15 August 2017


               I've been struggling with what to say about Charlottesville. Usually when this happens it's because something is more complicated than we want to believe it is. That's not the case here. White nationalists held a rally to protect a monument to a man who fought for the right to own Black bodies. The police took an inordinate amount of time to act when these White nationalists and counter-protestors came to blows. Repeatedly. These White nationalists had brazenly and openly, without hood or cowl, marched through UVA with TIKI torches and Nazi iconography, unashamed of their hate. A White nationalist drove a truck into a crowd of people, killing one, injuring others, and seemingly imitating one of the more popular forms of terrorist attacks in recent months. This is really simple. This is, at best, repugnantly deplorable, and at worst, sub-humanly monstrous. Either way, it's vomit-inducing.
               But my difficulty doesn't come from how clearly and quickly we all denounced these acts as wrong, evil, hateful, and acrimonious in speeches espousing love and goodness. That's good. That's right. That's what we should do. But it's how quick we are to collectively distance ourselves from these people as if we have not, as a society, contributed to and facilitated their growth, resurgence, genesis, or whichever term you prefer. These are American men that we've somehow lost, and I don't mean in the way the Democrats are trying to figure out how they lost the rustbelt. These are lost souls.
               These twenty- and thirty-somethings are White nationalists, White supremacists, and American Neo-Nazis. Let that sink in for a moment. This is not the proverbial drunk uncle or drunk grandfather. This is the guy you went to high school with. This is the guy you might have swiped right on Tinder. This is the guy who just graduated from college two months ago.
               We all want to say it's entirely Trump's fault. We want to say that the election of Donald Trump, who, when he was being subtle, dog-whistled, and otherwise was flagrantly and openly racist during his campaign, has emboldened this small band of men to be vocal, but otherwise the main people who espouse these views will eventually pass away and everything will be better for it. That's not true. Not entirely, anyway. While Trump's existence has emboldened these people, they were there, have always been there, and have been growing.
               So we've failed. America, we have failed. We have let these people grow in power, grow in sway, strengthen their rhetoric, and continuously reach out to new minds to corrupt. Because we, as a nation, cannot and will not reckon with our past. Somehow, because we have to believe that America is largely infallible, we have failed to reach these men before they've joined this cancer we've ignored for years. What else was going to happen when we continue to say that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is one of the greatest love stories of early America, despite the power differential between a master and slave? What else was going to happen when we still teach people that the Civil War was simply a war over States' Rights? What else was going to happen when things like Japanese Internment are just a bad episode in the long running series that is America? When the best of us believe these things, we have abdicated our right to be shocked when we find that White supremacy is still active in American society.
               It's high time we really grappled with our history. The bright spots and the dark spots. If we want to stop domestic terrorism and we want to stop White nationalism, it's time we do more than put gold leaf on America's incredibly complex and fascinating past. The United States is an amazing country. It formed because a bunch of disparate farmers and workers banded together, believing in the necessity of representation, and defeated the strongest power in the Western World. It has grown to be the dominant power in the world. But it has also built itself on the systemic oppression of the other, whether that other is Black, Asian, female, queer, non-Christian, or the myriad others who suffer.
               This history needs to be taught. It needs to be taught in our schools at all levels. If we want to fight bigotry, then we need to do it with our brains, not just our hearts. We need to understand why it exists, and we need to make sure our children understand it. Our teachers need to be given the tools to accurately teach our history, the good and the bad, and they need to be in positions where their students can ask questions that don't have simple answers. We need textbooks that tackle how Reconstruction failed and how much of what we deal with today is a direct continuation of the failure of Reconstruction and the evolution of Jim Crow laws. It needs to be clear that pride as a southerner is important but doesn't have to be explicitly conflated with pride in the Confederacy. We need to address the attempted genocide of Amerindians as something other than "a thing that happened." This is just the start, but if we begin to really educate ourselves about these facets of our history and not just the great parts, then we can be better.

               We can no longer look at tragedies like Charlottesville and simply say "This is not us" and wash our hands of those "damn dirty Nazis." We can't just condemn them and punish them and feel like we've done our part. If our actions stop there, if we do not address the root causes of these problems, America will continue to fail. This is part of our history. This is us. If we accept that, then we have no recourse but to act.

09 November 2016

Now What?

