Tag Archive: Scene

  1. Behind the Scenes’ Change

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    If I were to sum up my experience of watching “Seen Change!” in a word, it would have to be celebration. The musical at once celebrates the history of New Haven and the Shubert Theater, and the spaces and figures we tend to overlook — the backstage and people behind the scenes.

    The show is a production of the New Haven-based A Broken Umbrella Theatre, which specializes in site-specific performances that draw on local histories. In keeping with this tradition, “Seen Change!” — their newest musical — opens in the lobby of the Shubert Theater. After about five or 10 minutes of theatrical chaos and frantic action, the performers take the audience to the Taft Hotel next door for Act II of the play.

    “Seen Change!” tells the story of an out-of-town theater ensemble performing an adaptation of a fictitious musical, “Your Heart is in My Hands.” The adaptation, made in 2015 with an entirely new cast, production and lyrical team, hopes to restore the unfinished musical to its rightful place by finishing Willoughby’s finale. But when a theater apprentice breaks the “ghost light” — a charm against bad luck — things go haywire, and ghosts from the past version of the musical suddenly appear.

    As the past and present composers unite after much conflict to put together a finale for the play, “Seen Change!” captures the action and chaos that takes place before any performance. The theater apprentice Lisa, the lyricists Willoughby and Dana Wasserman, and the stage manager Jane, all backstage people rather than actors, take center stage. An energetic tap dance routine by Dana Astmann and Aric Isaacs, perhaps my favorite part of the performance, highlights the role of theater technicians: to ensure that the actors “are not dancing in the dark.” Mary Jane Smith and Michael Peter Smith , the present and past producers of the show, are wealthy and domineering.

    “Seen Change!” innovatively uses all parts of the rooms the actors perform in, as well as the multiple levels of the Shubert Theater, where they return for the third act. They converse now and then with the audience, which is supposed to play the role of the play-within-the-play’s sponsors, with the actors mostly apologizing and confidently reassuring the audience that “everything is absolutely fine.” The first two acts were slightly chaotic and lengthy. Characters emerge from different directions and shout out fast, sometimes incomprehensible dialogue, and the audience is left standing (which I found to be a little uncomfortable). “Seen Change!” nevertheless promises to keep the audience actively engaged throughout.

    Through its interactions between characters from different eras, “Seen Change!” makes for a meta-theatrical musical comedy. The competition between Willoughby and Wasserman as they struggle to put together a finale allows for some occasional laughs. The play also effectively explores the drastic changes in culture and etiquette across time. The proud Willoughby is highly offended when he is told that he cannot smoke in his own theater, or, as a matter of fact, outside it. One of the characters from the past sneers at the audience in the Taft lobby: “They went to a night at the theatre dressed like that?” A series of cross-era “show-mances” also adds humor and entertainment.

    Despite these differences, some things never change with time, and nothing exemplifies this more than the theater. Each of the characters yearns for a second chance, whether it’s Willoughby, who wishes that he could have written his finale to the musical, or Lisa, who wishes she had not broken the ghost light. Ultimately, though, very little is in their hands. As the producers aptly put it in their musical duet, “Nothing is certain except the curtain will go up.”

  2. “The Master” drinks its own Kool-Aid

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    “The Master,” a new film by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, follows shattered World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he is drawn into to The Cause, a fictional cult, in 1950s America.

    The film’s title refers to Lancaster Dodd, the cult’s leader, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who bears a remarkable resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer and founder of the Church of Scientology. Many have noted that Anderson has written a commentary on Hollywood’s favorite controversial religion. But his goals are darker, and more far reaching, than providing fodder for Tom Cruise jokes.

    Shot in sumptuous 65mm and edited over a percussive pizzicato score by Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame), “The Master” plays like an epic stuck on two characters, Freddie and Dodd. Though some of his conclusions, or lack thereof, may be undeserved, Anderson’s film represents a remarkable attempt to fill an entire universe with the friction between binary opposites — master and initiate, impulse and control, rebellion and authority.

    Freddie is an animal. He drinks whatever he’s given, assaults anything that looks remotely like a woman and is fired from whatever job he can find. Of course, it isn’t his fault. Freddie has a tortured backstory, a bland “Game of Thrones”-like cocktail of PTSD, incest and unrequited pedophilia, but the details are seen through Phoenix, who wisely plays everything from ape-like aggression to shamed-puppy guilt with his arms, hunched back and the twisted corners of his mouth.

    Lancaster Dodd, who Freddie encounters after sneaking onto a cruise ship run by The Cause, provides the necessary counterpoint to the troubled veteran’s indeterminate violence. Dodd, as he likes to tell people, is a man of the mind. The leader of The Cause barely moves; his body is weighed down under sweat and three-piece suits.

    His voice, however, is enthralling. The best scenes in “The Master” are the “processing” sessions between Freddie and Dodd, in which the cult leader does all he can to crack the initiate. Dodd’s questions deal with afterlife mumbo-jumbo, but the weight of his presence is enough to accomplish his goal, as if a charlatan could will himself into performing magic.

    The rest of “The Master” is concerned with what that magic is. Do the members of The Cause buy into Dodd’s thrall? His son, played by Jesse Plemons (Landry from “Friday Night Lights”) readily admits that his father is making it up, but stays on for the money. His young wife, played by Amy Adams (a necessary addition to any Oscar-bait), however, is a true believer.

    Adams’s interruptions allow the film to occasionally split its themes across three, rather than two parts. Always concerned with the bottom line, she takes an immediate dislike to Freddie, whom she views as a threat, and strives to turn Dodd against him. She is also pregnant for most of the movie. The resulting id, ego, superego dynamic provides more than enough fodder for section assholes everywhere to interpret the film as a sort of Freudian nightmare.

