In For a Penny: Running in Place

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CharlesAndHisTypewriter:

In which I learn to (try to) embrace my free time after an incredibly busy year, both on-stage and off.

Originally posted on San Francisco Theater Pub:

Charles Lewis III, reflecting.

“We have so much time and so little to do. Strike that, reverse it.”
– Willy Wonka, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

I had an entirely different entry planned for today. I’d been working on it since I’d finished my last entry. It was going to be about the labels used to identify us as artists, those we choose for ourselves and those often placed upon us. It was going to be about how those labels can simultaneously be a help and hindrance, how the definition of each label seems to change on a daily basis, how frustrating it can be to constantly be typecast as one particular sort when you have a menagerie of other sorts trapped inside you just bursting to get free. But I’m not gonna write that one; not yet anyway.

You see, like all of you, I read Allison’s most…

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In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – Let the Monster Out

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CharlesAndHisTypewriter:

My latest column for Theater Pub. Over the next year I’ll be detailing all the work that goes into creating the San Francisco Olympians Festival, an annual highlight of the Bay Area independent theatre scene.

Originally posted on San Francisco Theater Pub:

Charles Lewis III lets the monster out!

Artwork by Cody Rishell

Artwork by Cody Rishell

“There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen.”
— Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

It all started with a car ride. That’s what I was told. During a 2009 production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs for Atmos Theatre’s Theatre in the Woods, that’s when we’re told Stuart first pitched the idea of a theatre dedicated to the classic works of Greek and Roman playwrights. As everyone learns when they’re around Stuart for long enough: he doesn’t pitch ideas so much as give you a heads-up on his inevitable plans.

Within a year from the original car ride, twelve local playwrights were staging twelve brand new plays – each one dedicated to one of mythical Olympians. Less than a year after that, three of those twelve plays had full productions. A year after…

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In for a Penny: Introduction – Moment of Claire-ity

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CharlesAndHisTypewriter:

Starting today, I’m a regular columnist for the website San Francisco Theater Pub.

Here’s the first entry of my column, “In For a Penny”.

Originally posted on San Francisco Theater Pub:

Charles Lewis steps up to become our semi-monthly columnist on Thursdays.

“I had an inheritance from my father,
It was the moon and the sun.
And though I roam all over the world,
The spending of it’s never done.”
– Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Claire Rice scares me. Let me explain…

I’ve been considered for a regular Theater Pub column for some time now. As interested as I always was, I often declined as I constantly ran into a few obstacles. For instance, what would be my regular topic of discussion? How do I make sure my write-ups don’t retread well-worn territory? How would I distinguish myself from the unique personalities of the regular writers (the erudite, refined Marissa; the jocular, relatable Allison; the unapologetically acerbic Dave; and… Stuart)? Most importantly: who the hell cares what I have to say about a given topic?

I’m always surprised…

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Theater Around the Bay: First Time A-Fringin’

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CharlesAndHisTypewriter:

A new piece I wrote for Theater Pub, covering my very first year as part of the SF Fringe Fest.

Originally posted on San Francisco Theater Pub:

Charles Lewis III returns to talk about his first time working behind the scenes at the SF Fringe Festival.

Fringe-official

Fringe-official

“Clowns are the pegs on which a circus is hung.”
– PT Barnum

We’re always told that first impressions count for a lot; that you can’t make them twice; that they will forever define you in the eyes of the other person, whether they admit it to you or not. So naturally I wanted to make the best impression as a new house manager at SF Fringe. I’ve always been one of those folks who believes that I don’t just represent myself, but also the company whose logo adorns my shirt/name tag/pay stub. I mean, they don’t just give this bright yellow shirt and laminated badge to just anyone, do they?

So as I stood in front of an anxious, impatient audience, I can only imagine what they thought of…

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Theater Around the Bay: A Mother’s Care

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CharlesAndHisTypewriter:

As a follow-up to my interview with Pleiades playwright Marissa Skudlarek, I also spoke with director Katja Rivera.

I asked her about her approach to the material, historical accuracy, and bringing a maternal perspective to a story of young women trying to find their place in the world.

Originally posted on San Francisco Theater Pub:

Charles Lewis III returns with part two of his interviews with the creative team behind Pleiades, which opens later this week at the Phoenix Theatre.

“A son is a son ‘til he takes a wife, a daughter’s a daughter all of her life.”
– Old Irish Proverb

I had the pleasure of taking part in the ‘Pub’s production of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, newly-translated by Marissa Skudlarek. I wore a horse’s head and that is all you need know about my involvement. It was my first – and hopefully not last – time working with director Katja Rivera. I’d first heard of her in 2011 when she directed another primarily female show set in the early 1970s, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Star of that show, actress/songbird Michelle Jasso, affectionately Katja described as “no bullshit, but incredibly open to collaboration and suggestion”. With the full production…

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Theater Around the Bay: Sing a Song of Seven Sisters

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CharlesAndHisTypewriter:

An interview I conducted with San Francisco playwright Marissa Skudlarek, in which we discuss her new play, Pleiades. Inspired by the seven celestial sisters of Greek myth, the play reimagines the events and characters during the early 1970s. I caught up with Marissa to discuss playwrighting, Feminism, and self-producing a small play with a large cast of mostly-female actors.

