Culture Currents wins Press Club Award for best critical review of American Players production

For the second consecutive year, Culture Currents blog won a Milwaukee Press Club award for best critical review of the arts. Culture Currents won a silver award for the review “American Players Theatre’s ‘Blood Knot’ Reaches Deep for Ties that Bind.” The play Blood Knot, by South African playwright Athol Fugard, scrutinizes the complex relationship between two South African half-brothers, one black and one white, during that nation’s notorious era of apartheid.

The review was published here on Aug. 13 of this year and is viewable in a Culture Currents archive search, or re-posted in the most recent post, 5/15/19.*

Gavin Lawrence (left) and Jim DeVita played South African half-brothers living together in the era of apartheid, in American Players Theatre’s staging of Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot.” Photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy APT

Last year, Culture Currents won the Milwaukee Press Club’s gold award for criticism for a review of a retrospective art exhibit of work by the late Adolph Rosenblatt. This blog also won the press club’s gold award for best critical review in 2013. The blog’s author, Kevin Lynch, has won a total of five Milwaukee Press Club awards over the years. The Milwaukee Press Club carries a certain distinction as the oldest continually operating press club in North America.
Judging for the critical review awards – as well as numerous other awards by Wisconsin competitors in many aspects of writing, visual media, radio and production in the news media – is done by out-of-state judges.

The annual “gridiron dinner” to administer the awards includes two other special awards. The Headliner Award is presented annually to honor Wisconsin leaders for their contributions to the community. This year the awards went to Martin J. Schreiber, former Wisconsin governor and award-winning advocate for Alzheimer’s caregivers and persons with dementia, and to Mary Lou Young, former CEO of United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County.

In his address, Gov. Schreiber recounted the extraordinary challenge of caring for his longtime wife, Elaine, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and how that experience inspired him to greater activism for the cause.

The second special press club award is The Sacred Cat Award, presented annually to recognize outstanding achievement by a journalist at the national level.
This year the Sacred Cat Award was given to Chuck Todd, moderator of Meet the Press on NBC and host of MPT Daily on MSNBC. Todd is one of the most respected and recognizable journalists in television today. Todd accepted the award and spoke about the urgent need for journalists to pursue the truth in an era when proper journalism has been called into question for its veracity, very often in a gratuitous manner by subjects of news, such as President Donald Trump.

Longtime “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd makes a point in his speech after accepting The Milwaukee Press Club’s Sacred Cat Award for outstanding journalism at the national level. The press club awards event was held in the ballroom of the Pfister Hotel on Friday. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Press Club

Todd warmed to his Wisconsin audience by speaking of his “second great passion,” after politics: The Green Bay Packers, and sported a Packers tie for the occasion (see photo above). Todd also praised the Press Club for providing awards to outstanding journalists, something he wished Washington D. C. would do more of. There, he said, journalists are often spoofed in “skits” at comparable press gatherings.


*technical difficulties prevented a direct link to the “Blood Knot” review.



Two plays: “Ishmael” running with the whales and “Two Trains Running”

“His story being ended with his pipe’s last dying puff, Queequeg embraced me, pressed his forehead against mine, and blowing out the lights, we rolled over from one another, this way and that, and very soon were sleeping.” – End of Chapter 10, “A Bosom Friend,” from Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville*

Call Me Ishmael: A Hallucination on Moby-Dick, Off-the-Wall Theatre, Milwaukee, closing Sunday, March 29,

Two Trains Running, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee, running through May 12

These two plays seem to dwell in far different worlds: one across the immense, perilous wilds of the world’s great oceans in the mid-1800s, and the other in a time-worn diner in a black neighborhood of Pittsburgh in 1969.

It’s reasonable to doubt that the great African-American playwright August Wilson was thinking about Moby-Dick in this play, situated smack dab in the middle of his grand Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of 10 plays each set in the 10 decades of the 20th century, to demarcate and explore the African-American experience.

Call me Idiot. Go ahead. But hear me out. For starters, the ambition of Wilson’s play cycle surely rivals Melville’s mighty saga of “mariners, renegades and castaways.” 

A week ago Friday night, I saw Off the Wall Theatre’s eccentrically capacious production of company director/playwright Dale Gutzman’s Call Me Ishmael , which he subtitles “a hallucination on Moby-Dick,” but very clearly and specifically adapted from Melville’s text.

Less than 48-hours later, I saw The Milwaukee Rep’s sterling production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Given my creative and scholarly involvement in Melville, and strong interest in Wilson, I’m hardly shocked that the two plays have commingled in my mind over the last week. The swift affinity between ostensibly foreign identities is perhaps akin to the extraordinary brotherhood that develops between Melville’s novice sailor/narrator Ishmael and the great harpoonist man of color, Queequeg. He’s described in Gutzman’s program notes as “the Prince of Kokovoko” (as Melville identifies him, from a fictional island in the South Pacific. “It is not down in any map; true places never are,” as Ishmael, the expansively philosophical young explorer, famously asserts.).

Part of Melville’s ever-echoing greatness, running through The Great American Novel and his oeuvre, are the character archetypes he forged, starting with the colorful crew members of the whale ship Pequod, a sort of floating, rag-tag democracy. Yet a tyrannical, obsessive captain dominates that diverse aggregation, which surely foretells America’s current political situation. 

However, both plays, as presented here, gravitate, through thick hurly-burly, to the power of love, as a magnetic and redeeming force in human affairs.

Queequeg is more central to Ishmael‘s radically compressed social and dramatic dynamic than in Melville’s almost impossibly vast literary canvas. I recently encountered a striking symbol of that in the beautiful painting (pictured at top) at the recent Melville exhibit at Chicago’s Newberry Library, celebrating the author’s 2019 Bicenntenial. And, of course, this primitive but oddly regal “other” is displaced by thousands of miles from his Polynesian home, not unlike the players in Wilson’s story, displaced from the South by The Great Migration north, a key subtext of his Pittsburgh Cycle. And, like virtually all of the black male characters in Wilson’s play, Queequeg endures a kind of double-consciousness (a la DuBois), living in New England’s New Bedford while ashore, with his conspicuously-tattooed Polynesian body.

Here Ishmael (Jake Russell, foreground) and tattooed harpooner Queequeg (Nathan Danzer appear joined at the hip, but in this moment the crew of the Pequod is transfixed by the astonishing destructive power of the whale Moby Dick, in Off-the-Wall Theatre’s “Call Me Ishmael.” Courtesy Off-the-Wall.

In the late 1960s, playwright Wilson strongly called for for a “separatist black aesthetic” at a time when asserting black identity felt crucial. Indeed, the key political event of Two Trains is an impending Hill district neighborhood rally for famous black radical leader Malcolm X. And enough anger runs through Wilson’s whole play cycle, as much as I’ve seen of it, but just as much anguish at the injustices of American society that befall African-Americans.

