The Year in Tears, Fears and Cheers

I’ve done a lot of the right kind of crying this week – big, fat tears of hope, awe and relief. More fantastic than the cathartic sobs themselves, however, is the direct connection between them and national politics. For most of the year, emotional inspiration from the country’s elected leaders has been in short supply.

The lion’s share of 2017 blubbering has been of the traditional disappointment/rage strain. It’s been a tough year with many challenges to moral authority, character and justice. It may seem incongruous to sexist hate mongers like defeated Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore, but a liberal, atheist, feminist can also believe that standard codes of conduct should straddle all walks of human life. Righteousness is not the spiritual property of Bible-banging, racist, homophobic straight white men who condemn everyone outside their circle of privileged ignorance.

Regardless of gender, faith, geography or race, there should be a few universal agreements. We should reject white supremacy, violence, sexual assault, pedophilia, corrupt looting of the public treasury, heartlessness toward the poor and the war-torn.  When an American territory is ravaged by natural disaster, we should offer all forms of recovery assistance and skip the Ayn Randian self-reliance lectures. We should support science and research and take care of the only Earth we have. When hundreds are publicly gunned down at a concert and children are not safe in school, its way past time to ask ourselves if the Second Amendment should supersede all other rights.

Moderates, cynics and self-styled realists will be quick to say that we must make our way through the world as it is. Indulging idealistic daydreams is a waste of time. To which I reply in the words of my favorite former Vice President, Joseph R. Biden III: “That’s a bunch of malarkey.” Despite the unaccountable example elevated by President Trump, we can admit when we’re wrong. We don’t have to live with the choices we’ve made when empirical and experiential data illuminate error. If we’re not here to try our best to build a greater and more just world for ourselves and our children, what’s the point? If all we’re meant to do is take what we can and run, what sets humans apart from scavenger species like rats and vultures?

2017 has made it painfully clear that at the highest levels of American government and industry, a shared vision of social justice and opportunity has fallen out of favor. The Trump administration has appointed numerous leaders to public agencies with the express purpose of making it harder for us to breathe, receive a quality education or equitable treatment within the justice system, among other taxpayer scams. See, as just one absurd example, the decision to install Scott Pruitt, tool of the fossil fuel industry, as leader of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Never in modern history has it been so obvious that the public trust and tax dollar are being misused. The heavy-handedness of it all has elicited buckets of my impotent, despairing tears throughout the year. It’s been overwhelmingly tempting at times (Charlottesville, Republican tax “reform,” a sexual assaulter as POTUS) to view the country’s oligarchic, cynical tailspin without hope.

I recently took a personality test shared via link by a Facebook friend. I scored high on the quiz’s concept of reverence. Although the word has taken on a religious connotation, as applied in the personality assessment, it denotes a humbling of the self in respectful recognition of something perceived to be greater. I recognize this existential need. I’m a devoted planner and tactician, but always in service of a motivating larger concept. Shake my faith in the efficacy of action and I’ll quickly devolve. More Law & Order marathons, less self-confidence and movement. Reverence and I have been estranged for months at a time this year, replaced by tears of bitter shame as 45 debases this great nation with Twitter feuds, misogyny, bigotry, feckless and dangerous domestic and foreign policies.

But as we approach the end of the calendar year and the conclusion of the first twelve months of the Trump presidency, I’m starting to get my reverent groove back. On Monday night, Bob and I went to the Chicago Theatre to see the aforementioned Joe Biden on the Windy City leg of his book tour. Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, according to The New York Times Book Review, “splices a heartbreaking story with an election story and a foreign affairs story. And in so doing, he offers something for everyone, no matter which strand draws you in.”

Reading the words of Joe Biden is a privilege. Hearing his earnest, human good sense and compassion live is better still. The 75 year-old public servant is an American hero. A man who has weathered enormous personal tragedy with grace, intelligence and a steadfast commitment to bending the arc of humanity towards justice. I was, am and will always be inspired by Papa Joe. The choked sobs I released on Monday were full of gratitude – for Americans like the longtime Delaware senator, and for a husband who knew that walking down Obama/Biden memory lane would sooth my battered soul.

Then last night, voters in the deep red state of Alabama rejected a twice-sacked, child molesting, bigoted judge in favor of a pro-choice Democrat with a demonstrated commitment to civil rights. Much has been made in the media about urban and suburban white distaste for Moore. But the real story is the 93 percent of black men and 98 percent of African-American women who overcame all disenfranchisement odds and pundit expectations to put their state on the right side of history. As Esquire columnist Charles Pierce noted:

“Voter suppression is a scandal and a crime and an offense against the Constitution. John Roberts’s declaration of the Day of Jubilee in Shelby County v. Holder was an act of historical butchery. The laws enacted since that day should be torn out, root and branch, and burned to cinders. However, what the results from Alabama demonstrated is that, with good candidates and a solid message and tireless work, you can swamp the bastards and all their works just by showing up.”

