Thursday, June 27, 2024

The Stonewall Reader

 Source of book: I own this


For the last few years, I have been intentionally reading for Pride Month - and writing as well. I don’t have an index for either, but you can check out my index of books by LGBTQ+ authors here, and my Pride Month posts are in my Miscellaneous Posts page


For the most part, my Pride Month reads have been fiction written by LGBTQ+ authors, but this year I decided to read some non-fiction. 


The Stonewall Reader was edited by the New York Public Library - which was instrumental in collecting primary sources about LGBTQ+ issues in an era when most publications were some combination of obscure, underground, and limited numbers. While the book itself is a basic Penguin paperback, it comes with this lovely pinkish slip cover. Naturally, I had to use my NYPL bookmark while reading it. 


The book contains a variety of material, from excerpts from books to interviews to essays. It is divided into three roughly equal parts. The first is “before Stonewall” - accounts of what life was like for LGBTQ+ people, particularly in New York City. The second is first-hand accounts of the Stonewall uprising from LGBTQ+ people who were there or participated or both. The final section is “after Stonewall,” and is all about what changed because of Stonewall. 


The voices are quite diverse. Men and women, cisgender and transgender, white, black, hispanic, Asian, Jewish, and more. The editors clearly went out of their way to ensure that there was representation, particularly for the more marginalized people within the community - something that many of the authors discuss in the book. 


The result is 44 unique writings. I will admit, that as a cishet guy who grew up Fundie, the perspectives in the book were often unfamiliar. Gay culture isn’t something I grew up around - although I have always had LGBTQ+ people in my life. There is a difference between knowing people, and being an insider, for sure. 


When my wife and I recently visited New York City (my first visit, her second), we visited the Stonewall memorial. And also the nearby Marie’s Crisis Cafe - where Thomas Paine died, and later became a gay bar. Now, it is a piano bar for sing-along Broadway tunes. (Hence why my wife loves it.) It remains gay friendly. If you want a cheap drink, a historical basement bar, and show tunes…check it out. 


There is far too much in this book to even summarize. As I said, it is really broad, even if it does center around the Stonewall uprising. I’ll just hit some highlights. 


Edmund White wrote an introduction, in which he puts the uprising in context - it wasn’t the first, it wasn’t the only, but it did mark a sea change in the gay rights movement. Just like Rosa Parks wasn’t the first bus protester, she was the one who became the face of the movement. 


I just want to finish with one observation: Because of the Stonewall uprising, people saw homosexuals no longer as criminals or sinners or mentally ill, but as something like members of a minority group. It was an oceanic change in thinking. 


The collection opens with a bit from Audre Lorde, which is wonderful - she is such an incredible writer. As far as literary writing goes, this is the best bit in the book. I don’t have any quotes, but her story of being black and gay is compelling and well told. 


Another incredible part of the book is Franklin Kameny’s letter to President Kennedy, advocating for gay rights. He opens his argument with his assertion that gay people are a minority group, and notes that, just like African Americans, he - a gay man - fought for his country during World War Two. 


He goes on to note that, unlike most people in America, gay people are specifically targeted for what amounts to extermination - deprivation of jobs, housing, safety. And this doesn’t just hurt gay people, but it hamstrings the government itself. He was a Harvard trained astronomer who was fired by the government for being gay. 


Under present policies, upon no discernable rational ground, the government is deprived of the services of large numbers of competent, capable citizens - often skilled, highly trained, and talented - and others are forced to contribute to society at far less than their full capacity, simply because in their personal, out-of-working-hours lives they do not conform to narrow, archaic, puritan prejudice and taboo. 


I also liked the story of Barbara Gittings, written by her partner Kay Tobin Lahusen. Gittings was active in the early gay rights movement, and was instrumental in lifting the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness. This line particularly stood out, about the internal disagreement about how to proceed with activism. Should they stick to decriminalization, or assert positive rights?


Also we talked about doing something, such as getting laws changed, to ease things a little. Later we began to claim we were entitled to some rights. I recall that a homosexual bill of rights was the subject of an early gay group conference on the West Coast, and the bill of rights proved to be so controversial the delegates from one group walked out of the meeting. There was still a strong feeling that if we spoke nicely and reasonably and played by the rules of the game, we could persuade heterosexuals that homosexuals were all right as human beings.


