Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sunday in the Park and Bored

You are about to read a musical-theater blasphemy. Having seen the Roundabout's excellent production of Sunday in the Park with George last night, I am going to come out of the closet about something I've been afraid to admit to myself for many years: the musical itself is often a bore—and I'm not just confining this critique to the second act.

That second act is often the object of criticism, even for those who love Sunday: it feels forced, inorganic, too unnatural a departure from the self-contained first act. That's all pretty fair, though its culmination is breathtaking, even if one has to buy into its somewhat sentimental time-traveling to appreciate the 20th-century George's revelation of "all the possibilities." Its first act, so say the fans, is a beautifully realized portrait of disparate lives that the emotionally removed artist can only relate to by bestowing on them, through the solitary process of creating art, "order," "balance," "design," and "harmony." It's an awfully moving theme (and one of Sondheim's favorites): the individual's inability to "connect" with a world that views him as an other (Cf. Assassins, Company). And there are moments—“Finishing the Hat” is the primary one—where this theme comes to life with great poignancy.

The problem, though, is that in order for the plotless first act to work, these other lives must be given stage time, even though the details of these lives are, in a sense, immaterial. We need to see that these lives exist and that George watches them "through a window" rather than engaging with them, at least outside of drawing them. We do not need to know whether Franz and the nurse are in love or in lust, or whether Yvonne will tear Jules a new one when she discovers his philandering.

And that's a shame; it makes for vignettes that are trivial, and ultimately wearying, on their own. Had Sondheim and James Lapine (who wrote the book) dared for a messier first act, these snippets of human interaction might have been given greater depth. It would have drawn focus from George's autistic involvement in his art to the expense of his interpersonal relationships (which is the whole point), but it might have made for something more interesting than the eighty minutes of fleeting acquaintance with a roster of largely caricature-esque personalities.

Musically, too, Sunday feels almost defiantly dull (gasp!). It's often said that Sondheim is difficult: cerebral and, well, tuneless. With a few exceptions, this criticism is baseless. Cerebral, sure—the man is no accidental revolutionary—but tuneless? A Little Night Music, Company, Assassins, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and even Anyone Can Whistle—these are all full of lush, haunting, and yes, even catchy, melodies. It may take a few listenings to let these songs grab hold of you, but never does one feel bored. The same cannot be said for much of Sunday. With some obvious exceptions ("Color and Light," "Finishing the Hat," and the ethereal "Sunday" come to mind first), the first act offers only isolated instances in which Sondheim shows his chops: a gut-wrenching chord or a transcendent belted harmony.

Perhaps this dearth of satisfying material comes from Sondheim's oft-postulated identification with Seurat. It is no accident that Sunday is arguably Sondheim's least accessible musical, and how fitting: Seurat was an artist maligned for his technique and subject matter; so is Sondheim. As Jules and Yvonne say, of George, "there's no life in his art." It's almost like Sondheim said to himself, "You want no life?" and then wrote George's mother's plodding ballad, "Beautiful."

Unfortunately, the time expended on the myriad characters in the park detracts from the level of subtlety afforded to what we're really interested in: George's relationship with Dot, who leaves him for the dull but emotionally available Louis the baker. Their break-up song, "We Do Not Belong Together," veers dangerously close to melodrama, which is most unlike Sondheim. The raw pleading of "Tell me not to go! ... Tell me what you feel!" (and for the record, the current performances by Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell are laudably under-indulgent) might have worked better had we had time to see their relationship in greater detail. But what should be a shattering duet feels too sudden amidst an act that is mostly an assortment of incidental stories that go nowhere.

There is much to be appreciated in Sunday. Not only is the classic individual-as-other theme gloriously realized, but as a meditation on what it means to be an artist, and all of the self-doubt, paralysis, and ecstasy that come with such a role, it is also uniquely thoughtful. To be sure, George’s awe-filled gasp as he faces the blank canvas in the show’s final moment is so viscerally moving, so loaded with inspiration and fear, that one almost forgets what one had to sit through to arrive at such a stunning apotheosis.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

This Week in Racism!

