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Monday, September 5, 2016

Mother Teresa, an Enemy of the Left



  When Pope Francis canonizes Mother Teresa on Sunday, September 4, one man will be smiling more than most in the sea of people in Saint Peter’s Square.
   His name is Michael Collopy, one of the preeminent portrait photographers of our time. Collophy was Mother Teresa’s personal friend and official photographer for fifteen years. His 224 page book of photographs, Works of Love are Works of Peace (Ignatius Press), contain more than 180 fine art quality tri-tone images, along with writings by Mother Teresa. One of Collopy’s images of Mother Teresa has been chosen as the Catholic Church’s official portrait of the new saint.  Collopy’s photograph was the basis for a painted portrait of the nun that will be unveiled to the world on September 4. .
    Collopy, a mostly self taught photographer who studied under Ansel Adams and Richard Avedon, resides in San Francisco with his wife, Alma and their two sons. He    has photographed a lot of famous people, including Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, but he says that no subject affected him as much as Mother Teresa.  As a personal friend of the saint’s, he also spent a lot of time driving her around Calcutta to her various appointments.
     “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of something she said,” he tells me by phone from his home. “She was very mystical. She could ‘read’ you in a way. She had these deep penetrating eyes and she often gave me spiritual advice that was straight on.”
   Collopy also wants me to know that Mother Teresa “had the ability to see goodness in each person without judgment.”
   The most extreme example of this is the love that she and her Missionaries of Charity sisters showed to gay men dying of AIDS in the Bay Area in the 1980s and 1990s. Collopy’s book contains a number of startling images from the sisters’ Gift of Love San Francisco AIDS Hospice. These black and white images are images of AIDS patients close to death... Some of the men are photographed as they lay dying. In one striking photograph we see Hospice patient “David” surrounded by sisters and staff as if cocooned in a loving circle. As Collopy wrote: “His name was David. Like the other men whose photographs appear in this section, when David found out about this book project, he wanted to be involved. So we were there at a most intimate and profound—his death.”
    One image shows David in repose in a small cot, a white sheet up to his neck near an open window with white curtains and a white statue of Our Lady of Fatima looking over the scene.  
   “I got to know all of these guys quite well,” Collopy says. “Mother was one of the first to really have a home for men suffering from AIDS. I met so many men there who were rejected by their families because of who they were, so many beautiful people that I got to know.”  Collopy adds that David told him that while living in the streets he didn’t feel like he had family or friends but that in the hospice he was surrounded by friends.  
   “Mother had complete trust and confidence that the men in the AIDS hospice were all going to heaven. How intimately God loves each one of us. Mother also made it a point never to judge anyone, and she once told Michael, ‘Oh no, I never judge anybody because it doesn’t allow me to love them.’”
   “Not having this judgment,” Collopy adds, “allowed her to love the individuals she cared for. Mother had the ability to see goodness in each person, without judgment. There was a lot of love and laughter in those hospices.”
    How did Mother Teresa become Mother Teresa?
     She was born in Albania as Ganxhe Agnes Bojaxhiu and had an older brother and a sister named Aga.  The family was well to do. Her mother, an Orthodox Christian, was very religious while her father was very active politically in the local City Council, a position that probably led to his death, or so Collopy believes, as he may have been poisoned. By age 18, the future Mother Teresa was already leading a devout religious life and reading books on India because she had a desire to work there. She wanted to devote her life to the poor as a nun and the only way to do that was to join the Catholic Sisters of Loreto (there were no Orthodox missionary nuns in India at that time).
     Collopy says that Mother Teresa received the call to work with the very poor during a train ride to Darjeeling in 1946. “At that time she had a kind of interior locution, a vision of Jesus and Mary. She was suddenly looking out over a sea of dark faces of the poor and in the foreground was Jesus on the cross,” he says. After entering the convent, she became a geography teacher and the principal of a girl’s school in Calcutta.
   Collopy tells me that Mother never liked to talk about herself and never accepted any kind of praise. When she started her work in Calcutta, she was on her own and absolutely alone. It wasn’t until British writer Malcolm Muggeridge discovered her work in 1969, leading to a BBC report on her work that resulted in world wide attention. 
   Deceased writer Christopher Hitchens, author of a book on Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position,” says the BBC report was the beginning of “the Mother Teresa media myth.” Hitchens called Mother Teresa an “ally of the status quo,” because of her readiness to meet infamous world dictators to further her work. Other critics of Mother jumped on the bandwagon, including journalists who insisted that her Missionaries of Charity homes for the dying in Calcutta and elsewhere were understaffed, provided bad medical care, were too crowded and had insufficient pain killers and food. Mother’s Missionaries of Charity were also charged with gross financial mismanagement.  Krithika Varagur of the Huffington Post went out on a limb when she wrote: “…Mother Teresa’s imminent sainthood is freshly infuriating. We make god in our image and we see holiness in those who resemble us. In this, Mother Teresa’s image is a relic of white, Western supremacy.”  These and other critics who criticized Mother Teresa’s looks as well as her stand against abortion were taken aback when she was awarded the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and the Medal of Freedom.   
    Collopy says that when he and Christopher Hitchens were in Berkeley at the same time, somebody tried to get them together for lunch. “I had a conversation with him on the phone, and he was very nice, very articulate, but his criticism of Mother certainly wasn’t accurate based on my 15 years with her.”
   The aged nun, after all, lived in a simple room without any amenities, wore broken sandals that were five years old, refused to use the telephone longer than a few minutes because poor people in India had no access to phones.
      “I never met anybody who was that selfless. Her life was a life of selfless service. She did not desire publicity or fame. In fact, she had a deal with God that for every photo taken of her a soul was released from purgatory. You know, when you consider the life of Jesus—he did not hang out with the best of characters—a far more difficult pain for him to accept other than the physical pain he experienced was the pain of rejection from the apostles at the Garden of Gethsemane. This really corresponds to the poverty of sorrow that Mother saw in the West. It was the poverty of being unloved and uncared for that made the poverty in the United States much more difficult to care for. But she was called to attend to that.”
   Collopy tells me of the time he was driving Mother to one of her appointments when they came upon a group of electricians working on electrical wires. The scene moved Mother to say, “You have to be the empty wire and allow God to be the current that runs through it.”
   I ask about the photographs of Mother’s feet and hands. The images of Mother’s feet are shocking to look at because they do not resemble feet but, as Collopy says, “tree roots.”
   “Yes, the sisters used to encourage me to photograph Mother’s feet. She never used to wear sandals in her house in Calcutta, because the poor didn’t have sandals. She had an extra toe under her right foot. That must have been very painful. But her feet looked like tree roots. There were notches on her ankles from the way that she prayed, the prostrations and so forth…”  
   He says there are many times when he feels Mother’s presence. In one instance a good friend of Alma’s announced that she had breast cancer. Because the woman was very distraught, Collopy immediately drove to her home to give her a small medal of Our Lady that Mother used to hand out to people.  Mother would kiss these medals individually then distribute them to pilgrims and the sick. Sometimes she would leave them on the property of buildings that were for sale that she wanted to buy. According to Collopy, “99.9 percent of the time after she would get that house.”
      After delivering the medal to his wife’s friend, Collopy tells me that the very next day the more than grateful woman drove to the Collopy home to make an announcement. She said that when she received the medal on the previous day, she saw Mother Teresa standing in the room.  Shortly after this, his breast cancer vanished completely.   
   Collopy reminds me of something that Mother once said: “I can do much more for you in heaven than I can on earth.”     
   The San Francisco photo-journalist is currently working on a new book, Courage, portraits of people he feels have exhibited courage in their field of work, including Nobel Prize Laureates, Civil Rights heroes, and of course the Dalai Lama, who once rubbed Collopy’s shoulder because he said he needed the healing presence of Mother Teresa’s love.       


