Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pastoral Response to Gay Bashing for Jesus

Did you read the latest nonsense about two more preachers of the Gospel ("Good News") preaching violence and hatred against same-gender loving persons? If not, prepare for some horrifying, odious, and appalling statements delivered in the name of religion. The disturbing comments can be read by clicking the following link:

Curtis Knapp of the New Hope Church in Seneca, KS and Dennis Leatherman (obvious joke will not be inserted, despite great temptation) of the Mountain Lake Church in Oakland, MD are the latest to make vile statements from Christian pulpits demonizing and dehumanizing LBGT people and using violent language against them.

Of course, recently, we have also heard similarly disturbing comments from Sean Harris and Charles Worley, and we know, sadly, that Billy Graham actually endorsed the hateful anti-gay marriage amendment in North Carolina. Not to be left out of the Homophobia Hit Parade, Leatherman and Knapp have now chimed in.

One of these unenlightened souls says the government should kill same-gender loving people because God (famous author, apparently, and instigator of hate according to the diatribe) says so in "his (sic) word."

The other preacher of pugnacity likes the idea of killing queers but admits to follow through with it would be wrong.

I find it interesting (and amusing) that those who pretend their hatred and intolerance of difference are righteous blame their bigotry on a deity who they describe as male and who has no female consort. Mr. God, in their theology, has no Mrs. God, but somehow insists on heterosexual coupling. Funny that...

All snark aside (but in the spirit of needing to laugh to keep from crying, this tragic kind of gay-bashing for Jesus deserves a bit of snark!), these kinds of hateful quips presented in and as homilies show why our ministry at Sunshine Cathedral is so important.

The rhetoric that these peddlers of prejudice are using contributes to violence in our society. The less mature and less well adjusted in society hear these messages and convince themselves they are doing something good when they attack people they perceive to be gay or lesbian.

And the victims aren't limited to those who are attacked by the bullies; there are other victims - those who become so despondent and hopeless because of such verbal abuse directed toward them that they actually try to harm themselves because they can't imagine a lifetime of being targeted simply because they are attracted to (and might fall in love with) persons of their own gender.

To everyone looking for a relevant, contemporary, intellectually honest, ever evolving spirituality that affirms the sacred value of all people and that celebrates genuine love shared between consenting adults regardless of the genders involved, we at Sunshine Cathedral are here for you!

And our message isn't simply that gay is good (and it is part of the wonderful diversity of creation), but that bodies are good, that sexuality is good, that love is good, that thinking is good, that questions are good, that science is good, that learning is good, that life - YOUR LIFE - is good!

Those who use the names of the Sacred to promote fear, hatred, and violence are using those names in vain. Those who quote ancient texts to protect ancient (and modern) prejudices dishonor the very spiritual traditions they claim to represent. Those who say God is love and then teach you in the name of God to hate yourself are perverting what is meant to be "Good News." I say with prophetic authority: Homosexuality is not a sin; but homophobia is!

Let me state it another way: being wired to love someone of your same gender is not wrong, but using religion as an excuse to hate those who are different from you is.

Not all religious communities preach hatred. Not all religious people promote violence. Not all readers of sacred texts read into those texts their own prejudices, insecurities, and bigotry. There is a different kind of church!

"Sunshine Cathedral is a different kind of church, where the past is past and the future has infinite possibilities." Sunshine Cathedral is here to affirm you, to celebrate your uniqueness, and to help quench the fiery darts of hatred and misunderstanding that have been hurled at you.

Continue to support the church that supports you; and continue to share the word that there is a different kind of church in the world - The Sunshine Cathedral.
Yours in shared service,
Durrell SIg
Rev. Durrell Watkins, D.Min.
Senior Minister
Sunshine Cathedral

Monday, May 28, 2012

A Memorial Day Prayer

Memorial Day is a day to remember those who have died in their nation's service.

Today, I honor those Marines and Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen/Airwomen, and members of the Coast Guard who have given their lives when answering their nation's call to service.

Today, I honor those many allies who shared risk with United States service people in various conflicts and who gave their lives for a common cause.

Today, I remember that our "enemies" are not God's enemies, but that all are part of the one human family, and so those who died faithfully serving their countries are also part of my commemorations.

Today, I remember first responders who have rushed into harmful situations to keep their communities safe: firefighters, paramedics and EMTs, and law enforcement officers who sacrificed their lives trying to save others.

Today, I remember those courageous freedom fighters who were not enlisted in an official militia or military but who because they dared to challenge Jim Crow, government control of women's bodies, or a system of sexual apartheid against LBGT persons were killed simply for being who they were or for speaking out for the cause of justice. These brave souls are in my remembrances today.

Today, I even remember those we have lost to other fights, such as the fight against cancer or AIDS. Indeed, I say a prayer today for all the departed; may they rest in peace.

This is Memorial Day, and so, with you, I remember.
And with you, I pray:

I bless the memories of those who have given their lives in service to their country, community, or humankind. And in their names and for the sake of all life I pray, "may peace prevail on earth!" Amen.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Sunshine Cathedral
Senior Minister

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost Reflection

“Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the
served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness
before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.Gandhi

The Pentecost narrative imagines a special moment when the
wind of the spirit blew in a powerful way to invigorate and empower the
young Christian movement. Of course, that movement wasn’t about
worshiping a person or creating a new institution; that movement was
about confronting injustice, offering hope and healing to those in need,
organizing and relieving the poor, and affirming the sacred value of all
people. When we joyfully and selflessly offer ourselves in service, we are
reliving the spirit of Pentecost. When we are so spirit-filled, we are then
the resurrected and returned presence of Christ on earth.