For more information about the play, please visit it official site at Pleiades SF.

Originally posted on San Francisco Theater Pub:

Charles Lewis III is today’s guest blogger, with an extremely thorough interview of Marissa Skudlarek, author of the upcoming world premiere, PLEIADES. We’re super excited about the show, and encourage everyone to go. We’d also like to let Marissa know we have never used the term Box Office Babe ironically. “Babe” is a gender neutral term and we consider anyone willing to work our box office SUPER SEXY.

Poster by Emily C. Martin

Poster by Emily C. Martin

“Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?”
– The Holy Bible, Book of Job: Chapter 38, verse 31 (King James Version)

One of TheaterPub’s greatest strengths has always been its networking prowess. Its productions are unmatched in their ability to bring together such a disparate (some would say “motley”) collection of theatre artists to form lasting connections. It was during one such post-show mingle in the ‘Pub’s first year that…

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Theater Around The Bay: Isn’t it Showmantic?

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CharlesAndHisTypewriter:

An article about the tricky business of cast members dating one another (aka “showmances”); the complications that arise and the affect they have on a production.

Originally posted on San Francisco Theater Pub:

Charles Lewis III returns to get romantic.

Taylor_and_Burton_-_Cleopatra

“I want you to lie to me just as sweetly as you know how for the rest of my life.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Offshore Pirate”, The Saturday Evening Post (29 May 1920)

I have no problem saying “MacBeth” in a theatre. I never have. I’ve done it in nearly every theatre I’ve performed. It’s just a name, and there’s no sense in fearing a name. It’s also the title of a play and I’ll be damned if I’m scared to say the title of a play – in a theatre, no less! But where I lack a sense of terror of the spoken word, I try to make up for it in a certain level of social grace. Though I have no problem saying it, I recognise that others feel differently. And given that those people are my collaborators, and…

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Theater Around The Bay: Tossing the Baby and Bathwater

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CharlesAndHisTypewriter:

A piece I wrote for SF TheaterPub, in which I talk about where theatre is and where it could possibly go.

Originally posted on San Francisco Theater Pub:

Today’s guest blog is by Charles Lewis III, who returns with a record number of links in one article.
In olden times they had to make their own fun.

In olden times they had to make their own fun.

“So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it — perhaps as much more as the roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative…

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Crab Barrel: The Pitfalls of Critiquing work by ‘Your own people’

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crabs in a barrel

“And you should love it, way mo’ than you hate it
Nigga, you mad? I thought that you’d be happy I made it?
I’m dat cat by the bar toastin’ to the good life,
You dat faggot-ass nigga tryna pull me back, right?”
– 50 Cent, “In Da Club”, Get Rich or Die Tryin’

Did you know that YouTube gets upwards of one billion users per month? Is that fascinating or is that fascinating? This one website has grown to such recognition and popularity that within the span of a single calendar month it will receive enough calculated traffic to equal a full sixth of the population of the entire world. How ‘bout that? I’m personally more fond of competitor Vimeo, but comparing the two is comparing apples and oranges.

A friend and colleague blogged about how the short subject film – the category which once made stars out of Harold Lloyd, The Three Stooges, and Bugs Bunny, to name but a few – is now such a rarity on the big screen that the mere presence of one is something of an anomaly (or a Pixar pre-show). That made me remember how short films once thrived on the untapped resource of the web in the late-‘90s/early-2000s. Sites like iFilm, AtomFilms, The Sci-Fi Channel’s Exposure (also a tv show), and Sputnik7 succeeded by giving up-and-coming film-makers a new venue. All of those sites are now defunct, having been usurped by the YouTubes, DailyMotions, and MetaCafes of world – sites less concerned with art and more with collecting as many meme-worthy videos as possible into one place. This isn’t to say the latter sites are incapable of showcasing truly great work, but it’s hard not to think of them as dumping grounds just as much as legitimate commercial outlets.

Still, with the rise serial-only sites like Blip.tv and original programming on Netflix and Amazon, the internet is quickly becoming THE best venue for serial storytelling. What’s more, there’s a wonderful diversity in both the stories and storytellers. Whereas before certain audiences fretted over “their story” not being told, they now have the power to tell it themselves. And as someone always on the lookout for great stories by and about Black people, it was with great interest that in January of last year I read this io9 article about the web series The Abandon by Keith Adkins. It didn’t take me long to find its first – and, as of this writing, only – episode via Adkins’ YouTube channel (watch the episode here if you can’t see the embed below):

I didn’t think much of the episode, but I figured since I was already on the page, I might as well leave a comment:

As a Black man, I applaud your getting the project produced. But as an actor, writer, director, and playwright I believe in sincere artistic feedback. As such, this is the sort of project I’d turn down.

