I Love Live Theatre Because…

1) I love live theatre because of playwright’s like August Wilson. (Photo right) His death this week came so soon after his cancer was discovered just this summer.

When “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” premiered two decades ago, Frank Rich NYT’s theatre critic (at the time) announced the arrival of a major talent, fully matured. Wilson brought us insight and nuance into issues through the culture he knew so well and the rest of us understood very little of. “Frank Rich wrote that in “Ma Rainey,” Mr. Wilson ‘sends the entire history of black America crashing down upon our heads¢â‚¬¦This play is a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims and it floats on the same authentic artistry as the blues music it celebrates.” Wilson did this through the ” vivid voices to people on the frayed margins of life: cabdrivers and maids, garbagemen and side men and petty criminals” and with “dialogue that married the complexity of jazz to the emotional power of the blues.”

He wasn’t afraid of the religious roots of the back experience, “For Mr. Wilson, it was imperative for black Americans to draw upon the moral and spiritual nobility of their ancestors’ struggles to inspire their own ongoing fight against the legacies of white racism. “In an article about his cycle for The Times in 2000, Mr. Wilson wrote, “I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavor and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.”

In short, he was an educator, ironic given he dropped out of school at 15 years of age after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon. After all no “nigger” could produce such a brilliant, thoughtful piece of work at such a young age. Fortunately in Wilson’s case, young genius was not deterred by bigotry, nor did he allow that experience or many others like it to harden his heart, which contunued to beat with warmth and grace.

The mark of a great teacher is their love of learning, and at 15 Wilson “continued his education on his own, spending his days at the local library absorbing books by the dozen. Mr. Wilson acquired an equally valuable education outside the library walls, hanging out and listening to the Hill District denizens pass the time on stoops, in coffee shops and at Pat’s Place, a local cigar store. Eventually the voices he absorbed while hanging loose with retirees and sharpies in his 20’s would re-emerge in his plays, sometimes with little artistic tampering.”

“Ron Sims, King County executive and theatergoer, recalled an offstage encounter with Mr. Wilson, when he brought a group of Rainier Valley teens to the Rep to see his Civil Rights-era play “Two Trains Running.” “August gave a little talk before the show about how he dropped out of school, regretted it and spent hours in the library educating himself,” Sims said. “He talked about developing your intellect, being open to the world and life through books. It was one of the most brilliant speeches I’ve ever heard on that subject, and it really moved those kids.”

It is difficult to measure the loss of August Wilson for Seattle, his adopted hometown, and the world, for we have lost a storyteller who lacked bitterness and pretense, but spoke the truth in love. Poet Robert Grave’s poem claims “There is one story and one story only” and Wilson believed his favorite was short and capsulized all his other stories. “I once wrote a short story called ‘The Best Blues Singer in the World’ and it went like this: ‘The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.’ End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I’ve been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story. I’m not sure what it means, other than life is hard.”

2) Story is another reason I love live theatre and one of my most memorable is playing now at Arts West in West Seattle. I first saw “Blood Brothers” in London and our entire family experienced the gut-wrenching events hurtling towards the arresting conclusion. Arts West Director Christopher Zinovitch describes this as a play that refused to die. It saved the Liverpool playhouse from closing in 1982 then flopped in the West End of London in 1983 only to reemerge at the Phoenix Theatre in London in 1988 where it still plays to sold out houses. It is a well told story of class, family, love and loss and mixes comedy and tragedy brilliantly, through richly drawn characters some of them memorably endearing.

Story alone can’t carry a play, and “Blood Brothers” is an ambitious undertaking for any theatre ensemble. To be honest I was a little wary of seeing “Blood Brothers” again because our London experience combined hearing the story for the first time with all it’s surprising twists and turns WITH a world-class drama troupe. Last night my fears were relieved when I was again caught in the engaging dynamics of story and passionate performance. Two central roles deserve special note, both because of their difficulty and the captivating embodiment in this production.

Drew Brun IS Mickey, a character we first meet at seven years of age. I cannot explain how Brun inhabited the emotional, mental and PHYSICAL space of a seven-year-old so convincingly, but I for one enjoyed him so much as a child, I did not want him to grow up! Having captured the innocence of youth, Brun proved his artistic competence when he morphed into the embittered laid-off Mickey near the play’s end.

The story is woven together by a narrator ably played by John Bartley, but Mrs. Johnstone is the cohesive heart and soul of the story and “Blood Brothers” relies on her to draw you in and keep you in throughout . Heather Hawkins gave a stand-out performance, offering an alluring mix of fiery passion, depth of emotion, youthful hopefulness and aging sorrow demanded by the role, a feast only the best can provide; Hawkins delivered. A good play combines transcendence, a great story and good acting all around, and this ensemble gave theatregoers that gift last night in West Seattle.

3) I love live theatre because of Taproot. Seattle is blessed with extraordinary talent, a magnificent cluster of theatres worth supporting, but Taproot has stolen our hearts and obviously intends to keep them by consistently delivering an enchanting mix of plays, quality of performance and a warmth of welcome that makes it feel like home.

I must confess I am in our family doghouse right now, because I missed the opening night of “Last Train to Nibroc” with the sweet, winsome magnetic duo of Timothy Horner and Charity Parenzini. I was on a writing retreat in the mountains away from phones, people (and live theatre), when I went into town to check my email was chided by my wife for missing such an amazing evening of theatre. “Dick when you see this (AND YOU WILL SEE THIS) you will laugh, and you will cry. Director Karen Lund says the story is “simple yet profound, funny yet heartbreaking, romantic yet cruel. It offers hope in a time of war and love in the face of our greatest fear”–and it’s true. She also says they are “planning to sweep you away into story”–and they do.” Heidi, our actress daughter, finds Tim Horner so entertainingly watchable (I confess, I do too!) she was actually trying to TiVo a late-night infomercial he appears in.

One should never take for granted theatres like Taproot or plays like “Last Train to Nibroc” and “Blood Brothers,” or performers like Horner, Parenzini, Hawkins and Brun or playwrights like August Wilson. They are alive and live (In the case of Wilson he lives on in his plays), offering us personalized never-to-be-repeated human experiences in a dehumanizing world.

Of August Wilson playwright Tony Kushner said, “He was a giant figure in American theater.” “Heroic is not a word one uses often without embarrassment to describe a writer or playwright, but the diligence and ferocity of effort behind the creation of his body of work is really an epic story. “The playwright’s voice in American culture is perceived as having been usurped by television and film, but he reasserted the power of drama to describe large social forces, to explore the meaning of an entire people’s experience in American history. For all the magic in his plays, he was writing in the grand tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, the politically engaged, direct, social realist drama. He was reclaiming ground for the theater that most people thought had been abandoned.”

Please—turn off the TV, get outdoors, get outside your own world and go to a live theatre and let them love you with their stories, art and craft.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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