This Friday, September 13, Netflix begins its eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable based on a fascinating true crime story (trailer). Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on how different police departments handled the uncertainties and ambiguities that arise in rape cases. And, in the book, they go into the long, sorry history of why women are so readily disbelieved.
Created and executive produced by screenwriter Susannah Grant, with novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.
Miller and Armstrong found they still had more to say about the contrasting investigative approaches—one, involving a case that takes place near Seattle where a young woman’s story was disbelieved, and others, in the Denver suburbs, where police went to extraordinary lengths to tie together their investigations with those of other local departments. The authors report what they learned in the new book Unbelievable, an excellent, real-life police procedural.
Sibling rivalry that boils over
into violence is as old as Cain and Abel, with the line between love and hate
ever-shifting. African American brothers Booth (Travis Raeburn) and Lincoln (Nathaniel J. Ryan), five years
older, have an uneasy relationship made more acute by their dwindling life
prospects. Despite Booth’s determination to change his name to Three-Card, the
brothers seem constrained by the names their father chose for them as a cruel
Booth has a one-room apartment and
a girlfriend whom we never see (and who may be apocryphal); Lincoln has come to
live with him after his wife threw him out, and Booth would like to get rid of
him too, but Lincoln has a job and income, even if paltry. In a tangle of
symbolism, he works in a carnival, in whiteface and dressed up as Abraham
Lincoln. People pay to come into his booth and shoot him with a gun filled with
blanks. They carnival hired him because they can pay him less, but even that
meager income is threatened, because management plans to replace him with a wax
In the old days, Lincoln made a
good living fleecing tourists with the Three-card Monte con, but initially
refuses to take up the cards again. Booth would like to develop a Three-card Monte
racket of his own. In the opening scene, he’s practicing his card-handling
skills and patter at the front of the stage, when his brother enters, in full
Lincoln regalia. Startled by Lincoln’s entrance, Booth pulls his gun, then lies
about what he was doing. Playing solitaire, he says.
Throughout the course of the play,
much comes out about the brothers’ reaction to being abandoned by their parents
when they were 16 and 11 and their uneasy relationship in the ensuing twenty
years or so. Which of them is the top dog and which the underdog shifts back
and forth many times.
Raeburn gives an energetic
performance as Booth, ever the kid brother, teasing and bouncing to keep
Lincoln’s attention. Much of the comedy in the production comes from his
portrayal. Ryan starts out as the ghostly Lincoln, morose and beaten down not
just by his bizarre job but the even more awful prospect that he may lose it.
He resists Booth’s importuning to go back to his Three-card Monte days, and
finally, alone in the apartment, really comes to life when he takes up the
Rakesh Potluri produced the set
(the vividly floral wallcoverings were inspired by the work of artist Kehinde
Wiley, who created the portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait
Gallery). Music from the hip-hop duo Outkast’s 1998 album Aquemini, which like the play is thematically influenced by
differences between the two principals.
Princeton Summer Theater
productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus,
easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the
Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle
ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from
By Colson Whitehead – I was glad my book group chose this winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, which made the longlist for the Man Booker Prize AND was chosen by Oprah’s Book Club. I searched vainly for hours for the photo I’d seen of President Obama carrying it. Thinking he too had read it also gladdened my heart.
Now that I’ve actually read it, I am triply gladdened. Certainly it raises painful issues and reminders of our country’s difficult history (Make America Great Again?). Those issues are worth confronting repeatedly and anew, society-wide, and as individuals who read books. Their consequences are still with us and all around us. The Civil Rights era did not erase the past, confer respect or opportunity on all our fellow-citizens, or assure a conflict-free future, just as giving women the vote did not solve the problems of inequality and sexual harassment for women.
The experiences of Whitehead’s protagonist, the slave Cora (Cora was an alternative name for the goddess Persephone, queen of the underworld; or was Whitehead thinking “heart”?), property of a cotton plantation-owning family in Georgia, are not unfamiliar. Yet Whitehead gives his writing an immediacy that powers the story forward and makes it painfully fresh, as Cora encounters one difficulty after another. Her mother is the only slave to have successfully escaped the Randall Plantation, and Cora, alternately admiring her mother’s gumption and hating her for her abandonment, is determined, somehow, to follow her.
In a device best termed magical realism, Whitehead’s underground railroad is a real railroad. It runs in darkened tunnels and has rails and locomotives. Yet, this initially awkward metaphor brings the actual conditions of slave escape to light in a new way, when we learn it’s a railroad with no fixed schedule, uncertain destinations, and ambiguity about whether routes or stations are even open.
