Tuesday, November 25, 2014

things I remember about St. Louis.

I arrived in St. Louis, MO in 1982, where my father taught at Washington University and lived there until 1985, when he took a sabbatical at the University of Washington in Seattle. We moved back to St. Louis for part of 1986 - one semester of 1st grade - and then back to Seattle. Dad had gotten tenure at Washington University, mom balked at living in the Midwest for the rest of their lives, and he was offered a job at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. We came back to Seattle in the dead of winter, to an unfinished house still in the midst of renovation.

There is not much I remember about St. Louis, because I was very young and my world was contained by the small boundaries of the street where we lived, Clayton Child Center where I went to daycare and then preschool, Chinese school on weekends, the brick campus of my father’s university. I remember winter snow and summer heat that left the lawn prickly and stubbly under my feet. We lived in Ladue, a couple of miles from the university, which I did not then understand was predominately wealthy and predominately white.

We were the only Chinese family on our block, a long cul-de-sac of nearly identical brick houses; I was not old enough to see this. I did not understand that my dad drove a BMW (back in the days when professors drove BMWs) and my mom drove a Mercedes (a hand-me-down from her father). I did not know that sometimes the police would see them driving their nice cars in our nice neighborhood and pull them over. I was not told that these were all factors when we moved to Seattle and my parents bought a house adjacent to the predominately-black Rainier Valley and sent me to public school in South Seattle. I would not understand until later that our Asian-ness gave us a level of protection somewhere between the privilege of white folks and the complete lack thereof for black folks. We might get hassled occasionally, but we didn't worry about getting shot by the police.

What I also didn't remember is that St. Louis is a city of suburbs connected by endless freeways. I didn't know that about 11 miles to the northeast of our comfortably upper-middle-class-white-suburb of Ladue lay the black suburb of Ferguson, and that the fault lines that had been apparent when we lived there 30 years ago would burst into flames with the death of a black teenaged boy at the hands of a white police officer. The song of the south is a wail of anguish at the injustices of this country. Last night I heard the roar of people chanting as I sat in my living room and turned to see over a hundred, maybe two hundred protesters marching down my street.
I thought about a moment from an early draft reading of Robert Schenkkan’s THE GREAT SOCIETY, when a simple traffic stop in a Los Angeles neighborhood explodes into what became the Watts Riots of 1965, a small moment that turns into something cataclysmic. I thought of Italo Calvino’s words after he witnessed the Montgomery protests of 1960: “The thing that is difficult for a European to understand is how these things can happen in a nation…without the involvement of the rest of the country. But the autonomy of the individual States is such that here they are even more outside Washington’s jurisdiction or New York Public opinion, than if they were, say, in the Middle East.”* How little we have changed in 54 years.

*Italo Calvino, March 6, 1960, Montgomery, Alabama. (from HERMIT IN PARIS: AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WRITINGS).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

it's just me and all the old geezers.

A few weeks ago, I went to a matinee of VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE at ACT. It was a Saturday, and I looked around me, and the other 400 people in the audience were between 65 and 85 years old, give or take. And they LOVED it. They roared with laughter, sighed with recognition, had a whale of a good time. I enjoyed the play - it’s very funny, and it starred many of my favorite actors - but more than that I enjoyed their enjoyment. They understood and responded to the cultural references that sailed over my head by a good thirty or forty years. It’s a very special experience, going to the theatre with people who remember and understand the time referenced in a work. I notice this especially in plays that connect to the Vietnam War; for those who were young at that time it seems to have just happened only yesterday.

A couple days later I came across The Stranger’s review, titled ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Is Clickbait for Wealthy Geezers.’ This is not an unfair assessment, it is the truth. This is how theaters like ACT and Seattle Rep survive, because the aforementioned Wealthy Geezers are their lifeblood. The season line-up has to include something new, something “daring” (daring by Wealthy Geezer standard to make them feel like even though they are on Medicare they are still Hip and Culturally Aware), something Tony-award-winning, maybe a musical. You have to have at least one clickbait play, and you should ideally position it at the end of the season, so the WGs will a) sign up for next year’s subscription and b) throw in another $3,000 donation. If you are Seattle Rep, you won’t even list a donor in the back of the program for less than $1,000 a year. This is why I tend to donate money to small theaters for whom the $100 I send them means more than pocket change.

And you know what? I’m ok with all of this. The support of the Old Geezers means that Seattle Rep can commission something like Justin Huertas’ LIZARD BOY, a comic-book musical jam-packed with - as it was when I saw an early version - dick jokes and teenage first love. It means that ACT can create their Central Heating Lab program, which helps support new and independent theatre companies who have a name and a vision but no space to create in. In time I won’t be the young kid in the audience - I will be one of the Geezers. Maybe by then I’ll be the one donating $3,000 a year. Maybe by then I’ll be in a position to commission new work. Maybe by then my taste will be the one that dominates while the younger generation rolls its eyes.

Personal taste is just that - personal. You have to see things you don’t like, things that don’t move you or that you don’t connect with, in order to understand more clearly what it is that you do love. I don’t love Tony-award-winning plays, those big Broadway machines that sweep the awards and then are produced by every single regional theater across the country the next year. I love new work, but I also love classics - Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Beckett. Shakespeare is his own category. I look for stories about loss, longing, love, hope, forgiveness; I look for familiar faces, changing, pushing themselves, evolving, people I have loved for a long time, new people I look forward to seeing more of. This is what matters to me, what keeps me coming back. I hope it never goes away.