She goes on:


Later yet we came to the position that the ‘problem’ of homosexuality isn’t ours at all - it’s society’s, and society should change to accommodate us, not try to change us. This was the era of ‘Gay Is Good.’ Now we were no longer merely responding to the initiatives of others and hoping to be accepted. We were demanding our rights and insisting that society respond to us and deal with us on our own terms.


Gittings and Lahusen in turn interviewed African American activist Ernestine Eckstein. A fascinating part of the discussion is about the problem of treating homosexuality as a disease. 


Eckstein: “So far as I’m concerned, homosexuality is not a sickness. When our groups seek out the therapists and psychologists, to me this is admitting we are ill by the very nature of our preference. And this disturbs me very much.”

Gittings & Lahusen: “What do you think of as a sickness?

Eckstein: “To me, a sickness represents a maladjustment. That would include Negroes who can’t adjust to being Negroes, and homosexuals who can’t adjust to being homosexuals. Such people may fail to adapt or to function properly in a society.” 


It isn’t being gay or black that is problematic, it is suppressing those identities. 


Another one I want to mention is Mario Martino’s story. He is transgender and medically transitioned before it was easy to do so. Unfortunately, his work to change his legal identity did not go smoothly at all. Sadly, his experience with lawyers was very negative - unprofessional, insulting, and they took his money without doing the work. Totally embarrassing to me as a lawyer. 


By the way, here in California, the procedure isn’t difficult, and I am happy to assist with the process. 


One bit of history I was not aware of but learned in this book (there are a lot of others) was that in many places, it was literally against the law to serve alcohol to homosexuals. Say what? But if you think about it, it was also illegal in many places to sell alcohol to Native Americans or African Americans. 


Just like the Lunch Counter Protests, gay people did “sip-ins” where they would demand service. What was amusing is that despite the New York State regulation forbidding it, bars disregarded the law all the time. So one time, a sip-in failed when the manager just laughed and served them the cocktails of their choice. 


Craig Rodwell, who described the sip-ins, was quite a character. He organized the first Pride march, and ran a non-pornographic LGBTQ bookstore in NYC. He also had some interesting advice to young gay people. 


In counseling, he says, “I tell gay people, ‘Be firm with your family. Insist that they come to an understanding of you, that they read certain things, that they meet your friends. Insist that they love you as their son or daughter - which means that they know you!’”


This is good advice, and not just for LGBTQ+ people. Honestly, I wish I had heard it when I was a young man. Before I married and had kids, I really should have sat my parents down and laid down the law. We were not going to live like them, we did not want their advice on personal matters, or their interference in the way we raised our kids. These days, I have a whole list of books I would force them to read if they wanted to be in our lives. (Unfortunately, their minds and hearts are not open to me or my family at this time, or I would pass books their way.) 


The accounts of the Stonewall uprising are fascinating too. I didn’t really know that much about the details - history books tend to mention it, but not get into the specifics. 


For one thing, Stonewall was a mafia-owned joint that watered the drinks, and paid off the cops. One way or another, outside police got involved rather than bought-off locals, which led to the issues in the first place. The “riot” started with customers throwing coins at the cops. Why? It was a mocking derision of their being on the take. “Here’s your bribe, pigs!” was one of the epithets used. And, of course, when the cops broke in, they stole all the cash they could find, including the tips for the waiters. 


Mark Segal also recounts that a drag queen shouted at the cops, “What’s the matter, aren’t you getting any at home?” 


Another important fact about Stonewall is that, unlike the popular consciousness about it, it wasn’t primarily white people involved. As Edmund White puts it:


Then everything changed with the Stonewall uprising toward the end of June 1969. And it wasn’t all those crewneck white boys in the Hamptons and the Pines who changed things, but the black kids and Puerto Rican transvestites who came down to the Village on the subway (the “trainers”), and who were jumpy because of the extreme heat and who’d imagined the police persecutions of the preceding years had finally wound down. The new attacks made them feel angry and betrayed. 


As the gay rights movement gained steam, it drew from the civil rights movement - the experience, the strategy, and in many cases, the same people marched in both. 


White also makes an important observation, one that I think needs to be said more often. 


Just remember that at Stonewall we were defending our right to have fun, to meet each other, and to have sex.