2016 went out for me with a disillusioned, distressed whimper. Hillary Clinton’s loss was my despair for the country, for womanhood, for immigrants and any chance of addressing the nation’s increasingly stratified economic and social opportunities.

At the end of 2017, I’m rediscovering reverence for the American proletariat. The wise and compassionate words of a retired public servant and the empowered, forward-looking agency of Alabama voters make great holiday gifts.

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Increasingly Blurred Partisan Lines Offer Hope for Journalism in 2018

2017 has been a strange and disturbing year for the United States in so many far-reaching ways. Long, well-researched books will be written about this year’s impact (or lack thereof) on income inequality, government corruption, gender dynamics, the justice system, immigration, suffrage, healthcare, civil rights, the First Amendment, foreign policy, war and climate change. I’m hard pressed to think of a major issue facing humanity that hasn’t been stress tested to the point of breaking spirits, cultures, families, the economy and the nation in the seventeenth year of the 21st Century.

For liberal political journalists, it’s been especially hard to dissociate the self from the reporting. 2017 has been an unusually challenging year for investigating topics unemotionally. At least tangentially, we have a stake in the story by virtue of sharing space with other people affected by a policy, decision or revolution.  I don’t live in Puerto Rico, but I don’t need to in order to feel helpless anger over fellow Americans failed by every possible government system in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. People are still dying from the ripple effects of disease, water and power shortages, not to mention the callousness of a President who believes a paper towel tossing photo op is #MAGA – because brown people are takers.

As a writer/human hybrid, there have been many days and weeks this year when the power of the pen hasn’t felt forceful enough. That the exercise in information sharing that is journalism falls impotently short of the action needed to right a country that has popularly lurched toward heartlessness at the highest levels of government. Isolationist xenophobia, backs turned to war-torn refugees, a place where Nazis are labeled “very fine people,” black lives only matter when it comes to kneeling in protest and female reproductive health is a political bargaining chip for the dominant hierarchy of middle-aged white men. It’s easy to become disoriented and confused to the point of inertia. Should I be writing about this? Should I be in the streets? Am I supposed to be deliberating? Hand me another scotch in the meantime.

I do not pretend to be a moderate. Never have. I can’t be less than all the way when it comes to constructing government and social systems that support and offer opportunity equally. I do not believe we go it alone. Call me a socialist, a radical, an angry intersectional feminist or any of the more colorful epithets offered by my (typically male) Twitter trolls. When the leader of the country governs by pandering to the ignorant 35 percent, rather than representing all Americans, displaying the kind of divisive, threatening behavior and rhetoric well known to despots, I’m happy to be branded an enemy of the state. As lonely and frightening as it can be to sit outside the circle, the air is a lot less toxic.

All of this is to say that as the end of the year approaches, I and many other exhausted journalists in my acquaintance are still trying to find our footing. Just the facts has been replaced by fake news, many of the policy threats are deeply personal and after all, wallowing in the muck of the Trump era is spiritually exhausting. However the work continues in a bi-partisan way, and if there’s comfort to be found in the crusade, it’s the unexpected shared experience with an increasingly large number of conservative writers and pundits. If you’d told me just 18 months ago, that I’d find myself aligned with the thoughts of the New York Times columnist David Brooks, the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan and Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center – in the same week! – I wouldn’t have believed it possible. But here we are:

“The Republican Party is doing harm to every cause it purports to serve. If Republicans accept Roy Moore as a United States senator, they may, for a couple years, have one more vote for a justice or a tax cut, but they will have made their party loathsome for an entire generation…Young people and people of color look at the Trump-Moore G.O.P. and they are repulsed, maybe forever.”

“The support being given by many Republicans and white evangelicals to President Trump and now to Mr. Moore have caused me to rethink my identification with both groups. Not because my attachment to conservatism and Christianity has weakened, but rather the opposite. I consider Mr. Trump’s Republican Party to be a threat to conservatism, and I have concluded that the term evangelical — despite its rich history of proclaiming the ‘good news’ of Christ to a broken world — has been so distorted that it is now undermining the Christian witness.”

“[Republicans], have faith. Not everything comes down to an immediate election that is this coming Thursday. Think long term, philosophically. Be true to your own political principles, but have some faith and don’t make decisions that are not ones that you’re really comfortable with.”

