Learning to Listen

America has a hard time listening. We can watch the news and see what’s going on, but there’s a difference between looking and listening, especially when there’s so much noise to filter. Learning to listen requires us to go beyond the words, to hear and appreciate what’s also being communicated in moments of silence.

Over the past week, we’ve seen our listening problems rise to the surface, unfolding via the growing reports of harassment and misconduct by Harvey Weinstein. News coverage prompted numerous celebrities and victims to emerge from the shadows years, or even decades later. What caused the delays? A familiar set of problems – hostile work environments, fear of retaliation, a power imbalance and good old fashioned fear.

Actress Rose McGowan’s Twitter account was suspended after sharing her own abusive experience with Harvey Weinstein. Her initial accusation was shushed out of court for $100,000. The deluge of accusers that have supported McGowan’s account reflects another dark chapter for male accountability in Hollywood. It’s clear that Weinstein’s actions were well-known, and textbook bystander silence was the rule until the accusers generated enough media coverage to make it safe for other powerful men to come out against Weinstein.

Consider this situation in the context of the recent repeal of campus sexual investigation standards promoted by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The repeal means that the burden of proof shifts even further toward victims, while protecting rapists like Brock Turner.  The result? Offenders are receiving the communication that they can abuse with minimal (if any) repercussions.

In the short and long term, victims are facing ever steeper battles to be heard while waiting for (historically) ineffective campus police/security to take action, under rules which mandate that rape kits and tests be performed within 72 hours of an attack. Additional roadblocks placed in front of people who deserve support.

Remember that the man-child in the Oval Office stands in the company of Weinstein and Turner for his own aggressive and unwelcome behavior towards women. There was outrage a year ago when the infamous Access Hollywood footage came to light, but not enough to derail his campaign. Is that predictive of Weinstein’s fate? Some time in the pop cultural penalty box  before business resumes as usual?

We cannot afford silence any longer. There isn’t space to devalue the traumatizing experiences others. A nation recovering from several natural disasters (with a notable lack of action and coverage in Puerto Rico), a President speaking to hate groups while cancelling necessary healthcare subsidies for lower-income citizens….we need a multitude of loud voices against these atrocities, but we must also learn to listen. The cynically powerful and repressive are muffling voices that should be heard. 

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The Crucible

Most of us who paid attention and did our reading in high school English Literature classes have come across “The Crucible.” I went on to earn a B.A. in the discipline in 2000, followed by an M.A. from Northeastern Illinois University in 2007.

Throughout the years of study and into my tenure as a Chicago theater critic with EDGE Media Network, the work of playwright Arthur Miller, and in particular, this allegory of 1950s era McCarthyism in the United States, has been a ubiquitous creative presence.

This past weekend as I took my seat for Director Jonathan Berry’s production of “The Crucible,” the kickoff to Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2017-2018 Steppenwolf for Young Adults (SYA) season, I thought there was nothing new to learn about Miller’s oft-produced work. I was wrong.

The story, per press materials, is well known: “The people of Salem are whipped into a bloodthirsty frenzy by a series of misinterpretations after a group of teenage girls are accused of dancing devilishly in the woods. Fearing retribution, the girls begin a chain of finger-pointing until neighbor turns against neighbor, whispers become testimony, fabrications become facts, and a once powerless teenage girl suddenly has the ability to decide the fate of all those around her.”

The synopsis is familiar, but Berry’s execution is all new. Arnel Sanciano’s spartan set design conveys the barren, cold, passionless external excesses of early American Protestant communities, while leaving literal room to demonstrate the complicated natures of Arthur Miller’s human subjects.

It’s a drab catwalk runway setup surrounded by chairs in which cast members rotate through the scenes as both subject and spectator. The device is spectacularly effective in delivering an ecosystem in which eyes are always watching, in which characters are present even when they’re not involved in a particular dialogue exchange.

Naima Hebrail Kidjo, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company newcomer, also brings fresh perspective to Abigail Williams, the lovestruck, scorned minister’s niece whom community members of all genders, age and religious devotion learn to fear. Her performance is well matched by Travis A. Knight, another Steppenwolf rookie, who conveys a flawed John Proctor’s moral conflict and steadfast determination to save his community from itself. Kidjo and Knight display an electric chemistry that does more than hint at the fleeting, mutual passion that once existed between the characters.

