New Orleans-based Under the Harvest Moon (book two in her under the moon series) and a collection of short stories about the Crescent City published by Akashic. As it turned out, both were entertaining late-evening companions.

Under the Harvest Moon

Tracie Provost’s books are packed with paranormal events, with vampires and werewolves and mages. Not at all the kind of book I usually read, so kind of thrilling as a result. Provost is so skilled at creating a consistent world for her unusual characters, with their unusual talents, that I’m never caught up short, thinking “Wait a minute . . .” Her heroine is Juliette de Grammont, a healer and a magic-using vampire, who had been staked for centuries and only recently revived. Still a young beautiful woman, Juliette’s occasionally dated ideas and struggles with technology amuse her millennial assistant, Jaime.

When the story begins, a New Orleans police detective who understands Juliette’s special powers calls her in to analyze a crime scene where a vampire and his girlfriend are both dead in a ritual killing. What has taken place, who is doing it, and why become more mysterious and more important as the number of killings increase.

There’s intrigue among the various covens in the city. Juliette’s coven has been reduced to her and Jaime, as its other members recently staged an unsuccessful coup against the City’s Grandmaster. A few from her coven were killed, but most are still out there . . . somewhere . . . As the risks mount and the evil motivation behind the killings gradually emerges, Juliette and her lover Josh must look for help from unusual sources—including the pack of werewolves living outside the city—for protection and help.

Provost makes the interactions among the characters quite real, almost ordinary—well, almost. She makes them eminently practical. For example, there’s someone they can call who comes with an after-crime clean-up team (he used to work for Al Capone) in order to hide various crimes. In fact, there’s a whole group of mages whose job it is to keep the paranormal world secret—the Gatekeepers. Even select members of the NOPD are in on it.

When you finish Under the Harvest Moon, you can be sure there’s a Book 3 on the way, and will await it eagerly! (You may want to use one of my affiliate links to find it on Amazon, as several books have this title.)

New Orleans Noir: The Classics

This collection, edited by Julie Smith, is a bit different than the usual Akashic collection, in that the 18 stories are not all contemporary. In fact, the earliest is from 1843. They include entries from revered authors like O.Henry, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams, as well as modern masters like James Lee Burke and Ace Atkins.

Overall, they provide a rich portrait of the city, its contrasts and its corruptions, its amusements and its shenanigans, as seen through these different eyes, with their very different, if precise ways of seeing. Quite a nice collection!

Florence and Mojo

These two short plays by pioneering Black playwright Alice Childress are now on stage in a riveting production at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, under the direction of Lindsay Smiling. Premiering October 26, the show runs through November 13.

Childress wrote, produced, and published plays for forty years. Born in Charleston, she said “Coming out of the Jim Crow experience was what I and many others had to do,” and the first of the plays (Childress’s first play), Florence (1949), addresses this experience directly. It takes place in a small-town train station waiting room in the South. The room is divided into two sections, alike except for the “Colored Only” and “Whites Only” signs and the segregated bathrooms. Oh, and the whites are offered a battered standing ashtray.

Mama (played by April Armstrong), is waiting for a train to take her to New York to check on her daughter, an aspiring actress, whom Mama fears is near destitute. Her younger daughter Marge (Billie Wyatt) tries to persuade Mama to bring her sister home. After Marge leaves, a white woman, Mrs. Carter (Carey Van Driest) appears, and the two talk. The ingrained attitudes and structures of racism are revealed, made even more painful when Mrs. Carter makes a gesture she intends as kind, which is anything but.

Mojo (1970), the longer of the two plays, takes place twenty years later, near the tail-end of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. The setting is the mid-century modern Manhattan apartment of Teddy (Chris White). He’s preparing to meet his white girlfriend and make arrangements for a poker game he feels confident he’ll win. As he’s off-stage, a woman opens the door with a key. She’s laden with a suitcase and shopping bag of gifts. Clearly, she plans to stay a while.

Irene (played brilliantly by Darlene Hope) is Teddy’s ex-wife, and through the sparring between them, their backgrounds and secrets gradually emerge. When Renie divulges how she looked for the face of her lost daughter in every child she saw, Hope’s intensity brought tears to my eyes.

Childress was raised in Harlem by her grandmother, who encouraged her to write and challenged her to focus on people struggling to get by. She does exactly that in these two plays. She creates especially complex female characters in both Mama and Irene.

It would be interesting to know how today’s Black audiences regard Irene and Teddy’s attitudes toward the Civil Rights movement. They speak as if they are indifferent to it, yet in the two decades between the stories, much had changed and much hadn’t. In the fifty years since Mojo was written, you could say the same.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.