The Homeless Will Help Us After a World Calamity



   They come to the neighborhood in droves. Sometimes they come as couples and occasionally they have a dog in tow. They set up camp in the strangest places: in front of convenience stores, pizza shops, Dunkin Donuts, and dollar stores. They canvass traffic at stoplights with large cardboard signs. Talk to them and you’ll find they have slightly different stories. Some come from good homes, like Anthony X who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs where he played the guitar and sang so well that his music can still be seen on You Tube. Anthony studied film production in LA and produced a number of short films before his life crashed.
   His life crashed because of heroin. Anthony left LA for Philly where he met a beautiful girl who had a knack for making a quick buck under the El.
   Couples bonded by heroin addiction rarely celebrate 5th or 10th anniversaries. Heroin is a jealous mistress; it wants no other lover. Anthony and his girl soon planned a road trip to Texas where they dreamt of a bohemian existence with Austin’s music community. The road trip began with a bang. They posted Facebook photos of themselves eating tacos on Greyhound, and then Texas photos showing them bathing in a creek. Anthony’s girlfriend then met a man with a lot of money and Anthony was history. Devastated, the former film student disappeared into that overcrowded nightmare known as the state of California

       Most but not all of the homeless are drug addicted. Some homeless people are just down on their luck and rebound quickly when offered a job and a place to live.
   Some of the homeless are road trippers who travel from city to city. Like the legendary American hobos of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, they ride the rails and sleep in boxcars, following a rustic tradition that has its roots in American literature. The poet Carl Sandburg and the novelist James Michener, for instance, both lived as train hobos for a while. Generally, road tripper types have no intention of settling in Philly. Consider the case of Garth, 25, a native of Vermont, who came to Philly with his guitar because there was trouble at home. Garth is a light party drug type (no heroin), but his lifestyle has made him homeless. Maybe it’s his long hair, but Garth says that cops will ask him to leave popular panhandling spots while ignoring born and bred Philly homeless who panhandle for drug money.  
       He complains that everyone he meets assumes that he’s on heroin. He also doesn’t like it that people seem to not like him because he’s not “from around here.”
    Recently I introduced myself to two homeless guys after telling them that I was writing a book on the homeless problem 
   The two men, Chris and Ron, said they usually hang out in lower Kensington by the Somerset El stop where they panhandle for drug money. Chris, 28, has a beard that’s reminiscent of Francis of Assisi. He looked quite at home perched on top of a metal recycle bin as he told me that he had just come from a hospital where he tried to get himself committed. As if to prove his story, he showed me the hospital Johnny under his shirt. He tried to commit himself, he says, because he’s tired of life on the streets.
    Chris has been on the streets for 3 years although he says he showers and keeps himself clean when he visits friends or finds a hospitable spot to wash up. Chris’ friend, Ron, who has been on the streets for a year, grew up in the Northeast.
   Chris says he misses his family “something awful” though he’s careful to add that his family problems have nothing to do with his drug addiction. Ron won’t even talk about his family. His eyes tell me that it’s just too painful to go there.