And this is a must if an audience is to believe to the lengths to which both Abigail and John will go to achieve their ends. Abigail is nakedly ambitious to become the second Mrs. Proctor, and manipulates the weaknesses of Salem residents into furthering her goal. These weaknesses are personified by supporting characters who could be accused of existing in one-dimension without the nuanced performances of the talented cast.

Cynical greed, thy name is Reverend Parris (Peter Moore). Ann Putnam (Stephanie Shum) is desperate to find a reason for the death and illness of eight consecutive children, and witchcraft will do. The saintly Rebecca Nurse (Millie Hurley) is willing to die for her conviction that Abigail’s accusations are the real evil at work.

In previous encounters with “The Crucible” text, the relationship between John Proctor and his betrayed wife Elizabeth (Kristina Valada-Viars) is an incidental bore. In the text as written, Elizabeth is merely a cipher for her spouse’s guilt and self-recrimination, a virtuous, suffering foil to Abigail’s id-driven Jezebel.

In Berry’s production, and animated by Valada-Viars prodigious gifts, this Abigail is afraid, angry, resigned, hopeful, loving and bitter in equal portions — exactly what an audience would expect from a woman forced pay for her husband’s transgressions publicly and privately. Because of this authenticity, the audience can more easily accept Proctor’s about-face rejection of Abigail and subsequent risk of his own life to restore Elizabeth’s honor.

The production runs two hours and 45 minutes, with a short intermission, a worthwhile investment of time. From the vantage point of late 2017, “The Crucible” may remind audience members of events more current than the 1950s congressional communist witch hunt. Berry’s interpretation is a civics lesson — past and present — in addition to engaging entertainment.

“The Crucible” runs through October 21 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org

Beyond the Helpers

There’s a popular Facebook meme circulating that quotes the late, esteemed Fred Rogers advising us to “look for the helpers” during times of tragedy.

This well-meaning trend re-emerges just when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has admitted to a lack of transparency for the social network’s advertising policies and display algorithms. Specifically, the ads allowed foreign (Russian) companies to funnel hundreds of thousands dollars into circulating divisive, often false information. These ads were paid for in Russian rubles, from an unclear source that Facebook has not been required to disclose…yet.

In addition to the negative political sway Facebook has exhibited through ad sales, there has been a barrage of content relative to kneeling NFL players and interpretations of Trump’s (in)actions in Puerto Rico. This is the backdrop against which the “look for the helpers” philosophy has re-emerged. 

With these events, the construct of “helpers” is considered in different ways.  With the NFL protests, we need help clearing the misinterpretations of protests against police brutality, as well as an understanding of First Amendment rights. In Puerto Rico, significant humanitarian efforts from celebrities and everyday people have taken the place of significant government action. Helpers seem to be in short supply with too many challenges across the nation and the globe to attend to at once.  The aid needed is varied as well: hearts and minds (NFL) versus a physical requirement to rescue and rebuild infrastructure (Puerto Rico). 

The renaissance of the Mr. Rogers meme, however, is overwhelming applied to the  mass-shooting that took place in Las Vegas weekend. While there are ways to help our fellow Americans  through every crisis (and there is abundant evidence of Good Samaritanism in Vegas), now more than ever, we need action from our duly elected government representatives.

I’m looking for the helpers to address our many challenges on Capitol Hill, and across the board, I’m finding them lacking. The obvious leader in failure is Mr. Trump, who benefited from the Russian attack ads, greatly exacerbated the NFL protest’s momentum, made a mockery of assistance in Puerto Rico (he wanted to throw cans of chicken a.k.a. metal projectiles into a crowd of people without water or power) and has already deflated efforts for gun control reform, because white male “lone-wolves” are his people. The President of the United States, rather than being our central helper is instead the Instigator in Chief.

Sure, there’s a select few representatives pushing for changes in gun laws, but the political gridlock turns it all into lip service. An insufficient proposed regulation of gun stocks rather than gun sales. Over 500 injured and 58 dead demands more than compassion and partisan time wasting. It demands positive action across the aisle that will actually save lives.

I offer up a new meme: Guns don’t kill people. Cynicism does.