My former pastor used to make the joke that the Puritans were terrified, lest someone somewhere manage to commit a pleasure. American religion still has a lot of the Puritan in it - they are still terrified that somewhere, someone is going to manage to experience sexual pleasure without their express permission. I believe White is correct. There is nothing wrong with us humans wanting to have fun, to be with each other, and to have sex. The key is that we do not harm others in that quest. 


To conclude the accounts of Stonewall, I found an interview of Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a transgender woman, to be an interesting insight into an unfortunate dynamic in society that bled into the gay rights movement. 


And I think one of the things that was interesting is the way that the gay man treats us as transexual women, when the queens were in their attire to be feminine. When they were in their male attire, that same kind of bullshit wouldn’t happen. Like grabbing your ass as you’re walking through the crowd to get to the stage or pulling your jockstrap or digging in your gab to pull your dick out, you know what I mean or reach into your bra and pinch your nipples or take your head and push it down like they’re going to make you suck their dick. When that drag queen is not in her female attire, they don’t do that shit to them. You know, so it’s this whole misogyny thing that they’re doing as guys that guys felt, even to this day, that they felt they could do as guys. With what’s happening in the world now with women are taking their power back, that shit ain’t gonna be happening anymore, you know. 


Moving on to the post-Stonewall section, many of these were written close to our own time, as both a retrospective as to what changed after Stonewall and commentary and philosophy about gay rights and society. 


Martha Shelley’s contribution to “Gay Is Good” is excellent. She argues that tolerance isn’t enough. Full acceptance into society is the goal - and indeed is demanded as a basic human right. 


Liberalism isn’t good enough for us. And we are just beginning to discover it. Your friendly smile of acceptance - from the safe position of heterosexuality - isn’t enough. As long as you cherish that secret belief that you are a little bit better because you sleep with the opposite sex, you are still asleep in your cradle and we will be the nightmare that awakens you. 

We are women and men who, from the time of our earliest memories, have been in revolt against the sex-role structure and nuclear family structure. The roles we have played amongst ourselves, the self-deceit, the compromises and the subterfuges - these have never totally obscured the fact that we exist outside the traditional structure - and our existence threatens it.


Hey, I think I wrote about that idea - that the root of anti-LGBTQ prejudice is misogyny and the enforcement of gender roles and hierarchies. I love her way of pinpointing the issue as well: bigots want to think they are better than LGBTQ people by virtue of what they do with their genitals for pleasure. 


Another passage points out another vital truth: “Straight roles stink.” 


They really do. The idea of saddling a male with the sole responsibility of breadwinning, and telling him his manhood is all about his paycheck stinks. Relegating women to domestic duties stinks. Telling everyone that you have to have a pen!s to be a leader in the church, the home, or society stinks. It hurts everyone. Heterosexuality - in the sense of gender essentialism - just straight up stinks. And it’s fake as hell! 


But the really important thing about being gay is that you are forced to notice how much sex-role differentiation is pure artifice, is nothing but a game. 


And this passage, addressed to heterosexuals, which resonates so much for me. 


It’s difficult for me to understand how you can dig each other as human beings - in a man-woman relationship - how you can relate to each other in spite of your sex roles. It must be awfully difficult to talk to each other, when the woman is trained to repress what the man is trained to express, and vice-versa. Do straight men and women talk to each other? Or does the man talk and the woman nod approvingly? Is love possible between heterosexuals; or is it all a case of women posing as nymphs, earth-mothers, sex-objects, what-have-you; and men writing the poetry of romantic illusions to these walking stereotypes?


The answer to the first question is definitely yes….for a few of us. There are some of us in egalitarian relationships where we actually talk to each other as equals. There are some of us who have rejected sex roles. 


But, she has a point about an awful lot of heterosexual marriages. Particularly the ones where sex roles are worshiped. There are a lot of terrible heterosexual marriages in our world, and gender roles are a significant reason why they are terrible. (Seriously, just read Evangelical books on marriage and sex, and it is easy to see that these bros are having terrible marriages, and their wives worse ones.)


Steven Dansky, in a later essay, advocates for the abolition of toxic masculinity, which he sees in both the heterosexual world, and the gay world. 


Every man growing up in this culture is programmed to systematically oppress, dehumanize, objectify and rape women. A man’s cock, a biological accident, becomes the modus operandi by which a male child is bestowed with power by this culture. A mere couple of inches of flesh places this male child in a position above half the human race and there is no man who does not benefit and glorify in the power inherent in this birth right. Every expression of manhood is a reassertion of this cock privilege. All men are male supremacists. Gay men are no exception to the maxim. 


