Thursday, June 28, 2007

According to Neil LaBute...

Since 1997, and going back further to his Mormon school origins, Neil LaBute has made his reputation by causing a stir through his plays, filled with ugly, familiar, and disturbingly human characters that reek of self hatred and seemingly Agnostic lifestyles. While one would argue that the Devil lives in LaBute's work, his plays are actually based in "Acts of God" and Old Testament revenge and foul ups, placing us closer to the hypocrisy that infects our morals. LaBute gets a kick out of stirring up a shit storm (pop culture critic Hal Niedzviecki calls this strive for individuality "the new conformity") because this is what is expected of him. Niedzviecki tells us that this is the world we live in now, where it is necessary for us to create a hypo-active illusion of ourselves in order to be accepted. AndLaBute does this without fail.

In May LaBute wrote an article for called "The Cast System" where he speaks about the unfairness of racial casting; in that Black actors are able to be "color blind" cast in other wise "white roles" where white actors don't get the same justice. LaBute proposes the idea of Brad Pitt as Walter Lee in A Raisin in the Sun (a funny idea that better not EVER happen; if you're going to put a white boy in the role of Walter Lee, it better be Daniel Day-Lewis -- a white boy who carries enough inner life to spawn an entire black population of struggle) in attempts to prove his point that if theater is suppose to be for everyone, then plays written for black actors should be open to white actors as well. A black actor, for example, can play Sam in The Dumb Waiter and it is considered "diversity." A white actor plays King in August Wilson's King Hedley II it is considered a violation. LaBute is pointing out the unfair hand that white actors seem to be dealt while not considering that the range of roles for white actors is much more wide spread than roles for actors of color. His argument is reminiscent of whites who make the argument of: "If we were to create our version of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and called it White Entertainment Television (WET), we would be shut down in a week."

Truth? Yes. Why? Most people of color do not wish to explain this point beyond saying "That's just the way it goes." It's as vague and hollow as white people claiming to be "color blind" while easily being able to compare the cab driver to a terrorist. The Hispanic politician to the landscaper. The Asian actor to the Asian driver who cut them off on the road. They avoid films with subtitles and tell stories of how they over heard the two black men in the check out line not using "proper English." They considered a closed suburban area, surrounded by strip malls rather than the Food Source, a "good neighborhood." There is an accurate count of how many "friends" of color they have, and while telling endearing stories about their friend(s) of color, they never fail to tag the phrase with "...she's so nice!" So there is a mystery as to how this would be considered being "color blind" much like "that's just the way it goes" is not a sufficient response and never answers the question of "why." However it calculates that people of color isolate themselves for the sake of pride in a society that strives on exploitation and because of this people of color need something, that we like to call, "Our own!" Without this, "diversity" would be impossible and the "color blind" white people would have nothing to talk about or feel cultured by.

LaBute creates a weak argument in "Cast System" and he does not help his point when he makes the comment about Denzel Washington playing the title role in Richard III, when he says: "...did they really think this is what was meant by the 'black prince'?" In other words LaBute's proposition is juvenile in the interest of keeping his position in popular culture and proudly playing the post-modernist role in welcoming the opportunity of being accused as a racist. This type of accusation would be fun forLaBute (and a proud label to add to his long list of previous labels put on his by critics) and most likely encourage his behavior to reach further out of hand. The problem withLaBute's article isn't so much race as it is a lack of common social sense. In no way do I feel his comment on Washington was meant to be racial anymore than I feel a child wets his pants out of malice. Both of these actions are acts of instinct and immaturity and require nothing more than a lack of control, whichLaBute pretends to be. Throughout the article LaBute piles one unexplained shock statement on top of the other till it makes one wonder where he has been through his career in theater. LaBute seems to think opportunities are wide open to actors of color so the same should be extended to white people, in that they should be able to appear in an August Wilson play (Wilson never wrote a white character; nor does he allow white directors to stage his plays) or George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum without hassle. Obviously LaBute has not checked the cast lists in, not only his own plays, but plays by most white American playwrights (best black character written by a white American playwright in the past ten years is the role of William in KennethLonergan's brilliant Lobby Hero), in that as far as roles for actors of color go, there ain't many. Sure, LaBute is attempting to communicate a utopia within the world of theater and it would be nice if we all just let go of the color lines and did shows with who was right for the role and not focused on color (again, the myth of "color blind"). This is a topic that is mentioned in passing, but hardly acknowledged. One can flip through a listing of casting calls and the descriptions are specific and isolating while still claiming "color blind" in their morality.