    If only “The Master” was more complicated than that. Anderson’s films are famous for their ferocity. In “There Will Be Blood,” Daniel-Day Lewis takes increasingly vindictive measures to secure a supply of oil and, in “Punch-Drunk Love,” Adam Sandler deals with the adult world through bursts of infantilized violence (unlike every other Adam Sandler movie, it isn’t played for laughs). But “The Master” fails to break out from an exhausting, beautifully coordinated fizzle.

    Much of this is due to Anderson’s insistence on avoiding specificity in favor of allegory. Both Freddie’s brutality and Dodd’s power are causeless and all-consuming, definitions of actors in a fable rather than aspects of characters a film. Anderson sets the film in the ’50s, a time filled with nuclear-age stress, but he is more interested in the era’s affects, obtuse references to the war and girls in floral-print dresses, than its details.

    “The Master,” like Dodd’s cult, is a test of the power of suggestion. How much can be said by showing little? Inevitably, devotees of Anderson will be able to invent an interpretation for every moment in the film — what exactly is meant by the shot where Joaquin Phoenix arches his back over the rigging of a ship at sea (I say he was tired) — and claim that the character’s true motivations are hidden in corners.

    But how much of that is invented? The audience knows that Dodd is a charlatan because he substitutes charisma for evidence, but Anderson either fails or refuses to offer the level of detail that The Cause lacks to his own film. “The Master” lacks the authority it subverts; like any good cult, it answers the mysteries of the universe, but only if you are willing to buy in.

  3. “Passing” for love and politics

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    It is a grainy video clip, shot with a shaky camera. A reporter offscreen asks ominously, “Is there anything else that’s going to come out about you that we don’t already know?” The woman laughs nervously, “You know, I don’t think so, but who knows?” It’s clear that she was kidding, but in the context of this particular political advertisement, the line comes off sounding , well, conspiratorial.

    The woman is Elizabeth Warren, and the brief dialogue comes from an attack ad launched by her rival for a senate seat in Massachusetts, Scott Brown. The ad, entitled “Who Knows?”, attacks Warren personally for claiming to be Native American — “something genealogists have zero evidence of.” The ad refers to a months-old political controversy, in which Warren got in trouble when opponents claimed that she had misrepresented herself as Native American to advance her career.

    Oddly enough, “Who Knows?” called to my mind a book I read this summer. The book, “Passing Strange” by Princeton professor Martha Sandweiss, is about the first director of the United States Geological Survey, a noted explorer and scientist named Clarence King 1862. It is impossible to read anything about King, who was also an art critic and staple of high society, without coming across what Secretary of State John Hay said about him — he was “the best and brightest man of his generation.”

    Clarence King had fair skin and blue eyes. I only mention this because — and here’s where the story gets interesting — for 13 years, King “passed” for black. He was married to a black woman, Ada Copeland, who was born a slave in Georgia, and he lived with her and their five children in Queens. To Ada, he was James Todd, a black Pullman porter (which explained his long absences from home, during which he was off being important and publicly white). Only on his deathbed in 1901 did King reveal his secret to Ada — that he was wealthy, educated, and, most importantly, white.

    “Passing Strange” tells a fascinating love story, which manages to tie in race, poverty, and politics. At times, it is a little slow, but it is flawlessly researched and quite well-written.

    I bought “Passing Strange” after glancing at the back cover. A prominent white government official who convinces his wife, children and neighbors that he is not only of a different background, but of a different race? How could it be done? Face paint, a mask? The answer, it turns out, is both less dramatic and more common than I had known. To become black in the late 1800s, all King had to do was claim to be black. It is important to remember that during this time, anyone with a drop of black blood — a single great-grandparent, say — was technically classified as black. For the multitudes who dwelled in the racially ambiguous middle ground of mixed-race forebears, they could “pass” for whichever race they wanted. The world is not simply black-and-white, yet when it was defined as such, anyone with neutrally colored skin was left in a predicament. As Baz Dreisinger wrote in The New York Times, “[R]ace is not really about skin color. If it were, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Walter White, for instance, could never have identified himself as ‘a Negro,’ served as executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P. or written this paradoxical sentence: ‘The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.’ Race is the emperor’s new clothes: we don’t see it; we think it.”

    In a culture where African-Americans were discriminated against by the color of their skin, who would voluntarily cross the color line? King did — because of love. “King loved Ada, and she loved him back,” Sandweiss wrote. Only an abiding love — and more than a touch of eccentricity — could cause King to live a double life and deceive every single person he knew.

    Obviously, our conception of race is malleable. And this brings us back to Elizabeth Warren. It would be wrong, and frankly offensive, to claim that Warren spent decades “passing” as Native American. It was never a major part of her life, and indeed Harvard hired her with no knowledge of her ethnicity. Yet she has been vilified — and continues to be attacked — for supposedly attempting to pass.

    As law professor Kevin Noble Maillard wrote in The New York Times, “For the Cherokee Nation, Warren is ‘Indian enough’; she has the same blood quantum as Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker. For non-Natives, this may be surprising. They expect to see ‘high cheekbones,’ as Warren described her grandfather as having, or tan skin. They want to know of pow wows, dusty reservations, sweat lodges, peyote and cheap cigarettes. When outsiders look at these ostensibly white people as members of Native America, they don’t see minorities.”

    Frankly, it doesn’t matter what they see. The labels “black,” “white,” and “Native American” are — and have been for centuries — subjective. The stories of Clarence King and Elizabeth Warren teach us that race is fundamentally undechipherable. Judging simply by the color of someone’s skin — or claiming that someone is not minority “enough”, or even attempting to tell someone else what race she is — is misguided.