    Both Ron and Chris love the idea of getting clean. This comes into play when a guy their own age walks by and hears them talking, then offers Chris a job as a dishwasher for ten dollars an hour at a local Fishtown eatery, Chris asks how he can apply. “Online,” the manager says, “It’s easy.” But it’s not easy. How is Chris going to get access to a computer unless he goes to a city library? Gone are the days when you could just walk into a place and fill out an application. He would also have to get clean before he starts work. One of the disadvantages of being homeless is that you are always losing or getting your state ID stolen.  “Well, maybe I’ll see you,” the manager says, “Remember, ten dollars an hour!”
       Chris and Ron continue to talk about making ten dollars an hour long after the manager leaves. Chris says he would save his money and find a “nice place to live” but Ron doesn’t say much. Perhaps Ron sees that housing in today’s world is just too expensive for people with low income jobs.   
     We are joined by a homeless man with a black eye (he just had a fight with his girlfriend) who’s pushing around a set of golf clubs.
     The scene is becoming as bizarre as an independent foreign movie.
    The man trying to sell golf clubs obviously stole them. At least that’s what Chris thinks. “Who golf’s in Port Richmond,” he says. “Nobody here wants golf clubs!” Chris is right, of course.  Port Richmond and Fishtown have nothing in common with Haverford or Bryn Mawr. Besides which, the clubs look like really cheap golf clubs. “This might work if they turned Cione Park into a golfing range, “ Ron scoffs.
      The man with the clubs dusts off all the knobby tops like they are Lions Club trophies. He looks around the parking lot for potential buyers but there are only a few people headed to their cars drinking Big Gulps and ten Puerto Rican kids riding by on bicycles with their front tires in the air. The golf guy reluctantly shoulders the clubs and leaves but no sooner does this happen than he’s replaced by a pretty woman with braided hair in green camouflage pants and a corded vest that must have once been on the racks at Nordstrom’s. .
       She has a striking profile and, together with Chris—after a hot shower and a pedicure—they could make a living as Calvin Klein models. The girl sits down by the front door with her change cup as another homeless person comes up from the rear. I ask Chris if this is some kind of homeless convention and if he knows any of these people. He shakes his head no. The newcomer carries a triple tiered knapsack straight out of the Apollo Moon Landing. It’s a wonder he can move under its weight. There isn’t enough time to get his story, but I introduce myself anyway and tell him that I am gathering stories.

   The whole world seems to have gone Mad Max. Suddenly there are more homeless people at this convenience store than there are customers, but I’m glad the police aren’t chasing them away. Still, I can empathize with the police: if 100 homeless people came here, would that be good for business? I think not. 
    Life gets stranger when another homeless man approaches and asks if anybody has a cigarette. He’s a tall guy with a scar on his right arm and, lighting up after finding a butt on the ground, tells Chris and Ron (the girl won’t join us) his story. He says he’s the only person to ever survive jumping off the Ben Franklin Bridge.
  Ambrose Bierce couldn’t invent stories like this, but what I’m telling you is true.
   He lifts his shirt up and shows everyone the scar on his stomach from the operations he’s had since he jumped. Everyone wants to know how he survived the long drop to the water. He says he lost consciousness immediately after jumping and “woke up” underwater with his shoes planted in the mud on the bottom of the river. Somehow he managed to free himself and swim up to the surface where he saw a patrol boat. Lucky for him, the people on the patrol boat saw him jump, so they were ready. He says all the nurses and the doctors at the hospital call him the Bionic Man whenever he goes for checkups.
    Surviving two or three years as a homeless person in the city is an endurance test of the highest order. But if there’s anything “good” about being homeless, it’s this: If ever there’s a world calamity, it will be the homeless who will lead the way because they’ve had so much practice surviving on the streets. They will become survival mentors for the rest of us, showing us how to pitch a cardboard tent in an alley, how to make a bed out of newspapers, how to brush your teeth with your index finger, or how to select “safe” dumpster food from the nasty stuff.
   They will be the masters of the new age. 