Face it: if someone was really looking to be "color blind" and cast based on ability and not race, (a term rooted in illusion-ism) then why wasn't, say, Blair Underwood thought of (note: I say "thought of" not "cast". "Thought of" would convey that race is not the problem and would create the utopia of race not being the issue) for the role of Martin instead of Bill Pullman in the premier of Edward Albee's The Goat; if there was a true intention on "diversity" in theater, then "color blind casting" would not be an after thought; it would just be done without attention being brought to it. By casting Underwood opposite MercedesRuhl you create a relevance in contemporary America while showing a story of betrayal between two people that is as tragic and hurtful as it was with Pullman (who was brilliant). the best part is, the "color blind" theory is challenged and erupts inner prejudice from the audience rather than Albee's script (which holds no sign of race) and digs into the human condition while showing mobility in progression. To have seen Underwood in place of Pullman would show the "color blind" lens for what it truly is: you take away color, there is still black and white surrounded by a lot of grey. this is a utopia thatLaBute does not see. Casting is based on inner life and truth behind the actions of the character -- which has nothing to do with color, but circumstance. And thoughLaBute's idea of Brad Pitt in the role of Walter Lee is funny (and interesting in theory) it is still irrelevant in comparison. A Raisin in the Sun is based in class and race. The Goat is based in upper middle class boredom. Pitt shows no sign of struggle while Daniel Day-Lewis does. So Underwood in the Pullman role verses Pitt in the SidneyPortier role is a clash of difference. And still, in the reality of casting, white people win out.

With the reputation LaBute has created for himself it's a wonder that he would write an article with such a thoughtless through line. One would think thatLaBute would use his status to encourage more actors of color to do his plays (outside of his play This Is How It Goes, LaBute has no black characters in his work) and go against "type" and push the the boundaries a bit further than usual rather than complain that white actors are being treated unfairly. One would expect forLaBute to lash out against race by writing a play about the ultimate 21st century Uncle Tom and cast Dave Chappelle in the lead role, and create a stir in pop culture. This would not only create a sold out production, but provide an insightful look at the very ugliness that plagues racial issues (not to mention put a better spin in attempts to explore the complexity of new age race relations). Instead Labute proves his own stereotype and reveals that he is every bit as shallow as we are told he is. He does not show his gift in being able to exploit the down fall of middle-class boredom. Nor does he use his gift to convey human circumstance in the type of reality that is so horrible and relatable that the Republican in us is more willing to shun it off rather than face it to land on an understanding of social reaction. Instead LaBute immortalizes his own hype and goes for the laugh. He makes a cartoon of himself to entertain rather than inform. He dumbs himself down to operate within the anti-intellectualism, which is so fashionable in America, rather than stand, firmly, behind the tone of his writing. One would begin this article with thinking that LaBute was going to enlighten us rather than offend. But he betrays this with an obnoxious output.

Below I copied the link to the article. It's a curious read but LaBute makes his point in a way that reminds me of why white boys, who have been exposed to Chappelle's Show (therefore feeling they have the right to use the N-Word freely) are a danger to the future to come. One can only do justice by reading the article for themselves.,0,3916973.story