  4. Tomatillo: Chipotle’s lime-y cousin

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    Tomatillo Taco Joint is the culinary equivalent of elevator music.

    I’m not just saying my meal wasn’t memorable — it wasn’t, but who’s expecting that? — but that it had no personality. To the postmodernist in me, it was a hyper-realistic, Play-Doh diorama kind of meal. At Tomatillo, one gets the sense that the cultural origin of the taco is not Mexico but Disneyland.

    The way you order at Tomatillo is, not unlike at Chipotle, by choosing some permutation of filling, stuffing and toppings for your taco, burrito, burrito bowl or taco salad, which, by the way, are the exact same options Chipotle offers. The only discernible difference with Chipotle is that Tomatillo offers citrus-marinated shrimp and tempura-battered Baja fish (both for $7.35) whereas Chipotle only offers the usual repertoire of chicken, beef, pork and veggies.

    Point for Tomatillo!

    So, for example, I ordered a burrito bowl stuffed with cilantro and lime-flavored rice and vegetarian black beans, filled it with the Baja fish and topped it off with pico de gallo, shredded cheese and guacamole ($0.95 extra). The one problem was that I was handed a burrito instead — which, to be honest, was my fault, since I could have corrected the employee when he rolled it right in front of me. In any case, it didn’t take long for the bloated burrito to break through the thin, silky tortilla, so I ended up just eating a messier version of the burrito bowl.

    The fish was comfortably soft — and my friend who ordered a steak burrito ($7.35) said the same for the meat — but I couldn’t exactly taste it, or anything else for that matter, except LIME. I guess whoever seasoned the cilantro and lime-flavored rice was pretty squeeze-happy, and I didn’t exactly mind the taste until I realized I couldn’t fill up a 600-word review with one flavor. But that’s really all I felt.

    In retrospect, the monolithic flavor is a snug metaphor for the Tomatillo experience, which is something akin to eating in a bunker, or vacationing in a walled Playa del Carmen resort. Sure, the color scheme of orange and olive green was tasteful, the brick wall sophisticated, the floor spotless; the soundtrack (Shins, Vampire Weekend) was cool. But the tact of it all bored me, too. The token hints to Mexico (cacti in stone grinders, little framed pictures of ambiguously Mexican landscapes) were playing it too safe. And the gaudy lineup of neon Jarritos bottles could only be an ironic gesture.

    To its credit, Tomatillo goes bold with the salsa. The habanero chili sauce hit me at full blast, and the salsa verde was thick and robust; both work as complements to the main meal. I was less taken with the aji amarillo, which tasted overwhelmingly of banana peppers. A Peruvian friend who ate with me noted that the aji, a traditionally Peruvian paste, was too watery and indelicate.

    The most polarizing dish we ordered was shrimp tacos garnished with corn salsa, shredded cheese, pico de gallo and sour cream. My suitemate — a serial Yelp reviewer with a refined palate — was turned off by the corn salsa’s taste of canning fluid, so another suitemate finished it off with a grin, pointing out the piquant and inexplicable aftertaste of Doritos. I was pleasantly surprised by the generous portion of shrimp on the taco, though it was chewier than expected — especially considering how delicate the fish and steak had been.

    Mostly because it defies categorization, Tomatillo deflects facile judgment. But that leaves me with only two thoughts: LIME! and bleh.

  5. Girl Reporter connects with imaginary musician

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    Growing up in a small, landlocked city affords the pop culture-curious tween few opportunities to meet celebrities. This problem is compounded if this tween had, say, watched “Almost Famous” too young and decided she was destined to be a Girl Reporter. This might force her to resort to such strange surrogate interview subjects as “Friend Dressed As Julian Casablancas,” who could be quite the talker, and “Inkjet Print of Brandon Flowers,” who could not.

    Unfortunately, all these circumstances happened to line up for me. This was reflected in an embarrassing cut-and-paste zine of faux interviews and a lamentable lack of New Mexican middle school brushes with fame.

    But this lonely trajectory was interrupted briefly when I was 15 and my naïve persistence paid off outside the Launchpad, downtown Albuquerque’s premiere bar-that-lets-in-children. After seeing Of Montreal in concert, my best friend and I ran alone out to the alley and positioned ourselves directly in front of the door to the band’s tour bus. I saw frontman Kevin Barnes round the corner in full drag. A-ha! Girl Reporter Nina thought smugly. Just as I suspected: He needed to enter this door.

    Orthodontia first, I demanded a hug and a photograph. He blinked dazedly through his glittery eye shadow, bending from platform go-go boots to give a terrifying blank stare at the camera, immortalizing himself between two giddy tweens in a moment whose allowance might be one of the best parenting decisions in recent memory. I had met a real-live, famous musician!

    I promptly went home and typed up an imaginary dialogue between us.

    Though I didn’t realize it at the time, what I really craved from these encounters, real and imaginary, was the verification that the music I cherished was more than an internal aesthetic exercise. I wanted to be able to connect with an artist — to share an experience with a person I didn’t know. It didn’t have to be in the form of an interview; considering the artist for the three or so minutes it takes to throw a couple verses around a refrain works, too.

    What devout music listeners struggle with is a form of Freud’s Fort/Da game: We derive pleasure through both throwing external reality away and reeling ourselves into a collective consciousness. We easily retreat into our own thoughts as a song plays, but on some level use music in our quest to orient ourselves with the outside world. Finding someone it feels good to listen to an album with is satisfying, just as I’m sure it’s satisfying to be the one making albums that others hear.