Diner owner Memphis (Raymond Anthony Thomas, center) rails over being forced to sell his property to the city for far less than he thinks is it’s worth, in the Milwaukee Rep’s production of “Two Trains Running.” Play photos courtesy

In a 2006 essay Philip Beidler convincingly traces Wilson’s defiance of the proverbial black man’s burden, through Ralph Ellison, to Melville’s remarkable novella Benito Cereno, based on a true story, about a Trojan Horse of a slave ship, being run by mutinous slaves while deviously maintaining appearances to delude white power conventions and perceptions.

Another Melville novel Two Trains seems to reference is The Confidence-Man or, His Maquerade, as two of the play’s characters are con men, similarly working over a small group of people.  One is aptly named Wolf, a lottery numbers runner (bet money-trafficker) who seems to bilk the idealistic romantic Sterling, himself a recently-freed petty thief, out of half of his lottery winnings by blaming it on the boss man.
But the real vulture is neighborhood undertaker, named West, masquerading in professional three-piece suit and top hat. He constantly hovers in the diner asking for coffee sugar from waitress Risa, but never using it. He’s trying to set up diner owner Memphis, who hopes to sell the restaurant to the city’s eminent domain project for $25,000 (ten grand more than the city offers), and to move back to his rural settlement in Tennessee. West, who’s rich from many a literal death of dreams, offers Memphis $20,000 for the place, and says he’ll invest the other $5,000 well enough to double his return and complete the payment.

Memphis flirts ardently with the offer – just the sort of thing one of the shysters in Melville’s con-man parade might float. The Confidence-Man brilliantly satirized American Gilded-Age hustle and greed. Wilson posits that black folk have learned to hustle, but more often to merely survive or strive for modest dreams.
The heart of the play is Sterling, the heart-of-gold ne’er-do-well who improbably tries to woo Risa, in step after bumbling step.

A beauty, she’s sadly had so many men hustle her that she has mutilated both of her legs so as to deface her allure. The playwright knows well how to deal out a complexity of human emotions and allow elements of pathos to arise. This centers to varying degrees on the two wouldn’t-be lovers, on Memphis, and especially in the character of mentally challenged Hambone, who repeatedly marches into the diner demanding “I want my ham!” He may have lost his mind waiting for twenty years for a local butcher who’ll only offer him a chicken, when he feels a big ham is his due. 

Mentally challenged Hambone (Frank Britton, right foreground) repeatedly demands that he receive the ham that a local butcher has refused to give him for two decades, in “Two Trains Running.”

But strength and fortitude always sustain the souls of these black folk. rising to the surface past all rage or anguish. And ultimately Two Trains is a romance as is Moby Dick –  interpersonally, though Melville’s is daringly unconventional, between men – but both also in sense of genre, as tales striving through reality for something larger, bigger, and more beautiful (see, too, the whale embedded in the stunning quilt in the painting at top).

Off the Wall’s Ishmael bravely ventures perhaps where no other black-box theater has, in staging Melville’s monstrously promenading sperm whale of a story. Playwright Gutzman blends Melville’s vivid and eloquent prose with nifty plot compressions, and the evocative effects of the great adventure arise with winning ingenuity, daring, imagination, and comedy, as Melville did to the max, in 135 comparatively short chapters. And by strongly playing up the book’s homoerotic undercurrent of Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship, Gutzman has pushed the story directly into today’s liberated acceptance of same-sex love.

The homoerotic aspects of the close relationship between Ishmael (Jake Russell, left) and Queequeg (Nathan Danzer) were emphasized in Off the Wall Theater’s adaption of “Call Me Ishmael,” an adaptation of “Moby-Dick.” Courtesy Off the Wall

Psychologically-burdened waitress Risa (Malkia Stampley) is a pivotal character among all the males in “Two Trains Running.”

In Two Trains, Sterling is a sort of voluble and naïve Ishmael and, with her scarred legs, Risa is a kind of Queequeg, an exotic “other” for being the only woman in the cast.  She possesses latent powers and allure yet, unlike the Polynesian, her potential for love is fraught and baggaged. Risa may be a sort of tortured angel. Is she judged by the content of her character? Are her flesh wounds also akin to Christ’s? This was a natural analog – as is her name, Risa – given that we saw the play on Easter Sunday. Do her body marks tell a story, as  Queequeg claims his do? Perhaps the embodiment of the state of “original sin.” Is that too Christian? Melville, the skeptic of man-made “Christianity,” might think so. Yet a dying neighborhood prophet named Samuel also haunts this play. Could the woman’s marks signify a universal suffering, that of  humanity?

And the seemingly witless Hambone reveals a deeper presence, recalling Moby-Dick‘s Pip, the black cabin boy who compulsively rattles his tambourine – and falls overboard unnoticed and nearly drowns. The trauma destroys his sanity but he emerges “touched” by God. Even bedeviled Capt. Ahab then senses this possible spiritual lifeline and takes Pip under his wing, while continuing his diabolical quest to kill the White Whale. 

These and other mystical strains in Moby-Dick have resonated down through cultural history and Wilson’s play has an off-stage character, recurrent in his work, Aunt Esther, a spiritual figure who is a “washer of souls” and reportedly 322 years old, which aligns her birth with the arrival of the first African slaves to America. She seems to provide the keys to the dreams of these slave descendants. Aunt Esther always asks them to pay her by throwing $20 in the river. So the monetary symbol of meager and grandiose dreams becomes an offering to the watery forces of nature and a float-on-a-wave faith, a most Melvillian of themes.

Further, Wilson’s title derives from a Muddy Waters blues, “Two Trains Running.” But “there’s not one going my way.” The singer bemoans his star-crossed destiny in humble watery terms. “I wish I was a catfish swimming in the deep blue sea/ I’d have all you pretty women fishing after me.” Poor Sterling, who desperately wants Risa as his bride, also brings to mind another cast-your-fate-to-the-water blues classic, Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”: “People tell me worrying blues ain’t bad/ But it’s the worst old feeling I ever had. Fish run to the ocean, ocean run to the sea. if I don’t find my baby, who child gonna marry me?” 2


  • That exact Melville quote, without any attribution – except an enigmatic “B” – is the last liner-note acknowledgement of “thanks” in the noted American singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault’s 2001 debut album Miles from the Lightning.
  • 1 Philip Beidler, “King August,” Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 2006 http://;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0045.401;g=mqrg;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1http://
  • 2 Pittsburgh’s Hill district hosted many jazz and blues musicians traveling from New York to Chicago through much of the early 1900s, when Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle begins. Both songs were originally “race records,” marketed only to black audiences, but this lyric version of “Two Trains Running,” and the “Walking Blues” lyric, are both on the 1966 album East-West by The Butterfield Blues Band, one of the first-ever integrated electric blues bands. Bob Dylan also later performed “Two Trains” not infrequently.

Still marveling at the Bucks’ one-year transformation? Consider basketball…and jazz

Could the winning chemistry between Bucks Eric Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo & company have something to do with their kinship with another agile quintet (below), a classic jazz combo? Sure looks like they’re digging the groove, and maybe playing on a parallel plane. Bucks photo by Tom Lynn/AP

Silhouette of five players in jazz band, white background

Courtesy of Jazz Combo o-Jazz-was-not-meant-for-the-dinner-table

(Editor’s note: Culture Currents is finally back in the flow of things. This comes after several months of sitting on the sideline while enduring exasperating technical difficulties from computer updating and repeated fumbling of the ball on the two-yard-line by GoDaddy, the domain provider for So, enough, and onward with our exploration of our common and uncommon culture!)