Racism has proved an ever-evolving subject of debate for white people in this country: once upon a time, we were all for racism; then we realized racism was not good; then some people thought we’d gotten rid of racism and could therefore continue being racist; and now some of us (perhaps a little carelessly) identify as “post-racist,” which sometimes gets us into trouble with our black friends when we toss around racial slurs.

But even now, comfortably into the occasionally post-racial 21st century, there continues to be controversy over what is and isn’t “racist.” And so to help clear up some present disputes, it’s time to play one of my favorite games: Racist/Not Racist!

This week, race has once again reared its inexhaustible head in the Democratic primary, with Geraldine Ferraro, formerly of the Clinton campaign, unapologetically charging that Obama owes his success to the color of his skin. As the Times reports:

Ms. Ferraro made the comments that touched off the latest exchange of Democratic brickbats after she gave a paid speech last week to the Torrance Cultural Center in Torrance, Calif. The Daily Breeze, a newspaper in Torrance, reported that she said: “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

Mr. Obama called the remarks “divisive.”

Mrs. Clinton, saying she did not agree with the comments, called it “regrettable that any of our supporters — on both sides because we both have this experience — say things that kind of veer off into the personal.”

Ms. Ferraro made no apologies. “Am I sorry? No, no, no,” she said. “I am sorry there are people who think I am racist.”

And so Ferraro lays the smack down in a devastating bait-and-switch: “Yeah I’m sorry—sorry you’re an idiot!” Let’s cut the woman a little slack here—have we not heard enough blathering about how earth-shatteringly “historic” this election is because Obama is black, black, black!? On the other hand, does Ferraro really feel that if Obama were white, he wouldn’t be a formidable opponent to Hillary? In other words, that no one could possibly be so enamored with a charismatic, inspirational white guy?

Then again, I think it's splendid that Obama’s dad is from Africa and that he’s got Muslims in the family. I’m quite amenable to that warm, fuzzy argument that says our brown-skinned “enemies” will like us more if they are dealing with someone who’s not white. Ultimately, though, Ferraro’s claim rests on an unverifiable counterfactual (yeah, that’s right, I said it). Who the hell knows how Obama would have fared had be been white?

Verdict on Ferraro: Not racist. The woman may be wrong (or right), but let’s not infer bigotry here based on a unsubstantiated theory. (Additionally, let's also note that the Obama camp seems to have done just this; why they should have felt the need to ask that Clinton "repudiate the remarks" is beyond me. I'd much prefer a candidate let the voters decide for themselves what to make of statements to the public.)

Our next subject of inquiry: Ryan Seacrest’s sudden bout of insanity after Chikezie’s ridiculously awesome performance on American Idol this week. At the risk of sounding racist by comparing two otherwise dissimilar black guys (okay, that's pretty much just being racist), this Chikezie is what Rubin Studdard could have been if he’d been at all exciting, charismatic, or at low risk for a coronary. That twinky little David Archuleta may know his way around a torch song, but Chikezie’s “She’s a Woman” was hands down the most exciting performance of the night.

After Chikezie's number was met with unanimous judiciary praise, a suddenly uncontrollable Seacrest galloped around the stage, circling the singer while cheering: “Chikezie! Love to see that enthusiasm, man! Move around on this stage! Feel it baby, feel it! Work this stage, Chikezie, work it! It’s all you! Work it! Attaboy, yeah! All right! Woo! Yeah! That’s what it’s about, man! This a big deal—top twelve! You work it!”—here he paused to maul Chikezie’s sweaty head—“Soakin’ wet, my man! Soakin’ wet! Feel that sweat! Woo! You got us all fired up now, baby!” Watch the whole spectacle here.