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Thank You Cody ChestnuTT

Clearly the most unknown “rock and roll” artist, today, is Cody ChestnuTT. The Headphone Masterpiece is a testament to why the hip-hop movement began: urban frustration and a need for honest expression; and ChestnuTT manages to do this with a grass roots tie in, despite the lack of expression in today’s popular music that stands in the clutches of marketing, which is why it is a breakthrough to know of an artist like ChestnuTT in the first place. ChestnuTT is everything Lenny Kravitz wants to be – “retro”, sexy, and musically literate. While Kravitz is busy being famous, ChestnuTT glows under the light of limited musical creation. The Headphone Masterpiece finds its life in the sell-your-tapes-out-the-back-of-your-trunk-then-get-a-bucket-of-paste-and
-promote-your-show, (DIY style, from the punk rock era of the 70s) in a tradition that use to count for something on a slow burn to "getting noticed." ChestnuTT is not a poser. He is a musician who creates in spite of himself. He couldn’t care less if his listeners relate; he’s going to tell his story as he does on the beautiful "Serve This Royalty":

“People think that I’m lazy
People think that I’m this fool, because,
I gives a fuck about the government,
And I didn’t graduate from high school.
But I know how it’s done,
So I’m gonna be number one.
Thank you Jesus, for my Mama,
And I thank you bitches,
For my money”

Perhaps the boldest statement, since NWA said “Fuck the Police” (and “gangsta” rap took a well deserved nose dive ever since). This is not a tantrum; it’s an honest statement. The results one gets when dealing with inner contradictions. ChestnuTT puts his contradictions on the table, with no apologies. Listeners can relate to his music, because we’ve all felt it:

“All this,
caffeine in me,
is the reason,
I’ve been so mean.
Oh honey, forgive me,
For being the dick that I’ve been,
To the children and you!”

He allows room for mistake and lesson. Usher imitates honesty on Confessions; there is no truth to his confession. Mearly the appearance of; shallow listeners take Usher at his word, dismissing the situation as it stands (cheating to the furthest extreme of getting another woman pregnant, is not a confession; it’s a verdict -- you’re fucked.). Never once seeing that he’s an asshole with no redemption; whereas ChestnuTT speaks from his heart. An asshole is only an asshole because he/she is not aware of it. For someone to say they’re an asshole is for them to be conscience of their behavior with an interest in correcting it. The only reason Usher wants to correct his actions is because he doesn’t have a choice. ChestnuTT does have a choice and he can chose to not correct, learn or grow. But he chooses to grow. In every mistake ChestnuTT makes…

“...girl I’ve got a lover behind my lover’s back
and I’m keepin’ my secrets,

…there is an action applied...

"...I'll put my seed
in your bush for life..."

..which causes him to grow and expand and own his mistakes with purpose. His humanity (not his ghetto-fabulousim) shines through and though his lyrics tend to be a bit harsh...

"I got a big fat dick
and that's all you gon' get,
I gotta let you know.
Bitch, I'm broke!"

...we can't help but be fascinated by his audacity and contradicted diatribe. For there is a dark side to all of us. And ChestnuTT pulls no punches when it comes to letting loose:

I'm insane.
But don't you hold it against me, girl.
I'm a lunatic,
with convictions."

Much like Mary J. Blige in her My Life album, ChestnuTT digs into a place that few urban males allow for themselves. He rids himself of the “pimp” talk, and reveals a crying child from within. Kravitz thought he was doing this with “It Ain’t Over…” but hardly matches ChestnuTT's preparation for loss. Whereas Kravitz can hardly stand to be the "underdog", ChestnuTT welcomes his failures with humble gesture and voice, while at a point of beggary and shame, ChestnuTT is willing to shed his pride and cast his vulnerability to the wind. Kravitz cannot get passed his image and ChestnuTT toys with this type of weakness in his song “Look Good in Leather” -- a musical satire on the rock star, Kravitz-Esq, mentality.

ChestnuTT gets “ghetto” on his anti-bling, “Bitch, I’m Broke.” There is nothing brutal about the song. It makes fun of “gangsta” rap, while staying true to it. “Bitch, I’m Broke” is a reminder of the High School mentality – the search for gas money when you would drive your mom’s car; the envy of the other man, showing true male vulnerability. “Serve This Royalty”, all about belief and hope. The point of view of the “low life”. Diatribe of the disturbed, put sweetly. It’s the “how true is your love” test. He speaks about the upcoming artist (himself) and “can you stand the rain?”