As it’s usually used, the term “underground railroad” conjures what we know about railroads and timetables and reliably running trains and certainties at the other end of the line. In Whitehead’s metaphor, those certainties are upended. If a stationmaster has been found out, a station may be closed. And he is gone. Whether he was black or white, helping a runaway slave was deadly business.
Whitehead’s writing is straightforward, yet evocative: “Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.”
Not unexpectedly, America comes in for some sharp criticism for the discrepancy between its high ideals and low practices—not only slavery, but also the massacre and theft of American Indian lands. To someone like Cora and her friend Caesar, core American notions of equality and justice were irrelevant to their lived reality. “All men are created equal,” the white man thinks, “unless we decide you are not a man.”
A year ago, Amazon announced plans for a mini-series based on this book. It may be true to the book, but who knows? The book pulls no punches, and reading it is a much more complicated experience than learning Cora’s story.
Caroline Kaplan & Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, photo: T. Charles Erickson
McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J., is presenting Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, through October 30. The production, directed by Marcela Lorca, tells the story of four Manhattan friends with diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. They are a successful, congenial group until a dinner party devolves into a series of confrontations that painfully reveal the schisms beneath the surface. It is a blistering commentary on identity politics and the nation’s most-produced play in the 2015-2016 season.
The characters are lawyer Amir (played by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), who has masked his Pakistani and Muslim heritage, “passing” as Indian. Amir is pressured by his wife and nephew, Hussein (Adit Dileep)—who has changed his name to the more American Abe Jensen—to look in on legal proceedings against a controversial imam accused of terrorism. Amir initially resists, fearing his act may be misinterpreted by his firm’s Jewish senior partners.
His beautiful wife Emily (Caroline Kaplan), Caucasian and apparently Christian, is a painter and in her own work is entranced with the artistic language of Islam. In turn, she entrances their Jewish friend and Whitney curator Isaac (Kevin Isola), who wants to include her paintings in a high-profile exhibit. Isaac met Emily through Jory (Austene Van), his African-American wife and another associate in Amir’s law firm.
These convoluted relationships could go wrong in many ways, and do at the ill-fated dinner party. The social landscape under their feet crumbles. By the play’s end, all of them are disgraced, one way or another, publicly or not.
It is director Lorca’s aim that the audience empathize with each of the characters. She says, “A play like Disgraced has the power to hold mirrors to us, invite us to embrace complexities, ponder our contradictions, widen our view of others, and invite us to practice empathy, one character at a time.” Her success in achieving this is evidenced by the dead silence in the theater for many seconds after the play ended and the standing ovation the cast received.
The play raises important questions about identity and self-identity, passive observer and activist, and religious and secular choices in a fragmented American society, as well as the persistent and entangling prejudices (in the original, pre-judging sense, emphasis on “judging”) that lurk inside each of us. “Who is an American?” it asks, and “Who gets to decide?” It’s a 90-minute production that rapidly moves into the quicksand of what the playwright calls our “degraded social discourse.”
McCarter has prepared a show website rich with information, including an essay on Islamic art and a Velázquez painting that provide an important symbolic backdrop in the story. Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit http://www.mccarter.org.
Hannia Guillen & Raúl Méndez, photo by T. Charles Erickson
Thirteen years ago, McCarter Theatre’s artistic director Emily Mann and playwright Nilo Cruz teamed up to present the premiere of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics, and their new collaboration—the world premiere of Bathing in Moonlight—is terrific! On stage 9/16-10/9.
In today’s Miami, three generations of a Cuban family are exiled. The widowed grandmother Martina (Priscilla Lopez) has early dementia and feels she’s never found her place in America; daughter Marcela (Hannia Guillen) is desperate to hold the family together in tough economic circumstances; and granddaughter Trini (Katty Velasquez) is an assimilated American teen, bent on a career in marine biology. Two men disturb the stability of this affectionate home.
Marcela’s brother Taviano (Frankie J. Alvarez) is away, studying to become a doctor, which may finally solve the family’s precarious finances. Her beloved piano was sold to help pay for his education, but he’s been out of touch for two years. When he returns, his resemblance to his father discomposes the already confused Martina. Worse is the news he gives Marcela—he’s failed his medical exams.