The Hipster Commune Goes Bust



Let’s consider the empty house on the street where I live.
    The house is empty because the owner, Sammy, a guy about 30, suddenly moved out after living in the place for 3 years. I remember the day he moved in. He came with his cars and bikes after his suburban parents bought the house for him. During his first weeks here some of the neighbors went out of their way to say hello but Sammy was aloof. He obviously didn’t want to be bothered to get to know the people on the block.
    What Sammy did for a living was a mystery, but his pattern was to leave the house everyday around noon and return in the early evening. 
    Sammy could have been living on a mountain top because he never made eye contact with neighbors. You could pass Sammy in the street and he’d have one of those Village of the Damned ‘straight on’ stares like he was sleepwalking.  
    Sammy’s house was a large space with interesting room patterns. I know because I used to be friends with the couple, Walter and Betty, who lived there before their move to Washington State. Walter, Betty and I didn’t become friends until their last two years on the street. Who knows why it took us so long to strike up a friendship. One day they invited me to dinner so I got to sample Walter’s gourmet cooking. On warm summer days, Walter would invite me over for a swim in his pool. The pool was a fairly deep above ground monstrosity with a sturdy wooden deck, set among some of the largest trees I’ve seen in the neighborhood. After a swim, we’d catch an iced tea during which Walter would talk about his favorite poet, Gary Snyder.
    I wasn’t happy when Walter and Betty announced that they were moving west. I was getting used to going over there for dinner and swimming in their pool, and then inviting them over to my place for patio parties. Friendships like this don’t come easily. You can say hello to neighbors, even chat with them on the street for years and still never be invited over to their place.
   When Walter and Betty moved out the house wasn’t empty for long. One day I spotted a suburban looking couple talking with the realtor. The couple had driven up in a Lexis, which spelled m-o-n-e-y. A week or two after that a big moving truck appeared, and Sammy appeared with his bushy black hair and an army of friends. The friends, all men, were scruffy in a hip way although they all had the same type of manufactured beard.
    They moved in quickly and within days held a massive outdoor party around Walter’s old pool. Sammy’s friends built a large bonfire and started a barbecue. The party lasted until the wee hours. Then at 4 or 5 am I was awakened by a suburban girl, one of Sammy’s party guests, crying under my bedroom window.  She was so drunk she found it hard to put together sentences however I tried to make out what she was saying. In the end, I couldn’t decipher her drunken valley girl ‘up talk’ although it seemed that some boy had dumped her.   
    I was curious about Sammy for a short time but after a while I stopped caring. There was no reason to say hello, especially if his response was going to be something like a smug nod.   
     Sammy’s outdoor parties were becoming more and more frequent. Party guests, driving in from the western Main Line, were double parking on our tiny street. Sammy acquired strings of Japanese party lights and strung them along the tree branches so that from my house his yard looked like a massive house boat in New Orleans. The parties got progressively louder and wilder yet it was fascinating to see how every party began as low key events but as the night wore on, and as more alcohol was consumed, the voices got louder and louder. Eventually the voices became so pitched it sounded like twenty men screaming at one another. 
    If the screaming prevented me from falling asleep, I assumed that many of my neighbors were experiencing the same thing. I’d turn on the AC or put fans in my bedroom window to muffle the noise but like the racket from a plague of locusts, the voices would always resurface.
     And among these voices there would always be the sound of a woman crying. .  
   “That makes 4 crying women in 30 days,” I’d tell friends. ‘What do they do to women over there?”
    Sammy acquired a succession of roommates to help pay the mortgage. Generally the roommates were in their twenties and never stayed long. At first the roommates were part of Sammy’s social circuit but then I noticed a change. They seemed to be living independently, especially the lost looking Irish guy who seemed to be terrified of strangers and whose large dog seemed to be his only friend. He would sit glum faced on Sammy’s stoop staring into space. For a time I thought he was hearing impaired.  
   Some of Sammy’s roommates moved out in the middle of the night although they were very quickly replaced with new roommates. At one of the parties, the invited guests double and triple parked on the sidewalk up and down the street, upsetting the neighbors.  Somebody called the police, and ten of Sammy’s party guests got parking tickets.
   “These people have no idea how the city works,” I told a friend.
    Sammy acquired so many roommates I lost count of them. Prohibitive housing and rental costs were really impacting people in their twenties, and Sammy’s house was proof of this. Nobody could afford to live on their own. I called Walter and Betty and told them that their former home had become a gigantic hipster commune complete with dogs, motorcycles, bonfires, and beautiful white women in long dreadlocks. “It’s a sight to behold although nobody on the street has made friends with them because they don’t   seem to want to get to know anybody.”  
   I told Walter and Betty that Sammy had decided to get rid of the pool and chop down the oldest and grandest tree on the property. Walter and Betty were meticulous home owners, but very soon Sammy began to let things slip. After all, it really wasn’t his house. His parents found the house for him. They were the ones who appreciated the house but they probably had high hopes that Sammy would come to appreciate it someday.   
   It wasn’t long before the house began to look shabby, although all the women who visited or lived there seemed to be the same type: they were tall and elegant looking with long beautiful hair. They also dressed like fashion models, mostly in long flowing dresses. Even if beautiful women are not your thing, no one could deny the astounding beauty of these creatures. They seemed to go in and out of Sammy’s house at all hours.
     The men, by contrast, were doughy looking with thick Clark Kent glasses and hairy necks. “This is proof,” a comedian friend of mine commented, “that pretty women like money and power.”
     For a period of a year, especially in winter when there were no leaves on the trees, anyone walking on the sidewalk could look right into Sammy’s front window and see somebody watching Homer Simpson.
   The parties continued, the beer kept flowing, and the male chorus of voices kept getting louder and louder. Sometimes I could make out what was being said. There were stories about work but more often than not there was no smooth narrative at all, just discombobulated half sentences with long pauses as well as the overuse of the word ‘like’ (let’s not forget beer burps), and finally unexplained yells as if someone had inadvertently sat on a possum. 
   “Like…I mean, but like….Yeah, you know. What the fuck!”   
     (Repeat 50 times and you have the party conservation).
    A few neighbors, eager to build bridges, continued to attempt to make contact with Sammy, but to no avail. 
    Two weeks ago in a bizarre replay of 3 years ago, the suburban parents returned in the same Lexis. Standing in front of the house they whispered to one another before knocking on Sammy’s door. The parents had to knock a long time before one of the roommates answered although he didn’t open the door but talked to them through an open slat.
  . Some sort of negotiation seemed to be in progress, but what?  
   The very next day at least two of the roommates moved out and the day after that it was Sammy’s turn. Sammy left on his bike, never to be seen again.


Saturday, September 3, 2016

                                           My ICON Magazine Theater Column September 2016

Philadelphia’s 2016-2017 theater season will be big. PTC opens Sept. 23 with RIZZO, directed by Joe Canuso, produced just in time to counter the demands of an insane radical group to replace the Rizzo statue at the Municipal Services Building. The Wilma opens with Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling. Directed by Blanka Zixka, Bovell’s play has been called an “intricate fabric of overlapping connections,” a “sorrow-sodden family drama [where] the forecast is continually gloomy.” Rain charts the fates of two families through several generations and was Time magazine’s Best Play of the Year in 2010.  “This play is like a fine port, a peaty scotch or a long-form piece of music; it’s meant to be taken in slowly,” wrote Alan Katz in a DC Theatre Scene review.  