Yes, the Milwaukee Bucks have probably the NBA’s MVP and coach of the year, two related assets expertly explored in the recent cover story on Giannis Antetokounmpo in Sports IllustratedWe’ll note also several great administrative moves: bringing in the revelatory center Brook Lopez, versatile backup guard George Hill, energy-spark Pat Connaughton, 3-point sharpshooter Nikola Mirotic, and returning wisened and wise ol’ Irsan Ilyasova to the fold.

But it seems like every healthy player has played better than they ever have, this year. Coincidence? Well, we might need to consider the old-fashioned yet timeless virtues of strong team coordination and chemistry, but perhaps from a fresh angle. 

A smart and insightful Milwaukee music journalist and ardent Bucks fan, Joey Grihalva, has come up with a deeply probing analogy to help explain the quasi-mystical vagaries of basketball team chemistry.
His premise is that a great basketball team like the Bucks is surprisingly akin to a great jazz quintet. That great American vernacular music has, of course, long evolved into an art form of individual and group improvisation, rhythmic buoyancy and dynamic interplay. The jazz tune, or form, follows those functions, like a well-designed basketball play working to a T, or sometimes when gifted players just wing it, like birds truly of a feather.

In this nifty essay – originally published on the 88.9 Radio Milwaukee website – you might say Joey Grihalva’s trying to make hoops X’s and O’s swing.

So, Joey – take it! Jazz piece

Jeffrey Foucault replenishes his music in the streams of “Blood Brothers”

Album review: Jeffery Foucault — Blood Brothers (Blueblade Records)

After the brooding introspection of his previous album, Salt as Wolves, singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault comes up for big gulps of air, and perhaps his most genial album. It’s down-home music & poetry in a firm, warm handclasp.

Yet, even while striving to connect, Foucault takes chances. The title song “Blood Brothers,” hung on a descending bass line alluring as low-hanging fruit, is a love ode between men, yet sexually ambiguous. It recalls the fast friendship between surprise bedmates Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick, which Foucault celebrated in his very first album.1

This artist’s work is hard-earned. He throws all of himself into his song, yet the balance between reflection and passion sounds effortless. Foucault’s singing is dusky, beguiling and grainy as uncut wheat, yet as nuanced as a sideways-drifting wind.

The internationally acclaimed, East Coast-based, Whitewater, Wis. native is currently (and arguably) the Upper Midwest’s strongest roots music export (Nobel Prize-winning Minnesota-native Bob Dylan is sort of in his own category).

Foucault’s a guy who’s hardly figured everything out, but he sure knows how to say what swims in his brain and in the blood from his heart. That organic metaphor, as far as it goes, belies the great labor of craft underlying this music. His writing seems unpolished, but as right as rain. Still, he exudes utterly disarming humility. Blood brother or not, he feels like the first guy you invite for a backyard barbecue.

Photo montage courtesy YouTube


1 Though he doesn’t identify the source, in his liner notes to his debut album Miles from the Lightning (2001), Foucault quotes from the end of the highly comical Ch. 12 — “Biographical,” from Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. The aptness to Blood Brothers prompts me to revisit the quote, with context. First-time whaling sailor Ishmael quickly bonds with the lead harpoonist, the Polynesian Queequeg, for the ship they’ll sail on, when the two men are forced to share a bed in a crowded Spooner Inn, before they embark on The Pequod.:

“His story ended with his pipe’s last dying puff, Queequeg embraced me, pressed his forehead against mine and, blowing out the light, we rolled over from one another, this way and that, and very soon were sleeping.”

This view was published in a slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express:Foucault review

Mrs. Fun’s “Truth” entertains and strives to stand the test of time

Mrs. Fun – Truth (Fun Time Records)

(Mrs. Fun, with guest bassist-vocalist Ethan Bender [from Streetlife], will perform from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday December 7, at Metro Market, 4075 N. Oakland Ave, in Shorewood. Mrs. Fun also performs with song stylist Liv Mueller at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Shorewood Legion Post, on Wilson Blvd.) To keep up with Mrs. Fun, visit their website:


Mrs. Fun is a 30-year marriage of musical mirth and mutual creativity. On Truth, The Milwaukee jazz-pop duo documents its characteristically vast expressive range and stylistic diversity. The title, and the album cover’s darkly eloquent pyramid silhouette, suggest intent to stand the test of time. You could pop this CD in for a party backdrop, yet it rewards mindful, even reflective, listening.

To the latter point, the original “Zawinul” tributes the dominant figure behind the incomparable fusion group Weather Report. It evokes Joe Zawinul’s orchestral exotic scene-painting via synthesizer, yet retains the grounding of walking bass and crackling drums. Similarly “Orange Grove” bears sweet fragrance and rhythmic strum of the Latin guitar (synthesized). Keyboardist-vocalist Connie Grauer might be the most resourceful synthesizer player on the Milwaukee scene. This keys the group’s brilliance, along with drummer Kim Zick’s endless array of rhythmic accents and propulsive grooves and dynamics.

Grauer imaginatively reinvents two jazz classics. She prefaces Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” with her and title“Silent Mist” and graces the exquisite Jobim melody with her own poetic lyrics. And Wayne Shorter “Pinocchio” goes sci-fi as “Space Port/Pinocchio,” befitting Shorter’s own sci-fi sensibility. This is Mrs. Fun in their exuberantly edgy acid-jazz mode. However, I wanted the great jazz composer’s full melodic theme stated, and explored more — the theme’s closing phrases, suggest both involution and a curious outward force, akin to more-complex-than-he-appears Pinocchio, and his mythical nose. Several more minutes of development and this might’ve been a minor masterpiece of re-imagining. If any sensibility is expansive, its sci-fi.

“Soulful Strut” covers a hit R&B instrumental from 1969 and, while not quite as exhilarating as the horn-driven original, it captures the funky tune’s infectious insouciance.

Drummer Kim Zick (left) and keyboardist-vocalist Connie Grauer are Mrs. Fun. Courtesy Patch

Less successful is their cover of “Light My Fire” which here is a fairly straight recitation of the melody, which isn’t strong enough for such instrumental scrutiny, even if it and the song’s lyrics could launch the dark power and dynamics of The Doors’ original and Jose Feliciano’s soulful hit re-make.

They’re smarter when Grauer does a vocal she can handle, or they add guest singers here, like rapper Klassik or vocal stylist Liv Mueller on the closing “Calm before the Storm,” which includes a fine Grauer keyboard solo with deftly spacious phrasing. Despite her gifts on electric keyboards, I’d love to hear her record more acoustic piano, which she also excels at.

One hopes this group does more recording, of what they exactly want to do. They’re natural musical entertainers, and deft collaborators, but they have room to grow as musical artists.

