Last Friday, I skipped lunch and went back to my Boston hotel room to watch Congressman Elijah Cummings’s funeral on TV.
Thirty-five years ago, when he was still a lawyer, we had a case together. I was representing a modular building company and he was representing one of the prominent African American churches in Baltimore, which had contracted with my client to buy and construct a building for Baltimore city primary school students.
Elijah and I met on the top floor of the church overlooking North Avenue where the ministers’ offices were located. He came over, shook my hand, and said, “I do a lot of criminal law and you know a lot more about business law than I do. Can we agree to work to make this fair for both sides?” I shook his hand and agreed that would be our objective.
The contract negotiations and construction took some time. As the building went up, there were adjustments to the plans and “change orders,” as there always are in construction cases, but we were candid with each other and each time we got it right.
Years later, I was at the Democratic convention in Boston and he saw me and came over and with a big smile he said: “Yeah! We learned to work well together didn’t we?” We both laughed.
I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and one of my favorite places is an old rusted fountain dedicated to John F. Kennedy. It no longer works but still has his quotes chiseled on its sides.
My hotel was in Harvard Square, so after the funeral I walk down to the fountain and read the quotes again:
“Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us — and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state, and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their grave trust and their great responsibilities.”
Next to the forgotten monument was a sign that said: “No Skateboarding.”
No one was there except a skateboarder, practicing and re-practicing his art, and me.
It occurred to me that there are always laws which will be broken but we all, somehow, are subject to a deeper code. This was what Elijah understood.
Thousands of people, whether in the church or on TV, watched Elijah’s funeral. They watched and listened and were there because Elijah was an example of something we seem to not be able to forget.
Although in our daily lives and in our politics and governance it is sometimes lost, it is there in that handshake, that eye contact, that second thought that reminds us that it is as constant as gravity.
I saw Elijah on and off after that, in airports or at campaign events. He had become my Congressman. We would smile or wave. We were not friends, but we had once come to an understanding because he had offered up his vulnerability so that I could offer mine. And we could trust each other just long enough to do something right.
Working on the libretto for the operetta, Vox Populi, has brought me back to my love of poetry.
My favorite poems create a universe with a few words. Two good poems with a similar subject, put side by side, can introduce the creator of the other.
Like a painter organizes color and shape with his or her brushstrokes, the poet organizes a vision with the sound and rhythm of words:
“Whose woods these are I think I know./
His house is in the village though;/“
The brushstrokes? The sound and rhythm of these two lines? Speak them out loud. They are like the rocking of a hammock they are so smooth and quiet.
In complete contrast however:
“I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,/
I sought it daily for six weeks or so./“
Brush strokes? This is not like the rocking of a hammock, it is like riding a three-legged horse.
Those are the opening two lines of two completely different poems by two completely different people. Now let’s look at the last two lines of these two poems.
“And miles to go before I sleep./
And miles to go before I sleep./“
Brush strokes? The same rocking hammock. Compared to:
“I must lie down where all the ladders start,/
In the foul rag-and- bone shop of the heart./“
That must’ve been a hell of a rough ride? You are correct.
They are both about the end of life. The first by Robert Frost is entitled “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and the second by WB Yeats is in titled “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”
Both are about “acceptance,” it seems to me, but that acceptance comes in completely different, very personal forms. Frost’s, in a late evening snowy New Hampshire woods, and Yates’, with the casting off his “Circus Animals” (his life’s work of Irish themes).
The libretto for the operetta is meant to be baudy and entertaining. My poetry, on the other hand, is a personal statement that is directed from me to the reader. It’s from my heart.
I have placed links to both poems below for your review and your own contrasts and conclusions. Feel compassion for these two people. They are writing because they are reaching out to you.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” by W.B. Yeats
One year ago this past Sunday, our play Onaje had its opening night in NYC. We caught lightning in a bottle that night because of the exceptional talent of those people who came together to make that magic happen. Every performance was sold out and every reviewer gave us a rave.
Since that opening, Onaje has picked up steam, and is headed for a new production and a great future. We thought it might be interesting to ask: “Where are they now?”
Here is what we’ve learned:
Curtis Jackson, who played the titular Onaje, is currently assistant directing a new immersive performance Incomplete Conversations (produced by his company, Silent Theatre Company), a full-length play presented throughout multiple spaces and three floors. He also starred in Blacksite: The Musical! (produced by Soft Cage Films), and Eugenie, a short film with the Southside Filmmaking Youth Initiative.
