Monday, December 03, 2018

Theatre: North Side Story

In The Heights, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, Concept by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Directed by May Adrales. Seattle Rep through December 30.

So there is such a thing a performance being too large for the hall that contains it. I've always thought of the venerable Bagley-Wright Theater as being a large venue with a lot of space on stage. Yet, for In The Heights, it is seriously too small, both on stage and as far as sound quality is concerned.

Let me deal with this bad news first before pushing on to say how good the cast is. The sound quality from the performance pitched the on-stage band against the miked-up actors, and the result was an unsatisfying tie. Often the words got lost in the upswelling music, and the audience was at times blasted by the resulting combined volume. It took much of the opening number for my ears to adjust and actually hear the words. The touring stage was a great design of multiple levels and exits, but it cramps the forward part of the stage, and I found myself marveling at the dancers not getting in each others' ways as much as their superior choreography.

And yes, the dancing is fantastic, the music is ecstatic, and the actors are all superior both in acting ability and the power of their voices. There isn't a weak singer in the lot (By way of comparison, you can give the role of the tailor in The Mikado to someone who does not have a huge amount of vocal range). This is an incredibly amazing cast from the leads to the ensemble who do their darnedest to sell the story.

And the story is, well, it is not the selling point. I can't give you a good summary without tipping my hand to spoilers, as you can see where everything is going from the get-go. It takes place over the 4th of July weekend in Washington Heights, a strong Hispanic community at the northern tip of Manhattan. Poor but proud, its people are second and third generation, both American and loyal to their family heritages. They've made something of themselves, and can make a bit more, but it may mean moving away from the Heights.

There is the bodega owner that wants to go back to his family's homeland. There is the student coming back from college. There is the father who has hopes for his daughter. There are the girls who work in the beauty shop. There is the neighborhood matriarch. Everybody gets their moment, everybody gets their song, everybody aims for a showstopper. There are revelations. There are fireworks. There is a power black-out. There is a winning lottery ticket. And by the end of it all, every character has their arc resolved in time for the finale.

The stakes in all this, however, are pretty low, and it is more of a slice of life with strong Latin flavor and a hip-hop beat. The threats are pretty mild, and when one of them seems about to rear its head, it diffused and lets all the air out. There are no real surprises. As I said, so much of what is good about this performance are the performers. Ryan Alvarado, Sophia Macias, David Kaverman, Alyssa Gomez, Stephanie Gomerez, Tony Chirolders, Karmine Alers and Yassmin Alers (yes, sisters), heck yes, even Henry Gainsa as the Piragua Guy engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Mr. Softee. All great.

I want to say that this is riding on the coat-tails of Lin-Manuel (Hamilton!) Miranda - they promote that angle heavily, and it was his first work. But the original show (pre-Ham) pulled down all manner of awards both on and off Broadway, has had some serious national tours (It was here in Seattle at the 5th Avenue in 2010 - probably a better venue), and will become a movie in 2020. There is something here that engages and delights, but it doesn't have that much foundation to it. This is one of those plays where I look at 4 Tony Awards (as opposed to a single award for the clearly superior Come From Away), and wonder what I am missing about the tastes of Modern American Theatre.

More later,

Friday, November 30, 2018

Daisey History Six: Renters

Mr. Daisey has moved on to his next gig, but still, we persist.

Daisey's sixth entry into his  People's History talks about the imbalance between those with power and those without. He talks a great deal about his personal experiences renting in Brooklyn, but the historical entry come from the Anti-Rent War.

What, you've never heard of it? The ANTI-RENT WAR. 1830's? New York State? No?

Hey, it got a historical marker and everything!
Yeah, this falls in the hole between 1812 and 1860, but it is extremely instructive as to how change gets made from below, as opposed to being granted from above.

Not-so-short version: The Hudson River Valley ran for a couple centuries on a feudal-style manor system run by patroons, who were the major land-holders. The inhabitants were effectively tenant farmers, who did not have control over the land they farmed. The patroons held a lot of the power, including control of the local courts and law enforcement, getting a big chunk when leases were sold, and a serious taste of the gross productivity.