    The intermediate space between these satisfactions is the listener’s acknowledgment of the internal life of a musician. When we exploit a song for our own emotional purposes, we tend to demand an engagement with the entirety of its content; in doing so, we effectively erase the songwriter and jealously substitute our own first person narrative for the singer’s. Our relationship to musicians as human beings can get lost if we view bands as operating on a level completely separate from ourselves, even when they totally are.

    Of course, while self-substitution in pop music can be meaningful, it’s important to remember that the listening experience is a mode of contact between an audience and a performer. Think what you will about “The Death of the Author.” For everyone who has developed theory of mind past age four, it should be simple to remember the internal creative life of a musician. Yet for some reason, selfishness or shyness or otherwise, we so often ignore the potential for dialogue with the artist that can emerge, if only on an imaginary level.

    Luckily for parents of tweens everywhere, these encounters don’t always need to happen in sketchy alleyways outside RVs. Social media have largely broken down the mystique surrounding celebrities. For example, while my childhood friends had to resort to sending Justin Timberlake desperate love letters through some questionable intermediary P.O. address, we can now tweet our devotion directly @FamousMusicians. Though they are completely out of reach, they are also, on some level, completely within reach.

    But even if my 140 characters are sent like a letter to Santa or staged as a fake celebrity conversation, considering the humanity of those who create is the crucial flipside of being an unselfish listener. Using music as assurance that we are not alone can always be supplemented, if only for a moment, with a reminder of the vast variety of human experience. And if I ever forget this, I’ll always have my tragically awkward photo with Kevin Barnes to remind me of the way insurmountable differences between glittery artists and braces-wearing listeners can be filled in with a mutual love of music.

    Don’t kill your idols; interview them.

  6. The social media spell

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    Grown-ups think that Facebook is the key to extraordinary success. They also understand nothing about Facebook. My grandfather, for instance, created a page to publicize his new book, but refused to add any friends. In the “About Me” section of my mom’s page (which she wanted for professional reasons), she wrote “Dear Friends, I do not collect friends on Facebook, and I do not get my messages here.”

    The problem is, because grown-ups believe social media is magic, they keep hiring college students to connect them to the online world. (Though they do it in tricky ways, claiming you’ll work on “youth outreach” or “online organizing.”) I know, because this very summer, the City Commissioner of Philadelphia hired me to be her social media strategist.

    To me, the concept of social media is very boring. I deleted my Facebook for a year, and I only got it back so I could stay in touch with my ten-year-old best friend in Argentina. Unfortunately, there aren’t many jobs, and the field of social media is one where being young and unqualified is golden. So, I went to work.

    My first Tuesday on the job, I stayed late to go to a panel called “Ask the Expert: Social Media.” The panel was in the University Science Center, in a room filled with geometric shapes. There were blue and black rectangles on the rug and a wavy square ceiling panel that dipped in the center of the room. Everything was very cyber-hip. On one wall there was a clock made of mirrors that shot out in all directions.

    Sitting across from me were two women: One looked about sixty and wore leopard print heels; the other seemed to be in her forties, with spiky blonde hair that was dark at the roots, and pink-framed glasses. Besides me, no one in the room was under the age of thirty.

    Gloria Bell was our social media expert.

    “I am my brand,” said Gloria. “People know Gloria Bell. I have a Google Alert on myself.”

    She recommended we do this for our companies, so we would know who was talking about us. I wondered whether telling us to set up a Google alert really counted as expert information, but I wrote it down anyway. “If you have a great company picnic,” she said, raising her eyebrows and looking around the group, “post a couple of pictures online.”

    Her main point was that companies need social media to show that they are “real” and “human.” These words had a tinny sound when she said them, like they might dent if we threw them against a wall.

    Back in the office, the City Commissioner wanted me to reach out to unlikely voters over Facebook. I tried to explain that people who were unlikely to vote were also unlikely to friend the City Commissioner on Facebook, but the faith of grown-ups in social media is persistent and unwavering.

    We found out halfway through the summer that Philadelphia actually has a detailed social media policy, which requires every update to be approved by the Mayor’s Office. Also, you had to disable the comment sections. These policies aren’t super compatible with the way that Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn function, but I did what I could.

    It was often troubling to see adults investing so faithfully in a process they knew nothing about. Though, ultimately, maybe it’s the same way young people believe in mortgages and pensions. We have no idea what we’re doing, but we dutifully, determinedly, press on.

  7. A Case for Cinematic Stories

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    Three weeks ago I read in this publication an interesting guest column, written by Becca Edelman ’14, that drew a distinction between cinematic story and style. As Edelman argued, stylistic films have carried and should continue to carry the day in Hollywood, thrusting aside more moderately-tempered movies for bold, daring narratives told in bold, daring ways. Of course this is absolutely correct. We should support innovative films and look at cheaper efforts with a great deal more criticism. But that does not at all mean cinematic style is somehow more meaningful than story. To be perfectly honest, the two aren’t even measurably close.

    People forget that art forms, specifically literature, film and theater, are constructed for the benefit of an audience. You’re supposed to enjoy what you’re watching, and while style no doubt plays a major role in appealing to a viewer’s senses, it’s still just a tool subservient to some higher purpose. You can’t have a novel or a play or a movie without a basic and coherent plot. Something must be happening, and that something has got to be engaging. Once those simple needs are met you’re free to run a little wilder.