Prayer Treatment
My hands are God’s hands. My life is Spirit in action. My joyful
service is Heaven’s way of blessing our world. Alleluia! Amen.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins

Friday, May 25, 2012

We Will Not Let Homophobia Have the Last Word

Pastor Sean Harris a few weeks ago advised parents in his congregation to humiliate and physically abuse their gay and lesbian children.

More recently, Pastor Charles Worley called the president a "baby killer and a homosexual lover" and said he would like to incarcerate lesbian and gay people until they all died out (not realizing that a significant percentage of every population in every culture in every time in history have been same-gender loving and even if you could kill every queer alive a new generation of LesBiGay people would still come along).

And disappointingly, iconic preacher Billy Graham publicly endorsed the North Carolina amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

30 states now have laws codifying anti-gay discrimination.

You see, I'm asked all the time two questions that I find very frustrating:
1. Is a church like ours really necessary now that more and more churches are "tolerant" of same-gender loving people, and
2. How can we justify our religious community since most of the hateful and violent rhetoric used against gay and lesbian people come from religious leaders?

The four examples above, in my mind, answer the questions.

I'm glad that some churches do not preach against same-gender loving people; that's progress.

I'm glad that some churches are having the discussion about being more inclusive and affirming of same-gender loving people; that's progress.

I'm glad that a few denominations will finally ordain "out" gay and lesbian people; that's progress.

And yet, the violent, hateful, demonizing, dehumanizing, shaming rhetoric heard from the preachers named above remains far too common, and there are still entire denominations, huge religious movements, that are fully committed to opposing equal rights for LBGT people.

So yes, there has been progress. But a place where LBGT people are not merely tolerated or quietly affirmed but enthusiastically celebrated is still needed, and that's OUR ministry!

And how can we justify being religious when so much hate, evil, and bigotry is being promoted in the name of religion? Because religion can be and should be a force for good. Religion can be and should be community building. Religion can and should affirm the sacred value of all people. And since so many people continue to misuse religion as a weapon, we remain committed to redeeming religion, showing that it can yet be used to build up rather than tear down, to heal rather than hurt, to promote justice rather than oppression.

Yes, we support various charities and benevolence activities. Yes, we offer comfort to people in times of crisis. Yes, we support the arts and humanities which uplift people in general. And yes, we offer fun and dynamic worship services that are unlike those of any other churches. And that's all important and we are proud of these amazing achievements.

But we also provide a very unique and special service to the world...we celebrate human diversity, we affirm the sacred value of all people, we tenaciously cling to the power of hope and joy, and we bring people together to lift them up, including and especially LBGT people and their allies. That remains a special and important calling, as relevant today as ever before.

Why do we do what we do? Go back to the beginning of this message and you will know. And then recommit to doing all you can to make Sunshine Cathedral as strong, as healthy, as far reaching, and as effective as we clearly need to be, as the world needs us to be.

God bless the Sunshine Cathedral; and God bless all who make the ministry of Sunshine Cathedral possible. Amen.


Durrell SIg
Rev. Durrell Watkins, D.Min.
Senior Minister
Sunshine Cathedral

Monday, May 21, 2012

Not All Solo Acts Are Created Equal

Guilt: A Love Story (a comedy of terrors)
The Parker Playhouse, Fort Lauderdale
May 19, 2012
This one is harder to write about because I didn’t especially enjoy it. But for its shortcomings, it might actually be as educational (or even more so) than the Lily Tomlin show or Old Jews Telling Jokes.

John Fugelsang bills himself as a political comedian. He is a radio personality (I was not aware of him before this show), a cabaret performer, comic, and actor in regional theatre. He is apparently a regular on cable news programs (MSNBC, FOX, CNN, HLN, etc.). So, he was in town, it was a one person show, I felt compelled to check him out.

Fugelsang opened (to about 200 people in a room that seats 1200) by saying that one person shows are difficult and often terrible because the performer has a political agenda and gets preachy or has a captive audience and uses them as group therapy to work out the performer’s own issues. He then (jokingly?) said, “Tonight’s show is all of that!” And, it was.

The rest of the show then was a personal story about his Catholic upbringing and his feelings about organized religion and his relationship with his mother and his relationship with his wife. For most of us, our introduction to this man was to hear his life story. Honestly, it wasn’t a great way to spend an hour and 45 minutes of non-intermission, rainy weather theatre on a Saturday night.

His anger at the Catholic church was justified, but not necessarily entertaining or even interesting. His story of how his parents met was compelling…his father was a Catholic Brother/history teacher and his mother a Catholic nun/nurse who met and it was love at first sight, but because of their vows they didn’t speak of it for 10 years. The dad finally revealed his feelings of unrequited love and they left their orders and got married and had children, John being the first. So, he was the first child born after they broke their promise to the God of their understanding to be celibate for the rest of their lives. Apparently, that bit of info was used in unhealthy ways against John in his upbringing.

