The Gem Of The Ocean

Liz and I went to see August Wilson’s The Gem Of The Ocean at ACT last night, directed by Reuben Santiago-Hudson (of Lackawanna Blues fame). As with all productions I’ve seen at ACT, it was a mixed bag, most of which I attribute to a one-note performance turned out by Michele Shaw, the actress playing Aunt Ester. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Gem Of The Ocean is set in Pittsburgh in 1904, and is the penultimate (in writing order) and first (chronologically) in Wilson’s epic project to write a play about the lives of black Americans for every decade in the 20th century. As with many of Wilson’s plays, the stories of individuals are played out against the background of social and political events. In the case of Gem it is worsening work conditions at a mill that employs many of the black citizens that causes a walkout. A man was accused of stealing a bucket of nails and drowned himself rather than admit to the crime he did not do. At the top of the play a young man from Alabama, Citizen Barlow, tries to get help from Aunt Ester, an old matriarch who is said to “clean people’s souls.” She takes him on a spiritual journey to the City of Bones so he can confront his guilt and fill the hole in his soul.

I don’t want to give away the whole plot, but the other characters are what really make the play sparkle. Ester lives with Black Mary, a strong woman who seems to be Ester’s mentee, and Eli, a former Underground Railroad worker. Solly Two Kings, another escaped slave, is a frequent visitor to the house, and constantly reminds Barlow that there is still a war to be fought for rights and citizenship in the US. The villain of the piece, Caesar, is Black Mary’s brother, a self-made entrepreneur who is charged by the city with keeping the law. His zeal for the job puts him at odds with his own community as he makes ourageous statements like “some niggers were better off under slavery.”

What works about a play like Fences (Wilson’s 1950’s play) is that the social context of the play is integral to all of the characters — they are all inextricably caught up in the movements of their time. Here, by contrast, Ester is almost divorced from reality, and Shaw’s performance brings out the spiritual wanderings and tones down the groundedness. Indeed, it is in those moments where Ester is not having a deep metaphysical connection that Shaw runs roughshod over the lines — her Ester is two people, a priestess and a pushy old woman.

The rest of the cast is significantly better. In particular, Steven Anthony Jones as Solly Two Kings dominated the stage and there was a fire behind his performance that was hard to match. Roslyn Ruff brought that quiet intensity to her performance that was so lacking in Shaw. The actor playing Barlow, Owiso Odera, was the great surprise of the evening — especially when he committed to the unreality of the City of Bones sequence.

There’s more I want to write about the politics in the play, but I’ll wait until I read it. In particular, Caesar is a kind of stand-in for Alan Keyes or Clarence Thomas, a tool of the law rather than a shaper. The juxtaposition (and conflict) between him and the truly radical and revolutionary Solly Two Kings was uneven — a little man with a gun versus a big man who had one notch on his walking stick for each of the over 60 slaves he helped to free. Wilson is telling us that in 1904 it was clearer than it is now how much work is left to be done — slavery wasn’t so long ago and the wounds were fresh. When Caesar comes with a warrant for Ester, she tells him that she has a piece of paper too, her bill of sale. Just because the law’s written on paper, she reminds him, “don’t make it right.”

an upcoming concert

The concert mentioned earlier now has a website with useful information on it. Hooray for useful information. In case you’re too lazy to click the link:

The Haydn Singers
dir. Paul Flight

a concert in honor of Mozart’s 250th birthday, featuring his Misericordias Domini (K222) and Missa Brevis in F (K192) as well as Haydn’s Partsongs and other music.

Fri., March 10, 8 p.m.
First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto
1140 Cowper Street Palo Alto, CA

Sat., March 11, 8 p.m.
Church of St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley
2005 Berryman Street (at Milvia), Berkeley

Tickets at the door: $15 general, $12 seniors, $10 students

jai yun

I went to Jai Yun last night, and I have to say it was probably the best Chinese meal I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my camera and I missed a lot of the cold plates at the beginning since BART had problems and I had to run there. There are only a few tables in the place, and everyone’s dinner begins at the same time, because the chef has a fixed menu. The restaurant is prix fixe — you specify how much you’ll pay per head and they bring out dish after dish. It’s all small plates, so you get an amazing variety of food, all from around Shanghai. Afterwards the chef comes out of the kitchen and pretty much everyone applauds because the food was so damn good.

The most interesting thing about the meal was that most of the dishes were things I had never tried — abalone with eggs, this crazy grouper, tofu and celery, winter melon with ground pork, shrimp with ginko nuts, and so on. A few of the dishes were “familiar” from more American Chinese restaurants, but even these were wholly different in taste. The kung pao chicken was ridiculously spicy, but managed within that space to find a balance between the black and red pepper flavors. The orange beef thing was crispy thin slices of deep fried beef with a delicate orange flavor that just melted in your mouth.

All in all, it was a mouth-opening and wallet-emptying experience. Maybe I’ll go there again when I’m rich and famous.

mental health and the media

The big news in the Bay Area is that a mother threw her three children into the Bay. She is a schitzophrenic who heard voices, and was living with her children in a shelter.

Naturally we will be treated to same media handwringing about how serious mental illness is and why care not cash will force people like this woman to take her medication. “Is it appropriate to use insanity as a defence if you know you’re insane and should be taking your medicine?” people will ask. Some will opine on the need for reforms in the penal code, and others will wax lyrical about how horrific crimes like these are a sign of social order breaking down.

An interesting perspective can also be found at Angry Black Bitch (via Allie). Nobody will address the endemic problems with the health care system in the US, let alone the mental health care system. Many people have the same attitude towards mental health as they do towards disability, or caring for an extremely elderly relative. They just don’t realize how hard it is, and can’t fathom or refuse to fathom how those people who need help end up cut loose from their families or support net.