     "Now what?" are the words that have been going through my head for the past three hours. My assumption, as was that of most forms of media and analysis, was that Hillary Rodham Clinton would be elected president of the United States of America, becoming the first woman to achieve this honor. But that did not happen. Instead, Donald Trump, perhaps the greatest presidential underdog ever, won the presidency.
     I started following the coverage from the glow of my smartphone, stealing looks at breaks during rehearsal in Astoria. I didn't think Donald Trump's early lead meant much, as those were states that tend to lean red regardless. Undoubtedly Hillary Clinton would catch up later in the night. But the night continued, and she didn't.
     I left rehearsal and headed to Brooklyn for what was supposed to be an election night party. We had hoped to celebrate the election of our first female president. CNN was running on two screens, and I was still on my phone checking Senate and House races. Long before the presidential election was called, I knew it was over. I didn't want to believe it, but I knew it. The math wasn't there. Eventually, our party had turned more into a somber lamentation of the state of our unperfect union, and in the dark hours of the early morning as we dispersed devoid of joy, I headed home.
     I climbed the stairs to my apartment and looked at my phone only to see that, in the time it took for me to travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan, Donald Trump had won 276 electoral votes. Though I had already realized this would be the outcome, the reality still hit me like a truck. I opened the door, walked through the kitchen, the office, and the living room to get into the bedroom, and I hugged my girlfriend without words.
     And then I wept.
     I wept because this was not what was supposed to happen. I wept because I was filled with fear beyond my ken. I simply could not understand. I muttered those words over and over again. It had never left my mind that Donald Trump could pull off an upset and win the election in a nail-biter race, but I never thought he would take the lead from the start and run away with it. I never thought that so much of the country had decided that the content of a person's character could probably be judged by the darkness of their skin. Or that women meant so little to us as a nation.
     There is a moment when innocence can die. It is a moment when all feels lost, and there's nothing but questions. It is the moment when you ask "Now what?" and you are met with silence. Cold, unadulterated silence. Sitting in a dark room at 2:45 in the morning, holding onto my girlfriend, sobbing into my hand was that moment for me.
     While so many of us celebrate, so many of us cry out "Now what?" The man we've elected has built his campaign on isolationism, xenophobia, racism, and sexism. His campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," jumps right to the heart of those ideas, and very intentionally harkens back to an era that never truly existed but was dominated by white males. And by electing Donald Trump we have stated that we are somehow okay with the creation or perpetuation of a white race utopia as opposed to the melting pot we have always been.
     So now what? Do we sit here and hope it goes away? Do we protest? Do create new parties with new platforms? I don't know. What I do know is that we just had an election that actively told us that Arab-American lives don't matter, that Latino lives don't matter, that Asian lives don't matter, that Amerindian lives don't matter, that Black lives don't matter, that LGBT lives don't matter, and that, almost above all else, female lives do not matter. Because there is no world, no just world, where an accomplished public servant who is intelligent, prepared, has thirty years of experience, twelve of which were related to the White House and the presidency not to mention her eight years in the senate, loses to a man who has pending trials for rape and fraud, gleefully and openly rates women on their attractiveness, uses dogwhistle politics to condemn Muslims and Latinos, promotes a paternalistic view of African Americans, and has failed businesses galore and no actual political experience besides a failed run for president without telling me that female lives don't matter. Hillary Clinton didn't lose because of emails, she didn't lose because of the deplorable things her husband has done, she didn't lose because of her own moral failings, she lost because she has baggage, but not the political baggage of dozens of campaigns against her, but 69 years of baggage called two X chromosomes. And that was her great sin.

     Before I said I didn't know what to do, but really there's only one thing can do right now. We can, and we must, feel our sadness. We must feel our fear. Our terror. Our rage. Our disappointment. Our pain. We must feel it all, and realize that this is real. This is the rebirth of America, and we must learn to navigate through it. We may have been told that our lives don't matter, but let us never forget our lives do, and that just as we feel terror and sadness, so did those who said we don't matter and that's how we'll start to heal.