As for now, in such often-dire and depressing times, the Truth never felt so good. Plus, as top-rate as the album is overall, it can’t do justice to the bright, vibrant personality of this consistently engaging duo in live performance. So I recommend you search them out in person (they gig frequently), and buy the CD directly from the artists.


This review was first published in shorter form in The Shepherd ExpressMrs Fun review


“Free Solo” film scales dizzying heights of cinematic suspense

Alex Honnold attempts to climb the great face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without any equipment (or sanity?) in “Free Solo,” a new National Geographic Documentary. Courtesy The Atlantic Magazine.

Free Solo, a National Geographic Documentary film by Elizabeth Chi Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin. Held over until Monday Dec. 10 at the Oriental Theater, Milwaukee,

Also showing at Silver Cinemas at Market Square Theaters, Madison, held over through Tuesday, Dec. 11.

Check theaters for possible run extensions and other info.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, Our National Parks

Goddamn. You groan inside. Other emotional responses may surge up, while watching Alex Honnold climb alone and unroped – or free, in climbing parlance – up a long, vertical crack of the astonishingly, daunting face of El Capitan Mountain in Yosemite National Park, in 2017. It’s considered the toughest mountain face in the world – 3,000 feet of a monstrous granite elephant’s twitchy hide, enduring a single human ant.

You follow him up the towering crack, the zig-zag path of rock seemingly formed by a face-splitting lightning bolt, or maybe several lifetimes of such blasts. 

This sequence of pitches* requires hand jams and hand hooks against the vertical crack. When the crack opens wide enough, Honnold must shimmy his tensile body slowly up the chimney. Tough enough, but then, seemingly exhausted, he must perform a series of crazy moves of balletic delicacy and sheer stamina. No ropes. No pitons. No circus nets. Nothin’ but the chalk on his hands and fingers, to keep them dry. He’s at maybe 2,000 feet now, clinging to a vertical world, just barely.

Are you still breathing?

This astonishing, often-gorgeous and brilliant film records Honnold’s five-year odyssey to climb the face “free solo.” He had bailed out in a previous attempt, while recovering, but not completely, from a severely sprained ankle.  Earlier, on a practice climb, his brand new girlfriend had absently let the rope run out of the belay lock she was controlling. That fall had tested his relationship skills, far less assured than with a rock face. Honnold threatens to break up with her, thinking she’s an unreliable climbing partner.

However, he’d made that first free attempt in pre-dawn darkness, calculating he’d need all of daylight to reach the top. There will be no bivouacs on this climb. Yet he freezes up on one of the first difficult points. I suspect the shroud of darkness, pierced only by his headlamp, penetrates what he calls his “armor,” which he also likens to the attitude of a samurai warrior, who gamely faces, even embraces, death. Because it’s what is necessary.

Alex Honnold works his way up a long vertical crack on El Capitan. Courtesy Amherst Cinema

It’s easy to adopt a fraternal or paternal sense of protectiveness toward this boyish man, with black, tousled hair, and large dark, searching eyes and a handsome yet almost gaunt face and body. So he’s “Alex” to me now. His chiseled body gives you faith in him physically, yet he’s lean and not overly muscled like many contemporary athletes. It’s actually the perfect body for such extraordinary athleticism, as too much muscle might constrain the needed range of motion in his limbs.

I have some sense of this, and of Alex’s virtuosity and courage, being a former mountaineer (more on that below).

Outside magazine calls Free Solo “the best climbing movie ever made.” And there are quite a few vertically-fixated movies if you follow such things. Free Solo comes from a married couple, filmmaker Elizabeh Chi Vasarhelyi, and cameraman Jimmy Chin. They also created Meru – a powerful 2015 documentary of windswept urgency and dread – detailing a climb Chin attempted with two other men of Mount Meru, in the Himalayas. Chin, like all of his film crew, are trained climbers. He’d explained in Meru that he only works with people that he knows personally in his mountain climbing documentaries.

Image result for free solo

Camera crew documenting Honnold during the making of the film “Free Solo,” on El Capital in Yosemite National Park. Courtesy

Chin knows Alex Honnold, already an acclaimed free solo climber, perhaps as well as anyone can. The closer we get to Alex, the further we get from him, it’s that “armor” climbers of this sort speak of – a psychological shield against fear, in a given moment.

Yet this shields his peripheral vision towards empathy or other interpersonal skills. We learn that Alex’s father was likable but remote, a man always needing to travel, just as Alex always needs to climb, or prepare for another.

“He was a teddy bear to me,” Alex recalls with measured affection for a father who supported his youthful climbing zeal. He admits that no one in his family ever used “the L word” (“I love you”) except in French, (je t’aime), as his mother is a teacher of French. That once- removed quality of expression may allow his mother, who’s briefly interviewed, carte blanche emotions in allowing her son full freedom. When he develops a relationship with a young woman, Sanni McCandless, it’s rocky right from the moment she allows him to fall.

But he’s in the middle of training and practice for the free solo on El Capitan, an unprecedented feat. But Sanni is a strong, big-hearted and brave woman. He sticks with her and their relationship blossoms like a couple of wildflowers emerging from a high mountain wall crack. But her roots touch the earth. So her own trail in his footsteps is the film’s subtext and it’s emotional crux.

When he finally goes for it, for broke, in very early daylight, her tears well up in Alex’s live-in van, wondering if she’ll see him again. From this moment, the intensity and drama ratchet up, more than most conventional thrillers I’ve ever seen. It’s hold-your-breath reality-show time. Ms. McCandless used all her persuasive skills and wiles, and perhaps burgeoning love, to quietly will Alex up the great face, and back from the fatal brink he’s almost sanguine about.

Image result for el capitan yosemite

The massive, intimidating 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite. Wikipedia 

Among this obsessive climber’s most revealing and thought-provoking comments is a reference to “the bottomless pit of your self-loathing.” It seems to come out of the blue in his narrative voice-over, casting a certain pathos over this tale, rich with mythical and tragic overtones. Several great climbers that he has personally known die while climbing elsewhere during the five years he prepares for his solo attempt at El Capitan.

His emotional response feels like little more than the famous “so it goes” from Kurt Vonnegut’s comic tragic Slaughterhouse Five.

Ass accomplished and seemingly prepared Alex is, there’s no denying free soloing’s essential recklessness. “People who know a little bit about climbing are like, ‘Oh, he’s totally safe,’” Tommy Caldwell, one of Honnold’s best friends, says in the film. “People who know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.”

On the morning he finally attempts it again, he eats his standard breakfast of oats, flax, chia seeds, and blueberries. He feels great, maybe “in a zone,” the temporary quality of an athlete who can seemingly do no wrong. You see it in the heightened, yet easy, rhythms of his moves; there’s almost a swagger in his swing, ape-like, from one precarious handhold to another.

For sure, this attempt is one of the greatest athletic feats you’ll ever see on film, even if Alex may fall to his death – right before the camera crew. The whole emotional, psychological and circumstantial reality of this attempt gives the film its gut-churning tension. And perhaps even a moral conundrum, if we watch him fall, and if the cameras do as well.