   The Lantern Theater Company gives us George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a play banned by the British government for three decades because the profession in question is prostitution. Mary Martello will play the hard working Mrs. Warren whose goal in life is to move out of London’s slums. Feminist Germaine Greer, writing in The Guardian, said that when Shaw created Mrs. Warren, “his uber-whore, the bodies of real-life prostitutes had been found in London streets, brutally dismembered by Jack the Ripper.” Greer insinuated Shaw had no heart because a prostitute’s chance of reaching her 50s healthy and wealthy was about as great as winning the lottery.  Philip Graham countered Greer in the same publication when he penned, “Greer is apparently unaware that Shaw wrote that year to the Pall Mall Gazette about the appalling lives of prostitutes.”     

 The 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival (Sept. 9-24) will be an artistic implosion of the good, bad and ugly.  Some of this year’s offerings include The Deep Blue Theater Collective’s “radical re-imagining” of the American classic, A Streetcar Named Desire, which means that Blanche Du Bois will probably fall into an absurdist abyss.  Sexual high jinks is the energy behind Carried Away (Brian Sanders’ Junk), or 50 minutes of male on male “skin against skin” and “disco within punk” that will attempt to raise audience body temperatures with cutting edge choreography (think BallettXXX). Classic literature takes the lead in The Duende Cycle theatre collaboration’s staging of  Bodas de Sangre/I Only Came to Use the Phone. Bodas (Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding) takes place in Miami while I Only Came was inspired by a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story. Classic Fringe absurdity kicks in big time with Antihero by Tribe of Fools at the Painted Bride Arts Center where “comic book nerds turn vigilante against the Philadelphia Parking Authority.” An even more absurdist theme here promises to be a “feminist critique of comic book culture.”  (Greer again?) Festival goers will have the opportunity to bang their head against the wall with a beautiful insane woman with long hair who shows a lot of leg while dressed in a skimpy hospital Johnny when they attend the Manayunk Theatre Company’s Bedlam: Shakespeare in Rehab. Come, and immerse yourself in “a world of mental health!”  There’s also The Elementary Spacetime Show by Cesar Alvarez at the Arts Bank that will show us what happens when a young girl attempts suicide and “wakes up” in a universe filled with vaudeville absurdities—everything, of course sans angels on Pogo Sticks or talking sardines, but who knows? 

    Yoel Wulfhart, aka Philly’s Samuel Beckett, has written the epic play of the 2016  Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Cat-a-strophe, is Wulfhart’s own version of the real Samuel Beckett play of the same name. Wulfhart describes Cat-a-strophe as “what would happen if Samuel Beckett, Dario Fo and Hannoch Levin co-wrote a sitcom.” Wulfhart says the play is about the human experience.  “As children we all have great hopes, but then many of those hopes do not come to fruition.  It’s a farcical play, not funny but sad, but only funny on top. It’s a play about repetition, about how we repeat something over and over again hoping for something different.” Cat-a-strophe is Wulfhart’s first play and the first production of his company, Fail Better Productions at The Papermill, a multi-disciplinary artist community at 2825 Ormes Street. Born and raised in Israel, he’s been in the States for 30 years.  “The cast of Cat-a-strophe can’t get through rehearsals without the entire production crew falling to the ground in peels of laughter,” he says.

My Icon Magazine Theater Column August 2016

                                          My Icon  Magazine Theater Column August 2016
   Playwright R. Eric Thomas of Philadelphia’s William Way Community Center is well schooled in local homosexual history. His play, Time is on our Side, skillfully directed by Jarrod Markman, puts much of that history into play in this swift moving story about pod casters Claudia (Brandi Burgess) and Curtis (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) who do an ‘XPN style radio show focusing on gay issues. Brandi, the show’s mega mouth (she likes to cut Curtis off in mid-sentence) discovers her grandmother’s diary with its lesbian references. Curtis is eager to read the diary on air but Brandi protests, citing discretionary issues. Curtis insists on ‘outing’ the diary so that listeners can hear the story of how Claudia grandmother’s marriage was a front that allowed the couple to operate secretly as homosexuals. The play’s many references to historic Philly gay bars and personalities, such as Mary the Hat, is a trip down memory lane. Thomas can be forgiven his few highlighted references to his employer, although the actual dates of the diary, the late 60s and ‘70s, seem a bit too recent to be perceived as anything archival or historic.     

BalletX’s Summer Series 2016 showcased the choreography of Matthew Neenan and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. These world premier dance pieces were savvy techno lighting projection spectacles creating the illusion of multi dimensional space into which dancers appear and disappear.  Neenan’s piece, Identity Without Attribute, had definite Kraftwerk influences: the repetitious electronic music transformed the dancers into robots. While the Bolero-like repetition of this stuck in the vortex beat was delightful for a few minutes, it soon morphed into a fixed chaotic state without variation, leading ultimately to boredom, much like watching paint dry. While the beauty and agility of BalletX dancers cannot be denied, Identity did not deserve the standing ovation that it received. The second dance, Ochoa’s Bonzi, was much better. This whimsical narrative with dancing doors (and knocking on doors) recalled the films of Federico Fellini and the best of Cirque du Soleil.  Here was BalletX at its best, the story of a salesman (dancer Edgar Anido) who sells something that nobody wants. What happens when Anido is drawn behind the doors he’s knocking on is narrative dance at the highest level.    

