Yearly Archives: 2009

Let Me Down Easy

Anna Deavere Smith in Let Me Down Easy at Second Stage Theatre (photo Joan Marcus)

Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy represents a departure from the typical tone and trajectory of her “On the Road” cycle of monologues. Smith established her talent in the early ‘90s, after many years working in regional theatres, as an artist/anthropologist who interviews people in community settings and then performs their words verbatim. She argues that people’s language and their voices—their syntax, their inflections, the rhythm of their words and their cadence—reveal their character, and that through meticulously recreating their speech acts in the context of often vexed or conflictual community relations, something of the larger character of America is also revealed.

Smith’s first major success, Fires in the Mirror, for instance, addressed the civil strife between the African American and Chasidic communities of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after the chief rabbi’s motorcade inadvertently hit and killed a young black boy named Gavin Cato.Smith spent time in Crown Heights interviewing people about the incident, all of whom were involved to varying degrees and spoke from opposing points of view. She also interviewed people who simply shared a unique perspective on the tension, including Al Sharpton and Cornel West.

Smith channeled the voices of all the people she interviewed through her own body and vocal impersonations, editing the time she spent with each one into a meaningful bite of sound and then weaving them into a tapestry of character and viewpoints on the central conflict. Smith doesn’t presume to “become” any of these (real) characters. Conventional actors typically ask the audience to suspend its disbelief while they make interior emotional connections that allow them to identify psychologically with the fictional character. Smith works from the outside in, mimicking the complexity of individual language and voice as a way to reveal something human, surprising, and true about people we might suspect of being stereotypical and predictable.

In her second large-scale piece, Twilight, LA, Smith brought a similar anthropological outlook to the civil uprising in Los Angeles after local courts returned a “not guilty” verdict to the police officers accused of beating Rodney King for a traffic violation. For Twilight, Smith’s interviews ranged across and among an even larger community of people, as the Los Angeles uprising crossed community lines and included African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Asian Americans, and white people as subjects with keen perspectives on the events. In a nuanced reference, “Twilight” refers both to the liminal moment between day and night, the in-between time in which crisis perhaps gives rise to social change, and to the gang member whom Smith interviewed as part of the palate of citizens whose perspectives enlightened her and her audiences about the LA events.

Subsequent productions never quite gelled as much as these notable, groundbreaking earlier works. House Arrest, for which Smith interviewed various political players in Washington, DC, during the Clinton administration, felt like a demonstration of her own access to power more than it offered a trenchant view of the operative mentality of those running the nation.

Let Me Down Easy, though, breaks the mold of Smith’s work by foregoing her usual immersion in communities rife with conflict. No “us v. them” structures the play, and no sense of traditional dramatic agon pulls the show from crisis to resolution. Instead, the social crisis of the American medical establishment motivates Smith’s examination; as she notes in the program, the play began as a commission for the Yale School of Medicine. (See also the feature piece by Susan Dominus published in The New York Times MagazineSunday, October 4, 2009–on the internet September 30, 2009–at I also wrote about an earlier version of this piece, presented at the Zach Scott Theatre in Austin, Texas, in The Feminist Spectator.)

But the people she interviews and impersonates demonstrate more subtle and complex perspectives in a social investigation that winds up addressing death, dying, and what we make of our lives before we get there more than it does the failing medical system that purports to give us care. The show, as a result, doesn’t ask the audience to take sides or to consider deeply opposing points of view, as did Fires and Twilight, but lets us muse together for 95 minutes on what defines us as human beings in the face of our inevitable demise.

The people Smith weaves together into this thoughtful human tapestry vary wildly not just by occupation and profession, geography and locale, or by their relative relationships to social power, but also in temperament and character, gender and race, class and accent, which makes each impersonation a pleasant surprise. The play’s theme doesn’t predict who Smith will consult for opinions, and the juxtapositions of speakers’ preoccupations and voices are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and always fascinating and compelling.

In the first six portraits alone, Smith performs James Cone, a famous African American theologian who loves to think about language and what it means to his community and provides Smith with her show’s title; Elizabeth Streb, a white post-modern dancer who accidentally sets herself on fire while performing for her female partner’s birthday party, and finds in her trauma the astonished, boastful pride of a survivor; Lance Armstrong, who sees his body as a nearly mechanical balance of weight and power that demands the most minute calibrations; Sally Jenkins, a sports writer who describes how athletes are driven to burn themselves up in the effort of exertion they make look easy; Eve Ensler, the feminist theatre artist famous for writing the now ubiquitous Vagina Monologues and the V-Day activism that supports annual readings of the play, who shares with Smith her suspicion that anorexia is a plot to rob women and girls of their power, since, as she says, it’s difficult to get much done when you’re only eating a raisin a day; and Brent Williams, an Idaho rodeo rider who wears a cowboy hat and pulls on a beer while he tells Smith about his high threshold for pain.

These characters alone provide a rich collection of stories, insights, accents, and body types.In fact, thinking back, even though Smith is costumed (by Ann Hould-Ward) only with a striped sports jacket for one person, a couple of rings for another, or a hat of some sort for a third, I can see the bull rider’s lanky height, Armstrong’s arrogant muscular slouch, Ensler’s stolid feminist force, Streb’s physical euphoria, Cone’s expansive girth and gestures, and Jenkins’ firecracker countenance and humor as clearly as I remember Smith’s white shirt and black trousers, the neutral palette onto which all these people’s personalities are painted.