16 October 2015

You'll Get Urinetown

               Today is a pretty weird day, and I mean that in the best possible way. It's weird because today is the opening of the off-Broadway revival of Urinetown, The Musical, which I happen to have been cast in. It's being produced by a new company (Fracture Theatre Co.) with a non-Equity cast in the very theater that Urinetown was first done off-Broadway (the American Theatre of Actors, or ATA for short) under the umbrella of the company that originally produced Urinetown on and off-Broadway (that would be the Araca Group). Even weirder is that the Chernuchin, the specific theater housed in the ATA that we'll be performing in, is being renamed tonight in honor of John Cullum. If you don't know who that is, well, a short answer is he originated the role of Caldwell B. Cladwell in Urinetown. A slightly longer answer is he is a two-time Tony Award winner with a heap of other awards and nominations and a long career in theatre and television. Basically, he's a pretty cool guy.
               However, the weirdest thing about all of this is that Urinetown was the first musical I did in college. Not quite the first show, for that honor belongs to The Mikado, but it was the first American musical I did in my freshman year at MIT. I did it with Next Act, the theatre company housed in my dorm. We'd put on a show every year during Campus Preview Weekend (CPW) for the MIT community and incoming pre-freshman, or pre-frosh as we all called them, transforming our large Tastefully Furnished Lounge space into a small theater with a stage, lights, and a house seating as many as around 183 people. Every Next Act production was a labor of love for everyone involved when we'd stop p-setting to rehearse, prepare, and do a musical. Urinetown was my first show with Next Act.
               Next Act was one of the driving forces in me becoming an actor. It was with Next Act that I learned a sense of community and truly became obsessed with theatre, often determining to work on my role or my choreo or my directing rather than worrying about the problem set due at 10:00 AM the next morning. Fellow members of the cast and crew would repeatedly have to force me to go to bed, otherwise I'd sit there with them and help build the set (despite my lack of skills with a tools, power or otherwise), or sew costumes (despite my lack of sewing knowledge), or whatever else needed to get done until the Sun would rise. Getting sick or losing my voice wouldn't stop me from doing whatever I could because I had never cared about something so much in my life. I remember trying to give choreography notes, but being unable to talk, so I wrote them all down, gave them to one of my friends to read aloud, and then flailed wildly while I tried to physically emulate not just the dance steps but the emotion I was going for (I'm not a dancer, by the way, so it was a pretty hilarious sight). Eventually I learned to balance my insatiable drive with my health in such a way that I was highly productive instead of mildly productive while being half-dead yet enthusiastic, and it was Next Act that was the lab for me to figure this out for myself.
               Finally, Next Act was the first time I was admired by people I didn't know for my acting. I remember the Dean of Students, who coincidentally was our housemaster at Next House, telling me his kids had been stomping around the apartment imitating me after seeing our production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, singing about falcons and scurrilous phantoms and other such things. Of course I didn't know how to respond besides smiling and being thankful, and, to be honest, I still don't know how to respond to that other than being gracious, but it was when I first learned that I could affect other people. That stuff that I, Johari Menelik Frasier, did could do something to other people for more than a passing moment.
               My senior year of college I recall walking back to my dorm with a friend of mine after what I can only guess was a cast party. The night had progressed to early morning, perhaps around 3:00 AM, and before we parted ways we had gotten into one of those deep conversations that twenty-somethings tend to do when the hour gets late. Both of us being involved in the arts at MIT, the subject fell to acting, as it so often does between actors, and he brought up Urinetown. Specifically, he brought up Next Act's production of Urinetown. This friend of mine was one year below me, so Urinetown was the show he saw during his CPW. He talked about how amazing the show was, and how he specifically remembered my performance as Officer Lockstock. He remembered thinking that he wanted the opportunity to work with me and to gain the same skills that I had. I was dumbfounded. This was a person I had considered a far superior actor to myself, yet the idea that he had formed such a high opinion of me before he even knew me shocked me. The idea that somehow I touched some part of his humanity enough for him to have clear memories of things I did, things I wasn't even sure I remembered, was perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life. One could argue something about fishes in small ponds since no one outside of MIT seems to be aware it has a theatre program, but that doesn't make the moment any less important to the life of this fish.
               I sit here, knowing that tonight I'm going to make my off-Broadway debut in a fantastic musical in front of the original producers and one of the original cast members, and I can only feel that things have, in some sense, come full circle. I basically started my college acting career and serious consideration of acting with Urinetown, and now I'm literally about to debut off-Broadway in the very same show. So I'm grateful for many things. I'm grateful that the director of the 2010 Next Act production decided to produce one of the greatest musicals in the last twenty years and that she decided to take a chance on a freshman who had no idea what he was doing, and whether she knew it or not, helped start me on the path that I'm following now. And I'm grateful that Fracture was willing to take this kid straight out of conservatory and put him in their first production ever. And I'm grateful to be part of this extremely talented cast who I watch do their work and actively wonder how they do half the things they do with a mixture of envy and pride of being one of them.

               Finally, I'm grateful that I'm living out a dream. If six years ago someone told me that the show I had been listening to obsessively and was going to do in my dorm lounge was going to be the show I made my off-Broadway debut in, I'd tell them they were nuts. And yet it's happening tonight, and all I can do is smile and say I guess I got Urinetown.