FILE - Alex Honnold, from left, and Sanni McCandless, subjects of the documentary film "Free Solo," pose with co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin at the InterContinental Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Sept. 10, 2018.

 Alex Honnold, from left, and Sanni McCandless, subjects of the documentary film “Free Solo,” pose with co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin at the InterContinental Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Sept. 10,


I have one comparatively modest but dangerous experience with free solo climbing which helped transfix me in this film. Through much of my 20s, until age 30, I climbed a number of times in The Tetons, but one summer I was unable to get to Wyoming. In late August, when I’d normally climb, I drove up to Door County, on a camping trip with a friend, Frank Stemper. Somehow, the hulking former high school football guard came down with the flu. Itching to get out and do something, I left him in our tent, with Sam, his lovably oafish shepherd-dog mutt.

I’d noticed intriguing cliffs along the highway through Peninsula State Park. By the time I walked along the highway to some alluring rock faces, the afternoon sun had faded badly.

Nevertheless, I found one route snaking up to the top of the cliff, what would be three or four moderate pitches. I began climbing and at some point noticed looseness amid the wall rocks, which I later learned are primarily limestone. I reached the top without terrible difficulty and probably started chuckling to myself, a tad too self-satisfied, as if I was my old house cat Fred, settled and regally surveying, as cats do, his home below from the highest possible perch in the house.

Now, a small detail most smug climbing cats negotiate with little consternation: I needed to get back down, to the highway. So I tried a few paths down but they mocked me with the yawning space over the toothy, jagged edges of a drop-off, not far below the top. Now I was a free solo “ant” inside and looking out, after foolishly crawling into the stone elephant’s mouth. I searched further along the cliff until I found a spot that looked manageable.

I gingerly began a downward climb (the well-established El Capitan route in Alex’s memorized climb includes a significant downward detour). What was I thinking then? Something like, “Do you know what you’re doing?” At about a third of the way down, I encountered an overhang that I knew I couldn’t get past. Right then, my upper handhold gave way, and a rock fell, hitting my face. Off flew my glasses, tumbling far down into the wooded space below. 2

I’m quite near-sighted, and now sweat and fear commingled with the blood the rock had drawn from my forehead. My “armor” was cracking. I mumbled something to Jesus Christ. Then a “blessing”: nearsightedness allows you to see things close to you, while points beyond blur into a haze. I could see fairly well at arm’s length distance, and just about to my feet.

I realized the only way I could proceed downward would be around a rocky corner where I could see a small ledge. I mustered my courage, traversed to the corner and managed to swing one foot over thin air, around the corner, to a toe hold; then the second foot came around, oh-so-delicately, to the toehold nub. In the traverse around the corner, my body was 98-per-cent out in space, high over thin air. The next toe step led me to the small ledge. I settled on the small horizontal strip, my body collapsing a bit, and grabbed hold of small green branch in a crack beside it. Now I wonder, did such a wildflower branch save Alex, at some point.

For posterity, I took a forlorn selfie, circa 1972, with a camera I’d brought along. A few moments of glazed admiration of the view, through the golden-brown leaves, with the waters of Green Bay glistening slightly in the setting sun. My wits, strength, and will renewed slightly. I finally worked my way down to the bottom of the loose-rocked, treacherous cliff.

Posterity selfie taken by blogger Kevernacular amid his free solo escapade on a cliff in Door County, ca. August, 1972. Photo by Kevin Lynch

I found my glasses in the brush and, nearby, another pair of eyeglasses, the frame cracked, and lenses long gone. The story of those glass frames remains a kind of mystery, just as does the forces that drive people to climb dangerous walls and peaks.

I’m convinced a big part of the force is spiritual. There is a long, transcendent moment late in Free Solo, when Alex rises through one of the toughest final pitches. Chin and his daredevil film group capture — behind the tiny, ascending figure — a backdrop of El Capitan’s broad, magnificent face, now ablaze in sunset, and glorious shades of mottled bronze, copper and gold. This is mighty granite’s mossy, chameleon powers. Yosemite’s waterfall cascades beyond. Magnificence amid high drama, with overtones of the human sublime.

I hardly suggest anyone begin climbing El Capitan in search of gold, only if you truly need the kind that ends up glowing in your soul.

As a survivor of a foolhardy-youth free solo climb, and bearing truly grand memories climbing in the Tetons, I retain embers of that inner fire.


  1. A “pitch” is each sequence of a roped climb, from one belayed (secured) spot (station) to the next. In free climbing, you have, in theory, moments to rest in these places, originally established on El Capitan with pitons (large spikes with rope loop-holes) and carabiners. On such a dangerous climb, even the most secure “belay stations” are extremely exposed (that is, very susceptible to a climber falling off).

2. My Door County climb cued up an extraordinary experience later that year. John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance came out, based on James Dickey’s extraordinary survival novel. Frank and I went to see it. Four suburban friends take a canoe trip on the Chattooga River, deep in Georgia’s backwoods, eventually reaching the Tallula Gorge.My experience  flashed completely back to me during Ed’s desperate climb up the gorge cliff above the river rapids, to try to kill, with bow and arrow, a rural-dwelling rifle man who has killed one of his canoeing friends. Halfway up the cliff, Ed (Jon Voight) drops his wallet after peeking at his family’s photograph. He curses mightily and, right then, I felt my glasses, and some of my hope, falling off my face, into the Door County void. The long Deliverance scene was an uncanny experience of “been there…” Now, though I no longer hold grand climbing designs, (with bilateral arm neuropathy and a partially lame left hand), Free Solo has raised my bar of dramatic empathy to previously unimagined heights.


A progressive jazz pilgrimage comes to the Jazz Gallery Thursday

Christoph Irniger and Pilgrim, a Swiss progressive jazz group. The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 E. Center St., Milwaukee. 8 PM, Thursday October 11, Suggested donation $10


The Swiss band named Pilgrim seems on a pilgrimage – a traveling quest to convey their vision along a freely exploratory pathway, which leads them all the way to Milwaukee’s Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts on Thursday.

If you’re receptive to music that’s expansive, texturally rich and atmospheric, Pilgrim might snatch you up on their trip, at least for this evening. From what I’ve heard online, the band has the right stuff and sensibility to latch onto, says, ECM, the major European-mining jazz label, if that labels visionary leader and producer, Manfred Eicher, gets an earful of them.

Pilgrim is also further proof of the international language that jazz has become, since being born and cultivated from a profound roots music into various iterations of high art in America. It remains perhaps more greatly appreciated in its more sophisticated forms in Europe, ironically due, in part, to America’s still-rough-hewn anti-intellectualism and cultural hang-ups, which keep “tribes” of Americans from appreciating artistic gestures that seem located across their divides.

One of the least desirable presumptions from the cultural left is that a certain product or artist is for hipsters or cognoscenti only. What good does that do but promote insularity and snobbishness?