In Let Me Down Easy, even more than in her earlier virtuosic performances, Smith seems to have settled in to her informants’ stories and the possibilities of what they might mean, knit together into an evening. She seems to have less of an ax to grind here, ironically. In an historical moment when health care is debated on the front page of every newspaper, and the fractious debate over public options spouts from so many lips, this show doesn’t directly engage the terms of that dispute. As a result, Smith—who vehemently protests her objectivity in productions in which it’s impossible not to presume she doesn’t take one side or the other—appears even-handed and magnanimous with her characters. She seems to enjoy playing them, speaking as them, sharing their insights. The implicit—and sometimes overt—didacticism of Fires and Twilight is absent in Let Me Down Easy.

In fact, Smith’s performance seems filled with an outsized joy, which flatters her virtuosity by almost understating her talent. Each character’s name and the title of their monologue is projected as a superscript on the frame above the stage. Smith (directed by Leonard Foglia) moves fluidly among them, reaching the final comment of each monologue that usually punctuates and often titles the idea at hand. Then she takes off the character’s defining costume piece or prop, lifts the next from the hands of a nondescript female assistant who enters and exits the stage—barefoot, like Smith—delivering each object or bit of apparel, drapes herself in its spell and launches into the spirit she inhabits next. You can see Smith in the interstices between characters. She’s a thoughtful, purposeful, precise presence, the guiding spirit of the piece who’s moved by her appreciation of the people to whom she gives voice and embodies.

Let Me Down Easy is as trenchant a political commentary as any of Smith’s shows, but because she creates an “us” or a “we” instead of the binary of conflicting “thems,” the production feels generous and forgiving, its humor poignant instead of pedantic. Points of view accumulate onstage, rather than replacing one another. The costume pieces and props that index each person literally litter the stage by the play’s end, as each character is haunted by those preceding him or her. The collection of things points to a collectivity of people and perspectives that’s oddly comforting. The show is about death and dying, loss and grief, but also about how we live in the meantime. As each character Smith performs eats, drinks, smokes, and chats, we see people extremely different from one another nonetheless sustaining themselves in simple, basic ways that seem familiar and communal.

Smith had a head cold the afternoon I saw one of the last preview week performances (September 30, 2009). Because she removed the same blue hanky from her pocket to blow her nose as she performed several different characters, it seemed as though they all shared the same cold, an inadvertent but moving coincidence. The gesture also made it easy to remember Smith’s presence, although in this show, she doesn’t seem to want us to forget that she’s there, mediating these stories, providing the vehicle that drops each character into our lives and carries them too quickly back out.

The beautifully crafted production offers a lovely backdrop to Smith’s impersonations. The spare set (by Riccardo Hernandez) includes a modern white couch and coffee table stage right, offset by a white dinner table and chairs stage left, at which several characters take their meal. The warm, intimate setting is framed by five tall screens/mirrors that tilt from the top over the set, vaguely diffusing what spectators see reflected. Sometimes, Smith is seen live in the mirrors, although her image is swirled by some surface distortion; other times, Smith’s character is projected onto the surface as though he or she is looking into a camera. The woody, golden aura is sculpted by subtle, architectural light (by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer), and a soft soundscape textures the play’s aural mood.

The Wednesday matinee audience with whom I watched the play seemed to appreciate Smith’s observations and insights, and she spoke directly to them under the guise of character. Her impersonation of the now late, former governor of Texas, Ann Richards, who nonchalantly describes how she has to preserve her “chi” for herself is a memorable crowd-pleaser, but spectators also responded enthusiastically to the lesser-known characters. Ruth Katz, a patient at Yale New Haven Hospital whose file is lost through staff ineptitude, garnered particular appreciation, as did the plight of physician Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, describing how she waited to be rescued with her patients at Charity Hospital in New Orleans after Katrina hit, and her dawning realization that no one really did care about the poor, elderly people of color for whom she cared.

Toward the play’s end, a few of the monologues seem superfluous, although thinking back, I can’t imagine Let Me Down Easy without any one of the stories. But the 95 minutes feel a bit long by the end, the stories a bit repetitive, even in their differences. Or maybe it’s that the string of tales makes your heart a bit too tender to bear the narratives for much longer.

The penultimate monologue, Trudy Howell’s story about a dying young girl in an orphanage in South Africa who packs her suitcase to go off to see her already deceased mother, leaves an indelible image. Likewise, Smith ends the play performing a Buddhist monk, who demonstrates how life finally runs out by overturning a full tea cup into his palm and letting the liquid pool on the stage floor as the lights around Smith turn green and deep blue.

Let Me Down Easy does justice to its title and to its audience, delivering us into the pointed grace of its ending.