    The problem with all of this is that it’s too easy to think otherwise, especially with the alluring potential for humanities-influenced over-examination sprouting at our fingertips. I, for one, love analyzing novels and films: It’s fun sifting through disparate paragraphs and scenes, hunting for a select phrase or through-line that will in turn illuminate an entire thematic construction just below the surface of the page or screen. But even that paradigm has its limitations. In this case it’s pretty simple: at the end of the day if there’s no story propping up your artistic mass, everything is bound to collapse.

    That’s why it becomes really difficult trying to evaluate movies these days. On the one hand it’s far too easy to disparage works for being too derivative or hokey. But by that same token getting lost in conventions of style is just as possible. Take last year’s big Oscar winner for example: “The Artist” won Best Picture due to weak competition and poor scrutiny. It’s an alarmingly simple tale that people accepted because of how it was presented, and while the film was definitely fun and entertaining, it was not worth an Oscar.

    The fact of the matter is you need a compelling story to warrant whatever stylistic license you’re willing to take, though many people raised in today’s aesthetic-obsessed generation would probably disagree with me. They would point to the Stanley Kubricksand Quentin Tarentinos and Wes Andersons of the cinemascape as proof that story need not always triumph over style. But that logic is flawed.

    “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of the most critically-acclaimed stylistic films ever made, but it’s in fact an examination of the pitfalls of technology set against a very real backdrop of a routine space voyage. In this case Kubrick’s technical sensibilities contribute mightily to the story, but it’s not the other way around. We could similarly look at “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and so forth in much the same way: they’re all stylistically impressive films, but they resonate at their foundation thanks to their stories, however ridiculous they may happen to be.

    That core feeling is really what it comes down to. Watching films isn’t just supposed to be about marveling at what’s on the screen, though that’s incredibly important in its own right. Instead, think about what you’re watching on some human level. What’s the drama? What’s the comedy? What are the characters doing and why? These are simple questions that demand complex answers that many “artsy” directors, critics and students somehow overthink and underappreciate at the exact same time. We are, as individuals, extraordinarily intricate physical units motivated by equally complicated desires, and to forget that reality for the sake of a neat camera angle or voiceover would be to deny the very thing bringing you to the movie theater in the first place: your humanity.

  8. A good neighborhood

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    Midway through a lazy summer before my freshman year of college, my grandmother asked me if I would like to pay my great-grandmother a visit.

    So I accompanied my grandparents to Mount Carmel cemetery, a tightly packed maze of monuments built by Brooklyn’s well-to-do Jewish families on a slope next to the Jackie Robinson Parkway in Queens. And I was surprised when my grandmother, looking down at her mother’s gravestone, her meticulously coiffed hair tangling in the wind, turned to my grandfather, and declared: “This is where I want to go.” My grandfather, a son of the South, explained that he had always imagined he would be laid to rest in the shade of willow trees and Spanish moss in his native Montgomery — far from the clamor of highways or the shadow of skyscrapers. Here, things were simply too crowded.

    Yet this was exactly the point. “This is a good neighborhood,” my grandmother retorted. A Jewish girl from Brooklyn who had moved to the South after a dozen dates and three years of college, she refused to spend eternity so far from home.

    For nearly a century, the town of New Haven buried its dead in a communal grave behind its Center Church and beneath the large square park we now call the New Haven Green. But after a deadly yellow fever outbreak in 1794, the town elders resolved to build a proper cemetery. James Hillhouse 1773 acquired the bulk of New Haven’s “Second Quarter” in 1796 to make room for its dead.

    Now the cemetery has filled as the University town has expanded; it sits just north of the center of Yale’s gothic campus, bordering long stretches of sidewalk that lead to more classrooms and laboratories. Hillhouse planned the cemetery to have eleven avenues of its own, all of which, excluding Center Avenue, are named after a different variety of tree that was to line its gravel paths (this never materialized). Towering obelisks and arching angels are the norm, and one casually passes the graves of Noah Webster 1778, of dictionary fame, or Eli Whitney 1792, whose classical sarcophagus has high drama but no interchangeable parts. And then there are the Yale presidents, whose imposing plots their school has always bought well in advance: from Clapp and Stiles to Griswold and Brewster.

    Now at Yale, where these names carry a kind of mythic meaning, I’ve often walked along the Cemetery’s high walls and thought of my unexpected trip to Carmel. As much as I sympathized with my grandmother, I wondered why anyone would want to be buried in an urban jungle like Carmel; I wondered why it mattered at all where we are buried after death, let alone whom we are buried near.

    So I decide to look for my own plot at Grove Street. I meet with Joan and Bill Cameron, an elderly couple who have overseen the cemetery for the past thirty-four years. Joan, whose high pitch lends her voice the character of a little girl with a sore throat, figures only a hundred plots remain, each of which runs $6,500. There is no student discount, but there is a guarantee of eternal upkeep. I ask about finding an obelisk or a monument (I am concerned about fitting in). Bill tells me those are still common but pricey. Had I died in the mid-1800s, I could have ordered a more reasonably priced “Clinky,” an elegant obelisk made from a hollow template of removable metal parts. The innovation allowed family members to unscrew and replace an inscription long after a beloved’s death. Only decades later, paranoid plot shoppers had laid this short-lived cemetery fad to rest.

    I suddenly feel daunted by the prospect of making a decision I will have to die with. According to Bill I am not alone. “You’d be surprised how much you learn about people working at a cemetery, how different they all are,” he tells me. “Some of them agonize over choosing the location of their plot for months. Others just flip a coin.” Neither method sounds particularly appealing.

