STARTING TOMORROW: Race and Town!

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2021

Our Town meets My Hometown: In Sunday's Washington Post, Peter Marks reported on a new book about the Thornton Wilder play, Our Town.

Wilder's Pulitzer-winning play appeared in 1938. It focused on life and death in a small and fictional New Hampshire town in the years before World War I. 

According to Marks, Our Town "is so durable that it remains one of the nation’s most oft-produced plays, and it has been translated into 80 languages." In his new book (it's an oral history), Howard Sherman explores why that is.

Why has Our Town survived and prospered? Why does the play seem to have a universal appeal? At one point in Marks' report, a performer in a recent adaptation links the appeal of the play to this, the age of Trump:

MARKS (1/31/21): In 2017, for instance, Jane Kaczmarek played the Stage Manager in a production by Deaf West Theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse, alongside deaf actress Alexandria Wailes. 

 [...] 

At the time, Donald Trump had become president, Kaczmarek recalled in a telephone interview, “and there was this idea in the production of taking the time to look at each other, to talk to each other, which made it the perfect play to do.”

What made it "the perfect play to do?" Kaczmarek seems to be referring to the famous speech near the end of Our Town.

Emily Webb, who has died in childbirth, has been allowed to return to earth, unseen and unheard, to revisit one day of her previous life. She finds the experience unbearable. 

Revisiting the people she loved, it's she who says that we never take the time to look at each other, to listen to each other. For the record, she's speaking about the people in her immediate household, the people she loved in her immediate (past) life.

It breaks Emily's heart to see her (beloved) mother and father again. It's this painful experience which leads her to say that we never stop to appreciate the joys and the beauties of our lives, which canend at any time. 

For Kaczmarek, this theme made Our Town a perfect vehicle for this, the age of Trump. A bit later, a black actor from a recent production staged in Creole refers to Emily's speech, and a British actor brings the note of race, ethnicity and global politics in:

MARKS: “I love this play,” added [Keith Richard] Smith, who was in the Broadway cast of August Wilson’s “Jitney” early in 2017. “We keep asking the questions: ‘Why are we here? What should we do with the time we have while we’re here?’ It’s that third act, when Emily says, ‘We really don’t look at each other, do we?’ I don’t know where Thornton got that inspiration.”

The impulse to examine the play’s relevant boundaries was tested that same year in Britain, where the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester staged an “Our Town” a few months after a suicide bomber at an Ariana Grande concert killed 22 people there. Director Sarah Frankcom approached Youssef Kerkour, a ­Moroccan-born Englishman who had acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company, to play the Stage Manager with a clearly stated agenda.

“She was upfront about it,” Kerkour recalled via Zoom. “She said, ‘Listen, the reason I want to hire you for this is because you’re a big, bearded man, and you represent what this town is currently afraid of.’ "

The British production was now testing the possible global political relevance of Wilder's small-town in New Hampshire play. 

In Kerkour's account of the British production, the theme that we don't listen to one another has been extended to the idea that we don't stop to look at and listen to those we may frame as the political, racial or ethnic other. Presumably, this resembles what Kaczmarek meant when she said Our Town's central theme made it the perfect play for this age of Trump.

For the record, there is no politics in the original text of Our Town. There's also no reference to "race," and virtually none to ethnicity.

Wilder wrote about life and death in a fictional town whose residents would all have been listed as white. The real-life model for Grover's Corners was apparently Peterborough, New Hampshire, a small town which the Census Bureau lists as 96.0% non-Hispanic white even today.

Decades later, Bruce Springsteen wrote about a different American town.

It would be hard to find a better-written song than Springsteen's My Hometown.  (As a single, it was one of his biggest hits.) His fictional town was apparently patterned on Freehold, New Jersey.

Unlike Grover's Corners, Springsteen's fictional town wasn't all white: 

In '65 tension was running high at my high school.
There was a lot of fights between the black and white
There was nothing you could do.
Two cars at a light on a Saturday night
In the back seat there was a gun.
Words were passed, then a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come 
To my hometown...

At present, and quite appropriately, race is a constant journalistic topic in this, our age of Trump. What did Kaczmarek mean when she said Our Town was the perfect play for this (ongoing) age?

At the very least, she probably meant that we don't listen to one another across the dividing lines of (fervent) political belief.  For many liberals, this will possibly mean that They don't listen to Us. 

We'll join with President Lincoln in suggesting a wider sphere of imperfection. We'll suggest that those of us who live in Our Town may also be disinclined, on occasion, to listen to Those People, the ones in the other towns.

At present, an extremely large amount of The Crazy can be found in those other towns. Here in our own rather self-impressed town, our own flirtations with imperfection will often surface in our discussions of gender and race.