He went on to tell of how his mother guilted him into marrying his lover of 11 years, how his father outlived a prognosis by 5 years because of an experimental procedure in Asia, a time he was nearly arrested for carrying drugs in the airport (marijuana for a sick friend), and about a time he debated racist David Duke on television.

It might have made a better essay or book than a performance. Or, if he had some relationship to the audience, his personal story might have been of more interest. If he was performing in a night club with regular customers, in a church where he had a relationship to the congregation, or if he was more famous (from being on a television sit-com perhaps) then the fictive relationship that exists between star and adoring public would have made his story more compelling, but as it was, it really did seem as if a few of us came out in the rain to hear a stranger tell about how the church had scarred him, how his mother used guilt as a weapon (how incredibly not unique!), and how he had survived some adventures with racists, airport security, and shot gun weddings.

I’ve seen autobiographical performances that were spell-binding, but again, that was because I felt I knew the performer in some way. S/he was part of my community speaking from as well as to the community, or s/he had a special interest in LBGT people or some group to which I claimed membership, or s/he had come into my living room time and again via television (or otherwise into my life through film, literature, radio, or theatre), and so an imaginary bond existed before the performance, or the story itself was at least partly fictional.

For example, when Phyllis Diller would tell stories about her fictive husband “Fang” that bit was often hilarious. But she created a world that invited the audience to be part of it, and as Fang was part of her regular shtick, to hear Diller perform (for many years at least) was to want to hear about Fang (Totie Fields did that with her real life husband who became part of her act, and Bette Midler did it with her “Soph” character based on the stage persona of Sophie Tucker, and Lily Tomlin did recently by weaving personal stories among the skits she created with fictional characters). To tell one’s own story, there must be a connection, I think, and if one does not exist, one must be made before the audience is likely to care about the performer’s plight.

In his book, Getting Your Solo Act Together[1], Michael Kearns gives some Dos and Don’ts of solo performance, and they include:

Don’t write a solo show based on your life as a model.
Do consider a dramaturg or a good writing class.
Do learn the art of self-editing.
Don’t stay on stage more than seventy minutes (pp. 66-67).

After seeing a 105 minute show completely about the life of a man I had never heard of before the show, I now see the wisdom of Kearns’ counsel!

[1] Kearns, Michael. Getting Your Solo Act Together. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997.

Old Jokes Are Sometimes the Best

Old Jews Telling Jokes
Westside Theatre, NYC
May 17, 2012

OJTJ was a real treat. I didn’t know what to expect, and what it turned out to be was something unique in its shameless lack of originality!

The cast of Old Jews…was made up of three people who looked to be in their 70s and 80s, and two people who looked to be about 27 and 35 respectively. So, “Old” Jews Telling Jokes consisted of a cast of people of various ages.

The Off-Broadway house was packed (I don’t think there was an empty seat). The house manager said they have been selling out consistently. There must be a “market” for this type of entertainment.

OJTJ doesn’t have a plot (though at times it can make you plotz from extreme laughter).

The cast members come out, sometimes as solo acts, sometimes as pairs or a trio, a couple of times (but only a couple) as the entire ensemble. And all they do is tell jokes…old jokes…sometimes very well known jokes…but in a particular context.

Each cast member has a single monologue different from the other shtick they perform. These monologues are personal, brief, autobiographical stories about why these old jokes are important to them. Other than these brief serious moments (which sometimes contain humor as well), the rest of the show is just the performance of these old jokes.

One actor (Bill Army) explained that these jokes are meaningful to him because they provided a shared experience of laughter between him and his father while his father was dying. His girlfriend at the time was horrified that they he would be telling his father jokes and laughing with him at such an “inappropriate” time. He said he learned from that experience that there is no inappropriate time to tap into joy.

Another actor (Lenny Wolpe) explained that his father had come to the US from Eastern Europe and wanted to assimilate completely into his new country and culture. So he stopped speaking Yiddish and never taught his children Yiddish. But the one thing he couldn’t give up was the old jokes he brought with him from Europe. They reminded him of his parents who had told them to him, and they not only made him laugh, they made him remember. And so, Lenny continues to cling to the old jokes to remember and honor his father.

Audrey Lynn Weston told of a relationship she had in college with a goy, whose parents found her Judaic background fascinating. They loved off-color jokes but had never heard some of the ones she knew, so she shared with them her old jokes and it was a bonding experience. Later, the boyfriend broke up with her and so she called his parents to tell them and basically to say goodbye; the mother’s response to her about her own son was, “I hope I’m using this word correctly, but if he dumped you he’s a schmuck.” She later married “a nice Jewish boy” and they have two children, a boy and a girl, who were named after the parents of the (Gentile) ex-boyfriend!

The other actors were Marilyn Sokol and Todd Susman.

I really was surprised at how well known some of the jokes were, but to know these jokes have a cultural and historic significance made them seem fresh, even if the punch-line was already known. And to see these actors perform the jokes as if they were original, and sometimes cracking up themselves as if they had never heard the joke they just told made it all very touching as well as amusing.

When I say “old” I mean some of these have to go back to Burlesque and Vaudeville (and the show itself had a vaudevillian quality to it…skits, monologues, jokes, songs…no acrobats or jugglers or dancers or animal tamers, but still, just one bit after another showcasing talent).

Some of the old standards included (and often with a thick Russian or German influenced accent):
A man walks in on his wife having sex with his business partner. He says to the partner, “Sal, I have to, but you?!”