    I ask for Joan’s top recommendation — number 62, some 50 plots north of the Cemetery’s Grove Street gate, at the end of Laurel Avenue. “It’s a nice neighborhood,” she says. And it is. I am just next door to a shared family plot, which houses in two halves the wives and children of Charles Hubbel and Horace Morton, who died in the 1890s. The miniature pipe fence that surrounds their compound is elegant and inviting, providing a landmark that will make directions to my plot more readable — a promising indication that good fences really do make good neighbors. After a quick visit next door, I know that Charles married Horace’s sister and that both families lost children young — Charles Jr. at 24 and James Morton at just 15 months.

    62 Laurel Avenue is beautiful. Two small trees bend out from the plot next door; there is shade enough to waste a long summer afternoon, not more than a two-hour drive from Carmel. I feel as if I could take it then and there, but suddenly I feel homesick.

    Three weeks after our visit to Carmel cemetery, my grandmother invited me to see Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

    Everyone knows that “Our Town” is sad. “Such sobbing and nose-blowing you never heard,” a young Wilder wrote to the society hostess Sybil Colfax in 1937, horrified by the reaction to previews of the play’s third act. “Matinee audience, mostly women, emerged red-eyed, swollen faced, and mascara-stained. I never meant that.”

    But how could Wilder not have? Just halfway through the act, tears melted my grandmother’s mascara into those smudgy streams of bluish black. And while I did not have to worry about mascara stains, my resolve to keep dry in all of the usual manly ways — staring at the wall, fingering my keys — barely prevented an embarrassing overflow.

    It has been four years since my grandmother ruined her favorite handkerchief, but the sight of grave stones still makes me wonder how such a simple third act can be so devastating: how Wilder’s Emily Gibbs, now dead and buried in the town cemetery, learns from her new neighbors that the dead can visit the living just as the living visit the dead; how after revisiting just one morning of her life, she flees back to her tombstone, overwhelmed by the realization that we cannot comprehend the value of life until after death; how graveyards are made of neighborhoods we can visit and depart, and other neighborhoods where we must choose to remain.

  9. Samar Yazbek: Novelist, patriot, fighter-in-exile

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    Q. Why do you write?

    A. It’s so natural that it doesn’t feel like a facet of my life, but life itself. You can’t ask someone why their eyes are a certain color. But my relationship with writing is very important, besides its being the best joy in my life. It’s a bridge between beauty and ugliness. I always feel when I write that I am that connection between the ugly and the beautiful. I am like the god. I can control all the world.

    Q. Is that what makes writing so crucial to a revolution?

    A. I don’t think so, I think it is because, for the revolution, it ties beauty to justice. And because writing is full of beauty — no ugliness, just pure beauty.

    Q. I understand you have worked with the same translator, Max Weiss, on a number of projects. What kind of relationship or trust must you build with someone in order to give him that control of your work? Is it hard to let go of a work in that way?

    A. I really do trust Max and I believe he will always translate with the right vision. I don’t think that, to begin with, a translator is given responsibility for all of my work. But I trust Max in general and I trust his ability to reflect my art in an honest way. And we do have a very open relationship built on such trust.

    Q. Your book “Cinnamon” is set to be released in its English translation for the first time. Can you tell us about that work?

    A. It talks about two echelons of Syrian society — the very wealthy and the very impoverished — though the relation of two ladies. Two lesbian, Muslim ladies. Well, one of them is a lady … One is a servant to the other, and they are engaged in a relationship, in which one uses the other sexually. The work talks about how, in the lower class, humanity can be lost and people are so easily used. Women are caught between a rock and a hard place [an idiom supplied by the interviewer; the translator had previously attempted to translate an Arabic phrase, “being taxed by two governments,” but agreed with the amendment made by the interviewer] as they are abused socially and religiously.

    Q. Much of your work has dealt with gender issues and women’s rights. Your diary account of the first months of the Syrian revolution is titled “Woman in the Crossfire.” How did gender figure into your experiences with the revolution? What role has gender played in the revolution in general?

    A. The cases of women and gender roles are very much in the background right now, the main reason being that putting an end to the oppressive regime is everyone’s primary goal. It’s not logical for most to talk about gender when we are in the middle of this. Although, this is a main focus of my work. Because of all of this bloodshed, women’s issues must be put on hold temporarily. But, of course, I can talk to you about women in the revolution. I can tell you they are a very major part of this revolution. Many women are leaders of this revolution, and they participate in all of the activities, except carrying weapons. This revolution, I think, belongs to the women and children.

    Q. You were forced to flee Syria in the summer of 2011. When do you hope to return?

    A. I return all the time, but in secrecy. Undercover. But, yes, I hope to come back [for good] as soon as al-Assad is taken down. Of course I will.

    Q. What’s next for you?

    A [Yazbek, in English]. Next for me? Fighting, against Bashar al-Assad. And fighting, and fighting, and fighting.

    Q. Does that mean, for you, more writing? Should we expect more novels?

    A. I’m too busy focusing on the affairs of Syria for novels right now. Most of the time now, I’m writing articles or traveling to different countries to talk about what is going on in Syria. I’m working on logistics a lot more than art these days. For sure, when the killing stops and there is space enough to breathe, I will write another novel about what happened.

  10. In Tango’s Embrace

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    My elementary school in Canada used to have theme days where the principal would hire an instructor to teach us different skills, like acting or tennis. They were low-budget workshops conducted by people in the local community, and I remember getting very excited about Drama Day and Soccer Day and Rope Obstacle Day. But there was one event that I always dreaded: Hip Hop Dance Day. Hip Hop Dance Day was the time of year when my clumsiness was put on display, when I was forced to wiggle my short arms and stomp my flat feet in front of a watching crowd of teachers and classmates. It was like gym class, but with higher stakes.