Come to think of it, the problem is two-edged. On the one hand, they blame the families of the mentally ill for not taking care of them. But then when this mentally ill person does something bad, they want to blame the person. It’s far easier to blame people than institutions, I guess.

my first baseball game

This probably comes as no surprise to those who know me, but I have never been to a major league baseball game. However, I have been to a few college football, basketball, and vollyball games, so it’s not so much that I am generally sports-illiterate as specifically baseball-illiterate.

Being the baseball nut that she is, Erin insisted that I go to an A’s game while she was visiting, so last night we went with my friend Bobak to see the A’s battle it out with the Mets. It was not much of a battle — the score was 5-0 and Erin called the end time of the game to the minute at 9:30. We had a good time, even though the game was rather fast and uneventful.

The most exciting part was when the Mets were about to score (bases loaded, 1 out, as I recall) and the A’s made a double-play to hold them scoreless. I think that part of the reason I never really got into baseball was the pace of the game — long stretches of nothing, essentially, followed by one or two moments of genuine tension and excitement. It makes for an anaerobic workout. This is, of course, where scoring comes in. Keeping score during a game requires you to pay attention to everything (although depending on the scorecard, the level of detail can vary), and thus you have to be really watching the game. Perhaps I will try it the next time I go.

As it turns out, we should have gone tonight, when bleacher seats are $2 and hotdogs are $1, but I think two games in a row might be a little too much for inexperienced me. But perhaps I will go to another game at some point — I still prefer football and basketball, but baseball has its place too, I suppose.


I went book shopping today — the Mission is littered with them, so I could afford to be picky. Some day later I’ll do a review of all the stores, but some shops I poked my head into today were notable.

Dog-Eared Books gave me a choice of three translations of The Master And Margarita, of which I chose Glenny’s, for better or for worse. It’s the one I read, and is not the most modern, and has no footnotes, but it still moved me. I also picked up a copy of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, to make a pair of books as a present for Liz. For myself I got a play from South Africa called Woza Albert! which I read on the BART ride back. It seems like it would be amazing to watch — two actors perform all of the roles in a story of how the Second Coming happens in South Africa.

Then the hat store on Valencia, where I tried on a pork pie and a stingy-brim fedora. The latter looks better on me, but I had my heart set on a pork pie. Unfortunately, my pocketbook wouldn’t let $79 go floating on a luxury like that, so I had to bid the very nice gentleman who was hitting on me adieu. He did have excellent hat advice though. Maybe next month…

I also peeked into the McSweeney’s pirate store, which was like being in a life-sized version of the magazine. Somehow that which is ironic and witty on the page ends up being gauche and overbearing in person. It’s chock full of tchotchkies and a few publications. An expensive knick-knack store, but piratical in nature. The hats were pretty and had huge floppy brims. The best part of going in was hearing a woman ask one of the employees if they had any crystals. When shown the few crystalline objects, the customer asked “do they mean anything?” I almost laughed out loud, but managed to control myself.

Finally, also McSweeneys related, was Adobe Books, which artist Chris Cobb has rearranged so that all the books are by color. It has to be seen to be believed. Despite the complete disarrangement, I found a copy of Osborne’s A Patriot for Me.

To start things off I had lunch with Ann at Tartine. A grilled sandwich with prosciutto and provolone, macaroons, a merengue with cocoa nibs in it, and a cappuccino. Delish. Of course, now I’m much poorer, but I got to walk around the city, take in the air, and read. I’m much more centered and ready for the trip home tomorrow at the crack of dawn. Time to pack.

advice via ms. randall

Before I rant, a little background. Before becoming my 6th grade homeroom teacher (go team Supernova!) at Urbana Middle School (neé Urbana Junior High), Ms. Randall was an elementary school teacher. While driving out of the teacher’s parking lot in her minivan one afternoon, she hit a child who was careening down the sidewalk in a bicycle. The child was not wearing a helmet and died from the impact. All of this had a profound impact on Ms. Randall — as an educator of children this was about the worst thing that could happen. And so Ms. Randall became a helmet evangelist. It wasn’t that she claimed the child was at fault for not wearing a helmet, but she tried to impress on her audiences that the world is a dangerous place for bicyclists and that we should always wear helmets to mitigate serious injuries. And not soft-shell helmets either, but hard shell helmets that passed stringent crash-test requirements.

Of course, we all thought she was a bit of a nutter, not because she thought helmets were a good idea, but because she was so evangelical about it, and for several other quirks which some of use attributed to the shock of the accident. I suppose that her message must have sunk in though, because I am filled with an irrational rage at Berkeley bikers who don’t wear helmets. Much of this has to do with these bikers’ complete and utter disregard for traffic rules such as right-of-way, one-way streets, stop signs, and yes, even traffic lights. There is a definite positive correlation between lack-of-helmet and this kamikaze approach to city roadways. Perhaps the helmet keeps their brains from sloshing around too much so they can remember traffic laws.

As an aside, let me mention what these confusing traffic laws are: bikes are like any other vehicle. They must stop at stop signs, yield the right of way, and not go the wrong way down one-way streets. I regularly see bikes cruise through busy 4-way stops without even pausing or acknowledging the cars in the cross-direction, dodging though red-lights if there is no oncoming traffic, and cruising the wrong way down one-way streets, occupying an entire lane no less.

The bikes act as if they own this town, and it’s time to stop. I often bike to school, but there’s a line that has to be drawn between making a statement and being stupid. You don’t convince people to start riding their bikes more by acting like arrogant suicidal assholes. If you don’t know how to downshift when you come to an intersection, learn. If you get too tired from stopping and starting, get stronger. And for god’s sake, wear a fucking helmet before some motorist splatters your brains across the asphalt.

Thank you, Ms. Randall.