Soapboxing aside, there’s a certain wind-in-the-face coolness to this music, but anyone with an open mind might find stimulation in this pilgrimage and, if needed, a bridge a cultural gap, in one’s imagination.  I’m impressed by how the band forges ahead in the spacious and sometimes treacherous realm encompassing minimalism and modal and free jazz, with electronic fueling when necessary.

Pilgrim is led by tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Christoph Irniger. I just saw the jazz titan David Murray playing the same two instruments at the exciting new Madison music venue Café CODA, and was reminded of the warm depth and color of the low-register clarinet, made famous in jazz by Eric Dolphy. Iringer, a still-young Swiss player won’t compare to Murray’s mastery yet, but expect serious tonal and textural range from the pilgrim who also is the primary composer. The group also includes prominently featured guitarist Dave Gisler, pianist Stefan Abey, bassist Raffaele Bossard, and drummer Michi Stulz.

Field Report’s summertime: Christopher Porterfield faces his demons with the sun in his face

Field Report Summertime Songs (Verve Forecast)

The waning days of summer feel like a perfect time to consider what lies in the warm shadows of Field Report’s latest album Summertime Songs, released last March. Yes, days remain sultry and summertime songs glow and gleam with all the embracing life-force of the season.

Yet singer-songwriter Christopher Porterfield’s senses arise from nature’s passing cycles into death, and the quietly troubling and deeply philosophical musings of his dream-infested brain.

You feel older and wiser after it’s done, even as you sing yourself the ear worms of Porterfield vocal hooks like an enchanted teenager. Yes, it sounds slicker than anything he’s ever done, but it’s also easily as deep, beneath the pop gloss. The effectiveness arises first from the gentle experimentalism of his music, which has abdicated the lead guitar, as has much of contemporary pop, so refreshing a release from testosterone-fueled ego and excess. That’s not to knock the all the great guitarists and moments by guitarist of varying repute, but time has passed, and Field Report is right there, right here.

The album opens with a searing electric violin vamp that sounds like Steve Reich on steroids and immediately pries open the listener’s imagination. Throughout the album, the setting is expansive yet vivid in textures of synthesizers and electronic strings, and the sinuously propulsive drum grooves of jazz drummer Devin Drobka, delighting in messing with rocky back-beat jollies. But ultimately this is about the poetry of Porterfield, and his voice’s soulful declamation of it, by turns ardently striving and biting the tongue of its own querulous spirit. His eyes and senses are too wide-open to be bullish about anything, even though they love humanity in loss, of ongoing glory that summer blesses us with.

How is he doing chart wise? Well, the album may have risen and peaked already but it is listed on EuroAmericana chart the among the “Tips” albums by the chart’s resident critics. Nor has the album to date apparently caught up with the charms of the group’s first two albums, according to

Porterfield remains a sort of songwriters-songwriter, having won over a number of grade-A songcrafters whom he or Field Report has opened for, including Emmylou Harris, Richard Thompson, Adam Duritz and Counting Crows, and Aimee Mann.

This cognitive dissonance in the music market may be partly because Summertime Songs is perhaps a little too streamlined in sound for the more rough textures that appeal to typical Americana music listeners. Nevertheless, Porterfield remains decidedly the sort of ruminative, deeply resonant singer-songwriter that many folk music lovers cherish. So they’re missing something if they overlook this. And there’s something quintessentially American about his point of view as well, even as the electronics seem to borrow something from EuroPop.

Christopher Porterfield of Field Report. Courtesy NPR

What’s American about this album? First, the band’s from Milwaukee, arguably the capital of the nation’s heartland. It also involves the individualism of Porterfield’s questing. He also often performs solo with only his acoustic guitar, and as big-sounding as his anthemic songs are, they work quite well solo, given the strength of his voice, musicality and poetry. He reflects today’s America especially in his ongoing striving to get a grip on truth and reality, while both seem to flirt with dreamlike states, poisoned improbabilities and living nightmares – especially when so many ordinary Americans suffer from addictions, to opioids or demagoguery’s easy, manipulative answers.

You were bouncing off the guard rail shouting at the wind

We were off our meds, drinking again;

we played them like a stolen violin

I knew my outlines and my ends,

They were embarrassed by sincerity back then.

If I knew/ what I know/ so far yet to go

The careening scene from the song “If I Knew” feels as classic Americana as Kerouac’s “On the Road,” evoked also in the album cover’s shambling car interior. And the last triplicate phrase, with its ending twist, reveals a guy gripping a few hard-won wisdoms. Yet the strongest of these is having learned a few forward steps in a still-long journey. The last phrase is the song’s resounding refrain, hollered in the roaring wind. Those who mock sincerity with currently-fashionable cynicism end up on the sidelines of complacency.

Field Report performs “If I Knew” from the album “Summertime Songs.”

The next song, “Never Look Back” sustains Porterfield’s questing theme with fresh insight. He sings of trusting someone to cut off his hair with a pocketknife “…with my eyes closed I don’t need you do try.

I just need you to know I’ve earned what I’ve been going (through? A word lost in the wind?) and I am all about the day when we cut it all off, and throw it all away.

Turn the telescope back around; get these troubles out of view. Forgiveness does not excuse, it just prevents all of the others from destroying you.

The haircut is really a metaphor. You really sense the speaker’s relationship to humanity, still a Melvillian isolato, a bit ravaged, deeply troubled, yet embracing forgiveness as a kind of shield or scab. Bleeding may ensue, as well as backsliding.

From the video of the band performing from the new album, it appears Porterfield still waits for someone to hack off a shock of hair that resembles Elvis with a finger in a socket. But it’s the meaning behind the liberating act sustaining him, not the promise of short hair, per se.

So here’s a man who wears his flaws on his sleeve, or his scalp, and never stops digging into the querulous uncertainties that awaken him restlessly each morning. And his throat clears to the voice of an everyman, with a heart big enough to let his lungs bellow out like schooner sails catching the wind.

Christopher Porterfield is the sort of seer-poet who can sustain us if we give him a chance. Late summer’s not a moment too soon. He won’t always provide comfort but he’ll give us a boost, so we can see the horizon, even with the baleful sun, or inner demons, in our face.


“Summertime Songs” album cover courtesy




Lorrie Moore is a MVP as a literary switch-hitter

Lorrie Moore See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary (Knopf)

Lorrie Moore hides beneath layers of talent and the dazzling obfuscation of a great storyteller. The longtime Madison resident remained a very private person over the 20 years I covered the arts there, including her own literary output. It’s partly because she’s among America’s most acclaimed fiction writers – winner of the short story’s preeminent prize, the PEN/Malamud Award, an O. Henry Award winner and a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, among other accolades. She also edited the esteemed 2015 anthology 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories.

But See What Can Be Done uncovers Moore layers, a motherlode of essays and criticism, from The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review or The New Yorker, among other publications: 35 years of what she self-deprecatingly calls “using another part of my brain.” During those decades she taught creative writing at UW-Madison, until Gov. Walker’s draconian budget cutbacks left UW unable to match a professorship offer from Vanderbilt, in 2014, as her son approached college age. Nashville now seems an exile for a cultured New York state native who long-ago embraced a Midwestern lifestyle and sensibility.