    For the sheer terror of this memory alone, I was hesitant about accepting my editor’s invitation to attend a session of the Yale Tango Club’s Wednesday night Argentine tango classes. I relented only because the website promised that no experience was necessary, and because I hoped I could redeem myself with this new dance form. But tango, as I soon learned, is not a dance. It’s an addiction.

    Chelsea Wells ’13, who joined the club in her sophomore year, said, “I’ve danced until my feet have gotten swollen. I like other dances, but I need tango.”

    Stationed at the New Haven People’s Center on Howe Street, the Yale Tango Club runs a Beginner’s Bootcamp taught by dance instructor Robin Thomas. The club, which is run by graduate students but also open to undergraduates and local residents, has been co-run by Jessica Keiser GRD ’16 and Sigma Colón GRD ’15 since last June. Keiser credits her own initial involvement with the club to Thomas, whose charismatic teaching style makes the class both fun and effective. Having danced tango for 30 years and taught students for nine, Thomas has a virtual “monopoly” over tango instruction at East Coast universities, Keiser said.

    When I arrived at the class, Thomas was just lacing up his beige suede shoes. He had a bald head and a wide smile, and he made the students laugh. He had a new dance partner for this year: Maria Elena Yvarra was raven-haired, slender and strong. She stood on her sparkling high heels like she was walking on clouds.

    Many tango students have expressed their appreciation for the physical intimacy that the dance creates between dancer and partner. Ten minutes into the lesson, I found myself holding hands with two strangers at either side of me; five minutes later, I was pressing my palms against an older man’s chest. I was nervous, but everyone around me seemed at ease. After each round of dancing wherein Thomas taught us a new step, we were instructed to change partners. Eventually I learned to cling more tightly to my partner, to follow more closely the patterns of his movement instead of shying away.

    Keiser explained, “Graduate student life can be particularly lonely, and [tango] is a way to find community, it’s a way to find physical touch.”

    “What attracts me most to tango is the embrace,” Alexander Chern ’11 agreed. “In this embrace, you need to mutually surrender and just completely give yourself to the person you are dancing with.” Chern and his former girlfriend took classes with the Yale Tango Club as undergraduates. Omar Mejia, a New Haven resident and downtown bartender, dated one his dance partners, though the couple has since broken up. Many people start tango for the romance, imagining “a man with a rose in between his teeth,” as Chern put it. They stay for the love of the dance.

    No greater proof of tango’s addictive nature can be found than in the Yale Tango Club’s founder herself. Tine Herreman GRD ’03 led the transformation of the club from a fledgling dance group in 2003 to an active social community that encompassed weekly workshops and a national festival. Today, the Yale Tango Festival is one of the largest school-run tango festivals in the country, and the club itself boasts about 100 members. Herreman is now a full-time tango DJ and organizer based in New York, devoting her time to creating tango networks in communities around the city.

    “It’s not that uncommon, as far as I can tell, that someone would leave their day-job for tango,” Keiser said. “It is unlike other ‘hobbies’ in the sense that it seems to have a way of eclipsing people’s lives.”

    As student passion for tango grows, so too does the size and scope of the club. In addition to Wednesday night classes and open dancing, the Yale Tango Club also holds Milonga sessions at Kelly’s Restaurant & Bar and Sunday Practilonga at “Gypsy,” the Graduate and Professional Student Center at Yale. Practilonga is for dance practice, whereas Milonga is essentially a dance party. This year, the club is also introducing Monthly Milonga at Edward S. Harkness Hall.

    For undergraduates, the biggest draw of tango might be the reprieve that it provides from the stress of college life. Similar to meditation, Wells said, it washes your mind of other thoughts and refreshes your mental state. During my lesson, I understood what she meant. Many of the moves required that the woman close her eyes while she was led by the man, so several times I simply mirrored my partner’s steps only to open my eyes and find us effortlessly standing on the other side of the room. I was so concentrated on the rhythm of the dance that sharing such physical closeness with a stranger no longer fazed me. I suppose that’s how it reels you in: it takes two to tango, and only one dance to get hooked.

  11. 1 Church St.

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    We couldn’t find an Ecuadorian flag outside the consulate.

    Which was funny, seeing as this was the Ecuadorian consulate. You wouldn’t know it by looking at the concrete and glass high-rises — drab cousins to the United Nations Headquarters in New York — on the corner of Church and George streets, right across from the new Gateway Community College and only a few blocks from the center of Yale’s campus.

    The consulate opened in 2008 to relieve congestion at the Manhattan office, which had been serving all of New England, not to mention the 750,000 Ecuadorians in New York and New Jersey. (There is another consulate in Boston, but it’s more of a consular prosthesis because, unlike the New Haven office, it is run by volunteers.) The main function of the New Haven branch is to act as a liaison between the local Ecuadorian community and Ecuador — work that mostly entails providing identification documents, granting dual American-Ecuadorian citizenship to children with at least one Ecuadorian parent and lending its power of attorney. The consulate also extends services to non-Ecuadorians, offering the usual smorgasbord of (student, work and cultural exchange) visas. (Ecuador doesn’t require a tourist visa for visiting Americans.)

    But forget that: This story wasn’t sealed with red tape.

    The consul’s real job is to hit the streets and notify expatriate Ecuadorians of their rights. For example, it is obligatory to vote in elections in Ecuador, and failure to comply results in a fine. But Ecuadorian citizens living abroad are exempt from the fine, so one of the consulate’s tasks is to seek out and register local expatriate Ecuadorians so that no one is unduly penalized. This grassroots, mountain-to-Muhammad sort of approach, by which the consulate actively reaches out to its constituency (which effectively comprises Ecuadorians in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine), means that the office practically needs to sit on wheels. And, in fact, a consulado móvil — mobile consulate — does travel around New England.