The reason that male homosexuality is such a threat to masculinity (in a way that female homosexuality is not) is that it highlights the inability men have to express love for each other in our society. And also the way that we project our emotions into mistreatment of women. While I don’t agree with every bit of Dansky’s analysis, I think there is a lot of truth in what he says. Toxic masculinity is indeed foundational in our culture, as is violence against women. 


Unfortunately, this is also part of the attraction Trump has to men - he embodies cock privilege. Grab ‘em by the pussy! Every time you hear some bro talking about how men can’t be men anymore, listen carefully, because it is usually cock privilege they are wanting to get back. 


Another one from this section that I loved was the Statement of Purpose for the Gay Liberation Front, written by Harry Hay. Here is a particularly great section:


Community of Interest: We are in total opposition to America’s white racism, to poverty, hunger, the systematic destruction of our patrimony; we oppose the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and are in total opposition to wars of aggression and imperialism, whoever pursues them. We support the demands of Blacks, Chicanos, Orientals, Women, Youth, Senior Citizens, and others demanding their full rights as human beings. We join in their struggle, and shall actively seek coalition to pursue these goals. 


I’m cishet, and I could totally sign on to such a statement. 


Next up is an excerpt from When We Were Outlaws by Jeanne Cordova. At a protest in Los Angeles, an aging bearded douchebro starts screaming at the protesters. (The more things change…) She enlists some friends to assist. 


I pointed toward my Aryan. “Go kiss him. Get him back into his car so our people can cross the intersection.” 

The gaggle of queens descended upon the tall, now speechless blond. One stroked his arm, another pinched his butt. The muscled straight guy shrank from the queens. The only safe place was in his car. Quickly, he jumped back in, slammed the door, raised the windows, and locked himself in. Drag-phobia had saved the day!


That one made me laugh. Fuck around and find out. 


Also in this story was another interesting thing most people do not know or understand about the law. 


What is the meaning of “sodomy”? 


As that great philosopher Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 


In the various laws throughout history in the United States and elsewhere, “sodomy” was defined as oral or anal copulation. 


By anyone. 


So, if you gave your husband a bl@wjob, you committed sodomy. If your husband went down on you, you committed sodomy. Gender didn’t matter. 


Well, mostly. In practice, sodomy laws were only enforced in certain cases. For much of history, it was only applied to non-consensual acts. It was a way to get a rape prosecution without requiring a pen!s in a vagina. 


But in some places, it was also used to persecute gay couples. That was the case in the Lawrence v. Texas case that decriminalized gay sex back in the 1980s. And is also one of the cases that “Uncle” Clarence Thomas thinks should be reversed. 


So, as part of the activism described in this essay, three couples challenged the California law by confessing to “sodomy” - one gay couple, one lesbian couple, and one heterosexual couple. A few months later, Governor Jerry Brown signed an order overturning the laws. 


Another great story is one by Tommi Mecca, about the time that he got arrested for being gay, but was let go because the cop knew his homophobic uncle. In that story is an observation that really rings true today. 


Police raided gay bars when the owners didn’t come through with their payoffs or around election time, so that politicians could prove they were “cleaning up” so-called vice. In big cities today, politicians go after the homeless in the same way whenever they need to win points with their base. 


Mic drop. Just scapegoat the down and out, the marginalized. I mean, it’s literally the Republican platform at this point. 


I also loved the story of John Fryer, a gay psychiatrist who put his career on the line to lobby for the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses. He did so in disguise, but there was still a chance his identity could have been discovered. He talked about how living in the closet was like “N----r Syndrome” - where a black person with lighter skin will try to “pass” as white, all the while living in terror of being discovered. As he notes, the change needs to come from society, in both cases. Neither black people nor gay people should be treated as less than fully equal. 


I’ll end with the final essay in the book, by African American lesbian Chirlane McCray. It is both heart-rending and hopeful. Her parents struggled to accept her identity for years, with her mother finally coming around. Her father was polite, but still clearly bigoted. (For example, unmarried children couldn’t share a room with a partner while visiting - and since this was before gay marriage, she was forever excluded from that.) Her rejection by her father resonates with me, as a child rejected by his parents. 


