Yasmina’s Necklace

One part romantic dramedy, one part recent world history lesson and an all-encompassing story of human resilience and possibility, “Yasmina’s Necklace” is a substantial addition to Goodman Theatre’s 2017/2018 season slate.

Chicago-based playwright Rohina Malik and director Ann Filmer collaborate to bring this excellent production to life with familiarity and respect. The two female artists developed a successful rhythm in 2016, working together on the play’s premiere at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, Illinois. Their comfort with the material — and each other — is evident in the faultless fluidity with which thought, word and action roll across Goodman’s Owen Theatre stage.

Per the press material synopsis, “Yasmina’s Necklace… explores two disparate Muslim families coming together as their children embark on a relationship.” This simple plot description is accurate as well as discreet, for the story transcends continental, cultural, racial and social divisions to yield a piece of art that is uniquely American. And uniquely appropriate viewing for this particular moment in history.

Nearly 15 years after our country’s spurious post-9/11 invasion of Iraq, more than six years after the commencement of the Syrian civil war and as President Trump’s nativist positions yield ideological and legal clashes over immigration and refugee policies, “Yasmina’s Necklace” forces audiences to take a look at the human costs of these events in totality. Blowing across the stage in gorgeous, intense gusts of pain, emotion and love, Malik’s script is a moving realization of the titular character’s paintings in all their complexity.

Sussan Jamshidi brings a formidable combination of strength and vulnerability to the role of Yasmina, “a young Iraqi artist who has hardened herself against the possibility of finding happiness after fleeing to Chicago from her war-torn homeland.” The refugee is tough and weary, however her personal trials have not diminished a will to help others escape terror.

Nor has Yasmina lost the ability to dream and create in inverse proportions to the limited emotional range on exterior display. Jamshidi, who also brought life to the character in 16th Street Theater’s 2016 production, treats her alter ego like the uncommon, modern social justice warrior she is. The actress’ performance fully exhibits the dignity Yasmina deserves.

The storyline stretches a full year between Yasmina’s initial meeting with Sam (Michael Perez), an American-born “salad” Muslim, born to an Iraqi father and Puerto Rican mother. Sam’s confusion about marriage, corporate marketability and social mobility is reflected by a struggle with his given name, and stands in contrast to Yasmina’s wounded self-assurance. The duo’s initial dislike for one another is as organic as the attraction that develops over time.

Though the cast turns in lovely work without exception, it is no accident that the two women who grace the stage completely own the material. As Sam’s socially anxious but doting mother Sara, Laura Crotte is a marvel gifted with equal portions of comedic timing and dramatic presence. A theoretical distaste for aligning her family with blue collar refugees is quickly cast aside as Sara grows in love and appreciation for Yasmina and her father Musa (a completely winning Rom Barkhordar). Crotte gives audiences the biggest laughs as well as aching moments of quiet tenderness. She is astounding.

Allen Gilmore, a Jeff Award-nominee who impressed me in last spring’s “Objects in the Mirror,” is back on the Goodman stage as Imam Kareem, the spiritual advisor who helps Yasmina, Sam and their respective families navigate the challenges of uniting varied experiences into a cohesive, healthy present and future. My companion for the evening, never accused of possessing a strong memory, identified Gilmore from “Objects” without a need to open his program. In response to a quizzical look, he responded, “It’s that voice. I’d recognize it anywhere.” Fitting then that Glimore is cast as an authority, one happily lacking in condemnation and open to change. This forward-thinking imam even follows the Paleo diet.

“Yasmina’s Necklace” is full of wonderful surprises, heartrending emotion and excellent dramatic and technical work. A must see.

“Yasmina’s Necklace” runs through November 19 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3820 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.

 

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Cubs October Coaching Liquidation Leaves Mark on Joe Maddon’s Image

“The Chicago Cubs 2017 season may have ended on October 19 with an 11-1 loss against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLCS, but for many of us, disappointment in the team’s performance during that run lingers. The bullpen struggles, the anemic hitting, 2016 National League MVP Kris Bryant’s admission that the team was “tired” after a no more than usually grueling season. Writer Steve Greenberg of The Chicago Sun-Times wrote on October 18, “Sadly, the whole world can tell…It’s almost like this team is out of gas, wheezing to the finish line, already half in bed and going to sleep.”

Cub fans of all philosophies agreed that changes need to be made in advance of the 2018 season. However we didn’t get much time to consider what those changes could and should look like before the organization embarked on its own version of “Black Monday,” the “Savage Last Full Week of October.”

Perhaps the purge was unavoidable. But what’s especially jarring – and has become the central storyline as opposed to a narrative about the team refining and retuning – is Joe Maddon’s long-running and very recent insistence that all was well in the clubhouse.”