Lorrie Moore in her Madison back yard, before she moved to Nashville. Photo by Linda Nylind

Though clearly liberal, she comments even-handedly on the 2012 Wisconsin recall of Walker (was she on his UW-faculty hit list?), more piercingly on the 2016 election, which means “almost 3 million people were disenfranchised…would we not plot regime change of a country with a similar sham democracy?”

She’s a storyteller-critic and this 400-page collection reveals perhaps our best literary switch-hitter since John Updike, even if there’s almost always competitors. 1 And Moore would likely banish herself to sliver-collecting benchwarmer, having once said: “Writers have no real area of expertise, they are merely generalists with a highly inflamed sense of punctuation.” Touche to herself, but her “inflamed” punctuation could avoid a double play, for sure. Moore’s super-utility-player talents bless her-non-fiction: sly wit and humor, burnished and felicitous style, and deep flashlighting into human character, whether fictional or of authors reviewed or represented in biographies read. I found myself re-reading some essays, plowing through the litter of my underlining, for the sheer pleasure of it.

She savors excellent writing, with shrewdness and humanity. She quotes generously, and never takes easy critical potshots.

Moore posits Updike (a fellow PEN/Malamud award winner) as “American literature’s greatest short story writer, and arguably our greatest writer without a single great novel.”

Compare her to a competitor among our finest author-critics, British-born New Yorker Martin Amis, who has coincidentally published a new collection of his reviews and essays, also for Knopf. The Rub of Time, Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017 reveals Amis similarly staying abreast of the political zeitgeist and loaded with critical powers, and is also highly recommend.

He makes a more extended argument for Saul Bellow as America’s greatest 20th-century author than Moore does for Updike, whom Amis also substantially analyzes. “Bellow is sui generis and Promethean, a thief of the gods’ fire,” and he “sees more than we see – sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches,” Amis writes. He also asserts that Updike and Philip Roth, his estimates as Bellow’s two strongest rivals, “have both acknowledged” Bellow’s preeminence. Norman Mailer’s stance on this should be considered. 2

Amis, however, has a weakness for attention-seeking posture and form, and periodically for gratuitous critical negativity that doesn’t age well. In the former category is his curious essay “In Pornoland: Pussies are Bullshit,” which I got halfway through and simply lost interest in, even given its nominal provocation.

Then Amis sadly commits Homer Simpson-like blunders (factual and interpretive) discrediting Moby-Dick – while expressing “gratitude and awe” for what he says could be The Great American Novel, otherwise. 3

Image result for homer simpson meme doh

He similarly throws Kafka’s visionary and prescient novel The Trial under the EuRail without even directly naming it, while implying he couldn’t finish any of the writer’s four novels.

By contrast, Amis’ extended contemplation of Vladimir Nabokov (over several essays) probes the great Russian writer’s seeming tendency toward pedophilia (Lolita, et al.) with lucid insight that flirts with prurience but persuasively builds a case for that writer’s unique genius. By comparison, Moore is no prig; she frequently addresses the nuances of “erotic love” in her collection, especially regarding Alice Munro, a literary goddess in her eyes. But Moore also possesses teflon-like taste, happily poking through trashy culture while never smelling of trash herself.

Above all, she leads readers on a glowing pathway to the heart of the matter. One of her favorite modifiers is “heartbreaking.” She’s finely attuned to a story or novel’s emotional tuning fork, which can place a palpable imprint on a reader’s soul. Some sexists might then infer that she mainly reviews women writers. Munro does claim three reviews here. She covers Ann Beattie, Nora Ephron, Joyce Carol Oates, Bobbie Ann Mason, Margaret Atwood, Eudora Welty, poet Edna St. Vincent Millet and the eccentric Brazilian Clarice Lispector, a/o.

Moore is praised as perhaps our wittiest and most poignant contemporary literary fiction writer.

Yet (unlike Amis) she assesses just as many outstanding opposite-sex writers. For example, she rightly critiques Philip Roth’s acclaimed American Pastoral for its “disdainful depiction of sixties radicals (who are given little of intelligence to do or say),” and aptly assesses his The Human Stain as “an astonishing, uneven and often very beautiful book.”  And yet, with almost painful prescience, she comments, the book “fails to extend understanding toward – and only makes fun of – the possible discomfort of minorities or women…where prejudice may be trickily institutional and atmospheric…” 4

She also deliciously unpacks meaty television series, including The Wire, Homeland, True Detective, O. J.: Made In America, and the sorry Wisconsin spectacle of Making a Murderer, among others, and sure-footedly branches out to theater, film and music. (She nails Homeland’s pivotal image: bipolar CIA sleuth Carrie Mathison’s “days of mania,” clue-clotted bedroom bulletin board: “Like a piece of installation art…Seeing the camera pull back on this decorated corkboard is like watching a world come to light.”)

Regarding True Detective, she captures the first season’s cinematic vividness, just in time for  mega-sized HD TV screens: “Through sensitive photography the setting seems to liquefy and flow into the cast to form (not just inform) the characters’ blood and spirit, vowels and squints, head shakes and struts. Their hot tears are a warm rain from the wide celluloid sky. This is assisted by first-rate actors, who possess the highest powers of concentration.” By comparison, season two pales, but Moore dutifully plows through it to dig up nuggets of redemption. Even “doing duty” she’s easily digestible enlightenment.

Her characterization of Beattie seems self-description. Beattie knows “that when you put people in a room together they will always be funny…No other writer manages such warmth and coolness simultaneously…there are no loud noises or bright colors; there is little overt grief, rage, or giddiness.” Moore’s serene, puckish equanimity, even in rough emotional waters, typically buoys her stories with seductive comic poignancy, and helps make her a lighthouse of a critic.


  1. Note, for example, the categorically different and supremely ambitious 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley (whom Moore calls her personal “hero”). Smiley is a rare novelist-critic, and this superb non-academic survey of classic literature includes a vast, intimately authoritative meditation on novelists and the novel form, and a review of 100 famous novels, which she praises, punctures and dissects with crafty aplomb. Also, novelist-essayist Julian Barnes has written brilliantly about visual art in Keeping An Eye Open.
  2. In his magisterial late-career book The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, another heavyweight literary contender, Norman Mailer, suggests Bellow is the top 20th-century dog: “Bellow is now inching more close to the Beast of mystery than any American novelist before him (referencing Henderson the Rain King).” More  provocatively, “It is possible that Bellow succeeds in telling us more about the depths of the black man’s psyche than either Baldwin or Ellison.”  Then, nearly as provocative qualification: “I know that (James) Jones and I would’ve been ready to urinate blood before we would’ve been ready to cash our profit and give up as Bellow did on the possibilities of the demonically vast ending.” Also, in a comment worthy of Moore: “(Bellow) creates individuals and not relations between them, at least not yet (He seemed to accomplish that in the later Humboldt’s Gift.).” Mailer himself admits to chasing Ahab’s whale in his blitzkrieg of the mountain, The Naked and the Dead, in “The Fight,” from the vast Mailer anthology The Time of Our Time, which also includes the best short-essay assessment of Huckleberry Finn I’ve read (from 1964): “One comes to realize all over again that the near burned-out, throttled, hate-filled dying affair between whites and blacks is still our great national love affair, and woe to us if it ends in detestation and mutual misery.” Back in Spooky, Mailer adds perceptively, “I think the younger writers are sick of Roth, Bellow, Updike, and myself, the way we were sick of Hemingway and Faulkner.” As a baby boomer, Lorrie Moore avoids succumbing to such generational bias.
  3. Amis comments on p. 27 that Moby-Dick contains “no women (even the hunted whales are, without exception, bulls)…” This overlooks one of the novel’s most celebrated chapters. “The Grand Armada” lyrically describes The Pequod crew witnessing intimately an armada of maternal whales nursing their young. Also, in his desperate last effort to deter Ahab from their suicidal chase, Starbuck commiserates with his captain over their profoundly missed spouses in the crucial chapter “The Symphony.” In the very same sentence, Amis writes: “There isn’t much America in it.” Critical appreciation includes vast tracts about America’s symbolic and specific presence in Melville’s novel. The Pequod crew itself is often exemplified as signifying America’s diverse, democratic population.
  4. Lorrie Moore, See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary, Knopf, 113-116