Honestly… that was terrible. The dialogue was clunky, unrealistic, full of forced exposition and backstory. The characters were indistinguishable, save for a few shallow traits (the Gay guy, the married guy, etc.). The acting was hammy and neither the script nor direction created any tension.

Looking back on those comments, perhaps I would have phrased it differently. But I was writing what I felt at the moment. Besides, who really notices or cares about a single opinion on a website that boasts one billion active users per month? Well… apparently a lot of people. Mine was the only non-glowing comment at that point, and it seems that the folks who liked it took some sort of personal issue with my not liking it.

For a while I responded to some of the comments directed at me (responding to on-line comments being the only thing dumber than reading them) and though I kept my criticisms purely artistic, the consensus was that I as a Black man had “crab-barrelled” another brotha tryin’ to make it (the idea being that when crabs are in a barrel and one tries to climb out, another will pull it back down). And when they weren’t satisfied with comments on the video, they moved on to direct YouTube messages. This one from “Ms. Go” (then known as “DCMovieGirl”) says it all:

This is something you may not be aware of…

I can guarantee that many of the people who will upvote your original comment are/will be white people who now feel justified that network disinterest has nothing to do with race, but with quality as this “black man” attests.

So, in giving your your criticisms in the way that you have, while valid, you’ve also inadvertently become an Uncle Tom for those whites who would see no racism in the fact that projects like this aren’t picked up by networks.

It sucks, but this is the burden of blackness. You have to think beyond yourself sometimes.

If your comment becomes the most upvoted for this project, many whites, upon seeing it, especially from you, will feel justified in dismissing any artistic divergence from “types” as an issue of quality and not racism in Hollywood.

 

And there you have it, folks. I am the reason Blacks have no prominence in science fiction and fantasy. My one YouTube comment is THE reason why Black characters will never lead in projects like Star Wars, Blade Runner, or Alien. I alone am the reason there hasn’t been a Black superhero film since Blade. I am the guilty party who knowingly keeps studios from investing Avatar-sized money in projects by Black film-makers. Yup, li’l ole me. I am the crustacean that’s keepin’ our people down.

Look at this fool - shuckin' and jivin' for the White Man!!

Look at this fool – shuckin’ and jivin’ for the White Man!!

 

Once I came out of my laughing fit from reading Ms. Go’s asinine fantasy, I tried in vain to once again explain reality to her and commenters-in-arms. I soon gave up. I almost never log into YouTube these days – now that they’re forcing Google+ and new restrictions down our throats – but I still occasionally receive new Inbox notices from Abandon fans who read my comments and feel the need to “educate” me about how I, as a Black man, “should know better”.

Bullshit. If anything, that’s precisely why my critique should be both sincere and direct.

Before I return to the topic of Keith Adkins and his budding web series, I’d like to talk about artistic criticism. Or rather, I’d like to talk about the perception of artistic criticism. You see, proper art criticism requires an extensive knowledge of the medium being reviewed: pioneers in the field, tools and technology used, historical and sociological context, knowledge of genres, sub-genres, merged genres, knowledge of the artist him/herself, etc. Art critics bask in the knowledge of their chosen subject – both its past and present – because they understand that they are part of the artistic process. They hold art to a standard. They’ve seen the best the medium has to offer and have made it their quest to find – their dream – to encounter something of that quality again.

That’s what they do. How they’re perceived is a different story. To the public and many butt-hurt so-called “artists”, critics are a necessary evil at best, party-poopers at worst. From Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and This is Spinal Tap to Jamie Kennedy’s “documentary” Heckler and the tv show Nurse Jackie, art critics are seen as the enemies of art – or, at the very least, the artist. There are  far too many examples for me to cite here, but we all know the popular narrative: The Artist is, by his very nature, the voice of the people and The Critic is, either by choice or consequence, the voice of sinister forces that would silence the people.

Now the idea of an intentionally malicious critic isn’t so far-fetched (hell, Armond White seems to treat film criticism as Dadaist performance art). But the idea that criticism itself exists solely as a means to bully poor little artists is, and always has been, a fantasy with no basis in reality. It’s the kind of fantasy that makes multi-millionaire screenwriters go on fansites to lash out at their key demographic. It’s the kind of thinking that inspires Anne Rice to have her fans attack an anonymous teenage blogger because said blogger didn’t like one of her books. It’s the kind of thinking that would have you believe that simply putting out work puts you beyond reproach and that anyone who doesn’t like it should be lynched.