A woman looks out the window of her apartment to see a man driving into the parking lot. He’s gorgeous so she calls him up to her apartment. She brazenly compliments him on his stunning good looks and asks him to remove his shirt so she can admire his physique. The man, flattered, complies. Next she asks him to reveal his “family jewels” as they must be as impressive as the rest of him. Again, he complies. She then takes the jewels in her hands and says (while slapping the tender parts), “Don’t ever park in my parking spot again!”

A man goes to see the doctor and the doctor says to him, “Sir, I’m afraid you are going to have to stop masturbating.” “Why” asks the patient.” “So I can examine you!”

A man is given bad news and worse news by his doctor. Bad news: he has 24 hours to live. Worse news: the doctor forgot to call yesterday to give him the news!
The man rushes home to tell his wife he has mere hours to live and he wants to spend his final moments making passionate love to her. She says, “I don’t think so darling. Unlike you, I have to get up in the morning.”

A man is stranded on a desert island with only a dog and a sheep. After a long period of time, the man gives in to desperate loneliness and decides to romance the sheep. But every time he tries, the dog comes up and bites him on the ankle, preventing intimacies from occurring. One day, a beautiful woman is floating aimlessly on a broken raft in the water, the man swims out, rescues the woman, brings her to the island, and helps her regain her strength. She is so grateful that she says she will do ANYTHING the man asks of her to show her appreciation. “Anything?” asks the man. “Anything!” So he says, “Thank God, here hold this damn dog so I can schtupp the sheep.”

The last one is particularly outrageous in our PC world, but it is also ridiculous, and that is what makes it funny.

The set is simple (actually a bare stage that is transformed from scene to scene as the actors, without benefit of blackout, move set pieces on and off the stage).

There are only a few songs, and they are original, written just for the show.

It was history. It was a nod to vaudeville and pre-television/radio/film entertainments. It was humor. It was communal. It was cultural. It was simple performance (and multi-media…the music was played live by a pianist and scenes were introduced with slides or videos). It showed how simple and how powerful simply communicating to an audience can be. Sometimes, it’s no more complicated than a few heart-felt stories and a series of time tested jokes.

How to Succeed...

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Al Hirschfeld Theatre, NYC
May 16, 2012

My reason for seeing How to Succeed…was kind of silly. I had written  previously about Charles Nelson Reilly[1], and for some strange kind of sentimental purpose I decided I wanted to see a show that he had done early in his career.

For years I didn’t think I would like to see the show. I didn’t see it with Matthew Broderick in the 90s and I didn’t see the 2011 revival with Daniel Radcliffe (until 2012 when Nick Jonas had replaced him) even though I thought I would enjoy seeing Radcliffe perform live, but again, the musical didn’t seem to call out to me.

I had tried to watch the 1967 film version a couple of times and it never held my interest. I never watched more than 15 minutes or so of it before giving up on it (not every stage production translates well to the screen, maybe; or maybe I just didn’t give it a fair shot).

And now (feeling very smug and superior), I was finally going to make myself see it (for Charles!), but with sadness that it had to be with one of the Jonas Brothers (what am I? a Disney Channel watching 5th grade girl?!), still, the show wouldn’t run forever and if I was going to see it I should just be done with it. But in arrogant protest, I bought a cheap seat!

Well, a Wednesday night toward the end of run doesn’t always pack a house, so the ushers told those of us in the cheap seats to move on down…anywhere there was an empty seat. I got a GREAT seat (only about 4 rows behind my favorite seat in the house which is first row, lower Mezzanine); well, at least I got a great seat and didn’t have to pay extra for it. So, let the show be musical Ambien (Zolpidem), I had already received my bit of good luck and was paying tribute to CNR. The evening would be enjoyable no matter what.

As often happens when expectations are low, mine were exceeded. The colors and angular designs of the 1960s were bright and brilliant. The sets and costumes were beautiful (I usually prefer simple, almost bare stages, but sometimes the designers really can enhance the experience and that is exactly what they did for How to Succeed…).

Of course Jonas makes his entrance to not only the music from the orchestra pit but to the screaming of teenage girls throughout the audience (there were about 4 rows of them who had come down from Canada just to see the show, or rather, to see him in the show). I can’t prove it, but I am certain my eyes rolled to express disdain.

But here’s the thing – I don’t believe I have actually ever listened to the Jonas Brothers or to Nick Jonas sing. They are famous as singers, so it should not have surprised me that Nick’s voice is beautiful! OK. Great set, fabulous costumes, and Nick has the voice of an angel. All this and a free upgrade on the seat? It’s a good evening no matter what else happens.

Jonas was the not strongest actor in the cast. In fact, his lines often fell flat, and even his beautiful voice lacked the “booming” quality that the seasoned Broadway pros had (even though as a child he had appeared in musical theatre and has been a concert singer and recording artist for years). But he exuded a charm that was not wasted even on me and he did have a few “stock” facial expressions he would use to good effect throughout the performance. He was adorable, and good enough, with a beautiful if not always well projected voice and he was clearly a draw for young girls. By the end, I was a Nick Jonas fan (more or less).

Beau Bridges was in the cast (having replaced John Laroquette who was doing another play which I also saw), but I’m not sure why. His singing was mediocre. His acting lacked comedic polish. His dancing was clunky (though they seemed to try to feature his stiffness as if that is just how his character would move). Other than bringing name recognition, Bridges did not add much to the overall quality of the production.