The other man in their lives is Father Monroe (Raúl Méndez), a dedicated and sympathetic parish priest. He lets Marcela play the piano at the church and, attuned to the family’s poverty, lends her money to cover their rent. Marcela finds him attractive in an unattainable way. However, the attraction is mutual, and difficult choices loom.
Director Mann considers Cruz “one of the great poets of the American theater, akin to Tennessee Williams,” and certainly in this play, the poetry, humor, and humanity in these simple situations shines through. Cruz thinks of his works as musical compositions, with each character an instrument contributing to the whole. Their speech contains Spanish rhythms, and even the three levels of Cuban accent create a chord, with the abuela’s accent the strongest, Marcela’s medium-strength, and the granddaughter’s almost disappeared.
The role of Father Monroe is the U.S. stage debut for Mexican actor Raúl Méndez, and he is powerful in it. From the opening when he charms the audience with a sermon about inclusion, his every gesture and expression is pitch-perfect. He’s a stand-out in a strong cast. Lopez and Velasquez imbue the aging grandmother and sprightly granddaughter with personality and verve. Cuban Alvarez in the dual-role of father and son expertly plays two generations. The most opaque character is Marcela, oddly, and I think that’s the play, not Guillen’s performance. Marcela is surrounded by people with so many needs, and so accustomed to putting those needs first, it’s hard for her to come into her own.
Charles Isherwood in the New York Times was ungenerous in his review, saying, “the Catholic Church’s strictures on the priesthood (no women, no marriage), . . . which even many Catholics consider ludicrously out of step with today’s world — have been fodder for debate in the popular media for years,” but this is a narrow interpretation. The play unfolded against the backdrop of Father Monroe’s opening sermon about including “the other,” about how we shouldn’t construct walls to keep people out, but to bring them in. To me, that was (alas!) as relevant to 2016 as to 1716 or to 1139, particularly for our Latino brethren.
The play, which received an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, raises interesting high-level questions about faith, orthodoxy, exile, and love across generations, beautifully staged and acted—well worth the trip to Princeton!
Disgraced, at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage, is Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winner. Its five characters—two couples plus one nephew—are all disgraced before the play ends, one way or another, publicly or not.
Amir (played by Nehal Joshi) is married to an American, Emily (Ivy Vahanian). He’s a lawyer who has masked his Pakistani and Muslim heritage, “passing” as Indian. Emily, a painter, is nevertheless entranced with the artistic language of Islam. She’s approached by museum official Isaac (Joe Isenberg—full disclosure, my talented nephew-in-law!), a Jew, who wants to include her paintings in a high-profile exhibit. She met Isaac through her husband’s law firm colleague, Jory (Felicia Curry), an African American striving like Amir for advancement in the firm.
When Amir is pressured by his wife and nephew Abe (Samip Raval) to look in on legal proceedings against a controversial imam, Amir fears his act may be misinterpreted by his conservative employers. These convoluted relationships could go wrong in many ways, and do at a dinner party involving the multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious foursome. The consequences of even the loosest association with the imam are laid bare.
The person who best keeps his wits about him is Amir’s nephew. In the beginning of the play, he has adopted the name Abe Jensen to seem more American. He gives up this quest and reverts to his birth name Hussein Malik by the play’s end. The play raises important questions about identity and self-identity, passive observer and activist, and religious and secular choices in an increasingly fragmented American society, as well as the persistent and entangling prejudices (in the original, pre-judging sense, emphasis on “judging”) that lurk barely beneath the surface.
Like The Body of an American, reviewed yesterday, Disgraced has an important theme and an excellent cast, especially in its leads (Joshi and Vahanian). Under Timothy Douglas’s direction, this 90-minute production moves rapidly into the quicksand of what the playwright calls our “degraded social discourse.”
Said New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood, “Everyone has been told that politics and religion are two subjects that should be off limits at social gatherings. But watching Mr. Akhtar’s characters rip into these forbidden topics, there’s no arguing that they make for ear-tickling good theater.”
At Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, through May 29. Box office.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to see two plays in Washington, D.C.—both contemporary, both superbly acted, and both leaving the audience with plenty to think about. If, as playwright Tony Kushner says, in theater, “you discover things you can’t afford to countenance in waking life,” these plays were journeys of simultaneous discovery and self-discovery.
First up was Theater J’s The Body of an American, by Dan O’Brien, winner of the 2014 Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play. The title sounds like the lead of a news story—one whose predicate you may not want to know. The play is a metadrama about O’Brien’s real-life relationship with award-winning journalist and photographer Paul Watson (played by Eric Hissom).