I’ve never seen the show RuPaul’s Drag Race, but my friend Cody is a fan. It being a competition show, the competitors are subject to scrutiny by the show’s judges and the viewers. When one competitor took on-line criticism the wrong way and pointed the finger at fans, Cody – in all of his lucid wisdom and artistic experience – wrote a blog entry with the following bullet points:

1 – You are an artist. An artist cannot control his or her audience. You want people to talk about your work, good or bad. If you do not, you are a hobbyist.

2 – Rupauls Drag Race is entertainment. This is what Reality TV is. Don’t confuse yourself by assuming that just because you’re playing yourselves, there aren’t producers manipulating the strings to create the common archetypes of fiction: the hero, the villain, the anti-hero, the maiden, the princess, the unicorn, the peasant, the king, the audience, the buffoon, the tragedy, and the romance.

3 – You know what you are getting into. The world of Drag is small. It is a small niche in a small sub culture in a large world. You know those that have gone on screen before you. Regardless if you are slapped with an NDA to not talk about it, you have heard countless stories of what happens once that green light on the camera turns on.

I swear to God, if it were up to me, those three rules would hang from the wall of every performance school, art school, theatre, gallery, and learning annex all over the world. When you put your work out in the world, it will be scrutinised by the public. That’s just as true of critics as it is of that which they review. Critique is inextricably linked with journalism and must therefore always represent a high standard. When a lowering of standards becomes apparent in a news outlet or in regards to coverage of a specific medium they will be taken to task.

Hell, I know one art critic so beholden to her standards that she had no problem panning in which she herself was featured.

I’m a scientific person and a level of science is required in the technical side of criticism, hence the link with journalism and necessary knowledge of history. Science requires theories that adapt themselves to facts, not the other way around. Now that’s a tricky thing when looking art, because its power stems from that most subjective of factors: Emotion. I’ve recommended plenty of technically inept products because I found them highly enjoyable, and I’ve taken in many technically dazzling products that left no emotional resonance.

In this Age of Information, wider access to technology has opened up non-scientific criticism to wider audiences. If you don’t like the style of a professional critic, you can always turn to opinion of a non-professional whose opinion will likely neither challenge nor enlighten you. But that’s democracy for you: everyone has, and is entitled to, their own opinion. When you deal in a medium that is defined by the affect it leaves on people, don’t be surprised if said affect is not to your liking.

Most of the performance work I do here in the Bay Area is theatre. Recently a show by an internationally-reknowned playwright (let’s call him “Salty”, after Veruca Salt) opened here to wide critical acclaim and successful box office. A friend of mine, a gifted playwright herself (let’s call her “Elinor Dashwood”), wrote a review of the show on her personal blog. Elinor’s review was even-handed and articulate, with her explaining why she didn’t enjoy this show as much as she had his earlier work. Salty happened across her review and, like Anne Rice and Robert Orci, decided to take issues directly to her FB page for all of us to see. Salty insisted that she “didn’t get it”, gave the play a “quick and easy dismissal”, and should “go back and see the play again” to pick up all the subtext her pretty little head might have missed.

 

"Woe is me."

“Woe is me.”

Elinor responded with her characteristic poise and common sense as Salty spent the next few days insisting that Elinor’s opinion was invalid because it came from a single viewing. Although I didn’t comment on the thread, I read and re-read Salty’s comments and thought “If her single-viewing opinion doesn’t matter, shouldn’t we also dismiss the opinions of those who saw it once and loved it?” Does her in-review admission to being a fan of his earlier work lose credibility? Salty – who claimed to never respond to critics before this – had insulted his most devout fans because he couldn’t take the slightest criticism.

What’s more: Salty, who is an openly Gay writer. I wonder if he thought that the hetero Elinor failed to understand the piece – which deals with LGBTQ themes – because she has no idea what it’s like to inhabit the skin of someone like him? This would have little to do with the fault she found in his story, but if true, it wouldn’t be the first time one has suggested that work produced by and relating to specific groups should only be reviewed by members of said groups. Sure, why not – let’s all stick to our own. Because we all know “our own people” always have our best interests at heart, right?

by Aaron MacGruder

by Aaron MacGruder

 

I really like that comic panel. I always have. To this day I’ve yet to come across any other quote or interview that so perfectly states my own thoughts on why I’m actually more critical with a piece of “Black art” than most others. It’s the same thing a Gay friend of mine has often said about when the Andy Cohen regime took over Bravo, turning it from a channel of art and culture to the place that makes Queer Eye and Real Housewives. It’s what Hispanics have said about nuvoTV (formerly Sí TV). It’s what’s often been said about Lifetime and WEtv. And yes, it’s what I and many others have said about BET since the late-‘90s.