Read the full post at Wrigleyville Nation.

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. 

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.

What’s American Anyways?

In the past week, we saw the resurrection and death of another GOP healthcare bill, as well as massive failures across the board for the Trump administration in terms of focus and constructive action.

One obvious example of the discord is yet another social media war launched by the President, with tweets railing against the NFL. The rising political consciousness of athletes has been  assailed since former quarterback Colin Kaepernick  began a peaceful on-field protest a year ago. Some of the loftier discussions involve definitions of what constitutes patriotism. The Trumpbots advocate blind allegiance to tradition, with minimal consideration of different sociopolitical experiences of our country. Others view Kapernick’s kneeling as an expression of First Amendment rights designed to advocate change.

What does it mean to be American? The saying goes that actions speak louder than words, and the public and the office of President have been tested to back up their patriotism – with trial by fire, rain and torrential winds. Hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters have recently devastated states, territories, and communities.

Trump and his America have failed to be inclusive in their support of crisis operations. In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Texas is slowly on the path to recovery and the Florida Keys are opening up next week for tourism, despite 25 percent of homes being destroyed. News of progress has been muted, eclipsed by other trending topics, including the devastation of non-mainland American territories.

Texas and Florida have electricity and supplies. Puerto Rico does not. It took nearly a whole week for public outcry to turn into a collective roar, demanding that Donald Trump and his administration take action, rather than ignore the increased degradation of daily life for Puerto Ricans.

I’m sure your social media, news feeds and offline conversations have been filled with both NFL news and hurricane updates. But we need more media clarity regarding exactly who is being most negatively affected by the indifference: those whose skin tone is not found on the same color swatch as Mr. Trump (although in fairness, there aren’t many orange people).

It’s no secret that America has a race and “othering” problem. This administration is attacking sexual assault victims, non-christian religions, and pre-emptively filing waivers for the Jones Act in areas that support Trump and house his default residence.  Meanwhile, leadership held off on filing for a ravaged area full of brown people.

It’s time to hold authorities responsible and accountable for their lethal biases. People are dying from inaction and insufficient support. To be American isn’t a complexion, blind obedience to a ritual or speaking Midwestern English. Americanism used to mean welcoming and protecting freedoms, taking care of our citizens in times of crisis. It’s a shame that the occupant of the nation’s highest office needs constant reminders.

Social Media’s Voice in Politics

As Harvey and Katrina recede and a new hurricane builds strength, our eyes turn to the damage these catastrophic storms have caused. News sources have Key West taking the brunt of Irma’s force in America, while damage abounds in the Caribbean.

As we focus on recovery, ugly politics seem unavoidable. In Tampa last week, Trump was given the opportunity to walk back his Charlottesville comments. Instead he doubled down, continuing to ignorantly and equally cast blame on white supremacists and the protesting opposition.

This followed the White House’s admonishment of ESPN journalist Jemele Hill, which underscored the the traditional divide between government reach and personal opinions. Censoring the media and skirting the First Amendment seems to be the new norm. We see this in the administration’s preference for conservative white journalists – another break with accepted, multi-voiced tradition. This pandering to white media fosters an environment where police departments can continue to escalate racial divisions among private citizens. Posting “all lives splatter” content on September 11th assaulted public sensitivity and attempted to invalidate a legitimate statement of equality and equity. 

This media divisions the Trump administration is sowing also highlights the role that Facebook had in swaying the 2016 election. We now know that $100,000 paid for ads on the social channel, with the buys coming from fake Russian accounts. Facebook also allowed similarly targeted ads with anti-Semitic content to be posted as recently as this month, as well as a fake housing ad that excluded specific minorities.

With evidence mounting regarding a highly suspect 2016 Presidential election, little progress or forward motion in identifying and punishing state actors has been seen.

And despite last week’s “Will they or won’t they?” drama between the President and “Chuck and Nancy,” Trump has not confirmed his commitment to DACA. GOP leaders seem poised to shoot down any efforts to protect Dreamers in legislative form.

The conversations that Trump is having with top Democrats are dividing the GOP and hard-line Trump supporters (like living monster Ann Coulter), prompting Trump to broadcast supposed alignment on tax reform. We’ll wait and see..

With bifurcation across the board, it seems likely that the ongoing N.A.F.T.A. talks are headed for a similarly uncertain fate.  Mexican opinion of America is at an all-time low after an embarrassingly long wait for “The Donald” to reach out to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. POTUS waited a week after the country’s 8.1 magnitude earthquake to express condolences and an offer of help.

Which way do the Trump winds blow? I think that’s exactly what the President wants us to keep asking. By keeping politicians and the people guessing, he keeps himself trending on social media – and that’s power in his warped mind.