Tim Rush, who played Henderson, was cast in the double role of Jackson/Kirk in Wendy Macleod’s Women in Jeopardy at The Shaker Bridge Theatre in New Hampshire last spring.
Bristol Pomeroy, who played Richard Middleman Sr, continues to be considered for TV and stage roles.
Prop Master Joey Paradise moved on to FRAGMENTS, a play about a woman with Alzheimer’s remembering being a girl in Austria during WWII. He also joined the New York company of Jersey Boys as a stage management sub and is working as a consultant and script doctor.
Ralph Meizler, our amazing Stage Manager, is currently in rehearsals for the touring company of Broadway hit Frozen.
Mary Hodges, who played Sarah, has been Assistant Director on Slave Play as it has made its way to Broadway! She can also be seen playing Judge Anita Wright on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
I also asked some members of my production team to send in their reflections.
Sue Conover Marinello, Producer
In the year since producing Onaje at FringeNYC in 2018, I have marveled at the amazing bonds this project formed. This story, the poetry of this writer, the vision of this production united us. The cast, the crew, the writer, the audience — so many wonderful people who make theatre possible — are joined in the shared experience that is Onaje. While this play highlights specific events that take place on the backdrop of an actual historical riot, Onaje joins us all in a shared history and quest to create a better America and world. It strives to imagine a reality where people respect one another.
To produce Onaje at FringeNYC was intense and wonderful. To continue to move this project forward to its next production is inspiring. The magic of theatre is borne out of hard work, focus, play, experimentation, and precision. Through 2019, Onaje has grown. I am grateful for those strong 2018 bonds, and look forward to 2020 as producers, cast, crew, writer and audience will once again unite to make theatre possible.
Katie Marinello, Social Media Manager
Onaje was a life-changing experience for me. Bob and Sue took a chance, letting me be their social media manager while balancing a full-time job. I learned so much in such a short time as we sold out tickets, grew our following, and increased engagement. I felt energized in a way I hadn’t in forever. Not only did I get to work with a fabulous group of people and see six dynamic and varied plays in six days, my next client was sitting in the audience at Bob’s play! Since then, I’ve been able to quit my full-time job and launch KT World Communications, LLC, a social and digital communications company. Bob has become a mentor as well as a friend and client and I couldn’t be more grateful. I can’t wait to see what’s next!
Jim Marinello, Assistant and fan
A year ago, I was lucky enough to see Onaje awe audiences night after night. Some of them remember 1967; many didn’t. Audiences came with high expectations, and they were not disappointed. Expectations have only grown since then. I have been a super fan of this piece since I first saw it in a staged reading well before the Fringe, and I am pulling for it to find the right forum and production to present its powerful message to a wider audience.
Informally, we have heard that everyone is doing well. More specifics to come but one year later it is pretty clear that good things come from collaborations with good people.
We thank each and every one of you who made this magic happen. If you have any reflections or updates to share with me, please send them along!
Ever since I finished the operetta with Christian in beautiful San Miguel, Mexico this August I have been having withdrawals. I have been waking up laughing from nightmares because they are in perfect Hallmark Card couplets:
“Happiness is when all your dreams come true/ ❤️❤️❤️
And become the job you really want to do./” ❤️❤️❤️
Instant dry heaves. What has happened to me? I can’t go back to sleep after something so sappy/awful as that. Probably because I’m afraid to… What is my mind trying to tell me? And I think it is permeating other aspects of my life!
“It also seems to happen when, without regrets/ ❤️❤️❤️
You start a blog and confess to dreaming couplets./” ❤️❤️❤️
Terrible! Terrible! OKAY! Think deep! What could be the cause of this?
Last Tuesday at noon on the eighth floor of the National Opera Center at 7th and 29th, I found myself looking out the window as the actors and Kevin R. Free were entering the room behind me. I should have been nervous.
I had reworked the script with Kevin and he had called for a table read to try it out with many new actors he had chosen. The room was on a corner of the building, so I had a view of 7th Avenue heading north and 29th west. From the eighth floor, even the traffic jams and people zigzagging past each other on the street below seemed to provide a calm order which I took for granted.
Kevin took control and the reading began. I decided to just listen. Predictably, but quite remarkably, the gifted actors brought the story from the page and built the characters and the relationships with their inflections. I was hooked. Every one of them was brilliant. They give a new draft its birth.
After discussion and feedback, Kevin, his agent John Essay, our producer Sue Conover Marinello, and I went next door for a drink and quick dinner.