The rest of the cast seemed to be seasoned theatre people, some of whom had been in the production since last year. They were wonderful: great singing, great dancing, and believable portrayals with good comic timing. And the story is kind of in the tradition of “let’s tell a cute story with lots of funny lines and weave in some big song and dance numbers” musical theatre, complete with happy ending and heterosexual romance. Still, the dance numbers are amazing and the songs are hummable, especially the eleven o’clock number, “Brotherhood of Man.”

So, it may not have been great theatre, but it was great choreography and dancing, and it was good singing, and it was good sets and lights and costumes. You know what? I guess it was pretty good theatre after all! And, most importantly, I got to share an imaginary moment with Charles Nelson Reilly. Rest in peace, CNR.

The Lyons Roar on Broadway

The Lyons
Cort Theatre, NYC
May 16, 2012

The Lyons was another production that presented an ensemble cast but somehow featured each member of that cast in a way that allowed him or her to shine. The cast included long time theatre veteran Dick Latessa and well known comedic actor Linda Lavin.

The story is tragically comedic, or hilariously tragic. It’s about a dysfunctional family that comes together in the final days of the dying father’s life.

The elderly father has a terminal disease but he and his wife didn’t want to worry their adult children, so they decided to not tell them about it until he was in his final stages. They show up at the hospital knowing that their father is ill, but they discover once they get there that he only has days to live.

This lack of communication is the least of this family’s problems. The daughter is divorced from an abusive husband with whom she longs to reunite (but discovers that isn’t possible once she learns he is seeing someone new – she discovers this when he brings his new lover to her father’s funeral!), one of her children is developmentally delayed (though she is in denial about it), and she is an alcoholic. The parents blame her drinking on her ex-husband but she discloses that she has been a problem drinker since childhood.

The stress of her father’s illness (and soon to follow death) causes the daughter to relapse into drinking and as a result she loses her AA sponsor. She gets a new sponsor who runs away with her mother the day of her father’s funeral!

There is also an adult son who is a failed writer. He has also failed to ever have a real relationship. He has invented two lovers over time but finally has to admit that he has never had a lover and the two he has spoken of over the years are fictional. The second of his pretend lovers however is a real person, but not his real companion. He is simply his neighbor about whom he has fantasized for years. The neighbor is a realtor, so the son arranges to have the realtor show him an apartment and then reveals to him that he has actually been stalking him for years and has invented a relationship between them in his imagination. This so disturbs the realtor that he physically attacks the son leaving him with a ruptured spleen.

But the parents (Lavin and Latessa) have their own issues. The father fell in love with Lavin’s character and she felt “trapped” and couldn’t avoid the romance. She married him but never loved him and eventually she came to hate him. He in turn hated their gay son. The father and mother spend his final days arguing (as a symbol of immortality he wants her to promise to never change the living room furniture, but she has always hated the furniture and assures him there will be new furniture shortly after his demise…this causes him distress and they spend his final days arguing about it).

After his death, the father who had been afraid of “Hell” (though his wife chastises him for this fear – she says, “We’re Jews; Jews don’t believe in Hell!” He answers, “Some do.” And she responds, “We don’t.”) is shown in a brief solo scene in the afterlife. He is alone, but content…not in Hell, and in fact, comforted to have been greeted by someone he didn’t recognize by sight but who he knew by smell to be his father. And other than that strange moment of metaphysics, the father is never heard from again (as might be expected since he is now dead).

In the end, the sister refuses to comfort her injured brother, but does decide to try to attract a dying man in the hospital. The mother, as mentioned earlier, runs away with the daughter’s new AA sponsor, and in lonely desperation, the hospitalized son (recovering from his physical altercation with his pretend boyfriend) reaches out for warmth and compassion from a nurse, who finally, reluctantly, gives them to him. And in their moment of connection, the play ends.

What is genius about this production is that the characters, by description, are not terribly likeable. And yet, when played by these skillful actors, they become people the audience finds humorous, tragic, at times likable, at times pitiable, and at times repugnant.

The father finds some freedom and relief in his final days by swearing…a lot! Apparently swearing was never a habit of his, but in the end, he takes to swearing incessantly, and this bit is something the audience finds amusing.

Lavin’s character, though selfish and cold, is also charming and funny. She knows that her new lover (who is younger than she is) only wants her for her money, and she only wants him for the excitement of being with someone new and doing something impetuous. She has never been in love and even still has no hope of finding love, only escape. And somehow, despite the sadness of it all, I found myself thinking, “Good for you.” Lavin plays the character with such pathos that the viewer wants her to find some measure of happiness, if only from a loveless affair.

The children are just lonely, chronically miserable people who appear to be too broken to ever be whole. Honestly, I didn’t find them as compelling as their parents.

Anyway, Lavin and the rest of cast demonstrate that one has to approach a character without judgment. Lavin can’t judge her character to be cold and heartless; she would have too much contempt for the character to make her interesting to the audience. Latessa’s character has to long for his wife’s love without Latessa judging him to be a pathetic loser, or his swearing won’t be the charming affectation of a dying man but rather just the bitter ramblings of a tragically unhappy person. Lavin and Latessa show that the actor must see the character as fully human (not just villainous or virtuous or humorous or unkind or perpetually angry…the character must be a multi-faceted person with whom the actor can share the experience of humanity) so that s/he can play the character in ways that aren’t just funny or just tragic, but that are as complex as human lives really are.