Suddenly it seems conservative to stand against cynicism, pedophilia, party before country and the corporate raiding of the American people. I and other liberals may disagree with these writers on “everyday” policies. But in 2017, normalcy has been supplanted by Constitutional crises and the end days of representative democracy. The journalistic blurring of party lines may offer small 2017 comfort. But as a writer, it gives me energy to take on 2018.

Barney the Elf

A bawdy piece of holiday fun that also uses laughter to make incisive political observations, “Barney the Elf” is back onstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Directed by Tommy Rivera-Vega, who also guided the 2016 incarnation, the colorful show is more than meets the eye and ear. The plot summary, as it were, provides cheeky, consistent cover for a production that has been meticulously updated since its second Obama term debut.

The third annual musical comedy production from Other Theatre is written (and rewritten) by Brian Renaud, with lyrics by Renaud and Emily Schmidt. Press materials broadly describe the work in traditional holiday terms, with a nod to some modern twists: “After Santa Claus retires, his wicked son begins a not-so-jolly reign as the new head of Christmas. The North Pole begins to crumble under his bigoted rule, and Barney the Elf is forced to leave his home for being different from the others…he embarks on a fabulous journey of self-discovery (or is it elf-discovery?) that lands him in one of Chicago’s hottest drag bars.”

That’s a big story to tell in 90 minutes — the production’s running time. “Barney the Elf” moves fast, literally and figuratively, taking the audience on an emotional journey from Barney’s life as a sheltered, one-dimensional holiday spirit through his metamorphosis into a more complex citizen of the world.

The absolute silliness that drives much of the action, song and dance onstage can be taken and left there for theater patrons looking for a bit of joyful escapism. The dialogue is sharp and punctuated with up-to-the-minute pop cultural references. And despite the frightening topical issues addressed in the 2017 script — xeno and homophobia, diplomatic isolationism, income inequality and class warfare — “Barney the Elf” is careful never to take itself too seriously.

It’s quite clear that Santa Junior (played with marvelous gusto by Jaron Bellar) is a fictional stand-in for the mercenary, divisive and unfortunately all-too-real Donald Trump. But those looking for a respite from politics can just as easily locate elements of traditional holiday villains like Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Potter, the human humbug of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Thus, before the first word of banter is uttered, we know how the story ends. We already know who wins. Spoiler alert: it’s not Junior. And that’s a nice serving of theatrical comfort food as the country faces so many issues with uncertain outcomes.

I’ve already highlighted Jaron Bellar’s fantastic turn as Santa Junior. It is not easy playing the villain in a production like this. The temptation to chew scenery and twist the metaphorical mustache can be too much for the most talented actors to resist. But Bellar’s Junior is the man we love to hate, even as we can’t help but admire his trendy red suit, vocal chops and ability to execute a high kick. With much moxie, Bellar brings to mind a young Jim Carrey’s charm, comedic timing and legendary flexibility.

The rest of the cast is more than equal to Bellar. Roy Samra’s Barney is appropriately wide-eyed, rosy cheeked, full of love and hope. Samra is also gifted with a magnificent singing voice. Unfortunately, there were times during Tuesday’s night’s premiere when that beautiful voice was difficult to hear.

An unwise creative decision was rendered to leave the performers unmiked. In the intimate downstairs theater setting of the 2017 production, that may have seemed like a good choice in the rehearsal abstract. However in the presence of a raucous audience — as Tuesday night’s premiere observers certainly were — vocal nuances and dialogue were occasionally lost. There is still time to address this before the show’s December 30 conclusion. I hope that the producers and Rivera-Vega give it some consideration.

Maggie Cain is a wonderful Mrs. Claus, a character who begins the show obeying the voices of men before reasserting her own. This transition is neatly and comically summarized in a send-up of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You.” Cain sings it with the dramatic zeal of a North Pole woman with her own complex story to tell.

Rounding out the big four of “Barney the Elf’s” 2017 cast, Dixie Lynn Cartwright brings much more than glamorous, enviable drag to the stage. She also offers a lovely tenor and modulated, dramatic gravity. In the program distributed with my ticket, I learned that Cartwright hosts her own monthly show at Berlin in Boystown. Attendance is on my 2018 artistic priority list.

Other Theatre’s 2017 rendition of its holiday staple deserves space on lists both naughty and nice. “Barney the Elf” is worthwhile and effervescent with hints of social justice awareness. The production proves that being woke can be funny business.

“Barney the Elf” runs through December 30 at The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit the Other Theatre website.

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