August 29, 2019

And it’s time for another long post. It’s been a few weeks since the last one. I haven’t been up to doing a lot of writing as all energies were directed at staying current at work during the week and making Choir Boy the best that it could be evenings and weekends. That’s going to change this long weekend which is being reserved for a lot of writing. I need to knock out the first draft of the 2019 Politically Incorrect Cabaret: Demo-lution, finish up another chapter on the book I’m writing, and write a new column and get poor MNM out of her troubles in Mittel-Europa. I’ve got a three day weekend in which to do it where I have nothing scheduled. I had thought about going to NOLA for Southern Decadence but that was such a Tommy and Andy thing to do, that I decided the time was not yet quite ripe to head out into that melee on my own.

Choir Boy had a very successful run. I can never properly gauge my own performances on stage to figure out whether I’m any good or not but I got plenty of feedback from people whose opinions I trust that not only was I decent in the role, but that the whole production was exceptional. I think that can be laid at the feet of Carlton Bell who founded Birmingham Black Repertory Company and directed the show. As a young man of color and non-binary identity, he was able to bring an enormous amount of lived experience to that script and help each of us as actors find the intricacies in the subtext to really make the show come alive with lots of specific moments. That together with Aija Penix‘s brilliant a cappella arrangements of the music and Rachel Simonne‘s step choreography (which I fortunately did not have to participate in) made for a full theatrical experience for the audience. One of the administrators I work with at the VA, an African American woman, who isn’t a theater goer, came and told me today how she and her daughter were blown away by how good the show was and how well it spoke to the POC in the audience. She also found my introductory scene (one of the most embarrassing character introductions I’ve ever had to play) hysterically funny. I was happy about that as I was so afraid it might come across as purely offensive. For those who haven’t seen the show, I was playing the older white teacher who comes out of retirement to help push the boys at an African American boys school to higher levels of achievement. He comes in and immediately makes a couple of unintentionally racist comments as he tries to break the ice. He does redeem himself ultimately, but it’s hardly a good first impression. I did have a couple of good scenes later in the show, including one where I had to make a transition from joy and spazz dancing to explosive righteous anger and sadness in about two minutes.

Spending a lot of time under pressure with an African American cast and production staff was an intense, but enjoyable experience that helped me better understand myself. I am not of the Deep South. I am of the West Coast and, as a white person, I didn’t pick up a lot of the baggage that white southerners seem to have as I don’t come from that cultural milieu. I think it’s helped me see some of the fault lines in Alabama society within both the Black and the White communities a little more clearly. I don’t claim to be perfect or the most woke of individuals but I think I do a pretty good job at connecting one to one through common humanity. It’s one of the things that makes me good at that other job that occupies my weekdays. I hope that everyone involved in Choir Boy liked me and the job I did well enough to welcome me back into the African American theater community for future projects that require old white guys.

The 2019-20 theater season is promising to be a busy one. The confirmed bookings coming up include my usual turn as the Ansager for Politically Incorrect. In December, I’m playing Dearth in Dear Brutus for Belltower Players. In January, I’m Herr Schultz in Cabaret at the Virginia Samford Theater. I’ve got three more things taking shape after that but I won’t jinx them by naming them before plans are final. This means I won’t get around for my big 2020 trip until late summer/early fall of 2020. I’m going to get together in a few weeks with my travel agent to start batting around ideas. Things that are on my mind include India, China, Peru/Galapagos, Middle East/Egypt and South Africa. I’m still looking for a potential travel buddy if anyone might be interested in talking further.