16 July 2015

Theatre Thursday: Here Comes Claudio

                It must be that time of year again. "What time of year?" you ask. Why, NYMF time, of course. On Tuesday I had the pleasure of seeing my first NYMF show of the season, Claudio Quest, with book, music, and lyrics by Drew Fornarola and Marshall Pailet. Before I even looked up the Festival's offerings this year, Facebook, in its all knowing capacity (re: cookie reading), had a Claudio Quest ad mentioning heroes and video games and 8-bit deliciousness. Needless to say, I immediately decided that I had to see it, which is to say I turned to my girlfriend, Sarah, and said, "I have to see this. We have to see this. It's IMPORTANT." Bonus points for being by Drew Fornarola, a composer I had the pleasure of meeting at an installment of the Songwriters' Salon and whose music I admire. Unfortunately, we could not score free tickets as we did last year, as I don't think Space.com has an 8-bit beat, but that, of course, was not going to stop us.
                What can I say about Claudio Quest? That it has arrived: the video game musical that you NEED and DESERVE. What Pailet and Fornarola have crafted is a thinly veiled send up of Super Mario Bros, and it is a truly glorious thing. You have the two brothers, the two princesses (yeah, we got a [really awesome] Daisy expy, I was excited), a strange fire-breathing monster arch-nemesis, plant people, and turtles all in a delicious 8-bit package. Or, well, as 8-bit as living, breathing people can be on stage. Yet, despite having a direct analogue to almost every character present in Mario's 8- and 16-bit days, Claudio Quest stands on its own as most everyone is quite different from the "source" material.
                Let's look at the Claudio Bros, Claudio, the Mario, and Luis, the Luigi. While Claudio is the ace, much like Mario, he longs for something different and new, but is set in his own ways. Not to mention he is tall, youthful, and generally dashing, unlike his mustachioed red and blue clad plumber counterpart. Luis, much like Luigi, loves his older brother, but suffers from being the screw-up with aspirations to greatness. While Luigi's fear comes from, well, generally just being scared of things, Luis' comes from an inability to grasp what happens if they don't follow rules and every path they've been down hundreds of times. You begin to realize that while the Mario Bros are loved for their simplicity and clarity of expression, what makes the Claudio Bros so wonderful, and so different, is that you can find yourself in each of them very easily, whether it's Claudio's fear of doing things differently or Luis' desire to make something of himself. And all of the characters manage this level of complexity while remaining true to extreme cartoonish exaggerations of their video game counterparts (except Princess Poinsettia, because Princess Peach is about two degrees from Poinsettia, making Poinsettia a minor exaggeration instead of a major one).  
                The book is brilliant. I say this because it is basically a fan's wet dream while remaining accessible to a person who has somehow avoided all things Mario in their life. If you don't know Mario, or any video games at all, it becomes a tightly knit, madcap story about finding yourself and climbing out of your sibling's shadow set against a backdrop of eggplants and block breaking. The zany moments, such as watching a certain someone talk to his psychiatrist, or the breakdown of a poor eggplant, become completely acceptable and logical in the world they've created.
                If you DO know a little bit about Mario, you will laugh your way through the entire performance as reference after reference greets you, and yet never detracts from the story. Perhaps one of the best moments of the night was a scene entirely devoted to referencing how turtles with green shells can only go in one direction while ones with red shells can turn as they please. Not to mention "The Princess is in Another Castle" bits.
                Speaking of references, the score, which is just as fantastic as the book, is packed with references to the original score of Super Mario Bros (written by Koji Kondo, one of the game industry's greatest and most beloved composers). If you know me, then you know that I am a big fan of highly melodic music, and this is a very melodic score. For example, "Poor Me," sung by Poinsettia and Bruiser, takes from the Underwater Theme in Super Mario. From the familiar beginning of the melody of that song, Fornarola and Pailet have constructed an entirely new song, immediately recognizable, and yet different enough to serve the purpose they need, which of course was to emphasize longing. Not to mention that it also kind of ends up serving as Poinsettia's motif throughout the show. Or the Act I finale, "A or B," in which all the characters seem to be faced with a mutually exclusive choice. Why is it choice A or choice B? Well it's not arbitrary at all, but rather, because the controller for the Nintendo Entertainment System, the console used to play Super Mario Bros, only had an A button and a B button along with a d-pad. Here A was jump, and B was run, which were mirrored in Luis' lyrics in "A or B."
                Another strength of the show was how, even after a major event occurred at the end of the first act, Claudio Quest manages to let everyone go through trials and tribulations without a drastic tone change. This is a balancing act that so many musicals fail to succeed at. Many musicals have a stellar first act and the second act occurs and one is left wondering why it feels less tight or cohesive? Alternatively, the first act may be slow, possibly even plodding, and then the second act happens and it feels like a whole new piece of concentrated awesome. Claudio Quest never suffers from either affliction. The characters are consistent, but are still alive and able to grow as people, the gems of the score are across both acts (largely because every piece is a gem), and just because something shocking happens doesn't mean we've suddenly begun watching Next to Normal when we thought we were watching Seussical.
                Adding to the ambiance of the evening were the wonderful chiptune covers of pop music that played during the pre-show and intermission. I can honestly say that you haven't lived until you've heard chiptune covers of "Billy Jean" or "You Spin Me 'Round." In fact, chiptunes make most everything better as far as I'm concerned, and it was a perfect way of putting you in the mindset of watching something based on the games of your childhood.

