Friday, May 31, 2013

Occupy the Arts

On June 10th at the St. James Theatre I will finally see a full-length play brought to life. A full-length play by me, that is. It has been eleven years of real exhausting work and many heartbreaking disappointments to get this far. It would maybe have been easier not trying to do this while working as a general counsel and raising two children and managing bipolar but then the plays would not be so good. You see, I feel now that all I have been through has made my mind so much bigger than it was when I started writing plays. Not to say the first plays were not good. The ones I wrote with people: Out of Left Field with my law school roommate and her husband and Damnation of John Smith with Augie Matteis are still really good short plays. Baggage and Baby Love Time -especially Baby Love Time - are great plays in their own kind of sprawling emotional way.

Then I moved here and in eleven years I wrote three or four full-length plays, a sitcom pilot and drafts of eleven subsequent episodes (workplace drama based on my experiences in early wifi called Empire Blue), a back-breaking effort to place at Verity Bargate in 2011 called Mother Daughter Holy Spirit.   I had received a bizarre commendation letter from Soho but then got shut out with MDHS. I have experienced a lot of rejection, I think a lot of that is because I am American and it is assumed as a matter of course that Americans have inferior aesthetic sensibilities, less sophistication in the arts. I can't speculate. I was not helped by a lot of people, though.

Luckily I was helped by one person. Guy Masterson. After my husband and I saw Kevin Spacey in Inherit the Wind, I was inspired to write to someone way out of my league, the theatre impresario Guy Masterson, one of the most famous names on the Fringe for a decade. I had seen his production of 12 Angry Men at the Fringe  - comedians played the jury. I emailed a heartfelt plea that he work with me on a new courtroom drama. For years I have wanted to find a way to tell the story of Brad Williams. I was his lawyer in Williams v First Government, which was coincidentally (not at all coincidence - C. Jung) the subject of the first post ever on this blog.

He didn't answer the email for two years. In that time, I wrote MDHS. Then came October 2011, a month we should all honor. I watched the livestream on the Brooklyn Bridge and wept with hope and fear and got as involved in Occupy as I could. I organized Occupy Half Term.  I worked hard on what I thought would be a huge and necessary gain: an alliance with the churches. I met with Bishops, I embarrassed my relatives, I blogged like a mad woman (You are a mad woman - C. Jung). I had hope for real democracy and justice. But most of the doors were closed on this path. Ears are stopped by commerce and culture and distrust is the order of the day. I was just trying form and keep some kind of alliance (to be fair the dude who is Archbishop of C now was actually receptive and I went to Durham cathedral to meet with his people).

Then Masterson answers the email. We meet. We talk about justice and a play was born. Writing it was really very hard but also very satisfying work.  The play is an imagination of the jury deliberations at the Federal Court trial in May 1997. It was an eight person jury.  So here is my Occupy the Arts. I have put a banker on the jury. I have put a politician. A politician actually was on the jury, a guy who worked for Newt Gingrich, who at that time was like the Scrooge of DC if you were a Democrat.

Each juror also plays a trial participant: witnesses,  lawyers, Judge, court reporter. Brad himself. The trial scenes have many exchanges that took place during the actual trial. In fact I worry those are the best lines.

Writing this was very challenging. The first two sets of pages I gave to Guy were actually kind of rejected out of hand (in the most charming way you can imagine). He really forced a structure that has a forward flow. In the best moments of the reading in DC in November, I felt like the play was like a sparkling brook flowing over stones. (What do I even say to this? C. Jung).

And I got to write a lot about justice, about Lady Justice with her blindfold and her sword and her scales, I got to really think about the rule of law and why it matters. I happen to think that the adversarial process for getting to truth is a very good thing, and if we had more of it in our government, we would have a lot fewer problems.  I hope people are inspired by this play, because the point of the play is that in our own existing institutions - like our courts -- much good is actually possible. Justice is possible. But only if people are willing to listen and change their minds - which is both the heart of the jury deliberations and the heart of the Occupy movement.