The Feminist Spectator

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“Women in Theatre: Issues for the 21st Century”

Emily Mann's 20 year tenure as Artistic Director of the McCarter Theatre Center will be celebrated at the "Women in Theatre" conference at Princeton University on September 26, available streamed live on the internet. (Photo of Emily Mann by Merri Cyr)

Much remains to be said about the status of women in theatre, a topic that’s seen its way into print once again lately, thanks to a number of synergistic events during the past year or so. First, playwrights Julia Jordan, Sarah Schulman, and their colleagues at New Dramatists got fed up with the lack of representation of women playwrights in Off Broadway theatres in New York, and invited a few artistic directors to come to a town hall-style forum to explain themselves. That gathering got a fair amount of press, and recalled attention to the perennial problem of discrimination against women in theatre.

Shortly after, the press jumped on research conducted by Emily Sands, a Princeton economics graduate who wrote her senior thesis last year on production inequities for women playwrights. Sands’ thesis was widely reported, although some of its findings were skewed to make it seem as though women artistic directors hire fewer women playwrights than male artistic directors, a misinterpretation gleefully touted by the mainstream press.

At the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) joint conference with the American Alliance of Theatre and Education (AATE) in New York in August, at least four or five panels were expressly devoted to feminism and the state of women in theatre. On one panel that I co-organized with Sara Warner, a past-president of ATHE’s Women and Theatre Program, a multi-generational panel of feminist theatre practitioners spoke about their work, its reception, and its relationship to the social movement as it’s changed over time. Deb Margolin (of Split Britches), Sue Perlgut (of It’s All Right to be a Woman Theatre, one of the first feminist theatre collectives in the country), Sharon Bridgforth (of The Austin Project), Roberta Sklar and Sondra Segal (of the influential Women’s Experimental Theatre), and Carmelita Tropicana (Alina Troyano, of the WOW Cafe) discussed their work and to a large extent their lives as feminist theatre workers, and what that’s meant and what they’ve accomplished over the years. The large conference meeting room was packed with people eager to hear them speak.

On August 25th, The League of Professional Theatre Women, New Perspectives Theatre Company, and the Women’s Project sponsored a panel and working group event called “50/50 in 2020: Parity for Women Theatre Artists.” The lively panel and speakers’ astute comments and suggestions for continuing advocacy struck a chord in the large, responsive audience. Susan Jonas, Julie Crosby, Elizabeth Van Dyke, Linda Winer, Alexis Greene, Milly Barranger, and Natatia L. Griffith filled in the history of activism for women in professional theatre; discussed the realities of producing work by women; talked about the paucity of women first-string critics; addressed the importance of knowing the history of women in American theatre; and strategized about how to keep the conversation alive and moving forward.

The latest event to address women in theatre is scheduled to be held at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, on Saturday, September 26th from 9:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. The sold-out event (at 300+ attendees strong) will be streamed live on the internet. The conference web site—which includes a schedule for the day, speakers’ bios, and a wealth of information and links to other advocacy networks—has an icon through which you can connect to the streaming video 15 minutes prior to the event’s start. The welcome and first panel begins at 10:00 a.m. I encourage anyone interested to join us virtually for the event at

I’m including here my welcome note as conference organizer, which is published in the event’s program. After the conference, I hope to blog in more detail about the Princeton meeting, the August 25th panel, and the general issue of advocacy for women in theatre.

Here’s my conference welcome:

I’m delighted to welcome you to Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts for “Women in Theatre: Issues for the 21st Century.” As a feminist critic and scholar whose work has focused on gender and performance, I’ve been invited to, participated in, and organized countless symposia, conferences, and panels over the years that address the too often sorry state of women in theatre. Although the numbers continue to look grim, today’s conversations are meant to accentuate the positive, by bringing together women who’ve achieved considerable success in American (and world) theatre. They’ve been asked to talk about the specifics of their work and their practices, to address what makes their artistry distinctive and exemplary, and to describe how their careers belie the evidence of discrimination that we all know persists. We mean these discussions to be probing, provocative, particular, and inspirational.

My own hope is that “Women in Theatre” will become an on-going conversation at Princeton, one that includes any and all women working in theatre in various ways and locations. Today’s speakers are centralized in regional theatres, Off-Broadway, and Broadway houses, which might be considered the apogee of the field, given its visibility and influence. Emily Mann’s career—and her 20-year tenure as Artistic Director at the McCarter Theatre Center, which we’re honoring and celebrating today—represents the consummate artistry of a woman successful as a writer, director, and administrator on the platform of the country’s largest stages.

Many women who’ve also inspired my own thinking over the years perform, direct, design, and write in “downtown,” experimental, or community-based theatres, where they work with smaller budgets and sometimes more specific audiences. Some of the women speaking today began in such theatres, and now find themselves addressing broader audiences in larger, better financed (although budgets are relative these days) venues.

I’m interested in all of these pathways through which women work in theatre, and all the different forms, styles, genres, contents, contexts, politics, and ideologies that influence our labor and creativity. Gender, of course, represents only one perspective through which to think about inequity. The categories often described as “identity politics” along with gender—race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, ability, and others— influence how theatre is created and produced, seen by spectators and reviewed by critics. But then again, style, preferences, habits, training, connections, and artistic commitments also have an impact on production and reception. What kinds of hierarchies persist, and how might we challenge them to facilitate an ever more thrilling diversity of theatre practice?