It’s a dark comedy, but both the darkness and the humor come from truth. Anyone who has felt desperate, unloved, lonely, hopeless, or overwhelmed knows that pain and humor, fear and fantasy, love and hate can be very close companions. The reality of the emotions make the story both funny and sad just as it makes it seem, for at least some of us, hauntingly familiar.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Best Man Really Is The BEST

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, NYC
May 15, 2012

A religious experience! It’s as if the Olympian gods said to one another, “Let’s put on a show!”

First of all: Gore Vidal.

Gore Vidal is the author of twenty-four novels, five plays, many screenplays, more than two hundred essays, and the critically lauded memoir, Palimpsest. Vidal’s United States (Essays 1952-92) won the 1993 National Book Award.[1]

Then, there is more than four centuries of combined theatrical experience on the stage of this production.

Thirdly, the cast is made up of legends: James Earl Jones (he was amazing!), Angela Lansbury (she was amazing, but I have adored her for so many years she could have been terrible and I would have buzzed with pure joy just to see her on the boards, but even so, she was flawless), John Larroquette (always good, maybe under-appreciated, at least by me, until now…he was brilliant), Candice Bergen (loved her for a long time and she did not disappoint in this production), and comedy legend Michael McKean (who gave a good performance too).

I didn’t recognize Kerry Butler, but her performance was strong. I was surprised by my dislike for the performance of Eric McCormack. McCormack’s character was indistinguishable from his “Will” of television’s Will & Grace except that his performance was further tainted by his inability to sustain some sort of dialect he was trying to achieve (he was playing the role of a senator from what we might now call a “red” state). His accent sounded like Canadian Eric McCormack playing New Yorker Will Truman playing, inconsistently, a “good old boy” from Oklahoma or Texas. His was the weakest performance on a stage that was otherwise the banquet hall of the gods. He was rather like the weakest of mortals stumbling into a den of Titans.

The play of course is well-known and shows the soul struggle of one who wants to be elected to public office but doesn’t want to compromise his integrity even as he is constantly advised to do whatever it takes to win office because only the strong deserve it and one can’t do much unless one has the position and authority to make things happen.

The characters are rich:

       The rural “hick” (Jones) who rose to become a popular and seemingly effective president who now, as a former president, is courted mostly for the power of his personal endorsement. He admits to not being disturbed by infidelity, cruelty, dishonesty, or scheming but is rather troubled by leaders who don’t understand people, who aren’t willing to enter into a political fight, and who appear to him to be “stupid.” He also admits (privately) to being an agnostic who has pretended to be a person of faith to win votes and the support of conservative areas of the country. By the end of the play, the former president dies.

       The party bureaucrat (Lansbury) who tries to use her influence with “women voters” to help shape the platform, message, and image of the candidates.

The philandering but civic minded, non-religious, highly principled (when it comes to public life), mostly honest candidate (Larroquette) who won’t stoop to character assassination even when the accusations would probably be true and could benefit his campaign. He is the party’s front runner. His chief aid is played by McKean.

His wife (Bergen) who is delaying divorcing him until after the campaign (and if it’s successful, until after his presidency). Her only stipulation for supporting him is that he cannot bring paramours into the white house nor ever be caught with a mistress. He agrees to her terms. By the end of the play, they have fallen in love with each other again and their relationship is renewed.

The front runner’s closest competition (McCormack). He claims to be religious and a devoted family man, however, he is plagued by rumors of a homosexual affair during his military service. He hopes to keep these rumors out of the public, and if they should be made known he hopes to discredit them; but even though there are skeletons in his closet, he is willing (and determined) to use his opponent’s previous bout with depression against him to prove he is too unstable to handle the high pressure presidency. His wife (Butler) is his accomplice and biggest supporter, though apparently because she wants the prestige of being first lady more than she believes in his vision or skills.

In the end, the former cabinet secretary/party front runner running against a mud-slinging Senator chooses to both undermine his opponent and stand by his principles by pulling out of the race and giving all his delegates to the number three person in the race for the party’s nomination. By staying true to his values and doing what he honestly believes is best for the party and country, at some personal cost to himself, the Secretary/presidential candidate has a moral victory and even saves his troubled marriage in the process.

Though the play was written in the 1960s, it remains as relevant and topical as if had been written in the 21st century. And while it is obviously an ensemble piece, each character is so well written that the actors’ performance of those characters tend to stand out. And James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury brought to the stage an energy, a gravitas, and a confidence that electrified the entire room. More than how they delivered lines, did “business” with props, or responded to other actors in dialogue, what they demonstrated most supremely was a comfort on the stage, a rapport with the audience, a complete identification with their character, and a belief in what the character was trying to accomplish. And those are lessons that can benefit the solo performer as much as the ensemble performer.

Still, for as good as the writing and the performances were, what was the most thrilling for me was seeing legends of the stage come together, work together, and make magic one more time. I hope I will see James Earl Jones or Angela Lansbury perform again, but as he is in his early 80s and she is in her late 80s, I can always treasure the experience of seeing them toward the end of their careers and of realizing that they were as good toward the end as they had ever been.