In 1839, the tenant farmers revolted and refused to pay. The ruling patroons sent in tax collectors - they were tarred, feathered, and run off. They sent in a posse of 500 men. THEY were surrounded and run off. An agent of the patroons was killed. Finally the State itself declared it was an insurrection, sent in the military, and made arrests. Eighty-four anti-renters were arrested, thirteen was convicted, two were condemned to the gallows.

But the anti-renters transformed into a political force in NY State, a faction that contributed to vote out the then-current governor for a more progressive one. The convicted anti-renters were pardoned, and the feudal patroon system itself was disassembled in the New York Constitution of 1846. So, ultimately, the anti-renters won. Long fight, but they won.

It is an interesting story, and generally forgotten.

And what's interesting is that there as SO MANY stories like this that are sidelined, sidebarred, forgotten. Whiskey Rebellion. Shay's Rebellion. Pullman Strike. Haymarket. Occupy. They get moved off to the side, treated as exceptions to the rule as opposed to how things really move forward around here. Particularly if they have long-term results as those involved get a place at the table.

Wikipedia, interestingly enough, soft-pedals the Anti-Rent War in its entry. They blame the previous patroon for the uprising, who was too easy on the tenants, so that his heirs roused their anger by adhering to the established feudal laws. It ignores the Panic of 1837, which put the economic pressure on the patroons to demand their money and on the inability of the tenants to pay. It mentions but does not explain the "Calico Indians" (not Native Americans, but rather white dudes dressed up as false Indians, much like the Boston Tea Party). There is a mention how the soon-to-be-ex governor tied to get disguises outlawed, echoing the modern complaints again the Black Block protesters. Oh, and two of the anti-rent ringleaders would go on to help found the Republican Party. Howboutthat?

Yet this is a pattern we see again and again - Rebellion, Violence, Repercussions. Accommodations, Change. It doesn't always go through the full cycle, and does not always represent forward progress. But it is a theme that is showing up again and again in these discussions. And perhaps the real narrative that we're looking at in our history.

More later,

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Furthermore: Messing with Texas

What most of us know about the Texas Revolution.

I'm going to be horribly behind on this, since Mike Daisey's A People's History wraps up this past weekend, and I am just five entries into the tapes. But, they have sparked a lot of thought on my part about our history and how it is told. And I end up with multiple truths. Here's an example.

From the history that Mike and I (back in PA) were taught, here's the story of Texas:

American settlers in Texas rebelled against an oppressive Mexican government, with a big fight at the Alamo. They formed their own nation, and nine years later joined the US.

That is true. This is what Mr. Daisey said on the tape:

Americans settled in Texas. Provocateurs from the US government among those settlers agitated for independence, with the support of the US. After they rebelled against the government in Mexico City, the US propped them up, and eventually brought them into the Union. When they entered the Union, the US Army occupied Texas and grabbed a huge amount of additional land, and formented the Mexican-American War.

This is also true, and has incredible echoes with the current situation in the Ukraine. But here's another version:

American settlers moved into Texas with their slaves. The Mexican government was cool with it, but a change in government both reduced the powers of the states of Mexico and banned slavery. Texas and other Mexican states rebelled. Texas gained its independence, but was not recognized by Mexico. When the US admitted Texas into the Union, the US grabbbed a huge amount of additional land. They did not take over Mexico itself in part because they didn't want a huge, Catholic, non-English-speaking, non-slave-holding population threatening their control.

This is also true. I can also give you a bit more including the Republic of the Rio Grande, a Mexican state just south of Texas that ALSO declared its independence but did not get anywhere with it. The history of Mexico is just one more of those empty spots in our history - they show up as opponents (because all wars must have one), but the US influence and meddling gets glossed over (Flash Fact: The word "filibuster" was once applied to American adventurers who were mucking about in Central America, toppling and setting up their own governments - it soon afterwards was applied to congresspeople taking the process of government hostage by refusing to cede the floor.).