It wasn’t until ChestnuTT featured his remake on The Roots Phrenology album that he was introduced to the world, with “The Seed (2.0)”. The pantie throwing rock song that ?uestLove himself said was a whole new world for The Roots, and “…we gotta do this rock shit more often.” The same truth applies to listeners who aren’t hip to ChestnuTT. The album was released in 2002, The Headphone Masterpiece lives up to it’s name and through process of elimination, stands on it’s own in the history of the worlds most underrated rock music.

a creation in a void

A friend of mine (who happens to be white) expressed to me that the man she’s dating (who happens to be black) made the comment that “African Americans have no culture” which spawned a moving train of thought through your fellow blogger’s head that I haven’t been able to dismiss.

First of all, one has to consider the man she’s dating. Not so much his point of view (he’s entitled to it), but him as a person who happens to be African American; and to take the stance that we have “no culture” is to dismiss all the makings of what American culture truly is. Not to mention one must take the stance of “what is culture” and “what is culture to you?” Therefore it would be difficult to make a blanket statement about this man’s opinion; yet it must be remembered that this type of thinking comes from lack of understanding and lack of research on what defines “culture” and not to mention proves the contemporary embracing of good old fashion denial.

Consider the statement: “African Americans have no culture.” That would mean he should dismiss music, theater, cinema, language, dance, food, education and politics from his life completely and live in a cave. For this seems to be a statement to come, understandably, from the white supremacies before the common black male. For even those who lack a sense of intellectualism can understand the impact that, not only black, but every group one can think of, has had on this country in the creation and adaptation of culture.

What this man seems to have missed is that African Americans are every bit of culture; the set back is, we’re the least practicing of our culture. From our removal from Africa and entrance to the Western World we lost a sense of cultural upbringing; but this doesn’t mean we “have no culture.” It means that we adapted to the circumstances we were presented with and made the best out of it. We were forced to find a new way of life and incorporate our homeland routines into the newfound American life. We found the blues in the fields. We found a new form of comedy in the presents of “Ole’ Massa”; and later “Ole’ Massa” took this comedy and created the Minstrel show that, forever, immortalized the trends of black life, which was soon excepted world wide – in the most important, yet, offensive way, since the Minstrels were not intended for flattery, but for imitation and insults. Yet, as it’s said, “mockery is the biggest form of flattery”; and this proved itself to be true up to right now, even while white people display an admiration for us while consistently holding contempt for black people; and yet for this man to take the stance that we “have no culture” is for him to discredit all the work we put into the building of America. Does he know not of Booker T. Washington? Fredrick Douglass? Bessie Smith? But, oh yeah, “music is the common response” to a statement such as us having no culture; so to include a musician on the list would be to play into the cliché of what “black people are good for”. Yet did he look back to see that there was pride set in our creativity (even with having to submit to the ways of white folks, leading black performers to have to perform in Minstrel shows – blackening their already black faces -- in order to make a dollar?) that gave a sense of hope for upward mobility? Did he miss how Nat Turner (though a crooked preacher) took the initiative, and demonstrated his leadership in the most memorable slave revolt of American history? Does he not realize that Tuskegee Institute was built through the blood, sweat and struggle of Booker T. Washington, despite the odds against him? Should we cancel out the beauty behind the Harlem Renaissance, which brought black people together in a way that has never been repeated (creating the best music, poetry, and literature that this country has ever seen), and gave us a spot of our own in American history? Would the Harlem Renaissance be considered (since it’s cliché to group black people with music) irrelevant because on a surface level it seems like it was only about “the arts” and not about community, way of life, and upward mobility? Community, way of life, and upward mobility were EVERYTHING that that Harlem Renaissance was about, and the music was the celebration and added bonus. All of this is a representation of what culture is about; and all of this is a reminder of what we’ve done to move America forward. Has he not considered Zora Neal Hurston, and her reminder to us about the importance and beauty in black folklore? The folklore tales that was adapted from African heritage (a part of our “culture”, that I guess is nonexistent) with the intent to educate? Should this be dismissed since “African Americans have no culture?”

the behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought, especially as expressed in a particular community or period.