Although I love and respect my father, I can’t live the life he wants me to, nor will I seek his approval. His attitude is not just conservative or old fashioned, but closed. 


At the heart of my own estrangement is my refusal (and my wife’s refusal) to live the live my parents want me to. I have given up on ever having their approval. And the attitude at issue isn’t just conservative or old fashioned - it is completely closed to anything outside their narrow cultural preferences as dictated by the religious and political charlatans they follow. 


I haven’t given up on bringing my father around, since I have seen him changing his attitudes toward others who haven’t met his standards previously. But I am still torn between wanting to spend time with my mother and not wanting to see him….I am optimistic about my relationship with both my parents. I may not have turned out exactly as they dreamed, but I do have what they seemed to want most for their children - love and happiness. 


I wish I could say the same, but I can’t. I am not optimistic, and I have come to realize that my parents never really wanted love and happiness for me. They wanted my life to validate them and their choices and preferences - they wanted a clone who never talked back, never made them uncomfortable. I could never be that person. It is sad, but it is what it is. 


I didn’t mean to talk that much about myself in this post - and I realize that I would have had it FAR worse if I had been gay or transgender. That is the sadness of this book, is that despite the progress that has been made, there is an ongoing hateful backlash against LGBTQ+ people, intent on forcing them from society, and even exterminating them. 


But Stonewall is a reminder that every oppressed group can find a way toward a better society - but they have to make the mainstream very uncomfortable, to stand up and demand equality and acceptance. It is possible, and all of us who want to live in a better world - whether we are gay, trans, or a mediocre cishet white guy like men - have a responsibility to do what we can to make that happen. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange

Source of book: I own this

Wandering Stars was the selection for our book club this month. We previously read Tommy Orange’s first book, There There, before the pandemic, so we were generally eager to read this one. Some of those who missed reading the first book did so at this time. In my opinion, it is best to read the first one first, because the second one is both a prequel and a sequel to the first one. But the books can stand alone as well. 


Wandering Stars starts off with the Sand Creek Massacre, continues with the forced education of Native children (“kill the Indian to save the man”, and eventually the migration to Oakland - thus filling in the four or so generations before the characters in There There. This section is the first third of the book. It ends with the childhoods of Opal and Jackie - the grandmothers in the first book. 


The second two thirds follows the lives of the three brothers - Orvil, Loother, and Lony - after the mass shooting at the Pow Wow that ends the first book. 


Orvil was gravely wounded, but survived, albeit traumatized and now addicted to painkillers. Loother seems to have the most intact psyche, but he has largely withdrawn from the family. Lony is turning into a mystic, and has started cutting himself. 


We also continue with Jacquie, who has miraculously managed to stay sober for an extended period. Opal, who continues to hold the family together, has been diagnosed with the cancer that killed her mother, and has less bandwidth to monitor and care for the boys. 


I won’t spoil the rest of the plot, but the fates of all of these characters hang in the balance throughout the book, as does that of Sean, a mixed-race adopted boy who becomes the friend - and drug source - of Orvil. (Sean has his own trauma: his mother died horribly of an early-onset dementia, his dad is a professional drug dealer after losing his pharmacist job, and his older brother looks down on him for not being “blood.”) 


Tommy Orange’s writing is excellent. In particular, his writing about addiction is so very real and nuanced. I am not sure if Orange himself struggled with addiction, but he has said that it runs in his family. He avoids simplistic and simple answers, and neither excuses nor condemns. Likewise for the effects of trauma - there is always more going on than a simple “man up” or victimhood. Things are complicated. 


The title of the book comes from, of all places, the book of Jude, in the New Testament. It’s a rather weird book, full of references to angels fucking human women - those “wandering stars.” The earliest ancestor in the book names himself Jude after this book, finding in the language something too “foreign” to be truly a part of the white man’s religion that has been forced on him. 


A theme that runs through the book is that of running away. Jude runs away from the massacre, Charles runs away from a Native ceremony that goes awry, Victoria flees to Oakland first, then from her employers who want her unborn child, Jacquie buries her pain in alcohol, Jamie does the same and dies of her addiction, Loother hides in his love for his girlfriend, Lony in his mysticism and eventual flight from the family altogether, Orvil runs to drugs. And on it goes, down the generations. 