Our guests will address these issues today with vigorous energy, and will share creative ideas and articulate insights. I encourage everyone attending to lend your voices to the debates by speaking at the open mikes during session discussions and by affiliating with a networking table or two to continue the conversations over lunch. I also encourage you to visit the conference web site at, where a wealth of information and action ideas is posted, and where the conference proceedings will be archived. The web site also includes instructions for how to join the Women-in-Theatre listserve we’ve established here at Princeton to help circulate information and advocacy plans.

Most importantly, please strengthen your own commitment to this issue by buying tickets to see theatre by and about women, by teaching the plays, by writing about women directors, designers, artistic directors, dramaturgs, performers, and playwrights, supporting them, and promoting them as they generate the vital, necessary, inspiring art of the our collective present and future.

Thanks so much for joining us today.

Jill Dolan
Conference Organizer

Yours in struggle as always,
The Feminist Spectator

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Fox TV’s Glee began its formal run two weeks ago, after attracting a great deal of buzz from its summer premiere teaser. And rightly so. Produced by Ryan Murphy, the creator of the much racier but equally off beat and refreshingly bizarre series Nip/Tuck, Glee’s pleasures come from its characters’ slightly insane quirks and the actors’ fully committed, somehow fully tongue-in-cheek performances. The smart writing creates plausible but slightly skewed situations as, for only one instance, when Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley), the African American diva/belter, (“Effie,” as in Dreamgirls, as a snide subsidiary character calls her) yearns to have a boyfriend and actually thinks she can hook up with Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), the obviously gay chorus boy. Their cross-purposed relationship quickly fails, but offers the kids (and Murphy) a chance to underline the series’ “I’m okay/you’re okay and it’s good to be different” message.

Somehow, the relatively obvious and insistently repeated moral of each episode so far doesn’t feel heavy-handed or get stale, in part because it, too, is delivered with just the right satirical touch, as though Murphy is poking open fun at all those movies in which the “believe in yourself and your dreams” motto is dragged out for the inspirational ending. Each episode of Glee trades in these platitudes satirically enough that you’re encouraged to respond both cynically and sincerely. Glee’s fun comes from its willingness to find earnestness endearing and necessary, rather than allowing the forces of skepticism and apathy to win out.

The narrative threads that develop these meanings are predictable, but always just wrong enough to point out how absurd they’ve always been, not just here in Glee but in any film or TV show that continues to want us to invest in the “follow your dreams” kind of truth. For instance, Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) the hunky but soft and vaguely feminine quarterback who sings like a dream and joins glee club despite his teammates’ fear for his masculinity, might easily remind viewers of the Zac Efron character in the High School Musical films.

Finn, though, is taller and has more bulk, which ironically makes his performances that much more fey. He anchors the club, which consists of a Bad News Bears-style assemblage of mis-matched singers and dancers. Along with the African American diva, Mercedes, and Kurt, the drama queen she thinks she can seduce, glee club includes Artie McAdams (Kevin McHale), a young man in a wheelchair, who rolls and does wheelies while others do their steps; Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), an Asian-American young woman who stutters; and Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), a serious singer who’s in love with Finn and an outsider to the more popular cheerleader crowd that rules McKinley High where the series is set. Rachel, the character’s on-line bio notes, has two fathers.

In fact, Glee flaunts its incipient queerness quite happily. Stephen Tobolowsky performs in a recurring role as Sandy, a proudly swishy teacher who wears pastels and a sweater constantly tied around his shoulders. In the premiere,Sandy was fired for fraternizing with an under-aged male student, but in a recent episode, he returns to McKinley High, since the restraining order requires only that he stay 50 feet away from students. Sandy’s more flamboyant over-the-top middle-aged gayness contrasts nicely with Kurt’s teenage queer style. Although these two are the only explicitly queer characters, Glee addresses in many ways how masculinity is performed and what it means, and each character, happily, stretches the envelope of normativity.

The series’ tone is colored with wistfulness, since the glee club at McKinley High is lead by the tenacious and idealistic Spanish teacher, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), who was the club’s star back in his own high school days. Part of the first three episodes’ comedy come from Will’s insistence that his students replicate his early 80s successes by performing disco numbers. Will is clueless but sweet, and his faith in his ragtag band of performers gives them the courage to, of course, pursue their dreams. Will’s wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), who was his high school sweetheart, desperately wants a child, and concocts a fake pregnancy to pursue her own dream. Will, meanwhile, has an unarticulated crush on his colleague Emma (Jayma Mays), an OCD-plagued, germ-fearing teacher at McKinley who admires Will from not that afar enough for Terri, who notes their mutual affection and uses the fabricated pregnancy to keep Will close.

These adult relationships play out among those of beleaguered high school students fraught with all the typical hormonally-induced crises; among teachers confined by their routines, hoping for something more to grace their lives; and among administrators who suffer funding cuts and a lack of parent confidence that inspires bizarre conciliatory efforts. The school principal plays Moses in each episode, choosing between the conflicting desires of Will and his glee club and the evil Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) and her cheerleading squad, offering resources to whichever teacher seems most likely to endear him to the school’s parents.