…to see this definition it blows my mind that this man can boldly say that “African Americans have no culture.” Sounds to me like everything described above is EXACTLY what culture is; and yet we live in a generation where we didn’t have to suffer, therefore it’s easy to discredit the blood spilled for the sake of our twenty-first century privileges.

The Harlem Renaissance is the very definition of black culture. The building of Tuskegee Institute (a black college) is the very definition of culture! The influence of Rock and Roll from the roots of The Blues is culture! The origin of hip-hop in the parks of the Bronx is culture! All things started by black people. And to dismiss these, and hundreds and thousands of others (including speech patterns and linguistics) is to admit to one’s own ignorance.

Second of all, music is the culture of all cultures. Music is the greatest gift to the world. Music defines emotion, action, and progression. Music is the worldwide culture that sustains a universal understanding. However it’s a “cliché” to accredit music as a part of African American culture? The corruption comes from those who profit off the music (white people) in contrast to those who create it (black people); and if he’s speaking in terms of the status of contemporary music (“black” music is only considered hip-hop) and how it has become solely a marketing tool, then that’s one thing; but to claim that music doesn’t hold water in the relevance of our culture is an insult and screams “bullshit” from all angles. For this man to say that it’s a cliché to connect black people and music is for him to admit that he doesn’t love music in the first place. Even white musician worth their salt will admit to the influences spawned by black people (unless you’re Sheryl Crowe, who alarmingly, lists the most influential albums in her life and she failed to mention one black artist) and tirelessly make their contributions to the origin. The slaves use to say that “white folks can’t live without the niggers and the niggers can’t live without white folks”, which states the social co-dependency that we have grown to incorporate in our daily lives. In other words: white people KNOW even without saying, where their debts lie in why America has found it’s place in upward mobility. And that reason is because of black culture!

However, it was because my friend is white that this man found comfort in shutting her down when she attempted to disagree with his point. It’s easy for black people to state “it’s a black thang; you don’t understand” and take no responsibility (probably because it’s too “white” to do so) in explaining their point of view to a debatable level and agree to disagree if necessary. It’s the inner privilege that black people have created for themselves, and allows us to play the victim rather than get a deeper sense of why we may feel the way we feel; because if we were to truly study the “why” we would discover that there is very little to get heated about without a conversation. This doesn’t take away from the arguments in the walls of white ignorance (my mother told me as a kid: “You can’t argue with a fool”); but it does break down the walls of our victim hood and allow us to confront an issue head on.

To sum up: African Americans DO have culture. And the reason we know this is because it is a part of everyday life. The problem is, those who lack the eye to recognize it take the gifts for granted; therefore, with a certain type of thinking and certain type of denial, it is easy for some to mistake our, so called, lack of culture as truth.

a riff on Tupac Shakur

Out of all the rappers that dropped around 1990, Tupac Shakur tops them all by having crossed the line of icon and idiot. This is apparent by the life that was provided for him, verses the life he chose in the end. For those of us who followed Tupac since the beginning of his career watched him grow from neo-Black nationalist to gangsta rapper in the blink of an eye. 2Pacalypse Now, his most powerful album next
to Me Against the World, displayed a self-taught poet in the making. He managed to gain fans of all cultures based on his original approach to lyricism (a trait that Emenim admits to have stolen for his own style) and vocal distinction. You always knew when Tupac was on the track; not to mention he proved his acting chops in the underrated Gridlock’d (eclipsing the pointless Poetic Justice – a vehicle for Janet Jackson that suffered behind her telegraphed acting which did nothing to honor her later work, on The Velvet Rope – her best album to date) and Above the Rim (not a good movie; but an important film for the times, that also created perhaps the best soundtrack of the 90s, including the ground breaking song “Pain” by Tupac). Yet Shakur’s death was of no surprise, which plays into the “Tupac’s still alive” silliness that has infected popular culture to no end (get a clue, people…HE’S DEAD!). The theories come from the “Tupac is still releasing albums” talk and yet most people forget to sit back and think of one simple fact: Tupac was prolific! It doesn’t occur to pop culture lovers – who give Tupac the Elvis image -- what true genius is, in that Tupac wrote and recorded quickly and was serious about himself as an artist from day one even though before his life ended he was forced (by gun point) to hold up a “gangsta” image that he finally had no choice but to play into. What is missed is that Tupac feared for his life since the day Suge Knight bailed him out. The Mafioso mentality that infected Death Row Records was a syndrome that was nearly impossible to escape (and most are scared to admit that All Eyes On Me was Shakur’s most amateurish album that held one song of brilliance: “Got My Mind Made Up”. And that was because of the surprise guest rappers that continued to appear – Dat Nigga Daz, Kurupt, Method Man & Redman) and despite the fact that Shakur recorded like a mad man to celebrate his “get out of jail free” card, he was still under the pressure of maintaining his “Thug Life” image:

"...I live Thug Life,
baby I’m hopeless.
Chokin’ off indo,
Tryin’ tuh keep ma’

This would be enough to drive any person to insanity. Shakur maintained the image of being misunderstood, while screaming for help through his music. It’s clear in “Ain’t Nothin’ Butta Gangsta Party” with Snoop Dogg that Shakur was so deep into the American psyche that even to put out garbage like that would win him world wide praise and presence in boomin’ systems across the nation. Shakur searched for loyalty in his peers but couldn’t shake the fact that they were all hanging on his coat tail for popularity and pussy, so much to the point that it drove a man ahead of his time to an early grave. Had Shakur not been killed he would have killed himself and gained a bigger media memorial than Hunter S. Thompson based strictly on his iconic status. Before he died Shakur had just scratched the surface of his ability; and, like Malcolm X who before his death was ready to take America to the World Court for racial misconduct, Shakur was ready to show his fans that he could be forgiven for his latter-day Death Row bullshit that fooled listeners into believing they were hearing ground breaking hip-hop. It’s like people who thought that Stankonia was Outkasts first album -- inaccurate and ridiculous. It only proves of a popular culture (white kids) so far behind that they caught up in the aftermath, and this brings rage to those of us who were there from the beginning. It’s unfortunate that most people didn’t experience Shakur’s “Definition of a Thug Nigga” where he breaks down, in plain English (so plain, it would be easy to misunderstand his true nature) what a “thug” really is:

“…before I go broke,
I’ll be a drug dealer,
A thug nigga.”

Shakur took the victim hood mentality and turned it over so that it could resonate to everyday life. The struggle of a “thug nigga” seems no different from your everyday corporate mover and shaker. Shakur brought a necessity to survival that seemed as though we were all living this struggle, making his music – perhaps – the most relevant of it’s times. In the gut wrenching “So Many Tears” which is the truest forecast to Shakur’s death :

“…now that I’m strugglin’ in this business
by any means
label me greedy gettin’ green
but seldom seen
and fuck the world cuz I’m cursed
I’m havin’ visions of leavin’ here in a Hurst,
God can you feel me…”

He goes on to predict:

“Now I’m lost and I’m weary,
so many tears,
I’m suicidal
So don’t stand near me
My every move is a calculated step
To bring me close
To embrace an early death
There’s nothin’ left…”