Lily Tomlin's Still Got "It"

Lily Tomlin
Arscht Center, Miami
May 6, 2012

This was my first time to see Lily Tomlin live. She did not disappoint. The thing that struck me most is that this seventy-two year old woman moved with the agility of an athlete. She walked all over the stage, she stood, she sat, she kneeled, she jumped, reclined, she sat on the floor, she danced, she skipped, and she never stopped talking. A few times she would drop to one knee and raise her arms and bow her head in an exaggerated gesture to the audience (basically claiming success for some zinger she delivered). For over ninety minutes she performed at this pace, and the only sign of fatigue happened briefly when she had to break character to get a drink of water; she covered for it by saying in Edith Anne’s voice, “Forgive Lily; she’s old and can’t make saliva anymore.” Otherwise, she was energetic, nimble, and indefatigable. That alone was an inspiration.

The show was pieced together from several fragments, like an energetic, performance quilt. There was basic stand-up followed by some autobiographical narrative about her childhood (giving the audience a glimpse of her provincial upbringing and family life) followed by the resurrection of characters from her early days of comedic entertainment. One flowed seamlessly into the next and even though she brought characters from the past back to life she simultaneously updated them. For example, Edith Anne now has an iPod and Ernestine no longer works for the phone company but for an insurance company.

Tomlin moved from one character to the next (and from characters to herself, though even her “self” was obviously something of a stage persona) with no costume changes, no special make-up, only a few lighting changes, and almost no props. Her set was very simple, a living room set on stage right, open bare space center stage, and some steps leading to “nowhere” on stage left. Behind the living room set was a set of stairs that led to what was supposed to be Lily’s teenage bedroom.

On the back wall (upstage) there was a screen and on the screen short videos were played; sometimes a vintage video from her earlier work, sometimes a new video of one of her updated characters, sometimes a photograph of her family or of herself as a child or teenager. After a minute or two of a video clip (or a photo), she would launch right back into her live shtick, usually as a continuation of whatever the screen had introduced. Some of her “iconic” monologues were included while most of the performance was new material, or an update of older work.

In addition to comedy monologues, performed memoir, multi-media presentations, some of her classical characters such as Edith Anne, Ernestine, Mrs. Beasley, the Consumer Advocate, Tommy Velour (I love gender-bending performance!), and bits from The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Tomlin also included at the end of her show a question and answer time. Before the show people could write questions on cards and at the end of the show she would read and answer some of them. The final question she read and answered was MINE. I have now been part of a Lily Tomlin performance! (So where’s my royalty check and name in the Playbill?). It was actually a personal thrill.

I was afraid my question was frivolous, silly, certainly “queer”, but she seemed to enjoy talking about it. Not only did she choose to read and answer it, but it may have been the longest time she spent on a question and it was the question that closed the show.

My question was what was it like to work with Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, and Lady Joan Plowright in Tea With Mussolini. Others had asked about her work in Nine to Five, her political views, etc., but she seemed to love having the chance to talk about working with deities of the British theatrical pantheon. She delighted in sharing how Dench and Smith are chain smokers who can’t stop smoking long enough to eat even. She mentioned how the English actors were polite to her (and to Cher, another American in the film), but how they were usually pretty cliquish among themselves. She mentioned Judi Dench’s fair complexion and how she was so taken with the English acting giants that she would walk around with an umbrella trying to shield Dame Judi from the Mediterranean sun. And she laughed that when one of the three members of the British acting triumvirate was unavailable for dinner, that she would be honored to be invited to substitute for the missing person. So if Lady Joan was absent, she might get to have dinner with the chain smoking Smith and Dench, and so on.

True stories, improvisation, skits and sketches in character, multi-media presentations, movement that would exhaust someone half her age, and even a chance to include the audience in the actual performance all made for a delightful evening of entertainment. And, more importantly, gave me many ideas of what to include and how to shape future performances of my own.

God Bless the NAACP

The NAACP Board of Directors has endorsed marriage equality. The Board vote was overwhelmingly affirmative: 62 - 2.
"The NAACP Constitution affirmatively states our objective to ensure the 'political, education, social and economic equality' of all people. Therefore, the NAACP has opposed and will continue to oppose any national, state, local policy or legislative initiative that seeks to codify discrimination or hatred into the law or to remove the Constitutional rights of LGBT citizens. We support marriage equality consistent with equal protection under the law provided under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Further, we strongly affirm the religious freedoms of all people as protected by the First Amendment."
We at Sunshine Cathedral hope for the day when religious and worshiping communities will no longer promote heterosexism and homophobia as religous values, but until that glorious day, we are even more committed to working toward the end of religious prejudices being codified in civil laws. Our prayer for our country is the same as our pledge to it, that there may be "liberty and justice for ALL."
The spiritual leaders of Sunshine Cathedral are proud of and thankful to the leadership of the NAACP for their historic vote on behalf of marriage equality.
Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the U.S. For more information about this amazing organziation, please visit

God bless the NAACP!

In shared service,
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Senior Minister
Sunshine Cathedral

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Good News Follows Bad

Yesterday, I reflected on the disappointment of the passage of North Carolina's Amendment 1 on Tuesday.
Of course, there are states and countries and the District of Columbia that now offer same-sex marriage and more states and munincipalities that offer civil unions or domestic partnerships. It's not enough, but it's progress and it's against that progress that religious fundamentalists and right wing political activists are launching their assaults.