A shorter version of this review was published in The Shepherd Express.

American Players Theatre’s “Blood Knot” reaches deep for ties that bind

Gavin Lawrence (left) and Jim DeVita play South African half-brothers in Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot,” currently at American Players Theatre. All photos by Liz Lauren, courtesy APT 

Blood Knot by Athol Fugard, Touchstone Theater, American Players Theatre, through September 28. For information APT

SPRING GREEN –  When you’re born in the heart of darkness you may begin to understand a world’s weird palpitations. The sun sets and darkness does a somersault.

South African playwright Athol Fugard can summon such effects, with brotherly insight and affection. I’ve hardly seen the entirety of August Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle.” So suffice to say, south of Pittsburgh, Fugard’s Blood Knot captures one of the most complex aspects of the black experience ever dramatically wrought, perhaps in all the modern world.

Overstatement? Surely arguable, but the man’s a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature for good reason. He turns up the dramatic heat with the slow, laser-focused pressure of a master welder, until the emotional and intellectual impact burns into the viewer’s mind. As per its mission, American Players Theatre offers a classic of modern drama and, at mid-run, they did so Sunday with a one-time, pay-what-you-can price matinee. It’s a professional Theater Guild production, but they want people to see this. It’s well-worth a full-priced ticket.

Regarding our increasingly crazy and disheartening planet, the greater developed world still strives toward liberal democracy. Yet we can get sticky when it comes to political correctness, which typically entails doing the proper thing even though it’s sometimes self-defeating.

I’m wading into that uneasy backdrop, because this play and its casting prove fearless and ultimately correct, in the best senses. Some controversy arose when Caucasian actor Jim DeVita was cast as Morris, one of the two South African brothers barely getting by in a one-room shack in the non-white ghetto near Port Elizabeth.

African-American director Ron O.J. Parson wisely stood by his cast decision. For starters, Fugard’s characters are half-brothers, with the same white mother. More significantly, the play updates the classic Cyrano de Bergerac, wherein a poetical man becomes stand-in suitor for a smitten friend, who’s ill-spoken and ill-suited for wooing a woman. In this case, Fugard boils it down to one brother simply capable of writing, the other illiterate.

DeVita has actually directed Cyrano and, in that sense, this intensely immersive professional has strong experience with Fugard’s source theme. DeVita also played the title role and later directed perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest character-portrait, Richard III. He’s APT’s preeminent actor, having played Hamlet, Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eddie in A View from the Bridge and received an NEA Literature Fellowship. Specific credentials aside, he’s a hell of an actor who deftly juggles comedy and drama. He has the sonic range, timing and  expressive nuance of a virtuoso violinist.

The white South African playwright himself has said he was actually inspired by his own relationship with his white brother, “and how cruel time had been with him.” So clearly, though the cutting-edge subject matter is clearly race, Fugard aims for the universal.

Make no mistake, Gavin Lawrence proves wonderfully winning, even heart-wrenching, as the illiterate and darker-skinned brother Zachariah. I can’t do full justice to his performance in this context.  Further, the actual true progress of P.C. in theater is gender-and-colorblind casting, which far more typically benefits women and actors of color. Yet this white male actor, in final analysis, proved how wise that ideal can be.

I’m trying to convey the playwright’s mastery of P.C. as social and linguistic subtlety, and regards deeper-seeded matters of brotherhood and, finally, love. This unfolds and sustains superbly with Fugard’s magnificent writing which, with the inevitability of nightfall, casts musical linguistic images in deft shadows, what I would call an ashen lyricism. From seemingly simple images, “the ruins of an old Chevy,” to grander utterances: Zachariah’s “I may be a shade of black, but I will go gently as a man,” or Morris’ mystery-invoking speech at the end.

For sure, this man bears the weight of life’s mysteries. By contrast to his exultant, go-for-it brother, Morris, a seemingly unemployed writer, struggles under a mountain of neurotic and fraternal complexities. Each night, after Zachariah’s shift as a park gate-keeper, the lighter-skinned Morris soaks his brother’s aching feet in epsom salts, a gesture of abject fraternal bond.

The two also recall John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, another parable about two apparent losers in life. Whereas Steinbeck’s slow-witted Lenny habitually looks to the future as a dreamer-fool, Morris calculates obsessively for the shared future of the two brothers, fully sensing how fragile that is. Yet he takes pleasure, even short-lived vicarious delight, in penning little love letters for his brother’s response to a white woman’s personal ad. Remember, this is apartheid South Africa.

“What you have thought, that’s the crime,” Morris warns his brother. “They’ve got ways and means, mean ways.”

Bible-quoting Morris is so deeply repressed that, when his brother asks him whether he’s ever been with a woman, he curls up like a flower burning into an ash.

Fugard richly weaves together symbolic objects, including an all-white suit that Zachariah buys with all the money his brother has squirreled away for their future. At this point, the layered complexity of their relationship unfurls, from teasing to playful exuberance, to turning inside out, so we see truth more clearly.

Finally, the play evoked W.E.B. Du Bois’ famous explanation of the “double consciousness” a black man must endure in a society that refuses to see him as a man. Du Bois himself was a rather light-skinned black man, well-educated and capable of passing as white. In this play, Morris carries such tricky “passing” consciousness with the weary endurance of Sisyphus. His brother signifies his potentially liberated spirit, the brother for whom life is too cruel.

Rarely have two so seemingly different brothers been bound together in a “blood knot” that might burst their hearts. And yet, Fugard resists any easy summation, because his ashen lyricism never really rests.

Listen to Morris, obliquely affirmative, near the end:

“Yes, It’s the mystery  of my life, that lake. I mean. . . It smells dead, doesn’t it ? If ever there was a piece of water that looks dead and done for, that’s what I’m looking at now. And yet, who knows? Who really knows what’s at the bottom?”