The book is not without hope, though - through it all, for the most part, the characters find their way and their identities. And the relics of the past are rediscovered and tie the family together in its own way. 


There are some fascinating lines in the book, insights into the experience of being human, and being a marginalized human. The first one is this one, in the last episode of the first part, regarding Victoria Bear Shield, who will become the mother of Opal and Jacquie. Her early experiences with men are, like that of so many women, appalling. Victoria fights back, though. 


Find ways to get back at them. Leak the air from their tires, call them in the middle of the night whispering sour nothings, let their dogs out of their yards, drop frozen fish in the open windows of their cars, call out their names on the street then hide; these men who hurt you, who wrong you, who hit you, make them miserable in every way you can. Some would call it spite, for women it will be called spite and being vindictive; while injured men receive their justice and pass out their vengeance, women will be called petty and catty, won’t get to feel the honor a word like revenge endows upon men. 


This is quite the statement. Women are indeed denied the dignity of “revenge” the way men allowed to experience. I am reminded of Nesrine Malik’s observation that white Americans love to look down on the Islamic world because of “honor killings,” completely oblivious to the fact that we in the West have our honor killings just as often - women are primarily killed by male intimate partners. Men are admired in a way, for asserting dominance and punishing women for getting out of line. But women are just catty when they do the same. Or even just fight back. 


Corresponding to this is a passage where Sean, who (surprise!) turns out to be gay or bisexual and non-binary (the book is a bit unclear in the epilogue), rejects the masculinity of his older brother. 


Sometimes it felt like he just wished he did not have to belong to the group of men that made him a part of what Mike was all about. That square-jawed American brutishness, that surly dickishness. Sean had always felt uncomfortable being referred to as a boy, or as a young man. But, and he knew this was the biggest but, feeling nonbinary did not mean he wasn’t a man who directly benefited from being a man. Men were a secret cult. To be a boy being groomed to be a man was to be joining a secret cult against women, and against anything not squarely a man - square-jawed shape into the square-jawed hole. Not every single boy. Not every single man. Not Sean. He didn’t think. But he knew he was a part of it, and could not fully recuse himself from participation in all that it included. 

As a cishet white man, I definitely feel this. I am not much of a “masculine” sort in the way described. I’m a proud Beta, I like cooking and violin and flowers and poetry and ambling in the wilderness and being with my kids, and a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t code as “masculine” these days - although it did so more in the Victorian Era, ironically. 


But I can’t really opt out of the privilege I have. The most I can do is to treat women well, and use what influence I have to make the world better for everyone. 


If Sean wants to opt out of masculinity, Loother wants to opt out of society. This description is fascinating. 


Loother hates that he sees other kids all see-through like the sandwich baggies Jacquie packs those no-crust neat little triangle sandwiches in for their lunches, and that they see it too, that everyone seems to be so aware of it all being so see-through and painful and funny and embarrassing, most of all embarrassing, having to be in school together and paying attention or not paying attention to fashion trends, being active online and liking and following each other there or not, but then also how everyone acts like they’re all not doing it all so see-through, that gets Loother the most, how everyone acts like they’re not feeling too much, and at the same time trying to act like they’re too cool to feel anything. 


God, I’m glad I never have to repeat high school or especially jr. high. Good god no. 


I’ll end with the last bit of the book, where Lony writes a letter to the family after years of absence. He expresses what I have been feeling about my parents’ generation for years - the way they have plundered our future, and then blamed my kids’ generation for it. 


I’ve known what this world’s about. I been running into it. We young ones do. We who hate that we still believe something good could come of it. We the young ones have always suffered, inherited, had to know what it means to be left behind and left with shit and left with weight and left without you or any form of help or helpful policy to bridge what’s between the abyss and anything even resembling justice and equality. 

If only the young survive the selfishness of this dying world, of old whites who always thought they owned the earth, to use and expend whatever they can grasp with their cold dead hands, who’ve always let this country down its hole, to its inevitable collapse. We who inherit the mess, this loss, this deficit, this is my prayer, for forgiveness, we the inheritors of a world abandoned. May we learn to forgive ourselves, so that we lose the weight, so that we might fly, not as birds but as people, get above the weight and carry on, for the next generations, so that we might keep living, stop doing all this dying. 