We’re all people who rarely see “people like us” in mainstream media, unless it’s demeaning. So you’d think that once we got our own media outlet it would make quality product a priority. The channels above do the opposite: they cater to the lowest common denominators and hide behind the shield of diversity. I love trash, but don’t try to tell me it’s treasure.

And God forbid you ever try to criticise them, especially amongst your own. There’s a reason I opened this blog entry with those lyrics by 50 Cent, a formerly broke millionaire who makes money by objectifying women on-camera and beating them/threatening to kill them off-camera. But to criticise him is to, as I’ve always been told, “givin’ Whitey ammunition not to invest in Black folks.” That obviously isn’t true because they likely weren’t all that interested in funding us anyway.

Other common retorts, especially about Black tv, include “I can remember a time when there weren’t ANY Black folks on tv,” I often hear. Well, that’s no longer the case, so how long do we have to wait for shows that are good? “They [being whomever is successful and Black on television] made it; give ‘em credit.” I give them full credit for coming out of poverty or whatever previous condition to build a fortune. That doesn’t mean I have to like their current work any more than that of a drug dealer who could claim the same thing. In fact, let’s address the cross-dressing elephant in the room, shall we?

Who'd you think I meant? Flip Wilson?

Who’d you think I meant? Flip Wilson?

 

I know Tyler Perry came from a background that not only included poverty, but childhood sexual abuse. I know he’s spent the past decade becoming the most consistently lucrative Black film-maker ever. Still, I’m not the first person to express disappointment with Tyler Perry and I sure as hell won’t be the last. But God forbid you be White and try to say something bad about him, you’ll be labeled a racist so fast, it’ll make your head spin. Like Joss Whedon before him, Perry has created a cult of personality (Black churchgoers) that will defend him with a vengeance. Add in the sensitive element of his race, and he has to reveal himself as a moral hypocrite in order for White critics to pan his work without fear of racial backlash.

Why? Don’t we want to be taken as seriously as White folks? Don’t we want our work to be regarded just as importantly? Because if we do, then we can’t get all up in arms just because they don’t automatically like what we put out – and a lot of “our” stuff can be shit. We have to seek out quality over quantity. Celebrate the work of up-and-comers like Awkward Black Girl creator and the folks at Black & Sexy TV. Never stop seeking out new material, but understand that it doesn’t get a free pass just because it puts more of “us” out there.

Black & Sexy TV. Black web series done right.

Black & Sexy TV.
Black web series done right.

 

One of the best on-line reviews I’ve ever read was about Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. I love Spike’s films, but that is a film that relies on shock value more than compelling storytelling. That’s why I love Boondocks creator Aaron MacGruder’s infamous on-line “review” on the OkayPlayer messageboards. (Yes, I’ve been on the internet so long, I was a member of OkayPlayer. Wonder if my password still works?) MacGruder took a high-standard artist to task, just as we all did when MacGruder and now-Oscar-winner John Ridley wrote the mediocre Red Tails.

That’s how critique works. It doesn’t mean it’s personal.

Which brings me, at long last, to Keith Adkins. What can I tell you about Keith Josef Adkins, writer/director/producer of The Abandon? I’ve never met the man personally, but I did some digging around on the interwebs. Well, I know that he’s been a professional writer and actor in Hollywood for over a decade. I know that he wrote a play called The Last Saint on Sugar Hill that did very well. I know he used to used to write for a website that I read daily. Hell, from those things, I can tell you that he has a career I would love to have.

I can also tell you that he’s very interactive with viewers on The Abandon’s YouTube page. Mainly responding to compliments and tech questions, he noticeably has not responded to my critical comment. He hasn’t responded to those with whom I conversed either. Whenever I get a new notice about that film, I speculate as to why he hasn’t responded. Maybe he read my comments, got offended, and has just been biding his time as to when he’ll respond. Maybe he thinks the people with whom I argued did a well enough job for him. Maybe he read my comments, took them to heart, and has been spending this past year working to improve the show before he releases a new episode (it could happen).

Or maybe – just maybe – he doesn’t care. Maybe he knows that my comment was literally 1/billion and he shrugged it off before getting on with his life. The man has been in the game a while now, surely he’s developed a thick skin. I’d like to think he has. I’d like to think I would. Because, believe it or not, what drew me to seek out The Abandon was probably the same thing that inspired him to create it: our inner Carl Brandon. Keith and I were both Black kids who grew up watching, reading, and loving sci-fi. Eventually we – like Octavia Butler before us – noticed that the aliens were every shade but ours. But we hoped one day someone would be.

Keith Adkins did more than hope; he actually did something about it. He wrote something. He produced it. He released it… and I didn’t like it. It doesn’t turn me off to his work, it just makes me hope he’ll do better next time. I sincerely do.