Lynch plays one of her best roles outside of the Christopher Guest movies in which she’s a regular, demented ensemble member. As the scheming, megalomaniacal gym teacher, Lynch is costumed in matching Adidas track suits, which change only in color from episode to episode (or scene to scene). She works out on the elliptical machine behind her desk as she instructs her hench-girls—Quinn (Dianna Argon), who’s Finn’s plastic blond girlfriend, and Quinn’s look-alike sidekick—to infiltrate and destroy the glee club on her behalf. But when she climbs down from the machine with a towel thrown jauntily around her neck, it’s clear Sue hasn’t broken a sweat. She doesn’t want to work hard; she just wants herself and her cheering squad to be the center of the school’s attention.

Sue is jealous of any dollar the principal gives to the glee club, and will go to any lengths possible to see the club fail.Lynch’s dry one-liners are hysterical (“I haven’t seen performing that tasteless since I saw an elementary school performance of Hair,” she scoffs after the glee club students perform a sexually explicit dance to “Push It” for a school assembly to encourage more students to join). Lynch is expert at the droll remark, and at making outlandish characters like Sue seem logical and righteous despite their insanity. (That Sue is clearly a big ole dyke goes without saying.)

In last week’s episode, Victor Garber and Debra Monk, two veterans of the American musical theatre, showed up as Will’s loving parents. Garber plays his father as a schleppy would-be lawyer who never pursued his own dreams, and Monk does a perfect comic turn as Will’s sloppy, alcoholic mother. Terri’s pregnancy, which Will and his parents think is real, inspires some heart-to-heart between Will and his dad, as Garber tells Will that being a good dad is what makes a man a man. The two men’s masculinity couldn’t be more dubious, held up against conventional norms—Garber teaches Will about manhood while wearing a red bow tie, and Will embraces his dad fervently before running off to choreograph a number for the boy-group he’s formed. But under the terms of Glee, masculinity includes a love for music, for dancing, for community, and for family. There might be irony in the script and its delivery, but there’s earnestness in the characters’ interactions that’s sincere and even moving.

In last week’s episode, the glee club kids’ impatience with Will’s anachronistic music choices forces them to hire the director of a rival group to choreograph their numbers. Will, dejected, decides to start his own men’s group, which the four guys decide to call “Acafellas.” Turns out that Will, Finn, the gym teacher, and a maintenance man really know how to rock out when they perform their white boys’ hip-hop number for a school assembly. The fun of Glee is that it assumes even the most macho guys want to get up and sing. For instance, Puck (Mark Salling), Finn’s buff, gruff, and pushy teammate, can’t resist putting on a tux and crooning with the other guys. And his singing and dancing only make him sexier (in a hetero way), even when the flamboyant Sandy joins the act and gets the group a chance to open for Josh Groban. It’s as though the canvas of a musical act is capacious enough to let desire manifest itself along a continuum of sexual options.

Sandy botches the gig with Groban, who arrives backstage (playing himself) with his body guard to serve Sandy with still another restraining order. But Glee doesn’t consider Sandy pathetic—just overly romantic in his mis-directed desires. Groban hooks up with Will’s mom, insisting that although people think he’s got a cabal of teenaged girls following him around, Groban actually prefers blowsy middle-aged alcoholics. Monk’s character giggles wetly as they flirt to the episode’s end.

Meanwhile, the glee club kids realize that hiring a hot new director comes with costs too high to finance. The fascist, little-person director is so mean he makes kids at his home high school vomit with fear and dismay during rehearsals. But when he brings his cutting, derogatory style to McKinley’s glee club, the kids resist his derision. The new guy, of course, wants to kick out all the misfits, and doesn’t waste time before he dismisses Mercedes as an Effie-wannabe, Artie as “crippled,” Kurt as queer, and Rachel as needing a nose job.

But as they turn to leave, Rachel realizes that it’s the new director who should be fired instead, as he’ll never replace the liberal, democratic Will in the kids’ affections. Rachel is a Jewish girl—Lea Michele looks a lot like Idina Menzel—who cites Barbra Streisand’s refusal to get a nose job as her own cri de coeur, insisting that her difference is what will make her a star. In fact, she proclaims, the glee kids’ uniqueness comes from their differences, which she embraces as the source of their talent and their pride.

In the face of her rallying cry, all the kids puff out their chests—Artie in his wheelchair, wearing his ubiquitous driving gloves, Mercedes in her radiant, zaftig, belting divadom, Kurt in his queer elaborateness, which only he thinks is a secret, and Finn in his femme-y football hero straightness. They can all get behind being different as their club’s distinctive reason for being. When Will sheepishly but happily returns as their coach, he sets the best earnest example of what it means to ride that difference to your dreams.

Glee’s actors all boast backgrounds in musical theatre, although some have more professional experience than others. Matthew Morrison, who plays Will, performed on Broadway in Hairspray, was nominated for a Tony for his work in Light in the Piazza, and played Lt. Cable in the recent revival of South Pacific. Lea Michele, Glee’s Rachel, received a Drama Desk Award nomination for her performance in Spring Awakening in 2006. Each of the show’s glee clubbers has performed live somewhere, and bring to their roles the authenticity of awkward young people who find themselves electric and at home when they’re on stage.