Watson took the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the desecration of the body of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland in Mogadishu in 1993, after two U.S. Black Hawk attack helicopters were shot down. In large part as a result of the public outrage at this event, U.S. troops were pulled out of Somalia. Both before and since, his pen and camera have recorded an untold number of unspeakable acts around the world.
How does being witness to so much brutality—so much evil—affect a person? O’Brien (Thomas Keegan) comes from a presumably cosseted life by comparison. Why does he seek Watson’s insights regarding the world’s dirtiest acts? As you might expect, he’s not without his own deep scars. He may not have Watson’s post-traumatic stress disorder, but he is in a similar struggle to understand his own life’s significance.
In the several days before Watson shot that famous picture, he tells O’Brien, much worse atrocities had taken place in Mogadishu. But they weren’t photographed, and the military denied they’d occurred. But with Cleveland’s fate, the proof was in his camera. He believes the American reaction taught a nascent Al Qaeda the propaganda value of a dramatic, well-documented moment, and fear of a repeat contributed to President Clinton’s refusal to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. Eight years later, 9/11.
The picture has affected him at the personal level, as well. He’s haunted by a voice that came to him as he was about to click the shutter of his camera. It was Cleveland’s voice, he thinks, though he knows Cleveland was already dead. It said, “Do this, and I will own you forever.” Him, O’Brien, all of us.
The Body of an American hews to the trend of short, if not sweet, productions. It’s 90 minutes with no intermission at Theater J, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC, through May 22. Box office.
Tomorrow a review of Disgraced, now at Arena Stage.
August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is on stage at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre through February 7, one of his ten plays—The Century Cycle—set in Pittsburgh’s predominantly African American Hill District in different decades of the 20th century. The Piano Lesson and another play in the cycle, Fences, which McCarter produced two years ago, won the Pulitzer Prize.
The Piano Lesson takes place in 1936, in the midst of The Great Migration of southern blacks to northern industrial cities—Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago. One of its themes is the difference in perspective of visitors and newcomers from the rural south compared to their family members already established in the urban north.
The story centers on members of the Charles family and (with a captivating stage set showing both the urban neighborhood and the intimacy of the Charles’s home): Doaker, a cook on the railroad, his widowed niece Berniece, and her 11-year-old daughter. Their well-ordered routines are disrupted by the arrival from Sunflower County, Mississippi, of Berniece’s brother, Boy Willie, and his friend Lymon, who’ve driven north with a ramshackle truck full of watermelons to sell.
Boy Willie has been offered the chance to purchase the farmland of a white man (Sutter) who died under mysterious circumstances. He’s saved up some money for the purchase, the sale of the watermelons will help, and to seal the deal he needs the proceeds from selling the family piano. Berniece refuses to sell it. Carved on the piano is the story of their family going back to slavery days. So beyond the rural/urban, south/north divide, there is the tug-of-war between honoring the past versus enabling the future.
Further disrupting the family is the claim by each of the northern household that they’ve seen the ghost of the dead white man, and their willingness or unwillingness to believe that Boy Willie killed him. Playgoers can develop various theories as to the reality and significance of this particular ghost, but it’s clear that the characters are haunted by many ghosts, including those represented in the piano’s carvings, and, more immediately, Berniece and her uncle Wining Boy’s dead spouses.
The excellent cast—Stephen Tyrone Williams as Boy Willie (with an unbelievably long Act II monolog that possibly should be trimmed); Miriam A. Hyman as Berniece; John Earl Jelks as Doaker; and Cleavant Derricks as Doaker’s slick brother Wining Boy—is directed by Jade King Carroll. David Pegram was a perfect Lyman, a half-step behind and eager to become citified. There is much good humor in the characters’ interactions of the kind only close kin can indulge in.
The presence of a composer, sound designer, and music director in the crew credits suggests how significant music is in Wilson’s conception of the family and their story. The beautifully staged men’s work song about the Parchman Prison Farm is long, but not long enough!
The program for the play includes a helpful family tree of the Charles family, who can trace their lineage (thanks to the piano) back to Doaker’s and Wining Boy’s great-grandparents. This is an unusually full picture of family during slavery days, as demonstrated in Henry Louis Gates’s fascinating Finding Our Roots PBS television program. Reflecting on ancestors in slavery is powerful, as Regina Mason’s discovery of a great-grandfather who was a former slave, attests. These modern-day quests, three or four generations after the action of Wilson’s play, illuminate how some members of many families, like Boy Willie, wanted to put all that history behind them and how others, like Berniece, believed in keeping it close. In her case, the lessons of the piano were worth more than money.
Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, & Brian D’Arcy James in Spotlight
Shades of Woodward and Bernstein, the based-on-a-true story Spotlight (trailer) follows the actions of an investigative journalism team way out on a limb in Catholic Boston. They’re not just in pursuit of the story of clergy child sex abuse, their mission is also to expose the shameful cover-up of abusive priests, and the institutional shortcomings that allowed them to carry on. Unlike today’s social media blowhards (and political candidates), they can’t just make accusations; they need actual proof.
A nice coincidence is the support the reporters receive from another Ben Bradlee—this one Ben Bradlee, Jr., played by John Slattery, who never has a good hair day. Like his father in the Watergate era, he lets the reporters run, even though he’s initially skeptical they’ll come up with anything.
Crusading journalists are a social corrective we have largely lost in the era of declining newsroom budgets and staffs and the competition for sound bites and snarky bits. The reporters in this film reporters fill the job description, pushed by a fierce desire to expose the truth. Sometimes, of course, that leads to more truth than they might desire—closer to home truths of different kinds. They’re after the kind of story that wins Pulitzers (and did), but more important to the journalists, they know it’s an important story for the affected families and a sobering story about how evil can hide in plain sight.
The principals include the Boston Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and his investigative “Spotlight” team, led by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton of the pursed lips), with reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, who sticks his head out like a turtle, so eager is he to grab onto the story), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachael McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James). The actors do a fine job, as do Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup in smaller roles.
As written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer and directed by McCarthy, the film is a “magnificent nerdy process movie—a tour de force of filing cabinet cinema,” says Justin Chang in Variety. Yet it is never uninteresting. Even better, it is never sanctimonious.
The film’s tension comes from fear that the Church will find out what the Globe is up to and exert its considerable influence to put a stop to it or—and almost worse from the reporters’ point of view—the Boston Herald will scoop them. If they can delay publication until they have proof top Church leaders knew about the abuse, it would be impossible for them to persist in the “few bad apples” claim.
In sum, “A taut story, well-told,” says Jim Lane in the Sacramento News & Review.
Fall 2015 will be an exciting time for Princeton-area followers of the literary world. The Althea Ward Clark reading series of the Lewis Center for the Arts includes three top-notch entries. The monthly series features a poet and a prose writer, usually known for fiction, and they are held in the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, at 4:30 p.m.
On September 30, the program presents Phil Klay, a National Book Award winner for his collection of short stories, Redeployment. Klay is a former Marine who served in Iraq. His stories show the profound dislocation of young Americans trying to cope with a seriously broken society completely foreign to their understanding—an experience that gradually transforms their views of America too. “In Klay’s hands, Iraq comes across not merely as a theater of war but as a laboratory for the human condition in extremis,” said Dexter Filkins’s New York Times review. Also reading will be Natalie Diaz, who has a poetry collection titled When My Brother Was an Aztec and has won the Nimrod/Hardin Pablo Neruda Prize.
Short story writer and novelist Jhumpa Lahiri will appear on October 14 with poet Mary Szybist. Lahiri’s collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but she may be best known for The Namesake and the movie made from it. Her most recent novel is The Lowland, shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker prize, and a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. Her first two books tell about the displacement and loss of context of experienced by Indian immigrants in America. The Lowland, “buoyantly ambitious in both its story and its form,” said NPR reviewer Maureen Corrigan, is set mostly in Calcutta. Szybist won the National Book Award for her poetry collection Incarnadine.
Finally, on November 18 novelist Adam Johnson and poet Dorianne Laux will read. Johnson wrote the masterful 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Orphan Master’s Son, and I can’t wait to hear him read—I hope from his new collection of stories. Laux’s most recent poetry collection is The Book of Men.
The regular literary programs at the Princeton Public Library continue—book groups for mysteries, fiction, black voices, poetry, and Spanish-language stories. October 24, the library hosts the annual “Local Author Day book fair.”
On October 30 at Labyrinth Books, cultural historian Thomas Laqueur will discuss his book, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Right up my alley. It’s one of a dozen discussions of books on various topics (not much fiction) the bookstore has scheduled for September and October.