Pilot episodes are hard. It has to set up its own compelling story, but keep audiences hungry for more. The best pilot episode ever is “Space Pilot 3000” from Futurama. It’s a self-contained short story that didn’t need any further development, but the world it showed was so rich that we wanted to know more. Plus it dropped little hints of a larger story yet to be understood. I say this as a guy who hated the pilot episodes of The Sopranos, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Deadwood – shows I wound up loving dearly. Still, it’s hard to stay for the whole meal if you don’t like the first bite.

History is filled with many great works of art that weren’t exactly beloved when they first appeared. Others were just as bad as originally thought (except for Clue – why is that on the list?). Every artist wants to make the best he or she can. Every critic wants to see something that exceeds their expectations. Searching for those things will require sifting through a lot of crap. But it’s that sifting through crap in search of greatness that makes us so proud to be artists. Otherwise this is just a hobby.

Nothing but the best. Image by John Jude Palencar

Nothing but the best.
Image by John Jude Palencar

 

Neverland

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“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty of the world.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Ch. IV

Photo by the amazing Veanne Cao

Photo by the amazing Veanne Cao

A few months ago I had quite an odd dream.

I was walking the streets of New York. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what I was searching for. All I know was that my feet just knew to keep walking and eventually I would find something. As I kept moving my vision would occasionally flash to a bird’s eye view of the streets from overhead; the grid-like patterns were making me feel a bit like Pac-Man travelling through a bright blue maze. Or like Jack Torrence through the hedges (sans axe, of course). I’m not one to get frustrated when a dream’s interpretation isn’t immediately transparent – those who claim to “interpret” dreams are just giving their best guess anyway – but what I remember most was the great sense of comfort and familiarity I felt as I kept walking.

And that, to me, is the weirdest part. How could I feel comfort or familiarity with the streets of New York when I’ve never been there? How did I even know it was New York? There were no recognisable landmarks that I recall, no “I-Heart-NY” t-shirts to be seen, no random sightings of Louis CK or Kate Winslet. Hell, I couldn’t even tell you which borough I thought I was in. I woke up thinking about when Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was released and many native New Yorkers complained that the film (shot entirely on British soundstages and backlots) didn’t look anything like New York; that “the streets don’t look like New York”. In the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, Queens-borne native Martin Scorsese proudly defended Kubrick’s not-quite-right aesthetic choice. Scorsese says the sense of unfamiliarity is exactly the point: “It’s as if you’re experiencing New York in a dream”.

I get what he means. I’ve been having that dream for as long as I can remember.

“City of prose and fantasy, of capitalist automatism, its streets a triumph of cubism, its moral philosophy that of the dollar. New York impressed me tremendously because, more than any other city, it is the fullest expression of our modern age.”
– Leon Trotsky, My Life (1930)

If I could trace my fascination with New York to any one source, I would probably blame The Muppets. The Muppets and Spider-Man. And the Fantastic Four. Hell, let’s just say The Muppets and every Marvel superhero ever. Plus the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while we’re at it. If you’ve ever read my blog before, you know that being a born-and-raised SF native is something in which I take a lot of pride. Still, when you grow up watching one city withstand Doctor Octopus, the Technodrome, and a troupe of anthropomorphic animals trying to put on a Broadway show, then SF is going to seem lacking by comparison. I mean, yeah we had a few alien invasions, but every city has those.

No, I wanted to walk down the same streets Run-DMC and LL Cool J when they thought up “My Adidas” and “I Can’t Live without My Radio”. I wanted to see the exact same streets Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Jim Jarmusch had been filling with memorable characters. I wanted to jog around the same Central Park that welcomed Bob Marley, Diana Ross, and even The Ghostbusters. From the abandoned World’s Fair set of The Wiz to the dancing School of Performing Arts kids from Fame to the sidewalk where Morgan Freeman was shot down in Street Smart, I wanted to see the place that was so beloved in spite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it was so openly despised by the people who called it home.

That’s what I’ve always found most confounding: growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the running joke about New York was how terrible it was. Be it an episode of Night Court or a Ralph Bakshi cartoon, the characters go to great pains to describe every borough as a descending level in The Divine Comedy: of rude (and racist) cab drivers, perverted construction workers, and possibly homicidal yuppies in Armani. A ridiculous number of songs and films have made that hatred their central premise. Even in Ghostbusters II, the mayor decides to ignore the coming spectral-apocalypse-brought-on-by-the-city’s-avarice by boasting that “Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every New Yorker’s God-given right!”.

A place where the natives openly celebrate their contempt for their home? A place that’s home to mobsters, movie stars, and major industry figures? A place whose cultural make-up is so diverse that it even the United Nations calls it home? Oh, I’ve got to go there! I don’t care what it takes or how long it lasts, I’ve just got to set foot on this land and I’ll do anything to do it!

At least that’s what I used to think.