Glee’s jokes come fast and furious, but always with affection and never truly at a character’s expense. The show is designed in bright, candy colors that underline its satire, and shot at angles that pointedly indicate who’s the good guy and who’s the villain. But often, the villains turn out to be good guys, transformed by the power of singing to find their glowing inner decency.

That’s a moral for a story I can get behind. And the songs are great, too.

The Feminist Spectator

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Hung on HBO

HBO’s new summer series about a man whose anatomy becomes his professional destiny is not the first place I’d look for feminist television programming. And yet Hung turns out to be a wonderfully smart, funny, and indeed feminist story of a down-on-his-luck middle-class white history teacher-basketball coach whose wife divorces him, whose house burns nearly to the ground because of an electrical short in an overloaded extension chord, and who can’t get his life together, financially, emotionally, or pragmatically.

Ray Decker, played by the handsome, valiant Thomas Jane, is an otherwise ordinary man, beset with all the problems of someone whose best years are well behind him. He was a high school baseball star, who married his high school sweetheart, never left the Detroit suburb where he was raised, and in fact lives in a tent in the backyard of the house he inherited from his parents, which burns in a catastrophic fire in the series opener. He’s an average white guy stuck in his own history, who never progressed beyond his teenage success.

His wife, Jessica, the now-faded cheerleader, played by Anne Heche in parodic high dudgeon, has left him for Ronnie (Eddie Jemison), a high school geek who grew up to be a plastic surgeon (he gives Jessica shots of Botox after their morning coffee). Ronnie is short, blinkered, and socially clueless; it’s clear Jessica is more attracted to his money than to his body. Ironically, mid-way through the season, as the economic downturn hits, Ronnie announces that they aren’t rich anymore, leading Jessica’s busy-body mother (who looks like Dr. Ruth and speaks with an inexplicable Eastern European accent) to ask Jessica if she has to keep “giving him sex.” While Jessica dismisses her mother’s concern, in a later scene, as Ronnie rolls her way to nuzzle her ear in their marital bed, Jessica summarily announces that she’s not in the mood, predicting a lot of bad sexual luck in Ronnie’s future.

In an effort to improve his odds financially, Ray enrolls in a how-to-get-rich-quick seminar led by Floyd Gerber (Steve Hytner), whose large teeth, bad haircut, and empty inspiration reads as big-L loser immediately. In the seminar, Ray reconnects with Tanya (Jane Adams), a goofy poet with writer’s block with whom he had and has again a one-night stand. When their second tryst derails emotionally, Tanya’s accusation that all Ray has going for him is a “big dick” begins an entrepreneurial opportunity for both of them. The unlikely couple embarks on an even more unlikely business venture called “Happiness Consultants,” in which Tanya pimps Ray out to various sexually frustrated (or curious) middle-class suburban housewives.

If Ray is hobbled by his own stasis, Tanya’s earnest ambitions are enough to motivate them both. Although she’s a bohemian writer trying to be a vegetarian, she takes her work as Ray’s pimp very seriously. Part of the series’ comedy comes from watching Tanya navigate in the very unfamiliar waters of sexual capitalism. She’s been unable to write for years and works as a permanent temp as a copy editor in a law firm. But starting this business on the side with Ray let’s her aspire to the personal, intellectual, and especially financial freedom that she hopes will enable her creativity. Tanya’s “alternative” values are never belittled by the show’s writers, but her self-taught cutthroat business sense makes for a comic comparison with her otherwise progressive ethics. Tanya has a nasty mother who dismisses her (played by Rhea Perlman) and isn’t particularly pretty (in fact, in most scenes, Adam’s face is made up with a kind of oily sheen), but she’s vital and lively and cares about things in a way that Ray can’t fathom.

The unlikely affection between Tanya and Ray is utterly appealing as they begin to develop a friendship based on their business partnership. Thomas Jane and Jane Adams have great chemistry and work well off each other. The whole cast, in fact, has a nice bead on the show’s quirky humor, which treads a fine line between satirical and sincere. Heche’s Jessica, for example, who still has feelings for Ray, is surprised but generous when Tanya comes to see him coach a basketball game. Tanya joins the strange family easily, befriending Jessica as she cheers awkwardly (for the wrong team).

Ray’s twin kids, Damon (Charlie Saxton) and Darby (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), are disheveled teenage misfits with weird dyed hair and soft, puffy bodies. But their peculiar relationship to both parents, neither of whom knows exactly what to do with them, gives Ray and Jessica something to bond over. When Charlie pierces his tongue, for example, both parents are horrified. Jessica, maintaining her forced cheerleader cheerfulness, doesn’t understand a thing about her alienated, goth-leaning children, but her attempts to reach them prove funny parodies of the over-sharing, trying-too-hard parent. Saxton and Smit-McPhee do a nice job performing the kids’ incredulity at their parents’ stupidity. The kids’ allegiances shift depending on which parent has more money and the most comfortable place to house them.

Hung seems to be a story about failure, about the losers with whom people associate or who they inadvertently become, but the series’ pleasure comes from the small ways in which the characters succeed in each episode, whether sexually or financially, and the little ways in which their kindness toward one another makes their lives worthwhile.