I have had some older relatives of mine react with fury when I have suggested that once my parents’ generation dies off, there will be a lot more hope that we can actually address the serious issues that face humanity: climate change, growing inequality, dropping life expectancies, low birth rates, and the other burdens they chose to place on the young people. Rather than spend our time (as we do now) on endless culture wars and hatred of white middle class Boomers toward anyone different from them. 


Now that both books are out, they can be read together, as perhaps the first two installments in Orange’s family saga. It will be interesting to see what he writes next. 


Monday, June 24, 2024

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (BCT 2024)

I was surprised looking back to realize that it had been 12 years since I read this play, and, since I am middle aged, I somehow forgot that it was three acts, not two (or five for that matter), and realized at the second intermission that I wasn’t imagining that there was more story. Call it a senior moment or something. 


Anyway, I was looking forward to seeing this one live, as I had not previously. I also haven’t seen any of the movie versions - I’m not that much of a moviegoer, preferring to read in the evenings. 


Bakersfield Community Theater has been a on a bit of a roll lately with some classic productions. Every local theater has its own flavor, so to speak, and role in the community. For BCT, it skews a bit older in audience, and doesn’t do as many musicals or new works. (This isn’t an absolute, just a general tendency, and there is nothing wrong with a niche.) 


I think that BCT is at its best with classic stage works, using veteran actors, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof fit that bill. 


I already wrote a good bit about the plot when I read it - you can read that post here. (And, if you like, perhaps compare who I was a dozen years ago with who I am now…) I won’t reiterate the plot in this post. 


I did have some new insights, however, having seen it live. This play turns very much on dialogue - it is very wordy, and people just talk, and go on and on. I’m not complaining, because Tennessee Williams uses the abundance of words - and indeed the way the characters repeat themselves, doubling back and becoming caught in their own cycles of words and the trauma that underlies them. Since I am a Henry James fan, I actually like this sort of thing, the way the psychology is illuminated in part through the way the characters work out their own thoughts as they speak. 


There are also some things that come alive on stage that might not in a reading. Maggie, for example, is a lot less likable on stage. In this production, Petra Carter makes it clear that Maggie’s motives are far from pristine. Yes, she wants Brick to love her, and is frustrated by her lack of sex and children. But she also is determined that Brick will have his inheritance, and is willing to do nearly anything to get it. 


Brick (Josh Carruthers) and Maggie (Petra Carter)


As far as that goes, there is not a single likable character in this play. Everyone is terrible in their own way. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some characters that are more sympathetic than others. Maggie isn’t really in the wrong, even if I would never ever want to be married to someone like her. (I’m not nearly rich enough to make it worth her while, so no risk.) 


The first act is dominated by an extended dialogue between Maggie and her husband Brick. Except that to call it a “dialogue” is to mischaracterize it. It is really an monologue by Maggie, with Brick trying to avoid getting involved in it. He says a few words, but very few. Most of his role is to grunt and avoid. And drink. Constantly drink. 


I was fascinated by the way this came off in a live production. Petra Carter (last seen as another frustrated and wronged wife in The Crucible), managed to sustain an arc of fury and frustration and longing throughout the entire act - and the sheer memorization to get all of those lines down, and remember where to move on stage was impressive. 


In contrast, Josh Carruthers as Brick (last seen by me in The Importance of Being Earnest) had to do most of his acting without words, pacing on his crutch, drinking, emoting through body language and facial expression. 


I loved the chemistry the two of them had in this play - they really brought the characters fully to life. 


The other central character, who gets a heck of a lot of lines, is Big Daddy, the suddenly mortal plutocrat and patriarch. Mark Price (last seen as the Cowardly Lion) blustered and bullied his way through this role, with a eye patch, and a sense of entitlement perfect for the character. (Also fun: on his facebook page, he has been putting totally inappropriate captions to the still shots from the play - I have been dying laughing at them.) 

 Brick (Josh Carruthers) and Big Daddy (Mark Price)

But the character is deeper than he might appear at first. Yes, he is selfish, entitled, greedy, monomaniacal even; but he also knows Brick all too well - they are very much alike deep down, and the bombast of Big Daddy is a self-protection mechanism every bit as much as Brick’s withdrawal into booze and his own head. 