“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? And then people tell me about pilgrimages to some dank pesthole in a jungle where they go to do homage to a crumbling temple, to a leering stone monster with a pot belly, created by some leprous savage. Is it beauty and genius they want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see the city from my window – no, I don’t feel how small I am – but I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.”
– Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

Not only have I had a curious fascination with New York since childhood, I’m pretty sure I’ve been actively trying to get there for just as long. There were only two types of out-of-state trips my family took on a regular basis: LA for Thanksgiving; and summers in Chicago (father’s family) and/or Kansas (mother’s family). Except for seeing more family in Colorado and Texas, we never deviated. On the rare occasion our parents patronised us by asking where we could go if we wanted to, my brother would likely say some outlandish fantasy world. My answer was always the same: “New York!” When asked why, I’d say “Because there’s… things there! Lots of things!” (These questions were rarely asked by the time I became an articulate speaker.)

The answer would always be “No”. I’m sure I was probably told that it was because we don’t have family there, but that makes me curious as to why we never went to New Orleans, where we do? The closest I ever got was when I was 13. We were in Chicago for the summer and my uncle (grandpa’s youngest brother) was going to Toronto with his new wife and baby daughter for a long weekend. In a decision that baffles me to this very day, my parents agreed to let me and my brother go along. I slept through most of the drive, both there and back, but I remember driving through Detroit and taking a photo of the Joe Louis fist. I remember being in Toronto and the Canadians making fun of our accents (yes, really). And, more than anything else, I remember that we came back into the US through the border at Niagara Falls, which we stopped to photograph. That is the closest I have ever come to New York.

I can practically point out where I stood and when I fell asleep in the car.

I can practically point out where I stood and when I fell asleep in the car.

 

But it ain’t for a lack of tryin’, I’ll tell ya that. In fact I made a few very serious attempts at doing so over the past couple of decades, including:

FAILED ATTEMPT #1 – When I was in highschool I was serious about becoming a writer or an actor, as my skills in both were regarded as my greatest strengths and the most likely to lead to a prominent career. I loved doing both of those then nearly as much as I do now, so I agreed to try my hand at the sort of higher education that would make such a thing possible. It was then that I decided to go to the legendary NYU. I was happy as a clam when their recruitment materials arrived in the mail. I spent a full two weeks stressing over my essay, which I’d probably still rewrite to this very day. Nevertheless, I completed all my materials in record time and stuffed them as-neatly-as-humanly-possible in a large manila envelope. I wasn’t just submitting to a potential school, I was submitting for a potential LIFE.

I’ll never forget when I asked my mother for a few stamps for the envelope. She had no idea that I’d reached out to NYU, let alone received the materials. I mean, my parents had been stressing college for as long as I could remember; why not go for the best? She told me I wasn’t going to NYU. Just like that. No explanation. Nothing about the location being across the country, no acknowledgement of my suggestion for scholarships or student loans, no expressions of her concerns at all – nothing. Just a flat-out declaration that I wasn’t going to NYU; simple as that. When I asked my father for clarification (and support), he just said “Go ask you mother.”

FAILED ATTEMPT #2 – A few years after graduating highschool – and having dropped out of college after being told I had no future as an actor – I was working a soul-crushing retail job, as one does in their early-20s. The full-time hours were menial and some (not all) of my co-workers were assholes, but I was making money. Quite a lot, actually. I was making so much and spending so little that when I came upon the one-year mark that August, I’d decided I was going to treat myself the way I never had before: I was going to fly out of town. I actually did briefly consider flying out to see family (if for no other reason than to get away from my parents for a little while), before I realised I wanted to spend that coming New Years in Times Square. To this day, I’ve never seen real snow. To see it floating down as the ball drops would be the event of a lifetime.

I began researching flights, trains, and bus routes. I put an even tighter hold on my finances. I wanted to do each and every thing right so that I could make the most out of the trip I was going to take that December… of 2001. As you know, between my planning in August and the potential trip in December there was a certain event that made travelling to that area a bit more difficult than it had been before. In November I quit the job (a combination of no longer tolerating co-workers and my own youthful hubris), which meant that I would have to be a bit more frugal with my money. Which meant I was taking a trip anytime soon.

FAILED ATTEMPT #3 – I was still in my 20s and got another job. I’d even started taking classes again in the hopes of getting my AA and – who knows? – still being able to transfer to NYU. If nothing else, I was still determined to walk the streets – whether I lived there or not. Once again, I began researching cheap flights as well as the new Draconian security measures that went along with them. Wanna take a guess as to whether I actually made it?

