Friday, August 21, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Another Country" (on Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's The Line)

another country
by Douglas Messerli

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (authors) The Line / presented on-line from July 8-September 1, 2020; the performance I saw was on August 20, 2020.

In one of the best offerings by a contemporary theater company is this bleak year, The Public Theater is currently offering free on-line viewing of Jessica Blank’s and Erik Jensen’s play The Line from July through August 4th, evidently extended, since I saw this moving response of 7 voices who each served on the front-lines of New York City’s COVID-19 crisis on August 20, 2020.
     The words these “talking heads” speak are their own, and do not represent composites so the credits read. But the fictional names represent nurses, doctors, and others who devoted months of their lives, while endangering their own health in order to deal with the growing terror of disease surrounding them and their patients, most of whom, they all assert were workers, primarily essential employees who kept grocery stores open, stood as guards for apartment buildings and businesses, helped to deliver the mail, and served in a hundred other jobs that kept those who had the financial abilities to quarantine themselves and work from home.
      Their impassioned reports of the progress of the disease from a mere item of news that developed into the unspeakable pandemic which left hospitals without beds, ventilators, and even oxygen; that forced doctors to work 16-17 hour shifts in which they were required to make life-and-death decisions by choosing which patients might or could not receive their aid; demanded that ambulance drivers and paramedic workers make 3,000 and by the end of the epidemic up to 7,000 runs a day, while rejecting those who they recognized could not survive on the trip to the hospital; and required nurses wearing ineffectual masks to watch over those in their care without any visitations from family or friends, can only bring tears to the eyes of anyone with a shred of empathy.

     Two of those from which we hear, Sharon (Lorraine Toussaint) a manager at a senior residential facility and Vikram (Arjun Gupta), a doctor, come down with the disease themselves and, despite their own difficulties in getting proper treatment—particularly in Sharon’s case—survived.
      Perhaps Vikram expresses the situation best as Jacquinn Sinclair summarizes that figure’s comments in her review in The ARTery:

As Vikram rides the subway, he notices that
most people on the train during the shelter-
in-place order are black and brown people
heading to or from work. After recovering
from the coronavirus, Vikram puts in some
time at a hospital in the Bronx. On his way
there he passes public housing developments
and he knows these are the people who will
fill the hospital.

      As another of the group later laments: I cannot get the vision out of my head of all the empty apartments of those hundreds who died. Who could even retrieve what they left behind.
     Many of them, such as the first-year intern Jennifer (Alison Pill), are angry. Having observed in the public hospital in which she worked he dying patients lying in beds crammed into both sides of the hallways, and after being forced to jerry-rig and paste with masking tape machines that might help the sick to breathe after running out of ventilators, and, perhaps most importantly, being unable, given her rank, to even question the decisions of doctors and other supervisors working with her, she is justifiably angry. She felt suddenly, she recalls, as if she were living in “another country.”
      In one particular case, an elder patient kept attempting to pull off the mask pumping needed oxygen into his system, an act that meant a sudden loss in his pulse and his inability to breathe. Trying to explain to him that if he wanted to live he would have to put up with the burning sensations the oxygen masks produced, she finally taped the mask into place, while still checking on him hourly, only to discover, upon returning to work the next morning that someone had removed the patient in the night into a room, as she puts it, where “there were no direct eyes on him.” A technician has discovered him alone, without a pulse. “I worked so hard to keep him alive,” she moans, her eyes awash in tears.
      Oscar (John Ortiz), a former actor turned Emergency Medical Technician, sees his own beloved Brooklyn-born uncle die in a hospital with less resources that the one in which he works.
      When she is finally able to return to the nursing home in which she works, the black nurse Sharon finds that most of her favorite elders whom she had long almost stridently worked to protect and to demonstrate her love for are now “gone,” dead. When a grief counselor shows up, weeks after the worst of the events which the nurses under her supervision had to endure, she agrees to suggest they should attend, but refuses herself to be there. Furious for the fact that only after those working with her, not to mention the patients under their care, have been left alone to suffer without proper tools and distancing precautions, Sharon berates the belated one-day visit provided by the care-home directors who, she hints, are now also attempting to alter reports and emails to the facilitie’s advantage.
       Ed (Jamey Sheridan), a 26-year veteran paramedic, is also fed up, in this case by being described as a hero, just like the firefighters were after 9/11. If we’re suddenly heroes, he argues, what were we before this disease, as we struggled our best to save patients from numerous other diseases every day. And what about those who man the desks that allow the patients entry, the janitors who clean up the surgery rooms and hospital halls, the cooks and servers who bring the nurses, doctors, and patients food, and the dozens of others who work hard every day to help New Yorkers to keep attending to their everyday lives. This is not about heroes, but about a long line of individuals, he concludes, who miraculously help everyone along their daily paths. If he has belief in the city, it is because of “the line” made up of giving and caring individuals who help to make everything going smoothly, even when everything seems to project despair. If these are not precisely the character Ed’s words, they stand for his uplifting summation of why, even in disaster, things eventually are resolved.
       Asked to demonstrate more openly, after the crisis, his love of New York, Vikram explains that New York is wonderful, but it is also uncaring, lonely, and off-putting to many people. It is the combination of these facets and the diversity of who have these reactions that makes him love the city.
       In the end, these citizens “on the line” together express some of the most powerfully positive sentiments in our terrifying and cynical-invoking times.
       Check out The Line as quickly as you can (they stop streaming on September 1) to discover a theater-piece that is worth watching many times over.

Los Angeles, August 21, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (August 2020).