In the Fall, more states will consider marriage equality, and hopefully some of them will choose justice over homophobia. We continue to work for, pray for, and demand "liberty and justice for all."
Toward that noble goal, an amazing thing happened yesterday: for the first time in our nation's history, a sitting US President affirmed support for marriage equality. President Obama said:

What I've come to realize is that for loving, same-sex couples, the denial of marriage
equality means that, in their eyes and the eyes of their children, they are still considered
less than full citizens...So I decided it was time to affirm my personal belief that same-sex
couples should be allowed to marry.

His statement wasn't an executive order or a bill presented to Congress, but it was the power of the "bully pulpit" in action and it was a moral victory for same-gender loving people. His statement may or may not influence the outcome of events in state elections, but it was nevertheless courageous and it should encourage LBGT people and their allies to believe that positive change is still possible.

This is not an endorsement of a political party or a political candidate, but is an expression of gratitude that our president has made progressive movement on the issue and it is an affirmation of hope that more leaders will make similar gestures in support of justice and equality.

Rev. Durrell Watkins, D.Min.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Southerner's Response to Amendment 1

"On Tuesday, North Carolina voters passed a constitutional amendment that defines marriage exclusively between a man and a woman, making North Carolina the 30th state to pass such a ban same-sex marriage." The Huffington Post
I am a Southerner. There, I said it.
I was born to native Arkansan parents in Southwest Arkansas where I spent the first 7 years of my life. I then moved across a county line into East Texas where I remained until I was 18. Then back over the county line to Southwest Arkansas and then deeper into Arkansas to the Ouachita Mountains for college. After college I moved to Dallas for a long stretch, then to Maryland for a year (right at the Mason Dixon line!), then to New Jersey and then New York, and finally to Florida where I live now; but my self-identity has always been pretty firmly "Arkansan" and most of my 45 years have been undeniably "Southern."
Now, what does any of that matter? Because I speak from lived experience when I say that the North Carolina electorate has recently continued the Southern legacy of fearing and hating the "Other."
Delicious food, good music, beautiful geography, and fine universities such as Duke, Vanderbilt, LSU, William & Mary, and Ole Miss are all part of what the South has given us. The South has also provided us with several presidents such as Bill Clinton, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Jimmy Carter, James Madison, Andrew Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, James Monroe, and George Washington (and that doesn't include those who came from Texas, Eisenhower and LBJ, or Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln). I'm a Southerner and proud of the good things the South has produced.
But there is another part of the Southern legacy, and that is fear and hatred of the "Other."
Of course not all people from "Dixie" are racist, sexist, homophobic, or intolerant of religious diversity; but sadly, many are and are very vocal about it. And against that backdrop, equality and justice suffered another defeat in the South yesterday.
Religion often provides the language and the platform for intolerance in the South. Slavery and Jim Crow were both accepted and promoted by "religious" people, and people continue to try to find their particular prejudice in ancient texts (the bible) and then use those texts as an excuse to not only cling to their hatreds but to act openly upon them. I say this not as a sociologist, political scientist, or historian but as a Southerner who heard the language, breathed the air, drank the water, and milled about in the community of intolerance. I know it not as an academic might, but as one who knows one's own heritage.

"Wait!" someone will call out to challenge me, "there is bigotry in the Northeast and in the West and all throughout the Midwest; the South doesn't hold a patent on prejudice." And that push back is fair enough, except I am speaking as a Southerner of a continuing Southern problem. I will let the natives of other areas speak to the social maladies of their regions. Yes, bigotry must be confronted all over; I'm starting with my "neck of the woods."
So, here I am a descendant of racists, misogynists, isolationists and fundamentalists. I am someone who experienced the heterosexism and homohatred of the rural South personally. I am a person who had to struggle against the prejudicial and anti-intellectual religious traditions of my family and geographic region to discover a more inclusive, compassionate, liberating, and justice seeking spirituality. And as such a person, I say that religiously accepted (and often promoted) intolerance of the "Other" is a long-standing problem in the South and we progressives from and in the South must continue to work for change.

Decency, justice, fairness, compassion, tolerance, and sanity all received a devastating blow yesterday. That same devastating blow has been delivered time and again in our history. James Adams said, "That the desires of the majority of the people are often for injustice and inhumanity against the minority, is demonstrated by every page of the history of the whole world." But I also hasten to add: bi-racial marriage was once illegal in many states...that is now behind us. "Sodomy" laws preventing consenting adults from sharing intimacy in the privacy of their own homes were once on the books of many states...that is now behind us. Women were once excluded from the voting booth, child labor was once permitted, there was a time when people could be denied employment or housing because they were Jewish, and people could once be denied service because of their skin color. These atrocities are all a shameful and painful part of our past, a past we now would never allow to be repeated. The "isms" have not all been healed, but we no longer allow them, for the most part, to be legislated or declared "righteous."

Same-gender loving people are the current demonized "Other" in a culture that has always seemed to need demonized "Others." But things do change. And so we keep waiting, and working, and speaking up and reaching out and hoping even when there seems little reason for hope. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). Being Southern is not an excuse for perpetuating oppression. We pledge the republic...ONE nation...INDIVISBLE, with liberty and justice for ALL. Remember? Until we live out the promise of our pledge, we cannot, we must not, and we will not give up.