In autumn of 2004, my father decided to go to the hospital after he began noticing considerable weight loss. It turned out that 35 years of smoking had led to the development of a tumor on his left lung. Said tumor was pushing down on his stomach, hence his eating less. Over the next few months he’d have regular examinations, surgery to remove part of his lung, chemotherapy, and other such recuperative measures done. Being sick in the United States is expensive. Very expensive. As in don’t-plan-any-cross-country-trips-expensive (especially since my-job-at-the-time not long after).

I can take a hint.

I can take a hint.

 

“Whoever is born in New York is ill-equipped to deal with any other city: all other cities seem, at best, a mistake, and, at worst, a fraud. No other city is so spitefully incoherent. Whereas other cities flaunt there history – their presumed glory – in vividly placed monuments, squares, parks, plaques, and boulevards, such history as New York has been unable entirely to obliterate is to be found, mainly, in the backwaters of Wall Street, in the goat tracks of Old and West Broadway, in and around Washington Square, and, for the relentless searcher, in grimly inaccessible regions of The Bronx.”
– James Baldwin, Just Above My Head

The three attempts I’ve listed above are just the three that stand out the most. It’s now 2014 and having actively attempted to make the trip since 1997, I think it’s safe to say it ain’t gonna happen. I’m not one to believe in fate, hexes, or the manipulations of some unknown force. But if I were, I’d start to think such a force seriously does not want me to set foot in New York. Force or no, I’ve made peace with the fact that I won’t ever be going. Not as a student, not as a tourist, not as a friendly acquaintance – I’ve permanently crossed New York off of my list.

You’d think that would be the end of it, but no. See, the reason I’m even writing this blog entry is because the only thing that pisses me off more than my failed attempts at travelling to New York are the reactions of people when I tell them. They regard me as the one with the problem. “Just go,” they all say. What the fuck do they think I’ve been trying to do for the last 17 years? Do they think I’m just expecting free plane tickets to magically appear in my mailbox? Do they think just using my lifelong affinity as a mask to cover up some resentment I feel towards NY? Do they think I’m staying away so as to avoid contact with old acquaintances who currently live there?

Jesus H. Christ, people – I’m glad that for you a trip out there is as easy as a trip to the grocery store, but I do not have the privilege. In case the details of my incessant job-hunt (which has now lasted for five years) haven’t made it clear: I’m broke. Not in a facetious manner, I mean really broke. As in, “I’ve put off buying $10.oo tickets to Rat Girl because it might set me back”. I’m THAT broke, people.

I’m glad you people can enjoy the sights and sounds on a whim, but my life isn’t yours. I have other priorities.

But allow me to play Devil’s Advocate. Let’s say money were of no importance; let’s say I found a block of time where I had nothing scheduled and could leave at a moment’s notice. What kind of New York would I arrive in?

“New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous.
But there is one thing about it – once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough.”

― John Steinbeck, America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction

Back in 2007 I was in a short film. A week or two before production, one of the actresses was taking a trip to – guess where? It was both a personal sabbatical and research, as she would later star in a production of A Chorus Line and wanted to hear genuine New York dialects in preparation. When she came back, she was disappointed. The trip itself was just the sabbatical she needed, but her research proved fruitless as “There aren’t any New York accents anymore.”

I’ve spent the better part of my life in San Francisco, so I could spend days on end telling you about the changes – both for the better and for the worse – that have taken hold of this city. I also keep abreast of world events, as such I know that there’s only one other city as notorious for its current influx of hipsters and techies. For every news item posted about vanishing SF landmarks, there’s one posted about the metamorphosis of NY streets. For every SF activist fighting Ellis Act evictions, there’s a NY native screaming the same to whomever will listen. For every drinking session I’ve had with fellow SF artists about trying to make ends meet, there are a group of NY artists doing the same thing.

Even before that, both places went through major changes: SF with the tech boom of the late-‘90s/early-200s; NY with Guiliani at the same time. The place I’d always imagined probably wasn’t real to begin with, but now even the reality is so different that almost no one can make heads or tails of it anymore. What was once the most definite location in the entire United States is now starting to look just like everywhere else. I would just be a visitor, so my presence there would only add to the problem. And that I don’t want to do.

“It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”
– EB White, Here is New York

As I write this, the one thing that strikes me in remembering the dream I described is that no one is there. Instinctually I knew that I was in the most densely-populated city in the US, but there was not a soul to be seen. That seems somehow fitting. I’ve never been to London, Soweto, Johannesburg, Paris, or Tokyo. Granted, my urge to visit those places – while great – was never as intense as my urge to take a 3,000-mile trip to “The City that Never Sleeps”. I finally realised that I could either wallow in the self-pity of thinking about someplace I’ve never been, or I could act like an adult and make the most of where I am and what I have. There’s no other place like it in the world and no other people like those who live there. It’s home to some of this country’s greatest monuments and was the site of the worst foreign attack on our soil. It’s a place that has changed the life of each and every person who has set foot on it.

I just know that I’ll never be one of them.

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