A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, July 18, 2013

O Rapture!

John Gilkerson died 24 years ago, but he's not forgotten.
Not at Skyline High in Oakland, where he and his best friend, Tom Hanks, starred in a student production of "My Fair Lady." (Hanks played Henry Higgins; Gilkerson played Col. Pickering.)
Nor at Children's Fairyland, where he was a puppeteer (trained by the great Lewis Mahlman himself), costume designer, and the park's artistic director from 1976 to 1980.
And certainly not at The Lamplighters, the Bay Area's award-winning Gilbert & Sullivan company, which is trotting out the costumes he created 30 years ago for a sparkling new production of "Iolanthe" that opens next weekend in Walnut Creek.
"We're updating them a little," says costume designer Christina Weiland, an Oaklander like Gilkerson. "Last month I got an email from our director, Barbara Heroux, that said, 'Don't freak out, but I have this idea of the fairies looking wilder and more feral this time. What do you think?'
"I loved the idea, so I ripped the tutus and spray-painted the fairy wings outdoors to let the wind create random patterns. But it's basically still his design. I hope he would approve."
This is the first Lamplighters gig for Weiland, a longtime performer and designer at the Woodminster Musical Theater in Oakland and the Circus Center in San Francisco, where she gained a reputation as someone who can create costumes that nobody else can figure out how to make, such as the dancing tableware in "Beauty and the Beast."
"I can't believe how beautiful Sullivan's music is," she says. "I find myself humming along while I'm doing the costume fittings because the music is so gorgeous."
And that's the secret of their success: a clever combination of sweet and sour.
Like all G&S operettas, "Iolanthe" appears to be nothing but innocent merriment, but if you listen to Gilbert's words you realize it's actually a savage attack on the British class system.
But the edge is taken off by the lush beauty of Sullivan's music. The result is some of the wittiest – and loveliest- songs you'll ever hear.
Only Gilbert and Sullivan could write this stirring patriotic anthem: "When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte/As every schoolchild can tell/The House of Lords/Throughout the war/Did nothing in particular/And did it very well!"
And only The Lamplighters can perform this material in the deadpan manner that makes it so much funnier than if they had given it the nudge-nudge-wink-wink treatment.
I've said it before, but I'll say it again: The Lamplighters are the best Gilbert & Sullivan company in the world, period. I've seen lots of others, and they basically are nothing but a bunch of singers standing around on the stage looking bored, waiting for their turn to sing their song – known in the theater trade as "park and bark."
Not The Lamplighters. Yes, the singers all have operatic quality voices, even in the chorus. And yes, the orchestra is tighter than the Rolling Stones. But in addition, The Lamplighters actually act!
"Iolanthe" will play at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek August 2, 3 and 4; the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts August 10 and 11; the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco August 16, 17 and 18; and the Bankhead Theater in Livermore August 24 and 25.
Check it out.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Miscarriage Of Justice

To the great disappointment of right wing fear mongers everywhere, the African American community did not explode in violence after the Zimmerman verdict was announced Saturday night.
Such forbearance speaks volumes about their dignity and patriotism. But how long must a people endure outrage after outrage before they finally give up? Is the answer still blowing in the wind?
The most telling quote came from Trayvon Martin's aunt, who was asked by a reporter if she still believes in the fairness of the American justice system.
She thought for a while and finally replied, "No comment."
My heart sank when I heard that because she's right. It's now clear, if it wasn't already, that it's open season on young black men. And what's more, it always has been.
Look at the recent record:
2009: 23-year-old Oscar Grant is shot in the back in Oakland while lying face down, arms tied behind his back, by a BART policeman who serves only 11 months for the crime.
2012: 18-year-old Ramarley Graham shot and killed in the bathroom of his grandmother's home in New York City while attempting to flush a bag of marijuana down the toilet. He had no weapon, and police did not have a warrant to enter the house. A grand jury charges the officer with manslaughter, but a judge throws out the indictment.
2012: Unarmed 19-year-old college student Kendrick McDade shot by Pasadena police officers and left on the street for a prolonged period without receiving first aid. His last words are "Why did they shoot me?" The officers are initially placed on paid administrative leave but later returned to duty.
2013: Unarmed 16-year-old Kimani Gray is shot four times in the front and side of his body and three times in the back by New York City police officers as he leaves a friend's birthday party. The officers are never charged.
And now this latest miscarriage of justice, which seems to stand for the proposition that an armed citizen is free to stalk other citizens, as long as the stalker is white and the victim is black. If their roles had been reversed, do you think the result would have been the same?
Would the police have failed to investigate? Would the prosecutors have failed to aggressively prosecute the case? For that matter, would Zimmerman have been racially profiled in the first place?
There's a lot of blame to go around:
The police, who gave Zimmerman a pass.
The prosecutors, who never challeged the defense's narrative that Zimmerman was the real victim.
The right wing blogs, who demonized the victim and raised almost a half million dollars so Zimmerman could have the best "expert" witnesses money could buy.
The NRA, which puts guns in the hands of vigilantes and then passes "stand your ground" laws that make it as easy as possible for them to get away with murder.
Our craven and cowardly politicians, who lack the backbone to resist these pressures.
And Hollywood, which reinforces white paranoia by casting people of color over and over as the villains in crime shows.
Thomas Jefferson was no friend of African Americans, but at least he was smart enough to realize that the racial situation in this country is wrong. He wrote, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."