Now I’m willing to entertain the idea that perhaps I’m the one being racist here, in imputing some sort of “blackness” to Seacrest’s reaction. And Chikezie didn’t seem terribly offended (which means that should he ever read this, I may be the one stoking racial tension). But I’m sorry: I don’t recall Ryan Seacrest turning into James Brown for any of the other contestants on Tuesday night. Verdict on Seacrest: Racist.

All right, enough of this. I should be working. But should I manage to update this blog at a respectable rate in the future, I've no doubt we'll play lots of Racist/Not Racist some other day. In the meantime, feel free to leave any thoughts, racist or otherwise, below.

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Locking Up the Immigrants...

I recommend to anyone reading this that you get your hands on this past week's New Yorker (March 3rd) for Margaret Talbot's report on the Don T. Hutto Residential Center, a privately run immigrant-detention facility in Texas. A converted minimum-security prison, Hutto, owned by the Corrections Corporation of America, now houses undocumented immigrants, many of them Middle Eastern asylum-seekers fleeing persecution from oppressive regimes in their home countries (in addition to your run-of-the-mill Latinos looking for a better way to put food on the table), and their families, in a shockingly misguided--if not downright sadistic--attempt to keep track of immigrants without documentation.

Because these prisons are run by private companies (whom the government pays), a number of complications present themselves. For one, gathering information about their interior practices can be particularly difficult. (Talbot points to CCA's recent denial of a Freedom of Information Act request to a sociologist studying the use force against inmates in private prisons; the CCA claimed that such information was "a business secret.") Additionally, the CCA is not required to hire people with any qualifications or expertise in child welfare or childcare--they are not licensed to offer childcare--and most of their employees have backgrounds in the prison system. There is also the plain truth that these companies are profiting off the imprisonment of immigrants. Since 2005, when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of Homeland Security officially ended their "catch-and-release" approach to undocumented immigrants (i.e. allowing immigrants caught without papers to roam free while awaiting court), CCA has enjoyed particularly robust revenues ("We feel very strong about the demand that is developing," C.E.O. John Furguson said).

The article offers various bewildering examples of authoritarian verve: children being denied toys, crayons, and stuffed animals; parents forbidden access to one another's cells, as well as access to their children during the night; disobedient parents being threatened with separation from their children. (Most of the article's accounts are based on interviews with ex-inmates of Hutto.) Conditions have improved since the CCA settled a lawsuit with the ACLU last year; however, as one ACLU attorney put it, "these are still prison walls." Regardless of how many hours children are allowed to run around outside (or go to classes), we still have the mind-blowing fact that immigrants seeking asylum--or seeking anything, for that matter--have been welcomed to the United States with a prison sentence.

What started as a simple recommendation seems to have turned into a much lengthier explanation than I had intended, and now I feel I have to say something insightful. Though I suppose I could express my revulsion adamantly, what can one say in reaction to this story that wouldn't sound banal? ("Inhumane!" "A betrayal of American values!" "Financial incentives have corrupted the immigration system!") And yet, there is a sizable group of people who see Hutto (and other similar facilities) not as outrageous affronts to any idiot's sense of decency, but as simply flawed--some of these are of the "Gotta play by the rules if you're gonna set foot in our country" set. I must say, this current method of dealing with undocumented immigrants and their families does seem to fit pretty nicely with that way of thinking about immigration. It always amazes me that anyone can think of illegal immigration as criminal--as if the twelve million illegal aliens currently residing here all suffer from the same brand of moral perversity. (To offer a rough perspective: there are 1.6 million prisoners in the US--and they comprise all sorts of criminal proclivities.)

I've really only scratched the surface of this article's disturbing revelations about the extent of the casual, regimented cruelty that seems to be the meat and potatoes of these internment camps, and the extent of the problem. Unfortunately, the article is not online, but perhaps I can find a way to get it to you. Right now it is too late, and I need to write about something vacuous. Perhaps I will, if I do not fall asleep.