When we launch such discussions, is it possible that we sometimes fail to stop and listen to others? More broadly, is it possible that we may be inclined to go astray in our discussions of gender and race?

At present, extremely large amounts of The Crazy can be found in the other towns. Starting tomorrow, we'll be exploring the things we say, here in our own town, especially on the topic of "race."

Stating the obvious, there's a lot to say on that terrible topic, the source of so much suffering  across the sweep of time and around the globe. But how well do we say those things here in the streets of Our Town? 

Are we sometimes at fault, even here in Our Town? Tomorrow, we'll start by addressing those scare quotes.

Tomorrow: Actually, there's no such thing, doctor says on Democracy Now

 

16 comments:

  1. "Wilder wrote about life and death in a fictional town whose residents would all have been listed as white."

    New Hampshire, in that time period, was 1.4% black. The cast of Our Town is all white, but there may have been black residents of that town, albeit not many. This was a time period when they would not have been noticed, just as Somerby assumes Our Town was all white.

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  2. "It’s that third act, when Emily says, ‘We really don’t look at each other, do we?’ I don’t know where Thornton got that inspiration.”

    Our Town was written in 1938. What was going on in the world in 1938? WWII and the Spanish Civil War in Europe, Japan had invaded China, the Great Depression. Perhaps that's where Thornton Wilder got the inspiration. That's assuming that Somerby contention that politics and disasters make the play more relevant is true. People may need each other more, long for greater sense of connection, during uncertain times of suffering. Just as Emily does.

    Is Somerby a moron?

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  3. "Here in our own rather self-impressed town"

    Somerby claims to be one of us, yet he is the least impressed man in town, when it comes to liberal virtues. So who is it, exactly, who is self-impressed over here?

    I don't recall him ever quoting any liberal saying nice things about liberals. And God knows we criticize each other, all the time. So where did Somerby come up with this meme about us being so self-impressed?

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  4. Has Springsteen ever tried to fire a shotgun from a car?

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  5. "More broadly, is it possible that we may be inclined to go astray in our discussions of gender and race?"

    Somerby today presents no evidence to support this statement. Our Town is manifestly not about race or gender (except that Emily dies in childbirth). Springsteen talks about an actual shooting in his hometown. How does Somerby get from there to "liberals are bad because they talk about race and gender" and why are Trump's people never criticized for their failure to listen to the concerns of liberals, as they clearly do not?

    Again today, it seems like Somerby has filled his column with two artistic works that have nothing in common except they mention a town, then with no linkage whatsoever, ranted at liberals for their concerns about race and gender (exemplified by Springsteen's song lyrics). This is Somerby's formula and he seems to never end a "report" without calling liberals a bunch of names, in this case making us the enemy of Our Town's Emily because we supposedly do not listen. Except that we do. More than Trump supporters, and perhaps more than Somerby, since he doesn't seem to have much idea what liberals think and talk about, what we care about.

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  6. Human connection is most precious when it is threatened.

    That didn't only happen during the early days of Trump's term, when he was deporting people and driving a wedge between family members with his idiocies. It has happened now with covid, not just between those who will and those who won't wear masks, but families who are protecting their loved ones by staying distant, and friends who can no longer gather, and the struggle and loss of those who have no jobs or whose loved ones have been sick or have died. This is a time where Emily's observations may seem ironic (at best) and may rub in our enforced distance, at worst. This is perhaps NOT a good time for Our Town revival. Somerby blunders into this topic with his own unique insensitivities to the concerns of others.

    At heart, Somerby refuses to listen to what black people and women are saying about gender and race. He insists there is no problem, because he has stuck his fingers in his ears and is chanting "la la la, I can't hear you" while BLM is in the streets and women are claiming their seats in the chambers where they have been excluded. And he has the nerve to suggest that returning to the nostalgia of Our Town is a solution to the needs of marginalized and excluded groups, now growing in demographic strength to the point where they can insist upon being heard.

    Somerby is such an asshole. He is the "self-impress" one here, and he has nothing to say to thinking, living, breathing, liberals. That may be why Trump appeals to him so strongly.

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  7. Jane Kaczmarek? Registered Democrat.

    Keith Randolph (not Richard) Smith: well, take a look at his Twitter feed:
    https://mobile.twitter.com/krandolphsmith

    He tweeted or retweeted things like :
    “To overcome racial inequality, we must confront our history. Share this ‪#racialinjustice‬”

    “Patsy Takemoto Mink blazed the trail for Kamala Harris – not famous white woman Susan B. Anthony”

    “Why Native Americans Have Protested Mount Rushmore”

    “The Subtle Linguistics of
    Polite White Supremacy by
    ‪@YawoBrown‬”

    ...well, you get the idea.