                I could say more about Claudio Quest. I could say much, much more. But I think you probably get the gist by now, so it may be more prudent for me to stop. That being said, this musical was amazing. I have been waiting for something like this forever (or, you know, since I was sixteen and realized I loved musical theatre, whichever you prefer), and now that it's finally here, I can only imagine that I'll be seeing more material like this in the future, and that is truly exciting. And as far as Claudio Quest is concerned, I wish it the brightest future possible, with theaters nationwide rushing to perform it, because, to quote the opening song: "Here comes Claudio [Quest]! [It] is the greatest!"

24 July 2014

Theatre Thursday: WikiMusical the RPG

 Oh, hi guys. I guess it's time for [apparently] my yearly blog post or something. So, here it goes:

     I went to my first New York Musical Theatre Festival show on Tuesday: WikiMusical. Unfortunately, it's likely to be the only one that I'll make it to this year because... well, frankly, I didn't realize when NYMF started and thus didn't buy any tickets. Anyway, one of my girlfriend's classmates is an acquaintance of one the show's librettists and was able to get us some tickets. Rather, to be more specific, he got some tickets and convinced the librettist to give my girlfriend tickets in order to write a review about it. I just want to point out that my girlfriend is a science writer interning at IEEE Spectrum, an engineering and tech magazine, right now, so we were both a bit confused. Her boss liked the idea of there being some kind of coverage about it on the website, though (you can find it here).
     Tickets in hand, we arrived at the Pearl Theatre Company's performance space not entirely sure what to expect. The lights went out, the show began, and there was a narrator's voice. I'm personally a sucker for third person narrators, omniscient or otherwise, so the show was already starting strong as far as I was concerned. I prepared myself for a late afternoon of enjoyment.
     Now, I don't want to spoil the show, nor do I want to give an in depth review of it, so I'm just going to give a few of my reflections. WikiMusical basically has a hero's journey structure to it. The protagonist, Peter, and his brother, Kurt, go on a quest to get back home, gaining new party members along the way. But, at its heart, WikiMusical is about these brothers mending a relationship that has gone from simple sibling rivalry to... let's just say Peter isn't Kurt's biggest fan and leave it at that. It's definitely the kind of story I can get behind, and by God did I enjoy the whole setup: I mean, it was basically an RPG (role-playing game, in case you were wondering).
     Perhaps the most fun was the shear amount references in it. Blake Harris, the librettist and lyricist (he shares these credits with Frank Ceruzzi), recently wrote the book Console Wars, and a lot of his research for that book appears in WikiMusical. One of the first things we see the brothers do, as children, is argue over whether Santa should give them a Genesis or a SNES (the correct answer is a Genesis, by the way, and anyone who says otherwise is bad and should feel bad). Later on, when the party accidentally solves a puzzle (seriously, the musical is basically an RPG), the Legend of Zelda secret sound plays, and it becomes a subtle plot point when it doesn't play. I was apparently the only person in the audience who both got and loved that judging by my lonely laughter (the gamer/theatre nerd overlap is bigger than you would think, but smaller than you would hope). Yet another example was the villain referring to an 8-bit dungeon. Unfortunately, despite Mr. Harris' hopes (which he mentioned to me in the brief amount of time I got to talk to him at intermission), the 8-bit dungeon was decidedly not 8-bit. In fact, every projected screen was blatantly 64-bit and from an N64 game, except for the lone 16-bit projection. You win some, you lose some, I guess. Honestly, that's just me scratching the surface of the references and jokes that were often relevant and managed to not take away from the story, which is pretty impressive. And I'm not even mentioning the non-video games ones, like Wikipedia's constant desire for donations in recent years.
     The music was really rather catchy. I once read a quote that basically boiled down to 'if  you leave the theater and you're not humming a tune, the musical's failed.' I would properly attribute my awful paraphrase if I could remember who said it, but, alas, I cannot, much to my shame. But it's Thursday, two days after I saw the show, and I'm still humming Search Engine Crash, the song that basically starts their quest. It was perhaps my favorite song of the night. It was generally easy to follow melodically and had some pretty nice harmonies in it, and, much like narration, I'm a sucker for harmonies. Very close to it in my esteem was The Blogger's Ballad, which, despite being the obligatory act II dramatic female aria that can often feel tacked on and/or boring if the character singing it is not the primary lead, was probably the highlight of that act. It was also the only true solo of the show. Just a woman and pit. No chorus, no second or third person singing under her. Just her and the pit. It had a very welcome different feel from the rest of the score while still feeling like it was part of WikiMusical.
     Despite the score's catchiness, there were a few lyrics that didn't quite sit with me. This was generally because it sometimes felt like someone started saying something in a song slightly before that character wanted to. However, there was one lyric that upset me, and I feel obligated to point it out. I certainly don't think the lyric was at all meant to be malicious, nor was it meant to be the inception of anything insidious, but it felt like the repercussions of the word choice weren't fully thought out. I'm going to paraphrase it because, well, lyrics (specifically, the memory of them) aren't my strong suit: "You're the one who taught me how to trick girls into giving me head."
     I totally get what they were going for. Bigger brother passes down knowledge to little brother about how to be a more winsome and attractive person to the opposite sex. Friends and siblings do that for each other. It shows closeness, and it shows the level of faith the knowledge-less has in the knowledgeable. However, the use of the word "trick" leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. It seems very unsavory and underhanded, which is not how we should look at sex. It makes it sound like sex is about winning, which seems rather unhealthy to me. Not to mention, at its extreme (which the lyric was NOT going for at all) it does enter slightly rapey territory.
     Now that I've said that, let me repeat that clearly was not the intention of the lyricist duo. Let me also add that I can be somewhat sensitive around such subjects, which is why I picked up on it when they probably didn't. Did the lyric take me out of the moment? Admittedly, yes. Did it ruin the show, or even the song? No, because the intended subtext was really clear. Still, I think this was the first time it became abundantly clear to me how important every single word in a lyric is. "Trick" was bad because of its definition and connotation. Sure, the subtext was "You taught me how to present myself as a sexually desirable human being which proves that you're awesome and I need you," but the word was just the wrong choice.