This was pre-Suge Knight and post-Digital Underground, putting Shakur at the mercy of his own brilliance. It seemed as though everyone wanted a piece of him (Digital Underground being the most genuine) and Shakur was stuck in the middle of staying true to his gifts and giving over to super stardom. Shakur couldn’t avoid his popularity. In a world where individuality is taboo, Shakur was the exception and eventually a traitor of his own self. He conformed to what was asked of him because he didn’t have a choice: Shakur was TRULY a victim. Perhaps one of the only victims of the last fifty years who was asked to sell his soul to the Devil in order to be free (literally) which caused him to be the most important tragic hero of our times. He was a man of contradictions. It’s hard to forgive Shakur near the end of his life (the alleged sodomy, pulling a gun on a police officer) and yet, it’s hard to argue with his rage. Shakur was a man who was born to a black panther crack-mother (now recovered, so to speak) and yet went to Baltimore’s school of arts. He found his creative chops and excelled; though we praise hacks like 50 Cent, Nelly, and Ja’ Rule (the fake Shakur “replacement”) one has to understand that there will be no other artist like Shakur. He was intelligent, violent, loud, skilled, motivated, self-deprecating, cocky, sweet, respectful, beautiful, and stupid all at the same time; and most people don’t allow for these types of contradictions to shine through. He knew how to pump gangsta-isms and still find some of the most resonating lyrical boundaries that have ever been explored, as he did on “If I Die Tonight” from Strictly for my N.I.G.G.A.Z.:

“…jealous niggas and broke bitches
Equal packed jails…”

Even when he did the powerful and melo-dramatic ass-kissing “Keep Ya Head Up” to send “support” to black women, he still followed up the track with the classic fuck-fest “I Get Around”, which crushed the point to “Keep Ya Head Up” and still got those black women he was supporting to dance along with enthusiasm to his masochistic madness. Shakur understood that his audience went beyond the ghetto. He understood that through his misunderstood nature that he would still find a core of listeners to relate to his chaos. One can only give Shakur praise for what he did and hopefully understand what it truly means to be a victim in black America.

-- anthony d'juan

Lush Life: the brilliance of Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn was the first openly gay black man to live in the public eye, in the 20th century; a bit taboo, considering this was in the 1920s and so forth. Though homosexuality wasn’t uncommon during the era of big band jazz, blues, and the Harlem Renaissance (Bessie Smith was bi-sexual, while, poet, Langston Hughes was assumed to be gay because he was never “seen with a woman”), in the case of Strayhorn it was a breakthrough considering he was not only an amazing composer, but the composer for the world renowned, brilliant musical creator, Duke Ellington.

At the age of 17 Strayhorn wrote “Lush Life.” A somber look at loneliness and the long for lost love and human truth. How Strayhorn could capture such accuracy at a young age was puzzling to many; yet one has to consider with the upbringing he had (there was an incident where Strayhorn’s alcoholic father pulled Strayhorn’s glasses off his face, put them on the ground, stomped them, then walked out laughing hysterically, leaving Strayhorn to ponder his father’s actions), which did contribute to his own inner-blues. For Strayhorn was a loner for most of his life, growing up, choosing to bury himself into classical music, rather than “regular” childhood activities. He discovered his homosexuality early in life and surprisingly wasn’t too fearful with coming forth with it. His “coming out” wasn’t so much of a shit storm, as it is for most people, it seems, today mostly because Strayhorn owned it quietly and confidently enough that he didn’t leave much room for his orientation to be questioned. He just played the music and went on to a behind the scenes, semi-famous life along side Ellington. Since Strayhorn wasn’t a front man (nor did he hardly take the spot light), his significance in Ellington’s career is easily forgotten. Yet “Lush Life” made the rounds throughout the industry, spawning numerous versions from numerous singers, like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole (yet the best being the version done by John Coltrane, alone, in a 13 minute intoxicating instrumental that could illuminate the inner-blues existing in anyone), and bringing, for Strayhorn, a very calm comfortable life. He didn’t place himself around many racial matters. Nor did he play the victim in racial confrontation, as do many black people today (black people today with more resources and access to upward mobility than we ever had back in the 20s and 30s and 40s still choose to see themselves as second class citizens, rather than the originators of American Culture that we are). Yet it was in these old times where blacks didn’t allow white hatred to overcome them; and this was the kind of white hatred that was out in the open. Sure, this era wasn’t perfect, but there was a sense of community, family, and creativity (along side crime, poverty, and un-wed mothers), all of which fueled the energy that went into the music and daily life.