But the point is (and I have one) that there is so much history, that the narrative that we choose gets pulled out of bits and pieces that we ourselves select. It is the editor and the storyteller that chooses which parts get left on the cutting room floor. So historical fact provides the raw material, from which we choose our stories. And how our stories get chosen is as important as the stories themselves.

More later,

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Daisey History Five: Holes in History

Yeah, I'm still playing with the titles of this series, but never mind that. One thing that Mike Daisey reminds us of regularly in his A People's History (based on the Howard Zinn book of the similar name) is that he is not telling us anything that we don't already know. We know a lot of what he's telling us at a basic, down-in-your-bones level, but we don't bring it up, because its kinda dark and depressing and true. As a result, our history doesn't make a lot of sense, because we have a lot of holes in it.

We've hit some already. In his own narrative, Daisey hits Columbus, then bounces over to early English colonies (because, you know, the Spanish never had any claims on the eventual United States), then we blink over to the Revolution, then everything is rosy until we hit the Civil War. You can't talk about everything, and that's part of Daisey's point - it is all in the editing, and important swathes end up on the cutting room floor.

For my own upbringing, we didn't hit the Civil War to the level of detail his classes did, but we DID spend a lot of time on the exploration of America. Maybe it was the whole Space Program narrative of my youth, but we got deeply into the voyages of exploration for Cabot, DeSoto, LaSalle, Deleon, Cartier, and everybody else.  If you had a bunch of boats and went wandering through the American Heartland, you got a name-check in my history books. Sort of one big game of Sid Meiers Civilization at the point when you get caravels and can sudden roll out on the rest of the world. Now, my history books, like Daisey's, were a little emptier about talking about the people that these explorers met, lumping them all into "Indians" as opposed to nations and peoples and tribes. That's part of the erasure thing we were talking about earlier.

And yes, the period from the War of 1812 and the Civil War was always treated as "The run-up to the Civil War", since that is the big climax of the show up to then. But for those living though it, this period was "How the hell do we keep this together?"

If I look at the US in 1814 or so, I would say that the South is running things, and Virginia is running the South. Almost all the Presidents were Virginian. Most of the decisions were Virginian. The capital of the country, named after a Virginian, was built NEXT to Virginia, carving out part of MARYLAND for Virginia's benefit*. Things are so crappy for New England that during the War of 1812 there was talk of THEM seceding and making a separate peace with England.

So a lot of the history of that period boils down to "How Are We Going to Make Virginia Happy?" All the compromises, all the swapping of slave and free states, all of it, is how to preserve the southern slavery hegemony while keeping the non-slave-holders on board. Yet, by 1860, I have a powerful North, one that (obviously) would win a war against an agrarian South.

So how the heck did THAT happen?

Part of it may be raw geography. There was an article tracking the conservative south through its geological makeup - good for cotton, which meant it was a fertile land for big plantations, which brought in a lot of slaves, which created an entire African-American culture in the south, which had to be controlled by the slave-holders and former slave-holders, which got us to Jim Crow and then the Civil Rights Movement which got us to the current state of gerrymandering and voter suppression. It is a good story.

The North, however, benefited from the Industrial Revolution and the South did not. Why? The South had money. power and long-standing ties with Britain and the rest of Europe. Why are they shipping bulk cotton to Europe (and New England) as opposed to developing an industrial base themselves? They had the manpower in the slave population, and could utilize that base. They could have upgraded,

I have some theories. One of them involves the Fall Line. This is something I learned about in Social Studies in grade school. The South had the coast, then the Piedmont, then the Appalachians. The Fall Line is how far you can go upstream before falls or rapids stop further progress. So you can ship stuff down easily from there. Plus falls are great places to put mills that run off water because of the natural drop. As you go further north, that line gets closer to the coast, so the mills are practically on the coast itself, nearer the ports. So it may make sense to send cotton from you plantation to New England or Europe as opposed to building mills. Eventually, with electrification, the production of finished textiles moved into the south itself (see the movie Norma Rae), but by the Civil War, the south sent most of its raw material elsewhere.