Founding Artistic Director of New City Stage Company Ginger Dayle says the play Roseburg is really an ongoing political conversation about gun control, “whether you’re pro or anti restricting these weapons.”  Written by Dayle and the Voices for a New City Ensemble, Roseburg is one play written by committee that works. This compelling yet overlong narrative presents two case scenarios, the events leading up to Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 assassination and a 2015 school shooting in Oregon by Christopher Harper-Mercer, played to the creepy hilt by Jackie DiFerdinado who takes us inside the Asberger’s tortured teen as he thrashes about in psychological pain while telling his mom, Laurel Harper (Kayla Tarpley) that cockroaches are attacking him in his bedroom. Russ Widdall as RFK gets the Boston accent right even as he recites long passages from the senator’s early speeches in support of gun control. Widdall also illuminates RFK’s  bumbling side, or his goofy tendency to find any excuse—“I have to watch the kids”—in order to evade his serious as stone, nitpicking speechwriter, Richard N. Goodwin (Joshua Tewell), who’s always chasing him down with script changes. RFK bodyguard Rosey Grier (Andre M. Evers) adds a biracial element to this innovative production in which both arguments of the gun control debate are presented intelligently and fairly.    “We recently rewrote our mission to focus on political theater and that refers to more than just political figures but the politics of everyday life,” Dayle has said of her work. 

   Be sure to catch the 2nd Annual Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival at the U of Arts Ira Brind School of Theater Arts. Plays like Molly’s Hammer by Tammy Ryan, about a Pittsburgh housewife who stood alongside Daniel and Philip Berrigan in King of Prussia when the group, known as Plowshares 8, took hammers to the nosecones of nuclear weapons. Then there’s Simone by Amanda Coffin, about intellectual existentialist philosopher, Simone Beauvoir, who saw nothing existentially wrong about procuring young female lovers for her partner, Jean Paul Sartre. (                

Monday, August 15, 2016

Press Tour of the New Philadelphia Mormon Remple



   Last week I participated in a press tour of Philadelphia’s new Mormon temple. On the way to the event I thought of my introduction to Mormonism as a teenager.
   After a Mormon family moved into our neighborhood, I quickly read the only Mormon book in my high school library: Joseph Smith’s No Man Knows My History.  Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church (established in 1830), claimed to have had a visitation from an angel who showed where to dig to find the ancient religious history of American civilization on a hill near Palmyra, New York.  That history was engraved on metal plates and became The Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon purports to be the story of Jesus Christ’s presence in the Americas after his death and resurrection in Jerusalem.
   One other memory concerns a trip I made with my parents to the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Here I saw a number of religious sites, such as the Vatican Pavilion, a Russian Orthodox chapel, and the Mormon Pavilion. What stood out for me in the Mormon Pavilion was the famous copy of the Christus statue (by Thorvaldsen) in Copenhagen
     The tall, imposing white statue of Christ was conceived by the Mormon Church for the 3 million dollar Pavilion. Its sheer size and dominance not only commanded attention, but it helped put the Church into the popular consciousness. The Christus statue followed the accepted Mormon practice of representing Jesus as striking and extraordinarily handsome. Mormon Jesus’ were not dark and swarthy Rembrandt likenesses but cleft chinned, blue eyed, well built golden or auburn haired model gladiators.  This is the Jesus of Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings, not the thin, ascetically inclined Jesus in Pier Pablo Pasolini’s wonderful, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. 

   The New York World’s Fair, in fact, was a pivotal moment for the Mormon Church. “…The  huge leap forward initiated by the Mormon Pavilion must be considered a seminal event in the evolution of the Church’s use of media in spreading the gospel message to the world,” writes Brent L. Top, dean of religious education at Brigham Young University.  “From that time to the present day, the Church’s outreach through its use of technology and media has increased steadily and exponentially.”
   I’ll say. 
   This fact was clearly in evidence during the Philadelphia Temple’s first media tour. 
   The press group of about 22 people included print and broadcast media. A Fox News reporter was there along with her camera crew. There were other unidentified camera crews and a number of photographers although no pictures were permitted inside the temple itself since it is considered the House of the Lord. The press met in the less than inspiring Robert A.M. Stern-designed Meeting House, the place for Mormon Sunday worship, since the Temple is reserved for marriages (and the “sealing” of those marriages for eternity) and for the baptism of the deceased. The tour was to last 2 hours with light refreshments at the end. 
  There are 112 operating Mormon temples worldwide. At times the building of a temple or a Mormon institution caused some controversy. In 1984, when ground was broken in the Mount Scopus area of Jerusalem for the Brigham Young University Jerusalem campus, all hell broke out. Ultra Orthodox Jews saw this invasion of Mormons from Utah as a proselytizing threat and sought to have construction halted. The Mormon Church had to hire security guards to proceed with the project.  A famous ultra Orthodox pop star, Mordechai Ben David, even composed a hit single titled “Jerusalem is Not for Sale.”
   Jerusalem is not for sale!
   Voices, crying, thundering throughout our cities,
  You better run for your life, back to Utah overnight,
   Before the mountaintop opens wide to swallow you inside.

 Today the BYU Jerusalem campus hardly raises an eyebrow although students there must sign a contract promising not to missionize.

     Our Philadelphia Temple tour guide was the Harvard educated Larry Y. Wilson, who serves as Executive Director of the Temple Department in Salt Lake City.
   The silver haired Wilson had a sleek ‘Father Knows Best’ demeanor. He took us from the Meeting House to the Temple entrance where coverings were put over our shoes. The shoe coverings were to keep street dirt off the meticulously clean Temple floors and rugs.
    Inside the Temple, Wilson described the furnishings and the commissioned art on the walls, including several original murals. He also explained how the Temple’s features were aligned to fit a southeastern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia theme, right down to the temple’s main door and frame with its bas-relief mountain laurel “Pennsylvania” blossom design. “We believe that the founding of this country was divinely inspired,” he said.  
      The interior of the temple is an extravaganza of quality craftsmanship. Nowhere will you find flimsy/cheap construction materials that you see in new construction all over town. There are no thin walls or doors that weigh a few ounces. One astonished journalist asked how the temple was able to ward off the sound of outside traffic. Wilson replied, “With very thick walls.”