    Bruce Springsteen: famous Democrat.

    ...and so on.

    All of the people Somerby singles out here are liberals, urging all of us to “listen to one another across the dividing lines of (fervent) political belief.” Is Somerby mocking them? Because he then says “For many liberals, this will possibly mean that They don't listen to Us.”

    Show me an example - one single example - of Them offering to listen to Us. I’ll wait.

    And while I’m waiting, I will point out the near impossibility of talking to people who think my party are a bunch of baby-eating pedophiles.

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  8. It is one thing to single out for (possibly valid) criticism those individual liberals who may overstate or misstate liberal concerns with race or gender.

    But it is unacceptable for Somerby and the right wing to ascribe the misstatements or overstatements of a few with the actual liberal concerns with social justice, not to mention the outright lies conservatives tell about liberal social justice concerns.

    When liberals say “Racism and sexism are pernicious forces with a long history. Let’s fight them”, a normal person would say “Great idea. How can I help?”

    A conservative says “Why are you calling me a racist?” or “Why do you hate white people?”

    It is bad faith, illogical, and gaslighting all in one.

    Somerby buys this right wing interpretation and by cherry-picking, tries to make his readers believe that that is all there is.

    And, for good measure, he denies there’s any racism at all, because he just doesn’t see “race.” He is truly one of the Great Souls, up there with Lincoln and MLK, neither of whom he actually understands.

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  9. Then there's Tom Lehrer's version or My Home Town
    I really have a yen
    To go back once again
    Back to the place where no one wears a frown
    To see once more those super-special just plain folks
    In my home town
    No fellow could ignore
    The little girl next door
    She sure looked sweet in her first evening gown
    Now there's a charge for what she used to give for free
    In my home town
    I remember Dan
    The druggist on the corner,
    He was never mean or ornery
    He was swell
    He killed his mother-in-law and ground her up real well
    And sprinkled just a bit
    Over each banana split
    The guy that taught us math
    Who never took a bath
    Acquired a certain measure of renown
    And after school he sold the most amazing pictures
    In my home town
    That fellow was no fool
    Who taught our Sunday School
    And neither was our kindly Parson Brown
    We're recording tonight so I have to leave this line out
    In my home town
    I remember Sam
    He was the village idiot
    And though it seems a pity, it was so
    He loved to burn down houses just to watch the glow
    And nothing could be done
    Because he was the mayor's son
    The guy that took a knife
    And monogrammed his wife
    Then dropped her in the pond and watched her drown
    Oh, yes indeed, the people there are just plain folks
    In my home town

    ReplyDelete
  10. Bob loves Black people who were murdered or imprisoned.
    The "others" had no choice but to kill them or lock them up. The bitch and moaners were upset by the liberals and had no other choice but to lock them up or kill them. Liberals should understand them and be nice to them.

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  11. Here is Paul Simon's take:

    "...
    And after it rains, there's a rainbow
    And all of the colors are black
    It's not that the colors aren't there
    It's just imagination they lack
    Everything's the same back in my little town (my little town)
    Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town
    Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town
    In my little town
    I never meant nothin', I was just my father's son
    Savin' my money
    Dreamin' of glory
    Twitchin' like a finger on the trigger of a gun
    Leaving nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town
    Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town
    ...

    Not everyone is nostalgic. There is a reason why towns like the one in the play, Our Town, tend to lose population over time. Making these places the repository of our values may not be the best idea.

    ReplyDelete
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    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Somerby was weeding out the spam for a few days, but now he is back to his lazy ways.

      Delete
  13. “What made it "the perfect play to do?" Kaczmarek seems to be referring to the famous speech near the end of Our Town.”

    After finally reading the Post story, it is clear this is not what Kaczmarek was referring to. Here is the fuller text:

    ‘In 2017, for instance, Jane Kaczmarek played the Stage Manager in a production by Deaf West Theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse, alongside deaf actress Alexandria Wailes.
    “It was a revolutionary idea,” said Kaczmarek, a Yale School of Drama graduate best known as the mom on Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle.” Kaczmarek, one of the dozens of actors Sherman recorded, said that sharing this central role with a deaf actor felt disruptively positive: They had to rely entirely on each other.
    At the time, Donald Trump had become president, Kaczmarek recalled in a telephone interview, “and there was this idea in the production of taking the time to look at each other, to talk to each other, which made it the perfect play to do.”’

    She seemed to be referring to working with a deaf actress, which necessitated taking time with each other as actors, and listening to each other, which she seems to place in opposition to the values of Donald Trump.

    Somerby can’t even report a story about a play without omitting stuff and lying.

    ReplyDelete
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