     Okay, off my soap box. I'm getting kind of rambly. Let me just say that despite that one moment of awkward "that's... not... okay..." I really, really, really enjoyed myself. The score was fun, the jokes appealed to my nerdiness, and you could basically imagine the whole thing as an 16-bit RPG complete with a five-man band. I would really love to see more shows that do some of the things WikiMusical does. There's a whole untapped (okay, just not fully tapped) audience of video game and computer nerds that would seriously eat stuff like this up. Not everything has to be a joke about how expensive Broadway is or being Jewish, after all.

17 July 2013

State of Florida v. George Zimmerman

               The State of Florida v. George Zimmerman case has been on the nation's mind for quite a while now. Emotions have only intensified since Zimmerman was acquitted on Saturday. You can't go anywhere without encountering it somehow. It's all over facebook and various news-sites, and honestly probably every form of media, social or otherwise, at this point. People have called it a travesty of justice because he was acquitted, others have said that the travesty would have been if he wasn't.
               I've been thinking about this case a lot, just like most of my fellow Americans. I've been struggling to make sense of all of this in my own head and my own life. That of course meant that I had to write about it, since it is through writing that I often sort through my thoughts and feelings. I cannot give you an account of what actually happened on 26 February 2012, because I wasn't there. Likewise, I cannot say what for certain should have happened in court, because I do not have all the facts nor can do I know either man's mindset. But I what I can say is what it all means to me.
               This past Saturday I was in the apartment I'm subletting with my girlfriend. Her cousin had come to Boston for business and opted to come a couple days early to visit, and thus we had spent the evening and some of the night watching a few episodes of Better Off Ted and Once Upon a Time. Afterwards I got on laptop and decided to catch up on the Evolution World Championships that had started on Friday and would continue through Sunday night. It was late, probably 11:00 or so, and I took a break from watching recordings of Persona 4 Arena to check facebook. My newsfeed was filled with cries of injustice that clearly all pointed to the outcome of the Zimmerman trial, and I decided to go read a Guardian article on the outcome. I read through the article and learned that Mr. Zimmerman had been acquitted. No murder of the second degree. No manslaughter.
               Now, reading that (or, rather, allusions to it) on facebook had very little effect on me other than to pique my curiosity. After all, everyone on facebook (and I suspect this is true of most forms of social media) espouses extreme views on any issue that falls in or against their beliefs, so I had grown accustomed to exaggeration which I typically would ignore and make a footnote to myself to learn about the issue later. However, reading a news article that very matter-of-factly told me the outcome of the case, something happened to me that I wasn't expecting at all. My demeanor instantly soured, and I felt my stomach suddenly churn. It was the most visceral reaction I have ever had to reading a news story, and quite possibly to reading anything. I tried to return to watching Persona 4 Arena to take my mind off of it, but that didn't work. Soon I found myself reading the same story on other news sites. I read CNN, I read the BBC, I read Huffington Post, and NBC, and Fox. And they all said the same thing: Zimmerman was acquitted, O'Mara warned his client of riots, Martin's parents were considering a civil suit, and the NAACP was outraged.
               I felt stifled in the little studio apartment with two other people, so I locked myself in the bathroom and stared in the mirror in hopes of finding clarity as to what the hell I was feeling. Of course that didn't work, so I left the bathroom and said I was going out for a bit. I exited the building and sat on the stoop to complex. I stared at the building across the street, and I watched the drunk twenty-somethings exit Pour House and Whiskeys attempting to hail taxis. I sat there for hours. Thinking. Why was I so angry? What was it about this that made me feel crushed by rage and despair all at once?
               It was this: At that moment, with my understanding of that decision, my country had deemed that I was a second class citizen. That as black male, I'm inherently more dangerous than the vast majority of people I know. That I cannot be trusted to walk down a street without looking suspicious. That, like family and friends have always told me, directly or indirectly, I must prove that I am not a threat and deserving of the same kind of respect and opportunities as my white counterparts. I am not as good, nor will I ever be. Those were the thoughts that were swirling in my head.
               I had spent my entire life believing that while, of course, there was still a ways to go before we as a nation (and as a world) reached racial equality (and further still before equality of sex, gender, sexual orientation, and a whole host of other things I'm failing to list) that these things I had been told about how life would always be harder for me because I was a black male was the reaction of people from a different time. When people had to struggle for the right to attend the same schools and have the same jobs. But for the first time in my life I was slapped with the reality that we really weren't as equal as I thought. That's not something one just shakes off. That's not something one just accepts. But then, what is there to do? I didn't know. All I knew was that I was angry, confused, and depressed.