I have yet to see a good history that explains the development of the industrial north as anything else than natural evolution.It is another type of erasure, another hole in history, but one that serves the established narrative by making it seem inevitable.

More later,

* UPDATE: That's only partially true, a reader noted. Virginia contributed a chunk of land across the river. However, most of the government buildings were on the Maryland side, so the Virginia side was not as developed. As it started looking that DC would ban the slave trade (a big business in nearby Alexandria, at the tip of the then-DC), Virginia agitated to get the land back. So while Virginia DID kick in for the site of DC, the government made them happy by giving it back. So the spirit of the comment stands, but not the facts as presented.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Meanwhile: A Century Ago

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

- John McCrae, "In Flanders Field", 1915

More later

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Daisey Lecture Four: Buried Histories

Daisey's fourth lecture doesn't progress entirely linearly with the others, but rather deals with the large context of erasure. Erasure from history in their case of women, and erasure from the land itself in the case of its original inhabitants. And being neither female or of native american heritage, I really don't really have much to add to their experiences except a laconic "Aye-yup."

But I do have a few things to say about my own brushing up with how I know what I know. What I was told.That may have some bearing.

My grade school experience matches tightly with Daisey's - a school text that tended to gloss over the more unpleasant issues. The one I remember had a Conestoga wagon on the top half of the cover, and a steam engine on the bottom. Sort of showing progress in that process. But it was a bunch of initial stories that prepared me for learning other stories, sort of how you learn that atoms are little solar systems and then discover quantum mechanics and electron shells later on.

And my high school experience had a lot of readings, usually by established historials. A lot of Hofstader and Kissinger, and things like the J-curve (Note - I hate the dreaded Davies' J-Curve, but that's a story for another day).

But in Junior High something different occurred. I discovered primary sources. As opposed to going to some historian looking back and pre-chewing my thoughts, I found I could go (to a library, in those pre-Internet days) and get input from people that were around at the time. That was cool. That made history exciting in an Egyptian Archaeologist sort of way (This was before Indiana Jones).

Great Art is not necessarily Great History
Also cool was Mr. Mentecki, who was a history teacher, and who first embodied the idea that people, including the people giving you your history, lied. He would do this by lying. Continually. How his ancestor was with Washington atop Mt. Washington, and almost got it named Mt. Mentecki. How he was a race car driver. How he sang with the Four Seasons (his wife affirms that this last one was the truth - he was in the audience and drunk at the time). And someone would call him on his lies and he would congratulate the student and give them a free period. And the other students would not understand.

He would also do things like read a passage of history and ask about what the writer really wanted. Give different viewpoints of the Boston Massacre. Or show a picture of Washington Crossing the Delaware and pointing out everything that was innaccurate about it.* Decades before Lies My Teacher Told Me, I had a teacher telling me about lying.

I think this has left me open to new ideas, and even when a new interpretation of events shows up, another story, I am poking around the edges, looking for ulterior motives.

But anyway, Women in History. There aren't any. Well, that's not true. They had to be there - subordinate, helpmates, mothers, property. When the question came up of beating your wife in law, it was more of a case of when and where it was proper to beat your wife as opposed to the if the act itself was inhuman. But in the "official" history (as opposed to "official history"), there are not a lot of women in the narrative that concerns itself about great men.

Those that show up are mythologized - Betsy Ross, Pocahontas, Molly Pitcher, all reduced to their great moment (creating a flag, sparing John Smith, fighting the British) that pushes them into the same realm as Paul Bunyan and Captain Stormalong. And we have a couple who are known for being in proximity of great men - Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison, and, most recently, Sally Hemmings. Nope. Not a good look for us.

But there is a moment for women in colonial history that we hit and then forget about. It popped up every year in school, along with set theory and clock arithmetic. The Salem Witch Trials.