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "The Time Is Not Now" (on Hannibal Buress' comedy performance Miami Nights)

the time is not now
by Douglas Messerli

Hannibal Buress (performer), Kristian Mercado (director) Miami Nights / I watched this taped performance on YouTube on August 6, 2020

Stand-up comedian, comic writer, and actor Hannibal Buress’ 2019 performance before a live audience, Miami Nights, is now being broadcast free on YouTube, in part because of the Covid-19 epidemic. It’s a gift that everyone should take the opportunity to see before it disappears.
     The very variety of Buress’ previous works on The Eric Andre Show, his briefer appearances on the talk shows of Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and others, as well as his own comedy shows and albums (Hannibal Buress Live from Chicago and Animal Furnace)  and a brief stint at writing for Saturday Night Live, has brought him a great deal of attention, but as he jokes, not enough to gain him universal celebrity. When people seem to recognize him, he generally responds, “I get that all the time,” and merrily walks his way down the streets without the adulation which he feels might hinder his life.
      Soon after, he quips that twice a year he is asked to host a game show, answering in a god-like voice with a projection-screen fire raging behind him: THE PROPHECY WILL BE FULFILLED, BUT THE TIME IS NOT NOW. Indeed, Buress’ new work is about doing things at “the right time” in a world in which he and others can simply survive.
       He admits to the audience that he has stopped drinking (“I want to choose the way I die,” he insists.) Preferably he would like to die from a rare disease that bares his own name “like Lou Gehrig Disease,” he jokes.
       His asthma, and the lack of his friends’ appreciation for the seriousness of the problem is the subject of another short series of amusements.
       As for the time to die, just like hosting another game show, a year in which thousands are dying from the pandemic and George Floyd and others have been killed by police is not the right time to go, he warily suggests, leading into the two major skits of the evening.
       The first involves his arrival in Nashville, where the moment he enters a taxicab, the driver tells him that he can’t play his instrument in the cab. Having said nothing about playing an instrument or even carrying a case in which he might be hiding one, the comedian is a bit confused.
      Without further ado, the driver reports that he had a passenger who played Kanye West the other day and kept singing his song “Nigger man, Nigger man, Nigger man.”
     Buress was quite astounded; “yes, Kanye sometimes uses the first syllable “Nig” throughout his work, but has lots of words in between and doesn’t lay into the final r the way you did just now”; “I was thinking maybe I missed something on his first album College Dropout?”  
    He looks it up on his cell-phone. No such title appears, he reports to the cabbie. As the conversation continues, Buress begins to wonder is this a new form of racism. Do a group of cabdrivers meet monthly to ponder how they might enter into bigoted conversation without seeming to be explicitly stating their racist sentiments?
     Soon after he begins an even longer retelling of his now famous arrest in Miami for disorderly conduct and drunken behavior. The comedian admits that he, having no food and water to accompany them, had far too many drinks: “How many drinks did I have? I don’t know. How many albums does Snoop Dogg have? (His audience laughs.) You don’t know either, you only know it’s more than 10 and less than 30.”
       Realizing, however, that he was in bad shape, Buress left the bar and in front of a large mansion which was evidently hosting a Basel Miami art party asks a cop if he will call him an Uber, since the comedian has lost his cellphone, offering the pay him an extra $20.
       The policeman, presuming he was one of the party guests, orders him off the street, the logic of which makes utterly no sense to our drunken friend. To “get it together” he retreats to another bar with the cop behind him, now insisting that Buress has to leave the bar because of his condition.
        Clearly that leaves the performer in a difficult position in which he is seemingly trapped in a no-man’s land where he is not permitted inside nor outside, a kind of catch-22 situation from which there can be no escape.
       Given the recent events surrounding Floyd’s meaningless death and the several others killed similarly by police that have been brought to light through the “Black Lives Matter” protests, however, Buress’ situation is even more troubling. As Alexandra Schwartz writes in The New Yorker:

…Mortality is also on his mind. ….”I want
 my own way of dying.” he says. It’s a joke
about ego, but the unspoken subtext—about
the precise way in which a Black man in America
does not want to die—hangs in the air, to be
picked up in the story that the act has been
building toward….

His solution is to return to where he discovers the cop once more, speaking directly into the man’s body camera: “Hey, what’s up, it’s me, Hannibal Buress. This cop’s stupid as fuck.”
      Buress, himself, admits it was probably not the best thing to say—despite it being absolutely legal—to a clearly riled-up man in blue. And the drunken performer recalls using even choicer language to describe and agitate the man who arrested him when they later reach the police station where the coper takes him, all of which might have been prevented if the cop might have simply taken the action of calling an Uber. Yet, putting his name directly into the body cam was probably the best way to put the incident on the record, possibly also preventing the now nervous law enforcer from taking a more private action.

Buress’ case (with the help of a lawyer named Bieber) was thrown out along with a fine and the requirement to attend a day’s session about the evils of inebriation, during which, despite his best attempts, Buress was recognized by fellow attendees.   
      The cop, it turns out, was one of those who police chiefs mistakenly, in an act of ablution of their kind, describe as “a bad apple.” One of the many headlines from Miami newspapers describes the potential violence that the comedian might have faced that night:

Miami Cop Who Arrested Hannibal Buress
Caught Choking Man After Fireball Binge

      For those of you who might not know what a Fireball Binge is, I’ll provide a definition: Fireball is a cinnamon flavored whisky manufactured by the Sazerac Company of New Orleans. The company itself describes the 33% alcohol liquid: “If you haven't tried it yet, just imagine what it feels like to stand face-to-face with a fire-breathing dragon who just ate a whisky barrel full of spicy cinnamon. Live it, love it, shoot it – what happens next is up to you.”
     My Webster’s New World Dictionary identifies the word “binge” as “a drunken celebration or spree.”

Los Angeles, August 9, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (August 2020).