The series also demonstrates perfectly how people perform what they think others want them to be. Ray’s role as the star of Happiness Consultants isn’t natural to his personality.He might be well endowed, but he needs to be tutored by Tanya in how to play the suave, debonair male prostitute they think their clients expect. The writers regularly prove that no one’s interested in his social performance; only his sexual performance matters, and in that, he always succeeds the way he and Tanya promise.

But in each assignation, Ray learns something about himself and about women. Early in their endeavor, on his first visit to a client, Ray balks at her middle-age, plump body, begging off with a cold. After Tanya scolds him about judging people on their appearances, Ray returns, only to find the woman now skittish about following through. She admits she’s sick of her husband’s inability to please her, but only when Ray shows her the goods is she persuaded (and eagerly excited) to complete the transaction.

In fact, none of the women Ray services are conventionally attractive or behave “normally.”Tanya persuades a sexually frustrated, homely proofreader colleague from work that she’d enjoy employing Ray. Their scene together in a hotel room is a gem, as the woman unmasks their meeting as only a fantasy in which she knows Ray is playing a role, but then happily goes along with it by letting go of her own inhibitions and gleefully repeating, “Let’s fuck” until they do. In all of these instances, Ray is happy to comply, and seems vaguely moved at what he sees in these women.

At the same time, although it’s Ray’s anatomy that provides their income, Ray is the objectified sex worker, a nice role-reversal in the cosmic scheme of conventional prostitution or pornography. Ray is not the agent of his own destiny; it’s Tanya who sets up his meetings, and who scolds him when he tries to arrange dates on his own. Tanya interviews potential clients, assessing their needs and how Ray can meet them. If their business is at all successful, it’s because Tanya understands the emotions that drive their clients’ sexual desires and talks Ray through how to satisfy each customer.

In another neat foiling of presumption, Ray falls in love with Jemma (Natalie Zea), a particularly complicated client with a host of unusual demands. When he tries to date her and begins refusing her payments, she purposefully hurts him. A contrite Tanya realizes too late that Jemma’s game is to construct Ray as the victim in their relationship, to avenge her own victimhood in past relationships. But the scenario upends the assumption that for men, sex is only physical, while for women, it’s emotional, since here the roles are exactly reversed. Ray’s hapless naiveté is partly what makes him so appealing. His masculinity isn’t built to handle the situations in which he’s called on to act. He needs Tanya’s help to navigate the emotional currents of his trick’s needs. But he’s charming in part because he rises to each occasion (literally, of course, and figuratively).

Hung is a really a family drama, with a twist that makes it interesting and a perspective that makes it feminist. No one here is starry-eyed about the American Dream; everyone knows that it’s precarious at best, diseased and desiccated at worse. But the series finds something sweet and poignant, rather than resigned and bitter, about the prevailing state of affairs, drawing the characters’ humanity against the odds. In the last episode, Ray, devastated by Jemma’s betrayal, gets drunk in a bar where he’s recognized by an old rival, a man who pitched against him when he was a senior in a high school and still hasn’t gotten over the fact that Ray, who was a freshman, batted his pitch out of the park. In pouring rain, the men head to a baseball field to relive the moment. The older man throws Ray a duffel bag full of balls one by one, and one at a time, Ray hits them away, saying, “Contact,” after he manages to connect with each pitch. The other man’s middle-aged body is paunchy and sagging as he winds up to throw, the outlines of his mortality palpable against his wet shirt. Ray looks only marginally better as he sways over home plate. The men barely speak, but the scene is a wonderful, soggy illustration of lives stuck in place.

Happily, it’s the proto-feminist Tanya who gives them all hope, who swats away references to her own inferior looks (a constructed claim, since Adams is actually very cute), who glows with newly found confidence, who schemes about ways to increase their business, and who engages her clients with tough pragmatism and no-nonsense business ethics. Adams plays beautifully the blooming power of the underdog who comes into her own. In the last episode, as Ray stumbles back to his tent wet and drunk to find Tanya waiting for him with a wad of cash from Jemma, Adams and Jane perform a sweet scene of friendly intimacy, need, and pleasure that portrays one of the most moving, innovative, insightful relationships on television.

Watch Hung.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot. 

Nurse Jackie Revisited

Now that the first season of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie has ended, I was happy to find out that the show has officially been renewed. After I last wrote, the series only got better, more complicated, more darkly funny, and occasionally, poignantly, sad.

One of the most interesting things about Edie Falco’s leading character, Jackie, is that she has no real back story. Although we know that she has a husband and two young daughters with whom she lives above the bar they own in Queens, and that she has a pharmacist lover named Eddie with whom she has sexual trysts every day at work, we don’t know why she keeps her two lives so resolutely separate. We also don’t know why she’s a drug addict, aside from the usual stress (and temptation) that plagues some nurses in chaotic, poorly staffed and resourced city hospitals.

Rather than becoming irritating, however, Jackie’s mystery adds to her allure. She’s an enigma not just for her co-workers—who alternately find her brusque and sensitive, present and distracted—but also for viewers accustomed to having characters’ histories laid out with too many dollops of information. Instead of a pat psychological reason for her odd behavior, we’re asked to go on faith that Jackie needs her life the way it is. The reasons don’t matter, only that she’s able to maintain the fine line of keeping her separate worlds far enough apart and her addiction hidden.