               I woke up the next day and decided the best thing for myself was to just not think about it until I could think about it more coolly. I do not enjoy being so gut wrenchingly controlled by my emotions; not when I simultaneously feel like I don't have the whole story. So I postponed my soul searching for the sake of fun and competition by watching the end of the EVO championship I had started. But as the day stretched on I began to attempt to understand what I knew about the case and how this played into my own feelings. It turned out that I understood very, very little. I knew very little of the facts. I had no idea what evidenced was introduced or what was testified. In fact, I only had a vague inkling that the prosecution had a fairly weak presentation.
               So I began reading. At first, I made the foolish mistake of reading comments to articles just to see what other people were thinking. This of course proved that, we humans, when we're impassioned about something, have a very high tendency to blatantly ignore discourse and instead resort to mudslinging, which is perhaps increased by the ability to be an "internet tough guy." So I read more articles instead, but that felt like reading more of the same. I began searching for some coverage of the court proceedings, which I had missed. There were some summations of witness testimonies and some descriptions of evidence that I located and I read them.
               Though I am by no means an authority on this case, or the legal system, after doing some research on the trial, it is absolutely no surprise to me that Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted. Often times the witnesses the State called to the stand gave very useful testimonies for the defense either via cross, or even occasionally during direct. Since the burden of proof lies with the prosecution and the defense need only show that the prosecution has not proved anything beyond reasonable doubt, this posed an issue when many of testimonies that did bolster the State's case did not bolster it much. One example was calling Capt. Alexis Carter Jr. to prove that Zimmerman knew about the "stand-your-ground" law, and thus imply he was a liar. While this tactic seemed to have worked, during cross, Capt. Carter stated that one need not wait until almost dead, nor need s/he wait until attacked. The person invoking the law could very well be the aggressor and need only perceive that their opponent will render them great bodily harm. Facts such as this combined with testimonies from other such as John Good, who provided a seemingly eye witness account of Trayvon Martin on top of Zimmerman, really meant that there was no way the State could prove beyond reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin with ill intent. In fact, in the face of something like the Stand-Your-Ground law, which I only have a very rudimentary understanding of, without damning evidence reaching the level of Zimmerman declaring in fiendish manner that he was going hunting for black criminals in his neighborhood, there was very little the prosecution could do. There was little actual hope for an outcome other than full acquittal with the way the prosecution handled the case, which, regardless of their efforts, was poor.
               Does that mean that I've had a massive change of heart and condone Mr. Zimmerman's actions? No, of course not. Despite what the defense would have you believe, you cannot arm yourself with the sidewalk just as you can't arm yourself with a house, and thus he shot an unarmed man. A man who was likely in similar physical condition (one being an athlete and the other practice MMA for at least six months). Did Zimmerman want to be a cop at some point in time? Evidence suggests yes. Did he say some nasty things while on the phone with the police? Evidence again suggests yes. Should he have gotten out of the car in the first place? Probably not. Was race truly an issue in this case? I would say yes, considering the fact that Zimmerman followed Martin, that he seemed spitefully agitated when on the phone, and the alleged things said by both parties.
               Though it is very hard to believe that a fairly young man killed another, younger man, and get's off scot free, it did happen. Zimmerman's injuries suggest that he was not yet in mortal danger, though if Martin, aggressor or not, stated what Zimmerman alleges he did ("... you are going to die tonight..."), then it Zimmerman's heightened sense of fear while in the struggle seems like it could be grounds to invoke Stand-Your-Ground.
               Despite what side one falls on in the debate of whether this is a travesty of justice or not, the fact is that where this happened, when this happened, and the ambiguity of the actual events of that night, meant that there was only one possible outcome. This doesn't suddenly neglect the fact that it came to stand for race equality, or rather, the lack thereof, in the United States. The assumptions that there would be riots, or that radicals would attempt to harm Zimmerman if things did not go their way was ludicrous. The hopes of a successful civil suit are likely slim. So we are left with the facts of the case and how each of us feels in the aftermath.