Thus, I felt very much that small line, where Big Daddy tells Brick that what Brick is really all broken up about isn’t that his friend (and crush) Skipper desired him, or that he committed suicide. Rather, it is that Brick rebuffed Skipper’s advances and feels guilty about it. And not merely that this precipitated the suicide - as bad as that is to have on a conscience - but that, despite all of his protests that he isn’t homosexual, Brick very much is, and very much desired Skipper, and the rebuff was violence to the both of them. (Big Daddy also stops barely short of outright saying that he would have accepted a gay son, which, given everything else he says, is remarkable.) 


The two are also joined by the unhappiness of their marriages. And unfortunately, I agree. As little as I would have wanted to be married to Maggie, Big Mama would have been a thousand times worse. She is like everything I can’t stand about a certain kind of woman from the Evangelical and Southern subcultures. (And no shade on Vickie Stricklind, who directed and played Big Mama - that was good acting, which is why I cringed so much at the character.) 

 Maggie (Petra Carter), Big Mama (Vickie Stricklind), and Mae (Janice Bondurant)

I already mentioned in my previous post that both the doctor and the minister are portrayed very negatively. Both are happy to hang out and feel important at the parties of the rich, but as soon as either is expected to actually provide comfort, they are out of there. While I won’t say that this is my experience with ministers - they vary quite a bit, and I have seen others who humaned up and brought solace in times of trouble. Doctors, though? Don’t get me started on all my wife’s stories about having to force doctors to actually talk with their patients. 


Ben Soelberg and Logan Scott played the doctor and minister, respectively, in this production. Both are minor parts, and they were fine in these limited roles. (I’ll mention Scott’s fall schedule, which included a pair of Shakespeare plays and Lucky in Waiting for Godot. He has the lugubrious schtick down pretty well.) 


Let’s see, who else? Well, Brick’s older brother, Gooper, the successful (and unscrupulous) lawyer, his hyper-gravid wife should be mentioned. And a pair of thoroughly horrid people they are too. Troy Fidis took advantage of being the tallest person in the play to loom and tower and do the thing I get (as a shorter guy) from certain lawyers - that projection of size into personal space in an attempt to intimidate. Very believable.


Janice Bondurant got the role of Mae, visibly pregnant, and maternal in the “see how well I perform femininity” version - the kind who thinks of children as trophies, while she not so secretly dislikes them. Again, another female character I would never want to be married to. (And, unfortunately, I am all too familiar with this behavior - currying favor with parents through children and flattery - unfortunately for me, it is far more effective in my own family than it is in this play.) 

 Reverend Tooker (Logan Scott), Gooper (Troy Fidis), Doctor Baugh (Ben Soelberg), and Mae (Janice Bondurant) 

One might generally think that Williams is a misogynist, given the utter lack of likeability of his female characters. Except that very few of his male characters are endurable either. Certainly, in this play, everyone is terrible. The only somewhat sympathetic male character that comes to mind is Tom in The Glass Menagerie, and that character is pretty obviously a stand-in for the playwright. 


Also, in a rather fascinating turn, Williams (practically unique among his contemporaries) openly insists (through Maggie) that women are entitled to sexual pleasure in marriage just as much as men are. Which is something that far too many men (and far too many Evangelical gurus) pointedly ignore or deny. 


A few other observations. The reason this play is a masterpiece is the way Williams is able to show that every main character is hiding from themselves. Brick is hiding from his sexual orientation by drinking and withdrawing, Maggie is hiding from her terror of poverty by gold digging and hypersexuality, Big Daddy has hidden from his unhappy marriage and fear of death by chasing wealth and bullying his way through life, Big Mama is so fake that it isn’t entirely clear what she is hiding from behind her fantasy of the perfect family where everyone loves each other, Mae is avoiding the drag of being a decent person by being the Perfect Wife and Mother™ and parading her children to that effect, Gooper is hiding from his pain at being rejected by his parents by being competent and thus demanding their approval. 


It’s a mess all around. 


For all the talk in this play, there is precious little genuine connection. Periodically, it looks like something might happen - a few moments between Maggie and Brick, and later between Brick and Big Daddy - but as soon as intimacy looks possible, the characters pull sharply back from it. In the end, the connections are missed, and the cycle of trauma continues. 


Overall, I think this was a good production, with particularly great work by the main characters in bringing Williams’ vision to life. The casting helped this, with actors I have enjoyed in other roles, who seemed particularly suited to play these characters. 


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