The actors had universally loved the new rewritten play and those who had performed it before had said the already successful play had been substantially improved. Kevin, John, and Sue agreed and made wonderful additional suggestions. Only then did I realize, both the script and I had been on trial.
Being nervous would have been more than appropriate. But somehow the suggestions, the collaboration, and the successful result all were just steps heading for the more perfect production. Ok — so why am I dreaming in the language of heart-throbbing greeting cards? ❤️❤️❤️
The night before, I had been lucky enough to have dinner with Christian. He confirmed that in the second week of November he would have rehearsals of several of our songs for the operetta and then do a recording of them for marketing purposes. We discussed a new opera that he wanted me to sketch out. It all seemed so natural.
I decided to stay another night so I could see and study “Hadestown” which was chosen as this year’s best musical on Broadway. Christian had told me how much he liked and respected it. Without a second thought, I felt it was important for me to stay and study it.
That night after the theater let out, I walked through Times Square to get home. There were mobs and mobs of people taking photographs of each other below a massive screen, which showed the riots in Hong Kong in the constantly bizarre flashing neon that lit up the remainder of night. I felt oddly detached but quite comfortable.
The next afternoon on the way home, I chose a seat on the train that would allow me to look at the town of Havre de Grace as we crossed the river back to Baltimore. The sun was warm through the windows as it occurred to me: maybe all of this was normal. Maybe it was, just as I dozed off…
“Happiness is when all your dreams come true/
And become the job you really want to do./”
And then again, I couldn’t believe it! What is happening to me? I woke up laughing. ❤️❤️❤️
So his fool tells King Lear: ”Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”
I am 72 years old today and one step further into my next life. No not the afterlife… the next step and the opportunity of freedom which that entails. As it’s my birthday, I hope you’ll allow me this time to reflect…
I decided to start this blog several years ago to chronicle what would happen to me in retirement. I loved the practice of law, but concluded that there is a time to retire before you get in people’s way and can’t find the bathroom. I wanted to stay a little bit ahead of that curve so I got out early.
I already knew that eccentricity and determination always trumps a loss of intelligence. So this was my chance to be free to try something entirely different, but I still was not free of trepidation. Delusions of grandeur are a wonderful thing until you start to think you might act on them.
Nonetheless, I first decided I would become a “political force” as a Democrat in an entirely gerrymandered Republican district because I was very concerned about how we, as a country, were being divided by political forces and I was going to change that. This was Trump country. I raised more money than all my Republican opponents combined and knocked on almost 7000 doors for more than a half a year. I was resoundingly defeated and Trump became our president.
Because I obviously had learned nothing about impossibility, next I decided I would become a professional playwright. I bought a Shakespeare coffee mug and applied to the Yale Drama school, fully believing that I would be the oldest applicant ever accepted to Yale’s drama school. I succeeded only in becoming the oldest applicant ever rejected by Yale’s drama school. Nonetheless, I had decided this is what I wanted to do.
Obviously I had to rethink this thing again, with just a little more of my failing intelligence. So I applied to the Commercial Theater Institute (CTI) of New York for a class in producing theater. I had a plan. When the first morning of class broke up the students got lunch and inevitability they talked about what plays they were considering producing. When it came to my turn to talk I informed them I wasn’t considering producing anything. I wanted them to produce me. It worked. The impossible happened. A young producer agreed to read my work, liked it and arranged for professional staged readings in San Francisco and later in New York.
Because I had excelled in something I didn’t want to do and I had completed an introductory class in it, I applied for an advanced class in producing at the prestigious O’Neill Conference in Waterford Connecticut. I got in and there I met Sue Conover Marinello, who produced my play Onaje with great success last year in New York, and Christian De Gré Cardenas of Mind the Art Entertainment who has an amazing history of producing and also writing the music for a number of amazing operettas in New York. Both became friends.
After Sue Conover Marinello’s production of Onaje in New York, Mind the Art commissioned me to write the libretto for an operetta, Vox Populi, a comedy about the seventh deadly sin of pride, for Christian’s music. Last month, Christian and I completed the operetta in San Miguel Mexico.
Because Onaje had done so well, Sue convinced Kevin R. Free, the wonderful NYC director, to read the script. Kevin had fresh and original insights which lead to my reworking the script and his commitment to direct its next production.
The blog has become a happy travelogue. It is a history of mistakes and opportunities. It has taught me that even though I may not succeed in any of this, I’ve lost the fear of failure and each day is more fun than the last. The next step into a new thing is the hardest thing I ever do but it is getting easier with age.