November 8, 2021

The cast of Encore Theater’s Skeleton Crew

The weekend was busy and the work week promises to be busier still. I thought that the change in time might fix my sense of chronic fatigue, but alas, that has not come to pass. I’m still feeling very drawn out. I have a new understanding of Bilbo Baggins’ line about feeling spread too thin like not enough butter on the toast in The Fellowship of the Ring. I better check my jewelry to see if any of them has a previously unknown power. I don’t wear a lot of jewelry. Cuff links with dressing up, the occasional ring. I took my wedding ring off a few months after Tommy died and put it away in the box in which I keep my other pieces. I look at it occasionally and remember but I don’t want to look at it all day every day as I did in the past. You keep moving on.

The night after seeing The Glass Menagerie, I went out to Encore Theater, the African American theater company run by my friend Marc Raby to see a production of Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew (shortly coming to Broadway in a production starring Phylicia Rashad). Like The Glass Menagerie, it’s an intimate four person drama served best by a small house connecting audience and actors but they could not be more different stylistically or in subject matter. Skeleton Crew is an unflinching look at four African American Detroit autoworkers at a manufacturing plant threatened by the economic downturn of 2008. I enjoyed it very much and thought that all four of the performers were exceptional in their roles. I hope more of the theater community will check out the Encore and its productions. Everything I’ve seen there has been top notch in terms of the performances and I’ve learned a great deal by turning up there regularly. If Marc ever needs an old white guy for something he’s mounting, he’ll know who he can ask…

It continued to be a theatrical weekend with my having to get up early Saturday morning and head out into the hinterlands to be a judge for the Alabama high school theater competition, known as Trumbauer (after a Walter Trumbauer whom I assume did something at some point to get the whole thing off the ground). This year, my category was musical theater duets – both dramatic and comedic. Some very good and some not so. They’re mainly 14-17 year old kids so one always gives them an A for effort and looks for constructive ways for them to improve. I’ve done this every year I can for a decade or so and I always enjoy it. And I’ve seen some of the better ones eventually join the cadre of performers in the greater Birmingham area, sharing their talents beyond school audiences. We have a very talented theater community around here. We have folk with extensive professional credits that have ended up in Birmingham for family or other personal reasons that still want to perform on some level. We have theater kids that have gone on to major careers in New York and elsewhere. Local folk I’ve worked with are currently playing the title role in Dear Even Hansen, Simba in the Lion King and are understudying Sutton Foster in the new production of The Music Man.

The next major theatrical moment of the weekend was trooping down to the Virginia Samford Theater for a callback for Larry in Sondheim’s Company. I don’t expect to get it for various reasons but being considered competitive for a role in a Sondheim show isa huge ego boost. One of my friends in New York was a member of the original cast as one of the vocal minority so I asked her to send me some long distance good mojo. I also shared that the sentence ‘I have been called back for the role of Larry in Company’ is not one I would ever expect to write. I am acutely aware of my limitations as a musician, singer, and performer in general. If I am cast, I will work like hell to rise to the demands of the piece, the character, and the production but it’s very much work for certain roles where I feel like I’m outside of my comfort zone. But I figure it’s good for me to stretch and maybe bite off a bit more than I can chew.

On stage at my CAT reading

Lastly, I spent ninety minutes on stage as myself doing a reading from the book and interview regarding it’s creation as a benefit for Central Alabama Theater. I generally don’t get stage fright. As long as I feel like I’m adequately rehearsed and prepared, I just go out there and do my thing. That was not true this time. I was very nervous about getting up there with no character and no one else’s words to hide behind. I’m told the whole thing went well but to me it was a bit of a blur. Several people have suggested that I put my three lives – doctor/performer/author – together and adapt The Accidental Plague Diaries into a one man monologue performance piece a la Spalding Gray. I’d be willing to do it, but it’s going to take someone much more savvy than I to figure out how to take those words and use them to create ninety minutes or so of something that has true theatrical energy and audience engagement. If you think you are that genius, give me a call. We’ll talk.

I’ve written five paragraphs and haven’t said much about Covid. It’s receding locally into the background. I am under no illusions that it’s going to stay there. This virus is hardy and sneaky and rapidly mutates so there’s still more to come. With international travel picking back up, variants will have lots of opportunities to jump borders and into new populations with relative ease. I wish I could predict what’s coming next, but I can’t. There are a lot of trends that are happening rapidly, all of which could significantly affect the next stage of the pandemic. These include the vaccination of children. Children 11 and under are one of the last great pools of unvaccinated individuals and, as the vaccine rolls out to them over the next few weeks, that may rapidly change how transmission chains work. We’re just about to enter the holiday season with the annual travel and gatherings of family and friends. With last year having been a bust, there may be redoubled efforts to get people together this year, especially in families that have been vaccinated. They’re unlikely to make each other sick but there’s always that chance of spread of subclinical disease which may then be carried to an unvaccinated population elsewhere. The weather is changing driving people indoors. A lot of social activity was redirected outside over the spring and summer as people recognized it was much safer but that trend may not last with colder weather. Numbers of cases are going up again in Northern Europe. The change in weather is thought to be one of the reasons why. Then there’s corporate America and policies tying vaccine status to employability which continue to spread. Trends so far suggest that only a small minority are willing to put their livelihood on the line to avoid the vaccine. Data continues to pour in on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. The major risk factor currently in the US for being unvaccinated is political party affiliation. A recent analysis shows that those in predominantly red counties are three times as likely to die as those in predominantly blue counties. When you drill down on the data, that differential is almost all due to vaccine hesitancy among Republicans.

The US death toll topped 750,000 this week. It was roughly 375,000 at New Years so the 2021 death toll is now the same as the 2020 and we still have two months to go. This shouldn’t have happened as we’ve had a safe and effective vaccine all of 2021 – it wasn’t widely available early in the year but as of April or May it’s been pretty much everywhere. The social rules of belonging to one of two competing Americas, red or blue, has prevented its being used effectively. Today, a sitting US senator attacked Big Bird from Sesame Street for spreading propaganda for some mild statements regarding getting the vaccine. Big Bird has been a tool of American public health in explaining and demystifying vaccines for children since 1972 and has flown under the radar (so to speak) for nearly fifty years. Why the faux outrage now? Especially coming from a senator who has himself been vaccinated? Historians of the future, trying to parse the current times a century or two in the future are going to be very puzzled about all of this. The portion of the population that rejects education, expertise, science, health, and other sundry items in an attempt to define itself by being the antithesis of the other side is going to have a very difficult time creating policies allowing the US to function in the modern world next time they come to power. And they will come to power again – it’s the way the US political system works. It’s winner take all structure pretty much foreordains a two party system with power see sawing between the two at fairly regular intervals. If we want something different, we’re going to have to elect a different sort of congress. I don’t think the monied interests who pay for campaigns are going to be very interested in that.

This week, outside of the usual work stuff, I have two depositions to prepare for my medicolegal side gig. I’d rather not, but deadlines and court dates approach. More money to donate to help get the local arts community back on its feet following pandemic catastrophes. But I might just keep a little for myself for a new trip. Signing off for the night. You all know the drill. Wash your hands, wear your mask indoors unless everyone’s vaccinated, don’t go out if you’re sick with anything, and support your local arts community.

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