         Press questions about the Mormon religion began early on. This was to be expected, given that much of the tour included references to Mormon theology and doctrine. These references were woven into descriptions of the temple’s Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns, the decorative lighting, flooring, the outside fence, walkways and the landscaping.  “We believe that this is the Lord’s House,” Wilson reiterated, something that many Christian denominations might ascribe to in theory but that in practice falls short, especially when one considers those Protestant sanctuaries that are used for services on Sunday but on Tuesdays are transformed into jazz festival arenas or concert halls.  
      Emaneul Swedenborg, A Swedish scientist, mystic and founder of the Swedenborgian Church, wrote that heaven is filled with cities and houses of many different types. There are mansions and simple homes, lavish communities and humble communities.  We reap in heaven what we sow in life, meaning that those who were terrifically good in life live in afterlife mansions of marvelous splendor, while those who lived mediocre lives on earth inhabit less than spectacular ‘heavenly’ neighborhoods.
   In Mormonism, there’s a belief that non-Mormon ancestors in the after life are free to accept or reject the offer of baptism into the Mormon faith by living relatives or friends.  A yes answer, however, would transfer the deceased to a Swedenborg-like greater heaven. 
    In the Philadelphia temple, each floor is designed as a stairway to Heaven, so as one goes higher the furnishings and the chandeliers on each floor become more elaborate until one reaches the apex, or the Celestial Room, the most scared and beautiful room in the temple.
   In the Celestial Room the hanging chandelier fans out into the room like an exploding comet. Visiting Mormons in good standing (Mormons must get a recommend pass from their bishop or stake leader in order to enter the temple) pray and meditate here despite the fact that this room, as well as the entire temple, tends to resemble a lavish Ritz Carlton Hotel with a lot of pictures of Jesus.
   The press’ fascination with Mormonism came to a fore at the Baptismal Font. Generally, a concerted design effort would be necessary to transform a baptismal area into a secular looking space, but one can see elements of that here for it is not hard to imagine someone perceiving this space, despite its sacred nature, as a hot tube of the highest quality, perhaps a faux Disney recreation of the baths of ancient Rome. Still, ‘spectacular’ doesn’t begin to describe the Font area that had journalists gazing into the pool of water as if lost in the bliss of hypnosis.  Like characters in a Robert Altman film, we journalists formed a long line along the circumference of the curving marble barrier that overlooked the oxen accented pool as questions about Mormonism ricocheted back and forth like tennis balls.
    The Baptismal Font was to me the highlight of the tour, although later in the marriage sealing room, where couples kneel facing one another across a small altar to have their marriages sealed for all eternity, things got a little dicey.
  A journalist inappropriately dressed in shorts, a tight T-shirt and a frayed baseball cap, asked Wilson if same sex marriages are preformed in the sealing room. 

     The question seemed to come across as a triggering device, designed to set off a series of consecutive explosive comments from other members of the press, all related to same sex marriage and engineered to put Wilson on the defensive.

   Perhaps it was possible that a reporter in this day and age had no clue about the Mormon stand on same sex marriage. Americans, after all, are tremendously ignorant about religion. This is why the wife of one visiting Mormon Elder told me that people who should know better mistake her for a Mennonite or Amish. “But would an Amish woman wear these kinds of heels?” she asked me, showing me her feet ensconced in the brightest of the bright Frederick’s of Hollywood heels that would attract a thumbs up at a Philly Style magazine party.
   As for that baseball capped reporter, his question did set off a few same sex marriage follow up comments, although the ever savvy Wilson was able to defuse whatever small bomb lay hidden in the reporter’s initial inquiry.    




The DNC in Philadelphia


Thom Nickels

     The Democratic National Convention is now history. City streets are quieter, the traffic less daunting, and there’s finally a sense of being able to breathe easy. Though a national convention may be good for a city’s PR image, sometimes for residents the going can get rough. An overcrowded Frankford Market El and Broad Street subway filled with swat teams and wall to wall people is not a pretty experience. 
    But on Monday, July 24, the first day of the convention, expectations were bright. That’s when I headed to the Jill Stein for President Green Party protest in front of City Hall and got an eye full. This protest reminded me of the Occupy Philly protests a few years ago and of certain demonstrations I participated in the early 1970s. I will always feel a connection to grassroots protest even as some of my political views evolve.  

  The Green Party’s ‘Power to the People’ 2016 platform is attractive enough. The Green vision it to end world poverty, put a moratorium on pesticides and institute community control of the police rather than the other way around. The Greens also want to terminate unconstitutional surveillance on American citizens. These are noble goals.
     I remember what happened to the Greens in 2008 when their presidential ticket, Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala were arrested and handcuffed to a chair for 8 hours for attempting to participate in the Hofstra University Obama-Romney debate. Stein and Honkala should have been included in that debate.  Thirty years ago presidential debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. That’s when any third party presidential candidates on the ballot in enough states were invited to debate the Republican and Democratic nominee for president. 
   In 1988, the League withdrew its sponsorship of presidential debates because of the demands of the two party system. League President Nancy M. Neuman said at that time that “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” and that “the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions.” 