    The consulate is a resource for the larger Spanish-speaking community. For example, it runs workshops in Spanish on health care and on how to attain an Elm City Resident Card, the innovative, if controversial, ID card available to all New Haven residents that allows illegal immigrants to turn to the police without fear of deportation.

    Consul-General Raúl Erazo Velarde can empathize with immigrants. He was one himself, said Yale Spanish lector Margherita Tortora, a family friend. (The consul-general was abroad and unavailable for comment by press time.) In fact, it is the explicit policy of the Ecuadorian government to appoint consuls who can relate to the immigrant experience. According to Tortora, Erazo emigrated to Florida seeking medical treatment for his son, who was diagnosed with leukemia.

    No doubt, Erazo’s is not your typical immigrant narrative. According to figures cited by the New Haven Independent, there are an estimated 55,000 Ecuadorians in Connecticut, of whom only about 21,000 were recorded by the U.S census. A large number arrived after 1999, when Ecuador faced a banking crisis that resulted in a 32 percent fall in real per capita income, according to figures marshaled by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Many Ecuadorians fled, mostly to the United States and Spain. In the United States, New Haven seemed like an obvious destination for the large number of folks with family and friends in the Elm City and in nearby Danbury, which have had sizeable Ecuadorian communities since the 1970s.

    That could also explain why Ecuador made the rather odd choice of opening a consulate in New Haven as opposed to Hartford, where Peru, Brazil and Italy all have consulates. But we have a hunch — and that’s all it is, a hunch — that other considerations were present. Is it a coincidence that the consulate came to New Haven only a year after the introduction of the Elm City Resident Card? Representatives from the consulate gave us an unequivocal “yes,” saying there was no relation between the two events.

    We also wonder whether the consulate might have opened to galvanize the Ecuadorian community in response to rumors that the East Haven police were harrassing Ecuadorian immigrants. The accusations reached a fever pitch in 2009, a year after the consulate’s ribbon-cutting, but the harassment had purportedly been going on for a decade.

    The New York Times recently followed up on two separate harassment incidents from the winter of 2009, and reported that the Justice Department was investigating accusations of discrimination. Of those with suspect behavior, four police officers, one of whom was the president of the New Haven Police Union, were arrested by the FBI for assaulting illegal immigrants and covering up the assault with false reports.

    Father James Manship of the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church had set out to document cases of police harassment in East Haven, a flashpoint of ethnic conflict. As reported by the New Haven Independent, a member of the community called Manship to warn him that the police were conducting an illegal search in My Country Store, the last in a long line of events marked by abuse. Manship showed up on the scene wielding his weapon of choice — a video camera — and filmed the incident until the camera was wrangled from his hands, at which point he was arrested. The officers thereafter tried to confiscate the store’s surveillance tapes.

    Manship’s charge? “Wielding a shiny metal object that could have been a weapon,” according to the police department’s written report. Just one problem: there was still Manship’s videotape that directly contradicted the written report. With this video, the St. Rose of Lima church had the evidence it needed to submit the formal Justice Department complaint that launched the whole investigation, exposing the police racism and abuse to a national audience. In the wake of the incident, the Connecticut state legislature even passed a bill clarifying that it is legal for citizens to record police officers.

    The original complaint was filed by Yale Law School’s Legal Services Organization, which raises another question: Could it be that one of the factors in the consulate’s decision to set up shop in New Haven was the proximity to Yale?

    Whatever Ecuador’s original intentions, the consulate and Yale have certainly found common cause. Patricio Brito ’14, Yale’s only Ecuadorian undergraduate student, has been working with Consul-General Erazo to get Yale to invite the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, to discuss his progressive environmental policies on campus.

    Hilary Rogers ’13 and Farrah Khan ’13 co-direct the Yale-Ecuador HIV Clinic Initiative in Manglaralto, where they send students over spring and summer breaks. (Manglaralto, they said, is conveniently located near a surf spot.) Participating students generally receive fellowships from Yale to do research while simultaneously volunteering with the clinic’s HIV education and testing projects. Rogers and Khan said that because the two-year-old initiative is still in its infancy, they have been wary of partnering up with the consulate. “We haven’t reached the step where we want to present ourselves to the consulate,” Khan explained.

    Regardless of Yale’s interactions with the consulate, its presence in Ecuador has been marked.

    One Yale alum who traveled to Ecuador on a fellowship, Alex Harding ’08, conducted surveys and found that the community of Muisne had no access to potable water, so he founded a nonprofit called Water Ecuador. Water Ecuador has since expanded its operations to four more cities.

    In 2011, molecular biophysics and biochemistry students in Scott Strobel’s “Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory” course traveled to the Ecuadorian rainforest, where they discovered a fungus that can sustain itself solely by feeding on polyurethane — a common plastic — even in anaerobic environments. That means the fungus could be used to degrade plastic in landfills. The group’s findings were published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

    Later that year, the Yale International Relations Association filmed a documentary in Ecuador about the tribal politics of the indigenous Huaorani, who had lived in isolation until a half-century ago.

    And in a few weeks, the New England Festival of Ibero American Cinema will feature “Pescador,” Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero’s latest production about a love story laced with drugs and death, as its lead off film on Sept. 27 at the Yale University Art Gallery.

    While the consul will surely attend the screening — Tortora, who is organizing the event, said the event has the consul’s full attention — we suspect Consul-General Erazo has more on his plate. In a few weeks, the city of New Haven will vote on a motion to adopt Puyo, Ecuador, as a new sister city.

    We hope that Yale will take advantage of this opportunity.