Last week on News and Notes, we talked a bit about Hurricane Harvey flooding out Houston's theater district. We also talked a lot about a large landowner being outed as an ignorant, racist douchebag, and as much as I would like to tie those two threads together with a flippant remark about Texas, I'm going to abstain.
I am probably known to you as a theater person, but, if someone was properly assessing my profession from an outside perspective, they would probably diagnose me as an over-educated blue collar laborer with an interesting hobby. Most of us theater folk have a day job, and mine happens to be in construction. I'm quite happy to buck the stereotype of an actor waiting tables to make ends meet; not just because I know that I would be a terrible server who would eventually stab a smug, condescending dickbag patron in the eye with one of those little golf pencils, but because it puts me in close, sustained contact with an entire class of people that most of my fellow college-educated artists rarely spend time with: other blue collar workers.
Over the weekend, I spent some time working on a job site with a fellow construction worker whom I can safely say has never seen a play in his life. He's generally a likable guy; but his favorite thing to do during the workday is listen to Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh. Those of you fretting about the aftermath of Harvey and the oncoming disaster of Hurricane Irma should be comforted to know that, according to Limbaugh, Irma is a completely made-up part of the conspiracy of the liberal agenda (even as he fled the state of Florida in advance of the storm); and, according to Jones, the real cause of these devastating storms is not man-made climate change, but solar flares and sunspots. During a break in Alex Jones' spittle-flecked rant, the show went to commercial, where Jones tried to sell us emergency rations of bacon guaranteed to stay fresh for a decade and overpriced vitamins developed by "scientists" to keep us all healthy in the endtimes he is constantly predicting.
The guy I was working with started going off about how the government actually controls the weather through the HAARP facility in Alaska. I didn't have the heart to tell him that HAARP was actually shut down three years ago, and existed solely to study how variations in the solar wind and the earth's magnetosphere affect the aurora borealis. But then Jones came back on to continue telling us how he knew "top scientists from NASA" who agreed with him about solar flares (though he couldn't quite bring himself to say their actual names or invite them on his program). I guess those "top scientists" didn't get the message about the vast government conspiracy they were supposed to be taking part in.
In this constant tension between my "day job" and my "hobby", I am eternally reminded of the vast gulf of understanding between the myriad tribes that make up the good ol' US of A. In these times of heightened anxiety about just about everything, it's really easy to circle our wagons and look out fearfully at the horizon with guns at the ready. And that's when these tribes we build can turn toxic in the worst ways. That worst way isn't just hating on the opposition; frequently, it devolves into a spiral of purity tests, in which the in-group turns inward and repeatedly purges itself of people who don't believe the correct thing hard enough. I was treated to a thirty-minute diatribe from Alex Jones about how Republicans who don't support every single confusing and confounding thing that Trump does should be tossed out of the party. That can't be healthy for them, any more than Democrats continuing to snipe at each other over Bernie and Hillary. If you can't even keep your tribe together, what have you got?
But, hey, this is supposed to be about theater, right? So, here's your theater angle: Hurricane Harvey decimated the Alley Theater in Houston. If disaster movies have taught us anything, it's that when the shit hits the fan, mankind turns into a raving bunch of violent lunatics ready to turn on each other at a moment's notices; and the theaters of Houston have definitely not done that thing. The Alley Theater already has a plan for getting itself back up and running. They've already been able to transfer their upcoming world premiere of Describe the Night to another space. And it's not all about that imaginary American talent of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." Houston-area theaters are banding together to get through this together. At "Hurricane Camp", kids are already making theater pieces to cope with what they just went through. And, as corny as I would normally find this, a bunch of Houston musical theater people made a Harvey-themed tribute to survival using music from Les Miserables, and my hardened heart actually found it touching. (Something Russell Crowe definitely couldn't do for me.)
I hate that it takes disasters to make people stop sniping over petty grievances and sifting through minor differences in order to realize that they have everything in common to fight for together. What the theaters in Houston are doing together right now is beautiful, but, damn, couldn't we all do this all the time?
Musical composer Michael Friedman died this week at the far-too-early age of 41 from complications of AIDS. For those of you with short memories, the Minnesota angle to this story is that his latest musical was just about to premiere at Children's Theatre Company. That's terribly sad, a tragic echo of Rent creator Jonathan Larson dying on the cusp of his creation's barnstorming of the entire musical theater world.
For those of you with slightly longer memories, the other Minnesota angle on this was the regional premiere three years ago of Friedman's best-known work, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, which drew sharp censure and protests from local Native groups for the show's flippant portrayals of Jackson's unrepentant destruction of Native lives and culture.
What we couldn't have known then was how well Friedman's version of Jackson—a charismatic moron of a media star who rides of a wave of ignorant populist resentment straight into the White House—presaged exactly what happened to our nation last November. From all signs, Friedman was poised to remake American musical theater in all sorts of beneficial ways. After all, he was the guy that wrote the bugnuts-crazy operatic numbers for the final section of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, and that was one of the best damn experiences I ever had sitting in a seat at the Guthrie.
That's why it's sad to me that every article about his death will lead off with proclamations about Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson (Except for the Pioneer Press, which was waaaay more excited about his hockey musical; it's Minnesotan, dontcha know?). Bloody, Bloody is a show whose light emo rock musical stylings already feel kind of dated, and it's a show in which the creators chose to fabricate a story of Andrew Jackson's parents being killed by Native Americans in order to gin up some contrived moral ambiguity for its main character instead of confronting the unfounded, violent bigotry of its subject head on. It's a musical that an immensely talented young person wrote; and it contains exactly the kind of problems that a young person would make. I would like to imagine that the immensely talented older version of that person would have eventually looked back on it with more worldly experience and cringed at least a little.
But, I'll be left just imagining that.
Instead of rehashing the Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson fight again, I'm here remembering what John Donne said about the bell tolling for thee. I remember when I was in high school and was assigned "For Whom the Bell Tolls" for a speech contest. I dropped out of that contest, because I couldn't memorize the damn thing. I convinced myself that it was too hard, and I didn't have enough time, and it wasn't worth it; but the real reason I couldn't memorize it was because I didn't have enough experience or willingness to understand the profound statement that Donne was putting out there. I was young, and like most young people, I didn't know enough about the world to appreciate that the things I did (or didn't do) had profound effects on other people.
This is how I think of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson these days.
I like to think that I'm not so cocksure and dismissive as I used to be.
(I'm probably wrong about that.)
But I do know that I'm trying to be better.
And we should all keep helping each other be better, whether or not there's a flood. It shouldn't take disaster and protest to make us want to improve. Take care of each other. Challenge each other to be better, and you will be. Turn on each other because you're not pure enough, and you get the Presidency that Michael Friedman predicted, complete with wholly fabricated historical justifications.