I do not know what happens to this play after the reading, but the prospects are exciting. I hope I will be able to invite you to come see it sometime soon.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Charles Ramsey

Today was lost to autotune and Charles Ramsey. This doesn't - thank god - happen to me frequently. I lost a  day to Sarah Palin when she first came on the scene. I lost a day to the Murdoch hearings before the riots the summer of 11. There is a part of my brain that is so curious it overrides every other circuit and I guess I should just let it take over when it needs to but instead I try to whip it into shape by wheedling about my childcare and job responsibilities. To wit, I was intensely self-critical after I had seen the autotune 20 times or  so. I felt I should be working instead of listening times 21-30.

Charles Ramsey is one of the people who helped Amanda Berry try to escape from his Cleveland neighbor's house. She was one of three held in slavery there for a decade. He was interviewed by a local news guy, who cut off the interview when Charles explained that he knew something was wrong when "a pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms . . . something's wrong here." The tape of his 911 call after he successfully broke the door down with Berry and unnamed others has also been released. The operator asks him to identify the victim as white, black or Hispanic. When I left America the 911 choices were black and white. It is great that Hispanic is in there now. (Also the Salsa music reference) The operator asks Ramsey what the victim needs:

Dispatcher: Can you ask her if she needs an ambulance?
Ramsey: [TO BERRY] You need an ambulance or what? [TO DISPATCHER] She needs everything, she's in a panic bro, she's been kidnapped so you know put yourself in her shoes.

The last sentence I think is why I fell in love with Ramsey.  What perfect empathy. What effective communication.  Watching him is like watching an August Wilson play. With phrasing and delivery, he tells such a rich story.  I don't really care if he was a hero or not by rescuing Amanda Berry. I would like to think that Amanda Berry probably deserves some credit for her escape. He's a hero to me despite the rescue. His heroism is in his communication: effortlessly rich. In a few sentences, he tells me more about America than a thousand Huffington Post articles: McDonalds, the growing Hispanic influence in our culture, the entrenched racism despite a black president, the eerie American sexism (his comment that the kidnapper had big balls to pull this off, as if anyone with big balls would want to enslave women)

I was just posting my favorite of the many auto-tune mixes on Facebook when someone else in my stream posted a violently sanctimonious piece in Slate condemning affinity to Charles Ramsey as a sign of closet racism. Saying that being entertained by him, like being entertained by Antoine Dodson, is in itself racist.

As usual, Slate could not have missed the point more. The point is Ramsey's line, all his lines, tell us the refreshing and unvarnished truth about the prevalence of sexism and racism in American culture, the reality of a powerful Hispanic cultural presence: all the realities of Charles Ramsey, told from the heart, are realities I want to know about. It's information. I mean, I feel like things from the States have been indescribably grim for some time, with the drone attacks, and responsive terrorist attacks, and failure of gun control, and repeal of Wall Street reform, and repression of free expression, and money (as well as the party system) choking democracy.

But Charles Ramsey gives me hope. Because he probably displayed more intuitive intelligence and descriptive power than a lot of Ivy Leaguers. So when people like Slate are denigrating our admiration of him, I think what motivates them at a deep level is that scary but true fact that: Charles Ramsey is as smart as the white college kids over at Slate. Plus he has a moral compass. The middle class should meet some more Charles Ramseys.

When I was down at Occupy my mind was really blown. Here I was thinking that with a law degree, some years' experience in litigation, a decade of experience as general counsel of a company, mother of two, I really didn't have too much to learn from the people down there.  The first five people I had conversations with thought the whole movement would succeed or fail based on the placement of crystals. This tended to confirm my opinion going in.

 Of course, I was wrong.

You can listen and learn from people or not. When I listened, I learned . . . from everyone. Here's some news, America: Republicans and Democrats are not that different and you are not all that much smarter than Charles Ramsey.  From the casual description of the fundamental racism in the culture to the profound request for empathy-- "put yourself in her shoes"--there was a lot, and he said it well. And he said it as a free man unencumbered by politics or corporate interest, which is more than the reader can probably say.  It wasn't a marketing message, it wasn't massaged by the media (it was to be fair created by the 24-hour news cycle) but still. He said what he said. All is not lost. I don't mind that it is late and I just ordered a "Charles Ramsey Cleveland Hero" T-shirt online. I am grateful for the hope. The hope that people acquaint themselves with Charles Ramsey's reality.