I got together this evening with Ellise and Diane, the other two members of the troika behind Politically Incorrect Cabaret. We’ve been doing this for more than fifteen years now. The first show was in April of 2004 at the old Moonlight Cafe in Vestavia. LaDonna Smith was running the Birmingham Improv Festival at the time and had asked Diane to create an Improv cabaret for the final night at the venue. Ellise and I had done a couple of church things together where I played the cabaret emcee and she played a variation on Marlene Dietrich and we had met Diane a year previously when we had all been involved with a production of Lysistrata as an anti-war protest. Tommy was also in that Lysistrata as one of the soldiers and I will never forget him walking up the aisle (we did it in the old UU church) with a large balloon phallus strapped to his waist. Diane had the idea of using the Berlin cabaret of the between the wars as the model. I refined my emcee character into the traditional Ansager of the Berlin Cabaret and Ellise and I wrote some sketches and parodies. We were a hit and, before we knew it, we kept going and going and going with a new show every few years.

It’s been hard to come up with a new show in the era of Trump. We actually had an idea and had a show written last year, but Tommy became ill just before we were going to start rehearsing it so it never happened. We’ve got a new concept for this year that we think will work. The thing is we have to not make it about Trump. He’s satire proof. Nothing we can write will be as crazy as reality a month later. We also don’t want to draw the too easy parallels to the rise of Hitler and make the mistakes the Berlin cabaret of the 30s made when dealing with the Nazis. They treated them as buffoons and made the audience laugh and feel good about themselves. We think we need to do something a bit different and make the audience uncomfortable and willing to do something about the present to create a different future.

It’s odd. You meet someone, you work with them on a project, you go your separate ways, and then you collaborate on something that takes on a life of its own and grows into something you never expected and in turn shapes you and your life. When I first played the Emcee for a church thing, it was less than a week after I first met Tommy and I had no idea he was going to be anything in my life other than a nice date. When we did Lysistrata together a few months later, we were dating occasionally, but hadn’t yet settled into being a couple. When we did the first PIC a year after that, we were an entrenched unit, living together, and PIC launched us into the world of Birmingham theater that would shape both of our lives during all of our time together. The show Cabaret also has a weird trajectory in my life. I was too young to have seen the original production or the movie in its original release (I was ten when it came out). I saw the film for the first time in high school and studied the show in college in my musical theater class. My sophomore year of college, Cabaret was the big spring musical. Both Craig Mollerstuen, my roommate and I worked stage crew on it. The show wasn’t the best due to some very odd directorial choices but it did have one amazing moment at the end of the first act. As the cast began to sing Tomorrow Belongs To Me, the stage crew dressed as Nazis appeared through all the wings and pass throughs and the ushers, also dressed as Nazis (and borrowed from the university chorus) marched down the aisles in the house joining in. Frisson. The show opened with a lit marquee sign spelling CABARET which was supposed to light up one letter at a time. Opening night Craig, who was up on the light bridge, was supposed to throw the switches to light the letters up in order. Something happened in the blackout and he tripped over a cord and the B and the A came on at the wrong time. For years we referred to the night that he hung a large BA over Memorial Auditorium, We were sophomores. We didn’t know any better. It may not have been the best production, but it was the show that helped introduce us to Vickie Rozell and helped us understand what made good theater and what made it both succeed and fail.

I’ve seen many productions of Cabaret since then – college, community, and professional. The Studio 54 staging was the first show that Tommy and I saw together in New York – the night we both got smashed on Southern Comfort Manhattans and neither of us could quite remember how we got back to the hotel. In 2007, when CenterStage did Cabaret, I auditioned for the Emcee.Melissa Bailey was smart enough not to cast me and to rather give the role to Chris Sams who was brilliant in the part. I was given Herr Schultz instead, a part I felt I was much too young for at 45 but it was still a great role and I enjoyed my time on the show. Now, nearly thirteen years later, I’m about to revisit that same role on the same stage and once again Chris is playing the Emcee. I’m definitely old enough this time and I’m going to be interested in what my life experiences over the last few years will allow me to bring to the role. Is time standing still? Is it moving in circles? I wonder if Hal Prince and Kander and Ebb knew when they were creating the piece in the mid 60s that it was going to serve as a leitmotif to a geriatrician in the deep south of the 21st century. The threads are many, the pattern complex, and the tapestry can only be viewed in hindsight.

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