The lyrics in “Lush Life” bring pain right out in the open:

I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come-what-may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails

And yet to take these lyrics as a “sign” of who Strayhorn later revealed himself to be would be an exercise in ignorance. “Lush Life” is a song of escape from pain and past heart ache up started by illusion:

The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distingue traces that used to be there
You could see where they'd been washed away
By too many through the day, twelve o'clock tales

Clearly the observation of loss and lies is a through line in Strayhorn’s message. It’s a song for the dreamer. The since of “oh, what else must I do” when the world has closed you out and there’s nothing left to do but to take this one night to wallow in the stomach of self-pity:

Life is lonely again and only last year
Everything seemed so sure
Now life is awful again
A trough full of hearts could only be a bore
A week in Paris could ease the bite of it
All I care is to smile in spite of it
I'll forget you, I will while yet you are still
Burning inside my brain romance is mush
Stifling those who strive
So I'll live a lush life in some small dive
And there I'll be
While I rot with the rest of those
Whose lives are lonely too

And yet, it’s a far cry from melodrama. This is a song about the deepest set pain known to anyone: a loss that one has no control over, which usually equates to suicide (not bad for a 17 year old).

“Lush Life” signifies a special place in all of us. Not only the song but the spirit it creates. I can recall many days, in my twenties, where there was a lost hope sitting right in front of me that I could reach for and didn’t because one stops themselves from happiness out of the pleasure of the self-pity; and though we are as much responsible for the result of our pain as the person who inflicts it, it’s not to stop us from taking that ultimate lush life “in some small dive” where we’re told there is hope. The truest of human qualities (at least in these old days) come out in the dive bar. People interact with strangers and find a common ground, more so than one may do at their desk job; and Strayhorn knew this before we knew it; and even more, Strayhorn knew it before he himself knew it – which put him ahead of his time. To be so brave and create a clear picture of the life we will all soon lead is to take the deepest understanding to human needs. So we can only applaud Strayhorn for his bravery and naiveté that allows us to remember the truth behind our lush life escapism and our constant search for happiness.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Rabbit Hole

David Lindsey-Abaire has found a nitch in theater, close to Edward Albee's brilliant The Goat or Who is Sylvia? (which premiered on Broadway in 2002 with Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruhle). Lindsey-Abaire's Rabbit Hole, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, tells the story of a family working to cope with the death of their four year old son. The death has brought on a dense feeling in the household, causing the married couple to loose communication, a sense of the present, and a sexual balance within the marriage. In the past, Lindsey-Abaire has been the author of some of the finest comedies of the century (namely Fuddy Meers and A Devil Inside), gaining a rep in dark humor and true human connection. This time around Lindsey-Abaire throws us for a loop, since Rabbit Hole stands and pure drama; the type of drama that can easily be mis taken and mis directed by the amature (those who refuse to let go of his previous plays). Rabbit Hole demonstrates a social commentary that most of us are afraid to face in our real lives.

"Is this just about sex?"

"No, it's not about sex...OK, maybe it is about the sex. I don't know."

This interaction stands as the largest bridge between male/female relations. In that a woman's grevience is not covered by intercourse (speaking generally), while a man tends to hide his pain beneath it. Men in their most vulnerable state don't tend to hide in the shadows; but rather loose the pain through a sense of pleasure, while women dive into the pain with no choice.

Rabbit Hole stands as an example of pain. The beauty is that the play does not play as melodrama; nor does it reach to the audience and dictate a demanded response. Rabbit Hole plays out a normal course revealing the uncovering of pain. Denial that sits deep in our psyche and refuses to let us free unless we come clean of our feelings. Lindsey-Abaire (one of our most interesting American playwrights who, unlike Neal LaBute, explores the complexity of human behavior rather than the vivid for the sake of shock value) has joined the ranks of Richard Greenberg, Tony Kushner, and Suzan-Lori Parks.

About Me

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writer, actor, & producer in training. in 2005, along side my partner in film and best friend since childhood, we produced and executed 3 films. to this day i am still working in "the business" to the best of my abilities and moving forward to the "next level." currently i am producing a film project, co-writing another, awaiting word on a stage play for New York, and pursuing my next one-person show. i'm also in school pursuing my Ph.D in Social Science.