   It was fascinating to hear Stein supporter Chris Hedges from Truthdig and then observe the Green protestors (of all ages), some of whom were in costume, like the woman dressed as Hillary, the Queen of Death (based on Hillary’s reputation as an interventionist with a fondness for starting foreign wars).Large Green Party flags fluttered in the afternoon breeze as activists from the 60s chanted the same chants anti war protestors chanted during Vietnam War sit ins.
    I heard lots of ‘up’ talk in the crowd about Bernie pulling a fast one during the convention. No, he would not capitulate to the corporate Clinton, but he “had a surprise in mind,” some said. Utopian dreams die heard. I kept my mouth shut and did not share my belief that Bernie had nothing in mind except…capitulation.  
   A band of youthful drummers caught my attention with the following chant:
                  Communist Revolution is the only solution 
   The Communist Revolution wrecked havoc in Russia and ended in failure. The French Revolution, as Jonah Goldberg has written, was “the first fascist revolution to turn politics into a religion. Accordingly, they declared war on Christianity, attempting to purge it from society and replace it with a "secular" faith.”

   While we’re at it, let’s not forget this pro-revolution maxim from Thomas Jefferson: “If you discourage mutiny and riot what check is there on government?” 
      Green Party dress was decidedly downtrodden and raw; frumpy shorts, pigtails askew, shredded baseball caps, pony tails and the occasional ‘culturally appropriated’ dreadlocks on tall thin activist white men (some of whom had a man bun on top of the dreads). Unfortunately for the Greens, the numbers of protestors were not large enough to shut down the DNC at Wells Fargo, the original goal of the march. Whole Earth Catalog style post hippie costumes, floppy hats and black anarchist flags would never win over America’s heartland. A cosmetic makeover might be a good first step to start this revolution.   

     Next stop on my list was the Wells Fargo building. I had my US Secret Service photo ID badge and my green Arena pass around my neck. A green Arena pass got you inside the Arena but not inside the actual Hall where you could sit down and watch the convention. Most press organizations sans big names like The New York Times had green Arena passes. Monday night, being the first night of the DNC, the ASK ME volunteers were quite liberal in allowing green ID press into the seating area, but green press passes were essentially useless unless one enjoyed standing for hours, or sitting on the Arena floor like a homeless person in front of 7/11. The DNC was quite stingy in its allotment of Hall press passes. In some ways it seemed to me that the ASK ME volunteers had it better than credentialed press.
    I sat in the upper tiers in the Hall Monday night with my green pass. I was behind the stage so I only saw the backs (and behinds) of Paul Simon, Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders.  Two hipster DC online publishers who told me they were conservative libertarians sat beside me. Most of the press did not applaud or cheer the speakers although when Bernie Sanders mounted the podium, very few people did not lean forward in their seats.

   Before each speech, DNC pages distributed banners and signs with a slogan or the name of the next speaker. This was for the benefit of the television audience. Generally, journalists attending political conventions do not show support for candidates, so the props offered by the pages went nowhere in the press section although a few newbie reporters from college newspapers scooped them up, causing one of the libertarian editors to remark, “Those kid reporters don’t know what they’re doing.”

  On Monday night there didn’t seem to be many American flags on the floor. For some people this may not be an important matter, but it did catch the eye of certain conservatives like writer Tammy Baldwin, who noted, “Americans notice things like no American flags on the DNC convention stage. It might be small to some people, but it’s a statement…. After criticism mounted, they added them the second night…” The lack of flags was more than amply made up for by a double tsunami of balloons, some as large as beach balls and small planets, that fell from the ceiling like a plague of locusts over the Clinton-Kaine team during the convention’s closing moments.

      Viewers watched as the Clinton team seemed to walk ankle deep in a sea of rubber. I couldn’t help but notice a dazed looking Hillary bending over slowly, as if in extreme arthritic pain, to pick up a balloon and then throw it to Bill or Chelsea. The balloon extravaganza was clearly the most bizarre moment of the convention and called to mind the antics of that famous clown, Clarabell.
    I found much to admire in the behavior of Bernie Sanders supporters. Some of them came dressed in funny hats, capes and motorcycle gear. The emotional build up to Sanders’ speech had all the tension of a Wagnerian opera. Bernie, however, still had many detractors. Charles Hunt of The Washington Times, wrote:  “During his quarter-century in Congress, Mr. Sanders has been viewed as something of a gadfly with Tourette’s syndrome. Always dressed like a homeless person shambling along the hallways, Democrats felt sorry for him and let him into their meetings. He looked like he needed a cup of coffee and free danishes.”
   Well, whoever said that politics was charitable? 

      On Thursday evening, the night of Hillary’s speech, there were far fewer Sanders supporters on the floor. Hillary’s ‘Stronger Together Crowd’ was out in force: lots of women in black men’s suits and “Planned Parenthood’ bob cut hair dos.
    I got a taste of the privileged political class when I went up the wrong escalator on Hillary night and wound up in a high donor area with special cocktail lounges and restaurant skyboxes serving crab, lobster and cherry filled Manhattans. Culinary security was out in force, so I did not get in. All in all, there were five intense security check points one had to go through before arriving in the Hall.    
    On Hillary night, Monday’s generous press pass atmosphere had disappeared. Ask Me volunteers were now guarded the Hall gateways like 1950s Communist border guards. I tried to negotiate a seat several times, but failed. 
    I made do with touring the (so called) food courts, and noticed right away that Wells Fargo wasn’t doing the Democrats any favors: small bottled water sold for 4.50 a bottle, and a slice of pizza was double that.
    When the “enough is enough” alarm sounded within me, I left for home and watched Hillary’s acceptance speech online.