The Salem Witch Trials are a good, safe story. It involves women (as victims, but still....) It can be laid at the feet of other women (even more useful) and against a religious group that most people think of as extinct (Puritans- The Congregationalists are a descendant, but you don't think of them, much, either (sorry, guys)). It shows that occasionally we all go a little crazy and kill people for stupid reasons. It shows us injustice happens, but it happens such a long time ago it doesn't have any real affect on today.

So, yeah. Salem Witch Trials. Women in history!

Native Americans, we have a lot more of in our books. Almost always as military opponents. Blackhawk. Pontiac, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Geronimo. A moment's reflection gets us to some who didn't die directly of European bullets - Tecumseh, Seattle, and, of course, Guyasuta, but who merely faded away. They were always the ones being swept away across the plains by the encroaching Europeans, making way for progress. Sacrifices must be made. They were them, and we remember them because they fought.

Zinn's A People's History of the United States was not my first "woke" text. That would have been Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, which hit my life at about/slightly after Mr. Mentecki. Here was, as Daisey notes, the story we always knew but never really delved into. Everyone knew of Little Bighorn - Custer is seeped deeply into out bones, but not so much Sand Creek. This was one of those books that made me face the idea that, though the victors, we the citizens of the US were not the good guys (of course, in the same period - Viet Nam, which has other resonances).

History is vast, and filled with stories. Whose stories get told reveals a lot about both the storytellers and their world. The vanishing of women and Native Americans are only one component of editing our pasts to justify our actions in the present.

More later,

* Flag wrong, river too wide, real crossing happened in the middle of the night, and that's before you get to the questions of whether an icy Delaware would have been frozen solid and is that really James Monroe in the boat with Washington? But we are talking about something painted 80 years after the event.

Friday, November 09, 2018

The Political Desk - End and Begin

Because of the nature of Washington's voting (mail-in ballots, stuff trickling in for a while), I usually wait a couple days before posting the results. At least one contest will still be hanging fire by the time I finally update this. So how did it go?

Most of these are in the +5% differential on the initial ballot drop, which in terms we're looking at very much a vox populi. Boldface is for those of you keeping score about my recommendations at home.

Initiative Measure No. 1631 - The Carbon Fee  - No
Initiative Measure No. 1634 - Prevent Soda Taxes -  Yes
Initiative Measure No. 1639 - Firearm Safety - Yes
Initiative Measure No. 940  - Training and Oversight for Police - Yes

Advisory Vote No. 19, Engrossed second Substitute Senate Bill 6269 - Repealed (Not that it matters)

United States Senator - Maria Cantwell.

United States Representative Congressional District No. 9 - Adam Smith.

State Supreme Court Justice Position No. 8 - Steve Gonzalez.

And furthermore:

United States Representative Congressional District No. 8 - Kim Schrier.

State Legislative District No. 47. State Senate -  Mona Das.  This is the one that is really too close to call. Incumbent Joe Fain was marginally up on the first drop of ballots, the lead shrank to 90 votes. Ms. Das is now up by 200 votes, and it may shift again. Meanwhile, the day AFTER election, the State Senate decided that, yeah, maybe we should check out this rape accusation thing after all. Regardless of political affiliation, this should steam your clams. If Mr. Fain was responsible, voters should have been warned. If innocent, he should not have had to face the voters under such a cloud. I will update if the results change.

State Legislative District No.  47 Position No. 1 - V Debra Entenman.

And Lastly, Stare Legislative District No. 47, Position No. 2 -  Pat Sullivan.

Well, now that the election is over, we can all relax and get back to our lives, right? Hang on, slow your roll, podner. We're just getting started.

Yeah, you may have put the people into positions that you agree with, or showed your direction in inititatives, but now comes the tough part. You wanted a particular candidate for office because of their stand on health care, or corruption, or corporate favors? Let them know about it.

The quote attributed to FDR is: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it." Even if we agree with everything a candidate believe in (and we don't all agree about everything), we need to keep up the pressure. Because those who DON'T believe will keep up the pressure as well.

More later,