Only halfway through the first season does it become clear that even Jackie’s best friend at work—Dr. Eleanor O’Hara (Eve Best), who’s officially her superior—doesn’t know about her drug problem. When Jackie’s nose begins bleeding from all the drugs she’s snorting, O’Hara checks out her nostrils and comments that she doesn’t know what Jackie’s been putting up there, but her sinuses are entirely irritated. Jackie responds with her trademark eye roll and brushes her off.

[Spoiler alert!]

When her lover Eddie is replaced by a computerized machine that dispenses meds, Jackie’s need and desperation become palpable for the first time. With Eddie down the hall happy to ply her with Vicodin and other narcotics that make her sexually pliable, Jackie didn’t have to worry about her next fix. Without him present, she tries to game the machine the way he taught her, but the trick doesn’t work. She winds up punching in her own name and password to retrieve three vials of drugs, which she proceeds to pour down her throat without a chaser.

As the final episode of the season ends, Jackie drifts into a drug-induced haze, hallucinating herself dressed in 1950s white nursing finery, and waving to her husband and kids, who stand in front of a two-dimensional, cartoon-like, suburban-style ranch house wearing 1950s-styled clothing, waving at her robotically. Sprawled on the hospital floor comatose, Jackie can only watch these images play out in front of her as the scene fades to the credits.

The moment, typical of the crises that usually propel a series to the closing moments of a season, is disturbing and compelling. Is Jackie afraid of being trapped by the conventionality of her domestic family life? Is that why she has a secret affair with Eddie, and doesn’t tell any of her coworkers that she’s married and has two kids? Is she smart enough to want to resist the banalities of middle-class white heterosexuality, even as she’s clearly, at an earlier point in her life, decided to acquiesce to it? Does she take drugs because of her back pain (which isn’t mentioned much as the show progresses), or because she needs to take the edge off a life that can’t contain everything she feels herself to be?

Whatever the reason, to see a woman as complicated and wonderfully opaque as Jackie Peyton (shades of the old soap, Peyton Place?) anchor a series on a major cable network feels like something of a triumph. Jackie isn’t a perfect mother—in fact, although she takes her oldest, the troubled Grace, to mother-daughter tap dancing classes, Jackie’s skirmish with an old high school friend embarrasses both of them and they abandon the class.Jackie isn’t the perfect wife—she works nights, which means that she and her husband are passing ships in a domestic sea that’s often barely functional.

Jackie isn’t the perfect nurse—she operates under her own moral code, which means that sometimes, she breaks rules to favor people she decides won’t otherwise get a break.She’s unsympathetic with her trainee (although over the course of the season they’ve developed something approximating a warm understanding) and she’s flip with her superior. She’s a flawed middle-aged woman, a character not often enough seen on television.

Although these days, that’s not entirely true. Jackie Peyton joins the ranks of Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) on The Closer; Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), on Damages; Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) on Weeds; and Grace Hanadarko (Holly Hunter) onSaving Grace, all of whom are middle-aged white women with “issues,” whether drug addiction, dire financial problems, alcohol abuse, or power mania that make them as complicated and imperfect as the male heroes who more typically star in television series.

The surrounding characters on Nurse Jackie help flesh out the quirky environment, and each became more adroitly drawn and magnetic as the season proceeded. Although Mohammed de la Cruz, Jackie’s best friend on the ER floor, remains something of a cipher, his desire for other men has been flaunted happily throughout the season. And instead of being the lone gay man, another of the male nurses—the white guy with sandy hair and a more fey demeanor—is also openly queer. The two often perform scenes together, in which they cruise patients or tell Zoey, Jackie’s bumbling assistant, how she might improve her appearance. Although these characters still trade in stereotypes, at least there are two of them on the show regularly, creating a small but important queer community.

Likewise, Zoey has become sharper in her own zesty, over-sharing, over-caring style. By the season’s end, the character had come to think she knew Jackie, a rather endearing assumption, given all of Jackie’s dark and mysterious layers. Merritt Wever, as Zoey, is ever more fabulous in the role, her comic timing impeccable and her physical humor deft.

The best supporting character, however, is Mrs. Akalaitus, played by Anna Deavere Smith in one of her best scripted acting outings. In the season finale, Akalaitus gets stuck in an elevator, and rather than hurry to rescue her, the nursing staff lets her languish before they call for repairs. To entertain herself (and us), Akalaitus props herself against the stuck doors and pretends she’s being interviewed on the Letterman show.

Smith carries off the brilliant, hysterical bit of business with panache, and reveals the human side of the character. The scene tempers her rule-bound ambition, just as Akalaitis’s attachment to an Asian baby left behind (for weeks, it seemed) in the ER earlier in the season showed her softer side (although the storyline was far-fetched and her failure to call in the authorities completely out of character).

Watching a series as smart and morally, emotionally, and ethically complicated as Nurse Jackie, peopled with so many interesting, unique, and individualized women and gay male characters has been a real treat. That the story proceeds from a flawed woman’s perspective feels like progress indeed.

The Feminist Spectator