               If I compare myself now to Saturday, which wasn't that long ago, I can most certainly say that I'm calmer. I can say that I'm not immediately plagued by anger and despair. But I can also say this, though legally correct, was this finding correct morally? In a case that represents everything that's wrong with race relations in the US, or at the very least between whites and blacks in the US, did it really boil down to something as disconcertingly black and white as find him guilty or follow Florida state law? I would like to believe that this isn't the case. I would like to believe that Justice, while possibly blind, isn't as simple as that. I would like to believe that we, as a nation, can pull past that and work to never let something like this happen again. But as idealistic as I would like to be, there is now that seed of doubt in the back of my mind that wonders if that's completely impossible and if I am forever doomed to be judged guilty until proven innocent because my skin is dark and I have a Y chromosome.

30 August 2012

Theater Thursday: Prince Ali On A Whole New Stage

It's Theater Thursday!

Today seems like a good day to talk about Disney's Aladdin. But that's a movie, why would I talk about that? Well, because it seems that it may very well be going to Broadway. If Aladdin heads to Broadway it will join the ranks of its older Disney-movies-turned-into-Broadway-stage-musicals siblings: Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, My Son Pinocchio, and more. Most recently Disney has seen fabulous success with Newsies on Broadway, bringing in many new fans with the ecstatic revamped music, and perhaps creating a bit of tension between the diehard movie nuts and the newer musical-heads. Newsies, like Aladdin, originally came out in 1992 and both shows, assuming Aladdin does make the move to the Great White Way, will have experienced a huge resurgence in popularity.

This production of Aladdin, with its lofty (though certain if desired, considering Disney is bankrolling it) expectations, was  in tryouts at the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle in July of last year. With a book by Chad Beguelin, most famous for his work on The Wedding Singer, direction by Casey Nicholaw of The Book of Mormon, music by Alan Menken (who managed to have two of his shows go against each other for best musical, but not best score in this year's Tony Awards), and lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Beguelin the show is certain to make a big splash. Then again, the Seattle Times does point out that the show was flawed, with an Act I that tries too hard to be the movie we all know and love. However, it also says that the second act was good and that it was still enjoyable to watch.

The Seattle Aladdin uses many of the cut songs from the movie as well as new songs composed by Menken and lyricized by Beguelin. Menken and Beguelin decided to go back to Menken and Ashford's original concept of a fast paced show modeled after the seven "Road to..." movies starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. This series is known for its zany antics and gags, where the jokes, bits, one-liners take precedence over the plot. This style likely lends itself to reinstating such songs as "Call Me a Princess" during which Jasmine becomes a shrill voiced rich girl to shoo away suitors, "Why Me?" in which Jafar comically laments his past as he searches for the Diamond in the Rough, and "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kasim" in which Aladdin and his four friends (conflated into Abu in the movie version) perform to earn some spare change. What purpose these songs serve in the show is hard to tell out of context, but I'm all for more singing Jafar.

This is not the first time that Disney has made a stage musical version of Aladdin. There's the forty-five minute California Adventure show Disney's Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular. First opened in 2003, it more or less condenses the whole movie into that tiny time frame because who wants to go to an amusement park and watch a two hour and ten minute show (well, I would, but that's unimportant)? There are also Aladdin Jr. and Aladdin Kids, the middle school and lower school versions of Aladdin respectively. As to why there needs to be one especially geared to middle schoolers AND lower schoolers, I don't really know. But with such wonderful casting directions as "Jafar is our villain. In order to portray this through casting, consider a taller boy with a changed voice," and "The Tiger God is an all powerful presence yet a tad bit sassy to keep it interesting," one can't help but wonder what on Earth they're trying to do with these shows.

Regardless, Disney's latest foray into turning a tried and true property into a huge Broadway smash could prove successful. If the rumors are true, anyway. Perhaps we'll see a reworked version of the Seattle show in the near future. Will it become the next Lion King, and be everyone's favorite Broadway show, with people remembering spectacular sequences years down the line from when they first saw it? Or will it be Tarzan, and no one will even know it existed because it was, apparently, that bad? Who knows. All I want to know is where are my Hunchback and Mulan Broadway shows? I want Hellfire and Make a Man Out of You live. Let's get down to business, Disney.